So where do you go after a magical year of living in the shadow of castles? To live in the shadows of skyscrapers! After receiving a job offer of a three day work week, housing included, our life changed drastically when we stepped off the plane in JFK international airport to spend the year of 2001 in the environs of New York City.
Louis was now one year old and we were coming to New York with a year behind us living as a strongly bonded unit of three. We had let instincts take us on our journey as new parents making the bold move to an unknown area of France for our first year together as a family, now amongst family and friends we would find different challenges as parents because our path was an unusual one. When living in the small village in France we were pretty autonomous. If people thought what we were doing was unusual, reckless or irresponsible, no one really knew us, so we pretty much were in a bubble not feeling any societal pressures to conform or ‘get with the program’. New York would be different, we would be surrounded by friends and family, all of them well meaning and loving for sure, but when you paddle against the mainstream, you get met with some resistance. We might have to be explaining our choices more often, but luckily we had had an empowering year behind us navigating the new river of parenthood that had showed us a different way was possible.
The juxtaposition of our current life to that of a month before was extraordinary; one moment we were riding our bikes along The Loire River in France surrounded by 16th century castles, and literally a plane ride later and here we were back in the city of my birth, with a perfect work schedule, and not much stress as year two of parenthood commenced. I somehow realised early on in life that a rule book to living didn’t exist. I found following what felt right led me down some pretty cool roads both internally and externally. I had worked in Japan, Australia twice, Greece, both coasts of America and couldn’t get enough adventure when I was young, single and exploring all the possibilities life on this tiny planet could offer. After meeting Angie things changed for me as England started to become a second home. Our relationship radically changed after Louis arrived, but we didn’t let that stop us from living life creating and confronting the unexpected.
As I recounted in my last blog, In the Shadows of Castles, that first year as parents was so emancipating. To be literally on our own, with not much other guidance except our instincts, was something we knew not many new parents experience. Now here we were in New York with the unknown road still stretching out before us, but lots of familiar faces and places to change that dynamic immensely. All exciting as well, but in a whole different way.
Although we were in New York, living in the suburb of Bedford Hills was quite foreign to us. Okay it wasn’t rural France, but having no car limited our mobility, and we knew no one in this far-flung suburb. Fortunately, finding like minded people happened quickly when Angie saw a sign in the local supermarket saying there was a La Leche League meeting coming up soon. We had known of La Leche League, it was the group which had published one of the books about breastfeeding we had taken down to France. The book instantly struck a chord with us because of its baby-centric ideals and expounding the natural way to be parents. Angie had the same hopes about the upcoming meeting, and it didn’t disappoint. Week three in Bedford Hills found us making life-long friendships with Patty, Rich and their son Jared who was just two weeks younger than Louis. The synchronicity of it all was quite comforting, and we were slipping into a nice groove continuing the feeling of being able to let go and let life take us in her flow, quite a special sensation. I knew it well from years of living on the road and following the instincts I felt deep inside, it was now so much nicer watching the same current taking us along as a family. This ride was just getting better and better.
Watching Louis finding his feet on the Metro North commuter train line walking unsteadily down the aisle was hilarious. We were willing to let him give it a go in many aspects of his life, as he stumbled down the aisle slowly making his way, we would give him his space and his confidence grew quickly. My brother Larry was a conductor on that commuter train, and if we happened to be on the train he was working on he would surprise us saying things over the train announcements like, “This is the express train to Grand Central Terminal,” then quickly add, “are you ready Louis?” Although I think Angie and I got the most joy out of listening to those announcements as we watched little Louis teeter along just trying to stay upright. Some of the commuters on the train didn’t know what to do when this smiling little boy would grab their arm to steady his position, but it was sweet to see the smiles on their faces as he persevered, and their little bit of help became part of his journey as a walking toddler.
Working at the bike shop kept me on my feet as it was the busiest shop I had ever worked in. It was in the lower Westchester County, affluent suburb of Scarsdale which had a moneyed population, reminding me of the clientele I worked with in New Canaan, Connecticut a few years prior. They both were eye-opening experiences. When money seemed to be no object, it made selling a bike that much easier, but sometimes the privileged attitude would throw me for a loop as it was so different to having grown up in a working class area of The Bronx and spending so much of my adult life exploring the poorer regions of the world. I believe it gave me a deeper appreciation for what I did have, and also helped me become aware of the fact that people who do have such monetary privilege are sometimes not even aware of how powerful that can be. The excess of that lifestyle was ever-present, magnified even more as the shop was on Central Avenue which was probably the longest strip mall in the world. It started in Yonkers and stretched for more than ten miles all the way up to White Plains in a never ending row of shops, restaurants, movie theatres, diners, gas stations, you name it, Central Avenue had it. Whereas the pleasant flow of The Loire River was my daily companion just a short few weeks ago, the constant flow of noisy traffic was what now assaulted my senses on the days I went to work.
On my work days Angie and Louis were up north bonding with our new friends. Patty would introduce us to so many ideas on attachment parenting, free and inexpensive things to do in New York City, other like-minded parents in the area, that our lives would have been so much different if that small notice hadn’t been pinned to that cork board. The oddity of it all was not lost on us, here we were living in a rich Northern Suburb and I was working in well-to-do Scarsdale. Income-wise in this part of the world we were considered to be well below the poverty line, yet we had just spent a year living in The Loire Valley of France where many people we had met traveling in that area came from these same suburbs spending easily my yearly wage for a week long cycling holiday there to come back here dreaming of their next vacation elsewhere.
Patty and Rich lived in Mount Kisco which was not too far from Bedford Hills. Angie and Louis made the bike or train journey quite often to their apartment complex. Angie and Patty would sit by the pool watching the two young boys find their confidence while the two new mothers kept up their mantra of, ‘Let go, let them explore’. A lot of the time they had to breath deep and trust. Luckily they had each other and an uncrowded pool during the day, because with what could have looked like irresponsible parenting was actually a life lesson for all involved, and although they were keeping their distance, both Patty and Angie were being super attentive, but giving the young ones space. A book called ‘The Continuum Concept’, by Jean Liedloff became all of our go to “Bible” on trusting children. It renewed our faith in instincts which seemed to be on the wane in the western model of baby raising. We deeply felt wrapping up a toddler too tightly in cotton wool could not be good for their self esteem, plus we all need to feel freedom to explore, even at one year old. We owe Jean a big thanks for allowing all of us such a big boost in self-confidence.
About four or so months into our settling into this new phase of life, something started going a bit awry with the housing situation. The problem was kind of complicated, and things could have been quite tricky if the manager of the bike shop Steve, who we had become quite friendly with, hadn’t seen what was happening. He told us to find a place to live and he’d honor the free housing promise Danny made to us up to a certain monthly price. We took him up on that offer and started looking around a bit closer to the shop. We had nearly five good months of cycling and exploring up in The Bedford Hills area, now it would be nicer to be a bit closer to work with easier access to New York City. As I mentioned before, Scarsdale is a very expensive suburb, but I put a notice up in the shop that we were looking for a bungalow to stay in if anyone had something that would suit let us know. One of our good customers Jim, worked for the town of Scarsdale and he thought it was hilarious that we put that notice up. He said he works the area, knows it very well, and there’s no way anyone will have a bungalow in their back garden for us to live in. “You’re not in rural France now,” he said tearing up with laughter, “you guys crack me up!” We still thought we’d give it a shot.
The next day my childhood friend Billy invited us over for dinner. Our conversation came around to our current housing situation. We briefly filled him in and said we were looking for something in Scarsdale. His wife Christine then told us her sister used to live there in a small cottage in someone’s backyard. I secretly smiled thinking of all the synchronous situations I had experienced traveling around the world. She said she would get the phone number from her sister and give me a call at the shop the next day. I went around to look at the place after work. Literally a ten minute bicycle ride from the bike shop stood a small one bedroom cottage in a back garden surrounded by a big lawn. And the owners had a young son just about the same age as Louis! Never doubt the power of positive intention! Now here is where even I say, “Oh come on really?” They had an older car in the driveway they hardly ever used and would appreciate if we would run it once in a while to keep it from totally dying! The next time I went to work after we had moved into the new place I saw Jim and he just looked at me laughing and said, “Man I thought you guys were crazy, actually I still think you are, but I can’t believe you found exactly what you were looking for right around the block!” (I saw Jim about ten years later, and when he saw me he started laughing, shook my hand, and said, “The crazy Frenchman in the cottage!”)
The new placement in southern Westchester County put us within cycling distance to the city. It was a fifty mile or so round trip to Manhattan, but with the long days of summer, a child who couldn’t get enough of being on the back of a bicycle, and having lots of free time with my excellent schedule, we actually made the journey quite a few times. It was such a diverse ride down from Scarsdale through The Bronx and into Manhattan. In Harlem we would cut into Central Park to get off of the busier roads. We would slowly be meandering through New York City’s best asset to anyone who wants to stay sane in the concrete jungle. Louis, though, would start pointing out to West End Avenue saying, “Truck, truck,” and kicking his feet. It took us a while to figure it out, but the boy who spent his first year of life on rural French roads picnicking in front of castles wanted out of Central Park and to be in the thick of it getting passed by buses, taxis, trucks and whatever else New York City streets had to offer. Luckily for him I was a confident cyclist, and Angie, the girl from Dorset on the southern coast of England, had cycled in Manhattan quite often when we lived in New York back in ’97 and ’98. So onto the streets it was! We all had a great time on our excursions into Manhattan. Our bicycles got very well used and we took Chris and Deirdre up on their car offer mainly to go visit our friends Patty, Rich and Jared and also my mom and sister who were now much further away. Occasionally we used trains and bikes to make an adventurous trip ‘up north’. We never got bored of figuring out creative ways to get around.
I was keeping in shape with all the riding and also bought a nice road bike to continue occasional rides with some of the guys I used to ride with back in ’97 and ’98. Angie was also happy with all the riding we were doing as a family. One time I joined the Gimbels’ Ride – a well known fast ride – with Louis in his baby seat. I still knew a lot of the riders from that same period in the nineties and it was sweet to hear them calling out to Louis in his baby seat. This may have been the final straw that pushed Louis into his life-long love affair with bikes. It was definitely quite a cool experience for both of us riding in the middle of the fast racing cyclists flying up Central Avenue.
In late August a weekend job offer came up that was too good to pass. One of our customers was a Wall Street investment banker. He and three of his workmates had planned a cycling weekend in Princeton, New Jersey. They wanted someone to drive the van, be at the turnings so they knew where to go, be able to keep their bikes rolling in case of mechanical problems and be ready handing them cool drinks when needed. What was in it for me was 300 bucks in hand, two nights in posh hotels, all my meals paid for, and I could bring my road bike along to ride in the late afternoons with them after their morning mapped out riding session was over.
I was met at the shop early on Friday morning by our customer Tom, and together we drove over to New Jersey to meet the other three cyclists. We arrived at the mansion complete with maid’s quarters, swimming pool, huge garden, and a winding driveway that seemed to be a mile long. As we packed the van, we enjoyed a snack by the pool and went over the basic itinerary. As they were all friends and I was the outsider they asked me lots of questions about myself. When it came out that I had spent thirteen years traveling around America and the world by motorcycle and bicycle they were intrigued. When they found out I was now married with a young child and just spent the last year in The Loire Valley the intrigue almost turned into jealousy. George, the guy who owned the mansion said sarcastically, “Wait a minute, I’m the Wall Street lawyer, I make literally millions, have all this, and you just spent a year not working after traveling the world for thirteen years? I wanna be a bike mechanic!” They all laughed, we changed the subject and funnily enough over the whole three days together, Tom was the only one who asked any more about my travels.
We all had a great weekend; country roads, traffic-free riding, perfect weather, interesting conversations and three excellent meals a day in nice restaurants. It was a pretty sweet deal for me. I also learned a lot about the stresses of living life as a high-powered lawyer or investment banker. Although the money was good, the life style was foreign to me. They didn’t spend much, if any, quality time with their kids, and George didn’t have enough time in the week to enjoy all the luxuries of his beautiful home. He even seemed a bit resentful of his wife’s lifestyle; gym, art classes, yoga, and yes cycling, but in a spin class. Actually it was the life he would have preferred, but he had to work eighty hours a week to provide it. Tom was the oldest of our five person crew, his life seemed a bit less hectic, but work hours upwards of seventy hours or so with long commutes seemed to be a common thread between all of them. The other three were younger than me, all of them much richer than me too, but I wouldn’t have traded places with any of them.
After that weekend the feeling that the road we were paving for ourselves as a family was heading in a good direction was overwhelming. With no rent hanging over our heads, my salary was sufficient for us to actually save money while we had so much free time to explore further and wider as well. We’d go on hikes in the mountains while visiting my niece in New Paltz, a beautiful region of New York. We’d visit my brother and his family and even welcomed his youngest daughter to the world in June of that year. He lived near The Long Island Sound which had the added bonus of giving Angie her dose of the seaside she sorely missed because she grew up on the English Channel. A couple from the LLL group had a beautiful cabin in Saugerties, New York that she offered to friends and we had an amazing weekend there checking out an ongoing ecovillage project that was intriguing. I still had friends to visit in my favorite boro of New York, The Bronx, and enjoyed walking around the old neighborhood. Angie’s mom came out for a visit and it was so nice to get the chance to show her my part of the world. Many long bike rides to the city, heading up to Mount Kisco to see Patty, Rich and Jared or occasionally spend overnight in my sister and mom’s neck of the woods kept us busy as a family, and Louis got to explore his American roots for sure.
With all the helpful hints from Patty, who was originally a Manhattan girl, we were getting into museums and parks at big family discounts or for free and visiting places in the city I never knew existed. We were used to living without a constant flow of income, and time-richness seemed to be an elusive goal that many people strived for. Fortunately I somehow managed my whole life to be overabundant with it. Summer was slowly passing into Autumn and the cooler days of September had arrived. Life was taking us on her journey and we were totally enjoying the ride.
The phone rang early in the morning and I rushed to answer it as Louis was still asleep. It was my friend David. He and Angie had plans to go down to the city together that night for Angie’s first night out without Louis. They were going to hear a talk about the link between spiritualism and environmentalism in modern society by a man called Satish Kumar. It sounded like an intriguing topic and Angie was looking forward to her first night out alone since March 4th, 2000! She came into the living room when she heard concern in my hushed tones. I hung up the phone and turned to her saying, looks like you might not be going to the city tonight. I quickly got dressed, hopped on my bike, getting to work well before opening hours, flicked on the television just in time to see the second plane crash into the World Trade Center. After opening the shop properly, staff arriving in a daze, we spent the rest of the day glued to the screen. I called Angie to let her know that her talk was definitely not happening that night and explained what had just happened. As we didn’t have a television, she and Louis came by the shop later that day, and on Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, that normally crazy busy bike shop in Scarsdale sold just one bike, and the world witnessed an unprecedented attack on America, an act that would change many things thereafter. The loss of my good friend Charley, who was one of the many fireman that lost their lives that day, was the closest personal impact of 9/11, and our final few months in New York was to be overshadowed by that terrible event in Manhattan.
It was difficult trying to get back into the groove we were in. The next time we went down to Manhattan it was a different place. The population seemed to be in mass shock. Pictures on phone booths, all over Grand Central Station or in subway stations of missing people were always a sobering wake up call to remind us that others were going through far worse pain and loss than just a familiar skyline. Hoping against hope we were all finally facing the sober fact that Charley was among the large count of dead, and not going to show up among the few survivors who managed to escape those crumbling buildings.
We had been living without a television as a family, that made it much easier not to be overwhelmed by fear and anger in the wake of what happened. We moved on with our lives, letting time heal as it does. It was pretty much impossible to ignore what happened, but to let those images fade into the recesses of our minds was very important to keep balanced and mentally healthy. We hadn’t realised that nearly everyone else around us was reliving that awful event on the nightly evening news, not being able to move on because the images were still being thrust at them every day. This was really brought home to us on Thanksgiving weekend. We were at Steve’s house for dinner and the television was on in the background. When we all retired to the living room we saw the image of the two burning towers and a man jumping out of a window to his certain death on the oversized screen, it was quite overwhelming. I then realised why the fear and anger seemed not to have dissipated at all since September 11th. Here it was the end of November and those were the nightly images still being burnt into the collective mind of America. Not a good way to help move out of what was a very bad space to begin with. To constantly revisit that awful day was what most Americans, and the world at large, did not need at that, nor any, moment in time. I was so glad I had broken the habit of television-watching nearly twenty years prior. It made me think it was probably one of the big reasons I was able to live such a different life. I hadn’t been filling my head with images from the evening news for nearly two decades!
For quite a few weeks afterwards the feeling in the shop was quite weird. There were repairs that weren’t being picked up and lay-aways not being paid off, as many of the victims of 9/11 lived in Scarsdale and the surrounding suburbs. One thing that was on my mind was that Tom, George and the others I spent that long weekend with in New Jersey worked in the area of the attacks. I gave Tom a call to enquire. He told me fortunately all of them were fine, but the building George’s office was in got completely destroyed. I secretly wondered if he would take a deeper look at his near scrape with death and use it to pursue a more fulfilling life and possibly downsize, simplify or just sell up and enjoy riding his bike more. I never found out, but hold a nice picture in my head of him and his wife doing yoga somewhere on a beach after taking a long relaxing bike ride together.
In early December we went to Boston where I had an interview with a bike shop affiliated with an NGO called ‘Bikes Not Bombs’. I was familiar with their work from riding in Central America in 1995 and thought it might be cool to move to Boston for a totally different American experience. A part time job offer was made, but in the wake of 9/11 we were also tempted to head back to the French countryside to grow our veggies and live a simpler life. We now owned a small house there, not in The Loire Valley, but on the northwest peninsula known as Brittany. We bought the house with a little help from Angie’s mom and our combined life savings while living in France the previous year. It was very inexpensive, literally what people pay for average new cars, but in another place where we didn’t know a soul. It was a short ferry ride to southern England where Angie was from, so visits both ways would be easier. After some discussions about what felt really correct inside, we decided maybe getting out of the current prevailing energy in The States at the moment wouldn’t be a bad thing. Time to refocus, get back into our groove and back to the land. We had tasted that life briefly in The Loire Valley, and that small sampling had us wanting to try just a bit more to see if that was a possible road into a totally different future for us. So we didn’t linger too long coming to the decision that moving to inner city Boston for a part time job didn’t quite feel like where we were wanting to head in our lives.
We weren’t pressed into making any hasty decisions, but it wasn’t straightforward either. We both enjoyed being in New York close to friends and family, but also knew that we deeply wanted to remain time rich. Not an impossible task as my life till that point proved, but coming with sacrifice. That long cycling weekend showed me that every life choice comes with compromise, you just need to weigh up what is important at a much deeper level. Material comfort zones are not immovable. It was the beginning of December and we stayed in the moment. Christmas was fast approaching but we had flights back to England, so even if we never thought another moment about it, things were in place for a return to Europe in February.
Christmas with the family was the lively event it always is. Christmas Eve eating twelve different types of fish, as was the tradition at my Aunt Mary’s house, was delicious, even if, as vegetarians, it meant us being flexible, which I also learned in life was a necessary part of survival and sanity for me. Louis was as content in a high chair as he was on a bike seat. Food and movement seemed to be his pacifiers, and quite honestly it even surprised us how long he could just chill out in either seat. Christmas Day up at my sister’s house with all my other family was a welcome bonus. It was so nice celebrating the holidays with my American family for once, as my nomadic lifestyle saw me spending many holidays away from home. Even though miles separated us, my family and I managed to remain close.
It was a bittersweet holiday season though, so many conflicting feelings; pure joy of being a new dad, sadness of the loss of my friend Charley and happiness of having had so much time to spend with my family and friends in and around New York. Knowing that we would most likely be heading back to France to test out a lifestyle that would be much easier to try there for so many reasons (social medicine, a low cost of living, owning our small house outright and being closer to Angie’s mom) felt good as well, but also nerve wracking as our past twelve months had been quite comfortable. From experience we knew if it was right, we’d know it when we got there. Not to follow that desire to keep on track with having more time than money would mean we’d have to give a lot more up than we were willing to, especially learning how fragile life can be in the wake of what happened back in September.
So after ringing in the New Year, we started slowly packing up our New York lives into boxes and sent them out by sea mail to our new address. A week before Louis’ second birthday we boarded a plane in JFK International, and were whisked off to another place, in what seemed like a whole different world, after living in the shadow of skyscrapers!