the last garden in france

Today’s post is a little different. I’m sharing the essay I wrote for a World Nomads travel writing contest (effectively the contest of my dreams). The prize includes a fully-funded trip to Argentina and a workshop with NYT contributor Tim Neville. I wrote on the theme “Making a local connection.”


635435bb-24d2-407d-a2f3-ab8f5ecfe99eI never imagined gardening could produce such passion, fervor, and urgency. Then I moved to Montluçon and next door to Monsieur C, a man who speaks exclusively in exclamation points, wears overalls and a sun hat, and jabs his finger at you when he speaks–and he’s usually talking about his garden.

For a week he had beseeched me, in his apocalyptic way, to come visit his backyard, “the last true garden in all of France.”

You must see it! Before it’s too late!

In early spring, the yard burst into white-bloomed glory. I could appreciate the view from my kitchen window, but Monsieur C wouldn’t relent. I followed him to the garden.

He showed me the white cherry tree that produced delicious fruit–and was crawling with bugs. C’est pas grave, he assured me: when you eat it, just close your eyes!

He bemoaned the plucky little birds that peck at his asparagus, and he revealed the leeks, hidden under a screen to keep flies away. This way, he said, I can enjoy them longer than anyone else! Aha!

He spoke often of his superior methods. I didn’t have to wonder if the neighborhood rivalry ever got ugly: I already knew. The cheery white cherry tree was enough of a reminder never to underestimate Monsieur C.

He was giving me a ride in his sputtering Citroën when he slammed on the brakes in front of a house several blocks from our street.

See that cherry tree? Finger jab. That is one good-looking cherry tree, he said. I agreed. He then told me a story. He had once asked the gardener to let him have a branch; start his own cherry tree. The man refused. I offered to pay him, Monsieur C cried, and he wouldn’t take my money!

One late night, he crept through the fence, snipped a branch from the tree, and roared off.

An older widower as traditional as Norman Camembert, Monsieur C was set in his ways. His ways were the best! But hidden behind the ornery exterior was a sweetness.

I’d see it when he would knock on my door, offering a couple of ripe clementines or a boxed éclair. He had a budding friendship with a crow. His face lit up when he told me how “Coco” had swept away the bread he’d left for her on the patio. The cats that assembled, eager for scraps, weren’t treated as kindly. Oh! He’d yell, hitting a pot with a spoon.

My French neighbor presented his garden like a proud parent. And he was proud: of his land, his home, his cherry tree. I don’t know about the last true garden in all of France. But I think I met one of its last true gardeners.


Some details have been changed due merely to space constraints. Capping a story at 2,500 characters was hugely challenging for me. (2,500 characters is what I need for like a grocery list)

World Nomads announced the winners today, and I was not among them. I knew it was a long shot. My story is quiet. It doesn’t benefit from taking place in one of the sexy destinations du jour. Is it even “travel”? In the traditional sense, maybe not. Still, I dared to hope.

I hoped that someone would take a chance on me, believe that I have something worth saying. Hoped to be frolicking with Argentinian llamas in one short month.

Disappointment hurts, it really does. But what I also know is that hope and effort are worth the risk. I wrote “The Last Garden in France” in February, at a time when I was feeling down about pretty much everything. I dragged myself to work and back like I was underwater. I wanted– I didn’t know what I wanted. Having a deadline and a word limit gave me something to focus on and care about.

I started writing more, getting into a solid routine. I slowly whittled down my story into a lean piece of around 480 words, a wonderful exercise in concision. My parents read each draft, suggesting ways to kill the odd extraneous adjective.

I read “The Portable MFA” and Stephen King’s “On Writing” and the David Sedaris collection “When You are Engulfed in Flames.”

I wrote everyday, edited old stuff, mined my memories. I took myself seriously. I rediscovered a passion.

It’s interesting how finding out that I lost today felt like a punch to the gut.

I am reasonably happy, reasonably healthy, and I still don’t know where I’ll be in the next 6 months. In other words, nothing has changed. (Except for me, just a little).

Maybe the sudden pain is the feeling of hope evaporating. But maybe that’s what hope does when you don’t need it anymore.

This contest got me writing, and that’s one place I’m hoping to stay.

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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.

french people tell me what to do

If I wrote my own version of Rebecca Solnit’s “Men Explain Things to Me,” it would be called “French People Tell Me What to Do.”

That’s what a lot of my life here is, saying okay when I’m not sure that it is, taking someone’s word for it because I certainly don’t know enough to argue with them. I thought it was due to the language barrier–the solid brick wall between what I meant and what I could express–but when I achieved fluency it just kept happening.

It’s not the French language, then, but the French way of life: something much harder to study. It’s sneaky and subtle. Some days I’m nostalgic for the early days of learning, the black-and-white satisfaction of memorizing vocabulary lists for Madame Wetzel: amener, appeler, arroser. 

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.

Being a foreigner makes me conscious of things I rarely consider in the States, like how I’m essentially at the mercy of so many strangers every single day. If they tell me to wait, I wait. Sign here? I do. That’ll be 36 euros? Let me get my card. As I organize a new bank account, long-stay work visa, and phone plan, I feel dangerously vulnerable, like this can’t possibly work out and I’m going to get scammed. Somehow it does, though, giving me a thrill like I’m cheating the system. How is this underprepared American doing it? Your guess is as good as mine.

Despite little successes, what I can accomplish here in a day doesn’t come close to my productivity at home. There, I expect to walk into the bank, post office, restaurant, gas station, library…and leave with what I came for. Check.

Here, I don’t count on that. Half the battle is finding the business open (and not on a surprise holiday or vacation or two-hour lunch break). Here, I have to remember that the bus still runs at 7pm–but only halfway through the normal route, so I might be forced to disembark in the middle of nowhere. That of course I can’t pay by card. That wifi is a luxury and that, even in a train station, I might need a euro handy to pay to use the bathroom.

The little inconveniences happen every day: not enough to really dampen my spirits, but just enough to keep me on my (stubbed) toes.

Even today, I was ready for a full day of writing in a café. I had errands to run, a bag for my groceries, a fully-charged computer, comfortable heels. But the bus didn’t come. A little old lady walking a little old dog asked me what I was doing: don’t you know it’s la Toussaint, mademoiselle? In other words, everything is closed. Of course I didn’t know about it. But now that my successes are slowly outweighing my French failures, this kind of thing just makes me laugh (and hope there’s enough food in the pantry for dinner).

I’m a spontaneous procrastinator who lives for last-minute decisions: to the bar! to the gym! to the store! to Bordeaux! and what I’m discovering is that being here cramps my style because it’s just not the way things are done.

Paradoxical France, the country of the romantic yet stubbornly practical. The concept of a “dream job” does not come from this nation.

I grew up hearing American Girl, 90s girl-power wishes: “Be YOU! Follow your dreams! You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take!”

I laugh imagining that here. “Follow your objectives,” is how I think it would translate, and that is not something you hear (all the better; what a lame motivational statement).

C’est pas possible seems the default for risky or creative endeavors.

I tell people I want to be a writer. I mention articles, books, magazines. I mention passion, figuring it out as I go along. In France, they look at me and squint. You mean you’re in journalism? 

This used to get on my nerves, but I’ve accepted that it’s just a different way of seeing the world, a way I appreciate but don’t fully accept. I’m thankful for my American upbringing, even with its flaws, its inaccurate food pyramid, its pie-in-the-sky-positivity. It’s made me just stubborn enough to wrestle with France.