Why I didn’t hate 2011

Everyone I know was eager to say goodbye to 2011. Undoubtedly, the wretched economy made life difficult for a lot of people. But I don’t really understand the animosity.

For I have good memories of 2011. Even though it promised to be a difficult year, it wasn’t.

I lost my job a year ago, one more casualty of that wretched economy. In the first weeks after I found out I was going to be laid off, I panicked. From a sound sleep, I sat upright in terror. How would I pay my mortgage, my many debts that were barely manageable on a good salary?

I am not a religious person (and don’t want to be), but I do believe that the universe brings us what we need. Time and again, when I wondered how I would pay for something, money always came through. Every time, I wept. I was so grateful.

I also started following my heart. All my life, I had dreamed of living in France. Now without a job, it was finally the right time to do it. I moved to France for 3 months, the longest an American can stay on just a passport. I spent a month each in 3 beautiful cities – Nice (on the French Riviera), Marseille (a vibrant Southern port) and Paris.

I met people who were outgoing and friendly and welcoming. Some became friends for life. I volunteered at the famous English bookstore, Shakespeare & Company. I heard authors read. I bought fresh baguettes every day and ate them with cheese. Drank wine that was smooth as silk and cheaper than American beer. Had picnics in parks and parties on the beach with strangers who became friends. Explored neighborhoods that most tourists never see. Worked remotely from a foreign country. I never wanted to leave.

The Promenade in Nice

In France, I lived very simply. It was both by necessity and choice. I could only bring 1 large suitcase and 1 small one. That meant a few clothes, a couple of books, my cell phone and accessories, my camera, toiletries and not much else. I lived in apartments that were clean and decent but sparse. One or two shelves for my clothes. A few plates, 1 or 2 pans, a bottle opener. I was on a tight budget, so I couldn’t buy extra household items, which are exorbitantly expensive in French cities. I had to make do with what I was given. I didn’t live the extravagant tourist lifestyle that people expected – or thought I lived.

One of my sparse apartments in France

When I returned to the States – and specifically to my home in New England – some people were drawn to my new energy, my openness. Others were just as they had always been –closed, distrusting, hostile and rageful, even. I couldn’t bear it.

I went to Atlanta for most of July, putting up with the brain-melting heat to spend time with my family and friends. While I was here, my grandmother died at her home in North Carolina. There is no good time for a relative to die, no way to make up for grief. But I was grateful that I was here with my family and could drive to North Carolina with them for the funeral.

When I got back to New England, I decided that enough was enough. I had no full-time job, no family there, and all of my friends had gradually moved away. I helped my last friend move out of state in September. There was nothing keeping me anymore.

At about the same time, a friend of mine in Atlanta asked me to house sit for her. The timing was perfect. No one has ever asked me to house sit. I was honored and grateful. I came to Atlanta.

My wonderful French friends

I have never been a big partier on New Year’s Eve. I hate the crowds, the cold, the overpriced bars and restaurants and the general manufactured glee of the holiday. So as 2011 drew to a close, I didn’t celebrate with champagne or gross amounts of beer. I watched a movie, fell asleep and when I woke up, it was 2012.

That seems symbolic to me. I don’t see 2012 as a fresh start, a clean slate, a right turn from last year. I see it as an extension of how I have already learned to live: more simply and gratefully than I ever thought I could.

Happy New Year.

An American Bookseller in Paris – RIP George Whitman

When I think of Paris, what always comes to mind is books. Not the Eiffel Tower or the Champs Elysées but rather the cafés where Ernest Hemingway spent many a day writing – or not.

Ernest Hemingway

So one of my favorite places in Paris is Shakespeare & Company, an English bookstore made famous by Hemingway, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anaïs Nin, T.S. Eliot and many others whose names line my bookshelves.

I was sad to hear the news that the store’s founder, George Whitman, died a few days ago. Even though I never met him, since he stayed in his apartment above the shop most of the time, it’s because of him that I got to experience a little bit of being Parisian.

When I lived in Paris for a month this year, Shakespeare & Co. was one of the first places I returned to. I had heard that the store seeks volunteers, often providing housing in exchange for a few hours of work in the bookstore. I already had an apartment, but I wanted some work (even unpaid) to fill my days. I have worked in 2 bookstores and 2 libraries in my lifetime, so this was my dream un-job.

I spoke to the woman at the register, who turned out to be the owner’s daughter, Sylvia Whitman, who has been running the store for the past few years. She was welcoming and told me to come in whenever I was ready. I did, and they immediately put me to work shelving books.

They told me to come back whenever I wanted. I had no set schedule. Each day, I took the Metro to Place Saint-Michel and walked through the charged Latin Quarter to the shop, always asking, “Do you need any help today?” and getting the same reply: “Always.”

This was my daily routine. This was my un-job in Paris.

Working at S & Co.

They say you don’t really know a city until you work there. I believe that to be true. While there’s no substitute for fighting your way onto a subway at rush hour each day, having some sort of daily commute does gives you a sense of really living in a city. Shakespeare & Co. helped me feel a little less like a tourist and a little more like a resident.

In the shop, books were tightly packed into the shelves from floor to ceiling. The narrow space was often crowded just as tightly with people, many of them looking around in awe, shyly snapping pictures of each other. One time, a photographer set up a wedding shoot for a bride and groom in the library upstairs.

I made way for new books, reorganized the sections, helped customers find a title or author. The official language of Shakespeare & Co. was English. However, more than once, I was approached for help in French. Vous travaillez ici? While I am not fluent, I was often able to help customers entirely in French. Other times, the anglo pronunciation of a book title gave someone away, and we switched to our native language, usually much to the customer’s relief.

On Monday evenings, the store held readings by celebrated authors. Rather than working, I often came just for the readings. I saw a Pulitzer-winning author, NYU faculty and the winners of the Paris Literary Prize.

A reading at the bookstore

There was always something exciting happening. One day, I came to work to find cameras set up for the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Sylvia appeared on camera with Craig Ferguson in front of the shop. I tried to discreetly stay out of the way. When I watched the segment a few months later, though, I had made it into one of the shots.

Sylvia Whitman is sitting next to Craig Ferguson

While I wasn’t paid in euros, I did earn books for my shifts. (And as a writer and avid reader, I would rather be paid in books than most anything else). I began reading titles I had long heard of but never picked up, like James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces,” a book that struck a deep nerve, and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” by Jonathan Safran Foer, just now coming out in theatres. I was singing the praises of James Frey to my co-worker, and astonishingly, she told me he had been in the store earlier that day. He’s a good friend, she told me. I couldn’t believe I had missed meeting him.

I adored my un-job so much that I sometimes forgot that I was volunteering and could take breaks. I would hurry back from grabbing lunch, too much like an American worker than a French employee. I had to remind myself where I was.

It wasn’t hard. After one of my first shifts, I picked out a book to take home, choosing as carefully as a child allowed just one piece of candy. I settled on a guide of walking tours of Hemingway’s haunts. At the register, my co-worker stamped the book with the legendary store symbol and slipped a postcard and bookmark inside.

As I stepped out the front door of the shop, ready to make my way home that evening, the Seine and Notre Dame cathedrale in front of me, I looked down at the book in my hand, from one of the most famous bookstores in the world. From a shelf once touched by Jack Kerouac or Henry Miller. I was overcome with gratitude. That, to me, was why I loved Paris.

Many people have their own stories about Shakespeare & Co., and specifically about knowing George Whitman. I cannot claim such brushes with fame, nor are they important to me. Rather I am thankful that he created a place that welcomed writers and readers, that this haven is still there today, and that I could be a small part of it. Thank you, George Whitman. You touched more lives than you could ever know.

Happy Birthday, all year long

Today is my birthday. (Please don’t sing). And it’s special because I get to spend it with my immediate family for the first time in many years.

I’m looking forward to a margarita and chips and salsa tonight (yay, Atlanta, for all your Mexican restaurants)! I am very fortunate to have people in my life who always celebrate with me – even when I plan a big bash in London.

I hope you celebrate your birthday, too, in whatever way is meaningful to you. For my birthday and yours (whenever it may be), here are some really fun cakes I found. Click on the photos to learn more about the cakes.

This margarita cake is made by ABC Cake Shop in Albuquerque.


This is amazing, isn’t it? It won First Place for a Mother’s Day contest. They get better…

Also a prize winner for the Mother’s Day contest.

Yummm!!!!

Can you believe everything here is edible except the board? Even the magazine with a digital image of the birthday girl. Wow.

And incredibly, this is edible, too. It’s a marzipan cake topping.

Even though the elaborate ones are so much fun, I prefer the rather simple ones decorated like gift boxes.

And how could I not like this one?

Or this one?

This Tour Eiffel is 4 feet tall. And no waiting in line to get to the top! I’d like to put in an order now for my 80th, please.

I wonder if they get requests for Delta?

I would like this one in Fenway, please.

Does Johnny Depp come as Jack Sparrow?

Sometimes simpler is beautiful. Happy Birthday, everyone.

Here’s to you…

I am excited about going to Atlanta. But as I leave New England, there are many things I am sad to leave behind – notably, the food. It’s always about the food, wherever I am.

Here are a few things I will greatly miss.

It’s just not summer without lobsta. Everyone serves it in New England, even McDonald’s. In Maine, you get your lobsters fresh off the boat, prepared in more ways than you knew possible. Ever had lobster pie? The tourists put on a bib and get thoroughly squirted with ocean juice as they try to squeeze a little meat out of that hard red shell. The locals know to hit the clam shacks for a relatively cheap lobster roll – which for purists, means a buttered hot dog roll with chunks of meat and nothing else. No mayo, no celery. Just soft, chewy crustacean meat. I will sooo miss the lobster.

Irish pubs. OK, they’re Americanized for sure. But the strong Irish-American community here – especially in Boston – means hundreds of restaurants and bars with names like Matt Murphy’s, Coogan’s Bluff, The Harp, Patrick’s Pub, Kinsale and Rí Ra. When my Irish-Catholic grandmother died, we toasted her memory at the Old Irish Alehouse. The bartenders are often imported from the Emerald Isle, and you can enjoy your Shepherd’s pie while an Irish session drowns out your conversation. So even if you can’t make it across the pond, you can feel a little more Celtic right at home.

Italian food. Lobster ravioli. Braciole. Veal Piccata. Saltimbocca. Bocconcini. Broccoli rabe. Olives.

Providence is known for its unique restaurants, especially the Italian ones on Federal Hill, long home to La Cosa Nostra, or the New England mafia. The chain restaurants are for tourists and stay sequestered in the mall. I will miss making a reservation for dinner, valet parking to avoid searching for a parking space all night, dressing up (while not required in most places, definitely encouraged) and enjoying a meal that is closer to art than food.

Cassarino’s on Federal Hill is my favorite of all Italian favorites. It is moderately priced and the food is consistently good. I have taken many out-of-town visitors here and always recommend it. Try the braciole. Try the veal. Try everything.

My neighborhood bakery, LaSalle, which just won the distinction of bakery of the year. Besides the rows of appealing cakes, cupcakes and cannolis, they also make the best baguette I’ve had outside of Paris. I will miss buying Sicilian bread there every week.

The ocean. I left it, I came back to it. It is in my blood. My family has had a house for five generations in Gloucester, MA. It is where I learned to swim, to dive. I will miss these sapphire waters.

The rivers. My first office in Boston had a view of the Charles River. Every day at 4 pm, I would stop to watch the sun burn its way down over the river. Every great city has a river running through it.

Great theatre. My life is infinitely better for seeing RENT four times. For sitting within spitting distance of Kelsey Grammer as he nailed Macbeth. For Avenue Q, Spamalot, Wicked, How I Learned to Drive, The Taming of the Shrew and many, many other plays and musicals. In leaving, I handed over the reins of a theatre Meetup group I led for two years.

Newport, RI. Summer home of the obscenely wealthy, as well as the new hot spot for tacky New Jersey tourists. God, I love Newport.

Here’s to you, New England. Slàinte. Ciao.

*All photos by me except the lobster, lifted from the Internet.

It’s always about Paris

If you continue to follow my blog, you’ll hear lots from me about Paris. How I go there. How I want to go there. How I want to stay there.

I am very excited that my favorite Paris blog published an article by me – and included one of my photos. It’s about skipping the big museums like the Louvre and finding art all over Paris.

Check it out here.


 

Special delivery – More mail

As I go through all my cards and letters, I find more that I want to share. I see that some people have a certain style – for instance, my grandmother always sent me cards with flowers or animals on them.

My sister picks cards with penguins, fish or cats. I hate cats, but I like her cards.

I’ll never tell who wrote this. Sometimes life sucks and you just have to write it on a note for someone. Fortunately, he got out!

My aunt has her own sweet style…I love these cards.

More beautiful Christmas greetings….it’s so fun sending and receiving Xmas cards. Hint, hint.

And how hilarious is this?! My friends have such great irreverence.

  Amazingly, I got this card from 2 different people.

I have a different perspective re-reading letters many years later. I think I appreciate my relationships more now. And I definitely appreciate letters written by hand – something that is almost extinct.

You’ve got (a lot of freakin’) mail

In the past few years, I have decided to live more simply. Meaning: Get rid of all the crap I have accumulated over a lifetime. This isn’t easy because I am a collector. I collect everything from books to stamps to Gone With the Wind memorabilia to cobalt glass. And that’s just the start.

I strive to find the line between saving and hoarding. As hoarding runs in my family – out of control on one side and invisible to the world on the other side – I have to be on guard against it.

Taking after the invisible-hoarding ancestors, you wouldn’t think I have a problem. Everything is filed away or neatly arranged. No stacks of magazines or clutter spilling from every corner. But in closed drawers, locked chests, I have saved every letter, card, invitation and note ever sent to me. Even the hand-written notes from middle school. Remember those? Looping cursive on notebook paper folded into origami-like rectangles and passed under the desk or at lockers. Yeah, I saved them all.

I never thought I would throw anything away until I started traveling. On my first trip to Paris, AirFrance bumped me from my flight home and put me up in an airport hotel for the night. Taking the train back into the city that evening, I sat across from an American filmmaker who had shot documentaries about ex-pats in different countries. He said some people went on vacation and just stayed. I told him that I would love to move to France, but I was too settled in my life. I had too much furniture – what would I do with it? He replied, “So your possessions own you, rather than you owning your possessions.”

I thought for a long time about what he said. What did I really need? Certainly not my plaid sleeper sofa that had been handed down twice. And did I actually have to keep the dresser I bought at a thrift store when I was 20? I sold it at a yard sale that year. My answer was that I wanted to keep only 3 things: an antique desk and 2 lamps, all inherited from my grandmother. They were important to me. The rest was not. Not really.

I began shedding. Donating clothes I no longer wore. Trading in books once I had read them. Emptying file folders of magazine articles and ads from the ’80s. If I hadn’t looked at something in 5 years, I probably didn’t need it. Tax returns aside.

But I have yet to purge any of my correspondence. So on the brink of moving yet again, it’s time. I open up drawers, decorative tins and boxes and begin sorting. At first, it’s slow. I want to open every card and at least look at it, if not read the entire thing. It’s a tiring process. I end up tossing cards quickly for a while, then having second thoughts, hold more tightly to the rest. I take a break, then purge again.

There are tons of birthday cards, some from people whose names I don’t recognize. There are cards for Easter, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day. Cards congratulating me on a new home – although not as many as you’d think, given the number of times I’ve moved. Maybe my friends and family were weary from filling up their address books with my constantly-changing zip codes.

I don’t throw away everything. I hold onto a letter from my grandmother who passed away a few months ago. I save birthday cards from my mother with heart-felt verse inside. Yeah, I know someone at American Greetings wrote them, but I like to believe my mom would have come up with the same words on her own. And I know she meant them.

I re-read a really nice note from a former boss, telling me how much he enjoyed working with me. I crack up at a postcard sent from former co-workers in Rock Hill, SC. Each one of them put their own message on the postcard, making inside jokes about the job, about Rock Hill, sharing a little gossip. Even now, it’s hilarious.

I discover that one year, two of my former roommates (who never met each other) sent me the exact same Christmas card. And I received the same Valentine’s card from my cousin two years in a row. I wonder if he did it intentionally, as he’s got a great sense of humor.

More wistfully, there is a card from a friend who includes a quote about the word “stay,” saying she hopes we always stay friends. We parted ways more than 8 years ago.

Embarrassingly, I discover a wedding invitation from 1993 that I never responded to.

Wedding invitations turn into baby announcements.

So many beautiful Christmas cards….

… some made by hand.

Among the stacks are articles that people sent to me related to my job or hobbies.

A hand-written note is just so much nicer than email!

I am saving some of the really funny cards, especially when they show an inside joke between a friend and me.

These are return addresses from a hilarious friend of mine. Bored at his parents’ house after graduation, he included the “best” Letters to the Editor from the Wall Street Journal that week with his own commentary, like: “Obviously some disgruntled old codger who knows EVERYTHING and sits in the left lane doing 30 in a 45. Am I right?”

I’m glad I kept everything for a while. I’m glad I can go back and see that people cared enough about me to give me birthday cards, to send a Hallmark at Valentine’s Day, to save a few stamps for me. I’m glad they took the time to write me a letter at Christmas or just because. I’m glad they sent me well wishes for a new job or a new home. I’m glad they sent eloquent thank you cards.

If I hadn’t saved all these cards and notes, I would have forgotten how much I am loved. Now, I can savor it without hoarding it.