in praise of a boring life

assorted fruits in bowl
Photo by Ella Olsson on Pexels.com

I would like to keep writing in this space as a slice-of-life thing. This decision didn’t come easily. 

I had a couple of crazy years in which blog posts seemed to type themselves, a couple of years feeling fascinated by France’s every quirk. I was constantly in motion. Visiting new cities. Starting at new schools.

My dream was (is?) to be a travel writer. I have a hunger for the world (and not only for its wonderful and varied cuisines). I love languages; I treasure a new word like a pearl.

Less than two years ago, I had these pages constantly open on my browser: a site about a teaching program in China, a Peace Corps application form for a stint in Cameroon, and my application essay for NYU’s graduate program in French. I interviewed at a Montessori school in Cannes and sent out applications for copywriter jobs in Chicago and Los Angeles. 

What I wanted was simple, I thought. I wanted to make a living in an interesting place and in doing so, have things to write about. Stories with which to build a portfolio.

Unfortunately I wanted all of these options, at the same time. I was paralyzed by the idea of giving up any one of these possible futures in favor of another.

As Sylvia Plath puts it in The Bell Jar:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. […] I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

It turns out that not choosing is a choice in itself.

The one thing I knew for sure I didn’t want to lose was Victor, whom I had just met in a stroke of fortune (otherwise known as Tinder) at the end of my second stint teaching. In a zero-to-sixty kind of year, I went from a single girl with many nebulous dreams to a wife and mother. All before I took steps to develop a career. The shock was real. When I found out I was pregnant, I spent weeks glumly consuming American comfort food, googling every aspect of pregnancy and birth I could think up, and staring out the window. It was a dark time, when the energy needed to wash a plate was about more than I could muster. I had aged suddenly–someone’s mother?!–and it felt like I was mourning my youth and staring into a scary void.

Today, I am honored by and happy with these roles I now assume. I treasure my little family. That doesn’t mean that change wasn’t–isn’t–tough. Both things are true.

In relation to my blog, I suppose I’ve had a bit of an identity crisis. My vision of stories included visiting exotic cities, meeting strangers, strolling world markets, sleeping in shabby hostels, and cultivating a fearless spirit. This can’t exist anymore. Is there nothing to say? Have the rhythms of domesticity killed all wonder? Should I put my laptop on the shelf and hide my notebooks?

As an experiment, I just challenged myself to stop for five minutes and scribble a list of potential stories from the past year (a time in which I barely published here). It includes my French wedding, no small thing. It includes renovating an old house. I could write about my grandparents’ visit to our home in Fréjus, and how my grandma procured her first-ever passport for the trip, and how she and baby Clara have sparkling new passports in common. I could write about my short solo trip to Portugal, pregnant and so jet-lagged I felt drunk, but joyful at the cool sea air and Lisbon’s cheerful shabby color. I could write about Victor and my first flight with a tiny baby, the TSA worker who spied Clara in Atlanta and crowed: “that’s a newbie! That’s a newbie!”

In fact, a lot has happened after all, even in what felt like times of endless waiting. The events of last year have just been completely different from what I predicted. 

I’m reminding myself of something. As a reader, I value writing that is vulnerable and true. It doesn’t need to feature influencer-quality technicolor travel shots or take the reader on a rollercoaster of real-life plot twists. It doesn’t need to have all the answers or offer up the author as an example to emulate.

Instead, I value difficult honesty and grace. Reckoning and wrestling. A skill for finding humor and beauty, even in dark places. A sense of curiosity and wonder about the smallest things.

So I guess what I’m saying is: I would like to write that kind of blog.

As I know from personal experience, you can ruin your own normal, good life just by wishing you were somewhere else. (Madame Bovary is my literary warning for this tendency.) 

It’s time to make peace with the “boring life”–in other words, the one I’ve got. I will never be an influencer, modeling chic dresses in exotic locales while I offer up travel advice in a curated, relatable voice and get paid to do it all. My reality is something like this: cleaning up Pollock-like splotches of pureed fruits. Dreaming of a shower. Writing in ten-minute increments while Clara rolls around on the floor. Not at all glamorous. Rarely insta-worthy. But mine.

To adapt the old adage: you can’t choose what happens to you, but you can choose how you write about it.

embracing the absurd

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That long, skinny vegetable.

That colorful thing in the sea.

That thing that you close with a key.

These sound like lines from a fun board game, but are in fact desperate definitions I’ve uttered within the past week when the French term for leek or coral reef or lock escapes me.

I can speak quickly now, producing French at about the same speed as my native English, but that ability doesn’t always disguise knowledge gaps: simple nouns and verbs that I missed or forgot along the way. I compensate with long, looping definitions, often punctuated by you know.

“So we bought some…” My story grinds to a halt. “Tu sais, that long, skinny vegetable?” The listener squints. They don’t know.

“White and green, tu sais, makes a good soup?”

Over five years of dedicated language study and I’m liable to get tripped up on a leek. img_2368

Cooking with a friend really drives the point home. “Could you pass the board for cutting things? Where is the bowl with holes in it? I need the thing for scraping, made of plastic.” I sound weirdly literal, like an alien who has studied human life from afar. Either that or like someone who doesn’t get out much. How have I made it this far and missed colander?

Learning the French language has been a first-class study in the art of French absurdism. This school of thought, motivated by nationwide dejection in post-war France, claims that our very existence is absurd. Certainty is impossible. Does life have meaning? The answer is paradoxical: a definitive maybe. Existentialists sometimes bemoan this fact. Absurdists embrace it. It is by facing the void (and often, by laughing at it) that we can reconcile our absurd state. It is still possible, Absurdists maintain, to live bravely. To seek beauty.

I read playwright Eugène Ionesco’s “La Cantatrice chauve” senior year of college. This “anti play” employs language that does not result in communication. Thanks to the many missteps of my language-learning journey, this idea of language divorced from communication is an area in which I have lots of practice. img_7425

Set in a proper middle-class English interior, the play opens with a Mr. and Mrs. Smith in the midst of a strange conversation. They speak in clichés and then are suddenly cold and literal, as if narrating their own behavior. They make statements and then immediately contradict themselves with no change in expression. Stage directions include: bursts into laughter, then she bursts into tears. Then she smiles. 

Soon, dinner guests arrive. Mr. and Mrs. Martin sit facing each other, without speaking. They smile timidly at each other. The dialogue which follows must be spoken in voices that are drawling, monotonous, a little singsong, without nuances.

The dialogue which follows concerns how this married couple might know one another. Hmm, they wonder. Did we run into each other once, long ago? It seems we are both from Manchester. They deduce, finally, that they share a bedroom, and even a daughter! How curious it is, how strange! Finally, Mr. Martin announces in the same flat, monotonous voice, slightly singsong, that “dear lady, there can be no doubt about it, we have seen each other before and you are my own wife…Elizabeth, I have found you again!”

The play ends with the characters screaming out rhymes, sequences of letters, and one-syllable utterances, shrieking together as the light is extinguished.

But it has not yet ended. The stage lights come on again to show Mr. and Mrs. Martin, now seated as were the Smiths in the beginning. Thus the play begins again, with the Martins speaking the same lines as in the debut. The curtain falls.

I wasn’t expecting my French homework to send shivers down my spine. But this innocuous little play somewhere in the middle of my battered three-hundred page textbook did just that. I was early to class the next day to find out more. img_7390

Funny, creepy, and like nothing I have read before or since, I would certainly recommend it. Click here for the English text and here for French.

When you think about how much can go wrong, the delicate balance of semantics and pragmatics, it’s a wonder that we can even understand each other at all. La Cantatrice chauve takes this idea to an extreme, language’s every possible ambiguity exploited. The results are far from pretty.

Little did I know that I would be installing myself, post-grad, in the Smith’s living room. In France, effortless communication was a thing of the past, replaced by accidental non-sequiturs, wild hand gestures, and desperate expressions. It was only a matter of time, I felt, before I would resort to full-on absurdism, to screaming incoherently into the night.

It is difficult to exemplify the linguistic chaos that I have experienced, for I have tried to erase many of these gaffes from memory. I do have a few recent examples. You need only to imagine the complications that could result from mistaking cheville and chevreuil. These words, which sound fairly similar, mean “ankle” and “venison,” respectively.

Last week I asked for ankle pâté.

My first week in Cannes, thanks to a one-syllable mistake, I asked a woman in a boulangerie if she knew of a nearby store where I could go run a race.

It is moments like these when the absurd is felt fully. I look respectable, I speak confidently and fluently…and I produce a sentence so unintentionally strange that I have learned to recognize a distinctive expression on the faces of strangers. It is marked by a slight widening of the eyes, a furrow between the brows. There is perhaps a reevaluation of my mental state. Those few uncomfortable seconds are an eternity: the time it takes to cross the gulf between language and communication. My heartbeat seems to emanate from my eardrums.

These moments were once agonizing for me. I used to walk around thinking that everyone knew I was une étrangère: my non-native awkwardness surely as visceral as a bright bullseye painted on my back.

It’s not fun to be forced into a starring role in an absurdist play.

Until it is. I took a cue from the Absurdists and I learned to laugh. At myself, at ridiculous situations, at what we call communication.

In hindsight, I see that my seriousness and self-consciousness came from simple fear. There is, after all, something scary and absurd about starting over as an adult, struggling to communicate basic wants and needs. The disparity between my thoughts and the language I was able to produce frustrated me to no end.

Time, experience, and improved language skills eased the fear. But even more significant was learning to lighten up. It’s something I still work on, a skill like any other. But largely, I see my “failures” as funny. It’s not so life-or-death: and why, I wonder now, did I ever think that? There are no French grammar police hiding behind a tree waiting to fine me for incorrectly conjugating the subjunctive. img_7422

Sometimes, even now, a notable language mistake or inability to communicate will make me feel like a child. But maybe that’s not so bad. Babies have a big, beautiful world in front of them, full of unknowns, ripe for the exploring. So do we, the language learners, the close observers, the passionately curious; those of us who choose to implant ourselves into a mysterious new culture and start over: just for the thrill of it. Let’s embrace the absurdity of communication. We need not run screaming into the night.

 

 

To read more about my wrestling with France, try French People Tell Me What to Do: “In my French life, there is almost always a slight sense of bouleversement–disruption–the feeling that I don’t quite know what’s going on at any given time. All the yawning aspects of daily life have been shifted, a bit like that prank where you move every piece of someone’s furniture five inches to the right. I am the one pranked: I don’t notice when I walk into the room, but am surely going to stub my toe.”

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stranger things: the hitchhiker’s guide to the auvergne

It’s a dreary early-spring day in the Auvergne region in France. At some unknown stretch along the highway, I sit at a rest-stop cafeteria table eating bad baguette sandwiches with two strangers.

We sit and chew hard bread and wilted lettuce in companionable quiet. Cold rain splats against the windows and I shiver in my damp jacket and jeans.

I have no idea where we are. I wonder what I would do in the event of separation: just me and my purse and my portable that is dead.

But I am unaffected. I am bold.

(Really, I’m desperate).

I’m a BlaBlaCar rider.

Much like raw milk cheese, BlaBlaCar is a French invention unlikely to appear in the United States. Less delicious than Mont d’Or but certainly more practical, BlaBlaCar is a service that connects riders with drivers in a searchable and safe incarnation of hitchhiking. BlaBlaCar meets a real need as a cost-effective way to travel long distances, say one to ten hours of routemont-dor

The website and app are available for free. Drivers set the price per journey, which includes one seat in the vehicle, and BlaBlaCar takes about a 12% cut. BlaBlaCar now has a presence in 18 countries, but the US is not one of them. As a Business Insider article explains, BlaBlaCar’s effectiveness depends upon a strong public transport infrastructure, making it a brilliant fit for France and Germany, while hypothetically leaving American users stranded.

Unlike Uber, which has exploded in American cities, BlaBlaCar doesn’t work like a taxi service. Drivers input their routes, say, from Paris to Lyon, and mark four or five stops they could make along the way. Rarely do they stray from meeting points, which could include a major train station in each city they pass through. Users can take a bus, tram, or metro to meet the driver and then to hop to their final destination.

This wouldn’t work well in the US, where the meeting point could be miles away from where you are; the drop-off point miles from where you want to be.

Living, as I do at the time, in a quiet corner of the already-quiet center of France, I use BlaBlaCar to fill the gaps in train schedules. Montluçon is already under-serviced in terms of transportation, and I’ve watched resentfully over the year as routes to and from major cities have simultaneously decreased in availability and risen in price.

Today, I’m using BlaBlaCar to get home from Lyon. The rest-stop sandwiches mark the halfway point.

In the morning, I sent my mom to the airport and headed with my bags to the Croix-Rousse. Traditionally the silk workers’ neighborhood, it offers a nice view of the rest of the city–or it does when it’s not pouring buckets. After several metro changes, my wet hair plastered to my face, I drag my suitcases into an old-fashioned belle-époque café where everyone knows each other, even the dogs in their raincoats, and the day’s newspaper is thrown around with cheerful abandon.

Cyril, who I know by first name and through a few staticky phone conversations, told me to meet him around the mairie of the 6 arrondissement. A BlaBlaCar truth: he who possesses the vehicle shall make the rules. Instead of meeting him at the Part-Dieu, Lyon’s major train station which is conveniently located just down the street from my hotel, I lug my bags through metro stations, across a halfhearted market, and up a hill. There it is, the city hall: I think. I inhale a couple of cappuccinos and try to warm up.

Cyril is late. He calls me every twenty minutes with updates–something about a bouchon. Finally, he arrives, driving a sinister and decidedly un-French white van. He is thirtyish with a lumberjack beard and cold-weather gear. He helps me with my bags. From the outside, it seems I’ll have plenty of room to stretch out and sleep during the trip. But when Cyril opens the door, I see that there are only three seats in the cab. As the latest addition to the van of strangers, I am relegated to the middle, feet necessarily perched on the raised platform, knees practically to my nose.

Cyril’s van and his route are highly in-demand. As we drive, Cyril makes and answers phone calls and negotiates exact pick-up times with other riders. We let a girl out in a Flunch restaurant parking lot and pick up one guy on the side of a highway.

I am still in the middle feeling like an oversized child, but I am just glad to be going home and saving fifty euros doing it. I don’t exactly have money to burn. Today’s ride was a third of the cost of the only train that would get me from Lyon to Montluçon.

Road trips are good for thinking. One thing I think about: I am not used to depending on strangers. That’s what I think, anyway, before I realize that is a totally false impression cultivated from an American sense of possibility and individualism. I am not used to depending on strangers–overtly. Really, other people make my coffee and grow my tomatoes and fix my car, yet I still maintain a sense of independence that has been stripped away while I live in France. I become very quickly aware of how often my well-being depends on the kindness of a bus driver or waiter, a random dog walker or fellow diner. And when it comes to travel, I now depend on this updated, tech-based version of hitchhiking.

I’ve ridden with Cyril, Dominic, Valérie, Fred, Karim, Arthur…sometimes Mary and I ride together and we talk about our plans as if these people are our friends. Wanna stop for espresso? Dominic’s running late. The fact that we know them only by first name points to the strange intimacy of road tripping with strangers.

Do you sit in the front or the back? Should you sleep or maintain polite conversation? How likely is it that you and your conducteur will be belting out show tunes and exchanging emails by the end of the ride?

The answer to these questions is not évident. An easy way to start a conversation is by asking about the driver’s motivation. Sometimes it’s simply money; a way to help them justify the expense of weekend trips to see a boyfriend. Sometimes it’s company, a way to spice up an eight-hour drive.

Company comes at a cost: it’s both good and awkward. There’s a strange self-consciousness that comes from the fact that the rider and driver will be publicly rating and reviewing each other after the trip. Sometimes when I scatter croissant crumbs on the seat or fail to really engage with the driver, I scramble to atone for what could be perceived as poor company. No one wants to lose at this game of Rent-a-Friend. BlaBlaCar feels a lot more personal than Uber and other comparable services.

As such, BlaBlaCar does its small part to prepare users for possible personality differences. When users create a profile, they are urged to designate their preferred level of chatter: from Bla to BlaBlaBla, or, it might be stated, the likelihood that you will annoy the person sitting next to you.

Your rating on the website could prove important: drivers can reject ride requests, and some days there might be but a single BlaBlaCar leaving from your location. There’s a small element of personal marketing when you’re competing against others for transportation rights.

Ooh, he’s cute. Mary and I discuss potential drivers (which fully illustrates the lack of thrilling activities available in our town. We joke that we’ve become really boring). Why did they reject me?!” Personal.

I wonder how often two people have met and fallen in love over the course of a BlaBlaCar ride share. It would make a lot of sense, I think. People have clicked for less than similar music tastes.

I certainly did not find love. I did, however, find a not-so-secret admirer, a good fifteen years my senior, who wrote me a review on the site. In it, he praised our belle and enrichissante conversation. I was a person both interesting and sympathique (to borrow the French syntax). And he wanted to get dinner sometime.

When I saw it, I snorted. Beautiful and enriching? He must’ve been talking about the sound of my snoring. The car was crammed with four twenty-something girls, and, sitting in the back, I could barely hear his eager questions. He tried to make eye contact in the mirror, not paying as much attention to the road as I would prefer, so I decided to feign sleep until Lyon. Still, and much to the annoyance of the very-awake Mary beside me, he wasn’t deterred. Is Jessica cold? Does she mind if I smoke? Does she have enough room back there? 

She’s asleep, came the flat response.

You won’t always click with your BlaBlaCar driver. You probably won’t find love.

But for the frequent, tired traveller, the service offers an element of humanity unmatched by the TGV. With a ride-share, you will not be spit out on the train tracks in an unknown city. You will have a chance to hear someone’s story, learn about a new region, get advice and restaurant recommendations. Unless they would rather shut up and drive. And that works too.

In a time when technology has the troublesome side effect of isolating humans into tiny virtual worlds of our own creation, I am cheered by this opportunity to, quite simply, talk to strangers. It meets a real transportation need, and a subtler need too: the need to connect with people. As a lonely American transplant, I appreciated these miscellaneous encounters.

Sometimes they were awkward or embarrassing. They were boring, or else really pleasant. They were human.

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gypsy jazz

A lazy Saturday afternoon, some gypsy jazz, and flowing champagne. Taylor and I stand in la Chope des Puces, a tiny, ancient jazz club in Saint-Ouen in Paris’s 18th arrondissement. We are crammed against the wooden bar, standing-room only. The bar isn’t packed but it’s tiny, and several families and couples have already claimed the tables and are enjoying late lunches or glasses of wine. On the walls, the guitars of jazz greats share space with black-and-white photographs of Django Reinhardt, the French jazz guitarist with the Dalí mustache.

Following his tradition, two men play gypsy jazz guitar in a corner at the front. I lack the ability to speak deftly of arpeggios or ostinatos, to grasp the logic of this skillful improvisation. I know only that this music sounds like Paris, golden-age Paris, and that it is frenzied and joyful and fills up the space.

I shout our order to the bartender, a statuesque gray-haired woman who looks like she’s seen it all. She hands us our frosty glasses of white wine and sets down a cheese plate. The heavy wooden board is crowded with soft triple-cream cheeses, sharp semi-hard cheeses, and a hunk of knife-sharp Roquefort. Scattered handfuls of fruit and nuts fill in the gaps. There is jam and butter and a basket of bread.

As we eat, I look around some more. The club is long and skinny and gives the curious impression of being slightly tilted, like someone picked up a shoebox diorama and shook it, scattering posters and paintings, rippling the tiled floor.

I notice one man in his forties. It’s hard not to: he’s wearing dark sunglasses and a snazzy silk button-down, dancing and snapping his fingers and exchanging cheek kisses with everyone he sees. A loyal fan. He tips the musicians extravagantly between sets and keeps the wine coming, and he’s generous. I notice him holding up a dripping bottle of champagne, tipping it into the glasses of everyone nearby. I nudge my friend–”want some champagne? Hurry, finish your drink.”

I catch his eye (as much as is possible behind the dark sunglasses) and sure enough, he approaches. We shrug, laughing. Santé ! He orders another bottle for the room.

A few seats open up and we share a table with an older woman wearing a bright turban. She has her dancing shoes on and she twirls and shimmies in slow circles as the men play. When they take a break, she leans over the table, and tells me in French how this is her kind of exercise, this is what keeps her young. She has a constant contented smile and a look in her eyes like a Christmas character: “a twinkle in her eye” is the phrase that springs to mind.

Taylor, my friend from childhood, is visiting Paris for the first time. Though she’s new to the French language, she’s been ordering for herself in restaurants and bars and her accent is great. I rarely need to step in for simple interactions. She wonders if the musicians know a song that she likes, so I tell her to ask, pronouncing for her the conjugation of the verb “to know.” She does and they do.

We leave a big tip and say goodbye. I’m reluctant to go, but these melodies will dance in my head all day. We have a train to catch.