Quitting the Job From Hell Gave Me the Courage to Pursue Romance Abroad

This is not my life.

The increasingly familiar thought drifted into my wine-infused consciousness as I cracked an eyelid to peer over the shoulder of the man I was kissing in order to catch another glimpse of the Eiffel Tower’s midnight sparkle. Less than 48 hours earlier I’d been broke, unemployed, and desperate to find a way back to the U.S. before I lost any more money.

At that moment I was half an hour and one glass of wine into making out with a handsome man that I’d been referring to as “Cute Train Guy.” Not 36 hours earlier, he and I had struck up a conversation on the train from Geneva to Paris where, thanks to an overbooked vehicle, we found ourselves sitting knee-to-knee in the fold out seats between train cars.

This is not my life.

Before this summer I wasn’t the type of girl to exchange numbers with a stranger on a train in a foreign country. I also wasn’t the type to quit a job, plunge into unemployment and uncertainty, and ask favors of people I’d known for only a couple weeks. I most certainly wasn’t the type to find herself French kissing in Paris.

I imagined what my sisters would say when I told them about this evening. My older sister would be appalled, responding with “Oh my God, Julia. Mom and Dad are going to freak out. How old is this guy, again?” I wouldn’t admit he was closer to 30 than she was. My younger sister would remind me that nice girls like me tend to get murdered by nice strangers like him. My friends would agree with her.

I leaned in for another kiss with Cute Train Guy while simultaneously flexing the leg that wasn’t currently intertwined with his. I was still getting used to the weight of my new sandals. With their tan leather straps, tiny gold buckles, and chunky wooden soles these bad boys would certainly do the trick if he got too handsy. The moment his hands drifted too far up the silky floral top I’d borrowed from my mom, I’d slip off the left sandal and deliver a swift blow to the back of his head.

And yet it would be a shame to get blood all over my new shoes, I mused. I’d better verify his intentions before self-defense became necessary.

“Have you seen Taken?” I asked in what I hoped was a casually flirtatious tone. He pulled back with a confused look on his face.

“Yeah, I have,” he responded.

“Cool. Well just so you know, if I’m not back in an hour my friend is going to assume you’ve abducted me and sold me into prostitution and probably call the police. More wine?”

I wasn’t concerned. He was far too nice to be a murderous psychopath. And besides, I’d already survived one nightmare this summer.

This is not my life.

The first time this thought occurred to me I was four days into my au pairing job, standing in my employer’s kitchen with a freshly-rinsed plate dripping from my hands. I stood in shock as she lectured me on the proper way to load the dishwasher.

“Do I have to explain everything to you?” she shouted while slamming porcelain plates and bowls into place. My heart raced as she continued her verbal assault, apparently measuring my capabilities as a nanny by my supposed inability to properly load the dishwasher. I sent up a stream of silent prayers—“Please God don’t let her see me cry”—and once more asked myself, “Whose life am I living?”

Up until a month ago, I’d lived a very average life full of very average concerns. Paper deadlines, spring formal dates, and the occasional financial dilemma were the extent of my worries. Since moving to France to au pair for what I thought was the perfect family, I’d discovered an utterly unfamiliar collection of concerns.

I knew I was in trouble the night I woke with a sharp pain in my chest, convinced I was dying of a heart attack. It was only a couple of weeks into the job from hell and already I’d been belittled and berated for my college major, the way I boiled water, and even how I spent my free time off the clock. For an agonizing 30 minutes I wondered who I should call, should I actually require medical attention.

Certainly not the woman I was working for. I imagined her conversation with her husband upon discovering my corpse the next morning: “Can you believe she had the audacity to up and die in our guest bedroom? The very night before she was supposed to take my dry cleaning in! What a selfish, selfish girl. Good riddance.”

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The next morning I diagnosed myself with a stress-induced ulcer. Six days later I quit—but not before my now ex-employer demanded I reimburse her for the flight she’d booked for me. Up until then, quitting had felt eerily similar to breaking up with a boyfriend. Yet none of my boyfriends had ever demanded €700 before letting me walk away.

So in a not-so-tiny nutshell, that’s how I came to be broke, unemployed, strapped into chic leather sandals, and wrapped up in the arms of Cute Train Guy. Under the Eiffel Tower. At Midnight.

This is not my life.

I marveled at how drastically my circumstances had changed in the past four days. Had I never stood up to the person who made my life a living hell, I never would have had hopped on that train to Paris, and pursued the accidental kind of romance I suddenly decided I deserved. 

The moment I chose not to submit to bullies—no matter their age or professional superiority—I became grateful for any small acts of kindness and gained the courage to ask for good things when I saw them. I was young, having just graduated college, and still new to the mysterious “real world,” but my naivety certainly didn’t merit condescension, manipulation, and emotional abuse. I’d grow from this, I decided.

In another world I wouldn’t have had to leave the next morning. I’d have finished my summer in Paris before returning to teach English in the fall where he’d be waiting for me. He, after all, would be a wealthy French vineyard owner. We’d get married and I’d live contentedly on our vineyard as I wrote my New York Times bestselling memoir. We’d spend our days drinking wine, raising our dogs, and marveling at the way fate brought us together on that full train to Paris.

This world, however, had different plans. After we watched the Eiffel Tower sparkle one last time, he kissed me goodbye before I climbed into my cab.

As I watched the city lights rush by outside the cab window, I mulled over the events of the past few hours, still blinking in disbelief. How had my very average life turned so quickly into this dizzying adventure and what was I to learn from it?

Though I could count on returning to this beautiful city in a few months, I doubted I’d ever see Cute Train Guy again. And although I’d love to continue our easy conversation over coffee the next morning, I realized that perhaps one evening was enough. Maybe he wasn’t “the one,” but maybe that was the point. Maybe he’d come into my life at the very moment I needed to know I was deserving of kindness and company and a little adventure. Because maybe I was that kind of girl with that kind of life. I just hadn’t known it until now.

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