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!