Archive for June, 2010

The Joys of Travel

Often, adventure lies in the journey itself.

Like a roadtrip in Mexico where we set off without destination and ended up diving from high cliffs into a turquoise sea, sleeping on a white-sand beach, and stumbling upon a haunted house (we ran away as there were haunted people inside, too).

Or in Ghana, where my guidebook’s only accommodation recommendation for a certain region was to find the “Jesus Reigns Supply Shop” and ask the owner, Michael, if we could stay at his place. (He wasn’t there, but the two workers we met kept us stuffed on sweet mangoes until Michael arrived to whisk us away on his motorbike. He and his wife’s little B&B turned out to be a nice respite).

Sometimes, though, you just want to get to where you’re going.

For my trip back to the States, this was the aim. But you know what they say about the best-laid plans.

On a good day, the drive to Charles de Gaulle Airport takes 30 minutes, though we always leave over an hour for the inevitable traffic jams. The airline had already called early in the morning to inform me that the flight had changed – I love (read hate) how they’re allowed to change any thing at will up to the last moment.

Even with the delay, it became a race to the finish. After over an hour and half stuck in bumper to bumper traffic, a mad dash off the highway to find the nearest RER train station because it was obvious I would miss the flight if I stayed stymied amongst the cars, a worried wait in the Aulnay sous Bois station as it began to rain, I made it to the airport and through all check-in and security procedures with 20 minutes to spare.

I was seated next to 15 young Russian children for the next 7 hours.

But I made it, and I remember why I come back home:

My niece, the cutest little girl in the world.

The hardest thing about being an expat is being far from family and friends. So you soak up every last second with them, say grace for the time spent.

I stayed with my sister and her husband in their new house in DC (congrats, homeowners!) and my above-noted gorgeous niece. My mom came up from North Carolina.

At the end of the weekend, I couldn’t imagine how I ever thought these few days would be enough. (No matter how long, it’s never enough).

But then another travel mishap to distract me. A tardy cab, an asshole driver, a missed bus, a long wait in the hot sun.

But now I’m in New York and it’s all okay again. My last trip here was something of a heartbreaker. I felt like an outsider to a place I had once known so intimately.

This time I’m more prepared. I accept that I am a visitor, that Paris is now home. But I’m visiting as I lived here – with an open wonder. This great city helped shape me, taught me to be who I am to the fullest.

I’m on 95th street on the West side and found it a good omen to pass this building on my block:

Sans Souci. Without Worry.

I’m adopting that motto.

Until I fly up to Vermont on Monday, that is. (Third trip’s a charm?)

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long lonely road ahead

Countdown: less than 48 hours left in Paris before heading to the States for a month! The itinerary: Washington, DC, New York City, Montpelier, Vermont.

I’m going for the usual reason – wonderful, revitalizing, and truly necessary friend and family time.

There’s another reason for my trip, however. I’m returning to Vermont College’s low-residency writing program to continue a Master of Fine Arts degree in Fiction. I completed the first year of the MFA program a few years back. Then life sort of happened. You know, the whole living in another country and having my world turned upside down thing.

I’m not actually sure I’m ready to jump back in, but a fortuitous set of circumstances (read, some funding) made it possible for me to give it another go. I haven’t written much fiction the past few years and I’m also heading into a critical thesis semester in addition to the creative work I need to churn out, so it’s no exaggeration to say I’m nervous. But it’s also exciting and some focus (and adrenaline) is probably just what I need.

For those unfamiliar with the low-residency writing model, twice a year I go to an intense 10-day writing residency for workshops, lectures, readings, and all-around writing extravaganza where I’ll also talk with distinguished faculty and choose one as my semester advisor. For the next 6 months after the residency I will write from Paris and continue to get critical feedback and critique from my advisor. Pretty cool.

I’m not sure what this means for the blog yet; I’ll probably have to cut down on the frequency of my posting, but I sure as heck don’t want to give it up. Blogging has deepened my appreciation of Paris and my expat life more than anything else.

Bear with me if the new rhythm is a bit wonky at first. Thanks for taking the ride so far and I hope to have much more to share in the future!

A bientot!

Couscous Karma, Crazy in the Air

Friday night I walked out into a city of deserted streets and an eerie sky. The light in Paris is often remarkable, but this evening it was almost shocking.

A strange sky covered the land

In some sections, the clouds were thick as taffeta, heavy as metal. Even behind such a stiff curtain, however, the evening sun somehow made itself known.

When I picked up my friend Ericka, she noticed it, too. The apocalyptic clouds gave way to blue sky at the end of her block. A strange pink tinged the billowing sky.

“Let’s follow the light,” she said.

We wandered down the street looking up the whole time.

It was then that we realized there was no one else on the street. Surely we would have been run over at any other time wandering around like that, faces upturned to the sky. But there was no traffic – no one anywhere, for that matter. The entire city seemed to be ours.

It was the opening day of the World Cup, we finally realized. Everyone was huddled inside somewhere, watching the action on a big screen.

We needed something to eat, but we didn’t want to watch the game. We also weren’t looking for fine dining, either, or to pay 15 euros for an uninspired salad. (There are plenty of Paris foodie sites – you all know by now, I’m not one of them. I like a good meal as much as the next person, but sometimes I just want simple, cheap fare. You know, fast food prices for actually edible food. And for all the mediocre food at high prices – I’m over it!)

We walked down the middle of Boulevard Voltaire – simply because we could – then turned down Rue Chanzy and its environs, an area with lots of restaurants. Bistrot Paul Bert, El Galpon de Unico. The places were packed, people spilling out onto the streets (here they all were!)

We decided we’d love to try these restaurants for a special occasion, but it didn’t make sense to go for it now. Ericka had already munched on popcorn before leaving and I was kind of full from ice cream. (Yes, I’ve been doing dessert before dinner a lot lately, and I make no apologies for it!)

We continued our walk around the 11th, as the strange sky started sending raindrops down. In its continued bizarre fashion, however, the full storm didn’t come. That heavy sky was holding something in store for later – who knew what.

By now, we were in the 12th, back to deserted streets. We make our way to the Place d’Aligre, and there find men roaming about the square. We were no longer the only people in the city – but we felt like the only women.

Then it comes to us: couscous.

Restaurant 3FC: sometimes all you need is couscous

We enter a tiny, well-lit space advertising couscous for 7 euros. Though we were the only women there, we didn’t feel uncomfortable. And then what followed was exactly what we needed.

A huge plate of couscous next to a large bowl of vegetables and sauce + 5 brochettes of meat of our choosing. Perhaps it was because it was now after 10 PM and all I had eaten was ice cream, but it tasted damn good. (For vegetarians, it’s still a good deal – just don’t get the brochettes).

What really made the experience, however, was the almost fawning service. We hadn’t even finished our first round when Wahid (yes, we stayed long enough to get on friendly speaking terms) served up another helping of vegetable stew. Plus more brochettes. Plus some fresh mint tea.

He offered Ericka another fork (because hers was dirty from eating, I guess?) – he wanted to know if there was anything else he could possibly offer us.

It seemed all part and parcel of our strange night, but you’ll hear no complaining from me. In a little hole-in-the-wall, we were treated like royal princesses. Sometimes in Paris, I guess it does help to smile.

We asked Wahid if we could take the rest of our meal home. I mean, he had just given us two! He brought out boxes and foil and carefully wrapped each of our meals. He handled each implement like it was a precious jewel. It was almost heartbreaking how much attention he gave to us and every little thing.

When the bill came – and it was still only 7 euros a piece for the mountain of food – he wouldn’t accept any more.

Soccer fan, Cafe Courant.

Full and content, we walked to the Café Courant for the end of Honky Tonk night. (Why not continue the surreal string of events?) There we met some real soccer fans. France hadn’t scored, so people were kind of subdued. Except this girl. Her getup just seemed to sum up the very surreal night.

No frills, but for some cheap couscous with kind service:

Restaurant 3FC
16 rue d’Aligre
75012 Paris
Metro: Ledru-Rollin
01 43 46 07 73

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Wall Street Journal! (Happy Loving Day!)

I’m pleased as punch to share some exciting writing news with you: I have an article in the Wall Street Journal today!

Yep, I’m pretty thrilled. There’s no denying it’s my biggest clip yet.

For those of you who read the piece, “The Language of Love,” your first reaction may be “Aw, that’s so sweet!” (And it is, isn’t it?) I get all warm and fuzzy myself and I already know the story!

Please sit with that feeling for awhile.

We Love Paris...

Ok, whenever you’re ready, I’m just going to remind you that this blog does use “(im)perfect” in its name. What’s astounding about how I fell in love and moved to France is that it’s true – just like a fairy tale.

But life doesn’t actually remain a fairy tale (little secret: marriage is hard!)

I have to be honest: hubby and I are going through rough times. I haven’t wanted to say too much out of respect for his privacy and feelings – and also to maintain the quiet I need in my own heart to process what’s happening – but I did want to acknowledge the ups and downs of any relationship. Even with Paris as backdrop.

One thing is certain, however: moving to France for love is the best thing I’ve ever done. I wouldn’t be who I am if I didn’t follow my heart. Nothing will ever tarnish the purity of our incredible meeting. I will always love Jerome. And I will always believe in magic – no matter what happens.

Just a little historical note: I would have been happy on any day my piece was published, but it’s an extra warm fuzzy to know that it’s also Loving Day.

On this day, June 12, 1967, interracial marriages were legalized in the United States. Richard and Mildred Loving (I love that this is their real name!) fought for years and all the way up to the Supreme Court for what today we can scarcely believe even needed saying: Two people love each other. Why on earth should they be kept apart? (Can you think of any parallels today?)

I am the product of such a union (mixed-race kids, unite!) Thankfully, interracial relationships are hardly taboo today. A lot of things are simply what we personally bring to the table. To keep it interesting (you know me), I of course ended up not only in an interracial relationship, but also an intercultural one – with someone whose native language I did not know.

These last two elements lay the groundwork for a lot of misunderstanding. But, also for many opportunities to learn and grow. It’s an interesting ride, in any case. And of course, I now speak the language of love everyday.

Happy Loving Day!

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American (Movie Classics) in Paris

Aerosol Hitchcock

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I had a variety of aspirations – and as much of a plan to realize them as my 8-year old’s mind could devise.

I wanted to be an actress, so I enrolled in summer acting classes, decided I’d go to Yale Drama School and tried to discern if I were more suited to film or the stage.

I also wanted to “save the world” a la Ghandi or MLK but I didn’t yet know my big cause. Maybe my travels as a National Geographic photographer would help me find my calling, I reasoned.

Writer must have been in there somewhere, too, though I never named it (I had trouble calling myself a writer even then.) It was nothing I could explain, but I much preferred sitting behind my mother’s electronic typewriter tapping out stories than running around the yard to play. (I also started reading Stephen King novels in first grade – yeah, I was kind of a weird kid).

My most well thought-out plan, however, was to host American Movie Classics.

Yay, little arthouse movie theater

Who knows how I first got hooked on old movies, but from the time I could see I sat spellbound by AMC. There was a time when I watched at least one movie a day, and I never thought anything missing from a good black and white flick (not even color). Screwball comedies, film noir – these were some of the most beloved images from my childhood.

This love also brought with it my first feelings of jealousy (shame these are so often paired). Why did Bob Dorian get to introduce the films? How did someone get such a plum job?

It came to me that I should really be the one in that chair.

I’d make a really great AMC host for several pertinent reasons, my imaginary letter to the classic film channel began (did I know the word pertinent when I was 8? Ok, maybe not).

Not only did I have a vast knowledge of classic films, but I could also help the station expand their viewership. How many young, mixed-race kids did they have working for them? None, I supposed. Think of it! I could convince whole new demographics of the coolness of classic films. I’d be the new face of our film heritage.

I’m not sure why I never followed up on this career path – I think I was onto something.

Action Ecoles, purveyor of classic film

I was recently reminded of my youthful obsession last week when I stumbled across Action Ecoles in the 5th. The sign stopped by heart – an Alfred Hitchcock film everyday in version originale! Hitchcock is my man. I think I would die of grief if I ever had to watch his films dubbed.

For any of you other old movie fans, Cinema Action might just be what you’re looking for. Two locations – 4 Rue Christine, 6eme and 23 Rue des Ecoles, 5eme – and what looks like a pretty kick-ass rotation of classic films.

I haven’t been to either yet, but it makes me happy just knowing that I can. Hooray for serendipitous discoveries.

Check out their website for more details. (I bemoan my advancing years if only because I’m not eligible for the Carte Cine Passion which lets those under 26 in for 3 euros per screening. The Carte Fidelite also looks like a good deal, though – 45 euros for 10 screenings. Glad to know there’s something for us old folks).

What did you want to be when you grew up? (Did you follow the dream?)

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James Frey, After the Fact

James Frey

Sex or violence?

This was the choice presented to us by author James Frey on Monday night at Shakespeare & Co. He would either read a passage of the sultry stuff or the gun stuff – the decision rested with us.

This being France, we went for the sex.

(Though wait! Immediately after, the audience then begged for the violence, too. I guess people always want it all).

For awhile, fact or fiction was the real question in regards to Frey. If you weren’t hiding under a rock around 2006, you probably remember him as the writer whose 2003 “memoir” A Million Little Pieces blew up into a big controversy. He was the man who duped Oprah. His memoir, you see, was partly “made up.”

I never read the book – I stayed above the fray (yes, pun intended) – but I can’t say I wasn’t curious to see the man behind the headlines, all these years later.

It’s a rare opportunity, really. Frey doesn’t do readings in the US anymore. Probably tired of answering the same questions.

But this is France, and Paris holds a special place in Frey’s heart. He came here as a 22 year-old, inspired by the “American writer in Paris myth,” he said. “Tropic of Cancer” by Henry Miller had “lit him up,” and he wanted to come here to experience the literary fire himself. It was something of a dream for Frey to return nearly two decades later as a visiting author to the famed Shakespeare & Co.

Shakespeare & Co

Frey struck me as a bit macho, but I liked him, even against my better judgment. Bearded, broad-chested, he looked like he could have been coaching rugby – he even cracked his neck several times while reading as if it were physical exercise.

Because he did have a unique reading style, no doubt about it. He read really fast, in a voice an audience member later remarked sounded robotic. Not until he hit dialogue, did it sound natural.

When he talked later about his past as a screenwriter, that made sense. His dialogue sounded as it should – just how people talk. He explained that he speaks everything as he writes – he doesn’t put anything down on paper until it sounds right.

Besides these process questions, he didn’t shy away from addressing the controversy, either. He remained quite defiant. He’s an artist, and he believes it his right to use anything at his disposal to tell a good story. “I want to make you feel everything,” he said. Fear, sadness, joy, anxiety, loathing, euphoria – everything. Whatever tools it takes to do that, he’ll use.

I did feel something as he read (more in the violence section actually – his sex passage sounded more like what men might fantasize). I understand the power of a good story – my hope when I open any book is that it will touch me in some way. A good story is one of those things that keeps me grounded to the earth, that helps me make sense of this crazy life.

I just think maybe you should simply call it a story, though. It takes nothing away from the writing to name it fiction, rather than fact. A good story speaks emotional truth – what more could you want?

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A Weekend in Auvergne

Slow lane

New Yorkers are often accused of acting as if the city is the only place in the world. Though I was born in Manhattan and lived my crazy twentysomething years there, I grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. By the name alone you can probably gather it was a far cry from the big city; I always knew there was life outside of New York’s borders.

The island mentality is not so much about ignorance of other locales, however. It’s more a questioning of whether the rest of the world really has much to offer. I mean, the whole world already lives in New York and you can find anything you want there – not to mention be whoever you want to be. What’s so great about anywhere else?

Le Puy en Velay, a stop on the road to Santiago de Compostela, a walk I'd love to do!

A similar phenomenon can reproduce itself in Paris if you’re not careful. The City of Light is another one of those wonder capitals. It sucks you in, seduces you, lulls you into a sense that there exists no other place on earth. It’s a paradox I’ll call ‘city inertia’. Always on the move discovering amazing things; so much so that you sometimes forget to leave.

Of course, when you do leave, you wonder just why in the heck you didn’t do it sooner.

Truth be told, though, I’m pretty good at leaving France. Low-cost carriers to some of the old continent’s capitals for cheap were reason enough for me to weather the expat blues.

But travelling in France – I do that less. (I know, I know – what is wrong with me?) I think it’s something to do with my idea of vacation equaling an escape from the French language. As my French improves, however, I become less demanding on that point.

Really, I’m just “going native” – the French are always planning weekends away. I think they’re onto something.

I know the people who live here! I will return!

So, when my friends, a Franco-American couple, asked if I wanted to visit Bruno’s ville natale in the Massif Centrale, I said, sure.

Of course, my ignorance shone bright. When it comes to French geography, I picture Paris – and then the rest of France in a bit of a cartoon blob. The Massif Centrale sounded, well, massive, but I couldn’t place it on a map.

I also had to ask about ten times before I could remember the name of the town: Le Monastier sur Gazeille.

“And the biggest city close by is Le Puy en Velay,” my friend Michal (and Bruno’s wife) said. Another stumbling block. I must have some sort of learning impediment when it comes to French names; I hear names like this and they disappear immediately.

But it sounded like a worthy adventure.

“We’ll increase the diversity by 200%,” Michal said, in describing the town of 1000. “I’ll be the only Jew…”

“And I’ll be the only person of color,” I finished.


Yes, I know I look out of place, but please stop staring at me!

I’ve come to the conclusion that a weekend away really is the cure for most ails. My recent trip to Etretat and now to Auvergne (aha! I have now learned the more precise name of the region!) had me in full relaxation mode with just 2 days away, a feat I never would have thought possible before.

But when the agenda consists of simply eating, sleeping, and taking long walks, you’re pretty much guaranteed to reset your stress level back to zero.

The Cathedral in Le Puy en Velay definitely worth a gander

Bruno’s parents were lovely; his mom had been the math teacher for many years (EVERY person in the village in a certain age range had Denise as a teacher) and his dad was cute as a button. Everyone knew everyone and required three kisses. As this was the most strenuous activity required of me, I happily obliged.

The mountainous/volcanic (!) region means the weather is a bit iffy. Decked out in a heavy coat and scarf the last weekend in May, I also stripped down when the sun finally came out. All in a day’s work.

No complaints, however. I saw this:

And this wasn't even a clear day!

and this:

Red gate to heaven

I couldn’t help but think of the book title “How Green was my Valley” over and over again. (The Gazeille is the name of the valley).

My new resolve: whenever I’m invited somewhere, just go. No questions; just pack the overnight bag.

Michal and Bruno are soon moving to Aix en Provence. I’m sorry to lose some of my best Paris friends – but thrilled that they’re going somewhere I can easily make my second home (hope they mean it when they say to visit often!)

Swing set with a view

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paris (im)perfect?

Sion Dayson is paris (im)perfect. Writer, dreamer, I moved to France on – no exaggerating – a romantic whim. As you can imagine, a lot can go wrong (and very right!) with such a (non)plan. These are the (im)perfect stories that result.

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