My name is Vanessa Larson, and I recently made a life-changing decision to quit my job, move to Paris, and go back to school for my MBA. I arrived in Paris on January 2nd with a one-way ticket, an apartment booked for the first month, and plans to immediately stuff myself with as much cheese and bread as possible. As I left the United States, I felt excited, thrilled and terrified all at once. I found myself on this path after a year spent soul-searching, dreaming, and planning.
I spent the past five years working as a buyer for a national catalog. It was a great job–the kind of job that elicits oohs and ahs from other women whenever I mentioned it. Yet I wasn’t happy. As I started to think about what I wanted and where I wanted my life to go, I let myself dream. Not only to dream, but to dream bigger than I ever did before. On some level I have always wanted to live in Paris (it’s my favorite city!), but I never dared to dream about living there before because I just didn’t see it as a possibility. Suddenly I found myself thinking, what if? What if I want to reinvent my career? What if I want to go back to school to do it? What if I did that in Paris?
My dream has always been to start my own company. I would like to have an e-commerce site that combines editorial content with retail. I have spent the past 10 years of my career implementing and adding to the creative vision of some amazing people and companies. I feel like it is finally time to present my own creative vision. Living in Paris, I am constantly exposed to beautiful designs and to women with an amazing personal sense of style. The cafés, boutiques, and museums provide an endless source of inspiration. Just being here is helping to fine tune my vision. By earning my MBA, I hope to combine my creative background with the business skills I will need to succeed as an entrepreneur.
Once I made the decision to go back to school, I went after it with determination and as much courage as I could muster. I applied to a top business school, HEC Paris, and was accepted. The school is very well known in Europe and is ranked #21 globally by the Financial Times. However, it is not as well known in the US. I chose to go here instead of a US school because it gave me the opportunity to experience life in Paris, to possibly gain some work experience in Europe, and to open myself up to a completely new adventure. Our student body is very diverse in terms of industry sector and geographic background. One of the highlights so far has been meeting people from all over the world and learning from all their varying experiences. One of the challenges in going back to school has been learning how to be a student again. I finished my undergraduate studies twelve years ago. Going back to school is much harder than I thought it would be!
Having chosen this path, I made the hard decision to empty out my savings account, sell my car and most of my belongings, and take out student loans to pay for my dream. This was made a bit easier by the merit-based partial scholarship that I received, but realistically I will be paying this debt off for 8-10 years after graduation. The program is an intense 16-month, full-time curriculum and I am unable to work during this time. I am hoping to do a work internship but that would not be until next January. This means I really have to live on a budget and make my savings last. Paris is an expensive city! I can’t go out to dinner as often as I would like or shop for new clothes because I just can’t afford it. Luckily farmer’s markets, baguettes, free museum days, and the beauty of Paris are all cheap or free. There’s a lot to do in Paris, even on a budget! As my friend Mia aptly pointed out when I was deciding on moving, I will not be on my deathbed saying, ‘I wish I hadn’t lived in Paris; it was too expensive.’ Conversely, I very likely would say the opposite if I did not take this chance.
Luckily my friends and family have been incredibly supportive and encouraging. My mom was a bit hesitant in the beginning due to the expense and the risk of quitting my job. However, once we talked it through and looked further at HEC Paris, she started to feel like I was making the right decision. She was excited for me, and her encouragement made it so much easier to choose to go. My friends were beyond encouraging. They felt that it was perfect for me and they all told me I had to do this. I am not sure if I would have been able to pursue this if I did not have the support of all the important people in my life. They gave me the courage to take such a huge risk!
This is how I find myself living in Paris. When I arrived I knew no one but I am quickly making new friends. I had already been to Paris six or seven times before, both for work and on vacation. Paris is the first place I ever visited overseas. My mom took me here when I was fourteen. Perhaps I fell in love with this city then. When I am not in school, I spend my days wandering around beautiful Paris, eating all kinds of naughtiness, wasting away hours in cafés, and learning to love my adopted city on a new level. I love discovering new places and finding the spots that I want to come back to again and again. I found a tiny studio apartment in the 14th arrondissement. There is a patisserie on the corner by my house that makes an amazing multi-grain baguette, a butcher shop just up the street with delicious pouli roti, a cheese shop with all kinds of unpasteurized, stinky cheeses, and several places to buy good wine. I am surrounded by cafés and a vibrant, multi-cultural restaurant scene. It’s so fun being able to walk out of my door and have so many places to explore! I absolutely love my neighborhood. I also recently discovered the Marché Raspail, which is an all-organic Sunday farmer’s market. They have farm-fresh produce, meat, fish, cheese, and flowers. Plus there is a stand there with these delicious, indulgent, cheesy-oniony potato pancakes. I plan to visit every Sunday.
Sometimes I long for home. I miss my family and friends, and I am so thankful for Skype. I don’t speak much French, which makes everything more difficult. Have you ever tried opening a bank account, finding an apartment, or setting up phone service when you don’t speak the language? It’s not that easy. I find myself stumbling along in badly pronounced French, grateful that people are kind and help me along when I can’t understand. In Paris you have to have an address where you can receive mail in order to open a bank account. They mail a letter to your house and the receipt of arrival is confirmation that you live in Paris. Neither your rental contract nor your proof of student status confirms that you live here. This was difficult for me in the beginning since I did not have a permanent address and I could not receive mail. I had to do all of my banking out of the US. It became easier once I found a permanent place to live.
I found my apartment through an agency. I suppose it’s possible to find a place on your own but it is extremely difficult especially if you don’t speak French. With an agent, they find the place for you but you pay them a fairly steep fee and there is still a ton of paperwork! One plus for me with an agency is that most of the places are furnished. This way I don’t have to buy an apartment full of furniture and then have to figure out what to do with it if I leave Paris after school. I instead focused on buying nice bedding, towels, and accents so it would feel like home. With an apartment and a bank account, I was able to set up phone service. I signed up online. Thank goodness for Google translate! I’m lucky that the school is helping with the visa process and with some of the other paperwork as well. All of these experiences have taught me to be both patient and tenacious.
Although this is my first time living in Europe, it is not my first time settling into a new city. I grew up in Chicago but moved to San Francisco over seven years ago. During that time I also spent a year in Hong Kong. Having gone through this transition before makes it a bit easier. The process of creating a new home is familiar but different. This is the first time I have moved without a job and without a common language! I know that it all just takes time. I have to trust that eventually it will all come together.
I am making new friends at school and through friends of friends. Eventually some of these new friends might even become close friends. I have an apartment that is starting to feel like home and I’m finally learning the train system. I am taking French classes at school and plan on taking a French immersion course this summer. When I have the time, I visit museums, wander along the seine and cozy up in the cafés with a good book and a cup of chocolat chaud. I have a trip planned to Barcelona next week to visit some close friends there and a trip to London at the end of April for a TED talk and fashion festival. I’m hoping to travel more this summer. On my bucket list are Berlin, Greece, further exploration of Spain, and wine tasting in France. I am on a big adventure and I can’t wait to see what happens next. Eventually Paris might even come to feel like home.
I feel incredibly excited and lucky to have this opportunity. I am sharing my story because I believe in having the courage to follow your dreams, and I hope my story inspires you to do the same. What about you? Have you ever taken a huge risk to follow your dreams and how did it turn out?
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