France

“You’ve got nothing to lose”

“You’ve got nothing to lose.” My father’s excellent pun, in reaction to my announcement that I was going to Toulouse this past June.

Every time work sends me to Paris, I tack on 1-2 weekends in Europe, to explore new cities on my bucket list. So of course, when I found out back in April that work would be sending me to Paris in June, I scouted cities to turn this into a proper bday workation. Top destination: Toulouse.

Now comes the tricky part. Why Toulouse? Well, it is a popular tourist destination and it is in Southern France, a geographical region I’ve oft heard of but never visited. But also? FroMan lives in Toulouse, so why not take this opportunity to check off a new city off my list and visit my new friend from Dubai?

For months, my brain had a field day.

Creeper! Stalker! He’s gonna find you weeeeird. He’ll probably avoid seeing you. Dubai was MONTHS ago. Yes yes, he improved your dancing, you felt safe enough for a major breakthrough in vulnerability. You are entitled to be grateful for that – though he likely was acting out of kindness to a lonely, stranded, socially awkward girl – but wtv. Why are you pushing this? Some stories are only meant to last 4 days. You’re just setting yourself up for humiliating disappointment. Remember that time a guy drove up from NYC just to see you? How freaked out you were, and how much of a trainwreck that whole episode was? HE LIVED ON THE SAME CONTINENT AS YOU. Extrapolate that across the Atlantic Ocean, if you want an idea of how pathetic FroMan will find you. Don’t do this.

Fuck you, brain.

I asked myself what I would do, if it were not for my fear of judgment. The answer was easy: go to Toulouse. I wanted to see that city, and I wanted the opportunity to see the person who unwittingly played a huge role in my newfound capacity for happiness on and off the dance floor.

2 weeks before getting on the plane, I messaged FroMan to advise him of my plans to visit his city and hoped he’d be free for a coffee/drinks/supper during the 3.5 days I’d be there. He was happy to hear from me, and suggested I consider attending a dance festival in Nîmes the following weekend. Just like that, my 2nd annual bday workation in France was all set. Easy-peasy.

Was it awkward? Yeah, definitely. He said a few comments that implied that my paranoid brain wasn’t so off. I had trouble talking to him; not from an absence of things to say, but from a paralyzing fear of being judged. To infrequent blog readers and real-life acquaintances I frequently come across as a high-strung overly-emotional drama queen with an excess of sensibility that talks about her feelings too much. Which isn’t wrong, precisely. But that easily gets interpreted as vulgar and self-indulgent.

But.

I had a great time. I spent my days exploring Toulouse alone, as that was always my stated purpose of this trip: its my favorite way to discover a new city. In the evenings FroMan took me dancing (#kizombalife) and invited me to supper with his friends, with whom I had so much fun they invited me to join them for supper the next day without FroMan. By the end of my 4 days, I was sure of one thing: he is a real friend. That certainty I felt in Dubai that he is a solid person & I ought to include him in my life, for good things are sure to follow? Still true. This trip merely allowed us to play catchup: Dubai gave us the connection, but the foundations of a real friendship were laid during this trip. By the time I saw him the following weekend in Nîmes, easy familiar banter had replaced the awkward silences of Toulouse.

You’ve got nothing to lose. Had I listened to my brain, and worried too much about perception, I would have never gone on this trip. And I would never have successfully turned a brief connection & handful of happy memories into a real friendship. Good people are hard to come by. It’s worth taking a risk or two, living through some momentary discomfort, to keep them in one’s life.

Especially when they live in as beautiful places as Toulouse. #chooseyourfriendswisely

 

P.S. 2 other instructors I’d met & adored in Dubai realized their visit to Paris would overlap mine for 1.5 days. They reached out to me, hoping we could meet up. Did I think it was weird, or suspect that their kindness towards me in Dubai had been only born of pity? No. I was delighted to hear from them, and it was with mutual regret that our schedules didn’t match up. Lesson learned: embrace and foster the healthy true connections I’m lucky enough to stumble upon. Those are the best gifts from the Universe.

 

 

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Maybe I need a selfie-stick?

Bc this is what happens when I try take a sexy selfie.


All of the puffy eyes and dark circles.

This workation to France (Toulouse/Paris/Nîmes) has been intense. My silence is caused by an excess of stories – some good, some bad, some very funny. Rather than say too much, I’m taking my time to work through my tangled jumble of thoughts and emotions; most of these stories merit serious consideration as to the appropriate degree of care, discretion and privacy required to avoid unnecessary drama and betrayal. I’ll resume posting upon my return to Montreal early this week.

However, lest you believe my silence is all bad, here are a few pics from this evening, my last on this trip. Nîmes, in the South of France has some of the best preserved ruins from the Roman Empire. Below, pics from Nimes’ Jardins des Plantes. These were take between 8-9pm. So bright!

 

Growing up in Canada, I always believed fans, of the handheld variety, to be decorations representative of a by-gone era. Imagine my surprise in Toulouse &Nîmes, seeing women AND men fanning themselves in the scorching, exhausting summer sun. Stores sell fans everywhere similar to how drugstore sell umbrellas in North America: the expectation is that people require one to survive the hot months.

I relied on my new fan quite heavily to survive my dancing nights in Nîmes.

Last but not least, my supper view:

It’s hard to write meaningful words when surrounded by such beauty.

Toulouse: too hot to handle

​​The first leg of my 2nd annual bday workation trip to France is drawing to an end. Toulouse has been great.

I had intended for this to be the sight-seeing leg of my trip, unlike Nîmes next weekend, where my stated purpose in going is to dance as many hours as possible within a 60-hour period. Yet despite myself, I’ve done quite a bit of dancing. I attended a 2 hour kizomba class, followed by a 6 hour dance social on Friday, the day I landed. And then yesterday, this happened:

Because why not have an outdoor salsa/bachata street festival in downtown Toulouse? Despite the heat (36C), the place was packed. I filmed that video at 7:30pm. Look at the vivid colors and sunshine! Incredible. The people were friendly, I danced as much as I could handle (poor little Canadian doesn’t understand how to survive in >25C weather). I thought I didn’t like salsa. Wrong, I love salsa. I thought I hated bachata. Wrong, bachata is fuuuuuun. I didn’t know a single person there, but I danced the day away, until I almost collapsed from exhaustion/dehydration/sun-stroke. Typical side-effects of sight-seeing, obvi.

I’m a fan of this approach: typically when I go on a sight-seeing only trip, I remain an outsider, peeking in. But by going dancing, I met a ton of Toulousains. Dance, talk, dance, listen to their musical southern French accents, dance, flirt. I got to meet ppl, which really gave an extra vibe to this beautiful city. I feel like I experienced Toulouse, instead of just seeing Toulouse. For someone who travels mostly alone, this was a nice discovery. Imma apply it to all my future trips.

 


Here are some pics of Toulouse. No filter, on any of them. The colors are so bright, the sky is so blue. What a lovely, sunshiney, beautiful city. And so hot! I had to go shopping twice for summer clothes – 1 pair of shorts (the only pair I own) was not enough!

 

Croissants: Swiss vs French

Here I am, at the Geneva airport, waiting to board my flight home to Montreal. My first trip of 2017: done.

A last minute request from head office brought me to Paris for work. I never knew it was possible to love a job/career/company as much as I do mine. Sure, there are aspects of it that drive me nuts, definitely there are some tasks that numb my soul, but what job doesn’t include that? Overall, I believe in what I do, respect my company, am thrilled by the coworkers I am meeting. This is good stuff.

I love work trips because they allow me to see past the perfect veil of tourist traveling. My favorite part is listening to my French coworkers as they sit for their déjeuner at the company cantine – their expressions, their topics of conversation, their customs, the nuances between France French and Québec French. Noticing the tiny differences between our cultures. I’m aware of how they differ from us, from all my interactions with the French immigrant population in Montreal – it’s the topics of memes and endless jokes. But it is jolting to become aware of how they deem that I (we) are different from them, when I am on their land. 

My love affair with France grows stronger with each visit. And with the backdrop of American turmoil shedding gloom over the world (I won’t even attempt to describe the pervasive mépris the French feel for Americans & American politics right now), walking the streets of Paris, seeing everywhere the juxtaposition of past and present, the scars of battles won and lost on buildings that are older than the entire North American continent (as per Western historical chronology) continues to make me feel that weird mix of sorrow and joy – I feel alive. This post from my trip in June resonates again and again.

I took the TGV Friday after work to go visit my friend in Lausanne for a mini weekend getaway. She is Canadian and was my coworker back in my audit days: I worked with her on several of my most intense mandates. I always admired her for her intelligence, beauty, drive and efficiency. 4.5 years ago, she moved to Switzerland to marry her Swiss-Canadian boyfriend; they now have a beautiful toddler, live in a house with a view of Lake Geneva and radiate happiness. While her first years in Switzerland were filled with homesickness, she now loves it. The fresh air, the quality of life, the absence of all the North American noise and consumerism. She says she has time to breathe and look around her.

And boy, oh boy, is there ever a lot to see.

With every visit to Europe, my Dream grows stronger: I will live here one day. I must. My soul demands it.

The best part of travelling is coming home

Regardless of the purpose of the trip or the duration of the flight, roughly one hour before landing, I begin to feel a bubble of happiness and excitement at the prospect of coming home that is greater than the excitement at the start of a trip, before the plane takes off. No matter whether I had a wonderful trip, like when I went to Beirut, or this time in France. I like my city, my country, my things, my peeps and my gym.

[Off topic, because I have ADD and writing the word “gym” made me think of this.

You guys. 10 days of French cuisine, and no exercise. I am plump. So satisfied and content, but without any doubt, I am definitely plump. I’m not too worried: losing weight will be easy when transitioning back to Mtl food – nothing will tempt me, so portion control will be easy. In North America, we don’t do bread. Not like the French do. I refuse to eat our bread ever again. Also? I won’t be drinking 3-6 glasses of wine per day, every day. I think my plumpness will settle itself pretty quickly. In the meantime, I feel like a camel, having stored up on the sensation of enjoying food long enough to last till my next trip. (You might suggest that I take up cooking, but let’s be realistic. That will NEVER happen.)]

I walked through places of beauty. Saw sites of incredible historical relevance. Museums with exhibits I can only dream of, coming from Montreal, displaying a breadth and depth of works of art that our museums cannot achieve. Watched what Parisiens consider to be a run-of-the-mill operatic performance, with singers that our Montreal Opera Symphonique de Montréal couldn’t afford to invite here to perform. It was incredible.

But I still was homesick.

What did I do on my first afternoon home? Hang out at one of the free neighbourhood pools, soaking up the sun, watching my friend’s pre-schooler flop about with her wee friends in the kiddie pool. And I was just as happy, if not happier, as when I was walking about France with the ghosts of kings past.

#notsobougieafterall

#itsthesimplethings


Still, let me share some pics from this trip (all of them taken with a simple iphone 6, using the filters available and editing options within).

View of Paris’s north shore, from the roof-top terrasse of the Musée d’Orsay. That green space = Jardins de Tuileries, and behind it on the hilltop is the Basilique de Sacré-Coeur

La Cathédrale de Notre-Dame is located on a wee island in the Seine called Ile de la Cité. When the weather is beautiful, Parisiens go down to the water and picnic on the ledge. What a view. City living at its best.

Reims. Located in Champagne country-side. Went for a tour of the Taittinger champagne house, and their caves where they store their champagne. Built on 4th century Roman caves and the foundations of a famous 13th century Abbey, that was destroyed during the French Revolution.

Strasbourg. Fairy tale scenery.

More Strasbourg fairy tale scenery. All of these pics are taken in their downtown core. Because #urbanplanningwin

No filter, because none needed. This area of Strasbourg is a Unesco World Heritage site, called la Petite France. Funny story, it was initially built in the 15th century to house soldiers returning from wars with syphilis. Most beautiful quarantine possible.

Not a vintage pic. I took it while on a boat tour. Strasbourg = a living anachronism.

This is where my work convention was hosted: a medieval French village in the countryside – the Domaine de Rebetz. NBD.

 

Bliss and bombs

Paradise is sitting on a bench in a cobblestone plaza, eating French pastry and sipping a café au lait, next to one of the most historic sites in France, la Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims.

Nutritious!

Ugly scaffolding


The scaffolding is an eyesore, yes? I was disappointed when I saw it, but having learned a bit more about the place, I think it is perfect.

The Cathedral is the site where all of France’s kings, dating back to the fifth century, were crowned in a sacred ceremony. Its cultural importance was so great that it was spared during the French Revolution, albeit temporarily repurposed as a hospital. It is embedded in the French collective identity.

Reims, being close to the German border, was bombed continuously throughout the 4 years of WWI. The Germans specifically targeted the Cathedral, attempting to grind it to dust, so as to break French moral. And they very nearly succeeded. The lead roof melted in fires, parts of the church collapsed, and 80% of the city core was levelled. My tour guide said that only 60 houses were still inhabitable after WWI; the others had been destroyed or needed to be demolished out of safety. That is why most of Reims has a modern (ugly) Art Deco look: despite being one of the oldest cities in France (existing before the Roman Empire), most of the city was rebuilt after the first war, in the 20s.

Which brings us back to the scaffolding on the Cathedral. The damage was so extensive, the restoration is still ongoing today. That’s right. 100 years later, the scars of that First World War are still visible in everyday French life.

That is why I love France so much. With every step I take, I feel the ghosts of the past walking with me. Every site is pregnant with joy and sorrow, beauty and horrors I can’t even imagine. 

France’s history is both glorious and ugly. That duality is what is so endearing, so very human. The ability to accept such complexity is what I miss the most, when I’m in North America: everything is black and white, good or bad, partisan and never non-partisan. We feel like immature spoiled children; something my grandfather (a WWII survivor) always said about locals, that our innocence and naivety sprang from a lack of suffering – life was too good in North America.

When I’m in France, my heart aches with joyful sorrow. I also feel hope, because here, in this country that has seen absolutely everything for 15 centuries, the best and the worst humanity has to offer, here I can believe in the resilience of mankind. More importantly, this country is proof that although as a species we are capable of great harm, destruction and hatred, and although the consequences of that behaviour lasts for generations, our capacity for beauty and love is greater and stands the test of time. 

100 years’ worth of restoration to heal the wounds of war… On a church that is 1500 years old and is still standing.

Vive la France!!!

Gargoyle removed from the Cathedral during restorations. The melted lead from the roof (due to the fires caused by the German bombs) flowed through all of the gargoyles, instead of rain drops. If y’all notice in the pic of the Cathedral, most of it is blackened? Those are the burns from the bombs. Most of the cathedral is black now.

C’est mon anniversaire, du coup!

So I was going to write this really long post about how this year, I’m filled with gratitude and joy on my birthday, instead of my usual dread/shame, or mere happiness. And that is true. I am. I don’t understand why I’m surrounded by so many good people, from acquaintances to blogging-friends to coworkers to close friends to family: my life is filled with funny, generous, smart individuals from all walks of life. No idea why these losers have had such a lapse in judgment as to like me, but hey! Nobody is perfect and it makes me SO happy. Toe-tappingly, goofy-grinningly happy.

OR that might be caused by all the champagne I drank today. Not sure.

Instead, let me brag about my amazing birthday so far.

Like Winnie-the-Pooh wisely advises , it is necessary to have a “little sometin'” to tide you over till supper


As I was walking down the street, happily enjoying my macarons snack, a French dude called out to me, “But watch out! You’ll get fat if you eat too many of those!”

Watch me, bro.

I then proceeded to have one of the most posh suppers ever:

Bougiest supper ever: kir royale, foie gras, boeuf tartare, biscuit rosé, strawberry gazpacho

Observe the happy tipsy bday smile #stillclassy


But was that enough? No! I wanted a 2nd dessert. I wandered about Reims at 11pm searching for the perfect sweet bite.

Macarons? Mille-feuille? Crème brûlée? Profiteroles? Any other French delicacy?

Nope. 

I had a Burger King chocolate sunday and it was AWESOME. #zeFrenchgaspedinhorreur

Tomorrow, imma finish the celebrations by going to a champagne winery (Taittinger), and doing an intense dégustation, bien sûr! I considered squeezing in two champagne tours, because I am not ashamed of being a lush on my 3rd 30th bday, but then I realized I’d miss out on seeing a famous palace, and I love indulging my princess side. So instead I’ll start off the day with a café crème and a fresh warm croissant, sitting on a cobblestone terrace.

Gratitude and joy are easier in France.

#socheesyyetsoblessed

#happy

#mypeepsaregoodpeople

#champagneismybae

#seriouslythoidontgetwhyihavesomanyawesomefriends #theyarethebest