Sunday, November 1, 2009

Halloween in France

I love Halloween.  It's my favorite holiday, probably because there's nothing overtly religious or patriotic about it.  It's just all about dressing up and eating lots of candy - both of which I love.

Unfortunately, I now live in a country that doesn't really celebrate this wonderful night.  Apparently some marketing folks thought they could make some serious cash by promoting Halloween in France a few years back, but after a lot of initial interest it turned out to be just a passing fad.  Nowadays there are celebrations in clubs and a few parties with a Halloween theme, but few trick-or-treaters going door-to-door.  And your average French person doesn't even know when Halloween is exactly, in part because there isn't any outward indication anywhere to remind you - in sharp contrast to the massive media blitz in the US.

My students tell me the lack of interest here is partly related to the fact that it just seems completely over-commercialized, and many French people resist the notion of celebrating what they see as a purely American holiday.  And there's also the fact that it's around the same time as the Catholic Toussaint ('tous saints', or all saints), on November 1st.  It's the day when the French honor loved ones who have passed away by decorating their graves, and I've been told it's the best time to visit a cemetery since they are overflowing with flowers.  It's also the busiest travel day of the year, and the most deadly - sadly ironic given the nature of most of the car trips.

Because the significance of Toussaint in France, some of my students were explaining that it also seems a bit indecent to dress up and have parties that revel in the dark side when so many people are commemorating their dearly departed.  That makes sense to me, but since I grew up with more American traditions than French, I still can't help loving Halloween and wanting to play dress up.  Kevin and I threw a party last year that was so much fun we decided to make it a yearly tradition, and last night's fest didn't disappoint.  

Here are this year's costumes: 

When I told my students I was dressing as a flapper, they protested, "but that's not scary!"  The image of Halloween in France is definitely that of 'fright night,' with costumes that are necessarily of witches and vampires and such.  In fact, at last year's party almost all of the French partygoers were dressed as something traditionally frightening - I think there were even 4 zombies!

So I explained that while scary costumes are still the norm, Americans will dress up as just about anything they like, and the more creative the better.  And at this year's party there was much more variety in the costumes - a few skeletons and  ghosts, of course, but also pirates, men in drag, and even a tree! 

But while my costumes usually let me explore my feminine side (and so are more surprising than frightening, since I rarely wear skirts or makeup), I stick pretty close to tradition when it comes to the food and decoration.   One of my favorite parts of the day was making a horrific buffet of all sorts of things that either look inedible, or play off the ghoulish theme.  Here are a couple of pics of my Halloween spread:

It took me all day to put the buffet together, and luckily Kevin's sister was around to help.  But it was so much fun that it was worth it, and my guests seemed really impressed!

With all the dancing, games, and frightful food, not to mention the creative costumes, it was a wonderful night among friends, and a really nice multicultural mix.  And it's also a great way for me to keep in touch with my American traditions now that I live so far from home.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

This is how it is

It's been over a month since I've written, despite my goal of posting once a week.  But while my first impulse is to berate myself for being a slacker, I'm trying to accept that life gets in the way of my best intentions sometimes. 

This fall has actually been pretty tough on me so far.  I came back from vacation totally broke, and then got stressed about being broke, so I've been working a lot in order to replenish my bank account.  I didn't think this would be a problem since I enjoy my job most of the time.  But teaching takes a lot of energy because I have to be "on" all the time.  The extra hours looked good on paper, but I pretty quickly hit a wall as to how much I could actually teach before exhaustion set in.

Add a sudden cold snap with sub-zero temperatures, and no surpsie: I got sick.  A  cold, the flu, or perhaps the 'crud' as a friend recently referred to it; surely my body telling me to slow down.  I canceled some classes, stayed in bed, read a lot, watched tons of movies and American TV shows online (Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice marathon!).  All in all the normal things you do when you get sick.  

Unfortunately, somewhere along the line stagnation set in, and I couldn't get past the wanting to stay in bed feeling.  A few days of well-deserved bed rest morphed into a deep depression, of the kind I hadn't felt in quite a while.  And the worse I felt, the worse I felt - a vicious circle that left me completely stuck, emotionally and physically. My bedroom was both my sanctuary and my prison, and despite kevin's best efforts to get me outside, I persisted in burrowing myself under the covers and feeling alternately angry and sorry for myself.

The reason I started meditating was to help me cope with moments like these, but I was even resiting any kind of mindfulness practice. My zafu sat in the corner untouched, and the timing of my bi-weekly meditation group meant that I went 3 weeks without seeing my sangha*, during a time when I really could have used the support.  I normally have a hard time practicing on my own, which is why the meditation group is so useful.  Yet I was still furious with myself for my inability to meditate, which made me feel even worse.  I couldn't accept that I was having such a hard time because I thought that I should have been past such difficulties.  I had mindfulness tools now, why wasn't I using them?  The only thing I still seemed to be good at was beating myself up...

Luckily, my meditation group finally met last week, and I was able to get myself there.  I still had a hard time meditating, but it helped to just be with the sangha.  However what really got me out of my slump was the mindfulness retreat in the countryside that I attended last weekend.  I was still feeling pretty stuck and didn't want to go, but I had already sent in my check for the housing, so I forced myself to prepare my contribution to the vegetarian potluck (a mediterranean rice and lentil salad plus my zucchini brownies).  

Since nothing seems to happen by chance, the theme of the weekend was reconciliation.  In between lots of different kinds of meditation and bodywork like Chi Gong, a Dharma** teacher named Marc spoke to us about conflict resolution.  While I thought we would learn about resolving conflict with others, and we did, Marc's main lesson was that we must first come back to ourselves.  Before we can hope to resolve a conflict with anyone else, he insisted that we must first understand what we are feeling:  "Why am I angry...hurt...afraid.  What is this about for me?"

One way this understaning can arise is by coming back to our breathing and observing what comes to the surface when we quiet the mind.  And once we recognize how we truly feel, the next step is acceptance.  No  matter how unpleasant or uncomfortable the feelings may be, we must tell ourselves: "this is how it is right now."  Once we can accept that, we can let go of those feelings instead of berating ourselves (like I so often do) or burying the feelings as deep as possible.  And finally we must forgive ourselves.  Marc's point was that it is only when we are able to reconcile with ourselves that we can think about resolving a conflict with someone else.  

 In my case, all of my conflict was internal, which meant that I was the one I had to make up with.  So during those two days of mindfulness I worked on accepting my anger at my depression and my sense of my own weakness, as well as the underlying sadness itself.  And slowly but surely, a huge weight was lifted and I felt like I could breathe more easily again.  I let the anger go, and once that went the sadness fluttered away like a bird let out of its cage. 

It's as easy as that, and just as hard.   I'll probably spend my whole life learning this lesson, but I'm lucky to have teachers like Marc to help me along the way.  

*   A Sangha is a community of people who practice mindfulness, anything from a Buddhist monastery to a meditation group like the one I participate in. 

** Dharma in this sense refers to Buddhist teachings or philosophy

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

From Field to Table

For anyone who grew up in the countryside or has done any farming or gardening, the following story will surely seem banal to you. But having spent most of my life in and around cities or suburbs, I haven't had much opportunity to dig my hands in the dirt.  So I was beyond thrilled during my vacation when I went to the field near Harmony House to harvest my first ever carrots and beets.  I felt a lot like the proverbial kid in the candy shop, except that I was drooling over vegetables instead of sweets.  Look at how gorgeous they are: 

The beets in particular were the biggest I'd ever seen, though you don't get much perspective in this picture.  Charlie, one of the Harmony House residents, explained that he planted them using biodynamic principles, and it seemed to do wonders, at least in terms of size:

After digging up my veggies in the garden, I brought them directly to the kitchen and made one of my favorite salads:  Grated carrots and beets with fresh garlic, olive oil and lemon juice, and lots of parsley (though I think I used basil instead because that's what the garden offered).  From field to table in less than an hour!  Though I eat this dish all the time at home, something about having just harvested the vegetables myself made it all the more satisfying. I could barely contain myself I was so excited, much to the amusement of those around me.  It just brought me so much pleasure to prepare a salad with vegetables that couldn't possibly be any fresher.   

In fact, in the week I spent at Harmony House, almost all the food we ate came directly from their garden or one nearby on loan from Philippe Desbrosses.  I gorged myself on gorgeous tomatoes, many of which were ancient varieties I'd never seen before.  I picked berries and yellow plums straight off bountiful mirabella trees dripping with warm fruit that tasted like sunshine: 


I'd certainly picked fruit before, and even spent childhood summers in Michigan going to the family farm to collect blueberries, which my grandmother then made into everything from pies to pancake syrup.  And in the last CSA I was a part of in Western Massachusetts, I relished going to the farm to pick up our veggies and gather berries in the 'pick-your-own' part of the field. I even had a little community garden plot for a short time in grad school in Toronto,where I grew basil and squash (though not much else since I started a bit late).  

But I've otherwise been pretty disconnected from where my food comes from for most of my life, and I'd never actually pulled anything edible out of the ground before the Harmony House garden.  Perhaps that's why I was so very excited about those carrots and beets, which may be mundane at the market, but seemed magical in my neophyte gardener's hands. That week digging in the dirt really cementing my burgeoning interest in becoming responsible for some of my own food production.  Beyond the pleasure of pulling the vegetables out of the ground myself, I was also inspired by our conversations about organic agriculture and the increasing numbers of people cultivating gardens in their yards for both ecological and economic reasons (spurred on in part by the financial crisis, reminding me of the 'victory gardens' that were started in the US as part of the war effort). 


Living in the city as I do, I sadly have no yard to grow anything in.  So I'm limited to spouting seeds, which is actually really fun.  But as much as I love to watch the grains burst open after a few days of watering, it doesn't satisfy my newfound desire to dig.  Ideally I'd love to have a little bit of land to grow things in someday, whether it's my own or part of community plot.  For now I've done research into community gardens in Lyon, but there is so much more demand than plot availability.  So I've been considering container gardening, after visiting a friend in London who grows plants on her balcony.  Poking around on the Internet I've come across some really interesting ideas for growing food in small spaces, and I'll devote this fall and winter to gathering information so that I can make a plan for spring production.  In keeping with my aspirations towards mindful consumption, it just makes sense to grow my own food, to be present in every step of the process - from field to table.  And in the meantime, I'll try to get my hands dirty as much as possible wherever I can!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Slow Month

This title is inspired by a blog I like called 'These Days In French Life'.  It's by an American who married a French guy and moved to the countryside, only to quickly embark on a life of non-consumerism which she called  'a slow year ' (which then turned into another - I think she's on her 3rd now).  Her goal was to not spend money on anything other than food and basic utilities, and even those costs have gone way down over time.  She functions in part by growing her own food, but also by bartering, foraging, dumpster-diving, and a whole lot of serendipity.   She has a lot of great strategies for reducing both her external and internal consumption (like energy use), and her blog has really inspired me to think about what I need and how I spend my money. 

However, I've always told myself I couldn't live like her because I'm not in the countryside, and I haven't actually altered my consumption habits that much. Yet my post-vacation financial situation has forced me into 'slow' mode, like it or not.  I took all of August off since I had few students anyway, but because I'm paid hourly I had no income for the month.  My savings should have been enough to get me through August and September, but I had fewer hours in July than I expected so my travel fund was considerably less than I expected.  I went over-budget on vacation despite my efforts to be thrifty, so when I got back to Lyon I was just barely able to cover my rent and bills.  Now my account is basically at zero until October, since we are only paid once a month in France.

While Kevin kindly offered to spot me any money I needed (and he's covering most of our food expenses this month), I'm determined not to spend anything until my next paycheck.  I left the US after taking over a year to pay down a huge credit card balance, and resolved to live within my means once I got France.  It's easier here since a thrifty attitude is part of the general French culture (and I got rid of the credit card).   But spending NO money at all is extremely hard, since the city is a constant minefield of temptation. 

In fact, just before I'd resolved to live a 'slow month,' I stupidly spent some of my last few euros on low-sugar cookies in the pharmacy.  I was in there to get some more tape for my broken toe, and because I was hungry I was defenseless in front of the over-priced cookies.  They were tasteless, of course (never buy cookies in a French pharmacy) and I kicked myself over how much I paid (almost 5 euros!).   But it was a good lesson in noticing how much money I waste on little things here and there.  I've been tempted so many times this month to buy something (usually food), and it's only my empty wallet that stops me.  In desperation I even took some coins out of our change jar to get a pastry the other day!  (I'll be in trouble once Kevin reads this...)

It hasn't been as easy as I thought to buy nothing, even without a credit card.  Yet I'm determined to make it through this month of non-consumption not just out of financial necessity, but also as an exercise in mindfulness. In fact, one of the Five Mindfulness Trainings that Thich Nhat Hahn teaches relates to mindful consumption: being fully aware of what we ingest and expose ourselves to, and striving to consume only that which is good for ourselves, our community, and the earth.  

Seeing how difficult it has been to resist spending money on stupid little things has made me realize how unmindful my consumption is most of the time.  I don't spend large amounts as recklessly as I did when I had a credit card, but I do spend small quantities quite thoughtlessly on things I don't need.  While the overall impact on my bank account is not that dramatic, it does add up.  But it's ultimately my lack of mindfulness that I want to work on, and that's why the word 'slow' feels so important.  For cultivating mindfulness is all about slowing down:  whether it's slowing my eating in order to appreciate my food, slowing my steps in order to be present where I am, or slowing my thoughts long enough to truly listen to someone else.  And this month in particular, slowing my spending in order to be more conscious of how and why I consume.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Recipe for Vegan Chocolate Cake (aka Gloubi-Boulga)

Since I've had a few recipe requests for the cake I wrote about last weekend, I thought the easiest thing would be just to post it here.

It's from my favorite vegetarian cookbook, one of the few that I brought with me from the US, called "Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home: Fast and Easy Recipes for Any Day." It was one of my first cookbooks right out of college, back when I had no idea how to cook at all. If I remember correctly my Grandma is the one that offered it to me, along with some much-needed pots and pans. And it has served me so well over the past 13 years or so that it's now in tatters, in two separate pieces with no cover and tons of food stains all over it. But I hang onto it because it really is the best cookbook ever.

The recipe is called "Six-Minute Chocolate Cake," but my Grandma, who is very wise about all things culinary, told me that it's actually a "Depression Cake." That is, a cake that was commonly made during the Great Depression back when butter, milk, and eggs were hard to come by. It was vegan by necessity, in fact. If you google chocolate depression cake you can actually find some similar recipes.

The secret to this cake is that the vinegar reacts with the baking soda to make it rise. Pretty resourceful, I thought.

Whatever you call it, it's super easy and delicious, whether cooked all the way through or not. I made the cake again last night to bring over to a friend's house, making very sure to put the stove on the right setting. I have to say I prefer it fully-cooked, but if you want the gloubi-glouba version, just bake it for less time than called for, or on grill mode. Good luck!

-1 and 1/2 cups unbleached white flour (I used spelt flour last night, sometimes buckwheat or whole wheat - just to change it up and be a little healthier. If you do this you may want to add a bit more liquid to compensate for the the heavier flour)
-1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
-1 tsp baking soda
-1/2 tsp salt
-1 cup sugar (I use a bit less usually and always organic unrefined sugar or rapadura)
-1/2 cup vegetable oil (I tend to use canola, but I used unhydrogenated palm oil for another recipe that turned out well. The advantage is that palm oil is tasteless, while canola has a bit of a taste to it.)
-1 cup cold water or brewed coffee
-2 tsp pure vanilla extract
-2 Tablespoons vinegar

Preheat oven to 375
°F (190°C)

Sift together flour, cocoa, baking soda, salt, and sugar into a mixing bowl or directly into an ungreased 8-inch square or 9-inch round baking pan (I have neither of these so I just improvise with whatever I feel like using).

In a 2-cup measuring cup, mix together the oil, water or coffee, and vanilla (NOT the vinegar yet).

Mix wet and dry ingredients with a fork or small whisk, and when the batter is smooth add the vinegar and stir quickly. There will be pale swirls in the batter where the baking soda and the vinegar are reacting. Stir until the vinegar is evenly distributed throughout the batter, and pour into baking dish if you started in a bowl.

Bake for 25-30 minutes (less if you want a more pudding-like version). Set the cake aside to cool.

Their suggested glaze:
1/2 pound bittersweet chocolate
3/4 cup hot water or rice or soy milk
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler and stir in the hot liquid and vanilla until smooth. Pour over the cooled cake and refrigerate for 30 min before serving.

My emergency glaze:
I spooned some raspberry jelly (though you can use whatever jelly or jam you like, I'm sure)
into a saucepan and mixed it with rice milk over low heat until I got the desired consistency - pourable, but not too runny. I also added a little agave syrup to sweeten since the jelly was pretty tart and the cake had less sugar than they called for. Pour over cooled cake.

Voilà! The cookbook also suggests other toppings such as powdered sugar, cinnamon sugar, whipped cream, ice cream, fresh fruit, etc. whatever you want, basically. I usually make either the chocolate glaze (which is really rich!) or a fruity one.


Saturday, September 5, 2009

Today's Moment - A Good Mistake

Today I participated in a full day mindfulness retreat at a little castle not too far from Lyon. I had planned on bringing a vegan chocolate cake for the lunchtime potluck, but as I started to cut the cake this morning to transfer it from it's baking dish to a tupperware container, I discovered to my dismay that the cake wasn't cooked underneath. A quick glance at the stove revealed the source of the problem: I had toasted garlic bread a few days before, and had never changed the stove's grill setting. So my cake only got cooked on top and was impossible to cut into pieces, leaving me with a big container of mush to deal with.

Unfortunately I realized the mistake only minutes before I had to leave, so my options were limited. No time to make a replacement dish or stop by the store, and showing up empty-handed didn't feel like an option for someone who loves potlucks as much as I do (they're actually quite rare in France, so I relish the opportunity to share food with Frenchies). In desperation I concocted a raspberry sauce by mixing a friend's delicious homemade jelly with a bit of rice milk, and I
covered the bits of cake bits and goop with it. I then patted the mixture down into a relatively smooth yet unidentifiable mass. "It's a gloubi-boulga," I complained to Kevin, using a French term to describe something strange, mushy and/or unappetizing. The expression comes from a 70s kid's show in France in which a dinosaur named Casimir made called gloubi-boulga that was repulsive to everyone but him, with ingredients such as chocolate and jelly, but also mustard and sausage. And it felt like that's what I had on my hands: a cake only a fictional dinosaur would eat!

Luckily uncooked batter isn't a problem in a vegan cake, and it tasted allright, but it was far from what I had envisioined. I felt a keen sense of diasppointment, particularly because I enjoy exposing french people to vegan baking since it's so out of left field for most folks here. In the country of buttery croissants and over 300 cheeses, it's impossible for most people to imagine life without dairy. And I was pretty sure that this vegan muck was not going to impress anyone. But I clipped my traitorous tupperware onto my bike and trudged dejectedly off to the castle.

Once potluck-time arrived, I laid my dish out with an explanatory note, since it looked so strange I imagined people avoiding it entirely. I warned that it was a ruined vegan cake that I turned into a pudding to be eaten with a spoon - but it was all organic, I wrote encouragingly!

I watched nervously as people went up to the dessert table, but much to my amazement, everyone tried some. And the folks who had seen me write the note came by to tell me how delicious it was! Little by little word spread that I had made this unusual dessert, and a number of different people came by to ask me questions about the ingredients, wanting to know how I had made it vegan - a good advertisement for vegan baking after all! Everyone insisted that it was too good to be a mistake, or that it was a mistake to be repeated. In the end, the tupperware was scraped completely clean, and I had many requests for the recipe. As it turns out, it worked out well (in the magic way that things often do at potlucks) that my dessert turned out more like a pudding, because someone else had brought a perfectly-baked chocolate cake. So my mystery mush was different and interesting and generated quite a lot of discussion.

I was completely blown away, because what had felt just a few hours earlier like a complete catastrophe had turned into a source of delight and discovery for a the retreat's participants - a very good mistake, as it turned out. And a very good lesson for me about letting go of expectations of how things are supposed to turn out, and accepting things as they are. Because that's how life is after all - a bit messy at times, but full of delicious surprises. And what may seem like a disaster at first can actually turn into something quite wonderful.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

La Maison de l'Harmonie

It was actually much harder than I thought to blog while I was on vacation, so now that I'm back home I'm playing catch up on the past few weeks. The next few posts will chronicle the last part of my trip, starting with my weeklong retreat in the French countryside at a lovely place called Maison de l'Harmonie (Harmony House).

Harmony House is an ecological/spiritual community that came into being 6 months ago thanks to a meeting of the minds between a renown French environmental advocate, Phillipe Desbrosses, and the monastic community of Plum Village. Mr. Desbrosses offered up his unused house and land in Sologne (a few hours from Paris) so that a group of young laypeople (as opposed to monastics) could live together in the spirit of Plum Village while cultivating the land organically and hosting mindfulness retreats.

There are currently 5 permanent residents at Harmony House, and I met 3 of them during a recent retreat called "Nature and Relaxation" (the other two residents were on vacation).

Here I am with Phap Liêu, one of the monks from Maison de l'Inspir (a Plum Village monastic community established in Paris about a year ago) and the fabulous Harmony House 'brothers:' Alain, Charlie, and Manu.

Phap Liêu came with another monk from Paris, Phap Tâp, in order to lead the retreat of about 30 participants. Like any retreat following the teachings of Thich Nhat Hahn, the basic idea is always to cultivate mindfulness
in a variety of ways: sitting meditation, walking meditation, silent meals, singing, dharma sharing/talks (more on that later), bodywork like qigong or yoga, etc. But given the theme of this particular retreat, we also spent a lot of time outside on long walks in the countryside (which sadly wasn't possible for me because of my broken toe) and doing what they call 'total relaxation.' It was basically a deep relaxation guided by one of the monks, who sang us some incredibly beautiful lullabies while one of the participant 'played' tibetan bowls. We did this a few times, and it was absolutely amazing - I was so relaxed that I even fell asleep once, which is the first time that's ever happened to me in a relaxation, since I often can't even fall asleep in my own bed much less on the floor in a room full of people, many of whom are snoring!

Here's a picture of the altar in the meditation hall, which is in part noteworthy for its absence of a Buddha statue. There was one at first, but one of the monks decided that he didn't want it there since it wasn't a Buddhist retreat - so he took it away! I thought that was pretty funny, because all of us were used to being around Buddha statues and I'm sure it wouldn't have bothered anyone. But the Buddha was gone, so we practiced mindfulness without him. We had beautiful bouquets to inspire us instead, created by a Japanese participant who practices Ikebana, the art of flower arrangement.

We did have a Buddhist reminder outside, however, in the form of Tibetan prayer flags (even though Thich Nhat Hahn is Vietnamese and teaches in a completely different tradition - that's Buddhist tolerance for you!). To the right you can see the composting toilets, which were a recent addition in order to accommodate the increasing numbers of participants while limiting water consumption, in keeping with the ecological principles of Harmony House. And I'm sure the compost will go back into their beautiful gardens (more about those in the next post).

With all that fresh country air, delicious organic food from the garden, and wonderful exchanges between the participants (in addition to all the mindfulness practice of course), it was an incredibly relaxing and restorative week. I found it really hard to leave Harmony House, and can't wait to go back!

For more info on Maison de l'Harmonie and de l'Inspir, you can visit their blogs by clicking on the links embedded in this text or on my blog list to the left.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Traveling Mindfully

My vacations aren't always restful. Usually, they're anything but, especially if they involve any kind of tourism: I have my list of must-sees from the guide book, and it's often a race agaisnt the clock to see as much as possible before I leave.

I love to travel, and thanks to cheap airfares and short distances, I've been fortunate to visit a number of beautiful European cities since I've lived in France: Barcelona, Berlin, Rome, and now Amsterdam (not to mention all the lovely French places I've been to). But lately I've been thinking about how I travel, and wondering what I really see when I visit a place at my usual pressured pace. Am I really any different from the stereotypical harried and hurried sneaker-clad tourist rushing from one site to the next, only stopping long enough to snap a few photos?

I'm not so sure. In fact, I suspect that I'm just as much of a point-and-shoot tourist as the next person; checking off my mental list, consuming rather than experiencing, the camera actually blocking my view. And it's honestly pretty exhausting most of the time.

Since I'm trying to bring more mindfulness into my daily life it certainly seems worth doing the same on vacation. This summer is therefore my experiment mindful traveling.

So here I am about to leave Amsterdam, and it's been a very different trip already. For starters I gave myself a little more time - 6 days instead of the usual 3 or 4. And when I was tempted to rush, my broken toe soon slowed me back down. While I was initially cursing this injury that took place on the very first day of my vacation, it ocurred to me later that the timing was just right. My injury doesn't keep me from walking, but I'm forced to stroll at a more leisurely pace - flâner as the French say - which is no easy thing for me.

I also spent 3 days of this trip with a baby, my friend A.'s 10-month old son J. And I quickly realized that babies don't just slow you down, they actually stop you right in your tracks. No matter what we had planned, we'd periodically need to head back to the apartment for a diaper change, food, sleep, etc. Or J. would just get too heavy for A. to carry in the sling for very long, and his tolerance for the stroller was pretty short-lived. So our time was basically organized around what baby J. could handle.

Luckily we had rented a little studio in the center of town so getting back to the apartment was easy. And since I had expected that the baby would cramp my style, I tacked on a extra few days to my trip so that I could do things the baby made impossible, like riding a bike, going to museums, eating in restaurants. Above all, it was a real pleasure to spend time with my friend and little baby J., so the first part of my trip was great. And the broken toe and the baby both provided me with endless opportunities to work on my patience and mindfulness.

For example, I've never actually spent that much time in my residence while traveling, which would have been extremely frustrating if I'd had a long list of things to do. But I kept thinking of a gatha (a sort of short poem to meditate on) from Plum Village: "Nowhere to go, nothing to do."

It's a strange, even incongruous gatha for a tourist, but in the end it was perfect: I'm on holiday in a beautiful place, and all I have to do is be here and appreciate where I am - stop and smell the foreign roses, so to speak (which I did a couple of times, actually - they smelled the same :-).

I saw less of Amsterdam by going more slowly, but I feel like I saw things differently. I never actually sat this much on holiday before, yet here I would spend hours just gazing out of the window of our apartment: watching people whizz by on the bicycle path below; observing the activities of the police station across the street; or spying on the prostitutes leaning out of their red-lit windows, trying to lure in customers. Or I'd sit on a bench in a plaza with an ice cream cone, or sipped a drink at an outdoor café while watching an elderly man in a G-string perform acrobatic feats on a rope above us (seriously - I'll post pictures as soon as I can). And my very favorite: sitting on the edge of a canal to give my toe a rest, feet dangling above the calm waters. Miraculously, I sat without impatience, just absorbing the energy of the water, the atmostphere, the city itself. Observing, eavesdropping, noticing simialrities and differences.

Forced to slow down and even sit, I'm slowly learning to sit and slow down. I'm usually terrible at relaxing and doing nothing, but here in Amsterdam I really put the gatha I mentioned into practice: In a place where there are a million things to do, I resolutely enjoyed doing none of them!

Saturday, August 8, 2009


Here I am, happy in Amsterdam. Will write more as soon as I'm done enjoying this beautiful city!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

My Summer Vacation

I'm not much of beach person. I don't enjoy baking in the hot sand (faire la crêpe they call it in French) and I can only spend so much time in the water. So my ideal vacation does not involve going to a super-touristy beach resort, along with almost the entire French population which vacates to one of the three coasts in the summer.

And yet, here I am in a small Mediterranean town called Leucate, about 40 minutes from the Spanish border. My partner's father lives here, so during the summer Kevin comes down to sell his massages to tourists on the beach. It's actually a pretty sweet set-up:

I've come here mostly to drop off the cats and hang out with Kevin for a few days before I leave him to his work and start my own vacation. Last year I was here for a week, but frankly the setting was wasted on me. I hardly even went to the beach, and though I fixed up an old bike with the idea of riding around, the sweltering sun quickly sent me back indoors. Besides, the vegetation is almost non-existent; it's so dry and barren that there is not much to see besides the sea. And the heat here is beyond oppressive, the wind intense and chaotic (much to the delight of windsurfers ).

But even if you do like the beach, at any given moment the wind can pick up and start whipping around, which makes laying in the sand more than a bit unpleasant. For all these reasons, when I was here last summer I was pretty much glued to the TV watching the Olympics and barely left the house.

So let's just say I'm not in my element, and I would much rather head to the Pyrenees mountains which I can gaze at longingly in the distance. Here's the view from Kevin's dad's house - directly in front is a big pond where they cultivate oysters, and the Mediterranean is to the left:

But despite my lack of enthusiasm, I'm here now; and for only 3 days this time. So I'm trying to make the most of it - I haven't turned the TV on even once! On the first day I played a little with a body board; mostly I watched Kevin repeatedly fall off his skim board in a spectacular and of course comical manner. Then we had a romantic dinner at a restaurant on the beach, where we ate and drank to the sound of waves crashing under a three quarter moon. That's pretty hard to beat.

I pretty much stayed in the house yesterday nursing my poor pinkie toe, which I broke on Friday coming out of the shower. But today I went back to beach where Kevin works, and since the wild wind kept the tourists away he had time to give me a massage - my second in two days! Yes, I know, I am a very lucky girl. But I have to say that you if you ever have the opportunity to get a massage on the beach, you shouldn't think twice. It's hard to imagine anything more relaxing than receiving a massage with the sound of surf as a lullaby. Then I took my last swim, and I have to admit there is something pretty magical about the vastness of the sea. Rather than complaining about swallowing salt water, I decided just to roll with it and enjoy what the sea has to offer. I came out invigorated and thankful.

Tonight we're having crèpes, and then tomorrow I head back to Lyon before I set off on the next leg of my summer vacation. I think I found the right solution for a beach holiday: short and sweet. Either that or take up windsurfing.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Trains, Trains, and Automobiles

Before even getting on the train yesterday I was already thinking of writing a post about how great the rail network in France is - only to be delayed for an hour and half with engine trouble. It was the first time I've been on a train more than 5 minutes off schedule, and I was a bit stressed only because I had my cats with me and I'd deliberately chosen the shortest possible trip to minimize the time they spent in their carrying case. Not the best time for the train to be so late. On the bright side, the staff came around and gave out bottles of water, which I thought was really sweet. But I felt so bad for the cats that I let them out of their case once Kevin arrived to pick up us, and Lucky ended up relieving himself both ways in the car. Desperation or revenge? I'll never know.

So yesterday's train experience admittedly wasn't ideal. But I still love trains, especially the French ones.
They're clean and pretty stylish, almost always on time, go just about everywhere in the country and Europe, and are pretty reasonably priced if you get your tickets early enough. The TGVs (Train Grande Vitesse or high speed train) are also super fast - they set the world speed record in 2007 of 274.9 mph and average speeds are around 186 mph. For example, the distance between Lyon, where I live, and Paris is 285 miles. By car that takes about 5 hours if you don't hit too much traffic. But on the TGV, you go from city center to city center in 2 hours! One of my neighbors actually works in Paris, which is a hell of a commute, but still doable. For me it's just nice to be able to go to Paris for a quick visit, and for many destinations it's actually much quicker than driving. The only drawback: the not-infrequent strikes the French are famous for. But you can't have everything, can you?

Here I am on the TGV from Paris to Lyon when my brother came for a visit. You can tell from that huge smile how much I love riding trains, right?

I've always loved trains, I'm not sure why exactly. But since I always request a window seat I think it big part of it is just watching the landscape roll by. Or maybe the freedom of being able to wander around the aisles, or hang out in the dining car for a change of scenery. Once when I was 20 and on an Amtrak from Michigan to Massachusetts, I was seated in the dining car with a very handsome Australian vet who was traveling around the US. We talked (ok, flirted) for hours and he gave me his address in Australia. Not sure if I kept it, but that was a very exciting moment for me - maybe that's where the positive association with trains comes from!

Admittedly, I love planes too; for the bird's eye view especially. One of the most breathtaking things I've seen was flying towards Lyon with the Alps
so close I felt like I could reach out the window and caress the snow-tipped peaks. But my ecological conscience has issues with flying, though it's hard to resist sometimes given the super cheap fares you can find nowadays. I was able to go to Rome and Berlin last summer for outrageously low prices, and to assuage my conscience I checked the box to offset my carbon consumption with a donation to some kind of forest in Ecuador. I felt a little less guilty, and I loved those trips. But in an effort to reduce my carbon footprint I've been trying to take the train whenever possible rather than being seduced by the cheap fares. Besides, flying the low-cost airlines hasn't ever been a great experience, so in the end I'm not sure it's worth the extra hassle and the carbon emissions to save a few bucks.

I'm really happy about my summer plans in that sense, because I'm traveling only by train to Amsterdam, London, and several different places in France, with just a little bit of driving. That's part of what's great about Europe: you can go pretty short distances and find yourself in a completely different country and culture. And since they built the tunnel under the English Channel, you can even go to England via Eurostar. I'm a little freaked out at the idea of being underwater, and I definitely won't have much of a view. But I'm excited to be able to ride the train to an island!

So trains are just another thing to love about France, and I really hope that someday people in the US will know the joys of a fast, efficient, and affordable rail system. I've read that Obama is really interested in the French TGV and will invest lots of dough in rail lines, so perhaps that's in the cards. If you do ever get the TGV in the US, you'll know where to find me!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Funny Things French People Say

In my work as an English teacher and even in my daily interactions with the French, I'm exposed to a never-ending stream of hilarious malapropisms. I always say that I'll write them down but usually forget. So for the sake of adding a little laughter to your day and mine, I've decided to keep track of some of that funny stuff in this blog.

A typical example involves misuse of prepositions: In response to my amusement at one of his English mistakes, my partner says to me, "Stop laughing on me!" Of course that just makes me laugh even harder...

Pronunciation also causes some problems: During an activity where my students had to make up lies in order to give a negative response to their partner's questions, one student asked the other, "So I hear you ate children." As if hating children isn't bad enough, she's accusing her of eating them!

Of course she meant to say hate, but French people tend to make the h silent when they see it, and to pronounce it when they shouldn't. For example, one of my students couldn't say the word "I"; she would say things like "Hi like pizza, Hi went to the movies," etc. Or they'll say "I hate lunch" instead of "I ate lunch." "I'm very hungry at him" instead of "I'm very angry at him." So I spend a fair bit of my class time working on the h sound, and of course laughing my butt off - luckily my students are pretty good natured about it all!

One last anecdote for today comes from another teacher, with of mix of pronunciation issues and general vocabulary confusion: One of his students recently asked him if he was a "cheese gamer." Hunh? After much confusion, they finally realized he meant to say "chess player." Ahhhh.

Speaking English with the French can take a fair amount of detective skills to uncover the hidden midden in the incomprehensible stuff they sometimes come up with. But that's part of the fun, and it's true in any foreign language I suppose; I make plenty of mistakes myself when I speak French. And when I lived in Ecuador as a college student, I said so many ridiculous things in Spanish that my host family started calling me "payasa" (clown). The important thing is to have a sense of humor about it all!

In that spririt, stay tuned for the next installment of "funny things french people say. " :-)

Monday, July 27, 2009

Today's Moment

I came home for lunch today since I had a long break in between classes, and I took advantage of the gorgeous weather to sit on my “terrace.” I’m using quotation marks because I don’t think it really qualifies as a terrace; it’s just a bit of concrete in between two hydrangea bushes. But the previous tenants left a rusty table and some dirty plastic chairs, which I am very thankful for since I’m sure we never would have bought them ourselves. When you put a tablecloth down it’s actually quite presentable:

The problem, however, is that our mini-terrace gives onto the driveway for all the tenants. So whenever our neighbors return home, they see us eating and always say ‘bon appétit!’ and make a random comment about something. (Seriously, this a compulsion among the French; it’s impossible for them to see anyone eating without saying ‘bon appétit!’, even if they are just passing by and have nothing to do with your meal).

For me this felt a bit weird, almost as if these folks were walking across our dining room to get to their apartments. So for a long time I didn’t think much of our terrace, especially because our view is onto the parking spaces in front of the house. Compared to the neighbors behind us who have an enormous garden all to themselves, our little parking lot terrace seemed a bit lame (nul as they say in French).

Here is our view of the parking lot, our garage is on the far right:

But then I started to wonder why I was so attached to my privacy that I resented my neighbors’ intrusion into my meal. All of them are nice people, so the more I think of it, the more I think it’s actually great that we do interact with our neighbors a bit, considering how isolated most people are these days. And yes, we sit right next to a driveway. But there are only 8 apartments in this house, so it’s not like there is constant traffic. And as you can see in the picture our view is not just of parking spots but also of big beautiful trees, lavender bushes, climbing vines, roses. For living in the city, we’re actually lucky to have a terrace at all, especially one surrounded by such greenery.

So today my moment of mindfulness came as I was eating my lunch on my little terrace, breathing deeply and gazing at the trees, feeling grateful that I have good food and a beautiful place where I can eat it. And though I didn’t actually see any of my neighbors, I think I would have been happy if I had.