Posts Tagged ‘Paris’

Lemon Delight

June 1, 2014

Fixing myself a salad supper using Belgian endive and lemon flavored olive oil, I flashed back to the first time I was offered this salad by the housekeeper employed by my parents, in Paris. Francine had worked in a large hotel most of her life, and had quite a number of stories to tell about life under the German occupation. Some were funny, others distressing, like the one about her desperately hungry coworker who was whipped for eating two bites from the discarded remains of an apple she found on a supper tray set out into the hall.

Francine is also the person who first began to teach me patience, how to mask my reaction to a situation and to bide my time until I could find a safe and effective way to retaliate. In different terms, she taught me to convert reaction into response.

My friend from Cameroon describes the French, who ruled his land for decades – as part of French West Africa – as duplicitous people who mask what they really mean behind polite phrases. He has gently scolded me for being “like the French” when I ask what he would prefer in a situation, rather than state what I think and then ask his opinion of my proposal. At first I was puzzled by this interpretation, since in my own mind I was genuinely neutral, and willing to do whatever he wished. Now, I’ve adapted my communication, to state that I have no preference among several options and would like him to choose for us both.

I’m still learning, in other situations, to feel comfortable openly asking him for what I would like. A lifetime ago, a mentally ill mother who took pleasure in denying me anything I wanted, set me on a path of masking my desires. Francine refined my skills of indirection. Time, experience, life as it happens all combined to instruct me to accept and be happy with what I could get, rather than to demand the fullness of what I wanted.

There is value in patience, in being tactful, in making lemonade from lemons.

Scent of Lemons   by Janet Triplett

Scent of Lemons
by Janet Triplett

But there is also a time for a serving of lemon meringue pie!

I’m savoring my slice just now – a demanding but satisfying job as the (gluten-free) crusty base, a delightfully sweet/tart lemony balance of romance and a social life for the filling, and a meringue topping of frothy happiness and spiritual delight.

There. I’ve said it. That I have what I want.

In the saying, I am confirming my right to this happiness, rather than daring fate to snatch it away from me in the way that, so long ago, my small pleasures were demeaned or destroyed.

How very long it sometimes takes to undo negative conditioning! Especially when that training wears the face of positive qualities like acceptance, patience, diplomacy, tact.

My spiritual teacher, from MasterPath, speaks of iron shackles and golden chains being equally binding. The shackles are clearly negative and therefore easier to identify and shed. The golden chains are so subtle and seemingly so benign. But oh, how constraining they can also be.

I feel blessed, to become able to perceive and free myself from them. I thank Thee, Master, for showing me the way.

Courage

January 25, 2014

For all the twenty plus years that I’ve been a “getaway” parent to students at the United World College of the American West – a two year international school drawing 16-19 year old students from nearly 80 countries to live and learn together – I’ve admired the courage of these young people. As much as many teens want to escape from parental supervision, it is still a major step to travel half way around the world, to live and study in a very different cultural environment.

I’m reminded of my own small venture into a similar unknown. I was sixteen, and had succeeded in finding and being accepted into an international summer work camp organized by the Mennonites. At the time I was living in Paris. The work camp was located in Vienna. My parents decided to make a vacation of driving me to the reunion point. They did not calculate travel time very well – or rather, they did not allow for my father’s insistence on frequent photography stops, as we made our way across France and into Switzerland.

When it became clear there was no way we could arrive in Vienna on time, my mother reluctantly agreed that I should take a train the rest of the way. My father coached me most thoroughly on how to say “I do not speak German, but I understand a little. Speak slowly please.” Trouble is, he taught me so well that my flawless pronunciation contradicted my statement, and the people I encountered generally responded with a flood of information, of which I was only able to glean that they thought I expressed myself very well indeed.

Despite the communication challenges, I made it from the railway station across Vienna to the church our group was to restore. In the end, we were moved out to the country to work on a farm/guest retreat – eighteen of us living over a chicken coup, cutting hay with hand scythes, bringing in firewood, installing a septic system, working very hard but also having a great time. We were from eight different countries, as disparate as Sweden and Turkey. I was the only American. Over the course of the summer we created evenings with a meal – improvised from our very limited diet of potatoes and tinned meat – and entertainment typical of our homes. I made sloppy joes from the tinned meat, and taught square dancing. Oh, and I appalled the Germans and the French by serving a desert of apple pie a la mode. Pie, yes OK. Ice cream, yes OK. But together? AAARRRRGGGGHHH.

For twenty years I’ve observed how variously the United World College (UWC) students do or do not adapt to the adventure they have undertaken. Most do surprisingly well. The most common pattern has been two students per year from a nation, so that there are four “country mates” at a time. Occasionally there will be a single student and not one every year. One of my early getaways was from Korea, the first to come here from that nation, and the only one for several years. She found it hard to adjust until she met a local family who had adopted a Korean baby. Spending time with them helped her feel more comfortable.

An Ethiopian getaway I had several years ago admitted that she was very nervous coming to the USA. She had heard enough stories about prejudice against blacks to fear for her safety off campus. It is my habit to research the food of the countries from which my getaways come. I’ve learned to cook Burmese, Senegalese, Korean, and Malay in addition to the more common Chinese, Japanese, French, Spanish, Indian and Thai with which I’ve long been familiar. I was able to find teff flour in Albuquerque at an international food market, and the first time Bereket came to the house I tried my hand at making a traditional bread for her. It was less than a smashing success, but she later shared with the general college population that my effort stood out in her mind as a sign of welcome and an indication that her fears were unfounded.

Lately the number of Chinese students has risen substantially – there is a contingent from the mainland as well as from Hong Kong. They are even offering classes in Chinese to the local community this spring. The dynamics on campus are changing, as the size of different cultural groups shifts – but that is a topic for a different essay.

The students at UWC do have a framework of support, not just from country mates, but from the fact of being in a school program. How much more courage it takes to come to the US to escape intolerable living conditions in one’s home country. How much courage it takes to put oneself into a position of dependence on the kindness and support of strangers. How much courage it takes to not only travel half way around the world for one’s one survival, but to bring along the aspirations and dependency of one’s entire family. To live each day with the knowledge that the future of the next generation in one’s family depends on one’s effective exercise of wit and charm, to create a life in a land far from home.

My father was an immigrant to the US 85 years ago, as was my mother’s father twenty years before that. From the stories I heard as a child, I know it was not easy for either of them, but it seems that the environment into which they came was more hospitable than the one new arrivals and asylum seekers face now. At the turn of the 20th century, the US was truly a nation of immigrants, of refugees from famine, from pogroms, from oppressive regimes. I may be wrong, but I think our immigration laws were less punitive then – and the communities of immigrants created more of a home away from home for subsequent arrivals. My grandfather talked about families who knew of and expected his arrival. My father had a harder time – he developed spinal meningitis on the trip over, and was taken off the boat into hospital, not expected to live. He did survive, eventually found his way to upstate New York to work on a dairy farm, became an agricultural expert, and finally an employee of the government, and an economic officer in the diplomatic corps.

Now the process of making one’s way through the complexities of immigration status seems dependent on a good attorney – and the money to pay for one. Without papers one cannot easily work and earn money. Without money one cannot easily obtain papers. To knowingly put oneself in this Catch-22 situation, with the hope that a way can be found through the maze, takes an awesome amount of determination and courage. I am privileged to know several people who are finding their way through the thickets – a young woman from Burma, my former getaways from Senegal and Nigeria, my new friend from Cameroon. Their lives and their challenges remind me to be grateful for what my grandfather and my father achieved – and I am encouraged, as well, to do my part to “pay it forward” as a way of expressing my admiration for their courage. They believe their lives will be better as they become able to live and work here legally. I know this country will be better for their presence and participation among us.

In Another Language

January 12, 2014

Do you speak more than one language fluently?

How are you different to yourself or to others, according to the language you are using? How does the difference in world view embodied in a language reveal a difference in its speakers? What depth of knowledge, of concept and perception of the world is lost when a language dies for want of speakers?

Once upon a time, when I was much younger, I was fully bilingual, speaking, thinking, dreaming in French as readily as I do in English. After forty years of living in the Southwest, with rare occasion to use French, and then only for a few hours at a time, I felt that I was losing more than the ability to speak French. I was losing aspects of my identity, personality, self.

Some traits are obvious – I use my hands much more when I speak French. These past thirty years have steadily diminished both my gestures and the mobility of my face (as evidenced by videos), with my communication limited to English. What else about myself is disappearing? Am I less flirtatious? More reserved? Living more through my mind and less through my emotions?

Or are those changes the result of growing older, of my life experiences, of my spiritual practice – and would exist irrespective of the language I speak?

In the way of events in my life now, once I’d framed up an inquiry, the means to explore the answer presented itself. I’ve been introduced to a Cameroonian who has been pursuing graduate studies at a nearby university. He is fluently bilingual, and offers me the opportunity to resurrect my French. I’ve been pleased to discover that my language skill still exists, relatively intact, beneath the surface of my daily life and that, as I use it regularly, my fluency is returning. My pronunciation, however, definitely needs practice.

What else is or needs changing as a result of using a second language? Can I separate shifts in attitude or emotion that originate within me based on language, from those resulting from the topics of discussion?  What is the effect of conversing with an African, rather than a Frenchman, or a bilingual American?

A good friend with whom I discussed the effects of language on perception, told me of how his relationship with an acquaintance changed as a result of a change in use of language. The interaction of the two men had been conducted in a mixture of fractured Thai and equally limited English. Despite the limitations, they had begun to build a friendship. Then the American was observed by the Thai, chatting easily with a group of other English speakers – and “the friendship was not the same afterwards. He saw me differently, and seemed not to be able to be comfortable with me in the same way as before.”

Do I see myself differently, when I speak French? I’ve been remembering events from my earlier life that I’ve not thought of in a long time. An evening at a club on the Left Bank in Paris, during my junior year of high school (American School of Paris) to which I was invited by the son of a friend of my mother’s. Hugh had just returned from a semester in the US, and ostensibly was introduced to me by our mothers, so that he could practice his English. He already had plans for the evening, and agreed to include me. On the way to the Sorbonne, by metro, he suddenly asked what part of the US I was from. When I said Washington DC his next question was, “Is that considered the South?”

He was subtly trying to determine if I’d have a problem spending the evening with his friends – African students at the Sorbonne. I did not. We collected his two French-speaking friends from Dahomey (now Benin), and went on to visit a Nigerian who has in hospital. There we acquired a fifth member of the group, a visitor who spoke virtually no French. As the only person fluent in both languages, I became the interpreter for the evening, which meant that I danced with one or the other of the men from Dahomey who argued for each African nation developing itself economically, then with the Nigerian visitor whose view was that a Pan African approach to growth was essential to the emergence of the continent as a presence in the world. About every third or fourth dance, Hugh would escort me and – in English – check to see if I was enjoying myself, and if I minded talking so much politics.

I mostly remember the oddity of being – with Hugh – virtually the only white face in the club, which was a hangout for all the Africans living in Paris. I remember enjoying the dancing, and the adventure associated with being out with “older” guys (they were in their mid-twenties) and experiencing an evening so distinctly different from the norm of my life.

My first “true love” happened in French. I dated Patrick throughout my senior year, left him behind when I graduated and returned to the US to attend college, but never really left him behind. He visited me in Boston seven years later – and fifteen years after that came with his family to the US, and a visit at my home near Santa Fe. We still exchange greetings although we haven’t written letters or talked in a long time, partially because I “lost” my French, partially because I’ve found it challenging to translate some of my US, and particularly my rural Southwest, experiences into a language I know primarily as a fast-paced, urban expression.

In college, for about a year, I dated an African Olympic soccer star, coincidentally also from Dahomey. We spoke French when alone, but English in company. He led the college team to the championships, and would usually make one goal that was spectacularly “pour toi” – a solo, elaborate-footwork trip down the field showing off his skills. The rest of the game he was the consummate team player. He was also sadly troubled and displaced, enough to not return from a summer visit home between our sophomore and junior years. In this instance also, French was associated with experiences out of the norm of my life – even though I was minoring in the subject. Studying French literature and practicing translation of texts felt like part of my general academic life. Dancing the High Life, cheering at a soccer match off campus, trying to help my friend overcome the culture shock that was dampening his spirit – those were new and different challenges.

So am I finding that I’m more adventurous in French? Perhaps…

I certainly seem to be more frank. Because I do not have the fluency to mask my thoughts and feelings? Perhaps…

I notice, in the recounting, that the significant experiences being brought to mind by my use of French are all about interactions with the opposite sex! Hmmmm…..

To be continued.

Small World

November 24, 2013

Have you ever swapped “small world” stories?

Some are simple, like the appearance in the training class for my new job of a woman who lives barely five miles from me in the rural area denoted by a dot on the map called Sapello – a woman I’d met once briefly before, but did not know until we were paired, during the training, for motivational interviewing exercises. Turns out we have a number of common interests, and a shared love of living “on the frontier” as our employer labels the area we serve.

Other small world stories are of more surprising meetings (Coincidences? Fated encounters?)

Two of mine have their roots in my stay in Vietnam, from 1956-1958. I was in my early teens, my father assigned as the economic officer at the U.S. embassy in Saigon.  Ingrid, a few years younger than I, was one of my friends. Both of us were socially awkward, neither of us fully aware to what extent the stresses within our families contributed to that lack of ease. We – in modern parlance – hung out together. After Saigon, Ingrid was sent to a boarding school in Colorado and I moved with my parents moved to Paris. She visited once, briefly, during those three years I lived in France. Then we lost touch.

Blaufarb Family with My Mother and Me Behind Them

Blaufarb Family with My Mother and Me Behind Them

Skip to four years later, my junior year in college, and a trip to New York City.

With my then boyfriend Ray, I was on a date that included a meal at the Russian Tea Room. We walked into the dining area, and saw before us a large family group seated at a round table. Ray started forward to greet one couple and their daughter Pamela, a former girlfriend from his high school days. I started forward to the same table to greet Ingrid’s parents. Ray and I looked at each other. “You know these people?” he quizzed me.

“Yes,” I replied. “Those are the Blaufarbs, parents of my friend Ingrid.”

“Pamela’s aunt and uncle. I’ve been told about them.”

I didn’t share with Ray how immediately I felt transported back to the tropic heat and teenage anxieties of Saigon, where I’d heard too much detail about Ingrid’s socially popular cousin Pamela!

*******

My second Vietnam-based story begins at its end, tying Saigon to Sapello. One of the people working in the office of my vet is a tall, energetic woman a few years older than I, named Susan. She is the sister-in-law of Louie, who trained my younger mare, and with whom I became friends when I first moved to Sapello in 1990. At some point in my on-going  conversations with Louie, it came out that his sister had “run off with a Frenchman” when she was in her late teens, and that the siblings had only reconnected many years later, when they both settled back near their mother. in the Sapello area.

Louie told me that Susan had gone to work for “our” vet when he set up practice about three miles from my home. On my next trip in with an animal in need of care, I met Susan. Remembering what Louie had told me, I mentioned that Susan and I had a connection of both knowing French. The next few sentences revealed that we both learned our French, not in Paris, but in Saigon. We had both spent leisure time at the Cercle Sportif, the “club” where we swam, played tennis, and in my case took classes, and performed the French Can Can at one of their “spectacles” – shows put on for the enjoyment of the members.

Contemplating a Plunge

Contemplating a Plunge

Susan’s time in Saigon preceded mine – she left in the spring before the October that brought me to Vietnam, just in time for my 13th birthday. Susan’s Frenchman, whom she married at seventeen but divorced just a few years later, was the older brother of Marie Claire, with whom I became friends in the dance class, and with whom I performed that Can Can.

******

Ingrid now divides her time between New York and Maine; her son went briefly to Swarthmore, where Ray and I attended college. Looking through a Swarthmore Alumni Bulletin sent to her son, Ingrid found an essay I’d written. Through the college, she obtained the information to once again contact me, some forty years after our last encounter in Paris. I’ve since traveled to the East Coast. We met for an afternoon. Ray recently traveled west, and we also met after a parallel forty year gap, as I recounted in a post this past summer.

Meanwhile, Susan is retiring from the vet’s office for a combination of reasons, including the fact that the vet is introducing a complex new computer system to the practice. Susan “does not get along well with computers” and decided the stress of trying to do so would be an unacceptable strain on her health. I’m feeling vivid kinship with her now, as I try to understand the complexities of the several computer systems I must master in my new job. I don’t share Susan’s aversion to computers, indeed feel fairly comfortable with them – or thought I did – until I encountered the multiple encrypted layers of security that must be understood to navigate around a health provider’s regulation-compliant system. Thank heavens, Presbyterian’s tech support is a seven-days-per-week operation!!!

I expect I’ll still see Susan occasionally, as we live quite near one another and have overlapping interests. I’m in intermittent contact with Ingrid, and with Ray, by email. If the occasion arises for me to introduce them to Susan, will that somehow close a loop that stretches over fifty-five years and around half the world? Linkages through the Internet, which enable me to “chat” simultaneously with a friend in Singapore and one in Norway, have already made the world much smaller, but enjoyable as they are, those conversations don’t have the same feeling of “oh my, how amazing” that accompanied my encounter with the Blaufarbs in New York, or with Susan at the vet.

Is it just me, or is it something to do with the life experiences of my age group, that makes the face-to-face connection of a small world encounter more precious than even the most globe-encompassing Internet link?

Solitude

July 28, 2013

Keeping on, keeping on

I’ve just finished reading Sara Donati’s Fire in the Sky, committing to myself to find the next book in her series about the Bonner family, and life in upstate New York in America’s early years. In an afterward, Donati states that she hopes she has done her work well enough for readers to seek out histories of the period, the War of 1812, which she feels is given short shrift in school history lessons. If my own experience is any indicator, she’s correct. My recollection of what I learned in elementary school about that war is limited to the battle at Fort McHenry and its role in the origin of our national anthem. High school American history class gave me even less about the War of 1812 – undoubtedly because the lesson was taught in a school in Paris, by a British woman who dismissed the entire affair as a “skirmish on the edge” of the important war happening at that time – Britain versus Napoleonic France.

My take-away from Donati’s writing is not, however, an interest in researching the complexities of what U.S. history books also refer to as the ”period between the French and Indian Wars and the settling of the West” (i.e. all the anguish and horror of the Amerindian experience with European intolerance). My take-away from Donati’s well written, engrossing series is far more personal – a profound feeling of loss, and a bone-deep sense of aloneness. Unlike the characters in this novel, who are an extended family with deep interconnections and emotional commitments to one another – unlike these people written into vivid life – I am alone. Profoundly alone. Only child of older parents long deceased, no first cousins, formerly married to a loner whose own small family (one brother and his children) made me welcome but with whom I have too little in common to connect. I have no children of my own, and never had the occasion to adopt any.

Mind you, I am not lonely. I like my own company, indeed find that I need solitude and tire quickly of constant interaction on those occasions when I am in extended social situations. When, with my husband, we went to visit his brother for a weekend, my sister-in-law was first puzzled, then amused to know that if I went missing, she could usually find me settled in the back seat of our car, with a book. Never happy unless surrounded by the noise and chatter of her children, nephews, cousins and visitors, my sister-in-law struggled to understand how overwhelming so many people could be to a person like me. I was raised in a home dominated by the quiet of parents who, because they did not like each other much, spoke little and went their own ways – until my mother would explode in rage. Noisy interaction, to me, means anger, shouting, ugly accusations, slaps, and being punished for non-existent infractions of unstated rules.

I am well aware of other types of noisy, social family dynamics. Adults happy to be together, chattering about their shared past and planned future, children busy with invented games that send them chasing among the adults, teens congregated on the porch giggling and talking (now also texting) their secrets to one another… I see all this around me as a positive experience, but know myself unable, now, to become part of it. Know that I was set onto my solitary path as early as kindergarten, where my tentative efforts to join the other children and make friends were undermined by my mother’s belief that it wasn’t safe for me to visit in any of their homes, or get to know them outside of the classroom. I know, as an adult, that it was her own self-doubt, her own fears that she was projecting outward, creating an environment around me that forbade socializing in groups.

I’m grateful that I’ve learned to enjoy people, and have been blessed over the years with companions and close friends. I’m also blessed with the ability to enjoy life as a single person, not needing to be part of a couple or in anyone’s company to eat at a restaurant, go to a concert or play, take a road trip, or vacation abroad. I have seen how family dynamics can become warped, twisted into lifelong animosities and unforgiven grudges. I know that much of the appeal in Donati’s stories (beyond the fact that she is an excellent writer) lies in becoming engaged with an ideal of family caring. The members support each other through their various trials, remaining in the end united despite distance or even death. The appeal of romances is that they portray an ideal, of love overcoming obstacles, achieved in the end. The appeal of traditional westerns is of clear cut right and wrong, an ideal justice achieved in the end.

The appeal of an ideal… Is there an ideal of solitude?

Not noticeably in fiction, but perhaps in religion or spiritual pursuits. The Buddha, sitting alone in contemplation. The Benedictine brothers at Christ in the Desert, living a vow of silence in their isolated monastery. The occasional lone backwoodsman – Robbie, in Donati’s Lake in the Clouds – an exemplar of a character choosing to live alone. Spiritual practitioners of solitude do carry the qualities of an ideal. The fictional characters do not. They are portrayed, even the most positive of them, as missing some important element of life. They are portrayed as strong enough to live alone, but nonetheless in some way damaged and unable to connect appropriately with society.

Why this disconnect between the positive image of spiritual solitude and the flawed one of social solitude? I am happy to have ample alone time for my spiritual practice, during which I feel embraced and held close in the joy of the Divine’s presence. I only question my aloneness when I encounter – usually in fiction, but occasionally in daily life experiences – the ideal of family, and then my emotional self begins to wonder if I’ve missed something important. A co-worker has been diagnosed with cancer. His family – sister and two adult daughters – have come from across the country to visit with him, provide support, and enjoy his company. Who would come if the same challenge were to arise for me?

I am looked after and cared for most completely by my spiritual Beloved. I know in my bones, in my gut, in my Soul, the certainty that I am not alone, not forgotten, not adrift in a life without purpose or meaning. As life challenges arise, the tools to meet them will be provided to me, in ways and forms I cannot invent nor imagine, as has already been proven true when I review my Path thus far. Indeed, my current querying of my state of aloneness, my curiosity as to whether I’ve missed out in some way by not experiencing the ties of family, my observation of the ideal of those ties as presented in fiction – all this reflection is an example of the process by which I am gifted to acquire whatever tools I will need going forward. It is just my mind, like a little child, tugging at my spiritual skirts and whining, “I want a sister, I want a brother, to talk to, to play and share with.”

Maybe next lifetime?
Careful, there. Remember the adage about being selective in what you ask for!


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