To WordPress, With Love

Close the laptop and open the stationery box. You won’t regret it.

Dear reader,

When was the last time you picked up a pen and actually handwrote a letter to someone?

Yeah, don’t feel too guilty about that. Up until about five minutes ago, I think it had been at least a year since I did it, and that was when I wrote a letter to my grandmother. But a lazy Sunday afternoon in Paris seemed the perfect opportunity to crack open the little box of stationery I bought just before leaving the country, and I’m so glad I did.

Living abroad has been lonely at times, but thanks to Skype and Facebook, I have felt remarkably close to my friends back home. Still, the rare occasions when I have opened my mailbox to find a real, handwritten letter were some of the most touching moments where I felt a physical connection to someone I cared about. Yet, in an age of digital everything, the act of sitting down for a couple of hours to hand-craft a personal letter doesn’t even cross our minds as a possibility, much less as an archaic– if romantic– anachronism.

One thing I have noticed about France is that, despite its position as a modern, wealthy, Western nation, the people here do not quite rely on their technology as much as my American compatriots at home. Of course, iPhones and tablets abound, and the country is even several steps ahead of the United States in terms of public transportation and credit card security, but when you go to a cafe, you see people in wicker chairs turned out to face the sidewalk instead of hordes of solo Starbucks-sippers absorbed within their cocoons of Macbooks and earbuds. French websites tend to look like they were designed at the turn of the century, and people are much more likely to plan to host a dinner weeks in advance rather than firing off a text to whoever is available to grab some fast food at the last minute.

All of this is to say that as a young American, it has been eye-opening living in the Old World, where even amongst 21st century modernisation, life still moves at a pace a bit more becoming the 19th century. It’s undeniable that there are French people just as technology-saturated as their American cousins, but I have found that theirs is a culture that still respects the human element, the personal connection, the intimate encounter. And spending my afternoon putting pen to paper to reconnect with old friends was a therapeutic way to ease some homesickness as well as commune with the spirit of a city rich in literary history.

To stop and consider that there was an era where people would cross the ocean literally never to be seen again and the only means of communicating with them was to entrust a scrap of paper to a courier once a year… well, that is a humbling thought. Fortunately, we don’t have to resort to such ancient methods today because we have webcamming and instant messaging at our fingertips!

Then why is it that I still have a hard time scheduling even these digital encounters? Quite simply, I believe it is because we live in a culture of consumption instead of production. To reach out to someone through any medium demands a certain amount of effort and sacrifice on our part, but that’s the beauty of human social relations: communicating with another human being goes beyond the level of mere animal need and can be an act of love in itself.

Especially to my writer readers, shouldn’t the title of writer encompass the most humble and basic form of writing beyond all the work we do blogging, querying, authoring, and social networking? If you want to really lay claim to the title, I challenge you to go old school and break out the quills and parchment.

If you have been feeling the urge to reconnect with someone, or even if you are reaching out to a new acquaintance– be it a potential business partner, romantic interest, or neighbor who just moved in down the street– why not do it in ink?

In case your letter-writing skills from elementary school are a bit rusty (do they even teach the art of writing a friendly letter any more?), here are some tips:

  • You might want to draft just a couple of points on a scratch piece of paper beforehand to gather your thoughts.
  • The weather is nice to mention, but your space is likely limited. Try to dig a little deeper and open up. Remember this is a personal letter, so why not use the opportunity to recount some personal events (whether good or bad) from the past year?
  • Don’t fret about making mistakes. Actually, handwriting forces you to write at a slower pace, so your thoughts will be constrained to accommodate your hand instead of racing to keep up with your mad typing skills. Besides, before there was a “backspace” button, there was this little thing called “whiteout;” a couple chicken scratches here and there give it character, too.
  • “Sharing” links or photos on Facebook is so mainstream; you might consider using this opportunity to include some actual photos, personal drawings/doodles, newspaper clippings, or even small gifts that can fit in the envelope.
  • Don’t treat it as a chore or something on your never-ending list of things to do; rather, look at it as the first step in a personal conversation with someone you care enough to write to.
  • Tell your friends– better yet, write to your friends– and revive the lost (but not yet dead!) art of letter-writing.

I hope that you enjoy rediscovering a traditional art form and that it brings a richer dimension to your writing and your life.

The Fourth à la Française!

Photo credit: Alex Gardinier

A flurry of activity enveloped number 41 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Outside on the street, the hum of daily Parisian life continued unabated on this, just another ordinary Wednesday in France, but inside the walls of the courtyard, a buzz of anticipation and festivity filled the air as I arrived the morning of July 4.

Walking through the Ambassador’s residence, I passed several of my colleagues from the office, but it was clear that this was not just another day in the political section. Soon, I was stationed at my post within the gatehouse, where I was joined by my fellow Aggie Catholic friend, Abbie, our scanners at the ready for the impending throngs of Americans and foreign dignitaries alike.

Without much warning, the floodgates were opened, and before I knew it, the four of us interns were doing everything we could to keep up with the flow of the Ambassador’s guests as we quickly– though gracefully–  scanned the barcodes gracing their invitations as efficiently and politely as possible. For the next three hours, I became a broken record, as, after hundreds of iterations, the phrase spilled out of my mouth with the ease and intonation of a native: “Excusez-moi, Monsieur/Madame, est-ce que je peux scanner votre invitation ?

My own scanner kept throwing tantrums throughout the process, and I would later receive an email saying that something had not been set correctly on the computers, rendering my three hours of work absolutely useless (yay, government!), but despite that, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that even we lowly interns would be allowed to join the fête going down in the garden behind the house.

As I joined the throng of thousands in the backyard, I first patiently waited for a mojito while a band comprised of sailors from the Navy belted out classic, Americana rock tunes from the stage at the end of the yard. Then, in true American style (and in flagrant disregard for stuffy French etiquette) I grabbed some Häagen-Dazs before I ate my onion rings and cheesecake.

It was a beautiful, warm day in July, and for just a few hours, I could have forgotten that I was standing in the center of Paris (except for the fact that everyone was wearing suits and I was sharing American culture with my fellow French interns, one of whom had lived in the United States and was overjoyed to have real American food again).

Speaking of American food, when the party wound down at around 3:00 in the afternoon, I jumped back on the metro to enjoy the rest of my day off by meeting my Texan friend Kaitlyn at my apartment to get down to the business of cooking the two chickens I had basted the previous evening. I had been planning an American meal for my host family for about two weeks, and Kaitlyn graciously assisted me in preparing the desserts and fresh-squeezed lemonade, while we worked without measuring utensils and roughly estimated cooking times in a Celsius-based oven, a French replacement for the missing grill called for by the recipe.

Classic queso-making mistake…

Abbie and Jennifer, yet another fellow Aggie (we’re colonising France), joined us a bit later just in time for apéritif. Being Texans and having access to actual American food products within the embassy, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make the classic Velveeta and Rotel tomatoes queso accompanied by tortilla chips with a hint of lime. As you can see, it was the only hitch in the meal, though an easily fixable one.

Now, normally at an American meal, all the food is served together, but I was busy finishing up some last minute preparations when the French family asked about going to the living room, and this unforeseen French twist to my American meal just kind of, well, happened. I must say, I do not believe I have ever eaten queso– that basest of communal, American appetizers– with red wine before.

Queso and wine. It’s all the rage for this year’s Fourth of July.

But this is France, and no French family worth its salt would be caught dead at a dinner party without wine. I think we Americans were secretly laughing at what an affair it turned out to be, with the tortilla chips arrayed nicely in a bowl which was passed around the room, and heaven forbid we dip the chips directly into the dish of queso; instead, we each spooned out a polite little portion onto our plates while we discussed the differences in American and French entertaining culture, all the while sipping our glasses of Bordeaux. I was horrified when my host dad asked the question of what was in the chip dip: “Umm, it’s a type of Mexican cheese, yes, that’s it… cheese, though of course nothing at all like real French cheese…”

Fortunately, my host brothers loved it, and soon, we were deeply engaged in an hours-long meal around the table. I was thrilled to hear from everyone that my chile-lime chicken (ok, paprika-lime chicken; chili is a bit hard to come by over here) was a smashing success, especially when my host dad remarked how well-cooked it was. Kaitlyn and I, slightly giggly from having started our apéro earlier in the afternoon during the cooking process, exchanged amused glances considering the guesswork that went into such a “well-cooked” chicken (205 degrees Celsius? Sure… that’s about 400 Fahrenheit, right?).

Patriotic Pies (Photo credit: Kaitlyn Bates)

Before I could unveil the pièce de résistance, we Americans were obliged to offer our a capella rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” keeping in mind to start the anthem sufficiently low so that “the rockets’ red glare” would not shatter any wineglasses or windows. And then, my not-so-sufficiently-chilled-yet-artfully-decorated cream cheese confections were brought out in their pre-baked graham cracker and Oreo crusts with no one the wiser.

Despite the typically French length of the meal, all too soon, it was 11:30, and our guests had to get home. It may not have been a picnic in the park with fireworks, but celebrating the Fourth of July with several other Americans in Paris with my French host family was a special way to look at this uniquely American holiday.

Later, my French family would compliment me not only the quality of the meal, but the quality of my friends, as well. It’s not often that a room full of Americans conducts themselves so gracefully and in such well-spoken French, but that particular compliment was more spectacular than any fireworks show, and I was honored to have been able to leave such a positive impression of my country with my French friends.

As we began clearing the table, I concluded the evening with the rather diplomatic, “This was a way for us to say thank you to your country for its assistance in the creation of our own,” to which my host mom asserted that I should be the United States’ Ambassador to France one day.

Well, I may be a lowly intern, but I am honored to say that in their eyes, I already am.

Gig ’em and Happy Fourth of July!