What is it about Belgium?

Belgians might sum up their country’s national identity by saying: “It’s complicated.”

This country appealed to me because of the cultural duality I saw in its tennis stars, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin. They represented Belgium as Fed Cup teammates, but were not friends. These two tennis competitors mirrored their country’s competing regions. That bit of intrigue, and the fact that relatively few Americans travel there, is why I wanted to go.

I spent two weeks in Belgium in 2007; and three days there in 2015 with my local friend, Mollie. Even Belgians wanted to know “Why Belgium?” No one could understand how I could spend an entire two weeks in the country.  To put it in perspective, Belgium is about the size of Maryland. I can’t imagine traveling in Maryland for two weeks and being as enthralled. So, what is it about Belgium?

Belgium map from Insight Guides Belgium

Map from Insight Guides – Belgium

I’ve seen Brussels described in news articles as a second-tier European capitol, which means the rest of the country is probably held in the same regard.  Belgium’s cities, though, have been major financial centers throughout the centuries. For instance, in the 17th century, Ghent, in Flanders, was the second largest city in Europe after Paris.  Liège, in Wallonia, was a major producer of steel during the Industrial Revolution. Now, the European Union (EU) is headquartered in Brussels, which is known as the Capital of the EU.

Did you know…

  • Dutch-speaking Belgium is known as Flanders; and French-speaking Belgium is known as Wallonia. These two regions are culturally, economically, and politically different, and sometimes at odds with each other. Cultivating a single national identity is a challenge.
  • Ancient cities, Tongeren and Tournai (in Flanders and Wallonia, respectively) were part of Roman Belgium (or Gallia Belgica) in 27 B.C.  Earliest reference to Brussels is around 960 A.D., known then as “Bruocsella.”
  • The “Flemish Painters”  — Sir Peter Paul Rubens and Sir Anthony Van Dyck and others — flourished in the Baroque tradition in the 17th century. (Don’t confuse them, though, with the “Dutch Masters.” That group includes Vermeer and Rembrandt.) René Magritte was a famous Belgian surrealist of the 20th century.
  • There is a saying about “meeting one’s Waterloo.” Waterloo, just south of Brussels,  is where Napoleon finally got his little arse kicked by a combination of British, Dutch, and German forces back in 1815.
  • Portions of what is now Belgium were controlled at different times by the Romans, the Spanish, and the French. Belgium was part of The United Kingdom of the Netherlands until 1830 when it gained independence (and its own monarchy) under King Leopold I. Though younger than the U.S. as a nation, some of Belgium’s cities and villages date back a millennium.
  • Belgium is bordered by France, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Germany. Its official languages are French, Dutch, and German. Brussels is a mandated bilingual (French and Dutch) city and province.
  • Belgium was invaded twice by Germany in World Wars I and II. The Second Battle of Ypres inspired the famous poem “In Flanders Fields.”
German WW II bunker - Flanders, Belgium

Remnants of German Bunker – Flanders

Poppies in a field - Flanders

Poppies in a field – Flanders

  • Belgium’s regions are mostly politically autonomous and the government is de-centralized. Amazingly, Belgium went 541 days without an elected government from 2009-11.
  • Belgium currently has the third most robust economy in the EU.
  • Flanders has a fierce lion on its flag; Wallonia has a cock (male rooster!) on its flag; and the national flag of Belgium is identical to the German flag in colors — the only difference being vertical versus horizontal stripes.
Gravensteen Castle with the Flemish flag

Gravensteen Castle – Ghent – Flemish flag above

belgiumflag copyRooster - Ghent 2

What is it about the Belgian brand?  For food that has been exported world-wide, there’s Belgian endive, Belgian waffles, Brussels sprouts, Belgian chocolate, and Belgian beer and ale.  People have made a pilgrimage to Belgium for the beer and ale alone.

Belgian beer-tasting

Beer-tasting in Flanders

Even some dog breeds rate a Belgian brand, like the Belgian shepherd, Bouvier des Flandres, and the very interesting-looking Griffon Bruxellois. Maybe, just maybe, a Belgian brand means Belgium has a national identity after all.

Belgium is a diverse country. When I was there in 2007, I was struck by the number of Muslims and Africans living there. In the 1860s, Belgium became a colonial power when it stole the Congo (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo).  The exploitation continued until the mid-1950s.  Belgium also controlled a territory, formerly known as Ruanda-Urundi, and now known as the Independent Kingdoms of Rwanda and Burundi. Hence, the African populations in Belgium from the Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi.

I wondered when and why Muslims migrated to Belgium. In the 1960s, the first wave of migrants came from Morocco and Turkey. They were in Belgium on guest worker passes. Later, these migrants were followed by those from Algeria and Tunisia. Muslim populations in Brussels and Antwerp are comparable in size to those in Marseilles and Paris.

From my observations, North African Muslims and Africans did not appear to be thriving or part of mainstream Belgian society. I thought the same thing about Paris back in 1998, and recently in 2015. But, I was just passing through, so what did I know? Since then, I’ve learned my observations were on point. As an African-American, I have radar for this sort of thing.

What is it about Belgium? Why do people from these groups still come? Linguistically, Belgium works for native French and Dutch-speakers from anywhere in the world. And Belgium’s “balance sheet” is very much in the black. Migration generally occurs in the direction of opportunity. The question is whether everyone can partake in opportunities.

After the Brussels terrorist attacks on March 22, 2016, media outlets seemed to focus on Belgian authorities as being a bunch of boobs. That the Belgian government is mired in incompetence. That Brussels is an incubator for jihadists. That the EU is a failure when it comes to communicating intelligence to its member states. That Belgian nationals were among the Paris terrorists, and it’s Belgium’s fault because they were radicalized there. Any iota of sympathy for loss of lives and property in the Brussels attacks was overwhelmed by the recriminations.

What is it about Belgium? The public response toward Brussels was not like it was toward Paris when it was attacked in January and November 2015. Did someone press the mute button on the sympathy response? Where was the Belgian flag overlay for the Facebook profile photos?  Some people think it’s because Belgium is not as well known as France.

Shortly after the Paris attacks, I wrote this piece. It applies to Belgium’s tragedy from jihadist attacks, too.  Mollie was on her way to work when she was turned away at the Métro station and sent home. The Métro had already been attacked. In Mollie’s words, “the fear is palpable.” Belgium’s predicament has been ours, too. Terrorism occurs all over the world.

What is it about Belgium? Tiny and complicated though it is, Belgium is an historical treasure, and a major player in contemporary European politics. Without a doubt, Belgium and the EU have particular challenges.  I’ll give Belgium a moment or two to regroup before I travel there again…and I certainly will.

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What Happened to Courtesy?

All kinds of bad behavior has been showcased on U.S. news lately. For some, it has been entertaining; and for others, hugely influential. I’ve been thinking about the subject of courtesy for months, and didn’t know where to start. Well, there’s nothing like taking a walk on an unexpectedly beautiful, warm and sunny afternoon in early March to reach clarity. Two things linked up for me:  1) words and actions are a powerful influence; and 2) the phrase “politically correct” or “PC” is BS.

The power of words and actions.

Think about what happened to the greeting, “Hello.” Somewhere along the line, we began to respond to strangers less and less with simple niceties, like a greeting and follow-up “How are you?” Mostly, we rush through life and past each other. We absorb ourselves in our devices and opt out of social interaction. We avoid eye contact.

At one time, it was common to greet strangers in passing when they made eye contact. There were also a few people who would look others straight in the eyes as they passed, and snub them when they said hello.  Add to those few an entire generation admonished as children to not speak to strangers, under any circumstances. Our cultural niceties eroded.

No one likes rejection, and many people actively avoid it. Now, the people who look you in the eye and greet you are in the minority. Remember the English idiom, “One bad apple spoils the barrel.” Next thing you know, you’ve got a culture change.

And that’s just one example.

Another occurred during rush hour on the subway platform. A young man raced for his train like he was running the gauntlet. In the process, he crushed an old man between the escalator rail and a pole. He only stopped when he saw me try to help the old man he had jammed up. He was mortified and profusely apologized.  People move through life completely unaware (and unconcerned) of others in the same space. It happens all the time.  Someday that guy will himself be an old man, similarly invisible, and maybe even afraid to navigate this society.

Political correctness.

When someone uses the term “politically correct,” it’s usually with resignation or resentment. You may even see eyeballs roll and a sneer as they say, “I have to be politically correct.” God forbid you curb behavior, language, or certain terms to avoid offending certain groups of people.  Doesn’t this really mean that a filter would be appropriate so you can treat people with courtesy and respect? The fact that people would resist this is sad.

Evidently, there are some people who fully admire those who say what they really think, especially when those verbalized thoughts are offensive on so many levels. This astounds me. It’s as though the admirers want to revert to their five year old selves and cut their own filters loose.

Bad behavior is powerful. When it comes from the top, it seems to almost have a viral effect. That it comes from the top, seems to make it okay — at least to people affected by the “virus.” Could good behavior have the same effect?

In this increasingly rude society, I decided to push myself to do what is —  sadly — uncomfortable. When I catch someone’s eye, I make a point to acknowledge them with a greeting or a smile. When I’m buying something, I look a cashier in the eyes, smile, and say “Thank you” when we complete the transaction. Simple things like that. Maybe we’ve gotten used to treating customer service people like the nameless and the faceless, despite their name tags. How could that make anyone feel valued?

The responses have been encouraging and positive overall. Some recipients of this courtesy look pleasantly surprised. Hell, I’m pleasantly surprised — and wondering why this actually takes effort and what was my role in the loss of basic civility.

Maybe with little steps we can start a cascade of kindness and civility, one greeting and smile at a time.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Paris: Eating Like a Local

I’ve been thinking about my trip to Europe last October because my sister, Cheryl, will be traveling there soon. We’ve talked about how food is a major part of the travel experience. And we definitely love food.  What does it mean to “eat like a local”? It can mean eating where locals eat; eating the way locals eat (with locally-used utensils or hands) and even eating at the time of day locals eat.

Of the three European cities I traveled to, I spent the most time in Paris. I love French food, but my diet has changed over the past eight years. No béchamel sauce, crêpes, croissants, pastries, and baguettes for me. So I thought. But, I also figured I could navigate my little food quirks, even in Paris.

The French take their entire culture — language, art, music, wine, and food, very seriously. They are clear about what it means to be French. France has a Minister of Culture presiding over touchstones of French identity and French contributions to the arts. French words pertaining to food, like restaurantgourmet, café, connoisseur, and cuisine are commonly used in English language.

French cuisine has always been a gold standard for trained chefs; and I have read that the cuisine is in crisis.  So what does that mean? Food at an authentic-looking bistro may have been previously frozen, perhaps pre-assembled, and not totally prepared in-house with raw ingredients. Read about it here.

(Good lord…that sounds like American restaurant chains! I didn’t have to leave home for that!)

So, with that awareness, I decided to be discriminating about where I would eat in Paris, same as I am here. I would not eat at bistros with burgers and pizza on the menu. I can get that food here (if I were so inclined — which I am not). But, then again, when you’re fresh off the plane and it’s lunch time, you might just bust those standards and eat anywhere. People who know me know that I go from very hungry to “hangry” fast.

I found Bistrot La Bonne Cécile a mere two blocks from my Airbnb and ate lunch there. The menu is rotated seasonally. The restaurant served fresh food made in-house. I could not have been more delighted with my first meal on the Continent, and glass of Sancerre. The restaurant was charming and the service was exceptional. (Tip: you do not tip in France.)

Soup course - La Bonne Cecile - Paris

Soup course – La Bonne Cecile – Paris

Entree seafood pot and rice - La Bonne Cecile - Paris

Seafood pot and rice – La Bonne Cecile – Paris

Coffee is big in Paris, but I don’t drink it. I indulged, instead, in chocolat chaud (hot chocolate) made with milk and cream. Made right, it’s oh-so-rich. I’m lactose intolerant and didn’t get a stomach ache from drinking it!  Best cups are made with chocolate, not cocoa powder. As noted in this blog, using a powder instead of a high-quality chocolate bar with its rich cocoa butter, is really hot cocoa and not hot chocolate.

Paris has an abundance of ethnic restaurants. I enjoyed them, too. I also had great meals at very casual restaurants. One of them was Le Pain Quotidien. My friend, Charlotte, asked me to meet her there. We have one in D.C. — that I’d never been to — and I didn’t expect to go to that chain in Paris. Well, it was a cut above and delicious! I had a great salad, gluten-free bread, and a bowl of soup. I’ve since been to Le Pain Quotidien in D.C.

Some other casual restaurants in Paris:

Divin’ Art, near Arts et Metiers Metro, is a gluten-free crêperie in walking distance of my Airbnb. I ate a savory crêpe (smoked salmon, soft-boiled egg, and peppers), carrot soup, green salad, and a chocolate crêpe.

Savory gluten-free crepe - Divin Art

Gluten-free crepe from Divin’ Art in Paris (Marais)

While walking in search of Paris’ street art in the Oberkampf neighborhood, I found this vegetarian and gluten-free restaurant. I had a fresh juice, carrot soup, and a vegetable rice and almond dish. Simple, healthy, and delicious. And the meal was cheap!

Vegetarian gluten-free in Paris

L’esprit Tchaï – Paris

Rice and vegetables

I also ate food that was a little out of my comfort zone. The complete meal here was the salade niςoise and escargot, with a glass of white wine.

Salade nicoise

Salade nicoise with anchovies

Eating escargot was a challenge. I eat escargot because they are a super-beneficial food for my blood type. I take an almost medicinal view toward it.  I don’t go into a swoon over the taste, but escargot is more than just palatable. The challenge was dealing with the little animal in its shell, which was a first for me. The escargot I’ve eaten has always been hidden — thankfully, because they are rather ugly — under a garlic, parsley and butter sauce in a snail plate. No shells included.  But, I had on my big girl panties and would eat escargot like the French.

I asked the server to show me how to use the snail tongs. First, you grip the shell, which is when I had the Pretty Woman moment. The shells are indeed “slippery little suckers,” but at least they didn’t go flying across the room. Next, you use the little fork to pull the critter out. After an embarrassing struggle, I managed to grip three shells and pull out three escargot. I couldn’t get the last two out of their shells.  As far as I was concerned, no one was home. The server was watching me, so I asked him to try. I wish I’d taken a video of him trying to find the snails. He probably thought it was just me. He gave up, too, and put in an order to replace the two snails that had gone missing.

Escargot

Escargots

See this video for how to eat escargot.

Another outside-the-comfort-zone food was this dish of wild mushrooms (chanterelles, porcini, and parasol) and poached egg.  I don’t like poached eggs, but I gave this dish a go.  It was a work of art, interesting and tasty. The restaurant, La Mazenay, was lovely; and the service was meh.

Le Mazenay - wild mushrooms and poached egg

A highlight was lunch with Charlotte at elegant Bofinger’s near Place de la Bastille.  I had this delicious fish and vegetable dish.

Fish and vegetables in sauce - Bofinger's

I also ate this dish of sauerkraut, or choucroute. It was not part of my order. It came from the table of diners next to ours. I was eye-ballin’ their sauerkraut because they weren’t eating it, and it looked good. They were eating the pork all around it instead. Charlotte asked the diners if I could have a taste. That was a little tacky, I know, but I guess they decided to help the American out.

Choucroute

Another food that is not everyday fare in the U.S. is  rabbit, or lapin. I had this very tasty rabbit and prune stew at Le Pichin 3 — a family-owned restaurant in the City of Chartres near the Cathedral. Damn, it was good!

Lapins at the market

Lapin at the market before one was turned into stew

rabbit and prune stew at le pichet 3

Rabbit and prune stew at Le Pichet 3

In addition to chocolat chaud, I enjoyed two other kinds of sweets:

Macarons — looking like colorful little hamburgers, these gluten-free cookies made of almond flour have a flavored cream filling. They are everywhere in Paris. Quality matters. Eat enough of them and you can distinguish the mediocre from the sublime.

Macarons

Les Macarons

Panna Cotta — the best I’ve ever had in my life came from a tiny Italian restaurant Charlotte and I ducked into to escape the rain. This was Charlotte’s dessert. After a taste, I had to order my own. The texture was perfectly smooth, and the sweetness came from the berries and sauce.

panna cotta in Paris

Panna Cotta

My main dining event was a six-course dinner at Pierre Sang in Oberkampf. The hostess took everyone’s food restrictions and preferences. You don’t order from a menu. The six courses are the chef’s choice and everyone gets the same dish, customized as requested.  The hostess answered our questions about what we had eaten afterwards. I was fine with that. It was part of the experience. Reserve a seat at the bar so you can watch the chefs and talk with other diners, especially if you’re solo.

I was thrilled that the Pierre Sang experience was only €45. For the same price here in D.C., a diner could pay that or more for uninspired fare.

There are so many options for dining in Paris. You can dine satisfactorily or fabulously for good value in this city.  Challenge your food comfort zone when you travel, and eat like the locals!

 

 


The Worst Obituary I’ve Ever Read

I have a paper clutter problem at home. One cause of that problem is that I tear out newspaper and magazine articles that interest me. I figure I’ll use the articles for reference or blog content at some later point in time, so the paper collects in files or small piles.  I was getting a jump on spring cleaning when I found this ragged article on a floor.

“Far-right, anti-Semitic organizer who denied the Holocaust”

Worst obituary

This obituary for — I’ll call him “Mr. C” — was the largest headline on the page. Most prominent obituaries trumpet the professional or civic accomplishments of the deceased, leaving a reader with a sense of a community’s or family’s deeply-felt loss.  But, Mr. C’s obituary read like a resumé of his efforts to advance extremist beliefs.  Even Washington, D.C.’s spin-meisters wouldn’t salvage this one.

I wondered:  Did a bitter family member submit the obituary? Nope. Maybe there was someone left behind who was getting left out?  Nope.  This missive was written by “Staff Reports.” It was fine, objective reporting and writing. The Staff worked with what they had.

There didn’t seem to be any material that could cast the deceased Mr. C in a sympathetic or heroic light. There weren’t statements to indicate his beliefs actually helped anyone. What more could Staff say about an apparent recluse, who didn’t seem to have any personal or significant relationships?  Even his wife lived in a different city, and there was only one sentence to acknowledge her existence.

The obituary noted that ‘Mr. C’ was notorious for his “extremist views” that “resonated with generations of neo-Nazis, conspiracy theorists and other fringe elements.” Among his recommendations was that “black Americans be deported to Africa.” (We’ve heard that one before.) Evidently, Mr. C’s pro-segregation / apartheid /white separatist / anti-Semitic publications and organizations landed them on Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center watch lists.

Mr. C was noted as being way far right and conservative. But, not even William F. Buckley, Jr. wanted him in his camp.

I looked for nuggets of humanity and personal relationships; some bit of redemption in the long summary of Mr. C’s life. I thought he would have been beloved among his fellow extremists, but he wasn’t. He had failed relationships, even among that crowd.  His network was strewn with burned bridges.

Upon his death, only the publications Mr. C founded said anything positive. They expressed gratitude that he championed their extremist causes. The only additional information I gleaned was that he had served in the military and earned a Purple Heart.

In contrast, I saw this heading for a politician’s death notice in Time magazine, February 15, 2016:  “Beloved mayor, convicted felon.”  This heading ticked off the plus and minus boxes of the mayor’s life. The writeup was brief, but very clear that the mayor’s legacy was his contributions to his city, through his support of arts and historic preservation, new parks, and schools. The pluses of the mayor’s life eclipsed his felony conviction.

I was laughing when I described Mr. C’s obituary headline to a friend. Were there raucous cheers out there somewhere at the news of his demise, like the residents of Oz when they heard “The Wicked Witch is dead”?  I was incredulous that this was the best life this guy was willing to live, and he had worked very hard at it. Readers might surmise that Mr. C had succeeded in being an asshole his whole adult life.

Even though it was funny in that sense, it was very sad in another. No friends, no family, no life.

Let’s consider Mr. C’s obituary to be “Exhibit A” for how you do not want to be remembered. In her book Thrive, Arianna Huffington said that people can “live up to the best version of [their] eulogy.” Along that same line, a famous poem, “The Dash,” explains that life occurs in the dash between your date of birth and your date of death. The poem concludes with the question whether you would be proud of the things said at your eulogy.

Would you?

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American Womankind Magazine: Review 2.0

My love affair with American Womankind magazine has not abated. I opened Issue 7 (February – April 2016) of the magazine and thumbed through its entirety, as is my habit. That first look was all it took for me to renew my subscription right away.

This magazine continues to deliver.  It is an exultation of color.  Charis Tsevis, who does the cover illustrations, created a stunning portrait of a woman of color. She could be Caribbean, which was a focus of this issue.  The colors capture vibrancy and excitement, not hinting at some of the darker parts of Caribbean history, except maybe in her gaze.

A number of articles in this issue resonated with me.  But, first…the art.  The art of Shari Erickson, whose tropical paintings are placed throughout the magazine, draw me into the island vibe.  When Erickson first visited the Caribbean, she said she had been led “to a world without grays.”  Her tropics are just as lush as we would want them to be.  Who even remembers gray?  Interestingly, Erickson’s studio is in Appalachia.  Her artistic process and the things that move her are fascinating.

The next thing that captured my imagination is the work of artist, Jason deCaires Taylor, whose work appears, not in a conventional museum, but in the Museo Subacuatico de Arte in Cancún, Mexico.  His central themes are water pollution, ocean acidity, and over-fishing. I had seen some of this artist’s work before; but the presentation in Womankind tells me what his mission is: “to prove that we can revivify nature if we only try.” The artist makes his point with this underwater installation of sculptures.

See how the sculptures changed over time when claimed by the sea and its creatures.

AW Jose DeCaires Taylor 1

Sculptures in the National Marine Park of Cancun. (Photo from American Womankind magazine)

AW 2

Closeup of the underwater sculpture (Photo from American Womankind magazine)

AW Jose deCaires Taylor 3

Ocean effects on sculptures over time (Photo from American Womankind magazine)

I don’t relate only to the eye candy, though.  One of the things I like best about the magazine is that it is introduces under-represented, but not insignificant, bits of history.   Did you know Jamaica had a “Warrior Queen”?  Read about Queen Nanny.  Then move on to “The Story of White Gold,” and the impact of sugar on 12 million slaves.  These were not subjects in any of my history books.

Another item that caught my interest is historical, artistic, and design focused.  There are eight of the most stunning pages of fashion I have ever seen.  Here, we are introduced to Vlisco, a Dutch textile designer who invented a wax printing process for the production of African textile prints. These designs go back 170 years.  You will be as enthralled as I was if you appreciate great textiles.

While I have focused on highlights that particularly captivated me, there are many more thought-provoking articles that round out American Womankind’s on-going themes that include happiness; ideas to change your life; money and consumerism; and society.  For the full experience, you have to buy your own copy!

Author, Cheryl


What I Think of Parisians

When we think of Parisians, we think of artists, fashion designers, style trendsetters, and people who express the joy of living. On that last note, I’ve always heard the French embrace the “work to live” ethic. It’s so much more in line with having a balanced life.  (Sigh.)

These are my additional thoughts about Parisians.

1. PARISIAN DOGS HAVE A SPECIAL PLACE IN SOCIETY.

Parisians have little dogs. Parisian dogs can go almost everywhere their owners go —  unless they’re expressly not allowed (like cemeteries). I think French bull terriers are a favorite breed.  No surprise there!

French bulldog at Le Pain QuotidienFrench bulldog at lunch

Usually, Parisian dogs are on a leash; but sometimes they’re not. This particular dog looked like he belonged right in that spot. People had to walk around him because he wasn’t budging.

Unleashed and ignoring everyone

I came across this dog — ancient, toothless, and dearly loved by her owner. She accompanies her owner to antique shows and flea markets in this antique baby carriage.

Elderly dog in antique baby carriage

Parisian dogs have attitude — a certain je ne sais quoi. This one had a stylish strut, like his owner. The Parisian dogs I saw didn’t consort with strangers and were downright aloof. I couldn’t get their attention at all.

dogs with je ne sais quoi

(My sister’s dog, Lulu, would never be mistaken for a Parisian dog. She’s the right size, but, bless her little heart, way too friendly and undisciplined.)

Lulu and Wiley copy

Lulu – on the left.

2. PARISIANS ARE NOT RUDE SNOBS. 

I don’t understand the reputation the French have in the U.S. for being snobs and rude. I’ve never had that experience, especially in Paris. Parisians interact with “politesse.”  The word originates from the Latin word polire — meaning, to polish. Politesse means formal politeness. Courtesy. Basic civil interaction. Good manners. Geez…what a concept.

These four little French words can earn you some engagement with Parisians:  “Bonjour” (hello), “Merci” (thank you), and “Au revoir” (goodbye), and “Pardon” (Excuse me).

I stopped people on the street regularly to ask for directions. I would get someone’s attention with “Pardon, (Madame / Monsieur). Bonjour.” To which they would respond, “Bonjour.” I would ask for directions in a way that was not brusque or entitled. I’d start my  question in French with “Je cherche….” (I am looking for….) and pull out my map. I’d always be respectful, because … guess which one of us needs help. After awhile, I understood directions en français:  “tout drois” (straight ahead); à droite (to the right); and à gauche (to the left).  Even the most rushed person would stop, listen intently, and pull out their smartphone for Google Maps to show me where to go.

Parisians — they had me at “Bonjour.”

3. PARISIAN KIDS PLAY AND ARE TRAINED TO BE INDEPENDENT. 

I was struck by the number of kids I saw un-tethered to adults. We call them “free-range” children in the U.S. I saw these kids independently making their way to school, none of them with eyes glued to a device. Some kids looked as young as eight. They were usually in pairs or small groups, talking and laughing with each other.  Some kids rode through Paris streets on their scooters. I also saw plenty of Parisian parents with their kids, especially in parks.

place des vosges - kids

Teenagers – Place des Vosges

kid on scooter

Young musician on scooter at Pont St. Louis

place des vosges playground

Kids playing – Place des Vosges

Father - daughter playing in front of Eiffel Tower

Father – daughter playing: Parc du Champ de Mars

On a side note: I saw a Parisian dad publicly discipline his son. The child was a hellion, willfully disobeying his dad and charging across the street on his scooter with dad in hot pursuit. I stopped to watch the spectacle. (I had a flashback of the uninhibited discipline U.S. parents gave their kids before “helicoptering” took over.) This dad snatched that boy off his scooter, and spanked him down to the ground. The boy got up, and reached for his scooter. The dad didn’t give it back.  Maybe he was training the boy for the day when he could safely and independently ride his scooter on Parisian streets. Good for that Parisian dad!

4. CAFÉ DINING IS A PARISIAN WAY OF LIFE.  

Parisian cafes are equipped with awnings and heat lamps. Bad weather won’t stop the unabashed people-watching. If  you notice, everyone sits facing the sidewalk and the chairs on the other side of the table are empty. The outdoor café diners are the audience; and you…passersby…are the show.

parisian cafe culture

5. PARISIANS DO TINY SPACES WITH STYLE.

I gave myself a splurge at the end of my trip and decided to spend my last night in Europe in a traditional hotel. But, I didn’t really want an ordinary hotel. I checked out quirkyaccom.com to find something different that I could afford. The price, about €135,00, was right for a splurge in the 15th arrondissement.

Circular bed at Platine

Hôtel Platine is a cinema-themed boutique hotel. Hence, the blonde babe as the focal point over the bed. That bed was a huge playground! Alas, I was solo. Just so you know, the blonde bombshell over my bed gave me neither nightmares nor a complex. I slept very well, and was happy to wake up still me with black hair and smart.

The bathroom was the most efficient use of space. Lighting options were a Hollywood production.  For instance, this shower could be lit with regular lights or amped up with red lights, as shown here.

Hotel Platine Bathroom ShowerHotel Platine Bathroom Sink

I was dazzled by the glass-walled bathroom, and it took more than a minute to realize this was a two-piece bathroom.  As the French would say, “Oú est le toilet?”

Hotel Platine Toilet

In a room that was only yea big, I opened doors until I…found it! Behind a door that I thought was another closet, there was the toilet and this lip-smacking wallpaper.

Other unique hotel features were the movie screen in the elevator, the Turkish bath available to hotel guests, and spa services for additional cost. The hospitality was top-notch here, too. I’d come back for another splurge.

I look forward to traveling to Paris again, and discovering more of the city and its residents. About those Parisians: I’m a fan.


Gratitude in the Best of Times and the Worst of Times

Here we are at the beginning of another year. Often, whether we want to or not, we reflect on the year that just passed. We can either be happy about it or sad about it — whatever. But, as we go into 2016, we can decide to tip the attitude scale away from negativity and toward positivity.

How we look at a bad experience (or a loss) changes when we focus on the good that might come from it.

I’ve been thinking about certain women who had something in common with me. I started with a woman I knew as Mrs. Carter. She was the mother of my oldest friend, and my mother’s BFF.  Mrs. Carter was also the first person I’d known with Stage 4 cancer.  You see, I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 when Mrs. Carter was in her seventh, and final year, of her battle with ovarian cancer.  We went through chemotherapy at the same time. Because of this experience, we related to each other in a way that only cancer patients can understand. Mrs. Carter was my touchstone for how to live graciously with a chronic disease.

Fast forward to 2015… I knew three more women who were Stage 4. Two had metastatic breast cancer; and one, a close friend, had squamous cell oral cancer. All of them died this year. Before you think, ‘Damn, this post is by Debbie Downer,’ just bear with me.  I have to put my chatty, witty posts about great food and travels and my occasional witty rants on pause for a bit.  Sometimes bad stuff will remind us of things for which we should be grateful.

My gratitude is not “Thank God it’s not me at Stage 4.” It’s gratitude for being witness to the grace these women had as they faced our common adversary, Cancer, to the end.

Ever since I was diagnosed with cancer, I’ve been referred by friends to other women going through the same illness. That’s how I met Rhonda and Lisa: we all had tennis and breast cancer in common. Rhonda and Lisa never met, but each came into my life on the same day for the same purpose — through mutual friends, who wanted to introduce one breast cancer survivor to another.

Lisa was already in Stage 4 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. We met for lunch through a tennis friend. Lisa was in good spirits when we met, but admitted her own doubts about whether she’d reach her 50th birthday. She told me about the extravaganza 50th birthday party she’d hosted that year when she turned 49. Lisa hung on most of the next year. She almost made it to 50, but died a few months shy of her birthday.

Rhonda and I met for dinner through another mutual friend on the same day I met Lisa. Rhonda was a Stage 2 survivor, who’d had the same diagnosis as I. But, Rhonda chose to treat the cancer only with surgery and forego the rest of the treatment protocol of chemo, radiation, and five years of a hormone drug. After she healed from her mastectomy, Rhonda quit her job with a Florida newspaper and became a freelance writer. She pursued her dream to live abroad for at least a year, starting in Costa Rica.

Kim Lisa Rhonda and Zee at True Food Kitchen 2014

Rhonda (in striped shirt)

Rhonda’s sabbatical was cut short last January when pain sent her to the hospital. The doctor diagnosed her with metastatic breast cancer. Every time I thought about Rhonda, my thoughts would turn inward and I wondered if I’d be going down this same path one day. What scared Rhonda was scaring me, too, only I wasn’t living with it.

Rhonda wrote a couple of poignant pieces about her diagnosis and living with metastatic cancer here and here. Her theme was the strength of surrender. Rhonda’s own words were her guidepost for living.

Rhonda and I stayed in touch and followed each other’s blogs. From time to time, she would reach out to me for health advice.

In 2015, Rhonda became a certified life coach, and she enjoyed spending lots of time with family and her boyfriend. She was also present for every life milestone achieved by her loved ones. Rhonda continued freelancing for on-line publications, sometimes inciting controversy. She had a classy way of shutting down ugly comments from fools. And, among other things I learned about Rhonda, she was fearless when it came to her convictions.

My sister and I ran into Rhonda at the BlogHer15 conference in New York. I remember Rhonda’s response to a loud, boisterous group of women in the middle of the lobby. Even as she flinched at their behavior, she said, “Hashtag (#)nohometraining.” That’s a quick wit.

BlogHer15 with Rhonda Swan

Rhonda (in orange)

Rhonda and I were last in touch right after Thanksgiving. She told me about a spiritual conference for women she was organizing in Hartford, Connecticut for January 2016. She also shared news about her medical treatment. She said, “The Tamoxifen stopped working unfortunately and cancer in my liver got worse. Not exactly the best news but the doctor has another hormone drug she wants to try. I’m speaking its success into existence!”

I reflected on Rhonda’s message and noted that she literally continued to put one foot in front of the other and move forward. I told her I hoped she’d find a successful alternative treatment. I made a mental note to offer help with her spiritual conference.

Rhonda died right before Christmas, less than a month later.

I only knew Rhonda a short time, but I’m grateful for what she reminded me — a cancer survivor — about life. Stay in the moment and cherish each one. Show grace when things appear to not be in your favor. Truly keep living.

 

This post is dedicated to Rhonda Swan — journalist, author, blogger, life coach, and awesome spirit.

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