Thursday, December 2, 2010

December 2, 2010 - Year Deux

Happy Second Anniversary to us!

Dec 2, 2008 will always hold a special place in my heart. We acknowledge and remember it as this great leap of faith; with a child-like fear and anticipation, still enamored by the myth and the fables...

Fast-forward two years. Where are we? Who are we? What have we learned?

I can safely say that year one and year two have been decidedly different, which I trust is a good thing. The only thing one can ever count on is change and there has indeed, been change.

I just read through last year's anniversary post and chuckled to myself. Year one was the year of constant comparisons, i.e, France vs the US. We were textbook expat cliches in that regard. We took the mold we knew and laid it over that which we didn't and that's how we measured, judged, misunderstood, etc. a lot of things. Anything that didn't fit that mold was a challenge, a conundrum, another stupid Frenchism...just one more thing to make our lives more difficult.

Well believe me, this chronic habit will send you to the corner, lying in a fetal position with your thumb in your mouth. And that's about the time you decide that it may just be your behavior that needs a makeover.

After a lot of self-reflection and picking our sorry asses up over and over again, brushing off and moving forward, things have begun to shift. We have begun to widen our lens a bit, get rid of that old mold, and understand France as the French understand France.

We have stopped inflicting our own suffering by being willing to let go of the notion of how we think things should be done and quite literally go with the flow a bit.

We have stopped wishing the French would be less French, to make it easier for us to do what we need to do. Rather, we've begun to understand why the French are the way they are and why the system works the way it does.

We stopped going into unnecessary tailspins every time the banks, a public agent, a retreat chef, an accountant, or a mean boss speaks to us in a condescending, threatening manner.

We have stopped bending over backwards to respond to that which is "tres urgent" now that we understand what that really means.

We have learned to give ourselves more time than we previously thought was necessary to get things done.

We are passing judgment less and listening more.

Year deux thrust us into what would "normally" be perceived as a mildly unstable living situation. We spent over 7 months of the year living apart more than together. Greg spent half the week in Paris and half in the house in Chantrigne. I did the reverse. Ti retired to her country house full-time for that period. We kept a 20 meter squared pied-a-terre in an uninteresting Western suburb. Our commute was the combination of a 45 minute drive to the TGV, nearly 2 hr train ride, and finally the metro to our work destination. We came together on Sundays to catch up on sleep, spend time in the garden, relax, and deal with the reams of administrative crap that would accumulate.

Mondays we were in mandatory French driving school, likely a meeting with a bank or an accountant, and I was schlepping laundry to the nearest mat because shockingly, the 30 yr old appliances in the 600 yr old house are beginning to get tired. Greg worked virtually until the evening.

Tuesday mornings at 6:10, I was driving Greg back to the TGV and we started all over again.

It wasn't easy, but it was necessary. We were managing a tight budget, Ti's geriatric health challenges, and making hard choices to pull it altogether.

We learned to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation. I broke ground on a fabulous kitchen garden - the first that house had seen in over 50 years. That garden, the process, and the bounty, brought us closer to our octogenarian and nonagenarian neighbors than anything else we had done to ingratiate ourselves to that community. They taught me so much about using everything, wasting nothing, and sharing. We were invited into their precious gifting culture and nearly daily, would have precious seasonal goodies left on our doorstep, which we could now give back in-kind.

Being on a tight budget forced Greg's culinary creativity to thrive and he made Saturday and Sunday night meals that were extraordinary! He used the best, freshest ingredients, most of which were coming from less than five houses away, the backyard, or the nearest dairy farm.

Year two was also the year of the Icelandic volcano (canceling Greg's US trip), on-going and increasingly severe greves (strikes), and the the receipt of our first French tax bills (ouch).

We learned to live within an context of true austerity, yet often felt an abundance than hadn't been there before.

Greg's work situation improved greatly. DogaYoga is now an official French small business. Greg passed the written exam for his driving test. My French continues to improve. Greg was voted VP of Drupal Francophone. I hosted two more retreats and now teach out of three studios.

Little Ti celebrated her 13th year.

In two weeks we will officially be living in Paris. Paris - not the banlieue (suburb) and not a half Normandy/half Paris combo split - but Paris herself will be our full-time home for the foreseeable future. This is the next necessary step. Although, who knows? This too could change.

I feel grateful to have spent the last year with the rug regularly being pulled out from under us as a reminder that the only true stability is the internal kind.

And that humility is very healthy.

We miss you all and look forward to your visits!

Happy belated Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The One Year Round-Up

They say that when you make a major move across many miles of land, water, and time zones, your body moves as fast as an airplane can carry you but your soul moves at the speed of someone paddling a canoe across the ocean and hiking across the land. Based on this and by my estimation, it would have taken just about a year to arrive in Paris from Oakland, or maybe a little less, but Ti likes to do a lot of sniffing which tends to slow things up a bit. So in many ways, we've only just arrived.

This time last year, we were packed tightly into a rental Peugeot, on our way from the airport to Normandy, working entirely on adrenaline. We had only what could fly with us, including Ti, whose little geriatric doggie world had just been turned upside down. All other important and/or sentimental possessions accumulated from our more than a decade in the Bay Area, were sitting on a ship in Oakland Port, with no clear idea when we would be reunited with them. The rest had been sold, donated, gifted, or dumped on the curb on 53rd Street in Oakland, in hopes some resourceful soul would come along and breathe life back into them before the trash truck arrived.

Beyond the basics of survival and legality, we had little idea what lay ahead. Thanks to Bill and Mimy we had a roof over our heads, wood in the cave, and a cozy fireplace. We were in the country under false pretenses and beholden to the immigration authorities in London and San Francisco. Greg knew he had a job to finish, and another one waiting for him at the end of a long road littered with French paperwork, all to be managed on a dial-up connection until further notice. I knew I did not have a job yet and could barely speak French, but come hell or high water, a yoga retreat would happen in the spring because I told my students it would. Nothing was in our names, therefore we were persona non grata as far as the banks, utility companies, and potential future landlords were concerned.

We also knew it was cold. Motherfucking COLD. It was the coldest French winter in 15 years. And we had limited fuel left in the ancient tank in the cave - and limited money left in the US bank accounts.

Everything was up for grabs and that's where we began. Since then, everyday has been a hustle; moving the boulder an inch along the never-ending path toward some sort of legitimacy in a never-ending bureaucratic process. Nothing has come easy, yet hard won battles are properly celebrated.

This is a sampling, a list of the little things; observations and direct experiences - what I've learned, loved, and loathed in our first year en France. I'm not delving into the big, heavy stuff here. This is not the place. If you're reading this, you're probably aware of a lot of those things anyway.

I couldn't bring myself to reduce the list down to distinct columns of "good, bad, and ugly." Life isn't that black and white. Even the things that were annoying, unjust, and painful, taught us a shitload of lessons. Not to mention that the opportunities to be properly awe-inspired in this amazing country, never end.

And that's how I hold it; this year of moving targets, contradictions, and extremes - from six dark, bleak hours of daylight to 16 glorious, spacious hours of daylight - and all the rest. You could live in constant duality, but it's just too exhausting. It's all just life. Our new life.

This is going out to a limited selection of people; people who have been a constant source of inspiration, support, and love from before and after our move - and who don't mind me being a little rough around the edges and swearing like a sailor. This is going out unedited and unfiltered, so forgive the grammatical errors and typos. I will send it now and probably add to it later. All the hyperlinks are to older posts I've written either on this or another blog.

Here goes: (in no particular order, just as it comes to me)

- Northern Europe is dark and cold in the winter, no two ways about it. Learn to deal with it and find the beauty or become a miserable boor.

- The holiday season wild boar hunt in Normandy does indeed look like a scene from Obelix and Asterix - or Rules of the Game - depends on when you're looking.

- I like fireplaces. I grow weary of fireplaces when they actually have to be started and stoked constantly for basic warmth, not just for xmas stockings and romantic ambiance.

- There's no denying that nuclear power is fucking efficient. However, knowing that every time I turn on a light I'm linked to those giant nuclear reactors, makes me nauseous.

- 11th century churches are beautiful and fun to do handstands against - pretending you are a Jean d'Arc super-hero. (Yes, I am six.)

- I have been known to go out of my way (read: hiding) to avoid deciphering senior citizen French.

- Crossing the border from the provinces into Ile de France, everything is 10-20% more expensive. Paris and the suburbs are giant energy and resource sucks, much to the chagrin of the Ch'ti (the hicks)

- The food. The local, seasonal, artisanal food. The dedication to quality and painstaking detail still remains a source of inspiration to me.

- Parisians know about as much about where their food comes from as your average San Franciscan, but likely more than much of the rest of the US. However, the urban-rural disconnect is growing, even if Parisians say it's not.

- Andrew Hussey says it well in Paris, The Secret History: "Paris is a beautiful woman, a sorceress, and a demon..."

- When frustrated by senseless bureaucracy, it is so not okay to jokingly utter to a French person: "Hehehe, we should have just let the Germans take over. They're so much more efficient."

- From a distance, the Eiffel Tower is the spine of Paris.

- The working class suburbs of Paris suffer identity crises and are wrought with xenophobia.

- Some days, I feel like Joni Mitchell just nailed it when she sang "'s too old, and cold, and settled in its ways here..."

- I have indeed roasted chestnuts on an open fire in Normandy and they are delicious.

- Being stared at like the side-show freak does get tiring. Ah, the French and their icy, unapproving stares.

- The French and their dog shit: same old story.

- Doing yoga on Omaha Beach will give you chills and bring you to tears. I don't care who you are. (Or maybe it was just me and the overwhelming feeling of seeing the ocean for the first time in six months.)

- Being landlocked is energetically repressive and I hate it.

- Try telling a Norman cook (an amazing one at that) that not every course for every meal at a yoga retreat needs to be soaked in cidre, Calvados, or Pommeau.

- Paris is awesome.

- Paris is awesome when you're a rich tourist and a real drag when you're poor residents.

- Paris is still awesome.

- Bad things can happen when a nearly 20-year vegetarian goes on a duck binge.

- I doubt, no matter how culturally nuanced the argument, there will ever be a time when I think consuming horse meat in this day and age is acceptable.

- So help me, the next person I hear say, "Oui mais, le probleme c'est..." Everything has a "Yes but..." and a problem and rarely is anything taken on faith. Faith? Goddess forbid.

- The Norman sky is stunning and dramatic, all year round. It makes my heart sing.

- Teaching yoga in a studio in an 18th century building, in the historically Jewish quarter of Paris, around the corner from the city's oldest synagogue, and with a commemorative plaque two doors down reminding us that is the spot where the Gestapo killed members of the Resistance, brings a whole new meaning to the practice of Karma Yoga.

- When a drunk Portuguese man in a local bar declares loudly that he is - in all seriousness - the reincarnation of Che Guevara, do not laugh and attempt to engage him in conversation in Spanish. He will threaten your husband and then sob in his lap.

- "I hate Credit Agricole!" (our first French bank)

- "Credit Agricole rocks! I hate BNP! (our second French bank)

- French pharmacies are the best! They tend to put much of their holistic, eco-pure products up front, the pharmacists are as knowledgeable as doctors, and many carry the mid-to high end French cosmetics and toiletries. And, since 99% of the products are French, you have a no guilt carbon footprint.

- Mold will grow in your walls, in your closets and on your leather shoes. Calcium will build up in your hot water heater, giving you no water pressure. There will be a short in the electrical system, giving you no light in your bedroom. Giant trees will grow and block your neighbors' view of the garden. How much of this is your landlord's responsibility? Ne rien. How much is yours? Tous.

- Les Ticket Resto. Think FSA for meals at restaurants, for the daily inconvenience of not being able to go home for a proper lunch. They enable us to go out to dinner and without them that Patricia Wells restaurant guide to Paris would be never be used.

- The fabled French health care system is great - so we hear. We wouldn't know because there is such a backlog that after a year, we still don't have our social security cards.

- No matter how good your French is, you will often get the little-known foreigner surcharge in the market, at the dry cleaners, at the vet....

- I never thought I'd say this, but thank god for Sarkozy.

- If it hadn't been for the good fate of ending up with fabulous neighbors (and others) in both Chantrigne and Creteil, we would probably have been back in the US before now.

- French sheep farmers are 1) crazy, 2) pedantic, and 3) awesome

- French apple farmers/cider and calvados makers are 1) long-winded

- Just because we like a particular tradition does not necessarily mean it's anything more than just another habitual behavior.

- Looking forward to lots and lots and LOTS of tubers this winter.

- The Paris yoga community - such that it is - is a direct reflection of the larger culture, ie, a little less than warm and fuzzy.

- The French don't apologize, heavily over-intellectualize, and rarely breathe.

- French wine we drink = low alcohol, reasonable price, and exquisite taste.
CA wine = high alcohol, over-priced, and mediocre taste. French wine is better and probably always will be. Due to circumstances beyond their control, CA wine makers will never be able to compete. There I said it.

- California doesn't recognize French drivers' licenses, therefore France doesn't recognize CA drivers' licenses. This tit for tat is creating quite a headache for us at the moment.

- Sometimes just walking through a Monoprix will soothe my nerves.

- Weak dollar, strong Euro = faint light at end of tunnel.

- Fete de la Musique in Paris on the summer solstice = Magic

- Every French person is smarter than you. Just ask them.

- To fit in, it is necessary to deflect responsibility whenever possible.

- Knowing you'll never fit in, it is necessary to be a little outrageous.

- Tradition dictates everything and so many traditions just beg to be challenged.

- Culinary tradition dictates everything and so many beg to be challenged.

- "Activists are in the fringe here. Activism isn't embedded in typical life like in San Francisco." (Uttered by a wealthy Parisian who was unaware of the three-month long dairy farmer strikes and protests happening all over France.)

- There is something simultaneously heartwarming and repressive about living in Creteil Village among the real French proletariat, card-carrying members of the communist party, and hard-core labor organizers who meet every Sunday am for their many rounds of cafe and cognac.

- I put one of the world's most famous perfume makers into downward facing dog twice/week. I use extra deodorant on those days.

- French parents do not speak to their toddlers in baby talk. Perhaps that's why I saw a 13-ish yr old reading Voltaire on the metro the other day.

- Parisian teenagers are - for the most part - incorrigible.

- When dogs are really cold, they don't shed. Imagine that! Ti didn't shed for nearly three months last winter. She was a powder puff.

- Warm nights are delightful. Warm nights where twilight doesn't begin until 10:30 pm are heartwarming. Warm nights in August where nothing is open, suck.

- How does one actually fall asleep - alone - in an 800 yr old house with common knowledge that a suicide occurred there a few centuries before? For the first week - you don't.

- Learning to talk to ghosts is a handy skill.

- Perhaps making light of the fact that the 400 yr old grainery where your US yoga students are living for a week is known to be haunted, is insensitive.

- Having guests less than three weeks after moving into a tiny apt in the banlieue is not a great idea.

- Don't challenge your husbands' CEO to a Tomales Bay vs. French oyster contest. The French take these things very seriously. You will be left at the table having to consume nearly 18 oysters on your own before anyone else can eat.

- Held down the fort at the yoga studio this summer while everyone else went on vacation. For six solid weeks, my students were 99.9% expats and tourists. Nothing interrupts the sacrosanct French summer holiday.

- Send emails to people in the French countryside, don't expect responses.

- Don't off-handedly mention that you're offering a Sunday early am community yoga class in Chantrigne and because no one confirmed think that Sunday early am knock on the door couldn't possibly be students showing up out of the blue, especially when you're still in bed - with a hangover.

- Spring in France is all you could ever imagine. Think hectares of rape (the first commercial crop to blossom in the spring) in bright golden yellow against a perfectly blue sky. Breathtaking.

- French appliances and home accessories: over designed, under functioning.

- Apparently the heavy burden of being French gets heavier in the countdown to the solstice. Here we go again.

- Some days I would do anything for a burrito. A burrito from Papalote to be exact.

- Some days I don't want cheese, or milk, or butter, or cafe, or wine, or chocolate, or bread or pastries...I want tofu, lentils, a nice vegetarian noodle soup, and tea. It's harder than you might think.

- The French are extremely helpful because no one wants to admit they don't know something.

- The French love to impress with their knowledge and their charming Frenchy-isms that they assume the entire world wants to consume. They will also be the first to renounce those things and tell you "it's all shit."

- Without asking we get baskets and bags of: vegetables, fruits, jams...just left on our doorstep. We are nourished by these little gifts.

- As tough as it might be to accept this bold statement, try it on for size: sustainable agriculture in France is about a decade behind the US. Try having that debate with a French person.

- We've enjoyed sharing a little glimpse of this new life with dear friends from the US. Those of you who have visited - thank you. Those of you who haven't, allons-y!

more to come I'm sure.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

In case you were wondering...

Capri pants and Man-Purses (or Murses) are still very much en vogue in France.
And I remain a non-fan.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Nice Things French People Do

Lest you think all I do is complain and seek out the worst in French people, I'm going to disavow you of that notion by acknowledging some of the wonderful things that have happened to us - and the kind French people who have made it happen - since we've been in the country.

Starting from the most recent, they are:
1) A woman in the RER who noticed that I was having a hard time getting my RER ticket to open the turn style, a problem that would normally result in a long debate with the agent in the office. She tapped me and asked if I'd like to sneak through her turn style on her ticket. Voila! I wasn't late to meet my new client.

2) Our new neighbors, the jolly M. and Mme Joly, who in the last five days and on different occasions have given us a tomato plant and a bouquet of forget-me-nots (May 1 tradition).

3) Our 90+ year old neighbors in Chantrigne, the amazing M. and Mme Millet, who invited us in on Sunday afternoon to eat multi-layered strawberry cake and drink Sauterne and coffee.

4) Our friends in Chantrigne, Cristal and Phillipe, who invited us in for a bottle of Bordeaux and gave us a lavender plant, two tomato plants, and some other pretty perennial I'm going to plant in our Creteil garden. They were all plants he had cultivated in his greenhouse.

5) Isabelle and Laurent continue to be sources of support and sustenance. Last Friday night, after the long drive to Chantrigne, they invited us in for "apertif", which I put in quotes only because it's never really just apertif. They make and serve enough to feed you the whole night.

6) The aforementioned Jolys' who have taken pity on us and both loaned us their garden tools indefinitely, and given us an old-timey manual push lawn mower. (This is after we were told that the guy who mows the big lawn won't let us borrow his mower because he doesn't like our landlords.)

7) The Angel de Creteil.
Our very first night at the new place in Creteil, Ti was attacked by another dog right on the pieton, in the center of the village. It ended up being okay - no big deal injuries - but I lost it.
The woman had no control of her dog. I didn't know the area yet so was entirely discombobulated. I was also exhausted from having moved all our stuff alone, because Greg was stuck at work until late. I was so upset that I couldn't find the French words to express it to her, so (like the crazy American) I started yelling obscenities in English, scooped up Ti and ran into the nearest parking lot, away from everyone, and started crying whilst looking Ti over for blood. A woman came out of nowhere and asked me if I was okay. She put her arm around me while I calmed down and could explain what happened. She was so kind and patient and seemingly concerned, assuring me that Ti was okay, that I was struck by her grace. I've never seen her again, so have decided she is the Angel de Creteil.

8) Various people who have accommodated my poor command of French more times that I can list here.

9) That random barrista in a cafe in the Marais. Before I had a fancy iPhone, I had a piece of shit phone which rarely worked. For months Greg and I had no way of getting a hold of each other on a regular basis, save for email, which required having computers with us at all times. One day when logistics could have gone horribly wrong, a nice man in a cafe in Paris kindly let me borrow his phone to get a hold of Greg. It changed the day entirely.

10) Les Noyalets. This is the family that made it possible for Greg and me to live together in their spacious condo in the suburbs for a month while we looked for a place to live. Not only did they give us a key to their place and free parking space, they told us to ignore the idiots from a previous post (Merde!) because they will deal with them when they get into town this summer. Yeah. Comme ca!

11) Pifka = Pifoo and Karine. Our friends in Paris who even in their too-full house (two kids) gave Greg a bed and dinner as often as he needed it during those few difficult first months.

12) The nice guy at the flower/plant stand at the bi-weekly market in Creteil who, after selling me a few pretty plants, saw me eyeing an additional one and then counting my euros and then eyeing the plant again dejected. He tossed it in gratis.

13) The yoga studio owner who has decided to take a chance on me even though, according to her count, she receives dozens of bios and CVs from English speaking yoga teachers every week.

14) The amazing new French Canadian acupuncturist friend I met at a yoga workshop, who recommended we do a work-trade. I think I'm getting the better deal ;-)

15) My new African-French hairdresser who brought us both to tears talking about her profound appreciation for everything Obama stands for and the American people who made, what she considered the impossible, happen.

16) 90+ yr old M. Millet who hand whittled a new handle for an antique garden tool, after my de-termite solutions proved worthless.

17) The same M. Millet who supplied me/us with turnips and other yummy tubers and the "chicken lettuce" all winter (ala an earlier post).

18) Isabelle and Laurent for bringing light and life into my otherwise fairly dark 39th b-day, by dropping off a beautiful window box full of blossoming tulip bulbs.

19) Les Maugers. The family in a village near Chantrigne who hosted a holiday dinner for us that was out of this world and shared some treasures from their cave that we otherwise would never have the opportunity (or luxury) to taste.

20) Every last restaurant, bistrot, cafe, etc owner who happily lets us bring Ti inside. I know it's the norm rather than the exception in France, but it never fails to warm my heart.

There are lots I'm forgetting and will remember later; invariably adding to the list. I'm sure Greg has many I haven't thought about or don't even know occurred.

It's been challenging, but the aforementioned has occasionally buffered the landing and made us smile.

Their worth is immeasurable.

Friday, April 17, 2009

First 100 Days - FAIL

Given that we're well past the 100 days mark and I have only managed to upload two marginally interesting posts with the latest being photos from December, it's unlikely this project will continue, even under a different theme. I simply do not have it in me.

Let's hope Obama has more fortitude than I do.

However, for anyone who is interested, I do manage to fairly regularly upload random photos of our day-to-day life here in Ile de France, to my Flickr account:

Le Petit: Less is More #3

Quite by accident, I have 100+ year old French wool string, from French sheep, holding up my sweet pea plants in the garden. I don't know if I have an appropriate appreciation for said string, since the woman who gave me this information also sold me the spool of wool for a measly 2 euros. And, we all know the way to a capitalists' grateful heart is through her wallet. Yet, it seems that any value the wool lady gained was simply in imparting this charming information and me expressing interest.

Oh, these wacky socialist ways.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Le Petit: Less is More #2

If you replace "Wisconsin" with another three syllable locale "Chantrigne", in the lyrics of the Bon Iver ballad, you pretty much have my life from 1/15/09 - 2/20/09.

You ride in the park and you're peeking
Piss pools in your seat
She's standing inside but you surely repeat
Oh God don't leave me here
I will freeze till the end
Love is loves reprieve

Winter is come and you're stuck here
Oh and so is she
Now when the wind blows you cover your teeth
I told you to shed away and trade in your blues
Love is loves sad news

That was Wisconsin that was yesterday
Now I have nothing that I can keep
Cause every place I go I take another place with me
Love is loves mystique

You're up on the bar and your shaking
With every grimy word
Who will love
What's love when you've hurt
Wherever is your scene the snow kissed the curb
Love is loves return

That was Wisconsin that was yesterday
Now I have nothing that I can keep
Cause every place I go I take another place with me
Love is loves critique