Sunday, July 25, 2010

Let It All Hang Out

Laundry day on rue Jean Jacques Rousseau
I’ve lived with a constant concern on laundry days that I would lose my underwear into the private courtyard two stories down and never be able to retrieve it.  If I did, I just hoped it was some of my new stuff that would show me in a good light.  At least the blue ones, something with color, and not the practical white Jockey ones.  French women are neither shy nor practical when it comes to what is underneath – just barely.

I’ve felt practically puritanical while in France because my foundation is both ecologically sound (made from quickly renewable bamboo fibers) and meant to cover and be covered.  Before leaving home I went shopping for a new bra with straps appropriate for wearing with the cut of tank top sleeves.  And the saleslady convinced me to choose the “nude” (ugly no-color) one because it would be invisible under light-colored tops.

 Was that ever a wasted afternoon because none of those practical, American, rules apply to lingerie in France.  Bra straps were red, purple, brown, white, black.  They had bows and flowers.  Forget those smooth Playtex cups we were taught to covet because they were invisible under the tightest top.  In France, the elaborate appliqués and topstitching couldn’t possibly be hidden unless under a heavy wool sweater.  Wearing white pants with blue underwear?  No problem.

The fashion faux pas that seem to grip my American psyche disappear when seen through the filter of a new culture.  After a few days here I became less concerned about the times my bra straps were showing and more envious that they weren’t more beautiful and worthy of display.  But that doesn’t mean that this is an environment of  “anything goes.”

French women may sunbathe topless at the nearby lake, but they remain fully covered the rest of the day.  They may have some part of their undergarments showing, but it’s calculated and coordinated and colorful, not a dirty bra strap showing under a baggy tank top for that “I’m-just-running-into-the-grocery-store-so-I-don’t-give-a-crap” look.  And lingerie shopping is serious business, with more than one male standing outside of a dressing room curtain, holding a selection of bras on hangers and not being shy about giving his opinions to the unseen female on the other side.

I’ve mastered the French autoroutes and winding country roads.  I think next time I’m here I’ll finally have the courage to navigate the lingerie section of the department store or any of the dozen lingerie shops in downtown Dijon.  After all, travel is sometimes just about taking risks, throwing caution to the wind, and letting it all hang out.  Or at least peek out from where I used to hide it.

Lulu, one of my neighbors (which has nothing to do with my story)

What do you think will be the next risk you take?  Share it here in the comment section.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tournez à droite

C'est France -- what else can I say?

Tournez à droite à la deuxième sortie!  Tournez à droite à la deuxième sortie!

Yes, this was a battle of wills between one determined traveler and a GPS tyrant.  “Ignore the prescribed course at your peril,” clearly sounded in the tone of the Renault oracle.  But sometimes I just didn’t want to turn right at the second exit, or instinct (or an actual paper map – you remember those, don’t you?) told me that the navigator didn’t always know the best route.  I would not be bullied, but I was willing to compromise with this overly-confidant French know-it-all.

In this country, if a road doesn’t lead to Paris it’s hardly worth consideration on maps or navigation programs.  For my first solo drive to visit my friends, Martine and Christophe, in the Loire Valley near La Roche-Posay, however, I wanted to head west out of Dijon and not take the rapid, but boring, autoroute system that led me first north to the City of Lights and then south to where I wanted to actually go.  With a good map of the country, some time, and the help of a great internet website I charted a course in which my kilometers would be marked not by forgettable highway rest stops but by cows that changed from white to brown as the French regions changed, hillsides of grape vines giving way to fields of sunflowers, and stone villages that believe you can never have too many purple petunias on a bridge.

And so sometimes that disembodied voice would grow insistent that I turn and head back toward a large autoroute like any sensible person would do.  I would fight its urgings, and after a few kilometers, it would give in and reconfigure its course to fit my desires.  But to show me who’s boss it would seek revenge by saying, “Ok, if you don’t want to take A77, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”  Then it would send me down single-track roads not on the map.  It told me to turn onto “streets” no wider than a single car driveway and make me maneuver hairpin turns then scream hysterically “Passer impossible! Passer impossible!” when it guided me down blind alleys or roads that, quite literally, ended at the river edge.

So on this adventure I encountered “route barrée” signs with no further directions for how to otherwise escape a maze of medieval streets and tailgated giant farm combines hogging the two-lane roads at a leisurely 25 kph.  I relished the McDonalds I found with its quick service and clean bathroom as much as I enjoyed my travel respite at the bar with decorations just this side of a classy bordello.  I slammed on the brakes for two horses grazing beside a church in an unknown town.  And nothing can compare with driving through a tunnel of giant sunflowers dancing in the breeze, even if it is the wrong road.

This more complicated route that took twice as long as the mapping directions estimated just felt so familiar at this point in my life.  I know the destination I want to reach in my life right now, i.e., to earn the title of “writer.”  But I’ve definitely shunned the short and sweet route – that’s for those who start young and keep to the main road.  My way takes me down long, empty roads temporarily without a town in sight.  While I went the wrong way down a one-way street only once on my drive, I seem to do it on a regular basis as I reach for my goal.  Some days I’m lost in a country where I don’t speak the language well enough to even ask for directions.  Other days it seems life is screaming at me “passer impossible – route barrée!”  But every time I think about getting back on a straight highway I find a stone cabanon in a field of sunflowers and I don’t care how long it takes to get me where I want to go.

Friday night petanque tournaments in La Roche-Posay

Castles of the Loire -- Angles sur l'Anglin

What has been your most memorable drive?  Share it in the comments section here.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Selections from a French Life

selections french life
Everyone goes to market on Tuesdays

-- I saw a man wearing a yellow straw skimmer with a black band having tea.  He had a very distinctive mole on the side of his face.

-- Walking home from dinner late one night I saw three men lift a small car and detach it from the large trash truck that had hooked it when trying to maneuver a tight corner on a narrow street.  Everyone went back to dinner without a further word.

-- Just because it’s beef bourguignon and it’s served in Burgundy, FR doesn’t make it always good.

-- Hallelujah! Coke Zero is everywhere here.  What’s up with the US?  They make it; why don’t they sell it?

-- My Blackberry is actually getting 3G internet service here.  In St. Louis I can’t even get a good phone connection in my living room.

-- The French must have their bread!  Bastille Day, everything closed except a few boulangeries for the early part of the day.  Line is outside the door and down the sidewalk at mine.  Exiting at various times: lady with small dog, lady with large dog, old man with three large baguettes (hey, where’s the party!), young man on roller skates.

-- The French make a very clear distinction between cocks and hens.  It is coq au vin NOT poulet au vin.

-- The French need a second revolution, or at least a nationwide strike, to improve public toilets.  You would think the country that houses the treasures of the Louvre would see the beauty in clean public toilets with porcelain thrones, not holes in the ground.

-- I truly enjoy having sun-dried laundry.  I don’t care if anyone sees my undies hanging on the line in my window.

-- If the French can grow the most succulent and beautiful fruits and vegetables you’ve ever seen, why do they only serve green beans or a few romaine leaves with an anemic sliced tomato with the meal?

-- I finished lunch at a brasserie and then sat there reading the paper and writing until the “happy hour” crowd started arriving.  A cup of tea will get you a table all day if you want it.

-- Sunday brunch with croissants and quiche and champagne in France brings you one step closer to heaven.  Especially if the gratin pomme de terre is clearly made with heavy cream and gruyère cheese.  And it’s eaten in a walled garden with a gurgling fountain.

selections fr. life
A mountain of haricot verts

Market stop

What truths or observations have you come across in the past week?  Share your thoughts or comments here

Friday, July 9, 2010


Sidewalk graffiti on rue Chabot Charny, Dijon FR (probably some unkind reference to the town's symbol, the owl)

Late night.  Brad and I trudging home through the wall of heat and humidity down rue Chabot Charnay after an organ concert at église Saint-Pierre.  Platoons of bicyclists heading home along the car-free streets in centre-ville. A lone motorcyclist makes pedestrian heads turn as he throttles down and roars up the block at highway speed.  Faint rock music comes from an open window high above the street.

Then a flash of gold to the left out of the corner of my eye.  Above the tall iron gates that shut off from the street a courtyard to one of the Renaissance stone mansions populating the neighborhoods I see the pointed crown of a gleaming gilt mirror.  As elaborate as anything found in Versailles, it is carved with all the excessiveness of French pre-revolutionary abandon.  Just the top two feet of this piece of art are visible through that second-story window – a gentle peak that sweeps out and down like it wants to take off on its golden wings.  From the width, I imagine the mirror to be 8 ft. tall or more, but hardly dwarfed in a room with 15-foot ceilings and 10-foot windows open wide to entice in any evening breeze that the room could possibly capture.

“Look, up there,” I direct Brad.   Before he can even focus, though, an invisible hand extinguishes the light – and the 30-second view that will last a lifetime.

Look up.  Look right.  Mind the gap.  Interdit sauf livraisons.  Poussez. Tirez. The color of strawberries.  When I travel my eyes are wide open to the smallest objects.  Everything is new and interesting and delightful – even when it isn’t.  Travel gives a different perspective on the world.  Yes, of human relations, but especially on the ordinary space I move through every day.  Do I carry this awareness home like a treasured souvenir, un memoire?  Will I become a traveler through the quotidian of my own life when I'm surrounded by the familiar again?

The roof cat of Maison Millière, a classic
15th century building in Dijon (cat is 20th c.)

What have you seen lately that caught you by surprise?  Share your memoire in the comments here.  I love reading all of them.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Everybody Pogo!

Country singer Keith Urban jumps for joy

As I finished walking Skyler around the lagoon and Grand Basin at Forest Park and was heading back to the car, my eye was caught by bright mango yellow shirts shooting into the air in a fit of randomness in the shade of tall oak trees.  Despite the July St. Louis heat, a group of grade school camp kids were all exhibiting their most energetic jumping jacks before hopping on their bikes for a spin around the park.

When did I stop jumping?  When was the last time that I flexed my knees and then propelled myself into the air like a rocket again and again?  Do I always have two feet planted firmly on the ground?  And why is that seen as a good thing?  I remember hot summer nights after dinner when all the kids in the neighborhood competed to see who could bounce the highest or the most times on our pogo stick.  Onetwothreefourfive . . . onehundredandfive . . .  We jumped without a moment’s thought to bad arches, or aching sacroiliac joints, or old knees.  We pogoed the length of our street and shot into the stratosphere with little concern for balance or control.

We just jumped again and again for the sensation of escaping gravity and flying into the air.  Even if just for an instant before we were yanked back to the reality of solid ground.  Jumping jacks.  Hurdles.  High jump bars in gym class.  Puddles. Tops of front stoops to the sidewalk. Ledges and fences.  Hardly a day passed that we didn’t launch our body into space and hang there for one . . . two beautiful seconds before we collided with the earth, but then brushed ourselves off and kept moving.

Did I stop jumping because I grew old and my joints began to ache?  Or did I stop long before that?  Did I just get too busy to think about jumping?

The other week at the gym I tried some tentative jumping jacks.  There was no mighty leap, legs and arms spread wide.  It was more a shuffle and a lifting of the heels, but not quite both feet off the ground simultaneously.  Before I even crouched for the attempt, the brain cringed and said, “You know this is going to hurt.  This is high impact aerobics.  Your feet will ache for a week.  Watch that your knee doesn’t give out when you touch down.  And what about your shoulder?  All that swinging up and down is definitely going to inflame that shoulder again.”

It’s no wonder with such anticipation of pain that I looked like an elephant attempting “Swan Lake” instead of someone jumping for joy.

My favorite performer, Keith Urban, has a moment in every concert – just when you think the show is over and he’s about to strike the last chord – that he regroups, ups the tempo, and starts leaping across the stage on an invisible pogo stick while shredding on his guitar.  Everyone in his band starts jumping like they’re twelve and it’s a warm summer evening.  Pretty soon 10,000 people in the audience are doing the best they can to keep up with him.  For those few seconds everyone is truly jumping for joy and with abandon.

How many other ways in an average day or week do I convince myself that I can’t “jump”?  In how many ways do I hold myself back from something that could be wonderful because that little voice keeps telling me that some pain will surely follow any leap into the air?  I let the landing mean more than the flying.

As you read this, I’ll be on my way to France.  I can predict any number of opportunities to leap.  For one, I have a car and a map and will navigate a solo trip to the Loire Valley.  And I can imagine the hurdles and cliffs I may trip over on the way, considering I speak very bad French.  But it seems as good a time as any to start focusing more on flying and less on landing with a painful thud.  “Just jump,” I’ll remind myself every time I encounter a fence or a puddle.  As my French friend Martine said to me, “C’est l’aventure!”

Keith Urban and Friends 

When was the last time both of your feet left the ground (literally or metaphorically)?  Share your best "jumps" in the comment box.
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