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.

floating relic: venice by gondola

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Venice by sandolo

I was content to keep exploring Venice on foot. While the idea of a gondola ride had its intrigue–is there anything more uniquely Venetian?–in reality the excursions looked less than romantic. From where I stood–on bridges, mostly, peering down into the polished boats–I saw sullen gondoliers wordlessly transporting families of six who videotaped the entire experience. I watched young couples who flicked through their phones and barely regarded each other or Venice as they were swept through the city’s canals.

Any charm seemed in danger of suffocation by the fierce overhead glare of the sun and the thick crowds on the Rialto Bridge. People were jostling, posing, and dripping gelato on the steps as one boat after another passed through the main waterways, nearly bumping up against one another as if this were Disney’s It’s a Small World instead of a private, 80-euro experience.

As I walked, though, with Victor, wandering far from the densest masses of crowd, I fell for the empty gondolas. Bobbing gently in quiet corners of the canals, their onyx-black hulls glittered in the sun, modest quests for attention. Their distinctive color, I later learned, dates back to 16th-century law: an attempt to halt gaudy competition between gondoliers.

Still, each gondola I saw was unique. Their interiors were scarlet and gold, or occasionally, cobalt blue. They held bright rugs and gold vases filled with sunflowers and glossy wooden chairs with floral upholstery and red cushions with white lions. Gold mermaids and winged horses and angels leapt from the sides.

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The gondolas were perfect objects, indisputably beautiful. The gleaming wood and elegant curves brought to mind musical instruments: the grand, glossy elegance of a cello or bass.

Italy is known to prize the aesthetic, with its concept of bella figura, its reverence for beauty and grace. This Cadillac of a boat, I thought, was a good example: moving at 3 miles an hour, walking pace, the gondola is a relic in the 21st century, wholly unnecessary and fully lovely. ACS_1031

It takes about two months to construct a gondola and costs upwards of 20,000 euros to purchase one. Eight types of wood–cherry, elm, fir, larch, lime, mahogany, oak, and walnut–are joined together in an ingenious, flat-bottomed design that allows the boat to navigate in water just centimeters deep.

There seemed no better way to directly experience Venice’s aquatic history than by getting into a boat. We decided to go for it, in our last full day in the city, as long as we could find one a bit off the beaten path.

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Gondola rides are price-controlled, currently eighty euros for a standard daytime ride and one hundred at night. But shopping around is worth it, as the experience differs greatly depending upon the starting point and the personality of the gondolier.

Victor and I walked until we found the neighborhood we remembered from a previous stroll. I don’t know how we found it, really. The endless tiny streets–some of them dead-ending into the canal–confounded my navigation apps, not to mention my nascent sense of direction.

We were in the quiet Campo del Ghetto, the Jewish neighborhood dating back to the 16th century. The English word ghetto originates from Venetian dialect geto, meaning ‘foundry,’ and this was the area’s purpose before Jews were isolated and forced to live there. Campo del Ghetto was cut off from the city until 1797, when Napoleon conquered Venice and ended the neighborhood’s separation. Today, the Ghetto is a calm area with a Holocaust memorial and five synagogues.

We saw a boat coming in and waited by stone steps leading into the canal. The gondola was piloted by a woman– a sight rare enough to be striking, but I didn’t yet know how rare. Researching it, I learned there are so few women gondoliers that you can know them by name. Their names are Giorgia Boscolo and Chiara Curto: out of about 400 total gondoliers, there are two women.

Ms. Curto was the woman steering the boat up to the foot of the bridge, smiling and ruddy-cheeked. But she told us she was booked for the rest of the afternoon. It had been a day where we kept running into Closed signs; it seemed a fitting, disappointing end. But then she said she had availability for the sunset tour. She made a note and we hurried off into the maze of streets.  acs_0833

Freshly showered (and wearing distinctly clashing outfits), Victor and I returned a few hours later. The water and buildings shone soft pastel in the waning sun. Ms. Curto helped us into the boat, and then hopped up on the nearby bridge to take our picture. I didn’t have to fake my smile (and couldn’t have stopped it if I tried). If there’s ever a place to be a fool in love, it’s on a boat in Venice.

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Victor noticed the gondola didn’t have the distinctive iron ornament (the fèrro) that we’d spotted on the front of the other boats. That’s when we learned we weren’t in a gondola at all but a sandolo. Sandoli are wider and flatter than gondolas, used for rowing. They can access shallow spots in Venice most gondoliers wouldn’t go. They are also, Ms. Curto told us, even older and more traditional than the gondola.

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Chiara didn’t sing, but she was full of stories. In brief silences, the only sound was the oar moving through the water. We swept under bridges–Ms. Curto deftly ducking out of the way–and past churches, bars, and boats. We glided under laundry, the great equalizer, a cheerful reminder that behind these flung-open shutters and crumbling brick walls life churned on, messy and mundane. Whole duvets hung out to dry on the pulley systems spanning the canals.

As Chiara steered the boat back to the foot of the bridge, I stirred, dreamy-eyed, like I was waking from slumber. As in sleep, time had ticked by in secret, and the half-hour outing felt as if we should measure it in seconds.

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I wondered what would it be like to be any one of them. To work standing up in a boat, battling the cold and the sunburn. To bask in beginnings, to witness the unveiling of so many shining engagement rings. Might you be cynical, a poet, or some combination?

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Might you be proud: carrying on a centuries-old tradition that is in no way vital to the city’s operations…but surely vital to its heart.

no shoes no service: alone in italia, day six

Monterosso al Mare. I am ready for my second try of the hike between three villages of le Cinque Terre. It’s a fine day for a hike, not too hot, and we’re getting an early start. We will stop in Vernazza for some pizza and then finish in Corniglia, where the basil gelato is once again calling my name.

I hand the man at the trailhead a ten-euro note and he looks past the money to my feet, which are outfitted in my black Birkenstock slides.

“Oh no, signora. This is not recommended. This is very dangerous.”

I smile, sheepish. “Thank you, I understand. I’ve already done the hike; I understand the risk… I think I would like to try anyway.”

The man narrows his eyes, and for a second I think he’s actually going to make me turn back.

Trying for respectful, yet determined, I offer my best charming smile. There is a silence.

The man waves his hands at my foolishness. “I understand this for you, you are young, no problem,” he shakes his head. “But I tell you this: very dangerous. Not recommended!” He hands me my ticket.

With this “beware the Ides of March” word of encouragement, I start hiking.

In all fairness, I did not expect to be hiking today. In the latest incarnation of my usual plan not to plan, I am in the shuttle down to Riomaggiore with a vague vision of cannoli dancing in my head, when I find a group of guys to go hiking with.

I had met Martin the night before while I was camped out in my office for the week (the computer near the front doors of the hostel), working on a blog post. He sat down beside me: “Hi, what are you doing?”

The first thing I notice is his impressive beard and an accent I’m not sure about. He’s Austrian. Later, he pops back around with a handful of peanuts for me. “Brain food.”

He tells me about his plan to go hiking the next morning with a group of Welsh guys. “Oh cool, hope it’s nice weather,” I say, or something like it, having no clue I will be making the trek with them.

The next morning, we all happen to be taking the same shuttle. “Will you be hiking with us, then?” One of them asks me. I say no, automatically. “I’m not really dressed for it, anyway.” But as we get to talking, I find I do want to go. The sky is so gray and I have nothing better to do. Sandals be damned, I’m doing it.

We get coffee and cornetti al cioccalato before taking the train from Riomaggiore all the way down to the last village, Monterosso, where we’ll start our hike. On the train platform, the conversation turns to food.

“I love a great stack of American pancakes,” says Jimmy. “Smothered in maple syrup. Absolutely de-” I think he’s going to say delicious, but debaucherous is the word he chooses to describe his favorite breakfast.

“Absolutely debaucherous.”

That is when I know for certain this is going to be a fun day. If I survive it.

Thirty seconds into the morning’s activity, I think that my red-painted toenails look absolutely frivolous, and I have a vision of falling to my death, or even just spraining my ankle, while French and Italian families look on, shaking their heads and thinking, she had that coming.

And I do. Hiking in Cinque Terre isn’t complicated; there are just a few rules:

Drink water.

Don’t wear sandals. 

I feel a sudden kinship with the Chinese grandma who is making the hike in dainty ballet flats and a sun hat. The man at the trailhead warned her as well, and she just grinned at him, uncomprehending. It is her and I against the world, respectfully disregarding the naysayers. An Iggy Azalea song flashes through my head: I just can’t worry ’bout no haters, gotta stay on my grind…

Unfortunately, my ally gives up the grind fifteen minutes into it, turning back with her daughter holding her arm.

I forge on ahead.

I don’t like the looks of the heavy clouds, which start spitting rain at us and make the trail woefully slippery. I also don’t like the way these sandals threaten to slip off my feet at any moment.

I admit it. I was wrong. And my punishment is having someone scold me every ten minutes for my impractical choice. The fun part: I hear disapproving and incredulous muttering in at least four languages.

the land of oz: adventures in digital friendship, pt i

On Va Sortir. When I moved to Cannes, the website was recommended to me several times. You’re new in town. Just try OVS! This site de rencontre, the title of which means let’s go out!, apparently had a lively presence in town. Cannes is flanked by mountains and the sea, so I pictured the city’s OVS page hosting a dynamic community of adventurous people meeting up to get drinks or hike.

And then I typed in the web address.

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Well, looks can be deceiving, I thought. Maybe the fact that they hadn’t updated the website since before the Y2K scare was just a nod to simpler times, a sort of cozy nostalgia.

On Va Sortir. The ‘S’ was stylized to look like a path that led up to a shadowed city, maybe Oz.

I created an account, ignoring my slight embarrassment. I scrolled. A widget on the screen’s edge informed me that today was the birthday of “Coco” and “Tropical Fleur” and “Flyman.” Bright pink or blue type represented the user’s gender.

A little box urged me to type in my current mood, as if the “107 members currently online” had the slightest inclination to care.

The front page hosted pictures of past “events,” which mainly featured people who were fiftyish and wearing feather boas and sequins and other evidence of a tipsy evening spent at a casino.

Mixed in with these photos was the occasional dating ad, targeting those seeking “fun, single, mature older women.”

So this was it. My social connection for the year.

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When I finally figured out how to navigate to the actual event-finding page, I saw there were sorties as simple as a pre-work coffee or a karaoke night (the horror). It works this way: you create an event, along with the number of people you would like to participate. Maybe 5 for an early morning run or 10 for apéro hour at a local bar. You set a time and date and then (you hope) people sign up. The majority are strangers, to you and to each other, and you know nothing besides their gender, age, and OVS name. It’s like a big, messy, hopeful, desperate, platonic blind date, and if it sounds a bit terrifying or like a breeding ground for awkward moments, I don’t think that’s too far off the mark.

The idea is that by connecting people with mutual interests, the site will engender natural friendships. But I wonder if they haven’t gotten a bit overzealous. In the “advanced” event search, I find I can select:

“Gothic.”

“Luxury.”

“I like aquatic life.”

“I enjoy beer.”

“I like Turkish food.”

Unsurprisingly, such searches return no results. Snorting, I can’t help but imagine the soiree that would combine all of the above.

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I pick through some events that sound kind of okay by title, but when I click to read the user’s message, I’m put off right away by the type. Some of these users have typed up event descriptions like manifestos, featuring a diatribe about how this will be a medium paced walk on the beach, and if you can’t keep up, you really should not bother coming.

Many of them are typed in Comic Sans (a font I had understood to be illegal) and boast proud titles straight out of the Word Art program I played around with in second-grade computer class.

I shudder. I am not like OVS people. I am not OVS people. Yet…here I am, reading about Bob’s soirée bowling tomorrow night, checking for an open spot.

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.