Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Is it possible that all those years of planning and anticipation are down to just seven days? One week from today we’ll be on a jet plane heading to Paris for a year in Europe. What will it be like to transition from expectation to fruition? We’ve been in the seemingly endless state of looking forward to this departure for so long now that it may actually feel surreal to be on our way. Anticipation is such a delicious mix of future pleasure and anxious pain and I have always been its slave. When something I’m looking forward to is on the horizon – a trip, a reunion with my children, a dinner out or well-researched hike – my imaginings take over to prolong the pleasure of the experience itself. I once read that to enjoy your life, you need to believe that time is a promising medium in which to do pleasurable things. Well, according to that pronouncement, I am thoroughly enjoying my every day as I suffer the pains and pleasures of anticipation. Depending on the day, I may smile uncontrollably like a madwoman, go through the motions in a trance or frown and appear to be unwell. “The anticipation is killing me,” and “I’m so excited I could burst,” are how I'm feeling today.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Then Versus Now

Thirty-three years ago this month, I left for Europe to study in France’s Loire Valley. I was a 22-year-old recent college graduate and I was terrified. My parents drove me from our home on Long Island to the sleek, futuristic, TWA terminal at JFK and waved goodbye as I boarded. I was keenly aware at that moment of departure how very alone I was, heading for a year in a foreign country where I knew not a soul. This time, I’ll be leaving from Dulles (another winged, Saarinen-designed terminal), will have Joe at my side and terror will not be an issue. Anticipating our impending departure has me thinking about the differences between the young adult me and my 55-year-old persona. An interesting exercise...

On the epicurean side, when I arrived in Tours, France, wine was of no consequence to me. But little did I know that where I chose to study would inevitably lead to my fervent French palate for wine. Crisp, citrusy Sauvignon Blancs from the Loire quickly became my wine of choice and they remain my favorites today. Living in the Loire Valley, “the Garden of France” according to the French, also turned me into quite the foodie. It opened my eyes (and alerted my taste buds) to French cheeses, pâtés and savory galettes, all of which I could afford on my grad student budget. I first arrived in France a food and wine neophyte and I now return an aficionado.

Sticking with the superficial aspects, I probably need a few more creature comforts now than I did at 22, although I can still rough it when I need to. While I’m looking forward to the hostel stays on our itinerary, if only for nostalgia and the funds they’ll free up for fine dining, I doubt we’ll be camping out in railway stations or on the floors of trains overnight, as I often did as a student. The aches and pains that come with being 55 and the time it would take to recover from sleeping on a park bench will hold us hostage to having a proper mattress beneath us every night.

On a deeper level, I’m going back to Europe with a more fully developed personal core. I know what’s important to me and what I want from our year abroad and for the most part, I know how to get it. Understanding my own needs, how I’ll react in a variety of situations and to different stimuli, and being able to tune in and listen to my inner voices, are gifts that have come with the years. Such understanding certainly wasn’t apparent in my twenties.  When I left for France the first time, I was unaware of what would await me when I returned home, a source of great anxiety, especially during the last few months of my year abroad. I was like so many other liberal arts graduates: clueless about what to do professionally and desperate to rescue my self-confidence from a ditch. How do you enthusiastically pursue a career when you have no idea what you’re looking for? This time when I return, my goal will be clear: get myself a teaching position and become the best damned French teacher I can. There's great comfort in knowing what you want and having a goal, neither of which I had in 1978.

Finally, the biggest difference between leaving then and leaving now is that after this departure, I’ll miss Chris and Caroline more than words can say. Thirty-three years ago I had no idea of the unyielding heartstrings that would bind me to my children. And even though I will ache for them physically at times, having them to anchor me to this world is such a blessing. At 22, I had no such tethers and I will be thankful every day that I have them to miss while we’re away.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Organizing Heaven

I had a religious experience this week at The Container Store. As a compulsive organizer with a dash of OCD, I could spend hours in this specialty retailer. Unfortunately, Caroline and I only had about 30 minutes for our Container Store visit, but we voiced a litany of, “wow, look at this,” “this makeup bag is adorable,” and “what a creative drawer organizer!” as we browsed each and every aisle. My daughter inherited my organizing mania and so a trip to this store was the ultimate bonding experience – much more so than would be a shopping trip for clothes or shoes. We love poring over the latest gadgets for organizing anything and everything, especially if they’re both clever AND pretty. I found myself wishing I had a kitchen or a closet to organize so I could buy some of the cool things for sale. One of my favorite rainy day pastimes as a child was to organize my mother’s “junk drawers.” Where was The Container Store when I needed it back then?

We’re getting down to the wire in terms of exactly what we’re going to bring with us and how we’re going to pack it and our Container Store pilgrimage was so that I could pick up some “organizing supplies.” Remarkably, I’ve never tried it before, but have decided to use the zip-lock bag system of packing. No matter how carefully I load my suitcases, I always find myself unable to locate what I need when I unpack, especially on a brief trip when we live out of our luggage. Where is my sports bra? Where did my sandals go? Where did I put my phone charger? And as a manic organizer, not being able to find things makes me crazy. So, on this trip of all trips, I’m trying a new system. I’m going to pack in clear plastic zip-lock bags in a variety of sizes with everything divided into categories: underwear, pants, shorts, tee shirts, sleepwear, etc. I’ll use one clearly labeled plastic bag for each type of clothing so that even if we have one- or two-night stays somewhere, I can just pull out my plastic bags and immediately see what I’m looking for. No exasperating rummaging through my suitcases needed! At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. We shall see. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Our Visas Have Landed

After weeks of anguish, gnashing of teeth and biting of nails, we have our prized French visas in our very grateful hands. Yes, the embassy gods cooperated. They heard our pleas, smiled down upon us and granted our wish yesterday when for the second time in a month, we presented ourselves at the embassy. We handed over the missing insurance paperwork, tried to look confident (although I was sure the clerk could see I was shaking) and waited an agonizing 40 minutes while the officials reviewed our file. “Here are your visas,” were the sweetest words I’d heard in a very long time. The final obstacle has been removed and we can make our way to our gap year starting blocks. Let the trip begin! 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Final Countdown

We leave for Paris four weeks from today! The last countdown I recognized was last September, when we had one year to go until we left. I’m now going to start counting the days. It’s hard to believe that it’s actually going to happen and that our departure is almost here. Our packing dress rehearsal showed us that all we want to take will indeed fit into our bags (a rolling duffle, an overnight bag and a backpack each), we’ve decided to lighten our loads somewhat. At some point during our travels we may regret having certain things behind, but I’m betting that the benefits of our lightened loads will outweigh the items we miss.

An update on health insurance: getting a revised letter from Kaiser was worse than pulling teeth. Repeated calls finally resulted in reaching a supervisor who shared the news that repatriation expenses are not covered under our plan. They’ll pay emergency healthcare expenses but won’t bring our bodies home if we fall off an Alp or are run over by a Vespa. Lovely. So, we had to resort to purchasing supplemental travel insurance that includes repatriation. Not a happy thought, but over the past two weeks, we’ve had to deal with the whole possible death issue in one way or another as it relates to health insurance, our bank accounts and other assets. Necessary, I guess, but not fun to think about. As soon as I receive the new insurance paperwork, we have to show up at the embassy, present the new documents and fingers crossed, “pass go.” I so fear that as Dorothy is instructed by the Wizard of Oz, “bring me the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West,” we’ll be told that there’s something else we need to secure and present before the embassy will give us our visas. And that scares the living %#@* out of me!

Twenty-eight days until we leave...the embassy gods willing.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Relaxing is Hard Work

I have to work really, really hard to relax. It can be so difficult to sit still, unwind and take things in. Those afflicted with my struggle to slow down will understand that there is always something that needs doing: there are bills to pay, financial spreadsheets to update, messages to send, articles to read and things to be organized. And with so much to do, why not do two things at once? I mend my blouse while watching a movie, pay the bills while listening to a podcast and switch back and forth between projecting our finances and doing email. My natural state is to continually be working on something -- to always be producing. Perhaps it’s my atavistic need to gets things accomplished, to get things done, that continually pushes the possibility of relaxation further and further to the side.

My to-do lists give structure to my days, whether I’m working, going to school, or hanging around the house. Now, I don’t believe that creating and following my lists is necessarily a bad thing. They have served me very well for 55 years and have helped me accomplish much. However, one of my goals for our year abroad is to simply relax, clear some quiet space in my mind and consciously take in and appreciate my surroundings. There’s a Pascal quote that says something like, “All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” Well, I want to make sure that such miseries have no place in our gap year. We need to build in plenty of lazy expanses of unscheduled time to simply sit quietly and look around, whether in a rustic gîte or comfortable inn, on a mountaintop or park bench. While it may go against my “get-it-done” nature, I’m determined to slow down and resist the fast pace of cities, not worrying if we miss a few must-see sights. It will be more important to genuinely take in, enjoy and remember those we do see. I also want to spend as much time in nature as possible, absorbing the pleasure of simply being there and allowing the power of the outdoors to nourish us. I’ll continue to use lists to help define our days – I’m not planning to fundamentally change who I am, after all. However, consciously choosing to relax – to sometimes just sit and be -- will be added to the list. Unwinding may not be the very first thing at the top, but it certainly won’t fall to the bottom as it does now. The big question is: will I be able to accept that relaxing is indeed an accomplishment? Only time will tell.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Francophilia, Grecophilia and Other Passions

Why does one country fascinate me and another leave me cold? Why does my heart flutter at the mention of anything French, my spirit light up at the thought of a Greek isle, my muscles relax and my mouth water at the sight of an Italian taverna, but I feel little enthusiasm for discussing our upcoming visits to Berlin or Budapest? Is it because I know so much more about France and Greece and Italy than I do of Eastern Europe? Is it because I speak French? But wait -- I speak no Greek yet all things Hellenic appeal to my every sense. And while I can get by in an Italian restaurant, I don’t speak Italian. I often try to determine what it was that initially piqued my interest in France. It wasn’t simply that I learned the language. I took Spanish years before I started studying French and while I thoroughly enjoyed mis clases de español, once I walked into my very first high school French class with Mr. Stefanek, I was smitten. Mesmerized. Committed.

Every night on the News Hour, we listen to Russian history experts or post-colonial Indian specialists or PhD’s on Libya’s economy expound on their specialties and I always wonder what drew him or her to a specific field? Is it nature/genetic? Or is it nurture/exposure? Or is it something else? I often consider the possibility that I was a French peasant in a former life because of what seems to be my innate appreciation for all things French. I’m sure I wasn’t royalty because the flamboyant French court is definitely not my style. It’s amusing to think about, especially when I can connect some of my avocations to the life of a peasant: my love of gardening, getting my hands dirty, and making a plot of land my own, my affinity for the countryside and uncharted walkabouts, my powerful need to retreat from the crowds and sounds of the city to enjoy the landscape and go inward. I could spend hours in a museum taking in French medieval tapestry and learning about the stories behind them, not necessarily because I’d like to hang them on my walls but because I’m fascinated by the people who made them.

Would I like to visit just about every country and city in the world? Yes, absolutely. I would like to be able to imagine them when I read news reports and novels that are based there. But do they all make me breathe a little faster or sit up straighter when I hear their names? Do they all take hold of me emotionally? Well, no, not really. They appeal to me intellectually but don’t speak to my soul. Joe and I were lucky enough to go to Singapore two years ago (I was asked and funded to speak at a Southeast Asian book publishers meeting) and while I was thrilled to make the trip, I just didn’t have a feel for the culture. I certainly knew more when we left than when we’d arrived, and our brief visit piqued my interest such that I want to learn more about this diverse crossroads region, but it didn’t grab my heart the way France and Italy and Greece do. So, I’m still left with the question of why France? Why Greece? And why the other countries that take hold of me and won’t let go? Why do these places and their possibilities make me feel that my life will be incomplete without them? Perhaps I’ll discover that there are other countries, territories and cultures out there just waiting to seize me with their pleasures and treasures. Will it be Morocco? Turkey? Corsica? Spain? I can’t wait to find out.