Why this blog?

To understand why this blog was created and where it got its name, start here

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Chartres labyrinth

When I return to Chartres cathedral on Friday, the atmosphere seems different. No Gregorian chant, no organ, no incense. Catholicism has retreated for the day. There are still tourists about; guidebooks in hand, peering up at the stained glass windows and gothic arches, often oblivious to the designs in the stone floor. But the change is unmistakeable. The chairs have been moved apart and the full labyrinth revealed. There's nothing magic or esoteric here, just the squeak of rubber soles on the stones unperturbed by 800 years of footsteps. The labyrinth design is a single pathway into the center and back out again. It is a metaphor for the human journey - long, exacting, twisting and turning, leading each of us to the same place, while allowing each of us our own interpretation.

I find peace in this walking meditation. I find my own breath slowing, deepening, I am aware of the ground; the earth reaching up through the stone. Reaching up? Or I am reaching down? I feel connected, grounded. Each time I walk a labyrinth, different images, thoughts, and feelings arise. Almost always, I feel a deep sense of gratitude - simply for the gift of life. I've discovered that I have to right to follow my unique path, and this allows me to let go and let others find their own way.

It wasn't until last summer, tagging along with Carol, that I first encountered a labyrinth of any sort. There is a labyrinth in downtown Boulder in the basement of the Methodist church. It is a replica of the Chartres labyrinth.
I never anticipated the effect it would have on me. And ever since that time I've wanted to come to Chartres and experience the original.

I don't attend church. I was baptised Catholic but don't believe in papal infallibility or other rigid dogma espoused by the Catholic church. Buddhism appeals to me more than most belief systems. But I am not a practicing anything. However, labyrinths move me. They allow me to slow down, open up, and receive.

And it's not always serious! Sometimes, my thoughts have me laughing out loud. And today, while deep in my own thoughts, I saw the little boy with his plastic sword and shield on his way to slay a dragon or two, and I thought of my son Eric at that age.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Chartres cathedral

I returned to Chartres for the second time on Friday. Chartres is a town about an hour south of Paris with a famous cathedral built in the twelfth century. It is one of France's most beautiful and well known examples of Gothic architecture and stained glass windows. It's almost as famous as Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

But I didn't come for the architecture, I came to walk the labyrinth. The first time I came, on May 15th, I discovered that chairs obscure the labyrinth and many visitors don't even realize it is there. You can see the labyrinth in the floor in the picture below:

Since that day I've been wanting to go back on a Friday when the labyrinth is not covered by chairs or obscured by weddings.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Tour de France - from the air

Here is a photo I wish I had taken! No, I definitely didn't get to ride in the helicopter, but I saw this online and thought it was such a great photo of the race and the Champs Elysees and Arc de Triomphe that I just wanted to show it to you. You can see why they call this the "Place de l'Etoile" (star)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The American Library in Paris

I've just returned from my weekly visit to the American Library in Paris. Books are expensive, and I was running out of reading material. The used book stores don't always have a good selection, and besides, I'm still traveling light and don't want to encumber myself with "stuff". So I was delighted to discover the American Library. I never knew it existed, even though it was founded in 1920. It moved to its current location just east of the Eiffel Tower in 1964. I wish I'd known about it when I lived here in the 70s! It's only 1 km from the apartment I lived in at that time, just on the opposite side of the Champs de Mars. However, it is on a small side street with an almost invisible sign marking its location. It would be easy to live a block away and never know it was there.

It's not too far from where I'm living now, and the first time I went there I took the bus. It's much faster to get there by bike, and I can carry several pounds of books in my backpack. One more way to pass the time alone in Paris :-)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Cooking for one

I love French food and I love French markets. I go to the market almost every day - and I have for years. Even when I lived in Boulder. It probably dates back to the time we spent in Paris in the 70s. It's just a way of life here. That, and the fact that my fridge is tiny (it was back then too). Furthermore, I like living my life au pif. That means not planning ahead, not preparing menus a month at a time. I like to wake up each day and think about what sounds good. I never think about what I'll eat or do tomorrow or the next day.

I don't mind taking the time to shop and cook for one. And my current apartment is much better equipped and pleasant for dining in. Here's what a few recent lunches or dinners have looked like:

It did occur to me as I was enjoying the steak and tomatoes that I remember my mother savoring the steak she cooked for herself after we were asleep. It was the only time of the day when she had peace and quiet. But I don't think she bothered with the glass of wine, the heirloom tomatoes or the fresh basil.

Fresh ravioli from the Italian deli down the street . . .

Sometimes, especially if I've had a big lunch, I'll have something light for dinner. Something simple. Last night is was just cereal (Special K - yes, they sell Special K in the ordinary grocery stores) with milk and fresh strawberries from the market.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Tour de France

It's been thrilling to watch the Tour de France on TV. Even better to see the race up close and personal, right?

I hopped on my bike hoping to catch some good photos of the Tour de France finish on the Champs Elysees. Ha! Easier said than done. At least 300,000 other people all had the same idea. I made it only as far as the rue de Rivoli, across from the Tuileries gardens near the Louvre, on the east end of the final loop. I couldn't wiggle my way into the front row, but I did manage to stick my arm and camera in between a few people so that I could snap a few photos.

Here are the best of them. Remember, I don't have one of those big fancy cameras with speedy shutter speed and long lens!

I tried moving down the street to find a better spot. I climbed up some steps, but just caught a big blur as they whizzed by at 50+ km/hr.

This is about as close as I could get to the winner in the yellow jersey, Alberto Contador. Oh well.

You can find much better pictures on TV or the Tour website, but it was exciting to be there and to see them speed past.

New helmet

I finally picked up a new bike helmet. I've been riding my bike regularly, and even though Paris has quite a few bike lanes like this one:

It's still a little scary mixing it up with buses and cars. So now, and after some urging by those who care about me, I have a new bike helmet. The helmet I had back in Boulder didn't have pink flowers, but hey, this is Paris! And it matched the pink shirt I happened to be wearing. I was more concerned with protecting my head than looking good, but the bike shop owner assured me that this will do a good job protecting my head while still looking "fun" (yes, they use the English word).

Now I am off to watch the arrival of the Tour de France on the Champs Elysees in Paris. Stay tuned for photos!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Paris Plages (beaches)

Can't decide between staying in the city and going to the beach? No problem. In Paris you can do both! From the 20th of July to the 20th of August, the city of Paris brings in over a 1000 tons of sand and converts almost 3 km along the banks of the Seine in central Paris into a giant "beach" with recreation areas for adults and children.

I rode over on my bike yesterday to check it out. It was a Thursday afternoon, temperature in the 70s, so there were just a fraction of the numbers that will seek out the deck chairs, umbrellas, sprinklers, and games on the weekend when the weather climbs into the high 80s. Here is just a sample:

A free library:

Several snack bars where you can find everything from beer to fruit smoothies, and of course, ice cream:

There are tons of options for children. Games, drawing, science experiments, entertainers, and the opportunity to try things that kids normally wouldn't get to do. Like riding on a BMX track:

or jumping in a trampoline:

And everything except for the food is absolutely FREE!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"The Right to Write"

I just finished reading The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life by Julia Cameron. Actually, I've been savoring it, saving it, reading one or two of its short essays each morning along with my breakfast. I didn't want it to end.

It was a great find for an amateur writer such as myself. In it, Julia Cameron insists that anyone can and should write for the sheer pleasure of it. It's about the process, not about the product. She points out that we have created a whole mythology about what it means to be a "writer". "Real writers are published", or "real writers make a living from their writing". As a result, most of us are intimidated and never even begin.

I was one whose experience of writing was in college: literary criticism, academic, forced, and returned in its final form with lots of red marks, never to be touched again. It was not introspective or creative. Not something that could grow, evolve or resonate with others. I never kept a diary or journal and it never occurred to me that writing could show me the way out or through. I've only recently found that by simply sitting down and putting pen to paper that I can allow the pen to take me to places I've never explored. I usually end up someplace much different than the place I start from. And I feel better. Too bad it took me 50+ years to find this out!

I took my first writing class just last year. My friend Dee in Boulder offered a memoir writing class and I discovered the tremendous support offered by a small group of caring women. Dee introduced us to the difference between "process" and "craft" and with the gentle feedback and encouragement provided in the class, I witnessed for myself how a piece could evolve and improve. Wow, maybe writing is something you can learn!

Once I had a taste of this writing life, I started reading as much as I could about the process and craft. I discovered Lisa Dale Norton's Shimmering Images: A Handy Little Guide to Writing Memoir, and of everything I'd read, this small book stood out as the very best of its kind. It changed everything for me. In January of this year I started an online writing course offered by Lisa and I look forward to additional online courses with her. I was thrilled to meet Lisa Dale Norton in person when she visited Paris this spring, and her professional advice and personal friendship are priceless.

Finally, when embarking on this voyage to Europe I decided to start writing a blog; partly as an open letter and record of my travels for friends and family, and partly as a continuation of my own self discovery. I am still often intimidated and embarrassed to label myself as "writer" in my profile, and while I would never dream of writing a whole book, I find that biting off small chunks and writing these thoughts and observations is less onerous than I imagined. "Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." E.L. Doctorow.

Thank you, dear Readers, for your indulgence. And thank you for your comments and your encouragement.

It is with the 'permission', encouragement, and tools provided in books like Julia Cameron's The Right to Write that makes the trip worthwhile.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Lefebvre family

Yesterday I mentioned my dinner guests Odette, Philippe and Nathalie. I realize I've never properly introduced them. So let me try.

When Charlie and I lived in Paris in the 1970s we both taught English to adults. Charlie had a student, Pierre Lefebvre, who invited him to come to his home to give English lessons to his family. These lessons took the form of English speaking dinners. Pierre and his wife Odette hosted these dinners once a week and invited friends and extended family to come and speak English. There were typically at least eight dinner guests each time, and oh! the food!!

Charlie would come back recounting tales of the most incredible dinners - typically 5 courses, and what a revelation for someone growing up in a working class Denver family and now scraping by on the meagre wages of an English teacher.

Eventually, I was invited to join Charlie at the Lefebvre family English-speaking dinners and was gradually introduced to their large extended family.

Pierre was one of eight children, and we eventually became acquainted with his mother and all of his brothers, sisters, their spouses and children.

Odette was one of 12 children and while we never met all of her siblings, we were close to one sister and brother-in-law who later offered Charlie a much better job in a French company.

Pierre and Odette have 4 children: Jean Marc is the oldest. I wrote about him when we visited in Grenoble and St. Nizier. Here is a picture of his family:

Dominique is next. Here is a recent picture of her with her 3 children.

Philippe and Bruno are identical twins. They were only 10 years old when we first met. Philippe now lives in an apartment in Passage d'Enfer and Philippe and Nathalie are my neighbors during my frequent stays there. Bruno and his family live in Toulouse, so I haven't seen him yet. Here is a recent picture of Philippe and his companion Nathalie.

Our friendship has been a lasting one. We have known each other since before my children were born. We watched each others' families grow up and we hosted visits from several members of the Lefebvre family once we returned to the U.S. They have hosted Charlie, me, and our son Philippe during various trips back to France over the years and my son has remained friends with their children. We have been witness to various family trials, including Odette and Pierre's separation 25 years ago. Now I see Odette much more often than I see Pierre, and because of our 35 years of history, we are still close.

They have been patient teachers of French language and French culture and even though our correspondence has been sometimes infrequent, they have welcomed me back into the circle of friendship and family. They are my support system here in Paris.

p.s. I have started labeling these posts, so now you can go back and find other stories and pictures related to the Lefebvre family.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Paris Triathlon

Swimming in the Seine as part of the Paris Triathlon this weekend? Yes! But I missed it. By the time I got there it was all finished :-(

I 'borrowed' this photo from the City of Paris website . . .

Dinner party

Risotto con funghi with fresh chanterelles? Or a simple farm-raised roast chicken from my local butcher? A nice selection of cheeses, and baguettes still warm from the oven of my favorite bakery. I love shopping for dinner parties almost as much as cooking.

Odette, Philippe and Nathalie came over for dinner this weekend. My apartment got lots of oohs and ahhs - not because it's that special; the furnishings are pretty basic (IKEA), but because it's light, bright, quiet, and in a good neighborhood. They were impressed. But it's not about "impressing" them, it's about finding a space where I am comfortable and feel at home.

I was too busy talking, eating, and enjoying myself to take pictures of the people or the food - but I did take a picture of the flowers I brought home for myself.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Oysters - end of the season

I went to the Cabane à Huîtres again yesterday. I've been there every week since I returned from my most recent trip. When I arrived that day, after being gone for a few weeks, I was immediately greeted with a rousing "Welcome back! Where have you been? We thought maybe you'd returned to the U.S.!" Francis wasn't there that day, his son Frédéric had replaced him for the week. Frédéric, Ségolène and I had a great conversation. It was hot that day and the place was pretty empty at lunchtime.

It was hot last week too; there's no air conditioning here. But the oysters were delicious as usual. Every single oyster that I've ever tasted there has passed the "shrink test". If you know oysters, you know what that means. So even though it's getting late in the year (the old maxim is: you only eat oysters in months with "r") the Cabane was open.

This week it was cooler - no need for air conditioning - and the regulars were back. I feel like I know most of them - and have even become one myself.

This week I was treated to more stories and more history. Here is a photo (actually a photo that Francis uses as a business card). The person in the boat is Francis' father - in a "pinasse" (a flat-bottomed pine fishing boat) that he built himself between 1956-58. I learned all about the history of the boat, the Dubourg family and their oyster park. Five generations so far!

Mr. Pons was there too. He's the 96 year old who comes almost every day (except last week when it was exceptionally hot). He is still quite alert and except for being slightly deaf, he has lots to say. His recipe for longevity? Eat lots of oysters, and drink plenty of wine. M. Pons never drinks water!

However, it IS the end of the season, and the Cabane will be closing on Saturday the 17th of July, not reopening until the end of August and the beginning of the new season.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Bastille Day

The 14th of July is a national holiday in France - it's roughly equivalent to our 4th of July. BTW, the French don't call it "Bastille Day" they simply call it "le Quatorze Juillet" The holiday is characterised by several events:

1. A military parade down the Champs Elysees uncluding lots of soldiers, tanks, airplanes, and finishing with parachutists. This year's parade was marked by intermittent heavy rains which chased away lots of spectators - including me and my bicycle. However, I could watch the parade live on TV and wait as the jets flew past my windows.

2. Concerts - there were some enormous outdoor concerts - the biggest one in the place de la Bastille where I went to reconnoiter on my bike the day before. The musicians were rehearsing and doing sound checks when I went by. The round modern building in the background is the Opera Bastille announcing the programs for the upcoming season.

3. Bals des Pompiers (firemen's balls) - dances held in fire stations on the 13th and the 14th. There was one near my apartment with a long line of people waiting to get in. I didn't go - I think the average age was about 25. I could hear the music from my apartment though, it lasted until 4 AM.

4. Fireworks - start at 11 PM and best seen from the Eiffel Tower. I didn't go to see them live, just watched the sky and listened to the booms that I could hear from my place. I couldn't actually see the fireworks themselves, there was a building in the way, but the evening clouds were beautiful to look at.

I didn't get out much for the 14th - I am definitely a fair weather cyclist, and more of a reporter than participant. No matter, I enjoyed the rainy day, the evening sky, and staying home reading a good book. Besides, fireworks and dances and outdoor rock concerts are not much fun alone.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Crosby Stills and Nash in Paris

Sometimes I feel like a journalist or social anthropologist - an outsider going places and watching others with a notebook in hand. And sometimes I do things or go places just because I think I should expand my boundaries and explore new things. I felt a little like that last night.

I noticed that Crosby Stills and Nash were playing in Paris. Hmmm, I recognize the names, but I am notoriously deficient in my knowledge of contemporary music and the music of my contemporaries. I can count on one hand the number of rock or pop music concerts I've attended. I've actually attended more classical music concerts than rock or pop. I'm not very good at remembering the names of classical composers or artists either. It's embarrassing.

My sons are well aware of my musical deficiencies and are incredibly patient when I ask for the umpteenth time: "what's the name of that group again?" It's Bob Marley, Mom. Oh yeah, I knew that . . .

A few years ago my sister treated me to an Eagles concert in Denver. Wow! What a treat! But again I felt more like an anthropologist than a music lover. Of course I recognized and enjoyed the songs once I'd heard them. I don't live under a rock after all! ;-) But I'm really bad at identifying musical groups with the names of the songs that they've written and made famous.

So last night I decided to enlarge my musical education by wandering by the Olympia theatre around showtime. I hadn't bought a ticket ahead of time, I trusted that I could pick up a ticket at the last minute - and I did. Even though the show was sold out, there is usually someone with an extra ticket to sell - especially if you need only one. I lucked out, and got a great seat at a discount price.

Now I can at least recognize Crosby Stills and Nash if they cross the street in front of me, and yes, I could sing along with at least a couple of songs; but the largely French (and largely male) audience was clearly more familiar than I was with the songs they played.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Bicycling in Paris on Sundays

I went for a long ride on Sunday. You can really appreciate Paris as seen from the banks of the Seine when cars are not allowed.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Bicycling in Paris - II

I woke up this morning having second thoughts about buying a bicycle. How many times will I ride it in order to amortize the purchase? And what will I do with it when I have to move out of this apartment at the end of August? I didn't ride it yesterday when I went out, I took the bus for a trip that wasn't that far. It would have been easy to get there on the bike. . .But I was kind of dressed up, wearing white pants . . .

This morning I was determined to go for a ride, and I spent many long minutes trying to wrestle the bike back into the elevator. I got it up here, I should be able to get it down! I got plenty dirty in the process - good thing I wasn't wearing white pants.

Once I finally got outside I had to face again that irrational fear. Where does it come from?? How can I blithely get on a plane and travel to a foreign country all alone when the simple act of getting on a bicycle scares me? Where does that caution come from?

One image that came to mind today was of my first bicycle. How old was I? Six? Eight? Anyway, I remember the bicycle well - it was really ugly - black and red, used, a boy's bike, and a little big for me. But I loved it. I felt a tremendous freedom on that bike. (this was back in the days when kids actually played outside - no "play dates" back then . . .) I was also quite a daredevil. I remember very clearly pushing the limits - standing up on the frame, no hands, etc. However, I also remember one day showing off - "look ma, no hands!" and just then I fell off the back. Fell on my head. (No helmets back then either). Scalp wounds bleed a lot. Did I get stitches? Go to the emergency room? Maybe, I don't really remember. I do remember a lot of blood. And I also remember someone (my mom?) saying: "See what happens when you show off?!"

So it took me a long time to try to ride hands free again. And it was only last year at a mountain bike clinic with Carol, that I started relearning some of the 'tricks' that I could do when I was eight . . .

So that is what I'm doing these days. Enjoying Paris, but also asking questions, pushing my limits, learning more about myself.

And now I can park my bike in the 'cave' where it will be more accessible. Much easier than wrestling it into that elevator! I just take it down these stairs:

p.s. I had a good ride! I got my heart rate up, and had a good workout.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Bicycling in Paris

I woke up on Sunday morning thinking: What a good day to go for a bike ride! It's not too hot, not too cold, not too many cars in Paris; many streets blocked off for pedestrians, roller bladers, and bikes.

I've been thinking about this for a long time. I even got a Navigo pass because I read that you can use your Navigo pass to check out bikes at the Vélib stands.

And I've been practicing! I've been making strides in overcoming my irrational fears when I rented bikes in Ravenna, Switzerland, and Annecy.

So today is the day for my Vélib initiation. I set out with my Navigo pass, my credit card, and a bottle of water. Sunscreen? Check.

Vélib' (a contraction of the French words "vélo" (bicycle) and "libre" (free)) is a program whereby the city of Paris has installed over 1200 stations throughout the city with over 16,000 bikes available to pick up and drop off anywhere. The first half hour is free, and the charge is only 1 euro per half hour after that. The program is a huge success and I've seen people of all ages riding them. It's time for me to start!

There is a Vélib station right near my apartment and I go there full of anticipation. I'm excited and ready for some exercise. I hold my Navigo pass up to the machine and follow directions. Nothing happens - the bikes refuse to unlock. I try again, following the directions in English this time. Again, nothing. And no one around to ask for help. I decide to walk to the next station. Maybe there will be someone around, an experienced user, so that I can figure out what I'm doing wrong.

The next station has more more people around, and I ask a friendly looking woman for help. She tries to help in somewhat accented French, but again, no luck. She has a receipt, a white ticket - but the machine still refuses my credit card and she doesn't know why. It turns out that she is a tourist here too.

Finally, another young man arrives and I again ask for assistance. He tries going through the steps, following the instructions. Again, no luck. We finally conclude that my American credit card, lacking a smart chip (called 'puce' in French) is the culprit.

No bike ride for me today. :-(

Fast forward to Thursday: I really would like to get this bike thing sorted out. I've explored the idea of getting a French credit card with the requisite smart chip, but that will be nearly impossible. What to do? I've also looked online for longterm bike rentals - with no success.

Then suddenly, an inspiration: Craigslist! I look up bikes for sale and find one at the right price and within walking distance of my apartment. I write to the seller who responds immediately. Within 30 minutes of going online, I've met the seller, checked out the bike and concluded the deal! Woo hoo!

I now have a NEW BIKE to explore Paris!!

Here it is in front of my apartment building:

Oops! Here it is wedged into my tiny elevator (I live on the 5th floor). Maybe I haven't thought this through?? But I'm happy!!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

My Sister - update

My sister left the hospital today. Whew. There were some very anxious hours for my mother and my niece when my sister suffered serious post-surgical complications that landed her in the ICU.

However, my sister is one tough cookie, and I am in awe of her resilience. She has suffered a 100 times more blows (both literal and figurative) than I have, and yet she continues to surprise us all by picking herself up, dusting herself off, and living to fight another day. She is an inspiration.

I've had it easy, I think. I've lived a charmed life and things have mostly gone very well for me. She's had a much harder time of things and sometimes resented living in my shadow. I was the more conservative (i.e. cautious) one, the "good girl"; while she tested the limits at every turn - often with unfortunate results. We didn't get along when we were younger, but as we've grown older we've come to appreciate each other's gifts and unique paths. We now have a very close bond and I've shared secrets with her that I've shared with no other. I admire her courage and tenacity in the face of adversity, and she is happy that I've broken free of self-imposed constraints.

I spoke to her on the phone via Skype and was relieved to hear her sounding much better. She reiterated her wish to see me follow my dreams here in Paris. She reminded me that in following my own dreams I am an inspiration to others to do the same. So it is with her blessing that I enjoy my stay in Paris.

Here is a picture of the four of us:

I'm the oldest and that's my spunky sister on the far right.

I love you, Jan, and wish you a speedy recovery!