Sensory Heritage

I love being out in the country. Even the smell of cow dung makes me feel nostalgic for more rural times. Fresh country air. I love the sound of farm animals of every stripe. I love listening to people chop wood. I love hearing church bells echoing throughout a valley.

Apparently, though, some people still believe the world revolves around them. According to this article in Atlas Obscura (I just love them!) there is an increasing trend of city dwellers vacationing in the French countryside, and bringing frivolous lawsuits with them. It’s so absurd.

“Your rooster is waking me up at dawn! This has to stop!” “Can you not ring your church bells first thing in the morning, just while I’m here? Please?” “Your cattle are stinking up the countryside!”

For heaven’s sake, when did we become so fragile? If you’re in the country, you have to expect these things. You’re not going to have a McDonalds on every corner. Your wifi connection will be spotty, at best. Mice will happen.

So now there’s a new proposition making its way through the French National Assembly that will protect the sensory heritage of the French countryside. I hope it passes. Some lawsuits are idiotic, and those complaining of the sounds and smells of the country when you’re in the freakin’ country are idiotic beyond belief.

I like the idea of a sensory heritage. There’s nothing that can bring you back to a certain place or time more than a sound or a smell. I would hate for all places to become generic as we push on to overpopulate this planet. That would be a tragic loss.

In my opinion, everyone should be woken up by a rooster at least once in their lives. It builds character. It creates memories. And it’s something to contemplate whilst eating your eggs.

Rooster crow

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The Paris Catacombs. Who Knew?

When I first visited Paris in the early 80’s, one of many things I did was visit the catacombs beneath the city. You can wander for miles down there, amongst the bones of more than 6 million people. It’s grisly, but fascinating.

I really enjoyed the adventure, right up until the moment when the power went out, and I was plunged into the most profound darkness I’d ever experienced before or since. Suddenly I felt as though the bones were, I don’t know, aware, or something. I felt outnumbered. I instantly grabbed the hand of the person closest to me. I have no idea whose hand it was. Fortunately the lights came back on about a minute later, or I might very well have lost my mind. Instead, I had a nice nervous giggle. That is one of those travel memories that stay with you for life.

So, I was quite fascinated when I came across an article entitled, The Secret History of Paris’s Catacomb Mushrooms. It discusses the fact that many of Paris’ iconic buildings were built from limestone quarried from beneath the city. A lot has gone on beneath the Paris streets indeed.

The article does discuss the well-known ossuaries down there. After several cemetery cave-ins in the late 1700’s, the bones of those Parisians were stacked in the quarries and remain there to this day. But there is even more to these catacombs than that.

It seems that they were used by members of the French Resistance to hide their activities from the Nazis, and also as a hideout for deserters from Napoleon’s armies. Quite a fascinating history. Who knows who or what is down there today.

But what is really interesting, at least to me, is that someone discovered that the Parisian mushroom thrives down there. It likes the temperature and the moist environment. Back in 1880, the article says, “more than 300 mushroom farmers worked in Parisian quarries to produce 1,000 tons of Paris mushrooms each year.”

Apparently these mushrooms were very flavorful and popular. But when they started building the Paris Metro above the quarries in 1896, most of the mushroom farmers left, because the quarries were already getting dangerous due to disrepair. Now there are no mushroom farmers under the city.

The Paris mushroom has survived, but it is mostly produced in China. One half of one percent of all Paris mushrooms are produced in France, and those are now mostly grown in an industrial setting. They don’t taste remotely as good as they once did.

What a pity. I do love a good ‘shroom. Especially one with an intriguing history.

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Impermanence

When I was 19 years old, I was in love for the first time, in Paris for the first time, and seeing the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral for the first time. It doesn’t get much better than that. It was one of the high points of my life.

It didn’t take long to figure out that the love wasn’t going to last, but, as they say, I’d always have Paris. Some things you just assume will last forever. Some things, you think, will be as permanent as Mount Everest.

Watching Notre Dame burn broke my heart. That spire crashing down felt like it went right through me. Yes, they’ll rebuild, but it will never again be “my” Notre Dame. That’s gone.

We tend to forget that the things made by man are very impermanent. If a stretch of interstate highway was abandoned for 10 years, it would be so reclaimed by weeds and trees that it would be unrecognizable. Whole cities have disappeared with the passage of time. Buildings and bridges collapse. Towns burn. Tumbleweeds roll down what used to be main streets. Waters rise, winds blow, sand dunes encroach.

Most of us try not to think about it. It is hard, living in that state of awareness. Impermanence is scary. It reminds us of our own mortality. If Notre Dame can burn after having stood for about 800 years, then my fragile little body is toast.

But in many ways, that impermanence is actually a gift. While Notre Dame propped up my 19 year old’s sense of beauty and romance, I went on to have many other amazing experiences, and I’m sure that more are in the offing. Knowing that all these things are merely blips on the radar of the universe makes me appreciate them even more. What I am experiencing right here, right now, will be gone in a moment.

What a gift that I got to collect these memories, if even for just a cosmic second, even if they aren’t made of mountains, and will someday be reduced to dust.

Don’t forget to appreciate the now, dear reader. In the overall scheme of things, it’s really all that we have.

Notre Dame

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Pauvre Marie

People do love to simplify things. Complexity is, well… entirely too complex. And so here you have the average American’s concept of the French Revolution: Marie-Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake” when her people were starving, so the people revolted and they chopped off her head, thus doing away with the French Monarchy.

Here’s one of the many problems with that, though. It’s fairly certain that Marie-Antoinette never uttered that famous quote, which has become the epitome of upper class indifference.

According to this article in History.com, that quote, in similar forms, had been rattling around and placed squarely on the shoulders of various female royals for 23 years before Marie-Antoinette had been accused of saying it. In fact, it was a thing three years before she even married into the monarchy.

And according to one biographer, she was actually an intelligent woman who donated to charity and was sensitive to the poor. But will any of us remember her for that? I’m thinking no.

Okay, yes, she overdid it in terms of the lavishness of her lifestyle. But she got married and left home at age 13, and was sheltered from the world and cosseted to an unforgivable degree. Not that that justifies her behavior, but I think it explains it.

She also had the horrible luck of becoming queen at a time when the French economy was in a death spiral. To say that that was 100 percent her fault is a little much. And she came from Austria, which much of that time was France’s enemy. She also had a reputation for promiscuity, which would have been simply winked at if she were a man.

So despite her outrageous behavior at times, I honestly think her head rolled simply because she was one of “them” at a time when the “us-es” had had it up to here, and she was also a powerful, sexually active woman, and to this day that is not acceptable to a lot of people.

When I think of Marie-Antoinette, I try to think of the fact that she adopted 4 very underprivileged children. That’s pretty impressive. And she went to her death with dignity and grace, which couldn’t have been easy while being jeered at by the crowd.

So, the woman was problematic, yes, but also complex. Shades of grey, not black and white. So I say poor Marie, because it must be maddening to be considered the poster child for the French Revolution, and even more maddening to be remembered for having said something stupid that you never said.

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Cheese Nirvana

My definition of hell would be a world without cheese. Or worse yet: a world full of cheese that I was not allowed to eat. Cheese is a gift from God, if ever there was one.

So imagine my sheer joy, my unbridled exuberance, my near-orgasmic ecstasy when I came across a cheesy tradition that I had never heard of before. And it is, without a doubt, the best cheese experience of my entire life. To wit: raclette.

Raclette comes from Switzerland and the Savoy region of France, and it is a wheel of cheese and also the meal derived therefrom. You heat the cheese and then scrape it off the wheel and onto the meal in question. But I’d be sorely tempted to just scrape it directly into my mouth if given the opportunity.

I discovered this delicacy at a local food truck, called Fire and Scrape. They prepare potatoes, or grilled vegetables, or delicious sandwiches, and then they scrape that scrumptious cheese over the top of them and serve. I can’t think of anything more satisfying than this comfort food. It was worth the long line to experience it.

And now I’m seeing that one can purchase a raclette grill on line. Of course, the cheese itself is available that way, too. I’m doomed.

And the crazy thing is, this food tradition has been around since 1291. How have I managed to live 53 years without experiencing this culinary nirvana?

To think, as a loved one pointed out, that when I was a kid I thought all cheese was medium cheddar. Poor deprived child. I weep for her.

If you ever have the chance to experience the pure heaven that is raclette, don’t hesitate. I’m telling you, your life will never be the same.

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Weird Travel Syndromes

As an avid traveler, I’m not unaware of the inherent dangers of going to countries that aren’t your own. Getting caught up in political tensions. Breaking laws or making a cultural faux pas due to your own ignorance. Getting lost. The inability to communicate. Losing one’s passport. Misunderstandings. Being considered vulnerable and therefore getting targeted by criminals. I even knew someone once who got into a car accident in a third world country and wound up getting hepatitis from an unclean blood transfusion. Years later, she died as a result.

Travel is not for sissies. Do your homework. Take precautions.

But until today I didn’t realize that there were also mental health risks. The fear of losing one’s luggage is scary. But actually becoming psychotic? Yikes.

I heard someone mention Paris Syndrome this morning. It intrigued me, so I looked it up in the Font of All Human Knowledge, also known as Wikipedia. Now, be advised that none of the syndromes I mention in this post can be found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But it fascinates me that they crop up enough to have actual names.

It seems that Paris Syndrome can occur when one visits that fair city and experiences extreme shock when it does not live up to expectations. I do remember that on my first visit, I was disappointed that all the food was not phenomenal, and surprised that most people on the streets were not wearing haute couture. But I got over it.

Not everyone does. Some people experience delusions, hallucinations, dizziness, tachycardia, and perspiration, among other things. It’s like culture shock, writ large. For some reason, it seems to happen to Japanese tourists more than any other group. I have no idea why.

From there, as often happens when surfing Wikipedia, I was led to an article about Jerusalem Syndrome. This one occurs when someone visits Jerusalem and experiences religious delusions. It used to be called “Jerusalem squabble poison”, and it has been occurring since the Middle Ages. Tour guides are trained to look out for it, in the hopes that they can nip it in the bud before the sufferer steals the hotel bed sheets, wraps himself up in them, and then delivers a nonsensical sermon at one of the holy places in the city. Good grief.

And then there’s Stendhal Syndrome. This one happens in Florence, Italy. It’s named after the first known victim, a writer from the early 1800’s. With this syndrome, one is apparently so overcome by the art of Florence, and the presence of the graves of notables such as Machiavelli, Michelangelo, and Galileo, that one experiences ecstasy, dizziness, and disorientation.

For the most part, these syndromes seem to resolve themselves when the tourist leaves the cities in question, but area hospitals are used to admitting patients with these symptoms. It’s enough to make you want to stay home.

Well, no it isn’t. But it certainly makes you think.

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A Mental Walkabout

Once upon a time, I’d visit a different foreign country every two years. Those were the days. Now, 60 percent of my income goes toward mortgage and utilities, and I don’t see myself ever being able to leave the country again. That breaks my heart, because travel is my reason for being.

Because of this, I’ve become really adept at doing mental walkabouts. If I close my eyes, I can remember exactly what it was like to walk amongst the pigeons in St. Mark’s Square in Venice. I can also explore the ruins of Ephesus, Turkey. I remember the sights, the sounds, the smells of all the amazing places I’ve been. I can transport myself back to the Mercado Hidalgo in Guanajuato, Mexico, and sample, once again, the Hungarian Goulash in Budapest.

The one percent may make it financially impossible for me to explore the world anymore, but they can’t take away my memories. Only dementia or death can do that. I’m terrified of dementia. Death, from my perspective, is simply another way to travel. (Not that I’m in any hurry to hop on that plane.)

Until then, I’ll travel in my mind. I’ll ride bicycles along the canals in Utrecht, Holland, and swim in the crystal blue Adriatic Sea. I’ll snack on fresh bread and local cheese in the Swiss Alps. No matter how dire my financial straits become, as the saying goes, I’ll always have Paris.

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Me, in Venice, with some feathered friends.

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My Magical European Summer

Recently, I came across a diary that I wrote when I was 19, and I read it for the first time since I wrote it. That summer was the high point of my life. (So far, at least. Who knows what the future holds.)

I was traveling through Europe, and I was falling in love. Those were heady, intense, joyful days full of exploration and adventure. Love, with a backdrop of Holland and Belgium and France and Germany and Luxembourg and Switzerland… it just doesn’t get any better than that. It really doesn’t.

Reading about the events as they unfolded, with the benefit of hindsight, has been quite a unique experience. It’s kind of left me in a weird head space, if I’m honest. That summer shaped the rest of my life.

I don’t know if I’m the exception or the rule, but when I fall in love, I am all in. T was the one for me. I was convinced of it then, and I’m convinced of it now. That summer was full of laughter and endless conversations and making sweet, sweet love in strange places. I recount those things in my diary in intimate detail. I would have done anything for him. I would have sacrificed anything to make it work.

Unfortunately, he was of a more practical mindset. I truly believe that he loved me, but love was not his priority. I’ll never understand or relate to that, because in the end, love is all that matters, in my opinion. So the summer came and it went and he moved on — fairly quickly, I’m told, but I didn’t know that at the time. I kind of wish I had, because it might have made things easier for me.

I, on the other hand, went for, oh, decades, feeling like I wasn’t living the life I was supposed to be living. My life was one big detour down a really messed up side street in which I tried to settle for a happiness which always eluded me. I even trapped myself in a 16 year loveless, sexless, extremely safe relationship. What a waste.

I did fall in love a second time, with another California guy who also didn’t have the staying power or the confidence in our love to make a go of it. That’s a shame, because it could have been an incredible life. (I should probably run screaming whenever California guys cross my path.)

Meanwhile, T got married, and then divorced. But by that time I had fallen in love for a third time, with Chuck, who was amazing. For the first time since I was 19, I felt like life was “right”. I finally felt like I was over T. Chuck was passionate and intense and devoted and hilarious. And best of all, he loved me back in equal measure. He was all in. He was a gift. And then 4 years later, he went and died on me. Well, shit. That wasn’t the plan.

So now, on a whole lot of levels and for a whole lot of reasons, I’m even more convinced that I’m living a life that I’m not supposed to be living. Grief will do that to you. It changes you. But I’m sort of getting used to loving people who aren’t there to reciprocate.

After I read the final page of that old diary, I did something stupid. I went snooping on Facebook, only to find that T is once again in a relationship. He seems quite content. They travel to exotic places. They cuddle on the couch. They have family dinners. He managed to land on his feet, but then I always knew he would. He’s a land on your feet type of guy. I even saw a video clip in which he talks, and sure enough, my heart started pounding the second I heard his voice.

T once told me I wasn’t the kind you marry. Apparently not. Because the ones I wanted to marry didn’t want to marry me, and the ones who wanted to marry me, I didn’t want to marry. Things shouldn’t have turned out that way.

But I’m finally in a place where I think T got it wrong. I’m exactly who someone should marry, because when I love someone, that feeling never ever dies. (It’s the liking that comes and goes, and takes work to maintain.)

I have come to know that that never-ending kind of love is a rare, precious, priceless gift that should never be discounted, never be passed over. Because you may not ever see it again. Cherish it, nurture it, if you are lucky enough to have it.

It’s a strange feeling, having so much love to give and nowhere to put it. If I could go back and talk to that 19 year old, would I tell her to do anything differently? No, not really. The feelings she had were authentic and pure and undeniable. I might tell her to savor it even more. Devour that love, because you’re going to be on short rations the rest of your life, honey. When you’re young, you think there will be always be more opportunities, and that the possibilities are endless, that good luck will come to visit you over and over again, but that’s bullshit.

Before my comment section fills up with platitudes such as, “Before someone can love you, you must first love yourself,” or “You’ll find love when you stop looking for it,” or “There’s someone out there for you,” let me be practical for a minute and say that the older I get, the longer my odds become. It is equally possible that I’ll be living the rest of my life completely and utterly alone. I need to come to grips with that possibility. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll still hold out a certain amount of hope, but it would be much healthier to live the life I have and try to make the most of it rather than hold out for some fantasy. I’m working on it.

That diary, after that glorious summer, is full of so much pain and confusion and struggle that the re-reading often reduced me to tears. “Why is my love not enough?” “What did I do wrong?” “Why is this happening? I don’t understand.” I wish I could go back and hug that girl. But I couldn’t really offer her that much comfort. I’m still asking myself those same damned questions 33 years later.

Here’s a secret that no one tells you: Life just isn’t like a Hollywood movie. Hollywood is in California, too.

Suddenly I feel the need to go home and hug my dog.

Eiffel Tower

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Trump is the New Hitler

I have a German last name, and because of that I have always taken the events that led up to, and occurred during, World War II very seriously. Growing up, I was fascinated by the Diaries of Anne Frank and all things related to concentration camps. I was proud of the fact that my father helped to liberate one during the war.

I could never understand what would cause a nation to be sucked in by an insane man who spewed nothing but hate. I could never imagine being so afraid of an entire group of people that I would leave even its women and children out in the cold. I couldn’t comprehend how anyone could justify depriving a whole religious group of its human rights.

I still don’t understand it. I never will. But now I can see how it happens. The other day, Donald Trump said, “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”

First of all, the screening system that allows immigrants into the US is extremely rigorous. If you think people just wander over the border willy nilly, think again. Better yet, Google it. If the system had been this stringent when my grandparents came to this country, they’d very likely have been turned back at Ellis Island, and I wouldn’t exist.

Normally, I wouldn’t take anything Donald Trump said very seriously. In my personal opinion, he’s a racist nut job with a bad comb over. But what was terrifying about this current bit of insanity of his was that when he said it, the crowd cheered. They cheered just as the Germans did when Hitler spouted his racist insanity during the Nuremberg Rally. Do you understand what I’m saying? They cheered.

In Germany, at the time, the economy was in a shambles. People were afraid. They wanted someone to blame. So a charismatic man with a bad hairdo came along and exploited their fear and turned it into hate and as a result over 60 million people died in a war that should never have taken place.

By the way, it wasn’t until much later in life that I discovered, thanks to the Elie Weisel Foundation, that none of my relatives had joined the Nazi Party. My family comes from the Alsace-Lorraine region in what is now France. Although this region has been dragged back and forth between France and Germany throughout history, during most of the last century, and this one so far, it’s part of France. What a huge weight off my shoulders!

But can I truly set down that weight? Now history seems to be repeating itself. Trump doesn’t scare me nearly as much as those cheering people in the crowd. Those people, those fellow Americans, do not seem to have learned from the deadly mistakes of history. Those people vote. I don’t want to see what happens if their hatred wins.

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[Image credit: Youtube.com]

Ping Pong and Paris

I was in my car when I first heard of the horrifying, senseless, heartbreaking series of events that occurred in Paris on Friday the 13th. I had to pull over to process the many thoughts that I was having. Concern for all my friends and family who live in the area competed with sadness that anyone should have to experience such tragedy. I also felt anger that there is still so much ignorance in this world.

But the most unpleasant thought of all probably won’t make sense to anyone but me. Ping pong balls and mousetraps.

If you’ve ever seen video footage of a ping pong ball being dropped into a room full of mousetraps with still more ping pong balls quietly poised on top of them, you know how quickly the scene becomes chaotic and unpredictable. The chain reaction is rapidly out of control.

This is the effect that terrorists count on. All they have to be is the first, destructive ping pong ball. Then they get to sit back and watch without expending any further energy of their own as all hell breaks loose.

A gunman opens fire in a Paris bar, and before you know it, a gentle and loving high school student who just happens to wear a hijab is getting beaten up in the school yard in some small town in Canada. People are slaughtered while enjoying a concert in France, and someone is pulled over by a cop in Oakland simply because he has dark hair and olive skin. One destructive group decides to make a murderous point, and hundreds of thousands of immigrants throughout the world, who are simply trying to improve their lives, are viewed with hatred and suspicion. These reactions divide us. Terrorists thrive on division.

Every time you react randomly to a very specific event, the terrorists win. Don’t hate all Muslims for what one group of very specific crazy people decided to do. Don’t hate all immigrants. Definitely do not hate everyone who is different from you. If you have to react to these awful events, make your reaction specific, not random. Focus on the actual individuals who perpetrated this crime. If we all point our energy toward them, we will be more like a spear that finds its well-deserved target, instead of a room full of ping pong balls that are bouncing willy nilly, accomplishing nothing but more destruction. The terrorists would fear that spear, as well they should.

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