Wednesday, December 28, 2022

My very bad, no good 2022

As the new year approaches, we all have a tendency to look back, take stock, learn lessons, appreciate the year that is coming to a close. In this no-man's-land week between Christmas and the new year, when time is meaningless, food calories don't count, and we all forget our own names, I'm taking stock of my 2022. 2022 was the worst year of my life. So here is my farewell, my good riddance, good bye... but my gratitude for the lessons.

I have a theory that even years are cursed. Bad things always seem to happen in an even year, when I'm an even age. The reason behind this curse is definitely because I'm an odd baby: my birthday is 9/19/1989. Except for the intrusive 8, that odd combination seems to protect me somehow. Some of these events are a bit too personal to talk about openly, but I do want to talk about the Big Bad Thing that happened to me this year, in 2022, while I was an even 32 for 9 months out of the year. 

This is going to be a post about mental health. This blog has been tumbling around in my head for at least a month, as I've been slowly emerging from the fog of what happened to me this year. I wanted to share my experience for one huge reason: hearing other people's stories about their struggles with their mental health has immensely helped me not to feel so incredibly alone, and like such an incredible failure. I want to put my story out in the world to help even one other person feel seen and understood. Sharing on a public forum means that anybody has access, which, as a university teacher, means that my students could see straight into my personal life. But I've decided that I'm ok with sharing this little part. Maybe when all us neurotic little Millennials were in college and our professors had been open about not only the struggles with but the existence of mental health, maybe we'd be doing a little better in our 30s and 40s.

I'm not exactly sure where to start, since my struggles didn't start in a vacuum. I am the way I am because of the previous 31 years of conditioning, habit-forming, learned behaviors, value development, experience. My "thing" is that I'm a people pleasing perfectionist. But that doesn't mean what you think. I am NOT an A-type, ambitious, competitive person. It means that I try to twist myself into the version of perfection that everyone else around me has in mind about me. And it means forgetting, and even obliterating what I want for me. I've had a lot of conversations lately about what I truly want in my life, and it mostly involves doing the job I love (teaching) and coming home to a cozy house or apartment and doing my real life's work (knitting). I'm the homebodiest of homebodies. Going out, committing to plans that disrupt my teaching/knitting homeostasis, getting texts/emails/calls all stress me out. Basically, I like to be able to control my surroundings and I need ample time to recharge from the incredibly draining job of teaching. So you can imagine that subconsciously trying to twist myself to meet the expectations of others — a futile task for the healthiest of minds — has been slowly chipping away at my sanity and my sense of self for years.

I'm still working through how who I am affects how I am affects how I relate to others. Even writing that sentence seems a little idiotic, because how could anyone have that equation figured out? My therapist often scolds me for delegitimizing myself and for throwing away my thoughts and emotions as possibly "unproductive." So, here's mental health thing #1: if you have a feeling, if you have something that nags at you, then it's never unproductive to at least identify and acknowledge it. In any case, up until about May of this year, I thought I was functioning at a pretty high level, and that I had solved the aforementioned equation, and everything was coming up rainbows for Emily.

Then, in this even year of 2022, it all finally came to a head, and I broke. I broke, and I broke my brain.

In June, I went to Sweden for a week for a thematic school related to my doctoral studies. I'm not going to go into the details surrounding why, it's not super relevant to this post, and I'm honestly still working through the trauma of it all, but this was when I broke for the first time. It manifested through anxiety-induced insomnia. I went for 72 hours without a single moment of sleep because my anxiety was so unfathomably through the roof that my body literally couldn't cope. I've always been a really good sleeper, and I need something like 9 hours a night to be able to function, so 72 hours without sleep traumatized me. There is a reason sleep deprivation is used as torture. 3 nights and days of heart pounding, adrenaline coursing through me, my eyelids drying out and feeling like sandpaper, brain fog, extraordinary physical fatigue, stupor, feeling drunk... all while I was attending and participating in days full of seminars and discussions about modernism, and psychically punching myself in the gut for failing so miserably to be a functioning human being. It was torture.

I regained my ability to sleep for about a week and a half following my time in Sweden, but then I got a head cold during the last week of June (my first week of vacation, of course). I couldn't get comfortable one night, and so I couldn't fall asleep easily. By that point, my body had acquired a new learned response: can't fall asleep right away? Heart pounds, adrenaline rushes, NO SLEEP PANIC PANIC PANIC. This time, the experience was drawn out over several weeks. I'd get maybe 3 to 4 hours of sleep if I was lucky. But something else happened this time, something new that perpetuated the issue. I still don't know, after countless visits to the doctor, specialists, getting literal liters of my blood drawn, why, but I broke something in my gut-brain chemistry that makes it so that sugary foods keep me awake at night when before, I could eat an entire tub of ice cream at 11pm and fall straight asleep. 

The entire summer was battle after battle with insomnia, anxiety, fear, and paranoia about if what I was consuming would keep me awake. At the lowest point during this episode of insomnia, my brain was in such a fog, my anxiety and encroaching depression were so bad that when I looked in the mirror, I did not recognize my own face. Imagine that for a moment. I'm not being hyperbolic. You know your own face better than anything else on earth. You've memorized and recognize every curve, every mole, every pore, the shape and color of your eyes, the weird eyebrow hair that grows in wonky, your chapped lips, the wrinkles emerging in your smile lines and at the corners of your eyes, your hairline, your cheeks, the hollows deepening under your eyes, your nose that is a little too wide, your janky tooth that travelled out of place because you never wore your retainers. Your face is you. If you don't recognize it, it's terrifying.

Towards the end of the summer, I was doing marginally better, but the stress of starting the new school year, of knowing that I had to be "on" and rested during the day, yanked me back into overwhelming anxiety. Finally, after trying to overcome everything on my own, as I thought I should, I went to the doctor in September. I was prescribed a really powerful anti-anxiety, to be taken only as needed if I couldn't sleep. The problem was, my sleep anxiety had turned so bad that I could only sleep if I took a benzo. Since one of my bad behaviors is to obsessively Google everything, I knew the risk of addiction with benzos is very high, so this induced intense shame and even more fear and anxiety. I was failing. Me, the people pleasing perfectionist, failing on a massive level to be a normally functioning human. By October, I felt like my life was crumbling around me, and it was all my own fault. I had failed to pull myself out of the anxiety funk, and I experienced the most frightening depression. 

We toss around these words "anxiety" and "depression" so lightly that the slightest stress and a mild dour mood get categorized as such. I've done it, you've done it, we've all done it. But I believe now that I was experiencing a true chemical imbalance, that my brain was fundamentally broken by the trauma I suffered this summer. I felt such deep, profound shame about what I had done to my own body, while at the same time losing any confidence and trust in my body. This thing that our consciousness inhabits is the only constant we'll ever know. If it breaks, worse yet, if we break it, what then? It doesn't get replaced, there are no second chances if it gets broken beyond repair.

The worst, lowest point was a Wednesday in early October. In French, they ask you if you have "des idées noires" or "black ideas" to ask if you're having suicidal thoughts. The first time my doctor asked me that in July, I said no. But by October, my thoughts had turned black. Abject fear and shame of potentially becoming hooked on powerful anti-anxiety meds because I was becoming absolutely ruled by crippling anxiety. Fearing that any night could be a "bad night" and I'd have to go teach the next day like everything was normal. Severely limiting my food consumption habits, paranoid that any hidden sugar would call up the little demons that kept me from sleeping. I stopped planning for the future. I stopped committing to anything. Making plans for next month, next week, even tomorrow vanished, replaced by a very tenuous grip on right now. I thought, if this is my life now, if this is how it's going to be, then I don't want to be. Surviving, not thriving. But barely even surviving. 

You have to understand that sleep deprivation is cumulative, and does exponentially worse damage on your body and brain each time it happens. I suffered unbelievable brain fog, I couldn't remember simple words, I had almost zero concentration. All while working full time AND trying to advance in my PhD. I would try to work the day after a bad night, and I would come back to that work a week later, and it would be filled with spelling errors, nonsense, confusion and trash. I had a hard time forming complete sentences while teaching. I had to use all of my energy to concentrate while riding my bike home from work. It's a small mercy I didn't get into any accidents. All of this compounded the shame I felt. I thought that I should be able to fix myself. I thought I was trash because I couldn't control the chemical imbalance that kept me locked inside a shrouded cage of anxiety at the bottom of a dark and lonely pit. 

Finally, I was having a conversation with some dear friends about it all, and they asked me if I hadn't considered going on antidepressants. Honestly, I hadn't. I already felt shame about the anti-anxiety meds, so going on something long term felt like openly acknowledging that I had lost to this beast gobbling me up. But I did some Googling (obviously), and I had some more conversations with people I trust. I thought that at that point, I had nothing more to lose. I went to my doctor, yet again, and this time, with shame gnawing at my stomach, reddening my cheeks and making me tremble, I asked for a prescription for antidepressants. He warned me that antidepressants are not an immediate fix, and so I was also prescribed Xanax to help me in the interim while the antidepressants kicked in.

I wish I could say that a week later, I was all better, the antidepressants worked like a miracle, and I had my life back. But this isn't how we survive trauma. I had so fundamentally learned that I couldn't trust my body, that even after 9 weeks of being on antidepressants and going to therapy regularly, I'm just barely emerging from the abject fear that had constricted me. Every night that I sleep normally feels like a miracle, which I wish it wouldn't because that puts so much pressure on me to repeat the miracle. I still have flashbacks to the Bad Times, little nightmare memories that I've otherwise blocked out that suddenly invade my body inducing a cold sweat. But 9 weeks on, I'm finally starting to feel like myself again. The medication I'm on quite literally saved my life. I didn't fail: I asked for help, which takes a different kind of courage that we aren't really taught. It tacitly implies that you couldn't do it all by yourself, which to me was the very definition of pathetic. But that is flawed thinking. 5 years ago, I had a double ear infection, and the ENT prescribed me super antibiotics. I never batted a single eyelash at asking for help in that situation. This was no different.

Finding a therapist to see every week in person has also saved me. I speak to my therapist in French, which is kind of a surreal experience. Speaking about myself and my situation in a foreign language makes me feel sort of detached from it all, like I'm looking down on myself from a bird's eye view. I'm starting to be able to see the big picture again, to pick up the shattered shards, sand them off at the edges and gently place them back in line. I think since it all broke, the picture has changed slightly too. And I've needed help putting myself back together since I don't have the front of the puzzle box to my own psyche. The whole process of undoing myself and rebuilding myself is violent, and I think I've only emerged from 1 session in two months without having ugly cried on her couch.

So why did this all happen to me? I've never had any problem with other people going to therapy or with other people taking antidepressants, but I've always thought I should be strong enough to deal and cope and process on my own. I used to marvel that I'd made it 30-something years basically un-medicated, like woohoo, look at the well-adjusted Millennial! But I put so much pressure on myself, I twisted, contorted, molded, and perverted my identity so much to fit other people's expectations of me that my brain finally screamed STOP. A body and a sense of self can only be pushed so far before it all shatters. Stepping on those broken pieces punctures and pierces you, and you can't even sweep it all up and put it back together because you've lost all sense of the big picture. Little by little, over the years, I've been losing what it means to be me, and when my inner self started to fight back, it broke me. It also didn't help that I almost lost my job this summer because I almost didn't get my visa in time to sign my new contract. When it rains it pours.

Let's be clear, at the end of this post, but nowhere near the end of this journey: acknowledging the problem, asking for help, reaching out and being vulnerable to a confusing healthcare system are not signs of failure. One more time for the people in the back: asking for help is not a sign of failure. I'm not telling my story for pity or sympathy, but for the sole purpose of urging YOU to get help if you need it. I'm nervous about exposing myself so blatantly, but I also can't stop thinking about how helpful it has been to hear other people's stories. I am not a failure, and you are not a failure. Modern medicine is a miracle. Happy 2023, let's have an odd year.

Monday, May 30, 2022

You can't go home again.

Inspiration strikes within me at truly the most inopportune of times. When I moved to France 7.5 years ago, I started this blog as a way to document my burgeoning expatriate life. This has gone more or less by the wayside, as expatriate life slid nearly unnoticeably into normal life. What's the point in writing about normal life? There's nothing special in that, everyone's doing it. Apparently I just do it with wine, cheese, and croissants. (I'll tell you a secret, I've eaten about 5 croissants in the last 5 years. French carbs count just as much as American carbs). So I've stopped writing, stopped noticing the little culture shock moments, stopped reaching into the depths of my discomfort. I'm established enough now that my greatest source of culture shock usually comes when I go back to the US. 

Writing takes a non-narrative form for me these days, in any case. Writing emails to colleagues, writing lesson plans, and the big one: writing my thesis. Inspiration struck me at the worst moment yesterday. In the midst of leisurely sipping my Sunday morning French press, a clenched fist suddenly gripped me by the gut and told me to STOP and go write a presentation. It's about my research, which I'm truly passionate about, but ughhhhh, I have to write in academic-ese, and it honestly makes me feel queasy. I feel hemmed in by the structured blowhard language of academia. Little room for narrative, and an expectation for a certain vocabulary that just makes me want to sink into the ground and pull a rock over my head. Still, I persevered and banged out that presentation in no time flat, excitedly turning to my ever-patient husband and exclaiming entirely out-of-context points I was making, conclusions I was drawing. But at the end of 1000 words, I felt uneasy. For one thing, it's terrifying to make claims and then plant yourself in front of an audience and purport to know anything about anything. But mostly, I've felt this need to express myself that I much too often push to the back of my mind for fear of letting go of the control I so tightly grasp every waking moment. So when inspiration struck tonight (an hour before I should go to bed on the eve of an early morning), and I felt an unearthly force pulling me towards the keyboard, I obeyed. Write, write, it whispered. NOW. So I'm writing.

I've been feeling that uneasiness pretty frequently lately. Every second of my life is usually structured, controlled, planned. If I had my way, every second of your life would be according to my structure, control, plan. When I feel like I'm going to start spiraling (which is more often than I like to admit), I open my Google calendar app and stare at all my obligations for the coming day, week, month. It soothes me to orient myself in my own personal narrative. I obsess over small details, other people's forgetfulness plagues me, inattention, forgotten responses, last-minute nonchalance all chafe at my need for the plan to be executed as was agreed upon. Even if no one actually agreed. I am what you might call the freakiest of control freaks. (I am also a highly anxious introvert, so seeing a notification for that agreed-upon email response also makes me slightly nauseous.)

All that need for control can also tend to give one angina. So I've developed mechanisms over the years to deal. It used to be that I called my Dad in blubbering tears ranting that my whole world was ending because of this, that, and the other thing having gone off the rails. And I mean, I called my Dad, because I was in college and still could. not. deal. So my ever-wise Dad finally told me senior year, as lovingly as possible, to cut that shit out. I had to learn to develop healthier coping mechanisms. All this came at an unfortunate time, at the end of college, more years ago than is seemly for a lady to count (11 years, there I counted). I studied music in college, I'm a musician down to my littlest molecules. The creation of music had been my inborn coping mechanism. When I was a kid, even a teenager, I never considered this fact at any greater scale than just what I had to do in my day to day. I had to learn fingerings and bowings, then I had to learn and memorize texts. I never had stage fright because as a consummate control freak, I learned my music so inside and out that I never even offered to perform if I wasn't 1000% ready. Looking back, I probably missed a lot of opportunities, not because of any unwillingness to present any less than my very best, but because of my abject terror of making a fool of myself in a public space. But I loved it. I loved performing, relishing the harmonies, the sweet progressions, the subtle taste of French vowels, the crispness of German. I loved creating a narrative for myself to help memorize the words. I was implicated in the experience, nothing less than my whole body had to be fully present in order to get on a stage and convince an audience that they too were watching the sun rise over a misty lake on a cool August morning... 

Anyway, once college was over, that was pretty much it for the music making. My creative outlet had evaporated. Obviously I can open my mouth at any time and sing, but it's not the same. 

Time passed. I had a brief stint in corporate America that dissatisfied me to distraction. I made the foolhardy decision to move to a foreign country where I barely spoke the language and had zero job prospects. But it all fell into place. Jobs, apartments, degrees, marriage. And all of sudden, I look at myself in the mirror, and I'm... not young. 

You know how when people are trying to get to know someone new they might ask, oh, what kind of music do you listen to? I always kind of shrug and vaguely say, "classical music," knowing full well that besides middle to late Beethoven, I don't particularly like the classical period, but it's the easiest term to convey what my tastes are. People often assume I like opera too since I'm a singer. I don't. Honestly it bores me to tears. All that said, though, I have to admit that I rarely listen to any music at all. I definitely don't listen to music past about 1950. I horrified my friends a few weeks ago by admitting that I listen to... podcasts... when I work out. But I don't—can't—listen to the music I love if I want to make it through the day. That has become my unfortunate coping mechanism now that I don't need to call my Dad in tears every other week. I've found other creative outlets (cooking, and do you even know me? of course knitting), but my first love, my first identity has been left neglected, nearly abandoned.

So when I stare at myself in the mirror, finding new cracks and crevices, new little spots and folds, when I tell myself to take a walk and cool down from something that angered me and would have sent me spiraling 11 years ago, when I feel like an absolute fraud, even when I think I have a good idea, I'm constantly pulling further and further away from that 21-year-old kid who was just starting to realize that she didn't know everything. I have become a different version of myself. A version who no longer listens to the music I love because it's just too difficult. It brings me back to a warm, light, cozy childhood. It brings me back to a home that no longer exists. To versions of my parents who no longer live there. To the warm patch of sunlight that streamed into my window deep in mid-winter, where I'd perch on Sundays and finish my homework while taking in that pervading, but not-yet-known-to-be-precious scent of Mom's sauce cooking. Back to the version of me that only worried about the grade I would get on the math test, who only worried about if my crush would talk to me the next day, who only wanted to get that solo in the next concert. That version who had untold possibilities in front of her, youth, foolhardiness, something unstoppable, but very often something stopping her. That music brings me back to sitting on the bus, alone, with only my Discman for company and protection. Listening to the same violin concerto CD every single afternoon for an entire year. Warding off any attacks from bullies. Cocooning me in that sacred intimacy, allowing me safe passage from uncertainty to home. 


That music transports me to a version of myself who wanted only to please, to do the best, not to be the best, but just be allowed to shine in the brightest way I knew how. A version of myself that I didn't know or appreciate at the time, who wouldn't know me now. It's not that anything about my current version has it especially hard, but I'm a replacement of myself all the same.

Now, I find myself with an armor pulled over me. I'm wise enough now not to let that armor get pierced very often. So I can't listen to my music. I write academic papers so I don't have to try and potentially fail at writing what I would truly love to do, personal narrative, essays. I shield myself in organization and order so I don't fall apart at the seams under the minute-by-minute realization that I cannot go back. 

There is a bittersweet pain in getting older. It's not the pain of finding wrinkles or gray hairs. It's the discovery that 10 years ago, instead of being a little kid, you were a full adult. It's the mix of awe and horror and heart-bursting love that your childhood best friend is now a mother. It's not the regret of lost time or decisions not made or paths not taken. It's something subtler, more forlorn, something that makes me stop in my tracks, arrest my carefully laid plans, and ruminate on who I am as a person, and what has made me that way. 

And I turn to my first coping mechanism for just a moment. I listen to my music. I can reach deep back inside myself, reach across that chasm of years seeking to caress, to hold, to embrace that small, forgotten version of myself that I still am. Despite myself. Because of myself.

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!