Friday, November 25, 2016

sometimes life is idyllic

It's a pleasure watching Montmartre wake up this crisp morning, as the roaming portrait artists amble to work ahead of the tourists' arrival. A pleasant, still-sleepy calm still rules the cobbled streets here at 10-ish a.m.

A bit earlier as my friends and I vacated their Thanksgiving week Airbnb apartment, I waited on the sidewalk with their toddler son while they took care of parting details inside.
Covered in a bathrobe, the downstairs neighbor opened her shutters for the morning. Since I was nearly touching her window's bars while my toddler friend watched the antics of pigeons across the street, from the vantage point of his stroller, the neighbor-du-jour and I exchanged bonjours and then started chatting. She said she's lived in Montmartre for 38 years, but the neighborhood has changed a lot, and she's planning a return to her roots in Montpellier. This strikes me as both sad and happy. We didn't talk long enough for me to discern how she feels about the impending move.

Since then, I've ensconced myself in a Starbucks, from which a group of Asian tourists (sorry I can't distinguish their roots without asking) has recently departed. American import it may be, juxtaposed against the local treats of this morning, but here I'm free to fit in a few hours of work on a stubborn project before I head on to the next leg of this present escape from the isolation of my Pau apartment. I am hoping the creative vibe and lingering glow of a fun two days with old friends will work some magic on this long-in-process bit of writing.

May it be so.

Friday, November 18, 2016

the era of fixed things

If not for Air France's manhandling, my next suitcase purchase--whenever that day came--would have most likely been online or wherever I found the cheapest valise after hours and hours of research that would have included minimal opportunity to actually handle the bag I might buy. So while at first I was frustrated with another complicated-feeling thing to take care of in a place where I still don't know how everything works, I'm now a little grateful to Air France.

Because yesterday my unplanned suitcase purchase happened here at SPARBE, which turns out to be a family-owned business that's been operating in this same location for nearly 80 years. It was incredibly pleasing to walk in--at first just to see if they could repair my bag--and find that they knew exactly what needed to be done, knew exactly which forms the airline would ask for to prove the suitcase couldn't be repaired, knew exactly which form to submit to request reimbursement for the replacement carry-on, and were just all-around knowledgeable in helping find a bag that matched my damaged one as closely as possible in size (it was a larger-than-usual carryon that I wasn't eager to say good-bye to). It was really nice not to have to navigate another complication totally on my own.

This has turned into a sappy-sounding Yelp review of a mom and pop store from a bygone era, but because of them, a really frustrating experience turned into such an unexpectedly positive experience that, well, sappy-be-hanged, it was great enough to be worth recording for internet posterity. ;-)

A few of my broken things that are now fixed!
 The Fixing-Things Era

Perhaps because I've been here long now enough that belongings I owned before I came to France are getting old enough to be showing some wear, this summer began ushering me into a whole new era of life that involves fixing broken things. And it's turned into a lovely era for a few reasons:

  1. It's nice to get to keep using belongings that I like a lot. No need to despair over discovering that something is damaged!
  2. It's nice to avoid spending dollars or euros I don't have to replace things I hadn't prepared to replace.
  3. It's nice to avoid shopping, which I really don't like. And to avoid having to figure out how to replace products I'm attached to but can't find exact replacements for here, only in the U.S.
  4. It's given me a chance to get out into these lovely small shops and converse with people. When you're buying something, you don't necessarily have to talk much. But when you need something fixed, talking is much more necessary. No slinking into shops anonymously.

Becoming so nomadic has already changed my relationship with belongings--I try to mostly only own what I really need, not exactly the bare minimum, but close (as close as possible, given that I'm not a real minimalist...hence, my need for the very largest carry-on suitcase possible). I guess you could say that I keep pretty short accounts on my belongings these days, and I have to be pretty practical about things...if it's not useful, I don't keep it. This has even extended to the books in my life. You know it's serious when I ration how many of those I own at a time!

So in my long-ago, faraway American life, unless I or my parents could fix something fairly easily (and to be sure, I don't come from a family of cobblers, so shoes were not on the fix-it list), I assumed it had to be replaced. I never thought of going to a shoe shop to have my shoes fixed, for example. I didn't even really know where to go to have them fixed. Here, there are cordonniers in pretty much every town of reasonable size.

Thus, having things fixed is fairly easy to pull off...though I've taken to giving the cobblers and other fix-it people here magical powers in my mind, so then I'm disappointed to discover that not everything, said suitcase as an example, can be repaired.

I'm a New Woman

In short (I know, I know...after all those words...), this is just one of many only-sometimes-perceptible internal changes that has taken root inside me courtesy of changing cultures for a while. I suppose I knew those changes would come, except that when I came to France, I didn't know I'd stay so long, so I wasn't thinking about how four years and counting in this place might change my insides.

At any rate, I judge this change to be a good one.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

strangers in bruges, belgium

As I walked into his shop to pay for postcards in Bruges, Belgium, at the end of a weekend visit a week and a half ago, I overheard the shopkeeper explaining to the Welsh couple standing before his back-of-the-store counter that Bruges was still seeing normal amounts of British tourists but that Americans had dropped off following the terrorist attacks in Brussels. Suspecting he was someone who enjoyed talking, I chimed in as I approached the counter, "We're Americans who aren't afraid." Or something to that effect. And then began a lovely conversation with this charming man while my friend browsed his shop for gifts.

We'd read in a guidebook that the Flemish aren't very friendly, but this man certainly didn't get that memo. He and his wife have had the shop for 30 years and love it, though retirement is near. Unlike other shopkeepers who keep strict hours, they get there when they get there and leave when the store empties out in the late afternoon. He lives 7 km outside Bruges in a home that includes the dream retirement garden he's created, where he plans to putter around once the shop closes.

When customers approach his cash register, he offers their choice of language: Dutch, French, English or Spanish. But then he mentioned the cheat sheet he's holding in the photo that's normally tacked to the wall beside the register and explained how much people appreciate it if you can say even a couple polite words in their language. The language menu then expands to Greek, Turkish, Polish, Russian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Czech, Japanese, Indonesian, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Ukranian, and Hebrew! We talked about the difference between the Flemish and Dutch languages, and I learned that it's the same language with some vocabulary differences, like American and British English. But he did note that the Dutch tend to be more direct in their communication, whereas the Flemish will take the long way to say something to try to make you feel good about what they're saying.

Talking with this shopkeeper was a highlight in a day filled with pleasant interactions with strangers, from our Airbnb hostess to a bus driver to helpful direction-givers in a restaurant. The world is a beautiful place! 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

refugees welcomed into french communities

Yesterday afternoon, newspaper headlines caught my eye as I visited a press kiosk on Place Clemenceau to buy some postcards.

Communities in my part of France--Béarn--are preparing for the arrival of refugees, as France prepares to dismantle the ill-reputed and controversial "Jungle" in Calais, where refugees have taken up camp in hopes of escaping over to Britain, and moves the camp's residents to temporary welcome centers around France.

During both 2015 and 2016 as the refugee crisis engulfed Europe, I've intentionally looked for opportunities to volunteer with refugee aid in France, but there have so far not been any easy-to-find opportunities where I've been living in the south of France (in Marseille in 2015 and now in Pau in 2016).

Yet today I've learned that a community on the edge of Pau will be welcoming 50 refugees. Perhaps I can finally get involved! But in addition to an article detailing how that community is preparing for their arrival, the mixed reactions of community members, etc., a smaller article caught my eye yesterday as I read the newspaper (a too-rare pleasure to read the news on paper!) at a new-to-me café that smelled delectable inside (I had to content myself with only a coffee rather than the lunch menu deliciousness wafting from the kitchen).

Here's that article and the results of the translation exercise I've given myself today.

“A huge wave of solidarity in Baïgorry”

Jean-Michel Coscarat, the mayor of Saint-Etienne-de-Baïgorry, a Basque town that welcomed 48 refugees from last November 15 to February 15, says of this experience: “I made the choice to welcome them. There was a huge wave of solidarity. It couldn’t have gone better. I saw in their eyes, as soon as the first refugees arrived in the dark of night, that they had experienced painful times. More than 80 volunteers helped out. They had interpreters, French language courses. Heads of companies called us to offer refugees employment...There was a little apprehension at the beginning, because they arrived just after the November attacks [in Paris in 2015]. We very quickly reassured the community. The intercultural festival organized when it was time for the refugees to leave was fabulous. Some of them come back to see us still, especially those living [nearby] at CADA [the center for people requesting asylum] in Pau. This experience was really great. No one regrets it.”

November 3 update: Media reports of the emptying of the Jungle don't totally match this on-the-ground account from a person volunteering in Calais: "The Jungle" Calais from our own correspondent.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

fairy wonderlands do exist

An open door with a fringe of dangling flowers begged me to pause my errands and enter this church I'd not yet seen inside of. I stepped into another world, one of wonder and delight, a city church become woodland church. Turns out that area florists decided to decorate the Eglise Saint Jacques in Pau this past weekend for the Festival of Saint Fleur (there's really a saint named Flower...except in English she's called Flora of Beaulieu). For now it was just a one-time thing. Today's Tuesday and the flowers have been there since Friday when there was a concert inside their perfumed midst. If ever there were a time to literally stop and smell the roses, today was the day. What could beat a flower chandelier? Magnifique!! 

See a few images of the installation in progress in this article from the local newspaper.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

america and france, when they just don't get each other

Interesting. Fascinating. Something to consider when next you're making foreign policy decisions. :-)

"Americans are definitely irked by the French habit of contesting the United States on every issue, but what really bugs the French is that the Americans seem to expect everyone to agree in every instance. We started to wonder if Raymonde Carroll's theory of couples' behavior didn't also apply to France and the United States on the international stage. Americans want nothing more than a perfect show of harmony among allies. The French think that if the relationship is strong enough, it should be able to withstand strong differences in public." 

Friday, August 19, 2016

bathing sans american prudishness

It's a later-post from December 2015! In which I report from Tunis, Tunisia.

I can't show you pictures of what goes on in this building, but I can describe in words what is one of my new favorite cross cultural experiences. I have now bathed in a public bath house--women only, of course--and been scrubbed (exfoliated) by another woman whose job it is to spend the day in the steamy, tiled bathing rooms scrubbing all the naked bodies who pass through, well naked except for panties (kind of like some French beaches!).

The woman in the front room (where you pay before disrobing and walking into the bath section, leaving your towel behind) who runs the place explained that you need to come at least once a week for some good scrubbing, but if you can't make that, then once every 15 days is essential. She also explained that European women and even other Arab women besides those of North Africa just don't understand how important it is to take care of yourself this way. This scrubdown seems to be traditional mostly only in Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. Owner-woman was a flight attendant in her younger days and still enjoys meeting people--running the bath house is much nicer, she says, than staying at home all day with just her 26-year-old son around for occasional company. 

Raise your hand if you, too, have been to a bathhouse! #thingsineverdreamediwoulddo

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

les vacances

'Tis the season of vacation here in France. These photos offer just a tiny sampling of all the similar signs gracing restaurants, cafés, boulangeries, and shops around town.

As crazy as it may seem to profit-conscious Americans, businesses here regularly shut down for two weeks or more in late-July/August. It's vacation time!

This can be rather annoying when you yourself aren't on vacation and are trying to live a normal life during August. There's no telling whether the places you're used to frequenting will be open. It can also be annoying if you're traveling on vacation somewhere in France. I still don't really understand how it works - everyone's traveling but what is there to do if all the shops are closed?

But on the other hand, I really respect the underlying idea that money isn't everything. It's rather beautiful to live in a place that doesn't see production and profit as the greatest god to be worshipped. Taking time off, traveling, lounging with family, resting, enjoying some good meals - these are valued here. So much so that shop owners around France have posted charming (or boring) signs in their windows to explain why they won't be opening their doors or turning on their lights or firing up their ovens for the next few weeks.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

doctors: a crossing cultures episode

After pausing outside her office until her phone call ended, I let the receptionist know I had arrived for my appointment. She said she would tell the doctor I was there. I took a seat in the sunny waiting room down the wide hall where others who entered after me offered a "bonjour" to the room as they sat down. I had missed that step. Oops.

Doctors' offices here in the center of a French town are often located in the same buildings that house apartments. For example, there's a doctors' office on the ground floor of the building some friends of mine in Aix live in. This can be convenient when packages are delivered when they're not home, as they effectively have a concierge in doctor's clothes to accept their deliveries. As you can imagine, though, a doctor's office in an apartment building might be configured a little differently than the strip mall/medical office building variety I'm used to from back home.

When it was my turn before the doctor, it was he himself who poked his head into the waiting room and called my name. The same thing happened the one time I went to the dentist here. It was the dentist who came to collect me. As is the way with subtle cultural things you don't realize affect what you're expecting, I never realized before that it's perhaps an American norm rather than a worldwide norm that there's always an assistant of some sort of who does such banal tasks as getting patients situated in exam rooms.

In the States, I've perhaps never been inside a doctor's actual office--the place where he or she keeps their books and papers and photos of family. If I have, it's been a rare occurrence. Normally, I only ever see the small exam rooms, usually dressed in white and sterile-seeming décor, though with occasional slightly personal touches (my childhood doctor's exam rooms were graced with those famous images of bulldogs in upper class dinner attire smoking cigars around pool tables).

Here in France, though, I've twice now been ushered into large rooms with a messy desk and accompanying desk-accoutrements in one corner and an exam table and sink and other exam room things in another corner. The doctor does his exams in the same room in which he replies to email. Novel (to me) but not super novel I suppose. I must say, though, that it feels weird to climb upon an exam table in the middle of a large room (even if it's sort of in a corner). I end up feeling exposed. It's weird how weird it feels. Because on the face of it, it's not that crazy.

When it came time to pay yesterday, the doctor wasn't giving clear instructions, just kind of pausing as he sat behind his desk after he'd finished writing prescriptions. And I was internally confused about what was supposed to happen next. When I had time to sort it out later, I realized that again, this is how cross cultural moments work: something collides with what you're expecting, but it takes some seconds to understand that this is the reason it feels like you're moving through the moment in slow motion, trying to find firm footing where you know what you're supposed to do or say next.

I asked if I was supposed to pay him or the person out front. He was probably wondering why in the world I would be so confused about all this and why the person out front would have anything to do with this and why I kept asking if such-and-such was something he would do or her. To my American self, the doctor never occupies himself with such things and never has a credit card machine right there among all his desk-accoutrements. Again, processing payment is to be done by assistants after you leave the exam room and while the doctor rushes off to do the important work of doctoring the patient waiting in the next tiny, private, white exam room, with their chart waiting in the chart holder thing on the wall beside the door. But not in France. Here the doctor handles all that while seated at his desk in a large warmly decorated (in this case, anyway) room.

This is only my second doctor's visit in this country, and the last one was two years ago. There've been lots of other slow motion cross-cultural moments to wade through in the meantime. But maybe now that I've written about it, I'll remember the unspoken rules better the next time I climb onto an exam table in the middle of a large room, and next time I'll need a little less prompting on how to conduct myself. Maybe?

Monday, July 25, 2016

doors that demand poetry



Run your hand along me

and feel the beauty of the world.

Aging. Beautifying.

Earning my wrinkles.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

café life

Working from home, I try to get out of the house at some point in most days. I can't always take work with me, in which case I go for an end-of-the-day coffee and reading time at my favorite around-the-corner (or three)-from-my-house café.

Despite their sometimes status as rodents, pigeons still crack me up. And this one was bold this early evening--pulling up a seat as though he'd been invited, making the rounds like an expert but unbeloved mingler.

This photo inspired me to dig out my watercolors, or maybe just tap over to the app that lets you pretend to be a painter. (Thanks, waterlogue app!)

   The persistent pigeon, un client non-payant au café.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

brexit continued: Philip's full comments

Here's Philip Worré's full Brexit quote, a portion of which is included in my article over on Blue Dot today:

Despite its shortfalls, the EU is overall a success story. People tend to focus on the negative aspects of the EU, such as the institutional complexity, the decision-making process, or high financial cost. But programmes such as ERASMUS or Commission-funded research programmes have been overwhelmingly successful.

However, this is not well communicated – which is a shame, as many British voters were misinformed about the EU. The EU is not a communication agency – it is up to national governments to promote its achievements and the benefits of membership to citizens. However, the EU is too often used as a scapegoat for the failures of national governmental policies.

Above all, I am saddened by the Brexit vote. I haven’t changed my mind – I grew up in a bi-national European family, and understood very early on the importance of cross-cultural exchanges, and how these promote peace. The EU was founded following the end of the WWII to ensure lasting peace through cooperation and trade. Yet, following the Brexit vote, the spectres of nationalism and xenophobia are reemerging, promoted by populist parties throughout Europe – the very same issues that were at the root of the last world war.

Regarding what comes next, I believe the UK will face uncertain and challenging times. There are the "internal" questions of Scottish independence, as well as the future of Northern Ireland. Above all, the main issue that the next government will have to tackle is bridging the deep divide within British society between "Brexiters" and "Remainers," which is essentially a clash of generations: the outward-looking, well-travelled, more educated, affluent and connected younger generation versus a more concerned, conservative and apprehensive older generation. There will also be the “external” issue of negotiating a fair deal with the EU. I personally believe that all parties will be realistic and understand that obtaining a productive agreement would be in everybody’s interest – although it is almost certain that the final deal won’t be as beneficial to the UK as EU membership would be.

brexit continued: E. Amato's full quote

Here's E. Amato's full Brexit quote, a portion of which is included in my article over on Blue Dot today:
Obviously, you couldn't vote, but how would you have voted if you could have?
As a nomad, and as someone who loves London for its ever blooming and shifting cultural world, I could only see the remain argument. But that is a London-centric viewpoint, and may be the crux of much of the energy behind the Leave campaign.

As an American, I am awed by the freedom of movement in the EU and the great advantage that people take of it to travel, work and study in countries not their own. That coupled with the intertwined economic interdependence between the UK and the EU states made it clear that my choice would be remain. I could visualize the massive economic fallout, as well as the cultural fallout of a Leave vote, and it made me wonder how any elected official could responsibly make that argument.
Why do you think exiting is a bad idea?

Millennials have had the hardest time of any generation post World War II in starting their lives as adults. In the EU, they have found ways to mitigate the bad circumstances by studying in other countries, forming new types of communities and building businesses from the ground up. Exiting puts a huge kibosh on this ingenuity, and basically sets this generation back again to where they were pre-crash. Additionally, they are the ones who have to live with this decision for a lifetime. Those over 65 are essentially voting fear of a diminished pension, while forgetting the importance of the economic viability of all the generations coming up after them.

It will be devastating to lose the EU money that freely flows into the UK's current economy. When you factor in other foreign investors, who are leaving in droves, you are looking at something far worse than the 2008 crash and over a much longer period.

Culturally, it's an isolationist argument penned in another century. There is a sense of nostalgia for something that never was - a white, British country. It seems clear that the first two agenda items will be closing borders altogether and decimating the NHS.

From your outsider-insider perspective (non-Brit who's spent lots of time there), what was the tone in the run-up to the referendum?

I was in Edinburgh before the vote. The feeling was strong that Scotland would vote remain. Additionally, there is a bitter pill in the vote, as Cameron promised Scotland that the UK would remain in the EU in his negotiations with the country before its independence referendum in September 2015. That promise, among a few other points, may be what swayed the undecideds in favor of staying part of the UK. There was a strong sense that there would be another independence referendum upon a Leave vote.

And what has been the tone since?

I arrived in London the night of the vote. In the morning I found out that the UK had voted to leave. It was the most surreal feeling. On the street, people were so quiet, it was if the whole city was hushed. It was a Friday, but there was no sense of a summer weekend jubilation. Glastonbury was starting and it seemed unthinkable that people could be enjoying a festival environment. Since then Cameron has resigned, there were massive Labour party resignations, the pound has dropped dramatically, the Chilcot report has come out, and every day reveals a new drama. No one seems to know who's leading the country. Yet people do go on. Busses run, trains run (well, about the same as always), and people go to work, go home and go about their lives. But there are many questions, confusion and a sense of limbo underneath it all. 

How would you explain to other Americans why this should matter to Americans?

Power. This was very much a vote of the people to entirely change their union. The campaign was badly handled, and there was clearly no plan on the part of leadership for a Leave vote, however, that is not the fault of the people. The people mandated massive change in a way we see maybe once in a lifetime.

brexit continued: Carole's quote in French

Here is the French version of Carole's Brexit quote, which is included in my article over on Blue Dot today:

Dire non à cette Europe telle qu'elle est aujourd'hui, ce n'est pas dire non à l'Europe, c'est dire non à des réglementations et des lois qui nous plombent.

Le manichéisme et la pensée binaire classent TOUT en deux clans opposés:

pour le Brexit= contre l'Europe= vieux= raciste= c'est les méchants
contre le Brexit= pour l'Europe= jeunes= tolérant= c'est les gentils

La réalité est forcément beaucoup plus nuancée. Ce qui est dangereux dans cette manière binaire (orientée par les médias et les poltiques) de voir les choses c'est que cela détourne l'attention des vrais problèmes.

La vraie question ce n'est pas l'idée d'appartenir ou de sortir de l'UE. La vraie question c'est oui ou non, allons nous continuer à obéir aux traités successifs qui nous plongent dans l'ultralibéralisme et nous enlèvent tout souveraineté nationale.

Malheureusement ce que nous voyons tous aujourd'hui c'est que tout le système est bien bloqué et nous, les citoyens européens, n'avons aucun poids sur les décisions de Bruxelles. Donc la seule solution, c'est de mettre un gros coup de pied dans tout ça, il faut que quelque chose change. On est dans un rapport de force et ça ne peut être que radical, on ne fait pas d'omelette sans casser des œufs. Ce qui m'étonne beaucoup c'est que tout le monde est dégouté, tout le monde voit que les conditions de vie et de travail se dégradent par les effets de cette Europe mais on laisse faire, on tout le monde est choqué par les résultats du référendum britannique.......?!!!!!