Bridge

On the outer edge of the George Washington Bridge from New York to New Jersey is a pedestrian path. Rather than driving or taking the bus across, you can walk between the two states with the cars rushing on one side and the vast Hudson River on the other. Earlier this year, a date and I did this, our destination being the park on the other side. The park turned out to be huge, and over a few hours we only explored the southern part of it. Though it was a beautiful day, we came across few people (score!). It was quiet and peaceful. The part we explored wasn’t quite hiking—there were paths and a couple of steep staircases—but around those paths it was definitely wild, plants and trees growing where they may. We saw chipmunks and deer, both of which were very exciting for me. Sometimes the animals were right next to the path where we were walking. Clearly I am not used to seeing wildlife on a daily basis, though there do seem to be more and more raccoons in Central Park, and it wasn’t a pigeon that nipped into the pumpkin outside where I live.

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Frenchies in New York

My first year in Paris, I had a group of American girl friends. We had dinner at each other’s apartments every Tuesday and shared ups and downs and a ton of fun in the city. Amazingly, years later, we keep in touch online and see each other when we can, sometimes in our respective cities and sometimes in a different country altogether. I was one friend’s conference spouse in Liège, Belgium and we made a side trip to Aachen, Germany after. Another girl saw the other during a long stopover in New York. Three got together in Greece. Once, four of us managed to reunite for a weekday lunch in New York.

This week a friend from the group forwarded us an email thread from over four years ago. I didn’t understand half the references we made in them (I would say you had to be there, but I was…), and there was some embarrassing stuff that reminded me why I should save some stories for oral telling and my diary. The excerpt below, however, is appropriate for sharing with you. I wrote it after spending a summer day with a friend and her boyfriend and their three friends, all Frenchies.

Today I hung out with French people visiting NY, and here were their observations:
No one smokes.
There are a lot of ads for storage space.
It is shocking that at a bar the server takes one person’s credit card to open a tab and doesn’t give it back till the end.
It is surprising that they could wear shorts to go to a fancy rooftop bar. (Most of the people at the bar were dressed up, but my friends were in shorts.)
It is freakin’ humid.
The subway stations are HOT.
They were surprised at how many people were wearing warm clothing like jeans and boots when it’s so warm today. (This really amused me, because this is what we always say about the French.)
The Nespresso boutique doesn’t have George Clooney’s face.

Two other things that happened that day:

My friend and I agreed to meet on Broadway in Soho. On the phone, I described to her where I was and couldn’t understand why she didn’t see the same stores. Turns out she didn’t realize that the little ‘W’ on the Broadway street sign she was looking at meant that she was on West Broadway, a different, but nearby street. And yes, it is confusing.

The six of us went to a rooftop bar, the first they had ever been to. We sat down and looked at the view of the city. One of the guys said he would go up to the bar to ask if we should order there or if we would be served at our table. He came back, a baffled look on his face. “According to the sign, you have to be a group of 21 to be served,” he said. That’s strange, I thought, until I started laughing. “Must be 21 to be served means you have to be at least 21 years old,” I explained. Understandably, this meaning wouldn’t necessarily occur to someone who is from a country where the drinking age is 18.

Hello Again, Marseille

After just one full day in Paris, I took the train down to Marseille (I’d be back in Paris for the latter part of my France trip). I’ve been to Marseille a number of times, but there is, refreshingly, always something new to discover.

Like the nice man who struck up a conversation with me as I ate sweet, smushed wild strawberries while sitting on a ledge across from a café a ways down from the train station.

Like this giraffe.

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Like this church with Joan of Arc rising in front of it.

Like these whimsical umbrellas.

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Like this shopping street (yes, I deliberately timed my vacation to coincide with the biannual soldes).

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Like this view that reminded me of San Francisco.

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And a rediscovery of Le Vieux Port.

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And an exploration of its environs.

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And an intriguing alley.

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And a huge inflatable duck to ponder while perching myself on a cement block and waiting for my friend to pick me up. Trying to discreetly peer at every male driver with sunglasses to see if he was my ride. Hint: One cannot both be discreet and peer at the same time.

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Another discovery: My friend’s son, the kid I once bent down to to faire la bise, is now taller than me. His daughter, thankfully, had not lost the excitement she had for things like sitting next to me at dinner.

Taking Off the Rose-Colored Glasses

I arrived in Paris on a weekday afternoon. This time I was here on vacation, my first trip back after having moved my life and luggage out of the City of Lights.

Excuse me while I râle:

I was sorely disappointed by almost no one offering to help me with the suitcase I was clearly struggling with up and down the many metro staircases. So many able jeunes français passed me by. Only one man helped me, at the end of my trajet. And no, I did not have the closed off, unapproachable face we sometimes make on public transportation. I was sending out the open-faced, help me vibes of someone who hadn’t realized how difficult lugging around a suitcase and full hand carry would be.

It made me think: Should I have been surprised or not? I didn’t remember this from my previous years in Paris. On the other hand, I lived on the train line that went straight to the airport, so I only had to go down one escalator and never needed help. Second question: Were people in the NY subway any more helpful? Is that why I expected aid? Well, not necessarily—at home I offer to help people with big suitcases or strollers, but that is because I notice that often no one else around is making a move to offer assistance. And what is true is that we don’t notice whether people have a tendency to help if we don’t need it. It’s when we need it that we realize whether people offer it.

When I told friends who live in Paris about my experience in the metro, one said, What do you expect, that’s the way Parisians are! Another was more surprised and said that people offer to help her. I don’t know. To people who have called Parisians rude or cold, I have always insisted that they are not so bad. I still stand by my statement that there are some really nice, warm people there, but my defense of the general population will be less staunch next time. I was tempted to give them a second chance, but after my experience the first day, I unhesitatingly booked a SuperShuttle to the airport for my departure day from Paris.

On the people who volunteer to help:

That same day, after getting through the metro; rendering speechless the young man at Orange with my ability to speak French after he had gone on his spiel in English about their “holiday” phone plan (while his colleague who could tell I spoke French chuckled the whole time and finally burst out laughing when I responded in French); meeting the friend I was going to stay with outside his building and catching up in his apartment—after all that—I headed out into the early evening to the soup kitchen I used to volunteer at every week.

I had told one of the volunteers there that I was planning on coming, but I still surprised her by sneaking up on her and exclaiming, “Hello!” in English. She made all the fuss we make when seeing a friend after a long time, then asked about my trip over. I started telling her about it in French, to which she responded with a big smile that my accent “New Jersey” had come back since my time away. Gee, thanks! She is one of the warmest people of the group and a wonderful presence for both the volunteers and the people who come to eat, so I knew her ribbing was good-natured even though I think she was serious about my American accent being more pronounced than before (though I can’t explain that?? I still speak French daily in my current life!).

I did the ‘bise’ with the other volunteers, who greeted me in slightly wide-eyed recognition. I didn’t chat with them that much, save for a woman with whom I had kept in touch after moving to the States. I had always enjoyed the work itself; after the repas came the socializing.

I made a beeline to claim what used to be my usual post—the table with hot food. Donning one pair of latex gloves and sticking a pair in my back pocket for later, stacking plastic bowls, breaking open the packet of spoons, deciding with the volunteer next to me who would serve the protein and/or vegetable and who would serve the grain. Gladly letting her choose the bulgur because she wanted to avoid the smell and splash of fish sauce because it meant I didn’t have to say bulgur (there ain’t no persnickety French ‘r’s in poisson). Saying “Bonsoir” and smiling hundreds of times. Once in a while, telling someone who tried to cut the line that “Il faut faire la file d’attente.” Responding in English to the occasional immigrant who didn’t speak French. Directing people to where they could find soup and coffee. It felt like home.

After serving the food and picking up trash, there was always a lull before the nearby boulangerie’s unsold bread, pastries, and sandwiches were picked up and distributed. This was the time that I loved shooting the breeze with the people who came to eat. A main reason I had come was actually to see how one of the bénéficiares was doing. I sidled up next to a volunteer who was still serving cereal and asked her, “Where is he??” As I scanned the area and felt dismayed over missing him, she pointed him out. He had just arrived. Of course. I forgot that he usually showed up late, after the main meal had been served. It seemed like he came more to chat than to get food.

I greeted him, and we had an enthusiastic reunion. “How is California?” he exclaimed. I laughed. “Wrong coast.” No offense taken. In the beginning of our friendship, it had taken him weeks to remember my name, though he associated me with Mickey Mouse. He also asked me multiple weeks in a row if I was Chinese and then asked me if I knew anything about qi (he sure did). There were key identifiers that somehow took a long time to imprint on his brain, so I was tickled but not shocked that he had missed by a long shot where in the United States I had moved to. And yet, on this night, he asked, “Où est ton pantalon rose?” I was surprised. I had completely forgotten that I used to wear my pink pants a lot to the soup kitchen during a period of time.

What I did remember was that for the first weeks that I knew him, I assumed that he was from a foreign country because of his accent when speaking French. I was taken aback when I finally asked him where he from and he responded “Toulouse.” I guess I had never heard a toulousain accent before. And I remember periodically moving a few inches away from him while we talked because he was taller than me and my neck was strained from looking up at him, and not understanding why he kept moving closer, until one day I realized that his eyesight was very poor.

I remember never questioning why some days, his hair was disheveled and his clothes were scrappy, and then once or twice he came wearing a suit and his hair neatly tied back.

I clearly remember opening up about my own stresses while I was looking for a job and seeing him really thinking about how to help and suggesting ideas. For the first months we had known each other, I had let him do most of the talking because I figured that was what I was there for. To be a listening ear, not even about his problems, just about whatever he wanted to talk about—tai chi, how food is cooked, cultures, what was going on in the city, anything. He is a very smart person and often knew things that were new to me.

It was only when I started talking more about what was going on in my own life that I realized how good it felt to talk to someone who really cared and who would ruminate over how I might solve a problem I had. Where I didn’t feel like we had to move on from the topic because it was a downer, but that he was completely engaged in the conversation and came up with ideas specific to my situation.

I remember the last night I had volunteered there before moving back to the States. I spent longer than usual chatting with him after the other volunteers had moved on to the nearby bar we frequented every week. Then we parted and I was completely touched again as I arrived at the bar and the volunteer organizer presented the tarte aux pommes he had been waiting to take out, along with a thank you card for me.

You can see why I have a soft spot for the residents of Paris, who are human, after all.

Another person who greeted me warmly for my return was the long-haired, gentle Peruvian man who regularly came to eat. On my last day volunteering a couple of years ago, we somehow struck up a conversation for the first time after having seen each other for about a year. I told him that I was actually leaving France soon, and surprised by the timing, he said he was glad that he had talked to me then, that he had wanted to say hi for a while but somehow was timide to approach me (as someone who in some situations can be timide myself, I have never understood that someone might see me as in any way intimidating).

I’m not sure there is anything better in life than being embraced by good people. You can see why I fought back my travel fatigue to go dish up some fish and conversation.

Airport Shapes

In the Madrid airport I found myself looking at geometry.

DSC00716Trippy. I don’t remember this from my previous two times at this airport.

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DSC00722Huge ceiling fan. I hope it’s well affixed, I thought.

DSC00723Why? Must be a minimalist decorator.

The airport was quiet. It was a little past 9 in the morning, so not an unholy hour. Hardly anyone was in line for passport control or security. It was a far cry from my memory of my family running through the airport, dodging people and smokers (yes, smokers!) to make our flight to Rome in 2001.

I didn’t realize that I would have to go through security during this stopover on the way to Paris, so I had a bottle of water in my bag. I asked the security employee if I could empty my beloved Parisian flask, and without saying anything, he took it and put it in an opaque container that was on a table against the wall, slid the door closed, slid it back open, and handed the bottle back to me. No nonsense, which was perfectly fine with me.

I felt a little thrill saying “Hola” to the border agent and shopkeepers. Nothing like a foreign language to make you realize that you are traveling.

Glass

I think this sign at the Madrid airport was made for me. I once walked into a clear glass boulangerie door in Paris. I mean, the surface was clean and the éclairs beckoned me. I could have used a warning like this.

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(No, I am not in Madrid. This is from my stopover on the way to Paris earlier this summer. And yes, it is still summer for another day. It was 78 degrees Fahrenheit in New York today, after all.)

I See, Oui

Earlier this summer, I took advantage of a slower work schedule to catch up with my doctors’ appointments, some of whom I hadn’t been to for years due to living in France.

I crossed two rivers, Hudson and East, to see my ophthalmologist in Brooklyn. On the way, I wondered why I didn’t find someone closer to my home or work. Once I had my appointment, I was reminded why—my doctor is great.

Stepping out into the bright sunlight post-appointment, I set off in the direction of the subway station to go to work. Through my blurry vision from the eye drops, I wondered if I was really seeing these quirky storefronts.

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Coffee, hookah, gelato, wifi, bubble tea… how did they come up with this combination? It sounds like a list of someone’s favorite things.

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Cheerful knives sale.

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Rainbow teapots.

Human beings come up with creative things.

It’s a Process

“I’d never understood abstract art but [my art teacher] is slowly introducing me to it and I really like my latest painting it’s freeing to not plan things out and to layer and destroy some old in order to open up new possibilities.”

I was 18, a freshman in college, when I wrote this.

I was taking a studio art class called “Art as Process.” Our assignments included creating a piece of art about a chosen song and obtaining an old book in which we were to do something to a page a day.  We weren’t learning about perspective or shadow or mixing colors. It was different from the art classes on technique that I had taken in the past. Challenging and “out there,” it was about ways of thinking in making art. I must have written this after we had made a painting and then were instructed to paint a new one on top of it.

The next year, I would take a modern art class that would really bring me over to abstract art. I wasn’t there yet but clearly was open to the possibility of changing my mind about whether a blank canvas on a wall could be more than scoffed at.

What I wrote at 18 isn’t just about art, is it?

When I go back and read my writing, I am sometimes surprised by what I thought and wrote. Over ten years later, I have something valuable to learn from my less-experienced self.

Do your past selves speak to your present self, too?

Straight to the Heart

Let me start from the end. My last day in Paris this past vacation found me sitting at the bottom of the long staircase at Montmartre, crying my eyes out with the beautiful Sacré-Coeur Basilica in view at the top of the hill.

When I recounted this story to my friend a week later, back in our routine of Tuesday lunch in New York, he laughed and said, “That’s so Parisian!”

I had to laugh. I know he didn’t mean it in an unsympathetic way, and I wasn’t in an emotional state at that point. I guess it was quite an image. I hadn’t seen it from his perspective since I could hardly see through my own tears while living it.

No, I hadn’t fallen down the stairs of the Sacré-Coeur. I had had an unexpected negative interaction with a close friend, and in that moment, it knocked the wind out of me and seemed to put a damper on my whole trip, which upon reflection during my flight back to the States, had actually been full of beautiful and fun and pleasant moments in addition to the disappointing and frustrating ones.

Some vacation, eh?

I have traveled quite a bit, and I realize that my experience on this trip was due in part to my ties in France, which have loosened from being away but are still rooted. Ever evolving and changing but still existent. I was coming back to a place where I have history, a place that I love where people I love live, but once in a while who and what you love can hurt you.

From what I’ve seen, most expats and immigrants have a multifaceted relationship with their adopted country. It is enriching and spectacular and difficult and challenging to make one’s life in another culture. I admire those who do so to escape a precarious political situation, for their safety, or for a better life. When I moved to France, it was just for myself, and indeed there were still hard moments. I know that I was lucky in that despite the frustrations of applying for visas and getting paperwork through and dealing with administrative systems, I had a country to come back to where I have citizenship and the right to work.

Let’s go back to the bottom of the staircase. I thought of calling someone to talk to. Who would be available back in the States? Mon copain ? I considered. I wasn’t going to call my friends in France, who would be at work. As I sat there, lo and behold, a French friend called me to ask how my trip was going. The poor guy, who was probably expecting me to tell him I was gallivanting around Paris eating pastries, got a blubbering explanation of my tears. He gave me some words of strength and insight and comfort, and after patiently listening to me a little more, kindly told me that he had to get back to his meeting and that he would call me that night. He had phoned me during a break and they were waiting for him.

I contemplated what to do next. Nearby, a girl started to play the piano that was set up at the base of the staircase. It was composer Yann Tiersen’s song from “Amélie.”

How magical.

If you’ve watched “Amélie” starring Audrey Tautou, you will know why. There is a scene in this classic film where a character runs up this very staircase. We are held in suspense along with him as he darts up to the top, wondering and hoping to find what he is seeking. I love this song in general, and to hear it here—well, I hope you can imagine. It was the stuff of dreams.

Paris, what you do to me.

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