Sunday, July 27, 2014

through my friend's lens

Until I can add my own Albania-visit post, here's a link to an overview of our visit from the blog of my friend in Albania. She's a great photographer!

Waggoner News & World Report: Weekend Re-cap


Friday, July 25, 2014

j'adore les balkans

Senj, Croatia
I've just returned from nearly two weeks in the Balkans, and somehow I feel older than when I left. My friend Olivier and I traveled by car, and I now think that's the only way to make such a trip. Any other form of transportation would have left us missing important things.

The trip came together in bits and pieces, and the end result was a really good overview of life in the Balkans and most of the former Yugoslav republics, a region I mostly know only from news reports of war 20 years ago. But at its start the impetus was simply to visit friends who have taken up residence in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and Tirana, Albania, and to have an interesting roadtrip. Reaching the friends happened to mean traversing four out of six former Yugoslav republics plus Albania.

As we made the return drive to France through the coastal mountains of each country--from northern Albania to Montenegro to Bosnia to Croatia to Slovenia--I felt an odd pang of longing and homesickness. Part of me wants to live in the Balkans because there's something honest about people and places who have lived out their suffering and their sins on the world's stage--especially in comparison to the glitz of southern France where I currently live on the eastern edge of the Côte d'Azur, the French Riviera.

Another part of me feels at home in nearly any mountains anywhere. Growing up in the warm embrace of the Appalachians put mountains in my blood, including their melancholy--so astutely remarked on by Olivier as we traversed northern Croatia on Monday. On the backside, the eastern side, of the mountains that could see the Mediterranean Sea from their front side, we found a landscape that made me want to write, one that brought to mind sad but beautiful and haunting Appalachian mountain ballads like those my friend Vanessa introduced me to years ago with her music.

Anyway, stay tuned for posts from each country on our Balkans tour, if only for the photos alone -- it's such a beautiful landscape. (A country by country post is the goal, anyway!) If you are the traveling type, you should put this region on your travel list. And if you're a history and current events nerd, make sure you haven't missed adding this region's story to all the facts you store in your encyclopedic head.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

the economics of freelancing – 101

If you’re not a freelance writer and maybe even if you are, you probably have no idea what the pay rates are these days. And for those of you who’ve reached this post because you know I’m raising money, it might not make any sense to you why I raise money if I’ve also got a job.

First, as you may know, the media industry has been in a bit of a freefall since at least the 2008 financial crash. That, combined with the onset of the digital age, has left media entities scrambling to figure out how to finance the information they disseminate. The good part of this scrambling is that it’s launched a new season of innovation. [The Nieman Journalism Lab offers some good coverage of models people are trying out.] The question isn’t whether we still want to have news and reportage in some form – the question is what form we want it in and how to pay for it.

All the scrambling has definitely affected freelance writers and reporters. Our wages have stagnated or dropped. [This article’s a bit dated but is a pretty good summary of what’s happened to the industry.] Everyone wants content these days, but they need so much of it that they don’t want to/can’t pay real wages for it. Well, that and other problems.

Thus, similar to larger media entities that are testing out various not-for-profit journalism models, in the current phase of my Big Grand Ideological Idea, I’m trying out a nonprofit model of freelancing. One that says there are important stories to be told but acknowledges that it’s not cost-effective to tell them according to present business models. Thus, I’m seeking out people who agree that these stories need to be told (and told well) and who will make donations that supplement the gap between what media entities pay for my work and what comprises a reasonable, living wage for that work.

So, let’s get some real, hard numbers on the table:

Scenario #1: For several months now, I’ve been researching a story here in France. From interviews to web research, most of my research is in French, which means it takes even longer than it normally would. Before beginning the formal interviews, I spent hours in background research online and informal interviews trying to gain a baseline understanding of the question I was investigating and an initial list of sources – to help inform the formal questions I would ask. Very conservative estimate of time spent: 7 hours.

Next, I spent time contacting prospective sources, prepping for interviews, traveling to and from interviews, and conducting at least 7 interviews. Then, because most of these interviews were in French, I had to record them and then transcribe/take notes afterwards.  Very conservative estimate: 50 hours.

In addition to all this, there’s some ancillary research to do to verify information, to track down some stats, etc. Because I’m the thorough type and I want to get it right and report accurately, this will take me a very long time.  Very conservative estimate: 7 hours.

Finally, it will be time to write the 700-1000 word article that will not nearly hold all the things I’ve learned. Thus, all this good information will have to be distilled down into much less space than I’ll feel like the story warrants. And it will be a feat to tell the story accurately in short-form. Very conservative estimate of writing time: 10 hours.

Very conservative grand total of hours spent on this article: 74 hours (roughly 2 weeks of work time if it could be done straight through)

Guess what I’ll get paid for all of that work?

$300

Yep, that’s right. $300. Before taxes and business expenses.

Taking the time regularly to research stories at this depth means I’d be living on $600 a month before expenses and taxes. And over here in Europe that’s only about 438 €, which doesn’t get you very far toward covering living expenses.

This is why I’ve invited you to help me get these stories told.

Scenario #2: This summer I’m going to Togo, in West Africa, on a reporting trip. The cost of my flights alone is $1600 (and I’m already halfway to Togo, coming as I am from Europe). Add on-the-ground expenses, and the rough estimate climbs to $2000-plus. There aren’t many media outlets I’m presently connected with for whom I could hope to be paid enough to cover the expenses of this reporting trip, let alone make enough extra to count as income. In this scenario, most of the expenses of the trip will be covered by the sponsoring organization, but it would be preferable, for the sake of objectivity, to cover them myself. I’m a minimalist traveler, but even the costs of cheap travel in the service of reporting a story are hard to make back, when most stories pay in the range of $300-600.

This is why I’ve invited you to help me get these stories told.


And contact me if you would like to be involved in helping important stories be told!

Friday, June 27, 2014

what my work is about: mission statement and core values

Mission Statement:

To connect with people and places around the world in order to tell their stories with truth and authenticity.


Core Values:

I hold the following convictions and seek to partner with those who identify with these core beliefs: 
  • People have potential. All people have value, and their potential can be discovered and known.
  • The world is a place of wonder that should be explored and shared. Sharing experiences and observations with others helps to preserve our child-like curiosity about our world.
  • The truth matters. Whether the truth appears to be pretty or ugly, it carries beauty for being the truth. Though life is messy and relationships can be hard, honesty and authenticity honor people and their deep desire to be known. Care for nuance and subtlety can result in truth that is life-giving rather than harsh.
a few of the people I've met while reporting around the world











Thursday, June 26, 2014

hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to work I go

A week ago I strutted happily out into the sun. It was later than I'd planned, but still early enough to count as morning.

I was happy because I was heading to work. In a way all the world could understand. I had donned nice clothes, packed my computer tote with the day's tasks, and was commuting by foot to my office building where I would climb the curving stairs and spread the tools of my trade across a desk surface larger than any available flat spaces in my tiny home. And later, I could even take a real lunch break. Delightful.

I love it when a plan comes together.

I've had this plan before, but it never worked out. So I wasn't very hopeful this time when the plan wandered back into my brain a couple weeks ago.

The plan: to have an office somewhere outside my home.

You see, freelancing has lots of perks, including working from home. Except that sometimes working from home loses its perkiness.

And lately, that's exactly what had happened. I was not being productive at home. There always seemed to be dishes to wash. And taking work to some sunny café or other isn't really an option here most of the time. The café culture in Aix is not the pretend-this-is-your-office culture of Starbucks. And besides, even when Starbucks is just down the road, sometimes you just really need a real office for the task at hand.

I've been working from home for a long time now - in the U.S., in London, in France. And now that my formal French classes have ended (I do not yet speak perfect French, lest you be fooled by that phrase) and my excuse for leaving my house multiple times per week to interact with other human beings in person has evaporated, I was beginning to feel the tension of needing to be around people while also needing to get work done. Chatting with friends in sunny cafés every afternoon wasn't an option.

So I searched. And I found. It was one little ad listed two months prior on leboncoin.fr, the French equivalent of Craigslist. The proprietor is a super nice French woman. The other office-mate is a bilingual South African. The space feeds my creative soul. So I decided it's worth the financial risk (the part where I don't really make enough extra to pay for this space - YET) to invest in a little corner of the world that I can refer to as "my office."

Thus, two days per week now, I get to go to work. And it leaves me feeling immensely grown up and professional.

The building entrance.
Heading upstairs!
A note welcoming me to the two-room office digs on my first day.
The mother of the pigeon family that lives across the street.
If one must have a view of a wall, this wall works.
#poetryinstone

Friday, June 13, 2014

even welcomed intruders can be scary

Bordeaux by lamplight. May 2014
Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Three months shy of marking two years here in France, I’ve been noticing a new sentiment creeping into my psyche: some sort of emotion that seems important, but it’s lurked in the shadows just enough to avoid being identified. Tonight, though, as I ambled back to my centre ville apartment with my Tuesday-night-carry-out-special pizza from Dominos, I finally got a clearer view.

So here I am, ready to describe this little perp to the police sketch artist.

For so much of the time since I arrived in France, I’ve been very impatient, wanting desperately to really absorb this language. For me, language isn’t just a binary code of on and off switches. It’s soul. And I’ve wanted desperately to enter into all the places that accessing that soul can take me.

There have been glimmering, hopeful moments along the language-learning way, but it wasn’t until the past six months that something really changed. First, I just didn’t feel so tired anymore after days spent in French. Then, I began to understand without translating. Then, I began to be able to speak more and more spontaneously (on good days, anyway) and even crack the occasional joke.

And now, as I head into summer and mark two years of immersion and language study, I understand why people moving abroad often do two years of language study. My language skills still vary by the day, but mostly they’re solid enough now that they provide a hefty core mass for the snowball that’s rolling down the hill (or up the hill, since that sounds like more of an accomplishment :-) ) and constantly adding new words and expressions to its dictionary. I have a solid enough base now that this language thing is starting to improve exponentially.

But there’s another thing happening, and that’s the thing that surprised me as it stepped into the light tonight: A different kind of fear has replaced my impatient fear that I’d never master this language. You see, French is in me now. The on-off switch I kept trying to switch on is now permanently on. I can no longer turn it off. I can no longer choose not to understand French. Oh, I still don’t understand EVERYTHING, but I pretty much always understand something.

And the scary part is that I’m not in control of this anymore. Really, in truth, I never was; I realized months ago that I couldn’t make myself understand even though I desperately wanted to. I just had to wait until the words worked themselves into me.

But now I can’t make myself not understand.

So the scary part of all that—other than the not-being-in-control part--is that now that French has taken up residence in me, I can’t kick it out (kind of like the way French landlords can’t easily kick out their protected-by-law tenants :-) ). My new tenant won’t ever leave and has already done and will necessarily do more remodeling in me. And I don’t know what the result is going to be. So that’s the scary part. I can’t undo what’s been done during these past two years. And I can’t stave off what French will do as I keep using it and giving it an ever homier home in me.

We’re always changed by new experiences, and any travel or living abroad will always change us. So I’d anticipated that. But somehow this infiltration by this language, that I pursued and welcomed, feels like a deeper change than that wrought by trying new foods and meeting people who are different from me.


Because language is more than the right letters and words and punctuation marks. Because it’s more than words correctly combined and uttered at the right time. It’s soul. And the French soul has infiltrated my English-speaking American soul. And there’s no going back now. Scary or not, on y va! (Let’s go!)

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

famous people gather in Cannes

Saturday, May 24, 2014

I don't love literal crowds, and I don't love doing what all the cool kids are doing. But I have been living in southern France for almost two years, and if ever I'm going to go to Cannes, I might as well just visit the famed Côte d'Azur city during its important little film festival. I tried to go with a friend last year, but our attempts were foiled by transportation challenges and not enough incentive. This year, though? Success!

Let's just get this out of the way from the
start - Here's the most famous person I saw that day. Unfortunately, he was a
little too one-dimensional to sign an autograph for me.
Just to prove it really is Cannes I'm showing you photos of.
Reporting live from the middle of star-gazers.
Apparently, if you're at the right place at the right time, you will see real, live famous people.
At least I think that's why unfamous people stake out their spots with much intensity near the red carpets.

This guy was all dressed up for the big event Saturday night, kindly requesting that someone, anyone
 would give him tickets. I really wanted to follow him around all day and see how it worked out for him.
Did he get in? or not?
Look! RED CARPET!!!!
A small crowd was gathered outside this hotel. We don't know whether there was really something
 to see or whether it was an experiment to see how quickly the sheep would follow
 once a few people formed a crowd. Burning life question that will never be solved.
The scene of the nightly movie on the beach for the commoners.
We didn't go, but I bet it was cool.
The hat seller guys appeared to share a fun camaraderie.
A little break from the sun. Cafés are always appreciated.

Monday, May 26, 2014

inspiration

Photo credit AFP, taken from this BBC
website: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-27400896
May 23, 2014

Half listening to French radio news one day recently while I did other work, I kept hearing the French name that sounds like mine (call me sometime, and I’ll pronounce it for you :-) ). Someone named Camille was being mentioned a lot. At first, I thought she was a reporter doing lots of reports on the radio that day.

Then I learned the real story: Camille Lepage was a 26-year-old French freelance photojournalist who had been covering conflicts in Africa. She made the news because her body had just been found in the Central African Republic where she’d been reporting. [And another article here.]

At this point, I pulled away from my work and dug into her story a bit farther. And discovered this compelling quote from Camille:  “I can’t accept that people’s tragedies are silenced simply because no one can make money out of them. I decided to do it myself, and bring some light to them no matter what.”

I don’t think I’m as brave as her, but I think I would have liked her. We care about some of the same things.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

stories in stone and glass

In late February, visiting friends and I spotted pictures of the Abbaye de Sénanque in one of my guidebooks and decided to sojourn to the ever-picturesque Luberon to visit it-- even if it wasn't the season for the lavender blooms that feature prominently in the Abbaye's lovely promo shots. With their two small boys in tow, my friends settled on the self-guided tour option while I opted for some language practice and joined the French tour of the abbey.  

Since arriving in France and moving in down the street from a cathedral built between the 5th and 15th centuries, I've become a bit enamored by these sacred spaces. But I'm no architect, and I never took enough art appreciation/history classes to prepare me for living in Europe where suddenly architectural terms and eras matter.

I've mostly viewed these spaces without any tools for understanding them. But at the Abbaye de Sénanque, I was struck by the way a tour of the building, with explanations of its features and their symbolism, couldn't help but present the gospel. Thus, people with no interest in religion, just in old buildings, couldn't help but be exposed to an embodied rendering of the beliefs held by those of us who worship in churches. I find this to be a brilliant form of evangelism. In a post-Enlightenment culture that often doesn't respect the role of art, few of our modern churches--most built to be practical, inexpensive, and multi-functional--could claim to have the gospel worked into their masonry.

So I was happy when a friend recently sent me a link to a podcast that expounded on these very things I've been intermittently pondering: "The Spirituality of Europe's Great Cathedrals." It's long but worth a listen! I ended up buying the book Heaven in Stone and Glass by Robert Barron, the podcast guest. Haven't had time to read it yet, though I'm eager to.

Toulouse, France
Les Baux-de-Provence, France
Saint-Esprit - Aix-en-Provence, France

Saint-Émilion, France
Brussels, Belgium
Abbaye de Sénanque - near Gordes, France
Île Saint Honorat, France

Monday, March 31, 2014

haiku-ing 2



Lauds: Spring

All along the rue
Shutters bang, curtains fly in
Southwesterly wind.

Friday, March 28, 2014

i fought the cliché and the cliché won

Aix-en-Provence
vendredi, 28 mars 2014

The topic of the homework assignment was right up my alley: "What kind of reader are you?" I frenched my way through a description of my preferred reading habits: what, when, where, why. That kind of thing.

And then I waited eagerly to discover how badly I had mangled the grammar. The day our professor returned the graded essays I discovered a squiggly line under the phrase "la littérature non romanesque," along with the question "c'est à dire?"

I had carefully consulted my various dictionaries to discover the French words for "nonfiction literature," but I hadn't been certain of the result, so I wasn't completely surprised to see the squiggly line indicating what I'd written wasn't clear enough for her to offer a correction.

Class ended, and I accosted the professor, eager to solve a mystery that has real bearing on my life, given that nonfiction literature is the genre I work in, dreaming as I am of one day being a real purveyor of long-form narrative journalism, of narrative nonfiction, of creative nonfiction...pick your term, they're all used in the writing circles I run in.

But apparently not in my professor's writing circles. (though I'm not sure she has any writing circles at all)

Voicing my question was that step you take when you're happily ambling down a quaint Aixois sidewalk and suddenly find you've stepped into one of the piles of dog sh.../poo that polka-dot the narrow walkways. As much as you try to focus on all the ancient beauty that surrounds you in this lovely town, the reality is that dog poo is a true part of life here too. And it's not even a hidden reality.

My innocent vocabulary question dropped me into one of the cross-cultural clichés whose existence I try so desperately to deny. Mme. Professeur essentially told me, as we walked down one of the bland corridors of the Fac de Lettre's main building, that nonfiction and literature are mutually exclusive terms. When she asked what kind of writing I was talking about, I explained that the term encompasses things like essays and memoir, but tried to explain that it's really more than that, that it's a genre of literature. But she would have none of it. She was adamant that these things of which I speak are not literature.

My first response was a moment of internal panic. I HAD to make her understand. Surely, she just wasn't understanding my French explanation. That's all this was: a language problem.

But in slow milliseconds, during which all of France's proud literary history crashed in a haughty, foaming wave over the top of me, I realized that I had to admit defeat at the hands of cliché.

Painful as it is for me to write it, sometimes clichés are true. Sometimes some French people can be inordinately rigid about definitions and structures and all things anti-creativity and innovation and bohemian fluidity. This was one of those times.

But this morning I've just finished reading a redemptive interview with the French writer Emmanuel Carrère. I'd never heard of him before, but I've immediately claimed him as my new French soulmate. He's a journalist and writer who, get this, writes what he calls "nonfiction novels." Take that, Madame le Professeur!

In the way of, well, anyone who is out for revenge over insults real or imagined, I want to deliver my find to her covered in some sort of ironic giftwrap, maybe with a French chocolate on top and an Eiffel tower Christmas tree ornament.

Instead, I'm just writing a nonfiction blog post about my imagined vengeance. So much less clichéd, right?

Friday, March 7, 2014

okay, okay, i did like paris a little

Starbucks - Blvd Garibaldi - Paris
samedi 8 février 2014


First view of the Seine.
 "C'est une bonne maladie," said the bookseller in reply to my (in French) "I love books, so shops like this are hard for me," as he totaled up my purchases. It was a beautiful and true reply, and delivered in French, it carried an even greater ring of truth, profundity, and bonne-ness than the same comment would have if uttered in English.

I felt deep down that he, in his French-ness and his bookseller-ness, completely understood and approved of this bonne maladie, this good illness, even more than your average American bookseller does. France carries a bookishness that America can somehow only match in small pockets. In France, one sometimes senses that "livre" and "France" are nearly synonymous.

When visiting American friends and I browsed a tidy, aesthetically-pleasing rare books shop in Avignon several months ago, we discovered that books from 19th century authors weren't old enough for this shop. Basically, a book needed to be older than America to warrant a place on the shop's tidy shelves filled with deliciously old book bindings and their pages. In the thrice-a-week market in Aix, what seems to me like a very old book--you know from the 1800s--sells for practically a dime a dozen (or, well, 5 euros per book, which is not the price of rarity).

Back in yesterday's Parisian shop, I felt like the bonne maladie I shared with the proprietor suddenly erased our cultural differences. In fact, he and I, we're citizens of the same pays, the country of booklovers.
Happy to get to pass by again in
the dark. Love the lights!

When I entered that bookshop, I crossed a threshhold much grander than simply the one marking the distinction between the sidewalk and the room of books. You see, I had just completed my first interview entirely in French for my first reported-from-France article. And then I entered a shop full of books written in French, where I purchased a couple Parisian guidebooks-in-French and made small-talk in French across the bookseller's counter. More adamantly than many other good elements of this current blessed semester of French progress, the threshhold marked my long-awaited arrival onto the first steps leading deeper into the bowels of the French way of life and psyche, a place that has until now remained just out of reach, dependent on my gaining a greater command of the language.

I'm glad I didn't come to Paris any sooner. After 16 months of having a French mailing address, French doesn't make me tired anymore. My grammar is still often terrible, especially when I don't have time to rehearse the sentence in my head first, and I still feel like I've become a very silent, tongue-tied version of my real self, but I often understand spoken and written things now without thinking about understanding them. I understand them without translating into English. Thus, a guidebook-in-French is useful rather than painful now. What a difference a year makes!

Paris, where all your antique fire poker
needs will be met.
The beauty of journeying to Paris at this point in my language-learning marathon is that from the beginning, I've entered the City of Light as a place where I speak French not English. In Aix my identity is too marked by English because I entered that town as an English-speaker (and because it's a place overrun by anglophones). Whereas, French is the language Paris and I are using for our love affair.

I can't yet say, "Paris, je t'aime," but perhaps that's mostly because I'm not a fall-in-love-at-first-sight kind of person. A bientôt, Paris!



Like those in this article, I, too, only stumbled upon the Wall for Peace monument without knowing what it was: "peace" inscribed in 32 languages and 12 alphabets.


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

what's all the hype about?

Paris has served as muse to generations of artists, even to those who have never visited her. How has she accomplished this feat? Countless artists and writers have tried to say. Paris feeds an artist, motivates her, galvanizes her, and makes her murmur, "This is my home." A mere glimpse of a photo of a Parisian street causes us to feel both uplifted and bereft, thrilled by what Paris implies and saddened not to be living there right now. We do not have to list the reasons for its allure to get to the bottom line: Paris is the  place to write. Since it is the perfect place to writer, it is the perfect place to commit to write." --A Writer's Paris: a guided journey for the creative soul by Eric Maisel

Apparently, I'm on the eve of being fed, motivated, galvanized, and made to murmur. And I'm kind of resisting. It's the same way I resist anything that's become too popular and clichéd. (Such a little rebel I am.) And there's nearly nothing (in a hyperbolic kind of way) that's more clichéd than a writer/artist who's inspired by Paris.

Tonight I settled into my dark brown fauteuil (one of the French words I love), which you might simply refer to as an Ikea armchair, for a smidge of pre-bed reading. Life's been busy, and tonight I needed to read and ponder and ruminate for a few minutes. So glancing at the clock and calculating that I could read for 30 minutes, I reached for the stack of no less than 4 books I had brought to the chair. This is the story of my life. So many books and not enough time.

As I said, I had settled. But then I unsettled myself and strode a purposeful five steps to the other side of my cozy, little apartment to reach for one of the four books among my meager supply in my current abode that have Paris in the title or subtitle. Three of them are about writing in Paris.

When I read the quote above, I realized some things:

  • I kind of want to not like Paris. It's so overdone.
  • I'm in to-do list mode at the moment with some once-far-off deadlines pressing uncomfortably close, and since I decided to try to do a couple interviews while there, I've viewed my upcoming Paris weekend with the adjective "productive" in mind. I don't really have time for a vacation right now.
  • I have not been anticipating my maiden voyage to the City of Light with my writer self in mind. In my mind, this trip has been about doing a little work and visiting friends, not about languishing in leisure, searching for inspiration, or creating something new and beatiful.
Then I realized some other things:
  • Maybe I should think about leaving space for some aimless yet inspired and inspiring meandering this weekend.
  • With Paris, I subconsciously want to find reasons that it doesn't live up to its hyper-superlative status. When I visit a city in Africa, I want to discover ways the city outshines it's negative hype.
  • When I bought these Paris-centric books for my expansive book collection, I had no idea I'd end up living in France a few years later. Life is amazing.
  • I'm still on a campaign to educate the world that prima-dona Paris is not the only city in France. I'm afraid that by taking photos there or mentioning Paris on social media, I will step over the line onto a long and wind-y path along which no one will ever again believe that I don't live in Paris but I do live in France.
And that, my friends, is where things stand as I head to bed THE NIGHT BEFORE I GO TO PARIS for the first time!!! :-)

Friday, January 24, 2014

all the best travel stories include a bathroom scene

Can you believe it? Another toilet photo?
This one's at my university. Lovely, huh?
It was July 2000, and I was enjoying my third trip outside the U.S. This time, I was visiting my dear college friend Julie who was living in Londrina, Brazil.

As has continued to be my modus operandi in my travels since then, I had gone to Brazil to see Julie, not to check off a long list of tourist attractions. Thankfully, though, she organized for us what is still one of my favorite travel memories.

One afternoon we hopped aboard a bus for a lengthy-ish trek to Iguaçu Falls/Iguazu Falls. Being the bad traveler I am who doesn't research places before I go to them, I had never heard of this rumbling paradise before. (Here are some intel and photos.) But I was excited about the trip: taking a local bus with real local people outside the city with stops in small towns as we made our way to the grand attraction would be almost as great as the waterfall itself, in my opinion.

As I recall, the bus ride delivered on its promise of adventure, including some crowdedness and an unplanned stop at a bus depot because someone threw up. We either changed buses or waited for ours to be cleaned; I can no longer recall the specifics.

What I remember most about that ride, though, is climbing off the bus at a small town bus station and eagerly following the other women to the bathroom. So far all my Brazilian bathroom experiences had been pretty much like the ones in the U.S., so I had no expectation of anything different.

But as I stepped into the stall, I paused in surprise and confusion. Was this possible? Were my eyes deceiving me? And what was I supposed to do next?

In that little Brazilian bus station I encountered my first seat-less toilet. It had never occurred to me that toilets might not automatically come with seats. Or that it could be an intentional choice not to include a seat with a public toilet. I had never thought of toilet seats as luxuries.

I've traveled a lot more since then and used a lot of different types of "toilets." I've even mastered the squatty potty variety enough that on a couple occasions -- given the options and depending on what I was wearing -- I've chosen the squatty over the regular toilet (and then called my girl scout leader to request my squatty potty badge). I've probably encountered other seat-less toilets, but they don't stand out in my memories.

But then I arrived in France, a reasonably hygienic country with most of the amenities my American self is used to. Yet after nearly 1.5 years here, I'm still not fully acclimated to the bathroom culture of this place. Sometimes it's pretty much the same as in the U.S., but other times it's wildly different.

For starters, it's rare to find a toilet seat in the bathrooms in the university building that holds my classrooms, and in addition to that, most of bathrooms aren't designated as male or female. They're a free-for-all. There are individual stalls, so really, there's still full privacy, but it still feels strange to walk through the doorway from the hallway into the bathroom on the heals of a man, because in public bathrooms in the U.S. that only happens by accident, in the stories you tell your friends for a laugh (after you've recovered enough from the embarrassment).

In other places, here, things are even more shocking (to my privacy-loving, body-parts-covering American self). At a nearby brasserie, when the need for relief strikes, you follow circular stairs down to a small basement bathroom. First the sink greets you at the bottom of the stairs. Then to the right are a couple small stalls with doors. But beside those and without a door? A urinal. C'est la vie ici.

It's also reasonably common to find men relieving themselves against some building or other (or sometimes a dumpster suffices for them) right here in the center of town, especially at night after a few hours at a bar. Sometimes they seek out shadowed corners, sometimes not. I suppose it's one way of feeling a little like you're camping even when you can't escape the urban life to hie thee for the woods?

Bathroom culture is a fascinating piece of culture exploration, one that any traveler will unavoidably encounter. It doesn't get much more quotidian than reliving oneself somewhere, somehow. And it strikes into all these core assumptions and sensibilities that are part of us without our ever choosing them. They're part of us simply because of where we come from and how we've grown up. And it's not until encountering an alternative that we ever realize our way of doing bathrooms isn't the only proper one. And that maybe the other options are perfectly and completely acceptable, even if they just feel awkward and weird and uncomfortable because they're not what we're used to.

And as uncomfortable as these moments are, one of my favorite things about soaking into a new culture is discovering the many ways of thinking and being that are subconsciously part of me. Once I discover there are other options, I get to make a choice: continue doing things the way I've always done them or make a change. Whatever the result, the beauty is that it's now an intentional choice, not an at-the-mercy-of-not-knowing-anything-else one.

For the record, I still choose toilet seats whenever possible.