Tuesday, May 27, 2014

This morning I was in Paris ...

After 22 hours of traveling and getting settled back at home yesterday, I finally succumbed to fatigue. In my own bed, in my husband’s arms again, weary shoulders sank into pillow-top mattress, and scratchy eyes dried by airplane air gently closed the book of my latest France stories. I could have gone to bed earlier, saved dirty laundry to wash today, rummaged suitcase corners today for presents I’d brought back for my honey—but I savored being able to rest chin in hand, tilt my head, and say with starry-eyed wonder, “I was in Paris this morning,”—which I would not be able to say today. Although Paris itself was not dreamy on this trip, it felt dreamy to know I’d been there just that morning. Maybe, too, I felt awe at air-travel technology that enables people to flit about the planet like birds.

Technology aside, travel yesterday was the most difficult I’ve ever experienced. At one point, I slumped, sobbing onto a bench in the security area of Charles De Gaulle Airport. I’ll spare you the details of taxi, train, and airport inefficiencies and human selfishness and surliness. A series of ordeals rendered what should have been about an hour’s trip to my plane gate into a four-hour nightmare. The experience will change future travel for me; I never want to fly home from CDG Airport again. 

But what I most want to remember in my I was in Paris this morning dream is my French friend who spent frustrating hours of her vacation trying in vain to schedule a taxi for me; the many helpful security and hospitality personnel at train stations and the airport; and the friendly Americans on the plane who told their Paris horror stories with humor and c’est la vie shrugs. And the compassionate young woman from Houston who put her arms around me on that bench and commiserated with my tears. She and her husband had shared the same nightmare, except perhaps for the indignities I suffered at the hands of airport security. (Their experience had made them decide never to return to France. I love France and don’t know if I could reject the country as they did—just that I will find another airport to fly home from.) Anyway, I want to remember people who shone light into the darkness of yesterday in Paris.

Today I peeked out at the day through a one-inch slit in horizontal blinds. Yesterday I greeted the day by flinging open a six-foot-tall window. Today sunshine envelops the house. Yesterday I craned my neck up to see sky between six- to ten-story-tall buildings. Today I am surrounded by lush velvety green lawn and artfully arranged colors—white anemones bobbing in the breeze, purple and yellow pansies playing among pink-striped phlox, and white lilacs perfuming the patio. Yesterday I strolled down a long, narrow, gray-cobblestoned courtyard that our and many neighbors’ doors opened onto. Blue verbena mounded above clay pots on our windowsill, and many green plants reached up from their pots for the light. Benches and sculptures, weathered and worn, lined the courtyard. Today a green garden hose curls on the patio. Yesterday a few plastic watering cans with skinny, curved spouts crouched in the jungle of greenery. Gardens, whether horizontal or vertical, are everywhere.

Yesterday I ate a fat, almost-round egg that still had a tiny chicken feather stuck on it. Today I will eat what Americans call a large egg, half the size of yesterday’s egg, that tapers at one end. Yesterday I could still taste fresh strawberry jam my friend made from tender, sweet berries she picked herself near her home. Today I ate strawberries from 2,000 miles away that are mostly hard white pulp inside. Yesterday I ate store-bought broccoli so sweet, it reminded me of broccoli I’ve grown myself. Today I will eat store-bought broccoli whose satisfaction is only a vague vitamin awareness, no need to linger along the taste buds. Today, however, I can also gaze out my window and see a strawberry patch that I planted because of previous enjoyment of French food’s pure freshness. Many years ago I wanted to “bring France home with me,” and my potager, or kitchen garden, has brought much flavor to my life, and not just to my taste buds. And today at breakfast, I'll enjoy the homemade jam my friend sent me home with.

Yesterday I had little knowledge of current wars, financial crises, and political intrigues. Although my friend followed TV news during our trip, I understood little (okay, none) of the commentary. My main French TV pleasures were a pastry-chef reality show competition and a music show. Today I will go outside and bring in the orange-plastic-sleeved roll on the sidewalk and get caught up with the rest of the world. Then I’ll weed the garden.

Yesterday I was in Paris.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

This reminds me ...

In Paris Charles De Gaulle airport, you can recharge your electronic devices the easy way by sitting on a stool at a bar lined with electric plugs. Or you can pedal power into your devices on an exercycle. I liked this. It reminds me of an exposition I saw at the Grand Palais in 2011 where the exhibit hall was set up with many exercycles wired to a board displaying how much power visiting pedalers generated.

French train cars have a quiet section but if most French people speak on the phone as quietly as the ones in my car did, there’d be no need for a special section. Funny, I don’t know how they speak so softly. I watched a man speaking for a long time on his cellphone. He wasn’t whispering; I heard his deep voice forming words with inflections. His facial expressions changed during the conversation; he smiled on occasion. But when he spoke, his lips barely moved. Maybe that’s the secret. This reminds me of the first French restaurant my husband and I ate at. Just a small room with a dozen tables attended by the owner, at full capacity with everyone talking, the restaurant very subtly hummed, like a car engine so finely tuned, you wonder if it’s running. If I clinked my fork on my plate, it echoed above 12 private conversations so loudly, it may as well have been a car horn.

My first evening in Fontenay, TV news featured a segment on rising food prices in France. Most alarming, of course, was an increase in the cost of bread. This reminds me of the U.S., where we get less and less for our grocery money. The difference is that, at least from my observations, the French more conscientiously conserve food, water, electricity, and gas.  

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Mixed Blessings

I guess there really isn’t such a thing as a mixed blessing. A blessing is a blessing. My emotions about them are mixed. On a trip to France I have to wear a walking boot to immobilize a possibly broken toe. Call me vain, but I have cried tears about how clunky I look in this boot and how clumsy I feel. Do you have any idea how many stairs I have to traipse up and down and down and up with two suitcases—in this ridiculous boot—in just one tiny train station? Then when I get to the monstrous mother of all train stations, Gare Montparnasse, how will I even hope to manage?

Philippians 4:8 reminds me to think on what is pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy, so I will have to be on intentional lookout for blessings of the boot.

I am very thankful for the blessing of this trip. I love France. I am thankful for the boot, which will enable my toe to heal. And guess what—in my first few train trips, kind young people helped me on stairs inside the train and in the stations. Before I left home, I looked up how to apologetically ask in French for help or thank someone by explaining I’m clumsy in this boot. I was just about to say, “Merci. Je suis maladroite dans cette chaussure,” when the young lady who had offered in French to help me down some narrow, curving stairs, said in perfect English, “I am used to this. I travel with my mother all the time.”

You might think I’d be insulted by the mother inference, but I was not. In fact, this young lady looked to be about 20, so I figure I’m actually old enough to be her grandmother. And if her 40-year-old mother needs help with luggage, suddenly I feel pretty spry, not to mention blessed.

Postscript: Now Françoise tells me my boot would be a botte. Chaussure is shoe. And I have conquered massive Gare Montparnasse in my botte, grâce à many escalators and rolling sidewalks, two young people who offered to carry my larger suitcase down long staircases, and some muscles I built hauling luggage earlier in this trip.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Review of Khaled Hosseini's And the Mountains Echoed

Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed still reverberates in my mind. Abdullah, Pari, their Uncle Nabi, Idris and Timur, Adel, Marcos, Thalia, and the rest of the novel’s cast of characters pad about my brain as though real people in my life. Their stories span the years between 1949 and 2010, the globe—Afghanistan, Greece, Paris, California—and an expansive range of human experiences. Just as the characters’ older selves are bound to their younger selves and loved ones, so each reader is bound in his own life.

I also felt bound to the fictional Afghan village of Shadbagh and especially to the huge oak tree that played an important part in the lives of so many. To me, the tree represents the histories of the characters and the ax, the seismic changes they saw in their lifetimes. Yet even as the village progresses from mud huts to houses with satellite dishes, our humanity—family ties, cruelty and contempt, compassion and kindness, loyalty, betrayal—stays the same … like Uncle Nabi’s 1940s-model American car that remains behind his house in Kabul for years after his death more than half a century later.

Hosseini’s individual but interrelated stories captivated me. He is a masterful storyteller with an eye for details that bring places and people to life. Chapters in the novel leapfrog years, which I found a little hard to follow. He introduces characters, then gives new vignettes to introduce others, then crisscrosses their stories, then revisits them at key junctures of their lives. I cannot say that Hosseini ties up every loose end, but I found the ending satisfying.

If I better understood Afghanistan’s political history and if Hosseini had kept his stories in chronological order, I would have benefited, but in fact, the individual stories could stand on their own. Each is strong human drama. Also, from his stories, I did get a sense of the Afghan people’s heartache and struggles against corruption and terrorism.

Certain aspects of And the Mountains Echoed touched me more than others. For example, I loved the affection between parents and children in some stories. Here is a particularly sweet anecdote (page 345 in my edition): “When I was a little girl, my father and I had a nightly ritual. After I’d said my twenty-one Bismillahs and he had tucked me into bed, he would sit at my side and pluck bad dreams from my head with his thumb and forefinger. His fingers would hop from my forehead to my temples, patiently searching behind my ears, at the back of my head, and he’d make a pop sound—like a bottle being uncorked—with each nightmare he purged from my brain. He stashed the dreams, one by one, into an invisible sack in his lap and pulled the drawstring tightly. He would then scour the air, looking for happy dreams to replace the ones he had sequestered away. I watched as he cocked his head slightly and frowned, his eyes roaming side to side, like he was straining to hear distant music. I held my breath, waiting for the moment when my father’s face unfurled into a smile, when he sang, Ah, here is one, when he cupped his hands, let the dream land in his palms like a petal slowly twirling down from a tree. Gently, then, so very gently—my father said all good things in life were fragile and easily lost—he would raise his hands to my face, rub his palms against my brow and happiness into my head.” Her childhood memory continues in this enchanting fashion.

Another more sobering story that touched me was Idris’ return to California after a visit to a Kabul hospital as he struggled with how to put compassion into action. And I was fascinated to see in Hosseini’s multigenerational stories how childhood events and feelings shaped the adults. And the Mountains Echoed is rich in potential touching moments, and I hope you will read this novel to find your own.