Monday, August 29, 2011

Road Trip Reflections

America along highway 70, between St. Louis and Kansas City

Earlier this year when I was planning to drive from St. Louis to Michigan to see my daughter at college, my French friend Martine asked me about the drive.  What kind of towns would I go through?  What does the scenery look like?  How long would it take?  She tried hard to imagine my description, but she had some difficulty conjuring up the vast expanses of emptiness in a country of over 300,000,000 people.  How could I drive for 50 miles or more without ever encountering a town?  In France you can frequently see the next village before you’ve even left your current one.

Perhaps the size of this country accounts for the fact that only about 20% of its citizens have a passport (OTTI).  Without leaving its borders, I could explore the mountains of the Olympic Penisula, spend a summer on the Appalachian trail, hit the beach along both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, warily commune with alligators in steamy Florida swamps, see some of the world’s greatest art in New York City, or eat at Lambert’s Café (“The Only Home of Throwed Rolls”), in Sikeston, Missouri.  Why would I ever need to leave?

Americans are travelers.  They are Jack Kerouac On-the-Road roamers, they are Lewis and Clark explorers, they are move-West-young-man people.  When I’m traveling south, however, and hit the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains north of Atlanta I look at the deep, black forests around me choked with pine trees and tangled mountain laurel and wonder what motivated anyone to climb another ridge and move forward, or settle in this or that valley with seemingly no way out.  On the other hand, when I’m on the long highways of the American West I try to see with old eyes and understand what could have possibly made anyone choose to settle anywhere in these inhospitable regions.  Was it just pure exhaustion from constantly moving forward?

Same highway, 30 miles down the road

My favorite American traveler, William Least Heat-Moon, questioned why we travel in a Wall Street Journal article.   I think he might be a bit generous as to why many travel today (“we all set out motivated by curiosity of one degree or another”), when so many hit the all-inclusive resort and never leave the tiki bar or the casino, or their curiosity extends only to whether this outlet mall is different from one back home or if this chain restaurant might offer any regional “specialties.”

The therapy of the open road, he reminds us, is always possible:
On a stretch of open road, a driver can roll along with his window reflection laid over the           landscape ahead so that he must see through himself to see the territory …. For drivers who never see past their own reflection and on into the landscape beyond, any road and any place is as good as any other. If travel is not about connection, then it is not worth the carbon expended to arrive….

I’m grateful that there are travelers like Heat-Moon who go farther for longer than I can.  Two of my favorite words are “road trip.”  However, I know that even after a month and a half in France I start dreaming of my own pillow and the familiarity of my kitchen layout.  I want to return to my neighborhood Mexican restaurant even as I linger over the pure chocolate perfection of the mousse at the café down the street in Dijon.  I want to see the trees lining my own street instead of another tree whose name is unfamiliar.

The problem with longing for home is that I get there and grow more complaisant, less curious.  The winds of the moment shape my day rather than a desire to connect with something new.  I’m distracted by who’s up/who’s down in presidential polls.  I find it imperative that I shampoo the carpet or wash the dog.  What I’ll cook for dinner actually becomes an issue in my day.

But then I remember I’m one of those lucky few who has both a passport and a real, non-digital, road atlas of America.  I start imagining where I can roll again.  Sometimes my favorite part of the trip is those 50 miles with nothing but my own reflection in the windshield.  But connecting with the places and people at the end of the road are what give me something to write home about.

The moonscape on a road between the Grand Canyon and Sedona, AZ
Do you have your passport yet?  Where would you go first when you get it?  What's your favorite road trip in America?  Reflect on road tripping in the comments section and give us a reason to jump in the car. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Feeding the Twitter Beast

You can see by the number of Post-It notes, I'm not fully embracing modern media

Whatever you do, do NOT follow me on Twitter, no matter how much I beg.  Somewhere on this blog page you will find a link to follow me on that little blue bird of app happiness.  I don’t know what I was thinking.  Probably I didn’t think much about it because it took all of my brain power for half a day just to install the widget on my webpage (and you already know I suffer from decision fatigue).

This old dog decided that she would not let new technology tricks beat her.  So she started a blog.  But she didn’t realize that it required as much care as rare orchids.  “How hard can it be?” I thought.  I have a million opinions and a million pictures.  I’ll use one of those fast-food templates that a brainless jellyfish could master.  But once I started it, blog-building created a lot of blog-envy.

You know how that is, whether you play seriously with photography or gardening or rebuilding motors.  Soon you start to look around and notice that your friend has a better camera flash, or you read an article in a magazine that says everyone who quilts needs this new gadget that designs, cuts, sews and appliqués without any human intervention except pressing “on.”  And so as I wrote my blog I began to read more blogs.

Oooo, look at that cool badge saying they’re a member of such-and-such.  Twitter icons, Facebook icons.  Quick, I have to learn what an RSS feed is.  What a pathetically short blog roll I have.  I must network my blog.  Give me, give me, give me.  And so it began.  And now I’m in danger of massive widget failure.

And Twitter is to blame.

“How hard can it be?” I said again.  My nephew, Andy Wissman (“skateboarder, photographer, filmmaker, artist, beard”), is droll beyond measure, plus he always has links to his fantastic photos on his e-zine.  Besides, he’s young, unmarried, and works at City Museum in St. Louis.  Of course, he has time to tweet up a storm.  But how do bloggers like Annette Gendler and Monica Medina find so many links to offer up?  How do they meet their daily, weekly, and monthly writing tasks (yay, Monica for her new HuffPo gig!) while still tweeting all those fabulous links to make me a better writer?

Tweet tweet tweet all day.  Constant mentions, retweets, replies, @ high fives.  All day long they roll through my TweetDeck.

How will I ever feed the Twitter Beast? Hashtags (#), @ signs, retweets, replies, tinyurls.  I used to think I was witty and had something to say about everything.  But I stare at my TweetDeck and . . . nothing.  What could I possibly say in under 140 characters that anyone would want to retweet?  Oh no, my head’s about to explode from the pressure.

At night as I lie in bed the horror of complete Twitter failure overtakes me.  I think, “Crapola, I should have tweeted that article in the New York Times.  Or I should have tweeted something I overheard in the supermarket line.”  Or “Dang, nothing worth tweeting ever happens to me.”  I can go through an entire day without remembering to tweet once.  And then I panic more because I never read all the tweets from yesterday or followed all the valuable links of the 26 Twitter fiends I’m currently following and there will be more tomorrow.  I’d have more than a pittance of my own followers, but I thought it prudent (in case I want to run for office or become a famous writer) to block a few who said they wanted to be my friend.  Somehow I didn’t think they’d say anything I could RT in public.  And if I follow Justin Bieber will he follow me back?

I’m still a Post-It notes kinda gal.  I don’t even sync my smartphone to anything.  So whatever you do, don’t click that little blue bird and start following me around all day.  Don’t send me wonderfully witty or profound messages that I can RT to make myself appear more wonderfully witty and profound.  Don’t share my links with friends who might expect all of my messages to be just as interesting.

Now please excuse me.  I have to go to the gym to do lat pulldowns so I can carry the weight of my new Twitter responsibility on my narrow shoulders.
Pen and paper -- still my favorite message transmission media

If you've mastered the Twitter Beast, tell me so I can learn more by following you.  If you think it's the time suck of the century, please share.

As the summer comes to an end, revisit a lazy Sunday along the Burgundy Canal

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Decision Fatigue? Too Tired to Think About It Now

Around 4 p.m. every afternoon in Dijon this seemed like an effortless decision

Let’s see.  I have to decide what weekend I’ll visit my daughter at school on which flight on which airline for how many days and in which hotel I’ll stay.

Today I need to choose an electrician for the broken light switch and choose a neurosurgeon to look at my cervical problem for possible surgery.

I need to choose which overdue e-mails to answer or which photos to put in my online photo album now that I’m home from France.

I could decide what we’re going to eat for dinner this coming week or what I’m going to write today.  Or I could sift through the list of architects to consider for our home renovations or decide . . . .

At least I finally have an answer to why I’m three years behind on my to-do list.

According to researchers in social neuroscience I’m suffering from “decision fatigue.”  Apparently the more choices I make in my day, the harder each new decision becomes.  I have a finite amount of mental energy.  If I exert it making decisions all day, the harder it is to resist temptation and make the difficult choices.  My willpower is depleted, according to researchers, so therefore my low willpower steers my car into the fast food drive-thru lane rather than make me perform a mental checklist of what healthy foods are sitting at home in my own refrigerator for lunch today.

Because I’m suffering from a chronic case of decision fatigue it’s easier to go on Facebook to see if new updates have come in sometime in the last 42 seconds than go online and research possible electricians to call about the light switch.  After standing in front of the olive oil section of my supermarket trying to decide among 387 different variations I inevitably yield to the temptation of the Hostess snack cake strategically placed at the beginning of the checkout lane.

When I grew up we women were told that we could have it all, we could be anything we wanted to be.  Nobody told us, however, how many decisions were required to make it all work.  At one point in my adulthood I considered myself the master of multi-tasking.  Now when faced with a dozen tasks to juggle in my day, not doing any of them seems a real good idea.  I’m pulled in so many directions that by lunchtime I can’t even decide on priorities.  And then the lure of sleeping baby pandas and sneezing kittens on YouTube ensnares me.

Researchers Roy F. Baumeister and Todd Heatherton have connected this decision fatigue and depletion of willpower to our glucose level.  It declines as mental energy is exerted, causing our willpower to dip.  So for those of us constantly trying to lose that first 30 or last 10 pounds, we’re caught in a catch-22:

-- in order not to eat we need willpower
-- in order to have willpower we need to eat to replenish our glucose level

We all fluctuate between being seriously irritated by and seriously envious of those who exhibit a bottomless well of self-control.  You know the type – they completely ignore the doughnuts at the staff meeting or get up at 5 a.m. every morning to fit in an hour of yoga or writing or Italian practice.  Baumeister has an explanation for that behavior.  These people, he concludes, structure their lives so as to conserve willpower.  They choose to avoid the decisions required by avoiding all-you-can-eat buffet.  They make exercise dates with friends so they will go running without fail. “Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions,” he explains.

Structure their lives?  Ha!  Many days I don’t feel like I even have the willpower to structure my spice cabinet so compactly.

All of this new science on decision fatigue does give me something to think about, though.  Perhaps I could learn how to conserve my willpower and structure my life so that eating healthy and sitting down to write every day become habit and not another decision to make.

I’ll think about that . . . tomorrow.  After all, tomorrow is another day.

This little fellow on the train seems to be experiencing a different kind of fatigue

I did manage to get a photo album together.  You can see it here.  After looking at those, come back and tell us in the comment box if you’re suffering from decision fatigue or please share if you have ways to keep it at bay so my to-do list doesn't stretch to four years delinquent.  

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Traveling rue du Temps Perdu

Street of Lost Time in Vosne Romanée, France
“There’s no such thing in anyone’s life as an unimportant day.” 
  -- American critic Alexander Woolcott

The one unintended downfall of travel is that every meal, every sight, every person, every day becomes infused with a meaning we don’t find at home.  I rarely left the apartment without my camera, looking so like a tourist.  But I couldn’t help it.  I had to regularly fight the urge to stop random people in the street and say, “Do you have any idea how lucky you are to be living in a place like this?  Have you noticed this . . . and this?”

I wanted to direct their attention to ironwork on rooftops and ask if they had stood in line at my butcher’s counter for a cut of meat to cook that melts when it touches your tongue.  I wanted to ask if they ever marvel at the architectural contrast between the medieval half-timbered buildings and the belle époque townhouses in the same block? Do they think that their country’s obsession with red geraniums is the best thing ever?

Here’s a short list of moments and things noted in my travel journal that never became fodder for blog entries (at least not yet):
Poêlée champignons sur salade

--leek tart
--salad loaded with fresh mushrooms heaped like they’re penny candy at a fire sale
--a father holding his toddler over a grate, diaper down, in a side shopping alley (didn’t wait to see if #1 or #2)
--a baby in a window cage for protection
--frustration of these ridiculous combo washer/dryer units
--a market vendor cutting an apricot in half and handing it to me to try before I buy
--two young girls stopping me along the Chateau Tanlay canal and handing me a small bouquet of wildflowers then driving on toward the property in an SUV (daughters of the chateau owners?)
 --the pink, purple, blue, red, rainbow dye jobs that seems to be the trend among women 9 to 90
--a distinguished older gentleman waiting for the bus with me, talking about the abundance of rain we’d experienced this summer, shrugging and philosophizing Il y a toujours cette (“There is always this” or “It is always thus”)
--a café with a hot chocolate menu: classic, milk, bitter, w/caramel, w/hazelnut, w/coconut powder, 10 more – it came as a cup of hot melted chocolate with two inches of whipped cream
--frîtes fried in duck fat
--a preponderance of Hello Kitty products
--a violin scale sounds from behind the curtain of an open window above a pizza parlor on a Sunday morning
--a city of 150,000 becomes a ghost town as everyone heads off the same week in August to conges annuels (that famous French vacation period)
Baby in a window cage

When I travel I come home eager to grab someone by the arm like the Ancient Mariner and tell stories of the marvels I discovered.  I want friends, family, and strangers to become as enthused as I about visiting unfamiliar places where the world is turned sideways and I happily lose myself in time.  But I come home and home is the place that’s temporarily unfamiliar.

I’ve changed on my travels, but the world back home seems to be traveling its same track.  My sister had gall bladder surgery.  A neighbor wants to discuss not my adventures but replacing the fence we share along our property lines.  Something’s stinking at the back of the refrigerator.  After one day of joy, my dog now let’s me know that I’m bugging her while she’s trying to sleep.  A postcard announces it’s time to make a dentist appointment.

The first instinct of a traveler is to plan another trip as soon as possible.  A better response, I guess, would be to use these new eyes to explore the familiar places.  I won’t find a tea salon next to a century-old carousel to start my days, but I can find a new routine just as I do when traveling.  How often do I step outside of myself when home?  Not half as much as when I travel.  So before I lose the power of the magic travel dust that makes every day an adventure (no matter how horrendous an experience) – and before France is lost in a haze of extensive to-do lists – I’ll look harder for all those little moments here that compare to all those little moments I found there.
How could I have missed this courtyard all the years I've traveled to Dijon?
temps perdu4_8/16/11

What do you do on a regular basis to make your day or week as memorable as if you were traveling?  What kind of things would you note in your life’s “travel journal,” even if you haven’t left home? Share your comments here.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Trois Beaux Garçons

Three handsome boys of Dijon -- Mohamed, Reduoane, and Noureddine

"It seemed an advantage to be traveling alone. Our responses to the world are crucially moulded by the company we keep, for we temper our curiosity to fit in with the expectations of others...Being closely observed by a companion can also inhibit our observation of others; then, too, we may become caught up in adjusting ourselves to the companion's questions and remarks, or feel the need to make ourselves seem more normal than is good for our curiosity." 

Traveling alone – especially if not fluent in the language – ain’t for sissies because there can be a lot of meals eaten in silence.  On the other hand, sometimes the best part of travel is being alone.  As de Botton points out, if you’re always comfortably traveling with people you know, you run the risk of responding to them instead of to your own curiosity about the people and places you come across.

While Brad is at the university during the day I’m a solo traveler.  So as I’m getting ready to leave Dijon this year, I want to introduce you to some of the people who brightened my days, even if I could hardly speak a word of their language.

My three Dijon friends enlivened this summer immensely with their energy and good cheer.  I had become acquainted with Noureddine (from Tipaza, Algeria) on previous visits because his market stall stood across from my favorite tea salon.  Every year I’d buy something from him and we’d exchange language lessons.  This year it was dis-moi, “tell me,” e.g., tell me if it doesn’t work.  He would do his bad Clint Eastwood impressions and tell me about the other tourists (alas, Americans) who would come through.  They’d not even bother with a bonjour before trying to bargain down as if it’s a brocante or flea market, not a business like the bricks and mortar store across the street.  I say if you can afford to fly to France, you can afford the €25 dress he’s selling.

I would take a seat for the morning at the busiest intersection of Place François Rude and either write in my travel journal or snap pictures from where I sat.  And I took pictures of Noureddine because day after day he waved to me and signaled me to take pictures of him.  Sometimes he'd call me over to translate for an English-speaking tourist and sometimes he'd call over for a photo one of his friends who had stopped by to say hello.  That’s how I met Redouane and Mohamed this summer.

How can anyone miss Mohamed?  He was dressed so absolutely elegantly every time I saw him on market day.  And the ties.  Oh, the ties.  No conservative red-striped ties for him.  One day when he looked particularly fine in a sharkskin suit shining in the (momentary) sun and bold floral tie I asked why he was so dressed up.  Ah, la fête, le jour, he answered.  He was still celebrating Bastille Day from the day before.  But each time I saw him and told him he was looking très beau he gave me a different reason for it.  Every day was a celebration.

Last Saturday, after we had talked about his home in Algers and my two kids, the weather was looking threatening so I asked him to sit with me under the umbrella (no tea because of Ramadan, of course).  But he had no time.  “Oh, oui," I said,
proud of my new French word.  "Vous êtes le Flâneur du marché”  (defined in this recent story).  Oui, oui, he laughed.  He had to touch base with all his friends in the market, rain or shine.  When I showed Mohamed the photo I had taken of him with Noureddine and Reduoane, he pointed to it, nodded, and said, “Ah, trois beaux garçons.”  I had to agree.

Mohamed, looking his usual dapper self
Shortly after meeting Reduoane, from Castellón, I tried to impress him with my Spanish.  That was a major fail, though, because my skill from one year of Spanish in high school was even worse than my French.  Once I got past Hola! Que tal? and he switched from French to Spanish I became ignorant in two languages.  “Your Spanish un poquito?” Reduoane joked, indicating with his thumb and index finger about a centime’s width apart.

He educated me about the fresh fish that he ate in his Mediterranean coastal town in Spain.  When I mentioned all the fish on Dijon menus, he screwed up his face in disgust and waved his hand to pooh pooh the whole idea of river fish.  “No, le poisson de la mer ...” he started, launching an homage to the salty ambrosia from his sea, quickly turning his hand back and forth like the fresh-caught ones flopping on the dock, waiting for him to buy and take them home for dinner.  I didn’t understand a word of Reduoane’s fish reverie, but I knew when Noureddine and Mohamed nodded in agreement that some day I’d have to get to the Mediterranean, if only long enough to savor one seafood meal from my new friends’ home.

I’d like to offer an honorary beau garcon to Sebastien, half French/half Spanish from Valencia (near Reduoane’s Castellón).  He runs Ritchie’s Diner Café near Dijon’s train station and had the same boisterous personality of any American diner owner.  I was drawn to the audacity of a Frenchman trying to replicate American diner food.  But when I saw through the window that it had real, American, French’s mustard sitting on the tables instead of the ubiquitous Dijon stuff (love to cook with it; hate it on my sandwich) I had to give it a try.  When engaging in a little friendly Frenglish conversation as I ate, I found the words to express how excited I was to see my favorite bright yellow condiment and asked if could I buy it anywhere in town.  He got his through a wholesaler (yes, his English was good enough to know that word), he said, but offered to sell me a large bottle.  If it had been the beginning of my trip instead of the end, I would have taken him up on the offer.

Fitting in when traveling alone can seem as difficult as a backward 2 ½ somersaults with 2 ½ twists in piked position (look it up).  I still have a long way to go until I’ve formed my own little French community equal to friendships at home.  However, when you’re willing to take out on your own occasionally you soon find that you’re never lonely long.
Sebastien, my French prince of American mustard

Do you enjoy traveling alone?  Why or why not? What's your favorite experience if you've been out there on the road solo?  Share it here.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Making a Molehill Out of A Mountain

Two very determined hikers on the trail up Montrond
The pink pants and tiny blue hiking boots above me on the trail stepped with a sure foot over one rock after another.  “Oh the shame,” I thought, “if this 2-year old makes it up the mountain and I don’t.” 

The French are walkers and hikers.  France contains over 30,000 miles of the Grande Randonnée (GR), a series of trails throughout Europe.  Our little strip of the trail that day traversed the ridges of a mountain range that started in France, and if we walked until dark, would find us in Geneva Switzerland.  The goal of our friends and their children and grandchildren that afternoon was the top of Montrond, a 5300 ft. peak in the Jura Mts. of Burgundy.  From our vantage point we could see Mont Blanc on the border between France and Italy, a “real” mountain that rose above the clouds.

I had thought the plan was to take the ski lift up to the top of the slope by the lodge and then hike down.  After all, our group included a toddler and a 4-year old.  Right?  But that was only where the hike began.  The next time I assumed we had certainly made it to our destination we had only reached the top of Petit Montrond, so I trudged on, following the little pink behind padded with the French equivalent of Huggies Training Pants.  I stumbled over rocks every fifth step as we followed the trail around to the back of this peak so we could go down again and then start another ascent – one peak closer to our goal.
Are we there yet?
When I pick a place to travel, frequently my first question is not “What is there to see or do?” but “Where is there to walk?”  I want to know a place one step at a time.  In French, a walker might be a flaneur, someone who strolls the sidewalk looking in shop windows, stopping at the café to chat, exploring a neighborhood at a leisurely pace à pied (on foot).  Dijon is all about strolling.  It has made little effort to accommodate cars in the historic parts of town so we walk to dinner, we walk to the market, we walk to the parks and the lake, we walk in the evening after dinner to see who else is out walking.

When Brad and I bought our houses, one of the primary questions was “Where can we walk with the dogs?”  I didn’t just want a neighborhood with sidewalks; I wanted sidewalks that went someplace.  To the park.  To the store.  To the coffeehouse.  To the dentist.  We are flaneurs at heart.  And we raised two kids who know how to walk.  They’re comfortable living life à pied as well.  I watch the seasons pass at snail’s pace in the gardens of my neighbors and the trees in the park while the bicyclists and joggers whip by me.

A walker can also be a promeneur, marking the miles by a day or a week.  It’s about distance and destination. But it’s not about competition race-walking or counting off steps to lose weight.  I’m not an extreme walker.  You won’t see my name on the log of people who’ve traversed the entire Appalachian Trail.  I can’t see myself making a pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago in Spain.  Backcountry backpacking has never been a dream of mine (ever since digging latrines in Girl Scouts I decided I like toilets).  But I like to find a trail and spend a day where my mind focuses on nothing more than finding the best footing.  It’s a kind of colonic for the brain.
We made it, although I might disagree with some of the times posted on the signs

That’s why I love Europe.  When in the Black Forest of Germany, I could walk from town to town along well-worn paths.  No car or other equipment needed.  In Scotland we didn’t need trailheads or even permission.  We could open (and close tightly) any gate we wanted and start climbing.  In France I can cross an entire region along a tabletop flat canal path or along the ridges of mountains.  Back home, it’s more about climbing a bluff for a view of the convergence of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois river or following a stream in a gully when the wildflowers are in bloom (watch out for those copperheads just coming out of hibernation!)

As I add a few years and more than a few pounds, I now measure my health by where and how long I can walk.  After all, I still haven’t made the trek to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

And so I did my best on this little afternoon promenade to keep up with the toddler and the 4-year old.  No one was going to carry me for a short bit when I sighed Je suis fatigué.  When the youngest started to be on the edge of not making it down, her ingenious father found a rare smooth spot and rolled with her down the hill until she was giggling and willing to go on.  I took my own, unintentional, roll down the hill, too.  With feet too heavy even to lift, I tripped over a rock and moved 50 ft. down the mountain more quickly than I had intended.  At least I was 50 ft. closer to the car – and my new camera was safe.

We finished the last thirty minutes of the final descent hand in hand with Fanny, the 4-year old, skipping and singing bad renditions of “Frère Jacques” and “Alouette, Gentille Alouette.”  And every few minutes she’d peep excitedly “Regardez!” (look, look!).  At what, I was never sure, but it took my mind off my feet and directed my eyes to a distant point.  Which is not a bad way to get through life.  When things get tough, just roll or sing with new friends, and always keep looking ahead instead of down.
Mont Blanc (taken with my 30x zoom from our own little mountain peak)

Where do you like to walk?  How do you make a molehill out of daily mountains? Share with us in the comment box.
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