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Posts Tagged ‘France’

Sobbing upon departure — when place sears our soul

In behavior, cities, History, life, nature, travel, urban life, women, world on September 1, 2012 at 2:13 am

This weekend I’m visiting Decatur, Georgia, speaking Sept. 2 at the literary festival about my new retail memoir, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.” If you’re in the area, come on by!

I don’t expect to find it hard to leave, but you never know.

There are, I’ve discovered a few times, places in the world that sear your soul, where you unexpectedly feel so at home you can’t bear to leave, plotting your return even as you reluctantly pack your bags.

I rarely cry, especially not in public. But three places, (so far), left me in tears of regret and longing as departed: Corsica, northern Thailand and Ireland.

Corsica

I had one week between the end of one job and the start of another. I was single and craved something absolutely amazing.

I love France and speak French and friends had raved to me for many years about this island, known for its rugged interior — and fierce desire to separate from France.

Corse-bastia-port2

Corse-bastia-port2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I flew from New York to Nice, Nice to Bastia and rented a mo-ped at the port, while the hotel owner in Bastia helped me plot out a five-day circle tour of La Balagne, all in the north. It still remains one of the best holidays of my entire life, (and I’ve been to 37 countries, so far.)

Imagine buzzing along empty, winding country roads in brilliant sunshine, with the maquis, the island’s thick scrubby undergrowth filled with herbs, sending its rich, delicious sun-warmed fragrance into your nostrils. Meander down a series of hairpin turns to a hotel at the ocean’s edge, so close you’ll hear the surf from your bedroom window. It’s a lovely old house from the 1850s or so. You eat dinner, alone, on the terrace at dusk.

One day it poured so heavily I couldn’t wear my glasses, (which I really do need for driving), nor did my helmet have a visor. I got a black trash bag from a restaurant to cover me, and kept on going, whizzing past 1,000-foot drop-offs into the sea. People invited me into their homes for a meal. I chatted with a handsome young mason in a bar, who gave me several CDs, still some of my favorite music ever, the polyphonal a capella group I Muvrini.

The landscape is wild, untamed, primal, timeless. When my plane took off for Nice, I cried so hard the flight attendant came to comfort me and ask what was wrong. I couldn’t even speak for grief, watching the island disappear into the clouds.

I’d found, as I did in every place that has seared my soul so deeply: beauty, peace, scent, kindness, history, adventure.

Here’s the story I wrote about it for The Wall Street Journal.

Northern Thailand

I visited in January 1994 with my husband, our new marriage already in tatters and soon to blow apart.

We’d visited Bangkok and Chang Mai, both standard tourist destinations, and decided, spur of the moment, to fly further north to Mae Hong Son, which one guidebook called the most beautiful town in Thailand. I’ve only seen one other airport — in Bastia — so rural and tiny that sheep grazed a few meters from the runways. As we walked (!) into town, the only sound was that of bells from the temple across the unpaved street.

English: Mae Hong Son, a capital of the Mae Ho...

English: Mae Hong Son, a capital of the Mae Hong Son Province, Thailand Русский: Город Мэхонгсон, административный центр одноимённой провинции (Таиланд) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Guesthouses, then $15 a night, ringed a lake. We rented mo-peds, (clearly, my favorite mode of transport), for a day-trip even further north to the Burmese border. Madness! The road, quite literally, was under construction, with huge machines grading the land, their quizzical drivers gazing down at us in pity and wonder.

We went with Roy, an Englishman we’d met at our guesthouse, who’d worked in developing countries delivering vaccines. When the road forked, with a sign we couldn’t read, what next? “Follow the power lines,” Roy said.

The road dust was a thick, silky red, so deep I put my feet out on both sides and used them as pontoons to steady the bike. As we pulled into town for lunch, men wearing extremely large rifles across their chest stared at us — we were now in the Golden Triangle, then the world’s largest suppliers of opium.

We ate lunch, then turned south in the golden late afternoon light, back down the insanely steep hills we’d so eagerly climbed. On one turn, (no guardrails), I got off the bike and had my husband walk it down, too terrified of flying off the road and over the treetops to my certain death. I’d already fallen and shattered the bike’s side mirror, giving me a tiny scar on the inside of my right wrist as a permanent souvenir of the day.

When our plane took off a few days later, having witnessed the town’s legendary three mists, I cried hard. I knew I wouldn’t be back any time soon. And I knew I’d never be there again with that man.

As in Corsica, I’d been transported by the emerald-green landscapes, silence, the kindness and wisdom of strangers. Another deliriously crazy, ill-advised, adrenaline-pumping adventure.

Ireland

I’ve since returned four times, but this was my first visit — in the days just before Christmas of 1985 — visiting a friend, a fellow journalist, in Dublin.

With a surname of Kelly, you’d think I’d identify heavily as Irish, but I don’t and never had. Like me, my father was born in Canada.

But, there, everywhere, were people who looked like me. Who loved to chat, and prized witty, intelligent conversation. Who liked a good glass of beer. Who valued the ability to burst into song.

I felt at home in a way that hit me hard, that I’d never felt in my native land or my home city, Toronto.

Stores and restaurants and passing delivery vans had my name on them!

As I filed into the small aircraft that flew me to Bristol to visit my mother, I found myself blinking back tears.

And every visit back to Ireland since then seems to touch a sort of sense memory, a “me” that maybe existed 100 or 1,000 years ago. Maybe I was Grainne, the 16th. century pirate queen!

Here’s a beautiful post, recently chosen for Freshly Pressed,by a female American professor about how living in Afghanistan at the age of 10 so deeply affected her.

Has this sort of geographic coup de foudre happened to you?

When and where?

My greatest weakness is…

In behavior, culture, domestic life, family, life on April 2, 2012 at 3:48 pm
La bildo estas kopiita de wikipedia:fr. La ori...

La bildo estas kopiita de wikipedia:fr. La originala priskribo estas: Six fromages (du centre, puis dans le sens des aiguilles d'une montre) : Valençay, Ossau Iraty, Bleu d'Auvergne, Époisses, Cœur de Neuchatel, Saint-félicien. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was talking to a friend who’s a doctor who admitted he can’t be safely left near any large container of ice cream. It’s all or nothing.

Made me think what my weakness(es) might be.

Sadly, it’s a long-ish list, including:

Tabletop. Anything used to set a table, from bowls to linens to candlesticks. Yes, yes, all of it! I love to set a pretty table and entertain, so I collect anything charming in aid of same. Jose threatens often to de-bowl me as I keep bringing them into our small apartment.

Antiques. Specifically, jewelry, textiles, prints. Anything from 1860 and earlier, and 18th century and older is a big draw, if more difficult to find here in the New World.  We live in a one bedroom apartment, with very limited space to add anything new. But (yes, I admit) we also have a garage. And a storage locker. OK, several storage lockers. Small ones.

Scarves. As someone who loves to travel and pack lightly, scarves are a fab way to make the same outfit look different every day, doubling as shawls or even sarongs when necessary, adding warmth and style.

Almost anything French. My new hip even has a ceramic head made in France. Chic! Having lived in Paris for a year and traveled to France many times, j’adore les choses francaises. These include everything from my polka-dot apron and mini-juicer, both bought in Paris, to a funky little Art Deco perpetual calendar to my super well-cut black cotton jacket whose elegant proportions are so utterly not made in China.

If you’ve never heard the late, exquisite chanteuse Barbara or the raspy Mano Solo, check them out.

– Cheese. Speaking of things French. My friend who loves ice cream went into a little lusty haze as he began rhyming off some of his favorite French cheeses: Brie, Camembert. I’d add Cantal, Roquefort, Gouda, Cheddar, fresh creamy Mozzarrella. Yum!

– Beer. As a Canadian, this is a legitimate weakness, as some great brews come from my home and native land. If you ever get to Quebec, try to find this gorgeous apricot tinged ale. Love Magic Hat No. 9, Hoegaarden and Blue Moon (even though it’s really made by a major manufacturer of really bad beer, Coors.)

Jewelry. Thank heaven for a husband who indulges me! I buy a ring to mark major life moments, like the silver one I bought at Saks when I sold my first book and a gold ring, with the impression of an ancient Greek coin, bought from a local designer, when it was published. I love wearing my Deco earrings from the LA flea market, my pottery ring from Mesilla, NM and my pendant charms found in Atlanta.

‘Fess up, mes cher(e)s…what are some of your weaknesses?

Sniff! My Favorite Smells

In behavior, culture, design, domestic life, Health, life, nature, women on March 26, 2011 at 2:16 am
Grasse

Grasse, France, home to many delicious smells! Image via Wikipedia

As spring sunshine slowly warms the earth, you can smell the new season. Where I live, in  a small town north of New York City, the pungent and specific odor of fresh wild onion — their thin, bright green sprigs poking up everywhere — is one I look forward to every year.

One of my most powerful scent memories, decades old now, was driving through the North Carolina night down a winding rural road when a huge, delicious whiff of wild jasmine suddenly filled the car. Yum!

Some of my favorite smells:

Good leather

Clean dog

Warm horse

Old wool

Jet fuel (I’m going somewhere!)

Woodsmoke

Balkanie Sobranie pipe tobacco, lit or unlit

Lilacs

Hyacinth

Maja soap, a classic with the most elegant black tissue paper wrapping

Oilliet-Mignardise soap by Roger & Gallet, a spicy smell of carnations. Heaven in a box!

Tiempe Passate, a super-hard-to-find perfume made by New York perfumer Antonia Bellanca

Sun-dried pine needles

1881 cologne, the 1955 classic by Nino Cerruti, the one my sweetie wore the night we met 11 years ago

Cedar

The ocean

Moist earth

A well-made gin martini

Earl Grey tea, freshly steeped (yes, it’s the bergamot)

Grasse, in the south of France, has been a center of the perfume industry for many years and has a museum of scent.

Here’s a link to a Mallorca museum with some rural smells of the past.

What are some of your favorite smells?

The Man To Whom I’m Most Grateful

In behavior, business, education, History, Media, men, politics, travel, women, work, world on November 23, 2010 at 8:18 pm

My photo, from 1982.

He’s someone you’ve likely never heard of, although he’s a well-known and beloved figure in his native France. I dedicated my first book to him and include him — more than 25 years dead — in my second book’s acknowledgements.

Philippe Viannay, (the photo here of him is one I took),  is the most inspiring man I’ve ever met. He founded a newspaper, a sailing school, a journalism school, an international journalism fellowship and a home for wayward boys.

All this, after being a Resistance hero during World War II.

He was in his 60s when we met in Paris, when I was chosen as one of 28 journalists, aged 25 to 35, from 19 countries as Journalists in Europe, an eight-month fellowship that forever changed my life and my notions of what was possible in it, both professionally and personally.

His idea, simple but complicated to fund, was to find the world’s best and most eager bilingual journalists to come and live and travel all over Europe, learning about its people and politics by living them, not parachuting in for a week or studying it only in a classroom.

We each took a 10-day reporting trip, alone, four times, some of which scared us to death — and often produced our best work. No one thought I’d survive the eight-day truck trip from Perpignan to Istanbul with Pierre, the 35-year-old trucker from Rheims. Best trip ever!

Our group, which still remains in touch, included men and women from countries including Brazil, Japan, Italy, New Zealand, Ireland, Togo and Sweden, forging deep and ongoing international friendships.  I now consider Paris a second home and plan to retire to France, at least part-time.

That year also taught me the world is filled with kind people, many unusual ways to get around, amazing and untold stories begging for passionate narrators. The greatest skill we brought — or developed, fast — was se debrouiller — to fend for ourselves. To figure it out. To be resourceful and get it done.

Viannay was joyful, demanding, impatient, demanded the best of everyone. He called me “le terrible Caitlin” — which I finally realized was a great, affectionate compliment, meaning “terrific”, not awful.

He died in 1986. I’ve never cried at work, except for the day I came back to the Montreal Gazette newsroom to hear that news. Amazingly, that room contained two other former fellows, two men who also knew the extraordinary gift Viannay and his progam had given us.

In June 2007, I made the pilgrimage, long overdue, to his grave in his hometown of Concarneau, in Brittany. It was a hot day when I entered the small graveyard and began searching for his final resting place. Surely, given all his extraordinary accomplishments, it was marked with a slab of gleaming granite or an an enormous angel.

I couldn’t find it and finally asked the guard to show it to me.

It was simple and understated, easily missed, just a flat, jagged slab of raw stone, a rock from his beloved Glenans, the sailing school he founded.

I slapped his stone, sat down beside him, and sobbed for a long, long time. My career had nosedived and I felt little but despair at the lost early promise he saw, and nurtured, in me.

More than anyone, he believed in me and my talents, for which I remain in his debt.

Viannay now lives on in every single person whose life he touched.

I remain forever grateful I’m one of them.

She Killed Eight Of Her Babies — And The Husband Had No Clue

In behavior, parenting, women on July 29, 2010 at 10:04 am
Sleep Like A Baby

Image by peasap via Flickr

This is the story in France right now, with the BBC reporting there are already 40 journalists in the tiny rural town of Villers-au-Tertre, near the Belgian border.

The woman, a nurse in her 40s who has two daughters and grand-children, confessed to killing eight of her own babies between 1989 and 1996, but only two corpses have been found at their current home. Police suspect she might have brought the other corpses with her when they moved in.

The woman, mordbidly obese, managed to keep every pregnancy secret from her husband.

Not sure if this story is more a cautionary tale against morbid obesity or abortion versus infanticide.

France Makes Verbally Abusing A Woman A Crime

In Crime, women, world on July 1, 2010 at 9:46 am
Nadine Morano, French politician

Nadine Morano -- Merci! Image via Wikipedia

It’s no longer enough to hit a woman, but threatening her with violence is now a crime in France. From The New York Times:

The French Parliament gave final and unanimous approval on Tuesday to a law that makes “psychological violence” a criminal offense as part of a law intended to help victims of physical violence and abuse, especially in the home.

The law is thought to be too vague by some judges and the police, and whether they choose to investigate and prosecute such offenses will define the success of the new legislation.

Nadine Morano, the secretary of state for the family, told the National Assembly that “we have introduced an important measure here, which recognizes psychological violence, because it isn’t just blows, but also words.”

Ms. Morano said the primary abuse help line for French women got 90,000 calls a year, with 84 percent concerning psychological violence.

The legislation, introduced by Danielle Bousquet, a Socialist, and Guy Geoffroy, a member of the ruling center-right Union for a Popular Movement, quickly found bipartisan support and backing from the government. In November, Prime Minister François Fillon called the draft law “a national cause” and said it would allow the authorities to deal with “the most insidious situations, which don’t leave a mark to the naked eye but can mutilate the victim’s inner self.”

Those found guilty face up to three years in jail and a fine of 75,000 euros, or about $90,000.

This is an important step — 2.2 French women are killed in domestic violence every day, slightly lower than the three a day in the U.S.

Women who live with threatening and abusive partners live in a kind of hell few of us can imagine. A man’s verbal abuse can do just as much damage to a woman’s psyche and confidence — her ability to work or have friends or see her family or care for her kids — as a punch to the face. You can call the cops if he hits you; physical assault is a crime and provable while threatening words become a game of he-said, she-said, the damage deep but invisible.

I spent a lot of time around women who had been abused, beaten and repeatedly threatened, sometimes for years or decades, for my 2004 book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns”. Just listening to their stories left my own soul bruised and darkened, like the elegant blond who spoke to me in a Texas library bathroom and told me her husband kept a shotgun under his side of the bed and threatened regularly to aim it at her. Her own family of origin said — suck it up.

I’ve also spent time around men who were extremely verbally abusive, when they weren’t utterly charming.

Untangling one’s psyche from these men isn’t nearly as simple as it can appear.

Extra! Extra! New Agency Opens To Sell Celebrity Gossip. Now I Can Use Lady Gaga In My Headline

In entertainment, Media on June 18, 2010 at 11:36 am
DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 26JAN06 - FR: Angelina Joli...

Moremoremoremoremoremoremore!!!!!Image via Wikipedia

Here’s some deeply comforting news for anyone — anyone? – who still cares more about boring shit like the economy or healthcare or job loss or the BP spill, a new celebrity news agency!

Because, you know, we really don’t get enough news about celebrities.

From mediabistro.com’s blog FishbowlLA:

We began testing the waters and working with experienced U.S.-based freelance reporters, many of whom had either lost their jobs or had had their hours drastically cut back. The results were astounding. While magazines shutter in the U.S. and reduce pay, magazines in Britain and France, for instance, continue to pay rates that are twice the level of ordinary freelance news rates in the US. Average stories sell for $400 to $1,000. Bigger exclusives, such as a story on Tiger Woods, can go up to $3000.

What are some of the stories we have sold? We debunked the rumors about the Angelina Jolie Brad Pitt break up for More magazine in the UK, covered Lady Gaga’s penchant for green tea for Grazia Magazine, and explored the deeper meaning of medications Britney Spears might take for bi-polar disorder for Voici in France.

I can’t decide which makes me want to projectile vomit further: the insatiable appetite for crap about millionaires or the fact Europeans are paying so much better for “journalism” than American publishers.

If you need me, I’ll just be out on the window ledge, tap-dancing.

An American Journo's Journey Through Le Cordon Bleu — C'Est Super!

In food, Media on June 16, 2010 at 1:05 pm
Cover of "The Sharper Your Knife, the Les...

Cover via Amazon

As readers of this blog know, I am crazy for Paris, food and cooking.

I just read a lovely memoir, “The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry” by American writer Kathleen Flinn. It tells the story of her getting fired from a Fancy Job in London and then, instead of being sensible, spending all her savings to move to Paris and study at the legendary French cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu, a dream of hers for decades.

I read it in one big gulp, loving the descriptions of ferocious French teachers whose criticisms — which she initially barely even understood — sometimes left her, at 36, in tears. I studied in Paris at 25, so I loved reminiscing about the odd mix of formality and warmth you find there. Not to mention that she ends each chapter with a delicious recipe to try.

Some of the scenes are hilarious, like the lobster who escapes in class one day and the Japanese student who chases it around the room (shades of Annie Hall!) Flinn manages to survive a kidney infection, horrible houseguests and many minor kitchen dramas.

You’ll never chop an onion or look at a bechamel the same way again,

Here’s her blog, (which contains a very cool link to a portion-control website.)

Living In France — Ooh La La Or OMG?

In cities, travel on May 28, 2010 at 9:09 am
Map of official départements and régions of Fr...

Image via Wikipedia

It’s been a long-cherished dream of mine to move to France and live there again, now and/or in retirement, should that lovely day arrive. On one of our very first dates, being my usual reticent self, I told the sweetie — then not the sweetie but a new beau — that this was my plan and, should things work out, I hoped he’d come along. He, being as focused as I, told me he intends to visit Tibet.

Last night we took a baby step — un petit pas – as it were, towards this and sat for an hour at Alliance Francaise with about 200 others listening to two lawyers and two realtors tell us what it’s like to buy and own property in Paris or the provinces. The Manhattan realtor, bien sur, owns both.

Sobering little session that was!

I’m still trying to decide which part I found most French, the Napoleonic dictate that every child associated with a home’s owner (wedlock, schmedlock) can stake a legal claim on it after your demise or the fact that these said kids could force the surviving spouse from the marital residence. Thank God we don’t have kids!

As the lawyers droned on, usefully, I kept thinking of Balzac and Flaubert every time he mentioned the notaire, the government functionary necessary — in addition to the lawyers and the realtor and the person, who in Paris knows each arondissement (official neighborhood, 18 of them) well enough to find you something within them.

I first visited France the summer I was 17, with an impossibly glamorous month in a villa on the Cote d’Azur rented by my uncle, a well-known British entertainment figure. It’s all pretty much downhill from there! Kidding. I spent the happiest year of my life on a journalism fellowship, with 28 others from 19 countries, from Togo to Japan to New Zealand to Brazil, based in Paris. Years later, I could turn on RFI (Radio France International) and hear my friend Olivier da Lage.

We learned, then, that if you are having a bad day or a headache or cramps do not go to the post office or the bank, where blank-eyed officials will ignore you at their leisure or make you fill out many pieces of paper. The notion of “customer service” is an American idyll. The park? Don’t sit on the grass or someone wearing a whistle will toot at you to get off it. The stores have signs in the window entree libre — you are free to enter.

And what else would you do?

On a small monthly stipend, I lived in a teeny single dorm room in Cite Universitaire. Their website is pretty sexy, but sex? Hah! I was then in my mid-20s and had been living with my boyfriend in Toronto for years, but men in your rooms was interdit.

I was summoned one morning by a furious woman official demanding to know about the clandestins (snuck in) men I’d had in my cell, sorry, room. I had a number of lovely beaux that year, but never brought them upstairs. Nothing better than a false accusation, complete with that very French brand of official outrage, en francais.

I spent the best five days of my life tootling around Corsica on a mo-ped, which I wrote about for the Wall Street Journal. I was moving, in a blessed, once-in-a-lifetime ascent, from one job to another, with a serious raise, within two weeks of getting canned, so needed a fab five solo days. Corsica is it! I stayed in a hotel on the rocks and the sea, smelling the salt through the large, 19th. century windows. I got caught in a blinding rainstorm (eyeglasses don’t work in rain on a mo-ped), and wheedled a garbage bag to wear and prayed a lot — in the middle of a lightning patch, there I was surrounded by electricity pylons. A Corsican man with, of course, a huge boar’s head on his wall that he had shot (in the French dictionary, the word macho may be the same as Corsican), introduced me to the most spectacularly haunting music I’ve ever heard — the a capella polyphony of I Muvrini, a wildly popular Corsican group.

I feel bien dans ma peau — deeply at ease — in France in a way I never have in my native Canada nor in the U.S. Can’t explain it rationally. I value what they value: luxury, great food and wine, family, intellectuals, arguing (see: intellectuals), journalism, thinking, beauty, symmetry, elegance. You don’t gulp junk food at your desk in France. When we visit Paris and I eat croissants every morning and ice cream and dessert, I still lose weight because I walk 4-6 hours a day.

The sweetie fell in love with Normandy on our visit in November 2008. I loved Brittany, but it rains too much. The sweetie loves to golf. I dream of running some sort of antique-hunting tour for Americans who don’t speak French. Who knows when or if we’ll realize this dream — as we headed home, he said “I wish we worked in other industries”; journos even at their top of their (print-based) game, make less than first-year corporate lawyers. I said: ” I wish I had a real job with a real salary.”

Buying property almost anywhere costs serious coin. But, in the meantime, our kitchen is a shrine to Paris — filled with 18th. century engravings and my own photos and maps. As I type this, I look above my Mac at a poster of a drawing by Sempe, “Fin septembre, 6 heures du matin, Paris.” A cat crosses the street at dawn; the metal garden chairs are lined up neatly, the street lamps are still on. (I can’t find the accents on my keyboard, sorry.)

My American mother met my Canadian father in Eze, a hilltop village in the south of France. I think it might be genetic.

Is Facebook Dangerous? French Politicians Meet Next Week To Debate The Issue

In cities, Media, world on May 14, 2010 at 8:45 am
The Maison Carrée  at Nimes, a hexastyle pseud...

Nimes (minus partiers) Image via Wikipedia

They’re called “aperos geants” — huge, boozy street parties organized through Facebook. Sort of flash mob meets keg party.

There have been five of them so far this year, reports Liberation, the leftist Parisian daily, in the provincial, mid-sized cities of Nantes, Brest, Nimes, Rennes and Montpellier. They began November 10, 2009 in Nantes when 3,000 people gathered. Last Wednesday, a 21 year-old fell, drunk, off a bridge to his death, prompting a meeting of local, regional and federal officials to prevent the trend from spreading or causing any further deaths.

French politicians will meet next week, grappling with whether — or how — to ban such events; in Montpellier, 11,000 people filled the streets:

Plus tôt dans la matinée, Jean-Marc Ayrault, le maire PS de Nantes, avait demandé au ministère de l’Intérieur d’organiser «une concertation» pour «casser la spirale» de ces apéros géants.

«L’interdiction pure et simple? Ce n’est pas forcément la solution. Regardez, à Montpellier, le préfet a pris un arrêté d’interdiction et il y avait 11.000 personnes dans les rues», a jugé le chef de file des députés PS.
 Deux députés socialistes, Claude Bartolone et Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, ont estimé de leur côté qu’il ne fallait pas interdire les apéros géants mais les réguler.

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