in praise of a boring life

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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.

swf seeking family of four: the almost au-pair

 

Will they like me? 

Will they think I’m attractive?

Am I showing enough personality? 

These are all questions that sprung to my mind as I surveyed my bio. I felt waves of confidence–then shivers of self-doubt. But my work, for the moment, was done.

I had carefully selected five or six photos, chosen for the version of me they projected. I had curated a mix of “fun,” “professional,” and “good hair day.” I had spent two hours distilling my experiences, qualifications, and goals into a few breezy paragraphs.

Now came the hard part. Waiting to be noticed.

I wasn’t looking for eligible bachelors, but married Frenchmen with children.

In other words, I was the newest addition to Au Pair World dot com.

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Au pairing was a backup plan, on the advice of my business-manger boyfriend. I’m not so good at initial plans, not to mention backups. I have rarely had too many choices.

But there I was, lingering around my hometown, waiting to hear back about a teaching job in France. Though I’d received a positive response to the candidature spontanée I had sent to a small school in Provence, it had been several weeks with no further correspondance.

My other job applications had gone unanswered. After a flurry of emails, I learned I could not enroll in a university in Nice. Trop tard. I’d missed the deadline.

I was content to wait around–at least I thought so–because combing through Indeed.com does not my favorite activity make. I was a bit stressed due to a lack of direction, but largely at ease, ensconced in a cocoon of novels and homemade cookies, with the distraction that comes from again living with a family.

Victor, living in the real world as he does, shattered my illusion. He reminded me that opportunities weren’t going to fall into my lap. It was only June, but it would soon enough be September–la rentrée, back-to-school time–and if I did nothing, the laissez-faire approach would surely leave me with just that. I (begrudgingly) appreciated the reminder.

Victor asked me if I’d considered au pairing. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. That was one job I knew how to do. It would provide me with a change of scenery, some security, and the chance to figure out a next move from within France: making the future job search a lot more fruitful.

My profile went live, and it wasn’t long before messages from interested families came rolling in. Several days later, I had my first Skype meetings.

Just like in the dating world, this was all based on chemistry. We smiled and asked each other the same few questions–what are you looking for?–but what we were really doing was looking for chemistry. More than any perfect response, the important thing seemed to be intuition, the pursuit of le bon feeling.

I got a little nervous before each new date, checking myself out in my laptop’s camera. Then I would laugh at the reflex. When you’re dating families, you don’t want to look alluring and attractive. Those are not the right words. Mary Poppins, maybe, is the right word. I needed to look polished, responsible, and like I was the kind of girl who could pull lifesaving, boredom-killing objects out of my sizable purse on a whim.

I did the interviews, quite a few of them, scrambling to keep the information straight.  There were several families that didn’t play hard-to-get. They told me straight-up: we’re interested. Call me. My experience with teaching, interest in the Montessori method, and ability to figure things out on my own (since I’ve already lived abroad) helped me stand out as a reliable candidate. And my status as an American citizen was in-demand.

And so all of a sudden, I had options. Offers. I could say yes, a well-considered oui, and my life would change. 6 months forward, I imagined:

Paris. Two little girls. Parents not much older than me. We hang out, drink wine on lazy evenings. With the girls, I sing silly English songs. We make gâteau au yaourt. I master the metro. I take classes at the Sorbonne. I ride a bike, shiver in the brisk Paris winter. (I make a note: I’ll need a new, warmer coat.) Victor flies up once a month to visit. We stroll around Montmartre, red cheeks and chocolat chaud. 

There it is, the skeleton of one future. Parisien me could be reality. She was close enough to capture with keystrokes. The funny thing is, almost all decisions are significant. It’s just that we usually don’t know that at the time. Sometimes we never put the pieces together. But I have always loved working backwards, identifying the little decisions that led to the massive change. Pulling apart the what-ifs.

Finding an au pair family felt like choosing my future. Like knowing, for once, what my decision might bring. Sure, it was a bit of an illusion. Still there was an agreeable feeling of power to it. I could research people’s lives and have total freedom to decide whether I wanted to drop in or not. How often do you get to choose a city, living situation, bedroom, and family in one simple move? The future was in my hands. Plus the pressure that went along with that.

I kept scouring profiles and doing interviews. I continued my rêveries, now with an outdoorsy family in Bordeaux, a big family living just across the German border, a single mom with two little boys living in a renovated farmhouse in the Alps.

I could be in Nice, (somewhat) warm all year round. Or I could have a red nose from ski sunburn. Or a big group of friends, students in Lyon. Or the ability to while away whole afternoons writing in a hidden Parisien garden.

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It all tempts me.

I see a dozen pictures. This would be your room! They tell me. Would your boyfriend like to come visit? Do you like cats? Do you like to cook? We hope you enjoy wine. We want you to speak English with the kids. We want you to speak French with the kids. Come to Portugal with us. Don’t worry about the housework. Do worry about the housework. We’d provide a bike. We’d provide a car.

I learn that some families are looking for a big-sister character. Others, a full-fledged nanny.

I meet a family I fall for. The kids have my heart with their smiles. I am at work imagining a future. I am ready to cease searching and commit.

The very next day, I receive an email from the school: “thanks for your patience,” essentially. “We’d really like to talk to you about that job.”

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 !

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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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!