Monday, April 28, 2008


My last day in Paris I decided to walk all the way across the city to Montmartre, the distant and distinct little bohemian enclave of Paris. It was raining slightly but I plodded along for over an hour, refusing to catch a metro so that I could watch one neighborhood blend into the next, the cityscape changing with each arrondissement. Montmartre is something special, though, high up on its hilltop, the only place in Paris where a vineyard still thrives and you can find silence broken only by birds’ chirping. It’s dense with the histories of Renoir, Eric Satie, and Edith Piaf to name a few, plus the famous Moulin Rouge nightclub. The tourists, thankfully, cluster at the tip-top of the hill around Sacre Coeur Basilica and the most stunning view of the city, but what amazed me most is that aside from that spot, Montmartre retains a peaceful detachment from the rest of Paris.

I immediately entertained fantasies of living in this little oasis like the heroine in the movie Amélie. The full French title of the film, which I count among my all-time favorites is Le Fabuleux Destin de Amélie Poulain and how could you not have a fabulous destiny in Montmartre?! For all who have not seen it, well, see it, ok? She is a quirky, shy waitress with a clever and eccentric style of generosity and a will to help those around her. It’s a beautiful story and I was thrilled to find the actual café where a great deal of the movie took place, Café Deux Moulins. Other than a large poster of the film’s main character, the café did nothing to tout its fame; a down-to-earth, chill spot, it was probably the most comfortable one I’d found in Paris yet. The tables were intimately close, yet the diners pleasantly aloof, everyone seemingly lost in their own little pools of contentment. The waiter danced over with my espresso, w inked, and was gone, and I was overcome with the impulse to be part of this place. I visited the bathroom upon paying my bill (you must see the movie to get the hilarity of that) and floated out the door with the conviction that I would return. Someday. As a Parisian.

$$$$$hit! The current state of currency

A brief and sorry note to Americans everywhere: our Dollar is one wimpy piece of legal tender. And the Euro is one merciless bully. Multiply everything by at least 1.56 and watch your bank account dwindle. Cringe at the cost of cab fare and mourn the museum entrance fee. It makes you sip your wine a little slower and choose your extravagances carefully, which is not a bad thing, I guess. The only kicker is when your company (ahem, Cirque du Soleil) pays you in dollars while you work in Europe… and that is fair how???

La Langue Française

For one week, I took the metro across town to the France Langue school near the Arc de Trimophe. It gave me a sense of purpose as though I were commuting to my “job,” and not a bad job, either, getting to listen to and try to speak the language I most adore. I think I’d renewed my determination to learn French when I met a guy named Roberto in Mexico City. He was a few years younger than me yet spoke Spanish, English, Italian, and French, purely out of his own will to speak the languages of the art and music he so loved, mostly piano and opera. He explained that mastering these languages, he could integrate some of their cultural elements into his own life, adopting words and phrases and concepts into his own understanding and expression.

Well I wanted to do that, too! I realized that without becoming a “-phone” you couldn’t be a true “-phile” of anything; without the language of a culture’s expression, you couldn’t get inside its collective head. So I dove into French, which I hadn’t touched since Cornell, where there hadn’t really been time to absorb it anyway, since it was often more about getting assignments done to merely survive to the next semester. I re-opened my daunting grammar book, downloaded the “French Pod Class” podcast from iTunes, and made an appointment for a manicure with my friend Isabelle, an esthetician from Quebec who I made promise to only speak French with me while doing my nails.

This all gave me at least a refresher before arriving in France, where I found that all those warnings I’d received, that the French would be intolerant of anything less than perfect pronunciation, were unfounded. I received much more encouragement than snubbing, found that I could ask questions about menus, sizes, directions, opening hours, all the necessary stuff with no problem at all. I even bought a pair of shoes once because the store owner I chatted with declared my French “formidable!” (This compliment had the effect of boosting my confidence yet making me temporarily forget my budget).

The language course at École France Langue was an eclectic mix of five Germans, one Moldovan, one Korean (who it turned out had seen Quidam in Seoul), one Swiss, and one Brazilian (who was a freelance writer eager to give me tips on breaking into the business). The school itself, in fact, is about half Japanese students, and the combination of Japanese accents plus all the other nationalities’ layered over French words filled the crowded hallways, making me feel part of a small-scale Parisian United Nations.

I still have a long way to go until I am fluent and no longer have to frantically conjugate in my mind before speaking, but it feels like the most beautiful, indulgent work to do, this language-learning. It’s like watching my mind grow, and discovering in myself new ways of thinking and feeling as I learn new words to express things. It makes me think of Steven Pinker’s theories on how language shapes thought and whether we are limited in what we can conceive by what we can describe, even within our own heads.

Bread of Fantasy

La quête du pain peut même être appréhendée comme le catalyseur de la grande histoire des hommes.

The search for bread may well be considered the catalyst of the history of man.

Le Pain Poilane, considered Paris’ “best bread” (which is one out-of-this-world distinction, really) takes itself very seriously, as you can see from this quote on the brochure that comes with your order there. But then, I take bread seriously, too. I’d choose a perfectly crusty baguette, a hearty brown pain de campagne or a traditional pain au levain over any decadent dessert or rare delicacy you could dream up to offer. Before the trip, I’d searched for some place where I could learn how to bake the good stuff, but it seemed that most cooking schools would rather teach how to roast a duck or prepare mousse au chocolat. I came to realize that, in France, bread is thought best left up to those bakers for whom it has been a life-long métier. So I opted for the much easier post as bread-taster and made an un-scientific study of the best boulangeries in the city.

Poilane is the only bread in Paris distinguished by its brand in the restaurants it supplies. Bistros and brasseries boast “Nous servons du pain Poilane” in their windows, and for good reason. Once at 7am and again at 4pm, a line forms outside the Left Bank bakery as they bring fresh loaves out of the oven and customers salivate in unison. Getting bread there, as I did one weekday afternoon, is choosing a diamond or deciding on a child to adopt; it’s that weighty. I wasn’t allowed to serve myself at all, but was assisted by a bread technician who spoke in one long string of descriptions of grain type, fermentation methods, baking temperatures, chewiness, density, flavor. I left with way more bread than one girl can eat, with loaves in a rainbow of colors and the most delicious scent wafting around me. I discovered that the best way to lighten one's load of bread is to share it with the homeless. It's more delicious than centimes and it makes everyone feel good.

And the thing about good bread is, it would be a crime to spoil it with anything other than pure butter. In France, this is a given. There’s an accept-no-imitation dogma that runs deep. PAUL Bakeries, the chain that produces what I’d consider the second best bread and the tastiest croissants, advertises Patisseries pur beurre, Pains de Fantasie! After just finishing Michael Pollen’s awesome treatise against the offenses of industrial food processes, I cringe to think of the enthusiasm over calorie-less “I can’t believe it’s not butter” spray. Putting it on Poilane bread would be like pouring paint thinner on a Picasso – unthinkable.

Friday, April 25, 2008


The cool thing about my job is that it allows for plenty of café time, something I consider one of life’s priorities. I have clear, linked memories of which cafés I have read certain books in, written certain journal entries in, met certain dates in, even thought certain personal revelations in. I spend hours in every city just people watching and sometimes bumming wireless internet while getting buzzed on caffeine. The French have a similar reverence for the café, and unlike in America, it’s not just a refueling station for commuters with 24-ounce cups; it’s a laboratory for philosophers, a sanctuary for newspaper readers, and a meeting spot for social papillons.

Cafés are everywhere in Paris, just everywhere! But I had only so many days there, and only the capacity for so much coffee, so I employed my nerdy tour guide, Rick Steves, and his guidebook’s tour of the “Grand cafés of Paris” to narrow things down. I hit St. Germain de Près first, home of the side-by-side institutions Deux Magots and Café de Flore. I randomly chose the latter, with its crammed-full outdoor tables and reputation as Picasso’s favorite hang-out. Without looking at the menu, I ordered my favorite, a noisette, which is basically espresso with a teeny dollop of foamed milk like the Italian macchiato. The whole beverage takes about three sips to finish off, but in this instance, I was paying dearly for sipping in such a prime location. Cafés in Paris may serve nice coffee, but your Euros are really going towards rent, which is why having your drink standing up at the bar can be a third of the price of sitting at a table. It’s all about real estate, and once you splurge on that table, it’s yours til the end of the day if you can sit that long. Once I got over the shock of the bill (€4.60 for those three sips), I milked my spot for all it was worth – wrote three postcards, visited the bathroom to wander around the art deco interior, observed my fellow café-sitters, and watched the frenzy of ancient waiters with extraordinary mustaches and penguin vests.

Because of the cold, it sometimes seemed that my time in Paris was just a race to see things between the many café breaks that were necessary to warm me up and keep me going. And they were sometimes strategically useful. I really wanted to visit St. Chapelle, the 13th century church of exquisite stained glass built to house the relics of Christ, only the wait to get in was outside and endlessly long. One morning, I got up early, found the entrance, and camped out in a window seat of a café just across the street. I waited cozily til I saw others start milling around the ticket booth, quickly paid my bill, and made it just in time to claim the first spot in line.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bikram Paris

The first thing that hit me in Paris was the cold – it wasn’t a touch of chill, either, but a full-on collision of freezing wind and rain that struck me dumb. I was used to the heat of Mexico, and my body had grown wimpy and complacent in the warmth. To think that I’d packed my favorite thin, strappy dress and even open toed shoes, I cringed at the wasted suitcase space and gave up on the idea of strolling elegantly through the city. I am a clothes horse and more than a little obsessed with my wardrobe, and layering everything I’d brought on top of each other wasn’t in the fashion plans for this trip. I had no choice but to bundle up til I was unrecognizable (though who would recognize me anyway...?) How you feel about yourself in a place is half the story, and both my pride and body were sore from being dorkily dressed and frozen stiff.
So I made a detour into a vintage clothing shop for some used and funky boots plus an eclectic, floppy hat that I will probably never wear again and one of those classy scarves that French women seem able to tie over fifty different ways. It was a start.

I’ve basically been doing the splits every day since I was six, so my joints were freaking out a little about being neglected and numb with cold. Luckily, I was pointed in the direction of a yoga studio in the wonderful Marais neighborhood. It was Bikram yoga, or “hot yoga” where the room is heated to 105 degrees and 40% humidity while you sweat yourself silly for an hour and a half doing 26 postures and breathing exercises. I’ve usually hated this style, since sweating from my eyebrows and elbows isn’t really my thing, plus Bikram’s competitive philosophies and legal controversies over the copyrighting of the founder’s teaching turns me off. I walked in hesitantly, and almost made a 180º turn right out the door again when I saw the prices. €25 per class! And that’s for a group class with about 30 other students, not including the rental fee for towels and a mat. Still, I was intrigued because this place seemed mega-popular, full of steaming, fit yogis and a sense of vitality, and I needed to feel alive again. I went for the introductory special, that new-student hook 'em deal that so many studios offer but that was just the right length of time (ten days) for my stay in Paris. For €35 plus the cost of a giant water bottle, I could come to unlimited classes with the added bonus of practicing my French comprehension. I was in.
Bikram class was an ordeal involving massive perspiration, special attention to hydration, and a full shower afterwards, but I was so happy to do it! I came away glowing and buzzing with new French vocabulary for words like menton (chin) and phrases like étirez vers la plafond! (stretch towards the ceiling!) I discovered that the whole thing was more mental than anything (which is what they always tell us in yoga, isn't it?) and that if I could calm down about the sweating, it could start to feel good, amazing really... how could I not? I was a yogini with a Paris address!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

First time in France


My arrival was rocky, as I knew it would be. I’d need to employ my shaky French skills right away and call the property manager of the apartment I was renting to arrange a key hand-off. I’d been warned by the American woman I was renting from (who I’d found on Craigslist) that this guy spoke not a word of English, and though I’d been working hard on my French for the past few months, the idea of a phone call was daunting. There’s something about face-to-face conversation, with all its context clues and facial expressions that makes speaking a new language easier. Thinking I’d rehearse first (and feel a bit more at ease), I asked the nearest official-looking guy where the toilets were, in perfect, French-class français. Thrilled that I understood and was understood myself, I thanked him sincerely… and in Spanish. Those months in Mexico were still with me.

Without a cell yet, I found a credit-card-operated phone and dialed Fred. I explained who I was and that I guessed I’d be there in, I don’t know, an hour?? He gave an enthusiastic yet incomprehensible response; I chose to believe he’d understood. Skulking around the arrivals lobby were taxi drivers looking to line up complicated fare deals but I refused to pay the €50 for the convenience and searched instead for the train. One shuttle, one long line, one train, and one short taxi ride later, I arrived on dark and creaky Île St. Louis. It was 10pm by then, more than two hours after my call to Fred, and I was at a loss as to how to contact him next. The island it seemed, was too posh for such things as public telephones. Finally, after wandering the streets pathetically, I asked a grocer at the small market next to my apartment if I could use his phone s’il vous plaît, because otherwise he’d have an American girl and her pink suitcase sleeping on the street outside his shop that night. To my surprise, he looked at the address and said, “Oh, you’re Barbara’s tenant? Of course! Bienvenue à Paris!” I was welcome in France. I had been expected! It was as though I’d waited all night to get into this club, and now the bouncer was telling me my name had been on the guest list all along.

One Chic Shoebox

The apartment itself was the size of a shoebox… make that a kids-sized shoebox. But it held a futon, a kitchenette, a miniscule bathroom, and even a private outdoor terrace (which I would never use, alas, since the weather never ceased to suck). I don’t have a date for the building exactly, but it is surrounded by others with plaques listing years in the 17th and 18th centuries, and if it could make me feel like a giant Alice in a shrunken house, I knew it had to be from an era of shorter-statured people.

But the location! In the theater of Paris it was the best seat in the house! (On Easter morning, it was just three minutes from my doorstep to Notre Dame Cathedral for the most spectacular mass I have ever seen.) The smaller of two islands on the Seine that splits Paris in two, Île St. Louis is a nucleus concentrating all the charm of Parisian culture into a few cobbled, narrow streets. How I’d managed to find a place here that cost half what a bad hotel would anywhere in the city… I was lucky. I tried not to feel like an interloper, since the ritzy few residents who do actually live on St. Louis are notoriously annoyed with the crowds drawn to it for its famous Bertillon sorbet. (The stuff is so good, it was even worth me huddling in freezing rain under an umbrella to taste. Imagine fruit at its most godly ripeness, made coolly, scoopably luscious… it makes sense that the islanders might want to keep it to themselves). The density of loveliness on the streets surrounding me was overwhelming – nothing but the finest boutiques, frommageries), boulangeries, creperies, specialty shops, and galleries. But it was fine in a way so completely different from Madison Avenue or other elite shopping districts; Gucci and Prada are, to me, so laughably beyond reach that they fail to even trigger my temptation. But here, oh, these places had character; it just shone through the shop windows, oozed out under their doors, wafted in the air outside and drew me in.

Hedonic Refugee

For so long I had sensed that I would love France, that it would fit me just right. In Eric Weiner’s Geography of Bliss he introduces the concept of the “hedonic refugee,” one who emigrates to find the place that best provides his or her requisites for happiness, his or her unique version of pleasure. Weiner’s book centers on this idea that surroundings affect state of mind, contentment, and the tenor of daily life. And being on tour is like one big test of his hypothesis! Not to sound unstable, but I’ve watched my mood swing wildly from one city to the next: I am beautiful – no, ugly. I am active – no, lazy. I am social - no, an utter hermit. I love this world and everyone in it! No, humanity is basically depraved.

Yet I felt that France and I might hit it off. And while it tried to discourage me by raining all the time and making everything so damn expensive, I’m sure I was right. It didn’t disappoint. I met a cynical guy at a party who told me, “You know, most of what you think of France is just cliché…the Frenchman with the baguette under his arm and all.” To which I responded, “But you do carry baguettes!” He smiled and admitted I was right. And since my own personal brand of hedonism merges so well with French culture, I think I’ve found my match. What follows, I guess, is just a demonstration of this, the proving of my theory that France is where I belong.

To be continued...

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Renaissance Man of Veracruz

I was sure that Veracruz was going to be another non-city for me, meaning that I would never fully realize I was here until I was gone. It was like that with Monterrey, our third city on the Mexican tour, which I spent holed up in Starbucks cramming for my trip to France. If I once looked up from my French verbs or Paris maps, it was to go to the gym or catch the bus to work. This was fine with me, since the last two cities in Mexico are record short ones: 2 1/2 weeks! Packing and unpacking become a continuum of disarray. It's like being on an extended layover between other, more real destinations. By now, most of Quidam has adopted an apathetic, last-lap approach; Veracruz was made for beach lounging and not much else, so why fight it?

So I was surprised when, last Monday, my friend Josee and I met perhaps the most fascinating man in Mexico. We were resigned that day to wandering aimlessly around the Zocalo, or downtown plaza. I had a fresh mango on a stick, cut into the shape of a flower, and was content to let that be the highlight of my afternoon. We then came across a tiny, crumbly pedestrian street, lined with disintegrating colonial houses that had become cat castles. We stopped to take pictures of the still-colorful tiles, half-collapsed balconies, and feline proprietors. But not all the buildings were ruins - a small shop remained intact with bright blue pottery and woven fabric in its window.

Ferruccio met us with a resonant voice and perfect English, offering to show us the crafts filling every corner of the place. They were not just souvenirs, either; each piece held a rich story for Ferruccio to tell. He pulled out a doll so delicate that her hands needed tissues to protect them. She was La Katrina, a Mexican representation of Death, with a skull for a face but the clothes of a refined Victorian lady. Miniscule earrings dotted her ears, and beneath the tissue, a ring circled one thin finger.

I started to understand then the uniqueness of everything Ferruccio had to show us. He knew not only the history and cultural significance of everything but also the lives of the artists. Knowing who has crafted a piece is special, and rare now. To think that in the past, every item you could buy was made by an artisan, a human who imparted both skill and imperfection into what he produced. It amazes me how, with the proliferation of cheap Chinese imports and the ubiquity of low-quality mass production, that this kind of artist-to-buyer transaction has become a chic habit of the rich in the U.S. Everything old is new again. Peasant-this and rustic-that. But not everywhere, not yet. I revel in the wholesomeness of a plain, steaming-hot tortilla made from nothing but maize by an abuelita at a roadside stand, and I see that here it's still poor man's food. It has not yet had its renaissance, it's chance to be remade as authentic and therefore cool. Maybe I had to go through something like that with my travel shopping. Back on my first real trip, with my 8th grade class in Williamsburg, VA, I swear I gobbled up those souvenir spoons and thimbles like there was no tomorrow. I am more selective now, though not necessarily more knowledgeable about what to bring back from my trips. That's when a friend like Ferruccio becomes indispensable.

I fell in love with the least practical thing in Ferruccio's shop: a bulky statue of La Danza de los Voladores. The traditional dance of the Totonac people is not unlike an aerial circus act, though the ritual was more about drought relief than performance art when it began 1,500 years ago. Four men fly out from a central pole, suspended by ropes tied to their feet. It's spectacular, and this statue was remarkable in that it was constructed entirely of recycled parts. It had been an assignment for students from a Mexican school, to create art from trash. Nuts and bolts and screws and washers somehow came together to give the illusion of flight, don't ask me how. Unfortunately, it was mounted on a mammoth hunk of hardwood that would be a nightmare for air travel, a burden on my parents, but a fascinating feature in a future home.  

So we sat down for an expresso with Ferruccio, and learned how Mexico's coffee industry has been ravaged by corruption, the same corruption that disillusioned him into giving up his government curator post. Instead, he has countless independent art projects around Latin America - exhibitions, conferences, even plays that he produces and tours with. After hours in the shop, Josee and I invited him to see Quidam the following week, while he, in turn, invited us to visit his "villas" in Boca del Rio, a 15-minute drive from our hotel.


Josee and I woke early (okay, "early" for people with our schedule means before 10am) to meet Ferruccio.  I was groggy from the previous night's end-of-Mexico-tour party at "Piratax," the tacky beachside bar with a hard rock pirate theme.  Their sign is a skull and crossed guitars.  

We drove with Ferruccio past miles of sand dunes that are fast becoming trash heaps and housing developments.  When he bought his land 20 years ago, there were no other buildings in sight, but rash and foolhardy businessmen want to blanket the landscape with tens of thousands of shoebox condos and soulless mansions.  They don't know (or care) an ounce about urban planning, Ferruccio explained, no thought to infrastructure at all.  The building is out of control, not quite on the scale of Dubai, but with the added hindrance of Veracruz's bloody awful weather.  Build a road one day, only to find it has been swept away by another bout of wind.  A lost cause, a sinkhole for investors, but the hottest trend around for developers.  Nature here does not wish to be messed with on that scale.  

In contrast to the utter ugliness of the construction sites, Ferruccio's land was an oasis.  He had reigned in nature most artfully, planting a wind barrier of trees that offered shade enough to drop the temperature noticeably.  More than just a residence, this was a compound of homes with a central road connecting the fifteen or so houses. They belong to Ferruccio, his brother, his mother, and, in a most enlightened relationship, to his ex-wife and her new husband (more to come on that). The extra buildings comprise the "Villas Palmira," vacation cottages for tourists that Ferruccio opened some years back to better afford the land.

Our first stop was to visit Marguerita, Ferruccio's ex-wife and an exceptional potter. Her studio was beautifully dusty and clay-strewn, with her signature blue stoneware stacked on every surface; classical music peacefully ordered what could have been a mess. Marguerita herself has the calm, patient demeanor of an artist who works gradual wonders with her hands. She had seen Quidam the previous week and, in fact, I had bought a piece of hers from Ferruccio's shop. Although most of her work depicts the fauna of Veracruz - lizards and fish - she has also created pottery as social commentary, her most recent to bring awareness to the brutal homicides of the past decade and a half in Juaraz, Mexico. She depicts the tragedy of hundreds of women's murders (and nonexistent government action) by placing graceful, white ceramic sculptures of women in a field of dark sand. It is a dramatic contrast to her pretty and light vases and bowls, but a strong political statement.

But it was probably the next part of our visit that made me think the most. Marguerita introduced us to her husband, Joel, who is also a potter and with whom she lives in their lovely, airy home next to the workshop. Ferruccio gave him a friendly slap on the back and boasted of Joel's talent, before we all moved out to the courtyard for a cup of tea and pleasant conversation. "We used to be married and now we're business partners," Ferruccio had explained originally, and I thought about the long process it must have been to get to that point. The acceptance, tolerance, love, and unselfishness that must exist for such a situation to work. It's a good place to return to in my still-jealous mind, as I learn how it is to love a person who is no longer mine.

We then joined Ferruccio and his and Marguerita's daughter, Luciana, for lunch in the cafe (for guests of the villas). Halfway through the meal, we were greeted by his mother, a spirited woman in her 80s. Her house, according to her wishes, was built to look like a ship, with a terrace from which she can look out onto the ocean and navigate. She had to stop by the table to show us a picture she had found in a book that morning, of her with Fidel Castro twenty years before. "How young I look," she said of her image in a flowered dress, "and I was 65!" We then discussed Cuba, which has now intrigued me, though I cannot get there from the U.S. of course. Ferruccio brings theater productions there regularly, and in his opinion, there has never been a country where the people were so over-educated and so underpaid. Great geniuses of music, medicine, and sports, stifled by one of history's binges of ideology. We can hope, for their sake, for changes from a younger Castro sibling.

Finally, stuffed from a long and lingering meal, Josee and I got to see Ferruccio's pièce de résistance - his library. An entire wing of his house contains over 50,000 books, mainly on the art and history of Latin America, but including geography, philosophy, literature and politics. It is a devil of a thing to keep up, he explained, what with the humidity, tropical insects, and the labor-intensive task of cataloging and restoring the books. His project now is to adapt it into a research library, a status that could qualify it for grants and support. It is massive, smells of old and musty pages. Interspersed among the books are miscellany that I could spend eons discovering. Odds and ends in an art curator's home are anything but junk.

After I mentioned my upcoming trip to Paris, Ferruccio insisted we look at his section on France, if not for practical help then at least for historical perspective. There were no Lonely Planet guides in this dusty collection. Many books were from the earliest decades of the 20th century, sans photos but with detailed illustrations of La Tour Eiffel and Versailles. He then gave me one of the most recent pieces of the France file, a National Geographic map from 1970. I am absolutely bringing it with me! While not terribly old, it offers laughably retro travel tips:
LODGING: Average rates for big-city luxury hotels are $20 per day for a single room. Less expensive rooms run about $5, while France's 200 youth hostels offer lodging for less than a dollar per day.
TRANSPORTATION: Modes of travel popular with youth include hitch-hiking, the ultimate in inexpensive travel (this is recommended?!)
LANGUAGE: English understood at most hotels, shops, and restaurants in large cities (what about French?!)

So, thanks to Ferruccio, I plan hitch-hike my way to a hotel and inquire loudly in English, "It says here I can get a room for five dollars, no?"

As I said before, I wasn't expecting to find anything of substance in Veracruz, but it's been a pleasant surprise.

*** I'm leaving for France in a few days with stomach butterflies (may be the Mexican lettuce, actually) and, well, expectations, which I should probably let go of. I am expecting the trip to help me feel okay on my own again. I'm expecting it to help me learn slow down and really see my surroundings. I'm expecting it to force me to speak French! And maybe it would be nice to have some romance, good weather, and a nice croissant... so you see why I need to simply let this unfold without pressure.
A bientot!

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Gran Cafe de la Parroquia

A tradition in Veracruz, and the reason why there is no Starbucks here: El Gran Cafe de la Parroquia. Coffee here is not a subdued, pensive affair or a chic see-and-be-seen thing. Instead, people gather around large round tables, clink their spoons against their glasses of potent espresso, and await the show. The spoon-dinging summons a waiter weilding a large kettle full of steaming milk, which he pours from heights up to three feet above the glass, combining it with the brown stuff into a frothy Mexican "lechero." Not unlike a latte, but don't mention that to a local, as there seems to be a lot of pride in this Mexican version of the drink.
Click here to see la Parroquia in action, and no, this is not my most recent trip with my new Mexican amigos, just a youtube find.
Enjoy! Back to work, where we're anticipating another windstorm soon... didn't anyone check that out ahead of time? We're down one tent already. Hopefully we get paid to endure cabin fever in La Fiesta Inn should the show be cancelled again.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

I'm back

Today would have been dress rehearsal, but we're opting for margaritas at the hotel bar. It's not our fault, really. When you work in a tent, hurricane-force winds mean a day off. Locals tell me they haven't seen it blow like this in Veracruz for at least a decade. It's howling like a hound out there and churning the pool into a boiling stew garnished with debris. My curtains billow and I find myself coated with a thin layer of sand that's snuck through window cracks. Meanwhile, I experiment with cooking an egg in my coffee maker.

I don't have the energy to go into all the nitty-gritty, but I almost gave up this blog, among other things, including hope. Scroll back through my posts and you'll see an oh-so-different trajectory from the one I'm on now. No more being a San Franciscan. More Cirque touring. I tried unpacking the suitcase, settling my feet on solid ground (as opposed to 30 feet up and in a hoop) and assembling a new life for myself. It didn't work (I won't name names) and so I'm learning the art of being alone.

After wallowing around for a while in a thick pool of self-pity, I bought a ticket to France. Cirque's touring Europe next, but we have almost a month off. I'm hoping it's not a cliche after Eat, Pray, Love and Under the Tuscan Sun, but I'm doing it anyway. I'm adamant about doing it solo, and am consequently scared witless. But I've rented an apartment on an island on the Seine in Paris, listen to "The French Podclass" daily, and am gobbling up Peter Mayle's Provence. It's my all-consuming project for now, conjugating French verbs and reading up on Cezanne. What will follow I don't know, but it's a good kick in the derriere.

How nice to have returned to blogging, having been daunted by the idea for a while now. I've enrolled in the London School of Journalism's Freelance Travel Writing course, and while I'm equally daunted by the idea that everyone and their itinerant grandma wants to be a travel writer, it's an enjoyable thing to pursue.

Time to check on the egg. Add a little herbs de Provence and some Kosher salt (always carried in the suitcase, of course) and voila! Hotel cookery at its finest. Should I survive tonight's tempest intact, I may someday have my own kitchen.