Hello, Stranger

Hello, Stranger

Lock the doors, cellphone turned on and at the ready at all times, perfection a steely gaze while walking through the city and avoid all human contact. We’ve been raised to believe in our vulnerability and the vicious, cruel intentions of anything and anyone outside of our circle. Minds poisoned with television dramas and police thrillers, reeling with all the ways we could possibly be hurt. So we bury ourselves away in protective layers – perpetual distraction with the swipe of a finger, closed to the world passing by.

The first time I ever toyed with the idea of hitchhiking was as a lanky preteen joking around with my best friends on the side of a quiet road in rural North Carolina. There was something thrilling  at the thought of a perfect stranger stopping at the sign of a thumb, not to mention the deliciously satisfying element of the forbidden. Amid giggles and friendly shoving, we stuck our thumbs out and waited. But at the sound of a car rounding the bend in the road, we’d lose our nerve and pull our thumbs away at the last minute, erupting into fits of laughter and high-pitched squeals as drivers cast confused and disapproving looks upon our little group. Egging one another on, our thumbs stayed up longer, the winner to walk away with the glory of being the bravest. I can no longer remember who won the dare but I do remember our failed experiment ending when our church pastor at the time recognized us and pulled over to see what on earth was going on. First lesson of hitchhiking: don’t do it in your small hometown.

Then my friend Bri and I began planning our trip to Ireland. She brought up the idea after reading an informative article written by seasoned traveler and solo hitchhiker Ana Bakran, who addresses many of the myths and concerns of hitchhiking as a woman today. Her confidence and sage advice made us excited to try it for ourselves as we drew up an itinerary for our 10-day trip around Ireland. Not only was it sure to be an adventure but we’d be saving lots of money on bus tickets, a bonus for travelers on a budget.

So after a weekend in Dublin, we headed out beyond the western city limits in the direction of Galway. Although Ireland generally looks favorably upon hitchhiking, it is illegal to hitchhike on the highway. Therefore, we made sure to place ourselves as far out of town as possible right before the highway junction. Shivering with excitement and nervousness despite the sunny blue sky, we stationed ourselves near an intersection, feeling a bit self-conscious as drivers swiftly rushed past. Thumbs out, a handmade sign made of cardboard with our destination in bold letters, and high spirits were all we needed. The initial timidity quickly fell away as we committed to the task and drivers began signaling with their hands, indicating they were turning in the other direction or simply offering up a little wave. Whether they stopped or not, suddenly these strangers all seemed less removed and fear of the unknown began to retract.

We stood there for about 30 minutes, doing our best to look cheery and confident, before an older gentleman in a worn driver’s cap and white whiskers getting off at the bus stop nearby came over and kindly informed us that we’d have much better luck if we moved further down the road a bit. Tip number two: listen to unsolicited advice from locals. In nearly every location, strangers walking by or driving would pull over and offer us this type of advice and it always served us well. After standing in our new spot for a little while longer, another man with whom we’d spoken earlier as he put up campaign signs drove up beside us and offered to take us even further so that we’d really only be getting traffic headed out West. A 10-minute drive up the road and a 15-minute wait later and we soon had hitched ourselves a direct ride to Galway!

Our luck in finding rides from friendly, respectful drivers continued as we wound our way down the Atlantic coast. In Galway, a shared meal with a young man staying at our hostel led to an invitation to join him down South to the Cliffs of Moher. In his rented car, we rode through the rolling countryside of the Burren on narrow back roads, ancient pilings of stone walls winding beside us. Routes that would be impossible for bulky buses to weave through, this unexpected opportunity to experience Ireland’s backwaters left us breathless and hungry for more, so restorative was all the lush green after months of Paris’ stiff grey. It was all we could do to restrain ourselves from shouting “Stop!” every five minutes in order to pull over to take pictures and breathe in the crisp fresh air. One mustn’t abuse one’s host’s generosity, after all.

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Cliffs of Moher at sunset, February 2016.

As you hitchhike, you learn pretty quickly what you’re comfortable with and about its exigencies. We quickly devised a system to ensure that we both felt comfortable in accepting lifts from the drivers who pulled over. By the end of the trip, I had accumulated a collection of photos of Irish license plates on my phone, as I always discretely snapped a quick picture of each driver’s plate as we loaded our bags into the car; just a precaution should a driver need incentive to drop us off when and where we asked. No such problems arose, however. It also became quickly apparent that there is no downtime when hitchhiking; most drivers want to chat and learn more about you and your travels, and it’s best to stay aware of your surroundings as well. Though this may have impeded us from catching up on any lost sleep from early mornings and noisy hostels, the conversations we shared in with our drivers were rich and informative, from the wine vendor who gave us tons of festival recommendations to the man from Belfast who gave us a tour of a seaside town. We arrived in each of our destinations well-informed of their history and best spots to see, eat , and drink, and other insider tips we never would have learned otherwise. Not to mention the long list of places and events to discover next time go to Ireland that our Irish hosts eagerly shared with us.

As with every trip, of course, there was a moment of discouragement, when we would have given anything to just be back in our warm beds at home. The infamous Irish weather that we’d somehow managed to evade all week descended upon us on the last leg of our trip from Cork back to Dublin, making for quite a soggy evening. Trying to take advantage of our short amount of time in such a cool, quirky city, we dawdled in the lanes of English Market, odors of fresh bread, cheese, and sausages wafting through the bright, enclosed space. While we sipped our cappuccinos in the hip little café of the Triskel Arts Centre, a converted cathedral that now serves as a concert and film screening venue and equipped with a record store, clouds gathered in the sky and unleashed their vengeance: a drenching cold rain that didn’t let up for hours. By the time we returned to our hostel to fetch our bags and head out of town, it was too late to correct our mistake. Though only 4:30pm, darkness had rolled in with the weather front and with it, our chances of catching a direct ride all the way back to Dublin were looking pretty bad.

Nonetheless, we wrapped our backpacks in garbage bags and reiterated our belief to one another that someone, just one person, would pull over and give us a lift. A ten-minute walk up the road towards the edge of town through sheets of rain and our faith began to quiver. The temperature had dropped by a couple degrees and our extremities were already beginning to numb when we stuck our thumbs out at a spot with plenty of Friday rush-hour traffic going in a northeastern direction, though in truth, the weather had made us complacent and we probably should have moved further out of town. The rain was falling so hard and windshield wipers moving so fast that all hopes of making crucial eye contact were lost. Still, we waited, trying to will a lift into existence and singing out our pleas in silly rhymes to lift our mood, huddling together and jumping up and down to stay warm, until the cold rain soaked through our layers and we had to admit defeat. No free ride to Dublin was worth catching pneumonia. A Guinness, a warm fire to dry off in front of, and some friendly chatter in a pub and we were on the bus to Dublin. My shoes will probably never be the same but it was one of those nights to look back on with a smile that distance affords.

Growing up in a small town where the closest thing to stranger driving by was my church pastor, I don’t think my 13-year-old self would ever have thought it possible for such generosity to exist. The world seemed so much larger and distant, separate from our little bubble. As I’ve entered adulthood as a woman living in a big city, that view of our global society has come into greater focus but my sense of vulnerability often remains. We are made to think, especially as women, that we must form thick walls around us at all times as we move through our daily lives. Perhaps this is why not one woman stopped to offer us a ride or give us directions. Times have changed, people say, they’re too dangerous for hitchhiking. But after Ireland, I disagree. Of course, there are bad people in this world. Of course, you have to be careful, follow your instinct, don’t take unnecessary risks. But I don’t see how this day and age is more dangerous than the previous decades when my own parents followed their hearts and instincts across miles and miles of foreign territory, with only their thumb to guide them. The only difference I see is a closing off of people, of our willingness to really see others and form real connections. Five strangers and 436.5 miles. Call it beginner’s luck … or maybe people are just a little kinder than we are led to believe.

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Around the Neighborhood

Around the Neighborhood

For months now, I’ve organized my days around the premise that there isn’t much to do in Neuilly. Just on the western perimeter of the city between Paris-proper and the sleek skyscrapers of the business district, its wider, tree-lined avenues afford more room for the families that seem to cluster here. And while I’ve appreciated the calm nights with little street noise, it’s always felt a little bit stuffy, strollers and small children running along the sidewalks with grandparents not far behind. This, coupled with the extreme satisfaction I get from hearing the ding of my metro card while passing through the turnstile, have pushed me out into the city, constantly in search of a quiet corner of some library or café with an outlet, a packed lunch and a book for the trip to and from home in tow.

The choices are overwhelming; I dream of the day when I’ve sat in every café but that is at least 10,000 coffees away. There’s always something new to explore and for a small town girl, the contrast between neighborhoods is delightful. One metro stop you’re surrounded by vestiges of France’s history and the next, you can feel like you’re in a different country, surrounded by other cultures’ cuisine and language, blended together and infused with its own energy. This piecing together is how cities are made, starting from a tiny center centuries ago and gradually incorporating the extremities, constantly redefining boundaries and the regions found within.

But due to my increasingly busy work schedule, the back-and-forth on the metro was beginning to tire me out. As efficient as public transport generally is over here, there is always the risk of the unpredictable happening – a bus strike or a sick passenger or an abandoned piece of luggage that shuts down the whole station for at least an hour, to name a few examples. Though the routine of waking up early and getting out in the city had become familiar and pleasant, I needed to conserve my energy a little more throughout the day.

In my eagerness to experience every inch of Paris, I had forgotten the key element that distinguishes life in the city: the central importance of your own neighborhood! This notion can seem so foreign for those of us accustomed to American suburbia, sprawling and erratic in its distribution of resources. A microorganism of life unto itself, the French neighborhood dictates the pace of daily life, each with its unique rhythm. Within a couple of blocks lies all that one needs to survive. Though you may be attached to some other area because of work or school, these do not define you as much as where you live, for even the fact that you come in from somewhere else becomes part of your daily identity.  Everything outside is extraneous, superfluous.

So out of necessity as well as curiosity, I have spent the past two weeks learning more about where I live. The first task was to locate a laundromat, as this appliance-needy writer is ashamed to admit that in the past few months, lunch at Grandma’s had become synonymous with Laundry Day. For this transgression, I can only blame my American half for finding any logic in dragging a suitcase full of laundry halfway across a city and onto a suburban train line bound for a town north of Paris. Silly, silly American! The laundromat, albeit one of the few in my bougie area, is only two streets away from my apartment … and right down the street from an excellent bakery. So while waiting for my clothes to finish, I can treat myself to a coffee and pastry before settling in for an hour of writing.

Among the apartment buildings of different eras and styles are a couple of corner cafés, their dark wooden interiors warm against the winter blueness, mouth-watering delicacies displayed in glass cases. Scattered throughout the grid system of the neighborhood, they offer a window into its social workings, friends greeting one another from the terrace, businessmen out for drinks, children bent over homework spread out over tables with cups of hot chocolate nearby. I can sit and observe the array of life unfolding before me, planning my lessons and writing to my heart’s content, or simply duck in for a quick espresso if I’m early for a lesson; these tranquil refuges are never far away. And as I’ve sat in these neighborly establishments, I have begun to recognize faces from around town, characters out of a story I have yet to finish reading. There’s the man who always wears a colorful fishing cap and galoshes who appears to spend hours at the local library writing poetry whenever I see him there. There’s also the woman who is always walking at least three dogs, one of which is always a new one … I’m sure there’s a story there somewhere!

In any case, the time spent right here in my neighborhood has decreased my weariness and increased my appreciation for where I live. Though it may not be as vibrant and trendy as other regions of Paris, Neuilly has everything you need. From the small grocers who are open on Sunday evenings when you realize you have nothing to eat and all the supermarkets are closed to the community cinema featuring two movies at a time in plush little movie theaters for spontaneous afternoons, its gentle nature provides a steadiness that my life sometimes needs. As for those children racing around on scooters and old folk dressed with a tasteful class of another century, I have come to think of it as a privilege to be surround oneself with groups to which we do not necessarily belong. The delight in being able to have children run down a city street or for an elderly resident to continue to be able to do their groceries at grocer’s around the corner. That is the heart of Neuilly.

 

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Neuilly in the fall.

 

 

A Birthday with Hemingway

A Birthday with Hemingway

To write about Hemingway in Paris is to risk drowning in the vast array of musings and information surrounding him and his compatriots of the Lost Generation. This infatuation that writers have with Hemingway’s legacy intertwined with that of the city’s is profoundly unique; despite its position as the epicenter of publishing, New York City fails to inspire the same kind of romanticism in the young American writer. Guidebooks, articles, and Midnight in Paris all paint a picture of a city still dripping with their aura, rattling off a list of addresses that their lives encompassed while living in Paris. And while some visitors may still feel this way, the notoriety of these locations has resulted in an over-saturation of tourists that has soaked up any remaining molecule of their prolific essence that once lingered. Any time I’ve ever wound up in Les Deux Magots, the number of selfie sticks and expensive cameras clicking away took away from its transcendent past. It is noisy and crowded which are not attributes that I am drawn to in dining experiences, let alone in a writing environment.

But then there is Le Sélect: unassuming, calm, and charming. Sitting near the corner of what used to be known as “le Carrefour Vavin,” this French bistro has remained as much of a well-kept secret as an establishment frequented by those of such historical renown can remain. Situated in the Montparnasse district, it came to prominence during that short-lived era of rowdy abandon and loose responsibilities between the end of the Great War and the stock market crash in 1929, thanks to its Lost patrons. These were the days before St Germain-des-Près, when the seedy streets of Montmartre were left to those remaining from la Belle Époque and the next generation of artists and thinkers took up shop on the Left Bank. Le Sélect became part of a colony of businesses offering respite, financially as well as socially, for this wave of starving expatriated artists that flocked to the city, with each group of nationals adopting one bistro or the another.  Though this southern migration may have seemed haphazard, the area of Montparnasse already had a long tradition within the arts, right down to its name. In Greek mythology, the nine muses of the arts and sciences lived on Mount Parnassus and this location was held sacred by Apollo and Dionysus. Montparnasse, now located in the 14th arrondissement of the city, inherited the name during the 17th century from students who would gather at this outpost, at the time, to recite poetry and rehearse plays.

Arriving as the afternoon faded, I spotted the illuminated script of its sign from down the street. The yellow light bottled up within the winter patio’s walls, silhouetting the forms of the clientele, gave the impression of intimacy that one needs on a birthday spent on one’s own. Stepping into this halo, I quickly understood that this was not just an impression. A server greeted me with what really felt like sincere warmth but without the pressure of making any decisions. The sleek wooden bar stood near the entrance, the helm of this rich art deco interior, and the seating area was partitioned to accommodate the diverse preoccupations of its patrons (and which I suspect contributes to the agreeable level of noise). Mode apératif generally takes places at the bar or on the terrace, mode pensive artist occurs in the back room, mode very important business spreads out in the side dining room, and mode I’m just here for the food is sprinkled throughout the restaurant. Of course, these categories are fluid but this is how the biosphere appeared to be divided on the day I came.

99 boulevard du Montparnasse
99 boulevard du Montparnasse

I took my time deciding where I wanted to sit, walking through each section before opting for a table at the front of the side dining area, where I could enjoy the splendid yellow, dark green, and maroon decor, as well as a view of the street. I started by ordering an espresso to sip as I jotted down some thoughts but ended up staying for dinner: duck confit with potato gratin and salad. Did I mention it was my birthday? Every exchange with the waiter was friendly and attentive, to the point that I can say without exaggeration that Le Sélect provides the best customer service in Paris. Point final.

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As I sat at my table-for-one savoring every bite of this tasty meal, I did not feel lonely. The elegance of my surroundings mixed with the knowledge of those who sat here before me filled me with excitement and a feeling of certainty that “presence” does not always have to be tangible. On a day that ties me to my past and propels me forward at the same time, I was grateful to feel the weight of those spirits, of Hemingway and of my own. Spending your birthday alone in a big city is like carrying around a secret, a mischievous grin spreading across your face when it occurs to you that despite the unexceptional list of tasks for the day, it is not just an ordinary day. In this eternal city, only the souls of those I encountered at Le Sélect were privy to my secret.

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An Encounter

An Encounter

The night is cold, wind blowing up from the far away sea and hitting our faces as hard as waves. Although no children are in sight at this hour, the carousel on the main square, Place de l’Horloge, is still lit up, emitting its glow of pink and jewelry box music into the air. Laughter punctures the calm that has settled over the city’s center. Footsteps hitting the medieval cobblestone lanes serve as the only indication that behind the closed doors and glowing windows of cafés, up the narrow staircases of homes carved into this ancient center’s walls, is life and merriment.  There’s nothing flashy about an ordinary Saturday night in the city of Avignon. Unless you know where to look.

Around the corner of the Palais des Papes, immense fortress of papal authority, a twisting passage cut into the foundation’s stone and snaking under a single buttress leads to a dimly-lit side street. Up the pebbled incline and across the street sits a demure yet refined building, its sand-colored facade taking on the autumnal glow of the night.  Leaving the darkness and crossing the threshold, we suddenly find ourselves in the midst of a party that seems to span from the foyer to the shadowy yet warm recesses of the inner courtyard’s upper balconies. Surrounded by tuxes and coattails, silky gowns and heels, we shed our bulky layers at coat check and look down at our jeans and sweaters. But the concierge pretends not to notice our attire.

avignon_palais

“Welcome to La Mirande,” he gushes.

The celebration is in full swing, people congregating in every lushly decorated alcove over a colorful variety of liquids, the waitstaff rushing about with bottles and trays of this or that, and a band playing in the veranda. Every detail has been thought of and I try to take it all in but its richness is dizzying: lanterns hanging at alternating lengths from the glass ceiling, candles on the windowsills, and inviting sitting rooms off the central courtyard. Not one space remains unfilled.

Just as we begin to make our way across to what appears to be the dining area, a four-tiered cake with sparklers ablaze is rolled in and the band begins playing “Happy Birthday” as the crowd crushes into all the doorways and chimes in. I join in, though I don’t know whose birthday we’re celebrating, and I feel my stomach growl with disappointment now that all access to the dining area has been cut off. The chorus is sung twice, once in French and once in English, and then someone who I cannot see above the top-knotted and high-heeled crowd begins to make a speech. It is quite long, especially considering my lack of affiliation to anyone at this establishment, but at least I learn that I am attending this five-star hotel’s 25 anniversary party.

Feeling like less of an impostor, I scan the crowded veranda for a route to the dining room. Still no escape.

Trays of champagne are now making their way around, and then back around, before the speech comes to a close. Finally, the throng disperses back into their corners and we are able to cross the veranda. As I pass the towering cake, I discover that it is completely fake while a smaller one sitting next to it has been set aside for the most eminent guests. In the dining room now, a room that I remember only as being entirely covered in wood, various buffet stations have been set up offering different aliments:  sausages with sauteed vegetables, poached eggs served with cream of mushroom, sweet potato and tabbouleh, smoked salmon with herbs, cheese with bread. My uncle and aunt leave us to meet up with whomever they happen to know at this sumptuous affair, and my cousin and I have no problem filling our plates, given the hour, and the distraction that dessert has created. An array of mini patisseries are being laid out for the majority of attendants who will not be getting a slice of that cake. Let the French take over the American concept of a buffet and this is what you get.

There’s no room to sit down so we eat standing up. I want to savor each bite of this five-star quality food but there’s so much to try and what if they start taking it all away?! After tasting a little of each dish, I’m ready for that cake. I weave my way around the coagulation of guests, eyeing plates to see if anyone has managed to sneak a piece of the coveted dessert. Nothing. Not in any of the rooms have I seen a trace of the berry-filled cream or doughy crumbs. The band has started back up again, people are dancing and chatting around little tables and the cake just seems to have vanished. Giving up, I return to the dining room where I find my cousin shoving little pastries into his mouth.

“I was trying to find a piece of cake,” I explain when he asks where I went.

He nods in sympathy and pops another bite-sized delicacy in his mouth. I resign myself to the idea that this will be my dessert and try one as well. They’re actually pretty delicious but it’s a birthday party, after all, even if I don’t quite know how I wound up here. We wander around the rooms of the first floor until we get to the terrace and slip past what appears to be a barricade of chairs to prevent people from coming out here. Despite this and the chill, I follow him to wherever he’s determined we’re going. Down into the deserted garden and to the right we go, where we find my uncle and aunt seated at a table absorbed in some kind of tête-à-tête with an older woman. And on the table is a single plate of cake.

My instinct is to back away and leave them be but my cousin walks right up and takes a seat, leaving me not much choice but to stand there until I’m invited to pull up another chair. Introductions are made but I still don’t really understand who this woman is or why we are sitting at her private table. “Koko,” as everyone seems to be referring to her, is reclined on a lounge chair wrapped in a red and black tunic and many scarves, framed in the background by the palace wall’s battlements. Her voice is deep and gravely, and not just in the chain-smoking kind of way. It has a raw power which she has clearly mastered so that every inflection and turn of phrase hits its mark and whose impact ripples long after its initial strike. Her speech is saturated with phrases like “you understand chéri” and “but of course chérie.” Everyone is “chéri.” The longer I sit there listening to the conversation the more I am given the impression that I am watching a scene in a play unfold before me.

My first indication that this woman is really someone and not just playing out a charade is the way the staff dotes over her, regularly coming to check on the state of her champagne glass. And it’s clear that they all love her and the attention she pays to each of them. “Chéri do you happen to have a cigarette I could borrow?” she asks multiple times in the course of an hour and every time, a cigarette is eagerly presented. She speaks to everyone in the same even and assertive tone, from the barman to the hotel’s owner and my uncle, her artistic protégé. Later, this is one of the main qualities my uncle attributes to her incredible persona. No matter who you are, she is Michelle Kokosowski and she holds you to the same high standards of authority and mutual respect as anyone else. There is an aura about her that speaks of a glamorous past filled with many soirées of this sort, as well as of heartbreak and perhaps a deep knowledge of the worst qualities that exist in human beings. In all her splendor and almost aggressive confidence, there is also a sense that her time has past, her greatness no longer appreciated for what it was. From the abandoned terrace cordoned off to the public, she watches the night’s festivities of the hotel that her patronage helped bolster throughout the years. She is of another time.

When she finally addresses me in more than just an introductory way, it is to find out what I want to drink and what I do for a living. My answer to the latter is not as important as my decline for more champagne. Do I want wine, coke, coffee, water, of all things? I hesitate, wondering if I am pushing my luck by asking for what I really want, but she is so persistent to fulfill any request I may have that I feel obliged to be honest.

“If it’s possible, I’d really like a piece of cake,” I admit, trying to pretend like I haven’t been eyeing the lone slice, whose defector remains unknown, this entire time.

“Well then you shall have cake, chérie,” she responds, looking right in my eyes.

“Mathilde,” she calls over the nearest server, “four slices of cake please. Do you think you can find some?” This is less of an inquiry than an expectation.

“Of course, Madame. I will go look.”

Mathilde is gone for at least twenty minutes and I begin to feel bad for having caused the lovely Mathilde, who is probably around my age, so much trouble. Where she’s going to be able to track down a slice of that mysteriously vanishing cake, let alone four, I have no idea. In any case, I’ve had my five minutes of fame with this elegant French dame and it all revolved around cake.

“Good going,” I think to myself, “What an adult you are.”

But I feel less guilty after I take the first bite upon its arrival. It is everything I imagined it would be and more, with chunks of strawberries in the handmade cream in between the spongy layers. In this other world, I feel like Edmund from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe lost in Narnia and tasting Turkish delights from the evil queen.

After more silent shivering and a couple more cigarettes, it’s decided that midnight is the perfect time to tour the hotel’s reputable wine cellar. We are all exhausted but there’s no arguing with Koko. We proceed behind her back into the welcomed warmth of the hotel and wait patiently as she stops to say hello to at least five people before we descend into the basement. The cavernous space is as incredible as the first floor, with racks filled of aging wine from every region of France and a fully equipped kitchen used for their cooking school. We also get a quick tour of the upstairs and one of the bedroom suites. Think silk. More presentations to other big names dressed to the nines follow before leaving kisses are finally exchanged.

And just like that, we are back in the street and the cold greets us as if we had never left. But our stomachs are fuller and our eyes aglow with enchanting images of an extravagant world that weren’t there before. The next morning, I realize that in my half-frozen, sleepy stupor, it never crossed my mind to take pictures of this magical night, almost as if it had never happened. All I have as proof of my brief entrance into this glittering oasis is the hotel’s brochure, an afterthought as we collected our coats at one in the morning, along with the memory of radiant eyes and a firm handshake accompanied with the words, “Be happy, always.”

la mirande

Shedding Skin

Whenever you pick up your life and move, there’s always a readjustment period. It’s an experience that reveals things about your psyche that you never realized about yourself or that you’ve been repressing for a while. And as lonely and disorienting as it can be some days, I think it’s worth the discomfort to discover these complexities about yourself. We celebrate the exhilaration of the new, mourn the things about ourselves that we miss, feel naked for awhile, and then we adapt. There are layers and layers that you have to shed in order to build up calluses in different places.

If you are one of the *incredibly lucky* people who knew me in elementary school, then you have the most accurate visual of what the French Camille is like, minus the braids and bangs. I have to work a little bit harder over here to not revert to the shyness of those early years. It’s just so easy to not risk an unpleasant encounter with an overly tired Parisian whose late for work than to stick your neck out there and join in the conversation. I noticed this tendency of mine last spring when I was really getting acclimated to the city. By summer, when I was officially living in the city on my own, I had found my rhythm in this sprawling metropolis, with an ever-growing knowledge of my favorite spots and an ability to sleep with the window cracked to enjoy a breeze without being bothered by the street noise.

My shining moment of adjustment was during the heatwave, when I was so hot and grouchy that I told a heckler in the metro that I was exhausted and I didn’t have the energy or patience to listen to his s***. Please. He looked a little surprised but went on his way.

As I make the transition from globetrotter to having a steady job, Me and my Moleskine will also be going through some changes. Whenever people have asked what my blog is about, I’ve never really known what to tell them because depending on who I’m speaking with, saying it’s about living with grief or death or my mom would lead to a deeper conversation that doesn’t seem appropriate or necessary in the social context. So I normally resort to saying it’s about life, which, I’d like to think, doesn’t quite do it justice. Ultimately, I write about whatever I want to share and that will remain the same. But when I was traveling to all these cool places and still considered myself a visitor in Paris, I hesitated to write about them here because I didn’t know how to present what I was experiencing without turning this into a cheap alternative to Lonely Planet. I want to tell stories, not document every moment of my life for you or write about the same things you can read about on a thousand other blogs about Paris. That being said, I hope to share more about navigating life in Paris with you this year in a way that doesn’t feel like a journal entry. You have my word: I will never tell you about the macaroons I ate for dessert one day.

So if you’ve enjoyed what I’ve written up until now, stick around, it’s not going away! But for those of you who may be thinking, “Thank God, she’s finally gonna stop depressing us with stories about her mom,” well, I’m throwing you a bone. Just a little one.

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Belleville

I knew your Mother

I knew your Mother

“I knew your mother, once.”

This simple phrase that once may have only sparked mild interest took on a whole new meaning this year. It was the sentence in a conversation that changed a social interaction from superficially formal to deeply personal, with an unspoken mutual understanding of what it meant to know the woman in question. It was the signal that sent my mind on high alert to try and retain any piece of information about her that might come up in conversation, the mark of someone else in the world walking around with stories and information about the person to whom I wish I could still ask so many questions.

Almost a year ago, I set out on a trip to France, my mother’s homeland where she spent the first twenty-two years of her life before moving to North Carolina to pursue a career in microbiology. Wanting to reconnect with her roots and the people who knew her during this period of her life, I spent a lot of time tracking down old friends and family members to talk with them about my mom and to try and capture some of their memories on paper. When I started this trip, I wasn’t exactly sure where it would lead me; I just knew that I needed to be in this place with these people who were connected to my mom in a different way than how I was. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I reached out to these people, some of them who hadn’t spoken to my mom in over 20 years and many whom I had never met before. And sometimes the hardest conversations were those with my own family members, aunts and uncles and my own grandmother, as we all try to protect one another from each other’s grief. But I was welcomed into many homes, fed some of the most delicious food, and got to know and befriend some of the kind-hearted people.

So I want to share some snippets of these conversations with you. Not so much to mark the year that has almost flown by but as a tribute to all the time and love that these people have shared and continue to share with me. This is but a small sampling of the stories I have collected and there are still many people with whom I have yet to talk. Some of the stories may seem mundane but they represent the type of information that we often share with others and that my mom can no longer share with me, and so I appreciate them for the simple factoid that they are and my mind grasps onto them tightly as a little piece of my mom’s identity. These stories help fill in the hole that can never quite be filled and I’ll continue to search and collect them for as long as there are still stories to be told. For those of you that knew her and for those of you who only know her through my stories, here are a few little pieces of my mother, shared with you with much love from many many people.

On growing up:

“She always had a book in hand. That is how I will always remember her.” -D.B.

She and I were the stars of our dance class when we were little. We were the only ones who had any sense of rhythm.” -A.B.

“On Saturdays, we would all go into the city to run errands. When we were little, Mom and Dad would leave us at the cinema while they did the shopping. And for some reason, they were always playing the Jungle Book, so we saw that movie at least fifty times.” -A.B.

“She just always had this sense of wisdom about her, even when we were really little. It was like she knew more about life than her age gave away.” -A.B.

“One time while we were living in Paris together, she left the apartment with her purse and the bag of garbage to throw it away in the dumpster. And then while she was waiting for the metro, she looked down and realized she was still carrying the garbage bag and she had thrown her purse away! That was your mom, always in the clouds.” -A.B.

“When she would come down to the farm to stay with us on holiday, it was our job to look after the goats in the field. But we always got distracted with our games and we would get in trouble because the goats would run off and be in someone else’s field!” -C.B.B.

“From the very beginning, she loved school. If she was misbehaving, we would threaten to keep her home from school and she’d straighten up right away.” -M.B.

“When she was in preschool, she befriended all the children from poor families who worked in the factory nearby and would bring them home with her to have a snack, holding their hand with an arm around their shoulder. She was five years-old.” -M.B.

“She was always very independent, she never wanted to do things the way everyone else did them.” -M.B.

“We met in “Les Guides” (France’s equivalent of Girl Scouts). Those were some really good times, I have very fond memories of that time together.” -A.L.

“It was the summer of 1976, I believe, because I had just graduated high school…and we went on a backpacking trip around the English coast. We were a group of six girls. We hiked and biked and hitchhiked a little as well! We ended up missing our flight back to France on this small cargo plane and ended up sleeping in the parking lot of the police station so that no one would bother us.” -A.L.

Entitled
Entitled “The Little Old Ladies.” Photo courtesy of Anne Barbier.

On moving to the US:

“I think at that time, it was hard for us to understand why she would want to start her life in a foreign country so far away from home. But she was so dedicated and passionate about her scientific work that she needed to be in that kind of open environment. America provided that liberty of thought that she desired. I can understand that now. But I still don’t think I would have been able to do the same thing!” -A.L.

“When she first got to the States, she didn’t think she’d be able to stay, she hated it so much. She’d say, “I don’t think I’ll last a month here.” But slowly, she got used to it.” -M.L.

“We used to call each other “The Three Graces” after that famous painting by Raphael because we were inseparable. For many years, we were very very close. But then life happens.” -M.L.

On resemblances:

“You have the same profile as your mom.” -C.V.

“You have the same eyes as your mom. And she’s in your smile as well.” -E.

“I’m sorry but you look so much like your mother! It’s taking me back fifty years!” -C.B.

On cancer and death:

“Maybe I should have visited more. You know the last time I came to North Carolina was 2000? But it’s so easy to look back and realize that you really DID have the time and you DID have the money to go spend a week with your best friend. When life is actually happening, though, you forget what is important. You just work, work, work and you think there will always be more time.” -C.V.

“From the beginning of her illness, I think that your parents made a very conscious decision to be a team despite any other differences they may have had. And I know that was really important for Claire, for you kids, especially at the end.” -C.V.

“There were moments at the end when I saw her leaving this world already and I had to hold my breath. But then the moment would pass and she’d still be there.” -A.B.

“The last time I saw her, I told her I didn’t want to leave. But she told me, ‘Don’t worry, go home. We’ll see each other this summer and everything will be a lot better.’ Now I wonder if she really believed that or if she already knew it was the end.” -A.B.

“Did she know it was the end? Did she believe she could beat the odds again? I will never be able to stop asking myself that question.” -C.V.

“To this day, I still consider her my best friend.” -C.V.

Still {trying} to Talk Pretty in 2015

Still {trying} to Talk Pretty in 2015

For the past couple of weeks, I have been taking classes at l’Alliance Francaise, a language institute for foreigners and French nationals of all levels who want to improve various aspects of their French. You take a placement exam and have a brief interview in order to determine your level. I placed in one of the highest levels, C1, in which you are considered to be a proficient, advanced user capable of succeeding at the university level in French. My reasons for signing up were many, including my desire to really perfect my written French and enrich my vocabulary. Some people were confused as to why I would need to take French classes in the first place. The best way I can explain it is this: throughout your education in the US, you are required to take English classes in order to exercise and develop your use of the language. Well, this is the equivalent in French for me. For example, can you list the synonyms for the verb “develop” and explain the nuanced differences in their definitions? Now, can you list all the synonyms for the same word in Spanish, French, [insert whichever second language you studied]? That is part of fluency and it takes time and practice to achieve.

We sit at the tables set up in a semicircle around the classroom. People come and go every week depending on their individual needs and schedules, our class roster fluctuating between ten and eighteen students each week. So far, there have been Americans, Brits, Italians, Germans, Russians, Argentinians, Brazilians, Indians, Spaniards, South Africans, Syrians, Norwegians, and Kenyans. Everyone brings with them a unique perspective of the world and society. Some of us are straight out of college, starting our lives in a different country, hungry for human contact and friendship after leaving all our friends behind. Others are more seasoned with age and life experience, wrinkled from the sun in Buenos Aires or adjusting to raising children in another country. We are all strangers. There is no other context through which we know each other, no backdrop except a vast city with its many neighborhoods and intersecting cultures. It is different from any kind of educational setting I’ve ever been a part of. But somehow this formula works.

As I observe the dynamics of our class, I can’t help but laugh. It reminds me of David Sedaris’ book Me Talk Pretty One Day, in which Sedaris brings to life a foreign language class in France similar to mine. I remember listening to the book on tape years and years ago with my mom and my brother, and howling with laughter as the author describes an episode where the Christian members of the class try to explain Easter to their Moroccan classmate using their limited French skills: “He comes to your house and dies on two morsels of wood” stands out in my memory. Although my classmates and I are able to express ourselves very well in French, I now understand the context behind the humor of Sedaris’ book. Because let me tell you, there are some pretty hilarious moments when you take people from all over the world and put them in the same room to communicate with one another.

Take a look:

We are reviewing the subjunctive, one of the most difficult modes to wrap one’s head around because it requires you to really understand the cultural mindset behind a language. If you don’t grasp these concepts, then you are left having to memorize a long list of verbs and impersonal expressions that require the use of the subjunctive. Discussions on whether the speaker is trying to express certainty or doubt, a judgment or an emotion are very common. This sparks debates as each of us resists letting go of our respective culture’s conceptualizations. Each sentence must be deconstructed and put back together again adhering to FRENCH standards.

“In Russia, there’s no such thing as wishing that someone do something. You are ordered to do it and that’s that,” a woman grumbles, scoffing at the verb “souhaiter.”

“Well, we’re in France now,” our teacher says patiently (have I mentioned how much patience this man has??).

“In Italy, we never talk about race,” another woman shares, rather shocked and visibly uncomfortable at even saying the word. The theme for the week is identity.

Later, we are working on vocabulary.

“Why does a cat have whiskers?” the teacher asks.

“So that he can digest himself,” an Argentinian replies, very sure of herself.

The entire class turns to look at her in confusion.

“What? It’s true!” she insists, not realizing her mistake. We start to laugh. She has mixed up the verb “diriger,” to guide, with the verb “dégirer,” to digest.

We are onto fables now and that pesky passé simple, a very formal and literary form of the past tense with its irregular forms and antiquated sound. Our teacher asks us to share fables or proverbs from our countries and to create another fable using a character and moral from different countries as a class. The end result is an odd little tale about a hyena with a sweet tooth who feels that the sand is always warmer on the other side of the Sahara. It’s the most entertaining lesson on the passé simple that I’ve ever had.

Then there is the indignation and pride that comes with being adults who are fully capable of expressing themselves in another language and, for some of us, who have established careers, and suddenly finding ourselves unable to describe exactly what we want to say. We think we know it all. Sometimes it gets the best of us, some more than others, and there goes one of us telling the teacher that we know perfectly well what we’re trying to say, thank-you-very-much. It seems to be an instinctual reaction to being repeatedly corrected, especially when you think you know better. By the time you’ve reached the C1 level, you have a pretty good mastery of the language, as well as some bad or incorrect habits of using certain words or grammar the wrong way. Being told that what you’ve thought for sure you knew is actually wrong isn’t always easy.

“Mais si,” the flustered classmate will bluster, fiercely pointing at their paper to justify their mistake. “I am right.”

Need I say that, usually, we are indeed wrong?

And then, in the middle of vocabulary enrichment on health, it comes to light that one of us is HIV-positive. A silence falls over the room. No one knows what to say.

“Well, now we all know how to talk about AIDS in French!” she laughs, breaking the silence, and we follow her lead. Our teacher guides us back to the lesson.

These are moments that remind us that, differences aside, we are all human and all face our own struggles. We all miss home. At times, we are all intimidated by Parisians’ tough demeanor. We all have had moment(s) where we think, “What the hell am I doing with my life?” Some of us are afraid to return to their own countries, for various reasons. And somehow, among these “strangers,” it feels okay to share all these things.

I will probably never see most of these people again. But I am grateful to have known them, if only for a few weeks.

alliance francaise