A Travellerspoint blog

7: The eccentric Swiss, 8 years later

Rediscovering Geneva

View Final francophilic focus on Zephyra's travel map.

Set up a ride (through the carpooling website) with a guy going to Annecy, just short of Geneva before crossing into Switzerland. Too bad I didn’t make arrangements to see the beautiful town, but the timing was off. It was already evening when I got off the bus going from Annecy to Geneva. The car ride was fine, with the exception of vaguely irritating body odor emanating from the semi-hippy chick next to me. How you live your life is your business, until it starts affecting other people. I’m all for conserving natural resources, but please, people. Unless we are intimate, I really don’t care to experience the full spectrum of your personal scent.

Other than that, the occasional conversation was friendly enough. After the other two were dropped off, I was left with the driver. Really nice guy who made the trip regularly from work to the wife and kids, and back. As usual, I marveled at his commitment to his family. It always reduces my cynicism to a slightly healthier level whenever I see such manifestations of loyalty. Since we had the time, and he asked, I gave him a synopsis of my own experiences leading to the current level of cynicism. He reminded me that he was older, didn’t marry until later, etc. Also it helped to have had an accident and close encounter with death. I think we could all use an experience like that to put things in perspective. Not that I would wish that upon some men from my past. No, I think for them, their encounters should go all way. Haha, just kidding.

The landscape on the way to Geneva was gorgeous—I took several photos just on the bus alone. The mountains, the villages (so bucolic, as “Felix” would say)…just another reminder of how aesthetically pleasing other landscapes can be.
It’s amazing how people can take for granted the beauty around them. We Americans love going to places like Europe because we find them so “charming”. Well, gee…maybe if we hadn’t destroyed so many of our own older buildings every 20 years throughout our history, had thought twice about urban sprawl, built up instead of out, made things to last, planned more carefully, etc., we could have kept our own charming landscapes instead of ruining them. (Clearly, I’m excluding our protected lands like national parks. Three and a half cheers for Mackinac Island!) I always wonder what in the hell urban planners and landscape architects have been learning in class. Seriously. And what gives fast food chains and gas stations and strip malls the right to be so goddamn ugly? Just scars on our landscape—like the ones on my legs—that will take decades to go away. (There are disadvantages to melanin, after all.) That is, assuming that human life on this planet will continue for decades. We sure are trying our damndest not to, it seems.

Even as a child, riding around with my parents in the Detroit suburbs, I remember how the landscape rubbed me the wrong way. Not enough green spaces. Too many strip malls. It was intrinsically aggravating. We call ourselves an advanced country and yet we are so painfully slow to recognize the most essential things. It is finally beginning to be commonly accepted that our resources are running out and perhaps we shouldn’t live as if they weren’t. Perhaps…but let’s just keep going anyway and let others live with the consequences…and finally, ourselves…

Back to Geneva: my friend, for his sake let’s just call him “Felix”, met me at the station right on time. This was Switzerland, after all. Small, efficient, and with so many quality watches available, there are no excuses to be late. Clearly, a country in which I have no place, and yet all those years ago at age 19, I felt more accepted in some ways than I ever did in my native suburbia. Ah, Geneva! Just thinking of that summer makes me smile. It was the height of my francophilia, and for good reason. The men were like ripe fruit dropping from branches right and left, before I could even see where they had come from. Naïve as I was, I barely knew what to do with them; but the attention was pretty damn nice. So many firsts (no, not that one!): first time overseas alone, first time working overseas, first time immersed in a francophone region…every day was an adventure. I was in an “exchange program” which really meant that I had to write a short research paper on Switzerland before working in a supermarket for the summer. It was all just an excuse to be there.

(Standing in front of where the store used to be.)
I shared an apartment with a few other American girls in a ritzy part of town (strangely enough). The supermarket company (Migros) owned the apartment and took the modest rent out of our paychecks. Every day, I took the tram to work. I think it was the only time in my life I was never late to work, thanks to the store manager, Monsieur Python. And yes, he absolutely lived up to his name. Besides that minor negative presence, it was all great fun. I was the outside fruit and vegetable lady, wondering whether it would ever actually get hot enough to feel like summer. My little notebook was always by the register, for vocabulary and colloquialisms that I jotted down in between (or with) customers. On the weekends, I took advantage of the cheap youth train pass to visit other parts of the country (never too far away). There are several stories I love to tell from that summer, but for now I’ll stick to how I met Felix.
He was a customer who would cheerfully breeze through on his way home from work, always in his perfectly cut suits. Too tall, too successful, too knowledgeable—I assumed he had a family of his own. (Not to mention our age difference, though I added a few years to mine when he asked. I told him my real age after I left—“ahh! You’re a child!”) When he finally got up the nerve to ask me out towards the end of the summer, I decided to go along with the improvisational spirit of my stay. At the end of the first date, I remember we split a crème brulée—my first. It went so fast that we ordered another one. It turned into two weeks of indulgence, mostly gastronomic, as I was so in awe of him (and still rather inexperienced), and he was too much of a gentleman to be pushy. (Ah, that felt so good to write! I wonder if I’ll be able to write it again??)

After the tearless goodbye in the airport, I didn’t really expect to hear from him again. On the contrary, he called every month for two years or so…often on his lunch breaks: “Salut!” he would sing out, knowing full well it was 6:00 a.m. my time, “I was just telling a client today about my little American friend. We had a good laugh. How is our little student? I had lots of chocolate and wine last night and thought of you. Tcheus!

I put up with the patronizing tone because he pulled it off so well, and was like nobody else I had known. I saw him twice more after that. Once, when he invited me to Paris for a weekend. Just to make sure there were no strings attached, this stubborn student and feminist insisted on paying for part of the flight. He probably thought it was cute, albeit ridiculous, broke as I was (hmm, things have a way of coming full circle, don't they?!). It was a beautiful, platonic weekend of parks, museums, and brasseries. The second time, a few years later during my time teaching English in Toulon. I took the train to see him and we had a pleasant lunch together, catching up on each other's lives. He apologized that I had to stay in a youth hostel that night, for his then-girlfriend probably wouldn't have been thrilled to have me stay with them. Really, a gentleman through and through. Over the years, the calls and emails dwindled, as they tend to do when great distances are involved.
Such were some of the thoughts swimming around in my head before I saw him again. We walked back to his apartment and I studied him, comparing him to the 8-year-old image in my memory. A bit more weary, a bit grey, but still handsome and with that unparalleled sense of off-beat humor. A slipped disk has been preventing my poor friend from walking much until his surgery—so the energy he normally would've expended physically is instead coming out more verbally. At first, it was a relief to not have to do the talking—and, in any case, it had been such a long time since I'd heard his monologues, alternating between charmingly stimulating and irritatingly didactic. But that first evening, it was all charming to my ears and we delighted in each other's long-lost company. How often am I greeted with a homemade chocolate cake complete with my name powdered sugared on? (Pretty much...never.) Or my first initial spelled out in Swiss marzipan on my dinner plate...which I couldn't, unfortunately, appreciate due to my teenage marzipan overdose incident. (That's about as rebellious as it got.) Ah well, less sugar.

I didn't quite know how to act; I'd forgotten to bring my Book of Life for Women Still Trying to Figure Themselves Out, namely the chapter entitled: “How to carry yourself in a manner demonstrating that you've done some growing up since the last time your friend saw you”. Too bad, I really could've used the advice. If nothing else, I wanted him to see that I'm no longer the adoringly clueless 19-year-old he came to know that summer, a dozen years ago. And he was at the top of his game—about my age now, and, I admit, much more knowledgeable and financially successful than I am, to make the understatement of the year. I have the impression that I had no opinions of my own. I guess I did, but had less basis on which to express them. And that summer, in my own wide-eyed, personal paradise, I had no desire to do much more than bask in the flattery and generosity of the kind of man who—I was convinced—would never look at me twice back in the States. One more point for the foreigner...

[Again, I was at the peak of my francophilia, gently drifting from that height for the next several years, despite my experiences of jolting reality, racism, etc., later on in Toulon and, later still, from the man who would be the last to have my full trust and betray it. At that point—in 2003—I had consumed most of my europhilia...except for the less potent dregs, some later reserved for Eastern Europeans/Russians of male persuasion, whom I managed to keep emotionally at arm's length.]

Back in the tidy kitchen of his spacious, tastefully decorated downtown apartment, Felix began to create the first of many divine meals for us. (How I wish he hadn't, with more than a little paranoia, forbidden me from posting any photos of his food, his apartment, or himself. It's not as if anyone is going to read this or, much less, leak any rumors about his involvement in top-secret espionage!!) Well, he'd had me at the chocolate cake. But we behaved and saved it for last. (Saved what? The cake? Actually, yes!)

The next couple of days, we walked around Geneva...it struck me as grandiose and spacious after coming from a French city.

We also walked to a lovely nearby town, Carouge.
My dear friend injected humor into the situation, despite his pain. Sometimes, bending over to relieve the pressure on his spine, he (a non-Muslim) would say, “Which way is Mecca? As long as I'm down here...Allah-o Akbar!” I had to laugh, but not without guilt. It takes a very strong character to find humor in pain. My grandmother is another such character. “This house is as old as I am,” she'll say, “and we're both falling apart. Just when one part gets fixed, something else breaks.” (Well, it's funny the way she says it.)

By the second full day, any ideas either of us might have entertained about being in any way compatible outside of friendship had become as stale as last week's baguette. We were getting on each other's nerves as if we'd been seeing each other regularly the last eight years, instead of not at all. At least it settled my “what if” questions. And, after we calmed down, the rest of my visit went much more smoothly. The last two full days, we biked for hours through Geneva and its outskirts. The weather was ridiculously warm and sunny day after day, the sun showing off whether glimmering on Lake Geneva, lighting up a vineyard, or warming a pastoral landscape.
Felix was impressed whenever I had the energy to keep going—nevermind that I was always lagging behind him and his long legs. But the fresh air and blood flow was invigorating, and compensated the robust meals that Felix thought out and executed each day. He led me through the variety of traffic, where—against my better judgment—I took photos while riding. For the first time, I saw a traffic light especially for bikes! Now that's taking bike lanes seriously.
We meandered through so many well-kept parks of such tranquility. We passed through rose gardens, vineyards, and a field of sunflowers. (I picked one for my friend—remembering how much he loved them that first summer—but by the time we made it back to the apartment, it had completely wilted.)

We glimpsed wealthy villas, charmingly complementing their surroundings, and their neighborhood shops and restaurants.
At the end of the first afternoon of bike riding, he rode back to his place to start dinner and I walked back after having returned my rental. There were so many luxury hotels along the lake, it was too tempting not to peek inside a couple of them. It felt scandalous just finding a pretext to go inside after having perspired all afternoon. One of the 5-star hotels is Hôtel de la Paix, literally, “Peace Hotel”. Hmm, I thought.
I had just seen the United Nations building earlier that day and felt like messing with the attentive concierge standing at the doorway. Besides, he was gorgeous. And I was on vacation. Our conversation (translated) went something like this:

Concierge: Hello, madam.
Me: Hello. Ah, Peace Hotel. Does that mean that the hotel donates a portion of its profits to peace-related NGO's represented at the local United Nations?
Concierge: [Well-trained, polite, not missing a beat] No, madam, this is a for-profit company that does not participate in that kind of program because...the way we operate is... [I didn't pay attention to the rest, shocked that he took my question seriously (or at least pretended to), and tried to think of what to make up next.]
Me: I'm just visiting and know nothing about what there is to see in Geneva. Do you think you could give me a few pointers?
Concierge: Absolutely, not a problem. Please come in and sit in our lobby while I attend to something else for a minute, and get back to you.
Well, it was more than a minute, but it was worth it. I took it all in, and tried to act as if I belonged there. Why not? Rich people don't wear designer clothes all the time...do they? Well, whatever. Most of it is still made in China, anyway. Better to get around the system with second-hand clothes or fair-trade, when it's affordable. Not that that solves the outsourcing issue, or unemployment issue, or sweatshop issue...but at least it doesn't add to the problems.

Anyway, after waiting for the concierge to handle inquiries from a couple of actual hotel guests (not poseurs, such as myself), he was able to fulfill my request. I managed to get him to agree to being filmed, for personal reasons, I assured him. I played the part of clueless tourist, throwing in a flirtatious remark whenever possible. He took it all in stride. At one point, I asked him where young folks go to have a drink. “Because I still look young, right??” “Yes, of course!” he replied, not looking at me, but the map.

I wish I could emulate his manner of being at once perfectly friendly and yet completely detached. Unfortunately, I accidentally cut off the video before the end of his spiel. So I didn't get to film myself asking him facetiously, “Is it true your hotel only hires attractive employees?” The poor thing was fishing for an appropriate response, but then I spared him, wished him a good evening, and saw myself out, chuckling.

Back to the bike rides. Felix pointed out a work of art that really proves how reality can be perceived in many different ways. Depending on where you are standing, the sculpture can spell "yes", "no", or something in between...
Felix, always full of humor, would mockingly throw up an arm from time to time whenever he got too far ahead, tour guide fashion. If nothing else, I'd provided the motivation to get him out and about, appreciating the beauty of his region. Granted, his love for his country was only reinforced. It's understandable—the history of independence, freedom, chocolate, good and free education, beautiful landscapes, great food. Chocolate.
And, let's not forget, chocolate. (Did I mention chocolate?) Also understandable is why others would want to immigrate to Switzerland. (Would it be the chocolate?) But then, fleeing one's country both avoids solving its problems and tends to add to another's.

Yours truly (self-proclaimed xenophile) had nothing to say in response to Felix's xenophobic rants. He was right: unlike France, Switzerland was free of colonial guilt. It had always set itself apart from its neighbor. As he said, the country owed nothing to outsiders. Neither its free education, nor its social services. Political correctness aside, I could not disagree. Moreover, the litter and increased crime that he pointed out fueled his antipathy to immigrant populations. Whatever is being done to ease the tensions and integration, it's not enough. I'd be curious to hear an immigrant's perspective on things.

Other heated subjects were global financial markets and aspects of US culture and politics. As I am not a stockbroker by trade, the former went over, around, and past my head. In general, I could support whatever accusations he made against MNC's and their unsustainable practices. That's easy enough. As for his judgments against my own country: national pride that usually lies dormant in the dustiest corners of my being revived from its hibernation, as it tends to do when I travel overseas. As they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder. Or, in my case, absence helped my ex-lovers forget about me completely and hook up with their future wives! But for this I am thankful. Clearly, none of it was meant to be. I've butchered Nat King Cole's lovely tune, “Unforgettable”, for personal use. Voilà, the version they must have been singing:

FORgettable, that's what you are...
FORgettable, not near—but far!
That's why, dupe-ling, it's incredible
How someone so damn forgettable
Thinks that I am...gee, I never stopped to think what...too.

Poor little xenophile! Of course there are no greater tragedies in the world than your tiny, tender heartaches! At least you did finally learn your lesson, didn't you? By the third time or so?! But seriously. You (the “forgettables” of my past) go ahead and settle down. Produce offspring. Contribute to overpopulation without regard to diminishing world resources. Spend all of your time and money on the little ones. Maybe it won't matter—our asinine nuclear weapons arsenals will probably blow the world to bits before they are even fully grown.

But here I was just about to come to my country's defense—not the contrary! Felix had put on his international boxing gloves and was bashing it right and left—I couldn't get a single sentence in. Politically, he was preaching to the choir. Hello! I was an activist for years. It's safe to assume I've realized that the US has a lot of room for improvement. But culturally—please. I don't care how much you read. If you haven't even visited my country in 20 years, the least you can do is pretend to care about my perspective on your impressions and judgments. But, who knows. It's possible there were other factors involved that got him bent out of shape. Or just the fact of having a visitor to whom to express his opinions. He was my generous host; fair enough. I suppose I could have been more tolerant of his emphatic pronouncements.

Posted by Zephyra 16:00 Archived in Switzerland Comments (2)

6: Old World meets New World

Toulouse, Part II

View Final francophilic focus on Zephyra's travel map.

We drove back to Toulouse that night, for a late (by American standards) dinner. The next couple of days, I slept late (still not having adjusted to the time difference, which is apparently more brutal in this direction). When I wasn’t sorting through photos or planning the logistics of the next leg of my journey, I was spending time with Fatiha, an old friend.

She and I had met in Montreal four years earlier, through my then-boyfriend (and the last one I would give that title—too many attached expectations). I was on my first assignment with the anti-poverty NGO (Fourth World Movement), and really wanted to make a good impression. The last thing I was looking for was a boyfriend, least of all one who would end up being a long-distance one after I left. But there he was, volunteering for our team. I had no choice but to meet him, and eventually figured he might be good company. He really set the bar for bizarre bedroom behavior—but I’ll spare my more delicate readers the details. He also happened to be involved in what can only be called a cult and had regular sessions with one of the members, an older woman who would supposedly communicate directly with Jesus and/or the Virgin Mary. And subsequently “suggest” certain paths he should take…such as breaking up with me. And thank God (literally!) that he did! What a wack job.

Fortunately, Fatiha had stuck to her more conventional Muslim roots, though wasn’t really practicing. Originally from Algeria, she is the most approachable person I’ve ever met. Her easy laugh and inquisitive nature completely match her shining face, huge eyes, and wildly frizzy hair. She doesn’t like her nose and is always trying to lose weight, but I think she’s perfect just the way she is.
Sometimes, good fortune can balance out my occasional uncanny bad luck. I only found out that Fatiha was living in Toulouse after having planned to go there, anyway. She generously treated me to dinner those last two nights. The first night, I again took advantage of a couple of the regional specialties – magret de canard (with peach slices and mashed potatoes) and foie gras (with fig compote). As the French say, miam miam
I know, I know, it’s uncomfortable for the poor geese but I, too, have my weak and uncompassionate moments (ah! the creamy deliciousness!); I can be as selfish as the next person (the rich heavenliness!). Outside of gastronomic pleasures, we wandered the streets being just as silly as we could be. At one point, we were alternating between checking out guys and making fun of québécois French and the French-Canadian “specialty” of poutine (which they pronounce “poutsine”), a sloppy mess of fries, greasy gravy, and Quebec-style cheese curds.

We also visited St. Sernin, now the largest Romanesque church in France. I ogled its mural paintings dating back nearly a millennium.
Fatiha told me about the past couple of years working in the family shop and hiking in her free time until she broke her leg. She was homebound for months; during that time, nurses visited her every day for shots and physical therapy. How much did she pay for all that? Nothing. It was all included in the French national healthcare system. For some of us here in the States, it would have been our welcome to the world of debt. Yet here they are still squabbling over the “public option” in Congress. Even some Democrats still need convincing. At this point, I have neither the energy nor the words to express my exasperation.

The last night, Fatiha treated me again, this time at a charming little restaurant in the old part of town. We chatted (in my case, flirted--incorrigible, I know!) with the European businessmen at the next table, and I ate a nice salad to make up for the previous night's gourmandise.
Fatiha drove me back to Pilar’s where we, along with Thibault and his friends, had some late-night drinks. I steered the conversation into a more serious direction, taking videos of their answers to my questions on French social issues. Things got heated when I brought up immigration and integration. Fatiha stressed the difference between herself, having spent her childhood in Algeria, then moving to France (as well as being from a liberal family), and those with North African ancestry who are born and grow up in France but have a hard time feeling like they belong. They feel rejected by those in their own country, while also being out of touch with their parents’ origins. Apparently, clinging to the radical version of Islam gives some of them the specific identity and acceptance they were craving. I was surprised, I admit, when Fatiha and Pilar expressed resentment at seeing veiled women on the street. Surely, they said, it was not their own choice; they were pressured by the men in their families.

I hesitate to guess what’s going on, even if my feminist side disagrees. Sure, freedom of religion can mean practicing privately and not making others uncomfortable. I can understand the desire to keep religion out of schools, government, and other public spaces. But just on the street? To me, this is surprising. I acknowledge that putting one’s traditional customs on display—especially those most shocking to a given mainstream culture—hinders integration. But to me, being from the US, freedom of religion always meant being able to show signs of a given religion. I feel that our much larger percentage of practicing Christians would, for the most part, probably rather come across a believer of any faith than an atheist. In general, I don’t think that Americans would get angry about a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf, for example. And personally, I don’t know where to draw the line between my own ideas about human rights/feminism and the need to respect other cultures and religions. It seems the French don’t worry too much about what for me is a dilemma. Point blank: it’s not in our culture, we don’t want to see it. If you insist on it, go back to your countries. As much as I can understand this mentality, and as much as I can’t stand any immigrant group anywhere not bothering to integrate at all or form relationships outside of the given community, I still have a hard time with this. (Then again, it’s more complicated in France what with their specific colonial past and all.)

Still, if I had lived through the women’s movement of the 60s and 70s, I would probably feel the same frustration as Pilar. I heard her loud and clear: we struggled for so long for equal rights, only to be confronted with women covering up—sometimes even in burkas—in France?! I can understand that, too. But personally, I would focus less on that and more on law. I think people can live as they choose, as long as there is no abuse, no coercion, and no community living under a separate set of laws (such as Sharia—supposedly Islamic law). I remember when I was in Montreal and attended an event where some members of the Muslim community were trying to push Sharia. I could hardly believe it. As others have pointed out, if a European community in an Islamic country were to request living under a separate set of laws, it would be out of the question. They would clearly have to conform to the laws and customs of that country.*

I also asked the bunch, as I’d later ask others, about whether they thought France should still be involved in African affairs and how much the subject was covered in French media. Not too much, apparently. But everyone agreed that France should stop meddling in African affairs. Later, my friend in Toulon would point out that Africans should own up to their part in issues like corruption. Of course, there are many guilty parties and greed all around. Nevertheless, foreign governments and global financial institutions often invest in African countries while turning a blind eye to corruption, or even fostering it somehow. This is a very complex subject but my simple point is that, when people and governments consider the impact of their actions on other countries, populations of those countries would be more likely to thrive in their own countries and, therefore, not feel the need to emigrate. It comes full circle. I love the idea of diplomacy and the prospect of working for the State Department, and yet have been told by diplomats that when I think of non-US interests, I might not be cut out to work there. In my mind, what is best for others can often be best for us, whether short-term or long-term. But US administrations often have a hard time seeing things long-term.

[Later, in a bar in Paris, I would have a brief chat with a guy from Italy who told me that Italians are less racist—“less” meaning “only” towards Blacks and Arabs. (!) Whereas, the French supposedly have a problem with all immigrants (hey, at least that’s equal opportunity xenophobia!). Either way, I’m out of luck! Also according to him, the Spanish are more warm and sincere. Considering its own immigration problems, I’m not so sure Spain is free of prejudice, either. And a French diplomat informed me that, actually, the British are the most prejudiced. I can’t remember if he was referring to the government or also the people. Ach, I don’t know…all of these generalizations are wearing me out. There is tolerance and intolerance everywhere.]


  • I later came across an article that addresses some of my thoughts and concerns, and provoked many differing responses:


(An excerpt)
"It is no small irony these days that those fortunate countries where women have fought, passionately and at great cost, for equal rights—Germany, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, for instance—have become home to certain Muslim immigrants who continue to violate the rights of women, abetted frequently by both the silence of the authorities and an abashed press. Why this silence? One of the least savory consequences of a colonial past is guilt: an insidious remorse that transmutes itself into a persistent reluctance to criticize publicly those who have now themselves taken on the role of oppressor—even against those who happen to oppress, openly and without shame, within the borders of liberal nations. 'You hear people talking about the need to ‘respect’ other cultures. You want me to respect this awful behavior?' [Mona] Eltahawy says."

(Some responses)
"Where I live most women can tell stories of being groped on public transport. There are so many flashers around that no one notices them anymore. Gang rape is a daily item in the national press. The provincial press is full of accounts of fathers having sex with their daughters. Men who won't accept a refusal from a bride of their choice are known to kidnap her. Getting a divorce is long and laborious. Some aspirants simplify the process by murder. So- called crimes of passion motivated by jealousy occur regularly. But the country where I live is not Muslim and these events are simply considered crimes and not a national and racial blemish. I live in Italy. Does that make Roman Catholicism 'a very primitive religion'?"

"I lived in Cairo for a few years and I never wore a veil. I lived alone in my own apartment and took the bus to university everyday. I stayed out late and went dancing and drinking all the time. I made many good friends, both male and female--including several women university professors. Did I have incredible problems with sexual harassment in the streets? Absolutely. Sexual harassment and sex discrimination are alive and well in Cairo and I would love to see that problem addressed. However, I can't tell you how many times I have been followed/grabbed/called names here in NYC. So I'm really not sure I would say that sexual harassment is a muslim thing and it's irresponsible to say so. I'm not Muslim--I don't care to promote or defend it as a religion. All I can say is that the people there had varied and complicated relationships with religion. I met progressive muslims. I met conservative muslims. i met highly religious muslims. I met muslims who really didn't care. Muslims here and abroad are a diverse bunch of people--this article, like so many in the US media, serves to dehumanize and demonize them. There is enough hatred of muslims in this country without articles like this."

"What the author is writing about is not religion, but social structure: she is describing the role of women in a tribal/clan-based society. In the Arab world, Islam reinforces that social system, but it is not identical with that social system."

"Of course we can judge other cultures. We do it all the time and rightfully so. Would we remain silent about a culture that practiced slavery? How about one that involved human sacrifice and canabalism? It is absurd to suggest that we cannot judge another culture for its treatment of women."

"I live in Canberra, Australia, so my views are influenced by the situation in two developing countries nearby to Australia: Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea. Indonesia (population: 230 million) is the world's largest Muslim country. As a general rule, the problems that Judy Bachrach outlines are not major problems at all in Indonesia. Of course, women do indeed face important problems of various kinds in Indonesia, but many of the problems (not all, but many) stem from poverty and the underdevelopment of all types of institutions...in Papua New Guinea, which is nominally a strongly Christian country...violence of all kinds against women is endemic...(and other nearby Melanesian societies). Surprisingly, this matter gets almost no attention in the Australian media at all. And successive Australian ministers make fine speeches about human rights at UN meetings but are generally silent on the issue of remarkable violence against women in PNG. Fortunately, after many years of silence, the Australian aid agency AusAID has recently released a report on this issue..."

"Multiculturalism, sadly, has become an exhausted ideology that embodies the precise opposite of true universalism -- wherein all human beings, without exception, are equal under the same laws and enjoy the same rights and the same freedoms to determine their own destinies. Western countries still have their share of issues, but anyone who believes that Middle Eastern counties have remotely comparable cultural values, freedoms, and political institutions hasn't visited them. Unfortunately, women have not yet earned the status of other oppressed racial or cultural groups which, if they suffered from the same oppression, would inspire boycotts everywhere. And by the way, Western feminists -- like Western men -- are appallingly silent about this state of affairs."

"I think multiculturalism is not threat to anything but the euro-centric worldview. Many travelers from the West keep going to these places to see and prove what they have set out to... At each step the Muslims are measured on the civilisational standard that the White West has forged...Multiculturalism is not simply cultural relativism. it is a positive affirmation and recognition of a self-formed or inherited identity of individuals. It is individualism of a higher order, where humans are seen as not just creatures with material needs, but as fuller beings who live and gain the meaning of their lives from their societies. Western writers think they know what goes on in a Muslim man's mind and in a Muslim woman's heart. By narrowing them into imposed categories and viewed from prejudiced lenses such kind of spurious scholarship will never serve the cause of justice, because it is inherently unjust."

"I fully agree with the people who say Western feminists have been too silent on these issues. However, I am not one of them, but I have paid a large price. One of the reasons too few people speak up about these issues is because doing so almost certainly puts them at risk of threats, violence, ad hominem attacks, and other behaviors that make life miserable. I've noticed Judy is already having to defend herself against others in the blogosphere who are now accusing her of Islamophobia and worse for having dared to comment on the status of women and stand for basic, universal human rights."

"The article contributes little information, and certainly no analysis that your well-read audience isn’t already familiar with regarding some truly abhorrent crimes that unfortunately continue to take place in Muslim [and other] communities around the globe. It is discouraging because one would have hoped that your magazine would get into a critical part of this story, namely, what Muslims themselves are doing in these societies to deal with these horrors. Every day, non-governmental organizations, clergy, community leaders and local governments join women activists to attack these practices. Even in socially conservative countries, shelters for battered wives and girls threatened with murder are opening, law enforcement officers are being taught to take their worries seriously. Muslim and Christian clerics join medical experts in demonstrating that FGM, an ancient Africa practice, is not only harmful, but religiously unjustified. Likewise, in tribal societies where it is not thought to be a religious practice, alternative rites of passage to womanhood are replacing FGM, thanks to grassroots activism and determined NGOs. Women are in the forefront of these activities, as they are in many human rights and development issues. They are making important gains because they work discreetly within and exploit local traditions to their advantage while avoiding the charge of being manipulated by outsiders. Their stories need to be heard as well."

"...There is a deep rooted underlying mysogyny in the three Abrahamist faiths. Why are they so afraid of women's spirituality and sexuality? I would love to know."

Posted by Zephyra 17:00 Archived in France Comments (1)

5: Paradise from ruins to the sea

Bruniquel, Argelès, Collioure, and Perpignan

View Final francophilic focus on Zephyra's travel map.

The next day, we left for Bruniquel, one of the many charming medieval villages in the region. The sun and romantic ambiance went perfectly with the enormous summer hat that I’d brought for such occasions. We explored the castle, gardens, and town.
I always get dreamy thinking about stone walls that were touched by others hundreds of years ago, and impressed by those skilled in trades that I don’t know the first thing about. We had a light lunch of salad and charcuterie in the open air, and eventually headed back. I really can’t blame the French for taking pride in their patrimoine (heritage) and culture, which they have wisely made such efforts to preserve.
Afterwards, we headed to where one of Pilar's brothers lives with his family, and her mother next door. Their little 3-year-old girl was running around topless and free, looking for earthworms where her dad was digging in their garden. She immediately identified me as her playmate, took my hand, and boldly showed me around the yard and the house. There is something about little French kids that just melts my heart. What amazed me were the fig trees, which just grow wild there. For me, they are so exotic and exquisite that I really feel like I've tripped and found myself in paradise. What a treat to pluck from the tree such a sweet, succulent gift of nature when normally I would have to empty my wallet for a handful of those less fresh. Earlier that day, we'd noticed a fig tree and Pilar and Thibault had humored me with a few photos. Oh là là!
I had the honor of being captured again among fig trees. At my gleeful request, Thibault climbed up and collected a small basketful of figs. I was in heaven. We ended up eating them over the next couple of days. And when I write "we", I really mean myself. The others were a lot less excited about what was in their backyard.
Eventually, we went inside and gathered around the table, where we munched on nuts, homemade toffee (freshly made by the brother), and other snacks. It would've been dinnertime in the US, but given that we never dined before 8:30, it was l'heure de l'aperitif. It was all very friendly and welcoming. At some point I couldn't resist making some opinionated statement on whatever topic we were discussing, but no problems there. (Argh, I really should take notes at the end of every day to remember what the hell was being discussed.)

Monday, we headed to Argelès, a town near Perpignan on the western coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Pilar shares a little beach house with other family members—also luckily for me. We lunched with other family/in-laws and then hit the beach. It was super windy, but still hot enough to want to jump in. The water was cool and refreshing (and salty--I'd forgotten), with a view of the base of the Pyrenees in the distance.
Thibault’s 4-year-old cousin, Clara (a real charmer who knew just how to get what she wanted) and her grandfather joined us.
Swimming, splashing, floating—pure bliss. I was too afraid to float until a few years ago. It was too hard to let go, relax, and trust that I wouldn’t sink. But once I learned to be at one with the sea…ahh, the tranquility of being gently cradled by liquid nature and gazing up at the infinite calm blue…

We took turns with the shower and I got in last. Mistake—even just rinsing and moisturizing to be able to get a comb through my thick hair takes time. (If it could grow back at a halfway acceptable rate, I would shave it all off.) But I tried to hurry up, though I wanted to look nice before Pilar, Thibault, and I headed out to Collioure. Of course, between my hostess and her son, I was the only young female with difficult hair who wanted to dress up a bit and put on make-up. So it goes without saying that I took a bit longer. The resulting effect was not bad, but aggravated my hostess’s impatience and temporarily dampened my spirits. Nobody is perfect. In an effort to alleviate my guilt, I tried to tell her that many women in their 20s/30s take as long or longer to get ready when making an effort before going out. My words were wasted. Half an hour more seemed to her like an eternity. Note to self: the next time I find myself the only young, single, female adult in a group, get in the shower first, or else carry on as if I were getting ready for work and forget about dressing to impress. As superficial as it might seem, it was really important to me. On vacation mode, I want to make the most of it, look my best, feel confident, play a different role, and get away from the daily grind as much as possible. None of this tennis shoes and jeans bullshit.

Anyway. Driving into Collioure, the sun was still treating us to perfect weather. Every crooked little shop-lined street was packed with tourists, even on a Monday just before September. At least most of them were French. Ridiculously picturesque and long known for its art scene, it reminded me of St. Tropez, with its pastel-colored buildings jammed together on the coast and scattered on nearby hillsides. As usual, Pilar’s camera did its thing.
You can see me in the dress that I’d snatched from my ex-stepmother’s closet (not so scandalous, as she had already left by then). Coincidentally, the dress fits me perfectly, which also tells you the average age and size of women my father exclusively dates. And, as of the last few years, they are exclusively Argentinian. But who am I to judge, having dated men up to 14 years older and as much as 11 years younger (still legal!)? The difference is, I wasn’t looking. But to each his own. Besides, I can imagine myself in 15 years, still single, a xenophilic cougar on the prowl (assuming I won’t be as broke as I am now).

We returned to the beach house for a jovial dinner on the patio (as the French eat outside as much as possible), joined by Pilar’s other brother and sister-in-law, parents of the adored Clara (whom I captured counting to 12 in English at the end of this video—too cute!).

The others prepared to turn in for the night, while Thibault, Clara, her dad, and I went to soak in some of the beach night life, which basically consisted of a low-key permanent carnival. Joining Clara on one of the kiddie rides and pretending it was more exciting than it was, I thought yet again that day…is this almost what it feels like to be a mother?

The next morning was overcast and, not producing enough body heat of my own, I didn’t feel like swimming again. So I watched, rested, and wrote a bit. Besides, I didn’t want to have to deal with my hair again, or give anyone the chance to complain about waiting on me. During lunch, I tried to tempt the others with some of the slightly stale donuts that I’d bought in a London airport, in order to keep a promise to another friend. Most of the group eyed them with the same degree of wariness that the French generally reserve for peanut butter. The grandfather was the bravest, and ate one to please me.

We packed up and left for Perpignan...
...where an annual international photo exhibit was running. Pilar had warned us of the possible effect of the photos, which tend to be taken by journalists in areas of conflict. When I entered the room with photos and stories of Iraq War veterans, I broke down. There are no words for the horrors they have suffered…and for what?? Equally hard to imagine is what people who actually live there have had to go through. I can only feel helpless when confronted with the injustice of people who have to pay the price for others' greed. I guess there is always some little thing each of us can do. But it seems hardly worth saving the human race that only continues to repeat its mistakes and destroy itself through its own selfishness.

Posted by Zephyra 19:54 Archived in France Comments (1)

4: It’s nice to be spoiled

Toulouse, Part I

View Final francophilic focus on Zephyra's travel map.

Friday evening, I took the night train from Paris to Toulouse, where Pilar would pick me up at the station the next morning. Never easy to sleep in a chair, but I did oblige the girl next to me with a conversation in English. She had been an exchange student in the rural NW of the US and was happy to hear American English. A public school teacher, she would be visiting her ill grandfather for the weekend. When we parted ways, she kindly gave me her phone number for the next time I would be in Paris. [Dang, I forgot to call her that last weekend before I took off. Well, next time…]

Pilar greeted me with her smile and maternal warmth. It had been a year since we’d met in the last awful DC restaurant that completed my restaurant phase last year and led me to swear off restaurant work evermore. The only good thing that came out of working in that verbally abusive environment (where two of three managers needed anger management classes, and the third, sympathetic but weak, looked on), at a time when business was excruciatingly slow, was meeting Pilar and her son, Thibault, vacationing on the east coat. Thanks to the lack of business, I had plenty of time to chat with them. Funny thing about French people is they are always happy to speak their language (whereas other foreigners might insist on practicing their English), and always shocked when Americans can, too. I’m not sure why, as it’s one of the most commonly taught foreign languages in the US (being Western European and seeing as how our educational system, at least when I was in school, has such a eurocentric bias). It’s hardly exotic or obscure. Of course, not everyone develops an obsession for it as I did. Nevertheless, there are just as many of us in francophone regions who might blend in as there are those who are obviously struggling. In any case, a year later, I took her up on her offer and she enthusiastically agreed to host me for as long as I desired. (Thus, I will always speak well of Toulousains.) That first day, she insisted on reimbursing me for the train ride. I was touched. My own mother wouldn’t do that, but then again, she’s in a special category all to herself.

After our café-croissant and an obligatory nap, Thibault joined us for lunch in town (delicious by my standards, mediocre by theirs).*
Then, we walked around town along the Quai de la Daurade by the Garonne river, to the main square (Place du Capitole).
Toulouse is dubbed La ville rose (the pink city) because of the pinkish hue of the stones of the older buildings that came from the region. In addition to her Spanish half, Pilar must also have some Japanese ancestry, as her camera shuttered away every 2.5 minutes or so, which would explain Thibault’s impatience. He had to put up with this all the time. But he’s lucky to have such a loving and supportive mother, who herself had a rather difficult experience with her own cold, distant mother. This gives me some comfort and hope, in the off chance that I meet a man during the remainder of my childbearing years who can stand me enough to form a life with me. (And, I admit, I've been doing a pretty good job the last few years avoiding any realistic prospects.) That’ll be the day!! I think the odds are about the same as neoconservative Congress members realizing that healthcare for all is a basic human right. We shall see…

Back to Thibault. Tan, tall, ¼ Spanish, stunning green eyes (a weakness of mine), a chiseled visage, toned limbs, a kind demeanor, and kickass name (of a medieval knight)…needless to say, it was quite nice to see him again. However, no need to be jealous, girls, as it turned out he absolutely swings the other way. Ah well, works of art and other aesthetic pleasures are all part of the travel experience. And luckily, his perfect teeth were just enough of a drawback to help me control myself and behave appropriately. (My fetish for slightly fucked-up teeth—in a way that is just so, and hard to explain—has gotten me in trouble before, namely with a certain Czech fellow. But that is quite another story. I wonder if the fact that my father is a dentist has anything to do with it?)

At the main square, people were playing Michael Jackson music with much nostalgia, as it was apparently his birthday. Later, Pilar treated us to smoothies and dessert.
Smoothies have popped up everywhere in France. Just as expensive as in the US, nevertheless healthy and tasty. Sometimes people are surprised when I mention they came from the US, as if words like this would ever exist in French. Come on—“smoothie”?! Anyway, nice to know we can contribute something besides greasy fast food. At the café, Thibault agreed to read and explain the dessert menu to me. If you want to watch a 24-year-old read a dessert menu in French—here’s the video!

On our way back to the car, we stopped at the Nespresso shop where Pilar bought an insane number of boxes of top quality espresso. As with the Swiss friend that I would later visit, they were part of her daily diet. I like a good cup of coffee now and then, but a miniature cup of espresso doesn’t really satisfy my desire to sip and linger over it. A good café crème, on the other hand, does the job.

I think that night we feasted on artisanal cheeses back at the house. (I realize I forgot to ask if anyone in France is lactose-intolerant. I never met anyone who was. Maybe they sequester themselves away from the rest of the population. Or else they just pop the necessary pills to get through every cheese-filled day.) Pilar’s place is amazingly original—from the use of space to objects of art crammed into every surface area and crevice. Some were done by her mother, grandmother, and husband. Like me, she is a product of strongly opinionated and independent women (except that her family was more artistic—and more communist). She has one innocuous thing in common with my own mother: a fondness for cats. To the point where she has adopted five strays (luckily my allergies were OK with that). Here she is holding the fattest one (how I love fat cats and fat babies!!):
And if someone here didn’t appreciate stinky cheese? Well, I’ve met at least a few French who dislike cheese or even wine. There are always exceptions to the norm. Not all Americans drink pop (yes, I’m from Michigan—you can call it soda, but it will always be pop to me). As for me, just the thought of drinking the stuff almost makes my stomach churn. Who would want to put gassy sugar-water with chemicals and God knows what else into their systems and disintegrate the enamel of their teeth? Thanks to the advertising industry, lots of people do. I guess whatever addictive elements those drinks contain also have something to do with it. I know more and more states are adding taxes to unhealthy items like soft drinks. People debate whether it will help our population be healthier, or whether it’s unfair for those in poverty, etc. I think it won’t make a damn difference. People (in poverty) won’t/can’t change their diets unless perhaps they could find healthier alternatives that are actually accessible and affordable. Pop is always cheaper than orange juice. And people will want options besides water. It’s also, like everything, a matter of education. If we really want a healthier population, those are a few things we need to focus on. But most people don’t.

  • Clearly, my avoidance of red meat in the US is abandoned here—not only does everything taste better, but the quality is overall less sketchy. Indeed, after having watched the documentary Food, Inc., I hesitate to eat even chicken.

Posted by Zephyra 19:36 Archived in France Comments (1)

3: If there's a boulangerie nearby, it's already better

Paris, Part I

View Final francophilic focus on Zephyra's travel map.

At Charles de Gaulle airport—was it simply my relief at finally arriving, or did the airport employees seem unusually cheerful? There were all laughing and joking together, answering my questions with a smile. Or was my impression due to remnants of my francophilia? To be sure, my idea of utopia does not include forced second-hand smoking every time I step outside, nor dog feces threatening every dozen steps. (Supposedly, if you step in it with your left foot, it’s good luck, but I think that’s just to make themselves feel better half the time.) One explanation would be the number of accepted vacation days, twice as many as ours. Clearly, time to relax and see loved ones is essential to emotional health. Yet we (we being mostly companies) too often don’t seem to recognize that in the US. I am no businesswoman, but it’s obvious to me that companies that allow their employees only the bare legal minimum (if that), with a focus on the bottom line, are really compromising quality of work/service and effectiveness. As with many things, taking advantage of others for your own profit—individually or globally—eventually bites you in the ass. Unfortunately, asses don’t think about long-term consequences.

Of course, more social benefits for most doesn’t mean there is no poverty here. Of course there is still exclusion, there are still cycles of poverty, still gaps in the system, etc. There will always be those with more, and those with less. How to make sure there is at least justice, inclusion, and access to resources/education for those who have less? Probably through an enormous amount of political will, education, and solidarity of a population despite much diversity. I find it very hard to imagine all three in my own country, sadly.

Where was I—yes, Paris. Fleeting memories of previous impressions of my very brief visits. Sometimes alone, sometimes with others. Meeting up with a friend from the south of France…playing tour guide for my Swedish friend…that crazy New Year’s walking halfway across the city back to my hotel room in the rain…the platonic weekend with my honorable and generous Swiss friend…chasing after that Parisian years ago whom I met at l’Institut du Monde Arabe and childishly thought it was a sign--he was the spitting image of Sex and the City’s “Mr. Big”, and managed to be even more arrogant…there always seemed to be excitement lurking around every corner. Sometimes there was. My francophile self always thought I would live there at some point. But now, if it doesn’t happen, I won’t be disappointed. It really is time to move on.

This time around, it was just to see my friend Emmanuel, catch up on sleep, and plan for Toulouse. I didn’t even have time to venture outside of his neighborhood in the SW corner of the city. Emmanuel had just moved into Paris—conveniently for me, except that the internet hadn’t yet been set up. Thus several trips between the nearest cybercafé, phone booths, etc., to figure out whether I’d be taking the train or carpooling, etc. That time, carpooling didn’t end up working out. Fortunately, that didn’t prevent me from trying again later. The idea of it is beautiful to me. The online networks are free, and the passengers pay the drivers based on mileage. Everyone saves money, it can be faster than most public transport, and you can meet really friendly people. (The best one in France is www.covoiturage.fr.) I’ve done it in Quebec province, but I don’t think the vast majority of my fellow countrymen/women would go for that. Too individualistic, too distrustful…but hey, at least we smoke less.

Back to Emmanuel. We were casual friends back in DC, where he worked for a while through some joint initiative between the French and US militaries. Normally I wouldn’t run into a managerial-level engineer in the French military, but we happened to meet at some French language meet-up group (the only time I bothered to go). He invited me (and everyone else in his path) to his birthday party and subsequent cocktail-film soirees at his place near GWU. Welcoming and personable, he attracted men and women alike. I will never know what attracted him, but in any case it’s always a pleasure to be around him. Emmanuel with his do-it-yourself attitude, hard-working mentality, good taste, loquaciousness, good humor, precise movements, dramatic flair, and skillfully evasive answers to personal questions. He insists that the French work longer hours than Americans, and that there is more social mobility in France than in the US. I find both harder to swallow than the Korean delicacy of live baby octopus. We all have different impressions based on personal experience, but the statistics must be out there. Then again, 47% of statistics are made up on the spot or skewed beyond usefulness.

It took me a couple tries to find his apartment. The fact that many streets and buildings aren’t labeled (or the signs hidden) doesn’t help. And I still haven’t learned that when I assume things like, “this must be his building, based on the other numbers”—it generally turns out to be wrong. So there I was on the 7th floor of a building with no elevator—just as he’d described—with a kind gentleman keeping an eye on my suitcase below. “Emmanuel? No, nobody with that name here…” at every door. Finally, one girl asked if I had indeed gotten the building right, and then I saw the light. Poor Emmanuel carried my suitcase up, minus a few heavier items. Gotta love those century-old apartment buildings. It was not the last time I swore to myself that I’ll be replacing the suitcase with a backpack next time I travel. Not so much to be a hippy backpacker as a minimalist. And there won't be any souvenirs (at least not carried by me, perhaps mailed though. Your odds increase if you respond to this blog post! :) ).
I’m sure I must’ve related to my friend at some point my abhorrence of the military—any military. Or else he could’ve gathered as much from my peace/justice work of the past. But things like this, he just brushes off (or else doesn’t really feel like listening); as a result I don’t let it be an issue. In any case, when greeted after an exhausting journey with a nice spread of baked dorade (sea bream?? anyway, fish), shrimp, vegetables, fresh baguette, cheeses, and cider (alcoholic), not to mention a fold-out couch, one must choose one’s battles. And so we dined, and then I slept about 12 hours straight.
[He’d asked me if I remembered the red couch, surprised that I didn’t (apparently he’d shipped all of his DC furniture to France). How am I supposed to remember someone’s couch that I haven’t seen in two years, when I have a hard enough time remembering faces? I blame it on my over-reactive defense mechanism that kicked in early on to help me block out a good chunk of memories relating to my parents’ divorce and years of peer torment for my lasting and unforgiveable dorkiness.]

Posted by Zephyra 14:50 Archived in France Comments (1)

2: Getting there...still getting there...

DC to NYC to London to Paris

View Final francophilic focus on Zephyra's travel map.

DC bus to the metro, to the Chinatown bus--strike up a conversation with Japanese couple (hajimemashite, genki desu ka?) and thanks for the kleenex, as I start to get sick thanks to 65° inside after 90° outside, 5 hours of abusive air conditioning, headache, congestion, bumpy ride, can't sleep after previous nights of lost sleep making last-minute preparations...but whatever, I made it, packed and ready to go! Arrive in NYC, get on metro, switch to L train (thanks to all 4 guys who helped with suitcase on stairs!)--and hello 1st avenue and 14th!
Down to Fourth World Movement house, lovely welcome from former colleagues--hi, hi, hello, OK goodnight and off to eat 1st meal of the day. Couple of hours later with belly full of veggie couscous but head pounding, drag myself back to the house and prepare to sleep...

10 hours later, on the way to recovery, looking at to-do list, more calls, errands, etc. Finally, healing late lunch at fave NYC cafe, 24-hour Ukrainien Cafe Veselka. Devoured borscht, chicken noodle soup, perogi's, staring at eye candy (not in Kansas anymore!), phone calls--too long, too relaxed, not waching the time (why couldn't my phone have died then? alas, it lasted a remarkably long time)...ticking, ticking away, starting to feel really on vacation... suddenly realize the afternoon is over, not much time before group dinner with old colleagues, but I absolutely must cross off more from my list!! So...buy gifts, no time to have them wrapped but do it anyway --"squeeze it in!"--as if time could be squeezed. No, time doesn't want to be squeezed or hugged or pleaded with or even approached--only obeyed. Join others for dinner, of course of all the luck so many people that I hadn't seen in years are there, just by chance...how could I possibly just stop by and run? That would be rude...throwing my things together can wait, right? I'm already packed, that was part of the point of taking the bus first and leaving the next day...no stress, no rush, right? So put it off, it's worth it, such good jovial conversation with such respected people, really miss that community... isn't it about time that I left? Sure, yes, oops already past my planned time to go, ah well not supposed to take more than an hour to get to JFK right? that's what I was told. Make sure I didn't forget anything, OK really have to say goodbyes now, bye, until the next time!

Helped with damn suitcase to subway, first train, second train, OK just one more and I should be fine...waiting, waiting, where is it? Every single train in every direction arrives but the one I need, the A train to JFK!
Now, now, I'm pushing it, but time doesn't like to be pushed...at last it arrives, all the way to airport, then airport shuttle, then which terminal? (1 hour 45 minutes total) DELTA in caps on top of ticket, must be this terminal of the 3 marked Delta...rush to line, only to hear "you've missed the luggage check" and of course with my klunky suitcase there was no way around it! Different line, Delta reps taking their time, finally--anything at all you can do for me?? no! Later flight? anything? anywhere in France? anytime soon? NO, no, no! Your ticket is gone, your money is no good, your weeks of planning mean nothing to us, $2,000 for another ticket, not even available for 2 days, etc.

How could I have let this happen?? staring at the counter, the fake wood panel stares back at me. Tears, useless pleas... beyond anger and self-frustration, just emptiness with a vision of my trip like an untouchable dream, too good to be true. Almost 3 years without vacation, thankless jobs since last year but somehow I don't deserve it. How can I be angry when I'm lucky to have had the chance? So I blew it, now deal with it. Picking up pieces of my heart but leaving behind my dignity, I shuffle away. Giving up is not an option--would rather have to work a minimum-wage job upon my return than face the embarrassment of losing what I had to blab about to everyone.

In any case I ended up in the wrong terminal, it was supposed to be Air France, the one in small print halfway down my ticket...clearly! Time to find least worse remedy. Back to Terminal 1, no Air France can't help you, maybe Delta in terminal 4 but it's after midnight so wait until 4am when they re-open. Turkish guy also stuck overnight was a small comfort, kept me calm...he went to smoke and that was that. Troubled few hours of attempted rest on airport bench. 4am, wash up, go back to Delta, wait, and this time yet another response: yes of course we can deduct the amount of original ticket BUT with added $250 you-loser-we-had-to-change-your-ticket fee. Looking, looking for another way out, anywhere in or near France...still outrageous but maybe 1-way ticket? Sure, whatever...then I'll get the return later, in advance and cheaper, might as well extend the vacation while I'm at it...nothing satisfactory, try the 1-800 number. Find an outlet, recharge phone, ask again, anything, anytime soon?? Finally, finally, one possibility: London, $150 more than original ticket, 1-way, not even to Paris, leaving this afternoon--I'll take it!

Detour to Cincinnati. Mission: find a laptop to buy London-Paris ticket. Email through phone to Emmanuel, his advice: last minute, Easyjet is cheaper than Eurostar train, go figure. Young man with laptop. OK don't look too desperate. Look here's my situation...an angel with as much time to kill, waiting for his flight. Shared his time, advice, and internet. Also pointed out, lo and behold, two gates away is a Delta plane going straight to Paris. Huh, despite what all the Delta staff had told me. His mother worked for Delta, checked their internal site--a dozen seats available! Things change that fast? Or did the Delta staff not bother to tell me the truth or try to help? At the Delta info desk, nothing to lose, trying to beat logic and compassion into their skulls, to no avail. I already paid all the extra fees! The seats are empty anyway! please?? No ma'am, we must follow policies, procedures, protocol, can't risk my job, don't give a shit about empty seats or your original destination, the seats are worth more, either pay $1400 more or give it up already, blah, blah, blah. Fine then, nevermind. Thanks for your "help".

Plane to London Luton, switch terminals, train to London Gatwick...
...then wait (yes, wait...no distractions, just wait!) Plane to Paris...
...airport to RER train, switch to metro, switch to tram, at last, at last, at last, to Emmanuel's neighborhood in the 15th arrondissement.

Posted by Zephyra 11:02 Tagged transportation Comments (2)

1: The need to escape

Some personal background

Naturally, I am hardly alone in my love of travel. For me, it’s a combination of restlessness and xenophilia. Since a very young age when my ambitious father would take us on trips around the US and Canada, often flying us himself via his little flying club planes, I got a thrill out of travel. It had as much to do with the excitement of take-off and anticipation of the unknown as with escaping my vapid, uneventful personal hell: the Detroit suburbs of the 80s and early 90s, where cars never ran stoplights, neighbors kept to themselves, and lawns were carefully maintained for reasons that escaped my logic (for they were rarely actually used and enjoyed). Ah, the suburbs: home to the affluent and mostly white residents, and whoever else lusted after a Franklin Racquet Club membership, a Birmingham shopping trip, or a Bloomfield Hills mini-mansion. Needless to say, I would never belong there, nor did I ever desire to. Just as my grandmother had told herself as a child back in her small Texas town in the segregated 1920s: “there has got to be something better than this”—I knew the world outside of my sheltered solitude would have room for me. I knew that my fragile identity would be able to flourish elsewhere, away from the mindless racism and popularity contests. Changing the scenery will not make a mother mentally stable, nor will it guarantee higher self-esteem after years of taking refuge in books and piano music. But it does offer a chance at breaking self-fulfilling prophecies, and simply presenting oneself however one desires at that moment, in that place. Others must accept it—they don’t know any better. There’s also the exquisite relief of eluding categorization, at the risk of being stuck in a foreigner’s perception of which category (in their society) you might belong in.

In France, it always gives me pleasure to be able to call myself “métisse”—people get it, and often, there are no more questions. Contrast this to the US, where “mixed” sounds like it should refer to dogs, not people, “mulatto” is offensive, “multiracial” sounds too technical, and on our ubiquitous race forms, those of us with the advantage of a wider gene pool have the disadvantage of being sometimes relegated to the “other” box. How is it possible that in my country that claims to be so proud of its diversity, we still have such a painfully hard time accepting the natural products of this diversity? Or, for that matter, acknowledging mixed couples themselves in media? But we are still so primitive that, if there’s a mixed couple in a film, ethnic differences will invariably be the focus of the film. As for TV commercials, most companies carefully avoid images of couples who do not look annoyingly alike. God forbid—that might offend some viewers.

But, as usual, I digress. As obsessed as US society is with the subject of (what we call) race, I really have no need to explain why that aspect of being overseas is so liberating. Beyond that is the adventure, pleasure in observing cultural differences, sightseeing and people-watching. And now, as the French say, let’s get back to our sheep.

Posted by Zephyra 14:09 Comments (1)

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