Domers in Paris

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Author: Katie King

I’ve never been to South Bend or seen the Notre Dame campus, but I know every word of the Fighting Irish “Victory March.” My dad taught me the lyrics when I was a toddler, and the chant has been burned into my brain ever since. One of my earliest memories is of lying on the family room floor next to my dad on an autumn afternoon and watching Notre Dame football on TV. I didn’t understand how the game worked, but from my dad’s yelling I could tell that it was a big deal.

It wasn’t until I settled in Paris, however, that I realized how big of a deal the Notre Dame spirit truly is.

When I moved to France as an unemployed college graduate, my dad, James King ’77, asked his friend and classmate, Sheila O’Brien ’77, ’80J.D., if she knew anyone in Paris who could help me find a job. Within a week, I was sitting across the table from Jennifer Nemecek at a corner café near the Eiffel Tower. Jennifer spent more than an hour with me, talking about life in the city and suggesting avenues I should investigate during my job search. A few months later, I asked her if I could interview her for a magazine article. Jennifer didn’t just agree to an interview, she invited me over for dinner.

The Nemeceks are a Fighting Irish family. Jennifer was assistant dean in the College of Arts and Letters for 10 years. Her husband, Charles, earned his master’s degree from Notre Dame in 2003. He worked in the South Bend office of Robert Bosch LLC, a German engineering company, until the firm transferred him to Paris in August 2009. Even the couple’s two sons, Peter, 8, and Alex, 3, know Notre Dame. Their father took them regularly to the Grotto and duck ponds on campus before the family moved to France.

“In Paris they have all these beautiful cathedrals,” Charles says over dessert. “But it doesn’t have the same comfort and the same warmth as Notre Dame.”

The Nemeceks’ strong connection to the University may have helped them stand out to the directors of International House Hunters, a reality television show that follows families as they look for new homes in foreign countries.

“I applied online,” Jennifer says. “I never thought they would call.”

The producers originally envisioned the show hinging on the switch from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend to Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. The shots from campus didn’t make the final cut, but the film crew did shoot the Nemeceks’ house in Niles, Michigan, and the family outside Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The show first aired in November 2009 and is periodically rebroadcast on HGTV.

Jennifer continues to work for the University from Paris as international admissions liaison. Her job is to foster name recognition for Notre Dame abroad and to encourage European students to apply to the University.

“Wherever I go, I talk about Notre Dame and I connect with alumni,” she says. “I always feel at home.”

One of the people who helped the Nemeceks settle into their new home in France was John Fonseca ’70, ’72MBA. As head of the Notre Dame Club of France, one of 270 such geographic clubs, including 50 outside the United States, Fonseca helps alumni navigate the transition to life abroad. He says he is always willing to help out fellow Domers, especially since it was Notre Dame that first brought Fonseca to France, a country that’s been his home for the last 11 years.

As a Notre Dame sophomore, Fonseca studied abroad at Angers in 1968, a year marked by massive student revolts and social upheaval in France. He spent much of that year traveling throughout Europe as part of an American folk band he formed with other students.

“We sang all around France, we were on French radio,” he says. “It was a year of great — well, it changed my life.”

Fonseca returned to campus to finish his bachelor’s degree. During his senior year he applied for and was accepted into a master’s program in his home state of California. But South Bend wouldn’t let him go that easily. During his last semester, Fonseca found love in a dorm basement at Notre Dame.

He was spending a lot of time organizing coffee houses, held in dormitory basements, where students would gather for an evening of live music and refreshments. Laura Nitsche, a singer from Saint Mary’s, performed at one of Fonseca’s concerts. He accompanied her on guitar.

“When I saw her, I fell in love with her,” Fonseca says.

Fonseca had already committed to the University of Southern California for the following September. But after he met Nitsche, who was going to be a sophomore at Saint Mary’s, he visited the registrar’s office at Notre Dame and asked if he could sign up for a master’s program in South Bend. They allowed him to enroll. The Fonsecas have now been married for 36 years. John Fonseca continues to play guitar, and his wife is a singing instructor at the American School of Paris.

Fonseca wasn’t the only graduate of Notre Dame’s program in Angers to return to France. Michael Barrett ’07 lived in Paris for three years as a toddler, but believes his desire to move to France was sparked during study abroad.

“It was probably the most formative year of my young life,” Barrett says. “It was kind of my springboard year that made me realize that I really wanted to be involved internationally.”

Barrett went back to South Bend after his year in Angers but returned to France during the summer before his senior year for an internship at the prestigious Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, known as Sciences Po. Barrett took advantage of the Notre Dame network when looking for housing that summer. He ended up renting a room in the house of Peter Herrly, a professor at Sciences Po, who had graduated from Notre Dame in 1967.

“It was nice to exchange experiences with someone 40 years older than me,” Barrett says.

The next summer, after graduation, Barrett moved back to France permanently. He taught English for a year in the southern city of Lyon, completed his master’s degree in Grenoble the following year and then found a job in Paris. He now works for the public relations company Agence New of BBDO France, where he is project manager for the FedEx account.

“I appreciate Notre Dame specifically for what it’s allowed me to do on an international stage and also in terms of relations,” he says. “My best friends are from Notre Dame.”

Barrett works hard to keep in touch with not only his friends from Notre Dame but also other alumni living in France. While John Fonseca draws on his decade of experience living in Paris to help fellow Domers stay connected in France, Barrett uses his technological skills to develop the alumni community’s online presence. He is co-editor of the newsletter ND Global: The European Edition and creator of the Notre Dame in France Facebook page. He launched a Notre Dame in France website this past autumn and runs his own blog, AmericanExPatInFrance.com, which provides information for Americans traveling or living abroad.

“The idea is to support the Notre Dame community abroad, to raise awareness of Notre Dame in France and to help the alumni community become more active,” Barrett says.

While Barrett realized during study abroad that he loved living in France, for William Pfaff ’49, the desire to live in Paris was planted long before he had ever seen the country. The City of Lights just seemed like the right fit for an aspiring writer.

“This was the romanticism of youth,” Pfaff says.

Sixty-one years after graduation, Pfaff has achieved something few alumni from any university manage to accomplish: He has lived the life he dreamed of as a college senior.

“If you had asked me then what would I like to do, I think I would have said, ‘Well, I think I would like to write on current affairs and what is going on in the world, and I suppose if I was given the choice I would do it for The New Yorker and I would like to do it from Paris,’” Pfaff says. “So this is a lesson in being careful what you ask for.”

Pfaff has written extensively about world affairs and American politics since moving to Paris almost 40 years ago. His ninth book, The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy, was published in June. Pfaff has written an internationally syndicated newspaper column on global affairs since 1978 and also writes for The New York Review of Books and Foreign Affairs. At age 82, he continues to speak at political seminars and conferences around the world. But first came Notre Dame.

“I feel an attachment to it more than I do to any other institution in the U.S.,” Pfaff says. “I feel that in important respects it made me.”

Pfaff was one of about 100 students in the class of 1949 who wasn’t a veteran returning to college at the end of World War II. Most of his fellow students were five to 15 years older than he and had fought in the war. Their return to Notre Dame brought diversity — and alcohol — to the campus, Pfaff says.

“It was a very maturing experience, and it changed the entire character of Notre Dame,” he says. “There weren’t that many places on campus then. There was the cafeteria and there was the Huddle, which was a place where people could buy 3.2 percent beer. In those days there was no drinking at Notre Dame until the veterans came back.”

After graduation, Pfaff appeared on the television game show Alumni Fun as a last-minute replacement for the sportswriter and ND alumnus Red Smith ’27 in 1963. Unbeknownst to Pfaff, he was the only bachelor to ever have appeared on the show. And there was a young Australian production assistant working on the set whose coworkers had bet her $5 that she couldn’t get a date with him.

Pfaff asked Carolyn Cleary to dinner. They were married the next year. The couple now has two children, Nicholas and Alexandra, and six grandchildren. Pfaff’s wife never collected her $5.

“I owe so many things to Notre Dame,” Pfaff says.

After living in Paris for a year I’ve realized that I, too, am in debt to Notre Dame. My dad’s status as a Notre Dame alumnus has put me in touch with many people who have helped me navigate life alone in a foreign country. One of those people is my mentor abroad, Joseph Harriss ’58. I didn’t know Harriss before I moved to France, but when I emailed him saying my dad went to Notre Dame and that I wanted to make it as a reporter in Paris, he agreed to meet me for coffee.

Harriss has lived in Paris since graduation and worked as a journalist for Time magazine and Reader’s Digest, and as a freelance reporter for publications such as Condé Nast Traveler and Smithsonian magazine. He has published two books about France and continues to write occasional book reviews and a regular column for the American Spectator.

Harriss says he doesn’t really keep up with the alumni community in Paris but that his college experience undoubtedly drew him to France. Notre Dame, which was founded by a French priest and run by the French order, the Congregation of Holy Cross, has many subtle connections to France. One course Harriss says he particularly enjoyed as an undergraduate was Modern Catholic Writers, which featured a reading list full of French authors. All the French influences at Notre Dame must have subconsciously pulled him to the country he now calls his home, he says.

“I would not be here if I had not gone to Notre Dame,” Harriss says.

Harriss says he has seen the city undergo a lot of changes over the past half century. The number of cafes has shrunk, for example, and the quality of French dining, in his opinion, has diminished. Also, French affections for the United States have cooled significantly since Harriss first arrived in Paris.

“Twenty years after the war, the French still had a certain feeling of gratitude toward the American soldiers,” Harriss says. “I think it was okay in those days for the French to like Americans, whereas nowadays they’re a little self-conscious about it.”

Harriss kept in touch with me over the rest of my time in Paris, offering advice and encouragement as I continued my job search. This is the best thing you can say about a university, that its alumni remain linked in such a way that no matter where they are they will always do their best to help each other, or each other’s children. In some cases these connections turn into genuine friendships, like the one that developed between my family and the Harriss family.

When my parents visited me in Paris last April, we all went out for dinner together at an outdoor café by the Invalides. My dad and Joseph Harriss had never met, but they’re both writers and they both went to Notre Dame. There was plenty to talk about.


Katie King lived in Paris for two years. She is now a staff writer covering city hall for the Stamford Advocate, a daily newspaper in southwestern Connecticut.


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