Sunday, July 3, 2016

Paris-Pittsburgh People: Greg Grefenstette

Pittsburgher in Paris, Greg Grefensette,
with his wife Irène on a recent visit to China
It’s amazing how many stories about Americans in Paris have to do with romance. And Pittsburgher Greg Grefenstette’s story is no exception.

I met Greg at a meeting of Paris Speech Masters, a Toastmasters club where I am a member and he came a guest. I found out that we grew up 3 miles away from each other in the South Hills of Pittsburgh!

It was in his junior year abroad in the city of Tours that Greg started his lifelong love of France.

Actually, it didn’t start out so pleasantly. He spent three miserable months in a French student dorm—nothing like today’s U.S. dorms. It was more like living in a monastery: “just beds and showers, and cockroaches.”

So Greg asked to be housed with a family for the remaining three months. At the first address, there was no sign of life, just letters piled up in the entryway.

At the second address, a lovely young woman, Irène, answered the door, but Greg didn’t understand a word. He finally understood that he was to return at dinner time.

“I did, expecting to be invited to eat. I was always hungry back then. I wasn't invited to dine, but I was given the room.”

“During the next three months, I saw Irène, and thought her way out of my class.” He was going out with a French girl, but it wasn’t serious. It was “just to learn French.” But one fateful day in June 1977, the girl was away, and Irène and Greg went to a movie, and we “fell in love then and there.”

One love letter led to another (no Internet and the telephone was $1 a minute back then). After graduating from Stanford, Greg obtained a grant to study in Belgium for a year, the closest he could get to Tours. The couple married in 1980 in a French civil ceremony, then in a religious ceremony at St. Paul Cathedral in Pittsburgh. After a few years in Paris, they settled in Tours, and started a family as Irène finished her qualifications as an obstetrician-gynecologist in 1989.

That done, they decided to test out life as a family in Pittsburgh. While Greg completed a doctoral degree at the University of Pittsburgh, Irène studied and acquired the U.S. medical equivalency for general medicine. (Medical degrees aren’t transferable from foreign countries to the U.S., unlike Greg’s degree in computer science.) By 1993, Greg had finished his Ph.D., and “we had a choice to make: stay or go back.”

They weighed the pros and cons. A big negative: Irène would have to redo her training as an Ob-Gyn. Who knows where in the U.S. she would be accepted? In the end, they felt their children (by now two boys and one girl) would be exposed to a wider variety of people, cultures, and thought in Europe. Greg believes it was the right choice.

Two of his two of children live in London now, while the last is finishing up a double master’s at Cornell “before going off somewhere else in the world.”

His very big family from Pittsburgh—he grew up with eight siblings and two cousins--all like the idea that Greg lives in Paris, and almost all have visited at one point. They all have fallen in love with France.

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Rose Marie Burke, an editor and journalist, writes the blog Paris, Pittsburgh, And More, about her personal insights into life in Paris. After 20 years in the City of Light, she still calls her native Pittsburgh "home." Want to follow this blog? Find me on LinkedIn, Facebook, email me at rose.burke89 "at" yahoo.fr, or follow me on Google+.