Steps to Sophistication

I started this post a while ago, after I saw “Emily in Paris,” the social-media-drenched, Gen-Z version of “Sex in the City,” transported across the Atlantic. It’s a confection as substantial as a Ladurée macaron and equally delicious. The City of Light even outshines the series’ gorgeous star, Lilly Collins.

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Interesting Times

As the curse goes, “May you live in interesting times.” We are indeed in interesting times. France started another lockdown on Oct. 30. We aren’t supposed to go out except for essentials–work, exercise, appointments, groceries. Basically it means life goes on except for fun. This was brilliantly captured in a German public service announcement (scroll to the one with subtitles–you shouldn’t miss “lazy as racoons”!). The main hiccup is that we have to fill out a form, un attestation, swearing on our honor that we’re really going to work/the doctor/the supermarket/on a run or risk a €135 fine.

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Tik Tok Together

If you have a pulse, you probably haven’t escaped Tik Tok. For all my deep suspicions about lack of privacy and tracking on the Internet and applications, there’s a lot to love about Tik Tok. Maybe because of its algorithms of showing you more of what you like, I haven’t been led into its dark underbelly. But from what I’ve seen (been shown, if I am being honest–I don’t have the app myself), Tik Tok has to be doing some good.

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Emily in Paris

Have you seen “Emily in Paris”? It’s fun, but oh-la-la! the exaggerations!

The story is about a young social media whiz sent at the last minute to fill in for a French-speaking senior colleague. Our heroine, Emily, is neither senior nor able to speak French. She doesn’t even have experience in the same sector as the Paris office she’s sent to. But she bubbles over about how she’s going to teach them. No wonder they aren’t happy with her.

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Endless Summer

It’s crazy. We’re halfway through September, nearly to the official start of fall, and I still can stand only the thinnest sheet I own, no blanket, and the fan on during the night. It was 23 Celsius (73.4 Fahrenheit) here in Carcassonne when I got up this morning. That’s not unusual in August, but now? Our Septembers have an average low temp of 14.2 C (57.6 F) and an average high of 24 C (75.2 F)–perfection. But lately? It’s been in the 30s, which actually is higher than the average high temperature in summer. It’s worse to the west of us–Toulouse is setting records.

Obviously, it’s far worse much farther west. On many levels. But we won’t talk about that.

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Summertime…

Despite the pause, I have been thinking of you. It is slow and frustrating to type with one hand. I usually go very, very fast. Do they still teach typing in school? They don’t in France. It’s crazy, because typing is so much more important today than it was in the 1970s. I see young professionals hunting and pecking with two fingers and think, WTF. I took typing in summer school, not wanting to waste an entire precious year on it, and indeed two months was enough to learn to touch type. Speed comes with practice.

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On Us

When I was in the Peace Corps in Africa, we were told about “mob justice.” In a place with few public services, like fire, rescue or police, people were on their own. We had serious debates over whether it was better to get one of the two or three passenger spots (on one seat) in the cab of the pickups that provided transportation, or to be in the covered bed, where two wooden benches would hold seven people each (room for five with blood circulating to the legs), and then six or eight or ten more people would be sardined in, crouching over the seated passengers, breathing on those on one bench and butts in the faces of those on the opposite bench, holding a rail attached to the ceiling. The thinking was, with the prevalence of head-on collisions due to pot-holed roads and overloaded lorries that ground their way up hills at a pedestrian pace, and also, especially before cell phones, the impossibility of first aid or getting to a hospital, perhaps it was better to die instantly in the front rather than to die slowly in the back, where who knows whether you would even be able to get out, but then again, maybe all those bodies in the back would cushion each other, and one would survive.

Mob justice was another moral dilemma, also life or death.

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Unplanned

IMG_5778When it rains, it pours.

Back in January, I made up a 30-day plan for self-improvement. It was mostly OK–I definitely made an effort most days. But what really made the difference was the combination of spring and the lockdown.

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Most of today’s photos are from my usual route.

Earlier sunrises and gorgeous weather made it easier to get out of bed, even though I had no work waiting for me. I used the free time to walk and run. I read. Snacking was limited to a daily piece of fruit because we cut back on grocery runs, thanks to the pandemic lockdown.IMG_5843Last week, I set off on a high-intensity walk/run. I am not a good runner. My sprints are a normal person’s trot. But it isn’t a competition–or it is, but just with myself. I “sprint” up hills, jog the flats and walk the descents. I was pleased with my first hill, and was just shifting from a jog to a so-called sprint for the next one when I wiped out.

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This is where I fell. Hard to appreciate the view from the ground.

I picked myself up and realized my left arm was dangling strangely, with my hand facing the wrong way. I shrieked and was back on the tarmac, yelling bloody murder. It was just  past the last houses of a village, early in the morning, Nobody came. I managed to get my phone out and to call my husband. I kept screaming.

Finally two guys came running; they had been working in a vineyard and at first thought the screams were kids. They called an ambulance and directed the start of rush-hour traffic around me. A bus came within inches of my head. I hadn’t fallen in a good spot.

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If it had happened here, nobody would have found me for hours.

I hadn’t called an ambulance because I thought that was  bit much for a broken arm. No spurtin’, no hurtin’, as a friend once put it. Also, in the U.S., an ambulance can cost a fortune, and getting the bill paid can require many phone calls and emails with the insurance company. But I am in France! Such idiocy doesn’t exist here, or in almost any other developed country.

The volunteer firefighters from a neighboring village came. They helped me up, and if the ambulance had been one step farther I would have passed out before getting in. They put a blow-up brace on my arm and got me to the hospital. 23996E81-DB2C-4673-A20E-184983E2CE49I was put on an IV for glucose (I ran before breakfast and my blood sugar was very low) and pain meds and put in a room to wait for an opening in the operating room. X-rays and an MRI showed my elbow was dislocated, with a small bit broken off.

 

The charming anesthesiologist with beautiful eyes was shocked I had heard of his hometown,  Timisoara, and told me about his childhood memories of Nicolae Ceausescu and the revolution. He numbed my arm from the bicep down. I expected a tranquilizer; when I had foot surgery, I was awake but the tranquilizer made everything–even the buzz of the saw–just fine. But no tranquilizer was necessary.IMG_5945I looked out the big window with a view of vineyards and the mountains. Do operating rooms usually have windows? The surgeon had gorgeous eyes, too. So did the male nurse who tried but failed to put in the IV. I have never seen such a concentration of beautiful eyes; I suspect they are all good-looking in general, but with masks and identical scrubs, it’s hard to confirm.

In minutes, my arm was back in place and being wrapped in a cast–no need to cut it open to put in a pin. I was surprised by how many people were in the operating room and impressed by how congenial everyone was to each other and how sweet they were to me. It seemed like a nice place to work.IMG_5946Because it was late, I was released the next day. I had the impression that the orthopedic section had only a few patients. Quietude reigned.

My husband had gotten my carte vitale; no need for other questions about how it will be covered. I will share the cost of my clumsiness when I get the paperwork. We have a supplemental insurance for the co-pays.IMG_5742I can’t drive for three months; after the cast comes off in three weeks, I have to wear a brace for two more months. It couldn’t come at a worse time, when so much is in upheaval. And I am disgusted that the past five months of workouts are getting a setback. I increased my average daily steps to 13,000 from 8,500, lowered my resting heart rate to 59 beats per minute from 64 and lost two kilograms (4.5 lbs.). My sleep quality improved. No more. I did some one-handed yard work the other day and it was a mistake–my bad arm and fingers swelled. Forced rest. Yuck.

I don’t know what my point is here. How the January resolutions got derailed? How the French health system is wonderful? How a small slip can turn one’s life upside down? Or just an excuse to whine? Maybe all of the above.

Meanwhile, completely unrelated, in the what-were-they-thinking department:IMG_5903Cropped sweater over longer  T-shirt on top and cut-off jeans over yoga pants (not leggings) on bottom. Please tell me this isn’t a new thing. Also: why would a sweater exist with short sleeves AND a hood? Sweaters/sleeves/hoods are for keeping one warm. If you aren’t cold, you don’t need a sweater, right? So why does this garment exist?IMG_5851I could do a whole post on misspelled signs. Bazard?!?! It’s bazar–a bazaar. Although it also means “mess,” “junk” or “stuff”–C’est le bazar ici = it’s a mess in here; C’est quoi, ce bazar = what is this junk/stuff? I also thought the phrase “la piraterie n’est jamais finie” (pirating is never over) to be a dubious advertisement for a bazaar, but it turns out to be a brand name. Go figure. Showing my age!

Vicarious Adventure Travel

IMG_5336I went exploring, as one does during a pandemic lockdown. All within my one-kilometer radius. Not even! It was just a tiny slice of my circle. I’d never ventured off-road. Once, years ago, when I was new to the area, I went for a walk/hike with a neighbor. She was so absorbed in our chat that she missed a turn and we were lost for a while, until we walked on to within sight of a landmark. There are other places, not far, where it’s a bad idea to get lost, because you could walk for a really long time if you’re pointed in the right (wrong) direction.IMG_5412This hike was low risk. I would stay within a perimeter of tarmac road. Impossible to get lost. Usually I run on that tarmac circuit, from one village to the next and the next and back around to home. But I was tired of cars and, above all, curious. I looked at it on Google Earth. The outskirts of the villages aside, no houses were in the interior of the loop. There was a stream, some vineyards and other fields, and lots of woods.IMG_5423Tracks for farmers to access their fields would peter out into narrow footpaths, or not even. I saw boar tracks. Taking a photo of a little waterfall in the stream, I sensed movement. Fearing a dog (which I’m more scared of than boars), or, worst nightmare of all, a dog off leash, I froze. But instead, an enormous hare rounded a curve on the path across the stream, apparently to get up speed to leap over the water. Until it saw me, froze for a fraction of a second, and did a 180.

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Where I met the hare.

I explored these paths, free of all-terrain bikes for a change (more ferocious than boars) day after day, trying out different forks in the paths. I found a truffle farm, surrounded by electric fencing. Many capitelles, or stone refuges, built without mortar from stones found in the vineyards, to give workers a place to cool off for a midday sieste, when walking home would have been just too much work on top of the heavy manual labor they already did from dawn to dusk.

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A capitelle.

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Truffles like to grow around the roots of these oak trees.

One place reminded me of a story. When the Carnivore and I were newlyweds, he wanted to take a honeymoon to Strasbourg. I’d never been to Strasbourg and wanted to see it. I still haven’t crossed it off my bucket list. Some turbulent events at the time of our planned trip had created bargains for travel to where I’d been in in the Peace Corps. I booked flights on a Wednesday; we left that Friday. I also called one of my favorite hotels, and the Carnivore was astounded when I asked for room 12. What on earth was he in for?

When we got to the first hotel, where I hadn’t specified a room number, the doorman greeted me by name. I’d last been there almost exactly a year earlier. It was a smallish hotel that was very mid-century modern in a way that was vintage back when I first went there in the mid-1980s and that had never been changed since. I loved it.

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My house is one of those. Actually half of one; it was a duplex. The lines of round bushes are coffee.

But we weren’t staying in the capital. I rented a small four-wheel-drive vehicle to go to where I used to live. No need for a map. This was not at all reassuring to the Carnivore. One could say his knuckles were white. Plus it was a former British colony, so I had to drive on the opposite side of the road. And “road” was a grand name for the bits of tarmac we traversed.Over an hour later, we were close. The countryside was very hilly, rising from plains of rice (the most delicous, aromatic I’d ever had) and pineapples to cornfields, then coffee. Above, in altitude, was tea. I lived just on the line between coffee and tea.

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I see that the grassy lane is no longer grassy. Population boom. The vivid green squares are tea.

The road went up and down and around curves. Besides the enormous potholes, there were other obstacles—overloaded buses with people hanging off the back; overloaded pickups, their beds enclosed, where people would be squished seven or eight to each flat board that served as a seat (there was room for five butts, which meant one’s legs tended to be compressed to numbness during the ride); overloaded lorries that ground their way up hills and then went full speed down the other side in order to get maximum momentum to coast as far as possible up the next hill; overloaded people on foot, on bikes, motorcycles, ox-drawn wagons, all balancing impossible burdens.

We stayed at a hotel in a nearby large town, where, back in the day, I would stop for a milky tea when I would go to the big market on Saturdays. How I loved the market! I would buy a wedge of very local pineapple, which would be hacked with a machete before me, and wrapped in a dusty scrap of old newspaper. I would choose my rice from the open sack that had the most bees resting on it—a sure sign it was heavily perfumed. I would half-heartedly haggle for my fruits and vegetables, only because to not do so was considered arrogant. I would take my heavy bag home after an hour-long, two-leg trip on a bus followed by a pickup; the same drive in a private car was 20 minutes.

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The hotel with water problems. Gorgeous.

The hotel manager explained that for reasons I’ve forgotten there was a problem with the hot water. Instead, each day, several women hustled across the lush grounds with big basins of steaming water balanced on their heads. A different definition of running water.

I wanted to take the Carnivore to see one of my former students. We got in the car and headed even higher into the hills. “Watch out!” the Carnivore hollered. It’s true that there were often sheer drops and no shoulder on the side of the road. It’s why everybody drove in the middle, in both directions. I turned left, and since I was driving on the left, the Carnivore was certain I was doing a Thelma and Louise. “It’s a road,” I told him. “THIS is a road?!?!!?” he answered.

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Similar…two-way traffic. With more potholes.

We went through a collection of shacks. Everybody came out to see; a car on this road was a big event. I waved. “Do you know them?” the Carnivore asked. “No, but it’s polite to wave,” I said. Honestly: same thing in rural France.

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More like this.

I turned right onto a much smaller lane. “Are you allowed to go here?” the Carnivore asked. “Sure,” I said. “It’s a road.” “THIS is a road?” he answered. It was admittedly harder going. Boulders gouged up through the red dirt in some places and deep ruts nearly swallowed us in others. I gingerly picked our way through. Non-native blue gum trees towered over us.IMG_5450IMG_5452I turned right again. “You can’t tell me this is a road,” the Carnivore said. “Yes, it’s a road,” I told him, driving over cropped thick grass. “You can tell because the grass is cut.”

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Voilà! It’s a road.

Then I cut the motor. “We’re here,” I said. “But you said this is a road,” he exclaimed. “You’re just going to leave the car here?” “Sure,” I said. “There won’t be any other cars.”

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Not sure how this got here. Not on a road. Not anywhere near one.

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It’s a 2CV skeleton.

I thought about that moment when I came upon this grassy lane. So similar. Coffee trees and grape vines are about the same size. The birds singing. The sweetness of the air. The absence of motorized sounds.IMG_5453I thought, too, about my housegirl, Jane. During training, we had been introduced to the concept of houseboys and housegirls, and I was sure I would be quite able to do everything myself and would never have hired help. In the 1980s in the Midwest, regular people didn’t have somebody come to do yard work or house cleaning. Kids—boys, usually—might make money mowing lawns or shoveling snow, usually for retirees. If you were able to do it yourself, you did. Plus, racism. 

After a while on the job, my headmistress and another teacher I was close to invited me to tea. It turned out to be an intervention. Why hadn’t I hired a housegirl? Oh, I really can’t do that, I said. You have to, they told me: “If you have a job, you have to make a job.” 

Well, that changed everything. I had been viewing the situation in terms of myself, proving that I wasn’t racist because I didn’t have a housegirl. The very term was offensive to me, even though my African neighbors and colleagues all had houseboys or housegirls and called them that.

Instead, the important framing was economic. If you have a job, make a job. My headmistress and friend informed me that they had found just the housegirl for me, and that she would be starting the next day and that I would pay her so much. 

Jane
Jane.

My housegirl, Jane, was a delight. She was indefatigable. When elephants trampled the pipeline bringing water to our school, she went to the river to fetch buckets. She washed my clothes by hand, then used the water to mop the floors. She sang as she worked. She always smiled. She gave most of her earnings to her parents and saved the rest to start a beauty shop. I was proud of her.

Back on the grassy lane, my former student, Editor (that was really her name), was surprised to see me. Our hasty trip hadn’t allowed time for a letter to arrive, and she didn’t have a phone. Or electricity. Or running water. She, her husband and two children lived in a two-room house (a sitting room and a bedroom) made of rough wooden slats. The kitchen was a separate hut outside, where Editor cooked over an open fire. She grew coffee and tea and vegetables. She once took me to pick tea. It is not easy.

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Editor in her sitting room.

I asked about a severe drought the year before. “Pff,” she said (just like the French do!). “We weren’t really affected.” But how did their crops survive? “The crops failed,” she said. “Everything.” How did she and her family survive? “We didn’t starve,” she said proudly. “We just ate every other day.”

Those words have stuck with me. There are people doing fasts to body hack, but this wasn’t about denial in the face of abundance; it was about survival in the face of famine.

Times are tough these days, but for some people, times are always tough, and lately they are worse. 

I hope you are surviving and staying healthy. If you have a job, please do make a job. And I hope everybody gets to eat every day.

334.Room 12 at Stone House
Room 12…in case you were curious.