flyover country

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I remember reading once that there is more life in a one-square-foot patch of earth than in an entire city block. I may be off on the specifics. The point is just how much life there is–from microscopic to tiny–everywhere you go. The point is what you can see when you stop and look. I remember being floored by that colorful fact, probably encountered in National Geographic Kids, and crouching in the grass for several minutes. Sure enough, there were more bugs than I knew how to name. Everything was moving, when you really looked at it. Everywhere things were crawling and seething and hiding.

I’ve had lots of time to look, home in Missouri, waiting on paperwork to process for a teaching job in France. My room overlooks fields, a garden, a lawn of browning grass. I count the surprises viewable from the windows: Deer in the field. A sudden rainstorm, sweeping in with bruise-colored clouds. A few bats in frenetic flight, just blacker than the matte night sky. The wind carving paths through the knee-high soybeans. ACS_1184 2

It’s less than exhilarating, my existence here. Friends have moved on, to engagements and new cities. My old jobs are positively vintage, inaccessible: I spent sweaty afternoons at the local pool completing the teenage rite-of-passage known as lifeguarding. What’s left is family and this old house where each creak of the floorboards is familiar.

In a world so full of noise, this kind of quiet feels almost radical. In a time of life where I am expected to be always striving, always carpe diem, this time to just be feels like a revelation. It affords the kind of clarity that I realize comes from simply paying attention to things.

For maybe the first time, slowing down hasn’t tortured me, overwhelmed me with immediate existential crises or urges to make unwise impulsive decisions. Free from the childhood distractions of summer camp and swim team and general growing up, I have a whole lotta time to think. It’s not so bad once you get used to it.

Plus, there’s more time to read. I’ve been enjoying what I think of as “rural novels” or “Midwest novels,” marked for me by a matter-of-fact tone, no artifice. Characters largely stay put, but compensate for a lack of mobility with rich appreciation and description of their surroundings. Two such examples are Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer-winning Gilead and companion novel Home. These novels follow two aging Iowan pastors and their families in rural Gilead in the fifties. The books are subtle and true, imbued with melancholy and sunlight. Robinson manages to write about faith and family without bowing to the sentimental. These books are slow, meditative. Not at all boring. This time at home feels like that.

All this practice slowing down–like a temporary life of retirement at 24–had me eager for the road trip I took in July with Victor. We saw a lot and just like with that fabled square-foot of earth, it brought me to a few realizations. First, once again, this earth is teeming with life. There are stories and things of interest everywhere, often very subtle. Everywhere were curiosities. Even at the rest stops. Even in the odd ghost town in Arkansas. Just a matter of paying attention. ACS_1185

Second was the melancholy acknowledgement that I will never see everything, know everything. The more I learn, the more I am humbled by all there is to know. Our trip made me think, and say: I know nothing. Or very little. 

It reminds me of when I was 15, working on Rosetta Stone French, able to recite a few phrases from memory. A friend asked me, without irony, “so are you like fluent now?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty close,” I responded. It would be years before the assertion of fluency was accurate. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

I feel that now, just with life. A full acknowledgement of how small I am, now that the sparkle and arrogance of the college days has faded. Time felt endless. Now it doesn’t. The reality paralyzes for awhile, and then you move forward, conscious of your place. I am, I think, a raindrop in a sea.

Home is where you go to entertain these true, hard thoughts. Absence of distraction. Marilynne Robinson wrote “Home. What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile?”

On the road trip, there is again much time to think. Companionable quiet as we drive, all corn fields and cloudless skies. I become well-acquainted with the right side of Victor’s face. I grit my teeth when semi-trucks seem not to see us or when a storm rolls in and slicks the highway. I am scared of car wrecks. Not in any inhibiting way, just with an acknowledgement that floats hazy on the edge of my consciousness. It’s such a common way to die. Every time we leave the house we surrender to the possibility of falling victim to another person’s inattention. I’m surprised we don’t consider it quite a bit more often, our own mortality.

magic in the details: on noticing

When I think about leaving the Côte d’Azur (which by necessity will happen in about a month), every moment on a sun-soaked stretch of beach feels precious.

Something that interests and disappoints me is how easy it is to become accustomed to beauty. It’s hard to hold on to the wonder. Sometimes it’s only scarcity or the acknowledgement that you will soon lose something that rescues you from disillusionment or boredom.

I have never before lived somewhere that is–to my personal aesthetic sensibilities–so beautiful. The impossible blue of the sea plus the wild stubborn plants, the buildings in colors plucked from a box of Crayolas. Color and sun plus everything I appreciate about my adopted country.

I have to take pictures, though, because the pink sunsets and crashing waves and piles of houses start to feel just like any background. Somehow seeing these things in a tiny digital square makes them digestible, something I own a little piece of. Otherwise I am helpless in their bigness. acs_0300I am trying to recapture the wonder of my surroundings and the simple joy that comes from successfully having built a life somewhere new– while I’m still living it. The countdown is on, so sometimes I stop and actively consider what’s around me, activate my senses like in a beginning writer’s exercise. It’s not that everything is flawless or beautiful–I’ll be the last to sell you a guidebook impression–but it’s mine. I am in love with the details. acs_0293Notes from an average day:

What I smell: cigarette smoke, coffee, hints of fine perfume, the unmistakeable odor of a gooey cheese, salty breezes, French fries

What I hear: the mosquito whine of motorbikes, the musical chaos of layers of foreign languages, the industrial clacking of a train on the tracks

What I see: the aquamarine Mediterranean sea, sparkling across the street from my balcony. Craggy mountains. Ramshackle buildings in candy colors. The occasional island decorated with sage-colored olive trees. The bright white yachts in the port. Signs that point me to Italy, Marseille, or “the beautiful place on the sea.” Stooped old men clutching newspapers. Market shoppers carrying crates of clementines or bunches of yellow mimosa.

What I feel: freezing breezes off the sea, sand in my sneakers, sleep-inducing sunshine through my classroom window

What I taste: bitter coffee, the tart Prosecco they serve in bowls at Salsamenteria, the rich cream of a tarte tropézienne, that longed-for first bite of a croissant from the boulangerie down the street, endless cups of hot tea at night


Today, Easter, after a lovely last-minute picnic on the beach, I took a train to Villefranche-sur-Mer on a whim. Villefranche is tiny, a colorful strip that curves around a bay dotted with sailboats. If I was trying to do the guidebook thing, I would tell you that Villefranche dates to 1295, houses one of the deepest natural harbors on the Mediterranean, and contains the belle-époque mansion where The Rollings Stones recorded Exile on Main St in 1972.  acs_0303But, fueled by Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel (more specifics on that soon), I’m trying to get away from that line of thinking. Botton’s theory? Guidebooks kill curiosity. They expect a person to (and I’ll adapt his analogy to Villefranche) maintain curiosity and interest for: 13th century history, marine and naval information, American rock music, the work of Jean Cocteau, 1750’s Italian baroque-style architecture, the Napoleonic empire, and the modern tourism industry. acs_0312Guidebooks tell you what you should care about, what is supposedly important. Botton urges the traveler to listen to his own curiosity. The layout of a street, the color of a house, a mealtime custom…any of these might invite wonder.

The point is, who is actually enriched by crossing items off a list? Travel isn’t about changing pace at great speed. It’s not about how many museum doors you manage to swing through.

I am trying harder to just be. (There’s a koan in there somewhere.) Trying to notice, listen, wonder. Though I like museums, churches, ancient citadels, I feel no obligation to go inside. img_1386This afternoon in Villefranche, I didn’t step foot in a building. Mostly I just listened to the rattle of the sailboats in the wind, counted plant varieties, and followed the sunshine. I climbed above the town and admired how the boats suddenly looked just like toys. I wondered why the water always seems bluer here, and considered how it is that dainty flowers can break out from rock walls. I badly wanted to order an aperol spritz (admittedly just for the way the tangerine-colored drink would look next to the water), but decided it was a bit chilly to sit outside. I watched tourists, and wondered about how and why people got here. I admired the way the train tracks shot into  a tunnel in the rock. And I realized one reason I love the coast: it’s like a cartography close-up. The lines and curves on the map make sense when you see coastline from up high. Maps now intimidate me less.

Shivering in the shadows, I hopped back on the train and went home. Nothing special.

On second thought, maybe it was.

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la culture populaire for the couch potato: lessons in french tv

I can’t stand advertisements. I don’t like being told what to tell my doctor. I roll my eyes at deus ex machina plot lines and groan at laugh tracks. I am a TV cynic.

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It’s nothing noble. It’s just that I would really really really rather read. I am grateful that my parents encouraged the habit. From the age of seven, when I stammered out in-gre-di-ent in a Clifford chapter book I read to my dad, reading has had the power to transport me: away from the stuffy reality of a public bus, the pain of a stomachache, the boredom of a long wait, the torment of a heartbreak. Reading begets pure contentment.

I could write volumes about the virtues of books, which is why (insert irony, that loveliest of literary devices), I decided to start watching a little more TV. Call it cultural research: is there a better way to learn about a country’s values without leaving your couch? Plus, TV is just a little more convivial. Reading at the dinner table can (unfortunately) be perceived as rude. But when everyone is parked together in front of the TV, that’s considered quality time. Apparently.

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After something like a five-year hiatus from any TV besides reruns of Twin Peaks or The Office, I am learning all kinds of things.

Les Reines du Shopping

The Queens of Shopping, my guilty pleasure. In this show, the cheery stylist and trusted fashion expert Cristina Córdula assigns a theme to a week of shopping. Five competitors, all everyday women from age 18 to 70, compete to create the best look. They have two and a half hours to shop a list of Parisian boutiques and twenty minutes to do their own hair and makeup before strutting down a mini-runway, where the competitors judge the success of their outfit and their ability to stay on thème. The women’s shopping is interspersed with comments from Cristina and the other women– do they like those pants? Do they think this dress looks good on Florence (age 43, from Lyon)? Then there’s the finishing touch: the male narrator–invisible–but always full of funny and wryly sarcastic comments to direct the show.

Cristina, who feels like a friend by now, is likable and funny with her trademark hoop earrings, dimples, and especially her penchant for crying oh la la ! and bringing her manicured hands to her mouth in horror when startled by a true fashion faux pas.

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She’s what you want in a French fashion expert (though she’s Brazilian à la base). She’s kind but trenchant, the fairy godmother who says when the look doesn’t work, pas du tout. You trust her. She might point out your flat-chestedness or spotty complexion, but it’s only for your good, to help you figure out how to mets en valeur your best features. I’ve had similar experiences shopping at Sephora or Sinéquanone. As the vendeuse cinches a belt around my waist or runs back with a berry lip color to go with my light green eyes, or even claps as I walk out of the changing room, I feel like I’m in good hands: a little like Cinderella mid-transformation. And it’s fun to see this same trust the expert culture on the screen.

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L’Amour est dans le Pré

The name of this show, Love is in the field, is an allusion to a 1995 French comedy, Le Bonheur est dans le Pré, or, happiness is in the field. In the film, a miserable married man falls in love with a charming foie gras producer in the rural Gers department, finding his happiness chez elle. L’Amour est dans le pré proceeds along the same lines, fostering connections between people from different worlds. It seeks to provide lonely rural people, mainly agriculteurs, with amorous connections elsewhere. It can be hard for a solitary dairy farmer, for example, to get a day off, much less spend time in a city looking for dating possibilities. L’amour est dans le pré seeks to remove some of these obstacles. The host, Karine Le Marchand, interviews the participants and shows viewers their story: how they got to where they are, what their daily life involves, what they’re looking for in love.

The camerawork is stunning. Often, participants live in rural areas like the Auvergne (where I spent last year) that are short on people but big on natural beauty. The film crew captures the region at its best, making it look dreamy: somewhere a tired city person might happily exchange their stilettos for farm boots. There are closeups of farm puppies and cute pigs, aerial views of proud pines or grand dormant volcanoes, screen-filling blue skies.

Interested viewers write the show, requesting to meet the person who caught their fancy on TV. These first meetings are filmed (awkward, much?), and then, the agriculteur chooses the three people who most interested him or her to come stay for a weekend at their place (often a big farm house with plenty of rooms). Unlike The Bachelor, a choice doesn’t have to be made. Often, though, there is a real connection, and the show has led to numerous marriages and new babies.

I’m intrigued by the concept: old-fashioned in that it hearkens back to mail-order farm brides, almost, the tradition of a hopeful farmer who writes for a wife. Yet it’s modern, too. The problem is a little bit new: loneliness and isolation present in modern society like never before. Western cultures are getting further and further away from our food and the people who produce it, and it seems that these people often get left behind. I think it’s pretty neat that this show is working to change that, in some small way.

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Nouveau Look pour une Nouvelle Vie

A New Look for a New Life is your classic extreme-makeover show, hosted by Cristina Córdula. Each episode starts with Cristina sitting on a couch and watching the plea for help of her latest client (or more commonly, their family or friends). Cristina, please help us, they implore. C’est pas possible. You see footage of the poor fashion victim, twirling in one of their favorite outfits, showing off their closet, all ignorance and bliss, while friends and coworkers and spouses discuss the person’s neglect, colorblindness, or poodle haircut. Aïe aïe aïe ! Cristina cries, hands flying to her mouth. Oh but that, ça n’est pas. Po-ssible. What are you thinking mon chéri ?! 

Over the course of the weeklong relooking, Cristina dramatically transforms the hopeless fashion victim into someone who stands up straight, who likes looking in the mirror. Looks certainly aren’t everything, but they can transform how we feel about ourselves. I think Nouveau look pour une nouvelle vie does a good job urging people to upgrade without mocking or humiliating them. This show has moved me to tears a few times.

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Un Souper Presque Parfait

Souper is an obscure, Québecois word that means “supper.” An almost-perfect supper is a reality show where five strangers are brought together to take turns entertaining the others. Who can throw the best dinner party? To that, I say: who cares? Still, I was amused to learn of the existence of this most-French of shows, which asks: did the host choose appropriate apéro snacks? Was the décor classy and on-theme? In the episode I watched, a woman made osso bucco and then had the guests entertain themselves with photobooth props while she prepared dessert. The final entertainment was to go outside and shoot Nerf guns. Between good friends, this could be fun. But five strangers on camera? It was painful to watch.

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I’ll keep suffering through grocery store cheese advertisements, all in the name of cultural research.

But I won’t give up books just yet.

Photos are from a trip to Paris and a Cy Twombly exhibit at the Pompidou. Read more about Paris: Shoebox in Paris. Gypsy Jazz

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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.

no more material girl: on prioritizing passion

I am a woman conflicted. acs_0023

Part of me frets to be fashionable.

I like the way I look, but sometimes it isn’t enough. Je me critique. I need to try harder, spend more money, spend more time.

Then I remember–all I can afford right now is a stream of espresso. The espresso buys me something more valuable: space to write. Hours and pages to fill. Time to work in the lively environment I crave: a bit of clatter and conversation the perfect background to ideas rising like bubbles. I am limited only by my ancient Macbook’s battery life and the closing time of the cafe.

Forget the money, anyway. The real problem is the time. There isn’t enough of it, and I’d rather spend what I’ve got writing. I am hunched over my laptop or I am scribbling unsteadily on my commute or I am seized by an idea while grocery shopping that I must labor to transcribe via a tiny qwerty keyboard.

I am squinting, biting off my lipstick. I am in the zone, my appearance of no concern.img_7950

But when I am idea-less, unfocused, it is easy to see my flaws and easy to care about them. I sit, chewing a pen, taking in my surroundings. Look at her, Mademoiselle Whoever on the sidewalk, on a date, walking a well-coiffed dog. Perfectly put-together. Look at her, frozen in laughter or coquettishness on a poster for perfume.

And me. Crumbs dot my clothing (how do you eat a croissant without this problem?). My hair is not in any arrangement you could call a ‘style.’ My nail polish is chipped. I look tired.

There’s a fix, though, for all of that. And sometimes I give it my time, determining these things a worthy concern. Truthfully, I’ve wasted much time here. I’ve been a material girl, and I do know why: it can be a relief to focus on something so concrete. Change your clothes, change your life. Shopping trips and haircuts and magazines, all of it bursting with promise.

But it’s all distraction. When I spend so much time getting ready to leave my house, so much time caring about it, I feel an undercurrent of dread.

I like looking put-together; I enjoy highly impractical shoes. But this is not what I love. This is not my passion. When my appearance gets more attention than it deserves, my real dream pleads for attention.

I want to write. That’s the real dream.

They say you’re either scared of failure or you’re scared of success. I could never determine which was true for me. Can it be both? What to do when your dream feels so fragile you’re scared to pick it up?

For a long time my writing dream was sitting pretty on a high shelf. It looked good up there, shiny. I wasn’t going to sully it with, say, hard work, risk, or failure.

It was pleasant to guard my dream like a collector’s item. Better to amuse myself with fun frivolity, things of no real consequence. I’d dust my dream off occasionally, make sure it was still there. I’d write a few pages when the mood struck–and look, I could show it to friends!

But I don’t want a ceramic cherub for a dream. img_7421

That means work. That means time. That means sacrifice, letting some things fall by the wayside (like maybe my impossible hair). That means learning to silence the distractions. When the voice pops up, the one that says that my appearance (or whatever distraction du jour) is what deserves my time and energy, I tell it to shut up. I glance at my harried reflection in the window of a designer store with a shrug and a smile. I keep working.

I’m probably not ready for my close-up.

But I’m a writer.