XXXV. Provence

postcards from france

Bridget’s host family has one of those beautiful provençal country houses that you see on the covers of Peter Mayle books. From Agnès’ apartment, it's a 45-minute uphill walk to get to it, which is one of the reasons I love to visit. On the way I pass Cézanne’s old painting studio, and once I crest the final hill, I am rewarded with a view of the Mont Sainte-Victoire over the olive groves. It’s not something I see every day.

Élodie, Bridget’s host mother, is stick-thin, blond, and tan. She knows that Agnès and I don't get along, so she frequently invites me over to their house for Sunday lunches. She smokes constantly, comme un pompier. Like a firefighter. My memories of Élodie are of sweet smoke wafting out of the kitchen, her whisking away at something that she probably won’t each much of, an apron tied tightly around her small waist.

Every time I arrive at their house, out of breath and slightly sweaty but beaming, Élodie and Isabelle, her equally blond and beautiful daughter, seem just as baffled as the last time I walked through the front door. You walked all the way here? Uphill? We can come pick you up!

No, thank you, I say, feeling like I’m repeating my lines in a scene. I’d rather walk. I like being outside. They shake their heads and laugh at how American I am.

Before lunch starts, Isabelle sneaks away to smoke cigarettes out of Élodie’s sight. She is only 15 years old and thin like her mother, but obsessed with losing kilos. The Sainte-Victoire winks at her where she is hiding behind the chimney, but she pays it no attention. Flicking ash onto the rosemary bushes growing around her, Isabelle checks her phone, stubs out her cigarette, and heads back inside to push food around her plate. 

Do My Friends Even Like Me?

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I seem to have a penchant for attracting friends who are very ambivalent about me.  Or friendship.  I am not sure, but they are so difficult to be friends with, because they pursue me mightily, but then reschedule our date several times, and say any number of passive aggressive things to me when we finally do get together.  

In between hangouts, I get a lot of "I miss you so much, I really want to invest in our friendship more, you are so amazing" from them.  It's really confusing, and if this were a love relationship, I would obviously just break up with them.  Since it is a friendship, I am so uncomfortable telling them the truth—which is that they are sending me wildly mixed messages and at this point the friendship is not worth all the work it requires.  How do I deal with this friendly mind-fuck?

With Thanks,

Baffled Buddy


Dear BB,

Ambivalence is one of the hardest emotions to hold for another person.  When folks are straight up angry, sad, or in love, even when it's difficult to relate, you can just let them express themselves and move on.  But ambivalence, especially when it is directed at you, leaves a confusing sheen on every interaction, which can linger throughout a relationship.  It is easier when the person knows they are ambivalent, but awareness is rare.  Instead, you get something akin to manipulation, as the person is trying to get you to help them sort through their ambivalence with your reaction.

My advice is to get out of there.  Since it sounds like many of your friends are acting this way, that may leave you a little lonely, but being alone is better than being beset by conflicting emotions that belong to other people.  And here's the thing about ambivalence—whoever is feeling it absolutely has to work it out on their own.  No one can take them by the hand and solve their problem.  So it's best to just leave them to it.

You also seem to be wondering, "Why does this keep happening to me?"  Well, consider the fact that you could be a polarizing person, someone who provokes strong reactions in people.  If that is the case, if you are a bold figure who people either love or love to hate, then folks with ambivalence issues are naturally drawn to you, because they intuit you will help them work through their conflicting feelings just by being yourself.  In fact, by confronting them, drawing their consciousness to their own ambivalence, you would be affixing a target right to your chest for all of their wavering arrows.

Don't fall for it.  Not only is it pretty much impossible for you to solve this problem for them, but your self-worth could get all tied up in confusing relationships.  So, put up kind but firm boundaries with these friends, and don't let flattery sway you.  If they are colleagues, simply see them at work, and enjoy the time you have with them there, but politely rebuff their invitations.  Tell them you are busy, and it is true—you are busy being fabulous, trying to attract new friendships, ones in which you can truly be yourself, rather than some kind of magnet they can attach to or repel themselves from.



Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

Meet the Local: Lisbon, Portugal

mind the gap

Meet the Local is a series designed to uncover the differences (and similarities) in how we think and live in different parts of the world.  Over the upcoming months, I’ll ask locals from places all over the world the same set of getting-to-know-you questions.  This week, we meet Jose, a former teacher who is making a new living in tourism after being laid off during the economic crisis.  

Meet the Local Jose Guerreiro

What do you like about the place you live?

I don’t really know how to explain…I just feel like it’s here, where I belong.  I lived in Spain for a few months, I lived in Romania for a few months, but I always feel the need to come back home.  I feel I have my family here, and I have everything here.  I really feel at home here.

What don’t you like so much?

The politicians.  Because they do all of this to our country.  The economic situation of Portugal, I think it’s their fault.  Because we work, we do all of the things we have to do, and they ruin everything.  I think this is very common in Europe, the politics are each time less credible, so the people don’t really trust anymore in politicians.  In Portugal, 40% of people don’t vote.  So the people who do vote don’t really represent anything, and the politicians can do whatever they want, because the people don’t care.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

Three slices of bread with butter and chorizo.  Coffee with milk.

What do you do for a living?  How important is your job to your sense of self?

I was a teacher, teaching sports.  I really like to work with children.  It was nice, I was doing something different than other people, because I used to work in summer camps too so I was taking the way of teaching in summer camps inside the school.  So I was not teaching sports, I was teaching games, and I was trying to teach values with those games.  First I would read the story, then I would do a game, and then I would relate the game with the story and real life.  I went to a small village to teach, but I was not from there, so when the crisis started, the people who don’t have friends are the first to leave.  So they asked me to leave.  Now, I do tourism, I run a walking tour company.  I really like it, because I can stay in Lisbon where I like to live.  I meet a lot of people, so even though my friends are leaving to get jobs in other countries, I can make new friends.  Of course, it’s not the same thing, but it’s okay.

What do you do for fun?

I go out at night, I go to the cinema.  I like to climb, but I don’t climb anymore, since I started the tours.  Because most of my friends that climb, they do normal jobs so we don’t have the same schedule.  I also like to run with my father, my father and I run together.  And travel.

How often do you see your family?  Tell me what you did the last time you saw them.

I live with my father.  I see my mother one or two times a week, just to talk with her.  I see my sister when I see my mother – they don’t live together, but she’s always there.  My grandmother also lives with us.

What’s your biggest dream for your life?

Right now, I don’t have many dreams.  I just want to make sure the situation doesn’t get worse, or at least the tours keep running as they are now so I can at least have a stable life.  Some of my friends, they are really bad in their lives.  They were married and have children but are living back at home with their parents, or they have moved to other countries and don’t really like their jobs or the conditions that they live in and I don’t want that to happen to me.   So I don’t have a dream, I just don’t want to have a nightmare. But if I had a dream, I would want a small house with a small garden where I could sit in the plants.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?  Why?

Here.  When I was younger I always wanted a house with wheels---a mobile home---so I could travel, but I think if I had that now, I would always come here.

What are you most proud of?

Now, it’s the tours.  When I came on and my friend was running them, they were almost dead.  Nobody would trust them---if you asked someone about our tours, people would say, “don’t go!  It’s terrible!”  And now we’re the sixth most popular thing to do in Lisbon on TripAdvisor, and I’m really proud of that.

How happy would you say you are?  Why?

From 0 – 10, I would be a 6.  I think everything is going well in my life, but I would like to have more friends, and a girlfriend.  My friends left---but the girlfriend, well, I’m a bit shy.

Check out previous answers from a local in Sarajevo, and a local in London.  Want to participate in Meet the Local or know someone who does?  Email for more details.

Healing: A Sense of Community

memory and loss

A new sense of community emerged this week in Boston. Last Monday we watched in fear as tragedy marred one of the most beautiful, treasured days of the year in our city. We held on through an anxiety-ridden week, hugging our friends a bit tighter and smiling warmly at strangers. Friday night closed with the end of a day-long manhunt and city-wide lock down. The city breathed a collective sigh as the suspect was caught. People ventured out into their neighborhoods, finally turning off the news.

This week, signs of strength are everywhere. Café signs show love for the city scribbled in chalk hearts, restaurants offered free meals to law enforcement personnel, and Syrians sent a message love through a painted sign---that was shared thousands and thousands of times on Facebook. The spirit of this city is still here, yet the questions of mourning and healing are only beginning to emerge:


As a community, how do we grieve? How do we heal?

Acts of violence, so close to our home affect us. The effect may be new or it may trigger old emotions. In the past week, I have watched those around me struggle with emotions spanning from indifference to shock to deep sadness. I urged my immediate community to be compassionate with the experience and allow yourself to be affected:

It is okay if you feel off this week. It is okay that you can’t concentrate or don’t want to sit in the library, even though you have so much to do. It is okay if you feel grief, or emotions you can’t identify, even though you don’t know anyone who was physically hurt or weren’t even at the event. It is also okay if you don’t feel anything. It is okay if this tragedy reminds you of other losses in your life. It is okay to miss people or moments that have nothing [on the surface] to do with what happened on Monday.

In consideration of healing, I return to stories. The world of grief and healing is full of stories. Stories that make our hearts ache and bring tears to our eyes. Stories that touch us deeply, resonating with our experiences, bring our losses closer to the surface, and in their own way, heal us. My own story of the Boston Marathon encapsulates one of my best memories: the spring, the sheer accomplishment of running 26.2 miles, and, which I did not know at the time, my last day with my father. In honor of that experience and the events of the week, this past Tuesday, I put on my running shoes and Red Sox shirt, and headed out the door into the spring air. What I needed to do was run, remember that joyful day, and spend time feeling through the grief that bubbled up out of the surface in the face of new tragedy.

Feeling, hurting, and all the other associated emotions are signs of life, signs of caring for one’s community. Be compassionate with yourself in this process. Do what feels right for you. Heal through allowing yourself to engage with the process. This is our first step as individuals that make up a truly wonderful community. As a community, we can soak in the love pouring from all corners of the world. And, within our responsibility to love these “corners” back, as individuals did by holding up a sign sending love back to Syria in Davis Square, we can reflect this sense of healing and hope.

The city I envision heals fear through love and community.



xxxi. normandie

postcards from france

My regular spot in Bernay is Brin d’Zinc, a bar that Clémence and her friends seem to have been going to since they were in collège, the French version of middle school. Smoking indoors is still legal, and the yellow interior is full of French teenagers lighting up over their beers. I am immediately a part of the crowd; with Clémence as my host sister, I came to Normandie with a ready-made group of friends waiting for me.

My drink of choice is one that Fréd introduced me to: pression pêche, a draft beer with peach syrup. Stereotypically girly, sure, but it’s delicious and fresh and I get one every time we go in, Clémence ordering one for me along with hers. On our third or fourth visit, I work up the courage to stride up to the bar and order my own. Une pression pêche, s’il vous plaît!

But I am nervous and tripping over my words. The “r” in pression turns flat, hard. American. The smiling barman laughs and makes me repeat the phrase until I get it right — not in a mean way, but still. It takes me two more tries before he slides the beer across the bar.

Face burning, I carry my drink back to the table and take a sip while Clémence pats my shoulder encouragingly. The beer still tastes good, only slightly tainted with humiliation.

All Hours Are Not Created Equal

I have been struck lately by the way in which different hours in the day and different periods in life seem to have very different weight. The morning hours speed by before I can even catch hold of them, while afternoon hours march on ever so slowly. Unfortunately, those slippery morning hours are my most productive, so I am forever trying to figure out how to tackle the bulk of my to-do list before they slip away. Monday time feels so very different from Friday time, and then, weekend time is another thing altogether.

And when I think of time on the scale of a lifetime, I am amazed at how the briefest moments can rise above the rest in technicolor memory, while all the rest seem fuzzy in black and white. I must have spent hundreds (thousands?) of hours researching and writing papers as a student, but I can’t pin down any one of those hours in particular. Each was a tiny drop in the bucket toward the slow and steady process of learning to make an argument, tell a story, or craft a sentence. Those hours were only significant because they were many.

Instead, I remember a handful of conversations on couches or in coffee shops and the brief exchanges of empathy that made all the rest of it easier. I remember the food and drinks shared as a currency of love and friendship and understanding. I remember a certain slant of sunlight hitting the table, finally, one spring afternoon.

In comparison to many months and years spent living in one place, it feels like just a few weeks spent traveling changed everything.

There must have been hundreds of walks along the same path to and from campus, but on one in particular, a classmate caught up with me and not so very long after, it seems, became my husband. We’ve been married nearly six months now, and sometimes it seems like only a moment has passed. On the other hand, I wonder whether perhaps we’ve always been together.

The hardest thing about time, I think, is knowing in the moment which of those moments count and which will fade quickly, which to hang onto tightly and which to let go of gracefully.

Desperately Seeking Susan (and Ramon, and Seymour, and Chloe)

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

Throughout my life, I have been blessed with some beautiful friendships. They are the kinds of relationships in which I get to be more of who I am, make life feel more like a funny fun weird road trip, help me see, laugh, grow and play.  

However, with the exception of two arenas, I haven't felt truly at home and at ease in a group of friends. I have watched solid groups of friends, so I feel like I know what they look like, but I have a hard time speaking the language.

The two exceptions: one was an arts summer camp I went to as a teenager; there were only 25 of us, we did arts stuff all day and the same semi-weirdos came back year after year. The other was in a school environment where it was also a fixed group. I feel like neither are the way life is -- full of busy schedules, Facebook-like stuff (which I feel completely awkward with), and tons of different communities.

My friends are scattered from being around the corner, to the other side of the world. I have dipped my toes into groups but feel like I generally have to pretend a little bit. Can you help? I want my team to eat with, to shake things up with, to dance with, to cry with, to feel at ease with.


Lone Wolf in Search of a Pack

Dear Lone Wolf,

Let me take a moment to commend you for being intentional about your friendships.  In a culture obsessed with coupling off, with achieving the “goal” of marriage and kids, the fact that you are willing to develop these other, vitally important relationships in your life is a sign of depth.  Brava.  As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art. . . It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”

On to your question.  I struggled between telling you that what you seek is a myth, a cultural creation à la Friends and Sex and the City, and simply telling you exactly how to create a meaningful group of friends.  Here is why: it is attainable---you can make yourself your very own Seinfeld, but---the more you set it up and carefully curate it, the less it will thrive.  The center will not hold.  I'm going to tell you why that is, but I'm also going to tell you how to do it anyway, and let you make your own decision about whether or not to dive in to the jungle of having a circle of friends.

There are so many amazing humans on this earth, but what fuses us together and creates a real bond between a few of them is a precarious balance of common interests, personality traits, and proximity.  Then there's that extra "oomph", that jolt of electricity when you get together, what we might call the "x factor".  Here are a few suggestions for how to gather a group of friends around you, to see if that “x factor” is there between you.

DIT: Dig In Together:  I'm sure you know several people that would vibe each other a lot, who all care about horseback riding or street art or environmentalism.  (Or perhaps all three---sounds like a fascinating group already!)  Start with a dinner party---get all these folks together at your house, bring up the latest news in the common interest they all share, and watch the magic happen.  Then, you'll need to do that very thing, consistently, for months on end, to see if it will stick.  Have the gathering rotate houses, and, hopefully, it will take on a life of its own.  People will start hanging out spontaneously, outside of the sanctioned dinners, and you will have to do less of the planning.  For your next birthday party, all you’ll have to do is show up.

Become a Regular:  Let's say you don't already have people pegged to be your very own Bloomsbury Group.  What you need to do is show up, with an incredible amount of regularity, at a place that you enjoy, and has the kind of people you want to get to know better.  This could be a Zumba class, a dive bar, a Karaokae night, a Mommy-and-Me playgroup, or even a church.  Listen, this is going to take AWHILE.  You need to be willing to stay, and to commit.  But it is the slightly less micro-managed version, since everyone has a reason to see each other every week.

Enlist:  Have you considered sneaking in to something already created?  Granted, this would work better with a loosely-formed group of friends, one that is just coming together and needs a bit of "glue" in the form of your awesome community-building skills, rather than people who have known each other since elementary, but it can work well.  Have a picnic with all those guys, ask one of them out for a drink and then suggest inviting the rest, tell them all about the pop-up store you are checking out after work---anything fun, spontaneous, and not insanely obvious.  Next thing you know, if this is the right group for you, they'll be inviting you along to Game Night or into their poetry-writing club.

Here’s the part that will be harder to hear.  These kinds of groups are ephemeral---even the Beatles broke up, even Golden Girls went off the air.  Your tight-knit, hard-won circle of buds will change over time, and probably will not last your entire life.  The most important thing to remember will be to let it go when the time is right, and appreciate the blessing of it while it lasts.

The most beautiful thing about friendship is that it is chosen.  Many times people try to subvert this, call their friends "family", and seek to guilt their friends into staying in their lives long after the time has come for them to go their separate ways.  That's the wonderful and terrible thing about friendships---as they are not family, we have no bond further than what the heart lends.  And the heart is a wily creature, rarely accepting bribes or following expected paths.

Friendship is about free choice, mutual attraction without even the bonding agent of sex to keep the intimacy level high.  It’s a bit like gardening---we can plant the seeds, water them, and prune their leaves, but we can’t make the sun shine on them, and we can’t stop them from one day drooping their little heads down, to return to the soil, fertilizing new plants in their stead.

So, Lone Wolf, I want to encourage you to cultivate this fledgling group of friends for yourself.  Watch it grow, and tend it carefully.  But also, be prepared for some hard rain, and write back to me when it’s time to till the soil.  We’ll discuss letting changes in friend groups happen with grace and grief.  I happen to know a lot about that.



Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here

What Are You Reading (offline, that is)?

what are you reading eloise
Eloise Blondiau writes about art, life and culture at her blog Walloony, (the name of which refers to her Belgian heritage). Born and bred in London she is currently studying Theology at the University of Exeter. 
I have a fascination with people that reading both nourishes and challenges. That’s actually why I study theology – what people choose to believe and how they live is revealing not only of individuals but of human nature. The books on this list have taught me about people and that’s why I love them so much. 

What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through The Fire  by Charles Bukowski Anyone considering reading one of Bukowski’s novels (e.g. Post Office) should first read his poetry; this book is easy to dip in and out of and gives a great feel for what he’s about. Bukowski baffled me when I first read him, aged about fourteen. As a sheltered girl who went to Catholic school his raw and dirty reality attracted me because it was a world away from my own. His voice is confrontational and not often likeable, but I think its honesty is beautiful. ‘The Genius of the Crowd’ is my favourite poem in What Matters is How Well You Walk Through The Fire. In this poem, Bukowski’s frightening depiction of human nature really challenged me. Although I’m not entirely convinced by his pessimism, there’s truth in the claim that the more generously you give to a person, the more power you give that same person to hurt you. Depressing, but thought provoking, which I think could be said about all of his work.

  Non-Fiction (in the UK; Stranger than Fiction in the US) by Chuck Palahniuk Non Fiction is a collection of essays that could almost be Chuck Palahniuk’s autobiography. Unlike most autobiographies, however, Palahniuk is great judge of what the reader will find interesting, never failing to intrigue. Although only one of three sections of the book is titled ‘personal’ (the others being ‘portraits’ and ‘people together’), each essay is deeply revealing of the peculiar life and mind of the author. This collection of essays cover topics of great breadth: interactions with people at the Rock Creek Lodge Testicle Festival (essentially an orgy), encounters with celebrities such as Marilyn Manson, the tragedy of his father’s murder and the transition of his novel Fight Club to Hollywood blockbuster. Palahniuk’s minimal style captivates, disgusts and amuses the reader with incredible ease, so much so that reading each essay feels like a lesson in how to write. So of course I’ve read this many times. I would recommend this as either an introduction to Palahniuk, or a way to get to know him better after reading books such as Choke, Fight Club or Invisible Monsters.


Why Believe  by John Cottingham  This is where the theology nerd in me comes out. I went into university quite confused about religion, not committing much to belief or non belief. Saying that you’re “religious” is sort of embarrassing today. With the rise of New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, there’s a commonplace association of stupidity with religion. This is derived from an understanding of religion as a system of beliefs about the world that the religious person must subscribe to. Cottingham is interesting because he presents an understanding of religion that is about engaging in practices individually and in a community, rather than ticking boxes on a list of beliefs. His argument is that practice can improve the quality of some people’s lives, and belief is secondary to this. So, neither belief nor practice need conflict with reason, science or intelligence (as the New Atheists would have you believe). I don’t think Cottingham adequately explores the value of nonreligious practices and communities (such as those based on Buddhism), but it’s a thought-provoking read for anyone interested in the role of religion today.

If not now, when?

In the Balance

‘I need a mental health day,’ I thought to myself in the late afternoon.  This desperate impulse came after the last in a series of indignities, mounting responsibilities and frustrations surrounding work, travel and family.  I was standing in line, waiting for coffee, when I realized my breathing was a little too shallow and my stomach was churning.  My mind scrambled and slid over panicked thoughts of work that would get pushed forward yet another day.  I clutched my iPhone in a death grip and it felt white-hot in my hand, having already recharged it once since pulling it from the wall eight hours earlier.  DING, went the insistent alert tone, indicating another new email.  When it occurred to me that I am my own boss and I could technically, literally fold the laptop closed and shut it all down for the day, I felt a glint of relief.  Of course, if you ask any person who works for herself, you will hear about the sensation of near constant pressure and generalized anxiety that does not defer to the bounds of the hours between 9:00 AM and 5:00 PM. As you might expect, despite a clear recognition that I am suffering the ill effects of stress, I didn’t turn tail at that point and head back to the apartment.  I persisted in working through the day and even felt some perverse sense of exhilaration knowing that I had beat back the creeping beast.  There is apparently some distinction in ignoring the warning signs of a mind and body teetering on the brink of collapse.

While this may sound melodramatic, I am ripe for a break down.  I tell you this not to burden you or try and arouse sympathy.  I have a superb and dynamic support system.  I say it because we all have to start taking better care of ourselves right this very minute.  Most of you are like me and you don’t do it well enough---it might even be something that never enters your conscious thought.  You might never have deliberately considered, ‘How am I doing?’

I was reminded this week---in the way you hope you never have to be---that life is invaluable and that the people living it are fragile.  It can be a slippery slope from suffering the strains of the daily grind to taking your own life.  When something like that happens, it feels irresponsible, disrespectful not to take a personal inventory.  You owe it to yourself and the people that love you.

The Fundamentals (I am not a doctor.  I am not a sleep expert.  I am not a nutritionist.  I am a clinical social worker, but mostly these reminders are derived from my personal investigation.):

1)   Get enough sleep.  I am averaging 5-6 hours these days and a grown adult needs more like 7-9.  Even an hour or two less than your body requires can have devastating effects, including putting you at increased risk for a range of psychiatric conditions.  Learn more about your sleep needs here.

2)   Drink mostly water and lots of it.  Stay hydrated.  Your body uses water for everything and needs at least 8 glasses a day to run effectively.  Sugary, caffeinated drinks do not count toward hydration (my delicious afternoon coffee notwithstanding) and often serve to dehydrate you.

3)   Eat in a way that nourishes your body.  Eat frequently – small meals with protein, fresh fruits and vegetables and complex carbohydrates.  Eat what’s in season.

4)   When you begin to feel overwhelmed in whatever domain in your life, stop and reprioritize.  Figure out only what absolutely needs to be done.  Then give yourself even more latitude with that short list.

5)   If you are experiencing physical symptoms---headaches, stomachaches, short of breath, ruminating instead of sleeping---take immediate action.  Take a day off, if you can.  Consider yourself in a state of emergency and respond proportionally.

6)   Reach out to others.  Instead of caving inward, turn to those around you and ask for help.  Particularly if you are person who is stoic or simply presents well under duress, you would be surprised to learn how few people close to you are aware of your struggle.  This is partly true because each of us is so immersed in our own.

7)   Talk to a professional.  You and I and a million people like us can help de-stigmatize therapy.  We can say out loud that we are vulnerable and benefit from added support.  If you had heart disease, you would go straight to the cardiologist.  If you are struggling with your emotional or mental health, why wouldn’t you go see a therapist?

I am going to get through this weekend’s big deliverables and then take some time for self-care and family travel.   Just knowing I am going to do this with intention is already helping.  I am also going to see my therapist when I get back, because why wouldn’t I?  What could possibly be more important?

XXX. Provence

postcards from france

Bridget is a neuroscience major at a college in Maine. She hasn’t taken a French class since high school before coming to spend these four months in Aix---naturally, her French is a bit rusty at first. But she is open and friendly, and communicates with a completely adorable mixture of lots of hand gestures, anglicized turns of phrase, and ums. It’s easy to understand her if you are willing to listen. Bridget comes over to my apartment one afternoon. When I introduce her to Agnès, Bridget tries to say how nice it is to meet her, that her home is so sunny and light and she would love to live here. Agnès, not even hearing what she is saying, cuts Bridget off in the middle of her sentence.

Agnès turns to me and says, She doesn't speak very good French, does she? And of course Bridget understands her. Understanding is the easy part. It’s speaking up where things get difficult.

Meet the Local: Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

mind the gap

Meet the Local is a series designed to uncover the differences (and similarities) in how we think and live in different parts of the world.  Over the upcoming months, I’ll ask locals from places all over the world the same set of getting-to-know-you questions.  This week, meet Neno, who was born in Sarajevo and has lived there ever since, including four years spent largely underground during the siege.

What do you like about the place you live?

I like, first of all, the people.  The people and the size of the city.  Sarajevo is a quite good city to live because it’s quite a small city---it’s only 400,000 people---so you know everyone.  It’s like one big family.  And also the history, the culture.  But mainly the people.  The people are very friendly in this city, so you can always count on someone helping you in the city.  I like that feeling.

 What don’t you like so much?

I don’t like politics in the city, and the politicians.  It’s affecting the every day life---we could have better public transport, we could have more investments, we could improve many things in this city.  But unfortunately we have a lot of bureaucracy.  We have three governments, and three presidents.  It’s a small country---only four million people---so to make one decision when you have three presidents. . . it’s quite impossible.  Nothing gets done.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

I drink tea, or sometimes coffee.  Then scrambled eggs, with cheese.  No pies!  Because people think we are eating the pies for the breakfast.  The pies are more for the lunch or for the dinner.  People think we are eating pies every day, but it’s very, very heavy on your stomach.  It’s more like a fast food things.  I eat pies only maybe two times in a week.

What do you do for a living?  How important is your job to your sense of self?

I’m a student of political sciences and diplomacy and international relations, getting my masters.  I lead walking tours when I have free time from my studies.  I think I will stay in tourism.  I’m studying political sciences, so people always think I will be involved in political life but I think I like history, I like the political philosophy, but I don’t see myself in a political life.  I want to send a message from this city, this country.  I think we have more to offer than just the recent history.  That’s the reason I started doing walking tours.  Unfortunately, this country still has a reputation as a war torn country.  When you say Bosnia, the first image people have is the war in Bosnia, Sarajevo under siege, but I truly believe this country is a country with a long and rich history, friendly people---I think we have a lot to offer.

My job is very important to my sense of self.  It’s very difficult life in this country.  You know, I’m 27 years old and I’m still living with my parents.  But in some ways, I have freedom because I earn all of my money.  So for my self-confidence, it’s very important that I also earn something.  Most people live with their parents till they are married, because they are close with their family, but also because of the economy.  It’s a very high unemployment rate---43% at the moment.  So unfortunately people can’t afford to have their own flat.  And also Sarajevo is a very small city, so even if I rented a flat, I would go every day to my mother’s to eat something.  So at the moment, I think it’s better to stay with my family.

What do you do for fun?

I like to hike, when it’s sunny weather, in the [1984 Sarajevo Winter] Olympic mountains.  I also like photography---I like to walk around and take photos.  I like to bicycle---there’s one part of the city that has bicycle infrastructure, so I go there and I bicycle.  I also like bowling, so I go there with my friends for bowling very often.  I also like to read, and to travel.

How often do you see your family?  Tell me what you did the last time you saw them.

I live with my family.  We are very close, because I was here during the siege so we were always together then.  The sense of community in this country is very strong.  The people are close to each other; the neighbors are close to each other.  The siege made us closer, because we survived together the most horrible moments. I think the siege of the city affected people in a positive but also negative way.  I think that people in this country appreciate small things more.  Maybe like some other countries or the younger generations in this country, one small thing is nothing.  For example, I like to eat everything.  I’m not choosy, but I have a niece, and she was born after the war.  And we all have a Sunday lunch together and she is so picky---I don’t like that, I don’t like that---and I get so frustrated, like, you need to eat everything, because you don’t know the feeling of when you have nothing to eat at all.  I appreciate the food.  I try to enjoy small things.  But also the war had negative effects---like, I never celebrate New Year’s Eve on open squares.  I don’t like fireworks.  Whenever I hear fireworks, I get flashbacks, because it’s the same sound as the shells exploding.

What’s your biggest dream for your life?

To travel around the world.  Now, I’ve traveled almost all of Europe, except the UK and Ireland.  Personally, I think that’s the best spent money.  When you learn about other cultures, you start to appreciate more about your own culture, and your own life.  But after traveling, to again always return to this country.  No place like home, no place like home.  I experienced the worst things in this country, so why not stay?  I think this country deserves a better future with smart and educated people.  We will not have a bright future if all the smart and educated people leave the country.  So we need to stay, and we need to fight for the changes.

 If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?  Why?

I like Spain and Portugal.  The people are very similar to us here---they’re also very friendly, very open.  They also have not very good economy, like this country, but they’re like, let’s enjoy life!  Things will improve!  I can imagine myself living in Lisbon for one or two years, but like I told you, I then want to come back to Sarajevo.

What are you most proud of?

I’m proud of my family.  I’m proud of my mother, my father.  Because I think they directed me in a good way, they raised me to be a good guy.  My mother for me is like a big hero because I was with her during all of the wartime.  She was also working every single day, walking back and forth through the snipers, because she needed to do something, to occupy her mind, to not be in a basement all the time.  She was working not to lose her mind, and a little bit to keep her job position. She was working for free.  Sometimes she got paid in cigarettes.

How happy would you say you are?  Why?

I am very happy because I have a good family.  I have my mother, my father, my sister, my niece.  It’s a very small family, but we are very close to each other.  That’s my biggest happiness.  Also, I’m happy because I live in Sarajevo.

To read the answers of a local Londoner, click here to meet Carleen.

XXIX. Savoie

postcards from france

The past four months have been the loneliest I’ve ever experienced, no thanks to me. My reaction to life in a new country has been to hole myself up and reject most social interaction---hardly a path to happiness, but what do I know when I have never lived away from home for so long before.

On the eve of my departure, Marie and I exchange e-mail addresses. We’ve been living together since January but our interaction has been fairly limited---she has her parents house to go back to every weekend, not to mention her ongoing three-way relationship keeping her busy. When we’re both in Chambéry, I spend my time in class, walking around the hills north of our apartment, or shut in my room. Our conversations, which have been pleasant and fun, are when we both happen to be in the tiny kitchen having breakfast at the same time. Most have centered around Nutella.

Marie and I hug and she hands me a slip of paper with her address along with a small gift, a pair of earrings that will faire ressortir le vert de tes yeux, bring out the green in my eyes. The simple gesture, like so many others I’ve experienced in the week leading up to my departure, makes me wish I could go back to the beginning and start all over. I wish I’d had the courage to be real friends with you, I want to say. But I don’t.

I tuck the piece of paper into one of my books knowing that I’ll probably never take it out again. Years have since passed, and like the red poppies that I once collected outside Clémence’s house in Normandie and pressed inside the pages of one of my journals, I have no idea where that slip of paper is now. But it’s nice to know that it’s somewhere, and if I ever feel like looking, I might be able to find it again.

XXVIII. Normandie

postcards from france

Toward the end of my stay that August, Clémence starts running with me on my loops around the Norman countryside. She can only make it through the warm-up lap, a slow jog around the apple orchard behind the house, and is absolutely exhausted by the end of the ten minutes. She gasps for air and holds her skinny knees for support as we slow to a walk.

As tall, thin women, on first glance Clémence and I seem like we are built similarly, but our bodies are in fact drastically different. Hers is skin and bones with a layer of soft flesh in between---pretty typical for a French high school girl whose exercise is generally limited to whatever walking she happens to do that day and whose diet includes a steadily growing nicotine addiction. I run miles every day and can easily inhale plates of pasta in a single sitting before cross country meets.

Not as sexy, maybe. But as I flex my legs, feel the muscles in my stomach under my hand, I decide I’d rather be hard than soft.

Meet the Local: London

mind the gap

Meet the Local is a new series, designed to uncover the differences (and similarities) in how we think and live in different parts of the world.  In the next few months, I'll be traveling to Zagreb, Sarajevo, Spain, Portugal, Ghana, Morocco, and Scandinavia.  In each place, I'll interview someone who lives locally (although they may have originally come from somewhere else, as you'll see in today's post; I find that to discount people who have immigrated is to deny a core part of a city's makeup, especially in places like London).  I'll ask the same set of questions everywhere.  This week, meet Carleen Macdermid, from London, England: Carleen Macdermid, Meet the Local: London

What do you like about the place you live?

First of all, I love that it’s London, because I’m Australian---I moved here about eleven years ago.  I love how central it is.  I walk everywhere nowadays. I almost never get in the Tube.  It’s a 40 minute walk home, but I’ll still walk, because you see so much more of London.  I’m right by the river.  I’m in the middle of everything.  I love it.

What don’t you like so much?

It’s made me harder as a person. Australians are notoriously chilled out and easy going.  I’ve not become more English because to an Australian it’s very important not to be English but I’ve definitely become a Londoner.  I’m hard.  People get in the way in the Tube.  I’m always in a hurry.  When I first moved here, I would see celebrities all the time and now I just see idiots that are in my way and I don’t like that about myself.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

I almost never eat breakfast.  I’m terrible at it.  I’m fully aware that it’s the most important meal of the day but I so enjoy my sleep that breakfast gets sacrificed every morning and has done since I was about fourteen.

What do you do for a living?  How important is your career to your sense of self?

I currently don’t really do anything, because I’m in the process of being made redundant.  I did get kids into apprenticeships for four years, and I was a teacher for seven years, and now I’m on the cusp, so if anyone thinks I’ll be useful to them, they’re welcome to contact me.

I worked really hard over the last six months to get that balance back.  For a long time there, my work was absolutely everything, it took all my free time, it took all my focus, and I kind of think if you’re working with young people, that’s important. Now, I like the fact that my focus is more on myself.  A better social life, a better work/life balance.

What do you do for fun?

I was a drama teacher for years, and for a long time I didn’t do any of that at all.  Now, I do improv, I rehearse with groups, and I’m just in the process of trying to write, to attempt for the very first time, stand up comedy.

How often do you see your family?  Tell me what you did the last time you saw them.

I see them very rarely---they’re on the other side of the globe, so the last time I saw them was three and a half years ago, and I helped them pack up and move out of the house I was raised in and move to the other side of the country.  My sister and my niece get here in two weeks, and it’ll be the first time they’ve ever visited me over here.  After that, I’ll be redundant, so I’m going to pop home to see mum and dad, and it will be the first time in three and a half years.

What’s your biggest dream for your life?

To find something that really satisfies me.  I’ve always had jobs that I’ve enjoyed elements of, I liked working with young people, but I’ve never really had anything in my life where I’ve kinda sat there and gone: yeah, I do that, and I’m really happy about it and really proud of it.  So I’m determined to track that down, be it in my work or be it in something creative.  It’s out there, and I’m gonna find it before I get too old.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?  Why?

I would invent a magical place that was similar to London and had the lifestyle and the get up and go but had my parents a lot closer than 24 hours away by airplane, and had some of the warmth of Australia without turning into the awful, shabby parts of Spain where people go and conglomerate and do awful things.

What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of the fact that my job has always contributed to young people.  I spent my entire career in education and training and I can point to literally hundreds and thousands of kids that I’ve helped.  I’ve got young people now who are teachers like I was, and other young people that have really good professions because they did apprenticeships with me, and I’ll always have that to be proud of.

How happy would you say you are?  Why?

I’m gonna go with 85%.  Even at my most unhappy, I never manage to drop below about 65 or 70%, I’m just naturally an upbeat person, but I like the fact that I’m starting to do more for me for the first time in a long time.

Wasting Away Again in Judgey-Mama-Ville

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl, As a new mom, I find myself HATING 'mom-talk.' I find it awkward listening to my friends tell me the new developmental leap their kid has taken.   How do I respond if my kid has already been doing that (for months)? I hate how it makes me feel.  If I disengage and reply with "That's great," I feel sad I didn't take that moment to brag about my own kid. BUT if I engage and be truthful about what my kid is doing, does that start an unintentional "let-me-one-up-you" war? I don't want to prove anything---I don't want to put that pressure on me or my little man who is just happy banging stuff around and laughing about it.  

I hate mothers who are scared of germs---who won't let their kid play in a public park.  I hate mothers who won't let their kid sit in dirt or GRASS (for crying out loud who cares if a dog peed there once a million years ago. . . and yes. . . I heard that come from a lady once).  I hate them because they tell these things to me AS MY KID IS PLAYING IN DIRT. . . AS MY KID SITS HAPPILY IN THE SHOPPING CART WITH NO CLOTH PROTECTION.  What do I say to them?  (You are neurotic?)   

Is there a polite way to disengage from this?  I'm not into the 'mom-shop' talk.  I don't mind talking about motherhood but I hate when it turns into what people’s kids are doing and when they did it and just you wait. . . and oh I would NEVER let him do that. . . you let them eat what?  From the whole foods salad bar???  GERMS!!!!  I especially hate when they talk to me as if I have no idea what is coming next.  I find it patronizing.  

For the love of all things---how do I deal with them?

Trapped in Momville

Dear Trapped,

You’ve got to take it all less personally.  Let me explain, because believe me, I know what you mean---I’ve been there.  And it never goes away.  Parenting brings out a level of anxiety and neurosis in certain people that even that mom who is armed with antibacterial hand gel just to let their kid use the swing has never known before. That does not mean you need to get caught up in it, or identify yourself with that woman in any way.

New moms are trying to define themselves in their new role, and some women do that by getting very particular about everything child-related.  These moms are unsure of how to be a parent, so they equate it with Getting It Right, and then work hard to shore up their definition of “right” by forcing you to feel their anxiety and agree with them about this worldview.  You have to fight not to be sucked in to the crazy-making conversational dance about what food you introduced first to your baby and what that means about you as a person.

And that probably means you feel alienated, and lonely.  Which is an uncomfortable space to be in, but a normal way to feel.  What you've got to let go of is the hatred.

When I became a mother, I was shocked at the level of discourse of the mothers I encountered on the playground, at playdates, and just out in the world.  The level of competitiveness was striking---moms even found ways to put down my child's early verbosity ("She's going to have quite a mouth on her when she's 13!") and would urge their kids to draw like my child was ("Hunter, draw a circle!  You can do it, see hers?  Just like that."), looking over at me to prove my kid was nothing special, after all.  I was saddened that all they wanted to discuss was diaper changes and when to wean, while I had read three books and watched several documentaries that week that I was eager to discuss, but my attempts to shift the conversation fell on deaf ears.

From observing this pack mentality over several months, I realized a few things: I was going to find "my people", eventually, but these folks were not it.  Therefore, I separated the moms I knew into two categories, "co-workers", and "friends".  The co-workers were the moms I always saw on the playground but knew I was never really going to connect with, the ones obsessed with germs and growth charts.  I delegated them in my mind to the annoying co-workers I once had in the professional setting---I talked to them when I needed to, stayed emotionally detached from them, and, if anything, found compassion for their exquisitely neurotic states.  If they pissed me off too much to have compassion for them, I moved on to just pity their children.

The ones I found to be friends with were always slightly off.  The moms who would plunk down on the park bench and say, "I almost dropped the kid off at the Fire Station last night.  This latte is the only thing keeping me from doing it now."  The ones who talked about their sex life, or lack there of, the ones who cracked wry jokes at their family’s expense, yet still daily inspired me with their devotion to their kids.  Also, I found that I could often relate more to the nannies, who were invested but just removed enough from the children to have more of a sense of humor about all of it, and more likely to invite me out for a drink after my husband got home.

You are going to find your people.  You will know, when you walk into their house and their homes are not neat as a pin with family portraits hanging everywhere and cookies baking in the oven, but rather, their home looks lived in.  You will know, when they ask you how you are, and they really mean you, not how well your child slept last night.  And they are going to make this wild world of parenting so much more fun.

So, the way you deal with the new moms that are driving you nuts with the comparison-based mom talk is you don't hang out with them.  You take out a magazine at the park when a mom you don't know is hovering over their kid and yours, and smiling crazily at you like, "Aren't you going to follow your kid around?!"

You decline the playdates to the houses where the moms have disinfected the bottoms of all their shoes, even though they never wear shoes indoors.  You do this even if that means you are lonely sometimes, and just end up hanging out with your own kid.  This will force you to go find the parents you can actually relate to.

You go find your people, and you try, really hard, not to talk shit about those other moms.  They are fighting a terrible battle that they will never win, the battle to protect their kid from struggle, and from life.  Leave them to it.  Be your own kind of mother.  Go play.



Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here

More Wishes

Over the weekend one of my dear friends gave birth to her first child.  She and I grew up together and were nearly inseparable throughout grade school and junior high. Neither of us is at all biased, so believe me when I tell you her baby boy is pretty freaking perfect.  I’ve had acquaintances from college start families, but she is the first friend to become a mom. So it’s understandable that I may have gone a wee bit overboard when it came to buying gifts for the new baby, including six pairs of shoes.  But it was so much fun, and so exciting to think of that little dude rocking a pair of superman sneakers that I just couldn’t help myself. Now he’s here, and although I haven’t met him in person yet (his mom has been gracious enough to frequently text me pictures), that hasn’t stopped me from thinking about him, his parents, and all the great things life holds for him.  As you may remember, I’m a fan of wishes, so here then are my wishes for little baby ACE.


I wish for you grand adventures.  Whether it’s travelling the world or getting accidentally locked in a closet (ask your mom or your Uncle Jason about that), adventures make the best stories. Decades later the memory of a great adventure will still be worth telling, and re-telling.  And adventures always teach you something, it might be a philosophical truth, or an as yet-undiscovered aspect of your personality, or it might be something less deep, like the fact that some closet doors lock from the inside. Regardless, have adventures, have lots of them, and tell me stories.


 Sense of Humor

 I wish for you a sense of humor.  Both of your parents are hilarious, so I don’t think there’s any danger that you won’t have a great sense of humor.  Your dad is laugh-out-loud funny and your mom has the patience to wait 45 minutes for the perfect moment of comedic timing.  I hope you laugh together as a family, I hope you laugh with your friends, I hope you laugh at yourself.  Just never at someone else’s expense.  Be kind in your humor and laugh often.

I wish for you a questioning mind. The world is full of people who want to tell you what to think and believe; people who know with all certainty that they are right and others are wrong.  The truth is things are more complex than these people would often have you believe.  There are shades of grey and degrees of truth, and what is true for one person may not be true for another.  I hope you learn to take it all in and think for yourself.  Beware of anyone who claims to know everything.  Except your parents. They really do know it all.

Best Friends 1I wish for you best friends. I wrote a couple weeks ago that there is nothing in the world quite like a best friend. They’re simply amazing.  Best friends will have your back in the hard times and be there to laugh and share adventures in the good times.  They (along with your family, and if you’re lucky their family) will be your rock.  I was lucky enough to have your mom as a best friend, after meeting her in first grade and immediately engaging in a philosophical discussion about Crayola colors. As we grew, our families became friends, and all five of us kids played together all the time. Your mom and I went to school together for eight years before attending different high schools and then living in different states. But we stayed friends; we were bridesmaids at each-other’s weddings and when she called to tell me she was pregnant with you, I couldn’t possibly have been happier (unless of course she had told me at the beginning of the conversation). Never underestimate the power of a best friend and don’t take them for granted.  You’ve already got a best friend ready made in your pal Liam, I’m sure you two will have lots of fun playing together and causing mayhem. Be kind to one another and try not to give your parents too much grief.



I wish for you a fantastic imagination.  I hope you create games and characters. I hope you run through the back yard with your friends, screaming about invisible lions hiding behind trees or dragons in the sky.  I hope you read books and fall into the world’s they create (this one’s a little selfish, as I can’t wait to give you books), I hope you color (I’ll send you some crayons too!) and draw and dream vividly. An imagination is the key to so much in life, it can serve you later on as an adult in ways you wouldn’t expect, but for now, I just wish for you to have play and have fun.


Finally, I wish for you kindness.  I hope the world is kind to you and I especially hope you are kind to the people you meet.  The simple act of showing kindness to a stranger or classmate has far reaching consequences, not the least of which is it’s good for your soul.  Don’t be mean.  I know it’s easy to do, especially once you get older and into school.  But kindness shows strength and character.  Think of other’s and be kind. And while we’re on the subject, be nice to your parents.  They’re crazy in love with you. Even when you’re a teenager and you could swear that they’re out to get you or just being mean, remember how much they love you and be kind.

Grow big and strong baby ACE.  I can’t wait to meet you in person

Hugs, Renee

The homes that inspire nostalgia

eternally nostalgic

We first met when I was on the cusp of nomadism and she was on her return voyage. I was about to embark on my first true field work in conflict management. I did not know it then, but that year would hold memories of Egypt, Uganda, Colombia, and Guatemala. Her journey stretched from Liberia to Indonesia and Boston to the Hague. We both swam in the pool of conflict management professionals, spoke with our hands, loved every baked good we met, and shared a passion for wander and wonder. In many ways, she inspired my own path with her courage, whimsy, curiosity, and attachment to service and to making impact. Meeting her kindled my faith in humanity---and sparked my consequent overuse of the term.

We are now sitting at her dining table in Washington, DC, five years later. She and her loved one built the bench atop which I am perched, and everything else in the house too. Even if she hadn't given me her house number, I would have picked it out among its companions. It is the most colorful house in the street. Everything in it is a colorful product of love too, carved with care out of wood, nailed together, splashed with the hues that matched their personalities. "We built the bed in which you are sleeping," she says smiling. People dream better in home-made beds. They ought to.

She is a different kind of adult than I am, I think to myself. A whole other league of adulthood, the kind that comes with one's own photographs hanging from her walls (in frames, I should clarify, since my own amateur photos hang frameless and in disorder). I scratch her cat's belly, as we talk about the conversations we used to have when we first met. We are still connected by those same threads, by conflict management and service, by a wanderlust for Iceland and the Bolivian salt flats alike. We joke about our loved ones' addiction to cycling, we revisit talks about neuroses that field work in some of the world's most active conflict zones could not mitigate. Peeking into her life makes me nostalgic for permanence and leaves me longing to caress wooden surfaces with an appreciation for the art that transforms them.

I used to live here too once, but the girl I was when I lived in Washington is different from the girl who returned to it now. It was the before era: before field work, before I knew that a lot of my life would unfold on the road or in conflict zones, before I grew attached to cameras and stories, before I had discovered much of what I now consider my life's work---in many senses, before I experienced what I now consider my life's many blessings. When I left Washington, I left with excitement, not out of frustration with its admittedly elevated sense of self-importance, but out of a craving to leap to the next phase of life and the novelty it had in store. And much as my memories of Washington were full of light and merriment, I did not consider it the kind of home that would inspire nostalgia.

Teetering in heels outside the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, I recognize bits of the self I was then: I was an obsessive list-maker, and I still am. I was the kind of girl who could write down thirteen to-do items, and cross them all. Part of me still enjoys ticking the boxes, literally and allegorically. In other senses, I have shed layers of skin since I left Washington. I have embraced uncertainty and developed a new comfort for it. I have appreciated vulnerability; in brave moments, I have deliberately put myself in vulnerable places with an understanding of their merits. I have marveled, marveled ferociously, demanded marveling. I have made more room. I have not carved furniture, but I have carved out space for loving, dreaming, and marveling.

And now that I am back, this time for a career trip with fellow graduate students interested in conflict management, I am marveling at a home that inspired more nostalgia than I thought it could. In between career panels and site visits, I duck into my old neighborhood bookstore. I used to stop there every single day on my walk home from work, even if nothing in the shelves had changed. The bookstore was a ritual I kept, a nostalgia-inspiring ritual that planted the seeds of marveling. Between a lunch and an informational interview, I pop into Teaism, wanting bubble tea. I giggle when I remember that they call it 'pearl tea' here. My memory had edged this lexicon out. Taryn and I sit side-by-side at Hello Cupcake, devouring cream cheese frosting. Dan and I have breakfast at Busboys and Poets. Halle and I share an almond croissant and cappuccinos at Dolcezza, which was not there when I last was. Some of the women by my side have been constant presences, on email and in teahouses, at a distance or side-by-side. Some of them are new to this memory, having sprung from shared field experiences, correspondences, school orientations, or serendipity.

This marriage of the worlds feels less foreign than I had anticipated. I practiced nostalgic eating, nostalgic bookstore browsing, nostalgic walking, nostalgic subway riding. Life was not Instagrammed when I had left Washington; all of it looked less romantic. It was not yet possible, as Cheri Lucas would say, to "enhance the mundane", "to disguise the mediocre." Surprise nostalgia is a privilege because it is as though a former home springs from the depth of your memories to claim its place in your life, to demand to be remembered lovingly. Or, at the very least, to be remembered---which, in my life, is by definition a loving act.

XXV. Bretagne

postcards from france

When you have a week off from school and the whole country to explore, one of my favorite things about France is that you only have to be 21 years old to rent a car. Leah and I take a train from Aix to Paris to Brest, a coastal city in the northwest corner, and get a Fiat Panda, a little red thing that reminds me of a lunchbox. Then we take off for our three-day road trip tracing the coastline. I drive and Leah is in charge of choosing the music and, arguably more important, navigation, reading the free map for tourists we picked up at the rental center. It shows more illustrations of Breton boys and sheep than highway names, but we’ve found our way so far.

When it gets too dark to see the countryside, we stop in small towns with names like Crozon and Le Fret and find a place to stay, usually a small bed and breakfast. Leah and I spend most of the nights out drinking cider in pubs and watching soccer games with the locals until we’re too tired or too tipsy to keep our eyes open. We subsist on little more than apples, crepes, and Haribo gummies. It’s a glorious Breton adventure.

One day at lunchtime we stop at a supermarket along a road outside of the town of Bénodet, our destination for the evening. Typical for France but incomprehensible for Americans, the supermarket is closed for lunch from noon to two. The Panda has a manual transmission, so the waiting time is spent teaching Leah how to drive stick shift.

We take slow turns around the empty parking lot, lurching slightly every time Leah changes gears. The supermarket employees stand outside the store’s entrance, taking slow drags from their cigarettes and curiously watching our progress as we make figure eights around the light poles. We are laughing so hard that we forget our hunger.

By the time we can get into the supermarket, Leah has made it successfully into third gear, zooming back and forth across the concrete. Still, I drive the rest of the way to Bénodet. Those French roundabouts are hard to maneuver.

On lentil soup and economizing.

city flower

We've been on a lentil soup kick lately. Red lentils, french lentils, any old lentil we can find for cheap in the bulk section of our grocery store, we've been buying it. There's not a recipe that we've been using so much as a series of habits: sauté some amount of savory onion or shallot or leek in butter or oil, add lentils and other scattered nubs of carrots or leafy greens, add sea salt and water and heat until a soup develops that's nourishing and warming and everything that wintertime food ought to be. Last week I made one such batch of soup and served it to friends. I won't say I wasn't a bit shy at the prospect. Somewhere along the way, I've gotten the impression that food served to company should be better-than-usual fare. Even if you're on a tight budget, heating up a packet of ramen noodles and inviting friends for dinner doesn't seem like quite the right thing to do. Serving bowls of lentil soup seemed like the slightly more healthful equivalent. 

When you're still relatively young and childless in this city---or maybe at any time---going out with friends can be almost astonishingly expensive. Cocktails at one bar run you a day's food allowance and before the end of the night you can easily spend as much as you've allotted for the entire week's groceries and then some. Inviting friends to your home for a pot of lentil soup seems terribly boring in the face of artisan cocktails and mustachioed waiters and oozing cheese platters. 

But when my husband and I realized that our plan to live frugally in 2013 had meant that we'd allowed January to slip by without spending substantial time with any our friends, we resolved to reassess. Our conclusion is utterly predictable: invite your friends over for lentil soup. The truth is that no matter how humble the ingredients, lentil soup is delicious and having friends to your apartment for any kind of meal is better than never having them over at all.

There are some lessons I'm not sure why I've taken so very long to learn.

A Beautiful Life

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl, What do you think is the best and most gracious way to keep social life simple? I get a lot of requests to do things both for fun and on the professional level (i.e. sit on a committee or board) and I also want to have a good amount of unscheduled time, because I know that is what works for me, to keep me sane. But what is a good way to do this in a world that encourages frantic activity?

Sincerely, Lil’ Miss Popular

Dear Ms. Popular,

The most frequent answer to the question "How are you these days?" is "Busy!"  What if people answered this question a bit more accurately and said, "I have a lot of tasks to complete all the time, but inwardly I feel a little disconnected."  Because that is the true definition of a busy life.

Time is social capital.  First of all, I'd like to commend you for taking the time to consider your social commitments and seek to knit something together that supports you individually as well as helps you feel a part of a greater community.

Much of our lives are made up of the people we spend it with.  Some of that we don't have a whole lot of choice about: the co-worker that is hired after you and talks your ear off about their skydiving obsession, the fellow dog owner who tries to get you involved in puppy politics at the dog park, the neighbor with the backfiring van who will never move out.

So, when you have a rare hour of free time, you want to be sure you are investing it in something or someone who will add depth and continuity to your life, rather than feeling like you are flitting around from one commitment to the next, always playing catch-up with each person.

Personally, I often find myself falling head over heels for a person or an organization, and throwing myself into that friendship or activity with great fervor, only to find out a year down the line that they were not who I thought they were, or that I've outgrown them.  If I stopped doing this, however, my life would remain stagnant, and I would eventually feel isolated from my own lack of willingness to risk and put my whole self into my relationships and endeavors.

Carl Jung had the idea that we are drawn to people who have something that we need, and can help us realize those parts of ourselves.  Over time, we are meant to start doing those things on our own, and when we do, we may find that what we were meant to learn from that person, and what we had to share with them, has made the relationship redundant.

Does that mean you need to stop calling your best friend from elementary school, who have little in common with now but love seeing, for the tether she gives you to the past?  No, but I would suggest saving visits with her for special times: her birthday, when the band whose songbook the two of you have memorized comes to town, or a holiday you love spending with her.

This may free you (and your old friend) up to do some new things.  When you do, consider, "How is this going to help me grow as person?  What is it about this activity or friend that I am particularly drawn to?  Is that something I really want more of in my life?"

For instance, you may be excited about a certain couple because they have great parties that look cool on Instagram and give you blog fodder.  If that is really your only connection to them, I suggest giving them a very slim slice of your life, perhaps accepting only every third invitation.  However, if you have a friend who is exceptionally kind to your child, and who could teach you how to make terrariums, and remembers to ask after your sick cat, see if she can meet you for coffee tomorrow.

I have to say I am quite taken with your idea of preserving unscheduled time.  Perhaps you can block that out in your calendar, and write "Reserved for Spontaneity" in the square.  Then, when you are asked to fill that time with volunteer work or a baby shower, just say, "I cannot.  I have an engagement with my mind."  Then everyone will think you are weird and won't invite you places anymore anyway and you'll have lots of free time!

I am being a little silly there, but honestly, you have the right to curate your own life.  Consider your calendar like an art exhibit, and choose the pieces that inspire you the most and that you want to look at all the time to hang on the walls of your days.

Feel free to create something beautiful with your community and your time, even if this means turning down some invitations.  Choose beauty, however sparse that may be for you, over busy-ness.

Love, Sibyl

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