Winter Citrus

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When I was 22, I moved to Paris. I had just graduated college with a plan to enter a PhD program after a year-long adventure in France. (A plan I only kind of stuck to later on.) It was 2008, hardly a hospital economy for a new grad, and I wanted adventure. My senior year of college, seemingly overnight, I became a francophile. French art, French literature, I loved it all. As a comparative literature major, I was supposed to be reading works of literature in their original language. But by my senior year, it was too late. To my department’s horror, there I was, reading in translation from the French. C’est la vie.

I didn’t mind living paycheck to paycheck if it meant living in France. I set out to work on a family farm near Carcassonne in exchange for room and board. I picked almonds and figs on a farm run by a family of Christians, the Virgin Mary in every room. (The only Christians I’d meet during my entire twelve-month stay in France.) I had deliberately chosen the south of France for my start, since rumor had it the French spoke more slowly there. (Gentle language immersion, you could say.) I had romantic notions of what farm life would be like and how quickly I’d become fluent. In reality I spent my days mostly solo, iPod plugged in to music or French lessons as I made my way down the rows and rows of almond trees, avoiding the two other WOOFERS (as we were called) on the farm, two French Canadian teenagers, a couple, who did nothing but bicker in the fields.

I ended my farmstay early and made my way to Paris, where I stayed with friends I’d met during a semester abroad in Uruguay a few years earlier. (I had lived in an apartment that was very L’Auberge Espagnole.) My friend lived just past the financial district of Paris, where nothing much happens besides work. I spent a month on her “clic-clac” (a futon), absorbing Frenchisms from her and her partner, and the TV. Around that time I scored a gig as jeune fille au pair — a glorified nanny position that was specifically billed to young women as a kind of cultural immersion program. It didn’t pay much but it did pay for a phone, room and board, and French classes. I was on my way.

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My au pair assignment was an odd one. Most of the au pairs I met (of which there were many, since most of my French classes were filled entirely with other young women in the same boat) took care of infants, toddlers, the under-eights. I was tasked with supervising a 13 year-old girl going on 30. I didn’t have to pick her up from school or shuttle her to play dates. She was perfectly capable of fixing her own snacks. She had her own cell phone (much fancier than mine). She hardly needed me.

The girl’s mother had other plans for me. I would do the grocery shopping, make dinner, and walk the dog. Once a week, I would walk the girl to a dance studio ten minutes away. (Hip hop and crop tops, not ballet and leotards.) It seemed easy enough, but then it’s hard to find fault in people when they’re in charge of your room and board and visa.

At a certain point, things started to turn. Little things added up — small strikes against me and them. I was chastised for not giving the girl an answer to her homework (I’d tried to coach her, which it turned out wasn’t welcome), and belittled for my approach. (Weren’t you a literature major? Shouldn’t you know this?) The book was To Kill a Mockingbird. Of course I knew. It didn’t take a literature major to know. Shortly after the homework incident, I was told to walk the dog twice as many times per day as before. Grocery receipts were now carefully tracked, down to the centime, never mind if I didn’t have a receipt for fresh produce from the biomarché. I was no longer to stay for dinner, but to please leave dinner ready and make my way upstairs before the mother arrived home from work.

The goal had never been to be a jeune fille au pair anyway, so I began to plot my escape. I sent resumes in poorly written French to art galleries and design firms (my true love and goal for being in Paris). I got interviews, but nothing stuck — which was probably for the best since my French was still rusty.

Eventually, over some injustice I can no longer remember, I quit. When I gave the mother my notice, she confronted me, yelling “Where will you go? How will you live? You need me!” But I didn’t. In a move I’m not proud of, I yelled back: “I got an offer this morning!” So there! I thought. We were both desperate.

I had gotten an offer, for another au pair gig, at which I lasted two weeks before moving in with a friend. (This time the departure was mutual, I’d started getting traction with a few galleries and sensed I would soon find a job; the family had known this was my primary goal and encouraged it.)

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The month I moved in with my friend, a California girl I’d met in the neighborhood who was also an au pair, it was February. February, it should be known, is the dullest month in Paris. Gray, overcast, rainy, cold — the kind of weather that makes you want to stay inside and curl up in the fetal position. Impossibly, the city lost its charm. No one wanted to be out in Paris in February.

My friend and I shared a laughably small chambre de bonne (historically the servant’s quarters in old Paris). I sent resumés from a futon that took up nearly the entire room while she managed tantrums below. Spirits were low for both of us, and we comforted ourselves by listening to each other’s struggles, blasting music from the tinny speakers of an old laptop, dancing away our worries, and going out in Paris at night.

Over a decade later, I can still feel in my bones the depression that I sometimes felt that February — but also the joy. My friend and I took care of each other. Sometimes we hibernated and let the rain keep us indoors, sleeping in the way that only teenagers and twenty-somethings can. More often, we rallied. We found the perfect red lipstick to lift our spirits. We exchanged intel on new restaurants we had discovered. We went out dancing, even when we didn’t feel like it, until we did. She kept au pairing. I kept sending resumés. I networked with French friends of friends of friends on the ins and outs of working in the art world in Paris. (Which turned out to be far more complicated than I expected.) I got advice and put myself out there once again. My savings dwindled, it kept raining, and some days were more daunting than others.

Eventually my French improved, and I was hired at a contemporary art gallery where I would happily work for the rest of my stay. I moved out of our shared little cave. I wrote home with the good news. All of this, too, happened in February.

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February to me will always feel like two sides of that same coin: gray and dull but also bright and shiny and filled with possibility. I know many people hate February. The shininess of the New Year has worn off and it’s too early in the year to take a proper vacation. Spring is nowhere near, no matter what the groundhog says. But every February, I think back to that month in Paris, and how despite it all we found a happy moment. And every year I try to do the same — to find a spark of joy amidst the doldrums. This month, amidst the gray of another pandemic February, I am thinking about how surprising and delicious winter citrus is — how bright, juicy, and sparkling despite the long winter days. Cara cara oranges. Tangelos. Blood oranges. Pomelos. Grapefruit. I’ll take them all, for the fruit and for the feeling, too.

I hope that this February, as we drag our feet toward a pandemic milestone we never thought we’d see, you, too can find a little joy in your days. If nothing else, try the citrus.

  • My book in the news: Last month, I talked with the fine folks at First Round Review about the power of listening in a startup setting. I had a great chat with author Greg McKeown (Essentialism, Effortless) on his podcast. And if you’re the type of person who is curious about how people work and the tools they use (I know I am), you might enjoy this brief profile of my work set up on Uses This. For my Seattle-based friends, I hope you’ll join me at Town Hall Seattle for a talk about listening at the end of the month (also available on livestream for out of towners).
  • 🕵🏻‍♀️ The Rest Trials behind the scenes: Regular readers of this newsletter know that I’ve begun to experiment with rest trials, personal experiments for getting well-rested, based on research for my forthcoming book. Once a month, I share these experiments with a small group of folks who have opted in to test them out with me. If you’d like to give these rest experiments a try, sign up here.

💌 As always, the best thing you can do for me is share this edition of the newsletter, or others you enjoy, with your friends and coworkers. Thanks for being here and for sharing the love. May your New Year come with joy, love, and hope — and a heaping dose of patience for good measure. 💌

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Ximena Vengoechea

Ximena Vengoechea

Author, Listen Like You Mean It. UX researcher, TWTR, PINS, etc. I write about the intersection of technology + society + personal growth. ximenavengoechea.com