Friday, November 15, 2013

Ripe for the Picking

I have a new ritual of going to the market every Saturday morning. Whether I am in Perpignan or elsewhere in France (Arles, Carcassonne, Paris, Montpellier, etc.), I find a market and follow the steps as follows:

(1) I walk around all the stalls at least once until I identify the one with the best looking fruits and vegetables that morning.
(2) Once I pick a stall, I take my time looking at all the produce. Whatever looks the freshest and the most interesting, I take, provided it's in season and not too expensive.

Thanks to my new market-going ritual (and some encouragement from my friend Michael), I have discovered delicious fruits that I didn't even know existed (e.g. abius ('ananes'), quinces ('coings'), persimmons ('kakis'). The key is, you only buy what looks good, what's ripe, and what's in season.

The technique is surprisingly similar to dating (or at least my understanding of dating -- having only ever dated one person I can't say I'm an expert). But when I saw Hiro for the first time, I didn't weigh the pros and cons, nor did I really consider all that I knew about him. More accurately, I saw a handsome exotic young man that (like a good, ripe piece of fruit), I wanted to sink my teeth into!

Now fruits - like people - can have drastically different characteristics. Pineapples versus grapes. Kiwis versus pomegranates. To illustrate my point, I'll use the example of watermelons and peaches (two of my favorite fruits). Peaches are fuzzy on the outside. They have thick skin that's easy to bite into, and when ripe, are soft and mushy. It's not until you get to the center that you realize they have a hard pit that could break your teeth if you bit into it. Watermelons on the other hand have hard, thick skin that requires a knife to cut into. Even when ripe, they maintain their form, so you would not guess by looking at them or touching them that they are so juicy and sweet on the inside. They have tasteless seeds ('pépins'), but no hidden pit like the peach. One could rightly compare Americans to peaches (soft and fuzzy with a hidden pit) and the French to watermelons (a thicker skin but abundant and sweet when you get to know them). There's variety among people and fruits. It depends what you like. But all fruit, when ripe, is sweet and bursting with flavor; when upripe, even the best fruits can taste disgusting.

Sometimes, you get bored of apples and you want to try someting new. If you decide to try a new or exoctic fruit (and why shouldn't you?!) you never know whether you'll like it or not. Some types of fruits have a taste that takes getting used to. Sometimes your tastes change. Other times, six years go by and you're still addicted to your favorite fruit (personally I'm a creature of habit, and I like what I like!). Everyone is different in that respect, and it's important to know your preferences.

So in that respect, picking out your fruit at the market is like dating (in my opinion it would make more sense to say someone who is single is "at the market" and not "on the market", but I'm getting sidetracked here). Friendship, on the other hand, is slightly different. With friendship, you don't just eye the fruit that looks tasty and take it home. With friendship, you actually have to start from scratch; that means (1) plant the seeds, (2) water them, (3) give it time, (4) prune the tree, and (5) harvest! The process involves much waiting, and if you try to rush it, you'll get rotten fruit as a result. Sometimes you use bad seeds to begin with, or the conditions of the soil aren't great, so your final product isn't what you were hoping for. For this reason, the best way to ensure excellent results is to plant many seeds in different places.

I have been in Perpignan for six weeks now. And for the past six weeks I have been busy planting seeds. This is the first time in my life that I've moved to an entirely new place where I knew nobody, and making friends can be challenging as I've come to realize. It's not like going away to summer camp, going to college, or studying abroad. In all of those situations, you are surrounded by people in the same boat as you. Everyone is eager to make friends because nobody wants to be a loner. Summer camp, college, and study abroad programs provide optimum conditions for friendships to flourish. They even give you the seeds and the soil, so the effort involved in making friends is minimal.

But in Perpignan, it's different. I work in a school, so the bulk of my interactions are with high school students (18 and younger) and teachers (upwards of 35). Perpignan, for better or for worse, is the Boca Raton of France, meaning that the majority of people living here are retired and/or grandparents. I thought I'd meet some people my age by going on a hike with a group called 'The Circle of Young People', and it turns out the average age of the members was 60 (they should change their name to 'The Circle of Young (at heart) People').

Clearly, not every attempt to meet people and make friends will be fruitful. But I haven't let that fear stop me from sprinkling some seeds wherever I go (including the most random of places). Last week on Tuesday, I got lost as I was leaving the philosophy studio. It was late and I was scared. So I went up to the first normal looking person I saw - a girl about my age - and asked for directions. She walked me back to the main avenue, during which time we made small talk. She seemed like a really nice girl. I decided to risk looking like a total weirdo for the sake of potentially making a friend: I asked her for her number. Last night we went out for Tapas and sangria. This girl - Marine - is awesome! It's still early but I feel like we could be good friends.

On Wednesday of last week, I went to the university in Perpignan to attend a club meeting. While waiting for the meeting to start, a group of students saw me sitting by myself and invited me to sit with them. Small talk turned into longer, deeper conversation and in the end, I skipped the club meeting to stay and chat. And this past Wednesday, I went to the a first meeting for the student-run non-profit that I'm volunteering with here in Perpignan. I got to meet the other volunteers, all of whom are about my age and passionate about helping underserved youth. I really hit it off with some of them, and I'm looking forward to getting to know them better over time!

Growing friends is time consuming. The process can be exhuasting. But when harvest time comes, you realize it was worth it. Two weeks ago in Paris, I stayed with my friend Virginie (whom I met last October in Evanston) and Hiro & I had dinner with Gregoire & Fabrice (whom I know from study abroad). And this past weekend, I had a fabulous time with my four buddies in the French Air Force (whom I met at the food court in Northwestern's student center). When they were in Chicago, I invited them over for drinks, took them to a baseball game, showed them the best piano bar in the city, hung out with them on Dillo day, and brought them to their first yoga class.

They returned the favor this weekend by taking me out for dinner in Avignon and drinks in Aix-en-Provence. They brought me to Arles to see the roman ampitheater and Baux-de-Provence to see the chateau. They introduced me to their friends and roommates who made us breakfast, lunch and dinner at their VILLA near Salon-de-Provence. It was such a relief to be with people whom I know and trust - for the first time since Paris with Hiro, I could really let my guard down. And it was nice to be taken care of - driven cool places and treated like a special guest.

So I guess I could say my hard work of 'planting seeds' paid off. But the truth is that friendship isn't about payoff or return on investment. You don't make friends so that they can invite you to their villa in Provence or their Parisian studio. You aren't (or at least you shouldn't be) friendly towards people because you hope to benefit in some way. Real friendship is organic and genuine. Yes, it takes effort to make friends. It also takes dedication to keep friendships alive and well. But it comes from the heart.

You pick your friends (and your friends pick you), but only when the time is ripe.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Teachers Are Real People

When I was in nursery school, I believed my teachers lived and slept at school (well technically I do, but I'm an exception to the norm). What i mean to say is that I couldn't conceive of my teachers having a life or a role outside of teaching - such as mother, wife, artist, athlete, friend, etc. Even during high school, it was hard (and weird) to imagine my teachers in a context other than school. living in Evanston during college, I would often bump into my former teachers - at the grocery store, the gym, or even the spa - and the first few times it happened it freaked me out a little. It freaked me out simply because there are boundaries between students and teachers (including teaching assistants) and those boundaries are not to be muddled with. 

In France, those boundaries are even more defined than they are in the United States. What do I mean by that? There is a strong sense of hierarchy that pervades French schools (as well as French society). Students use formal language to address their "professors", whom they call Monsieur and Madame. Before entering the classroom, students must line up outside the door single file and wait until the teacher invites them to enter. They must stand until the teacher invites them to sit down. If a student is a minute late and does not have a pass, he/she must stay after class and do extra homework. Even the unmotivated students strictly adhere to these standards. 

Although these types of standards are generally more lax in the US, the teachers and the students still belong to two different camps. Since starting this job, I now belong to the teacher camp. After nearly 20 years of being in school, you can imagine how strange it feels (and those of you who are already teaching, you know what I'm talking about!). What's even stranger is that while some of my students are 8 years younger than me, some of my students (in the associates degree program) are only 2-3 years younger than me. Many of them still call me Madame even though I keep telling them to call me Aria. They do what I tell them to do and they seek my approval. 

It makes no difference if there is another teacher with me in the class or not. I've already taught a handful of classes by myself and the students are the same. I've administered oral exams and watched as students tremble with anxiety despite my frequent nods of approval and smiles for reassurance. I have flashbacks of my junior year of high school - the anxiety, the desire to succeed, the exhaustion. But that's not me anymore. I'm on the other side. For better or for worse, I've crossed over.

It's funny, because with my terminal (senior) students, one of the topics we've been discussing is "Locations and Forms of Power". For example, they've learned about the British empire, and about gun violence in America (the power to decide who lives and who dies). But in a different sense, school is a location of power and being a teacher is a form of power. Teachers decide how to run their class (to an extent) and the students have no choice but to abide. Teachers decide what grades to give. Teachers decide who gets homework and how much and when. It makes sense that students can feel stressed out. In very few contexts do people have that much authority over you. 

On the other hand, being in a seat of power (as the teacher) can be quite stressful too. It's a big responsibility, trying to prepare nearly 100 teenagers for an exam that will influence their future. You do as much as you can to ensure that they will succeed, even if it means having them repeat the phrase "myths and heroes" over and over until they have the pronunciation down almost perfectly. Even if it means giving practice exams or more homework (which the students hate and it means more grading for you). You must lead the horses to water, but the drinking is up to them.

But I'm getting off track here. I was talking about boundaries and sides. Now that I'm on the teachers' side, things are a bit different. For example, I won't wear jeans - only nice skirts, slacks and dresses. There is nothing wrong with wearing jeans, but since I look young, I am trying to set myself apart from my students. Its especially tricky in the dorm. When i go out at night, or when i return, i do so discretely. When I pass a dozen shirtless rugby men on my way to my room, I have to pretend not to notice their six pack abs and bulging biceps. When I see students copying each others homework, I look away. When I hear the girls gossiping about boys - especially the rugby men that live in the dorm - I switch my brain to English so I can't understand what they're saying. Put hormonal teenagers together overnight in the same building, and things will happen. But what I don't know can't harm me...and believe me, I don't want to know. 

I've learned something else since "crossing over". This one's funny because it may seem obvious: teachers are real people. Just because they keep their personal lives concealed from our students does not mean they don't have lives outside of school. They have families, and houses, and hobbies and social lives. They go dancing and play music and do sports and lead philosophy conversation groups. And although teachers do their best to prevent their emotions and personal issues from affecting their work, they are real people with emotions and personal issues. They sometimes get frustrated with students or have clashes with other teachers and administrators. Sometimes they loose their keys. Sometimes teachers show up at the wrong place at the wrong time, or they don't show up at all (Although your wife going to labor is a pretty good reason to miss class; yesterday one of the teacher's didn't show up for our class, and I just learned that baby Noam was born a few hours later). Sometimes teachers are not quite prepared for class. Sometimes teachers are not ready for vacation to end. Sometimes teachers have relationship problems. Sometimes teachers get sick. Sometimes teachers have philosophical dilemmas and mid (or quarter or three quarter) life crises. Sometimes teachers worry about the future. Sometimes even teachers don't know all the answers. 

Speaking of questions and answers, on tuesday I attended a philosophy soirée/discussion animated by my friend Julien (a high school philosophy teacher, and the third Julien I'm friends with now). The question of the evening was: 'Is it necessary to fear death?'. Julien presented many of the possible angles using various schools of philosophy. After Julien's introduction, he opened the discourse, and everyone in attendance shared their own opinions and experiences. It was like my high school AP great books class, except that we had wine, cheese and chocolate! 

Being the nerd that I am, I even took thorough notes, although I won't bore you with every detail. Anyway, what I took away from the conversation was the idea that facing death is easier when you're content with the contributions you made during your lifetime. We are all afraid of leaving this world without leaving a trace of us behind; without having made an impression or an impact of some sort. Teachers, being real people, have this fear too. 

Last week, I went out with one of the English teachers. Frankly, I was surprised when she invited me, because we had not spoken much outside of class. Over coffee, she opened up to me about her struggles in the classroom and her fear that she wasn't doing a good job teaching. She asked for my advice, and although I'm not a teacher, I responded as honestly as I could. Being on the other side, I see that teachers aren't the superhuman beings that as a kid I thought they were. On the other hand, they are super beings. They are super beings who somehow find a way to balance their home life and work life; who are there for their students physically, mentally and emotionally, no matter what shit they may having going on. They are super beings who utilize order, discipline and respect to create a safe and supportive environment for adolescents to learn and grow. They are super beings who have the capacity to perform miracles in the classroom. Needless to say, I have a lot of respect for my colleagues and anyone who dedicates their life to teaching.

Which brings me to my final point: gratitude. I have lots of it. For all my teachers (well, the really good ones especially). I'm not going to name them here, but if you're reading this blog, you know who you are :). Thank you for all that you did; for all that you do. And to my friends that are young, new teachers, I just want to reiterate how much respect I have for you. You're in a position of real power - you have the power to inspire your students to fill their minds with knowledge, to follow their dreams, and to go out and make the world a better place. To that, I'll raise my glass of Côte du Rhône.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Making Magic

Is this real life or am I caught in a Fairy Tale? 

Upon returning from Paris last week, I came down with a bad cold/sinus infection. I stayed in bed, nursing myself back to health with antibiotics, tea & vitamin C. As soon as I felt better, I decided to take advantage of my remaining school vacation days, and I set off to travel the region of Languedoc Roussilon and the Pyrénées Orientales.

For the first two days, I went easy on my body. During the day, I visited medieval villages and tiny towns with cobblestone streets. I sat at cafés; reading, writing in my journal, 'philosophizing' with strangers. At night, I returned to Perpignan, where I met up with my colleagues and their friends/family. Sodara, the colleague that invited me out, introduced me to his friends as 'his assistant' a.k.a. 'the yoga teacher from Chicago'. We listened to live jazz in the streets until the police shut it down, played Halloween trivia at an English pub, and even went dancing! I made three new girlfriends: Mathilde - 14, Lily - 10, and (princesse) Lena (she was wearing a plastic tiara) - 4. All of them (and especially the princess) reminded me of why I want to work with kids. To little kids, even the most ordinary things can seem magical.

By Sunday, I'd had a few days to rest. Feeling recharged, I decided to go for a hike. I consulted my guidebook, 'The 50 Most Beautiful Hikes in Languedoc Roussillon". On a whim (and because it seemed like a nice hike) I chose to take the train to Banyuls-sur-Mer (south of Perpignan on the Vermeille Coast), and from there to hike up to the coastal town of Collioure. I packed my backpack (3 liters of water, sunscreen, camera, raincoat, hat, lunch, guidebook, journal), laced up my hiking boots, and was off.

An hour later, around 11 am, I was getting off the train behind a young couple, who judging by their gear were getting ready to hike as well. I saw the man take a trail map out of his bag and unfold it. Even from a distance, I could tell how detailed it was compared to the barebones map in my guidebook. Suddenly I felt ashamed and embarassed that I'd come all this way to hike and I didn't even have a proper map. What if I never found the trail? It took me a good 30 seconds of standing around like an imbecile before I worked up the courage to ask the couple if I could see their map. Of course, they were not at all annoyed, and they were more than happy to help me find the trail. It turned out we had planned to hike the same trail to Collioure (the Grande Randonnée 10) and they invited me to join them. We hiked together for entire 5 hour journey to Collioure, stopping after about 3 hours to eat our picnic lunch. Etienne - 24, is studying marine ecosystems at the University in Perpignan, and Ginette - 30, is finishing her masters in elementary education. They hike often, eat organic, and organize workshops for students at the university to learn to fix their bikes. I was delighted to learn about the bike workshops - I really need to learn how to fix a flat!

Anyway, it didn't take long on the trail before I found myself breathless- literally & figuratively. Literally, I haven't exercised in two months so I'm totally out of shape and I was still stuffed up from my sinus infection so it was hard to breath. But it was the sight of my surroundings that took my breath away. I can't find the words to describe to you how beautiful it was. I was standing on a mountain, surrounded by massive trees, shimmering boulders, and vibrant colored wild flowers. To the east of where I was standing - the vast and glimmering Mediterranean sea - bright blue & crystal clear. The coastline, dotted with multicolored sailed boats, resembled a post-impressionist painting. Two the north of me - two massive stone towers that once served as fortresses. To the west of me, a chapel - Notre Dame de something. And to the south of me, maybe 200 meters away, the most spectacular white horse I have ever seen; it was standing serenely in the center of the mountain, snacking on wildflowers. I took photos, which I will upload and post as soon as I have the correct device to connect my camera. But the truth is that the photos don't come close to capturing the beauty and magnificence of the scene. It was powerful. I felt high! (and given the distance we climbed, I quite literally was)! Again, I caught myself wondering, is this real life?

During our descent, we made our way through the vinyards. Despite the harvest having ended, many of the vines still had grapes. I went to one of the vines and cut off a giant cluster. I popped a grape into my mouth. The result? An explosion of sweet, fruity goodness! It was the perfect afternoon snack. I laugh when I envision what the three of us looked like walking along that trail. Exhausted, sweaty, dusty - with huge smiles bearing purple-stained lips. Happy and carefree, skipping and singing and letting the juice drip down our face. At one point, an older couple passed us, and the woman asked if it was a good idea to eat the grapes off the vine like that - "there might be preservatives" she warned. We looked at one another, giggled and skipped on.

We finally made it to the town of Collioure. First thing we did was empty our backpacks of the litter and plastic we'd collected on the trail (Etienne is a big environmentalist, and he believes that if everyone picks up a little more garbage than they bring in, the result will be a cleaner and healthier planet). Then we made our way to the beach. It was evening, but the temperature was still warm (maybe in the high 70s). Etienne put on his speedo & snorkeling equipment and went for a dip in the sea. Ginette took a nap on the sand. And I just stood, once again stupefied by the sheer beauty of the scene before me. Something about this beach was magical. It felt like something out of a story book - and more precisely - a fairy tale. Perhaps I owe that impression to the Royal Castle situated beside me. Or maybe it was the little girls in front of me pretending to cast magic spells. Perhaps it was simply the magnificence of the sun setting over the water that took hold of me. Whatever it was, it was powerful. It did not feel real. And yet it was. It was magical AND I was there living it.

Between the sand and the water, there were many small stones. I wanted to find a heart shaped one to send home to my mom. As I looked through the sand, I felt called to pick up certain stones, and when I did, I had the bizarre impression that the stones were talking to me. I know you think I'm crazy, but at least hear me out. So I had the impression that the stones had something to tell me. And while they didn't speak in the traditional sense, here is what I understood:

I (the rock), like you, traveled a long way to get here. My journey began long ago, in a far away place. When I began my journey, I didn't know where I would end up, or how I would get there. I simply knew that the wind and the waves would take me where I needed to go. Throughout my long journey, I have gained a lot of wisdom. It was not always easy. Trust me, I watch a lot of boats go by, and there is no such thing as 'smooth sailing' 100 percent of the time. I have been carried away by strong currents, and I've experienced terrible storms. When I washed up on this shore, I looked and felt very different from when I started my journey - luckily I'm smoother around the edges now. And while it may seem boring or lonely to you - my life here as a rock - I swear to you I am so lucky. I get to bear witness to many a magical moment. Be it a sunset, a kiss shared between lovers, or children building sandcastles. I am an observer. I feel very lucky to be one. And so are you.

It made perfect sense. Whether the rock had truly imparted wisdom onto me, or I had this realization on my own and attributed it to magic rocks, I honestly don't care. I loved the message. I felt reassured of my journey. Some people might feel anxious or uncomfortable at the thought of being 'alone'. I bet the rock isn't bothered being by itself - or rather with itself. Nor am I. I know that if I, like the rock did - let the wind and the waves (and my own intuition of course) steer me - I will not only gain wisdom but I will continue to experience magical moments...Magical moments, interesting people, lasting memories, enduring wisdom. I know and I knew that that's what my journey had in store. So when the sun went down, I went with Ginette & Etienne to get ice cream near the board walk, and then we said our goodbyes. We exchanged contact information, and I assured them that I'd see them at the bike workshop.

After saying goodbye to my new friends, I walked along the cobblestone streets and into some of the little shops. I bought myself a scarf and a beach hat from one shop. Then I went into a wine store to see what I could find from the region. Two backpackers came in after me. I had my eye on a bottle of red from a chateaux in Collioure. The multicolored label is what caught my eye. As I picked it up to look at it more closely, one of the backpackers spoke: "That one's really good - we tried it last night at the restaurant". Boom. Beginning of a 20 minute conversation in the wine shop. It turns out these two guys (who I would guess are between 23 & 25) just finished the Grande Randonnée 10 - a trail that traverses the Pyrénées from the western coast to the eastern coast. It took them over 2 months of hiking and camping. WOW. They said it was a life-changing experience. I felt embarassed to tell them that I hope to do a 10 day hike across the Pyrénées, but they were incredibly encouraging. They asked what I was doing in France and complemented my French. I could have gone on talking to them all night, but I had a feeling the shop keeper was getting annoyed with us so I bought the bottle of wine, said goodbye, and left.

I had no idea when the next train was, so I wandered back to the station leisurely. A train arrived 2 minutes after I got onto the platform. Perfect timing! One stop after Collioure, the doors opened and the train car was innondated with middle school boys dressed in identical uniforms. Boyscouts! They had hiking boots and backpacks on; they chatted excitedly with one another about their recent adventure. By talking to two of the boys next to me, I learned that they had just finished a 3-day hiking/camping trip on the same trail as the young men from earlier.One boy said it was really difficult, and the other boy said it was exhausting but incredibly rewarding at the same time. They were cute kids.

When I arrived back to my room in Perpignan - after a shower and dinner of course - I unpacked my backpack. In one pocket, I found some stones that I had taken from the beach. Remembering what they'd taught me, I knew I had another adventure ahead of me. Tomorrow morning, I thought. Not sure where I was headed, I packed a backpack: pajama pants, a raincoat, a fleece, my mini umbrella, a headlamp, a swiss army knife, toiletries, a travel sheet, pillow & blanket, a travel towel, a novel, my journal, my wallet, and my phone. The next morning at 7 am, I got out of bed, got dressed, and rode my bike to the train station. I walked up to the ticket machine. Tapped 'immediate departures'. Where will I go? CARCASSONNE caught my eye. About two and I half hours on the train, with a changeover in Narbonne. DONE. I still had my bike with me.Where could I lock it that it would be safe for a few days? Than it hit me - my bike (who's name is 'Omar' by the way) would come with me to Carcassonne.

I had some time in Narbonne before my next train, so I used that time to figure out where I would spend the night. is a great site that I highly recommend. Anyway, I found a place slightly outside of Carcassonne that got excellent ratings. I decided to call. A British woman - whom I later learned is named Tracy - answered the phone. Thankfully, they had beds available, so I made a reservation. Tracy asked me how I was going to get there, and I told her by bike from Carcassonne. She gave me detailed instructions for the route, which she than texted to me as soon as we got off the phone. I had a really good feeling about this place - SIDSMUMS - as it was called.

I arrived at the station in Carcassonne around 11 am. I wasn't rushed to get to the lodge (I had no plans afterall), so I decided to wander into the center of town. I found myself in the heart of the open air market. Remembering that the lodge had a large kitchen where guests could prepare their own meals, I decided to buy some fresh ingredients: apples, grapes, clementines, cucumber, tomatoes, brussel sprouts, beets, lettuce, onion, cage-free eggs and gluten free bread. I stopped at the super market for some beans and milk. Now I was set to go!

Right as I was getting ready to leave the main square, I spotted some guys walking around in t-shirts that read 'Action Contre La Faim' (Action Against Hunger). About a week earlier, one of those guys (Julien) had stopped me on the street in Perpignan, trying to sell me on the cause and get me to donate. I didn't donate, but we had a nice conversation anyway. The following day, another Action Contre La Faim guy (also named Julien) stopped me, and I told him I already spoke to the other Julien. Then the other Julien appeared, we said hello, embraced as the french do, and said goodbye. So naturally I found it funny to run into them a third time unexpectedly, but now in a completely different city! I walked up to Julien #1, who I could easily recognize at this point. We spoke for a few moments and agreed to meet up during his lunch break. To make a long story short, I had a very nice lunch with Julien and the rest of his team. We got along well, and it was fun to spend some time with people my own age.

The team invited me to stay with them in their villas that the organization was renting for them, 20 minutes outside of Carcassonne in a village called Caune-Minervois (which I learned makes amazing wine!). I called Tracy to let her know I'd be arriving a day later than expected. I then spend the day exploring Carcassonne La Cité (the medieval city and fortress in Carcassonne that was restored by the same architect that restored Notre Dame in Paris). In the evening, I met up with my new friends and we drove to Caune-Minervois, where we cooked dinner, drank the regional wine, and stayed up late chatting about everything from non-profits and politics to movies and food.

The next morning, the team headed off to Narbonne and I back to Carcassonne. I hiked along the river and whenever I felt like it, I stopped to read or write in my journal. In the early evening, I finally went to SIDSMUMS. It was everything I expected and more. It had all the charm that you would expect from a vacation home in the French countryside. It was located in a tiny village with a post office, a boulangerie, a church, and one restaurant. It was surrounded by vinyards. The lodge itself consisted of a house with three bedrooms (each containing several beds), several bathrooms, a large kitchen and dining room, and a living room (filled with travel guides, novels and boardgames). Outside the house was a rather large garden, with hammocks and patio furniture like reclining chairs and picnic tables. There were also four log cabins that are used to house guests in the summer months.

Tracy & her husband Peter were among the nicest strangers I've ever met. Within the span of 10 minutes, they felt like close family friends (actually, I think they reminded me of Susan & Eric F-H). I could not believe how accomodating they were for their guests. They were continually shuttling people in and out of Carcassonne in their old vans (since it was a little bit of a hike to get there without a car). When I mentioned my interest in hiking or biking along the Canal du Midi, Peter gave me his map and sat down with me to explain the route. They spoke to me about their children, about the other guests (that I would later get to meet), about my adventures in France. And one of the best parts of talking to them was getting to play with their little dog.

My night at SIDSMUMS, as you might have guessed, was just wonderful. I was sharing a room with two 22-year old Canadian english teaching assistants (doing the same program as me in different parts of France), and an older French woman named Michèle who is studying wine making. I exchanged contact information with the Canadians, and Michèle who took a liking to me invited me to visit her at her home in Nîmes. I also met three British guys who were working on building a vacation home in the village. But the most interesting person by far was Greg. An American from San Francisco originally, he just completed the "Freedom Trail", a 40-day hike (roughly) from Northern spain into the Pyrénées. He had a very interesting story to share, not only about his experience on the trail, but about his life otherwise. We exchanged words of wisdom and encouragement. He reminded me of my Omega Teen Camp friends, and I told him to look into Omega, although he's not interested in returning to the US anytime soon.

A good night's sleep at SIDSMUMS, and I woke up to the realisation that my fairy tale vacation would soon be coming to a close (like this blog entry need's to). A warm shower and two cups of coffee later, I was off. My backpack was bursting, not only with all the stuff I came with, but with 2 liters of water and all my leftovers from the market that I planned to make a picnic out of along the Canal du Midi. And out I rode. Past the vinyards. Into Carcassonne. Past the train station. I picked up the trail running along the canal. GORGEOUS. Real life? I don't know - it felt more like moving through a painting. A painting that captures all five of the senses. The vibrant reds & oranges of the trees, the crunch of the fallen leaves under my bike, the tickle of the breeze on my skin, the smell of wood burning in a distance. Autumn in the air. I couldn't envision a more perfect way to spend that moment. I rode for about two hours along the canal before stopping to picnic. I picked a nice sunny spot, overlooking the vinyards. I first set out everything I had, and then began to eat. I savored the fresh taste of local, organic food. I felt deeply grateful for that moment. I was able to clear my mind of all thoughts except for those relating to the present moment. That is rare for me. It was magical.

I took out my journal. Normally I wouldn't copy something from my journal onto a post, but I do want to share this. I wrote:

I am so grateful. This is exactly what I need at this point in my life. I am incredibly blessed to have this opportunity. And incredibly lucky to have family and friends who so selflessly support me in this endeavor. I hope they know how much I appreciate them letting me do this, as well as how good this has been for me. I also have a wish for all my friends and family, no matter how old or young they are. I wish that they would take the time to have a little adventure. Maybe even spend some time traveling on their own. Or doing something a little scary. I want them to discover the magic that exists out there!

As you can clearly see, it was a magical week for me. From hiking in the Pyrénées to the beach at Collioure to the medieval city to the vinyards and great local wine to the SIDSMUMS lodge to tiny villages to riding my bike along the Canal du Midi to eating local organic food to meeting awesome people to jumping on trains and going wherever I feel like to having nothing at all to worry about. I would call that magical. But I realized something on my journey back to Perpignan with the ever faithful Omar. Every moment has the potential to be magical if you allow it to be. There is no reason why life can't or shouldn't contain elements of fairy tale in it. Why not treat yourself like a princess or wear a tiara once in a while? (thanks to Lena for that inspired idea!). Why not take a longer, more scenic route to get home? Why not make spontaneous plans once a while, just because something strikes you as a good idea. I am not at all saying to be impulsive; rather, be more open to following your intuition and breaking from the familiar or comfortable. Channel your inner rock: be courageous, be strong, and let the wind and the waves carry you away.

 Breaking Surface by Mark Nepo

Let no one keep you from your journey,
no rabbi or priest, no mother
who wants you to dig for treasures
she misplaced, no father
who won't let one life be enough,
no lover who measures their worth
by what you might give up,
no voice that tells you in the night
it can't be done.
Let nothing dissuade you
from seeing what you see
or feeling the winds that make you
want to dance alone
or go where no one
has yet to go.
You are the only explorer.
Your heart, the unreadable compass.
Your soul, the shore of a promise
too great to be ignored.