Tag Archives: France

Thoughts from Half a World Away

Words. I’m trying to find them. Everything is jumbled. Scrambled. I’m sad. Upset. Angry. Confused. I’m sitting in my office half a world away. Why do I think I’m going to walk to the Metro and see all the people standing at Republique? The people who feel the same way I feel. I’m not there though. I’m in the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa, trying to understand why this shooting in Paris is affecting me so much. I wasn’t attacked. I don’t know anyone who was. But that was my home. It feels like someone is attacking my memories of it.

Canal Saint Martin. If you ask me to think about Paris, that’s the first place that pops in my head. Probably not the typical response, but for me, that was my home. I lived a block away. On gorgeous weekend days, it was impossible to find a place to sit. Everyone was gathered there to eat, drink, converse, and most importantly, people watch. It wasn’t just weekends for me though. I spent every day on the canal. That’s where I took stock every morning. No matter how late my night was. No matter how many cigarettes and drinks at Chez Prune or Comptoir General. Every morning the canal was my cleanse. Canal Saint Martin was where I ran.

Take a right at Chez Prune from my old street and soon after you turn, you’ll notice that instead of a canal in the middle of a split street, there’s a park. From here until shortly after the Bastille, the canal goes underground, giving way to park-style areas with gorgeous trees that flower in the spring and summer. Eventually, the underground canal curves to the south, heading towards the Bastille before flowing into the Seine. The road that follows it to the Bastille is Boulevard Richard Lenoir.

You’ve all probably seen that road today. It’s the road that was apparently used by extremists to escape after murdering innocent people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a left-wing satirical magazine easily found throughout the city, as a possible retaliation to the publishing of cartoons depicting Muhammad. I ran on that road every day. No matter what craziness had ensued, that road was my place of peace and reflection. Twice a week, I’d have to cut my run short. Not due to massive hangovers, but because one of the best outdoor markets in the city is located on that street. The best day was Sunday, even though it was the most crowded. It was all part of the experience. Couples, both young and old, some with families in tow, strolled the market in search of fresh fruits, veggies, or other goods. Most times, I’d walk through the crowd alone, the music flowing through my headphones coloring the experience. Sometimes, I’d go shopping with friends, getting fresh food for meals to be cooked later that afternoon. I don’t know how to fully comprehend how that could be the same street.

It feels selfish to even talk about how this is affecting me. I lived there for months. There are people who have called that area home for their entire lives. Families, friends, and co-workers have been taken away from people and I sit in a quiet office, staring at a frozen landscape, scribbling down thoughts on an old yellow legal pad. As I’m writing this, I’m looking at pictures and videos of the massive crowd standing in Republique, just a couple blocks from what used to be home. I feel like I need to be there. Not to stand in mourning of the Charlie Hebdo victims. Or to support freedom of speech. Or to stand up against any extremist who thinks killing over an idea or belief is just. I would gladly and proudly stand in that square for all of those reasons, but that’s not what the need is. I feel helpless. Confused. Alone. Maybe there’s some people there feeling the same way? And we could just stand there. Together.

Remembering Why I Watch

As though an excuse was needed to drink wine in Paris, but sure... tennis!

As though an excuse was needed to drink wine in Paris, but sure… tennis!

It’s a cool Sunday morning, the type that lends itself towards coffee and nostaligia. I suppose the fact that I’m starting to pack my stuff into boxes isn’t helping the nostalgic side of me. You’d think I’d be used to that by now, but my mind still gets loud from time to time. Is Des Moines really the spot for me? Is it going to be just a larger version of Cedar Rapids? I have lots of tricks to quiet my mind like all of us. Some of my favorites are music, running, reading, and even watching sports.

The French Open is on this morning and I’m instantly transported back to Paris. Sports, just like any other type of entertainment at its best, can do that. They can take us to other places and times. Last year I was watching this same match, Djokovic vs. Nadal, this time in the finals instead of the semi-finals. This year watching alone with a cup of coffee on my couch in Iowa instead of in the courtyard of Hotel de Ville, drinking wine surrounded by thousands of people.

Hotel de Ville’s courtyard was a constantly changing landscape that holds memories from my first days in Paris to my last. It was an outdoor ice skating rink the first time I happened upon it, an essential part of my first great story in the city. It was a makeshift nature preserve my last time, where I spent time reflecting after my last great story there had its conclusion. For a few weeks in late May and early June, the courtyard transformed into a mini-Roland Garros, complete with a clay tennis court and a sixty foot long Jumbotron with plenty of seats around to catch all the action. Gorgeous weather brought out gorgeous people to enjoy the food, wine, and scenery. Tennis wasn’t secondary or even tertiary, it was the background noise; the excuse to be there.

Sports at their worst can be hard to admit you enjoy. Fan is quite literally short for fanatic, and sometimes it feels like you either have to be completely involved or not at all when it comes to sports. The amount of vitriol that gets spewed on a daily basis, both by the general media and social media, is enough to turn off anyone. Tonight, The Miami Heat will play a basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs. The ten players on the court will all do things we could not possibly fathom doing for three hours. After the game is over, win or lose, LeBron James will be called a traitor, a pussy, and all other variety of names you can imagine. This need of others to tear down people in some sort of effort to validate their own shortcomings makes me ashamed to enjoy sports.

The whole reason I started liking sports was to have more to talk about with my dad. My weird memory combined with the propensity towards numbers and statistics in sports made it easy for me to pick up quickly. It’s entertaining to me to watch people compete at the highest level of almost anything. I remember sitting with friends talking about all manner of subjects last year in that square. Hours went by and it appeared Nadal would handle Djokovic as expected. Then Djokovic started to rally, and you could feel the entire energy in that courtyard change. The side conversations stopped as everyone started watching intently and discussing only the match. People walking by on their way home from work, to see Notre Dame, or just out for a casual stroll, stopped to watch; filling the courtyard. By the middle of the fifth set, you could not find a place to stand. People were climbing trees and lamposts to get a better view of the Jumbotron. Here we all were, in the middle of one of the most beautiful and romantic cities on the planet, and people had stopped everything they were doing to watch two grown men hit a fuzzy yellow ball back and forth. Five hours had gone by before Nadal finally claimed one of his hardest fought victories at the championship he has made his career on. People smiled and chatted with complete strangers about the match before slowly dissipating into the Parisian evening. Nadal claimed this year’s title as well, with a significantly easier victory than last year. Even if it could never live up to what I experienced last year, I was thrilled to sit with the windows open on an overcast Sunday with a cup of coffee in hand, remembering why I still watch sports.

The Five Stages of Coming Home

Iowa: it's not just corn... though there is a lot of it...

Iowa: it’s not just corn… though there is a lot of it…

They say you can’t go home again. They are wrong. You absolutely can go home again… it’s just really, really weird. After spending the majority of the last five months in Paris, I’ve come back to Iowa. Not only that, but I’ve picked up plenty of new followers recently. I’ve been trying to come up with an amazing follow-up to my “Freshly Pressed” debut that will appeal to my newfound fan base. Obviously, my first thought was to just write a series of dick jokes and end it with a statement about how Obama is going to take our guns and force us to eat government-assisted euthanasia candidates. (That’s right. You just got a double dose of Charlton Heston. You’re now ready to defend your property from miscreants or part the Red Sea.) However, I decided to use my experience to help guide others through the grieving process of coming home.

Denial

That moment the voice in the back of your head says, “Hey, so our visa is expired and we’re almost out of money… maybe we should think about going home…” followed by you drowning that voice with enough wine to make it sound like this. Yep, you’re in denial. Enjoy it! Ignorance truly is bliss, but eventually all that drinking will lead to the next stage. No, not that…

Anger

You start cursing the universe. Why wasn’t I born with an unlimited amount of funds and diplomatic immunity? You curse your middle-class, midwestern heritage. If only your parents had been hardened spies or criminals. Maybe you could murder a rich guy and take over his life? Now you’ve entered the third stage.

Bargaining

You start to realize that you probably don’t have the huevos to kill someone. Then you start to realize that you could happen upon an already dead rich man and find his safety deposit box key. The only problem is you have to perform a voodoo ceremony on his corpse in order for it to lead you to the box, which you screw up, limiting his corpse’s ability to walk only when it hears reggae music, only you don’t have enough money to spring for underwater headphones and your ability to handle a spear gun is sub-par at best. (That was the single greatest sentence I have ever penned.) This realization leads you to the fourth stage.

Depression

You now know your fate. You walk around the place you’ve come to love that you will now be forced to leave with a look on your face that’s so heart-wrenching Sarah McLachlan is following you around, filming her next commercial. No one has ever had it more difficult than you. You have to leave this first-world major metropolis for a first-world rural area. No one can possibly understand the depths of your sorrow.

Acceptance

You start to realize the things that you truly missed. Obviously you’re excited to see friends and family, but also the little things you forgot about as well. Like spreadable butter (Seriously France? Even your butter is high maintenance.), some spice to your food (I get it France. Your palates are so sophisticated that my uneducated American tongue could not possibly grasp the levels of your culinary superiority. Would it have honestly killed you to have a bottle of Sriracha somewhere in your country though?), and getting to wear T-shirts and shorts out in public. (Sorry to break this to you France, but not all of you are models.) More importantly you figure out that the grass isn’t necessarily greener, just a different shade. Sure, there are plenty of differences, but your happiness is defined by you, not where you are.

3.1 Decades

First, let me apologize for not updating the site in nearly two months. I know many of you are interested in what’s been going on over here. I have had so many unbelievable experiences over the past couple of months. My friends and family should already be lamenting all the long, drawn-out, convoluted stories they’ll be forced to listen to the next time I see them. I’m pretty sure the Geneva Convention will eventually outlaw my storytelling as some sort of inhumane torture.

Besides my inability to tell a concise story, the other reason I haven’t updated much is because most of the things that have been happening to me are pretty personal. I know part of the point of a blog is to share personal feelings with others, however I will always keep a part of myself for just those closest to me. Here’s a small amount of what has happened to me over the last few months.

I’ve had my phone stolen by hookers in Barcelona, not while patronizing them. Made friends with the owners of a wine shop and their friend in Avignon, who treated me like they’d known me for years, not days. Given away my favorite article of clothing to a homeless girl with two puppies when it was sleeting so they could be warm. Ice-skated in the middle of Paris with someone I’d just met and kept her upright even though she’d never skated before. Broken a champagne glass because I was afraid of a pigeon. Sat on steps in Finland that were in the middle of the capital city but made me feel like I was at the edge of the Earth. Audibly gasped at a demon mannequin child in a museum in Stockholm. Had students from Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School practice making food in my kitchen.

I’ve been out from sunset to sunrise. Stayed in my flat for over 24 straight hours. Been afraid to walk in a grocery store. Been confident enough to find out if the cutest girl at the bar speaks English or not. Discovered new music. Listened to the same song for hours on repeat. Been completely panicked about what is happening. Been completely relaxed about what will happen next. Been hurt. Hurt others. Lost someone who was important to me. Found someone who will always be important to me. Woken up cold and alone. Woken up curled around a warm figure. I’ve been lost. I have found myself.

31 years ago, the greatest mother I could have ever dreamed of gave birth to me while the greatest man I’ve ever met stood by. They’ve been standing by me ever since. No matter what crazy idea I had they supported me, even when they disagreed with it. I can’t tell you how many times over the all these years they’ve asked me how I was doing, sometimes as a casual icebreaker, sometimes with genuine concern for my well-being. I still don’t know what’s going to happen, where I’m going to be, what I’m going to do, or who I’ll be with. But finally, I can answer them truthfully.

I’m good.

Risk, Reward, and John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill was one the earliest and most influential supporters of women’s rights. His essay, The Subjection of Women, one of the most important feminist works of the nineteenth century. He was the first member of British Parliament to ask that women be given the right to vote. He also believed in freedom of speech, refused to attend Oxford or Cambridge because of their alliance with religion, and was a huge supporter of civil rights for every person.

The reason I bring him up is that he was buried in Avignon, where I currently am until I head back to Paris on Saturday. I was asked to seek out his resting place for a research project while I was here. I had heard of Mill and respected his opinions and work but did not know much more about him. I was very surprised at what lay atop his grave. While there was a small inscription on the side informing you that this was indeed where John Stuart Mill was buried, the top was solely dedicated to honoring his partner in life, Harriet.

The following adorns the top of the grave of John Stuart Mill

The following adorns the top of the grave of John Stuart Mill

to the beloved memory
of
Harriet Mill
the dearly loved and deeply regretted
wife of John Stuart Mill
her great and loving heart
her noble soul
her clear powerful original and
comprehensive intellect
made her the guide and support
the instructor in wisdom
and the example in goodness
as she was the soul earthly delight
of those who had the happiness to belong to her
as earnest for all public good
as she was generous and devoted
to all who surrounded her
her influence has been felt
in many of the greatest
improvements of the age
and will be in those still to come
were there even a few hearts and intellects
like hers
this earth would already become
the hoped for heaven
she died
to the irreparable loss of those who survive her
at Avignon Nov 3 1858

Harriet Taylor Mill

Harriet Taylor Mill

Mill and his wife knew each other for less than thirty years and were controversially linked while Harriet was married to another man. They were socially outcast solely for being in love with each other. If this had happened in modern times, Harriet and her first husband would have divorced and she and Mill would have been free from judgment by (hopefully) most. The chance they took was immense, and so, it seems, was the reward they were given. We are very risk-averse as a culture now, preferring to be cautious so we can avoid the pain that comes from taking a risk and dealing with the fallout if it does not pan out.

I’m generalizing too much…

I’ve been hurt in the past. I prefer to be cautious instead of risking feeling deep and meaningful things for another person. I would rather avoid the pain that comes from taking a chance and failing. If this pattern remains, I will continue to be good, but never great.

John Stuart Mill died May 7, 1873 and fifteen years later he adorned his grave not with his great and many accomplishments, but with a dedication to the person who meant more to him than any other. Many of us probably don’t remember John Stuart Mill even though his works were extremely important in advancing nineteenth century thought. He is remembered for being one of the early feminists, advancing Utilitarian thought, and probably by a small town in Australia a couple hundred kilometers outside Melbourne named for him. Mill, however, decided that the one thing he wanted to be remembered for more than anything of his greatest accomplishments was his love for another. I know in order to feel that strongly for someone, I’ll eventually have to take that large of a risk again.

Creation in a World of Consumption

After two extremely long days of walking and seeing the Parisian sights, my body informed me it needed a break this morning by making me feel as though I’d been involved in a car accident that I could not remember. That was fine with my brain, which was exhausted from seeing a veritable treasure trove of art and artifacts at The Louvre yesterday. So I creaked out of bed and wandered into the kitchen to make a cup of tea and enjoy one of the delicious croissants I’d bought yesterday, then decided to settle in and see what was going on in the world.

First stop, Facebook, to make sure all of my friends are doing ok and that the Internet is not short on cat memes. I can assure you all is well on both fronts. Next up, Twitter, seeing if any of my favorite writers have a new story I’d like to read or if someone found a new way to make 140 characters humorous. Again, I went two for two. A check of some of my typical news sites (BBC, Yahoo!, and Slate) followed by a visit to Grantland, my favorite sports and entertainment site and I felt reconnected to the world. All this of course while listening to Spotify (I’ve been quite obsessed with The Oh Hello’s recently.)

I decided to pop in the shower and wander around the neighborhood for a nice sandwich and an espresso, which isn’t exactly difficult in Paris. I came home more than satisfied and thought about what to do next. I could read a book that had been suggested to me, watch Flight, which I had downloaded a few days before, listen to a podcast, or write a little and listen to some music. I settled on watching Flight while I downloaded the book and wasn’t disappointed. Denzel Washington is a powerhouse as always and I found myself completely captivated by his character. Add some solid help from John Goodman (who was great in Argo as well), Don Cheadle, and Melissa Leo and some solid directing from Robert Zemeckis and it was a thoroughly entertaining film.

It wasn’t until I was deciding whether to read or listen to a podcast until I started realizing how incredible it all was. Here I am in another country with a backpack and a messenger bag and I can read practically any book or article I want, watch almost any movie or TV show, or listen to nearly any song. Can you really blame people for being more lazy or apathetic than in previous generations? No matter what entertains you (sports, food, science, redneck families who hunt ducks or send their children to beauty pageants), there is a product out there for you to consume.

I personally get the most enjoyment not out of consuming, but creating. There’s a certain level of personal pride that comes from creation that cannot be experienced from consumption. I enjoy writing for myself; it is a form a therapy for me. It means more when I know others read what I write and enjoy it or relate with it. I love to cook, but it’s so much more rewarding to cook something great for another person. The look on someone’s face when they really enjoy something you’ve created is much more rewarding to me than anything that can be consumed. This is by no means a lecture, I just felt like creating something on a relaxing day in Paris. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to consume a good book and some more tea.

Thoughts from a Day of Wandering The Louvre

The Louvre is the largest museum in the world and houses countless priceless artifacts. It is said that you can’t see it all in just one day. I ended up walking every exhibit in around ten hours today. I wasn’t speed walking or anything, just sauntering until something caught my eye and then I would stop for a closer look. After I had seen everything, I walked back to specific spots I wanted to take more time in. Ultimately, I spent over eleven hours inside and I will definitely come back again. So how exactly do you tackle The Louvre?

Lots of people experience The Louvre in a way that fits them, so find the way that fits you best!

Lots of people experience The Louvre in a way that is meaningful for them, so find the way that fits you best!

The way I went about it happened by chance. I did not bring an ID with me, which is what the museum keeps as collateral for the audio guides for all the exhibits. So instead of listening to facts about everything I was looking at, I decided to put my headphones in, put some music on and start wandering. It ended up being a very rewarding way to experience the museum. I wasn’t concerned with what the most famous things in each exhibit were, or what was the most historically significant. Anything that caught my eye would send over in its direction to try and decipher its French description and maybe take a picture. I only lingered in a few locations, one of them being at the Venus de Milo.

Pictures do not do her justice.

Pictures do not do her justice

Most of the time when I was walking around, I really didn’t listen to the music. It was just background noise that was better than people lightly talking and shuffling their feet. I had picked out some nice, relaxing songs that just put my mind at ease. However, when I walked up to the Venus de Milo statue the Billie Holliday song I’ll Be Seeing You came on. I just sat down, not really thinking, just absorbing the moment, letting it overwhelm me. By the end of those three and a half minutes, I was nearly in tears.

I’m going to get the guide next time, that way I can learn about the history behind all of the wonderful things in The Louvre. For today, I thoroughly enjoyed wandering around arguably the world’s greatest museum at my own pace, even if that meant stopping to sit down and write about my day right here.

My own small perch next to The Winged Victory of Samothrace

My own small perch next to The Winged Victory of Samothrace