Monday, December 4, 2017

has "home" found a place to rest its weary head?

My parents are there waving from the observation
deck of little Tri-Cities Airport.
I recently returned to France after a longer than expected State-side visit that makes counting time more complicated than ever. I've officially been residing in France for over five years now, but I just spent nearly a year in the US. However, I kept my apartment in France while I was away, so I technically still resided there, I think. Um, how exactly do I answer that question of how long I've been living in France?

The complicated answers don't stop there.

Because, you see, I've also stepped over a weird threshold that I unconsciously never expected to cross: my home-life--that life where I return at the end of my voyages to my normal day-to-day rhythms--is actually in France now. Not the U.S.

Oh, I've heard about other Americans who feel that home-feeling once they return to the non-American place where they live. But because I get around so much and because I didn't move abroad expecting to stay so long and because my everyday life is far from settled-feeling and because I'm adaptable and find home both everywhere and nowhere and because I know I'm not yet fully at ease in French daily life and because my work life keeps me well-connected to the US, well, I just didn't anticipate becoming one of those Americans.

But two things happened that announced to me that I have indeed crossed over.

Transitioning from airplane to train, with plenty
of luggage in tow to make things exciting.
First, a close French friend spent some time in the US while I was there. I was excited for this friend to experience part of my US life, part of what has made me what I am. And excited that there would now be someone in France who knows me-in-the-US in a way that seemed like it would add a wholeness to my French life. Except that instead, during the visit, I slowly realized that US life isn't my real life anymore; it's not the place where my day-to-day life takes place; it's not even really the place where I feel most at home anymore and where I'm most me. Instead, it's the place of memories and history; it's the stage on which my past life took place. It's a place where I can no longer remember the shortest ways to get anywhere. It's the place where I don't have people's phone numbers already stored in my phone. It's the place where you learn who really cares that you're back in town for a visit. It took having someone from my French life dropped into my US life to make the big reveal (you might as well know that for some reason I'm imagining a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat as the visual metaphor of this big reveal ;-) ). My US life is still a good place; it's just no longer my today-life.

And then after that big white rabbit got pulled out of the sturdy black hat, I returned to my home-du-jour after months away and discovered that maybe [enter the magician with yet another rabbit to pull out of yet another hat]--despite having to rediscover where I keep things in my apartment--this place is more than my home-du-jour now. I only officially lived in this town for not-quite-a-year before leaving for nearly as long as I'd been living here. But I've returned to a life. A place where I know where to buy my groceries, where I don't have to check Google maps in order to get everywhere, a place where I have friends who welcomed me back, a place where people see me as part of their everyday lives rather than just that old friend who's dropped into town for a couple days but whom they forget to invite to things because they're not used to that friend being on the invitation list.

For those who've never experienced all of this (I was one of you until recently!), this rabbit-exiting-hat reveal is weird. It's one of those internal dissonance experiences that you want to give order to and understand but you can't really. So I think you're just supposed to accept it and move on with life. Right? Something like that anyway.

And maybe most surprising of all in this big reveal is discovering that of all the home-places my life is still tied to (hence, feeling at home both everywhere and nowhere), I kind of actually feel like I have a home-home again. But it took going away for a while and returning--returning to life and community that are real and that exist--to discover this home. It's often in the comparisons that we measure things, isn't it. How do we know we're taller than we were last year? Because our pants are too short now or because we can now look over the top of Aunt Mary's head or because the mark on the wall from last year's measurement now reaches our chin.

Back to the sometimes-rainy streets of Pau.
Accustomed as I am to that home-is-everywhere-and-nowhere feeling, it is massively unexpected to have these first stirrings of feelings of having a home in a physical place again. While I try to dive deeply into life wherever I am at the moment, I'm used to sensing that in some way I'm always just passing through, because a nomad lives in my soul. And the reality is that because I can do my work from anywhere, and because I only have to give a month's notice to move out of my furnished apartment, and because I'm here at the whim-in-the-form-of-visas-that-must-be-renewed of the French government, I really don't know how long I'll live here.

But there's still something new that I'm experiencing in this physical place that is becoming home-home more than anywhere else in the world right now.

And as with any early blossoms of feeling, I'll be testing this one out for a little while. However long it ultimately lasts, for now there's something unexpectedly satisfying and centering at giving a name to that surprising white rabbit--#ithinkihaveahomenow. (What self-respecting magic-show rabbit doesn't add a hashtag to her name these days?)

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

calling all book lovers to the book village

On the way to our Thanksgiving weekend Airbnb rental, the American friend driving the car was a bit flustered when an oncoming car appeared in front of her on the narrow street running through a charming village near the end of our journey. She managed to back up to a slight indentation in the buildings on one side of the street, and the other car squeezed past. After this car, still more cars brushed past us on the short stretch of village road, suggesting we weren't just in some sleepy little hamlet.

The next day we had to drive back through the two-way traffic on streets barely wide enough for one car, let alone two. But slowing down had us ogling the charming village and gave me time to suggest that we park and wander the village for a few minutes. I was happy when my friends readily agreed to the spontaneous pit stop. We pulled into a small, crowded, and tree-covered parking lot where we encountered our next clue that this village was special: a sculpture of flying books!

Then the town map mounted across the street told us more about what we were in for. Montolieu, near Carcassonne in southern France, has taken on the moniker "village du livre," or village of the book. It has 17 bookstores! -- in a town of fewer than 900 inhabitants! (so says the internet's population records) There are also workshops and museums centered around bookbinding and the art of bookmaking. Our time in Montolieu was short but we're eager for a fuller visit! Such a lovely accidental find!

This water is specifically for dogs who know how to read. :-)
More info from the town's tourist brochure: Since 1990, the book village of Montolieu has become renowned for its numerous booksellers, craftsmen, it's Museum of Book Arts and Crafts, and now, the Cérès Franco art collection. All began in 1989 when Michel Braibant, bookbinder in Carcassonne, came up with the idea of creating a European Conservatory of Book Arts and Crafts. He wanted to bring the public to learn about traditional book arts and crafts by meeting craftsmen directly in their workshops. Thanks to his personal collection, to donations and to the active support of volunteers, the museum was opened in 1991. At the same time, antique booksellers and craftsmen started setting up shops in the village. The Montolieu Village of Books and Graphic Arts association started promoting activities in the village, organising cultural and pedagogical activities and running the museum. Since then, Montolieu's focus on the world of books has proven very successful.

Today Montolieu counts about 17 bookshops and hundreds of thousands of used books in all areas of human knowledge and imagination. For bibliophiles, there is a large choice of first or limited editions, antique, rare or illustrated books, and more.

There's a salon du livre, of ancient and used books, every year during the weekend of Easter.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

an american cathedral

One of the good parts of life in Europe is its grand churches and cathedrals. As a contemplative person, I love these spaces. I love their quiet. I love their grandeur. I love the symbolism written into nearly every bit of their structure and décor, even if I don't know how to read all those symbols. (I've written a little about that here.)

Such grand spaces have never been part of my US life. But a couple weeks ago the friend I'm staying with invited me to join her and her mother for high tea at Washington National Cathedral, an Episcopal church that has been the site of many of America's important moments of grief and celebration. The teas, which serve as a fundraiser for the cathedral, are offered by the women's guide that volunteers to keep up the cathedral's gardens. Tea includes a pre-tea tour of the cathedral, led by a super knowledgeable docent.

Though it was constructed rather recently, as Gothic-style churches go, authentic construction techniques were used so the cathedral took 83 years to construct (1907-1990). It's now the second largest cathedral in the United States and the sixth largest in the world. Though "national" is in its name, the church has never had any government funding. While numerous notable Americans are buried here, Woodrow Wilson is the only president entombed in the cathedral. According to our tour guide, he was a big supporter of having a church like this in the capital.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

#persevere - lent 2017, day 36

Eighty-three years patient
faith without sight
thus is
God's call again and again
and again.

Inspired in part by today's tour of Washington National Cathedral,
constructed 1907-1990.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

#glow - lent 2017, day 10

Lord's ear.
Leans near.
Lord's love
Is here.

Monday, March 6, 2017

#broken - lent 2017, day 5

I was at the home of expat acquaintances living in France and found their bathroom décor endearing.
Thus, the photo.

They'd framed the plane-ticket-as-excess-baggage papers for a beloved dog who had traveled with them.
How cute.

And then I proceeded--somehow (not the first time I've been klutzy Kami) while changing
into a swimsuit--to knock this adorableness onto the ground.
Tile floor met glass.

I confessed, asked for a broom, cleaned it up. But I never offered to replace the destroyed frame.
I should have.
Faux pas #2.

Faux pas #3 is that such faux pas still hang in my guilt-box longer than they should.
Shake it off.

Broken happens in many forms.

Psalm 51:17
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God,
you will not despise.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

#injustice - lent 2017, day 2

Oh, healthcare, let me count the ways
Injustice reigns
Lord, please be so very near the broken bodies
Who can't access
or afford

#struggle - lent 2017, day 1

Computer time.
People time.
Time with words.
Time shared between words.
Sometimes intertwined.
Sometimes competing.
The struggle is real, they say.
Yes. Yes, it is.
And the Lord is in it all.

I'm traveling during Lent this year and need to keep my Lenten practices as simple as possible. Hence, I plan to follow The Lent Project from Biola University's Center for Christianity, Culture and the Arts. I also hope to participate in a daily photo activity that I'll mostly just post here on my blog, and perhaps occasionally also over on Instagram. I'll follow the themes proposed by the United Methodist Church at or, like today, pull a one-word theme from The Lent Project. Join me!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

north carolina mountain vignettes

Along a scenic mostly two-lane highway that runs through the North Carolina-Tennessee mountains I grew up in, I was surprised to find this lovely coffee bar inside the gas station market when I stopped for a bathroom break. I decided a little afternoon caffeine would do me good and asked the woman at the register if the bar was open. She said it was, but she'd have to wait to take my order until her colleague returned from her smoke break to cover the register again. There was something so charmingly home-grown about all this that I decided to live in the moment and wait for the smoke break to end. While I later paid for my chai tea latte, the next customer was asking if the store had any worms today. The register-woman answered in the affirmative and told him where they were. He then piled a container of nightcrawlers--which looked a lot like a small tub of hummus or cottage cheese--up along with his food purchases.

I love, love, love such little moments wherever they happen in the world - whether far from home or in the corner I grew up in.

Watauga Lake, Carter County, TN - There was so much
photo-worthy scenery along this highway route,
but with few turn-offs and a schedule to keep
to, I had to content myself with this one
sun-drenched photo.

Monday, February 13, 2017

celebrating thanksgiving paris-style

Before it's lost forever, finally I bring you the story of Thanksgiving 2016 à Paris!

Months earlier my American friend Mary had alerted me that she and her husband and son would be in Paris the week of Thanksgiving. Would I like to/could I join them? At the time, I chuckled a little over how impossible it is for me to plan things more than about a week in advance, let alone scheduling things that are months away. But I made note of it, and we hoped for the best.

And it worked! Mid-evening on the day before Thanksgiving, my train from Pau pulled into Paris's Montparnasse station. I made my way to Mary and Ryan's Airbnb apartment, we all exchanged hugs, and then Mary and I headed out for late dinner while Ryan had put-the-toddler-to-bed duty.

On our dinner hunt, we passed La Taverne de Montmartre, and tempted by the lovely aromas escaping from it, we stopped in. Though people were still eating, we learned that the kitchen wasn't taking new orders. The man we talked with seemed friendly enough, so I tried to joke about whether we could beg the chef to stay a little longer, but then I couldn't come up with the French word for beg. So that joke fell completely flat.

Fortunately, the next evening as dinnertime approached, Mary remembered that we should try this place again.

Et voilà, success! This time we were on the very front end of dinner hours, and the long family-style tables with benches weren't even set with tableware yet. But they welcomed us in and remembered us from the night before.

The fun began in earnest when Mary asked if they happened to have some paper that could occupy two-year-old Liam. The friendly proprietor happily produced paper and markers. And his five-year-old son was quickly enamored with Liam and joined in the drawing, producing his own pictures for us to ooh and aah over. The two boys quickly became pals, the five-year-old (who has no younger siblings but would like to - hint, hint, to his parents! :-) ) happily assuming the role of big brother half-watching over Liam while helping entertain him. When his parents called him to the back of the restaurant for his own dinner, he insisted that Liam join him so he could share his dinner with him.

When it was time for our new little friend to head home to go to bed--because he had school the next day--he was really sad to leave us behind.

For all the bad reputation Paris has for less than personable or kind service in its cafés and restaurants, we had an absolute warm-fuzzy of an evening, which turned out to be a lovely--and somehow very appropriate--way to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

americans, please forgive me if i don't apologize for bumping into you

A sure sign you're no longer in France where
most people use long-life "shelf" milk that
isn't refrigerated until it's opened. I'm a
dedicated milk drinker, so I'm always raiding
a grocery store's small refrigerated shelves
holding 0.5 L, 1L, and occasionally 2L
"fresh milk" containers.
I rounded a corner at Walmart last night and nearly bumped into a couple coming from another direction. I intended to apologize. But it didn't happen.

I was foiled by that slow motion thing that's happening in reverse during this visit stateside. That slow motion thing where my mouth starts to say something (in this case "Pardon," as one would in France, but this time with English pronunciation instead of French - go figure), my brain stops it before it's said aloud, then those hills and valleys in my head try to figure out what I should be saying instead and why I'm having so much trouble, and then the split second appropriate for polite apologies of this sort was past as the girl in the couple murmured a "sorry," reminding me that this is what my slow-motion brain was trying to come up with.

I've been stateside for about a month and a half now, and it's been an interesting visit for discovering the way French life has infiltrated me after four-plus years there. Despite the fact that I still have slow-motion moments abroad when my American brain tries to figure out some oh-so-French situation, I have finally crossed that threshold I've heard about where that's also happening in reverse.

I officially belong nowhere now, it seems. Or everywhere.

So in honor of slow-motion moments the world over, here are a few other things that have tripped me up so far:
  • I've apparently acclimated to the size of drinks outside the U.S. Many times now I've been subconsciously shocked over how huge "normal"-sized drinks are here. Twice I've been intentionally ordering a small drink and ended up being given one of the gigantic huge ones for free. This has made me chuckle. That other me--the pre-France one--would have felt like I'd won the lottery. The cheapskate current me is appreciative but really doesn't want to drink that much.
  • I'm internally shocked here when servers at restaurants show up with the bill while we're still eating. It feels incredibly rude to me - like we're being asked to leave, rather than that they are just trying to provide good service and keep us from waiting. Apparently I've adjusted to the leisurely pace of most French dining (which works well for slow-eating me), where lingering long around a table is totally normal, where you almost never feel rushed out of a restaurant, and where you need to plan to start trying to get your bill about 20 minutes before you actually need to leave.
  • I'm still adjusting to the fact that here it's not a mark of rudeness not to say goodbye to servers/salesclerks when you walk out of their establishment. It's okay to do it here, but it's not a cultural norm like it is in France.
  • I had the hardest time the other day not using the 24-hour clock that has taken me forever to adjust to. So if I text you about meeting at 18h instead of 6 p.m., I hope you'll appreciate the little math exercise.
  • I'm still kind of shocked inside when people speak nonchalantly of running to the store to pick up some sort of food product or other necessity on a Sunday. My insides want to gently remind them that stores aren't open on Sundays, especially not after 1 p.m. And then slow-motion-brain finally realizes I'm back visiting the land of Sunday-shopping-is-a-thing-here.
  • On the up side - I was able to stay at a Starbucks the other night working on a proofreading project until 11:30 p.m.!!!! Such establishments in most of France are typically closed by 7 or 8 p.m.
  • And a friend and I were able to enter a restaurant and order food within about 30 minutes of their posted closing time! Kitchens are often closed at French restaurants well before closing time, so this felt like a huge treat and the height of good customer service.
Et voilà! Reverse-slow-motion-brains-R-us.

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.