Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Ultimate Travel Souvenir

How would you like to sip your morning coffee here? 
Or look out of these windows on to a French street below?


Let’s go back a bit.  Back to this summer in France.  I think it all started with one of those ultra-modern 1-cup coffee pod coffeemakers in the apartment we were renting.  I arrived in Dijon a couple weeks before my husband did.  This space age caffeine dispenser was the first thing I noticed in our kitchen and I knew immediately that this would not do for my coffee-obsessed husband.  He doesn’t drink much, but he’s quite particular about what he does ingest to fuel himself before his morning bike ride to work.

After consulting long-distance with him and visiting a French big-box store to report on available alternatives, he finally agreed to a French press pot.  Not ideal (the sediment, you know) but workable for his time in France.  I bought him one and he gratefully accepted it two weeks later when he got to town.  That pod machine sat ignored in its prime counter real estate for the rest of our stay.  And he needed that coffee bad after sleeping every night on a mattress that sloped to the south on one side and was barely long enough for him to stretch out.  Antique beds are good to look at but not meant for sleeping.

We lamented the fact that we would have to leave behind an expensive coffeemaker at the end of the summer.  We lamented the money spent on cheap plastic Tupperware-like containers I had to purchase and leave behind each time we came to Dijon.  We longed for better knives for dinner preparation, pans with lids that fit, and something larger than a dorm-sized refrigerator.  I wanted a bathroom at least as big as the distance between my fingertips.  During the summer’s rainy periods I dreamed of whiling away the afternoon in a proper reading chair.  I hated hauling heavy hiking boots between home and France.

We knew there were many more trips to this Burgundy town in our future.  So about 72 hours before I got on a plane for home, Brad and I began the process of looking for our own piece of French paradise.  We’re two academics.  We don’t do anything impulsively.  We usually research everything out the wazoo.  But we shrugged and said, “Well, it wouldn’t hurt to just look.  Then over the winter we could research and talk to English-speaking expats about how you buy property in France, all the financial implications, taxes, and paperwork so we’d be ready to consider it next summer.”

Then we walked into that second apartment on the list.  We were done for.  Light.  Soaring windows.  American-sized bathroom.  American-sized refrigerator.  Chandeliers.  Space.  A balcony illuminated by belle époque stained glass.

My American-sized bathroom and refrigerator

And that’s why I haven’t been blogging much.  Or on social media of any sort.  Or responding to e-mails.  Or coming up to breathe.

We’re buying an apartment in France.  The French love paperwork.  The French speak French.  I’m taking two language classes a week because it finally matters if I can pronounce anything correctly (when I need to talk to plumbers in the future).  We’re gathering documents.  I’m making long-distance phone calls to people who don’t speak English to verify that they were the ones -- and not some Nigerian prince -- who sent us the e-mail telling us to wire large amounts of money with lots of zeros to a special account.  I’m writing e-mails (in French) to our own personal French banker asking tons of questions, to which he always seems to reply (not in English, of course) some version of “There, there.  No need to worry.  We’ll talk about that when we meet on Friday.”

I’m trying not to panic about the fact that I read on a French-language news site that a transportation strike might start on Thursday, the day I touch down in Paris.  Alone.  Without Brad and his magic French language talents.

But when I’m suffocating under an avalanche of e-mails and searching for important information in a file box full of documents in French and their translated English versions, I pull up on my computer the picture of my balcony and imagine the morning sun as I sit there sipping my own cup of tea made in an American-sized mug and not an espresso cup.  And I think about putting Brad’s French coffee pot, which he packed up in August and left with a friend, on our counter.

Internet connection for this trip is so far an unknown commodity because I haven’t made arrangements to have it set up yet.  I should be able to post a couple of updates before I return home just before Thanksgiving.  Meanwhile, share with us in the comments box the most impulsive thing that you have done when traveling.  Or ever.  If you dare.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Who's Falling For Autumn?


 Every leaf speaks bliss to me, fluttering from the autumn tree. -- Emily Bronte

Autumn is speeding by too quickly.  I’ve barely had a moment to stop and take in my favorite season because I’m in the midst of a rather giant project in my home life.  Next week I’ll tell you more about it (I need a big WATCH THIS SPACE sign).  For now, though, my glimpses of summer come only when walking the dog around the block or from the blogs of others who have had time to stop and smell the pumpkins.

So while you’re waiting to hear my story, take a look at a few different perspectives on October.

I’m going to start with a blog post of mine that I did in 2009.  While my spirit soars when the first tulips open in the spring, as an autumn baby I’ve always loved the season of falling leaves.  As someone who’s reached the autumn of my own life, I feel like I have even more in common with it.  You can read here about what I consider my own autumn color.

Annette Gendler is a writer, a writing instructor, and someone with an eye for great shots when she travels.  While at a writing conference in Kentucky she took a detour to the Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill, KY.  Her pictures show us how much art is in the simple details of their architecture.  Then she takes us outside to contemplate the grace of solid stone walls that have stood forever.  So take your own quick visit to a quiet part of Kentucky with Annette.

Tami Clayton has written a love note to autumn in words and pictures.  Do you have any more to add to her extensive thinking on why we should pay homage to it every year?  Do share.

Finally, gardening guru Margaret Roach is shooting for the goal of having color in the garden 365 days a year.  To help with that, she’s offering up 12 trees and shrubs for great fall color.  The color in her photographs makes me dream of a place that definitely looks nothing like my back yard.  I’m not giving up hope yet, though.

So over the weekend visit some of these blog posts in between planting your spring bulbs and leaf raking.  Then come back and tell us in the comments box something about your own memories of autumn.  And don’t forget to come back next week to hear why I’ve become just a ghost in real life and online.

My anemones "Windflower" make me smile well into frost season

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

5 October Holidays Way Better Than Halloween

The best part of that final bike ride is passing a Clydesdale at Grant's Farm in St. Louis

I have a confession to make.  I’m not a fan of Halloween.  Oh sure, it’s a license to eat candy corn until I fall into a diabetic coma.  However, that whole figuring-out-a-costume, carving-a-pumpkin – caring – thing has never put me into any kind of autumn holiday mood.

The contemporary transformation of Halloween into a competitive sport makes me want to run from the day even faster.  Orange lights weave in and out branches of trees, 10-foot tall blow-up pumpkins spring like mushrooms on lawns, and witches fly across yards on their brooms.  Two aisles at the supermarket are dedicated to October holiday paraphernalia.

Yet all I want to do on the evening of October 31 is turn off my porch light, close all my curtains, and watch television in a back corner of my house.  Halloween has never made my toes tingle with enthusiasm.  There’s no real reason.  It just doesn’t do it for me as a holiday.

Then again, I could think of a lot of other things that would be great ways to celebrate the season.  Here are a few new holidays I’d like to add to the calendar.

Planting Fall Pansies Day

The ground is still soft enough to dig, so we should all decorate our front gardens and steps with the brightest purple and yellow pansies that you can find.  This should stave off winter for another month.

Jump In a Pile of Leaves Day

With the rise of the leaf-blower culture there aren’t enough kids out there raking leaves for movie money.  I can’t remember the last time I walked down a street and saw a kid trying to bury herself in a pile of crisp brown oak leaves or trying to stuff a handful down the back of a sibling’s sweater.  We need a day in October or early November when we turn off the leaf blowers and pull out the rakes in memory of a time when life was simpler (and quieter).

Halloween is fairly new to France.  Kids in Dijon casually stroll from store to store
collecting treats - costume optional

Last Bike Ride of the Year Day

I admit I’m a fair-weather rider.  You’ll never see me out there in a face mask and all the special clothing my bike-riding husband wears to battle the icy winds, winter rain, and sleet that starts about the same time as Halloween.  That’s why people like me need a special day to pause and recognize that this is the last ride we’ll take until April (or March if it’s a mild winter).  We can pedal slowly down our favorite path, remembering the warmth of the sun on our back, the days when we could hit the road early or stay out after dinner because the light lasted forever.  Then we put our bikes away until the return of goldfinches at the bird feeder signal it’s time to pull it out in the spring.

Unpacking of Winter Sweaters Day

You’ll never catch me living someplace where winter temperatures climb much above 40º in winter.  You see, I’m addicted to sweaters.  How many?  Let’s just say a cedar hope chest so full the top doesn’t close fully.  Each year I begrudgingly give away one or two in anticipation of the new ones I know are coming in.  Winter sweaters can comfort you when the sun is low and you can’t muster enough energy to care what you’re wearing.  Or the deep jewel tones of ruby or lapis lazuli can brighten a gray day and scream “I’m not letting this weather get me down!”  Who doesn’t have a favorite Shetland wool or après ski or dress argyle sweater that they want to be buried in?  We need to celebrate all that our favorites mean to us.

First Pot of Chili of the Season Day

My hairdresser, Jill, reminded me of this most important day.  No matter how you like it – mild, vegetarian, spicier than a jar of Beyonce – that first pot marks a no-turning-back point in the seasons.  It’s a dense meal that warms from the inside out.  You’re never tempted to pull out that crockpot in the middle of August, are you?

When the days get short, though, and the autumn wind kicks up you long to sit in front of your TV holding a hot bowl of chili, perhaps dressed in you favorite comfy sweater still spotted with remnants of the leaves you jumped in.  Chili announces that you are settling in for the winter – a culinary solstice, if you will. So let’s mark the day when you accept the inevitable.

Now these are some of the holidays I could really get behind in October.  The best part of all of them is how extremely low-cal they are compared to the Big H.  What others would you suggest?  Please share them all in the comments box and let’s see what we can get started before we get to the bottom of our kids’ trick-or-treat stash.

What October is really about in Forest Park, St. Louis

ADDENDUM:  I only posted this a few hours ago but I see one big celebration I missed.  When enjoying Leah Singer's wonderful blog post on autumn, especially the Jewish Festival of Harvest -- Sukkot -- I realized that we ALL could celebrate the harvest.  Even the smallest backyard gardener is lamenting the last homegrown tomato of the year or the last cutting of daisies for a vase.  So I think we need to add a National Harvest Day to the calendar, too. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Amen To Love

Things are getting deep in here.  We’ve passed the first presidential debate and now both parties are getting as brutal as contestants on Survivor – Washington, D.C.  Before this whole thing is over, hundreds of millions of dollars will have been tossed blithely around as if we don’t have people going to bed hungry at night, or schools operating with outdated textbooks, or millions of people out of work because big companies – while increasing profits consistently – aren’t hiring.

Sometimes I just have to escape it all.  I’ve found the best refuge to be in my car driving errands every day.  The music of songwriter/singer Radney Foster soothes my soul and reminds me of what matters most in the long term.  I’ve had his songs on continuous loop as I drive.  He has the skill of all Nashville storytellers and the lyricism of a Robert Frost or Walt Whitman.  If you’re a Keith Urban fan, he’s the poet behind “Raining on Sunday.”

If you need a break from election year madness, take a few minutes to listen to someone who speaks from a clearer vision than those who make all the rules in this country.  Then go to the comments box and tell me what musical or other kind of escape to you try when the day’s news drives you crazy.

Angel Flight  

This was written as a tribute to Texas National Guardsmen who died during the Red River 44 mission in Iraq who died when their helicopter crashed.  The “Angel Flight” is the last flight that soldiers take when killed doing their duty.


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Let's Celebrate Banned Books

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The Kansas City Public Library wears its book love on its sleeve (or street)

“Censorship is the enemy of truth – even more than a lie.  A lie can be exposed.  Censorship can prevent us from knowing the difference.” 
– journalist Bill Moyers

Which banned books are on your reading list?

Yes, it’s that time a year again.  The annual week-long celebration that reminds us how marvelous it is to live in a country where we are free to read whatever we want.  And reminds us that that freedom continues to be challenged every single year.

Banned Book Week launched in 1982 to demonstrate a rising number of challenges targeting schools, bookstores, and libraries.  The American Library Association reports that more than 11,000 books have been challenged in the past 30 years.  And those are just the demands to restrict that have received publicity.

When I look at the list of classics that have been continually under threat of censorship, as well as which books have made this dubious list each year for the past decade, I’m stumped by one particular reason that crops up often.  Of course, there are the prurient excuses, like language or sexual content or the presence of witches and vampires.  However, frequently “unsuited to age group” shows up as a reason.

How do “they” decide that?  Are young people like a Borg collective, of one mind?  Is every 10-year old at the same level of intellectual maturity?  How do “they” decide what each individual student is ready to read?

I remember every Saturday riding my bike to the library.  I would head to the children’s section in the basement to gather material for a report on agriculture in South America, then stop by the biography section for something on Luther Burbank or Benjamin Franklin, then I’d grab a novel from the fiction shelves.  After checking these out I’d head upstairs to the Young Adult room to breeze through Seventeen magazine, wishing I had perfect hair like all the models (over 40 years later it’s still a dream unfulfilled).  My final stop would then be the shelves in the balcony of the Adult Reading Room.

Up there I would grab half a dozen books about Jesse James and other outlaws.  Next, I’d tackle all the books about serial killers, master criminals, and other historical criminals.  It’s there I found Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.  I’d check them out and be on my way (we won't waste time analyzing my obsession with these “true crime” books at such a young age).  Most likely they’d fall under the category of “unsuited to age group.”  But how did I suffer from my exposure to them?  Who had a right to decide that I shouldn’t read them?  Or that I shouldn’t sneak into my older sister’s room to read her copy of Bonnie and Clyde or The Godfather?

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The Harry Potter series seems to have taken up permanent residence on the list, but why is my beloved Once and Future King by T.H. White spared?  This story of King Arthur was filled with witches and magic and adultery and death.  It was a story of good vs. evil. My grandmother gave it to me for Christmas.  How was boy wizard’s scar different from the future king’s sword Excalibur?

To celebrate Banned Books Week, I’m going to head to the library this week to check out one of the many wonderful pieces of literature that are challenged the most.  If you want to do the same, you can find one on any of these lists:

Banned Books That Shaped America

Frequently Challenged Classics

Challenged Books Year-by-Year

And take a minute to read the reasons they made the list.  Some are a hoot.  For example, It's So Amazing! A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families, by Robie H. Harris was cited for sex education and sexual content.  Duuuuh.  There are no words for this kind of thinking!  Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed, that insightful book based on her journey through the indignity of a series of minimum wage jobs was tagged for being “political” and “inaccurate.”  Excuse me?  The beauty of our culture is that you are perfectly free to write your own politics-free book to correct all the inaccuracies you find in hers.  I’m sure she’d welcome that kind of challenge.

I leave you with a video of Bill Moyers, an Honorary Chair for this year’s event, talking about what the freedom to read means to him.  As always, he’s spot on, especially about the irony of trying to ban Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a book about what the world would be like if censorship were the order of the day.

What kind of control over age-appropriate literature would you propose?  What is your favorite banned book or what book (banned or not) did you feel compelled to read in secret?  Share your daring literary choices in the comments box.

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