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Falling in love in Paris (revisited): Cliché becomes reality

Being that today is Valentines Day, it seemed appropriate to update the blooming romance to a full-scale love story. Two years later, I love him more than I ever imagined possible:

This [my] story sounds cliché, but falling in love in Paris really can happen! We’ve all heard that Paris is dubbed as ‘the city of lights’ and a lovers paradise, but I had no idea it could happen to me. I love the movie Casablanca too, but come on, does that really happen outside the movies or books? I can now tell you it does. My crusty, sarcastic coating regarding love, has been melted away by the man I now call, ‘mon mari’ (my husband).

How exactly did this happen? Well, back when I jokingly say that I had a ‘real job’, working for a global manufacturer, my job took me to our Belgian office on a month-long project. During that time, I met my ‘would-be’ hubby, a shy, handsome Belgian with boyish good looks and manly charm (see, I told you my story was a cliché before we started!). At least I didn’t say he was tall, dark and handsome!

OK, moving on. I worked with him side-by-side, we attended group functions and interacted as most coworkers do. During the course of these interactions, we both felt there was something between us, but with working 15 hour days amoung a group of people and no time off, we never spoke of our affinity for one another. As time went on, I began to think that I was being overly intuitive about his feelings for me and having that crusty coating at the time, I soon let logic and reason take over any notions of budding romance breaking through the shell. And eventually, it was time to go back home to the US and it became business as usual and sadly, we didn’t speak again for 12 years.

In checking one of my networking sites, I saw his name pop up as a suggested connection and wondered if he’d even remember me after all this time. I composed an awkward reintroduction saying, ‘hope you still remember me, I was one of the Americans who worked with you 12 years ago….’ I held my breath as I thought, what if he doesn’t remember me or doesn’t want to reconnect? How will this effect me? I then exhaled and clicked, ‘send invitation’ and hoped I wouldn’t embarrass myself or him too badly in the process. He responded by saying, ‘…of course I remember you Regina…’ and so, we reconnected as former employees do, right? Again, no bells, whistles, declarations or confessions, only the acknowledgment that he did remember me, a small yet important victory in my mind and unwittingly, a foreshadowing to the future.

In late September, a friend and I were planning to go to Paris for vacation. Since I knew my former Belgian coworker was living and working in France from his online profile, I asked if he was close to Paris to see if we could meet and get caught up on each others’ lives.  He said he’d love to see me again and would take the train to meet me in Paris to have dinner at Le Pied de Cochon, a Parisian institution for classic french cuisine. We met for a late dinner and already, I could sense my world was about to change.

Re-winding a bit to 12 years ago, we recognized the spark we had for one another, but never voiced our feelings, which only resulted in internal dialog about what could have been. The next morning, we met again for coffee with my travel buddy, so again, no time to explore our feelings from either of us on how we felt when we first met or in Paris, just great dialog between friends.

When he was leaving to take his train home, we hugged good-bye and it took all I had to not cry, which seemed ridiculous at the time, given that no outward expression of our feelings had ever taken place. Regardless, I hugged him and couldn’t even look back to see him disappear into the Metro, because I knew I would not be able to hold back my emotions.

Little did I know at the time, he was experiencing the same pain of leaving me and had all the same emotions he had then and now.  He told me later that he waited for me to look back and when I didn’t, he thought I didn’t share the love he had been carrying for me all this time. I was devastated that he was gone and that yet again, I didn’t have the courage to tell him how I felt.

As he disappeared into the Metro that day, he sent me an email at that time (which I never got until arriving home) that I had changed his life in just a moment, that he was starting to lose faith in love and happiness and that it all changed when he saw me again. He said he wasn’t willing to lose me again and wanted to find out if we were meant to be together. After returning home, I naturally got his message and I began to cry as I now finally knew the truth about how he felt and I could tell him I loved him too.

About a month after Paris, he came to visit for 10 days (his first trip to the US) and we actually got to talk and get to know one another without a constant audience. We found out that we do have a strong bond and connection that hasn’t waned over time or distance. And so it began, a romance that would take another year to come full circle, after 12 years in waiting.

“…See there’s this place in me where your fingerprints still rest, your kisses still linger, and your whispers softly echo. It’s the place where a part of you will forever be a part of me.”
–Gretchen Kemp

Happy Valentines Day everyone and keep on dreaming!

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2012 in Culture Choc, Daily life in France

 

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Gimme 5 minutes to ‘splain!

Sometimes [I think] we forget that language is the basis of culture. It shapes our experiences and in how we relate to others. If living in another country is not adventurous enough, learning the language can seem like climbing Mount Everest! I can honestly say, I am about halfway up the mountain and on good footing. Have I slipped and almost fallen? Absolutely! Many of these moments, I have humbly chronicled here (in my blog) for your amusement, but more importantly, in hopes that you will be able to step outside of your own culture and laugh with me (OK, ‘at me’ is fine too). Before moving to France, I was in love with all things French, still am. I thought there is no more beautiful language in the world and it has always been a dream of mine, to speak French. Well, again, “be careful what you wish for..”, as the saying goes! I have made every language gaff imaginable, made people laugh, cry and even angry at times. A veritable plethora of human emotions, I have insighted in complete strangers, new friends and family. I guess there is a sense of freedom in knowing that you’ve screwed up so much, that whatever comes is nothing new and hence; nothing you can’t handle. French truly is a beautiful language and I stand by my conviction, but it is certainly not easy to learn, not even for the French. For instance, there are multiple uses for the same word such as ‘toilette‘ (besides the obvious) and different words for the same thing, such as: ‘armoire’ (free standing cabinet), ‘placard’ (built-in cabinet) and just plain old ‘cabinet’ (hanging cabinet, like the kitchen type).

The biggest difference between French and English, is the subtlety. In French, you have to learn the differences between the types of cabinets and other seemingly redundant words, that have very close to the same meaning. In English, not so. You may learn English quicker than French to start, but the subtleties of English come later. After the basics are mastered, the nuances can then be put in place. It seems bizarre to me that a French child could know the subtleties of cabinets and toilets, but somehow, they do!

My poor hubby is constantly bombarded with questions by me about language differences between French and English, and he takes it like a champ. It’s like having a kid ask, ‘but why?’ all the time I would imagine. Sometimes he looks at me like I was just possessed by a body-snatcher (as in, the ‘invasion of’) to “I’m so proud of you, sweetie”, which I must say, is the one I prefer most. But either way, he supports my learning, even after a long day at work. Again, I can only compare it [my situation] to how a parent must feel when they have worked all day, feeling exhausted and your child needs help with their homework. That is probably the most important thing for any expat to know and commit to heart, is that you cannot do it alone. I’ve said this before but it bears repeating; we cannot succeed as expats without the support of those in-country, whether it be a supportive spouse or someone at the local market who is willing to work with you on your language skills.

In learning this [philosophy] early on, you will curb many feelings you will experience that are natural progressions of learning in an expat environment. The ‘imposter effect’ which is best explained as a chronic feeling of pretentiousness. You feel like the new kid on the playground, waiting for someone to pick you to play. At some point, your pronunciation exceeds your actual knowledge and this is the most difficult time. Why? Because you sound like you know what you’re saying, more so than what I call ‘tourist’ language.

When you learn enough to remove some of your native accent and construct simple sentences in present tense, people think you understand EVERYTHING they are saying. This is the imposter syndrome at its full-blown capacity! You feel like you have ‘faked’ your accent enough to trick them into thinking you know more than you know. And as a result, you feel awful that they have to repeat what they’ve said (especially when it’s very personal) which makes them feel more embarrassed than you. To combat this feeling, I would simply nod and smile and I got through most of it, but I still felt terrible that they walked away thinking I understood them, when really, I didn’t. There are just so many times you can ask someone to ‘parlez doucement’ (speak slowly) or repeat themselves, before it becomes awkward. In a nutshell, the expression, “fake it ’till you make it” is necessary to push past these insecurities. I now understand that in the end, most people are happy for you to just listen, nod and smile anyway. My takeaway from this? You can still claim to be a good listener even when it’s not your native tongue; you’re still paying attention to what they’re saying, even though you don’t understand everything. To listen to one another without judgement or interruption, transcends all understanding and never needs explaining.

 
 

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A Living Unknown Soldier’s Battle Scars: Cost of Freedom Series, Pt. 2

The following is the true, unedited story of a living unknown soldier (LUS) who served as a marine in Vietnam. This post contains graphic language and imagery. Discretion is advised.

The ground was loamy and wet and smelled of metal. With every step, his feet would resist being released from its grasp. There was a technique to walking through a rice field, so that mamasan (mother) and papasan (father) couldn’t hear you coming. His boots became living sculptures and socks became more trouble than they were worth, but they don’t call it jungle rot for nothing, so protect your feet, was the mantra. The sandy soil got underneath his clothes and cut like glass, with every move. The tiny droplets of blood became scabs, which begat blisters and eventually, became callused. The calluses were welcomed, because it actually meant relief from where weapons and packs found there resting place on a two-week, unwashed body. LUS liked to walk ‘point’ (lead his unit), because it gave him a sense of control, when in actuality, he knew there was none. They approached the village stealthily, always from the right. Always going to the right meant good luck. Watching the hooch (hut) draw closer into view on its bamboo stilts, they could see mamasan and papasan carrying over-sized baskets of rice–too much for a small family, so he now knew, that they were feeding the Vietcong (his enemy). They had to be silenced.

“Killing was doing America good”, he was told. They were taught that gooks (Vietcong) were dirty, disgusting animals who hate Americans and the idea of freedom. These were the recordings that played in his mind whenever it was time to ‘take-out’ the area. As part of the Walking Dead 1/9, they would leave their calling card, the ace of spades, at the front and back of every village, to let all know that the Walking Dead had come calling.

LUS and the other soldiers continued to approach the hooch, until they were within striking distance. He prefered to sneak up on them and use the butt of his rifle as his weapon to crack-open their skulls. Being the demolition engineer, LUS took the C4 he carried and blew-up the hooch and over-sized rice baskets, to prevent the enemy from benefiting from what mamasan and papasan obviously wouldn’t be needing anymore.

Walking around a hut, he sees a little girl, under 5 years of age, crying out in agony and speaking her native tongue of which he could only feel the intent of her words, but not the meaning. She lay on her back, still alive, with a machete wound, that had cut her from underneath her right hip to her left shoulder. She looked at him with pleading, tearful eyes, as he shooed away the pig that had been feasting on her intestines. He knew that a Vietcong unit had just been through the area, but why would they butcher one of their own children? This was one of many inconsistencies LUS would face. Even being captive in the living nightmare of war 24/7, seeing a child suffer was not something from which he could walk away. So he shot her in the head in the hopes of giving her peace, even if at the cost of his own torment.

“That child still haunts my dreams; I can see her like it was yesterday, even though it was almost a lifetime ago.”  The guilt associated with having to kill, especially a child, no matter the reason, exacts its toll for 45 years and counting. “Several of my buddies have committed suicide and I still think about it…I just want the bees to stop in my head.” LUS revealed that there were MIA‘s that remained (willingly) in Vietnam, because they were too addicted to drugs (to suppress the memories) to come home and face their new reality. They instead, befriended the ‘friendlies’ (south Vietnamese mountain farmers) and taught them how to automate their farm equipment in exchange for drugs and anonymity.

Which begs the question, how do you come home from an experience that is life-altering and be expected to be the person you were before you left? How can you just flip the switch from having no rules (then, there were no rules like today), expected to integrate back into society, as if nothing had happened? Vietnam veterans are husbands, fathers and employees, that go about life, suppressing all the anger [of the war experience] that has now disguised itself into self-loathing, anxiety and depression because it has no place to call home in a civilian environment. It puts on a cloak of deception, fearing revelation in the mind of the soldier it infects. Are the bees in LUS’s head a summation of the guilt he carries or the displaced anger that has never had a chance to be neutralized? I don’t have the answers, I wish I did, but I do hope his bees are set free someday.

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Posted by on July 14, 2011 in Culture Choc

 

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A Living Unknown Soldier’s Battle for Independence: The Cost of Freedom Series, Pt. 1

This is not your typical, ‘hip-hip-hooray, it’s Independence Day,’ kind of post, but is still a tribute to not only our lost veterans, but also to the living ones. We will starkly look at the continuing cost of freedom for soldiers and how this battle is still raging in the minds of veterans wanting independence from their pasts. In this series, we will explore the causes and effects of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder): coping with suicidal thoughts from reliving the past daily, loss of contact with family and friends and most of all, the lack of understanding (validation) by others who can never truly understand the non-refundable personal sacrifices made.

When most civilians think of Independence Day, we envision spending time with family and friends, barbecuing and setting off fireworks while celebrating a day off from work. We might say grace for the soldiers lost, but what about the one’s still living, still coping? On an intellectual level, sure, we know what Independence Day is, or do we? Do we truly understand the cost of our freedom?

The inspiration for this series comes from a man who has elected to stay anonymous for many valid and understandable reasons, but most of all, until he can make peace with himself. From candid interviews with our unknown living soldier, we will explore the psyche of a Vietnam veteran who is still trying to reconcile his past, still suffering from a war that many have forgotten and replaced with the ‘war of the week’ headline mentality. His account is a first-hand, in-depth perspective of a Marine who served nineteen months, from 1969-1971, deployed to Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam and operated from the DMZ (demilitarized zone) of Da Nang, Dong HaQuang Tri, Hue, Khe Sahn and Caviet.

Our unknown, yet living solider was part of the famous 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, the so-called, “The Walking Dead.” This title was given to the one-nine (1/9) when Ho Chi Minh declared he would, “kill them all, so just consider themselves dead walking,” announcing over a loud-speaker (in English), just before the siege near Song Nu Yi River in 1966. After that infamous siege, “Di bo Chet” (the Walking Dead) name stuck. As foreshadowed, the Vietnam one-nine infantry battalion suffered the most casualties in marine corp history. Based on a typical battalion strength of 800 Marines and Navy hospital corpsmen, 93.63% (747) were Killed In Action (KIA) and 0.25% (2) were Missing In Action (MIA).

Always Faithful –– ©1997 Doug Todd

Here are those who have borne the battle

Those, in the crucible of combat, tried.

Tempered and turned of the finest mettle,

These were The Sons of America’s Pride!

The First Battalion of The Ninth Marines,

Hammered and forged in the fires of Hell;

Built of their blood and their broken dreams,

A legend for scribes, unborn, to tell.

They fought like Warriors and they died like men

‘‘Till their page of history was stained blood-red;

And they earned from foe as well as from friend

That Honorable title, “The Walking Dead”!

These were the Sons who stepped forward bravely–

Courage and Strength and Faith un-tried;

To fight as the Valorous “Always Faithful”.

These are The Sons of America’s Pride!

The following video contains mature content:

Our soldier, who we will call, LUS (living unknown soldier) to protect his identity throughout this series, started out like many others, wanting to serve his country and protect his and his family’s rights–freedoms. Economic times were hard and the prospects for a seventeen year old then, were slim. The opportunity to help his family through the difficult times and to serve his country by ‘saving it’ from communism, seemed like a win-win. He saw the images of gallantry on TV, along with the ads and was inspired to follow in the footsteps of his father: to make a difference for his family and country. Is there any more noble cause (to an American) than to fight for freedom? Freedom is a founding principle of our country and is a vein that runs very deep in the psyche of an American soldier and particularly, a Marine.

So at seventeen, LUS enlisted September 2, 1968 (his birthday) and headed for boot camp on November 5, 1968 at Camp Lejeune as a demolition engineer. Little did he realize the full impact of that decision, where it would take him or the cost of freedom for which he would be fighting. In the coming few months, we will tell you in detail about his personal journey and hopefully, you will have a better understanding of the impact of freedom on our lives that we now enjoy through a day off, eating BBQ, baked-beans and potato salad.

Please do enjoy a wonderful celebration and as you do, try to think not only of the ones lost in war, but also of those who are still fighting the living soldier’s battle. The battle for independence from personal guilt, the external pressure to justify their experience to those who never served and the understanding of the price veterans pay daily for our freedom. Happy Independence Day and deepest thanks to all soldiers: past, present and future for the freedom we enjoy today.

 
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Posted by on July 3, 2011 in Culture Choc

 

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Franco-American gray matter(s)

Allow me to introduce you to Mr. Mignon, a very reserved and refined French gentleman in his early 70’s, who lives across from us. He is as quiet as a church mouse and most of the time, I don’t even know if he’s home. I do know that he enjoys his weekly Saturday morning visits to the boulangerie (bakery) between 8-10AM, to have a fresh pastry and read the paper in the same place each week without fail. He always sits with his back to the window in the next to last row of seats, I assume, to have full purview of all those coming in, without being up against the window. When passing by, I always look for the back of his head, as I recognize it as well as his face, and it makes me smile. Most Saturdays, I pass by without making my presence known, but just observe that he is there, enjoying his routine, undisturbed. And on other days, I walk around, just to by chance find his glance, give a simple wave and continue on my way. In retrospect, I ask myself, would I have done this before living in France? Somehow, I don’t think so.

Image courtesy of Google

Being a Southerner, we are taught from a tender age, to always acknowledge those you know and engage them in conversation to make them feel comfortable. This Southern mindset is all well and good (southernese for well-intended), but sometimes, don’t you just want to be left alone? Left to your thoughts–undisturbed, without having to explain why you are there, what you are thinking or finding something relevant to say, without being intrusive? This was always the internal debate that replayed itself whenever I ran into someone I knew. Be polite, make them feel at ease, as I was taught. I became trapped in a cultural box of congeniality. It’s not that I don’t want to be nice, quite the contrary, but at what point did it become obligatory for me? This had been a grey area for me: how to be myself (nice), but not at the expense of myself? Luckily, la France came to my rescue!

Part of my brain is still and I’m sure always will be, uniquely Southern. But the other side is becoming more  Franco-phillic to the  French mindset: not bound by rules, allowing people their privacy and without the social expectancy of minding your P’s and Q’s to the Nth degree (sorry, thought it would be fun to use as many letters as I could there.). This is not to say that the French are rude, far from it in fact, in my experience. I would even go as far to say that they are genuinely nicer than most Americans I’ve met. The candy coating is not there, but the feelings are–kind, considerate yet respectfully private. Particularly Americans from the south have this candy coating, because it has been ingrained in us. Please understand, my intention is not to say that Southerners are fake, it just means that we are programmed to respond respectfully, even before the respect may be earned, which to some can sound disingenuous, without understanding our culture.

For example, we say “yes/no, ma’am and yes/no, sir” to everyone, not just our parents as a sign of respect, not servitude. As mentioned, we are also taught to engage people and make them feel at ease. This is a wonderful thing and has been a key reason to my love for people and successful integration into the French culture. I made others feel comfortable even when I wasn’t. The difference is, I now understand balance when I didn’t before. Now, I realize that not every occasion warrants an hour discussion (are you listening mother?). Sometimes a head nod, smile or simple wave can let someone know you care and wish them a good day.

This may sound strange, but the French don’t expect you to put them first, but when you do, they are incredibly appreciative. Using dear Mr. Mignon as an example: when we had snow, I would shovel our community stairs and everyone’s ‘stoop’ (as my grandmother, Mimi, would call it) and thought my good deed had gone unnoticed. Not that I was looking for applause or even a “merci”, again, it was just how I was raised, to be ‘neighborly’ as it’s called. I never knew it, but Mr. Mignon must have seen me without my knowledge. Just like me, he left me to my thoughts, just as I did with him at the boulangerie. We finally did meet face-to-face at the boulangerie and he made the effort to thank me for all I did and tried to pay me for shoveling the snow (naturally, I didn’t take it). That’s what I mean when I say that the expectation is not there, but the heartfelt thanks is evident. I was already shoveling for myself, so it was easy just to spend ten more minutes to help everybody and consequently, it keeps the snow from being blown or tracked back on my stoop, simple logic really. But in the French mindset, it was evidently an act worthy of payment, because that is not the expectation.

The expectation in the US is just the opposite, people EXPECT you to be kind and when you aren’t, they get angry. There are those of us (I was one) in the US that may have been slightly upset if we were not thanked at the time or if someone didn’t bother to shovel our snow as well, because it would have only taken a few extra minutes. When this standard is set so high, how can anyone measure up all the time? I often didn’t live up to my standard many times, but it didn’t stop me from holding that measuring stick up to everyone else. When you expect too much, you are bound to be disappointed. I didn’t realize that my ‘standard’ had morphed into something not originally intended from my upbringing. One cannot impose these congenial standards at the expense of one’s self. You only end up getting hurt by expecting too much and the truth be told, it really is a selfish way to live, when you begin peeling back the onion of the unconscious mind.

All this being said, I prefer the French way. My dad has an expression, “don’t expect anything and you won’t be disappointed.” Which although true, has a bit of a negative spin. I think the French put a positive spin on my dad’s philosophy and would probably go something like this…”don’t expect anything, but appreciate it when it happens.”

 
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Posted by on June 16, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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Into Great Silence

It was a Monday, when I stood witness to the Carthusian monks of the Chartreuse coming down from the monastery, to take a break from making their famous and curiously strong green liqueur. They walked right past my balcony window in their sturdy, handmade white robs, heading for the bus stop to go back to the place they now call home (I wish I had caught a picture of them). I marveled at them speaking and enjoying a day in town like the rest of us. Even considering the size of their group, they still spoke to one another in hushed, yet joyful tones. In watching them pass, I pondered, what on earth (literally) could any of us have in common with these monks? They seem to live an impossible life: painful, monotonous, bizarre and probably most of all, lonely. I was fascinated by them but also in awe of them for the life they’ve chosen.

After seeing them go by that day, I went to the monastery, hoping to get another glimpse of them. I know it sounds strange, but seeing them was like seeing three dimensional ghosts, something of legend or a figment of the imagination. In those brief moments of observation, I felt as if I were reading a fascinating story, which had the last chapter ripped out. I longed to know more about them. I took pictures in an effort to peer into their mysterious lives, to get closer to them somehow. Even though I am not Catholic, to see them evoked a sense of peace that is difficult to describe and illusive to recapture.

What is their curiosity? Is it that they are the antithesis of modern society? That they sacrifice more than any of us can imagine and do so, willingly? Whatever the reason, they do seem to make a huge impact in this region of France. It’s hard to say, but somehow, here…in the Chartreuse, I think the mountains are even more special. Could it be the influence of the Chartreuse monks? I only know how they make me feel: relaxed, happy and hopeful that there is still good in the world despite the news and what modern society would have us believe.

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Although I still don’t have an answer as to what we have in common with the monks, I do think this is one reason why we travel: to experience life-changing moments that give us peace, regardless of the reason. These images help me reconnect to that peace that I would imagine, also enables them to endure a life of silence.

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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Elvis and Johnny, a tale of two rock and roll brothers

Johnny Hallyday, courtesy of Google images

My husband and I recently watched, “Le Show Johnny” on TFI, with Johnny Hallyday and it was a joy to watch. Not just to see a living legend at work, but also to see the faces of the people in the audience. In watching them, you could see they were being transported back in time when he sang. Possibly to a first kiss, dance or any happy place that his music became part of their lives. What was even more surprising, is that the audience was filled with all walks of life. Young, old, punk, hippie, you name it, they were there, cheering and chanting his name between songs.

Sadly, I’d never heard of Johnny Hallyday before my husband told me about him. We had visited Sun Studio and he pointed out a picture of him hanging on a wall. Since then, I’ve become a fan myself. At 67, to see Johnny perform like someone half his age was astounding, let alone to have the rich, resonating voice after over 50 years in the business. I was struck at the similarity between Johnny and Elvis, both as performers and by the reaction of their fans.

Being a former Memphian, Elvis was our hometown hero. Even my dad and Elvis where born in the same city, Tupelo, Mississippi, even though they never knew each other and my grandfather was his drummer, when they were touring locally, before Elvis hit the big time. I was only ten when Elvis died but I’ll never forget that day. Probably in the same way a generation before, remembered where they were when JFK was shot. I recalled what I was doing when the news broke, the reaction of the people when they heard the news and the emotional aftermath of the following months, as our city mourned. I was actually in a bowling tournament (it was actually hip then) when the news spread across every lane like a swarm. I can still see the mental image of white bowling pins standing at attention as the news blanketed each row, as if they were saluting the newly departed. I heard actual screams and crying, not from only women, but also the men, which surprised me as a 10-year-old girl in the south, where men just didn’t cry.

Click on Elvis's image, to see his first 1960 interview after serving 2 years in the Army. Pic courtesty of Google Images.

Elvis was like a distant cousin to Memphis folk; everybody had an Elvis story and I grew up hearing those stories. He was known for his extreme generosity publicly, but the truth is, he gave away money and cars often, which never made the headlines. He would read about people in our local paper at the time, the Memphis Press Semitar (now the Commercial Appeal) and would anonymously send money or cars to ease their suffering. Back then, Memphis was small enough, that word got around quickly, since there weren’t that many people who weren’t natives at the time. I know it sounds bizarre, but I never really understood Elvis’s impact on the world, fully; since he was talked about like a distant relative my whole life and born in the same place where my dad’s familiy still lives.

In fact, I was married two years to my ex-husband before learning that my then father-in-law, had been Elvis’s plumber for many years before he retired. My ex-husband’s family were also patients of the now infamous, Dr. George Nichopoulos (Dr. Nick), who was blamed for over prescribing medication to Elvis, leading to his untimely death. Not that I excuse Dr. Nick for his involvement, but I knew him to be a very compassionate doctor, who supported his patients in and out of the doctor’s office. He attended the funeral of my ex-husband’s aunt and I could see the toll that Elvis’s death had taken on him, personally and professionally. Even with all the scrutiny, he came to support my ex-husband’s family at the funeral.

Although I don’t know any personal history through the stories of others about Johnny, I’ve seen his impact. From living in France and in visiting Belgium often, I have heard my husband’s family and others talk about Johnny’s songs or even sing a few bars after a few ‘apero’s’ (aperitifs). I began thinking of Elvis and how similar their public personas are. Johnny is also known for his hip movements and outstretched arms to the crowd in addition to his powerful bass/baritone voice. I couldn’t help think that if ‘The King of Rock & Roll’ were alive today, they would be singing together.

Through Johnny, I was able to finally understand the impact of Elvis (and Memphis music) on the world and not just in my sleepy hometown. Johnny filled the eyes of his fans with joy, both of times past and knowing that they were witnessing a living legend. Part of me is sad, that Elvis never saw the eyes of his fans the way Johnny’s do, but how refreshing to know Johnny is a living, breathing, brother, of the King himself. And that, gives me something to sing about!

 
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Posted by on April 1, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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Expat life is like a box of chocolates…

Forrest Gump courtesy of Google Images: Click on the image to see the original movie trailer

We’ve all seen the movie, Forrest Gump (screenplay by Eric Roth and directed by Robert Zemeckis) and unless you are “just plain ornery,” as my dad would say, you enjoyed it. The movie is now a modern classic (even though it varies greatly from the book, by Winston Groom) and I still love how it speaks to people in different ways and on different levels. Somehow, we can all see our lives a bit clearer through the simple eyes of Forrest and the wisdom of his determined mother.

Over the past year, I’ve come to appreciate the many similarities between my expat life and our lovable, even if not so bright, movie friend. Yes, life is like a box of chocolates, but if you’re anything like me, I still fight the urge to pinch the one I’ve chosen, to figure out what’s inside. I asked some friends for their favorite Forrest Gump quotes for inspiration and here are the most endeared ones and how they relate to my expat life:

“Run Forrest, run!” (Jaimmie H.)

The lure of starting over and making a fresh start certainly ‘holds water’ (makes sense), as a Southerner would say and sometimes the restlessness in your heart for worldly adventure just makes you feel like running. Whether running back to a place where you used to belong after a long absence or away from a place where you never felt you belonged or just letting go to see where life takes you. As expats, we seem to be either running  to find whatever is on the other side or perhaps running from ourselves in some way. Whatever our reason, standing still is just not an option.

“Sometimes, I guess there just aren’t enough rocks.” (Kelly S.)

Expat life is often very frustrating and this quote conjures feelings of frustration with myself; not with others. The generalized anxiety that you feel about the drastic change in your life and frustration (in my case) about not feeling like I was learning and assimilating fast enough, made me appreciate this expression which Kelly describes as, “…the most eloquent expression of frustration and anger.” Jenny’s desperate act of throwing rocks at her childhood home in an effort to soothe her pain, only broke her down in the end. I think we can’t help but collapse and fall (just like Jenny) when we realize throwing rocks doesn’t heal us.

“I’m not be a smart man, but I know what love is.”

This would have to be my personal favorite. I’ve mentioned it many times, that you often feel obtuse and I’ve struggled with communicating my thoughts and feelings by not having a command of the language, but through my actions, I showed people I cared. Whether I was making them a homemade banana bread or trying to speak their language to the best of my ability, they knew I was showing them love on some level. This quote reaffirms that love is universal, true and essential to all of us.

“She taught me how to swing and I taught her how to dangle.” (Tim G.)

“Simple and innocent joy”, is how Tim describes this one. As an expat, you do learn to connect to the simple joys in life, perhaps because when you are not proficient in the language, you begin to see people differently–more based on their expressions and mannerisms, because you have to rely on them so heavily when verbal communication is hindered. Funny how not understanding a language or culture can lead to a different kind of humanistic understanding. I was able to see the beauty of a person more clearly, such as the kindness in their eyes or even the vulnerability in their smile and connect with them more on a child-like level. Trusting in their simple willingness to help me and them seeing the joy of learning in my face. Very much like the way children get excited when they get answers to their never-ending questions and make their parents proud.

 “Sorry I ruined your Black Panther Party.” (Tim G.)

This one strikes a funny, yet sad chord with me. In a previous article, I talked about the evolution of friendships, (as a native Memphian turned expat) and the toll it takes on friendships. Memphis is famous for BBQ, blues and Elvis, but it is also the city where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. For these reasons [friendship and racial hardships], this quote is a double entendre for me. By leaving, I did dampen the good times my friends and I shared and may have left a bad taste in the mouths of those who were upset at me leaving them. The other side of this quote is that the city of Memphis (and south) has certainly borne the burden of racial and cultural change and is still to a degree, trying to recover from its past wrongs. Initially, we laugh as Forrest is genuinely upset by disturbing the ‘party’, but he also couldn’t sit back to see someone he loved being hurt. Part of me is sad for leaving my family, friends and hometown and leaving them to deal with the hurt, but some things you just can’t continue to watch. It doesn’t mean you don’t feel the pain of what you left behind or your responsibility for it. Maybe forgiveness will come for both myself and my native city. That is my hope.

[At Jenny’s grave]

You died on a Saturday morning and I had you placed here under our tree. And I had that house of your father’s bulldozed to the ground. Momma always said dyin’ was a part of life. I sure wish it wasn’t. Little Forrest, he’s doing just fine. About to start school again soon. I make his breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. I make sure he combs his hair and brushes his teeth every day. Teaching him how to play ping-pong. He’s really good. We fish a lot. And every night, we read a book. He’s so smart, Jenny. You’d be so proud of him. I am. He, uh, wrote a letter, and he says I can’t read it. I’m not supposed to, so I’ll just leave it here for you. Jenny, I don’t know if Momma was right or if, if it’s Lieutenant Dan. I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it’s both. Maybe both is happening at the same time. I miss you, Jenny. If there’s anything you need, I won’t be far away. (Cary P.)

This probably captures my thoughts exactly, regarding my family and friends. Even though Forrest is in the world of the living and Jenny has ‘passed away’ (as we say in the south), he ends his soliloquy by pledging never to leave her. Even the ones who are upset with me by leaving, I pledge to never be far away. Even though the miles are vast, my heart is only a beat away. My friend Cary gave such a touching, raw and powerful description, I wanted to share it with you in its entirety:

We should all be so loved that anyone would be willing to care enough for us to utter and really mean those words. This reminds me I miss buddy hugs. The kind that are honest, forgiving. The kind that are “sideways” hugs. Never sexual, not family pats, but real, if you ever need me hugs. The kind that mean I don’t have any money, I can’t bail you out, but I would sell something to get to you.

I would be a liar to say that I don’t sometimes miss my old life: friends both old and new, family and all things familiar. I miss them but, just like little Forrest, I’m doing just fine…waiting for where destiny or the ‘accidental-like breeze’ will take my floating feather.

“Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get” (Pierre S. & Steph D.)

Arguably one of the most iconic quotes in the past 17 years since the movie came out in 1994, this quote resonates with us all and encapsulates the movie of all our lives perfectly. I guess what makes this quote extra special, is that in the end, just like chocolate, it’s all good, only with a surprise in every bite.

Honorable mentions: Couldn’t relate these directly to expat life, but boy howdy, did they make me laugh. Hope you enjoy them too.

“I gotta pee.” (Mike B.)

“Oh, yes sir. Bit me right in the buttocks.” “Only Forrest would use the word ‘buttocks’. (Chris G.)

“His name is Forrest too?” (Jeff B.)

“You’re momma sure does care about your schoolin’ son, mmm, mmm, mmm.” (Pierre S. & Steph D.)

Please share your favorite Forrest Gump quote with us and why it’s your favorite!

 
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Posted by on March 24, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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Pardonne moi, but your French tongue is in my American ear…

In case you may be thinking we are going to discuss something tawdry, sorry to disappoint (some of) you, but hope you’ll stick around for the explanation. In trying to interpret how an American ear interprets the French language, I got a chuckle from thinking about the circa 1980’s commercials for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups®.

Remember, “hey, you’ve got your chocolate in my peanut butter…” and vice versa? As a result of this fun, yet fattening (after satisfying my chocolate & peanut butter craving) promenade down memory lane, the metaphor of how the French language sounds to the American ear began to take shape. It can be a bizarre and awkward combination at first, but in the end, great for both and yes, can even be delicious!

In hearing how native French speakers speak English, it has really helped me get over the ‘literal hump’. By this I mean, I’ve actually learned more from French speakers who do not speak perfect English. They use French structured sentences as I use English structured ones, so in turn, I get to learn how to construct my phrases in the French way. Still confused? Ce n’est pas grave (no problem)! Let’s take some common French expressions and translate them into the literal English meaning:

Tout à fait ! (in French: “You’re right!”)

  • As an American learning French would hear: “All have done!”

Qu’est-ce que c’est ? (in French: “What is it?“)

  • As an American learning French would hear: “What is this that this is?

Ce n’est pas grave ! (in French: “No problem!”)

  • As an American learning French would hear: “This no is not serious” (Oh, contraire, I think it’s getting very serious!)

After learning some common and well used French vocabulary words, I thought, cool. I have the basics down, so when I hear those words spoken, I’ll immediately understand. Wow, isn’t French fun? I thought to myself. However; with the sentence structure being so different from English, I would often get stuck in the literal translation and become very frustrated to learn that I still could not make sense of the words when put into a standard French phrase. As my father would say, “I couldn’t make hide nor hair of it.” It sounded like a lot of random words, just thrown together with no rhyme or reason.

My ears would recognize someone say, ‘child….refrigerator…tonight’. But it was like playing connect the dots between French words. The words I recognized were either spoken so fast that I couldn’t understand them or they had not yet been added to my mental vocabulary bank. This resulted in multiple interpretations for the same phrase, such as “my child’s dinner is in the refrigerator for tonight” or “my child climbed in the refrigerator tonight,” I had no idea! It was a bizarre mix of clarity and confusion in one sentence (not sure which would represent clarity, the chocolate or the peanut butter–you decide).

There are also many words in French that have multiple meanings depending on how they are used in a sentence. Case in point: on my wedding day, my now mother-in-law (belle mèrereferred to my wedding outfit using the word, ‘toilette.’ Naturally, I thought she may have been asking me instead if I needed to go the toilet or perhaps did I want some’ eau de toilette‘ (perfume). So, I reflexively responded, “non, merci” (no, thank you) and then wondered, what if she really was comparing my outfit to the toilet in some way? Not the most comforting thought on your wedding day, but when I realized that “toilette” has the following meanings:

1) refers to your total outfit

2) to freshen up as in “faire la toilette”

3) “a cabinet de toilette” (dressing table) or “mettre sa toilette” the act of getting dressed

4) the bathroom

The veil of confusion finally lifted. My mother-in-law had actually complimented me on my outfit. Who could guess that it is possible to receive a compliment using the word, toilette in French? In the end, we all had a good laugh.

Putting all jokes and similes aside for a moment, learning French has been one of the greatest challenges of my life, and at 43, by golly, that’s saying something. Having learned Spanish in high school and college, I honestly thought learning French would be a breeze. Maybe it would have been if I was younger, I don’t know. Maybe age has nothing to do with it at all, but the fact remains, it has been much harder than I’d imagined. So I continue to press on (speaking French like a precocious 3rd grader now), knowing that the reward will far outweigh the frustration some day soon. Bonne toilette, y’all (and take that any way you like ;))!

 
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Posted by on February 17, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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Falling in love in Paris: Cliché becomes reality

This [my] story sounds cliché, but falling in love in Paris really can happen! We’ve all heard that Paris is dubbed as ‘the city of lights’ and a lovers paradise, but I had no idea it could happen to me. I love the movie Casablanca too, but come on, does that really happen outside the movies or books? I can now tell you it does. My crusty, sarcastic coating regarding love, has been melted away by the man I now call, ‘mon mari’ (my husband).

How exactly did this happen? Well, back when I jokingly say that I had a ‘real job’, working for a global manufacturer, my job took me to our Belgian office on a month-long project. During that time, I met my ‘would-be’ hubby, a shy, handsome Belgian with boyish good looks and manly charm (see, I told you my story was a cliché before we started!). At least I didn’t say he was tall, dark and handsome!

OK, moving on. I worked with him side-by-side, we attended group functions and interacted as most coworkers do. During the course of these interactions, we both felt there was something between us, but with working 15 hour days among a group of people and no time off, we never spoke of our affinity for one another. As time went on, I began to think that I was being overly intuitive about his feelings for me and having that crusty coating at the time, I soon let logic and reason take over any notions of budding romance breaking through the shell. And eventually, it was time to go back home to the US and it became business as usual and sadly, we didn’t speak again for 12 years.

In checking one of my networking sites, I saw his name pop up as a suggested connection and wondered if he’d even remember me after all this time. I composed an awkward reintroduction saying, ‘hope you still remember me, I was one of the Americans who worked with you 12 years ago….’ I held my breath as I thought, what if he doesn’t remember me or doesn’t want to reconnect? How will this effect me? I then exhaled and clicked, ‘send invitation’ and hoped I wouldn’t embarrass myself or him too badly in the process. He responded by saying, ‘…of course I remember you Regina…’ and so, we reconnected as former employees do, right? Again, no bells, whistles, declarations or confessions, only the acknowledgment that he did remember me, a small yet important victory in my mind and unwittingly, a foreshadowing to the future.

In late September, a friend and I were planning to go to Paris for vacation. Since I knew my former Belgian coworker was living and working in France from his online profile, I asked if he was close to Paris to see if we could meet and get caught up on each others’ lives.  He said he’d love to see me again and would take the train to meet me in Paris to have dinner at Le Pied de Cochon, a Parisian institution for classic french cuisine. We met for a late dinner and already, I could sense my world was about to change.

Re-winding a bit to 12 years ago, we recognized the spark we had for one another, but never voiced our feelings, which only resulted in internal dialog about what could have been. The next morning, we met again for coffee with my travel buddy, so again, no time to explore our feelings from either of us on how we felt when we first met or in Paris, just great dialog between friends.

When he was leaving to take his train home, we hugged good-bye and it took all I had to not cry, which seemed ridiculous at the time, given that no outward expression of our feelings had ever taken place. Regardless, I hugged him and couldn’t even look back to see him disappear into the Metro, because I knew I would not be able to hold back my emotions.

Little did I know at the time, he was experiencing the same pain of leaving me and had all the same emotions he had then and now.  He told me later that he waited for me to look back and when I didn’t, he thought I didn’t share the love he had been carrying for me all this time. I was devastated that he was gone and that yet again, I didn’t have the courage to tell him how I felt.

As he disappeared into the Metro that day, he sent me an email at that time (which I never got until arriving home) that I had changed his life in just a moment, that he was starting to lose faith in love and happiness and that it all changed when he saw me again. He said he wasn’t willing to lose me again and wanted to find out if we were meant to be together. After returning home, I naturally got his message and I began to cry as I now finally knew the truth about how he felt and I could tell him I loved him too.

About a month after Paris, he came to visit for 10 days (his first trip to the US) and we actually got to talk and get to know one another without a constant audience. We found out that we do have a strong bond and connection that hasn’t waned over time or distance. And so it began, a romance that would take another year to come full circle, after 12 years in waiting.

“…See there’s this place in me where your fingerprints still rest, your kisses still linger, and your whispers softly echo. It’s the place where a part of you will forever be a part of me.”
–Gretchen Kemp

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Posted by on January 4, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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