As most of you know, Dbag Dating is far from a Mommy Blog. While I’m sure the occasional mother lands on this URL in pursuit of some fun-tertainment á la “This is what I don’t miss”, the majority of us here are still figuring life out. That said, ever so often, I will meet a woman who appears to have attained that covetable personal and professional tandem, evoking a spark of curiosity within me: How does she do it? Was it always this way? What can I – and you guys, consecutively – learn from her? One such woman happens to be my dear friend Ajiri Aki, a Parisian expat who’s list of accomplishments is endless: Wife, mother, author of bestselling coffee table book “Where’s Karl”, and creator of the Parisian expat’s guide to mommyhood, Manna Paris, just to name a few! Annoyed with her mere existence? I would be too, if it wasn’t for the fact that she is also an exceptionally cool human being. During my last trip to Paris, Ajiri took a few hours out of her crazy schedule to sit down over a bottle of wine and share her personal trajectory, touching on everything, from former Dbag flames, to the experience of meeting her husband, Thomas, to the challenges of expat motherhood, for our latest all-girl edition of Sunday Kind of Love!
Marina: Let’s start from the very beginning. How did you meet Thomas and what was your dating life like before?
Ajiri: In a way, it started here, in Paris. I first came for my research as a grad student in this sort of “leaving my life in New York” moment. I think I just needed a break. But during that year and a half between New York and Paris, I completely lost myself and found myself at the end. I met this boy who was a DJ. He was young, wild, and free. I was 27 and fell completely in love for the very first time, but he was definitely not in love with me.
Marina: Is that possible, for one person to be in love?
Ajiri: I think he loved me as a friend but he wasn’t in love. He liked my company and “American spirit”-whatever that means. Maybe I was like his muse or mascot…or fool. In retrospect I realize that he was also a complete narcissist who just kept me around to feed his own ego, but let’s not get into that. Also, I became so negative while I was living with him and hanging around his clique. I hate to say this, but there’s this group of young French people who are super negative about their prospects of work and what is possible for them. I would have arguments about what the American dream means, and they would tell me it’s all stupid. Naturally I understand America and France work differently, but gradually, this negativity began crushing me. Then I read Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth, and had an awakening. There is a passage in the book where Tolle talks about what you focus on and talk about becomes stronger and prevalent in your life. At that very moment, I realized that while I was confused about my life, I never actually talked or visualized what I wanted. All my thoughts were focused on the negativity and complaining about my situation. Basically everyday I complained to my New York friends, “Ugh…I hate Paris! I’m hanging out with all these losers with zero ambition who can’t finish anything they start.”
Marina: Oh my. That sounds like my entire blog.
Ajiri: As soon as I realized that I could change the focus of my life, I was like “Peace out! Gotta go!” I left Paris a week later and went back to New York. It was summer and I got a job right away doing video production. Everything was great and I felt so happy to be back in the city with my overly ambitious optimistic friends. I was turning 30 that coming January and I started thinking to myself “I don’t want to spend my 30’s being single. I’m turning 30 and I want to get married!” I was still reading and re-reading that Eckhart Tolle book and was into the idea of writing down what you want out of your life. On New Year’s Eve, instead of going out, I took my friend’s keys and did a staycation at her apartment. While everyone was partying into the New Year, I was alone writing down all the things I wanted to happen in my life that year. I wrote, “I’m going to meet a guy this year,” and then very specifically described everything about who this guy would be. At the end of my list, I scribbled “and I’m going to get engaged”. Then I felt stupid and scratched it out. But I started to think about all the people who got engaged after knowing each other for only short amounts of time – Laura and George Bush being an example, not to say that I’m a Bush fan – so then I wrote it down again. That was January 1st.
Marina: I know so many people who got engaged in just a few months! Ok so you basically applied The Secret way of thinking to your personal life.
Ajiri: Yes. Then February came and it was Fashion Week. My boss hired a couple of people from Paris to help that week, and one of them was…Thomas! Except my boss was kind of a jerk and didn’t get Thomas a hotel room. We were at the Jason Wu show and he came up to me and was like, “This guy Thomas is coming from the airport, do you think he could stay with you?” I already had another girl from Paris staying at my apartment that week, so I was like, “No, absolutely not”. I finally agreed, but I definitely wasn’t happy about it. It was one of those crazy weeks in New York when it was snowing non-stop. We worked late every night, then went back to my apt to sleep for 3 hours before heading back to a fashion show. So, in a way, we really got to spend a lot of time together in that week. During the crew wrap party I said to him: “Well, you didn’t get to see New York that much while you were here. You should just change your ticket and stay a few extra days!” He kept insisting that he had to go back for work, but I was like “You only live once. It’s just 3 days in New York City.” So he changed his ticket and stayed. I felt like I was on a 3-day date with a really nice guy – which has never ever happened to me! During those days I started to think, “Could this be the guy that I dreamed up?” I immediately followed that thought with, ”Ugh, that sucks he can’t be. This guy lives in Paris and I’m never going back to that place!”
Thomas went back to Paris, but he emailed and texted every single day. A few weeks later I was going to Paris Fashion Week and he offered for me to stay at his place even though he wouldn’t be there. When I arrived, a dozen roses, a dozen tulips, a bottle of champagne and a single flute greeted me next to a note that said, “Welcome honey, have a sip on me! Bisou Thomas.” I melted! I once told him those were my late mother’s favorite flowers.
Marina: That’s really beautiful.
Ajiri: Nobody had ever romanced me in that way before, so at that moment I was like, “Ok, what is this? Is this just fun or is it that guy that I dreamt up?” He was headed to Nice and asked me to come with him. I told him I had to get back to New York because my lease was up soon, I was probably quitting my job, and blah blah blah. I had a long list. He smiled and said, “Remember what you told me in New York? You only live once. Change your plane ticket.” I made the change and two days later I met him in Nice. I remember thinking “Wow this is like some fairy tale – some guy just sent me a plane ticket to come meet him in the South of France at the Hotel Suisse on the Quai des États Unis!” At the end of the weekend Thomas said to me, “Hey, Italy is right there and you’ve never been!” So he convinced me to change my ticket – again – and we drove down the French and Italian Riviera. We stopped in Villefranche-sur-Mer, Èze, Monte Carlo, Sanremo, Alassio, Portofino, Santa Margherita, and finally Pisa. By the end of that trip I had fallen madly in love with him and thought: “I’m so in love with this guy! This is totally the guy from my notebook and I’m going to marry him.” So there you have it. After that, it was just a bunch of back and forth between Paris and New York. In December he took me skiing for the first time in Switzerland and proposed. Basically the whole thing I had written down came true.
Marina: (Following 60 seconds of bewildered silence) Wow. So The Secret worked. How did he propose?
Ajiri: On Christmas Eve, on top of a mountain in Switzerland. We had a spa day, drank champagne and I was like “Yaaass!!! This is the life! Why was I dating DJs and vagabonds?”
Marina: Well, he’s still a creative. It’s not like some banker or something.
Ajiri: Yes, of course, he’s super creative and spontaneous, but, at the end of the day, he’s Swiss to the core and not a vaga-bone in his body.
Marina: Vaga-bone! I love that word. So what are some of the cultural differences?
Ajiri: Thomas is Swiss-German, but spent twenty years living in France, so some things about him are pretty French too. We were raised different and have different mother languages. Many times we argue only to find at the end that one of us misinterpreted or incorrectly translated what the other said. Despite all these cultural difference that cause friction, they are also the things we love about one another. Thomas loves that I bring loud music, parties and spice to his life. And I love that he brings a sense of security, calmness, and adventure to my life.
Marina: I love that you can just be yourself. That you don’t have to pretend to be something you’re not, which I think women often do in the beginning..
Ajiri: No way! There’s no point in even trying. The truth always comes out. I mean, sure, at times I’m annoyed about how serious and organized he is, but then I realize it’s actually good for me. He pushes me to be more organized. For example, before my “Where’s Karl?” book tour he asked me to type up my full itinerary – like an actual production schedule. (He has a film and video production company.) I was annoyed, but at the end of the day, it was a huge help having that damn production schedule. I think it’s the same thing for him – sometimes he gets annoyed that I always want to have people over, but otherwise he would be a monk sitting at home watching soccer or tennis. We’re a great mix. I dated around in New York a lot (can I underline a lot), and finally meeting Thomas was like a big exhale. The universe brought me the guy I needed and wanted. And I’m grateful.
Marina: What was your wedding like?
Wedding in Austin, Texas, October 2011. Photo by Studio 563
Ajiri: Our wedding was quiet a production as well. All our friends and family from New York, Texas, Switzerland, and France met us in my hometown Austin, Texas for a Nigerian and traditional wedding. There is so much to plan when you have a “destination” wedding, but it was all the culture mixing that had me stressed. We had a Nigerian and traditional ceremony. The Nigerians came in full native attire, the Americans in their best cocktail and formal dress, and the Europeans in kitsch cowboy gear or casual clothes. Everyone mixed perfectly and it turned out there was nothing to worry about.
Marina: I love an intercultural mix. I think that’s key to an interesting life.. Speaking of great mix, can we talk about that amazing child? What is it like raising Noomi in Paris?
Ajiri: There are positives and negatives. The toughest part is being far from family. When Thomas and I both have to travel for work or if we want to take a weekend alone, there is no one to leave her with. But more than just free childcare (laughs), it’s also sad those people aren’t here to share special moments.
But there are also many positives about living in Paris and raising a child. For me Paris is slow life in the big city: You get all the benefits of a bustling city like diversity and culture, but everything moves at a slower pace. You relax and enjoy life a bit more. And great travel is a cheap plane, train or car trip away.
When I moved here, I was so focused on the negative aspects of starting over and the fear of navigating this city with a kid. My French sucked and I was a mess. Just being pregnant I had no idea what I needed to do administratively and after she was born I was always surfing the net for stuff to do as a family or to entertain her. Every website I turned to was in French, which was complicated for me. I took all that frustration and created a website to make adapting to life easier for other women in Paris. I launched MANNA Paris, an online lifestyle magazine/blog for English speaking moms. My goal is to be one part entertaining and the other part a useful resource. MANNA Paris is for families living here short-term, long-term or visiting on vacation. There needs to be more information available in English and MANNA Paris is the solution.
Marina: I’m not a mom but one day I hope to be one. I also I know that, for me, it’s really important to accomplish something career-wise. I feel like you are the same way, except that you are actually succeeding at it, all while having a million things to do! This begs the question: how do you find time to be a mom and have a blog and write a book?
Ajiri: Honestly? It’s not easy. We started working on “Where’s Karl?” over the summer and there was a lot of research involved. We rented a house in Italy for two weeks and every day Thomas and Noomi wanted to go to the pool or on a day trip, but I was stuck making Pinterest boards and writing! Most of the time they got mad and just left me. I remember frantically running around some medieval town in Umbria, Italy, trying to find a FedEx to fax my contract back! For me there is always an internal fight: “Do I enjoy my vacation or do I work?” To answer your question: it’s not easy, it was never easy, I don’t think it will ever be easy. It’s a lot of early mornings and late nights working when she goes to bed. Sometimes I miss out on fun and TV binges to get things done.
Marina: But it’s also really rewarding, and it’s good for the kids as well, because you’re not bored and you don’t end up turning them into your personal project.
Ajiri: You know, my mom was a stay-at-home mom and I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom too, but I think modern times don’t always go with that. It also depends on who you are and your interests. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to succeed while we’re young. I have these projects but I feel like my most productive work might happen when my daughter starts school full time and I am not pulled in different directions. One of my good friends is a bestselling author and she only reached a high level of success in her 40’s. It’s not going to happen overnight. It might not even happen until you’re older.
Marina: I know. I’m at the point where I really want to reach a certain level of success before I settle down and I dedicate myself to a family, but I’m starting to realize that this may not happen as quickly as I want it to. Meanwhile, the biological clock, that one you can’t stop…
Ajiri: No, you can’t avoid it…And that’s the hard part. The last time I was in New York, all my girlfriends were talking about freezing their eggs!
Marina: Oh my God. Do you really think New York is that tough in terms of dating?
Ajiri: I did some research and there’s actually a study and many articles on this. Part of the reason it’s tough for women is because New York has such a high population of gays, and then there are plenty of single women and only so many straight guys. So the straight guys, they really have their pick of the lot, it’s like a merry-go-round for them. They don’t like one thing about you and they’re like “Ok, next!” and turn the wheel.
Marina: Um, I think I’m screwed.
Ajiri: You should see your face right now. Don’t get me wrong, New York is amazing and there are plenty of internationals there. You’ll be ok.
Marina: Any last advice for those of us still looking?
Ajiri: Know your worth and love yourself enough. Had I loved myself more, I wouldn’t have dated half of the people that I did before I met Thomas. Had I loved myself more, I would have had more confidence to recognize when it was time to move on and focus on myself. The other thing to remember is that nobody is perfect. I think that when you’re dating in big cities, you often get fixated on people’s little flaws. You forget your own flaws and dismiss somebody who might be great because of that one stupid detail. When I first met Thomas, I was like, “This guy is great, but he’s short. How am I ever going to wear heels?” He is actually half an inch taller than me, but with 4- inch heels I tower over him.That bothered me, but my friends quickly told me that I was crazy and to please pass him on if i was so concerned about that silly detail. To my single ladies I say focus on yourself and your happiness. Be clear about what it is you want for your life and that right person will come into your life. Nobody wants to date a hot mess!