Puis nous sommes allés au Sud de la France [google translate, do me right…]

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The only things I knew about the South of France before I arrived I figure I must have picked up from questionable romantic comedies. Or Inglourious Basterds, I feel like there was some provincial Provence somewhere in that film. Maybe? [RIP Shosanna Dreyfus.] As was the theme thus far in France, I was unclear on what I was supposed to want to do in the South of France, but I know I certainly enjoyed saying, out loud, that I was summering in the South of France. What else did I really need to know?

I had heard a lot of things about Provence. Mostly to do with food, lavender, wine, and sunflowers. I think I also had some illusions about dreamy, mysterious, older gentlemen who might wander out of quaint cafés or mysterious corners bearing flowers or wine or something, while romantic music emanates from some equally mysterious location.

Some of these preconceived notions were spot on.

We left Paris by train headed to Nimês, where we would rent a car to drive to Uzès, a small town near Avignon where Frenchie’s dad lives when he is in France. It was hot, and stunningly beautiful as we moved through the countryside to our first destination. There is something viscerally exciting when, before your eyes, preconceived notions become realities. It is a strangely satisfying combination of surprise, validation and joy.

Arriving in Nimês, we found the car agency and took a bit of time to work out exactly what was going on. Initially I had not been entirely on board with a couple of the decisions – like renting a car – did we really need one? [Yes.] Or did we want to see a concert at the Arena de Nimês even if it was not going to be Lionel Richie? [Hello, yes, although initially no-yes-no-yes.] In keeping with the trend, Frenchie knew best and I was finally learning to keep my mouth shut about it. We would get a car, drop our stuff in it, and head out to see the village of Nimês for crème glacés, tickets, shopping, walking.

And so we did.

Nimês was lovely, and hot. I remember being really impressed initially, but looking back on it after seeing Uzès, it was a little less special, perspective being what it is. It was a lovely intro, at the very least, and the Arena… well, we will get to that.

On returning to the car we were grateful for the shade of the subterranean garage. So grateful apparently that the powers that be allowed us to be there for far longer than we anticipated. In our (occasional) fiscal and (regular) regional pragmatism we opted to have only one driver on the car: Frenchie. And I was excited to see how this would go. But it appeared that we were not going. To be fair, I have not had a car since I sold mine – or rather #4 did, for far less than he should have – when I moved to Asia, and cars have become far more… automated. It is amusing to me how in simplifying things, car makers have made the vehicles so much more mysterious. Add to this that Frenchie is a committed luddite and an indefatigable anachronist, and we were nearly in a Mr. Bean sketch. There was an informative (though French) LED display that kept saying to engage the clutch. I am not sure how I suddenly understood French when I could barely recall how to say you’re welcome after several weeks dans le pays, but suddenly I could. So I kept saying “Put the clutch in.” And Frenchie kept saying, “What is this clutch?” And I would tell her and she would look at me like I was crazy. This went on for quite some time. At one point we were even considering going back upstairs to tell them we had a defective car.

And the shade of the garage was no longer keeping these four ladies cool.

I asked could I just try once, so we switched seats.

And the car started.

I believe we are now  all clear on how to say, and effectively demonstrate, clutch multilingually.

More to the point we now had air con and were en route to what lay ahead: Uzès.

The drive was beautiful and the approach to the village stunning. But we were completely unprepared for what was really in store. I now understand so much more clearly Frenchie’s love for all that is old and gone – I have always been curious, almost perplexed, by her love for the past. She has described it as a love for the lost innocence of people and places. I have felt more that it was a strange resistance to see the world – for better or for worse – as it is. In some cases I even felt like, and tried unsuccessfully to communicate, that her love for days gone by in places is at best limiting to these places as she insists they not progress in any way for the benefit of maintaining an image of something she wants to hold, rather than a reality she should be able to see. At worst it feels repressive and imperialistic. I know that this is not at all how she feels it or means it and that she would tell me I am up to my tricks of over thinking. This may be true. Either way she is my own Adriana, the one who will always long for some illusive Golden Age.

But walking through the gate (yes, gate) on the narrow, cobbled streets, we were transported.

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I knew I was going to enjoy my time here, in a quaint experiential way. But when I turned to look at Nic I saw something different: she was home. I had never seen someone look so perfectly in situ. She belongs in the South of France… if not now, or forever, definitely right then, Nickie was home.

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After dropping off our things and appreciating the wonderfully familiar home of a person who you’ve never met but in knowing his familiars you know him anyhow, we went out. We wandered around a few of the streets to the place du village. We chose a small taverna and sat down for appetizers and rosé. And there we were: a group of people, sometimes friends, sometimes foes, sometimes family, sometimes allies, sometimes travelers, always simpatico: especially in the moments when we were not so sure.

Over wine and bread and wine and olives and wine we considered if people always have choices or sometimes they don’t. We talked about men in Australia and America and Hong Kong. We talked about the recurring narrative that we could not really believe that we were here in this place, at this time.

There were perfect dark corners and music emanating from them… no mystery men… but it was early.

For the next few days we explored various aspects of this part of Provence. We got a wonderful tip on a restaurant from two women who had been sitting next to us at the taverna, La Table 2 Julien, for which we booked a table later in the week, there were villages of ceramics, open air markets, an arts festival in Avignon, the aqueduct, the Tower of Uzès… the list had the potential to go on and on. And not to be forgotten was the lovely home we had at our disposal.

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I think the myriad options gave rise to the more obvious differences in our various objectives. It would be the first time – to my knowledge (save for the regular disparagement for being American) – that these differences began to be a little prickly and sting as it were. (As I have said before, group work can be a struggle in the best of times.) The result of this was a bit more alone time, or tandem time, which was good for all of us, and required that we make our needs clear, which is another good practice.

I was not giving up the Pont du Gard, nor the ancient garden and tower of Uzès. And food, I wanted all the food, though truth be told I didn’t really want to figure it out in terms of restaurants and meals, I just wanted to eat it. As for road tripping and shopping, I felt like there was enough in our vicinity, but was reminded that I didn’t really know what was in our vicinity, which was an undeniable truth. Still, I was not really excited for hours in the car to spend moments in towns I was not sure I could actually see. But for the potential of greatness (positive spin on F.O.M.O.) we went.

Our day to Avignon was important because my young real estate magnate (aka Frenchie) is looking there for her next purchase, but also because of the Festival d’Avignon, self-proclaimed as “one of the most important contemporary performing arts events in the world.” I think it was impressive, I mean I know it was, it was just all in French. So we eventually went to a dance production. I was far more interested in the history of Avignon, it was the home to the Popes for years and there was a big old Palais des Papes, which I wanted to climb.

I did not get to climb this palace. We did however witness a mad conflict between a bunch of French officials who were trying to oversee a memorial for Jewish soldiers who had died in WWII at the same time that a visiting troupe of Korean drummers and dancers was kicking off in the plaza directly adjacent to and below the memorial. There was a lot of unscripted whistle blowing. It reminded me quite a bit of this for some reason.

Avignon is a walled city along the Rhône River with an interesting and complicated history. While it maintains much of this feel, during the festival it is like one giant billboard.

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Following the show we had a walk and lunch and then I took the liberty to scramble across town in search of a particular show poster that I had been unable to pull from the walls (there were so many posters but the one I wanted of course cost €5.) But this run gave me the chance to see the ramparts and the walls – as you know I do love a walled city.

The city was gorgeous and another one of those places that really takes you back, with winding streets and narrow buildings with the colored window shutters on muted terra-cotta colored buildings. I tried to picture myself living there as we considered different areas where Frenchie might find herself. Every time, as with Uzès, I thought it was lovely and sweet, and positively unlivable. I am just not cut out for the provincial, I guess.

Leaving Avignon we were en route to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. This town rates incredibly low on my Fabulous French Review. I would like to say this is because with limited time the parts we saw were totally uncharming… so strange for the part of the world that seems to have a lock on charm… and it was unbearably hot. And we were going the opposite way from Uzès so I was confused. The saving grace was that after a quick stop we drove on to Gordes, a place I would have loved to check out further but it was not to be.

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Someday I will go back to Gordes with one of those mythical mystery men – out the shadows or not.

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Our remaining time in and around Uzès accommodated almost all of our needs in different ways. We went to the Pont du Gard, and it was as fantastic as I could have imagined as we were able to walk through the actual aqueduct. Well, some of us were… somehow one of our tickets had been misplaced and in a strangely non-provincial way, the woman who had sold the ticket suddenly claimed she had no recollection of such and event and she would not let Frenchie through. Nic and I were unaware of this until we had gone through the entire aqueduct and sat wondering how we had lost our friend in a one way tunnel. I was a disappointment, though I am not sure if Frenchie was more disappointed in not going through the aqueduct or in the behavior she declared decidedly UN-French from the guide. The day itself was so stunning, it made up (almost) for this mishap.

The Pont du Gard is: an ancient Roman aqueduct that crosses the Gardon River in the south of France. Located near the town of Vers-Pont-du-Gard, the bridge is part of the Nîmes aqueduct, a 50-kilometer system built in the first century AD to carry water from a spring at Uzès to the Roman colony of Nemausus (Nîmes) Because of the uneven terrain between the two points, the mostly underground aqueduct followed a long, winding route that called for a bridge across the gorge of the Gardon River. The Pont du Gard is the highest of all elevated Roman aqueducts, and, along with the Aqueduct of Segovia, one of the best preserved. It was added to UNESCO‘s list of World Heritage Sites in 1985 because of its historical importance. (wiki FTW)

And basically I just wanted to walk around saying: What have the Romans ever done for us? [“The aqueduct?”]

It was one of the coolest things I have seen. Along with the mural of world heritage sites that listed French gastronomy as one of them. Oh France.

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In our last full day I was able to explore the medieval garden of Uzès which is between the ancient King’s Tower and Bishop’s Tower – formerly used as a prison among other things. This tower I got to climb.

After spending a little bit of time by myself in the medieval garden and exploring the King’s prison and the Bishop’s tower I headed back to our flat. For our last night all together in the south of France we would be driving to Nimes to see Sting perform at the ancient Arenes de Nimes. The drive was easy and the parking was fortuitous. If only choosing an outfit would have been so easy.

We stopped for a light dinner beforehand, although by this time I had waited too long and was crabby from hunger and nitpicking. This is the thing about being in a group: sometimes little things go unnoticed and sometimes they don’t and sometimes they just build up. It is usually in these situations I find that the inconsequential breaks the levee and emotions are misdirected and further misinterpreted. For public consumption, I’ll just say, the one person who I snapped at was not the one I meant to… And I needed a time out.

Or champagne. Champagne is generally a good alternative.

There is no mood that the Arenes de Nimês could not conquer, which for the setting seems completely appropriate.

Built in the year 70 (C.E.) for gladiator combats, animal slayings and executions it was fortified and held by the Visigoths after the fall of the Roman Empire. By the 700s it enclosed a fortified palace and eventually a small neighborhood was established within the amphitheater; home to around 700 people. In 1863 it was remodelled to serve as a bullring and today it is still used for this (gross) practice as well as lots of other public events. It is 130 m. by 100 m. and can seat 16,300. And it has sections still called the vomitoires. Which is obviously awesome. [These are the seats adjacent to the lower level tunnels that facilitate the exits.]

When we arrived the setting was simply breathtaking and this was before we even saw Sting (although, the hipster beard he is now sporting is less breathtaking… but he’s still totally hot. It’s the yoga, I know it.) The show was great, the crowd was entertaining, the weather was perfect. It was a lovely last night in Provence.

The next morning we woke up knowing that we would be heading out our separate ways. Nic and her sister were off to Bruges, Frenchie and I to Spain by way of Marseille. I got up early to walk around the village one last time and bid adieu to Uzès.

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On my return we were readying to go and people were packed, the house reassembled, and we were off.

Except the keys to the house were missing.

Like, totally gone.

Although there were some mild time constraints – more for us than for Nic and Sam who would be spending the night in Nimês – we basically had time. And how hard could it be to find a set of keys?

Suddenly we were looking everywhere. In packed luggage. In garbage. Under furniture. In the toilet.

No keys.

Of course, it was hard not to look to Frenchie who, without intentionally casting aspersions, I might suggest has had some struggles around losing misplacing items. Everybody was verklempt.

Still, no keys.

Until… there they were. On the kitchen table. Albeit, under the tablecloth, but they were there. It was relief incomparable to much I could think of save for having to pee so bad you think you might die and then finding a bathroom. And not dying.

So we were off. Back to Nimês to share a tearful goodbye with our friends and then to the train for Marseille. There was much to unpack – emotionally and experimentally. We had seen so much of Provence and seen how differently people see the same things. There were moments that were challenging and others delicious and still others that were transformative, and some that simply eliminated the need for words.

I suspect those are precisely the sentiments that define travel.

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Where were we, now? Je suis Paris!

As it happens, I began this post one week before the bombings that took place in Paris this past November. And further (as it happens) I was consumed with sadness, frustration, and degrees of separation as I followed the stories that emerged following the attacks. I did what so many did and looked at maps and wondered, “Had I been there?” “Did I see that place?” And of course, I also recoiled and braced myself for the inevitable onslaught of hatred and vitriol that would certainly rise from the dust… the Islamaphobia, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant bile. And of course, this was all around keeping the internet buzzing for days. But it did not come from Paris. What came from Paris spoke to exactly what makes Paris what it is: Parisians were not filled with fear and hate. They were not screaming about the danger and immoral nature of all people of a certain creed, ethnicity, or faith. They remained, as ever, precisely what purveyors of terror loathe: compassionate, brave, loving. Of course they were hurting and mourning but they did not let that change who they were fundamentally – at heart. For this reason, Paris won. And Paris will continue to be victorious. We (especially in my own hate-riddled nation) should all take a lesson from Paris.

Friends from the whole world, thank you for #prayforParis, but we don’t need more religion! Our faith goes to music! Kissing! Life! Champagne and joy! #Parisisaboutlife

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And this is the spirit of Paris that I experienced and adored for my brief shining days in the City of Light this summer.

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Ah, yes… Paris. Back to the city of love & light to celebrate Bastille Day! We had the good fortune to be able to stay in JM’s place in the 15th Arr. for the fete. Although he fills the space with Airbnb when he is not there, he was willing to let us squat, with one condition, one of his renters wanted to stay an extra night, which meant he would be there with us. Who were we to complain? We were in a gorgeous flat practically under the Tour Eiffel.

When we arrived, it was clear that Leon had just woken up, ah! to be a young college student on the loose in Europe again. He was sweet, if overwhelmed, as four women with what seemed like an over abundance of stuff for our brief stay (But hey! Preparation!) rolled in. As we came in Leon asked me if I was American. As I had begun to do over the previous week, I immediately apologized as I said yes (it is easy to do when one receives a regular amount of criticism for which they are immediately forgiven, “because you’re American”). Leon laughed and said, “No! I love Americans!”

Now this was a nice turn of events. Leon is a grad student in Warsaw (and one helluva smart cookie, I might add) and he had a bunch of questions about the States. He especially wanted to know about California (because who wouldn’t, says this California girl) and surfing. I told him that I had gone to school in San Diego. He looked at me with total surprise, “Really? I am going there on a doctoral exchange next year!” [Hi Leon!]

I mean, really, what are the odds? I guess they are greater than I would imagine because this sort of thing seems to keep happening, but really, this seemed so intentionally, randomly perfect: a Polish student just staying one more night because Paris, and in the house we were staying in because, Paris, and so on and so forth, because: Paris.

For Bastille Day we would stroll the city and make a picnic (here again, the dilemma of the picnic) and there was a concert in in the park at the Tour Eiffel and then of course, fireworks. The city was buzzing. And Paris has a very unique buzz (because, say it with me: Paris). It is hard to articulate… and now I find myself these weeks later still committed to writing about this summer, and the details get fuzzier, but the sensations remain palpable. The city was touched with the kind of afternoon light that remains in the northern latitudes during summer. It was warm in that way of urban places, a little sticky but not humid like we had all come to known in our years in SE Asia, a little gritty, and full up with people in various stages of their day. There was a general sense that everyone in doing their own things was also generally moving in concert with everyone else. Streets were being closed and people rerouted and everyone just seemed to be moving along, changing course when nice young French officers of the law said to do so. Maybe it was all the wine….

We had brought sandwiches (which I made, so, yum) and wine. Interestingly, we could not bring the wine bottle into to park, which explained this odd phenomenon we had been witnessing, which was people buying and then dumping out myriad bottles of water. Ahh… the wine receptacle! We followed suit. I bought a standard water bottle and drank some and dumped the rest. Then we poured the wine into the bottle. We were confused, had we purchased a lilliputian bottle of wine? Why did it seem like there was so little? Was the water bottle so big? Our volume-based comprehension hilariously off, we shrugged at our little tiny amount of wine in our giant water bottle and headed in. On seeing our teeny weenie wine stash the officers stopped us – mon dieu! “No caps on bottles!” They demanded.

What?

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Okay then, we carried on with our open sloshy bottle of wine. In hindsight, that a full bottle, plastic or otherwise, was their biggest concern seems quaint and of a time gone by.

When we arrived for the concert, seating was unavailable, as I had predicted and Frenchie had pooh-poohed. We finally just plopped down on the ground next to a lovely group of older tourists, a very jovial and friendly group of South Americans in front of us, and two sweet young Vietnamese students to our left. We made conversation, ate sandwiches, drank wine, helped people mop up spilled wine, talked about tattoos with the older folks behind us, and took in the fete. It was a basic international delight.

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We planned on only taking in some of the show, and to walk back to meet Nic for the fireworks. A plan easier to conceptualize than to actualize. The throngs of people were so dense at times it seemed like we were all part of one gigantic freakish humanoid organism. We had previously deduced that getting across the river (to a better view) would be impossible with the street closures and such, so we would stay in the 15th and made our way. And really, being in central Paris for Bastille Day was not going to suck anywhere that we found ourselves. (Although, after much time to talk about it on the latter part of our journey and even more since we have all been back, I know that Frenchie was still, ever consumed with ensuring that her ill-prepared compadre [*raises hand*] and her actually ill compadre [Nic] were having a the perfect Paris experience. If only I could have better communicated at the time that for us – and I take the liberty to speak for Nic here – anything and everything was perfect.)

We slowly made our way back to the flat and found to our chagrin (more to hers I am sure) that Nic was still under the weather. No bother, we scooped her up and headed for a vantage point for the fireworks.

As did everyone else in greater Paris at that moment.

Despite of being in a kind of funny spot near the metro station on the Boulevard de Grenelle, the entire spectacle was just that: spectacular spectacular!

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And there it was. The city of light.

When I heard that the Tour Eiffel had gone dark to mourn the victims of the November 13 attack, I could not imagine what it would look like, such a contrast to the Paris I had seen aglow with light. We should all be so lucky to say je suis Paris.

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Allez allez allez Versailles!

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I did not know what to expect from our sojourn to Versailles when we headed out on 13 July. I was not surprised that we left an hour or so later than planned, but unaware of any real consequences that might have. At this point I was learning that Frenchie’s adherence to schedules and attachment to timing was really something of national pastime, not really just an individual idiosyncrasy of hers.

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I was also surprised at how close Versailles is to Paris, so my being perplexed over a delayed departure seemed silly (although the “arriving-at-the-station-just-as-a-train-had-departed phenomenon was getting tired.)

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I knew that this was the hometown of my Frenchie, and as we rode out to Versailles and back in time somewhat for her, I thought a lot about what I would show this group of my hometown, were they ever to travel to the international destination that is Petaluma. It is hard to imagine really, I mean, their coming to Petaluma and the things I might choose to show them. Of course, Petaluma is not home to one of the world’s most famous palaces, so I might be forced to think a little harder. Though, truth be told, I think having the palace made it more challenging for Frenchie to really show us what her hometown was like, because we were all like, “Oh my god look at the palace!” the whole time.

Oh, and we were hungry.

No one wanted to admit it really, because no one wanted to be a pain in the ass, but we were hungry – and a hungry mob is an angry mob. Now we were arriving in Versailles to find out that a) we were too late to rent bicycles in town (which had been another of those plans I was unaware of) and b) restaurants were closing for their midday break… save for McDonald’s. Add to this, Frenchie really wanted to give us a peek into her life, one I know Nic and I really wanted to see. But things were not flowing smoothly. I knew that we were going to picnic. Tthe French, as you can imagine, have their own take on this. Frankly (see what I did right there?) it is actually a far superior take on a picnic than we have here in the states, because it is just so “whatever” (read easy). There is generally very little planning, whatever food is around is gathered up, and you eat somewhere outside. Viola! Picnic. I also knew that we would be seeing some fireworks as the Bastille Day fête would be on the eve of 14 Julliet in Versailles.

As we wandered around looking for a suitable place to eat like a heard of Goldilocks (not too fancy, not too expensive, not too closed, not too not-French, not too touristy, not too fast-food) we contemplated just picnicking – or at least I did because I was carrying quite a bit of weight on my back with our wine supply and wondering when the picnic was going to happen.

What I did not know was that what Frenchie had in mind was: get bikes in town, ride around and see her old house and haunts, get some lunch, ride around the palace grounds, sunset picnic, see Frenchie’s flat, meet our friend Fred (who was our neighbor in HK and a friend of Frenchie’s since school in Versailles), see fireworks and head back to Clamart.

What Frenchie did not know was: we would arrive too late for bikes in town and lunch, her pals would be worried about when they would eat, the palace (not the grounds) would be closed because it was a Monday, and the grounds would close, oh, right around sunset.

What we all would come to realize is, that regardless that “the best-laid plans of mice and men, often go awry,” it all works out in the end.

We wandered hungrily around town before finally settling on a ‘too touristy’ place for lunch. But it was not McDonald’s, so victory was ours. I actually really enjoyed my lunch. This could have been because I was starving (see Eddie Murphy and the saltine cracker) or it is just the reality that the worst French food is pretty damn good. I had an excellent quiche and salad, which I may or may not have mentioned is something that food-wise that the French do not understand: greens and vinaigrette is all you are going to see for salad, they simply do not understand how to use and combine vegetables without creme or cheese. Still, yum. Frenchie ordered something of a classic French meal that had random animal parts and sauce. I passed on giving it a go. She loved it. Of course. This is an enduring theme of our friendship: we are a great team for sharing because we have nearly universally opposite tastes in everything. It is really both peculiar and convent.

As a funny side note, we found a dime bag of weed under the table. It was hilarious to us for some reason, and we were quite beside ourselves with laughter, and then: wait, what should we do with it? After going through no end of what ifs, like what if it were a test or a trap, or what if we put it in our pockets or our bags and forgot about it and got stopped at the airport, or what if we just said fuck it let’s smoke it and it was laced with some hideous drug we had never heard of, we left it on the table.

We would be roundly chastised for this later.

Now with our belly’s full (a hungry mob is an angry mob) we headed through town making our way circuitously to the palace. We saw where Frenchie had lived as a child. I liked thinking of her here is this town, on that balcony. I wondered if we would have been friends back then. We walked along streets she knew so well and it reminded me of the feeling I get when I retrace steps so familiar with the fresh eyes of others: it brings up a special kind of acknowledgment of certain things that have contributed to making us “us”, I suppose that is nostalgia.

As we made our way to the palace I was getting excited. Louis XIV was a rather BAMF enlightened despot and I wanted to see the place that he had envisioned that has inspired so much petty emulation by others like Peter the Great and any number of cheap Vegas McMillionaires. I would not see the castle today as it was closed, which was a bummer on one hand because, duh: BLING. But also a bit of a relief since I would have been the only one of our group who wanted to go in and so, now there was no decision to be made.

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Regardless you get a pretty real sense of the place from the outside anyhow. I have always found the story of the Dauphine (Louis XVI) and Marie Antoinette pretty interesting and it was really cool to walk around and try to imagine what it was like for these kids to be ensconced in this place. And the gardens… wow.

We got bikes here and so that was one obstacle cleared, off we went.

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There are not really words for the afternoon we spent cycling around the grounds of the palace of Versailles except to say that it was pretty special.

DSC_7652Once back from our ride we decided we would have an hour or so on our one and then meet up to picnic. I was told to be back around 7:30, if memory serves, and so off I went camera in hand. In this time alone I really got to explore and have some time to move at my own pace. Being the timely individual that I am I was punctually headed back to our rendezvous when I saw Frenchie coming at me. This was unusual because, well, she was on time, early even. She was overly relieved to see me, so I knew something was up. What was up was that the park was closing. and we were going to have to get out.

Ha. I laughed, that would be funny being locked in the Palace of Versailles, wouldn’t it? As it would happen, Frenchie had already done that long ago when she had spent her summers working at the palace (helluva summer job, no?) and she “knew” a guy whose dad ran things or something… she was quite cheeky in her omission of details around said guy, so I am going to have to follow-up on that story at some point… And somehow they got locked in. Yeah, clearly more of a story there, no? Anyhow, at this point we made it out.

Phew. And in true hometown fashion, we got picked up by her mom to take us back to town.

On arriving back in town the elusive picnic was soon to be had. And in what turns out to be the French picnicking way, we rocked up to a sweet little bench and ate our food. Just like that. And it was, like the riding around the palace oddly, surprisingly, perfect.

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All along Frenchie had been trying to meet Fred and it was looking like that might not happen. But as we walked back towards the action in the town square, suddenly, it was not just Fred, but what seemed like our whole village. It was a moment that would frame so much of my summer… here I was, somewhere far away from anywhere I knew, and in the midst of the people who had, without thought or warning, helped to create my life abroad. To have friends that are like family in this way is a gift. To recognize it, all the better.

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And on this sparkly night in Versailles I was able to both along with my world wide tribe.

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My First Yoga Retreat.

*** Author’s Note:  I began writing this post on July 1, two days after I came back from Mexico. But then I realized I had to do a few other things and here it sat. Until now. But hey, who doesn’t love a good flashback?

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As we rode towards the center (we thought) of Cancun, SP and I clearly felt confused. This in and of itself was confusing because we are both well travelled and SP is a native Mexican and so a simple bus ride into to town should not leave us nonplussed. As we rolled by an Outback Steakhouse I said, “Shoot me now.” This comment caught the attention of a young gringa in front of us who told us we “just had to go to the Montero Steak House because it was so authentic” with such earnestness I almost felt like she needed a hug (the restaurant appears to be German owned, for what it’s worth).

When we finally stepped off the city bus in the part of Cancun that everyone apparently thought we were trying to find we looked at each other and looked around, and had no idea what the heck was happening. Eventually we got a map and saw – to some degree – what had gone wrong. Simply wanting an easy night out, maybe a margarita, on our last night in Mexico after thirteen amazing days in Xcalak & Tulum, we had asked every wrong person where to go and thus stumbled into a Samuel Beckett-like evening of absurdity.

Walking along a weird avenue that backed up to gigantic mega-hotels with water on either side of us and not a bar or restaurant in sight, our confusion increased. Eventually we reached the part of the “Riviera” where we were told the bars and restaurants were. It was a full frontal assault of awful that nearly had us breaking into a full sprint to escape.

By the time we reached The Fiesta Americana we were just like, “Get us to an air-conditioned hotel bar away from this hideousness.” And so we found one and sat down.

But they had no food.

So we went to another restaurant in the hotel someone recommended. We sat down in a lovely little spot and ordered drinks. And then were told that the only meal option was a buffet.

Are you kidding me?

So off we went to another restaurant in the same hotel. It was Mexican. How bizarre. It was a totally odd place with super high ceilings and even more super loud mariachis. But they had food and a/c.

By the time we left we were ready to spend every last peso on a taxi home just to get out of Cancun and back to our airport hotel. I can’t really say if Cancun itself was so bad, but the Zona Hoteleria was vile, and our sensibilities were not ready for it after two weeks of bliss.

Which brings to light the point of this post: The Bliss. Our yoga retreat and entry into to said retreat were amazing. So amazing in fact, that the weirdest night I have ever had in Mexico (and I have had some doozies) could not even dispel the amazingness.

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I cannot remember my original motivation to do a yoga retreat – I have never done one before – but I do remember making the decision to do this retreat. And the decision brought up interesting (unfamiliar) feelings around my yoga life. If I were to describe my yoga practice I would use words like: disciplined, traditional, focused, quiet, solitary, consistent, serious, quiet. It is not that I am antisocial, although Veer did tell me long ago, I needed to work harder to be a part of the group – the kula. I didn’t know why it mattered at the time, like really and truly, I couldn’t understand why it mattered that I get socially involved with the group of Hong Kong Chinese women I practiced with. Everyday. For three to four hours.

When I say it like that it feels pretty ridiculous to think I needed someone to tell me I had to intentionally and meaningfully engage with a group of people I was in close contact with every single day.

But, I did.

And then years later as I continued to grow my practice and get to know new teachers, I was maintaining my practice in a very similar way. There were some people I got to know by virtue of frequent proximity, and I would go so far as to say I even had a few yoga friends. So to suddenly join a yoga retreat in Mexico with a group of people – who I may or may not really know – would definitely be categorized in the “out-of-character” file.

But I did.

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Before joining (I can hear S.P. right now saying: “Look at you, you joiner!”) the retreat (with my friend in and out of yoga, S.P.) we went to Xcalak to visit my former building managers. These are two of the more amazing people I have met in my life. I met them in the way that you meet the people who run your apartment building, but a little bit more than that. And then when they told me they were totally changing their lives and moving off the grid to a (rad) rural part of the Mayan Riviera they had a going away party, which I attended, and at which they said “Come visit! Really!”

Now people say this kind of thing a lot. And I often wonder if they really mean it, not like it is disingenuous, but more like the likelihood of future visits being, well, not that likely make it easier to say? I took a chance that they meant it. The type of people R & C are are not the type of people who would ever tell someone to come visit if they didn’t mean it. I know that now for sure if I did not before.

This meant we had five gorgeous days in a really special place that I am not really super interested in telling people about because: too special. There were great talks, perfect silences, friendly ducks, grumpy geese, clever chickens, snorkeling, Sargassum, stand up paddle boarding, cold beers, delicious food, and immeasurable generosity.

One week after finishing the school year, I could not have asked for more.

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Next we were off to Tulum for a week-long yoga retreat with a teacher I admire and know well and have grown to really trust. This, I imagine, is why I found my self there, at a yoga retreat.

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The retreat basically kicked off on the Summer Solstice, which is cool. (This also happens to be the date that the Indian government pushed the UN to adopt as International Yoga Day… a notion that if one does any amount of research upon will leave one quite… fraught.) But waking up on the Mayan Riviera for a Summer Solstice sunrise is pretty awesome regardless of any other circumstances…

And so here I was. With some people I knew. And some I did not. Joining.

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The retreat itself was very special, and as with my previous week, I am not super interested in spelling out all the more intimate ways that it was special, because it seems like something that feels more comfortable taking up residence in my own conscience. I am not sure how it would compare to other yoga retreats because I have never done a yoga retreat. I can assure you it was very (VERY) different from living in the ashram… as it should be.

We did yoga. We ate good food. There was a lot of time to relax or contemplate, or tan, or get spa treatments (I mentioned it was not like my ashram, right?)

It was gentle.

And the thing is, I think I need more gentle in my life. I do not default to gentle. I get after it. I work hard. I do lots (and lots and lots) of things. I push myself (and yeah, others too, sorry.) That is all fine, but gentle might be too. It gives you time to do different things.

I made a bunch of new friends. Real friends, who live in my neighborhood and have priorities in line with my own in lots of ways. I joined things. We rode bikes to ruins, we floated down crystal clear canals through ancient mangroves, we had warm white wine and rolled up Velveeta cheese. We laughed a lot. One of our group who attends yoga retreats regularly said that this retreat was totally unlike any she had done before because everyone at this retreat had come because of their connection to this particular teacher. She said it was a completely different feeling of community. Like I said, I cannot compare, but I can certainly agree.

This experience both changed my entire reality at home – in the yoga studio and around my neighborhood – and set the tone for my entire summer. My kula has grown and I am really glad. It is not always easy to develop community in a bustling urban situation, but, here we are. Better for it.

Namaste.

 

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Turning another page.

We twa hae run about the braes,
and pu’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
sin auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

The New Year holds a striking amount of significance for so many people – me among them. In my rational mind I am aware that this is silly, this arbitrary attachment to an abstract new beginning. But I still believe. I have borrowed from a variety of places and traditions in terms of how I celebrate. I clean and get everything all sorted out for smooth segues into new calendars, I eat something celebratory for no other reason than the simple pleasure it brings, if I toast in the new year anymore I am mindful of the sort of hangovers that lurk around every corner in middle age, I contemplate, I make lists (and I read so many: best photos, most searched, best music, best movies… ), I set goals, which in combination comes down to a sort of daydreamy visualization situation. I hesitate to call it meditation only for its lack of continuity and specific intention. Not to say that I think this kind of mental exercise is any less effective, just different. And it allows from some mu-si vegetables and wonton soup in between thoughts. I also love to have my own sort of greatest hits, generally punctuated by photos. I may do that again – but now with Instagram and what not, it it starting to seem a little unoriginal – if it ever was.

I did not write a lot this past year, well I didn’t blog a lot. And my relationship with “social” media is really changing for a variety of reasons. First of all the fact that the OED identified the (non)word “selfie” as the word of the year because its use increased by more than 17,000% is profoundly disturbing – more for the underlying meaning of universally embracing this concept than the fact that it is a made up word. What does it say about a species that their most used word is all about self-promotion, self-obsession, self-ishness? I  have students that seriously shoot unending series of selfies. Daily. Hourly. In addition to this ridiculousness, there is the constant Facebook weirdness. I have taken to hiding people from my feed because I am too gutless to actually delete these people on the outside chance that they would notice and I might be forced to deal, face to face, and explain that I really find their superiority trips/self-obsession/directives on how to live/ignorance/politics/judgements/incessant unedited posting/Candy Crush invites/misspellings (which even when intentional are still misspellings and annoying) soul crushing. And this is super frustrating as I have been working so hard to be kind and to remember that everyone is fighting a battle I know nothing about…. Well, frankly with all your posts I do know about it – unless you are one of those cryptic posters – but I am still trying to be kind. Really. Another thing that happened this year is that someone started aggressively stalking and harassing me via any available online conduit. He would read (and repost!) my blog posts that he took offense to (and believes to the point of mass publicizing it that one of them was written about him – ummm… Hello Crazy.) He stalked my Instagram. Then he started a series of ad-hom attacks on Twitter (keep in mind my Twitter is private and he is fully blocked by every available avenue and still he persisted.) I reported him repeatedly. Then he started contacting me through some other account – that he was accusing me of running. Where is Sweet Brown when you need here? I mean, who in the world got time for THAT? Reported that too. But it just made things less pleasant. Then I read Dave Eggers’ The Circle, and I just got freaked out about the whole situation.

Also, my hard drive crashed in September without a real recent back up and so I did some deep work with attachment… and ended up feeling a bit detached. Though, this morning as I watch the sunrise on New Year’s Day my first reaction was, “I gotta get a photo of that…” while I was still curled up all warm in my bed. And why? For whom?

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But my transition from old year to new year seemed incomplete without some sort of look back – as well as forward. And sooo…

This year is beginning in a markedly different way than I had anticipated, directly. Looking back at the (little) bit of writing I did this year in the public and private forums it seems a little less surprising. And I am paying a lot more attention to the layers of synchronicity in my life – like facing relationship crisis points and walking into yoga class where one of my teachers announces that his theme for 2014 will be vulnerability. Seriously? Yeah. Or getting up at the crack of dawn to try to make someone’s morning a little better by making them coffee… and then three hours later on making coffee for myself having the carafe shatter with the pressure of the French Press. Really universe?

Still, I’m gonna keep trying to kill them with kindness. Even the lady from Glee on the NYE special was talking about that being her goal for the new year: kindness. [redacted]

So my year? Sitting here on a quiet New Year’s morning, there is a lot to think about buried in a seemingly mundane year. In honor of the OED, let’s see if I can find a selfie from every month… while all is quiet.

Continue reading

2013: you have arrived

[From our mobile desk on the 5 en route from Encinitas to Petaluma]
In the spirit of the New Year traditions, let’s review. If that is not a tradition for you, it can be now. Or not.

Things I want to remember about this year:

1. Sometimes things are as good as they seem. And sometimes they aren’t. That is not so profound, but it turns out to be true. The trick appears to be the old “wisdom to know the difference” as the serenity prayer Pollyanna-ishly tells us. I found that the most challenging thing about this was that sometimes they are both. At the same time. This is difficult for someone like me with a natural inclination to compartmentalize. Anyhow, the good was really good, and that made the bad especially aggravating. I guess that is the wisdom to appreciate the contrast.

2. All is fleeting and the temporary nature of life is vey real. If all the world’s a stage and we are merely players, as the Bard suggests, I hope someday for the most epic of curtain calls.

3. Everyone has issues. Good thing to remember in those dark moments.

4. In spite of so much there seems to be hope for humanity. Not always, but you know, enough of the time to stave off true desperation.

And in keeping with my predilection for lists and compartmentalizing, here are my greatest hits for 2012, a year so many thought would bring the end of days, or maybe they just hoped… but ultimately it just came and went. Like they all seem to do at a deceptively consistent speed.

JANUARY:
Jan12
A beautiful New Years Day spent with a surprisingly special someone.

FEBRUARY:
Feb2012
More challenging than I had anticipated – but I did not know it at the time. Does that count? At least that damn month is short. And I learned to go-kart.

MARCH:Mar2012
Categorically the longest month ever. Always. Pink slips arrive. Survival seems the most one can ask of March… But we went to the Magic Castle, and even in the rain that is always fun. Especially when you check in and they tell you they are comping the weekend for you.

APRIL: Apr2012
The Cowboy makes a permanent relocation. Mostly.
I experience one of the most tragic of losses as gun violence touches my life directly, horribly, irrevocably.

MAY: 601061_429632317070978_273802422_n
There is lots of sunshine. My first year at BHS is winding down. The Golden Gate Bridge turns 75.

JUNE: Jun2012
I deliver the commencement address for my seniors at our small school graduation. I watch my first entire Tour de France.

JULY: 552192_443546009012942_2129688312_n
I question everything because everything seems topsy-turvy. I am right about everything I suspect, but whether or not it matters in the way I think it does is confusing and unclear. I think my lack of travel contributes to much of this disequilibrium… Though I do go to Booneville for a wedding.

AUGUST:
Aug2012

Vegas with A and the girls. It is fabulous and the Beatles cirque du soleil is amazing.

SEPTEMBER: Sep2012
Usually my favorite month. But this year not so much. Plus, I mean, 42 is anticlimactic as anything. Regardless, this month challenged every expectation I had – or had tried to avoid. Faith in everything was tested. Junot Diaz articulated it all perfectly in This Is How You Lose Her, and I got to have him sign another one of my first editions.

OCTOBER: Oct2012
Bridge School Benefit concert and several opportunities to wear wigs. Can’t be bummed about that.

NOVEMBER: Nov2012
The parentals are back and Thanks are given. I am especially grateful for the election returns as the entire world watches with held breath wondering if our country could possibly be as stupid as we sometimes appear. It turns out we are not. I am relieved and Nate Silver is not surprised at all. I buy his book.

DECEMBER: Home of the Free
Alcatraz, the Nutcracker, Newtown, missed Apocalypses, Vacations, missed weddings, San Diego, Family, Birthdays, Anniversaries. In a single month, December managed to encapsulate the heartbreaking highs and lows of the entire year.

And now it is over, with all of the hope a new year brings, whether a recipe for disaster based on overly ambitious expecatations, or maybe just another day.

I think it is somewhere in between.

Should Old Acquaintance be forgot,
and never thought upon;
The flames of Love extinguished,
and fully past and gone:
Is thy sweet Heart now grown so cold,
that loving Breast of thine;
That thou canst never once reflect
On Old long syne.

Maybe it is good that it is the shortest day of the year…

xmasshows2I am a big fan of the solstice. Actually, of most things astronomical, astrological, and generally sparkly, not to mention the inherent symmetry of the solstices, it is sort of a magical time. Having said that, this year I am sort of glad to know that this day will be very short, very cold, possibly rainy, and that I will be so painfully busy I won’t have time to take in too much. Because I have to say, right about now, I feel pretty full up.

I can’t think of a better way to articulate it than to say that: Full.Up.

It could be me, I don’t know, but maybe it is not just me. Maybe all this stupid fucking ridiculous misinterpreted, misinformed, ignorant, end of the world crap that people are swilling like bad beer at a frat party is really about a huge collective sadness.

Here is a sampling of things that have made me sad:

  • Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree… I always cried when I watched that Christmas special – always about that tree. I can still recall the sadness just from the image (not mine) above. But you know what is sadder than that? You can now buy a replica of Chuck’s sad little tree at Walgreen’s. The one thing that little tree had was it’s identity and now even that is for sale for anywhere between US$10.48 and 31.89.
  • This excerpt from journalist Jeff Stoecker, of NBC Connecticut, assigned to cover Dawn Hochsprung’s memorial:

    We were standing in front of the funeral home and groups of people, dressed in black, showed up. Then more came. And more. And more. By my count, it was close to nearly 250-300 people not going into the funeral home, but walking right past it… on their way to the legally designated 300 feet away where protesters would have to stay from the site of the calling hours (CT law). They were a human shield for the family and mourners. They would make sure that those hurting would never have to see the hurtful signs, hear the hurtful words from these people who aren’t from here and, sometimes it seems, aren’t capable of humanity. I met two guys from Upstate New York. They were burly guys. When I asked one of them – his name is Dave – why they came, he was overwhelmed with emotion. He told me this was his way of paying his respects to Dawn Hochsprung. He didn’t know her, but he knew what she stood for and why we all lost something special when we lost her, lost six dedicated and loving educators, and 20 beautiful smiling children with lives to be lived and dreams to be fulfilled. He even brought wood, a staple gun, and sheets (in one of the school’s colors – green. Yeah – he thought that through too) to use as shields to hide the protesters’ “God Hates _____” signs. He had a can of spray paint ready to paint “God loves Dawn” and “God Loves Sandy Hook” on those sheets to counter the hateful with the truth. He was joined by teens that didn’t look old enough to drive, men and women who looked like accountants, and those who rode their noisy Harleys thought the center of town. Never has the rumble of motorcycles felt more reassuring than today. The protesters didn’t show. It didn’t matter. If they had, few of us would have known about it. There were a few hundred people making sure of that.

  • Watching the temperatures fall in the City and seeing so many people without a place to stay as I hurried into Bart at Civic Center yesterday. With their pets, their collected belongings, their unique personas. And so many of them, near the holiday season with no home to hurry to. Gone was the urgency I am so often faced with as requests for help are called out – now it seems a more humble, perhaps just sad, entreaty.
  • This photo.
  • Finding out that someone I used to work with and inspired no end of drama has in a month’s time been moved to a terminal cancer ward and unexpectedly lost his first-born son halfway around the world.
  • Realizing that since I have come home, I have lost some one in each year.
  • Seeing the most heartbreaking photo of a friend as she bid a sudden farewell far too soon to a very special cow kitty.
  • This song. Completely serious. And I made you look.

This is just in the last few days. And clearly circumvents some of the most obvious sadnesses.

So maybe it is good that this day shall be short and bring on the longer days in the next bit. I have on e more day of work that promises to be hectic – not necessarily in the delightful way – and then I will travel to be with some very special people in my life. I will try to remember that it is okay to be sad (or maybe even be the crazy crying lady on Bart who people move away from…) and in spite of the sadness there are other things to remember:

  • An email like this that arrived out of the blue:

    just wanted to stop by and thank you for making that home stretch of high school bearable. Without you and Matt, who knows where I would have ended up. Not gonna get too sappy here but you guys did change my life and I appreciate you both for that. I hope all is well with you.

  • Sweetly awkward visits from last year’s students as they flock home with tales to tell of their first collegiate semesters.
  • A cheerful holiday toast with a compadre who can really feel the pain of trying to make it to break rather than just break.
  • Furry, bossy, incorrigible pets.
  • Christmas cards from forever friends.
  • Finding the perfect gift.

I suppose it is true that you cannot have happiness without some element of sadness, if for no other reason than comparative value. Maybe being sad isn’t so bad. I am interested to see how people behave surrounding their long-awaited apocalypse, which has, at this point, moved through two time zones in the US with nary a peep. I just hope it will be funny and not plain sad.

Happy Merry Everything. Be kind. See you on the other side.

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