I’m becoming my mother in the most unexpected way

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It seems I’m in French withdrawal. 

My first weekend back in New York, I went to lunch with my parents and we had a francophone waiter. I knew this not because he spoke anything less than the most perfect English with us, but because I overheard him conversing with his colleague in French by the cash register. Despite telling myself sternly, “Do not be that person, Ruth” some ineffable force compelled me to switch into French and ask him where he was from. Congo, apparently, and his colleague was from Senegal.

Since then, there’s been the father and his two kids on the subway, the vacationing couple at the restaurant in Hanoi, the retirees on the ferry in Hong Kong, the woman looking for a street downtown, the man watching his kids play in Central Park… Every time I hear anyone speak French – or even English with a French accent – I wrack my brain for a way to break into their conversation, en français, without seeming too desperate. Many times I can’t find one, and I am able to keep my mouth shut. But sometimes, my tongue disobeys my brain and follows my heart into the most awkward exchanges. Without fail, I feel silly about it, yet I keep doing it anyway.

I used to be mortified whenever my mother, a Brooklynite who moved to Israel in her 20’s and returned to the States in her 30’s, would butt in on strangers’ conversations after she overheard them speaking Hebrew. We’d be in the middle of the English-speaking world – a mall in New Jersey or a cafe in New York – and this native English speaker would find any excuse to say something to the Israelis in Hebrew. It always seemed that my introverted mother did this not because she truly wanted to engage with other human beings but because she wanted validation of her identity in the kin group. No matter what she said to them, all I ever heard was a pathetic, “Wink wink, I’m one of you!”

Now that I have caught myself pulling the same stunt on multiple occasions, I think of it a little differently. 

I suppose there is a small part of me that has something to prove: that I can still speak the language, or that I belong with the foreigners in my midst. But most of it has nothing to do with pride (which is good because there is nothing ego-boosting about sounding like a complete dope). Instead, the overpowering desire to speak French comes from…wanting to speak French. I have so few opportunities  these days that when I see one, I can’t pass it up.

I don’t really miss France, but I really, really miss French. It’s a beautiful language, and I love it. I guess my mother feels the same way about Hebrew.

So to that I say,

!כל הכבוד*

*Kol hakavod, i.e., “All the honor,” i.e., You go, girl!

[Photo: Rithban]

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Vietnam part 4: Trang An

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The day after my Halong Bay trip, I boarded another bus, this time to Ninh Binh Province. I spent the day touring Trang An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site consisting of the Bai Dinh Buddhist temple complex (the largest in Vietnam) and a system of waterways and grottoes in which other temples are hidden.

The landscape was just as beautiful as Halong Bay (in fact it is sometimes described as Halong Bay on land), and the temples were stunning, too. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.  Continue reading

balls!

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I have a few recurrent nightmares that clearly indicate when I’m wracked by waking anxieties:

  • I desperately need to pee and there are hundreds of available toilets but every stall is tiny, missing its doors, covered in filth, or otherwise unusable. In the course of maneuvering around the obstacles, I end up peeing all over myself.
  • One tooth comes loose and falls out, setting off a domino effect in which every other tooth in my mouth drops out, one after another.
  • I’m back in high school for my final calculus exam, after cutting class all year. I can’t remember where my locker is located, let alone what the combination is, so I can’t even grab my math book to figure out what will be on the test. I realize that I’ll have to give back my college degree once they find out I failed calculus and never finished high school.

Last night I added a new one to the roster of anxiety dreams:

I was craving a falafel sandwich so I tried to buy one from a food truck. The vendor refused to sell me one. He said that since my records indicated that I hadn’t spoken Hebrew since 2001, I no longer understood it and I’m therefore not allowed to eat falafel. [I think I stole this concept from the Israeli Consulate.] I became enraged at the injustice and started flipping out, at which point the vendor and another guy forcibly removed me. I vaguely remember that my mom was there, happily chatting in Hebrew, munching on falafel, and turning a blind eye to my ejection. I silently cursed myself for not having learned Hebrew the easy way, as a kid.

[I did start and quickly abandon Hebrew Duolingo lessons a few weeks ago so maybe this was not an anxiety dream but rather my brain’s tough love reminder to get back to work?]

[Photo: Insatiable Munch]

Vietnam, part 1: Hanoi

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In March I spent a few days in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi on either side of a shoot in northern Vietnam for an NGO that works throughout the region. It was my first time in the country and I was so lucky to see it from many different angles: urban, rural, natural wonders, hyper-local color.

I’ll share more photos over the next few weeks, but for now here are highlights from Hanoi:  Continue reading

joie de vivre

LES sunlight.jpgApparently the unexplainable feeling of wellbeing I found in Paris last fall was not city-specific. I am very grateful that it has stuck with me in New York, despite the fact that I am cold and penniless. The other day I sat down on a bench at the intersection above, spread my arms out like a preacher, and started smiling maniacally about how gloriously bright it was. For perhaps the first time in my adult life, I seem to be carrying this good feeling around inside of me like Baby Brute in the little Brute family.

It is surely chemically enhanced but it is authentic nonetheless.

The sun helps, of course. There is so much more of it here than in Paris. Knowing when to quit does, too.

My usual tendency is to behave like I’m living in an environment of scarcity. I hold on to every good person, place, or plan as though it’s the last of its kind. When they run their course and come to an end, it kills me. I expected to feel awful about leaving Europe before I was ready to. But I think I have finally internalized that there are opportunities for me around every corner, so I can more gracefully let go of things that just didn’t work out despite my best efforts.  

It helps that the universe is now smiling upon me after months of shit storms. The luckiest break is that I’m off to Vietnam this Friday for a shoot. I’ll be M.I.A. here for two weeks, but then I’ll have lots of photos to share from foreign lands. (I also have a one-day stopover in Hong Kong, which I am super psyched about.)

See you in a few…

on French doctors

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I’ve met my fair share of French doctors. This is unfortunate not because they are particularly awful but because I’ve had to see them in the first place. For someone who only lived in France for nine months, I spent an inordinate amount of time  in bad health and navigating the healthcare system.

You start to pick up on cultural clues when you interact with the same type of person or bureaucracy over and over again in a relatively short space of time.

Here are a few experiences I found illuminating:

The first time I visited a French doctor, I made an appointment online and showed up a few hours later. The office was on the ground floor of an apartment building. A woman came to the door and told me to sit in a living room-like waiting area. When that same woman came back and led me into another room ten minutes later, I assumed she’d then leave and get the doctor. But she was the doctor. Her exam area was a converted sitting room. Between the fireplace, the crown molding, and the oil paintings in gilded frames, the exam table seemed a little out of place.

The doctor told me to take off everything below the waist, and then she stood there. I was afraid I had misunderstood her French and would scandalize her if I proceeded to strip in front of her. So I confirmed – everything? Yes, everything. She continued to stand there. I pulled first my pants and then my underwear off, not knowing exactly where to hold my gaze. Then I awkwardly scrambled onto the exam table. She did a quick exam, made a diagnosis, and sat down at her desk to do the billing while I put my clothes back on. 

As this was happening, a call came in. Someone wanted to have a discussion about lab results but the doctor said she was busy and told her to make an online appointment to come in. Then she hung up and told me apologetically that because I didn’t have any social security coverage, the charge would be 30 Euros. I shook my head in wonder, and as I handed over the cash, I couldn’t help but gush about how the French health care system is humane and wonderful and a million times better than the American one, which the GOP was attempting to dismantle that very week.

Then the phone rang again. It was the same woman as before, insisting on a phone consultation. The woman raised her voice and the doctor lost her patience. The two started shouting at each other while I sat and waited. Suddenly, the doctor hung up on the woman, turned to me, and muttered, “The United States, huh? I would LOVE to be a doctor in the United States. You see the way we get treated here?”

Later I visited a GP who got into a screaming match with a patient because she came in for an emergency appointment but didn’t have an official emergency. He told her she had to wait for a regular visit like everyone else and she refused to comply. He, too, did not have a receptionist and had to handle the dirty work himself. He, too, seemed to be operating out of a dedicated area of his own apartment. And he, too, told me to take my shirt off for the exam and then stood there looking at me expectantly. While I found it a little unnerving, it did made me wonder why it matters if a doctor walks out of the room and gives you privacy while you’re changing, if in the end they see you naked anyway. 

Then there was the psychiatrist at a reputable hospital who, after advising me to leave France (I had not asked for his advice), told me that I’d have to be crazy to want to live in a country where x, y, and z were wrong. I pointed out that things weren’t much better in the United States and he conceded, “Well, yes, of course Donald Trump is completely insane.” If he had been joking I would have found it funny, but he was 100% unaware that he was taking liberties with his profession’s terms of art. I thought about all the American psychiatrists who have steadfastly refused to diagnose Trump’s mental health from a distance, and I was suddenly thankful for this one’s lack of tact.

There are lots of other differences between French and American healthcare workers that I noticed, but my friend’s story is the one I like best:

She hadn’t had a teeth cleaning in more than two years and felt gross about it. When she went to the dentist, he looked in her mouth and told her that her teeth were fine, and he flat out refused to treat her even though she expressed a strong desire for a cleaning. I can imagine him explaining in a very dignified way that he could not possibly accept her money for a service that wasn’t necessary. On the contrary, I could not in a million years imagine an American dentist refusing my money – or thinking that two years’ worth of plaque buildup was no big deal. In fact, the last time I went to the dentist he tried to convince me that I urgently needed $600 worth of veneers. (I didn’t.)

I will let you draw your own conclusions about these interactions, if you’d like. I prefer to keep mine to myself, because if I’ve learned anything during my travels it’s that just when you think you have enough evidence to come to an understanding about a foreign culture, your assumptions are upended and you feel like a fool for judging too soon.

[The beautiful garden in the photo above is in the courtyard of the oldest hospital in Paris, founded in the 7th century, though the current building is from the late 1800s. Not your average NYC hospital.]

My Dakar places

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On Valentine’s Day two years ago, I flew to Dakar. So much has happened since then that it feels more like a decade.

It also feels like I left Dakar ages ago, but it’s actually only been eleven months, which is so unbelievable to me that I redid the math twice. Still, eleven months is long enough to lose touch with a place, and the list I’m about to post may be a little outdated. But I’ve been promising it to myself and others for too long to let it evaporate. And things change far more slowly in Dakar than in New York, so even though there are surely new places to discover, almost all of these old places could still be going strong. (I’ll edit the post accordingly if I learn differently.)

Without further ado, and in no particular order, my favorite places in Dakar… Continue reading

stream of consciousness googling

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It started with this article, which described an initiative to sell houses in the Sardinian town of Ollolai for 1 Euro:

https://www.curbed.com/2018/1/31/16954322/ollolai-sardinia-1-euro-homes

…which led me to this website, with information in Italian about the sale:

https://casea1euro.it/ollolai-informazioni/

…which led me to realize that a. between my advanced French and rudimentary Spanish, I can decipher quite a bit of Italian, and that b. there are similar initiatives for other Italian towns, including one in Tuscany:

https://casea1euro.it/case-a-1-euro-a-montieri/

…which led me to realize that my destiny is to buy a 1 Euro house in breathtakingly stunning Montieri, spend $25,000 renovating it, and let the rest of my life fall into place around this one pivotal act.

https://www.google.com/search?q=montieri&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjzrNiMq4jZAhWGuVkKHSQ5CpsQ_AUICygC&biw=1170&bih=551

…which led me to second-guess my ability to learn Italian and wonder whether there might not be a similar scheme in France, which led me to discover that yes, there is, but of course it’s in the dreary North:

https://www.thelocal.fr/20171006/your-chance-to-buy-a-house-in-france-for-a-euro-but-theres-a-catch

…which led me to google “cheap property South of France” and find this charming “fixer-upper:”

http://www.forgottenfrance.com/french-properties-for-sale-in-south-west-france/under-100-000/najac-renovation-project-a-centuries-old-stone-house-with-enclosed-character-courtyard-/

…which led me here:

https://www.prestigeproperty.co.uk/castles-for-sale-138/

From 1 Euro homes to 31 million Euro (price reduced!) French chateaux in under ten minutes.