from newlywed to retiree: on places, and what it means to love them

acs_0701It’s a gray day, gloom and drizzle. I am with Victor and we are driving from La Spezia to Pisa, a long stretch of straight highway. Strada statale.

I am content to chat and dee-jay. And sightsee? There isn’t much to see. Once the mountains are out of sight, we aren’t in Italy, but Highway Land.

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It’s funny. This could almost be the well-traveled route between Clinton and Kansas City on family shopping Saturdays growing up. How quickly we have gone from the iconic colors of Cinque Terre to all this non-cultured sameness. We could be anywhere.

It’s interesting what we block out when we dream of or anticipate a place.

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For example, for you or for me, Italy might be: gelato in every conceivable flavor, glossy Vespas, shining white marble, carafes of wine… but to maintain an impression like this, we must block out so much ‘normal.’

We must ignore the great unspooled ribbon of mind-numbing highway. The ugly big-box stores. The cloud cover that renders a day as colorless as a lump of pizza dough.

Sometimes I think we reserve those kinds of stringent observations for home: to criticize what we are used to and tired of.

But, it’s good to remember, every place has this real life aspect. If we approached daily life like we do travel, all highlights and funny stories, maybe seeing the beauty in say…Missouri, would be easier.

No one, I don’t think, has ever sighed and thought, oh Italy… and dreamed of the stretch of highway between La Spezia and Pisa. And so we edit.

Italy contains the beauty I’ve been filling my notebook and camera with, but it’s so much more than that. What, though? I don’t pretend to know. Not yet. I take it on faith, because though I’m still in the dreamy stage with Italy, I’ve already cycled through the stages of a romantic relationship with France.

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It’s gone from a first crush, starry-eyed infatuation to a comfortable familiarity to seeing flaws and resenting them all the way to, finally, a deeper kind of love.

Newlywed to retiree.

Disillusioned is the word. France is more, for me, than sparkling city lights and rose macarons and espressos enjoyed at cafe tables. On a three-day visit, this country of cheese and trains, baguettes and bicycles, might be able to retain this kind of glamor.

The casual visitor can leave with a photo album and a slew of good memories. But when you live someplace, you have to give up the dream, to a certain extent. img_5210

For me, France is a home, the place I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life once I’ve been free to choose, the place I work and write and grocery shop and wait for the bus and cry and sweat and dance and listen to podcasts and make lists. The place I practice all the verbs that make up a life. (The place I practice all the verbs that make up French, for that matter).

And that is why, I think, it feels so good to be away for a bit, to a place that once again lets me dream freely. For the time being.


Photos taken in Portovenere, Italy

On a similar note, check out: Less-Than-Thrilled: When You Don’t Want Your Dream

travel notebook: alone in italia, day two

Cinque Terre teems with tourists.

Scattered about the rocks like camera-happy penguins, people are:

sinking into squats for the photo angle

showing their ‘best side’

crunching on fried things served in cones

dripping gelato (and offering bites to their dogs)

brandishing walking sticks like weapons, the hallmark of the serious hiker

carrying hot cardboard boxes of pizza down to the sea I can’t help but fantasize about these same streets: cleared of about three-fourths of the people. But I’m finding the Cinque Terre villages so lovely to look at and stroll through, I hardly mind. It was a long, sunny day and I am the best kind of tired. My morning started with a view of another nearby village, La Spezia, from my hostel window. The hostel is cheery and pleasant, a refurbished elementary school painted bright yellow. There is an Italian restaurant and a light-filled common room, where you can have coffee at wooden tables with a view of the village church. There are bookshelves filled with battered Hemingway and Salinger and foot-high vintage tomato cans.

I am sharing a four-bed female dorm room. In the morning, it was just me and Lauren, a Londoner who is currently living in Bologna and teaching English.

Greeting people as I go to brush my teeth, it strikes me how funny hostels are: sleepaway summer camp for adults. Something you sign yourself up for. You’re not forced to attend any activities or participate in cringe-inducing ‘team-building’ games. The friendships are all on you. There’s something so charming and old-fashioned about all this sharing, about the choice to live again out of lockers and bunk beds.

Lauren and I take the hostel shuttle together to the first of the five villages that make up Cinque Terre. Riomaggiore. We walk around a bit and then take the train. Typically you could start hiking from here, but landslides and falling rock have made that impossible at the moment. It’s only 9:30 and I am surprised to see that the regional train is crammed. Like nothing I’ve ever seen in France.

Lauren and I part ways for the day and I walk around Manarola, the next village down the coast. The air is woozy with jasmine from the bushes that dot the cliffs. It’s sweet and delicious, a natural eau de parfum.

I find a few picnic tables tucked under a bamboo roof. What a place to write. I am glad I gave myself so much time here (five nights is the plan). I can afford to sit down and write whenever the mood strikes.

It’s a different mentality from most of what I see. It’s approaching 11 and tourists spill onto Manarola’s tiny streets, rushing from the train, snapping selfies as they go. People are almost aggressive in their pursuit of fun: seeing it all, making the most of it.

Below me, a good ten feet down the cliffside, there is a small bar overlooking the bay. Some women sit, smoke, and slice through crates of lemons, limes, and blood oranges. A lazy hour passes and I hop on another train, jumping down the coast to Corniglia. Corniglia offers dizzying views of the sea and a scoop of my new favorite gelato flavor: ricotta, chocolate chip, and pistachio. So basically a creamy cold cannoli.

From Corniglia, finally the trails are safe to start hiking. I buy a 7 euro trail pass and set off for Vernazza.

The hike is rigorous, and filled with Germans and Swedes wearing sun hats and armed with walking sticks. There is sun and much sweat and soon, a view of the village we’ve just left behind.

People are peeling off their clothes in the heat. (This tends not to be the practical Germans and Swedes, but the young Americans and Italians of all ages). There is a way, I learn, to shrug out of your sweater and tie the arms in a bow around your back, forming a nifty tube-top. A few older women, sun-brown, skip the modesty and hike in bubblegum-pink bras. In this instance, I keep my shirt on.

Vernazza is a shock of noise and clatter. Its one main street is absolutely drowning in tourists. I hear the buzz of voices while I’m still high up on the trail. Here it is again, that aggressive enjoyment. Families on towels dot every available square of ‘beach’ next to the port, which is already covered with boats. Instead of sand, it looks to me like mud. But fun will be had, regardless. Vernazza is making me anxious, so I take the train back to Riomaggiore. This way, I’ll be ready when the shuttle comes. I still have four hours until then (I reserved for 8 pm), but I am wilting under the sun.

In Riomaggiore, I linger over cannoli and coffee. I walk around the port, dodge seagulls, and talk to an Italian guy standing on a high rock. You’re not thinking about jumping, are you? I ask, sure I’m joking. He answers like it’s nothing, plunging thirty? fifty? feet down into the blue.

I meet up with Lauren again and we eat cones of calamari, inciting bird envy.

More nauseating curves and then it’s back to the hostel. I run outside to see La Spezia before it gets dark.

The only “person” I cross directly is a disgruntled black bulldog that sticks its head between the bars of a fence and snorts at me.

Otherwise, as I walk I can see into living rooms, into lives, into what looks like a stone wine cave, several well-fed Italians pouring wine and listening to music.

Back at the Ostello, I meet our new roommates: Heidi from Australia and Élodie from France. It turns out we’re all here for the same, cheerful reason: we all just wanted to see what this place looks like.

Buona serata !

low-key glamour: monaco in an afternoon

Monaco is home of the eponymous Grand Prix, the belle-époque Monte Carlo casino, scores of luxury yachts, and–let’s not forget– actual royalty.

Despite the evident glamour, I’ve always found a visit to the second-smallest country in the world surprisingly low-key.

It’s the natural beauty that catches my eye: the hardy Mediterranean flowers and cacti clinging to cliffs, the clouds that drift across the mountains, the views that leave you hard-pressed to identify where the sea ends and the sky begins. The setting lends a wild charm to the rows of shining white yachts and the clusters of buildings.

In case you were wondering, Monaco feels just like France. Though Monégasque is a recognized language, spoken by some residents and appearing on the occasional street sign, Monaco doesn’t give the casual visitor the same jolt of newness as when crossing the border from Menton to Ventimiglia, Italy.

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There’s not a ton to do here, so don’t come expecting art museums or a wealth of hip cafés. Rather, be prepared to walk, as Monaco is best explored on foot. In my opinion, Monaco offers one of the most beautiful walks on the French Riviera, and one of the best places to watch the sun set. You don’t even have to plan ahead or bring a backpack–just maybe don’t wear heels. (To capitalize on the country’s glitzy image, visitors often dress up in their trendiest outfits to take pictures with the view from Monaco-Ville, the old section of town that sits on a rocky cliff jutting into the sea. A great photo op, but what you don’t see is the way they have to sidestep down the steep hill in stilettos).

If you come by train, upon exciting the station you’ll soon find yourself across the street from the bay. To fuel your walk, I’d recommend a scoop of gelato from La Gelateria (conveniently located, as fate would have it, right next to the train station). From there you can cross the bay and begin the steep, winding ascent to Monaco-Ville.

At the top, you’ll have a nice view of the city. (Monaco, the city, and Monaco, the country are geographically the same).

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On the other side you’ll see the Palais Princier, the official residence of the prince of Monaco since 1297, and once home to Grace Kelly.

The palace is delicate from the outside, a subtle white or buttercup yellow color depending on the light. Upon seeing it for the first time, my friend remarked that it looked like a paper cut-out. I knew exactly what she meant, and envisioned some Mediterranean mountain giant snipping merrily away with a pair of scissors.

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The old part of town is very small, with just a few restaurants and shops. Unfortunately, most of them are tourist traps, selling piles of refrigerator magnets and average sandwiches. The buildings, though, are lovely. It feels more apt, almost, to describe them in terms of flavor instead of color, as they bring to my mind shades of saltwater taffy. melon, strawberry, orange creamsicle

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Continue through the old town to the Musée Océanographique. If you have time, the aquarium is worth a visit. I’ve been there twice and was fully enthralled both times. It’s easy to spend a good two hours staring at tiny seahorses.

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acs_0390 acs_0403 If you want to stay outside, continue on through the botanical garden along the edge of the promontory. Exiting the garden, you’ll have a view of the port. This is my favorite view in Monaco. acs_0395acs_0398acs_0393acs_0404 acs_0396  As night falls, head back to the palace to see the lights click on, turning the building a whimsical pink.

acs_0401acs_0416acs_0400  End your night on the right note with a glass of wine somewhere. And don’t miss your train!


For more on Monaco (aquarium, casino): Mediterranean Magic, a Walk around Monaco

 

no shortcuts: on making friends in France

One thing that makes the experience of short-term teaching in France complicated is the simple fact that it’s short-term. And the French are not.

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As an American, I’m accustomed to a sense of easy, immediate friendship. When I look back at my college years, sometimes I ache for the simplicity. How easy it was, the way I knew the rules. Like-minded, friendly students at every turn. The comfort of hanging out at Kaldi’s coffee shop over a book. I’d spend entire afternoons there, lingering over a latte. I was familiar with every other person who came in the door, enjoying a dozen little impromptu conversations a day. I made friends at my jobs, through my internship, at church groups and in classes and during study abroad.

“I love your shoes! “Want to study together next week?” “Want to get coffee?” “Want to go out with us?”

That was all it took. And you were off, headed towards friendship or at least a pleasant acquaintanceship.

In France, it might take weeks, or months, or a deep conversation for the formal vous address to melt into the warmer tu. I know the rules of the language, but what are the guidelines to becoming socially adept? It might well take even longer to master, and is decidedly less clear then studying verb tenses.

The French are loyal, adults often maintaining friendships with primary school classmates. Bonds take longer to form. But once they do, in my experience, they’re solid. People are sincere and mean what they say. I guard the occasional “I’m so happy to see you” or thoughtful compliment like something precious, a rare glimpse into the mind of a people more discreet than I will ever be by nature.

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It takes time to get to the bonding stage. In my experience, there are no shortcuts. And as I have only 7-9 months to spend in a place (twice now), the politesse and gentility, at first charming, can start to feel cold. But there are some things you can do to maximize your friendship potential.

I’m certainly no expert, and am not writing this because I have a large, thriving group of French friends my age. But I have learned a few things and cultivated a few treasured relationships. When I get a warm, thoughtful, three-paragraph text message from someone in Montluçon who I thought had forgotten me, or am offered a ride to the airport from someone I last saw two months ago, I realized I haven’t failed. I’m just learning. Here are a few lessons I’ve picked up along the way.

Don’t take it personally

It’s easy for me to feel at times like I’ve lost all my friend-making ability. Or my luck has run out. Or no one in the entire country likes me. Of course, none of that is true. It’s simply a matter of expectations. This isn’t a cozy college town filled with chatty Americans and if I expect that culture I’ll just be disappointed.

Remember where you came from

When I came back to France for my first round of teaching, I was nervous. Berating myself for every mistake. My host dad from my time in Lyon told me something so subtly wise, I haven’t forgotten it. Jess-ee-cah, you are not a French girl. You are an American girl in France. In other words, don’t be so freaking hard on yourself. Whether it’s your accent or your lack of social savoir-faire, you don’t need to be ashamed of evidence that you are different. What do you need to apologize for? Not being born into the same culture? You’re not stupid or clumsy or obtuse. You’re just foreign. And that’s really cool.

Make it a regular thing to FaceTime with friends and family. Spend an afternoon writing letters. Presumably you have a home, so don’t forget that!

Don’t mistake discretion for disinterest

As the one who is new in town, I often expect that people I meet will reach out to me. The thing is, often they tend not to. It seems strange to me, but I understand it as a form of extreme social courtesy and discretion: they don’t want to put me in the position of having to say yes when I don’t really want to. This is crazy to me. I’d love to have dinner with you! I’d love to have dinner or a coffee with just about anybody. But I’ve learned that as the open-minded, more casual American, I often have to be the one to suggest it. But if you are asked…

Say yes

Even if you’re unsure, even if you’re shy. Say yes to every opportunity (barring anything dangerous). Every dinner, every concert, every coffee, every invitation.

Create a routine

Go to the same cafe, the same vendor at the market, the same bar, the same boulangerie. Even if you don’t make friends per se, your French world will start to feel a whole lot cozier. I frequent the same few coffee shops and have made friends with a few of the baristas. One recently got me a job giving extra English lessons on the side!

Have your smartphone at the ready

Tinder, Couchsurfing, OVS (if you dare). There are a lot of ways to find interesting strangers to meet up with. Generally, I like to challenge myself to one sortie a week.

Stay busy

I joined a gym. Such a simple thing but it made a huge difference in my outlook. I love leaving school at the end of the day to go decompress with some yoga or get out of my head with a challenging dance class. If you don’t have tons of social engagements, make your own plans and keep a schedule.

Practice language exchange

Giving lessons and taking lessons is a great way to cultivate close relationships, sometimes with entire families. I give English lessons and I study Italian. It’s a bright point in my day, plus I’m practicing valuable skills.

Look for other travelers

I find the most success meeting people who also like to travel or who have lived abroad. They let you vent and ask the kinds of questions you couldn’t pose to just any local. They’re understanding and sympathetic when you accidentally “break the rules.”

Make sure your manners are up to par

Study French culture, all the tiny details. Movies are great for this. Sometimes you might realize you’ve been unintentionally causing offense! For example: I learned it can be construed as quite rude to see someone beginning to eat and not saying bon appétit. It made for quite the awkward moment when someone I knew thought I didn’t like her because I never said bon appétitShe confronted me about it, and I was completely taken aback, startled that she saw rudeness where I had definitely not intended it.

Persevere

It has taken about four months for me to be really comfortable at the school where I work. There were days where I wanted to quit, but I kept showing up and now I consider my colleagues friends, and I really enjoy my job. I speak Italian with Gabi, chat with Amandine in English, see Carole at the gym. It kinda felt like I had to prove myself–my seriousness and commitment to my job and to the school–and now that I have, I feel integrated as a member of the team.

Be open-minded

Good friends need not be exactly like you. They might be your parents’ age or your grandparents’ age or be found somewhere you wouldn’t expect. Keep an open mind!

group date on the DL: adventures in digital friendship, pt ii

When making a questionable decision, it is always reassuring to have an innocent friend to drag along with you. After several days of glumly searching On Va Sortir (a French website for platonic meet-ups), I decided it was time to act.

Over dinner one evening, I showed the website to my friend Rémi. Like me, he was immediately skeptical.

“It gets worse,” I said. I read him an article from a French dating and “séduction” website where a young reporter decided to see if love could be found via OVS meet-ups. Over a year in Paris, she went on dozens of outings.

She never found love, but she did meet a lot of strange people, and could even sort them into types. In any group, she said, there was sure to be the Divorcée, who would monopolize the evening with tales of lost love, recounting the innumerable ways her ex had wronged her. There was always the Shy One, the Weirdo, and the person who was new in town and knew not a soul.

The writer did not mince words with her OVS roast. After we finished cringing, I thought I should tell him.

“By the way, I reserved two spots for an event Friday night.”

T’es sérieuse là ? He laughed nervously.

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Ben oui, I said, cucumber cool. I knew Rémi would never do something like this alone, and I was confident that while he would complain, he would ultimately be a good sport about it. Plus, I had found an event that I thought sounded pretty fun (bowling with Bob just didn’t make the cut).

I had signed us up for a photography expedition. Participants were instructed to bring their camera and “eye.” We’d embark on a walk around the city with the objective of taking themed photos: “winter in Cannes.” Afterwards, we would get a drink and discuss everyone’s shots. There were ten spots to fill.

I teased Rémi about it for the next week. “Can’t wait for Friday when we’ll meet our new best friends!” Really, though, I was looking forward to it. If nothing else, I’d get some good photos.

The day came and I double-checked the event details. Luckily. It turned out the soirée was intended as a discussion of the photos that people had taken at the last event, several weeks ago. No need to bring my camera, in other words. And no night stroll around Cannes. We were meeting directly at the wine bar. Oops.

Somewhat predictably, Rémi tried to beg off, citing post-work exhaustion.

“Ahh, you cannot do this to me,” I said on the phone. I was straightening my hair and applying lipstick. “Pokemon” and “Dave” would be there and I needed to make a good impression.

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He groaned and sounded positively miserable, but I had come to understand, through scrolling OVS, that not showing up to an event at the last minute was an unforgivable sin. It seemed these people had ways of finding you out and getting you back. Like the Mafia.

An hour later, we stood shivering in the dark outside the wine bar, peering in the windows. Inside it was bright and cozy, but we were both buzzing with first-date nerves.

Après toi, Rémi said, holding the door. “You got us into this.”

“But…” I looked for an excuse. “You’re French! It’s less awkward for you.”

He wasn’t convinced.

The place was packed, but I didn’t see any signs advertising “group of people who just met over the internet.”

I leaned towards a bartender with gray hair and hipster glasses and said under my breath, “Um, we’re with a groupe d’OVS ?”

“A what?”

“On Va Sortir.”

“Huh?”

I wasn’t at all sure how this kind of thing was perceived in France, but it felt like a secret. My instinct was to keep it on the DL.

I cleared my throat. C’est un site de rencontre. He then proceeded to ask every group in the place if they were awaiting two strangers who just might be Rémi and I.

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We found them, a small and friendly group of five people, and exchanged cheek kisses. A pretty woman in her late 30s, Rebecca, had organized the event. An expat, she spoke with a Spanish accent and seemed completely enamored by photography. She talked like a professor, discussing the philosophical and aesthetic values that make good photos. For her, it was all about the story. I felt like taking notes.

We procured glasses of Merlot and a charcuterie plate, and then everyone took turns showing off their work via USBs and Rebecca’s Macbook.

Apart from the man sitting next to me, who showed me his collection of professional portraits, everyone was an amateur. So I was stunned to see that these photos were good.

In the series, all five of them, each person had captured Cannes in a different way, though they had all taken the same walk. The professional photographer focused on people on the street–musicians playing for euros, little kids–as well as his fellow photographers, capturing them in the midst of shooting pictures of other things.

A quiet older woman had put together a black-and-white series of what she described as Cannes ‘behind the scenes.’ She showed photographs of construction near the beach, litter, the jagged wood of a boat in need of repair. She had taken extreme close-ups of a single feather, a length of rope coiled on the sand, pigeon droppings. And they were beautiful.

I was perfectly content to sip wine, munch on salami, and admire everyone’s work. At the end, Rebecca gave her opinion on each series, explaining if she thought it worked as a cohesive set.

I was surprised and pleased by all the consideration given, this frank feedback. I’ll take passion over small-talk any day.

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I had halfway hoped for a funny horror story to share.

But there was a bigger surprise in store: I had a perfectly pleasant evening. (So did Rémi).

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I don’t think, though, that this marks the beginning of a thriving OVS-sponsored social life. I might be motivated to try again, if only the website wasn’t so clunky, archaic, and frustrating.

It’s not you, OVS, it’s me and my reluctance to spend hours clicking myself back to the late 90’s.

Better sometimes, anyway, to quit while you’re ahead.