The Grasshopper

Twenty minutes passed just staring at a grasshopper on Saturday. It wasn’t seemingly scared of me, nor I of it. One might say we had even developed a rapport. The grasshopper had such a regal stance on its blade of grass. Its head held high and chest pushing out like royalty. No fear. The green was in several shades, all polished and proper.

Last night I was rolling around in bed, a lost child searching for sleep. The nights have been hot and sweaty lately, discomfort and panic setting in with familiarity. So when I rolled onto my stomach and fitfully threw down my too-thick blanket, my hand snapped back with fear and anger to grab whatever was crawling up my back. It was big and I had got it right between my nimble and murderous fingers.

When I flicked on the light I saw there a harmless green grasshopper. Horror set in. I had hurt it too badly for it to live. And there it was dying slowly bathed in my sad error. When my phone came down on its little body to end its misery, the macabre crunch turned my stomach.

A lack of consciousness had killed my new friend. I had killed my new friend out of ignorance. Then I turned out the light and fell into a dreamless sleep.

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Shalom, Israel!

Hello dear friends and family!!! It sure has been a while, eh? Well, here is what I hope will be at least a quasi-entertaining account of events and observations as of late.

Israel. The cradle of civilization (as it were). I arrived in Tel Aviv coming off of refreshing cold in the Windy City and ten days in LA surrounded by overwhelming talent and general loveliness. The climate shock from the mid-west to the Middle East was welcome. A little jolt to the rusty nerves is sometimes the best medicine.

My first three days in Israel were spent in Tel Aviv adjusting to the time change, trying to not catch a stomach virus from my dear host, Eitan, and walking around the city with Oren. Between the coffee-drinking, European inspired architecture, and a charming British roommate, I might have gotten confused as to where my plane had actually landed. Of course, recollecting the security in the airport helped to remind me.

Despite this aforementioned stomach virus, Eitan, like a hero, came to get me from the airport and then we went straight to his Aunt and Uncle’s home in the city, a stunning apartment with a balcony looking at part of the colorful Tel Aviv skyline. My arrival was coinciding with the end of Passover, so the general energy in the city was slow and relaxed. The only murmured complaints wafting through the city were that of the endless matzo being consumed, or rather the lack of bread and beer. Not surprisingly, it was easier for people to keep off the bread than the beer. I won’t name names. The end of Passover was welcoming. We celebrated by eating Matzo “French Toast,” which Eitan made. It was pretty good but I might be so bold as to rename it Matzo “Oatmeal.” We also were lucky enough to be invited over for Mimouna, which is a celebration held by the Moroccan Jews. This included a crepe-like dish, which was slathered in one’s own choice of topping. It’s traditionally with honey, but there was also a date-honey spread, and from a tiny peak inside the house, the ever-present Nutella. One can’t really go wrong. We also enjoyed it with some Coca-Cola, but it somehow always tastes better in these tiny plastic cups that are everywhere in Israel. Each cup holds about three gulps, and it’s pretty satisfying.

Feeling a bit less ill, a little more time-adjusted, and that itch of exploration and travel, Eitan and I set off for Jerusalem. Only two buses later, and two seats on the bus floor, we had reached our destination. It has been remarked many times that Israel is really not such a large country but this statement was made reality on the very short hour-long journey from Tel Aviv. We set-up our sleeping arrangements first thing at a friend of Eitan’s (because in Israel you have a friend anywhere you need a friend) and then set out for a little evening drinking. My first introduction to Araq, the Anise liquor of Israel, was after I beat a member of the Duvdevan unit in a chugging contest. Now let me break this down for you. Duvdevan is one of five Special Forces units in Israel. It means cherry and is therefore appropriate “because the president once said we were the cherry on top of the whipped cream.” I’ve also heard the men in this unit could break me with a single pinky finger. So, you can then imagine how incredibly proud I was to win this chugging contest and be rewarded with my beer free and a shot of Araq. My competitor could barely believe it and avoided eye contact with the table for some minutes. Victory!

The next day, with not enough sleep and a bit of a hangover, we headed out to the Old City of Jerusalem. Eitan leading deftly through the maze of cobbled streets, we stopped first at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is said to be the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and also his place of burial. Regardless of personal religious beliefs, being in this place that has been so venerated over the centuries, surrounded by people making earnest pilgrimages, I found myself overwhelmed. This sort of emotionally and historically charged energy was nothing like I’ve felt before and for that I am grateful. We were on a time limit, as we were heading to the Dead Sea in the afternoon, so we hurried on to the Wailing Wall, also known as the Western Wall. It was dumbfounding to finally lay eyes on something you only ever hear tales about, to see something that means so much to so many people, something that’s caused so much joy and heartbreak. I found it impossible to gaze upon it without being imbued with some version of what must be called reverence. But it was also a bit fun. The men and women’s sides are separate. However, we were there on a day with many Bar Mitzvahs so the women were standing on chairs to gaze over the separating barrier and take part in the merriment. Integration and segregation are forever holding hands.

Hours later, after having rented a car and being told I needed to learn Hebrew (great, thanks, toda. .תודה), we were on our way to the Dead Sea. We went to a spa in Ein Gedi, a town right next to our incredible destination. We marched our haggard selves down to the mud bath and I learned the healing powers to be had. Covered in mud that we let dry and start to crack off, we got under perfectly warm sulfur showers. Apparently, this is the only way to get all the mud off. Already feeling like a brand new person, the main show was waiting down a long dirt path. My friends that have been to Israel told me how fun it is to float in the Dead Sea but I didn’t realize how right they truly were. No matter how deep you go, the floating is so intense that without treading water one’s head and shoulders are always bobbing out of and breaking the surface. I spent at least the first ten minutes laughing, as a small child laughs at a glorious new discovery. Not to mention that right on the other side of this tiny sea is Jordan, and right down the road is Masada.

We set up camp on the rocky desert floor with a view of the sea a couple hundred meters to the east, the mountains to the west and a dry river bed 10 meters south of our tent in which our car was parked. This is camping in Israel apparently. No campsites. Just set up your tent where there are the fewest rocks, and good luck. Eitan was thrilled to be camping and to eat like he did during his service. Therefore, we (he) built a fire and warmed up our canned tuna and peas and carrots for dinner. I’ve actually, no kidding, never enjoyed eating straight out of the can and sleeping on rocks more than that night. Something about getting the whole experience was so satisfying. What was less satisfying however, was waking up at 4.30 by the rain falling though the tent because we didn’t put on the rain guard. Now, this was totally our fault, but to be fair it was beautifully clear when we went to bed. “Laurel! Laurel! Wake up! We gotta put on the rain guard!” Well, we got up, got the rain guard, and then discovered that one of the metal supports for it was missing thanks to one infamous Richard A Stadig. Apparently this is his thing. Borrowing stuff, then fucking it up. There’s even a “Richard’s a Dick” jar that people put money into every time Richard’s “done it again.” I might mention that his friends also dearly love him. Now, I’ve never met Richard, but I could presently contribute with honesty and experience to this jar. Way to go, Richard, you’ve started affecting third parties.

We actually wake up pretty damn rested the next morning, all things considered, and head north. We drive for several hours, mostly along the border of Jordan, through tiny Arab villages, listening to the Israeli military radio Galgalatz. This radio station is mainly a mixture of Hebrew music and popular English music. I fell in love with this station on our drive, as it was really the perfect soundtrack for an authentic experience and the DJ knows what’s up. After some time we were cruising past the Sea of Galilee, and getting into some more hilly areas, nearing the Golan heights and the Lebanese border.

Arriving at our final destination, the kibutz called Malkiya, Eitan’s joy was palpable. These kibutz in Israel are basically small communities, which are, incidentally, very communal. I hesitate to call it a commune, but it is somewhat like that. Eitan stayed in this kibutz during his time in service and it is very much a home for him. We showed up on a Friday so it was Shabbat Shalom. Most of the soldiers only come home on the weekends because otherwise they are at base camp. The soldiers at this Kibutz were all foreigners who decided to join the Israeli army. On Friday, everyone gets together to talk about their week and the trials and tribulations of integration and service. Sitting in on this, my understanding of Israel and its fight deepened. I’m sure I’ve only cracked the service of understanding but now it’s not a scary foreign entity. It’s something much warmer than that. War is always something for me that is very hard to stomach. So coming to visit a country so entrenched in and focused on their military might was daunting. Fortunately, through the eyes of these lone soldiers, I realized why the Israeli military is called the IDF, Israeli Defense Forces. That’s just it. It’s a defense force. Israel has bombs coming in not only from the Gaza Strip but also from Syria right now. If they let down their guard for just a moment, it’s the difference between life or death. My idealism about just stopping the violence is incredibly naïve and that’s hard to swallow. In addition, the opportunity that Israel affords to Jewish youth all around the world is astounding. No money where you’re from? No chance for school? No future? That’s fine, c’mon over to Israel, we’ll take care of you! And it’s true, it’s really true. These young people are really taken care of, are proud to do their military service, and love living in Israel (of course, for the most part).

Next day, we went on a beautiful hike with cave-pocked mountain faces, wild sage, moseying cows, and birds abound. Then there was a casual dip in the Jordan River with a swing rope, which was very fun. Later that night we went to a Druze village and got the local eating fare, Sambusac, a delicious fire-baked bread with herbs and cheese and fresh squeezed lemon juice. It was the perfect goodbye to this beautiful place in the north.

Tired and happy, we drove back to Tel Aviv the next day arriving just in time for Holocaust Remembrance Day. There were speeches telecast and made by political figures and survivors. Songs and anthems sung, and respect given. The next morning a siren went off for a whole minute in the city and everyone stopped, still in silence and remembering. Then I headed to the airport and left with a certain joy of warmth and learning and friends. Despite sounding trite, we are all friends and should hold hands in humanity. Don’t tell yourself you can’t go somewhere because you’ve been told it’s not safe or that it’s different from you. If you have ever felt that way about Israel know that it is a beautiful place that is due a proper respect; that it is a place in which one can delight and be welcomed. Yalla!

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Butterflies

The butterflies, they couldn’t see,
how very lovely life could be.
Twitter, twatter, up then down
Oh, who’s being made the clown.

Two tiny eyes, antennae round
a body, gushy, plumpy found
the wings a thing that nature bound
Twitter, twatter, up then down.

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Some thoughts while sitting in Montauban

Short Piece Written in Montauban

If. This is a word that I think gets a bad rap because often times it goes in the phrase “what if?” And if you’ve reached a certain age you know how worthless those two words together can be. So, yah, I like the word “if.”

If you’ve ever moved halfway across the world alone and found yourself in a country where you must learn the language you know how it can be equally gratifying and lonely at times. Even now after 7 months in France and sufficient conversational skills there is a certain amount of isolation. It is always most apparent when you want to get out of the house but you’ve no one to go with.

I’m sitting in one of countless squares in this arrogant but loveable country. The sky is a lovely blue with just a hint of grey and there are, as always, the obligatory pigeons. The sun is setting and lighting up the rosy brick buildings, which lends a sort of warmth. An old woman who probably has Parkinson’s stands shaking on her balcony leaning against the beautifully intricate wrought iron guard. She seems perfectly content with her lot in life and I can only hope to be as graceful with mine. On a much more trivial note, I’m drinking an ice cold Stella Artois so things could be worse I suppose is my point.

But, alas, the lonely part. I find myself constantly on the lookout for someone who could potentially be a friend. Of course, because of my broken French I rarely find the courage to approach people. One point against me. Instead I find a table next to someone friendly looking and proceed to imagine what they and their life are like, rarely finding out the truth. For example, this evening I chose my seat next to a man in his mid-thirties probably, who happened to be sitting alone. It’s a tricky game guessing which French people will be open to foreigners in general and Americans specifically. He wore a smile and was laughing audibly, which is generally not done here so I figured my chances were good. Five minutes in and I was going to try to speak when a woman joined him. Strike out. It’s not that I was trying to score, but I’ve found, perhaps by a skewed sample size, that French men are generally much more approachable than the women.

Now I look across the square and there are two friends chatting, drinking and smoking. I think the beer is Leffe as indicated by the caramel color and the goblet style glasses. Close to my age and considerably good looking, I think honestly this time I wouldn’t mind scoring a date. They’ve caught me staring a couple of times, an unfortunate, perhaps, side effect of those of us who often find ourselves alone. I think of the movies and hope that the stares are coming off as the mysterious girl across the way and not that weirdo that keeps looking over here. I mean where are her friends?? I vaguely hope they talk to me and spare me either being humiliated in my own attempted approach or in yet another missed opportunity. These things are really so much easier with a wingman. And as Josefine puts it with such delicacy, “Aha. You always need one wanker to join you.”

Piece Two next day April 16, 2011

I’ve been in France for 7 ½ months now. The inspiration that filled me to write when I first got here is waning. I’m ready for my next move. Getting past my fears and excuses to come here was a huge step in my life. Coming as an au pair remains to have been a good idea. I would have been too lost otherwise and my French wouldn’t have gotten nearly as good. But I’ve gained back some semblance of my confidence and living with a family in a small village outside of the city is too confining. I’m thirsty for more interaction with people my own age. I detest wishing away time and I know it is one of my vices. It is such a waste to do so when I am all the way across the ocean, but more and more I find myself dreaming of what’s next. It seems to be a common theme in my life, but it’s been getting better with age. One day I want to stay somewhere but it becomes obvious to me that now is not that time. I am ready to be in a country where the language is my own again. The limitations of my ability with languages represses social instincts I long to act on. I enjoy learning and having a second language is something I am immensely proud of, perhaps to a fault, but it is time for a reprieve.

A month back in the states is going to be good but if I know myself it will almost definitely be enough. I will grow restless of the daily doldrums and being too long with my parents. After I will go to Germany for two months and within in that two weeks will be spent in Helsinki. I am very much looking forward to this summer.

My life is beautiful and interesting, but that well-known feeling of desire for a lover and partner is on fire within me. I’ve been with people I’m afraid I never fully loved. I feel guilty and sad about that, but sometimes you take friends wherever you can find them. I am not sure if I have ever intentionally used my lovers but I certainly have actively deceived myself. But how many people have made compromises in exchange for comfort? Very many, I am afraid to say. Sleeping with other people would often consume my thoughts in these relationships. I never acted on them but I came to the brink many times. In France, I’ve made some questionable decisions and slept with some people that I don’t regret but who showed me that sleeping around is for younger or different people than me. The problem arrives that I love sex and being touched.

I am going to learn to practice the virtue of patience and wait for good sex with people I care for because, as it turns out, random sex isn’t fulfilling. And more and more I see the merit in the cliché that timing is everything. I spent two nights with an Australian guy that, as far as I could tell in 36 hours, had all the qualities in a man that I find most attractive. I find myself dissatisfied with all the men I meet now, perhaps because I have realized what I can have and that men like that want me in return.

It took me a long time to realize I’ve got something to offer. I think I may be starting to respect myself but let’s not jump the gun. It’s a hard thing to realize you aren’t treating yourself right, it’s a whole nother thing to do something about it. Often times it means defying lifelong habits and it turn defying how you’ve let yourself be treated by those around you. We invite others to treat us a certain way, and it’s an individual’s responsibility alone. If you are weak then you invite those that like to govern, if you don’t respect yourself you invite others not to respect you, if you openly criticize yourself you invite others to criticize you. The latter is not to say that honest self-reflection is a bad thing but be very careful who you do it around. Self-betterment tends to be an arduous process and I’m suspicious of those who think otherwise. I’m scared to let people see these thoughts but what are we ever really afraid of? I am me. Better to know up front.

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Here’s One I Wrote Forever Ago. Walker Told Me To Publish It. Enjoy!

Where Do I Begin?

It has been almost an entire month since I have written, my friends, and I hardly know how to tell you what I’ve been up to! I must say that my absence can be attributed to a smashing social life. So really I’m not sorry at all, except I don’t want to leave anything out.

Let me introduce you to my friends.

The first two weekends I went out with the Josefin(e)s. The first Josefin to whom I will introduce you is from Sweden. Not tall and blonde, but brunette and petit, and while she doesn’t fulfill the Aryan Swedish stereotype, she certainly fulfills the beautiful part. And in addition to that, she is smart, funny, and brave. I spent the weekend at her host family’s home and started off by drinking champagne-bottle-sized beers called Leffe (which I don’t actually think is French, but whatever). The beer here is fantastic and is overshadowed by wine only by reputation. This rich (highly alcoholic) beer is smooth and nutty and never lets me down. We went to an area of town called St. Pierre, which can be likened to Mid-town (Gainesville shout out!), but is superior because it sits right on top of the Garonne. Awesome bars, AND an awesome view. There are the same obnoxious frat boys but in this case they take the form of Irish guys. I am not sure they are in any sort of fraternity actually but my bet is the Irish and the frat boys would get along famously. Of course, this is based on a sample size of two, so I could be wrong. We danced until the wee hours of the morning and went to a questionable bar whose bathrooms were underground in some den of hell. Most of the toilets here are missing seats, doors, and the (apparently not so) obligatory separation of men and women. It bodes for an interesting time to be sure. In fact some toilets are just holes in the ground with footrests to comfortably pop a squat. I’ll work on a picture of that for you guys.

One of these weekends I was intending to spend the night with my friend Johanna, but then we got separated. Alas, I found myself with the German Josefine. I was very nervous, as I had no where else to stay, but Josefine, in her infinite wisdom, pulled me onto the dance floor and said, “Let’s just freak out and dance, and stay up sitting on a bench til the sun rises!” And then we chugged some beers. She has quickly, and predictably, become one of my closer friends here. She is one of the funniest people I have ever met and has made it a habit to greet me as “wanker” most of the time. We will be travelling together this summer when both of our contracts are up and I couldn’t be more excited about it. Well, that night I ended up finding Johanna and didn’t have to sleep on a bench. Instead, we were forced to stay out until the first bus ran at something like 7 am because we missed the last one of the evening. This was the night I “fell down the rabbit hole.” Imagine being at the bars. It’s closing time, the bouncers are getting cranky, people are dispersing, and trying to figure out where they’ll go next. We start walking (aimlessly, I ignorantly thought), buy a couple bottles of beer and continue chatting with our companions. We are winding into the heart of Toulouse and there are less and less people around and I think the night must be ending . Then we stop and I am informed we are going to another bar. From the outside, it looks something like what I would imagine the bar to Diagon Alley looks like. Pretty much invisible to the untrained eye. There is a shabby swinging sign on the outside and when we walk inside it’s dark and dingy and we check our coats. Then the magical door opens and we are admitted into a fluorescent pink glittering Neverland. The music was loud and the bar was packed. TALK ABOUT AN AWESOME SURPRISE. (Did I mention there were stripper poles?)

More recently, I took a trip to Marseilles with Johanna and Hilla who are from Finland. Remember when I mentioned all the stereotypes that had been thrown my way? Well these two are the ones that asked me if I knew where Finland was. Turns out, they didn’t ask because I am American, people here actually don’t know where Finland is. I have been with them on two occasions when someone we’ve met has asked. Poor guys. Marseilles was a mix of beauty and dirt. The first day we went to the beachside, which I thought was beautiful but the weather wasn’t very nice. We ended up sitting on some rocks right on the water and laughing the afternoon away. We met some navy guys who were all representing a different country. Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, and a few others. I have actually been a little shy in meeting people here (believe it or not) but I can confidently say it’s because of the language barrier. What do you say to someone if you don’t speak a common language? Well, this is where Johanna always comes to the rescue! She speaks French and English fluently (and of course Finnish) as well as a respectable amount of several other languages. She is also well travelled and versed in the ways of making friends on the go. By the end of the afternoon she had them agreeing to come out the same night to celebrate my birthday. I think her hilarity and crystal blue eyes had them all enchanted. And come December, my family is going to get the chance to meet her as well, as she is going to spend Christmas with us in Italy. C’est magnifique!

The next morning we were greeted by a proper Finnish breakfast. Hilla was the first one to show me the ways of how to eat properly in the morning. It sounds a bit weird, but I am getting used to having toast with butter, ham, cucumbers, and red pepper most mornings. You just feel so damn healthy afterwards. That is, of course, unless you have a weird affection for butter like I do and pile that shit on. After breakfast we went to a neighborhood in Marseilles, that everyone agreed reminded us of Paris, and gave us a perfect view of the Notre Dame cathedral which is perched atop the highest hill in the city for everyone to see in all it’s glory. We sat for several hours drinking coffee and taking lunch, which included pasta carbonara and pretty-much-why’d-you-even-bother-to-put-it-on-the-grill rare steak. We ordered it medium, so I’d hate to see what rare looks like. I don’t understand why they don’t just put it on the menu as beef Carpaccio. Honestly. But hey, the green beans were stellar! After we went to the market, and for those of you that know me well, all I have to say is: There were mountains of olives! (This would normally be where I end the part about Marseilles, but I needed to mention that the rats were the size of possums.) Fin

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Mason

Mason

How do I write a piece on someone who may or may not be dead but has been missing for over 5 weeks in the wilderness of Alaska? Someone who I was close to in my adolescence, but fell away from in adulthood? Someone who I still hold dear in my heart but feel I no longer have a right to feel sad about (but do, very much). How do I write it to honor him and his loved ones?

I still don’t know the answers to these questions. I asked my sister to answer them, but how can she answer them either? In the time that has elapsed new realities have come to light. As a part of the plane has now been found, most people must cling to this as a form of closure. It is the meanest sort of closure. When giving up has seemed like a betrayal and not giving up has been a daily task this small scrap of fact is all we have to look to. I think most of us still hold on to a shard of hope but the logic in all of us says to let go.

When we realized that Mason was missing, the bravado we saw in him led us to hold on to the hope of hopes that if anyone were to survive it would be Mason McLeod. So many times I heard, “If anyone can do it, if anyone can survive in the wild, it’s him.” I still think that’s true. If Mason had made it to solid ground, he would be with us now.

When we were in elementary school we thought that learning the tenses of present, past and future were difficult because grammar, well, grammar is a bitch. Now we know better. These tenses are difficult because they make the gravity of our realities hit us smack in the face. “Mason is a great man.” “Mason is going to do amazing things.” “Mason was an amazing person.” It feels so wrong to say was, and yet we must.

So here is what I think of when I think of Mason.

My first hickey. How do I tell this story? Once upon a time, the Novembers had a basement. John and Steven would throw down pretty much every weekend and let their friends drink stupid amounts of beer much to their parents’ dismay. But, hey, what is high school for anyway? We became a family at some point during those summers. It happened slowly and naturally and felt as safe as being home. Those boys looked after us and were fiercely protective. All parents worry about what their children, and specifically their daughters, are up to. Well, we all have to grow up sometime. And I was blessed to grow up with boys that had the morals of good men. I remember coming home one night wearing a scarf in the middle of August. My mother knew exactly what was going on and really lost it. But then I talked to her. I said that the boy that gave it to me was really very nice and she should be ever so grateful that it wasn’t someone else that would have tried more. She may not have seen the merit in my argument at the time but surely she does now. Adolescence is full of joyous enlightenment and painful realizations and I can say without a doubt that Mason brought things in the arena of joy and enlightenment to people.

Mason and I drifted apart over the years, as so many people do. We always think that there will be another time down the road where we can just pick up where we left off. For the first time in my life, I have lost a contemporary that was close to me at some point in my life. It has always been friends of friends or relatives of friends or friends with whom I was never really close. Mason is ushering me into yet another part of growing up. He has shown me how loss feels, how when people can hardly bear the pain of that loss, their way of coping is to show beauty and mercy to one another. Only great men can cause heartbreaking beauty in the wake of their absence. And in that beauty there is a presence. Mason McLeod is a magnificent man.

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So What’s It Like to be an American? Well, in Europe, it’s a little bit obnoxious. (And a lot a bit fun!)

While I am sitting at the pool waiting for Lison to finish her synchronized swimming practice I am reminded of my first time in Montauban, the next big city north of Toulouse. I decided I would wander the streets and see what I could find. Alas, I found I was lost. They sometimes have fairs in the streets of the cities here (just like us) showcasing rides that will make the faint of heart puke; think circular, upside-down rollercoasters and twirly rides like in Problem Child. So, this first time I wandered the city, the streets were littered with neon machines and greasy food stands, thereby making it impossible to keep track of where I was. I took a left, a right, a right, a…wait how many turns did I take? That roller coast looks familiar, oh wait, there’s a river in this city? Shit. Fortunately, the people are very nice and I ended up hitching a ride with a mother of three that was more than happy to escort the lost American back to la piscine. This has become a familiar turn of events during my stay here, except that it was the only time I actually had to hop in someone’s car. Most of the time I just get directions like a normal person.

Three weeks have now passed and I am starting to get my footing. In Toulouse, if I find myself in a spot I don’t know I can just follow the signs back to a place I do know. Signs. One of the many wonders of this country. If we had as many signs pointing in the direction of our destination in America, no man would EVER need to stop for directions and many a domestic dispute would be avoided. Instead of street signs and directions riddled with 2nd left, 3rd right, straight through two lights, etc., it’s just “Follow the signs to Montauban.” It’s a beautiful thing.

Capitole is the heart of Toulouse. A bright, big, open square set with rosy bricks, surrounded by magisterial buildings, is lined by cafes, sorbet, and art, and is filled with locals, students, and, as always, tourists. It is also host to many activities. While I sat eating my satisfying grapefruit and raspberry sorbet accompanied by meringue and cookies I saw the ritual hazing of incoming students. Hazing here is wonderful and happy, rather than terrifying and mean. Self-conscious, giggling girls walked around the square wearing trash bags and moved like a blob because they were tethered together with string. Meanwhile, another group of students sat huddled in the middle of the square together wearing all white while the other students threw neon paint and flour at them. Law students walked around in a conga line asking anyone who would listen to please join their line because they got points for it. I saw one line that stretched an entire city block. When there is no student hazing there are people playing brass instruments and accordions, and old men wondering the square with goatees and berets (well, one old man). Capitole always promises to be a rendezvous for the senses.

I wanted to follow up on the penis showcase I mentioned. Museums are abundant and the first one I visited was Les Abattoirs. It is a modern art museum set about one block from La Garonne, the river that snakes through the city. Apparently, it is constantly being redone so when I arrived I was sent to the second floor, which was the only part open. I’ve never been a huge fan of contemporary art mostly because I think a three-year-old could accomplish most of what’s on display. (I formally apologize to any artists reading this.) Anyway, my worse fears were confirmed when the first thing I saw was a projection of someone making violent pencil marks over and over again on a piece of paper, accompanied by a truly heinous noise. That was followed by a collection of finger painting, and then the penis showcase redeemed all. I am not sure what artistic value it has but it certainly made it worth the trip. An entire gallery full of dozens and dozens of pictures of painted cocks was for the taking. I might add that I was in the museum with perhaps two or three other girls about my age but with whom I did not arrive.  It had entertainment value on several levels, most notably, watching the other museum patrons taking furtive glances at the pictures not really knowing how long they should look. I know, I know, it’s art, and should be appreciated on an artistic level, and grow up, etc. But honestly, it was strange. Even my “cultured” French friends admitted it was a bit weird. Moving on…

Speaking of “cultured” groups of people, we (Americans) are largely excluded from this label. Let me count the ways. “American films aren’t smart.” “Why aren’t you fat if you’re from America?” “We’re from Finland, do you know where that is?” “Typical, loud-mouth American.” “Do you know how to open a wine bottle?” “It must suck being from America, because everyone really doesn’t like you guys here.” “They look lost, they’re probably American.” “Why do American guys think it’s ok to lie to and sleep around on girls?” The barrage of stereotypes is endless and painful. Of course, I am trying my damndest to correct these assertions, but it’s one of the largest challenges I’ve ever tried to take up. Of course, these people don’t hate ALL Americans; they just think that A LOT of Americans are like this. And on the same note, not ALL Europeans hold these truths to be self-evident; only A LOT of them do. A small victory.

But by and large people are quite nice to me and very gracious. The first or second weekend I found myself at a tremendous dinner at the neighbors’ house. We had ribs that were falling of the bone, accompanied by the rarest steak I’ve ever agreed to consume. Complimenting the meat, we had snails dipped in mustard aioli, a layered eggplant dish topped with pesto and parmesan, cucumber salad in some sort of fluffy creamy sauce, and, of course, pasta, bread and wine. After dinner the kids went home, and the rest of us stayed. Dinner turned into lime sorbet, more wine and a dance party with the hopelessly uncoordinated host. Granted I am not sure how long he had been drinking wine before we got there. It was great! Fabrice, our host, and also a fireman, danced with everyone at the table and by the end of the night we were boogying to Elvis. It was a sight to see. Amidst all the commotion, I was having a conversation with a wonderful woman from Portugal. We discussed everything from Obama, to writing a cookbook about seafood. She is very interested in including a page for low-boils. Everyone expressed interest and condescending approval of an American tradition in which people take their time to eat delicious, fresh food and talk around the table with family and friends. (I didn’t mention that most of the time we practically inhale the crab.)

Well, swim practice is over, and my duties as au pair are kicking in. I love you and miss you, friends and family!

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