life of m

Sustaining the Self and Beyond


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Where are we going?

I asked my husband this morning if he had read my post about going to Belgium.

 

He read it.

 

Did you like it? I asked.

 

I did. It seems like you could have added more context on Brussels, thought, came his response.

 

So, I need to add more context on how we came to choose Brussels as our intended destination for the next four years and possibly beyond. There is so much to share that I have been searching for the right order with which to unload the events of the past several months.

 

I will start by saying that Belgium was not a part of the dialogue for quite a while. It began with my husband (remember, he is R) researching possible doctoral programs in France and contacting faculty at each institution.

 

R spent hours each day searching for possible programs at French universities. This meant trying to navigate some fairly hopelessly labyrinthine university websites and trying to understand the French university system (bonne chance!).

 

Our first destination became Metz or Nancy in the northeast corner of France, where a couple of faculty responded enthusiastically to the possibility of working with my husband. My husband emailed back and forth with both professors, revising his research proposal to meet their requirements until they sent a message saying that it had changed too much to fit with their research lab.

 

Huh. We were both perplexed, to say the least, but it seems that there is much that becomes lost in cultural translation, particularly when communication happens predominantly via email.

 

My husband wrote back to thank them for their time and also to communicate his surprise at their response. After he had contacted several professors at other institutions, he eventually received an email from the Metz faculty, stating that they would still like to work with him but it might be only one of them rather than both. By that point, we had already moved on to Paris, Lille, or Brussels.

 

R found a professor at a university in Brussels who had written a book he had found in his research and who was a member of a global media ecology network. And so, Brussels entered the scene.

 

The short list soon became Paris or Brussels, and we went back and forth each day on where we might wind up. Writing about it now, it seems a fairly mundane exercise, but at the time the limbo nearly drove me insane from the stress. I live in limbo a lot in my life. Life itself is a state of limbo, and I do my best to practice acceptance of the unknown. However, choosing to actively live in a place of limbo that goes beyond the daily vicissitudes represents a different level of madness. It was in the plane of madness that R and I took up residence until finally deciding on Brussels.

 

How did we decide?

 

Funding was a big issue. If you are over 31 and not a member of an EU country, it is very difficult to get funding for doctoral students in Belgium. While the Brussels program and faculty seemed a better fit than other possible programs, this initial discovery pushed us closer to Paris, where a university in Le Marais arrondissement (neighborhood) of the city had invited R to compete for a scholarship that would provide nearly $2k euro/month for the three years of the program. While Paris was much higher on the list than Brussels of most expensive cities to live in, we could not ignore the relief that a monthly scholarship could bring to our soon-to-be poor graduate student economic status.

 

R spent several more hours preparing a presentation for the scholarship competition and then flew to France (using my miles, I might add….not resentment there).

 

My nerves were nearly shot that week, while I waited in Arizona for news from Paris. R met with one professor whose research seemed a good fit for his interests. She spoke English a bit better than he spoke French, and his description their meeting at a burger joint in Paris was pretty hilarious.

 

She sat there rolling cigarette after cigarette and smoking in the restaurant, he told me. It was so funny. So French!

 

They really hit it off, and she asked R to keep her informed on his decision-making process. He had missed the initial scholarship deadline for the university where she worked in Paris, but sometimes scholarships were not all handed out in the first round and would become available later in the summer/fall.

 

The next day, R gave his presentation to a committee at the CNAM (Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers). He was one of five presenters for four scholarships.

 

In the end, the committee only wound up giving out three scholarships, and my husband was not one of the recipients. The professor he had been working with was not pleased after he spoke with members of the committee. It turned out that the committee members did not think my husband, the research librarian, had included enough research in his presentation. They also seemed to think he was only pursuing a possible paid ride to live in Paris for three years.

 

We were horrified. How could they have such a low opinion of my husband, who had spent hours creating a presentation and flown all the way to France! R was told by his professor and a colleague, who had also been interested in working with him, that ego played a large role in the committee’s decision-making process.

 

In order to demonstrate their point, one of them shared a metaphor about having to shoot a Frenchman several inches above his head because that was where his sense of self existed.

 

R was encouraged to write a letter requesting the committee to rethink their choice to withhold a scholarship for him, but in the end it did not make any difference. We decided that it was a sign from the universe that we were meant to go to Brussels.

 

R traveled to Brussels from Paris, where he spent a couple of days of reconnaissance. He met with professor Yani at the university he would eventually wind up choosing to pursue his doctoral studies. He ate frites and watched the Euro Cup. No waffles were sampled. Shocking, I know!

 

Brussels felt good. R described it as having a very international feel. It was more casual than Paris, and when he spoke French, the people responded in French. The city felt less chaotic and busy than Paris, which he thought might be a good fit for us since we tended to enjoy peaceful quiet.

 

By the time my husband returned home, it seemed that Brussels had risen to the top of the list. Gradually, we were moving through limbo to a state of some certainty.

 

Hip hip, hurray!

 

The process for getting there would prove to be yet another hurdle in our “Europe or Bust” adventure, but that is a story for another day.

 

Stay tuned for musings on the visa application process, which instruments to bring, and what to do with the furry four-leggeds!

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The whole galette

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For our honeymoon, my husband and I spent three weeks in France. We are true Francophiles and love everything French (well, maybe not everything but certainly most things).

For my first marriage, I had wanted to go to Paris on honeymoon, but my husband, a far crazier birder than me, wanted so desperately to go birding in Costa Rica that I just couldn’t say no. Being an enabler by training, I acquiesced, and we spent between 2-3 weeks getting up at 5am with the sunrise and birding until 5pm with the sunset. We experienced one attempted car break in, one flat tire, and saw over half of the species found in Costa Rica, thanks to our bird guide and friend, Nito, who we had met at the national park where we worked in the summers. I called the trip, “Our honeymoon with Nito.” We even managed to spend a few fabulous days with two friends who had sold their home to travel the world for a year. With Nito and our two friends, we walked up a winding road that led to a ranch on the border between Costa Rica and Panama.

We parked our car at an obliging woman’s home at the base of the mountain.

It’s not far, Nito had told us before we began the ascent, and he repeated this phrase for several miles and hours before we arrived in the rain close to midnight.

Inside, we sat on chairs fashioned from the cows the ranchers kept on their property, and they told us about hunting the jaguars that hunted the cows.

The reason I share this story is not to demonstrate how much of a pushover I can be for the people I love. More so, I wish to illustrate the kind of experience I seek while traveling. I want to journey beyond the surface, which can be difficult as a tourist, especially if you do not speak the local tongue. However, the more experiential travel can come with challenging packaging. which leads me back to my second marriage and second honeymoon. They say the third time is the charm, but I am hoping this one sticks.

We planned to faire un tour of France, making a circle by rental car that would begin and end in Paris. The trip began relatively without consequence. Procuring the rental car seemed to take much longer for us than all of the other French people, who seemed to walk in and out of the Hertz store within minutes. But finally, we were on the road and doing our best to navigate with a lagging GPS to get out of Paris unscathed.

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We made it to Bretagne and spent several days with friends from my time teaching English to elementary school students in Quimper ten years earlier. We journeyed south to Bordeaux, where the real fun began. While taking a shower, I slipped in the bathtub and dislocated my shoulder. Luckily, my husband was nearby, grabbed my other arm to pull me up, and I was able to relocate (can one say this?) my shoulder. I say luckily as it was a Sunday, and the thought of trying to find a doctor was far from desirable. The cure for my first ailment? Drinking red wine and cognac from afternoon until night mixed with a little shopping.

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Bon.

We continued our journey, spending a beautiful day birding with an ex-pat British fellow who had come to France as a young adult to learn the language and had fallen in love with a Parisian woman (who wouldn’t?). the day was reminiscent of my first honeymoon with Nito, as our guide was set on finding as many species as possible and seemed to have an unending supply of energy with which to accomplish this task. Our final species was a little owl/chouette cheveche, seated atop a small chimney as the sky grew dark all around it.

Parking in Bordeaux was a miniature nightmare, and we were quite happy to quitte la grande ville pour le paysage encore (aka, we prefer the countryside to the city…typically, though our experience in Provence was to temporarily prove otherwise).

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A night in Rocamadour at a Bed and Breakfast run by a super friendly British fellow. So far, we were really enjoying the ex-pats. I knew something was up when he opened the door and was super excited for us to arrive. I thought, This guy is French? He’s so happy and expressive! Nope.

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Ailment number two came the next morning. We had a lovely breakfast, and I played a couple of songs on the ukulele for the innkeeper, his mother and twin sons, and the French couple sitting at the next table. We asked if we could take a photo with the innkeeper, and while my husband was preparing his camera, I started laughing at something the twin boys were doing, bent forward, and slammed my face smack dab onto a hard, wooden chair. Blood began dripping from my upper lip, which instantly began to swell until it eventually turned into what felt like a puffy beak. I love birds and joked with my husband that I wanted to be more birdlike.

In the end, I decided that I much prefer looking at birds than being birdlike. My beak was not so pleasant, and the pain and swelling brought on ailment number three, a sinus head cold in Arles.

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Ailment number three may also have been brought on by the fact that we spent an afternoon walking through the misting rain in the city of Arles and then returned to our apartment and kept the windows open wide to avoid the smell of old cigarette smoke from the previous tenants.

Tant pis. I can survive a cold, and I had brought with me a small, traveling pharmacy.

Each ailment had its way of testing the strength of our bond, though the physical element was mine alone to enjoy.

The third ailment was more of a shared experience.

Despite my head cold, we headed out to look for an eagle owl in a fairly unpopulated corner of Provence. An hour walking around without success, we were tired and hungry and ready for the picnic we had brought along, replete with a nice bottle of red wine.

Instead, we arrived back at the car to find a broken window, open door, and everything but my rock collection, an iPhone charger cable, and a roll of toilet paper taken from the inside.

Again, an ailment on a weekend, the day after Christmas, when everything in the vicinity was closed.

But we persevered. We had planned to head the next day to my husband’s friend from a study abroad program many years ago. Instead, we headed to her home that night, where we were welcomed into a warm home with a beautiful family, fed a traditional French meal, and able to calm our nerves (mine, at least) after driving on narrow, winding roads up to their house in the French alps.

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The blessing in strange packaging? We were able to have a truly cultural experience. In order to repair the window without paying 163 euro, we had to file a police report. Suffice it to say, we were thankful for our friend’s incredibly good humor and generosity in offering to act as traductrice/translator for us and helping to figure out where and when to bring our car in for the window replacement.

Somehow, despite potential mishaps along the way, all was well in the end. The gendarmerie was closed when we first arrived, so we went for a walk until it was slated to open (after a long lunch?). when we returned, it was even more definitively closed with a garage type door covering the entrance. Luckily, just as we were about to give up, a single police officer walked by on his way back to the office.

They only have one person staffing a police office in France? Strange, we thought, but we were just happy to have his undivided attention for the time it took to file the report.

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Window replacement was set for the following afternoon, but when we arrived the fellow working at the shop told us they had expected us the previous afternoon. Luckily again, for us, he was a kind fellow and offered to do the job that afternoon, even though his colleague had communicated the wrong time to him.

Ailment number three behind us, we headed further north still to the home of another friend. This time, we left our car in their driveway during the visit and not so much as a bird deigned to leave its mark upon it.

It was with great pleasure and exceeding relief that we returned the car without incident. Just a sigh and a quick exit.

The fourth and hopefully final ailment was quite literally and figuratively my husband’s to shoulder. His shoulder went into spasm shortly after our arrival in Paris, despite my wish to the river Rhone that our journey should continue without incident. Perhaps, the rocks I wished upon, gathered at the site where our car was vandalized, had been cursed? Or maybe, we were just destined for the full cultural experience so there would be no illusions should we decide to spend a sabbatical year living in France.

After two nights with little to no sleep, we decided to find a doctor. Thanks to monsieur Google, we found a Centre Medicale located a three-minute walk from our Airbnb apartment. Navigating via GPS once more, we found the center, though not without effort. There was only a small sign beside a set of tall dark green doors that my husband noticed after we walked past.

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Once we found the doors, it was unclear how we were supposed to get in. we pushed on the door, but it only gave a little under pressure before settling back into its track.

Maybe we call them? my husband suggested.

I pushed on the door again. Nothing.

He picked up his cell phone to find the number when someone opened the door from inside. Relieved, we stepped inside and followed a sign that told us the center for health was on the first floor (in france, the our first floor is the ground floor and is called the Rez de chaussée; our second floor is their first floor, if that makes sense). We headed up a winding set of stairs and entered the strangest health center I have ever seen.

The inside was lit up with lights and décor akin to the makeup section of a department store, with neon and pink and white lights. We stood in line. On our left stood a tall white counter with five staff seated behind it. As each person was helped and stepped aside, they would call out la suivante (next in line), and the next person would walk up. To our right was wall with with sets of jeopardy like design. On the left was medical and the right dental, both sides with rows squares that were all lit up in different colors, each with a different form medical care written inside. Traitement de la douleur, radiologie, acupuncture, etc.

When it was our turn, we explained the problem and proceeded to pay 23 euro for a visit with one of the on-call doctor. The woman seated behind the counter told us there was an open appointment at 11:15am. It was then 10:47am, so we decided to wait. There is always a long wait for an appointment in the states, so what was a half an hour.

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She gave us a piece of paper and told us to place it in the file box outside of Cabinet C. We were then instructed to sit and wait in the sale d’attente. Being from the United States, where people are germ-crazed, I have somewhat of a phobia of germs but nothing too irrational. I think more so, I was still recovering from being recently ill, and from the sound and sight of the people waiting, I was afraid we might both catch another variation of the current French plague—the woman standing next to me was pale and sweating and literally looked like she about to pass out and keel over—so we walked back down the winding stairs and sat in the windowsill of the ground floor.

We headed back up about fifteen minutes before the appointment and proceeded to wait another half hour. At half past eleven, a woman small in stature, with short brown curly hair, a long white coat, and loafers that would be sensible but for their high heels walked out of Cabinet C, down the hall, and called out: Monsieur Lewis (Lou-wheese).

She gave me not a first or second look, but I followed behind just the same. When we reached Cabinet C (and it didn’t take long), she ushered Rich inside and followed him. I think she would have shut the door on me, but I interjected that I was his wife and needed to help translate.

Comme vous voulez (As you wish), she said, shrugging her shoulders, lifting her hands up as if to express defeat, and rolling her eyes.

I speak English, she said with a heavy French accent.

Rich sat on a traditional hospital bed, and I was instructed to sit in the chair on the far side of the desk, closest to the door. (I guess that way, if I pulled any funny stuff, she could get me out pretty quickly.)

Questions were asked, and my husband replied. When he didn’t reply quickly enough, I would interject. At one point, the doctor snapped at me to essentially sit down and keep my mouth shut.

I wanted to shake her and yell out, that’s my husband! But instead, I sat down and took a deep breath.

The entire experience was in many ways both ridiculous and hilarious. This was a no nonsense doctor. Maybe, this is how it is in the French healthcare system, or maybe it was her personality. She was clear on her opinions and on what needed to happen next, which included an x-ray that we would need to get at yet another healthcare center.

While she did not seem to have any real idea as to what was wrong, she did manage to damn all of American healthcare—our practice of overprescribing medication, high costs for care, etc.—none of which I disagreed with, though she did criticize my husband for taking medication for high cholesterol.

23 euros for a visit, it’s not bad, right? she said to us.

We nodded and laughed. She was right, though the experience had felt a bit like we were animals being herded around by feisty cattle dog doctors. She was horrified when I told her what a typical doctor visit in the states would cost out of pocket. I think she actually gasped and put her hand over her mouth. It was quite dramatic. I loved it!

We really got her going when I told her we were on our honeymoon and Rich mentioned that our rental car had been broken into.

I think she wouldn’t have prescribed any medication had I not interjected to tell my husband to inform her that he hadn’t slept in two nights. She seemed to think that because he could move his arm in all directions, things were not so serious after all.

But you are not sleeping? She asked. That is serious then.

Um, yeah. That’s why we came to a doctor.

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We continued the herding experience at the next center for santé (health), where we took a ticket for radiologie sans RDV (without an appointment) and waited once more. This time, the waiting room felt a bit less plagued save for one young woman who intermittently emitted a deep, rasping sound reminiscent of what I could only imagine might be bronchitis or whooping cough. I was hoping for the former.

When our number was called, we were told that we could come back the following day at noon for an x-ray.

I was cranky from lack of coffee or breakfast, but I insisted we go to the pharmacie before eating. The pharmacie was tiny, and everything we needed seemed to cost 9 euros and change. There was no wait time for the prescription, however, and le collier (neck brace) was much snazzier than the large white one I was anticipating.

Things don’t seem to happen too quickly in French medical care, I muttered as we left.

But they are getting done, my husband replied, and without too much expense.

Things looked up after I had an expresso and a large bowl of French onion soup (just called onion soup in Paris) and several pieces of fresh bread.

The x-ray experience the following day was fairly straightforward. I was not allowed in because of the radiation, which made sense, so I took full advantage of being situated near a toilet (they are not always easy to find in Paris or desirable when you do find them). I had been pleasantly surprised by the number of helpfully located clean public toilets supplied with toilet paper during our travels around the country prior to our arrival in Paris. There seemed to be a pull off from the highway every few miles. Aire de x, y, and z, they were called.

But in Paris, you have to make use of every possible pit stop. At least, I seem to need to.

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We paid 50 euros with our American HSA card (the first center claimed they could only take credit cards with chips in them…tant pis). We were then instructed to wait another 45 minutes for the x-rays to be developed. No digital images in France, I suppose.

I was not excited to dilly dally around for another 45 minutes, but what else could we do? An hour later, we finally received the x-rays. They came in a white folder with a piece of white paper. Written on the paper was a short paragraph in French (of course) explaining my husband’s condition, which I did my best to analyze, though my command of the language does not truly extend to medical speak, which I can barely understand in English either.

And that was it. My husband emailed the photos of the image to a family member, who suggested he invest in a different system for carrying his heavy camera lens around.

The rest of our time in Paris was spent eating, drinking a lot of red wine, and walking around.

During our 22-day voyage de noces in France, we managed to visit several regions of the country (more, apparently, than many Parisiens see, we were told by a Parisien), four dear friends and their families, the gendarmerie, window replacement garage, and experience the French health care system.

All in all, it was a experience overflowing with culture, gastronomie, and the most important part…love.

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Feelings and Standards

I often write about feeling different. When I write, I touch on one aspect of my self in connection to a greater culture within which I often do not feel a sense of solidarity and belonging. When I write, I do not intend this out of place feeling to come across as arrogant or unfortunate. It just is, and by writing and reflecting I try to recognize, embrace, and make sense of it in one moment in time.

How to put words a feeling, to something so visceral?

I have felt since I was a little kid that I just did not quite “fit in.”

One realm where it took years for my to find a sense of belonging was among women.

Until high school, I thought most women were cruel, malicious, and capricious.

One young woman who was purportedly my friend would be friendly one day and not speak to me the next. I never understood why or what I had done to bring on such strange behavior. Nonplussed, I was.

I can recall a girl who would ask me my score for an exam every time we got our tests back. I would tell her. If my score were higher than hers, she would not tell me hers and would not speak to me for some length of time.

My best friend would tell me on a regular basis that her hair looked better in a side ponytail than mine and that I had thunder thighs (I imagine the thunder came from being muscular instead of waifish and having a healthy appetite).

I would get dressed in the morning and feel good about how I looked and then arrive at school and realize that what I was wearing was completely wrong in comparison to what other girls were wearing. Sometimes, I still feel this way, though it has become far more rare.

Other girls were delicate with gentle hands and perfectly shaped nails.

In contrast, I felt big, bulky, and ungraceful around them. Even my hair, a mess of frizzy curls, was unmanageable and wild.

Pressure came from all directions.

It was not cool to speak out or appear intelligent in class or around boys. Women I knew to be quite smart would act flaky and ditzy in co-ed settings. It was so odd.

It was not cool to wear clothing from last season’s styles, and believe me, people knew if someone was not adhering to this standard.

By 8th grade, I was getting frustrated and weary of many of the behaviors and mannerisms I was meant to mimic.

I began speaking up for girls who were “less cool” when popular boys would prey upon them. I found my mom’s old Levis and started wearing those instead of more delicate, feminine clothing from stores where I had previously begged my parents to get me clothing.

And the strangest thing happened. I seemed to earn a certain respect among different circles in the social sphere of my middle school world. I still did not feel that I was an honorable member of any one group, but I was beginning to wonder if maybe gaining membership was not my ultimate goal in life.

At the start of my freshman year in high school, I found a group of women with whom I felt more at ease. They were misfits with wild ideas, wild fashion sense, and wild hair. Some did not even shave their legs or armpits! And many of them were not Jewish.

I had no idea that women like this could exist.

It was at once exhilarating and intimidating. It was a revelation and reevaluation of my definition of what it meant to be a woman in a suburb that was predominantly Jewish in eastern Massachusetts.

My struggle with my identity as a woman was far from over (in fact, it continues still).

I tried not shaving my legs. I found this choice to be freeing at times and less so at others. Sometimes, it felt good to not shave my legs. I was expressing a different choice. Yet, I did not like the look of hair on my legs. It felt unfeminine. So I would shave my legs. They were sleek and “womanly,” but they no longer felt like my legs.

I was stuck between worlds. I felt out of place in both. I was frustrated.

Always, I compared myself to other women who seemed to represent the epitome of what I wanted to embody in my own body, even if my own body was built differently and refused to conform to an unnatural standard without unhealthy compromises.

Women should have flat stomachs. The only way I could succeed in conforming to this perceived standard was by cutting food out of my diet and running obsessively. Yet, no matter how fit I became, how trim and muscular, I looked in the mirror and was dissatisfied with my reflection.

The standards I wanted to attain seemed always to be just out of reach.

In the middle of my freshman year in college, crisis hit. I got tendonitis and had to stop running. Shortly after, I tore my ACL tendon and dislocated my shoulder in a freak ultimate Frisbee accident and had to stop exercising altogether.

Suddenly, controlling my body was no longer an option. I was forced to begin confronting the standards I had been trying so desperately to conform to.

But I had no idea how. I talked to a nutritionist, who told me with confidence that I could and should be eating far more than I was.

Those facts only deepened my psychological crisis. I wanted to be able to nourish my body, but I could not allow myself to do it without experiencing extreme guilt and self-loathing.

Looking back, I wondered how had I come to this point? I had studied feminism. My mother kept her last name. I listened to Ani Difranco. I had dumped my boyfriend at the end of my sophomore year of high school. I thought of myself as relatively empowered.

Yet, there I was in the midst of an eating disorder.

What?

It did not seem to matter how many men or women affirmed my beauty and attractiveness. I could not see it in my self.

I would admire women with real bodies, with stomachs that had shape, but I could not yet allow my own body to take on a more natural form.

I can recall two pivotal moments (there were likely more) that created a shift in my behavior. The shift in my self-view was even more difficult to adjust. To this day, I am still working on both.

I visited a friend who was studying in Paris during her junior year of college. During the visit, she told me that sometime earlier she had decided to eat whatever she wanted. If she started to get fat, she could reevaluate. Up to that point, she had not gained weight, so she had continued this experiment with eating. Another piece she mentioned was that she tried to go for a long walk each day. It helped her to feel like she had exercised, which seemed to improve both her psychological state and view of her body as well.

I decided to try it.

I had tried to take up running after physical therapy in the wake of knee surgery, but it hurt my knee and shoulder. I also found that each time I took up running, my propensity for control and obsession with food and exercise would rekindle with a vengeance. Walking was more peaceful and affirming.

Only a few months later, before my own junior year in college, I attended a summer language immersion program at Middlebury College to begin learning French. While learning how to compose sentences with the word “regret,” I experienced a second epiphany.

We were asked by the professor to imagine we were much older. Looking back on our lives, we were to imagine something we regretted and to write about it.

Je regretted de ne pas avoir….

I regret not having…..

Each student was asked to read their response. The words of a woman with brown hair in tight curls whose name I have long forgotten are still clear in my mind, along with my response.

I regret not having eaten a piece of chocolate every day.

I was shocked at the thought. Perhaps, I had just imagined that by the time I was eighty I would have gotten over this. But what if I didn’t ever get over it? I was denying myself of some of the greatest sensory pleasures in a human life. I was horrified that I might get to the end of my life and have a similar response.

In the back of my mind, I recalled the nutritionist I had spoken with saying that the human body naturally burns myriad calories throughout the day, simply by existing, by being and breathing.

What if I tried incorporating a small sweet into my daily rhythm? One seemed reasonable and possibly even attainable.

I decided to try it.

A decade has passed since these revelations.

I feel better about my body. I still control what I eat. But I try to remind myself of the words of these two wise women in my life.

Sometimes I shave my legs. Sometimes, I don’t.

I never wear makeup.

My stomach is soft, and sometimes I wish it were more flat and muscular. But I try not to lose sleep over it.

I try to eat French fries and potato chips and not feel guilty about it.

I write about it.

I also compose music.


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Un très bon séjour

My heart was heavy this morning when my dear friend Isabelle left me and Rich at the Quimper train station. Rich told me not to think about it, but it was like leaving a part of myself behind. La famille Marty is family for me. We have stayed in touch for nearly ten years since I left Quimper in May of 2005. Despite the questionable security of facebook, it has served us well for sharing our lives from a distance.

When we first arrived at her house on Rue des Pivoines in the ancient city of Quimper, we stepped out of the car and were met with cheers from the garden.

Pierre help up an enormous American flag and shouted, “Welcome home!” Laughter ensued.

“Vous faites comme chez vous,” Isabelle said when we first walked into her kitchen three days ago.

“Make yourselves at home.”

And we did. We were part of the family. It was as if I left only yesterday. Or even as if I had never left at all.

And there is a part of that wishes I never had. In France, I dream in French. My panic attacks have ceased. I feel alive and eager for adventure. I imagine leaving the united states and returning to Brittany to live once more.

When last I lived in Quimper, I was in a constant limbo between worlds—my life in Washington and in France. Now, I feel different, more free. I am older. I feel less inhibited to ask questions. I sense the privilege of travel and the preciousness of time with friends who live far away.

I feel older, too.

I get more tired than I used to after a day of exploring. After a week, I am completely exhausted. I am sure that having two languages swimming around in my head adds to the fatigue.

I sense more of an urgency to imagine the life I want and then to realize those imaginings before too much more time has passed.

I know that life is long and there is time. I know I should appreciate each day instead of living in a time that has not yet come to pass.

I also know that time passes quickly, and my own life on this planet is finite.

When I taught in France, Sarah, the daughter of Pierre and Isabelle, was 8 years old. Today, she is 16. She is a woman, beautiful and graceful. She wears makeup. Her body is more womanly than my own, despite the age difference. And I am so thankful to be able to see how much she has grown up in the 8 years since I left. It is remarkable.

What a difference from my solitary life in Lowell. We spent hours at the table, drinking wine and eating food grown and cooked with care. We spoke of many things, the subjects flowing as easily as the wine from the bottle into our glasses.

Truly, I was in my element.

Standing at the train station, waiting for the train, I could see my friend Emily so many years ago, waving goodbye as I boarded the train that final morning in Quimper. I could see her only a few years ago with our friend Christiane as we sat eating patisserie in the square by the cathedral in the center of town. Neither was with me physically but their presence was strong in spirit for they are within always.

I am sure I romanticize life in a foreign country. It is easy to do when I am unfulfilled in my own life.

It is a true gift to meet people from any place who instantly become family. I have spent most of my life searching for places where I feel like I belong. It has been more with the people I have met that I have found community and a sense of place than with the places themselves. I certainly feel a strong connection to the mountains, forests, and rivers where I have lived, but it is with the human and winged inhabitants that I have found my true home.

And so, it is with a heavy heart that I write on this grey, Breton afternoon. “La vrai Bretagne,” on dit. As the train speeds ever farther from my famille Marty and the charming city of Quimper, I feel it deep within, and I work hard to hold back the tears.

Many pictures were taken, good food eaten, laughter and jokes exchanged, stories told from the years of many lives around a table.

For this, and for so much more that words cannot express, je vous remerci la France, la Bretagne, et la famille Marty.


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En route

I sit on a train bound for northwest France. La Bretagne. Ville de Quimper—home of pottery, cider, crepes, song thrush, and a family dear to my heart. I was in Quimper only three years ago, but it feels like longer. So much has changed since then. I have changed since then.

When last I rested my head on a pillow and slept through the night in this small, ancient city, I held a stuffed flying squirrel close to my chest. Inside the plush puppet was a note from my husband telling me how much he loved me. Afraid to let go, I held onto that animal. I held it close, and I held it tight.

Three months later, I began to let go.

Now, three years later and after a morning of closed metro lines, a taxi across Paris, and rushing through the train station, I am once again bound for Quimper. On this trip, another man sits across the table from me. With furrowed brow, he sits reading. The green countryside is nearly within our grasp. Trees and hedges pass by in a blur close to the window. Quiet fields with red flowers I have never seen are clear and beautiful in the distance.

I have never been to Europe in the summer.

The closest to summer in Paris were spring visits during the month of May. The city is beautiful and clear in the spring. It is full of promise.

The sights and sounds of summer are different. Swifts dart across the sky above. They sweep down low over and between old buildings. At the Jardin du Luxembourg, they come right down to the water, skirt between the children’s sailboats, pick up tiny insects from the surface, and zoom back up to their blue domain. I hold my camera still, hoping for a photograph. But their fast-moving, tiny bodies, reminiscent of dark cigars with wings, fly far too quickly for my slow fingers. They are there and back before I can click on my point and shoot.

The red flowers in the fields remind me of the watercolor illustrated film rendition of The man who planted trees, where a young man encounters a shepherd who has taken it upon himself to reforest an entire region of France. With the trees, flowers, birds, and water follow. Life begins anew.

In four years, my own life has begun anew.

I have recreated my self, my identity, and my way of interacting with the world and its inhabitants.

When I used to travel to Paris, I was afraid to walk into shops and boutiques. I was worried I would be judged or given nasty looks. On this trip, I walk in and converse with shop keepers. I befriend waiters and speak easily.

I feel alive and inspired. It is as if a part of my self that has been quiet has been awakened.

My inner gypsy.

I have wondered for many years if there were members of my family from long ago who traveled from Spain to Eastern Europe. My sister is taken for a local wherever she travels in the Mediterranean. I can certainly see a nomadic tendency in my own life, as if I am constantly searching for something and never quite finding it. After a year or more in any one place, I grow restless.

I spent years in the Pacific Northwest. Yet even during that time when I was seemingly rooted in place, I did not stay still for long. I worked multiple jobs over the course of each year. I worked in France for a school year and then moved close to the border with British Columbia to attend graduate school.

What have I been searching for? A purpose? A sense of belonging?

With the completion of my dissertation, I have entered an unknown phase. I am searching for what will happen next. In my heart, I imagine finally letting go of one professional realm for another. Perhaps, in letting go I am also taking hold. I am letting go of security and the known and taking a leap of faith in the calling I sense from my heart. This calling is strong. I feel it like a flame deep within. It is a desire to write songs from spoken stories and to share those songs with as many people as possible.

I spent the afternoon and early evening yesterday with a dear friend I met during my time in Quimper. She is one of a few women with whom I have maintained fairly regular contact. She is a kindred spirit.

On this visit, I met her husband and beautiful daughter for the first time. It was like being reunited with family, as if not a moment had passed since we last spoke. We could have had lunch the day before. We picked up right where we left off.

On the train ride to her home in Chantilly, it occurred to me that she might be willing to share a story from which I could create a song.

Ellie was born in Botswana and has lived in countries around the world. I wondered about her life and if she felt at home in France.

For me, France is a novelty. I dream of escaping from the United States and living abroad. I wonder what my life would be like now had I stayed so many years ago. I have no regrets, I simply wonder.

Ellie has a big heart and smile. Her laugh is wonderful and real. I was drawn to her instantly. We laughed at the ridiculousness of it all.

Yet on this visit, I sensed a sadness in her I had not noticed so many years earlier.

Uncertain of a story to tell, I asked if she would talk to me about her life of traveling.
“That is something I can do,” she said. And she began with the beginning and ended with the present.

She spoke of being treated like an outsider in communities where she looked and spoke differently than the natives. I pictured her as a child, sitting crying on the steps of her school after being bullied by the children. I watched her mother come and embrace her, trying to protect her.

By the time she reached the age of 16, Ellie was protecting herself. Enough, she told her parents. She was done moving around. She moved to England to finish high school in one place.

Sitting in a chair beside her, listening to her words and typing them on the computer, I felt full. This was what I wanted to be doing. This felt important. It was an honor to witness this song beginning to reveal itself through another person. I asked questions to learn more and to coax the deeper meanings from the story. I could already tell that there was a song in Ellie’s words and emotion that many people could relate to—the feeling of being lost in a world of strangers; the desire for sanctuary; and the need for home.

It is so easy to be swept up in the beauty and intrigue of a foreign land. I have to remind myself that I can travel far and wide and still feel lost and alone. The darkness is never far behind.

In this moment, as I write, I am not afraid of the darkness. I feel calm. I am excited for another reunion with a friend who is like family.

With cows resting peacefully in green fields, a fresh baguettes and pain au chocolat in a grocery bag nearby, there is more light than dark.