2018 –> 2019

The Year in Review

January:
The year began in Cuzco as we prepared to take on the Inca Trail. It was auspicious, yellow, and beautiful. Peru is a very special place and the Inca trail was amazing every step (and stone) of the way.

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February:
Life at the AltSchool went sideways. I would learn much later from those who would stay on that I had been somehow accused of trying to destroy Altschool – which is hilarious given that I thought the problem arose from an off-handed comment I made about my manager’s cheap shoes. Anyhow, I was working with a crazy person who could not tell the truth about anything and it was decided that I would part ways with “The Company”. And my leg was killing me.

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March:
After a niggling and consistently annoying pain in my hip that had revealed itself over MLK Weekend in Tahoe started to impede my ability to walk (forget about yoga) I started to try to figure out what was going on. MRI’s, Arthrograms, Physical Therapy: no improvement. I felt fortunate to be in Hong Kong and held by a lot of very special people as I contemplated big changes coming my way.

April:
Hip worse. Job crazy. Job search unpredictable. So I made time to be with old friends and spend some time Petaluma. And at least the Warriors were in the playoffs again – though second seed… that was weird.

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May:
New job acquired… interestingly with the help of the parents at “The Company”. In hindsight I really hope that my manager read my exit interview, she bet on the wrong horse. At this point Altschool was hemorrhaging employees faster than people could count. And summer was on the horizon, although my hip still really hurt.

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June:
Got the flock out of Alt and tried to ready myself for summer. Warriors (unsurprisingly) won a 3rd title. Cousins and Anti come and we went to Pride… But things really went squiffy on the 22nd when I found out I would be getting a total hip replacement on July 3.

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July:
New hip and deep appreciation for health insurance. Two pounds of metal, 22 staples, six inch incision. That is about it really. Moved to Petaluma for the recovery, and the cats enjoyed a stay at their summer home. I missed a wedding I really wanted to attend, and got to spend a lot of time walking around the old neighborhood. With a walker. The photo below is actually my new hip.

August:
New job commenced. Politics got even fucking worse than one could have ever imagined. New hip seemed to be integrating well enough to work. Fires began. Got a student teacher – yet another example of how this year so often presented itself as an opportunity but it was actually just an unbelievable amount of (not so rewarding) work.

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September:
Lots of numbers: Another birthday… 48! 30 year high school reunion! The A’s win 97 games and clinch a wild card berth! 15% pay raise… and a handful of new private clients. Making it rain, teacher style.

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October:
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in the Park. Nahko in the yoga studio. Political nightmares like Kavanaugh pushed through to reality. Head down and working. Back to yoga.

November:
Beastie Boys and Blue Waves. Then more fire. The worst yet in north and south. Smoke so bad school was closed. Escaped to Seattle for fresh air, Chihuly, Kidd Vally and great friends. Thanksgiving and lots of learning. Oh, and I lost all the photos from my phone due to a combination of my aversion to the cloud, non-genius Genius Bar kids, and a firmware problem on the iPhone 7 (which explains the inconsistent photographic support of this post.)

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December:
A mix of many things. Said goodbye to the first semester, and the student teacher. Hunkered down and did a lot of work. Went to Pacific Grove to see the Dudes. And then, for the first time in quite some time, I took some time. For myself. A staycation was had.

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And now the end of 2018 is nigh. It was supposed to be a dog of a year for us Dogs… more on that on the turn of the lunar new year.

Here is hoping for a 2019 of positive change, honest living, and a few laughs in between.

Oh, and iCloud storage for all your photos forever. ūüėė

How I Spent My Summer Vacation [Spoiler: Not as planned]

I had some plans this summer. Not a ton of plans, and to be fair the school year had ended in a place that was palpably toxic in very surprising ways, which in turn had an impact on other areas of my life that were not what I would call “ideal”. But still, summer was here and summer is for vacation.

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.

The Prelude:

After my return from Peru in January of this year I was feeling well pleased with myself having completed the classic Inca Trail route: four days of ups and downs at fairly substantial elevation on a path largely made of (somewhat) set stones (no judgment, they’ve been in place for centuries, so it beats most modern infrastructure I’ve encountered.) I carried my own pack, and felt good the whole way through, which was an accomplishment because I had been worried going into the trek as I have remarkable osteoarthritis for someone my age (I’m told). This inconvenience has most dramatically manifested in my knees, one of which has but remnants of cartilage remaining, and the other only slightly ahead of the game. For those of you in the know about these things, you know that there is little to be done for this condition: stay active, maintain a healthy weight, etc., etc. There are some questionable experimental options that some people swear by (emerging stem cell therapy, for which I am hopeful but not sold on at this point, synovial fluid injections…) but there is not a “fix,” as it were, save for replacing one’s knees (which both my paternal grandfather and father had done bilaterally.) As an aside, I was also showing osteoarthritis in my hips as of 2013, which was getting a bit annoying by 2016. My right hip has tended to get pretty aggravated when hiking (more so even than my attitude) for the last couple of years.

About seven years ago, I had my first cortisone injection in my left knee (the good one!) following an acute problem that had occurred. My knee had locked in virasna toward the end of a yoga class and I was unable to re-extend the knee, landing me in the emergency room in an incredibly awkward position (literally) with no discernible cause via x-ray or physical exam, and so “on the count of three we’re going to straighten it!” Three ER attendants braced me and straightened the leg in a swift, excruciating maneuver that left me dazed, mobile, and basically pain-free. Weird. MRI imaging returned no explanations, and so I got a cortisone shot and carried on.

Oh, and the shot was magical.

In 2015, I had my second cortisone injection, in both knees this time, and again was overjoyed at the results including how the shot seemed to alleviate knee and hip pain. I was feeling right as rain.

I had cortisone injections in both knees right before going to Peru as well, and again was amazed at the outcome. I was ready!

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IMG_9282The trip was spectacular and I felt fit, strong, and healthy.

Then I came home.

Back at work in an incredibly challenging environment (more – much more – on this at some point) and in the post-holiday malaise, I turned to my yoga practice as I often do. The first couple of classes I attended were more challenging than they should have been. It had only been a few weeks since I practiced and I had not been sitting around doing nothing – in fact had even done some yoga in Peru in addition to the more obvious exertion. It seemed odd, but I pressed on. At MLK weekend in Tahoe, I attended a yoga class and was even more hampered. By the end of January it became clear something was amiss. Mobility in my right hip had become so limited yoga was becoming nearly impossible even with substantial modifications. (Like, I could not sit in sukhasana, for example, let alone any sort of movement that required hip rotation or extension.)

I went to see the orthopedic guy I had been seeing and we landed on the same conclusion: hip flexor strain. I got some therapeutic suggestions and anti-inflammatories. I also went to see a chiropractor who specializes his work around yoga practitioners. He was attentive, informative, and couldn’t do much to alleviate my situation in the end. By President’s Day weekend I had developed a limp that I could not avoid, and was starting to get pretty depressed. Yoga seemed out of the question, and nothing I was doing was helping. I called my orthopedic people in tears. By the way, if you mention to your medical professionals that you “cannot continue to live like this” they jump to attention.

The next thing I know I am having a MRI of the right hip. The MRI shows significant labral damage and what appeared to be a compound femoral acetabular impingement. Great – this is fixable. I got in for an arthrogram and had a cortisone injection. Again, instant magic, which was a welcome sign as I was off to Hong Kong five days later.

The magic lasted eight days.

While suffering in Hong Kong – as much a walking city as San Francisco, and perhaps more due¬†to the island where I stay – I decided to see my physio there because since 2008 there has been nothing Leo could not fix for me.¬†Except this. “This is not your normal kind of issue,” he said. “You are going to need to see an orthopedic specialist, this is something new and different for you.”

Fun fact: You never want to be new and different in a medical practitioner’s office. That is akin to being and “interesting case” and as even one season of House will tell you, it’s never lupus and its never good.

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When I got back from Asia in April, I was feeling worse in every possible way: I was no longer able to walk without pain, much less do yoga or any sort of exercise. This was having remarkably obvious impacts on my mental and physical well-being.

Around this time I went to see a body worker who I think is one of the most intuitive and powerful practitioners I have come across, and we talked for a long time about what was going on – all the various aspects of my life that were culminating at this time and place and the ways they were manifesting physically. She was able to alleviate not only my pain, but also my anxiety.

For about 12 hours.

After a tumultuous experience with my primary care doctor, I found myself back in orthopedics talking to a surgeon. Talk about “not ideal.¬†He laid out my three options from most to least conservative:

  1. A new anti-inflammatory and physical therapy, Pilates also recommended.
  2. Hip arthroscopy. This is a procedure where a surgeon – like the one I was speaking to – go in and ‘clean up’ the joint, perform labral repair if possible, shave down bone spurs/impingements. [Although this is considered the mid-range option in terms of aggressiveness, it has a much longer rehab period than the third option…]
  3. Total joint replacement of the hip.

As the surgeon went over my MRI with me, he showed me what we were working with and told me that as a specialist in arthroscopy I was not a great candidate. It would be super temporary because of my arthritis, and also he showed me that I had actually no cartilage left in the joint so my discomfort was being caused by bone on bone contact.

I left with a new prescription and a PT appointment, because who the fuck gets a hip replacement at 47?

When I went to my first PT appointment in the third week of April, the therapist introduced herself, looked at my x-rays and MRIs and said, “Well, we can work on mobility and mitigating pain, but you need a new hip.”

Okay lady, slow your roll.

I started working with a really good rehab Pilates instructor – who is awesome and tolerated my less than enthusiastic attitude towards Pilates by being unbelievably enthusiastic. It was an interesting contrast to my PT who is even more direct than I am, generally speaking. It was a good balance.

Summer is Coming:

By May, I was seeing about zero improvement in my situation. On top of this I was spiraling into familiar body issues that seemed out of my control Рmy lifestyle had changed so much and so dramatically that my clothes were not fitting. This shame spiral on top of everything else made things seem even worse. I generally felt better when I saw the PT or had a Pilates session, but the relief was short-lived. My PT was consistent in her position that I needed a new hip and I began talking to her about the process in broad generalities in our sessions. How long would the recovery be Рlike how big of window did I need? (This depends and since every person is different it is really hard to answer.) Was there any other alternative that she saw? (Silence.) What was the actual procedure like? (There are two approaches, anterior and posterior, the anterior is a much quicker initial recovery and the recommended option for anyone who is eligible for it.) Was this really what I needed to do? (Silence.)

I was referred to a surgeon who would be able to see me for a consult in July.

I booked a trip to Southampton for the last week in June since I had scrapped all my other plans by this time – music festivals were not a possibility in my condition, and I was not doing anything else in my spare time at this point so I felt this was well deserved.

How I Actually Spent My Vacation:

In the days that followed the culmination of my absolutely bonkers school year experience, I was suddenly spending a great deal of time searching orthopedic surgeons and forwarding the information to my step-dad for him to forward on to his connections for vetting. We landed on one that we all agreed on after a fairly exhaustive effort and I got the referral (out of area – OMG) to see this doctor.

On July 10.

No.

I began my summer break by getting up every morning to call to see if the doctor had cancellations and after a couple of days I knew all the women who worked in the department. I was told that the doctor was on call for O.R. duties on Fridays but that there were two morning appointments released on Thursdays that I could try to get in for, with the knowledge that I could get cancelled last-minute. I got booked for Friday June 22.

The appointment did not get cancelled, but all my hope for any alternative to a total joint replacement did. When the doctor looked at my x-rays from 2016 and that morning, and heard my whole story (which I have neglected to mention I was not able to tell without embarrassing sobs for months at this point) it was clear to him that I needed a new hip. I asked if there were any alternatives, it seemed like there should be because I am only 47. (I avoided going full Nancy Kerrigan, but I did want to know why this was the only alternative.) ¬†It turns out, like so many other questions about the specifics of recovery duration and such, there is no definitive answer, although it seems very likely that more than a decade of competitive track and field along with basketball were not necessarily as good for me as we once thought.¬†He asked me what I knew about the procedure. (More than I wanted to.) Then he brought in the “hip” for me to look at. (Heavy fucking metal.)

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Oh, and this surgeon, the one we all liked and had moved mountains to see? He did not do the anterior approach. He recommended the surgeon I had originally been slated to see on July 13. It took absolutely no calculating to realize that the timing and necessary recovery for this was looking like I was going to have to wait a year.

No no no no.

He said he would make some calls.

We left. I was in a mood that I am quite sure no one wanted to be around, so we went out to lunch. I like the way my parents think.

By about 3:00pm I was getting ready to start thinking about heading back to SF, and my phone rang. It was the surgeon. In the time since we had left he had figured out a way to use his surgery time to partner with a doctor he very much approved of to do the replacement.

On July 3.

I sat there and realized that I was going to have a major surgery in 11 days. In hindsight, I think for someone like me having absolutely no time to think things like this through is probably a good thing, and trust me, there was going to be no time. Within an hour I had been scheduled for four days worth of pre-op adventures.

By the end of June I had cancelled my vacation, seen more medical professionals than I had in decades, and was preparing for my ‘hip-cation’ in the North Bay. It was really happening.

In at 5:45am on July 3, the surgery prep began. I certainly can’t say I remember much about it except that my body issues were not imaginary because I had gained 15 pounds since January (!!!) and the O.R. nurses were great, the anesthesiologist was funny (I had a spinal not a general – although again, I was elsewhere), and the surgeon came in to tell me how the “universe just really came together to make this whole thing happen.” I guess, but it certainly seemed like he had a pretty big hand in things.

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I was home by 3:30pm that day. With a walker, an elevated toilet seat and enough pain medication to quell a herd of elephants.

It was weird. It felt weird, even though I couldn’t really feel anything save for the sensation that someone may have taken a baseball bat to the exterior of my thigh. But it was done, I was basically mobile, and that was that.

Because I was at home in Petaluma with my parents (and yes of course I brought the cats with me) I was able to do absolutely nothing but recover. Like really, nothing. I guess it was a vacation of sorts. And because I have health insurance (unlike the 30 million and growing number of people under 65 without coverage) this scenario turned into a money-saving bonanza for me (Ms. I Got No Plans For The Foreseeable). That was pretty relaxing too.

I came home, cane, cats and all, to San Francisco on the 24th of July, three weeks to the day from my surgery. It was – is – good to be back. I am moving slower than I would like, and I get tired much quicker than I would like – and don’t even talk to me about the Frankenstein situation that has emerged on the front of my upper leg (a six-inch incision and 22 staples leave a mark), but I am here, not needing pain medicine beyond Tylenol and having no pain in the hip, well, because I no longer actually have a hip that can feel pain.

I had a chance to visit with two of my favorite people from Hong Kong about a week or so ago, former village neighbors, they now live in the UK and have been touring the US for several weeks, and I was telling Vicky about my summer. As I told her the story and I realized everything is going as it should – actually much better even than anyone anticipated, but I still didn’t feel, I don’t know, grounded or settled or something. I said I felt a little guilty for not being beside myself with joy that I have this new hip and consequently have solved my problem, as everyone seems to think I should. She told me not to underestimate the significance of what I had done, and that I was not just having to physically integrate this huge new thing in my body, but I was also going to have to mentally integrate it as well and that our mind-body connections are so strong that our brains do funny things when parts are removed or added… This made the most sense to me of anything I had heard post-operatively. I still think back to her words when I feel apprehensive about all that has gone on.

All of my ‘precautions’ lift, coincidentally – or not – on the first day that I report to a new job. I like this symmetry and I feel really good about starting fresh with work after the very challenging experience that last year ended up being.¬†And in my vanity, the one thing I said I could not do was start a new job with a cane seems like it is going to be an actuality.

Puis nous sommes all√©s 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 Nim√™s, where we would rent a car to drive to Uz√®s, 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 Рlike renting a car Рdid 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.

Nim√™s was lovely, and hot. I remember being really impressed initially, but looking back on it after seeing Uz√®s, 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 ros√©. 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 Uz√®s… 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 Рto my knowledge (save for the regular disparagement for being American) Рthat 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 Uz√®s. 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 Rh√īne 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 ‚ā¨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 Uz√®s 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 Uz√®s 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 N√ģmes aqueduct, a 50-kilometer system built in the first century AD to carry water from a spring at¬†Uz√®s¬†to the¬†Roman colony¬†of¬†Nemausus¬†(N√ģmes)¬†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 Uz√®s 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 Рmore for us than for Nic and Sam who would be spending the night in Nimês Рwe 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 Рemotionally 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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Les Classiques.

For the days following Bastille Day we were largely on our own in Paris, every woman for herself. This was to accommodate our different tastes and objectives for Paris and was a good thing, if for no other reason than to travel en masse necessarily brings with it the complications of group work, but I also noted that there were moments throughout my days when I considered how the trials and tribulations of a group dynamic can easily be offset by the joy of having someone to share amazing moments with. I do not think that Paris lost anything for me as I traversed the city wide-eyed with my own version of disbelief about being there, but I must say, I can recall with pristine clarity the moments I looked around for a compadre for no other reason than to exclaim: Can you believe this? Truth be told, by the middle of the first day, I was just borrowing other people and their groups with which to share my awe, I mean after all, we were all there together, crowded, sweaty, agape, amazed, dusty, sprinkled upon, craning our necks, making space… whatever. Travelers are a unique tribe, and everyone I met was completely willing to reply – I know, right? AHmazing. 

Having never been to Paris (unlike all three of my fellow travelers) I was committed to seeing some of the things they all could do without. And I understand, I mean the Louvre can be overwhelming at best, and positively maddening at worst, but I was not going to miss it. And I know that I will return every time I go back to Paris, because: AHmazing. 

The only things I did not see that I know I will on my return include the Luxembourg Gardens and the Bastille.

High points from these couple of days included the Arc de Triomphe de l’√Čtoile and le Mus√©e d’Orsay. Although, the Louvre and strolling the Champs-√Člys√©es and floating along the Seine and sidewalk cafes and riverside picnics and the Centre Pompidou did not suck.

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And at the end of each day we reconvened in Clamart to share our stories, each of us infinitely pleased with our days and thrilled to hear about the others’ from parfumeries to cafes and cocktails to crowds and beau artes to vistas and gardens, from missteps to rendezvous, we had it all.

And with our own Frenchie to thank for our bon chance.

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We would depart by train for Nimês on 18 July and take ourselves to Provence for some time in the country. But first one last evening in Clamart.

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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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Sei sup mmmmmmmmm: ripple in still water.

I wanted to write tonight. I took care of all the things I needed to take care of today and I was all ready to give myself time to sit and write. But I couldn’t. I mean, obviously I could have in a literal fingers-to-keys kind of way, but not in a metaphorical making-meaning(ful)-meaning kind of way.

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung,
Would you hear my voice come through the music?
Would you hold it near as it were your own?

I wanted to write about this video I took from JM’s car in Paris this summer.

I wanted to write about something satisfying. Like about taking a group of high school seniors to listen to a conversation with US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer on a Friday night and having them come out of the talk and say, “He is all about the Social Contract, isn’t he?”

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But, no.

I suppose if I were a writer, I would say I had writer’s block. But I am not really a writer, am I? Only in so far as one with an Instagram is a photographer, or one who goes to church is a Christian (I wanted to write about the Pope too, because I cannot get enough of the Pontiff.)¬†Instead, I sat. I considered meditating, but I didn’t want to make the cat move, and I sort of suck at meditation anyhow.

It’s a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken,
Perhaps they’re better left unsung.
I don’t know, don’t really care
Let there be songs to fill the air.

I turned 45 this week. I sat with that for a while. 45. Forty five. Cuarenta y cinco. Sei sup mm. Fifty minus five.

Ripple in still water,
When there is no pebble tossed,
Nor wind to blow.

Maybe that is why I can’t think of anything good to write. Maybe by the time you get to be this age, you are supposed to have a whole bunch of real things to write about, and here I sit with my immaculate home and my two cats and some loud Eighties music in my unbearably hip neighborhood, and no typical accomplishments like husbands and divorces and kids and shit to write about.

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty,
If your cup is full may it be again,
Let it be known there is a fountain,
That was not made by the hands of men.

I was born in 1970. Do you know how long it takes to scroll to that year when you are filling out your birthdate on-line? You have to pick your finger up off the touch pad at least twice. That shit is crazy. Nixon was the president and my Grandma M tried cocaine. That would have been something to see.

In 1970 things were pretty fucked up.

I came of age in the 1980s. Do you know how accidentally iconic the Eighties have become? What I know recall about the Eighties could feather your hair. I still love the music, hipsters still love the fashion. We are all still paying for the politics.

In the 1980s things were pretty fucked up.

I got some education in the 1990s: formal and otherwise. Do you think everyone assumes the time they opened their minds is the more relevant than that of others?¬†I don’t know, but a lot of shit happened in the nineties.¬†And then at the end of 1999 the world didn’t end and I think a lot of people thought that was pretty fucked up

I had my mid-life crisis in the mid-90s. Which makes sense because I never really thought I would live very long (which is kind of dumb of me because the women in my family tend to live a very long time.) For whatever reason my mid-life dramz kicked off at 34. It took me about four years to sort that shit out.

Mid-life crises are pretty fucked up.

There is a road, no simple highway,
Between the dawn and the dark of night,
And if you go no one may follow,
That path is for your steps alone.

On the weekend leading up to my birthday I met someone who is in her mid-30s and appears to be on track to have a midlife crisis just like mine. (Apparently it’s not just movies and politicians¬†from the decade that never go away.) I told her I had to sail away to China to deal with it. She did not get the musical reference, but I am fairly certain she is on board with the rest of it. I predict she breaks up with her boyfriend before the end of this year (not due to my counsel, mind you – I am not a meddler, just a sharer.)

Maybe the reason this birthday isn’t sitting so well with me is that I don’t have anything to be in crisis about because I already got all destructive and ridiculously reckless ten years ago and so it feels empty of purpose.¬†I emerged from my¬†midlife¬†crisis down one Wal-Mart-shopping boyfriend and one suburban tract house,¬†but as my kids would say: I am not about that life.

Life in with the suburbs was pretty fucked up.

You, who choose to lead, must follow
But if you fall you fall alone.
If you should stand then who’s to guide you?
If I knew the way I would take you home.

This week was my fifth repatriated birthday.¬†The birthday itself was not particularly eventful, but at this point in one’s life, that seems like a win. A dear friend I have known since the 8th grade said to me, “I hope you feel how much you are loved.” Yes, L, I did. And here I am,¬†in a great city, with great hair, a few new wrinkles, amazing friends, no involuntary responsibilities, and I am alive.

Ripple in still water,
When there is no pebble tossed,
Nor wind to blow.

So, happy birthday to me: good hair, good shoes, wrinkles, and a potty mouth, but crisis free. That’s livin’: L-I-V-I-N.

That seems like a lot to write about.

I’ll get back to writing in no time, I am sure.

“It’s the little differences.”

The first morning I¬†woke up in Paris, I was up before everyone. (I was generally up before everyone always, although Nic would end up giving me a run for the money.) I sort of laid there where I was, in the upstairs bedroom in JM’s chateau¬†in the suburbs, Clamart to be precise, and thought to myself : I CANNOT BELIEVE I AM IN PARIS.

Okay, fair play, I was just outside of Paris, but for all intents and purposes I was IN PARIS.

And it was sunny.

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This first day was supposed to be a “planning day” for Frenchie and me so we could work out our desires and priorities before meeting up with Nic and her sister the next day, but first I was going to go meet a friend who was coincidentally laid over in Paris en route to Dominica from the UAE. [Having friends for which sentences like that are apt is so awesome.] I wanted to see Rachel because she and I are friends entirely due to Stuart, and for reasons I am not interested in articulating¬†here, we share a certain understanding of the bloke.

To see Rachel I would head out to Orly Airport so as to keep things as simple as possible for someone moving to the other side of the world with their young child. JM offered to take me there, so I would only need to self-navigate one way, which was kind. Frenchie and I arranged to meet at a fountain near the Notre Dame. How hard could that be? I mean, a fountain in Paris, right?

Yeah.

I had gleaned from the previous evening that JM enjoyed the excitement of vehicular delights, and so when he pointed to his motorcycle and I looked down at my black mini dress, I determined that all bets were off on wise choices. He handed me a helmet and I sighed with relief to know that my cranium would be safe and probably only 90% of my flesh would go missing should a mishap occur on what google maps said would be a forty minute ride.

He grinned¬†reminding¬†me entirely too much of Peter Fonda’s Captain America as I hopped on the bike. It would be fine, I reasoned. I mean, he has made it to 40 – and has a family. He doesn’t want to die.

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The ride to Orly was pretty easy surface streets and highways and under beautiful sunny skies. I focused a lot on the sky. It turns out JM does not like to be behind other vehicles on the road, and he sure as shit is not going to be passed by a motorcycle. A couple of times he looked back to ask if everything was okay. I hope in my efforts to be completely cool about all potential outcomes, I hadn’t inadvertently Heimlich’d him. To be fair it actually was a fun ride. I mean, I like roller coasters a lot.

When we arrived at the airport (in approximately twenty minutes) I stepped off the bike and took my hair out of the helmet while adjusting my LBD. No lie, I felt pretty glamorous. Like, here I was coming in hot (in every way) and hopping off a bike driven by a super cute guy, with no luggage and heading into the airport, as if I might be heading off on some crazy spontaneous get away. That could be an great scene in a bad romcom.

And the best thing about black is your sweat doesn’t show, which is awesome.

Although, it does show where one’s thighs were gripping the sides of a black leather seat on a motorcycle. And the strap of the helmet got a little caught up in my windswept hair, so my reverie ended rather quickly as JM sped away.

Entering the airport, I logged into the wifi Рwhich is free everywhere in Europe, as it bloody well should be in America Рto check where I would meet up with Rachel. We settled on Laudurée. Tres French. Plus, macrons; like cookies, but a little different.

The catch up was short and sweet and a wonderfully playful bit of punctuation on the Stuart Saga. we laughed a lot, and Rachel remarked how she just knew he would try to take credit for everything were he there because, yes, he was such a cheeky bastard.

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And like that we said adieu and headed on our separate ways. Another perfect rendezvous accomplished.

So now, to get back to Paris and a fountain.

I found someone who graciously directed me to the Orly bus, which would get me to the RER, which in turn would get me to central Paris. Stepping out I saw there was a bus there – fantastique! I would get on that bus and be on my way. I proceeded to the ticket machine; like those I had seen before, but a little different.

And then, I missed the bus.

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The machine now seems simple, but like so many things, it’s the little differences in Paris, and this weird quasi touch screen with a roller mechanism… just really did not present itself as an obvious option at the time. To be fair the three guys behind me were French and had no freaking clue how to make the machine work either. By the time I eventually got a ticket I would be waiting more than twenty minutes for another bus.

Merde.

But, the bus ride was easy, and I kept telling myself that Frenchie would wait for me, I mean, to my knowledge she has not been on time to anything since I have known her, and this includes her own events. I was not getting a sim card because I had my American iPhone, which of course is locked, because: America. This meant old school meet ups like we did in the 80s: make a plan and stick to it. It was refreshing.

Until you were 45 minutes late.

On arriving to Sainte Michel with ease I came out of the metro station and promptly turned the wrong way. I include the map below as a weak explanation. Emerging from the RER in the foreground left, I walked towards the intersection and made a right towards the Notre Dame because that is what everyone was doing. I surmised there would be a fountain there. And yes, there was. A multitude. But alas, no Frenchie – or not the Frenchie I was looking for.

I walked in literal circles – well trapezoids if we are really being literal – for nearly a half an hour. Paris urban planning is a little different.

And nothing.

Retracing my steps I headed back towards the RER where the Fountaine Sainte Michel practically screamed at me with its obviousness. Huh. Perhaps that fountain then? I walked toward the fountain and headed left (towards the M in the rear right of the diagram) where I saw a cafe and heard “Amanda?” in English, but a little different.

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It was Nickie, seated with her sister, and Frenchie (whose head had been down as she was trying to figure out the wifi to contact me – the figuring out of the wifi would also be a theme of this trip). I was shocked, relieved, delighted, amazed, happy, hot, and thirsty. It was a lot to take in, but I really could not believe we were all sitting here, like the three of us had so many times before, but a little different.

Frenchie and I were supposed to meet Nic the next day as she and her sister would be staying the night in Paris to rest after the flight from Oz. But Frenchie had been nearly as late as I had (!!) and so she had been worried about me as I am generally painfully punctual and she had been walking around the now so obvious to me (like the roller thing) fountain when she had randomly bumped into our Aussie companions. Incroyable!

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This happy circumstance totally shifted the day Рa planning session would not happen, but phones and strolling the streets of Paris and rosé and catching up would. In what seemed like another lifetime, three women in Hong Kong had made a promise to meet in Paris five years on, and here we were. Same same, but, a little bit different.

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We finished our day a top the Tour Montparnasse as a small reminder of where we were. In case anyone had forgotten.

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I love Paris in the spring time, I love Paris in the fall…

…actually I have no idea about Paris in the spring time or the fall. But I definitely got a kick out Paris in the summer when it sizzles.

Love? Well come on, you know I may be quick to commit, but I remain, as ever, very slow to admit.

I have wanted to go to Paris for a really long time. In spite of all of the less typical places I had travelled, I had never gone to Paris. I am not sure why I never did, but regardless it loomed as a must see. In the fall of 2014 someone, in an effort to impress I suppose, told me he wanted to take me on a trip somewhere I had never been. When he realized I had not seen Paris he began to wax poetic about Paris in the springtime and told me he wanted to take me there in the spring of 2015 for a whirlwind getaway because he had to show me Paris. The clichés should have been a give away that it was a total load of shit, but it sounded exciting enough that I almost forgot that I had already made plans with people who would never ghost me to go to Paris Рand the prearranged time was nigh Рif we stuck to our original plan we would be in Paris in the summer. Grateful for my ghosting, I would find myself in Paris with my tribe in July.

My arrival in Paris was like a story that seems ridiculously fictitious. Alighting the train at Gare du Nord, I saw (even without my glasses!) Frenchie waving to me in the quintessential (and eventually ubiquitous) blue and white striped shirt.

C’est ici.

We had a plan to meet her brother – our eventual host – although we were not exactly sure where. Pretty sure, but you know…

We landed with ease into Cafe A a short walk from the station. In no time ros√© was in hand as I sat in ecstatic disbelief that I was IN PARIS sitting here with one of my dearest friends. IN PARIS. 

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Soon enough JM was on the scene… and suddenly everything was happening in French. I mean everything. It dawned on me that I really and truly knew not a single useful phrase in French. Nothing. Nada. Never have I felt so totally linguistically impotent, it was amazing. And by I amazing I mean, “Holy shit, now what?” Although I have travelled to lots of places where English is hard to come by and signage was not even useful – Kyoto and Beijing spring immediately to mind – the thing that was not synching in my mind is that everyone in Paris looked like they could speak English. I realize that sounds at best ethnocentric, and at worst totally ignorant, but somehow my mind was not getting it that I was somewhere where people who looked like me were not going to be speaking a language I could make any sense of. And French puts a special twist on a Romance language; where I can make my way in Italian, and even Greek… I could not understand a word these people were shuzzing and zhuzhing at me.

For a minute I got totally freaked out.

But then Frenchie and JM came back to English and there was lots more wine and everything was fine again. For now.

We went from Cafe A to a restaurant that JM found on his Fooding app. It could have been the wine, but that food was freaking brilliant. [Eventually, I would learn that is was the wine as the true verdict (read French opinion) would be in and the restaurant was deemed: acceptable. More on French opinions to come.] In spite of the restaurant likely not being as good as it seemed, it did not matter. The reason it actually was so awesome was that I was sitting in the gentle evening light, having a tasty meal (and more wine), with my extended international family, as the sun went down IN PARIS. I was IN PARIS.

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Adriana: I can never decide whether Paris is more beautiful by day or by night.

Gil: No, you can’t, you couldn’t pick one. I mean I can give you a checkmate argument for each side. You know, I sometimes think, how is anyone ever gonna come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture that can compete with a great city. You can’t. Because you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form and when you think that in the cold, violent, meaningless universe that Paris exists, these lights, I mean come on, there’s nothing happening on Jupiter or Neptune, but from way out in space you can see these lights, the caf√©s, people drinking and singing. For all we know, Paris is the hottest spot in the universe.

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From dinner we got the first of many Autolib’ cars we would take while in Paris and JM proceeded to take us out on my first tour of Paris. It was epic. Really there are no other words for it.

I said I felt like I was in a movie. I asked the siblings if they had seen Midnight in Paris. They had. I asked if they liked it. They said it was so clich√©. I said I felt like I was in that movie. We looked out at the Seine and laughed as we made our way to le Musee du Louvre.

Clichés are not always so bad.

The Arc de Triomphe, le Tour Eiffel, Mus√©e du Louvre… it was a visceral and thrilling night: so perfect… even with a fabulous selfie fail (this too would be a recurring theme as Frenchie and I [not surprisingly] have completely different priorities around photo subjects and composition) due to an inability to come to consensus on what was the important element of the photo – us or IM Pei’s glass pyramid.

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In the end, I like to think nous sommes arriv√©s √† un bon compromis.

If this was what Paris had to offer in the summer, then yes – I could love it.

Planes, Trains, and Cremains.

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I went to Europe this summer. This trip was both totally spontaneous and not. The nutshell version of the trip is that five years ago I left Hong Kong and a community I wasn’t even totally aware I had become a part of and on my way out I made a plan/promise/wish to meet Frenchie and Nickie in Paris in five years.

Now, as luck would have it I saw Frenchie a few times throughout the ensuing time period – once in San Francisco and twice in Hong Kong – and each time we sort of talked about it but not really. And so last winter as a very tumultuous painful are-you-fucking-kidding-me kind of year wrapped up I decided I would buy tickets to fly to Europe. I had saved no money for this ad/venture and had only a vague idea of appropriate dates, but on New Year’s Eve I, along with two other people who had had equally challenging 2014s, made a promise to get busy living. So I threw down and bought the tickets.

As luck would have it the dates worked out.

Kind of.

My arrival time in Paris was a little too early for Frenchie and so she wondered if I could change it – no, the ticket was to cheap for that, but I had an idea. I had considered flying into Heathrow and spending a bit of time in London before Paris originally, but airfare to Heathrow is about a third more than it is to De Gaulle for reasons a lot of pilots tried to explain to me and still sound shady. But now, I would be arriving in Paris too early to meet my French friend and something told me Paris was not where I would want to regain my vagabond legs alone (and I was right about that btw) so I decided to book passage on the Eurostar and go to London after all. I would only be there for three days which is clearly not enough time, but it is some time, and frankly sounded nicer than making my way around Paris aimlessly on my own for a few days.

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I landed at Charles De Gaulle International Airport around 7:00 am on July 7. I was immediately aware of how much shorter a ten-hour flight feels in comparison to the thirteen hour-long haul I had become accustomed to. Even on American Airlines, which is not a really awesome flying experience. It is weird that those three hours can make such a difference. Anyhow, there I was: groggy, Euro-free, new passport in hand (I had fortunately realized when booking tickets to Mexico for earlier in the summer that my passport had gone and expired. I likely would have never noticed this until far after the fact otherwise. But its emptiness ended up being an issue.)

I was in and out of immigration and the airport (no checked luggage – for a month – make a note) in a shockingly short time. The immigration control in Paris was, it would turn out, quite Parisian: he never even looked at me. As I handed him my passport he was clearly vested in a conversation with his coworker and was not going to pause for me. Not that he made me wait or anything, he just slid my passport through the machine, handed it to me and kept on conversing. He never even looked up at my face. Interesting.

From here I walked on, getting notably hungrier and tired-er, both conditions which have negative influences on my ability to make decisions and discern various shades of reality. I found an ATM! Huzzah. I got some money and walked over to a cafe. I looked at the menu and I just couldn’t even (also an omen as it turns out the French have a shocking misunderstanding of coffee.) Walking a little further on, I found an information office to ask how to make my way to Gare du Nord where I would catch my train to London St. Pancras. The second most handsome man I had seen so far (the first was a handler for the airlines who really should have been naked in a Calvin Klein advertisement on a billboard somewhere preferably where I might see it all the time) was sitting behind the desk. After I choked out some shitty version of nahn parlay Frahn-say, he smiled and said, “No problem, how can I help you?” in the best English I had heard since I left San Francisco – and I had had a lay over in the States. Well, Texas, but basically. From this point I knew where and how to get to the train station. In fact, the information was so perfect that I would end up being stupidly early for my train leading to painful amounts of tired-in-a-public-place, which I have long outgrown along with my backpacker days.

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Once at Gare du Nord I was facing a two-hour wait and heaving fatigue. I tried coffee. I tried a baguette with brie and ham (it was quite tasty, but really not helpful). I tried water. I tried more coffee. Nope, nope, nope, and nope. So tired.

Finally, it was time to move through customs to board the train for London. I handed my passport to the Englishman at the customs gate. He looked like a jolly old chap. Fat, grey haired, wearing a cartoonish kind of conductor’s hat like he belonged in some old movie. Then he looked at me. He looked like Brick Top. This was not good.

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He looked at the passport. He began flipping through the pages. He looked at me. He continued flipping.

“Where are you coming from?”
“The US.”
“How long you going to be in the UK?”
“Oh, just a couple of days, uh, until Friday.”
“Why such a short visit?”
“Um, it is all I had time for…?”
“Who are you staying with?”
“Some friends?”
“What is their nationality?”
“I, um, I am not really sure, I…”
“What passports do they hold?”
“Uh, I really don’t know, British I guess?”
“How do you know them?”
“Umm, we met in Hong Kong?”
“What were you doing in Hong Kong?”
“Working?”
“Did you work with these people?”
“No…”
“Then how did you meet them?”
“I am not sure? Other friends I guess?”
“What will you be doing while you are in Britain?”
“I, I am not really sure, seeing some people, going to some museums maybe?”
“What is your address while in the UK?”
“I, um… oh! Bow! I am staying in Bow!”

I was so chuffed to finally have a real freaking answer for this man because I am sure he had begun to notice my sweat, for which I suddenly feared his interpretation.

“Do you know the address?”
“No.”

Flip. Flip. Flip. Flip.

STAMP.

“Move on to the left.”

I couldn’t be sure if this was the universe offering balance for the ridiculously uninterested French passport control, but I was literally a hot, sweaty, flustered mess when Brick Top was done with me. No wonder people with nothing to hide get tripped up by authority figures all the time. Horrifying.

And you know, he had to stamp my passport on some random page in the middle of the damn thing. Because: WHO DOES THAT? Brick Top, that is who.

By the time I found my seat on the (pretty awesome) Eurostar I was getting that loopy feeling you get when you are exhausted, hungry, dehydrated, and afraid you might be deported. As a result, I managed to: break my plug adapter for the UK, lose my favorite scarf, and miss most of a ride I wanted to see.

But I was heading to London, where I graciously had a place to sleep, places to go, and some people to see for my three days in and around the city. Plus, the train ride gave me enough conscious time to reconnect with that feeling of pure excitement for upcoming adventures brought on by travel – and the reality that this was only the first of myriad steps I would take on this trip that would never have been possible without the kindness and generosity of friends I have made in all kinds of crazy ways all around the world. Those were nice thoughts to doze off to.

And then, there I was.

With only sporadic wifi I was trying to make contact with my hostess for the next couple of days and basically just giving it up to the powers that be that it would work out. I easily made my way to the correct train – and I will say this about the London Underground, y’all have your shit sorted (except when you do not – more on that in a mo) but seriously? You need to price check yourself… And soon enough I was in East London. And as I came up out of the station a super cute, kind of familiar, young guy came up to me with Stevie, a Staffordshire Terrier who I definitely recognized. Just like that, it all worked out. Josh asked where my luggage was as we walked back to the flat, and I basically felt like I had won the lottery: “Nowhere, this is all I have.” I took glee in being momentarily totally impressive (or insane, I don’t really know Josh, but I’m going to go with impressive.) He had been visiting Awon and Mark too, and he was familiar to me because, you guessed it: Lamma.

It was a full house, as Awon’s mom – another friend of mine from Lamma was also visiting, but the kindness of my friends seems infinite. When Awon returned from her studio – oh, did I not mention that this friend of mine decided a few years back to take a course in millinery and she is now sort of a big deal? Yeah, check her for sure – we went down the pub because, London.

I knew I wasn’t really “doing” London up in a big touristy way, I had a couple important items on my personal agenda, but otherwise I really was just there to sort of take in the air. And how fortunate seeing as the Underground decided to strike while I was there. That was epic. And by epic I of course mean: WTF London. But most importantly, staying with Awon and Mark made this all possible and I look forward to giving over my place to them when they decide they are ready to take in San Francisco.

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First on my agenda was to meet up with Stu’s sister. This was something that I just knew I had to do, and although I went back and forth between being super nervous and super excited and in the end, I just sort of let go and realized that it would be as it should be (that’s so Stu). The thing is, in a lot of ways the reason I was even in London staying with the people I was had to do with Stu… my return to Lamma, his extended network of friends and acquaintances becoming mine, which is not to say I wouldn’t have met these people otherwise, it is just that I actually did meet them because of him. And to a further point, it was his untimely, tragic, and incongruously surprising death that brought everything back into focus for me and set the tone for the shift that got me moving again – it is so easy to fall into stasis – towards a place where I would up and buy tickets for an unplanned trip to Europe in the first place. That might sound all new-agey and trite, and it may be. But sometimes we need a kick in the head, and it is hard to predict where that might come from. And when Stu died, a lot of really amazing people emerged in my life, and this summer that turns out to have made quite a difference. My kick was less about Stu, or Stu and me, and much more about a not so gentle reminder (again, that’s so Stu) to live the life you want to live and not the one you convince yourself you need to live.

So now here I was and there was an impending tube strike and that was to be avoided. Fortunately the overground trains would not be affected and so to Hockley I went. I had some trepidation – Hockley has a reputation… somewhere along the lines of New Jersey. Or maybe more like Fresno. Or Reno. Except the thing about South End-on-Sea is that it is actually really pretty and it has all the elements of a small town I grew up familiar with, both good and bad. In short, I had a fabulous time.

I arrived and she was waiting for me and in spite of never having met in person there we were. When I think back on it I am still not sure why it was that I felt like I really wanted to meet her, but I am definitely glad I followed through. I think initially there had been talk about the fact that Stu would have really wanted his ashes to be in Lamma – and so maybe we could make that happen. But time passed and urgency subsided and so I was not sure that was it. Then there was the fact that she had been so open and kind to all of us who clamored to her virtual door on learning about Stu, something she did not need to do, and her generosity of spirit was incredible. There was another part of wanting to meet her, like a bit of a missing puzzle piece, because Stu had been so cagey about his family and had crafted the necessary stories that one would, given his proclivities. I kind of felt like somehow I might understand everything better if I met his people.

We went to the local cooperative funeral home – it happens to be where she works as the director. Her son, Stu’s nephew also works there. The full circle-ness is not lost on me and actually has many more layers than I will retell here. But I will say that to meet Stu’s nephew was… powerful. There is something very Stu about him: he is a seeker. I was impressed. We went to the crematorium where the service had been and where Stu’s ashes were buried.

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Now, I have had more experience with cremains than I would like to have had in the past year. In fact, one could almost say that at a certain point the death rituals become macabre to a point of inevitable humor. You may never think you will have a Lebowski moment, but I can assure you – it is possible that you may find yourself sorting through a friend’s ashes with a plastic fork looking for some sort token that might have been placed in them to prevent illegal disposal while sitting in the lovely back garden of a pub (there was no token), or you may find yourself on the other side of the world traipsing around under a tree where, here or there, your ex’s cremains may be buried, but eh, that’s really just a formality isn’t it? And the whole thing just becomes sort of absurd in this really touching way: yes, these are ashes, cremains… but this is not your people. It is just some strange reminder that they were here. However the far better evidence of their having been here with us for a time are the relationships and friendships that have been carved out of the wake of their departure. And I like to think that my people would appreciate our collective touches of irreverence in the end.

What is death, if not absurd, when you really get down to it.

We left flowers for Stu and got to talk about all the things that you can’t really talk about in email or Facebook messenger. I’d say we had a moment.

And then we went to the pub.

We had lunch at the Bull and then headed to the local: Spa Hockley. It was a top afternoon, honestly, I could not have imagined it better.

When it came time to leave, there was one more thing for me to grab. So, there we were in  the parking lot of the pub, passing ashes… and not for the first time this year did I find myself in such a scenario. I was shown how the container (sealed) could be used as sort of a, um, shaker… like a salt shaker, to spread the ashes (ostensibly to avoid a Lebowski). Oh, and I had a note in case there were any issues with customs because apparently smuggling contraband in ashes is now a thing. That being a concern and these being Stu’s ashes seemed to have a perfect sort of cosmic symmetry in effect.

And then I was saying goodbye, and back on a train to East London. Full disclosure, I got a little emotional on the ride home. But the good kind, you know, more like gratitude than sorrow, but still, the sadness gets in there too.

On further consideration as the train rolled into Stratford, when I thought about the reality that Stu was going to get yet another all expenses paid vacation on me as I was now destined to carry him across Europe and back to the States, I really couldn’t help but laugh. I mean really, that fucker, god love him.

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The two days I had left in London were not totally as I had planned because, well, I had not planned. And then the tube went on strike. I wasn’t sure how big of a deal it might be. Let’s just say this: it was big. I persevered and took a bus – or rather I got on a bus, but it couldn’t actually drive anywhere, so I disembarked and walked and talked with people and saw some of the city under shockingly blue skies.

I saw the Thames, the EYE, Big Ben, Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Circle, Leicester Square, Soho, Westminster Abbey… you know, a lot of stuff really. Needless to say, I was well tired on my return and ready for a nice cold pint.

The day of my departure I would be meeting one of my friends from Prashanti Kutiram. Although we had lived together for a month in what I will only describe here as rather rudimentary confines, we had not seen each other in five years, but like so many have also discovered, the relationships you forge when you are far afield seem to have a special sort of staying power.

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This particular friend has just had a baby and so logistics remained flexible – how nice that I had not gotten around to planning. We would meet near St. Pancras where I would be jumping back on the Eurostar to return to Paris. This “plan” allowed me to wander around the East End of London a bit and then move towards Whitechapel where I wandered around the Whitechapel Gallery and then spent some time strolling up Brick Lane towards Shoreditch. In the same way I had to check out Williamsburg and Bushwick because everyone says they are the equivalent neighborhoods to my own in San Francisco… I had to view the London version of the scene. I could feel it for sure.

To the station I went after gathering my things at the gallery where they were totally cool to let me leave my bag for several hours. London’s East End is really quite ideal. For the little I know, I gather it is the area I would land in were I there. But I will never be there because London is doing their best to make SF seem affordable, and let’s just talk about what a load of shite that is.

I boarded the train at St. Pancras with nary a nod to my passport heading back to France. In less than three hours I would be meeting Frenchie to commence the next segment of my trip. I thought on my brief three days in London and realized I was leaving without a photo of Stu’s family or my fab hosts in Bow. I guess we had been to busy in the moment to capture it and relegate it to a status update for others. Maybe next time.

I suppose it is true what Andy Dufresne said, “You gotta get busy living, or get busy dying.”

That’s goddamn right.