Thursday, June 3, 2010

Today's Moment - Being A Tourist in My Own Town

One of the things I love most about hosting out of town visitors is the opportunity to see my city through their eyes.  I just spent a couple days showing some American friends around, and many of the sights I take for granted became new to me again through their exclamations of admiration.  I also got to re-visit beautiful places that I tend to forget about until it's time to play tour guide - like the Fourvière Basilica with it's stunning views of the city, and the nearby gallo-roman amphitheater built in 15 BC which blows my mind every time I think about the Romans watching plays there two millenia ago.  The theater is partly in ruins, but much of it is in good enough condition to host a concert series every summer:

With my friends in tow I also took on a tourist attitude, and allowed myself to do things that tourists do and I don't - like have an ice cream on the Place des Terreaux, or a drink on the barges that dock along the Rhône river.  These places are of course way over-priced for what you get, which is why I'm such an infrequent customer.  But you're paying for the pleasure of hanging out in one of the most beautiful plazas in France, next to the famous Bartholdi fountain (by the same sculptor who made the statue of liberty) and surrounded by architectural gems like the fine art museum and the ornately gilded city hall.  I cut through the plaza on my bike all the time, only sometimes noticing it's loveliness, but I never linger.  Same with the barges on the Rhone - I pedal by them quite often on my way to somewhere else, but rarely allow myself the simple pleasure that is having a drink on the deck of a boat while watching the river flow by below.

Lyon's ornate city hall on the Place des Terreaux:

In fact I realized these past few days that I almost never walk around Lyon, since I'm always on my bike - even more so now because at 8 months pregnant, cycling (albeit slowly) is actually much easier than carrying around the weight of my big belly!  But in cycling I miss out on the famous French tradition of 'flânerie.' It's hard to translate directly - the dictionary says to stroll or saunter.  But it's more of an attitude - walking slowly, just to enjoy yourself, with no particular destination in mind.  It's actually a pretty zen-like way of doing things, the idea being that the journey itself is much more important the the destination.  And it's something I have a hard time with.  Even with the aforementioned heavy belly, I was still rushing along ahead of my friends, just thinking about what I was going to show them.  While they were just sauntering along, appreciating their surroundings in the true French tradition of flânerie. 

So I taught my friends the verb 'flâner' and congratulated them on their mastery of this fine French art.  Then I decided that I needed to take a lesson from both the tourists (at least the ones who stroll, since many are in a hurry to see as much as possible) and the French.   I'm going to try to slow myself down (yes, even on my bike) and really be mindful about where I am - especially now that I'm on maternity leave and have no reason to rush anymore.  I want to notice and appreciate the beauty that is around me, without waiting for visitors to remind me to look around. 


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Coming Back to Mindfulness

I haven't written in a long while, wrapped up in my little pregnancy bubble, focused on acquiring information and just gestating, as it were.  I also had the idea that I would start another blog just about pregnancy and parenting issues, since they seemed off-topic for the mindfulness blog I intended this to be. 

But I recently came across a couple of books that have helped to remind me that it's all connected. The first is called "Momma Zen:  Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood,"  by a Zen Buddhist priest named Karen Maezen Miller.  It was truly inspiring, with lots of short, easy-to-read vignettes full of great insights into parenting as an endless series of opportunities for spiritual practice.   I also just started "Mindful Motherhood:  Practical Tools for Staying Sane During Pregnancy and Childbirth" by Cassandra Vieten.  I haven't gotten very far yet, and so far it seems geared more towards people who are new to mindfulness.  But her suggestions about incorporating moments of mindfulness into daily life whenever you can will certainly become all the more vital once the baby comes and I'll have a lot less free time.  

More than anything, these books made clear that my spiritual practice is fed by whatever is happening in my life in 'this moment.'  For example, I attended my first retreat at Plum Village in large part to deal with anger, and have continued to practice in Thich Nhat Hahn's tradition with a local sangha in order to find more calm and clarity.  One of the outcomes of my practice was finally being able to take the decision to make a baby, after years of uncertainty and doubt.  And we actually conceived after I returned from a 2-day mindfulness retreat, peaceful and present.

So my pregnancy is a direct result of my previous spiritual practice, and has now become my current spiritual practice - though I didn't realize that until recently.  I was actually feeling a bit down on myself for not meditating much anymore, since I haven't been attending the Tuesday meditation sessions that are just too late at night for me now. And I haven't sat on my cushion much these past few months either. 

But part of what's interesting about pregnancy is that it's so physical, so embodied.  At Plum Village they use a mindfulness bell to bring you back to the present moment - each time you hear the bell (or a phone, or a clock chiming) you pause and come back to your breath for a count of 3.  While I haven't been using a bell myself, I do have a very active baby inside of me who keeps bringing me back to the here and now with one breathtaking kick in the ribs.  I'm not consciously choosing to practice mindfulness with him, but the little guy doesn't let me get away with being elsewhere for very long.  When he reminds me of his presence, he brings me back to the present.  And the present moment is both wondrous and miraculous, and sometimes even a little bit freaky. Each and every one of his wiggles and kicks is exciting, no matter how uncomfortable; as well as reassuring, since it means he's doing well.  And I'm still awestruck (and a bit weirded out) whenever I actually see him undulating under my skin like some kind of alien invader straight out of a sci-fi movie.  I never get tired of seeing and feeling him move, which keeps bringing me back over and over again to how crazy and magical it is to be carrying another life inside of me. 

While my recent reads have brought me back to a more conscious form of mindfulness, it's nice to realize that I never really stopped practicing.  My practice has just taken a different form, shifting from my meditation cushion to my growing belly.  And once baby arrives my practice will certainly shift again in ways that I can't possibly even fathom yet.  But I don't want to think too much about that yet, since I still have six more weeks of pregnancy moments to enjoy.   

Here's a recent picture of the belly at 32 weeks:

Sunday, February 14, 2010


The reason I was first drawn to following a mindfulness practice in the tradition of Plum Village (see sidebar) was the first Thich Nhat Hahn book I ever read.  In French it's simply called "La Colère" (Anger) and the cover shows a picture of a very cranky-looking Buddhist monk.  In English the title is "Anger:  Wisdom for Cooling the Flames," which aptly describes the book's main message:  we need to take care of our anger, understand it,  and let it cool down before we enter into communication with others.

I bought the book in a Tibetan Buddhist center in Lyon that I went to a few times, but never felt quite comfortable in - too ceremonial and religious-feeling, plus not particularly welcoming.  I was drawn to the book by its title and unusual cover (how often do we see images of unsmiling Buddhists, after all?), because I was feeling a bit like that monk looked - pretty darn pissed.

I've long struggled with anger issues, though I may come across as perfectly nice and sweet to most people who meet me (though once they find out I'm a Scorpio they get a little more worried).  I'm not necessarily quick to anger, but once I get going, those flames burn hot, steady, and long.  I was quite proficient in the silent treatment back in high school (as a few former friends may remember), as well as being a champion grudge-holder and extremely slow to forgive.  I've mellowed out over the years, and I'm more conscious of the excesses I am capable of.  But the depth and breath of my anger is a big part of what drew me to mindfulness practice, since my occasional fits of fury have created, and continue to create a great deal of suffering in my life. 

I recommend Thich Nhat Hanh's book to anyone who struggles with conflict whatsoever, but won't give you a review of its contents here.  Suffice it to say that I found his wisdom inspirational and priceless, so much so that I decided to participate in a week-long retreat at Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hahn's monastic community in Western France.  I went during a particularly difficult time in my romantic relationship, when I was seething with resentment and not sure if I could continue on with my partner.  I knew the rage was just festering within me and I had to let it go instead of projecting it all onto kevin, but I just couldn't do that work on my own. And since my anger was a huge trigger for kevin's anger, we kept ending up in a painfully vicious cycle.  So I went to Plum Village to breathe and 'find myself' and learn to let go. 

Within minutes of my arrival it began to snow, and all of sudden dozens of young Vietnamese nuns came rushing out into the falling flakes, giggling and squealing in utter ecstasy.  Thich Nhat Hahn is orginally from Vietnam, and he invites young men and women from his home country to come live in his monastic community in France.  For these women it was the first time they had ever seen snow, and their joy was unbounded. 

I had arrived at Plum Village with a heavy heart, but the delight in these young women's faces as they ran around throwing their first snowballs would have rubbed off on even the darkest of souls.  I was suddenly filled with wonder at the beauty of the soft snowfall, something which I always take for granted given that I have lived in many cold climates over the years.  And I realized how easy it is to forget to see the beauty around us, just because we've seen it so many times before.

The nun's joyous energy was infectious, and as I stood peacefully basking in the sound of laughter all around me, I felt lighter and happier than I had in a long time.  The first person I wanted to share that feeling with was Kevin, as my resentment towards him had completely faded while I was busy being blissful.  Funny how joy and anger just can't seem to share the same space.  So I called him, told him I loved him, and spent the next week working on my breathing, learning how to be present, and simply enjoying the presence of the nuns, who are just about the smiliest people I've met in my life. 

My week in Plum Village was transforming, because I became vibrantly aware that I was choosing happiness or suffering at any given moment.  When I chose to be touched by the nuns' joy, there was no place for anger anymore.  And when I chose anger, there was no more room for joy.  All too often I made choices (albeit unconsciously) that created suffering for myself and those around me, rather than choosing to be joyful.  Realizing that this was a choice was extremely empowering, because it meant I could make different choices with happier results.

Of course, in real life it's not as easy to choose joy all the time.  The benefits of Plum Village lasted about a month or two, but without a strong mindfulness practice, it's all too easy to fall back into old patterns.  That's why my bi-weekly meditation session with my Plum Village sangha is so important to me.  When I can't go I find it more difficult to make the right choices, since it's hard for me to meditate on my own. So the first trimester of my pregnancy was doubly difficult, since in addition to my constant nausea I was too exhausted for my group's evening meditations.

Anger is particularly present for me at the moment, since I got into a big fight with kevin this past week.  My mindfulness practice has been suffering of late, and I haven't been taking care of myself in general.  Last week in particular I hadn't had time to relax at all over the weekend because my mother-in-law was visiting, and things just ended up exploding once she left. 

It's tempting to beat myself up over this and to tell myself that I have a terrible practice and that I suck at being mindful.  I KNOW that I need to let myself cool down, perhaps even more than most people because of my grudge-holding tendencies.  But against my better judgment I lashed out at kevin the other day, and while he was able to withstand my attacks for a moment, eventually his own anger took hold. That's the bad news.  

The good news is that we fight much less often than before, the peaks don't get quite as high, and the drama doesn't last quite as long.  While I'd love to eliminate the fights completely, I don't think that's realistic anytime soon given my stormy scorpio nature; and perhaps that shouldn't even be the goal.  But there has been immense progress, and when things go badly it's a wake-up call to take better care of myself.  While I used to see fights as a failure, I'm trying to notice instead how far I've come, and how well my mindfulness practice actually works - when I do it.

At Plum Village we talked about how it's so much easier to feel happy and peaceful in the context of a meditation retreat, and how so many people are tempted by monastic life for that reason.  But the real challenge is remaining happy and peaceful in normal hectic life and in relationships with people who may not practice mindfulness themselves.  That's the true work, and it is indeed hard work.  Retreats help to give us strength to face the outside world, but ultimately it's up to us to wake up every day and make the best choices we can.  This past week I made the choice to remain stuck in my anger and lash out at kevin, but then I also made the choice to let it go much faster than I would have a year ago.   Knowing that I'm going to be a parent soon is all the more motivation to make sure I continue with and try to deepen my practice, so that I can be as present as possible with my child and provide him/her with as peaceful a context as possible (all the while trying to forgive myself when I stray from perfection...).

I've always found it ironic that my middle name is Joy given that anger has been such a defining emotion in my life.  My mother tells me she gave me the name because she was so happy at my birth.  However I spent a long time feeling like the universe was playing a bit of a cruel joke on me, since I seemed doomed instead to unhappiness - in large part self-inflicted because of my own anger.  But I'm starting to redefine my relationship to this name, and to see Joy as my birthright, or my path in life - a guiding light of sorts.  And above all as I choice I can make each and every day.  

Monday, February 1, 2010


I haven't been sleeping well lately, perhaps because of the pregnancy, but most likely because of a long-standing difficulty turning off my brain at night.  Now matter how tired I am when I get into bed, the minute my head hits the pillow, it's like a switch gets turned on that I just can't turn back off. 

Normally I have the most trouble sleeping when there is something on my mind or I'm stressed out.  But the insomnia, while recurring, usually comes and goes as issues pop up in  my life.  Lately, however, it's been almost every night, which is in sharp contrast to my first trimester when just about all I did was sleep - with no trouble whatsoever.  So it's a big shift, and all the more frustrating because I otherwise feel so much better than before.  Now I'm tired not from the pregnancy, but from the not sleeping.  And while some insomnia is to be expected given my complicated relationship with sleep, and the fact that I obviously have lots on my mind planning for baby, it's still difficult to deal with.  

I lie in bed for hours almost every night, trying everything possible to sleep (except herbal tea, since I can't drink it now for some odd pregnant reason).  I've tried essential oils, sleep balm, even yoga; nothing doing.  My brain just won't shut down.  I've even been doing the buddhist version of counting sheep:  Count each inhale and exhale up to the number 10, starting over each time a thought interrupts.  I don't think I've ever made it to 10, and not because I've fallen asleep.  Yep, those darn thoughts just take over completely.  And eventually I just get angry.

I can't sleep and I'm frustrated that I can't sleep so I toss and turn and feel annoyed at myself and then the anger just builds as sleep further eludes me.  So I wake up both exhausted and really pissed off.  Not a great way to start the day. 

In desperation I started looking through some pregnancy books for guidance, and eventually came across some wise words from Sheila Kitzinger*:  "The stillness of the middle of the night provides a marvelous opportunity for practicing relaxation and breathing techniques and for getting in touch with the baby." 

Funny, but despite all my efforts to be more mindful in daytime, I never thought of using those moments of insomnia as an opportunity to connect with the little one.  Seems obvious now, but reading that was a huge revelation.  

So when the thoughts started to come the other night, I focused instead on my body, my belly, my breath.  I redirected the stream of thoughts to the baby who is still so tiny that I can't even feel him/her moving yet, which is perhaps why it didn't occur to me before to spend that time connecting.  

And a surprising thing happened:  a gentle wave of gratitude just washed over me, sudden and unbidden.  As I thought about the baby I just started feeling thankful for the amazing gift of life growing inside of me.  As I looked over at Kevin resting peacefully beside me, instead of feeling resentful at his perpetual ease with sleep (or his snores), I felt grateful for his presence in my life, our choice to create this child together, and what a wondeful father I knew he would be.  And then I felt grateful for my warm bed, my cozy apartment, the relative material comforts I enjoy when so many others are sleeping out in the cold, or homeless in Haiti. And so on. 

And it's strange because at other moments when I've purposefully tried to be thankful, the gratitude often got corrupted by guilt over my privilege and I usually ended up feeling worse.  But the other night was different:  my heart was full of thanks and appreciation for the simple blessings that I suddenly became aware of as I laid wide-awake, breathing in the quiet darkness.  

I'm wondering if that means I can't force gratitude, as much as I feel I should be thankful at certain moments.  Maybe I just need to soften enough to let the gratitude in when it feels welcome, when it has the space to express itself fully and freely.   And the idea that I can use this insomniac time to do something healthier than getting angry is in itself a gift.  I don't know if I fall asleep sooner (though I suspect I do), but I wake up a lot happier. 

I think it's also a good lesson for when the baby comes, since everyone says that new parents don't sleep.  Well, if the insomnia continues, it's good training for what comes later.  And even if I do manage to start sleeping normally again, I think the idea of being present during a time of unwelcome wakefulness is crucial.  Just as I realized that I can choose to be angry about the insomnia, or use that time more peacefully-productively, I hope that I'll be able to appreciate those moments when the baby wakes me as a gift rather than a burden (at least some of the time!). 

Who knows what I'll be capable of in 6 months, but in the meantime it gives me something to work on when I can't sleep at night!

*from "The Complete Book of Pregnancy and Childbirth" (Knopf 2004).

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Doing it Myself

On my way home yesterday I found a discarded 2-liter plastic bottle on the ground, and it was exactly what I needed!  I had just bought a bottle of water at the store, and was thinking about where to transfer the water to so that I could use the bottle right away.  And then I stumbled onto someone else's trash, which became the serendipitous solution to my immediate problem. 

Once home I immediately got to work on what I hope will be the first of many do-it-yourself projects to come.  I've been thinking about DIY for a while now, have even consulted recipes online from time to time, but I usually just take the easy way out and buy what I need.  Yesterday, however, I had a revelation.  We have a big humidity problem in our apartment, and one tired and rattling electronic dehumidifier that we lug around to different corners as needed.  But after cleaning mold from the damp walls yet again, I decided I needed to find an additional solution.  I remembered a kind of crystal absorber I'd had when I lived at the beach one summer, a small plastic tub you could put wherever you needed to.  I thought that could be a great (and silent) alternative.  The trick was figuring out what it was called, how to translate that into French, and then find out where to order one.

After poking around for a while, I finally found a couple of French websites that carried several versions of what I had in mind, though in bags rather than tubs.  One was even in the shape of a penguin, strangely enough, which changes color once it's full of water.  The biggest problem is that to re-charge those bags you need to put them in the microwave - and we don't have one.   So I kept surfing, until I stumbled across a site giving instructions on a cheap, home-made humidity absorber.  What?!  And the more I looked, the more I found different variations on the theme.  All the DIY suggestions involved cutting a plastic bottle in half, putting a mesh covering over the opening, placing salt (or variant) in the top part, then turning it upside down into the bottom part which captures the moisture absorbed by the salt.   So simple!  So cheap!   So quick!

I was so inspired that I spent hours perusing different DIY sites, and I'm now determined to make all sorts of other things instead of buying them.  I went shopping yesterday with a big list of ingredients, and though I couldn't find everything in my neighborhood, I can get started on a couple of projects.  My humidity absorbers are now in place, so the next priority is to make my own toothpaste, since I have all the ingredients for that and we're almost out.  It's going to save me a lot of money even in the short run, since the natural stuff we buy at the organic store is almost 5 euros for a little tube that doesn't last us very long. 

Doing things myself fits in so perfectly with my goal of mindful consumption and reducing expenses that I can't believe I didn't start sooner.  But it's funny to suddenly notice how my reflex to buy things is so established - I have a problem, I look for place to purchase the solution without thinking twice about it.  Over the years I've moved more and more to ecological consumption, so that many of the products I do buy are natural and non-toxic.  But they are often pretty expensive, and far from essential as I'm just starting to realize.  I can just as easily make these products myself, saving myself a lot of money and consuming less packaging in the process. 

It's also really empowering for me to become aware that I can meet my own needs and find solutions to my problems without relying on commercial, packaged solutions.  A whole new world of self-sufficiency is opening up to me now that I've opened my eyes to it, and it's incredibly thrilling.  It's also a great way for me to practice mindfulness, both in terms of thinking about what I do and don't need to buy, but also being fully present and enjoying the moments when I'm able to make things for myself. 

Once I'm a bit more organized about it I'll post some links to some DIY sites that I find most useful, but if any of you have any sites to recommend feel free to post them in the comments!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Mindfulness at the Mall

On Monday night I accomplished an almost heroic feat of willpower:  I spent almost 2 hours in a shopping mall and didn't buy a single thing! All the more impressive since it's the big sales time in France, so faced with up to 70% off all sorts of stuff, the temptation was strong.

Strangely enough, France only allows shops to use the word 'sale' twice a year for clearly-defined periods in winter and in summer.  The exact dates of the sales are dictated for each region, as are the sale conditions and possible discounts offered (so that stores don't artificially inflate their prices before cutting them, for example).  The rest of the year shopkeepers can't have what they call sales for fear of being fined.  Seems a bit heavy-handed from an American free-market perspective,  but the intention is actually to protect small businesses (even more than the consumer).   What it means in practice is that the French go wild during the sales, swarming every possible shopping area in impressive numbers.  Going to the mall during this time therefore becomes a particularly courageous endeavor if you're as semi-claustrophobic and generally anti-mall as I am.

Luckily Monday evening does not seem to be the busiest shopping time, because I had a very important project:  to figure out how to cover my ever-growing belly.  I think I've been in denial about needing maternity clothes until now, but I have to face the fact that as my waistline expands, so must my wardrobe.  The mall expedition was actually more of a reconnaissance mission; to see what's available, check out the prices, and mostly figure out what my pregnant size is.  In fact, I went to the mall with the explicit intention of not buying anything, because my goal throughout this pregnancy is to spend as little money as possible (as part of my efforts at mindful consumption).  And it just seems particularly wasteful to buy something brand-new that I'll only wear for a few months.

In parallel, I've also started following a blog in which readers were given a challenge to shop only second-hand for the month (see bonzai aphrodite).  I already do this for almost all my clothes, but it was helpful to have the extra incentive of the blog project to keep from being tempted by prices so low that you buy stuff just because it's too cheap to resist.  It was surprisingly difficult to pass up those bargains, and at a different point in my life I would have exited the mall with my arms full of 'great deals!'.   So I had to use all of my mindfulness skills to remind myself of my commitment to shop second-hand.   I also I had little mantras of sorts that I kept repeating to myself :  "I don't need this...I'm not buying anything...I will not spend any money...," etc.

When I eventually left the mall empty-handed, I felt victorious - like crossing the finish line of a long and arduous race. I felt very proud of myself, and also relieved.  Now I know that I'm not missing anything much, since most of the clothes were horrendous.  And I tried on enough stuff to have a sense of my maternity size in a few different brands.   My plan now is to comb the thrift shops, and tomorrow I'm even going to try on some maternity clothes that someone advertised online through a local re-selling site.

If any of you have other ideas on dressing throughout pregnancy, would love to hear them!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A New Year's Intention

I don't always make New Year's Resolutions, but I do find it useful to stop and reflect on how I want to live the coming year; whether there are any changes I'd like to make or new projects to undertake.  Lately I've noticed that a recurring theme in my life has been the notion of mindful consumption.  I wrote a post in the fall about not spending any money for a month in order to replenish my bank account and think about how I consume (slow month), and I find myself increasingly drawn to blogs and articles that offer Do-it-Yourself recipes or other ways to be more self-sufficient and spend less (I also welcome any links or suggestions you may have!).

There is also a component of my mindfulness practice that addresses the idea of consumption quite explicitly, the Fifth Mindfulness Training.  The Five Mindfulness Trainings are basically guidelines on how to live your life in a way that will increase your happiness and well-being; not commandments as such, but ideals to strive for and to work on (which is why they are called 'trainings').  Here is an excerpt of the Fifth Training, which I'm particularly drawn to at the moment:

"Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming.... I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me...I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or other suffering by losing myself in consumption" (for the full text see 5 Mindfulness Trainings).

I've never been a big consumer or shopaholic, but I've had my share of impulsive buys and I spent a year paying down a hefty credit card balance before moving to France. I don't have a credit card here, which helps cut back on the mindless spending, and in general there's less of a culture of conspicuous consumption here than in the US; that makes things a bit easier (The French are notoriously big savers vs. spenders, though that seems to be changing as buying on credit becomes a little more widespread).  Yet I'm still very far from the notion of mindful consumption that I strive for, even as I become increasingly solicited by a new category of consumer goods:  Baby stuff.

I'm expecting my first child this summer, so I've been suddenly plunged into a whole new world of 'needs,' fed in no small part by my own mother who has already started buying stuff for her first grandchild and sends me endless links to different products and websites.   And of course there are plenty of other people around to tell me what I need or should get, and I find it completely overwhelming.  Obviously some baby items are completely necessary, but probably just a fraction of all of the things that are advertized to expecting parents.  How then to make the difference between what I need and what I don't, to avoid getting dragged into a consumer frenzy over baby goods?

I don't have it all figured out yet, but finding a way to stay mindful through this period is my major intention for the year (other than preparing for the birth and parenthood, of course).  All the more so because I plan on cutting back to part-time work once the baby is born, which necessarily means my income will go down.  Luckily France offers a fair amount of financial assistance to parents, so we should be able to get by without too much hardship.  But I'm making the choice to earn less in order to spend more time with the baby, which gives me even extra motivation to cut out all unnecessary spending in my life, starting now. 

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Slowly in the Snow

My mindfulness practice has been suffering of late.  I haven't made it to my evening meditation group in quite a while, and I wasn't able to attend my sangha's day of mindfulness yesterday because the buses were canceled due to 'heavy' snowfall (heavy for Lyon that is, not for a Northerner such as myself!).

Just to give you an idea, here's a picture of the snow in front of my house.  We haven't moved the car all week since our driveway hasn't been and likely won't be plowed, so that's all the snow we've accumulated so far.  And it's still coming down!  You can just make out my hardy winter cat fraying a path towards the garage:

What's funny about snow in places that usually don't get any is that they just don't have the capacity to deal with it - either in terms of equipment or attitude.  I'm sure the public works folks are doing all they can, but the roads are still far from clear after less than 6 inches of snowfall.  What's even stranger is that they keep canceling the city's bus service.  In fact, Friday night ALL the buses were canceled, leaving only the metro and tramway, which obviously don't go everywhere.  And yesterday  morning, when I wanted to go meditate, only about 6 bus lines were running normally, and the ones I needed not at all.

But the weirdest part is that they outright canceled the school buses a few times - though they didn't close the schools.  So either parents had to bring their kids on roads the buses didn't want to take, or the kids stayed home.  Kevin explained that when that happens your absence doesn't really count, but with my memories of hoping for snow days and checking the radio to see if my school was on the list, I can't help wonder why they just don't cancel school outright.  What's the fun of a snow day for only some of the kids?

And if the buses are a bit shy in the snow, then car drivers seem to fall into two basic categories:  anxious or oblivious.  People either drive comically slow at 10 miles an hour because they're completely freaked out, or they roar along as if nothing has changed - not because they're confident winter drivers, but because nothing slows them down:  they try to take off gunning at a green light, wheels spinning; or start skidding and sliding when they turn too quickly. 

It's because of those people that I haven't been riding my bike all week - I think I can handle the roads, but I don't trust the oblivious folks not to come slamming into me because they haven't given themselves enough time to brake.  And if the roads are barely clear, then the bicycle paths are completely unnavigable.  They're either dangerously slick in sub-zero temps or a slow trudge in slush or powder when it heats up a bit (according to kevin's report, since he's actually been braving the snow-covered city on his bike). 

I've been taking the metro and tram, which is frustrating because it's so much slower than my bike, and it's been really packed because of bus cancellations and anxious drivers who've left their cars at home.  But the biggest problem is that sidewalks are downright treacherous and salt or sand seem to be in short supply. Homeowners/residents and shopkeepers are ostensibly responsible for clearing the sidewalks on their turf, but in the big anonymous city in a country of people who often pride themselves on getting around the rules, it just doesn't happen.  I remember that one winter when I lived in Western Massachusetts, my roommates and I hadn't gotten around to clearing the sidewalk after a heavy snowfall, and the police actually came to our house (following a neighbor's complaint) and informed us that we would be fined if we didn't shovel the walk immediately!  I can't imagine the police here lifting a finger to respond to that kind of complaint...

So all week I've been picking my way slowly and gingerly over the ice and slush to and from the metro stop, annoyed at Lyon's alternately insufficient or exaggerated response to a bit of snow, and regretting the mild, snowless winters I'd grown accustomed to here.

Given my frustrating week and lack of practice recently, I could have really used that day of mindfulness with my sangha yesterday.  But after cursing the bus service for a while, I finally decided to practice mindfulness on my own.  I had some errands to run, so I decided to go forth into town mindfully, which for me meant slowly, fully aware of what I was doing and where I was.  One of the nice thing about French cities is that they're typically organized into 'arrondissements,' or administratively distinct neighborhoods with their own city hall and mayor, and all the shops and services you need (bank/post office, bakery, grocery store, pharmacy, etc).  I live in the 9th arrondissement, so all I had to do yesterday was just put on my warmest clothes (including my little-used Northern girl super-thick long underwear), my big boots, and hit the snow-covered trail.

With each step I tried to pay attention to my breathing and to where I was going, noticing what was around me - the softness imparted by the snow; the quiet, the calm.  I tried especially (and this was more difficult) to avoid annoyance at the condition of the sidewalk, instead just being as careful as I could, placing my feet mindfully in front of me.  I reminded myself I wasn't in a hurry, thinking of one of the gathas (a little poem to help with meditation) from Plum Village:  'Nowhere to go, Nothing to do.'  Even though I had a clear destination and a list, the point of mindfulness is to be focused on where we are rather than where we are going.

So I walked slowly and mostly mindfully into town, appreciating that I could walk and didn't have to brave the roads or the crowded metro.  I first returned my books to the library, then spent some leisurely time perusing the shelves and picking out a few  books and DVDs.  On my way to the restroom before leaving I had the strange experience (in my state of mindfulness, anyway) of having a woman come up behind me so quickly that I thought she was going to push me aside.  She didn't actually touch me, but she did rush past me into the bathroom, and when she came out of the stall she was in such a hurry that she didn't dry her hands completely under the hand dryer, shaking her hands and wiping them on her pants instead.  As I took the time to thoroughly dry my own hands, breathing mindfully all the while, I laughed to think that I'm usually that impatient myself:  rushing from one thing to the next, hating those hand-dryers, annoyed with slower people than myself, overtaking them on sidewalks or wherever they happen to be in my way.  But at that moment, I was the slow one annoying others!

I continued my errands even more mindful of taking my time, relishing the slowness, all the more so because the slippery sidewalks required it.  Instead of fighting the snow, I embraced it, enjoying the crunch under my feet, the sparkly beauty of my neighborhood transformed, the laughter of children gleefully throwing powdery snowballs.  I took my time in the shops, browsing, happy to be supporting small local businesses and to live in a neighborhood where I can do almost everything I need to on foot. 

As I finally meandered home, back bent under the weight of my overfilled backpack (the consequence of so much browsing!) I felt lighter somehow, even happy despite my heavy load and the thick, roiling snowflakes blowing in my face.  I'm not sure how long I took to run my errands - surely much longer then usual, but time didn't matter - I had nowhere to go, nothing to do.  And while I was intitally disappointed that I wasn't able to join my sangha for a day of practice, in the end I was with them in spirit, praticing mindfulness in my own slow way.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Christmas in France

The past couple of months have been a whirlwind, I have no idea how the new year snuck up on me so quickly! I have to admit my mindfulness practice has been suffering of late, and with the holidays things got a little hectic.

While K and I had originally talked about going to the US for Christmas, in the end I just wasn't feeling up for it, and the tickets were just too expensive anyway.

Instead we stuck pretty close to home for the Holidays.  Kevin's sister, who also lives in Lyon, hosted the Christmas Eve dinner at her place (dinner on the 24th is just as important as the Christmas meal for a lot of French families, and many even exchange presents that night so they can sleep in the next day!).  And Kevin and I hosted Christmas lunch at our place.

I realized this year that this has only been my second Christmas in France, since I was in the US in 2007, and last year I went to Plum Village on a meditation retreat over Christmas and New Year's.  So I had forgotten that the holidays in France are bit different than in the US, as you might expect.  And the key word is FOOD.  You could even say Slow Food.

For any given meal, you can be almost certain that your average French person will spend much longer at the table than your average American.  This is true for lunch, where many people typically take a 1.5 to 2-hour break and often go to a sit-down restaurant.  But it's especially true for dinner, when an invitation for 8 pm means that you won't likely get to dessert before midnight.  I still have yet to fully adjust to this schedule, since I'm usually starving by the time our host offers us hors-d'oeuvres.  So I stuff myself with the snacks and am totally full by the time the main dish comes around a few hours later. Or if I'm really worried about eating late, I'll sometimes even grab a bite at home before we head out.

Other than the later dinner times, the other part of eating in France that I haven't quite adapted to is the famous French moderation.  Since there will be many courses and the meal with last for hours and hours, people take their time and eat relatively small quantities.  And they drink.  Because for every course there is a specific wine to go with it.  Kevin claims that the alcohol helps to make room for all the food, which is why it flows so freely.  I haven't been able to test that theory myself, because I'm such a lightweight that I would be under the table before the main course if I tried to keep up with the French drinkers!  So instead I continue to scarf down the hors-d'oeuvres in a hunger craze, despite knowing full well that there will be more food, and lots of it!  And later I just feel stuffed and miserable, because of course you have to eat what the cook has prepared so as not to offend them...

If a regular dinner with friends can take hours, just imagine a Holiday meal!  It's the summum of the gastronomic experience, and French amateur cooks everywhere will pull out all the stops to impress their families.  For example, I remember Christmas 2006 at Kevin's grandparent's place, they served foie gras with a lentil sauce and whipped cream in wine glasses. I just had the lentils and cream, and I must admit I felt very chic eating out of a wine glass!

This year we had the big Christmas meal at our place, with Kevin's mom, k's sister and her partner, k's brother and his partner, plus her mom and sister. Luckily Kevin and I weren't expected to cook everything, so it was a bit of a potluck - which is not typical, since the hosts are usually responsible for most if not all of the food.

I believe we started snacking around 1:30 pm, with Foie Gras, the traditional French Christmas treat (the liver of force-fed geese, which is actually illegal in some parts of the US!).  Since I'm a vegetarian I always make something for myself, and went all out American/Tex-Mex:  black bean dip with tortilla chips (a friend had brought over the beans from the US since they're hard to find here). Not exactly a traditional x-mas dish, but the French don't know that!  It was the first time any of them had tasted it, and they all seemed to enjoy it.  Not as much as the foie gras, but what can you do. And Kevin's sister thought of me and made some spinach and goat cheese/ewe's cheese puff pastries that everyone wolfed down (I wasn't the only hungry one....).

With the snacks, which they call the 'apéro' or 'apéritif,' there was Champagne, of course.  While Champagne is obviously much cheaper in France than in the US, it's still somewhat pricey and so considered a drink for special occasions.  For a lot of French families, including Kevin's, it's part of their tradition to drink Champagne with the Christmas meal.  Unfortunately, I actually hate Champagne, much to the shock of any French person I admit that to.  But they get over it quickly, since they realize that it means more for them! Instead I drank an organic bubbly apple and blueberry drink, which I thought tasted much better, but which was much ridiculed!

Here's Kevin's mom getting ready to open the Champagne, in front of our festive table setting (yes there were nine of us squeezed around that tiny table!  Luckily the French are not large people as a general rule):

And here's me drinking my faux Champagne, while kevin scoffs (or maybe he's just making a goofy face, since he hates pictures):

After a Christmas toast and the gift exchange, we finally sat down to lunch around 2:30pm.  This was when the 'entrée' was served, but unlike what you find on American restaurant menus, in France the entrée is actually the appetizer or starter.  Logical, since it comes from the verb 'entrer,' to enter.  So I'm not sure how we manged to adopt that word in English to describe the main dish...

In this case our first course consisted of an onion pie Kevin made, as well as my all-time favorite grated carrot, beet, garlic and parsley salad.  This was another discovery for my French guests, since they typically don't eat beets raw.  In fact, it's pretty hard to buy raw beets, since regular grocery stores only sell them cooked and packaged, and even at the farmer's markets most of the beets are cooked as well.  I thought this was really odd, but Kevin's theory is that beets stain and the French don't like to get their hands dirty...

At some point the Champagne was put away and we switched to red wine, but I can't remember when. During the second course (or what Americans call the 'entrée') we definitely had red wine, which was meant to go with the rabbit stew brought by Kevin's brother's girlfriend's mom (got that?).  Apparently it was farm-fresh, killed-for-the-occasion, and everyone said it was very tasty.  To avoid thinking about the poor bunny I concentrated on my dish, which was the famous 'gratin dauphinois' (basically 'potatoes au gratin' - layers of very thinly sliced potatoes with tons of just about every dairy product imaginable).  It's really time-consuming to prepare so people tend to save it for special occasions, and since it supposedly went well with the rabbit I decided to give it a try with a recipe I found.  Not sure it was the best gratin ever made, especially since I couldn't help but use soy milk/cream and margarine instead of the full dairy versions which gross me out a bit (I did use real eggs and cheese though).  But people ate it all up so I guess it was good enough.  And then we also had a yummy carrot puree with herbes de provence.  So that part of the meal was pretty traditionally French, with no american oddities thrown in (unless you count the soy products, which are a fairly recent arrival in France, though they do cultivate their own non-gmo soybeans).

After the main course there is always cheese and bread, and often a salad as well, and then another kind of wine to go with the cheese.  But everybody seemed too full for the cheese so they just drank the wine and waited a while to make room for dessert.  And that is the key to a French meal.  Waiting.  Food is eaten slowly, forks and knives are put down while people talk; and they talk a lot.  And they eat a little more, and then they talk.  And even after the course is finished, they wait a bit for the next round, to work up an appetite.  And to talk.  And to drink (to make room for more food).   And eventually the next course is eaten, slowly.  I think it was past 6 by the time we had the dessert, a beautiful black forest cake with gooseberries that Kevin's sister made:

When the cake was served the red wine was removed and another bottle brought out:  Clairette de Die, a somewhat sweet sparkling white dessert wine.   I didn't like it either, since I'm really just not a big fan of bubbly wines, and I don't much like white wine in general (though I have come to appreciate a few whites that I've tasted here, namely some Alsatian sweet wines and Muscat de Rivesaltes - for those who may know their wines a bit...).  There was actually a second dessert as well, the traditional 'bûche de noel' or christmas log, but we were too full so I just cut myself a piece and put it aside for later, since I do love it so.  

So there you go, a French Christmas meal spread out over about 5 hours, with many courses and 4 different varieties of wine.  And we managed to get through all that food and drink with no disagreement of any kind, quite the feat for a family gathering!  Afterwards we played pictionary and charades for while, and then everyone went on their merry way, bellies full and spirits high.