Want more thoughts on that?

Check out my new blog Annachronistic…it’s full of reflections and stories, starting summer 2013!

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Peanut Butter and Jelly on Toast

Two months ago, I was in Strasbourg, listening in on French-German language switches.

A month and a half ago, I was jetting off to different destinations, meeting amazing people and breathing in Northern Europe from Edinburgh, to Copenhagen, to Stockholm, to Amsterdam.

A month ago, I was in Toulouse, working part time at the Dickinson in France Center, travelling to Charente Maritime with my friend Claire, attending a family reunion at Dorian’s parents’ home.

Two and a half weeks ago, I was in Berlin, visiting my friend Clément, demystifying the city of contemporary German government, of Holocaust memorials, of the infamous wall, of strangely-shaped Ampelmänner “crosswalk men,” of high-quality kebabs and Currywurst and of ecstasy-inducing, all-night-long techno clubs.

A week and a half ago, I was scrambling to get my things together, slaving away for hours to get my apartment up to snuff for inspection, precisely organizing my time to squeeze all of the people I hold dear into my fast-shrinking schedule.

Today, I woke up to the smell of peanut butter and jelly on toast, mixed with the tantalizing aroma of earl grey tea and the warmth of the sunlight pouring onto my bed at my parents’ home. Not to quote the college essay I wrote six years ago when applying to schools around the US, but that moment on the plane – as you sit for hours, neither here nor there, in limbo between one country and another, one culture and another, one identity and another – is indescribably fleeting.  The change between a few weeks ago and now is so dramatic; no person can be completely prepared for it.

My first day back in the United States after 9 months in Europe I spent hiding out in my home. I was not about to repeat the mistake I made two years ago of visiting people and travelling right away. My house provided comfort, I was able to straighten out my thoughts and fill up on all of the peanut butter and jelly I had missed out on for months. Then day 2 came around and it was time to leave the nest and attempt reintegration into society. The day went well, albeit with a few minor panic attacks. I walked through West Hartford Center and through Westfarms Mall, not fully understanding social conventions and behaviors that I theoretically am aware of, but that do not flow smoothly in my own instincts anymore. For a few days, all I can describe myself as is awkward. What to say and when and how and who are these people being so nice to me, I don’t know them, what do they want from me, how do you pay at the checkout, why is everything so hyperstructured, how do you just function, I don’t know anymore, let me lock myself in a room and just eat peanut butter and jelly. No matter how many times you go abroad for extended periods of time, reverse culture shock will never be easy. Integrating back into American culture takes time, and I’ve realized just how European I actually am.

Since I’ve been back, I have been able to flip the switch and bring back outgoing, social-in-the-American-way Anna, with my cute expressions and small talks skills. I’ve been reunited with my two best friends, Hillary and Abra, at Lauren’s wedding in Beach haven, NJ; I’ve seen my dear family friends Julia, David, Peter and Matthew Anchel in New York City; I’ve gone out to bars with my friend John and with two French friends, Philippe and François; I’ve put on my charming daughter face when visiting my mother’s office; and now I’m flying off the Minnesota to see the Dean clan. In short, I’ve been reintegrating. But I haven’t changed back completely.

Although I strive to reintegrate and to feel more at ease with my old American self, I don’t want to lose certain traits that I’ve picked up this year and in years prior. I want to remain my hodge-podge of a self, a mosaic of different elements from different cultures. I may never be able to clearly say, “I am American,” “I am Italian” or “I am French,” which is difficult when defining a definite identity and can cause confusion and a sense of being lost in the world. But I’ll try to stay true to myself. I can’t pretend the year didn’t happen. So if you’re one of my American friends, family members or acquaintances, please understand that I’m not going to be the same exact Anna that left last August. And if you’re a French friend, please know that next time I see you, I’ll be different again. I will be me.

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This is my last blog post for the year. I’ll be starting a new blog soon. Stay tuned for more news!

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Bonjour, ich heisse Anna

Bonjour, ich heisse Anna. Hallo, je m’appelle Anna. Either one works. What’s important is the language clash. During my weekend in Strasburg – or Strasbourg – and its surrounding region, French and German seemed to merge in my head, invading each others’ sentences and expressions, confusing my cultural and linguistic reference points.

Indeed, I think that if the region of Alsace had any feelings, it would feel similarly confused. Walking through the streets of its capital, I knew in my mind that the region has been French for decades, since the end of the Second World War, but I could perceive its burgeoning German undertone, evident in both its population and in its infrastructure.

          

Alsace – as well as its neighbor Lorraine – has passed back and forth between German and French hands for centuries, a toss-around that can be felt in its distinctive character. I remember writing a 10-page paper for a German class on the Franco-German identity of Alsace as expressed through language. My conclusion involved an underlying sense of German belonging, crushed by the French state’s will to impose French language in the education system. The result? A complicated network of rejection, acceptance and fluid transition between the two, and a distinct sense of difference and separation from both countries. My trip was the chance to verify my theories.

After a sweaty, crammed overnight train, complete with crying baby and lack of pajamas, I finally made it to Strasburg, where I traipsed from the train station to my Couchsurfing host’s home, a gorgeous apartment a short walk from the city center. A quick shower, a brush with my host’s kitties, and I was off to the cathedral. Germany hit me hard in the face. But Germany was all the way on the other side of the border, marked by the Rhine river.

First, architecture. The “colombage”-style architecture, with wooden planks supporting and decorating each façade, and steep roofs to avoid cave-ins from excessive snow, immediately made me think I was somewhere in the Tyrol, drinking a beer and wearing a durndel.

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Second, language. The locals spoke French, the tourists (mostly) spoke German. All of the streets were marked both in both French and Alsatian, a language much closer to German than to French. And I even had the opportunity to eavesdrop on an older couple speaking Alsatian to each other. My host was bilingual. And I was bilingual, jumping from one language to the other. One minute I was speaking French to a shopkeeper, the other I was asking a German family to take a photo of my at the top of Notre Dame cathedral.

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Third, food. Lots and lots of potatoes and meats – sausages and fish, all piled together into a mouth-watering choucroute. And pastries and pretzels: Kuegelhopf and Bretzeln, of which I ate an embarrassing number. Not to mention the delicious sausages in my host’s fridge and the meals she cooked. I’m glad I don’t own a scale.

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I’m not sure exactly how to translate this socio-linguistic mayhem, but I would conclude that Alsace remains, in a way, a state of its own, independent from the forced cookie-cutter culture that a nation tends unfortunately to impose. In any case, I was enthralled by the urban and rural beauty of this region and of its people.

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The real Pantheon

Aux grands hommes la patrie reconnaissante. Actually, I’m not talking about the Pantheon, where all of the « official » great men (and one woman) of France are buried. I’m talking about the cimitière du Père Lachaise in Paris.

I visited it while I was in Paris last week. It was my first time. I was astonished. On a rainy morning, without an umbrella, smelling like wet dog, I walked through this famous cemetery for hours and hours, looking, sometimes unsuccessfully, for the tombs of some of the most important figures of literary, artistic, scientific and political history. I went into it not knowing exactly what to expect. I thought maybe it would take an hour to visit. But what I found was a treasure trove of headstones bearing the names of illustrious individuals whom, if they were still alive, I would love to sit down to pick their brains. Although I didn’t actually get to converse with the dead, I felt overwhelmed by the proximity of their decaying bodies, knowing these cadavers under the ground once contained incredible people.

Molière, La Fontaine, Delacroix, Georges Bizet, Alfred Musset, Edith Piaf…but also Isadora Duncan, Max Ernst, Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Maria Callas, Michel Proust…

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First of all, let’s take a look at the male-female ratio. The Pantheon only contains one woman who is recognized for her own achievements, Marie Curie. Père Lachaise, in comparison, is more like a co-ed dorm, where men and women all live, sleep, and party together. I’d say, a much better example of the grands hommes who build a nation – and by hommes I mean personnes…let’s not be linguistically exclusive.

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And now take a look at the national origins of these icons and of their (tombstone) neighbors. The inhabitants of this afterlife alcove belong to an incredibly intercultural and interreligious community. So many diverse backgrounds. Used to catholic cemeteries, I at first was shocked to see stars of David engraved on the graves (bahaha). And then I started to notice even different alphabets and languages that I did not understand. Suddenly it clicked: this odd place is a monument to the grands hommes of the world. All of these people, both famous and “normal,” are commemorated in one shared space. They testify to the change towards an international community that has reached its peak in the last twenty years, and will most likely continue to develop. Père Lachaise is the real Pantheon of the world – ahead of its time when it was created in 1805.

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I can just imagine them throwing a party every night and philosophizing about life (and death), maybe sometimes inviting friends from other world-renowned cemeteries. Intercultural communication at its finest.

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The best day of my life

Yesterday was the best day of my life. Perhaps a hyperbole, but my last day in Paris flirted closely with pure bliss. I reached a state of enjoyment and relaxation that is rare for me with my hyperactive thoughts and overbooked schedule, and even rarer when I’m in Paris. Normally, I stress myself out by scheduling visit after visit, running from one place to the next and constantly planning my next step without letting myself relax and enjoy the present. But today I felt at ease in the city for the first time, and the sequence of events played out perfectly – better than I ever could have planned it.

To begin, the weather was on my side. I woke up to a gloriously sunny day, thick with the anticipation of a full-blossomed spring, yet still subject to the pristine chill of winter. While walking through the streets of Paris, I fell under the influence of this soothing balance, obeyed to my senses and loosely followed the trajectory I set for myself the night before.

I took off in the morning all alone, hopped the metro and got off in front to the Opera Garnier, where I allowed myself to stop and look into over-priced, high-end shop windows. I eventually ended up at the Orangerie museum, where I took the time to sit and look at Monet’s Waterlilies while listening to Biedrich Smetana’s Moldau on my iPod.

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I then traced along the Seine river, allowing myself to think out loud and sing lightly in the streets without shame, and came to the Musée du quai Branly, where I met with my coworker Laura to see an anthropological exhibit on the meaning of hair and hairstyles in different cultures and at different times. After she had left, I stayed to see the permanent collection, but did not force myself to stay a long time.

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I was already in the area of the Eiffel Tower, so I walked past it and avoided the congestion of the long lines to reach the top. I hopped another metro and went up to Montmartre, where I stopped to look at the Moulin Rouge and giggled at all of the sex shops. I went to the Eroticism Museum, which I decided not to be ashamed of and fully enjoyed on my own – in fact, it was very eye-opening on the importance of sex in cultures other than the prude West. Then up to Sacré Coeur, from which I was able to gaze at the sun-kissed city from above.

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On my way down, I bought myself a pair of cheap sunglasses, not worrying about money as I usually do, and right afterwards, the most amazing thing happened to me. A man stopped me on the street in a non-threatening way. “Excusez-moi Mademoiselle, mais c’est la deuxième fois que je vous croise aujourd’hui et je vous trouve très charmante.” Excuse me Miss, but it’s the second time I’ve passed by you on the street today and I find you very charming. It’s not every day that someone just stops you to tell you you intrigue them. Because I was in such a good mood and because he approached me in such a genuine, simple way, I decided to chat with him for a few minutes – we shared a bit about our backgrounds and then simply moved on with our day. It was probably one of the most pleasant encounters I’ve ever had.

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On a happiness high, I continued my plan for the day and went to a museum called Maison Rouge, where there was an exhibit on the influence of psychedelic drugs on artists…such a fascinating and complex topic!

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And then I walked around the Quartier Latin, people-watched in the Jardin de Luxembourg, stopped to look through a book stand, bought myself a small souvenir, hiked back up to the hotel and topped the day off at an Italian restaurant, where I ate a delicious risotto ai porcini and sorbetto al limoncello and had lively conversations with Sarah, one of the students on the Dickinson program, who has Italian roots like me. The perfect day.

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In retrospect, I ask myself why it was so perfect. Throughout the day, I almost felt drugged. A smile always brightened my face, I felt confident in myself, almost ecstatic about every small pleasure in life. Imagine taking a huge gulp of Felix Felicis and knowing that nothing can go wrong in your day, that you will be successful in each of your endeavors and that any choice you make will lead you down the correct path.

How can I come to this state of bliss again? I didn’t force myself to do anything. I just did what I wanted. J’ai suivi mes envies. Of course the weather and crazy, random happenstance were on my side. Maybe it was the fact that I was alone for most of the day and did not have to answer to anyone but myself. But how to get closer to this ideal state more often, without destroying the well-constructed world I’ve built? I can’t remember the last time it happened – and actually I don’t know if it ever has to this extent. Searching for that balance.

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Les châteaux de la Loire

As I’ve hinted at in my recent blog posts, my family and I took off for four days to visit the châteaux de La Loire. Each castle had its charm, and I got to brush up on French monarchical history. Loches, Chenonceau, Amboise, Clos Lucé (Leonardo Da Vinci’s residence at the end of his life), Chambord, Blois, Ussé (the castle that inspired Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty), Azay-le-Rideau, Villandry, Langeais…I kind of got château-ed out. But it was wonderful and enriching and gorgeous…

What was most impressive was the combination of this world-class national patrimony and the landscapes in between. While driving to the châteaux every day, I had the chance to soak in the beautiful countryside. Instead of the south-western countryside I’m used to, I brushed up with the lush lowlands and open green spaces of this region. While sitting in the car, I had absolutely no desire to hook up to my iPod or to keep myself busy in an way. My eyes were fixed on the changing landscape, moving in an out of soft hills, hiding historical gems such as castles or villages. Such scarcely populated areas projected an image of romanticism and timelessness that made me long for immobility and simplicity. Once in the Loire valley, to get from one castle to the other, our oh-so-faithful and inhuman GPS somehow directed us through the most inconspicuous routes, on roads meant only for local farmers, winding through small villages and across great expanses of empty farmland. It seemed as if the greenery went on forever and that civilization had somehow evaporated into the light mist lingering above the earth.

And then the castles. Majestic châteaux sprouting up every few kilometers around the Loire river and its tributaries, creating a gem-encrusted landscape. The soft, rural planes studded with dramatic, civilized castles. And the architecture in the cities and small towns and villages we passed through was phenomenal. Used to the traditional toulousain brick and terra cotta buildings of my city, seeing the glimmering white and hard stone of the central-north part of France was impressive. I felt like I was in a completely different place, but with the same language. The gîte where we stayed was a marvel in and of itself. In a small village, lost in the the valley and almost void of life, our gîte  was located in a typical white building in a style similar to the châteaux, and it was hidden behind the local church and a 30-second walk from a small – the only – convenience store / boulangerie around, where a brother and sister provide basic food and fresh bread  for all of the inhabitants.

Countryside and castles…the perfect combination.

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Baby Me

The three members of the Ciriani family sit silently in their car, driving on a small French road. The yellowing core of an eaten apple sits wedged between the windshield and the dashboard of the car, its fresh juices tarnishing the rough surface it lies on. No one says a word. You can cut the tension with a knife. The silence is suddenly broken: from the back seat, Anna reaches all the way to the front dashboard, brazenly splaying herself across the seat in front of her, where her father, Giovanni, rigidly sits. She takes the apple and recoils to her seat. Neither Giovanni nor his wife Debra at the steering wheel show any specific reaction, except for perhaps hardening their stern silence. An outsider would never know what had happened to make a happy family like the Cirianis act so strangely, but from the inside, such tense moments are normal and almost necessary for the tripartite family dynamic. This is the aftermath of a collective tantrum scene

It all started when leaving a castle in the Loire valley to go to another one, in Blois. There were 24 km left in the tank and Blois was about 18 km away – a small margin of error. Everyone buckled up, and Giovanni announced that there was a gas station on the road to Blois. We took off. But instead of taking the main road, the GPS directed us to take back roads, through desolate fields and farmlands. No gas station on the way to Blois. We took a few wrong turns, asked for directions, never found a gas station…all this led to a big explosion and a half-eaten apple being thrown across the car. We got angry at each other, we pointed fingers, and it was always someone else who was to be blamed. “If we had stopped at a gas station this morning, we wouldn’t be in this mess.” – “Why didn’t you ask the lady how far it is to the gas station?” – “Why didn’t we just follow the GPS instead of asking for directions?” – “It’s your fault.” Really, my question is, “Why are we fighting about something that in the end is nobody’s fault?” The answer: baby me.

Baby me is a version of me who reverts back to the teenage stage of Anna Ciriani Dean, when I was belligerent, rebellious, and quite frankly rude to my parents on a regular basis. Ever since I moved out of the house and headed off to college, teenage Anna has slowly subsided. I’ve become a mature, self-sufficient adult who is generally well-appreciated – or at least I hope that’s how I’m seen by others. It had been a while since baby me had surfaced. It’s been a few years since I’ve spent more than a few hours at a time with my parents, so baby me hasn’t had the chance to come out. But during my parents’ visit in France, I spent about ten days with them non-stop. Baby me was back. Instead of maintaining my fairly calm, courteous, autonomous demeanor, I spiraled into the depths of immaturity. Mommy was around, so she could pick up after me. Daddy was around, so I could get a regular shouting fight in every day. I found myself childish, rude and lazy, and quite frankly, I was disappointed. But I kept reminding myself that those are the last adjectives I would use to describe myself today, and that even my parents were acting differently from what they probably do when I’m not around. My mother went back to being a coddling mom. My father became the punctilious dad who knows too well how to push my buttons.

We eventually found a gas station and the tension dissolved – despite our few spats, we really have a great family dynamic. There were other instances of baby me during their trip, but I look back on it with fondness because, well, that’s my family.

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The no of nowhere

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog post. My last one was before Christmas break, way back when I was disappointed that the world hadn’t actually ended. Well, I’m not going to recap everything that’s happened to me since then, but I can sum it up pretty well in three words: the French countryside. Not that I’ve gone all into-the-wild on you and fled away from society into savage isolation, but I have pursued the peace and quiet of middle-of-nowhere-ness.

Let’s start back in December. I went to Italy to spend Christmas with my cousin Francesca and my aunt Silvana, who happens to live in a big house nestled in the swampy, foggy, squishy lowlands of the Pianura Padana. Over the years, I’ve grown immune to this landscape, having spent countless boring hours without Internet, TV, or any sort of concrete games or pastimes – outside of reading – for any child above the age of ten. As a small child, everything could inspire an imaginary world and I had no trouble filling the day with my musings. In more recent years, however, going to her house has meant quasi-involuntarily admitting myself to prison, where I spend the majority of my time pining over my usually connected lifestyle. This time was different, though. I think I’ve finally been able to appreciate the silence and solitude of a disconnected, undisturbed refuge. In spite of how emotionally tolling the trip was – dealing with my aunt’s illness – I felt much more at peace with myself. My days were more satisfactory, as if I wasn’t spending my time looking for stimulation, but taking the time to think and do each small activity with care and patience.

Abano Terme train station - desolate, silent, peaceful

Abano Terme train station – desolate, silent, peaceful

But back to the French countryside. Italy was a first taste of this lifestyle; my first real papillary plunge into the country took place during four delicious days in the Pyrenees, at L’Escale, to celebrate the New Year with friends. I took a huge bite of middle-of-nowhere-ness there. No computer, no cell phone reception, no people to answer to…just a huge group of friends jammed together in a house, huddled around a fire, sleeping on top of one another, playing board games, getting drunk in the evening. Must sound like a house of useless delinquents, but that was the charm of it – we were useless and unresponsive to the normal demands of society. For the first time in months, I felt relinquished of my responsibilities: I could eat when I wanted, read when I wanted, sleep when I wanted, chat with someone or be alone…all while being surrounded by beautiful mountains.

The countryside around the house we stayed in at L'Escale for New Year's Eve

The countryside around the house we stayed in at L’Escale for New Year’s Eve

A few weeks of city life went past, until the last weekend of January, when I went on a trip to Val du Louron, in the French Pyrenees, with the Dickinson students. Although this weekend was packed with activities we had planned for the students, I got to live out my weekend fully. No cell phone, no Internet once again. And I spent more time outside, hiking in the snow and talking to people who live and work in the area. Work – but work that consists of what seem like more rounded activities, that don’t expect you to run back and forth from one thing to the other, diluting your attention span, shattering your efforts into a million unconcluded pieces. The mountains, with their imposing, dark silhouettes, majestically dominating the valley and setting an example of patient temerity, imposing their seasonal clockwork onto their inhabitants – the mountains instill a sense of calmness and concentration that the city in its dizzy stumble splits into overlapping, drunken shards of images.

View of Val du Louron, on a trip to the Pyrenees with the Dickinson students

View of Val du Louron, on a trip to the Pyrenees with the Dickinson students

An immediate return to wilder-France. An attempt to go skiing the following weekend. Although some inclement weather caused a ski lift accident and ruined my plans to slip down the snowy slopes of Ax-3-Domaines, I was just happy to breathe that pure air and to forget about my urban worries for a few hours on a Sunday. Then, the weekend afterwards, another return to wilder-France, back to L’Escale. My fond memories of the house and all of my New Year’s Eve friends fueled my desire to return to this convivial place, where I had been able to unwind the first time. Although on a shorter and less carefree visit, I searched again for the technological disconnect I had experienced before. And finally, with my friend Louise the weekend after, on February 17th, I was able to fulfill my dream of skiing in the Pyrenees. Not having skied in three years, I felt liberated. Zooming around, feeling the cold air on my cheeks, the glorious sun beating down on me, the swish-swish of my skis, the beauty of the snow-capped mountains at every turn, and burning thigh muscles – some of the best feelings in the world.

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Skiing at Ax-3-Domaines, enjoying the sunshine and a pristine, fresh-aired workout

I’ve retired to the countryside in the past two weekends with my parents, as well, to Moissac and to the Loire valley. Dorian’s parents, Chantal and Bernard, live near Moissac, on farmland, in an ecologically conscious home that runs on alternative energy and is made of all-natural materials. This place oozes with calm and peace of mind and serves as a mental and emotional retreat for me. The weekend with my parents and Dorian’s parents turned out to be so pleasant and allowed me to unwind from my jam-packed week. Similarly, our trip to the Loire proved to be therapeutic: four full days without an Internet connection, staying in a small gîte in a tiny town somewhere along the Cher river, one of the tributaries of the larger Loire river. One final burst of the French countryside before I go to Paris next week.

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In touch with the outdoors around Dorian’s parents’ home in Meauzac (near Moissac)

What does the wilderness represent for me? A tangible form of escapism. I’m not actually loping off to Westeros or any other imagined world you can find in a novel, film or television series. But in a way, I am. Voided of my reality, I enter into a parallel reality I wish would materialize more often. Now that I live in a city – albeit a small one – rare are the chances I get to feel completely still, immobile, suspended. Don’t get me wrong…I want to live in the city and I want to work at challenging jobs. I am an active, young person who needs to have things to do. But I am starting to realize the charm of the middle of nowhere. This has been a very difficult year for me, and I’ve started to realize what my limits are and what I’m capable of doing. I’ve crowded my time with activity after activity, striving for perfection in every aspect of my life, saying yes to every proposal and challenge. So it’s the no of nowhere that draws me to it. It allows me to be no one for a time. No, I cannot and do not want to respond to the demands of daily life. No, you cannot contact me in this natural refuge. No, I say, no. So what else can I do? Sit back and enjoy the landscape. 

Farming in the Loire valley

Landscape in the Loire valley

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Apocalypse Now?

The End of the World – a concept that was blown out of proportion. Introduced by the Mayans, wrongly interpreted, believed by some wackos,  shaped by the mass media, supposed to happen yesterday, the Apocalypse turned out to be a simple evening for my friends and I, huddled around Dorian’s couch, watching Love Actually on his newly-installed TV. Can’t complain. But the morning afterwards, as I prepare for my plane to Italy to visit my aunt for Christmas, I can’t help but feel a bit let down.

Although I’m glad I’m still here – and so is everyone else sane enough not to inflict damage on themselves in the past day – there’s a hole in the place of those rare superstitious fibers in my body, which had been telling me for weeks, in spite of jokes and speculations, that something big was about to happen. Well, nothing changed. I don’t feel any different. Even though the Mayans hadn’t actually predicted the end of the entire world, hadn’t they predicted the beginning of a new cycle, or something like that? I like my life, but the prospect of some sort of dramatic change intrigued me. How would I and the rest of the world be different? In a way, I – and I think others  - crave that sort of exhilaration and sense of the unknown. Maybe it’s in human nature to crave change? To hope that all of the sudden, all of those mundane worries will be obsolete, and we’ll have to re-adapt. No: change in this world occurs (in general) slowly and it’s often imperceptible. No apocalypse to look forward to. Would we be better off with drastic change or is the continuous progression of everyday life the way to go?

Thoughts on that?

 

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Ready, set, consume!

People slurping slushies, devouring pizza, picking on boxed sushi, clamping down on sandwiches. All of this while sitting on the steps around a huge watering hole, with fountains, light shows, the whole shebang. Above us is a great glass cupola, through which you can see a medium-sized skyscraper, and from which are hanging dazzling wreaths, baubles and sparkly lights. Where are we?

Let me give you some more hints. Around us is a sprawling anthill of shoppers, scurrying from one store to the next, carrying multicolored bags that prove to the world which stores they can afford and which they cannot. All you can hear is the buzz of overlaid voices, along with the faint bubbling of the fountain below and the washed out tunes of Christmas songs. Sound familiar?

But of course, we’re in a mall, somewhere in consumerist America during the busiest shopping season of the year, the weeks leading up to Christmas.

Wrong!

Yes, we’re in a mall. Yes, it’s December. No, we’re not in the United States. To be precise, we’re in Part-Dieu shopping center, right next to the Part-Dieu train station in Lyon, France.

Never before had I fathomed this sort of consumerist culture in France. I had participated in the soldes, always keeping my distance so as to resist my innate super-spending impulses. As a member of this consumerist trap of a society, I control these artificially, commercially imposed instincts with the utmost discipline, but they are still unequivocally there. It seemed like the French had some sort of gene that made them more immune to the spending disease. The soldes drew a large crowd, but it never seemed as strong a pull as in the United States, where any sale is a pretext to buy, buy, buy.

Here, I’m tempted to retract that statement. I had never been to a French mall like this before. This is what this mob of French citizens has chosen to do with their Saturday. Shop. In a big heaping mess of holiday spending spirit. I thought I had escaped it to some extent by moving here, but clearly I have not. Not that it’s completely negative. I feel like I’m back in Westfarms Mall in West Hartford, CT, or maybe in the St. Cloud Mall, in MN, browsing for last-minute Christmas gifts with my mom or my cousin Emily. Consumerist culture does indeed bring back some good memories with people, and I cannot deny I don’t enjoy that tingling feeling that a fresh purchase can provide.

About a week ago, I taught a class on American consumerist culture and showed videos of Black Friday and news reports on this year’s holiday spending trends. The senior class concluded that this specific phenomenon, this out-of-control shopping frenzy, pertains specifically to the United States. But now I’m having my doubts. If the French have come so far as to emulate an American mall, as to pack all of their chain stores into one multi-layered building, conceived to play on their innermost shopping impulse, with food courts, water fountains and the works…will they someday reach the Black Friday extreme? Methinks, eventually, yes.

Granted, people tend to be dressed more classily (stereotype, yet real), the men seem to enjoy shopping much more (stereotype, yet hilariously true), the restaurants in the food court are classier (stereotype, yet real), their fast food sandwiches are crispy baguettes stuffed with delicious meats and fresh salad and greens (stereotype, yet wow this is delicious), but still…If the French are moving towards the American spending model, what sort of changes are they capable of? What American cultural element will invade them next? What will they let in despite their strong national pride and refusal of Americanization? Are the Americans invading the French or are the French letting themselves be invaded?

Thoughts on that?

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