Thursday, December 26, 2013

La Joie

Merry Christmas everyone! My gift to you all is a new post! 

Now I know some of you were slightly worried after reading my last blog post on 'le temps'. I certainly 
Fake snow in Perpignan

appreciated all of the calls and emails I received from friends and family checking in on me. Well I'm here to reassure you that everything is GREAT, for just after my last post, fair weather returned Perpignan (literally and figuratively).

Michael getting roasted chestnuts

Nearly every day for the past two weeks has been 60°F and sunny. Sorry Chicago, but the closest we have gotten to snow on the ground in Perpignan is the fake snow surrounding the nativity scene. Still, the warm weather hasn't prevented anyone from getting in the holiday spirit. People may be jacketless, but they are still enjoying vin chaud & marrons chauds (roasted chestnuts). 

Marine & Santa

The Castillet (mini castle) and all the trees surrounding it are beautifully lit up. An ice arena has been set up behind the Castillet for all the kiddos in Perpignan to enjoy. Two weeks ago on Saturday, I brought the young girl I mentor there to skate and see a performance.

Afterwards, we took a nice stroll around the center of town. We passed Christmas markets, kids rides & games; cotton candy stands, Santas on Christmas floats, donkey rides, traditional Catalan dance troupes, and live nativity scenes.

Traditional Catalan Christmas dance
Castillet decorated for Christmas

Live Nativity Scene

Getting festive for the holidays

I was inspired to get in the holiday spirit. This meant:

1) Decorating my room for the occasion.
2) Sending out hand-written notes and greeting cards.
3) Going to the Cemoi chocolate factory (where my friends Marine & Camille work) and spending nearly ten percent of my montly stipend on chocolate for friends and colleagues.
4) CRAFTING! (my gifts to my colleagues were handmade cardboad ornaments with inspirational quotes about teaching & a little poem).

 My purchases from Cemoi Chocolate Factory

Holiday apératif with AFEV
In the time that I wasn't working, running errands, or home crafting, I was hanging with friends or attending holiday gatherings! AFEV, a non-profit that I volunteer with, organized a soirée, which included a white elephant gift exchange. The organization's mission is to combat educational inequality in low-income French neighborhoods, by pairing university student mentors with at-risk youth. What I love about the AFEV soirées is that it provides me with an opportunity to meet other young people who share similar values. We get to discuss issues that are important to us over wine and hors d'oeuvres. I've also made some good friends through my involvement with the organisation.

My friend Bahet and I unknowingly chose each other's white
 elephant gifts. I received tea and she received tea cookies.
Great minds think alike?

 I also attended a holiday potluck hosted by Espace Créa-Harmonie (the yoga studio I attend in Perpignan). Despite having had the stomach flu and not being able to stuff my face as much as I would have liked with all the gourmet food, I had a truly beautiful evening. I'm having trouble finding the right word to describe the wonderful feeling I was experiencing in that moment...but I think it was...JOY. And I can't really pinpoint why I felt that way. Was it the scent of creme brulée and chocolate lava cake wafting in the air? Was it the gorgeous alter? The live music? Certainly, it was a combination of everything. But without a doubt, the biggest factor was being in the company of so many kind, compassionate, mindful, and joyful (joyeux) individuals. We laughed, we sang, we danced, we ohmed...we lost track of time. It was after 1 am when we started to clean up. I had no desire to leave. When I got home, I felt high on life. I didn't want to get off the joy ride.

Holiday party at Espace Créa-Harmonie

Luckily, I didn't have to. The following day, I went with my friends Marine & Camille to a farm just outside of Perpignan. The official purpose of the journey was to do mounted archery (shooting bow & arrow on horseback), although Marine was the only one who actually tried it in the end. Most of the time we were there, we simply walked through the fields. We skipped, sang disney songs, climbed trees, and simply delighted in the beauty of the countryside.

I felt like a child. The moment was so simple and yet I felt so much joy! I felt grateful to have a healthy body, a beautiful planet, and good friends. It was a good reminder that to be happy, we don't necessarily need everything we think we do.

The Joyride continued. This past weekend, my friend Michael (another Fulbrighter) came to visit me from Montpellier. Saturday night we went out for the best Tapas & Sangria in Perpignan. My friend/colleague Amel joined us for the Tapas and the electro/dubstep "concert" that we went to afterwards. We hated the music, but we still had fun joking and laughing about how "old" we felt, while trying to avoid any student encounters.

On Sunday morning, Michael and I woke up early to head to the mountains for a day of snowshoeing. My friend Paola (who I had met a week prior at the Créa-Harmonie holiday party) organized the entire outing. For 1€, we took a bus that got us to the ski resort in two hours. Having only slept 4 hours the night before, Michael & I crashed during the ride.

Once we arrived, we had a slow start. Coffee & croissants to wake us up. Getting to the trail. Putting on our gear. Stripping off our layers because when the sun came out, it must have been 60 degrees.

But once we finally got moving, we had so much fun! Despite the warmth, there was plenty of snow on the mountain. At one point, we missed a turn on the trail, so we ended up trekking through fresh powder which was an awesome little adventure. And the was too beautiful for words or pictures to do it justice (It didn't stop me from trying to capture it on film though - see pictures below). Before heading back to base, we stopped for a picnic lunch on the mountain. Each person brought some kind of dessert (cookies, chocolate, cake, fruit) to share. It's France, so you are sure to eat well.


The following day, Michael & I spent the morning touring Perpignan. In the afternoon, I brought him to Collioure (the magical beach I talk about in one of my earlier posts). It was as breathtaking as always. Michael was in awe of the beauty and I was delighted at the chance to visit the sea again.


After a super weekend with Michael, he returned to Montpellier and I went to Amel's house to celebrate Christmas Eve. Amel lives in a smaller town just outside of Perpignan. They have a huge garden where they grow their own fruits & vegetables. Their back yard is made up of miles of open fields, and a large body of water, which is the home of some pink flamingos. Anyway, Amel was kind enough to invite me to join her family for Christmas Eve dinner and to spend the night after. To say Amel is a gourmet cook is far from an exaggeration. After appetizers in the living room, we moved on to a 5 course dinner with wine pairings, which was truly unforgetable. 

The Menu:

1/ Seared scallops
2/ Foie gras with onion & fig confit
3/ Kangaroo meat, bacon-wrapped green beans, winter vegetable medley & potatoes au gratin

4/ Rasberry mousse Bûche de Noël, homemade rasberry sorbet & "opera" pastry
5/ Dried fruits, clementines & christmas Cookies

After dinner, Amel's sons (3 & 5 years old) went to their room to rehearse a spectacle they were going to present. While they were rehearsing, Santa passed through (although nobody saw him come - he's a sneaky one that Santa). The rest of the evening consisted of opening presents, playing, and talking. The next morning, we all went for a walk through their enormous "back yard". I loved getting to spend time with the little boys, who are beyond adorable, not to mention intelligent and strong for their age.

As I walked hand in hand with the kids, the feeling of joy overtook me once again. It was Christmas. A holiday that I have never really celebrated nor one that I have ever really understood. Well I think for the first time I really get what it's about. For secular people it's not about Jesus. It's not about the gifts, nor is it really about the food. In my opinion, it's about Joy. Joy. Joy. Joy is not something you have. It's not something you get. It's something you create. You create it by laughing, by singing, by connecting with your inner child. By finding beauty in the simplest things. By taking the time to be fully present. However, the most effective way to create joy is through generosity. When you do something for someone else - whether it be as simple as smiling at them, listening to them, teaching them something, writing a note - you warm their heart, and you also warm your own.

So in case you haven't had enough joy this holiday season, I'm going to give you an opportunity to create some more.

As some of you may know, I am the co-founder of a non-profit organization called Supplies for Dreams

We founded this organization upon the belief that quality education is the foundation for a strong, healthy and prosperous society. In my home city of Chicago, many of the children come from families that struggle to put food on the table, much less provide school supplies or healthy learning environments for their children. Some are homeless, others come from broken families, or have lost friends or family members to gun violence. They face challenges that many of us cannot even imagine – and they deserve better.

Supplies for Dreams is fighting to create equal opportunities for students in Chicago by providing school supplies, mentorship and extracurricular activities. I'd like to ask you to consider making a donation this holiday season - even $5 makes a significant difference, not to mention all the joy you'll experience knowing that you've helped a child in need! Thank you in advance for anything you can afford to contribute! (And I promise, this is the only time I will ever advertise on my blog - thanks for reading!)

Well I'm off to Rome to celebrate the New Year! I'll give you an update when I get back! Happy holidays!

Peace. Love. Joy.


Saturday, December 14, 2013


Many people have been asking about the month long pause since the time of my last post. I had to check to verify that it's really been a month - yup, November 15th was the date of my last post. It certainly doesn't feel like it's been a month. Time flies, or as we say in French, "le temps passe vite". I wish I could say that with my emploi du temps charge (my busy schedule), I just haven't had time to write. Even though I'm much busier now than before, I've had plenty of free time to write over the past month. And to be honest, I've known exactly what I was going to write about for the past three weeks. All I had to do was retype bits from my journal into this blog. But something was holding me back. I wasn't ready to share. So I'm truly sorry about the wait. Voilà.

The last time you heard from me, it was November, about a week and a half before Thanksgiving. And now it's a week and a half before Christmas. This time of year  is quite particular for a number of reasons. First of all, the weather seems to change all at once. One day the trees are covered with multicolored leaves and the next thing you know, they are bare. Chicago usually gets its first snowfall at this time of year. Perpignan experienced three days of heavy rains, followed by powerful winds that carried a cold front into the city. I was well aware that the 75° beach weather wasn't going to last through the winter, but still, it wasn't a welcome change. Luckily it only snowed up in the mountains (which are quite a spectacular sight, I must say). Anyway, there is something about the transition from Autumn to Winter that can leave some people

Then there's the fact that the holidays are approaching. The 'holiday season' evokes different sentiments - positive, negative or mixed - depending on who you are and what your story is. Some people bubble with excitement, while others stress about preparations or anticipate family problems. Some people are flooded with old memories. But all that aside, this time of year tends stir up feelings of homesickness for people living abroad (or anyone not coming home for the holidays).Now, I've been incredibly spoiled: for the past three years, I've gotten to spend either Thanksgiving or Christmas in Paris with Hiro. It's a beautiful city all year round, but when the holiday lights go up (in mid-november), it's truly magical.

This year, Hiro brought his mother and brother along. We did far more in two days than you could imagine! I won't list everything, but here were some highlights: Visiting the Palace of Versaille, dining at Le Comptoir du Relais (which Hiro has been talking about doing for two years), watching the Eiffel Tower light up at night, strolling along Rue Mouffetard, and visiting all the best chocolateries in Paris. 

Classy, right? Full disclosure: at times we behaved much more like children than the "sophisticated adults" that we are. How? Here are some examples: (1) arguing with Hiro about the pronunciation of the word "quartier" (I won the argument!), (2) immitating the Africans selling "1euro" Eiffel Tower keychains on the street, (3) cracking up about the shit (in the literal sense) on the bathroom floor, and (4) doing aerobics in front of the Eiffel Tower to keep warm. Ironically, these were the scenes on replay in my mind when I returned from my brief holiday. Forget the Hall of Mirrors, the Pantheon, and the fine works of art we saw. The slightest reminder of our conneries caused my chest to tighten and a tear to well up in my eye. Humans are weird that way I guess. I don't know why or how nostalgia works, but as I was thinking about it, I was reminded of a scene from Madmen where Don Draper explains:

 Nostalgia - it's delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, "nostalgia" literally means "the pain from an old wound." It's a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn't a spaceship, it's a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards... it takes us to a place where we ache to go a place where we know are loved. 
Well that explains it! It explains how I could be having the time of my life with the love of my life in Paris, and still be missing my family's Thanksgiving meal. It explains why the day Hiro left Paris and I had the whole day to do whatever I wanted in the city, I choose to distract myself by drinking Kir Pêche and watching the Hunger Games. It explains why people and places I took for granted back home suddenly seem so much more meaningful (let's not talk about how I cried a little when watching Ferris Bueller's Day Off with my students). It explains (partially) why the pumpkin pie I baked and brought to the teacher's lounge the week of Thanksgiving was best damn pie I've had in my life (the other reason being that I'm a gifted pastry chef (If Sodara reads this, j'aime bien le cuisson au four)). Anyway, everyone at school loved my tarte à la citrouille!!!  

Bref, according to Don Draper, nostalgia is a "time machine". I agree. The slightest triggers - particular sights, sounds or music, odors, sensations - can carry us away to a different time or place. It's complicated because here you are, having this incredible and unique experience (in stores for a limited time only) in a different country, yet part of you longs for home - for the people and places you love. So how to you balance your feelings of nostalgia and missing home with your desire to be fully present in the here and now? Like I said, it's complicated.

My first reaction to these feelings was denial. You're fine Aria. You're having the time of your life - you can't possibly be homesick. Unfortunately denial only worked for so long - I was forced to confront my feelings. Which brought on more feelings - namely guilt. You're the one who chose to come here - nobody forced you. Are you ungrateful or something? You can't have your cake and eat it too, unless you're Marie Antoinette and she wound up without her head. But feeling guilty only clouded my mind and pulled me further out of the present. I was in a fix. Denial didn't work. Guilt didn't work. Then I had a revelation: what if I gave myself permission to feel whatever I was feeling? Without judgment or attachment. Maybe all I needed was some time. Afterall, I have plenty of it. What was the rush to overcome my bout of homesickness? Isn't it natural to feel a bit homesick at times when you're living in a foreign country? I knew it would be part of the deal when I signed up for this. In fact, if I thought "a year abroad" was going to be easy all the time, I don't think I'd have been interested. So I decided I would give my emotions time and space to exist, instead of trying to drive them away.That didn't mean I was going to mope around and be a depressive. Definitely not. If you know me well, you know I love creating lists and plans. It shouldn't surprise you that I made a homesickness relief plan, found below:

Aria's Homesickness Relief Plan
  1. Practice yoga and meditation daily
  2. Put on a fuzzy sweater & wool socks
  3. Start a good new book (and read under the covers)
  4. Rent and watch a couple of feel good movies (I finally got a library card, so I can borrow all the DVDs I want)
  5. Drink chamomile tea
  6. Indulge in extra dark chocolate
  7. Track down a Starbucks (or the closest thing to it - in Perpignan, it's Colombia Café)
  8. Grab a drink or a meal with friends
  9. Clean and do laundry (I don't know why, but this one always works!)
  10. Write postcards
  11. Listen to music
  12. Burn incense
  13. Do a craft project
  14. Take a long walk or go on a long bikeride - just breathe fresh air
  15. Notice the changes happening in nature 
  16. Make someone laugh or smile
  17. Hug someone
  18. Get organized - really organized
  19. Give 110% at your job
  20. Skype with family and friends; tell them how much you miss them 

So I spent the last three weeks executing items one through twenty on my plan, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I even felt grateful for the more difficult moments - without them my experience living abroad would be monotone and eventually boring. I'd rather live somewhere where there are four distinct seasons than somewhere where the climate is 75°F and sunny all year round, even if it means some cold and dreary weeks in the winter. After all with the latter, people become jaded. They come to expect nice weather all the time, so they don't appreciate it. In Chicago, the first day temperatures break 55°F, you see people outside in shorts! No - I could not live without the different seasons. Their changing colors, moods and elements keep things interesting. And I feel the same way about emotions. Hot and cold. Humid and dry. Sunny and gray. There is a time for everything. And luckily there is time for it all.


*The following poem was inspired by two of the themes explored in this post: time and weather. In French, the word temps means both time and weather. 

Il fait beau temps. Mais pas tout le temps.
De temps en temps, il fait mauvais temps. Même temps chiotte.
Quelquefois, les temps sont un peu durs. 
Et pendant ce temps-là, je cherche les passes-temps
Pour remplir mon emploi du temps,
Car je travaille à mi-temps
Et j'ai tout le temps, même quand je prends mon temps.
C'est étonnant que dans le temps, je n'avais pas le temps
Pas de temps d'arrêt, pas de temps de récupération
Pas de temps chômé, pas de temps libre.
Maintenant le temps écoule. J'ai peur qui ça passe trop vite.
Quel temps fait-il? Enfin, peu importe.
Que ça soit le temps couverts, chaud, affreux ou beau,
Au moins je vis en temps réel.

It is nice weather. But not all the time.
From time to time, it's bad weather. Even shitty weather.
Sometimes times are a little hard.
And during those times, I look for passtimes
To fill up my schedule
Because I work part time
And I have plenty of time, even when I take my time
It's astonishing that in the old days, I didn't have any time
No break time, no recovery time
No idle time, no free time.
Now time runs. I worry that it moves too fast.
What's the weather? You know, doesn't matter.
Whether it's overcast, hot, awful or beautiful,
At least I'm living in real time.