Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Alive in Tel Aviv

In spite of hostile missiles in the south, catching the family cold in France, and being interrogated by two Israeli border control officers--after about ten minutes of benign questions, "I have to ask you a very important question. Did you come here to join the Palestinian resistance?"--I have arrived safely in Israel.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Monday, December 29, 2008

I have answers

And it's about time I figured out the French, as I'm leaving their country this evening for the missile-strewn land of the holy.

Excrement according to Fred:
Americans, subject to a Protestant national heritage, like to pretend that bodily functions and needs do not exist. The Catholic French, on the other hand, acknowledge that humans are physical creatures. If a French man is walking outside and has to pee, he pees. It's not a big deal. An American man in the same situation, plagued by the Puritanical values of his ancestors, runs inside to relieve himself behind closed doors where no one will know about his shameful bodily need. (French) Catholics are so unabashed about doing their business that their kings used to receive the court sitting on a throne with a hole in it so that they could pee and poo as necessary, right in front of everybody. (I want to know what they were wearing for this--pants with a hole? royal robe? just a lap blanket??)
As far as French toilet rooms, they do not have a sink because the French are dirty people who do not wash their hands after using the toilet. Even when they do have sinks in their bathrooms, they don't use them. Older people in France bathe no more often than once every three days, but daily showers have caught on with people of Fred's generation (or so he says).

Fred on fruit and veggie peels:
Why do French people insist on peeling their potatoes, apples, and pears, I asked Fred. Why do Americans only eat their fries with ketchup, he countered. I protested that I ate my fries with other things, too, but apparently that makes me more open-minded than the average Joe, who will eat his fries with ketchup until the day he dies and dismiss other condiments. Similarly, the French will maintain their fruit and vegetable peeling habit. I tried to argue that all the vitamins were in the peel, but Fred assured me that the smoking, drinking French do not care about vitamins. Furthermore, he said, potato skins can have a slightly bitter taste, and potatoes are supposed to have a neutral flavor to accompany other things.

"Blood of Christ"--red, or white?
Over Christmas dinner my heathen family got into an argument over what color the communion wine was at church. The five Americans at the table said it was red, but the sole Frenchman insisted that it was white. Of course, none of us had gone to church in recent memory, much less on Christmas, so we couldn't really be sure. Lucky for us, former-altar-boy-Fred had the answer: white. The priests have very fine, expensive, white vestments; given their advanced age and their tendency to dribble, white wine is the most practical. However, red is also permitted: one priest that Fred worked with demanded a good Bordeaux.

A few last, weird tidbits about French people:
  • They have this thing called a "cadeau de rupture," or "break-up gift," that a guy can give a girl that he doesn't want to date anymore. Sometimes, when he gives it, he has already verbally broken up with her, but sometimes, the gift is accompanied by a break-up note. Women cannot give break-up gifts to men, and a man does not give one to a woman if the woman has dumped him. French folks...weigh in on it for real??
  • They own forests, especially if they are descended from nobility.
  • If an elderly person is hard up for cash, but does not want to sell his/her house, he/she can arrange a deal with a buyer whereby the buyer gives a down-payment and a monthly stipend to the elderly person. When the elderly person dies, the debt is considered payed, no matter how long the person took to croak, and the buyer can move in. So the buyer is essentially waiting for the old person to die, and hoping that it doesn't take too long. Morbid?

Friday, December 26, 2008

Joyeux Navidad

Hope the non-celebrants out there are having good Chinese food and a movie, and the rest of you survive (and enjoy) your family gatherings.

It's a relief to speak English again. The hardest part of being back in a half-American household is re-acclimating to the American keyboard (a portent of reverse culture shock to come). Today, my sis gave me a lesson in practical, rude French. Here are a couple sentences I came up with to practice my vocabulary:

Il qui croix que manger la peau de la poire est degueulasse est dingue.
(He who thinks that eating the skin of a pear is disgusting is nuts.)

Eplucher les pommes de terre me fait chier.
(Peeling potatoes bugs me [lit. makes me shit].)

As you can see, I'm still stuck on the fruit and veggie peel debate. The French man in residence (my "uncle") argues that peels are disgusting and ruin the flavor of apples, pears, potatoes, and who knows what else. The American contingent keeps trying to sneak peels into dinner.

Merry Christmas!!!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Time passes.

My fingernails grow; I cut them. My hair grows; I ignore it. Occasionally, I shower.

Yesterday I made some soup out of the weird stash of root vegetables that Vincent has in the cellar. The veggies would probably be ordinary to anyone who actually cooks, but take away my Trader Joe's frozen food section and I'm helpless. It came out orangey-green (ew) and tasted fine, but once it occured to me that I was basically eating baby food, that's all I could think of.

Yikes--tomorrow is my last day on the farm! Saturday I'm biking to Angers, taking the train to Versailles, and biking to my family's house. 'Twill be a nice, easy day. Am looking forward to being in the company of people who speak my language!

Sometime in the next week, I'm going to meet up with my old pal Fred from work, who's coming to Paris for Christmas with his family. I'm hoping that he can help me with my burning questions about his people: how and why they organize their indoor and outdoor spaces in relation to bodily functions, and why they insist on retaining the childish need to peel their apples. I am confident that there is a neo-Freudian academic thesis in there somewhere.

Oh, and the map is updated. Link is to the right.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Gratuitous gripe and photos

In a country renowned for its cuisine, adults peel their potatoes and apples. Always. The last time I ate a peeled apple was probably at the age I also ate bread without the crust, and I'm pretty sure that if I tried that here, I would be burned for heresy. Every time I cook for French people, I try to incorporate some unpeeled potatoes, just for spite...don't they know that's where all the vitamins are?

That said, please enjoy some new photos. "Farmer E's" is from my second farm, and includes a visit from my dad and his girlfriend; "Cycling through château country" is from my trip from my second farm to my third. (Read: no dead animal parts.)

Friday, December 12, 2008

The old-fashioned way

If you haven't received real mail from me yet, please email me your address! Writing letters entertains me in this frosty December.

To Kill a Pig

Here's another belated photo album, but this one comes with a warning: if you are squeamish, vegetarian, and/or an observant Jew, you may want to skip it. During my stay with Jocelyne a couple of months ago, she and her parents helped a friend to kill his two pigs. I got to join them for the second. It was one of my favorite parts of this trip, not because I enjoyed watching the slaughter (it was interesting, but not something anyone should do or see often) but because I got to witness people whose family had farmed for generations pass their knowledge down to John, a British man in this thirties who was a relative newcomer to the French countryside. Bizarrely, I could imagine the same scene taking place a hundred years before, with few changes. The tools were primitive, but the people were skilled. After the pig had been hung outside to cure, we shared a leisurely midday dinner with John's family, including little kids, Jocelyne, her son, her parents, Benjamin the foster kid #2, and a couple of friends.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Oh, G-Rod

Am working on more photo albums, which I'll parcel out one by one to keep you coming back...

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

To the Holy Land...and beyond!

Yes, dear friends, it's true: I'm leaving the land of fromage. Late next week, depending on the weather and my laziness, I'll bike or take the train to my "aunt" and "uncle's" house outside of Paris for Christmas. My sister and her husband are coming from Chicago for the fête! Then, on December 30th, I'll hop on a plane and travel approximately 53 times as fast as I have been by bicycle toward Tel Aviv.

As if the shock of speedy travel won't be enough, I'm going to spend two months in Jerusalem, whose biggest fans even call it a madhouse. My girlfriend, Kyle, is living there this year, playing the student card. Since I had already renounced my salaried position for the life of a vagabond, it seemed like I might as well visit. And if things don't work out so well, I'm sure there's a kibbutz out there that will let me participate in its utopian experiment. I even have farming experience.

My official plan, besides violating the strict "no guest" policy in Kyle's dorm for seven weeks straight, is to volunteer to write grants for an organization in Bethlehem that helps Palestinian kids. We'll see how the commute works out; it looks like it's about five miles, but there will be lots of machine guns and a passport stamp on the way. I'm convinced there must be a way to walk or bike it. Then again, I don't want to come home in a box.

Post-Israel, I will return to my beloved land of aceitunas, vino tinto, really sparkly shoes, and Almodovar. Tentative itinerary includes Madrid, Sevilla, biking up the Mediterranean coast to Barcelona, maybe Bilbao....and then probably back to Paris for a week in April. And then maybe I'll be broke.

Your input, please: If anyone has suggestions for where to go in Israel or Spain, or wants to meet me there, or knows of pottery I could check out in either place, or has ideas for how not to go broke, or wants to say anything else, relevant or not, let me know!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Poop like the French

(Yes, it's another post about bodily waste. I never made any claims about highminded content.)

So, funny thing about French bathrooms: they are split in two. This is different from a US-style "powder room" with just a toilet and sink. The French quarantine their toilet into a closet of its own and have a separate room for the sink and tub. Thus, if you have to pee (and you are not a French man), you walk into a room, close the door behind you, and find yourself in a very small space with nothing but a toilet. Since everybody just saw you go into that door, with nothing but a toilet behind it, everybody knows what you are doing. Or at least they can make a pretty good guess from a limited number of options. Bottom line: there's no pretending that you are tweezing your eyebrows, shaving, or making faces at yourself in the mirror. Clearly, you are taking a leak or you are pooping. (If you're a French man, you're definitely pooping.)

What makes this set-up advantageous? Frenchies out there, enlighten me! All I can tell you is that the inside handle of the toilet room door HAS to be germy.

Further, it's a bit odd to be closed in a room with the walls a mere foot or two away and have nothing to look at. Many households try to ameliorate the boredom of pooping while staring at white walls by putting up posters. Even adults with otherwise sophisticatedly decorated houses have paper posters tacked up on the back of their toilet room doors. I couchsurfed with a student in Angers last night who had a map of Europe on the wall. Might as well get a little studying in, no? Others, in addition to the posters and artwork that their small children made ("honey, it's beautiful....we'll hang it right next to the toilet"), have magazine racks and stacks of books. Very practical.

Man, I feel burly--the illustrated version

Does this tractor not bear a striking resemblance to the morphazoidasaurus from before?
Gratuitous self-portrait as lumberjack:

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Semblance of a social life

Last weekend, Vincent and Florian took me with them to a party at the farm where Vincent's brother works. Florian had warned me that the brother, who was 26 (two years older than Vincent) was often mistaken for his younger brother because he was such a dreamer.

The brother met us outside and showed us into the party barn. It was dark; they were screening a documentary about a non-violent protest in India. The fifteen or so people there were watching the film projected onto a screen, but we sat on bales of hay behind the mac used to play the DVD, so we got a double view. Two other features of the barn jumped out at me immediately: they had turntables and there was a huge, rainbow-colored butterfly kite attached to the wall next to the screen. I couldn't figure out what the protest in the movie was for, despite the fact that most of it was in English. There were various Indian and international people giving interviews about how lovely it was that fifteen thousand people from all over the world had come, and about the importance of non-violence. Perhaps my favorite interviewee was an American woman: she was white, fortyish, blond, and had a red bindi smudged across most of her forehead.

Despite how extraordinarily compelling the movie was, it was hard to focus on it, because there were people milling about taking soup out of a steaming pot on the table in front of us and then sipping it out of huge bowls. Further, there was an approximately seven-year-old boy running around chasing multiple cats with a piece of yarn. When the movie ended and the lights were put back on, we realized that the barn was filled with smoke from a fire in a metal trash bin that served as a heater. Vincent's bro and a friend scrambled to find a ladder to open up a few windows near the roof. The seven-year-old skipped over to a Yamaha keyboard and put on one of the pre-programmed jam beats, over which he started playing sounds with the keys. He soloed for awhile until the adult party guests wandered over, a few at a time, to fool around with the different beats and sounds. (There was no one around to get my Ferris Bueller reference--ach, ach, ach, ach, ach, bleh, bleh, bleh, bleh.) Eventually someone put on vinyl, too, and hooked up the mac to make weird images to go with the sounds (like windows media player does). Then, with the moving images projecting onto the movie screen, about five people started an interpretive dance party right in front of the screen.

It was the hippest party I've been to since the Tupperware party with old British ladies at Jocelyne's house.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Man, I feel burly

For the second afternoon in a row today, I helped Vincent and his father, who looks remarkably like Belle's dad in Beauty and the Beast, haul around wood. They were felling branches from several huge trees on the farm to make firewood. (Vincent's and his parents' adjacent houses are both heated entirely by wood all year.)

Vincent and I started out by throwing big logs and fat branches, which he had cut yesterday, into a wagon attached to the back of a tractor. I'm not sure why, but somehow, tossing huge logs was the most entertaining thing I've done in awhile. They were all somewhat heavy and unwieldy, and there was immense satisfaction in pitching them all the way to the back of the wagon to pile the wood evenly, and in keeping up with Vincent while doing so. It brought me back to childhood summers spent flinging mud balls at the neighbor kids and building forts in the bushes with my brother.

I alternated throwing the big logs into the wagon with picking up smaller branches and hurling them onto the top of a pile that will be used to make wood chips for compost. Some were teeny, but others looked like small trees in their own right. I had a sudden, strange urge to find a red and black flannel shirt and eat flapjacks. Fortunately, I reconsidered the flannel part pretty quickly. Maybe my next project should be to train for the Highland games (except for the part about the kilt).

When Vincent and his pop had finished carting off all the logs from a tree or two, Vincent used a robotic claw on the front of the other tractor to pick up all the smaller branches still littering the ground and move them onto the little branch pile. It was SO COOL. I'm sure that my awe was not unlike what three-year-olds all over America feel when they go through their "construction worker" phase. With the claw in action, the tractor stopped looking like farm equipment and took on the semblance of a toothy dinosaur, or the huge Power Ranger thingie that they turned into when it was "morphin' time":

Monday, December 1, 2008

The world is their urinal

Cities may be an exception, but it seems that everywhere, at any time of day or night, French men can be found peeing outside.

Age is no factor: from boy-children to old men, they all piss outside. In public. Without saying a word, they step a few yards away from their companions and let flow onto a bush, the nearest fence, or just the dark night air. Recently, I saw someone actually go outside for the purpose of peeing, even though there was a toilet available. Further, French men driving cars have no qualms about pulling over to pee by the side of the road. Once, when I was riding my bike up a hill through the countryside, I startled a middle-aged dude maybe eight feet away who was about to take a leak. It was broad daylight on a main road.

The profusion of public pissers perturbed me at first. Then I started thinking, why not? As long as there aren't so many people peeing that it starts to stink, it's kind of a practical thing to do. At least it saves toilet water and time. Maybe we Americans are just prudish. However, I'm not ready to condone public pissing until it is an equal opportunity venture. Why don't French women get to pop a squat in the great outdoors? Practically speaking, if everyone were to pee outside, half of us would have to start wearing skirts all the time or carrying some sort of special funnel. (Yes, they exist.) And I'm not about to recommend one of those options, either. So until I come up with a better solution, and unless I decide to go renegade, I'll only be peeing outside alone, concealed by darkness and/or shrubbery, when I can't find a toilet.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Cheese Cellar Haiku

Wheel of Cheese

Your edges--hard, rough,
pitted, yellow, cracked--recall
a foot's calloused heel

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Technicolor Potatoes

Hope everyone is enjoying food, family, football, and/or a paid holiday from work!

I'm not sure how to translate "Thanksgiving" into French, but I tried to spruce up our normal midday meal, American style.

First, I attempted to make my family's brownie recipe. 'Twas a bit harder than normal, given the lack of US measuring cups and spoons. Ended up using a drinking glass that looked to be approximately eight ounces for my "cup," and filled it to whatever fraction of a cup the recipe called for.

The baking was further hindered by a lack of highly-processed food products in the pantry. Couldn't find semi-sweet chocolate--does it even exist here?--or baking chocolate, so used dark. The sugar in the house is weird, organic cane sugar. The baking powder substitute is a little packet of mysterious pastry leavening stuff. French butter comes in much huger hunks than American, so I guestimated. The vanilla, in a little jar, appeared to be real, dried vanilla beans! What in the world does one do with real vanilla?! I sliced off a little bit and tried to mince it and throw it in with the melted chocolate.

I used the handy ruler page of my little Moleskine calendar to approximate the square inches of Vincent's mom's baking pan, compared it to my usual pan, and decided to multiply the recipe by 1.5. When the batter was finished, but didn't taste quite chocolately enough, I threw in some organic hot cocoa powder. It could very well have come out disastrously.

The brownies were in the oven and starting to smell good when someone knocked on the back door. It was a neighbor who was defying the normal cheese-selling schedule, and had to get her hands on some fromage, pronto. Vincent had disappeared and Florian was up to his triceps in curds and whey, so I weighed out the cheese, wrapped it really awkwardly in paper, and wrote out a faux invoice on a farmer's market flyer. Returned to the house just in time to rescue the brownies from crisping. They weren't quite the same as usual, but certainly passed muster.

French farms don't seem to keep a lot of dead birds around they way they keep cow and pig parts. Sausages would have to do in place of a turkey. Cranberries weren't to be found either, and without a turkey, one can't make proper stuffing. So, I settled on some potatoes and strange-looking little orange squashes. The potatoes had lovely, dark purple skin, and, to my delight, brilliant purple flesh! And, by some miracle, the water that they cooked in turned green. Yes, green. This organic agriculture shit is weird. Check out the resulting mashed spuds:

Enough about real food; how about some saccharin? I've much to be thankful for this year. Here's a start:

  1. My family and extended family, expecially for being so supportive of my vagabond yearnings
  2. Friends: best friends, Chicago friends who will be there when I come back, very old friends who surprise me with an email every now and then, friends who keep in touch even though I'm away, new friends
  3. My girlfriend. I still can't figure out why she likes me.
  4. Health and sanity. Zyrtec and French socialized medicine.
  5. Undeserved hospitality. Farmers, couchsurfing hosts, family, and friends who feed and house me and (advertently or not) teach me
  6. My grandma's brownie recipe
  7. Technicolor potatoes
  8. Bag balm
  9. Public libraries
  10. Point-and-shoot digital cameras

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Moderately Incompetent

Control freak? There's a cure. Live in a new country for awhile. Doesn't matter if you speak the language; you won't know what's going on three-quarters of the time either way.

I keep wanting to tell my farmer hosts that I am not an idiot; I'm just a city girl who doesn't know French. Somehow, I don't think I will win the argument. "No, really, I'm not a moron...but would you mind talking to me slower than you speak to your four-year-old? Thanks."

Thumb update:
It grew back! (Mostly.) It's a hair thinner than before on one side, and it is somehow simultaneously sensitive and numb. That is, it hurts if I whack it even lightly, but I can't really feel anything well with it. I'm happy to be in one piece.

Happy bird-eating!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Better than singing in the shower singing in the cheese cave. It is cool, completely sealed off from the world, and echoes. Yesterday, I got to bathe all 310 wheels of cheese with a cloth dipped in salt water. It took nearly three hours. "Sugar Daddy" from Hedwig and the Angry Inch is my current favorite to sing on a loop. Fortunately, I was not found out by Vincent or Florian (the farmers), because the song requires a few abrupt octave changes to accommodate my narrow vocal range. It works well on solo bike rides, too.

Other cheese cave revelations: 1)I don't think I will ever need another allergy shot for mold. 2)Those folks who thought the moon was made of cheese weren't so loopy after all.

Procrastination, old friend

I am at the cheese farm! There's too much to update everyone on, so I'm putting it off until tomorrow. The good news is that they have real, non-dial-up internet here. Please entertain yourself with some long-overdue photos in the meantime. More pics and news coming soon!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Friday, November 14, 2008

Mrs. White, in the conservatory, with the wrench

Tailed to the library

Am I safe nowhere? I was hidden away in the town library, which is open for exactly six hours a week, using the dial-up internet on its one computer, when in walked Sophie and the two kids. Of course, she didn't actually say anything to me, but she did speak for the entire five minutes she was here! That's more words than I've heard her say cumulatively since I arrived. At least now I know she is not mute or stupid.

Other farm inhabitants

Valentin- four years old, brown eyes, blond hair. Feisty. Intensely dislikes onions and mushrooms--often hallucinates that they are in his dinner. Wears a napkin tied around his neck as a bib, which he loses daily, mid-meal.

Victor- eight months old, mostly bald, toothless, hazel eyes. Wears striped rompers. Smiles and laughs easily. Drops hard plastic toys from his high chair every ninety seconds or so while the rest of the family is eating.

Brice- sixteen years old, farmhand/student. Shaggy, wavy brown hair, large nose. Speaks only to ask if he can retrieve the ketchup from the refrigerator at lunch. Good-for-nothing, according to Etienne and Nans.

Nans- nineteen years old, farmhand. Blond hair buzzed very short, tall, yellow teeth. Mumbles. Often seen smoking a cigarette while driving a tractor. Lives in a tiny cottage next to the farmhouse. Works for Etienne half the week and for another farmer, elsewhere, the other half.

Mystery solved

As of last weekend, Etienne and Sophie are breaking up! While I'm not pleased at their unhappiness, I do feel satisfied to know that they are splitting: it lends explanation to everything that has happened since my arrival. Since this announcement, two things have changed for the better: Etienne puts on music at lunch, and Sophie plays with the kids. (Seriously, one would have to be inhuman not to play with them; they are too adorable to scowl at all the time.)

Friday, November 7, 2008

In case of emergency

(or if you are just bored at work and can make international calls from your desk)

here's my French cell #: (33) 6 67 06 7150

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


Quick! Where can one get an American flag pin in frog country? I haven't felt this patriotic since I was a grade-schooler at the fourth of July parade.

A round-up of the lovely folk who live at the cattle farm, part I:

Etienne- Farmer. Mid-forties. Receding hair at the temples. Remaining hair (grey on the sides and black on the top) cut short. Salt-and-pepper soul patch. Smile wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. Spry with a slight build. Teases Laura for eating slowly and farmhand Brice for wanting ketchup with everything. Does all the family's cooking; bakes tarts and sweet breads. Eats his beef rare. Likes kids. Produces only male offspring. Smokes cigarettes indoors at the fireplace.

Sophie- Farmer's wife (or perhaps non-legally-committed long-term partner). Mid-thirties. Skinny. Chin-length, thin, layered, light brown hair. Wears neutral colors and wire-rimmed glasses. Keeps her lips pursed as if she were dragging on a cigarette even when she is not smoking by the fireplace. Speaks with her mouth full to tell her four-year-old to eat. Has a five-word vocabulary consisting of "mange!" ("eat"), "oh, Valentin!" (the kid's name), "arret" ("stop") and "stop" ("stop"). Has a full-time office job in communications.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Quick hello from a nervous American abroad

...nervous because I haven't perfected my Canadian accent yet, and I may end up needing it depending on how things go at home today...

The past week and a half have been filled with rain and bad French television, which I can justify as being educational because I am still learning the language. The farmer's wife is still a bitch. My cottage-mate still says "oh, la vache," but we've managed to have some excellent, slightly one-sided conversations.

Tuesday and Wednesday, my dad and his girlfriend came to visit! We toured the thrilling city of Bourges and stuffed ourselves with French food. Mmm.

On Thursday, it snowed huge, fat snowflakes all morning.

Friday, Laura and I finally did some real farm work: we started digging up some very clumpy, hard soil so that we could later plant a row of trees.

~~~~Oops, I'm getting the boot from the library again! To be continued.....

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


This is terrible, shameful, and probably makes me deserve to have several dozen overripe tomatoes lobbed at my head: I am bored.

On day two at farm two, farmer Etienne surprised me with a new, French roommate. It took me three days to figure out that her name is Laura. She is staying at the farm for two weeks as part of some requirement for her university. She reads anime comic books and says "oh, la vache" a lot, and I'm not sure exactly what that means but I'm really glad she's there.

I am getting kicked out of a French library nowwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Back in the middle of nowhere

After nine hours and forty-seven minutes on the road yesterday, I arrived safely at the farm. The man who runs it is very nice, but his wife has said exactly two words to me since I arrived. One was her name. At least I have a little cottage to myself and do not have to rub elbows with her too much! Though their house is much more moden than jocelyne's, they have dial-up internet also. Further, their j key does not work, so I have to find j somewhere on the internet and copy and paste it every time I need it (like when I log into my email)!

Thursday, October 23, 2008


Chartres is a real pain in the butt to bike to, because the countryside around it has a lot of hills that might be called "gently rolling" if the guy describing them were driving in a car. The town features a humongous cathedral, which beckons the weary biker from about 20 km away. If the cathedral's steeples were the size of those of a normal town church, the biker would be quite close when she first caught a glimpse. Instead, the fraternal twin steeples tease the rider for an agonizing hour.

I realized last night in the middle of those hills that, when moving out of my apartment a month and a half ago, I accidentally stole my roommate's french press and gave it to my little brother. Oops! I'm working on repatriation.

I am pleased to report that I was not captured, robbed, or molested last night! In fact, the couchsurfer I stayed with turned out to be quite nice. His roommate made us galettes for dinner, and he showed me where the breakfast food was and left me a spare set of keys to let myself out the apartment with. Now it's time to scram so that I can arrive in Orleans before dark!

Hope you're all well. Write to me sometime!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Next stop: Chartres

Tomorrow morning I'm off again! My first evening's stop will be Chartres, home of the famous cathedral and even more famous internet cafe full of pimply adolescent boys. This time, instead of popping for a hotel, I'm going to try couchsurfing.  The idea is to connect low-budget travelers to other folk of dubious moral standing so that the traveler gets a free couch to sleep on and both parties are enriched by the cultural exchange.  I'm scheduled to surf another couch in Orleans on Thursday. Assuming I'm not taken captive by either of my hosts, I should arrive at a new farm in Vasselay on Friday.

Check out my route on a lovely Google map. Blue tacks mean I stayed with friends/family for awhile, green tacks mean I was on the road, and the little houses are the farms! You will probably have to scroll east to see France, because the map seems to want to show the middle of the Atlantic. If the little guy here doesn't work at all, try the bigger map.

View Larger Map

I promise to put more pictures up soon, but for now, my photo card reader is acting up. However, I did manage to start a companion site to the blog on Picasa. It has one lonely album of pics of my first week in Paris. More to come!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Blue nurses dirt park

I just learned that this site comes up on Google if one searches "blue nurses dirt park." Try it. I wouldn't lie about something so important.

As promised, here are the folks that often drop by Jocelyne's farm:

Nigel- Jocelyne's ex-boyfriend. British, grey wavy 'fro and 'stache, blue eyes, glasses, belly. She calls him her "ex-lover"; Kevin calls him his "second father." Has Tourette's and is bi-polar. Likes to call her while she's trying to teach her French classes; speaks to her in French on the phone so she'll respond in French and her students won't know it's him calling. Otherwise, only speaks English to her and pretends not to understand French.

Skip and Glee- Two of Jocelyne's French language students. Californian, recently retired law professors, in their seventies. Glee wears her grey hair in a long braid and has blue eyes. Skip has short, grey hair on the sides of his head and a huge brown patch on one cheek from some melanoma. He wears large glasses. Both speak very slow, choppy, loud French. Skip often tries to finish Glee's French sentences halfway through, when he gets irritated by her slowness. They winter in California and summer in France. Very sweet, despite their tendency to dominate the French class.

Benjamin #1-  Lives in a boys' home and spends one weekend per month at Jocelyne's. Pipsqueaky for a sixteen-year-old. Travels with his Playstation and "Grand Theft Auto." Wears a green hooded sweatshirt. With no apparent provocation, Kevin acts obnoxiously around him.

Benjamin #2- Recently released from the funny farm for trying to off himself, he spent a week at Jocelyne's for some R&R. Very scrawny thirteen-year-old, wears dark hair in baby faux-hawk. Goofy and playful to the point of occasional obnoxiousness. Starting making pervy jokes with the 19-yr-old German wwoofer staying at the house. Giggles and likes chewing gum.

Wilhelm- Aforementioned nineteen-year-old German wwoofer. Tall, dark hair and eyes. On his way from high school to a job at Euro Disney in Paris. Speaks lovely English and a bit of French. Clearly out of place in a dirty farmhouse, but earnestly interested in learning whatever he can.

Nicole and Lauren- Two American wwoofers from Washington state and Oklahoma, respectively. Nicole is tall with curly, chin-length light brown hair. Lauren is petite with blue eyes and blondish, straight hair. Lauren, a former student of art and French, is taking time between one college and another to work on her French and see the world. Tried to convince her parents that they didn't need to hear from her every other day. Nicole, a self-described clinger to her own small bubble, was convinced by Lauren that wwoofing through France would be a good way to kill a few months and a few thousand dollars before applying to marine bio grad school. Nicole used to work at a boat parts store and is excited to visit the home of her patron saint.

Two dozen assorted Brits and their small children- Between thirty and sixty-five, mostly married couples. Some raise animals on neighboring farms. Others work as builders and handymen. Several of the women do not work. Many come to French class; other show up at random hours to purchase ready-to-eat rabbits and vegetables.

Sophie- Jocelyne's nephew's fiance. Wears her brown, straight hair twisted up in a clip. Has glasses and wears neutral colors. Hosted a tupperware party at Jocelyne's house.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Holy creepy $#@&

There was a murder in the restaurant next door to my old apartment in Chicago, complete with a victim found tied-up in the basement. Thanks, Gabi, for tipping me off. Are all you Lakeview folks okay?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Les Mesnuls

I've been slacking for the better part of a week on updating the blog with my whereabouts, because it's a bit difficult to explain. I'm in a little town called Les Mesnuls, not far from Paris--this much is simple. I'm staying in a house where my sister spent a good chunk of time growing up; I'm with her mom and her mom's husband. My sis is in Chicago. Confused yet? So are we. We've decided that I'll be introduced to their friends as their "niece."

In any case, it's lovely out here, but I can see how a fourteen-year-old could consider it hell. We're sort of out in the country (there's a farm across the street) but one can drive to Paris in half an hour if traffic is light.

I cheated and took the train here from Jocelyne's farm. It was straight back the way I had come from, and my bank account couldn't tolerate another five hotel rooms on the way back. In a few hours of train travel, one can cover as much ground as in a week of biking--amazing. But as soon as a kindly French farmer answers my request to come work for him or her, I'll be on the road again by bike. The exhilaration of being at large in the world with everything I need loaded on a two-wheeled, motor-less vehicle is inimitable.

View from my lunch table in the town of
Versailles. Check out the loaded bike on the
left side next to the windows...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

View from the kitchen of the "potager"

Voici Jocelyne's kitchen window, complete with an enormous daddy long-legs. She has loads of nasturtiums planted around the house and garden! Apparently the French word for veggie garden is "potager," though I didn't learn it until I left the farm. I'd spent two weeks asking J. if the things we were eating were from the "jardin," which actually means "yard." Potato, potahto. 

Monday, October 6, 2008

Lots of fall babies

Happy October!

Yesterday one of the cows managed to pass a calf out of her body. Ow. Before we sat down to lunch, the front feet were sticking out a little bit; by the time we finished, the little guy was laying down getting a tongue bath from momma. Today there are 12 or 13 baby goslings, and two new stray kittens.

Have you ever cut an Italian sausage in half and then cooked it on the stove in a frying pan? It is sort of greyish brown and the meat pillows out the cut end? That's what the end of my thumb looks like. Loup the dog has been sniffing interestedly at the bandage at mealtime.

I'll be leaving the farm late this week. Next destination: undetermined.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Update from the farm

First, a thumb update:

The other day when I went for the first re-bandaging, I was terrified to the point of literally shaking. It took several minutes and about three people to liberate the gauze stuck to the wound, and I feared that I would be faced with a bloody stump when the nurses finally succeeded. Luckily, the existing flesh seemed to have swollen to fill approximately the same volume that the missing bit had occupied. There wasn't any skin, but I didn't have a huge dent in my thumb either. Nor was there too much blood, though I do think that the upper part of my thumb will be yellow with iodine until all the skin cells die and flake off. Oh, well.

I can't do much farmwork without being able to use my right thumb, or to get my right hand wet or dirty (er, showering is also a challenge). However, Jocelyne, the farm owner, is used to taking in all sorts of stray, slightly ill people and so she hasn't pitched me out into the street yet. I spend a lot of time "helping" the way a five-year-old helps: I stand around in the way and do things more slowly and crudely than they should be done, so that when I'm "finished," Jocelyne gets to do them over again, which takes longer than it would have for her to just do them in the first place. I also dry dishes, hang laundry, make tea, organize papers, and eat a lot of delicious homemade/grown/raised food. It's tough.

Next, a cast of characters:

These are the folks that live on the farm. In the second installment, I'll include those that just come over a lot....

Jocelyne- 49 years old, owner of the farm. Looks like a more attractive version of the singer Baby Dee. Longish, blond, wavy/frizzy hair, sharp blue eyes, heavy but not unshapely. She and her home are a bit disheveled; she has more important concerns than whether she serves tea in matching cups or wears fashionable clothes. Mother and foster parent. Currently single. Speaks English well, but not as articulately as a native speaker. Forthcoming about many things, including the fact that science played a large part in the creation of her son and the fact that he has eight half-siblings from five different mothers. Unofficial liason between the huge British ex-pat community and the French natives. Teaches French classes in her home. Admits she has a tendency to surround herself with weaker creatures. Patient, goodhearted. Can birth a calf and skin a rabbit.

Kevin- 8 years old, Jocelyne's son. Blond hair, blue eyes. Very attached to his mother. Often speaks in a whine, but only to Jocelyne. Wets the bed. Was once seen picking his nose in his sleep. Speaks a bit of English. Enjoys chasing rabbits.

Jean- 69 years old, formerly under Jocelyne's foster care. Has lived with Jocelyne for fifteen years. Originally was admitted to her care as a "disabled" person, though Jocelyne says his only disability was alcohol. After her term as his foster caretaker was over, he wanted to stay. Blue eyes, white hair. Speaks like Daffy Duck, but in French, and goodnaturedly. Apparently lost his false teeth, which he wore for their aesthetic effect and never wore when he ate. Likes to watch game shows on TV, which Jocelyne claims is because he likes to look at the Vanna White types.

Melissa- 17 years old, Jocelyne's foster daughter of five years. Brown hair and eyes, overweight. Friendly, speaks a bit of English. Likes to talk on the phone and admire attractive male singers. Attends a vocational school and spends a weekend per month each with her mother and father.

Loup- 16 years old, family dog. Name means "wolf." Poor hearing and vision. Believes he's more spry than he is.

Assorted cats, cows, rabbits, goats, ducks, chickens, geese, and a horse.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Ratatouille a la thumb

I am alive! Haven't had regular internet access lately, because every time I arrived in a new town, it was around six pm and everything was closing. Now, on the farm, the dial-up doesn't work so efficiently, but I'm enjoying the trip back to 1999.

Two days ago I arrived at Jocelyne's farm in Normandy, set my stuff down, and started to help the family make a Ratatouille for dinner. Not two hours later, I was slicing eggplant, slice, slice, slice, when off went the side of the top of my right thumb, into the lovely pile of eggplant below. I bled like a horror film and can now vouch for French socialized medicine being wonderful. The ER asked me for less information up front than the hostel in Paris.

Got rebandaged today and they said I'll live--I just have to go back to the ER every few days for a couple weeks to get gauzed.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Saddle sores to internet gamers

First a little rant: I am currently sitting in an internet cafe in Chartres, and for the past two hours, save for five minutes when a sixtyish American woman came in, it has been me and about a dozen 12-17 year-old boys here. They are all playing some sort of gloomy-looking internet game with guns and tanks. Adolescents have always kind of freaked me out: they were intriguing and scary when I was a kid, terrifying when I was one, and are unnerving now. Multiply that by 12, add this weird internet game, a lot of awkward laughter and chatter in French, and I think I need to leave and go have a beer.

I made it to Chartres yesterday by bike. From Versailles, I took one of the national roads, which, for about 70 percent of the way, had a bike lane with some broken glass and rocks and things. It was sort of like Ogden Ave or the uglier parts of 55th street in the western 'burbs, but with more trucks and fewer pedestrians. Finally, after three hours or so, I stopped at the "Bel Air" Mall in Rambouillet. It really was called "Bel Air." I bought some water and the best Powerade I've ever had at a Carrefour, and a nice lady at the tobacco store told me how to get to the smaller road I was looking for. Turned out the road was directly behind the mall, and within five minutes I was in the middle of nowhere.

I rode through lots of little towns which were much prettier than the ugly N10 road I'd been on before, and snapped some drive-by photos. In Coltainville, my last little town before Chartres, I ran out of steam. It was time to stop for round two of the baguette and pate snack I'd munched on outside of the mall. I knew if I stopped for too long or sat down, I'd never reach Chartres, so I ate for a few minutes and hopped back on the bike.

I entered Chartres to discover that it was a bunch of steep, narrow cobblestone streets that might otherwise have been beautiful but in this case made me want to collapse in a heap on the ground and cry. I cursed Rick Steves for not giving me a map of the city more than six blocks long, because I had no idea which direction my hotel was in. Eventually, after having been an enormously entertaining spectacle to scads of French folks on the way, I rolled up to the hotel. I continued to entertain the locals for another ten minutes while I unloaded my bike, locked it, and then tried to figure out how to pick up all my bags at once to carry them to the hotel, all while wearing really unflattering bike shorts.

At the hotel, I discovered that I have bona fide saddle sores. I know that they are real because they sting in the shower.

Today, I've been in Chartres; tomorrow I bike for Mortagne-au-Perche and the next day for Domfront. Have more to write but can't stand another second in this internet cafe and feel brain starting to fizzle.

Until next time!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Bike shopping, dirt park trails and camping sans tent

Bonjour! Wednesday morning, I checked out a bike store around the corner from where I was staying at Olivia and Nacho's. The guy inside, who spoke English, told me that they did not have anything in my size in stock and that it would take a week to order. As I was supposed to be in a farm in Normandy in a week, I ventured out for a bike store that appeared to exist on the Boulevard de Montparnasse, according to the internet. Fortunately, it did, and the guy there knew his shit and spoke some English. People in bike stores in France seem a bit less snooty than their US counterparts, but I can't tell if that's because they're a little uncomfortable with English (and therefore unable to go on a pretentious ramble about bike parts) or if they're actually nicer. I suspect the latter. The very agreeable man in the bike store did have bikes in my stock, and the one he showed me was perfect: a hybrid (not road, not mountain) that came with fenders, a rear rack, a bell, and lights that work automatically when I pedal! I headed back to pick up all of my belongings from Olivia and Nacho's while he assembled the bike.

On the way back, laden with my usual Chrome bag plus two bike bags on each shoulder, I got a lot of looks, from passing glances to full-on stop-and-gawks. Then, on the Metro, the ticket machine wouldn't take my debit card, the lady wouldn't help me, and I didn't have the change I needed to buy a ticket. So I laboriously marched up the steps with my 50 pounds of unwieldy baggage, and went to the McDonalds to buy a 95 cent milkshake to get change. I felt like a tool, but it was easier than trying to get into the tiny door of a real cafe with all my stuff.

Back at the bike shop, I got a nod from a lady in line ahead of me, who recognized that my bags were for a bike. The shopkeeper confirmed that they were indeed for a bike, and were Ortlieb, "the best that you can buy," he said in French. In this tiny pocket of Paris, I no longer felt like an ambulatory freak!

As it was too late in the day to leave the city by bike, I found a hostel. My roommates were Cuba (pronounced the way you would if you spoke Spanish: coo-bah) from Canada, who was clearly out to meet some ladies, and Katie, from Australia, who chattered at me for ten minutes straight and complained that her dad talked too much. Katie and her dad were on vacation with her mom, who had made the trip to "present a paper," which actually turned out to be a "Nurse's Bible" that she had assembled with nurses' stories and the Old and New Testaments and bound in blue leather with silver corners.

Yesterday morning, I set out from Paris toward Versailles, following some very sketchy directions I found on the internet ( that included instructions like,
"In the Park, immediately branch to the right, climbing, and then immediately branch left on a flat dirt way that joins a gravelled path between flower beds. The path becomes a dirt trail which turns right. Push or ride your bike on the path, climbing an occasional few steps and crossing through a gate."

Miraculously, I arrived in Versailles after 3 or 4 hours with nary a wrong turn. Oh, how spoiled we are in Chicago with our flat land and perpendicular streets! By the time I sat down to lunch in Versailles, it was too late and I was too tired to continue for Chartres, as planned.

(A fully loaded bike is not a sexy thing. If I figure out how to say "wide load" in French, I will make myself a sign. Additionally, the bike should have come with a mechanism to make it beep when it backs up. Pictures to follow.)

After lunch, I spent the next few hours milling about Versailles indecisively, looking freakish with my fully loaded bike, trying to find an internet cafe and a cheap hotel. I found a very expensive internet cafe and no hotel, though I did manage to book a room for Chartres for the following night. Eventually, I decided that my best bet, given that I didn't want to fork over 80 euro for a room or bike back to Paris to find a hostel, was to follow some signs I had seen on the main road that pointed to "Camping."

The Huttopia campground (pronounced like "utopia") was rather prissy looking, for a campground, had a gate that locked at night, and would only cost 19 euro. Lacking a tent, I rolled over to the hardware store, to find that the proprietor had sold his last tarp three days ago. Since it wasn't supposed to rain, I figured I'd survive. I laid out my huge, empty duffel and my empty Chrome bag on the ground, and slept on top of them on my sleeping bag.

The woods next to the campground didn't make any particulary frightful sounds in the night; in fact, I mostly heard the trains and motorcycles on nearby tracks and roads, which was comforting. I woke absolutely freezing a couple of hours after going to bed. My two layers of long underwear, socks, and fleece plus my sleeping bag, designed for temps as low as 45 degrees, did not cut it in 40-degree weather! Don't try it! For the rest of the night, I curled into cramped positions and tried to move around a little to generate some body heat, but didn't sleep for more than a few hours at a time. This morning, after about five minutes of trying to convince myself to leave my sleeping bag, I took a shamefully long, hot shower. Now, feeling warm and fully human again, I am ready to take of for Chartres, by way of roads instead of dirt trails. There's a real hotel room waiting for me there, and I'll be able to lay out my dewy sleeping bag to dry!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Raw meat and stinky cheese

We've been having toast with cheese for breakfast, which seems very generically Euro to me, though our lovely French hostess Olivia claims she stole it from the Swedes. A few days ago, the soft wedge of cheese was brie, but today it is way stinkier than normal. I can't tell for sure if the brie has gotten a little bit reeky because we've been leaving it out for at least an hour every day, or if there has been a cheese swap for something that starts with a c, looks a lot like brie, and is really smelly. I suspect the latter but am unable to confirm it.

The French seem to enjoy eating raw hamburger meat with raw egg. Last night, Olivia ordered this--one of her favorites--and let me try it. It tasted good, and was much less suspect than the room temperature beef and "mashed potatoes" that I was served by United on the flight over.

On to the bike store!!

Five days in Paris

Things I've learned since arriving in Paris on Friday:
1. The French keyboard is messed up. To type a period, one must use the shift key, but semicolons, colons, and exclamation points are readily available. Qlso; severql letters qre not auite in the plqce zhere one zould expect to find the,: This ,qkes it frustrqting to type e,qils: qnd blogs:
2. Parisians do actually walk around carrying baguettes. Some even carry their baguettes while rollerblading.
3. The public toilets in the middle of the street don't look like they lock, but I think they actually do. Just don't open the door again after you enter, or you'll leave it unlocked for yourself and then lock out the poor French guy who tries to use it after you. I think. Revision: just use the toilets in the closest Brasserie.
4. The eiffel tower has its own post office.
5. If a ladybug lands on your hand, then climbs up your finger and flies away, you will have good weather on Sunday.

Tomorrow, I take off on my soon-to-be-new-bike toward Normandy. After consulting several maps and the internet, I picked Dreux as a first night's stopping point. However, as if the name Dreux weren't dismal sounding enough, its only outstanding feature, according to wikipedia, is that it has a good cricket team. I was starting to feel depressed and terrified. Fortunately, I discovered that Chartres, an actual place that people may have heard of, wasn't too much farther out of my way. Really, I picked it on the basis of its longer wikipedia page and superior tourism website; if those aren't good signs I don't know what is.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

One day from blast off

Today's the sort of Chicago day that makes me want to stay here forever: the sun is shining and the lake is full of little sailboats. Two days ago, while packing, I had a huge "what the h am I doing?!" moment. Fortunately, it passed. I've lots of loose ends to tie up today, but will write again when I arrive in Paris!