Monday, August 31, 2009


I’m studying French. I’ve done this before with varying degrees of success. I took two years of French in college. My first year was taught by a Japanese professor who spoke at least 5 different languages. I took the second year two years later at a different college from a professor who we suspected came to class more than a little tanked the majority of the time, but who read Le Petit Prince to us in its entirety – a lovely book, even more lovely if you read it in French. So I came out of those experiences unable to speak more than the most rudimentary vocabulary (with a faint Japanese accent), with no understanding of the grammar, and wondering how I could get 10 college credits and not have learnt anything. It was a painful experience due, certainly, to my own lack of study and effort and not to any neglect on the part of my instructors.

About nine years ago I had another go at it. I knew I was going to be traveling to France and I wanted to be able to speak at least the courtesy phrases and be able to ask for (and more crucially) understand directions while there. I studied for two years before my trip, enhanced by twice a week sessions with a native French speaking tutor. By the time I took my trip, I was conversational – not fluent. I was able to get hotel reservations and book train tickets, have conversations with shopkeepers, and even convince a taxi driver to drive me 30 miles to the next town when a train strike (la greve) descended during my visit and I was stranded short of my destination.

Since I’m returning to France in May I decided a refresher was a good idea. I’m amazed at how quickly it’s coming back. The vocabulary has big gaps in it, but the basics of grammar have stuck with me – arguably the hardest part of learning any language – so I’m grateful for that. Now it’s back to flash cards for vocabulary learning and trying to keep the genders straight – table is feminine, book is masculine. In regards to les vetements (clothes), a man’s shirt is feminine (une chemise) but a woman’s blouse (un chemisier) is masculine. Aarrgghhh!

The most interesting part of studying a language, though, is the cultural study that goes along with it and my instructor does an excellent job of communicating the vagaries of French culture to us. When I took the class nine years ago, he spoke at length of “la greve” the strike – how the French strike randomly and with great participation. One day it is decided that the transportation system workers will strike and, seemingly, the next day it all grinds to a halt. When I found myself coming into Paris from the north and having to walk to switch train stations to catch another train headed south (my scheduled train simply did not show up at my station and the only train headed south was at an adjoining station a 30 minute walk away), I was grateful for his preparation. Although it was admittedly irritating, I was able to deal with the day’s late trains, absent trains, lack of taxis, and absolute gridlock with good humor and my trusty credit card.

As an adult of a certain age, I look back to my college days and my lack of study. I marvel at the narrowness of my own interests back then, my complete and total focus on the here and now and my immediate, very small world. I saw my General Ed requirements as roadblocks to my goal, hoops I had to jump through to satisfy the ‘powers that be’ and couldn’t plow through them fast enough to get on with what I thought was interesting and important. Now, I think I get it. There was a purpose and a point that would probably have been helpful to learn back then instead of now. Understanding even a little bit of another culture helps us to have a greater tolerance for people who behave in ways that seem totally foreign to us. Seeing the world through a different set of eyes gives us an appreciation for all the variety in the world – the ability to see outside our own little box to new ways of thinking and doing. In doing that, we can begin to see different ways of approaching our own lives as well. Apprenez, comprenez, développez-vous!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


In 2006 I picked up a paperback book titled Julie & Julia – My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell. I was intrigued by the title, partly because I enjoy cooking and, let’s be honest, who could resist Dan Akroyd’s SNL spoof on Julia Child boning a chicken? I was hoping it would be funny and the ‘light read’ I was looking for at the time (it was). I consumed it quickly, then was so intrigued I immediately went on to read Julia Child’s My Life in France. Once I finished that I went on to read Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I read it, folks. I didn’t skim it or browse through the recipes. I read the book – cover to cover.

I was fascinated by all of it - the stories, the recipes, the cooking, New York, and Paris. I’ve always had an interest in Paris and, truth be told, most things French. I’ve studied the language at various times in my life, once even achieving a certain level of conversational ability, though never fluency. I traveled to France in 2003, spending 5 weeks there, and have plans to return in May of 2010. Recently, I went to see the movie starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams. Unlike some reviewers – I loved it – and I’ve been thinking about certain elements of it ever since.

One of the things that the movie captures beautifully is Julia’s passion for life. It bubbles out of her memoir – joy in exploring Paris, joy in her marriage to her husband, joy in her sister and her friendships, joy in shopping for pears or mushrooms and, of course, joy in cooking. She was a woman who approached cooking, and life, with abandon – drinking it in – in essence, eating of it.

As the movie played it, Julia’s passion for cooking started, in part, with needing something to do. She had no children and, therefore, had plenty of time on her hands. I think that her memoir bears that out to a certain extent, though the memoir doesn’t support the idea that she was quite the rube in the kitchen when she starts at Le Cordon Bleu that the movie portrays her to be.

The movie makes two obvious references to Julia’s lack of children. In My Life in France, she writes about her desire for children this way.
“We had tried. But for some reason our efforts didn’t take. It was sad, but we didn’t spend too much time thinking about it and never considered adoption. It was just one of those things…So it was.”

I find this fascinating. It is certainly not the approach we so often hear of today. When people today are denied something that they want, we do not simply sit back and accept it. We fight. We are, after all, the captains of our own ships – masters of our fates. In the example of children, we see people spending tens of thousands of dollars, flying thousands of miles, wading through piles of bureaucratic paperwork to adopt children. Or, we see months and years and tens of thousands of dollars worth of medical procedures and drugs to procure biological children of their own. I acknowledge the changes in culture and medical advances and would never deny people the right to pursue what they desire. In the end, we must all follow our own hearts and I wish people joy with their children, no matter how they acquire them. But it makes me wonder.

Julia’s response then makes me wonder about our response now. What might have happened differently had she pursued the ‘having children’ piece of life that she clearly wanted? How would her life have been different? Would she have pursued cooking? Would she have attended Le Cordon Bleu? Would she have written books and produced television shows? I imagine - Not. I imagine, given the culture of the time, her life would have been – a diplomat’s wife, raising her children and keeping house for her husband. There would have been nothing wrong with those things at all. But we would probably not have seen the Julia Child that we did if for no other reason than she probably wouldn’t have had the energy to pursue it. Our world would be different.

This is just one example. How many times have I pursued my ‘desires,’ no matter what, when the universe seems to have been saying ‘no’ to me at the time? How many times have you? We’ve been raised with the notion that it is almost our obligation to do everything in our power to get what we want. So we strive and pursue and work and worry and we get what we want. And I wonder. I wonder how the world might be different. I wonder what ‘might have been’ had I or you let the universe have its way – and chosen to respond as Julia did. She accepted the hand life dealt her, and she made the absolute most of it in every way possible. She became.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


I’ve recently finished painting my kitchen. I didn’t intend to do this now (my bedroom was supposed to come first.) But, I was trying to decide on colors and so bought a sample, was given a few more by a friend, and once I had several different shades up on the wall trying to determine which was best, it seemed a good idea to just keep going.

It always amazes me how such a simple act, changing color, transforms a room. I had preconceived ideas about what the change would be. I was relatively certain that going from a very light yellow to a very intense red would make my kitchen seem smaller and, truth be told, I was preparing myself to paint right over it with a lighter color. But, strangely enough (probably not so strange to my more artistic friends) the color makes the room seem larger, more expansive, more open. I love it!

But one change, sometimes irritatingly so, leads to another. Once the kitchen is painted a new color, the hallway and stairwell call out for a new and fresh look. And then, that new color leads to a new color for the guest room, and on we go. Not to mention that rugs and chair pads that go with one color don’t necessarily work so well with another color, and this item or that, suddenly looks old and tired. When does it end?

This act of transforming a space can happen in an incredibly short span of time. While most of us are not rich enough or fortunate enough to have a crew come in and redo our home while we’re off on a cushy vacation ala Extreme Home Makeovers, in a weekend we can have a seemingly ‘new’ space with relatively little financial output and a little elbow grease.

This space transformation causes me to think about life transformation. How many of us are the person we thought we would be when we were twelve? How many of us have the lives we thought we would have? How many of us are still the same as we were ten years ago or even five? Transformation is a byproduct of growth. Events that we did not anticipate - happen. Relationships that we depended upon go away. Jobs change.

If we look back at our lives and pay attention to things that may even seem insignificant, the answer to the question above becomes clear. It doesn’t end. Change is continuous. It is truly the only constant, the only thing on which we can depend. We breathe, we grow, we change. The challenge of change is in the transformation. Do we work with the changes and allow them to result in a transformation that moves us forward, makes us better, causes us to give out of that transformation in a positive way for the benefit of those with whom we share our lives.