Night Lights

After my Spanish class last week, I walked through Herald Square on my way home. The temperature was freezing (literally), but I stopped and took in the scene. I crossed the street, then turned to look again and take a picture, then walked a few steps, then stopped one more time before continuing on my way. A passerby would have thought I was a tourist in New York for the first time or a resident New Yorker on her last night before moving to a new city. I’m neither, of course. I can walk here whenever I want, and I do, at least once a week after my class.

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I’ve passed through this touristy area many times, but for some reason the atmosphere of colored lights and city night reminded me of certain evenings near the Opéra Garnier in Paris. Some Monday nights, one or two British girl friends and I would meet at the same café for a slice of quiche or a hot chocolate. I’d walk there from work, when it was almost dusk, and by the time we emerged from our chats, it was nighttime. I’d turn the corner to walk to my bus stop, pass lit up commercial stores and theatres, and there would be the Opéra Garnier. Like Herald Square, it was a normally busy area that cleared out on cold nights but kept its buildings aglow.

I think I just realized why I like Hopper paintings. Or do I feel myself expand in these real life scenes because I like Hopper? Rhetorical questions. Words rarely encompass feelings.

I’m not as head in the clouds as my writing makes me out to be. Not all the time, anyway. If anything, my feet are firmly planted on the ground, looking at what’s around us.

Do you get those moments
in between all the running around and responsibilities and worries
too?

Multiplication is the Answer

I think about my friend Donna around this time of year.

In one of the cheesy Family Circus comic strips, a woman asks the mother of the family, “How do you divide your love among your four children?” The mom answers, “I don’t divide it. I multiply it.”

To me Donna was that comic in action, and I remind myself of both whenever I feel jealous of someone’s tie with another.

At her funeral, I remember realizing how far her reach extended. She had touched many individuals throughout her life. She had always made me feel special, and to know she had made others feel the same way brought home that there is not a finite supply of love. Caring for one person doesn’t have to diminish tenderness for another.

This should be obvious. I have family and lots of friends, a number of whom I consider close. Those in my circle are all important to me.

However, the same way a woman might criticize her appearance but be generous in assessing others, jealousy can creep in unwarranted.

Remembering Donna is like throwing a fist in the air and exclaiming that we have an immense capacity for feeling.

The second thing I sometimes think about since losing Donna: no one is replaceable. I’ve met smart, thoughtful people since her, and I have friends and acquaintances who support me and whom I root for. But no one is quite like her, and no one does it quite like she did. I suppose that’s awful and awesome at the same time.

Estoy nerviosa

I was a bundle of nerves even before I left work. I wasn’t hungry enough to eat the dinner I had packed, but I gulped a yogurt and a pudding in succession to stave off hunger over the next couple of hours. I get peckish if I don’t eat frequently.

On the subway, I was so nervous. I also realized that this is what I was missing recently. I’m a thrill seeker. Are we all? I don’t feel inclined to go skydiving or try drugs, but once in a while I love that feeling of stepping outside of my comfort zone and doing things that are in no way dangerous but make me feel uncomfortable.

Life is pretty exciting when there’s all that buildup just for a Spanish II class. The drama, the drama.

The reason I had jitters is that the last time I took Spanish was a year and a half ago. I had started from zero, and while I had practiced vocabulary and grammar a bit since then, I had never become comfortable enough to try speaking with people conversationally, and I didn’t know how much I had forgotten. What if I was way behind all of my classmates? A language course is not the type of class where you can sit in the back and blend in if you’re not prepared; the whole point is to be put on the spot and talk.

This is how it goes when you take a class that is held in a New York City high school, or my experience anyway:

– You take the subway, ascend out of the station into the busy night streets surrounded by skyscrapers, and pass a hotel and Duane Reade on the way to the school. You forgot that school entrances have so many doors in a row in order to allow large quantities of students to enter and exit.

– You flash your ID at the three employees in the lobby. Are they all security, or is just one on duty and the others are hanging out? Seems like a lot of people to be present when there’s not a lot of foot traffic in the evening.

– Your class is on the fifth floor, and you ascend via escalators. For some reason this is really novel to you. You take escalators in subway and bus stations and department stores, but you’re not sure you ever have in a grammar or high school.

– The escalators between the first and second floors are broken, so you walk up them. There are two. You can’t imagine going to class up and down multiple sets of escalators every day.

– Finally on the fifth floor, you go to the women’s room, still very nervous. This class is non-credit and nothing is on the line, but there it is.

– You walk in the classroom, two minutes early. Some desks are grouped; some are on their own and facing the front. People that have already arrived have taken seats near the front that are on the side. Those are the seats you would have taken. There are many seats in the middle and back of the room and still a few near the front that are part of the grouped seats. You take the empty seat that is front and center. Seems logical for someone who is afraid of being put on the spot.

– Class begins. The profesora has everyone introduce themselves—she says you should all know each other’s names—and the reason why they want to learn Spanish. Several people want to travel to Cuba. Two girls are occupational therapists who work with Spanish-speaking patients. A couple of men have significant others who are Spanish-speaking. You say that you want to learn Spanish in order to speak with Spanish-speakers.

– For the next activity, students group into two or three and ask each other questions to get to know each other. Entonces, you each introduce your partners to the rest of the class.

– Then the profesora informs the class that the facilities workers in the hallway want you to move to another classroom because there is a mouse in this one. Lest you forget, this is a school in New York City. You wonder how often this usually happens. Is it a regular occurrence, or did a ráton just want to audit the class?

After all that, it turns out that I am ahead of most of my classmates. I only took one school year of Spanish in Paris, but my impression at that time that we were moving very fast was correct. Perhaps it was partly because Spanish taught to French-speakers can be done at a quick pace given the similarities in grammar and vocabulary, and partly because my teacher was just very good. Whatever the reason, I’m going to be just fine, and I’m definitely going to be much more relaxed before the second class. I’m kind of going to miss those butterflies, though.

Bof

I feel a sense of dread about this year. There are various reasons for that that aren’t easy for me to verbalize.

I generally think of myself as a positive person, and I think most people I know would describe me that way, but when I think back to years ago and then move forward to more recent years, there were periods where I struggled to find something positive and some beauty in life. As is the case with everyone. Life ebbs and flows. If we’re lucky, we have more happy times than sad ones. I know in the grand scheme of things, I’ve been lucky. And #blessed, if I was someone who used hashtags.

During hard times, where I turn to find that momentary relief has changed over the years. Within the past decade one source has been nature. Looking up in a quiet space outside. Witnessing the trees that are bound to change next week.

And there’s music. Writing. People. Turning outward when it’s tempting to turn inward and stay there.

For a few weeks now certain things that I thought I had almost become desensitized to have reasserted themselves and stayed wedged in my mind past the moment. They span the levels from personal—what’s happening in my circle—to global—what’s in the news.

A small example: every time I see a homeless person in the subway now, the sadness I feel lingers longer than it used to. It seems inhuman to hear someone beg and then go about one’s day. There is a man I see sitting in the corner of the subway entrance every morning. What would help? I’m not going to give money every day. Would a smile be better than ignoring him?

I think in most cases, the feeling of malaise in difficult situations comes from feeling powerless or not knowing what to do or believing that one’s actions or words won’t make a difference.

If someone told me all this, I would probably tell them to think about what they can do, and try to do it. Sittin’ and sulkin’ ain’t gonna do anything. Well, I wouldn’t tell anyone the latter—tough love isn’t really my thing—but it’s what I tell myself after a night spent worrying or when a cloud descends on my mind.

More thoughts to come.

 

Note: I wrote this two and a half weeks ago. It’s representative of a moment in time, and good and hopeful things, as well as bad and worrisome things, have happened since then. Everything evolves (though I still wouldn’t say I’m feeling particularly cheery).

Three Tuesdays

Today I was sitting in a café, looking out the window at the rain in the city where “our” President-elect currently resides. It was my second time in this café; the first was three weeks ago. Staring at the old-timey barber shop across the street without seeing it, I remembered what I was doing here on that equally gloomy, rainy day. I was scribbling thoughts on the back of a metro newspaper, thoughts that had been tumbling around in my head since the previous night. It was only twelve hours after I had woken up in the middle of the night to see Trump on TV.

“11/9/16 Last night I fell asleep around 1am and left the TV on. I woke up at 2:56am and saw on TV, “Clinton calls Trump to concede.” At first I thought that meant she called on him to concede. [The latter part of the night, it was “too close to call,” “too close to call,” “too close to call”… had she won, he was contesting it and therefore she was calling on him to concede?] Then it sank in that he had won. He started giving his victory speech, and I started crying. I cried for what it meant. Our country’s citizens had elected someone who denigrated women, minorities, and vulnerable groups. I thought, “I am not represented by him.” … On my commute to work this morning, thinking about it made me tear up. He didn’t force his way in. People voted for him. I cried when Clinton finally gave her concession speech around 11:50am today. … We’re a nation of immigrants and diversity and supposedly progress. What is going to all the progress we have made? … And half the country is happy about Trump’s election.”

In the following days, not a day went by where the topic of the election results didn’t come up with friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances. If there is one good thing about this horrendous election, it is that it has spurred those who are normally apolitical to search for ways to take action for causes they believe in.

Even if complacency started to settle in, one would quickly be reminded of what is going on as a resident of this region. The other Friday, I heard that there were traffic delays of an hour between New Jersey and New York due to the Lincoln Tunnel being closed. This was the first time I had heard of the tunnel being closed; there are three tubes with two lanes each. There are times when one lane or one tube is closed due to a car accident or a suspended bus, but for the whole tunnel to close in both directions something must be up. I later found out that Trump was on his way from New York to New Jersey… to go to his golf course… at rush hour.

In case you’re wondering, most of us are not proud that he’s from here.

When I Said À Bientôt to Paris

Last year I said goodbye to the people I knew in Paris. I remember in the weeks leading up to my departure, people asked me how I felt, and I felt really fine because I had lived every moment during my time in France and it was my own choice to move back to the States. I already felt lucky to have soaked in every nighttime golden bridge, both with others and by myself. I had doubts about what the transition would be like since there were uncertainties in my immediate future, but I accepted that as a necessary part of changement.

My last night, as I parted with a friend across the street from Invalides after our ride on the bateaux mouches, I was confused by a sudden feeling of sickness that overcame me. I hadn’t eaten anything in the past few hours, so it wasn’t that kind of nausea. It wasn’t that I was hungry, either. I didn’t believe it was post-seasickness, if that is even a thing. It took a few minutes of me standing there and descending to walk a bit along the Seine in the direction of home to realize that my body was catching up to the knowledge that I was leaving and reacting in its own involuntary way. Perhaps I was fine in the weeks and hours prior and would be fine later that night, but I didn’t feel so in that moment.

During my stroll past the people enjoying the summertime air on the berges, a friend called me. We had already had our “goodbye for now” a couple of months prior since he lives in another part of France, so we didn’t have to have one now. He was just calling to see how it was going and to wish me off well. I was feeling better at that point and was further bolstered by his comforting and encouraging words.

The next day, a good friend came over to say goodbye before my SuperShuttle to the airport. We had meant to meet up the day before after an afternoon party I attended, but due to my usual lingering at events, by the time I headed to the bateaux mouches that friend was on his way to another get-together with his friends, and we missed each other.

Luck was on my side, because he offered to stop by my place midday before going to his office. Lucky because everyone else I knew was working since it was a Monday, but his schedule that day permitted him to come by. Lucky because we were then able to open a nice bottle of champagne that one of my bosses had given me and that I would have otherwise left behind. It went well with my last opéra pastry that I offered to split with him but that he declined, leaving me to eat the whole thing by myself (pas de souci).

Half an hour later, as I gazed out the window of the shuttle van during the ride to the airport, I was glad that we had sipped a little champagne. I have a low tolerance, so even the light bubbly made everything just hazy enough so that I didn’t think think think during this bonus tour of the city, but dreamily observed neighborhood after neighborhood, each containing memories made and absorbed into my being.

Love, Actually

I know I’m not the only one who feels like the world is going down the tubes. I can’t even keep up with all the bad news. Pain and violence rule the news, and it’s not sensationalism, it’s what’s really happening.

In spite of it all, I’ve had some happy events in my own life in the past couple of months, and I hope you have too. To celebrate a recent achievement, I ventured out into the summer heat to treat myself to a bottle of perfume I have had my eye on for a while (i.e. years). It wasn’t so much that I didn’t have money in the bank to purchase it. It’s just not in my habit to buy luxury items. Plane tickets are different—I expect them to be expensive and have naturally incorporated travel into the purchases that I consider “essential.”

As I stood in front of the counter at Jo Malone and watched the employee pull a long piece of ribbon from a roll and snip it to tie up the classy cream and black box, I was reminded of the scene in “Love Actually” where Alan Rickman agitatedly watches Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) take eons to wrap up an expensive piece of jewelry. After placing it in a box and tying it up in ribbon, he puts it in a clear bag, bends down to scoop up small roses from the drawer behind the counter and drop them into the bag with a flourish (twice), adds some lavender sprigs, and crushes some of the lavender over the whole mix. The final touch is a cinnamon stick. Well, almost final. When Atkinson takes out a big “Christmas box” to place the whole thing in and puts on a yellow glove to prepare the holly, Rickman flips out and rushes away, having to get back to his wife who cannot find out about this gift not meant for her.

Unlike Rickman’s character, though, I thoroughly enjoyed the wrapping process, as the perfume was not meant for a secret lover, but for myself. Nothing like celebrating guilt-free.

On my walk to the boutique, I chose a path that would lead me by Stonewall Inn, which two weeks prior President Obama had designated a new national monument after the shootings in Orlando. There were police officers standing across the street—more than usual—and people sitting the small, quiet intersection park nearby.

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A block or two away, a billboard above an old-fashioned storefront promoted a message of harmony and diversity. What a simple concept that seems so hard to practice universally.

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Arthur Avenue and Blossoms in the Bronx

Recently three new friends and I ventured up to the Bronx to check out Arthur Avenue, the “real” Little Italy in New York. Our day got off to a delayed start due to half the group confusing which subway line they were supposed to take. To their credit, it is confusing that the subway stop “125th Street” is in fact four different stops across the city that ten lines pass through. Both people are also not long-time residents of this region.

Having shown up early to our meeting place in the subway station, I acted as an unofficial informational point for tourists who wandered in and wondered which direction to go, as there were two platforms, one for trains going uptown and the other for downtown. The answer was always: head downtown. You want to go to Columbus Circle? Washington Square Park? Downtown. Do you realize how far up north you are? Most of the island is south from where you are right now.

I can only assume they were coming from attending a Gospel Baptist service in Harlem, as many non-American tourists to New York seem to be interested in doing. Most Americans I know, including myself, have never attended one unless they are part of the church or were invited to a service by a friend for a special event.

Almost an hour after our originally scheduled meeting time, our group of four was complete. We started by having lunch at an Italian restaurant (on the back patio! It is spring!!). Before digging into our meat and pasta dishes, we split a plate of arancini, a Sicilian dish of fried rice-stuffed meatballs. Everything was delicious. The restaurant, quiet when we had entered around 1:30, was full of long tables of families chatting and having their Sunday lunch when we left.

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We stopped at an indoor market and a deli, purchasing cannoli, fresh mozzarella, truffle lemon zest, tiramisu, ham, and uncooked pasta. We watched an older man at a cigar stand hand roll cigars.

Toting our little plastic bags of goods, we walked to the New York Botanical Gardens for our very first visit. At least I think it was my first visit—sometimes I can’t remember if I’ve been somewhere when I was a kid. It was lovely. The cherry blossom and flowering crabapple trees were in full bloom. Slopes covered by innumerable daffodils celebrated the gardens’ 125th anniversary. Maples from all over the world lined walking paths.

Funnily enough, we spoke in French the whole day (to each other, not to all the Italian servers and sellers). Even though none of us was French, it seemed natural because we had met in a French setting in New York and I was the only one in the group whose native language was English, so it was not as if English would have made communication easier. I thought about how in France if I was in a group of French people, we of course spoke French, but if I was in a group of expats, we spoke English even though usually everyone knew French. I think this is because although many of the expats I knew whose native language was not English spoke French very well, they spoke English almost flawlessly, plus there were usually at least two native English speakers in the group, whether from the U.S. or United Kingdom.

When I initially moved to France, I thought I might meet some expats where our only common language would be French. As it turns out, although there are many monolingual people in the world, a non-French person who moves to France to study or work for a company often speaks English, whether they come from Asia, Africa, Europe, or South America. Many others don’t—I knew a Peruvian and a Russian in Paris who didn’t know any English—but a lot do.

How funny that what I imagined I would live in France—going out with a group of international people and speaking in our second language, French—instead happened in the States, in an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx, nonetheless.

French Kissing

When I first started communicating with French friends in written form some years ago, I did not understand the subtleties among the possible closings of a message:

Bisous
Bises
Gros bisous
Grosses bises
Biz
Je t’embrasse or Je vous embrasse

One easy possibility was to use whatever they had written in their email or letter. If they signed off with bises, I could do the same. But I felt awkward—it didn’t feel like me since I wasn’t used to doing it. I think I subconsciously also felt weird writing “kisses,” even though these sign-offs aren’t really kisses in the way that an English-speaker thinks of kisses. So I often just typed my name after the body of the letter. It floated there all alone.

The exception was when I wrote my former host mom, who always ends her emails to me with “Je t’embrasse.” I thus ended mine with “Je vous embrasse” (yes, I use the formal ‘vous’ with her, which she established with me when we first met).

With more time in France and more emails and texts with French friends, I eventually got used to writing “bises” or “bisous” before my name according to my relationship with the recipient.

I once asked a French friend how she perceived the differences among the variations and which she chose for whom. She said that she uses “bisous” with close girl friends and “bises” with all other friends and acquaintances. She would never use “bisous” with a male friend, only with her boyfriend. However, she cautioned me that she was conservative with her bisous, whereas some of her female officemates gave written bisous left and right to fellow colleagues.

Basically, one person’s bisou is another person’s bise.

Then, of course, there was the day that a friend signed off his text with “biz,” and I thought, “business?” No, biz is a shortened form of bises. The ultimate in casual kissing. I will admit that it still tickles me when I use it occasionally.

I knew I had adapted to life in France when I found myself analyzing a guy’s chosen sign-off and wondering whether it meant anything that he had switched from using one to another.

Now I so fully embrace (or embrasser, ha ha) the use of bisous and bises that I even write them at the end of messages to non-French friends who know French because it is just a nice way to close out a letter. I refrain from but instinctively want to use them with friends who only speak English too. There is no equivalent in English, which was a problem at the beginning in terms of comprehension, but now it is it the reverse: I want an equivalent in English so I can add it to my daily usage.

There is the solution of simply following what one of my French friends does: writing “kisses” at the end of his emails to me. He doesn’t actually know that you can’t translate “bisous” into “kisses.” I am certainly not going to be the one to tell him since I get a big kick out of reading it.

Grosses bises !

Moving, Blogging about Blogging, and Do You Know Johnny and Martha?

I recently moved back to the States. My daily life is completely different, but actually the adjustment has been fine. It was by choice, so that helps. I lived a beautiful chapter in France—it was my second chapter there—and I feel very lucky that I did.

When I first started this blog, I was content in Paris and didn’t yet know how long I’d be there, but I had an inkling that at some point I’d go back to where I’m from. That’s why the title is in English and French and I didn’t call it a travel blog or “Life in France.”

I began writing here because I was already writing and taking a lot of photos for myself, not only on trips but also in daily life. I always have my camera in my bag because even on a run to the supermarket or a walk in a local park, I never know when I’ll see something interesting or beautiful. I don’t have a fancy camera or use the features of mine to full capacity, but I like to capture different scenes and show them to friends and acquaintances who would not have the opportunity to see them otherwise. I still whip out the photo of me with a Johnny Hallyday impersonator if a French person mentions him and then says, “Oh, but you’re American, you probably don’t know who that is.” In response, I flip through my digital images and say, “I put my arm around him in the flesh, deep in the heart of your country!” Okay, not the real one, but I attended a whole concert of his songs, surrounded by Johnny fans in leather vests…

Anyway, as I mentioned, I write a lot, both for myself and in correspondence with friends who like to write letters via email or the postal service. I also like to see and do a lot, so I figured, why not share some of these slices of life?

I’m sure there are friends that don’t know I have this blog simply because it doesn’t come up in conversation. Once in a while it does, and I give them the link if they’re interested. A few friends give me feedback on it, but I mostly have no idea which ones read it without commenting.

I started reading blogs maybe six or seven years ago, if we’re referring to the blog in its current form. A few years prior to that, in high school, I did have classmates who had Xanga and Livejournal pages (were these online journals popular outside of the United States?), but those tended to be full of angst, at least the ones I saw. I also never would have had the thought to search for the Xanga page of someone that I didn’t know.

I have no recollection of how I started reading blogs, but I think one of the first I followed was written by a young American woman who lived in France at the time. From there I branched out to blogs about expats and travel and blogs completely unrelated to those topics. It’s really interesting to read certain people’s perspectives and stories. Some posts touched and helped me when I was going through a difficult time. It was a great reassurance to know that someone went through an experience I could deeply relate to, one my friends hadn’t necessarily lived. To me that’s one of the goals of the internet: to create connection that would not have been probable otherwise.

I learn a lot from your comments, often things I didn’t know– about France, other countries, or any variety of subjects. It’s been very interesting writing without being able to make assumptions about where the reader hails from. When I speak with an American, I know that I can go right into a story about Martha Stewart, whereas I will have to give some background on Johnny before I recount my experience at his impersonator’s concert. When I speak with a French person, I know that I can straightaway show my picture with Johnny’s sosie, whereas I’m going to have to find the words to explain what I mean by the term “domestic goddess.” How many times have I said in French, “Well, Martha Stewart makes creative things, and she had a TV show and became rich and famous, and then she went to prison, and then she made a comeback…” And I explain what kinds of things she makes and that she is a household name, and find the words for insider trading, and at the end of it I’m still pretty sure that the other person doesn’t have a full sense of Martha’s persona.

On the other hand, here I work under the assumption that some of you don’t know that Mister Rogers educated a generation of American children or that SNCF operates train lines. I like that.

Thank you for following along thus far. Your dialogue has made my outlook richer. I have some more travel stories up my sleeve, and I’ll be sharing daily life here in the States.