Thursday, December 3, 2020

My students made me cry.

Yesterday, my students almost made me cry. Imagine the scene: I'm all alone in a nearly-deserted university building, huddled under my knit shawl in an empty classroom, rain softly lashing the windows, Zoom screen glowing brightly, very few student cameras turned on. I've implored them, sternly reminded them, cajoled them into turning on their cameras, but only a brave few actually do. I teach 5.5 hours on Wednesdays, so imagine also how stiff my back and neck are by the end of the day. Imagine me like this, then imagine what these students could possibly do to make me cry. 

These were first-year students, 18, maybe 19 years old. Ensconced in their various student residences, homes, apartments. Unreliable internet, roommates, siblings, the occasional cat. It's English class towards the end of the semester, and at this point a quarter, maybe a third of students are logging in to the Zoom classes. It irritates me, but I get it. In this class, we practice reading and listening comprehension, a little speaking, a little writing. When everyone in the class has done their homework, I consider it a miracle. Mostly, it's just me trying to squeeze water from the proverbial stone, gesticulating wildly on camera to a bunch of little blacked-out squares, articulating clearly, doing anything to elicit any reaction or sign of life. Yet still, yesterday, I nearly had to turn off my camera from the building pressure in my heart and the throbbing at my temples. 

By chance, I chose a speaking activity from the pre-prepared booklet we all use in this course that prompted the students to talk about the educational system. Do they think it functions well? What would they change? Do they think teachers are trained properly? (I took that question personally given that according to the French Ministry of Education, I'm qualified to teach kids aged 12-18. Or else, I'm good at writing university-level literary reflection essays and b.s.-ing my way through translation.) I put them into groups (well, breakout rooms in Zoom), and I also encouraged them to discuss how they've felt the transition from high school to college has been going. Before I even hit "go" on the breakout rooms, I could see someone students smirking. This is France where the chief professional sport is complaining. Obviously they would have things to say. I braced myself for some eye rolling, good old-fashioned venting. Not that I wouldn't have agreed with them.

10 minutes for a breakout group discussion. I answered some emails, prepared the worksheet for the next activity, checked Instagram. Should have gotten the tissues out.

"Welcome back, everyone! Please turn your cameras back on... Who has some thoughts on the educational system?"

A moment of silence, the quiet before the storm.


Silence, a teacher's worst nightmare in a discussion activity.

"I have something, can I speak?"

And the floodgates have opened.

It turns out these brave few students, the ones who still bother to show up to Zoom class in December, are humans with soft, gooey centers. They feel isolated, they feel like they were expected to *poof* become adults in the intervening two months between high school and university, they have too much homework (ok...) and professors who won't listen to them, they can't balance work and social life because they just don't know how, they've never learned to study because subjects came easily to them in high school, and suddenly the expectations are much higher, Zoom is unbelievably depressing, they felt pressured in high school to pick a certain curriculum and then felt trapped by it, they don't see how past experiences (math class) have any relation to the present or future, nobody is teaching them how to prepare their taxes, people are telling them they're foolish for going back to university at age 23, dress codes at school penalize girls and do nothing to remind boys that they ought not objectify women, they've been dealing with anxiety and learning disabilities in an educational system that only thinks about the neurotypical students...

They're reaching their breaking point. And no professor has yet taken the time to ask them, how are you coping?

As I listened to them speak, and as I relayed all my best advice, tips, tricks, know-how, I felt a ball of emotion building in my chest. They were so earnest. They kept speaking in English! They wanted to be taken seriously. I wanted to reach through the screen and hold each student in my arms. I kept reminding them that they aren't alone, that it takes courage to reach out and ask for help, that I am here to help them. And I told them honestly what it's like from the teacher's perspective: we have so many students who lie and abuse the system, that we get jaded and every student becomes a potential exaggerating drama queen. In the 5 years that I've been teaching, I've had baptism-by-fire practice in weeding through the b.s. to reach through to those students who genuinely need a pedagogical push (or just a pep talk!).

Teaching is my purpose in life. It fulfills me and frustrates me, all at once, showing me that I truly care about the people in front of me. I've had jobs where I left the office and didn't think twice about the frantic emails waiting for me in the morning. I never felt motivated in those jobs. I probably didn't work to my potential. But every class is a new chance to connect, to inform, to inspire, to listen, to reach through and make someone's life a little brighter, whether through an emotional discussion about the transition to college or the sudden comprehension of why we use the present perfect. This semester has been challenging, heartbreaking, and joyful, all in one. When we moved to the North, I didn't know if I would even be able to continue teaching at the university. I live for standing in front of a college class and teaching my lesson. (I tell my students this: it doesn't matter what degree you got if you can creatively apply it to the job you want. I have a degree in music. It taught me how to prepare a song, get on a stage, connect with an audience, and convince that audience of my earnest interpretation of the music. Sound like teaching?) But now, I sit hunched over at a desk and talk to black squares. Am I still reaching them? Is there still a connection? What do they even get out of this? Am I doing enough? I suppose that question never goes away, Zoom classes or no.


We wrapped up class, and the students hadn't even noticed that we'd gone 5 minutes over time (at lunch time no less!). I hope it's not the last time I have to remind students that it's time to go. I managed to hold myself together, by the way, though barely. I like to think I'm an effective teacher, but I decided that I would make a terrible therapist. This morning, though, I woke up to an email from a student entitled "Therapy." She reached out. I reached someone.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Musings upon a quarantine

It's been a couple of years since I've made use of this medium, but I make no apologies for life lived or intentions diverted. It's not that I haven't had anything to write about, rather that writing and reflection tend to be a bit emotionally fatiguing for me. The novelty of being an expat has lost some of its sheen as well, so what once fascinated a wide-eyed, slightly uncomfortable, cheek-kiss-hating 25-year-old doesn't tend to still phase me as a (still cheek-kiss-hating) 30-year-old. Bref, I finished my master's degree in musicology in Lyon in 2017, taught as an English assistant for two years, Ben and I got married (admit it, you just whispered finally), and we moved down south to Aix-en-Provence. I'm teaching English as a lecturer at the university here, and I somehow got myself involved with yet another master's degree. Something something something about loving pain.

I thought I wanted to be a secondary school teacher, but it turns out, I can't stand kids! But I love to teach, I really think it's my calling. I love standing up in front of a class, giving a lesson, answering questions, imparting wisdom (or whatever other nonsense I can come up with), and connecting with that rather small minority of students whose eyes light up in class, who ask me non-stop questions because their yen to learn is so strong. I love those kids. I want to continue to teach those kids.

Two things. I never was that kid in college. I'm that kid now in grad school (second time over). I was painfully shy in college, I didn't know my worth, and being a music major — a singer — is really bad for your confidence. Musicians can be a real rotten bunch to impressionable young people. I had professors bully me, snicker at me while I was performing in juries, discount me because I dared study abroad, and I've basically been forgotten about by my alma mater because I didn't go on to have a career as an opera singer. Funny thing is, I learned more from that degree in music performance about teaching than I seem to be learning in my pedagogy classes in grad school now. Can you really teach how to connect with an audience? How to engage 60+ kids who would prefer to be on Insta right now, thank you very much.

This brings me to the heart of my sudden surge of writer's inspiration. Teaching and music. I'm a musician and a teacher. I don't teach music. Hah. When I finished my master's degree in musicology, my director urged me to apply to do a doctoral thesis. I grimaced politely and said no thank you. For one thing, it would have meant writing 400-something pages in FRENCH, but also I just simply didn't think I was good enough, bright enough, enough. Music is just a hobby, I said, it's too personal to try to make a career out of. To be very honest, I rarely listen to music. I really hate being asked what my favorite music is. The frank answer is Beethoven, but damn that just sounds so cliché. But I can't listen to the third movement of Beethoven's string quartet no. 15 without crawling into a little hole inside myself and weeping. Something to do with my childhood. My parents, who instilled in me my love of music. The many, many hours a week spent practicing my violin, piano, and voice. The Strauss song Morgen that reminded me of that crystallized moment I spent at dawn at the water's edge on a lake in the Adirondack Mountains, while visiting a boy I'd end up marrying, eight months after a painful breakup, and a week before I left the US to live abroad the first time. The Chopin Prélude Op. 28 No. 15 that I learned in high school, and banged away at for hours in the very real teenage pain brought on by incessant bullying. The hour I spent on the bus home in middle school, hiding from the bullies with my CD player, playing the Sibelius or Mendelssohn Violin Concertos on a loop. Listening to records of Mahler symphonies on the sound system my Dad built. At five or so, hearing a Vivaldi violin piece play in the background of a fictionalized story about Vivaldi's school for orphan girls, and getting out of bed to weep to my Dad about my newly gained knowledge that some kids don't have parents to call their own. From the very beginning, music has been my constant companion, and my memories are all inextricably linked to melody, rhythm, song, the spectres of instruments buzzing sans cesse in my head.

Now though. Now I can't listen to music unless I make a conscious choice to. I must isolate myself from all other people, all other tasks (which is pretty hard to do living in a studio apartment). The memories flood me, and I become a certain kind of homesick that spans both space and time.  Heartsick. Timesick.

Here's why. Every moment, I am out of place. This is not my land. This is not my language. These are not my people. I made a choice to come live in France, to become vulnerable to that particular brand of ironic acerbity, forever sighing and smoking. We all like to pat ourselves on the back, we expats, for how worldly, how knowing we are, but at a certain point, I yearn for the brand of my people. For America. When I listen to music, I'm whipped from time and place and shoved face-down into the swirling mess of memory, memories all made in America. When I listen to music, I have to confront that part of myself that I've shut down in the name of sanity and self-preservation. If I were to regularly open that door, I'd be a puddle on the floor, too bereft for the sake of my homeland to get anything done. And I really like to get stuff done.

So what's with the teaching and the music? And that image you now have of my bawling on the floor? Here's the convergence. I mentioned I want to keep teaching college kids, and to do that, I need to do a PhD. Hah! Damn, should have listened to my director in Lyon in 2017. Thanks to my current grad program, I've been able to put certain pieces in place that hopefully will help me gain entry to an école doctorale. I want to teach English, but I did my research master's degree on music, so my professor suggested I try to blend the two for a proposed thesis topic. Revelatory. Thing is, the subject needs to be related to the anglophone world, so continuing my research into Lili Boulanger is out.

You probably didn't notice in my aforementioned list, but to me, all my life, it's been glaring: I do not listen to American music. My feeling has always been, why would I? There's so much German and French and Austrian and Italian and Russian and even English music to be absorbed, consumed, pored over, obsessed with. My music was born in Europe, even if I wasn't. Besides, American music is beyond cliché and stupid. Like, ok Bernstein, we get it, you're the voice of a nation. Or Copland, bringing Americana to the concert hall. But that's just it. It's America, writ large in symphonic form.

I don't intend to get technical here, I'm saving that for a thesis proposal. But for the past few years in France, I've been struggling with that space-time-homesickness, and I never thought to turn to American music to soothe that twisted little soul deep inside, crying out for some unironic, bald-faced openness. I'm embarrassed to admit, but I know so little about Bernstein and Copland (for example) compared to all the European greats I studied in college. West Side Story and Appalachian Spring, and that's about it. I've been dipping into that well, for the first time really, and discovering myself in there. Discovering the mirror image of open, embracing, compassion I've so missed about the America I grew up in. Wide chords, vividly chattered out in springing strings, melodic turns of phrase that speak to the experience of being an American. Quiet introspection and simplistic sophistication.

This is the America I want, but the America I fear has always been the just-out-of-reach idealized version of guileless romantics. This realization has been sponsored by living as an expat. For context, I lived in Washington D.C. from 2011 to 2014, right before moving to France. The heyday of the Obama presidency, when all the liberals could crawl out from under their collective shame and earnestly be proud of being an American again. This was the golden age for millennials. We get a lot of flak, but I lost my innocence at age 11 when 9/11 occurred. Then I was halfway through college during the Great Recession. That three-year period in DC was sacred, and I could scream that I was proud to be American without even the tiniest wisp of irony, or without any of the accompanying racism that currently gets read into it. That brief golden age obviously came to an abrupt and shocking end in 2016, and once again, we crept back under our shame. The view from Europe has been clarifying. When Trump was elected, my classmates wished me condolences as though a dear friend had just died. The longer I've been away, the more America looks like a shell of itself, an over-priced, litigation-happy joke. When I go back, I cringe at the pompous boastfulness. The French are obsessed with poking fun at the American Dream by calling it the American Nightmare. Haha.

I feel sorrow for the humiliation and death of something that I so fleetingly enjoyed. But it's so much more personal than that. As we're all sitting with our thoughts in week seven of confinement, some of us bereft from the loss of loved ones, the loss of income, and so many more, the loss of motivation, I've had the time to think about my homeland and the utter mismanagement instigating an avoidable tragedy. Maybe America was a joke to Europe, but that joke has been strangled into a very dark humor. I'm no longer rolling my eyes and poking accusatorially at the inequality of healthcare and education. I'm in mourning for the people, the place, the culture that cradled the creation of music as wide, open, and accepting as Bernstein and Copland.

I wish I had a pithy ending to this post, but I'll leave it open. No irony, no tongue-in-cheek, secret grunt of sarcasm. I don't think any of us is even capable of writing a good ending right now. We're still in the middle of it.

Stay safe, stay healthy.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

On being a woman.

This post is not going to be about my expat life in France, just a heads up.

As I've mentioned in the past, I write to cope when tragedy strikes.  Mostly, I've been feeling affected by the recent attacks in France, since I've been living in France for the past two years, and I've come to really cherish my adopted country and its values.  But I've been living at home this summer, working at St. Lawrence University while between academic years in grad school in Lyon.  For the most part, it's been rejuvenating for my soul.  Living in the lush, bucolic scenery of Upstate New York, spending much-needed time with my parents, getting to spoil my niece for a week in Maine.  But this has been a summer of unexpected, unintended reflection.  Reflection about what it means to be a woman in today's whirlwind culture.

According to the current patriarchy-hating definition of feminism, I really don't consider myself a feminist.  I grew up in a family that placed equal emphasis on the strengths of two hard-working, competent, and loving parents.  The division of labor was a joyful celebration of each of my parent's skills and best qualities, and it never occurred to me that one gender could be considered "better" than the other.  My mom guided me with the definition of feminism that she adheres to, starting in the 60s and 70s when she was a young woman dealing with very real issues.  Being a petite woman with a hell of a lot of intelligence and capacity to achieve was considered a challenge to men in the workplace.  She once told me a story about someone telling her, "You're pretty smart for how short you are."  What.  The.  Hell.  That was probably the first time I realized that my mom is petite because her commanding presence is towering.  I joke that I have my mom at home, and I see Lisa Cania, Vice President, when she's at work.  I see my mom, my emotive, gushing supporter, the woman who is always right when it comes to matters of the heart... and then I see the same woman at work, a consummate and poised professional; open, knowledgeable, kind, respected, and in-tune to the intricacies of her sensitive job at the university. This woman is the feminist role model I had growing up, and hers is the feminism I adhere to.

To the feminism of my mother, all men are not evil, would-be rapists.  I realize know that I must have grown up in a bubble of truly great men as well, because the rabid, man-hating brand of feminism that seems so popular was initially very jarring to my sensibilities.  My father, my brother, my uncles, my voice professor in college, my boyfriend, his father... all of these men who have been close to me, have taught me, supported me, and guided me are all truly good men.  It hurts my heart to think that people could see any of them as innately bad.  I am also a petite woman, and I've had my share of teasing, but I've never envisioned myself as small.  I've never been treated as small.  I like to think that my power comes from within, nudged along through the years by all the wonderful women and men in my life.

Sadly, this worldview seems to be incongruous with the national dialogue.  I realize too that I've been extremely lucky to be surrounded by such people.  I know there are women who truly are surrounded by people who would mean them harm, who would want to dominate them, tear them down, physically hurt them through the manifestation of insecurities, fears, and ignorance.  The world isn't a rosy place - I understand this fact more and more every day.

All of the national attention surrounding the victimization of women and the denouncing of men has made me very uncomfortable - not because I think it's stupid, or I wish it would go away, but because it has jolted my memory into remembering times in which I wasn't respected as a woman.  I've been catcalled countless times (in English and in French), a guy on a bus once put his hand on my leg when I was pretending to sleep so I wouldn't have to talk to him, I've had to tell men "I have a boyfriend" to get them to leave me alone (when what I would ideally say is, "I'm not interested" - end of story).  And the one I blocked so long from conscious thought - my repeated statement of "no" was ignored.  I don't know if it was right to block this kind of thing out of my mind since I truly never dealt with it, but I think partly I didn't want it to define me, I didn't want it to be part of who I was as a woman.  I'm guessing most women have a story like this that they also either don't want to deal with, don't want it to define them, or don't even want to acknowledge.  I count myself lucky since I've never been assaulted, but oh my god, the fact that that's even something to be counted lucky is kind of horrifying.

This urge to write has come to a head after I heard the news of the woman who was killed while jogging in Massachusetts.  I saw the story trending on Facebook, and when I clicked the link, I realized: I knew her.  For a semester at BU, we were suite mates.  I didn't know her well at all, but I remember her as being very sweet, kind, and extremely beautiful.  And then I realized something else while digesting the disturbing facts: this could have been me.  I'm a runner too, and I like to go for runs wherever I am, whether in the city or somewhere rural.  But now, reeling at the small, personal connection, I'm not going to run outside anymore while at home.  I am too scared to go out on my own.  I thought to myself, "I wish my boyfriend were here so we could go for a run together outside," and as much as I enjoy my running buddy, Ben, it is so unfair that I should feel too scared to go out on my own.  I use my running time to free my pent-up thoughts, to solve my problems, to work out my frustrations, and often that is best left to do alone.

Mostly at the moment, my heart is heavy and sad.  I'm feeling bombarded by negativity with the endless news cycle, all the relentless attention given to a sociopathic, violence-inciting moron, the despondent refugees all over the world, the simmering racial tensions, the dangerous ideologies that give gruesome hope to young people who have nothing else to cling to.  But I'm also feeling so much positivity and inspiration from the Olympics right now.  Every day, it's another story about how much the women are dominating, tales of their impressive and extraordinary athleticism and skill.  Watching and reading about these powerful women is a shining light in a dismal dump of society.  I marvel at their muscular bodies, and I think that I've never seen anything more beautiful.  I see strong women who are representing the best of what a culture has to offer, and I feel a little braver for it.  I feel like it's ok that I'm not a skinny twig, trying to make my body conform to an unachievable, waif-like societal ideal.  I am empowered to feel beautiful because I have muscular legs from running... and I don't want this feeling ripped away from me by the fear that the exercise that gives me joy could also be fatal.

So how do I move forward?  Right now, I really don't have an answer for this.  But I know that I won't start hating men simply because a girl I once knew briefly in college met such a tragic fate.  I won't curl up into a little ball because Olympic women's outfits and hair are more interesting than their dominance in their athletic field.  I will reach back and look to the example set by all the pillars of goodness that have helped shape me.  The confident feminism my mother embodies, and the kindness and respect that my father has always, without a waiver, shown women.  The strength, wisdom, and creativity displayed by my aunts, Nani, music teachers, godmother, and friends.  The cherishing love and admiration I feel from Ben.  I look with joy at how my brother and sister-in-law are raising their daughter, and I hope that when she is my age, she will feel confident, beautiful, and brave, and that she will be able to run wherever she wants without fear.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Tragédie encore

Yet again, my heart is aching for my adopted country.  La belle France has been like a punching bag for fanatical hatred and ignorance, and once again, I feel the only recourse I have is to wring my hands in sorrow and search for logical answers that simply don't exist.

At a time like this, it would be reasonable to feel anger or want to seek immediate and violent revenge.  In November, after the attacks in Paris, I did feel very angry.  But these attacks in France have propelled me into a sort of modified grieving sequence: after Charlie Hebdo, I was shocked and frightened.  I had just moved to France, and the idea of "terrorism" only existed for me in the confines of the memories of 9/11 and the unending news of suicide bombers in the Middle East.  France was supposed to be an enlightened center of dispassionate European culture, but that wry epitome of French façon d'être was suddenly torn asunder, leaving us all wondering at the disproportionately violent response to pen and paper.

When France was targeted in November, I unwittingly moved to the next step of my grieving.  This heartless, wide-scale attack left me angry and shaking.  I actively sought out a face to blame.  I looked around me in the streets of Lyon and deliberately feared and secretly loathed those who didn't look like Westerners.  I'm ashamed of my reaction.  I don't understand or agree with some of the ideologies brought by those people I saw as "different" from myself, but I acknowledge and embrace that the grand majority of people, no matter the religion or ethnicity, or any other characterization, just want peace and acceptance.  We all just want to go about our days with minimal interruption and no conflict.

Now, only a day after Nice has been so cruelly attacked, all I can feel is pain and sorrow.  The vitriol has deserted me.  I sit writing this in the verdant cocoon of my home in New York, but I long to be in France, to wrap my arms around the whole country and whisper, "je t'aime, je t'aime" over and over to every passerby.  I don't want to point fingers or decry the perpetrators.  I just want a chance to heal.

I fear this wound is going to fester.  Since I've been living in France, I've felt a little removed from all the gun violence happening across the US.  Maybe this is my own perception, but it feels that in the three weeks that I've been back in the US, the violence and racial tension have only exponentially increased.  When one person is killed, no matter the circumstance, we all die a little.

This unending cycle of mass violence, followed by blaring media coverage, followed by promises to bring the criminals to justice (whatever that means with a faceless target and yearning for martyrdom) is ripping humanity to shreds.  I can't stop myself from opening US and French Google news every hour or so, succumbing to a sick, voyeuristic need to know every detail.  I search for the answers, read the op-eds, listen to the apologists, the fanatics, the sensationalists.  It's too much.

After the most recent attacks prior to Nice, my Facebook feed had been littered with profile picture solidarity.  Waves of French, Belgian, Turkish, rainbow flags as I surfed, doing little more than showing me that people watch the news.  I understand the desire to show support for victims, but I fear that people think changing a profile picture does a damn thing.  But I must stop myself, for what else can we do?  There is no enemy we can solidly put a finger on before it slithers away.  Warfare doesn't occur in trenches or battle lines anymore.  The "war on terror" is a war on an abstraction.  So what can we do, sitting dejectedly in front of our glowing screens, endlessly horrified at the pain inflicted on people who look just like us.  Violence around the world has become reality TV.  It's become normalized, even expected.  Now, 24 hours after the attack in Nice, I've seen only two maybe three picture tributes to the French and the Niçois.  We now live in a world where this sort of thing just happens.

I ache for France, a country and culture I've come to adore.  Truly in this case, absence has made the heart grow fonder.  I weep for my adoptive home, but I'm determined to cling to the positive throughout my mourning.  Being around the excitement in Lyon as it hosted games of the Euro Cup in June, and then watching France come so close to winning the Cup inspired me from afar.  I felt so much pride and joy for a country that has been wrought again and again.  "Fier d'être bleu" (proud to be blue) was trending about the French soccer team, and I would add my own: je suis fière d'être (presque) française!  When I return to France this fall, I want to wrap myself in the blue, white, and red and belt the Marseillaise out my window... even though displays of patriotism are super un-French!

In any case, be good to each other.  We can all heal together.  Je vous aime.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Let's talk about... FOOD!

I love food.  That's one of those simple things about me that will never change and only ever becomes more pronounced over time.  Food is life, and life is for the making of food.  I've always loved to cook and bake, but I've never taken any formal lessons.  I'm probably doing a lot of it wrong, but I love almost nothing more than being in a kitchen.  I'll let you make the joke for yourself on that one...  Truly, though, my love for cooking has nothing to do with growing up in some kind of traditional mom-as-homemaker household.  Both my parents worked (and still work) very long hours, and the house duties were seemingly split democratically right down the line of skill.  My mom can cook, and my dad can clean, and so that's what they did.  Some of my most vivid childhood memories are of Friday nights, when they house got a top-down cleaning from Dad, and of Sunday afternoons, when Mom cooked sauce and meatballs.  Every single week was the same thing, and I took it completely for granted, but thankfully, I've adopted at least the essence of these acts.  I clean obsessively when I'm anxious or upset, and at all other times, I cook.

The most prominent collection of memories
from my childhood: pizza at Sergi's in Potsdam, NY!

Squid sauce and fried fish for dinner every single
Christmas Eve for the past 26 years.

Acting as guest chef in my brother and sister-in-law's kitchen.
I grew up in a third generation 100% Italian family, so food was the name of the game at every holiday and gathering.  My paternal Grandma made sauce and "magic meatballs" (magic because they magically put my brother and me to sleep on the 3-hour car ride home), and my maternal Nani makes the most frighteningly delicious spinach bread.  Nani is a pretty religious woman, but I'm convinced she's made a little deal with the devil over the texture of that bread because it is SINFUL.  In the tradition, my mom continues to make sauce (we don't call it gravy in my family...) for pasta, lasagna, manicotti (pronounced madigot in our house), baked ziti, Christmas Eve squid sauce, and I can't continue listing because my mouth is watering too much.  I'm not sure how it compares to some great chef's tomato sauce, but to me, my mom's sauce will always be the best.  The texture is always so smooth, never too lumpy, but never watery.  It takes on this deep, plump, vivacious ruby red after hours of simmering, and the aroma swirls around the house long into the night, even after cooking, eating, and cleaning have long finished.  My mom's sauce is that combination of raw ingredients and dash of je ne sais quoi that eludes me to this day.  I've made plenty of sauces, but they never, never come anywhere close to Mom's.  I can't figure it out.  I consider myself pretty good at cooking, but something as simple as tomato sauce is juuuuuust beyond my grasp.  I have an inkling that my mom's secret ingredient is the most powerful one of all: love.  So cliché, I know, but there is no other explanation.  I'm betting she became imbued with that power 30 years ago when my brother was introduced on the world because that's the moment she became a mom.  Hopefully one day I'll have a kid or two, so I like to think that my best sauce days are still ahead of me.  Thankfully, sauce isn't the only thing in the world to be cooked, and I think I put a pretty good spin on a lot of my mom's other dishes.

I can't remember the first time I attempted to cook something.  I don't recall asking my mom for cooking lessons, but I do remember sitting at the kitchen counter every night in middle and high school doing my homework while Mom cooked dinner.  I must have just observed and absorbed everything, and the first thing that's always stuck in my mind is garlic sautéing in olive oil.  My mom never used recipes until the internet made it easy to find and print in the days before smartphones and tablets.  Everything was made by memory and deft skill.  I don't remember anything burned or poorly made, though most dishes leaning toward the safe side culinarily.  One of my favorites was tuna noodle casserole (or tuna nuna casserole as I thought it was pronounced until well into my teens).  And spaghetti carbonara, lentil soup, chili, spaghetti and meatballs (homemade, obvi), chicken piccata, "Spanish rice" (rice, corn, salsa, beans, ground beef).  Good '90s food with an injection of Italian tradition.  Every night was a sit-down affair with all four of us.  We said grace until my brother and I rejected the religiously-tinged phrases.  Grace was replaced with a ritual of holding hands and saying "I love you" to everyone at the table.  The cloying sweetness of a functional family, quelle horreur.  All of that food tasted so good because it had been lovingly prepared by my little momma.

My own spaghetti carbonara
I started cooking for myself after college in my pathetic makeshift studio kitchen in DC.  No great success there.  I ended up making simple microwave rice and pasta dishes almost every night. The house I lived in in Virginia had a full kitchen, but by that point, I realized that the problem didn't lay with the size of the kitchen, but the amount of mouths being fed.  I had really only ever cooked just for myself, so I didn't bother to put much thought or creativity into it.  Then I moved to France and had both someone to cook for and the immense inspiration of the food capital of the world.  Now I cook every single night for Ben, and although perhaps not a voracious gourmand, he's as appreciative a recipient as any.  I feel genuinely fulfilled being able to cook for someone I love, with a license to make pretty much anything I want because I'm dating the least picky eater in the world.  That said, we've had to put a limit on all the baking as we don't make enough money to buy larger pants sizes.

Banana bread.  In the 10€ bread pan

Starbucks chocolate cinnamon bread

The most incredible apple pie...

Perfect lattice crust from scratch, thank you very much.

The perfect chocolate pudding pie
(from scratch, never from a box!)

And the perfect brownies.  I go through a lot
of recipes to find the ONE.

My one and only Martha Stewart recipe:
oatmeal raisin bars.
All of these ventures into cooking and baking have put me into a reflective state.  What is the draw of cooking for me?  Is it that I really love to eat?  Do I enjoy feeding people?  Do I like the grand variety of textures, colors, aromas, tastes, and combinations that can be produced when given a little heat, a little time?  Within this reflection, I've circled back around to the lessons I learned and absorbed from my mom.  It's all about the loooove.  Seriously.  I realized that cooking a good meal is one of the most natural ways I know to show my love.  What's better than spending my time on a recipe that requires a little skill, a lot of patience, and some beautiful cuts of meat and chops of veggies?  I lose myself in the acts of slicing and dicing and in the discovery of new tastes.  I'm developing my sixth sense for flavor combinations, admiring the tang and diversity of citrus, the incredibly utility of cornstarch, honey, coconut milk, and bouillon, the rich deliciousness of crème fraiche, the sweet candy-like texture that butter gives to sautéing vegetables (ça c'est très français).  I've discovered that making soup - chicken noodle, potato leek, butternut squash, French onion, lentil - is basically a panacea and the epitome of comfort food.  The humble garlic and onion are the fundamentals to most of the meals I prep, and chopping those cloves and bulbs has become a soothing ritual for me.  The familiar scent of garlic or onion in olive oil is a living connection to the past, to cherished childhood, that links to the present.  As I've written about so many times, living abroad makes me a little heartsick at times, and the act and sensory experience of cooking keeps me connected to the memories of love back home.

Chicken noodle, cures the common cold.


Lentil soup.

Potato leek, very French.
Cooking takes time and attention.  It's an investment in a fundamental act of survival.  We must eat to survive, but survival doesn't require gourmet meals.  It's possible to get by on the bare minimum, either without the means to create or the creativity for the meals.  So why do we spend time selecting the juiciest and plumpest morsels in the market, slaving over a hot stove, reading and re-reading recipes, and delicately stirring, scraping, and flipping to achieve that perfect concoction?  Making delicious, interesting, healthy meals is the heart of showing someone you care enough to put in real effort on their behalf.  My food-centric childhood and ancestry are now manifesting their powers in the food capital of the world.  Living in France has unlocked this potential in me that I think would otherwise have laid dormant.  Maybe it's because I live with someone now, but I think there's really something in the water here that helps to imbue all my meals with je ne sais quoi.  C'est l'amour!

In the zone.

French onion soup.  C'est l'amour!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A tourist in my own city

Hi friends.  I've decided to veer back to the original purpose of this blog - that is, reflecting on my expat experiences and NOT publishing rant after rant surrounding my general introverted discontentedness.  I'm truly not unhappy, but when I start to write, all of my inner frustrations come out in a kind of cathartic word vomit.  Good for my psyche, maybe not so enjoyable to my readers.

I will start with one complaint, however.  This little sourness prompted my day's activity, so I feel it bears a small amount of explanation: I'm job hunting.  No revelation here, but it really sucks.  I don't think going into too many details would be productive, but over the past few weeks, I've generally felt that my very existence is of absolutely no consequence.  I can't figure out what my passion is in life, can't figure out what I'm really good at, can't figure out where I could make the most fruitful contribution.  On top of that, there's a pesky black hole on the other end of my email server, as clearly none of the dozens of inquiry emails I've sent out have reached a single recipient.  The answers I do get back have been more often than not discouraging and sometimes downright snotty.  So I'm feeling kind of down on myself right now and frustrated that I don't see any progress.  On one specific note - I'm working on a TEFL certification so that I can apply to teaching jobs.  If anyone has any advice on how to get into teaching, I would greatly appreciate it.  I know it's a domain that requires more than just a quick certification, but I want to try teaching English while I'm here for various reasons.

In any case, I've been a less-than-pleasant bedfellow the past few weeks because of the job hunt stress, and I'm also bored up to my eyeballs while on vacation.  It's also worth mentioning that my master's program doesn't have classes this semester, just independent research.  I'm so starved for structure, it's ridiculous.  I'm taking two really great French courses, so at the very least I have that.

In the depths of my first-world despair, I decided to get out of the apartment today and go enjoy Lyon like a tourist.  I loved doing this when I lived in DC, since there's no end of touristy things to do and places to see in Washington.  (I would have lived on the Mall if I could.  I certainly ran around it while marathon training enough times.)  I was really looking for an excuse to get out and remind myself why I'm grateful to be here, living in France.  It can feel like an endless cycle of hardships and frustrations.  Sometimes, not very often, I think back to the life I left in DC.  I was independent with two jobs that paid enough-ish.  I had fun friends, an athletic hobby that kept me busy and put me in contact with wonderful people.  I lived in one of the coolest cities in the world, only a mile or two from Barack.  It's always so easy to look back only see the positive in a situation I know in my heart was never ideal.  Especially at a mentally and emotionally exhausting time like this.  And I don't just mean the job hunting.  Living the bohemian expat life is not glamorous - it comes with a unique set of hurdles and nary a real guidebook.  Then again, I live in France!  Who cares what I have to deal with?  I'm literally living the (a) dream!  For all the cigarette smoke and annoying, confusing bisous, this is such a beautiful country, and I'm kind of in an ideal situation.  I get to be in grad school, speak a foreign language, absorb a whole culture, and I live relatively comfortably.  I pay pennies for my education and healthcare.  I'm not in debt, I'm not starving, and I'm enriching my life in a way that never would have been possible had I stayed in DC.

With all that in mind, I set out today to one of my favorite parts of the city, Vieux Lyon.  Vieux Lyon is the old part of the city (vieux = old), and it looks the most storybook European.  It's pretty touristy on the weekends, so I felt a Wednesday afternoon would be an ideal time for a stroll through its cobblestone streets.  My mission was to get away from the cliché, wander the back streets, and snap pictures of anything that piqued my interest.

To set the scene, the charming, narrow streets of Vieux Lyon:

On the weekends, and in the summer, these streets are usually so packed it's almost impossible to move.  Even today, the main street was a little crowded.  As such, I kept to the most deserted passages.  I love how the old buildings lean in toward each other over the street, veiling the ground in musty antiquity.  You can smell the thousand year history mingling with that distinct scent of baking bread.  It feels ancient, as though this quartier is in suspension, completely at ease with the patina of its beautiful decay.  Everything rests in an organic color, each building appearing to have grown up from the earth abiding by the color palette of nature.  Nothing gaudy or garishly modern.  

Further in my tour, I encountered a little more color and character.

The color on this storefront was actually shocking to me.  The brilliance caught the corner of my eye as I walked by, and I had to cross the street to take in its full glory.  This picture really doesn't do justice to the deep midnight purple, glowing even in the daylight.  I want to find this paint color and paint myself an accent wall in the home of my dreams.

This is my very favorite apartment in all the city.  Every time I walk by, I admire the graceful glass front, the blush of the façade, the thoughtful arrangement of potted plants, up to the jaunty, cheerful turrets of the roof.  It looks out on the Saône river, so whatever lucky person lives here even has a nice view...

The Bad Boy Café ;)

After Vieux Lyon, I mounted the steep hill up to La Croix-Rousse, which overlooks the city.  I stumbled upon a Roman-Gallic ruin on my way that I'd had no idea existed... something that I surely could never had done in the US!

Finally, I made my way back into the city at Hôtel de Ville, where it was once again crowded.  I gave myself permission to wander over to my favorite sparkly display and gawk at a few of girl's best friends:

As I stood admiring each display, "Moon River" à la Breakfast at Tiffany's popped into my head, and I had to wistfully tear myself away, sans croissant ou robe de Givenchy, malheureusement.  I was rewarded with some premature, confused blossoming magnolia trees in front of the Palais du Commerce.

After my tour, I'm feeling refreshed from my internal stagnation.  It's always helpful to gain perspective and to proactively search out those little reasons why life really isn't so bad right here and right now.  I don't know how long I'll be living in France or what opportunities I may find to leave or stay.  The future doesn't really matter in the present, and neither will have the best chance of being rich and bountiful if all I focus on is disgruntled whining.  Life is what you make of it, and today I made a happy memory.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

A love/hate relationship with technology

Lately I've been pondering the question of the need (or not), for friendships and relationships.  Living in a foreign country can sometimes feel like an incredibly isolating lifestyle, but for an introvert like me, it gives me a terrible excuse not to have to talk to people.  I know.  How do I learn a foreign language if I don't talk to anyone?  It's a tricky line I'm balancing; if having a long conversation in English is mentally tiring for me, you can imagine how I feel about the prospect of conversing in French.  It's like the mental Olympics, and there's no medal in sight.

I pinpointed my little internal itch on this joint subject by two separate, totally innocuous-seeming experiences.  Firstly, I've been podcasting obsessively for the last few weeks.  I'm a Radiolab junkie in particular, but after exhausting the episodes and "shorts," I began lurking the web for other nerdy-type voices to put in my ears while I commute to various places.  I stumbled on Note to Self, which is a techy podcast that focuses on how humans live and interact with all the technology that has besieged our daily lives.  I find the host to be hilarious, and I want to get a beer with her someday, but the content is also so interesting.  For example, the host loves going on about FOMO (fear of missing out), and how that concept has pervaded our digital presence and usage.  For most, it seems that we must all stay connected at all times to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, email, and whatever other apps kids are using these days that I'm blissfully ignorant of.  And there's the ever-present question of how to put down our techy gadgets and just be with other humans in reality.  They look into why we hate voicemail, why having a conversation over text is so much more preferred than face-to-face, how the glowing screens of our devices literally keep us up at night, etc, you get the picture.  As I listen to more of these podcasts, I find myself cringing in recognition of many of these anti-social behaviors.  I hate voicemail.  I hate the stupid icon at the top of my phone that won't go away unless I listen to the damn thing.  I HATE talking on the phone.  I will go so far out of my way just to have a face-to-face conversation if texting or email isn't an option.  Ben will tell you that I live on my iPad, phone, and computer.  I'm thinking of switching gyms because the cell service at my current gym is less than desirable, and the only way I can stand the bike or elliptical for 30 minutes at a time is with Netflix or a good podcast.  I even use YouTube to practice yoga (god forbid I shell out money and go to a class and be around other people).

I could ramble on forever about how much I like to be left to my own devices (pun intended), but I'll make my point.  What are the value of friendships and relationships in a physical capacity?  How do we conduct polite, genuine interactions with people, and then transfer those interactions to a digital platform?  After a year of physical and linguistic isolation, I've sensed that my already weak interacting capabilities are really suffering.  I used to love to raise my hand in class when I was the know-it-all in middle school.  Somewhere along the way, I stopped doing that, even though for the most part, I still got all the right answers.  I'm terrified to speak up in class.  That started in high school after I was bullied, and then got worse in college when I completely lost any sense of my own identity.  At age 26, I have a much better grasp on who I am, and no one is bullying me anymore.  But I still don't want to talk in class because a.) it might make me look like a know-it-all, and no one wants to talk to that kid, or b.) I might say the wrong thing, and no one wants to talk to the stupid kid in class either.  Catch 22 of introverts in class.  I'm so used to staying mute and relying on my technology to keep me company, that raising my hand in class produces an effect similar to singing onstage for most people.  It's paralyzing, and it's not ok.

Here's the thing.  I'm not looking to make bffs in my classes now.  I'm probably not going to be in Lyon or even France for that long a duration. Most of the students I meet are either also foreigners, or in life transitions themselves, thus probably not hanging around for too long in one place.  I just want to be able to strike up conversations in any language just for the sake of having a little human interaction and acquiring a friendly acquaintance.  The key is that I'm not looking for names to add to my Facebook or phone contacts.  I want friends that don't need anything from me, and I don't need anything from them outside the few hours a week I see them in class.  It would be awesome to meet a soul-mate type friend, but I fear I don't click with people very often, so I don't want to heighten my expectations too far and get disappointed regularly.  So now I'm doing something that scares me: I'm talking in class!  I'm saying hi to people and asking questions before class starts.  I'm trying to be social, locking myself out of my comfort zone for at least a few minutes.  After a few attempts at this, I realize that talking to people isn't so scary after all.  Most people are pretty nice, and it's awesome to be in a French class at one of the most prestigious universities in France with a lot of the smartest foreigners in France.  I guess I don't need to rely on my phone so often.

Part two of my relation/friend/human-ship ponderings was prompted by an episode of The Office.  I stopped watching The Office after Steve Carrell left because I thought it would suck and didn't want to waste the time.  I decided to give it another shot, and I'll give the post-Michael Scott seasons a solid B+.  In any case, today I watched a Jim and Pam moment in season 9 that seriously knocked the breath out of me.  If you were living under the same rock I inhabited, don't read further for spoilers, but it's not really all that spoiling.  Jim is working in Philadelphia on his start-up company, and Pam is stuck (by choice) in Scranton with the kids and her dead-end job.  They have a fight over the phone in this scene (it's easier to just watch than to have me describe the whole thing).  After watching this, I felt like all the uncomfortable, awful, desperately heart-breaking moments of my life in long-distance relationships had been laid bare before me.  I know this type of fight intimately, and I couldn't believe how well they captured it in TV's most revered couple.

If anyone doesn't know me that well, then I'll just say that the last 7 of that last 9 or so years of my life have been spent in long-distance relationships.  I promise I don't choose this kind of thing for myself, but the heart wants what (whom) the heart wants.  Long-distance relationships aren't for everyone, that's pretty obvious, but when you find yourself in one, agree to try it, or want it badly enough because you're so head-over-heels for that person, here are my veteran words to bear in mind.  I won't call this advice or even a caveat, just my words from experience.  Being far away from the person you love creates a deep hole in your heart that fills with all sorts of wistful, pining, resentful, proud, resilient, angry, despondent, and yes, loving feelings that simmer and crack apart daily, sometimes hourly.  Long distance creates a never-ending game of phone tag and paranoia, questioning of trust and loyalty (that may be totally undeserved), and at least for me, an interminable sense of instability.  Looking back, I don't think this has anything to do with the other person or even me, but is simply a by-product of the distance itself.  It often begged the question: do I want to be in this kind of relationship?  Which for me immediately elicited the guilty response of, "yes, of course I do!".  But it's truly a lifestyle choice that relies on (aha!) technology.

My Jim/Pam example perfectly illustrates the frustration of conducting a relationship via technology.  You have a limited moment to air your grief and your daily hardship, and you're just not getting the reception you need and want on the other end.  Resentment has built up, passive-agressive tones are taken, and you wish you could take back every decisively hurtful sentence you just said because you know that this fight will be remembered over every other good conversation you've had.  Maintaining long distance is exhausting enough, but fighting with the person you rely on for emotional support is such stupid self-sabotage.  Resentment and regret are repeated ad nauseam until someone either has to go or can't handle it in the moment anymore and hangs up.  If you fight in person, you can run after your SO if they storm out, or if they need their space, you at least know that they're in the other room or will come home at the end of the day.  Couples fight, it's part of relationships, and there are healthy ways to deal with the aftermath.  Trans-Atlantic festering (or even trans-Pennsylvania festering) only deepens that hole in your heart.  In the scene I linked, when Jim has to hang up, the mechanical goodbyes between them tug at the painful memories I've pushed to a locked closet in my heart.  The link cuts out much of Pam's reaction, but I felt such an emotional kinship with her at that moment (serious kudos to Jenna Fischer for the acting).  You just stare at your phone, or the ended gchat video, face hot and reluctant angry tears brimming, half hoping you'll receive an apologetic call, or at least the chance to call back and apologize without sounding insincere.  You want to throw that phone against a wall, push the computer out a window, rail against the injustice of the distance that you, yourself put between you and your love.  But this technology is still a lifeline, and as much as it has the capacity to hinder a relationship, it can also feel like the only thing holding it together.

Tech isn't going anywhere.  It's a part of the fabric of our society at this point, and we're all still learning to harness it for its best features.  What is the importance of it, truly, in our meaningful relationships?  Does someone not count as a friend if they aren't added to Facebook/phone contacts/Instagram/etc.?  Does everything have to be "Facebook official"?  Is a long-distance relationship really a relationship if you only see each other in the flesh two or three times a year, and the rest of the time, you're glued to your phone in the hopes of text or email?  I'd love to hear other takes on these questions, though for myself in this moment, I'm leaning towards the side of more hindrance than help when it comes to technology.  Happy friending, everyone.

From years of too-short gchat sessions to nights at the bar with our new stuffed friend.