Moving from one chapter to another … leaving France, returning home

March 12, 2013

Here I am, standing underneath the Eiffel Tower — in my favorite city in the world — in November.

When cleaning out a dresser drawer this week, I ran across my permesso di soggiorno per stranieri, or the Italian “Foreigners’ Permit of Stay” that became a prized possession during my time in Florence nearly 10 years ago. It allowed me to legally live in Italy and to work as a libero professionista, a freelance professional. Just seeing this folded piece of blue-tinted paper—to which a passport-sized photo of me is loosely stapled—took me back to those days in 2004 and 2005 when I temporarily called Firenze home. Looking at my smiling, youthful face, surrounded by freshly done two-strand twists, I remember how idealistic and fearless I was when launching my first living-abroad adventure as a freelance writer.

In many ways, I felt the same way when leaving Chicago last January for my year-long stay in the charming French village of Samois-sur-Seine. It wasn’t a well-known Renaissance city like Florence, but it has its own renown and as a welcoming place for artists and writers over the centuries. When I left for Samois with a French visa glued into my nearly full American passport, I also was excited, hopeful—and dare I say, wonderfully optimistic about this new chapter overseas.

With a scenic village as a backdrop—and a central location in the middle of Europe—I planned to write freelance Travel and Food articles for a wide range of publications. I wanted to travel to nearby European countries and to explore France. Since Samois was about an hour south of Paris, I vowed to take the 40-minute SNCF commuter train into the City of Light at least once a week. I hoped to finally become a fluent speaker of French. And I wanted to start writing a book on African-American women and our love affair with France. Nothing like having a list of goals as long as your arm, right?

But alas … I decided it was time to close this year-long chapter of “cultural immersion,” or what I came to think of as my “mid-life sabbatical” in France. Some weeks ago, I moved back to Chicago, realizing it made more financial sense to return and resume my freelance writing and communications consulting career here. Since coming back, I’ve been working nonstop, settling back into my condo in downtown Chicago, and readjusting to an American life that after a year away sometimes feels a bit foreign. Although there are many things I miss about France—crusty baguettes, safe streets and charming accents are near the top of the list—I’m surprisingly happy to be home.

Still, I managed to do much of what I hoped during my year in France. I got lots of great writing assignments, expanding into publications like, Luxury Travel, and Ebony. I traveled some, mostly to the south of France and across the border to Italy for media trips. I got myself to Paris as often as I could, as it’s still my absolute favorite place in the world. Every time I’d get off the train at Gare de Lyon and stroll out into those city streets, I instantly felt lighter and more at home than I often feel in my native Chicago.

Sadly, I’m nowhere near fluent in French. I’d hoped that living in an authentic village would have me conjugating verbs in the subjunctive in no time, but when you report and write in English all day, it’s hard to develop the fluency that comes from truly LIVING a foreign language day in and out. But I haven’t given up. I’m going to enroll in classes here in Chicago to keep myself engaged with le français. And I definitely plan to still write that book about black women and France. I got a start on the project while I was overseas, but there’s much more to be researched and great stories to be told. I’ll need to do it during occasional trips abroad, but I’m determined to get it done.

What I DO know is that my year in France will continue to shape my perspective—and my outlook on life—in ways I can’t yet imagine. I’ll write about some of my initial impressions in my next post, and about others as they hit me later on.

Charming restaurants, like the La Patte d’Oie gem in the small town of Mennecy, are among things I miss about France. But fortunately, the country — and the wonderful folks I met over the past year — are just an airplane flight away.

One thing I’ve realized is that my adventure wasn’t mine alone—or really even about me. I’ve been touched and amazed to find that family, friends and my UrbanTravelGirl readers felt as invested in my time abroad as I was. I’m psyched that I inspired many of you to pack your bags, grab your passports, and head out on those first overseas trips. Others have told me that like me, you long to live abroad and are preparing for the day that you make that move. I can’t wait until I can return the favor and become your cheerleader, encouraging you to do it and to just go. We only live once—and we owe it to ourselves to experience as much of this incredible world as we can.

But this is hardly the end of my traveling and wanderlust. Even though I’m back in Chicago, being a traveler is who I am, an intrinsic part of my being. I’m making a trip back to France with my pianist dad Farnell Jenkins this summer as he pursues his own overseas adventure—and I’m thrilled beyond words to know my time there helped inspire it.

And that’s the reality of life. Our international journeys are often circular; they don’t always lead us in a straight line. Some of us discover them early in life, others later. But the point is to get there and to take advantage of all the great stuff we find once it presents itself.

Personally, I can’t wait to see where my own journey leads from here. But you’d better know that wherever it goes, I’ll have my passport firmly in hand. As European travel legend Rick Steves always says at the end his public television shows, “Until next time … keep on traveling.”

Amen to that!

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12 Comments Leave a Comment

  • 1. Eileen  |  March 12, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    I’m sure your next year will be just as interesting as the one before. Less time change, fewer baguettes, but still awesome. Looking forward to seeing where you go from here!

  • 2. Christina  |  March 14, 2013 at 12:37 pm

    Looking forward to the book about black women and France! I’ve always wanted to go, but I know that I’ll make it there one day.

  • 3. Marissa  |  March 22, 2013 at 9:53 am

    Hi Maureen,
    Came across your blog after reading your article on CNN. I read a few of your posts for a “sample” as I follow a few American travel bloggers, and I am sold! I am impressed with your spirit and think your writing style is excellent, of course. I signed up to receive your postings and I look forward to receiving the next installment. Keep doing what you do!

    -fellow solo female American traveler currently living in Canada (I know, so foreign lol!)

  • 4. Jean  |  March 31, 2013 at 9:45 am

    You are awesome, Maureen. Just awesome! I cannot tell you how much I admire your resolve to get out there and do the kinds of things in life that make your own world go ’round! I still wish I had taken the opportunity to come out to France while you were there last year. It’s okay, though. If I know you, other opportunities will come up where I can meet you somewhere in this world. How fabulous that you’re planning to go back to France with your Dad! Magnificent! You are so right, my friend. We should see what God has done out there, as we only live here once! I wish you many, many more safe and awe-inspiring journeys!

  • 5. Rhona  |  April 4, 2013 at 8:49 am

    Beautiful post. My fav part was, We only live once—and we owe it to ourselves to experience as much of this incredible world as we can.
    I wholeheartedly agree. I look forward to your next posts.

  • 6. Nikki Stewart  |  April 27, 2013 at 4:51 am

    Where are you these days?

    Have not seen a post from you in ages.

    Thought of you today as I am having a “black woman expat hair dilemma” day..hahaa. Trying to find someone to braid or twist my hair in Turkey.

    Think I send for the hair from home and do it myself!

    Hope all is well with you (I’m still here in Turkey).

    I started a blog I’ll send you the link sometime.

    Nikki x

  • 7. felicia S.  |  May 5, 2013 at 4:19 am

    You’ll be missed!

  • 8. Carli  |  May 21, 2013 at 12:42 pm


    I am little disappointed to read that you’ve returned to the States. However, I do understand the economic benefits of doing so. I too, am a Black American woman who loves to travel from one European country to the next; France and Italy are two of my favorites. I stumbled across your Blog while attempting to put together a list of possible social contacts when and or if I get to move to France. Although I adore Paris, it’s a little to big and too busy for me, especially during the Summer months. Of course, the South of France would be my second choice, but buying something there would cost me “The eyes from my head”. I think I’ve settle on Lyon. It is close to the Italian, German and Swiss boarder; cool for quick trips. If you ever move back to France, I hope that you will start sharing again.

  • 9. Lena  |  June 30, 2013 at 3:10 pm

    Dear Urban Travel Girl -

    I am contacting you because I wanted to know if you would be willing to do a brief writeup on your site to help spread the word about Chicago’s Global Girls. Like you, the Global Girls are Chicagoans who travel and love to experience the world! Earlier this year, Global Girls sent 7 girls from Chicago’s south side to India for 10 days to work with Indian Kattaikuttu girls on service and performance projects. Because of this awesome collaboration, Global Girls is now working to bring the talented young girls they lived and performed with, from Tamil Nadu to Chicago. Once here, Global Girls and the Kattaikuttu girls will perform, teach, and share their inspirational experiences with other youths in Chicago area schools.

    Just to give you a little background on the organization, Global Girls (globalgirlsinc org) is a youth performing arts organization founded by Marvinetta Penn on the South Side of Chicago. Global Girls provides a safe space for girl (8 – 18 yrs) to develop skills in communication, leadership and presentation through performance in international spaces.

    I wanted to reach out to you directly because of your engaging writing about your world travels and hope that maybe you could help spread the word about Global Girls’ awesome international project. I think it’s always good to showcase young women from different corners of the world working, learning and teaching together.

    Global Girls is trying to raise $15,000 in the next 8 days and would love if you could spread the word to your network.

    To find out more, here is a direct link to their Kickstarter campaign page: www kickstarter com/projects/1263563014/global-girls-kattaikuttu-girls-perform-youth-drive. Please watch the video to learn more about Global Girls – they are awesome!

    Any help and expertise you could provide would be wonderful and greatly appreciated.

    Thanks Very Much and Warmest Regards!

  • 10. Cindy  |  July 15, 2013 at 7:55 pm

    Maureen–Your article led me to you (“5 cool places to learn a foreign language abroad”). I feel like a kindred spirit of yours from another era–I’m from the southwest suburbs of Chicago, and I stood under the Eiffel Tower, in love with that city and its language, a few decades ago. The 6 months I spent living there have influenced my life ever since, in the best way.

    I hope you are enjoying the summer there avec ton père!

    Cindy Dunn
    The Foreign Language Library Online

  • 11. J. Miller  |  July 15, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    I’m so glad I found your site! My husband and are considering living and working abroad. We’re considering Italy, Ghana, Liberia, S. Africa or Mexico. My first choice is Italy, but we want to be able to get ‘home’ to the motherland when we want. Any suggestions on researching the countries with the best life/work balance?

  • 12. Saha  |  October 6, 2014 at 7:31 pm

    Are you taking French classes? Your story is almost similar to my own. I live in Marseille, still can’t put a coherent sentence in french together!
    I hope to be conversational in a few months before I move back home, Indiana.

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