Going Pro in 2013

sand-33899_640
Image via Nemo from Pixabay

I came back from France on December 20 planning to spend Christmas taking it easy with my family with the intention of starting my search for work in earnest after New Year. So far, I’ve gotten the “taking it easy” bit crossed off my list of things to do for 2012, but it’s 2013 now, and I’ve got a whole new list of things to accomplish this year.

Much to my chagrin, we’re already a week into the new year, and I have barely written anything. Despite my weak start to pursuing my writing resolutions, I did have an epiphany the other day while I was writing some more on the current WIP:

If I want to go pro about writing– and I do– I’m going to need a better system. Actually, to put it more accurately, I’m going to need to be more disciplined. For so long, I’ve admired the authors in my Twitter feed selling their books on Amazon or fellow bloggers like Kristen Lamb and Matthew Wright publishing post after post, chastising myself for my limited productivity, but– oddly enough– not doing much to improve said abysmal productivity.

In fact, Kristen’s recent post about talent being cheaper than table salt struck me particularly hard when she was recounting an encounter she had with an old acquaintance. He kept lamenting that he couldn’t be an author because he was “so ADD,” but in typical Kristen fashion, she told him point-blank,

This time, instead of trying to help or agreeing with his excuses or offering to be his support buddy to make him stay on task, I said, “No, you don’t have ADD. You lack maturity and discipline.

They say the first step to correcting a problem is admitting you have one, so I hereby publicly confess to you:

I have a time-management problem.

Happily, I also have a plan to:

  • Keep a professional work schedule

Photo courtesy of mnapoleon
Photo courtesy of mnapoleon

When I was working full-time in Paris, I had to get up around the same time every morning and make sure I was on the metro by 9:00 a.m. or else I’d be late to work. I may not have a job to go to at the moment, but for now, I’m making writing my full-time job while I look for other ways to generate an income.

In the past, I’d take a stab at writing whenever I’d have free time, but I hardly ever produced anything, and I never produced anything on a consistent basis. Now, I may not have a boss breathing down my neck, but I’m treating writing with the same responsibility I would if I still had to get on that metro every morning. Getting my mom up to speed on Downton Abbey this past weekend didn’t help this morning (sacrifices must be made…), but from now on, I’m getting in bed by 10:30, lights out by 11:00 at the latest. That alarm goes off at 6:30, so I’d better be out of bed by 7:00 at the latest.

  • Use my calendar and timer

CalendarAnother aspect of my full-time job at the embassy entailed working five days a week on many different projects with varying deadlines. I’ve had this nifty little app on my computer since I got it, and I’ve barely put it to use. Now, I’m filling in my writing schedule alongside other things like choir practice and job interviews exactly as if it were my personal planner at my previous job.

Speaking of deadlines, it’s astounding how much more productive you can be when you have a looming deadline– even a tiny one. While I was writing a new scene for my WIP the other day, I was using ten minute magic, where I set my little egg timer for ten minutes, set my Scrivener window to full screen, and just wrote. Lo and behold, I actually wrote a little over 1,300 words in an hour thanks to that little kick in the pants. In the past, I would sit down at my desk and try to write, and often, I would end up writing nothing after several hours– usually because I had gotten distracted– which leads me to my next goal…

  • Kill Facebook

what-could-kill-facebookI’m appalled by how often I find myself lost in the endless tracts of Facebook’s newsfeed. I usually have hardly any notifications, so there’s no real reason for me to visit. Now, when it’s writing time, the book of faces will be shut. Come to think of it, the whole internet will be shut.

  • Set measurable goals

One of the things I loved about NaNoWriMo was the plethora of word-counting widgets and progress bars, and I was thrilled to discover a similar built-in feature of Scrivener. Now, when I start a writing session, I can set my wordcount goal and watch the bar move while I type. Even when I’m not writing the actual prose for a WIP, I can set goals to “brainstorm X number of scenes by Wednesday” or “interview the protagonist and supporting sidekick by the end of today.” This way, instead of dithering in the face of the seemingly endless task of writing a story, I can constantly be aiming for and completing a series of more immediate goals.

How do you plan to go pro in 2013? What are your methods to the madness of time-management?

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!

Métro, Boulot, Dodo

The French have a phrase “métro, boulot, dodo,” which means “subway, work, sleep.” It’s only been two weeks since I started my internship at the embassy, but I’m already coming to understand this Parisian view of life. Living in Paris has been a dream come true, for the most part, especially during the first couple of days when I had nothing to do but stroll around and admire the natural beauty of the city, but it has come with its own challenges, too.

Having visited Paris several times before, I have photos of most of the touristy places, and not carrying a camera everywhere with me is an oddly liberating sensation. I had wondered what it would be like, being surrounded by tourists all the time, but surprisingly, they don’t annoy me very much.

In fact, I derive a certain amount of pleasure in watching other people, especially my fellow Americans, discover– often for the first time– the place I have come to love. There have even been times when I’ve been able to help them out, and I never get tired of their surprised reactions when they learn that there are, indeed, friendly anglophones in a city of supposed snobs.

During my first couple of days here, I passed the Eiffel Tower several times, strolled through the Jardins des Tuileries in front of the Louvre, and dodged tourists and Parisians alike on the always overcrowded Champs Elysées near the Arc de Triomphe. I’ve also been fortunate to have a couple of Texan friends living in the city for the summer, including a fellow Aggie Catholic, with whom I tasted the infamous Berthillon’s ice cream (made sans preservatives or artificial coloring) on the Île St. Louis, walked along the Seine, and attended mass at Notre Dame Cathedral on Mother’s Day in France.

My work at the embassy got off to a slow start; all of the steps necessary to finalise my security clearances took at least a week to complete, and at the beginning, I was a bit bored.  I’m not sure why Americans talk about 9:00-5:00 office jobs because I work from 9:00-6:00, which irks me particularly since I’m in a country notorious for its 35-hour workweeks. There are two other interns in my office, as well, so there wasn’t a lot of work to go round for us neophytes. However, with the departure of three of the office’s mainstays, coupled with the vacations and displacements of some of the other employees, the work has picked up, and now I find myself fairly occupied the whole time.

I’m sure many of you are dying to know what kind of secret stuff I’m doing behind closed doors. I would never jeopardise my position by writing about classified information, but I can assure you that even though I enjoy a top-secret security clearance, most of my tasks have been rather mundane, and even the hush-hush stuff has been less than titillating, to be sure. For the most part, I have gone to some thinktanks near the embassy to take notes for some of my supervisors, which I am in the process of transcribing. I was allowed to sit in on a meeting of department heads and be introduced to the ambassador, even if it wasn’t exactly face-to-face, and I even had a “fun” assignment on Friday where I played tour guide to the family members of some visiting congressmen. That was actually quite enjoyable since I had a real opportunity to put my knowledge of Paris to work, and I was able to accompany them to a site I hadn’t even visited myself, Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides, a former military hospital cum museum.

I’m pretty fortunate that I like my coworkers, too. Everyone has been very welcoming and helpful at bringing us interns into the fold. One of my supervisors, in particular, is a fellow writer with a book self-published on Amazon, and I have enjoyed getting to know a kindred spirit. He has even inspired me to bring my computer to work to write during our hour-long lunch breaks, which is how he finished his first book and is completing his second.

As much as the job has been varied, the novelty of working at the embassy is starting to wear off, and life as a Parisian is taking a small toll. While Paris doesn’t exactly approach New York City in terms of size or population, living in a world capital is fairly stressful. A lot of Americans have this “Vie en Rose” image of the City of Lights, but they can only see France through the eyes of a vacationer.

Living in the midst of a different culture, even one I know well, is mentally taxing as I juggle between living amongst other Americans for nine hours and returning to my French host family in the evenings. Then there is just the rigor of adjusting to a full-time work schedule in a huge city, where I have to factor in time to get to work via public transportation along with every other suit-clad Parisian and their dogs. Sometimes, I have to wait for two métros to pass before there is enough room to get on the train, and when I make my correspondance at Franklin Roosevelt, we  practically run through the claustrophobia-inducing tunnels; even so, the sound of the myriad vagabond musicians’ renditions of Ave Maria echoing through the corridors every morning makes the gauntlet a bit more bearable. Then it’s nine hours spent in front of a computer in a windowless office (for now, anyway, and every once in a while I get to take the aforementioned field trips into the city) before doing it all over, with only a couple of hours of free time in the evening before waking up at the crack of doom for rounds two through five.

While there have already been a few times where I have asked myself why I decided to go through all this hassle of moving to another country not just once, but a second time, and while I have been a little bit homesick, I have been saying to my French friends, “Je m’habitue” (I’m getting used to it). And when I really think about it, I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world.

I definitely appreciate the weekends more, now. In school, I usually spent my free time completing papers or attending to other commitments, but the one silver lining of an office job is that I can leave it all behind on Friday. This weekend was especially nice because I took the train to Caen to visit my host family from two years ago. On the way out, the sun was shining and the sky was clear, a welcome change after the constant grey rain we’ve been having in Paris, and I was shocked to find myself embracing the idea of retiring to the quiet countryside fifty years down the line. I couldn’t help but better understand why the French don’t like living in Paris, and the Parisians themselves take every opportunity they can to flee their concrete jungle for their native terroirs (family origins).

I spent a lovely weekend celebrating my host family’s housewarming in conjunction with their 25th wedding anniversary. The whole extended family (whom I met on the very same day I met my host family in Caen) was there, and I was really touched at having a familial atmosphere to come back to, especially in my old haunt. As much as I want to see the rest of the country, Normandy will always hold a special place in my heart as my first “home” in France, and I don’t care what reputation it has as a cold, rainy, pastoral region with little excitement; walking around the tiny town of Ouistreham, along the beach with a sprightly wind blowing off the Channel, and through the quaint neighborhoods of typically Norman architecture was an idyllic way to pass a Sunday. Paris is beautiful, there is no question about it; but the French realise that foreigners think only of Paris when they think of France, and I hasten to add that there is a lot of beauty to be found elsewhere, as well.

Now, I’m on the overcrowded train back to Paris, where I’ll catch the evening mass (probably one of the few times my family in Texas will have actually gone to church before I have, even with the time difference) before gearing up for a week of God-knows-what. At least the job hasn’t been predictable yet, and I have a feeling that as my colleagues get to know us interns better, we may get to do even more interesting tasks.

I’ll be visiting some Aggie Catholics in Rome for an ordination mass next weekend, and as much as travel disasters make great stories, for my sake, I’m hoping for an uneventful dash down south via RyanAir.

Bref, as the French say, “ça arrive.” Little by little, I’m readjusting to life à la française, and I’m sure I’ll have more exciting news in the not so distant future.

À bientôt !

Une Petite Leçon d’Humilité

Claque.

That’s the sound in French for closing a door. Or being seized with panic before kicking yourself for being an idiot.

I stood there, in front of the apartment, dumbfounded before frantically searching my pockets. I managed to extract my phone and about seventy centimes before shaking the door gently. My phone glowed cheerily back up at me in the darkening hallway. 20:15.

Merde.

Unbelieving, I searched my pockets again, hoping the keys would materialize and this would be just a false alarm. No such luck. I stuffed my plastic bag back into my pocket and sat down on the stairs next to the door. It will be ok, I reassured myself, They just left for dinner at a friend’s house in the neighborhood, so they’ll be back in a couple hours.

Then, an idea.

A little less than a minute later, I’m knocking on the door of the guardienne, an adorable older lady from Portugal who only comes up to my waist and whose apartment sits just off the entry hall to the building. Her equally adorable dog comes out to see who the visitor is, and I relate my sad story to my little audience of two: I don’t mean to bother you, but I was going to the grocery store when I realised I didn’t have much money in my wallet, so I went upstairs and took some from my desk, but apparently I set my key down, and now I’m locked out of the apartment. Do you happen to have a spare one?

The dog stares up at me, clearly nonplussed, but fortunately, his mistress is more sympathetic to my plight. Unfortunately, she does not have an extra key to the apartment, but perhaps she has my host family’s number. She rifles through some papers and pulls out something– alas, it is an old number or the one to their landline. In my head, I’m banging my head against the wall; Madame Julienne just gave me her cell phone number the other day, but it is written in my notebook next to the keys in question upstairs, not in my American iPhone in my pocket.

That’s ok, I say, giving the dog a little pat, more to reassure myself than him, as she lets me back into the stairwell. I’ll just wait.

A short elevator ride later, and I’m sitting morosely on the stair once more. If there is a silver lining to this situation, it is that I took my iPhone with me and not my French cell phone. Both are equally useless as far as making telephone calls goes, but at least I can access the wifi from within the apartment and amuse myself online. Facebook informs me rather bluntly that none of my friends are online to chat. The clock at the top of the screen flickers momentarily: 20:45.

Trying to stave off the wave of loneliness and disappointment that threatens to overwhelm me, I rest my forehead on my arm across my knees as I begin to pray. A short time later, the door across the hall opens and the neighboring lady steps out, trash bag in hand. She and I are mere acquaintances, but I can’t help but smile at the irony of the situation: considering our first meeting was here in this same spot only a week earlier, when I was also locked out of the apartment upon my arrival in Paris since my host family was out at the time, we seem to be developing an unusual relationship.

I quickly explain my foolishness to her, and she kindly asks if there is anything she can offer me. I insist that I’m fine, but my mouth is feeling a bit dry in my anxiousness, so I take her up on her offer and ask for a glass of water. She invites me in and offers me a banana to go with it, and soon, I have joined her and her husband in their living room, where we watch a series of television shows about the love-hate relationship between England and France.

Fortunately, I find the shows interesting, and I soon find myself immersed in the constant stream of French emanating from the television, occasionally offering my own commentary to reply to that of my newfound neighbors.

Hours pass, and still no sign of my host family returning. It is a Saturday night, after all, and my hostess speculates that it could be any hour of the morning before they get back. Eventually, we all begin to grow drowsy, but the silvery chiming of the clock on the mantle each hour ensures that we stay somewhat awake. I begin to grow increasingly uncomfortable as we approach midnight and my rescuer has to retire for the evening. Her husband, however, continues to work on his sudoku while I watch a sports wrapup for the second time in a row, and the clock ticks toward midnight.

Finally, mercifully, roundabouts 1:15 AM, I hear the elevator grind to life in the corridor outside. A moment later, I’m stepping out of the neighbors’ apartment to the horrified looks on my host family’s faces. Monsieur, my couch partner, has closed the door behind me, likely off to a well-deserved night’s sleep, and I explain in the most self-effacing way possible the curious story of my evening with Frank and Ethel.

It is hard to tell what their reaction, exactly, is. As we step into our own apartment, they explain to me that le rapport between the neighbors is not so good, that people here are not so nice, and that they’re afraid they might complain to the guardian about hosting students who get locked out of apartments. I explain to them that I had considered checking to see about staying with my American friend who happens to also live in the 16th arrondissement, but that I thought it would be better to stay in the building so I wouldn’t miss them when they returned. Monsieur informs me that in fact, the neighbors across the way are probably the last people I should go to and that it would actually probably be better to go downstairs to the bars in the neighborhood.

Talk about stepping right into the merde. But hindsight is 20/20 and this would have all been very bon à savoir, oh, I don’t know… five hours ago.

No words– French or English– can convey my embarrassment and profound sense of apology for such a stupid mistake (although in my head, I feel slightly miffed for becoming inadvertently embroiled in a local feud, not to mention the fact that in America, we use doorknobs to open unlocked doors, not keys for turning the latch…). We all wish each other an awkward bonne nuit before heading off to our respective bedrooms.

Oh the joys of being a foreigner abroad.

As I pull the blankets over myself to ward off the chills of shame and anxiety I feel, I can only be grateful that I speak French as well as I do or this already regrettable situation would have been about ten times more difficult. And before I let my weary eyes close, I resolve to leave a note of gratitude outside the neighbors’ door tomorrow morning, chalking the whole affair up as an unexpected lesson in French apartment culture and the virtue of humility.

Somwhere Between Sky and Sea, Suffering and Serendipity

It’s dawn somewhere over the North Atlantic.

The incessant roar of the jet engines echoes the dull ache in my left shoulder as I come awake after a scant hour or so of real, unconscious sleep. My legs are splayed to either side of the seat in front of me, which– as always– is reclined all the way back. I shift uncomfortably, to no avail, and extricate my 6’6″ frame from my prison for the past six hours to make my way to the back of the cabin to simply stand by the galley and stretch a bit, where the woman waiting for the lavatory remarks on my height.

“Yeah, it’s usually pretty cool to be so tall,” comes my rehearsed response, but with one added addendum: “This is not one of those times.” In my head, I’m starting to wonder why I decided to put myself through this again.

Once the circulation in my feet is sufficiently restored, I pick my way through the darkened cabin and return to my seat. Trying to fall asleep again is out of the question, so I attempt to give myself a one-handed massage as best I can while I try to gauge how much time we have left before touchdown. On the screens where the flight map should be, Midnight in Paris is almost over. That was a thoughtful selection on the part of American Airlines, but it still feels like midnight to my tense and aching body. As Carla Bruni appears onscreen, I can’t help but feel a little sad knowing that she will no longer be the first lady while I’m in France, and suddenly, I’m thinking back to the conversation I had with Phyllis, an older lady who shared my seat on the flight from Austin to Chicago earlier that day:

“That’s wonderful,” she says after learning about my internships with the State Department in Paris. “You know, I was one of the first Peace Corps volunteers back in the 60’s.” And thus begins the fascinating saga of a young Iowa girl’s adventures in revolutionary South America, facing everything from communists to former Nazis, starting with intensive training in Oklahoma and Puerto Rico before her arrival in Chile and then Bolivia. We share a laugh over one anecdote in particular in which she was escorting a gravely ill patient along a dirt road when they were beset by machine gun-toting guerrillas from the undergrowth: “And I said to him– and this was all in Spanish of course– ‘Does your mother know what you’re doing right now?'” To which he could only lower the muzzle sheepishly and let them pass.

We move on to the subject of family, and I learn that she is a mother of three adult children and a widow. She speaks fondly of her husband, an “integrity-ridden” man who “felt the urge to be a hero every two years,” including a daring rescue mission during the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria, which she caught on home video and donated to a documentary, asking only that they put Phil’s name in the credits since she thought “he’d get a kick out of that.” I tell her that I am touched by how highly she speaks of her husband; the art of a happy marriage is a dying one, and you don’t see many people like that anymore. “No, you really don’t,” she concedes wistfully.

Somehow, as with most of my conversations, the topic of politics comes up, and Phyllis admits to me that she is a “tree-hugging Obama fan.” I confess that I’m not such a fan, but thanks to the rapport we have built, we are able to retain a cordial level of mutual respect, directing our differences back to our common belief in maintaining an objective, listening mind and our shared lament that more people cannot meet on such civil terms.

Time flies (in this case, literally) when you’re having fun, and before either of us realise it, the three-hour flight has ended. We disembark, I wishing her a safe journey onward to Sioux City, she wishing me a “great rest of [my] life.” And with that, she disappears into the crowd flowing through the concourse of Chicago O’Hare.

Did I say that? Waiting in airports does strange things to you…

As the warm smell of coffee and bread wafts through the plane from the galley in the back where the stewardesses are preparing breakfast, my seatmate, Hannah, begins to stir. An attractive and intelligent blonde from Iowa, as well, she is the answer to a wish I texted to a friend while waiting for my flight in Chicago.

Initially, we are both reticent– I, because she appears to be resting while we wait for takeoff, she, because she thinks I am a French passenger returning home (a perception I find immensely flattering). Soon, though, the conversation is flowing like champagne as we discuss everything from our recent graduations (hers from high school, mine from university) to the possible psychological causes of homosexuality and the need for charity and respect on both sides of the national debate to the terrible state of music on the radio and our shared passion for talented composition.

Now, as the stewards pass by with their little cart, distributing trays of croissants, jam, and yogurt, we pick up where we left off before our futile attempts at sleep.

“So, will you be staying in Paris, too?” I ask, referring to the family she is visiting for three weeks before returning to America with their daughter for a similar exchange.

“Actually, I’ll be in Orléans,” she replies.

Naturally, I can’t help but remark on St. Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orléans, whose feast day is dawning as we begin our descent. “Well, if you happen to visit Paris during your time in France, you should look me up. Or Texas,” I add.

Now that we are only a few miles from Paris, we feel obligated to weigh in on our airplane breakfast:

“The croissant isn’t half bad,” Hannah comments.

“Yeah,” I reply, sawing unsuccessfully through mine, “But they’re nothing compared to the ones on the ground.”

Soon, the plane shudders, and we are officially in the City of Lights. After finally rolling up to the gate, I watch the group of high school students giddily disembark for their own first adventure in Europe, and I can’t help but smile as I recall being in their place only three years ago. As I make my way down the empty aisle, I stop and ask one of the church group missionaries, identifiable by their peach-colored polo shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Team Kenya,” whether they will get to see much of Paris before continuing to Africa; unfortunately, no, he responds, but they, too are all smiles and conviviality as they depart in a different direction.

I offer a hasty but heartfelt “merci” to the flight crew waiting by the door, and as I walk up the jetway and into the legendary Charles de Gaulle, I think I’ve found the answer to my question:

Why do I endure this modern Middle Passage time and time again? Because as easy as it is to focus on the invasive airport security, the interminable layovers, the mediocre airplane food, or the cramp-inducing accommodation onboard, it is so much more fulfilling to revel in the serendipity of these chance encounters. People are a fascinating lot even at home, but particularly so in the crossroads of the sky, where, no matter what our differences on the ground, we are all humans achieving the impossible together– the miracle of flight– even if it’s for but an instant before we are swept off to our various corners of the world once more.

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to,” comes Bilbo’s sage warning to his nephew.

I might add that there’s no knowing who you might meet in the process, too, and that is precisely why I travel.

Commenting: A Followup

Before I say anything else, I would just like to express how honored I am to be Freshly Pressed a second time and how touched I am to receive such positive feedback from all of you. Thank you to everyone who contributed to my recent post about commenting and to everyone who now follows my blog.

I actually read every comment that was posted, and I’m still getting several streaming in. Several of you asked some very good questions regarding commenting, so here are some of the most common questions along with my responses.

You mentioned that the blogger should respond to comments to interact with his readers. Should the blogger respond to every comment?

  • The answer is an emphatic “No.” While it is important to maintain a relationship with readers, the blogger’s primary responsibility is to provide good content for his audience. The combox is a great way for the blogger to clarify points or chat with readers, but usually, it serves as a place where readers can generate their own discussion about the material. Especially on posts with hundreds of comments, it is simply impractical for the blogger to reply to every single post. It is my opinion that the blogger should only reply to comments as he sees fit, but most importantly, he ought to remember that while social interaction is a key component to a successful blog, his primary objective as a writer is to provide the main content. Too much time spent commenting detracts from that responsibility.

You encouraged us to comment even when we feel shy or when there are many comments before ours, but I’m hesitant to appear boorish by repeating what may have already been said.

  • In the case where there are several hundred comments, it is unlikely that a reader will sift through every single one to determine what has already been said, nor should he be expected to. Thus, even if what you write has already been said, perhaps in skimming the conversation, a new reader will see your post instead of a previous one and be able to keep the ball rolling from there. And besides, great minds think alike, so consider it less like appearing uncouth and more like bolstering an argument by reaffirming a common truth.

It’s difficult to track a conversation and be able to contribute meaningfully, which is why I often do not bother.

  • I agree that it can be mind-numbing to try to hold a combox argument coherently in your head while formulating a cogent response. While my previous post exhorted readers to comment whenever possible, remember that Prudence is the auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues), and that often, it is “better to keep one’s mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and prove the fact,” as Benjamin Franklin said. If you do not want to join an ongoing conversation or are unsure of what has been said already, you can always leave a positive note of encouragement for the blogger, since those will never go to waste.
  • Additionally, if you would like to follow a certain thread of conversation in the comments section, there is often an option when you post a reply to receive alerts of followup comments via email or the hosting platform itself (Blogger, Livejournal, WordPress, etc.)

As you can see, I could not reply to every post, but because so many people were willing to leave a comment– even at the risk of sounding repetitive– I got a good sense of what the general blogging population was thinking, and in so doing, your input led to the creation of this blog post. See how even when you think no one can hear what you have to say, you are helping to build the blogosphere?

What other topics would you like to see discussed regarding writing and blogging? Are there other questions you have about how to become a better blogger? If there are other experienced bloggers reading, how do you balance the social and creative demands of being a successful blogger?

Pure, unadulterated France

%d bloggers like this: