Thursday, December 22, 2011

Day of the Dead, December Edition

For as long as I can remember, I've loved graveyards. Not in a creepy, let's-wear-black-lipstick-and-conjure-the-dead sort of way, but in a "Hey, it's verdant and peaceful here, and aren't these headstones interesting from a historical perspective?" sort of way. Over the years, I've picnicked in graveyards, French-kissed in graveyards, played impromptu games of hide-and-go-seek in graveyards, and shed tears over weather-worn words etched into the tombstones of strangers in graveyards. There's an odd sort of comfort and inspiration to be found in these places of final repose, and without fail, I find myself visiting them wherever I happen to be in the world.

Last weekend's bright, crisp, and not-too-cold conditions were ideal for a fresh-air outing, so we set off on a walk a couple of kilometers north, past the Parisian border and through the town of Clichy, then onward across the Seine as it twists through the suburbs to Asnieres-sur-Seine. Here, I was pretty sure, we'd find the pet cemetery I'd spotted on an Ile-de-France map months before. Sure enough, just across the Pont de Clichy, to the left, a grand, Art Nouveau entryway constructed of a luminescent blond stone led us to Le Cimitiere des Chiens.

Passing through the fanciful iron gates, we were greeted by a young man in a wooden kiosk whose crooked, graying teeth seemed perfectly suited to someone who works in a cemetery. The €3.50 entry fee took us by surprise, as did the fellow's generous gift of free entry when he learned we didn't have any cash. He welcomed us in, handed over a visitor's map, and issued a gentle warning to Fanny to be mindful of the cats who make the graveyard their home.

If I hadn't been so busy marveling at the hundreds of headstones decorated with loving, heartbreaking sentiments and sniffle-inducing portraits of pets passed, I'd have thoroughly examined the map and discovered that the famous French film star Rin Tin Tin is buried here, as is celebrated 19e century journalist/feminist Marguerite Durand's horse. Instead, I found myself caught up in the heart-melting stories rendered in cold stone. There's Sophie, the little ebony poodle, whose human mom refers to her as "the child I never had."

And then there's Bunga, the bunny you could just tell had the world's softest fur, and who clearly had a special bond with his (her?) human.

I liked Barry's headstone, too, because it made me consider the naming choices we make for our animals. Why do some get human(ish) names, and others get called Bunga?

These epitaphs and their accompanying photos reminded me of all the animals I have loved and lost in my life: Mitzi, the old cat with the shriveled ear and wire in her leg, adopted when we first moved to San Francisco, now buried in the backyard of our old apartment on Golden Gate Avenue; Josephina, the ultra-sensitive 8-year-old Chinese Crested I brought home out of pity, knowing most people weren't going to gravitate toward the middle-aged dog with the hairless body covered in pimples; Ratty, the neglected rodent my friend Anthony rescued from a rotten roommate, so anti-social that he literally bit every hand that fed him; and Fidget, another SF/SPCA adoptee, whose hackles sprang to life, porcupine style, at the sight of most other dogs, but who loved her humans unconditionally. I miss them all so much, and cherish those memories. Always will.

That, I think, is what makes a graveyard not a lonely, dark, and cold place, but a place that radiates comfort and warmth; it's the memories they harbor, and the feelings that are resurrected when we loved ones come to visit. Sometimes those feelings are sad ones, but just as often they are happy, funny, uplifting ones.

In the springtime, I'll make a trip back here. I'll pack a picnic lunch, and maybe even some cat treats for the resident felines. Then I'll unhinge the floodgates of memory, and let my thoughts linger on the fun times, and especially on all that love I've been lucky enough to share with so many furry and not-so-furry critters over the years. And, if Fanny's game, we'll even play hide-and-go-seek among the headstones.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Saying Sari

Scenes from a bus stop

Gomathi and I met exactly two weeks ago during a sudden, violent rain storm in Vadapalani, a western suburb of Chennai, India. With a quick wave of her hand, she invited me to take shelter beneath the canopy of her giant beige umbrella. I gratefully responded by leaping to join her and offering up my most gracious smile. Together, we two strangers braved the tropical mid-morning downpour, standing silent amid the raucous rat-a-tat-tat of raindrops and ear-piercing cacophony of car horns.

When our smoke-belching bus finally rumbled up, Gomathi motioned for me to follow close behind her; I took her lead as she wedged through the other damp bodies boarding the bus and found us a spot to sit near the back. Within five minutes--with her limited English and my non-existent Tamil--I learned that she was 38 years old, married, and making her thrice-weekly trip to the big city to visit a fertility specialist. She and her husband, Ravi, wanted to add to their family, and after six years of trying to procreate the old-fashioned way, they decided to give high technology a whirl.

Interesting, I thought to myself. She goes to the the same fertility clinic my friends had been encouraging me to visit! What are the odds of that?

As we sped southward down the ECR toward Mahaballipuram (me) and Thirukkalukundram (her), we shared bananas and swapped as much information as possible between two people who don't speak the same language. Toward the end of the journey, she said something I understood completely: "Come stay at my house!" My first thought was, OK: I've decided to take some risks on this trip--to try new things and be adventurous. So, why not? But then I remembered: the deadline.

"Oh, I'd love to. That's so nice of you to offer! But I can't. I have a writing deadline, and I need to send this story off to my editor before the end of the day tomorrow. Can I take a raincheck?!"

It seemed we'd reached an understanding, but as she spoke with her husband by phone, I heard her say "American" and "Mahaballipuram" and something that sounded a lot like "come pick us up." At my stop, she exited the bus with me and bought each of us a fresh green coconut from a roadside vendor. A few moments later, a fancy Toyota SUV with tinted windows pulled up, her husband at the wheel.

"Get in!" prompted Gomathi.

Apparently, we had successfully communicated, because as Ravi headed down the road toward their village, she spoke rapidly in Tamil and suddenly the car was pointed in the opposite direction, heading toward the town I'd be calling home for the next few days. Along the way, we stopped at a restaurant and ate uttapam and sambar together. They insisted on paying.

"Are you sure you don't want to come stay with us? There's plenty of room," said Ravi.

I mustered up my most bummed-out facial expression and apologized for bringing my work on vacation with me, but explained that a deadline was a deadline.

"Well, you're always welcome at our house. Call anytime, whether it's later today, tomorrow, or next week. We'd love to have you over."

Wow! This was sort of overwhelming in a really wonderful way.

We said our goodbyes and I headed off, little black bag in hand, to find a guesthouse--hopefully one situated near an internet cafe where I could, actually, get some work done. I promised Gomathi and Ravi I'd visit, and I meant it. We decided on Sunday, two days away. I'd make the 17 kilometer journey south to Thirukkalukundram, and they'd meet me at the bus stand.

Instead of a bus, I took a rickety three-wheel rickshaw, and it was the right choice. For the next half-hour, the driver regaled me with stories about his busty ex-wife, how he's still angry with her for leaving, and how he longs for the days when he could nestle his head on her big ol' chest.

Tell me more!

Melting (in a good way) in the steamy backseat of a standard-issue yellow rickshaw

Pulling into the dusty temple town, the rickshaw driver offered up his cell phone to call Gomathi. Within five minutes, I was cushioned in the front seat of Ravi's SUV, headed toward their home for our much-anticipated lunch date. As we pulled up in front of their two-story house on a quiet street, A teenage girl ran out to greet us, calling out, "Hello, Daddy! Hello, Auntie!"

Auntie--OK. That's me. But Daddy? Wasn't Gomathi getting treated by a fertility doctor because she couldn't have kids? I'd wrongly assumed they were childless, but turns out 14-year-old Illakiyaa was desperate for a sibling--the main purpose for those thrice-weekly journeys to Chennai--but Ravi and Gomathi were definitely not childless.

Ravi, Gomathi, and Illakiyaa welcome me to their home and surprise me by being three instead of two!

Gomathi's across-the-street neighbors. Daughter Illakiyaa warned me that if we didn't make our hellos and goodbyes snappy, they'd start singing for us

The extended family, 15-and-younger edition

Their home was more like a compound; behind the main house were two smaller houses, and in total, 21 people share the entire space. The family consisted of sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, mothers, and a whole mess of children. I met them all, and failed miserably trying to first pronounce, then remember, their names, which were each polysyllabic and crammed with vowels that crashed together at unfamiliar angles. After introductions, I was invited to sit and watch their big-screen TV and eat sweets, which I've learned is the customary pre-meal starter. Next came a tour of the house, then a tour of the neighborhood, followed by a meal, which we shared while sitting cross-legged on the floor. In the Indian family-dining tradition, Gomathi waited until her husband finished eating, at which time she took his plate, finished what was left there, then, at last, served herself a fresh portion.

I wouldn't make a very good traditional Indian housewife, I thought, watching Gomathi scoop Ravi's leftovers into her mouth. Nope.

The final phase of the afternoon was spent upstairs in the bedroom that Illakiyaa, Gomathi, and Ravi all share (no wonder she can't get pregnant!), where mother and daughter stripped me of all my Western accoutrements and transformed me--physically, anyway--into a traditional Indian housewife.

Down came the hair, off came the dress, out came the earrings, and on went the necklace, sari, and jasmine garland tucked into my hair. Against my fervent protestations, they insisted I accept their gift, generously cooing and oohing about how nice I looked in my new outfit. I didn't have the heart to tell them I'd likely never be able to properly wrap that sari again, or that even if I did, that I really hadn't anyplace appropriate to wear it. But as they bid me farewell, they made me promise to return, and I knew then that, actually, there would be opportunities for me to give that sari another go.

I look forward to them.

Illakiyaa and her American Auntie, who wonders if she'll ever be able to wrap herself properly in that sari again

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Family Values

I had a friend who used to say to me, "You and me, we're family. Whatever happens, we'll always be family."

Back then, I thought I knew what "family" meant; that peculiar little word was a stand-in for all kinds of ideas, including "comfort," "security," "permanence," and especially "love." Not surprisingly, that relationship went sour, and unlike "real" family, who generally remain family forever whether you like it or not, this person has evaporated into the ether, and it's unlikely we'll ever meet again.

At roughly the same time the relationship with my family-facsimile was reaching its conclusion, a strange new, actual family member materialized from virtually nowhere. Turns out that, in addition to having a real-life younger brother, I also have a real-life older sister.

Our father, who art in heaven (or wherever you go when you die)

My mother was 20 and my father was 50 when I was born. The man who supplied half of my DNA had been married once before to a much younger woman, and that marriage produced a first daughter. She grew up in Southern California, not far from where I spent a good chunk of my childhood. She is the same age as my own mother.

We met in a fated fashion literally days before my move to Paris. For the last 20 years, we'd been living within 10 miles of each other, she in Marin county, where she and her husband, both psychologists, cohabitate with an old dog in a beautifully manicured home, and I in San Francisco, in a well-worn but lovable old Western Addition apartment shared with a dog and human partner.

Separated by decades and oceans, but sisters just the same.

After a brief email exchange followed by a phone call, then a face-to-face meeting, we packed in as much socializing and getting-to-know-each-othering as possible in the span of a few days, which was all I had to spare before cramming everything into a giant "to-go" container and setting off on our overseas adventure. Our time together was spent poring over old photos and artwork (our father was a painter), comparing personal histories, staring at each other's faces searching for resemblances, and trying to define the idea of "family" within the context of our newly formed shared experience.

Portrait of an artist as a young man

My sister and her husband came to Paris last week. It had been 15 years since their last visit here, and my sense was that they wanted to fall under the City of Light's fabled romantic spell a deux. Their temporary home was a fifth-floor walk-up in the thick of the Marais. Over seven days we shared several meals together, in restaurants and at our home in the dingy northwest of Paris, where we attempted to fortify our long-distance connection over Indian and Ethiopian food, and seal it tightly for safekeeping.

Yes, I dragged everyone to Chettinadu for my beloved thali

This relationship, like so many others that have been formed and broken over the years, feels tentative. Will our freshly soldered bond remain intact simply because we share some DNA and a mutual love of art and travel? Is our connection not susceptible to the same sorts of fissures, fractures, and even deaths that the standard-issue friendships are prone to?

What does "family" mean to you, and who falls under that sheltered definition?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Monsoon Wedding

In two short weeks, I'll be embarking on a long, 14-hour plane journey from Paris to Chennai, India. I'm delighted and terrified. Delighted because I'm going for a special occassion: a wedding. And not just any wedding, but a Hindu wedding; the groom is my favorite waiter at my favorite Paris restaurant. I (half-) jokingly say that if we ever move, what I'll miss most about Paris are the thalis at Chenninadu.

The terror part comes into play when I think about the sort of stamina one needs to travel in India. I'm not sure I'm as mentally or emotionally resilient as I was the last time I visited nearly 10 years ago. France is, for all its senseless, seemingly endless bureaucratic rigmarole and language- and culture-oriented challenges, a tame slice of Wonder bread in comparison to the colorful chaos of the subcontinent.

India used to be one of my favorite places to travel. I took my first trip in 1995 and it changed my life completely. Simply surviving the Air India flight seemed an accomplishment worth celebrating, but looking back, the entire experience was rather like going to boot camp or passing some other sort of endurance test. Yes! I conquered Delhi--it did NOT conquer me! And that little bus crash in Goa? I came out unscathed, right? In Varanasi, I did a slow slip-and-slide into the filthy (albeit holy) Ganges, but, by golly, I pulled myself out again, didn't I? And how about that langur monkey in Pushkar? Luckily, he didn't try to yank my hair out. ("That one's really got it out for me," I heard the woman in the room next say shakily, after said monkey reached a long arm out to give her tresses a good tug.) When that first trip was over, my self-esteem had blossomed like a lotus flower.

Dirty, beautiful, mysterious, delicious, warm, crowded, exhilarating--after five (?--I've lost count) visits, I can say with conviction that India is the most exciting country I've ever experienced. I now know to expect welcoming, smiling people, the possibility of wild animals sneaking into my bathroom at night (rodents, monkeys, lizard-beasts and anteater-type creatures have moseyed through my quarters in years past), and most surely a sore throat or lung-ache if I am to spend any time in one of the big cities.

Z--the nicest guy in the 10e and a happy groom-to-be

The last time we spoke with Z at the restaurant, he told us about his two-year plan, which begins with a wedding and ends with a baby. Sandwiched in between is an immigration-and-education process for his soon-to-be wife. After discussing Operation Baby 2013, Z asked a rather pointed question:

"Why don't you have children?"

"Well, we tried once, and it didn't work out, and we never really made a conscious effort after that. And besides, we're too old now," I said, not wanting to fully elaborate on the level of heartache a miscarriage can cause, or the fact that Jeff has never been keen on bringing kids into the world, or my fears of being a horrible parent.

"Oh, c'mon--technology can help you out!" replied Z. "I have relatives who've gone the high-tech route, and now they have children. There's hope for you!"

"Yeah, I don't know," I responded sheepishly.

"Nonsense! I'm going to talk to my cousin about getting you an appointment to see a fertility specialist when you're in Chennai."

Oh, god. Really? And why am I not saying "no" and instead, nodding my head "OK"?

Outside Chettindu the morning of la Fete du Ganesh

Two days ago, Z called me. He's arranged an appointment for me to see a doctor on the 5th of November in Chennai, smack in the middle of the northeast monsoon season. I'm still surprised by my lack of courage--courage to decline his kind offer when there was still time to back out without much fuss, and courage to tell him I was really hoping to be on train headed to Kerala on that day. Could it be, deep down, that a child is something I'm still open to considering?

Well, if anything, I suppose the journalist in me is curious to see how the medical system has improved (or hasn't) since getting horribly feverish and verge-of-death-y in Rishikesh one year. Seeking pain relief and comfort, I crawled my way into a pay-what-you-can clinic where a doctor looked at me briefly and determined I had "allergies" before sending me on my way with a Tylenol facsimile. I'm guessing this next experience will be an improvement. Photos and first-hand reporting to follow!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Cade, Cats, and Camaraderie

One lesson learned while living in France is that nothing is permanent. From simple things like the weather (why, oh, why won't it stay sunny and warm for more than 48 hours at a stretch?) to more complex matters that include personal relationships, everything, apparently, is transient. Get used to it. (No! Well, OK; I'm trying.) If anything, accepting this truth has been good for cultivating coping mechanisms for those all-too-frequent existential crises. Which is why it's fitting that, just as I'm beginning to feel settled here, the friends I consider to be more than merely good ones are hatching their escape plans.

They're each planning to leave France for different reasons; Lee, a dog-walking client turned entertainment-outing friend, is in the fortunate position of being a stay-at-home husband of sorts to his partner, Nick. They're both Australian, both very intelligent, and possibly because we're all products of 1980s upbringings, our life experiences overlap on multiple levels. This makes for good conversation punctuated by Kylie Minogue jokes and explosive laughter. The fact that Lee's a vegetarian doesn't hurt, either. But Lee and Nick are set to move back to Australia soon, after Nick's current work contract expires. They have no desire to return to Sydney, but it's looking more and more like they'll be leaving before year's end.

is another friend who's shipping off to potentially greener shores. She's already made one huge move from Finland to France, where she's lived for the last nine years, but early next month, she and her French husband are moving to Quebec City, Canada. Sight unseen. On a whim. What kookiness! What bravery! Don't leave! So, when Susa invited me to spend one last bonding weekend with her in the sunny south of France (at her belle-mere's roomy house on a hill in a quiet suburb, with easy access to the Mediterranean and my own bedroom), there was only one way I could possibly respond: Hell, yes! When do we leave?

Chez Bernard, on a quiet hill 10 minutes from the super salty Mediterranean sea

Bright, cheery, and likely very delicious beans at the Saturday marche in Toulon

Outdoor sculpture on a rocky Mediterranean outcropping

Cicada-shaped sweets in a chocolatier's window

Falafel, frites, and friends at the harbor (and yachts)

Why yes, that does say "Jeggings." What a relief to know it's the same in French and in English.

La Finnoise et le Francais

Just what, exactly, do "dicksongs" sound like, I wonder?

A corner saint, illuminated

Toulon architecture

Big-eyed kitty kitty

Big-ass croissants (those are standard issue pastries on the right)

What better place to realize the need to work on my posture than at the brilliantly blue Mediterranean?

A pale princess with swirly kookoo eyes

I want to stay here forever and ever and ever, swimming and sunning. Really.

Still-life with oranges.

Another cinematic sunset at la plage

Now, Susa--as you might notice--is a very slender girl. She's got her issues and she's working through them, but it's a process and to ensure success, she's taking her time. I, on the other hand, am a manic eating machine, known to Hoover up anything and everything that didn't originate in the animal kingdom. Toulon was a good place to exercise my glutton muscles. Why? In a word, cade.

I didn't know that Toulon has its own version of that Nicoise delicacy known as socca. In Toulon, they call it cade. In other parts of the Mediterranean, it's called farinada, and in Tuscany, it goes by cecina. By any name, this omelety sort of snack food has its origins in Italy, and historically was the food of the peasant class. Today, it's a still a cheap and delicious staple one could easily build each and every meal around, and fortunate for me, the ingredients are both vegan and unbelievably simple: Chick-pea flour, water, olive oil and salt.

At the Saturday open-air market in central Toulon, I happily stumbled upon a stand selling cade for €1.30 a serving. Like the socca I first tried in Nice with my friend Jen last February when doing research for my book, cade is cooked in a large, circular pan, and served with just a dusting of pepper or cumin powder. The major difference between the two treats is that socca is crepe-thin, while cade is the thickness of a waffle or very thick pancake.

Special, indeed

As I sprinkled pepper over my cade, madame said "Hey! Leave some for the other clients!" Mean.

Gone in 30 seconds

Not long after discovering one edible treasure, I veered straight into another as we strolled a pedestrian promenade toward la gare, from whence I'd soon board a train back home to Paris. I'd hoped to find something to nibble on for the nearly-four-hour trip back, and rarely do my snack-tracking senses fail me in times of need. All it took this time was the word "Ital" on a shop sign and within, like, two nanoseconds, my it-might-be-vegan alarm bells were clanging on code-red heightened-alert mode. The shop's proprietor stood in the doorway talking to two customers, noticed me eyeballing the menu, and says, more or less, "Sorry, this is a vegetarian restaurant. We only have vegetarian food."

Uh, and why so apologetic?

"C'est merveilleux!"

He looked a little surprised. I asked if he could make me something without cheese. He said of course. I said get down on it, s'il vous plait. He said coming right up. The results were divine.

Pretty basic: Tomato, lettuce, and faux meat on a tortilla, which was then grilled, panini-style, to crispy perfection.

No more apologies, Paco

Wasabi snacks procured at a gargantuan Auchan supermarket. This was "dessert" after the ital sandwich.

My seatmate's kitty companion. Not a peep from this travel-wise critter in nearly four hours of train travel!

Back home in Paris, it's wet and gray, with an added dose of drama courtesy of a twilight show featuring flashy lightning bolts and rumbling thunderclaps. At least it's not cold. If I close my eyes, I can still taste the salty, aqua-blue Mediterranean water on my tongue, and feel the sun burning into my skin as I float on my back in the cool water. Heaven. And that delicious aroma wafting out of my oven? Another reminder of summer's last seaside hurrah: Cade. If the home-made stuff tastes half as good as it smells, I'll post photos and a recipe, tout de suite.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

French (music festivals) For Beginners

It's been years (and years, and years) since my last foray into the world of outdoor music festivals. They always seem like a good idea in theory--lots of new bands to scope out, an opportunity to spend hours in the sunshine, a chance to see what all the cool kids are wearing. In practice, however, they tend to be overly crowded, full of intoxicated nimwits, and a veritable desert in the vegan comestibles department. So, when my Aussie friend and fellow herbivore Lee invited me to Rock en Seine, I was reluctant to accept the proposed all-day fun-fest challenge. But that was before discovering Big Audio Dynamite was playing. A chance to see a guitar hero from my youth shredding it up middle-age style? Count me in!

First thing I noticed at the venue--the 300-year-old Parc de St. Cloud--was that the crowds filing in spanned the age spectrum from toddler to bald-old-man. Then I noticed all the food booths: Thai, Ethiopian, Senegalese, Mexican. What?! Then there were the drinking huts--calm little oases serving up affordable (by American festival standards) pints of beer (in reusable cups--none of that disposable crap), wine, tea, and juices. And the water: free! I could get used to these French music festivals.

The wine bar, where a big-ol' glass of Bordeaux cost €5. Totally worth it!

Mint tea and North African sweets stall.

This year's beer served in last year's (reusable) cup!

Liquid refreshment in hand, we went to check out the bands, catching just the last song of two different bands we wanted to see: Smith Westerns and Beat Mark. Around this time I noticed something else setting this French music festival apart from its American equivalent: the bands' start times. Weirdly, if a band was scheduled to go on at 5:30, it went on at 5:30. Huh? Once we got the hang of it, we actually saw full sets instead of single songs. The best bands of the day? Herman Dune, Cansei de Ser Sexy (CSS), and that beloved oldie but goodie, Big Audio Dynamite.

Brazilian wonderband, CSS.

Herman Dune: really, really good.

Tail end of Wolf Gang.

General Elektriks. They were OK.

I sat tight and listened keenly--then danced my arse off!

Bobbing one's head up and down for an hour our two really works up an appetite, so Lee and I went scouting for chow. First stop: the bio booth, for some slightly overpriced but delicious organic French fries. They also had a vegan wrap with veggies and quinoa inside, but I wanted something hot, so we scarfed our fries and worked our way over to the "world cuisine" section. I got pulled into Ethiopia's edible orbit, while Lee opted for his own African dining adventure in Senegal. The little veggie-filled pie thing Lee bought me didn't survive long enough for a photo, but if you ever have a chance to eat a savory Senegalese pie, I suggest going for it. FYI, the injera here was some of the tangiest, most delicious I've ever swallowed without chewing.

Bio booth. The €5 organic frites were good, but they should've cost €2.

Scary-ass huge pot of chili at the "Tex Mex" booth.

Should have gotten the veg pad thai!

Vegan Ethiopian offerings. It only needed a dash of salt; otherwise: perfect!

The Senegalese booth. Lee got veggies over rice and two savory pies, one of which he gave to me. In a word? Scrumptious.

Who eats foie gras at a music festival? Ickydoodles.

We spent the rest of the evening people-watching, dancing, dodging one of those huge inflated balls that always seem to make the rounds at big shows, and marveling at the clean bathrooms. We didn't stick around for the Foo Fighters, but we could hear "Learn to Fly" as we rode our Velib' bikes home in the dark.

Dude! Totally!

Cute hair, non?

The Statue of Liberty's long-lost French sister? Sophia would know!

The requisite outdoor concert Port-a-Potty shot.

Love when there's actually toilette papier in said Port-a-Potty.

Bon nuit a tous!