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A Month in Europe? Good Idea?

A reader sends along this Wall Street Journal review of a book complaining about Paris, written by an American expat who moved there and found his dreams did not pan out. Excerpt:

At first, a major obstacle to Mr. Baldwin’s Parisian happiness is his lack of fluency in French. People have trouble understanding his American accent. As for his written version of the language, it is appalling, he confesses. “The conditional tense confused me, and the French loved the conditional tense.” With time and effort, however, his language skills improve and his co-workers come to entrust him with greater responsibility. Rachel, not having a work visa, spends her days studying French, writing a screenplay and keeping house. But it’s difficult for her to concentrate at home because of constant construction in the building where they live. When Mr. Baldwin suggests that she find a café to write in, she replies: “You know that’s not me.” And that’s that.


Surprisingly, “Paris, I Love You” is bereft of culinary thrills. Mr. Baldwin and his wife are heavily dependent on take-out and the grocery-store chain Picard, which deals in frozen foods. Since they are on a budget—and don’t receive many invitations to French dinner tables—there are scarcely any accounts of the gout-inducing feasts that one finds in, say, A.J. Liebling’s long-ago New Yorker dispatches.

OK, here’s the problem right there. They didn’t speak French, and they ate FROZEN FREAKING FOOD! In Paris! You don’t have to go to restaurants all the time; you can eat inexpensively if you just know how to cook, even a little. I can’t imagine enjoying Paris all that much if you don’t open yourself up to the culinary culture. Good grief.

All this brings to mind, though, something that Mrs. Dreher and I are considering doing. We are thinking about taking the kids and going to Paris for a month this fall. It would be like a study-vacation — heavy on culture, but also fun things. If we can find an apartment rental for the month of September and October, at an affordable price, we might be able to pull this off. But we’ll have to decide soon, or what apartments there are will be gone. We love autumn, and after the brutal Louisiana summer, we’ll be ready for some cool weather.

I’m not sure about this. Julie and I would love it, and we think our kids would as well, but it’s not going to be cheap. We have the money right now to do this, but … I dunno. My late sister Ruthie told me before she got sick that she and her husband used what extra money they had, after paying bills and putting some up in savings, to take vacations with their kids. When Ruthie and I were young, our family rarely took vacations, mostly because my dad worried that we wouldn’t have enough money if we spent it so frivolously, and because he was hyper-responsible, and worried that if we were out of town, Something Might Go Wrong At Home. Now, our dad really regrets not going on vacation with us kids a lot more. Ruthie said that avoiding that regret, and “creating memories” (her phrase) were things she was determined to do. She advised me to be mindful of the same thing with my family.

This really hit home with me when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer in February 2010. Within one month, she was too sick to go on any vacation. She and her family had one more vacation, to the Carolinas, about six weeks before she died. It was hard, but by then I think her doctors realized that she wasn’t going to make it, and any risk would be worth it. The point is, because Ruthie had invested so much time and money in vacations, her family has so many good memories of being together.

I think about that these days. Ruthie and I were very different people. The kinds of things her family enjoyed, and enjoy, aren’t our kinds of things, at least not all the time. But that’s not the point. We are blessed right now to have the money for an extravagance like a month in Europe, if we can budget carefully. The question is: should we do it? I want so badly for my children to learn to love France, and the Netherlands, like I do (we have good friends in Holland, whom we’d go visit while in France). So does Julie, who has come to love them through our own travels there. Lucas was this morning fooling around with a French app on my iPad, practicing French, and really enjoying it. Matthew loves cultural things. I dunno, I’m easy to talk into something like this. But because I’m so eager to do it, I am immediately skeptical of my own instincts in this regard. I want to be conservative about this, but … well, Ruthie was far, far more conservative on most everything than I am, yet she was adamant about the value of family vacations.

Do any of you have any advice? Any experience doing something like this? Tell me.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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