In the Zone

Before moving to Paris, and right after coming back to the States, I used to seek out opportunities to speak French and attend French-related events. Now I’m at the point where I’ve lived, worked, and traveled in France; have done things in French from making friends to dating to taking Spanish classes; and know French events in New York and New Jersey to the extent that Francophiles ask me for recommendations. When I attend one of these gatherings, it’s likely I’ll know someone there.

I’ve made a little place in the French world for about ten years. I realized that I’ve accomplished what I pursued. Perhaps because I entered my third decade last year, I’ve been ruminating on what my next (metaphorical) move will be.

That’s not to say I’ve fallen out of love with French, nor was it my only passion as a young adult. As people do, I’ve always had varied interests. But French has been a big part of my life and touched all aspects of it. Just ask my close group of American college friends here how many Frenchies and Francophones I’ve tacked on to our get-togethers in the past couple of years… at this point they’re probably as used to hearing the French accent as often as I am. They’ve met my friends visiting from France and people I know from French language activities, and they’ve joined me to an outdoor Vianney concert, having no idea who he was.

Speaking French with strangers (or anybody) and doing everyday activities in French used to be outside of my comfort zone, and each push was a victory. I remember the first time I convinced a shopkeeper in Paris to give me a refund for a battery charger that I had opened but that didn’t work. The first time I had a job interview in French. The first time I gave condolences to a French friend whose father had died—I realized I didn’t have the preset vocabulary and so really thought and formulated my own phrases.

While I speak French regularly, I’m certainly not at a native-speaker’s level—just last week, I had a work meeting in French for the first time in a long time, and I felt a little self-conscious—it was almost a surprise to feel that way again. And improving my ease and fluidity in the language will be a lifelong journey. But somehow, with my consistent efforts, French has become part of my comfort zone, and I feel a yen to push myself again. I’m still exploring and figuring out in what direction that will be.

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Dealing

Inevitably, life is not always peachy. I think the key is finding coping strategies that work for us. I’m not sure it’s something I ever learned in school.

I have a few go-tos, in no particular order:
– volunteering
– friends
– my gratitude journal
– nature

A story about volunteering: When I was in Paris, there was period where I hated my job. I wasn’t the only one—the company had such high turnover that after a year you could be the senior person in your department. We were understaffed and overworked with no overtime pay and underappreciated by management At the time, I volunteered at an outdoor soup kitchen one evening a week. At the end of the workday, I felt tired and just felt like going home, but one thing I am is consistent, so I would eat my packed dinner at my desk and take the metro to the soup kitchen without fail. Once there, I moved into fast-paced prepping and serving mode—there were a lot of people and they were hungry. Then, clean-up and shooting the breeze with some bénéficiares. I always felt energized from volunteering, plucked out of my own world of problems and placed in a totally different world, where a fight might break out (not that we wanted that) and where I honed an ability to scoop cooked fish out of a tray without splashing the sauce. Now, in the States, I still volunteer, and each time reminds me that there are tons of people around me living different realities from my own. It’s different knowing and seeing.

A story about friends: Often, I’ll talk with friends when I’m going through a tough time, but I remember one particular weekend almost a year ago that I simply lay on two friends’ couch for an afternoon while they went about doing their things in their apartment. Before that, we had sat around their kitchen table for what must have been a few hours chatting. I think I didn’t say that much, but they’re the types of friends that I feel comfortable not talking a lot if I don’t feel like it. I was so grateful to be in the company of people with whom I could just be.

Speaking of gratitude: It must have been at least five or so years ago that my friend and mentor Donna told me that she kept a gratitude journal. I noted it somewhere in my mind but didn’t have an impulse to start the practice. Two and a half years ago, my good college friend gave me a beautiful Petit Prince Moleskine planner for Christmas. While a planner is essential for me, my requirements are rather specific. This planner, medium-sized and hardback, was good quality but too heavy for me to carry around. I thought about what I could do with it—it couldn’t be used as a regular notebook, and it was so nice, and obviously my friend chose it specifically for me given its lovely quote in French on the cover. And that’s how I started writing in a gratitude journal.

About nature: I remember reading in Anne Frank’s diary years ago that she looked to nature to feel better. If she, who lived in such a difficult time, found solace in nature, then I thought it must be a good idea. Ten years ago, my family was going through a hard time, and I remember walking to the park and just lying on a bench or a swing and looking up at the sky. It didn’t erase the problems, but it helped me get through them.

This isn’t comprehensive, but knocking out a few more: There’s family, if you want to count them as a separate category from friends. And music: a few months ago during a highly stressful week, I was sick but dragged myself to a Jessie Ware concert in Brooklyn, where I was indeed transported to a wonderful place and danced and sang in liberation And exercise: I once dated someone who when not at his full-time job, ran like a fiend. In the park multiple times a week, marathons on weekends, alone, with groups. He had experienced a family tragedy not long before and gone through a low period himself. Running lifted him.

And oh, reading: a longtime love that I’m glad my parents nurtured. Reading stories of human experiences makes me realize that my experiences are exactly that. It’s amazing how novels across cultures and times resonate with my own thoughts, emotions, and situations.

Dealing with the dips: it’s a life skill in constant development.

Pas de panique

In the past month:

– I was on the subway on the way to work, and when I got on, it smelled like smoke. I only had four stops to go, and at every stop I wondered if something was wrong. At the third station, with only one station to my destination, we finally stopped for longer than usual. I stepped out of the train, and upon standing further back, I saw that it was smoking out the top. None of the other cars were. Eventually, a subway employee announced that the train wouldn’t be running further and that all passengers should get off and take another train. There was no urgency to the announcement. I checked the local news and the subway web site later but didn’t find anything of note.

– I was walking outside after work, and I suddenly heard a ‘boom’ and halfway down the block, then saw a big burst of flames. I stopped where I was, unsure what had happened, if anyone was hurt, and if I should go around the other block in order to get to the subway. I observed the people who were across the street from the fire was in order to observe whether they were moving away or continuing on their way. At first, people had stopped, but then I saw that they were continuing on, which told me that they didn’t deem that there was danger. So I crossed over to that side, and as I passed where the flames had been, I saw a work truck. The small explosion must have happened on that truck, but what was odd is that the workers didn’t seem panicked. I don’t know whether they had quickly extinguished the fire or if something else had happened. Anyone walking by at that moment wouldn’t have known that there had been a tall fire five minutes earlier. A few minutes later, from down in the subway station, I heard a siren and wondered if it was coming to check on the situation, but it could have been heading elsewhere.

– During my morning commute, my bus broke down on the highway. The driver was able to slowly drive it over to a middle strip of grass. He radioed out to his fellow buses, and within ten minutes another bus pulled up to accept the passengers it could, i.e. the first nine in the front seats of the bus, which included me. I’m sure the rest were picked up by other express buses soon after. It was amazing how little the incident affected our commute.

It’s weird how much goes on around us and how quickly we can move on if we’re lucky.

A Waste of Time

Recently I heard a conversation that made me think, Aaggghhhh.

Man to woman as they both came out of the subway station: “Tests are set up for you to fail. That’s why studying for it is a waste of time.”

Woman: “Not if it’s something I want to do.”

She changed the subject and said she was tired, and he tried to get her to go to Starbucks with him.

I thought, at least she sounded resolute. But I hope she has other people around her who encourage her and motivate her. Who is this guy, and why is she spending time with him?

I had written down their conversation on a scrap of paper, as I sometimes do when I see or hear something that strikes me. I realized that while my parents would not have made all the choices I’ve made, they never told me I couldn’t do something. People around me didn’t actively discourage from pursuing my goals (or if they did, I didn’t hear them).

A few days later, I came across my note, which I happened to be using as a bookmark in the latest book I was reading, We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Some people ask, ‘Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?’ Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general – but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human. For centuries, the world divided human beings into two groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. It is only fair that the solution to the problem should acknowledge that.

How easy it is to believe certain false ideas if it’s all you hear. People who care about you should want you to succeed.

Maybe the guy I overheard puts down everyone around him, not only women. In any case, clearly he’s not someone who strives or works hard to go farther and thus belittled this woman’s efforts instead of being motivated by her ambition. I hope she finds better company.

Staying Sweet

Today I was thinking about how easy it could be to become cynical. I think I tend towards a positive outlook here, but that doesn’t mean I see the world as rosy. I see that people around me are in pain, and I think about it. People have experienced struggles and somehow continue.

In the past few days I heard and saw on the subway:

– 3 young gay guys, maybe teenagers, talking about their past drug use and how they started. Two of them said that their boyfriends at the time, who were seven to nine years older than them, introduced them to cocaine. The three friends agreed that they might have been offered drugs, but it was their choice to take it, and they could have said no. One of them referenced the “Shame on you, shame on me” quote, saying that the first time, shame on the other person, but the second, third, fourth, and fifth times, shame on you. I was struck by how young they were and yet how they had been through things and come out the other side already. Kind of heartening. I also thought about how great it was that they could talk about their experiences with each other and reflect on them. They may have had bad influences, but they are good influences on each other.

– An adult man telling a woman who was a bit older than him that his first memory of his dad was his dad throwing his mom on the kitchen floor. As their conversation continued, the woman told him about how her brother was committed to the state. I just thought, geez, everyone has something! We just don’t talk about it with everyone.

– Heavily armed police with black helmets in the station, and not far from them, a young Asian man singing and playing peaceful songs on his guitar with a handwritten sign in front of him that read, “Music is my passion.” He is there often, and I find his presence encouraging for multiple reasons—he is a young person pursuing his dream; he is an Asian person performing in public, a public that is not exposed to enough Asian artists; and his music is nice. As for the police, there are usually police in this main subway and bus station, but not outfitted in such gear. I wondered if it had to do with…

– A white powder scare in the bus station the other day. I arrived at the station in the morning, and a large area leading to the main exit was blocked off with yellow caution tape and four military men standing in a line. (Military personnel are usually present, but they always stand on the side.) I later learned that an unknown substance found in the station was the reason for the investigation. The powder was a cleaning agent, non-hazardous.

This is life. This is a normal day.

“J’ai tant d’admiration pour ceux qui se relèvent. …la plupart des hommes et des femmes que je croisais dans la rue me semblaient admirables… je ne les connaissais pas mais je devinais en eux des blessures, une fatigue, des failles qui me bouleversaient. Leur capacité de résistance m’épatait… »
– Olivier Adam, Le cœur régulier

This morning I was thinking about how in spite of all this, I am glad I am not cynical. I hope it never happens. You get older, you get hurt, you see how awful people can act. It will happen again and again. Yet I believe most people are good and are trying their best. They’re also utterly surprising in the best way.

“Norm!”

Recently a friend in New York City told me that for ten years, almost every Friday night she would have mussels, raw oysters, strawberries, and champagne at the same restaurant. That was thirty years ago.

It sounded like the kind of ritual the word ‘fabulous’ was invented for.

I’ve always liked the idea of being a regular at a place, but there are only a couple of times I’ve had that experience, usually associated with activity groups that meet at the same bar weekly. Food-wise, I love variety and so don’t frequent the same place every week. Same goes for ambiance—during lunch I sit at different spots in the park.

But I remember, one evening, walking into the bar in Paris that my fellow volunteers and I gathered at every week after serving meals outside, and the bartender said to me, “Thé au vert?” It felt like I had arrived.

We just want to be known, don’t we?

Happy ______ Day

I am a big fan of ceremony and tradition—this is what happens when you have a Catholic and Chinese upbringing—they are so steeped in both that even if you don’t observe all practices or hold all beliefs, you end up absorbing some of their essence.

I don’t speak for everyone; some people reject or simply aren’t interested in the faith or the culture they were brought up with. I know people who would say that that aspect, though ingrained in them as children, no longer has a place within them. I perhaps have just come to my roots as a reason for why I gain fulfillment from celebrating every holiday, observing birthdays and anniversaries, and continuing traditions universal, familial, and individual. That is an age-old aspect of humanity as a whole, but I know a number of people who don’t value any of that.

I think I just love an excuse to celebrate. Sure, we should give thanks outside of Thanksgiving, express our love outside of Valentine’s Day, and renew outside of New Year’s. But there are a lot of things we should do every day. Humans are always trying to simultaneously balance difference priorities and aspects of life.

Holidays and anniversaries serve as reminders to focus on one of these things.

It also adds novelty to a day. I remember hearing about someone who liked to dress in the theme of the movie he was going to watch in the theater. I am that way with holidays. A few years ago I wore bunny ears to a picnic with friends during Easter weekend in Paris. Yes, I am a grown woman who acts seriously at work and pays her taxes on time.

Holidays and events have the value that we assign to them. I choose to value a number of them. Two birthdays, two New Years. Christmas, Halloween. And if a person in my life celebrates a holiday that I do not and invites me to their gathering, all the better to observe someone else’s traditions. Passover, Galentine’s Day, Armenian Easter. I say oui.

Note: I wrote the first half of this post a full two years ago. It sat patiently in my drafts until the day I’d be “unblocked” and find the rest. It must have flowed out today because it’s Valentine’s Day, a holiday beloved, reviled, and dismissed. You can guess where I stand on this.

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?

Salve

I was stressed and I was worried, and that hung over me during my walk to meet two good friends for dinner.

I came upon this community garden and made a detour to walk through it.

Then, the first to arrive, I sat outside the restaurant and looked down this alley for the first time.

And those things made all the difference.

And I wished that everyone with something weighing on them could feel this wonder to lighten it from time to time.

When I take a walk, I can’t predict where the relief will come from, and that is part of the beauty of it.

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The Delights of Anticipation

In a few weeks I plan to return to France for a couple of weeks. For work? some have asked me. Purely for pleasure, I respond gleefully.

I bet you can’t wait, my colleague says. I can, I say, I’m enjoying the anticipation.

You must be excited, my friend tells me over lunch. I’m so excited to planifer my train trips, I nod. He laughs. You’re excited to planifier? he says, emphasizing the last word and implying that that’s not what he thought I’d be excited about.

I was never in a rush to move away from my family and go to college. To be of legal drinking age and go to bars. To graduate from college. To get to second base. To start the weekend (except that time I hated my job).

Don’t get me wrong, I looked forward to these things. I was ready for them when they came, and I dove right into the next stage with oomph. But I didn’t wish for them to come quicker. The way I see it, we live in a moment and then it passes, and we won’t get it back, so I don’t want to live for the weekend if it means I’m not enjoying my weekdays.

What this post is really about, though, is something I picked up from Anne of Green Gables. I must thank my uncle and aunt for sending my sister and me the movie based on the book by Lucy Maud Montgomery. The story is about a young orphaned girl named Anne who ends up living with Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, who are sister and brother and quite a bit older than Anne’s birth parents would have been. Anne is a chatterbox and dramatic and, well, a kid. Marilla is a stern, no-nonsense figure who tries to rein in Anne.

The scene in the story that stuck with me was a conversation between Anne and Marilla. Anne is wildly excited about an upcoming picnic. She must go! What can she bring? What can she wear? She has only ever dreamed of going to a picnic! She goes on and on about it.

“You set your heart too much on things, Anne,” said Marilla, with a sigh. “I’m afraid there’ll be a great many disappointments in store for you through life.”

“Oh, Marilla, looking forward to things is half the pleasure of them,” exclaimed Anne. “You mayn’t get the things themselves; but nothing can prevent you from having the fun of looking forward to them. Mrs. Lynde says, `Blessed are they who expect nothing for they shall not be disappointed.’ But I think it would be worse to expect nothing than to be disappointed.”

I have always remembered that line: Looking forward to things is half the pleasure of them.

I was only a kid, but the concept resonated with me.

I’m so excited to go back to France. I remember vividly the flight to move to Paris several years ago; it was nighttime, and the future seemed to be as black a void as the sky outside. In a good way. A blank slate with unknown adventures to be had. No apartment secured, a job that could very well turn out to be ill suited for me, and only a friend, an acquaintance, and a former host family as ties.

This time I am going back after having created a history in Paris. Friends, lovers, and colleagues, current and former, will be roaming around the city. Every park and metro line has a memory. I have a long list of people I want to see, food and drink to enjoy, and places to revisit. This is by no means a written itinerary or a crazy schedule; it mostly consists of sitting along the Seine with fondant au chocolat and cidre rosé and people who love me and whom I love.

I can’t wait. But I can.