Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A BNP Affair

I didn't think I would succumb because yes, I'm a bit of a stubborn soul.  I keep my guard up and I hold a soft spot for the familiar.  I don't like to get too involved, too hooked in, too personal.  After all, I arrived in France with the mindset of a single gal without no plans to stay here long term and little constraints. But you know what?  It happened.  It happened one sweet day. I've finally jumped on the bandwagon, let my guard down, opened myself up to possibility and well, the whole seems pretty promising.

Yes, ten months in and I finally opened a French Bank account. 

It feels pretty good. I'm treated well.  They call, but they don't call too often; just to see how I'm doing or invite me to an information session that offers student incentives.  I don't want to get ahead of myself, but they're better than some of the other banks I've been with in the past.  I'm being shown experiences that I haven't yet had until now in France--like being able to rent movies; like renting the city bikes; taking road trips with ease, because for most of the things here in France, your bank card needs that special chip; that chip that I didn't get in America; the carte bancaire.

I quite like my California credit union and despite the distance, we've made it work, which is probably why I stayed committed.  Plus, you know, it's hard.  It's hard once you've trusted other banks that looked good on paper, that your parents approved of, that promised not to disappoint, and then little by little, you start to notice that something's not right--a small fee here, a small fee there.  And that's how it begins.  It never ends well.

Sure, it's still difficult at times with a new relationship and of course, the language barrier can be a bit touchy, but there's patience; like the time they spent 17 minutes explaining to me how to deposit money into the machine versus how to deposit a check into the machine (because it's different than in the States).  Or the fact that I wasn't belittled when I hopelessly admitted, "umm, I don't know how to check my account online. Did you realize your website is all in French?" 

Yes, they did realize this.

I feel the way that I'm assuming my grandparents felt during the age of cell phones and email, but it's okay.  I'm making progress, I'm making efforts and BNP and I, we have a basic communication.  It's the foundation, right? Who knows what will happen when it's time to pack up and return to California, but for now, I know that I'm living in the moment.  I'm happy….with my new bank.

Monday, November 8, 2010

How To Misplace a Child in 5 Easy Steps (without even knowing it)

1. When the children's school starts at 8:30am, make sure you're running late to ensure stress and scrambling.

2. Once you've gotten downstairs from the 6th floor of your apartment building with the elevator made during the days of Yore, make sure the younger child ("CHILD A") realizes there's a page missing from her story-time book, a book that she doesn't need for school. This way, she will ask if she can go back upstairs to search for the page. This will take at least 6 minutes so you will tell her no, "Il n'y a pas de temps! We will be late!"

3. Cue Child A's tantrum, which will steal more time from your already rushed morning. You're more than halfway there. Let's keep going.

4. When the 7 year old ("CHILD B") asks if she can go ahead to school (which is only a few blocks away), ask if she knows the way. She says she does. Fall for her convincing affinity of independence. Don't consider the fact that you live in a large city and moreso, in the city center with lots of traffic and current riots taking place. She's totally capable, right? So tell her yes, "yes you can go ahead to school. We'll see you there." Assume that she won't get very far. Assume that the knot in your stomach is from the outdated yogurt you ate that morning.

5. Because you've had "that" kind of week, CHILD A will continue to throw a tantrum at the bottom of the stairwell for the next 3.5 minutes. Once you get her outside of the building, ensure that she throws a tantrum all the way to school, including in front of the police station (just for good measure and to add a bit of chagrin). Since you are running considerably late, assume that CHILD B made it to school just swimmingly because well, you didn't see her on the way. Comfort your doubts by reminding yourself that there are a few different routes to take. Drop off CHILD A in the nick of time, and voila, that's it!

You will return home to get your own books for school and then hear the buzzer ring, to which you will be stupefied to find that there is a strange woman downstairs with CHILD B. She will tell the heroic story of how she found CHILD B looking lost at a cafe on the corner of your block. You thank her. You inform the eavesdropping overly pretentious neighbor, when she asks, that the father returns from his business trip in two days (so that she will know when she can squeal to him about your incompetencies). Now you can proceed to take CHILD B to school, return home and take a breath.

Then, go ahead and ruminate about what in the (profanity spoiler alert) hell were you thinking letting a 7 year old go to school by herself in the center of a city, with traffic and riots going on?!? You can proceed to question your own capabilities while a surge of anxiety washes over you. Out of resentment, you can then reminisce of the days in California when you weren't responsible for children. You can even Freud yourself, questioning if you did this on a subconscious level so you could be fired and sent home.

I'm not fired. I'm still here.

Let's do some gratitudes:
  • I have a really really fantastic support system in California!
  • My dad and brother are coming to visit in a little over a month!
  • While studying at a cafe the other morning, an 85(ish) year old man bought me coffee and sparked up a conversation with me for the following 30 minutes. This fulfilled my longing for friendly strangers, which I think is rare here.
  • I'm done with cranberry juice!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Pre-Au Pair Guide

Maybe it’s something in the air. Maybe it’s the economy. Maybe it was the 10 page NY Times article on the 20-Somethings and our delay into adulthood; or maybe, just maybe, the itch has spread for some adventure, for travel, for a new experience away from a desk job. And this is why: Lately, I've been receiving a good amount of emails asking for advice by prospective au pairs. Why they deemed it a good idea to come to me for advice, I'm still wondering myself because even as Keith over at Taste of Garlic commented, "if you are thinking about becoming an au pair in France, it might be better if you don’t read The Au Pair Project until you’ve got the job!"

But hold on, let's not panic. I can switch gears and speak unbiased. No heavy lifting, no assembly required. I can even leave my resentment at the door and refrain from offering prospective au pairs my job here so I can return to the smoke-free skies of California. Did I mention that France is setting cars on fire while rioting and striking through the streets? So, just for the hell of it, for the sake of honesty, because I wish someone would've been honest with me, I’ll lay the cards out on the table.

Et bien... So you want to be an au pair? Really? No, but like really? You’re sure? You've put some thought into this? I admire your vigilance and possibly question your sanity, but okay. So what was it that lured you in? The travel? Let me guess, you love kids and you want to work with children one day? Or is it that the Au Pair Route is the easiest route to land yourself in a foreign country without completely draining your bank account? If it’s the travel, then wait. Save up and just travel. If it’s the love of children, then wait; this could (and most likely will) change your views. If it’s the latter, well then okay. Top sites for searching for a host family: There are beaucoup de sites out there for au pairs, but after talking with families and au pairs here in France, Au Pair World is the most widely used. Some sites advise that you use an agency, but I say skip it. Take that $200 fee that they will charge you and put it in your savings because once you find out your au pair salary, you'll need it. It's also You, who has your best interests at heart; not an agency. But if you're still hellbent on having someone do it for you, I'd be happy to search for you in exchange for a fee!

  • When Searching for a Family: Let me demystify the Au Pair/Host Family vocabulary for you. Just outside of the city means: at least 30 minutes and unless you're in Paris, the public transport (aka the buses) end at an obscenely early time (even on the weekends) and aren't always dependable. Go ahead, ask my mom about the time I called her fed up because the bus to take me home never showed up and it was snowing and I had to hitchhike at 11 at night. Oh, the good ol' days. In short, be INSIDE of the city. Yes, families do exist there. The kids eat lunch at home means: find a different family because there goes your free time during the day. Pets mean: they will also, most likely become your responsibility. Just ask my friend Ife who lived on a farm with 3 donkeys, 2 dogs, x amount of birds, chickens, geese, cats, and this doesn't even count the stuffed animals that they kept inside of the house. And then there was the time that I lived with the American family that asked me to clean the cat's litter box. It's too bad I'm allergic. But more truthfully, I'm just allergic to all things that I don't like. Part of the family means: we want to feel comfortable enough with you to ask you favors without having to pay you extra--like we would with an eldest daughter. Strong willed means: means that you never want to hear or read this from a parent who is describing their child(ren). This is also courtesy of my friend Clare and well, let's just say that the boy she cares for is so strong willed that she is thinking about moving back to Australia. Clare?
  • Step II: You found a family. It's time to ask questions; be a curious yellow because well, you never know. Let me just remind you that you're giving up the familiar to move to a foreign country and work in a home of strangers. Let me remind you that ASSUME makes an ASS out of U and ME, but mostly, just you. Let me remind you of the family I came here for that served me up full of creme-fraiche and bacon, forcing me to use my modest stipend to pay for my daily serving of vegetables. But which questions do I ask? If you stay in the house with the rest of the family or if your room is separate. Do you have your own room? Do you have your own bathroom? Is there a closet for you to put your things? (Like I said, don't assume). Who does the house-keeping (because keep in mind you take care of kids, not the housework)? Who does the grocery shopping? Do you have a curfew? Do you have weekends free? Are you able to go out some nights during the week? What are your hours (Ask for a schedule!!)? Do the kids eat lunch at school or at home? Do you have Wednesdays off or do you babysit? (Remember that French children don't have school Wednesdays) Who does the cooking? How have the children reacted to previous au pairs? Can you contact the previous au pair? Do they draft up an au pair contract? Will you be covered by Securite-Sociale? If you don't live in the city, is there a car for your personal use? Are you expected to drive the children places? etc, etc, etc... The main idea is this: You need to have a clear sense of your role and responsibilities. Furthermore, each party should have a well-defined understanding of each person's needs because then, everyone is happy!
  • And as if you thought I forgot, ask about your salary. You can negotiate your salary. There is a minimum pay if they sign a contract with you (which should be required) of 300 euros a month, but if you settle on this, you might end up resentful when you realize what your job entails. A girl emailed me that a family wanted to hire her and just offer her room and board without pay. I told her to run away! The truth is this: People will give the least they can and take the most offered. It's basic human instinct and to heighten this theory, it's France. The country that gets a minimum, a minimum I tell you, of five weeks of holidays, but is outside rioting over retirement age. Remember the family I worked with for 3 months and was paid nothing? Do what I say, not what I do.
  • To supplement your oh-so-generous salary, you can advertise private tutoring or English lessons at your local school, local boulangerie, patisserie, market, etc. Just make sure to ask the owner if it's okay to post your advertisement.
  • Language Courses: The chances of finding a family that's willing to pay for your language classes is slim to none because the au pair sites tell them that they don't have to, which I think is pretty sneaky because with language classes that cost an average of 220 per month, you will end up with next to nothing for salary. Let's pretend you make 300 a month and you pay 220 to your language courses, which are required for your visa. Let's also pretend that you pay for your own transportation pass (which the family should pay for) and that's 25 euros with the student rate. Now you're left with 55 euros per month? That's not even 2 euros a day. You've now become on of those children on the donation commercials that are able to subside on next to nothing. Congratulations. But you want to take the language classes, I tell you!! It's time away from the house where you'll meet tons of people including other au pairs and hopefully, make some lasting friendships. If you're really really really "dans le rouge" and the thought of paying this fee every month is stopping you from taking the au pair plunge, then I will underhandedly inform you that if you stop taking language courses after the first month, the French government (or anyone for that matter) is not going to come check up on you. France is too occupied with strikes.  
  • A great reminder that came from a fellow Au Pair Clare, is to pay for your language classes in bulk, which usually results in a discount. And don't forget to enroll for the au pair language program. It's cheaper than the programs for other students.
  • Go meet some people, make some friends and get yourself away from the G-rated crowd once in a while! I can say with certainty and gratitude that maintaining my friendships has helped me to maintain my sanity. Aside from your language school, use It's pretty widely used here, according to others. Take an activity class like dance, singing, karate, n'importe quoi! And then, while you're at it, join Yes, it's the French version of So, what?! Everyone deserves a little "action".
Fact: If I had to do it all over again, I don't know if I would choose the Au Pair Route. I might seek other options like being a teacher's assistant or teaching English, but learn and live, right?! But it's also true that there are au pairs who love every minute of their experience. Lucky ones that end up with great families, their own apartment paired with a kick ass schedule. It also goes in reverse: there are families who end up with terrible au pairs. It all comes down to finding the right fit, which is why it is so so so important to ask questions and get to know each other. It's important.

Fact: I love living in France (yes, even with the riots, the manifestations, the lack of petrol because of the riots, and the worst customer service imaginable). I really do love this country. I love the language, the cafes, the culture, the flan, the way of life, oh the flan! I'm in love.

Fact: I also love my independence. Since I became an au pair, I haven't seen much of it. I miss going and coming when I want; oh what a beauty it was to have my own apartment. I miss not having to report to anyone on my whereabouts and I miss not having a curfew, but hey, 26 with a curfew isn't unreasonable, right?! Moving on...

Fact: I complain, I know, but the truth is that the travel aspect of this job that comes every six weeks (because French school systems break every six weeks) makes every part of this job worth it. I think I forget this sometimes, (these last couple of weeks especially). Without this experience, I probably wouldn't have had the opportunity to gallop and sashay my way around Europe; to get lost in the streets of Cannes or salsa my way through Barcelona; tan myself nude on the beaches of Croatia; hike the canyons of Casis; road trip through France or regret making out with the way-too-young-for-me med-student in Dubrovnik. I earn next to nothing but have gained so many experiences and stories. Traveling changes the soul. It changes one's outlook and opens the eyes to things you've only imagined. It's quite magnificent and for that, I'm grateful.
So, if taking the plunge as an au pair seems manageable, then take the jump. It could be something really fantastic. Bon Courage future au pairs!!

**Updated Nov. 9, 2010, because I care. 

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Versatile Blog Award

There's an award for everything these days. It's true. I've yet to receive one for my awesomeness in being an Au Pair but, BUT there's still time! Anyway, the wonderful blog: An International Affair was kind enough to give me this blog award

In order to accept this award, I must do the following:

1. Thank and link back to the person who gave me this award
2. Tell everyone 7 things about myself
3. Pass this award to 15 other bloggers

Thank and link back to the person who gave me this award.

Merci!! I appreciate the recognition, especially after creating this little project just for me and finding out that others follow it.

An International Affair is a fabulous blog about a thirty-something year old woman of mystery who is on an international search for love and laughs! In her own words, "It's about the life you didn’t choose. Your alternative choice. The path not taken. My blog is about what if you didn’t marry your high school or college sweetheart. What if you didn’t have children with them in your late twenties or early thirties. What if you said “yes” when your company asked you to move abroad (five times). What if you pursued your career relentlessly and with single minded determination to get ahead and be the best. What if you left your friends and family behind. What if you gave it all up for a new adventure? And what if you didn’t care so much about the end destination but more about the journey and decided that life is about laughing about yourself rather than taking yourself so seriously?" It's how I'd like to live my life!

Tell everyone 7 things about myself:

1. I will sheepishly admit that since I moved to France, I have no idea of the current events going on in the US. This includes but is not limited to politics, news stories, movies, television and everything in between. I am, however, current on the concert tour dates of Lady Gaga. Priorities.

2. I love airports. I love everything about them. They are "pavloved" to the part of my brain associated with vacations.

3. Even in France, I try to work the "That's what she said" joke into conversations whenever possible. And in English.

4. I hate cranberry juice. I associate it with bladder infections. I bet you wanted to know that little fact! I also hate cold pizza... but not because of bladder infections.

5. I live in France and I wish I could speak Italian. Go figure.

6. In my head, I have the delusion that I speak really really well French. Ditto for singing.

7. I incessantly lie to the children. I told the girls last night that it was against the law to not brush your teeth; that the Pastry shop was all out of pastries; that I let them stay up until 10 pm, "which is way past your bedtime!" (it was 8). It's all about morals.

Pass this award to 15 other bloggers

Some of my favorites:
Et voila! I'd love to go on, but I have French Administration to deal with this afternoon. Bon week end! (And yes, I do find it bizarre that the French break up the word "weekend" into two words.)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Sweet Life

Uh...Yeah right.

If I told you why I couldn't sleep; if I told you why even a Trazadone didn't do the trick; if I told you why no amount of Sleepy Time Tea or Melatonin could help; if I told you why I was up until 4 am, which gave me two hours of restless sleep and led to a very challenging, very grouchy day after, you would agree with my frustration. You would sympathize. You might even invite me to escape to your home for some peace and quiet. And wine. But alas, the details aren’t important. Just keep in mind that I live in the same apartment as the family, which happens to be a single dad. Keep in mind that my room lies in between his and the girls'. Keep in mind that single parents still date and sometimes, those dates are successful. Three hours of success.

This is tough. Sometimes, it's very tough. Yes, I am enjoying a year in another country, a year learning another language, and finally finding a family that makes this experience manageable. I love living in the center of the city. I love being able to go jogging along the river. I love meeting friends at a cafe in the evenings. But, this job still has its moments. It's hard to live with someone else's family. It’s hard to live with your own family at times, so I don't know what I was thinking. It's not easy being an adult who still reports to someone on my whereabouts—“I'm going to the market. I'm going to a dance class. I'm going...N’importe où!”

I used to think that what doesn't kill me, makes me stronger. Some of my innocence died, some of my optimism has been lost and I now know what doesn't kill me, gives me great anxiety and keeps the pharmaceutical industry in business.

So, I'm summoning positive thoughts; I'm listing my gratitude’s, I’m buying a pair of ear-plugs.Gratitude:

  • Coming up with a list of gratitudes during a week like this week.
  • I'm going to Grenoble this weekend for a dinner party. Yes, that's right. That is my life.
  • Single parents that travel for work. How I can't wait to sleep tonight.
  • Dance Master Class workshop this Saturday morning. Fingers crossed.
  • The sun is out--although now that I said that, watch it rain tomorrow. Just watch!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Adam and Eve

The kids are now into their fourth week of school and I couldn't be happier. They are exceptional kids, I promise! But have you tried entertaining a 6 and 7 year old for thirteen hours a day, all while trying to keep their older sister from provoking arguments?! Let's just say that we've taken a lot of walks around the city and I've taken a lot of deep breaths. In any event, we know the Centre Commercial aka The Mall very well.

The kids, well, they aren't the only ones who had la rentrée. Yes, I've also headed back to school, which more simply means, I'm back in my visa-required, twelve hours of French courses each week. Which can then be simplified further as two weeks of my salary because not only is French a bitch to master, it's also incredibly expensive. But it's okay because it's an investment, right?! An investment in my future; my future which will most likely continue in California, where everyone speaks Spanish. C'est pas grave! That's beside the point because the point is, I can now tell someone off in French without pulling out my dictionary and have them walk off. Plus, learning prevents dementia, which has helped me to remember the endless French verb conjugations, but more importantly, prevents me from forgetting the children every day at 4:30 pm.

Since French children don't have school on Wednesdays, the Au Pair also doesn't have school on Wednesdays. I'll tone it down by saying that I used to loathe Wednesdays--the activities, the stress, the carpooling. But now, it ain't so bad, and I’ll venture to say it can be enjoyable to spend the day relaxing with the two young French kids. The problem though is I miss my French class and have to play catch up. I hate this. But what I learned on this particular Wednesday was worth so much more than I could ever pay for in a classroom.

Cue 6 year-old Petite Rose:

Our mornings have become quite routine. I love them. Her and I are the early birds of the household and so, we rendez-vous at the kitchen table for our petit-dejeuner. I have yogurt. She has Honey Nut Cheerios—so very French.

"Lolo, est-ce que tu connais l'histoire d'Adam et Eve?"

I set down my tea. "L'histoire de what?!" Already knowing that her version would be so much better, I replied, "No, Rose. Tell me the story of Adam and Eve."

"Well first, God created 'la terre' and then, he created un homme et une femme. Il s'appelle Adam et elle s'appelle Eve," she continued. "Et apres, God created an apple tree, but he told Adam et Eve that it was 'interdit' to eat 'les fruits'. But then Eve, she ate the fruit because she was distrait--"

"Wait a second," interrupting to make sure I heard correctly, "She ate the fruit because she was distrait? No snake or anything?"

"Non. She was just distrait. And then, Lolo, then they had lots of babies who grew up and had their own babies and that's how the world was populated.... But I don't really believe that. Do you?"

So there you have it; Eve was absent-minded-- Absent minded. So she ate the fruit and populated the World.

The end.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Joyeux Anniversaire a Moi

Disclaimer: Dad, you may want to bypass this one. Disclaimer: Dad, you may want to bypass this one.

Some people have cake. Some people do parties, celebrations, take vacations, open presents-- you know, The Works-- and I am usually one of them. Last year, there was my Red and White (Wine) Theme Party. The year before that, there was the L-Theme Party. The Rock Star Theme Party, the 80's Theme Party, the New Orleans Theme Party, and who could forget the Super Sweet 16+7 Party for my 23rd?! Not to mention, the dinners at nice restaurants, the family parties and celebrations that took place. But let me tell you this: You have not lived a real birthday, you have not experienced it to the fullest, you have not become cultured until you've spent it at the French gynecologist's office getting your yearly woman’s exam (aka The Dreaded Pap Smear) as I did. It's true. Yes, I know, I'm an adventurer.

It wasn't my intention, nor was it on my Bucket List to spend a birthday being poked and prodded by a sixty year-old French doctor; but when you're an Au Pair with little availability, and Madame Gynecologue says there's an opening September 20th at 3:00 pm, (which will give you just enough time to get in, get out and pick up the girls from school by 4:30) you say, "Oui, merci" and add it to your planner.

So how'd it go you ask? With a grain of salt and mild chagrin, I confess that it was…it was… well, it was definitely something. You see, I'm used to the routine and privacy (or as much privacy as one can have during this type of exam) of the American doctors, where you're given a moment alone to undress, slip on the complimentary (albeit paper) robe and drape the neatly pliéd sheet over your lap as you perch yourself on the exam table to catch up on some light reading. After a tap-tap on the door, "Are you ready?" the doctor comes in, dims the lights and voila…does the exam. I wouldn't go so far to call it an enjoyable affair but it's not dreadful.

Fast forward to September 20th, 2010, 3:26 pm Western European Time, and you'll find me pillared nervously in the French exam room because yes, I've been warned these sort of things in France are different. For starters, the place looks like it could be someone's home office--desk, sofa, pictures of family, etc, but with a bunch of French sex and birth control brochures spread about the bookshelves. Just off to the side of the office is small exam room, barely big enough to fit the exam table and a four foot long counter. After reviewing my medical history en Francais, I stand, waiting for the doctor to politely leave me in peace so I can undress. But as I look around, I see that something's missing. Where is my paper robe and where is my sheet?! I ask in my most articulate French, but I'm received with a blank stare. Thinking that maybe it's the language barrier, I do the hand motions for putting on a robe. Still, nothing. Disregarding my agitation, she instructs me to undress and lie on the table. Lights stayed on; I'm completely exposed and suffice it to say, vulnerable. And maybe it was just me, but I swear there was a draft in the room. The exam and I had to be asked continuously to stop scooting away. By four o'clock, I walked out of the office with my 50 euro receipt and medical certificate (which I need for an upcoming race), swearing that the next time I need a pap, I'll book a flight home, first. But on a positive note, here's to being 26 and disease-free!

The rest of my birthday was a flawless success, as my very French boyfriend surprised me with a night aboard une Peniche (a French houseboat) with its very own indoor pool and spa. There was We sat down to the most delicious (butter-infused, I'm sure) Fruits de Mer (seafood) dinner accompanied by a bottle of Rose wine and spent the evening poolside with champagne (because yes, on the inside of our houseboat was our own swimming pool and spa). I did miss my friends in California; I did miss my family; and there was a part of me that longed for some Peanut Butter Golden Spoon, but, but turning 26 and celebrating my birthday in France (and seaside for that matter) was pretty unforgettable. When it came time to blow out my birthday candles and cut the cake, I got out of the pool and there waiting for me on the wall hook, was my very own robe. They do exist in France.

So here's to another year with new endeavors, new experiences, open doors and opportunities ahead; here's a wish for a little more insight, a little more courage, a bit of bliss and lasting strength. Here goes nothin'

  • For my birthday, my mom bought me a massage and a local spa, which was nothing short of wonderful--although again, there were no sheets.
  • My birthday horoscope had good things to say. I feel motivated for the year ahead.
  • My host family threw a birthday dinner for me last night which was followed by raspberry birthday cake and yes, more champagne.
  • This guy reviewed my blog... it's always nice to get feedback.
  • The birthday messages from my family and friends made my week :)
  • Dinner party this weekend :)

Friday, September 10, 2010


I believe in now or never; plain and simple; What's done is done. I believe in walking the walk if you're going to talk the talk. I believe that money can't buy happiness (unless of course happiness you’re in the Nine West shoe section of Macy's). I believe there's always a silver lining; that there's light at the end of the tunnel and well, I believe home is truly where the heart is.

My name is Lauren, and I hold a penchant for clichés. Scoff if you must, but it's true because well, I’m banking on the cliché that promises, “Third time’s a charm.”

Let's cut to the chase:

First, there was the time I spent as an Au Pair with the ever-so-delightful French family that lived just outside of Lyon, and well, we all know how well that went. But no, I'm definitely not bitter that I spent January through April, forty-five minutes outside of the city with lack of transportation and nothing to do but watch the snow fall. Right?! No, I'm absolutely not bitter because I believe that what goes around, comes around.

Then there was the “transitional” period with an American family who was kind enough to take me into their home. It was a vast improvement, yes, until I eventually became exhausted, drained and penniless (and I swear at one point my hair started falling out); but I'm not bitter about that either because yes, time heals all.

I left them in July for what we'll go ahead and classify as Stress Leave (or more simply, a vacation to London, Croatia, Paris and Provence) to rejuvenate my mental health. And it worked—I swear I'm better now! I spent time unapologetically unwinding, un-aging and even undressing on the beaches of Croatia. During that month, I had plenty of time to reflect and concluded that I'm not quite ready to call it quits and end my time in France. Blame it on the heat, or maybe even dehydration, but the truth is this: I signed up for France for a year-long adventure. I came for an experience and I just don't feel I've gotten what I came here to find. No, I'm not exactly sure what I'm looking for but I do know that I just want to look some more.

And that brings us to what we'll now label, "The Third Time" as once again, I signed up as an Au Pair with a French family here in Lyon. Here's The Charm: my first week of work started as a seven day vacation with them in L'Estartit Spain.

Single dad. Three daughters (ages 12, 7 and 6). Apartment flat in Lyon Centre (No, but seriously, it's as Center-of-the-City as you can get). They're definitely not your picture-perfect family; they're not keeping up with the Jones; and they're a bit dysfunctional, but maybe that's why we mesh so well together. They're quite lovely and so I'm keeping a glimmer of hope, my fingers crossed and possibly even wishing on a star that this one's the ticket.

Here goes nothin…

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Eat, Pray, Love..and then some

“Do you think colored toilet paper will color your ass?”

Internet, meet Rachel. College educated (yes, I promise), 5ft (5’1 on her better days) and full of spunk and sass. She frequents good restaurants, is soon to be married (to a chef) and can be found spending her Sunday mornings in a sweaty, overcrowded dance class, strutting and pirouetting to every Britney and Lady Gaga infused jazz routine.

The thing is this: I’m not sure if Rachel actually chose to be my friend. From what I can gather, once upon a February ago in that sweaty, overcrowded dance class, our dance teacher expressed his worry about my health and asked her to take charge. She’s like that. She takes charge of situations; creates a strategy; and then invites you to her place to dine with her and her boyfriend over Curry vegetables and brown rice.

She’s frank; she’s authentic and what started out as an altruistic invitation, expanded into what is now a balanced and genuine friendship. I convinced her to give up her Saturday mornings for Company dance rehearsals and in return, she convinced me to give complex carbs a second chance. She stays true to her word, so I knew that when she promised to visit me in France, that I would be seeing her sometime between January 2010 and 2011. She finalized her LAX to Paris airline ticket and took off the end of July.

Dear Ms. Elizabeth Gilbert, I realize that your traveling was about eating, praying and loving. While that is all good and well, and I really loved your memoirs, our ten day adventure was slightly different. We ate baguettes and goat cheese on the go. We prayed that we wouldn’t contract Typhoid, Hepatitis, or worse, Stupidity, from the seemingly contaminated home of our Couch-Surfing host in Provence and lastly, we loved the fact that whenever a French local provided us with directions, the place we were looking for was always the opposite way of what they said. But just like you Ms. Gilbert, we learned, we were mindful, we repacked our backpacks more times than I can count and yes, above everything, we did love the journey.

There are two types of love. (Okay yes, being the commitment phobic, a-bit-too-cynical-when-it-comes-to-relationships type self that I am, I may not make the most qualified to speak on this particular subject, but what the hell, therapy over the years has taught me a thing or two). The first type of love is patient; it’s honest and it’s attentive. It takes its time, stresses the importance of communication and it’s a pattern of devotion. This is the type of love that good relationships and marriages are founded on. You risk everything you’ve got; you give it your all; open up your heart and cross your fingers that you’ll live happily ever after.
Paris isn’t like that. It’s the other type. It’s dirty, it’s blunt, and before you know it, you’ve been harassed, belittled and left with a drained bank account all while wanting more. Paris is sexy, it’s rushed, it’s lustful and it’s the only reason I believe in love at first sight. It never agreed to reciprocate feelings, but you keep coming back and you keep loving it anyway. Rachel, like me circa 2006, also fell hard for Paris.
We didn’t spend time appreciating the art in the Louvre. No, we didn’t wait in line to admire the views from atop of the Eiffel Tower and we didn’t marvel at the gardens of Versaille. However, we did France the Locals’ Way: We had our patisserie and café (avec juste un petit peu du lait, s’il vous plait!) every morning. We packed a lunch and spent the afternoon sitting on the dirty cement next to the Eiffel Tower discussing current and past relationships. And being the good Jew that Rachel is, we spent an obscene amount of time in Le Marais quarter (which is my favorite, favorite, favorite quarter of Paris. Did I mention it’s my favorite?) getting lost in conversation about life over a plate of hummus and pita bread with an overflowing glass of Bordeaux. We mastered the metros, argued with French Police and when it was all said and done, we packed our jazz shoes and spent the afternoon heat taking a dance class.

As the cliché goes, “Quit while you’re ahead.” So after four short days in Paris that could’ve easily been ten, we packed our bags into the trunk of our rented Peugot and impulsively set out for the South of France.

“Avignon. Ever been?” Rachel asked as we approached the turnoff sign.
“Nope,” I replied. “The only thing I know about Avignon is the French children’s song. Do you know it?” I asked, as I attempted to sing it.
“Sure don’t. But let’s stop anyway.”

Avignon, I’m convinced, is the Fairly Tale Funhouse of France. Think New York City Broadway, the performers of Hollywood Boulevard and France’s Belle of the Ball have a love affair together that produces a baby which is this city. A bit ostentatious, a bit jazzy with spectacles and people swarming at every step, and all banded by four kilometers of preserved stone walls. There’s nothing to do but sit down with your French baguette and goat cheese lunch and observe the madness.
The next few days were a winged, whimsical and whirlwind tour of the Provence region, from St. Remy and Les Baux de Provence to Aix, Fos sur Mer and Marseille. It was the most delectable blend of French countryside and French cliffs; fields of sunflowers, rows of fresh lavender, endless lines of olives trees and enough wine vineyards to inebriate all of France while they lay on the beaches of Marseille. If that’s not enough to woo you, every single backdrop involved a chateau and every single village housed a kickass chocolate shop. Welcome to Provence. When it was all over, when we felt like we needed a vacation and detox from our present vacation and sugar high, we set out for the final leg of the journey.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Let me start by admitting that there’s a whole lot of stuff about France that I don’t know—Enough to fill all of the Boulangeries of this country. I don’t know how to speak French fluently, how to use those simple-looking-but-not-so-simple-when you-try-to use-them French Presses and I still don’t understand how Steak Tartar (a fancy word for completely raw hamburger meat) is safe to eat. I don’t know how to correctly pronounce the word squirrel in French and for that matter, how to correctly pronounce most of the vocabulary. I don’t know how the Patisseries make their Flan Nature so much better than mine (although I have a feeling that it involves full fat milk and extra egg yolks) or why all French Administration find gratification in being miserable to the world. And in full disclosure, I barely even know where the keys are on this French keyboard, which reminds me that I really really don’t know why my Macbook continues to break only in this country.

But there is something that I do know: Thanks to our road trip through France, I have discovered the most beautiful, the most stunningly gorgeous, the most fill-in-your-adjective-of-choice place in France that I plan to use from here on out for every mindful and guided imagery exercise. It’s a local secret; a place not yet swarming with tourists. It’s a place that only a literary genius (which coincidently, I also don’t know) could detail accurately with words. However, thanks to a nifty portable invention, I can present you with these:

And well Ms. Gilbert, that’s my version of a three part vacation—Some love, some chaos, some pure beauty and relaxation. We did what you said and asked locals for the best pizza in town and I think we found it in Aix en Provence. We followed your lead and treated ourselves to gelato. We even did some Yoga on the lake of St. Croix. But Ms. Gilbert, I think I had an advantage because I got to experience all of that with one of my best friends and when I forget a detail, she’s there to remind me. We talked, we exchanged stories and we analyzed every aspect of our past while dreaming the future. We got lost—in conversation, in the streets of Paris, lost on the highways of Marseille but we never lost our patience.

With the vacation drawing to a close, it was time to say an Au Revoir to the most beautiful place in France. But, just when we thought we had seen it all, we woke up from a morning nap in our Peugot (looking sleep deprived, in desperate need of a shower and hair that hadn’t been washed in three days) to a note on the windshield that read:

Bonjour Sleeping Beauties—If you’d like a café or a drink later, call me.

We wiped our smeared mascara, looked around and were a bit flattered until we anxiously realized upon departure, wait, what kind of weirdo watches people while they sleep?! Add that to my list of things I don’t know about France. Time to go.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


You know you’re in good hands when your pizza comes accompanied with a bottle of ketchup and hot sauce. Welcome. To. Croatia. A place that sits on the Eastern side of the Adriatic Sea, across from Italy. A place with more shoe stores per capita in the city of Split, than any other city in the world. A place of hedonism and history. A place where I decided, somewhat impulsively, that I had to see –Alone.

I’ve traveled on my own plenty, but as far as vacationing alone, I was a virgin. I had considered it an achievement when I once saw a movie by myself at Irvine Spectrum (And if I told you that it was a real movie (The Express), and not your standard chick-flick, you’d agree it was an achievement as well). The thing is, I like people just as much as the next extrovert. I enjoy company. Conversation. Sharing experiences with friends to laugh about later. And because I’ve never had problems persuading people to be in my company, it’s a fair assumption that people like me back. But here’s the thing about being around others: There needs to be balance; you know, some downtime.

After six months of living under someone else’s roof; after 26 weeks of being around kids and a family larger and louder than my own; after one-hundred and eighty-something days of someone always wanting to accompany me without any downtime, I found that solitude was banging at my door. So I answered.

The plan was this: Fly into the city of Split. Stay there three days. Island hop the rest and fly out of Dubrovnik. Days of Travel: 10

I land and I immediately loved Croatia. Aside from Ryan Reynolds, my diamond ring and those incredibly overpriced black stilettos I saw last week, Croatia is undoubtedly, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Roman ruins, medieval architecture and a buzzing atmosphere, all situated on the shore of some of the most stunning unspoiled beaches in Europe. The history of Croatia runs deep as this country has only encountered peace, free from war and violence, for the last fifteen or so years. There’s also something about the fact that my hostel is to be found within the Diocletian Palace, one of the most impressive Roman monuments that is concealed from the rest of the city, which makes this place even more alluring.

I’m escorted by a friendly native to my hostel and drop my luggage off. I then spend my first day of solitude exploring the fortress that is the Diocletian Palace, also known as the Old Town of Split. I walk up the alleys and down through the piazzas. I have no direction. I walk left. I turn right. I’m sure I’ve circled the same area several times. I don’t care. I have no one to tell me otherwise. I browse through the open-air market, stopping to admire the array of local products. I stop for a café. I take my time. I take pictures. I buy a cheap magenta-colored beach towel and I spend the rest of the afternoon perched on the rocky cove with my nose in a book as the sun dissolves my skin's paleness. I know, my life is rough.

I come to the primary conclusion that solitude can be quite therapeutic. Okay, yes, I do encounter what we’ll go ahead and call first-day jitters accompanied by anxiety about being on my own and alright, fine, it’s true that I even consider cutting the trip short, but I recognize quickly that I will absolutely be okay. I’ve survived half a year of the French; this should be a walk in the park (Or more accurately, the beach). And I have a hunch that being alone with my thoughts will be a good thing. It’s necessary. Suddenly, I’m calm and for the first time in a long time, I’m in the present moment. I’m content.

Ten days of exploring, ten days of reading, ten days of thinking, sunbathing, swimming, traveling, island hopping, reflecting, journaling and introspection, and here is what I have come to discover:

Discovery #1: As my friend Ife would say, “I can’t be bothered.” What I mean is this: Life is short. The planet is overheating. Gas prices keep increasing and employment rates are decreasing. Everyone is agitated, everything causes cancer, and soon, gravity will take its toll on us all beyond the aid of Botox. Until that day comes, I’m going to enjoy my youth. I’m going to celebrate wellbeing. I’m going to stop feeling so self-conscious, being bothered by insecurities, and so help me God, I’m going to benefit from those evenings I once spent at the gym, in a dance class or some fitness activity—I’m going to get nude at the Nude Beach on Brac Island and I’m going to stay there until cellulite and stretch marks find me in old age; Or maybe just for the afternoon. And so I did… and it was thrilling.

Discovery #2: Typically, I’m a planner. I am delighted by schedules, by lists, by [somewhat obsessively] crossing off the completed chores. I take joy in the sense of control that it offers. I misplaced this trait, I’m assuming, somewhere over the Adriatic Sea. I went into Croatia with an itinerary. Three days here, one day there, two nights in this place, and a day trip to that place. I didn’t follow the itinerary at all. I didn’t plan. I didn’t worry. There was more than one occasion, when I arrived in a new place, decided I liked it and found accommodations for the night. Normally, this would warrant me an Ativan and a panic attack, but something had changed. Somehow I knew that everything always works out….and it did.

Discovery #3: I love traveling. I believe it transforms, transcends and takes the soul to new heights of understanding. My love for travelling has been continuous and constant, and at times, I’ve been more loyal to travel than to my own romantic relationships. I listen to stories of people who have cycled through Europe; who have climbed to the top of mountain peaks; who have trekked trails that spread over multiple countries; people who do all of these amazing feats. I follow their stories with amazement; “Wow, I want to do that!” But let me distill an accuracy that I learned about myself: In actuality, I don’t want to do those things. I just wish I were the type of person who actually wanted to do those things. Maybe I lack a certain je-ne-sais-quoi or Spirit of Adventure, but I have no desire to set out on an arduous quest to prove myself. I am more exceedingly proud that I can now drink Italian espresso; or when I step off a plane in one piece after a two-hour flight next to colicky infant; Hell, I’m pleased when I’m able to retrieve my baggage directly after a flight from the baggage claim and not one month later. It may not compare, but I’m now okay with that.

I learned this the hard way when I arrived in Bol (with my luggage), on the South side of Brac Island; a place that is considered the jewel of the Adriatic. A place with secluded coves, stunning beaches, rich in vineyards and olive trees, but not congested with tourists. Drunk off it’s beauty and only that, I thought, “Sure, why not hike to the hilltop that overlooks the ocean and camp at the campground?! I could totally do that. I am woman; I am strong. Aren’t I?” So I tried it.

The Verdict: Camping was too quiet, too secluded and yes, too lonely. I felt isolated, agitated and afraid of the dark. The wind howled, I didn’t sleep and I was wide-awake when the sun rose at 5 a.m. I packed my bag and headed off the island, never wanting to camp again and learning that I don’t need to prove everything.

Discovery #4: Since arriving in Europe in January, I’ve been something else for someone else—mostly an Au Pair/nanny/volunteer/help/etc. I’m not complaining—I swear. I kinda-sorta knew what I was getting into. But after the last six months of asking others what they want (What do you want for breakfast? What do you want on your toast? What do you want to wear to school today? What movie do you want to watch and book do you want to read? Where do you want to take your timeout at?), I’ve decided it’s my turn. So without further ado, here is exactly what I want:

I want to live. Live with intention; live with grace. I want to continue to travel, to experience, to admire beauty and encounter new cultures. I want to achieve balance and practice patience. Let go of hurt, forgive others for the past and forgive myself. Bygones. I want to trust; people; myself; that I’ll be okay; that it will all work out in the end. I want to be fortuitous, act mindfully and keep my head in the present. I want to maintain my dreams; live with passion and to follow that passion. I want to love; love fully, without acerbity of the past so I can be open to relationships and possibilities. I want to communicate; with friends; with family; with lovers. I want to pause and reflect. Recognize and release. Take deep breaths. Take my time. Be confident but humbled. Stay headstrong. Be assertive with compassion. Be swept off my feet. Continue to care and continue to live with gratitude. Be a good friend, a loving daughter and devoted sister. I want to make myself happy, too. I want to enjoy life, enjoy people and if there’s still time left over, brake for a piece of dark chocolate, a good Merlot and a good laugh.

Discovery #5: Yogurt Gelato conquers all.

Croatia was my vacation and all mine. It was a few days in Split, one night at a friendly hostel in Brac, one night camping in Bol, a few days on Korcula Island meeting travelers from all over, and one night in the beautiful but overly-touristy-overly-expensive-as-we-try-to-charge-five-euros-for-an-Espresso-Dubrovnik. I can say now that my satiety for solitude has been met. I’m ready to head back to France for a French vacation with my friend Rachel and try to find a gelato that compares.

Island of Korcula

Bol, on the Island of Brac