Silver pony

I have fond memories of a second-hand, ratty little bike, or what I called the silver pony.  This was the vehicle that got me to work and dinner and back again during the months I spent in a small border-town in Thailand.  It’s strange how memory has the ability to smooth out the edges and change how you felt about things back then.  My time in Mae Sot was a jumbled mess of contradictions, loving the friends I made and hating some of the inconveniences.  I missed my housemates, cafes and American brunches in Chiang Mai so much that I rode a bus for six hours, one -way, every other weekend to have some respite.  But somehow, my time with the silver pony remains the same: a mixture of fear and pure freedom.

The reason that bikes are invaluable in many parts of Southeast Asia is that it’s too hot or rainy to walk everywhere.  The street dogs are territorial and when night falls in a more rural community, the streets become eerily quiet.  Just like you wouldn’t go down an abandoned side-street in the most metropolitan of places, you also need some wheels to get back to your guesthouse in this context.  And so the silver pony was my constant companion, the one that stopped at the market for some coconut sticky rice or ginger tofu, the one I rode to a cafe on the weekends for some beans and naan bread and the one that saved me from the crazy dogs after watching David O Russell’s The Fighter.

Riding was also a great time to think, well other than when you’re not dodging cars or people.  I still recall the feeling though, always without a helmet, in a skirt and with the flip flops and sunglasses.  It’s the easiest way to be young again.

My husband counts it as a pure miracle that I made it out of Mae Sot without a single accident.  I say it’s more miraculous that I took a bus up and down the side of a mountain every other weekend without incident.  As I’ve told you before, I’m not the most coordinated of people and spatial problems seem to trip me up.  Other than the wipe out in the Muslim quarter and accidentally running into the bottles of a man selling un-licensed liquor, it was pretty uneventful.  Basically, I rode away each time sheepish and saying “sorry” over and over again.

Near the end of my time there I was counting down the days to leave.  Not because I was not grateful for the learning opportunities and the amazing women I met and worked with.  No, it’s just because I missed not having to be on edge.  I longed to walk through Toronto, a place I know so well, without the slightest instinct to be aware of my surroundings.  And so I left, and I remember distinctly telling my friend that there was not much that I would miss.  She wisely told me that I would.  It’s true you know, there was no other place where I did more yoga drenched in bug spray, ate more Banofee pie made of condensed milk (nothing has come close since), chatted with nice people, or read before falling asleep each night by nine o’clock.  Perhaps it’s because within a year of leaving, I gave birth to my son and everything changed.  It was an ending you know, to a time when I could just decide to leave for months at a time to a more precarious setting.  With that new perspective I can safely say that it was a trip Mae Sot, and I thank you.

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Two for tea

One of the more “intense conversation” I’ve had with Andrew took place in the most decadent of places: a lovely tea salon in Paris.  Hey, if you’re going to have a fight you might as well do it with white linen.  We disguised it as a discussion about the French theorist Pierre Bourdieu and on the theme of taste regimes but really we were arguing.  Apparently that’s what nerds do, they use theory to get at each other.  He’d say that he won but I’ll call it a draw because the hot chocolate was really, really good.  In any case, after taking a nap we were buds again.

It all started when he refused to wait an hour to gain entrance.  I don’t really blame him because I don’t see many men lining up that length for tea service.  I normally wouldn’t be so insistent but after reading accounts in a couple of travel books, I was not about to leave the city without having had a taste.  So, I told him to head back to the hotel and that I would eat alone.  Now, some women might say this and then pout about it later.  I’m not one of those women.  When I say that I don’t mind being alone, I don’t mind being alone.  Early in my pregnancy I remember watching The Help on my own in a cinema with tears flowing freely down my face.  The whole thing started to go awry when he attributed his impatience to Angelina being a tourist trap.

I don’t deny that it is, but hey, this certainly was not an issue when we lined up for an hour and half in front of the Musee d’Orsay in the pouring rain earlier in the day.  Apparently, impressionists makes certain popular attractions more palatable.  Truly, I’m the first to run to the museum in any new city precisely because of the way that works of art makes you feel.  I will never forget seeing Klimt’s “The Kiss” in Vienna, in person, after having seen it day and night in my university apartment.  You never have to ask me twice.  But experiencing the beauty of food made with such care and skill is so visceral and important too.  Also, the whole concept of the “tourist trap” bothers me.  That statement reduces something meaningful to something flimsy like mesh.  Of course you would never catch me outside of a wax museum and certain tall structures, but certain “traps” are popular because they are pretty enjoyable too.  A gagillion people can’t all be wrong right?  I’ve never defined myself as someone who is afraid to be part of the crowd.  Being open to taking on any activity that means something to you is never a failing.  So next time you’re out and about don’t be scared to join the queue.  Plus, you just might have some fun.

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On the road

The first lie that parents-to-be tell themselves is that nothing will change.  Let me give it to you straight, everything changes.  You don’t sleep the same, you don’t eat the same, hell, you probably don’t see the same because you’re so tired.  But they make you better.  You love in a boundless way that you never thought was possible.  I would do anything for my son.  If running in front of a moving vehicle meant that he had more time to reach his potential I would do it gladly because I’ve lived plenty.

One aspect of my former life that I am not willing to part with is my love of travel.  I very much take on Angelina Jolie’s philosophy when she says: “Anytime I feel lost, I pull out a map and stare.  I stare until I have reminded myself that life is a giant adventure, so much to do, to see.”  Being forever rooted sounds like an absolute nightmare.  My husband feels the same way and has consequently chosen a career that is conducive to these types of dreams.  So when we planned for a family these intentions remained.

There are things that you cannot plan for though, like timing and the temperament of the child.  At certain ages it is much easier to travel on long-haul flights.  Granted, they may cry at times when they’re an infant, but you don’t have to walk up and down the aisle for hours on end like you would with a toddler.  Our neighbour once said that our son is full of beans.  He absolutely loves people and draws so much energy from them.  While saying this, he is not the best at waiting and biding his time.  For these types of children, a 12 hour flight is not the best idea till they are a bit older and can rationalize why it’s taking so long.  Hell, I’m 32 and I still find 16 hour flights to be killer.  But, those places will wait for you so bide your time too.

We’ve taken a few vacations and his grandparents have graciously cared for him in our absence.  But moving to Massachusetts has once again changed everything.  We just bring him everywhere now, from the bank to the grocery store.  We do so many more activities in small-town America than we ever did in Toronto.  This has shown us that if we raise our expectations for his behavior, he will rise to the occasion.  Of course it’s a learning process but with every road trip where he doesn’t ask to get up or event that he leaves without a fit, it builds our confidence that he’ll be ready in time for more major trips.

My advice to parents who are thinking of taking on these endeavors is to always have snacks and do activities that work with your child’s personality.  We always agreed that he will join our adventures because it’s an integral part of building his cultural capital.  Seeing the different ways that people live out their everyday lives transforms your perspective on privilege and contentment.  The other day I said to Andrew that when we’re in LA this summer we should take C to Disneyland.  To this, C replied, “We should go to China.  I want to go to China.”  I think he’s game non?

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Don’t speak

I feel like my love affair with Paris would be complete if I never had to speak a word.  Is that even possible?  To love a place where the thought of speaking to anyone fills me with a slight dread?  Like always, the distant ones get me every time and Paris is no exception.  Her indifference and slight contempt for my lack of proficiency in the official language makes her all the more appealing.  Plus, I plan on slowly but surely building on my twenty plus years of public school French to be able to engage more the next time around.  Well, it’s kind of necessary if we’re planning on staying for a year.

Honestly though, there are plenty of people in Toronto for whom English is not their first language.  When they approach me on the street to ask for directions my first reaction is to be patient and understanding.  Having said this though, I do believe that it’s only respectful that anywhere you go you learn to say the please and thank yous in the native tongue.  In France I want to say so much more.  The key to learning any language is to not be shy and just try to communicate, however broken the sentences come out.  Well at least that’s what my Thai language tutor B taught me.  This man is the most joyful person I have ever met.  He used to use the hula hoop during lessons for “exercise” because he said that’s how you get rid of love handles.  My homework consisted of going to the Sunday night market in Chiang Mai to bargain.  I think I got a great deal on some teak placemats precisely because I accidentally mixed up numbers.  It also made the salesperson laugh so it provided a beautiful exchange.  When I attempt to do this in France however, I get mixed results.  There are those who truly appreciate the effort and others who just want to get on with it.  Whatever, you win some, you lose some.  I’m sure when I’m there for a couple of months and not a few days the experiences will be greater on the side of good.

But the one place I’ve been where I’ve never felt out of place is Buenos Aires.  Being in that city is like entering a freshly-made bed.  We could not speak a word of Spanish but every single person didn’t want to put us out and tried their best to help.  Imagine that, a society that did not want to inconvenience the tourist!  We stayed in a residential neighborhood away from the downtown hub so we ate at ten o’clock like everyone else, with both the senior citizens and newborn babies.  I was just starting to show in my pregnancy when we visited and people would politely offer me seats on the subway and ensure that I was comfortable.  The absolute beauty of this metropolitan city is not found just in the lovely boulevards, pastry shops on every corner, the art and culture being alive and well, but in their openness to difference.  As a racialized female you don’t get to feel this ease everywhere and Buenos Aires, I sure do look back at you fondly.  You are special.

Still, there is nowhere like Paris and I loved it when locals would ask me for directions on the street in French.  It was so thrilling to pass, well at least for those five seconds till I opened my mouth or the valiant attempt to understand registered on my face.  See, fashion does have power.

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So you go

In my mind Before Sunset is the most romantic movie ever made because you know, that’s what I would want in an encounter, to talk talk talk talk talk.  Seriously though, what is left unsaid, especially when the situation is complicated, is absolutely delicious.  It’s even better than acting on it because there is a tension.  A tension because you feel something and can either stack it up to a thing of your past or firmly place it in your future, fully aware of the damage that it will cause.  There’s the scale right?  To judge if it’s worth it?

I think different people will measure the stakes differently.  It’s clear that Jesse and Celine try very hard to be realistic and careful but they cannot help themselves.  I mean they couldn’t help themselves the first time.  You only get off a train with a perfect stranger if you’re up for those games.  And those are the best, most exhilarating games that you remember much later on when you have the “good” life.  Who doesn’t love the beginning when you don’t know someone very well but just know how much you like them?  Before Sunset is the best of the trilogy because those fantasies are more grounded.  At this point they’ve had some lovers and are more self-aware so they feel like they can be as objective about the dilemma as possible.  And so they go.

While I say it’s the best though, it’s certainly not the most real.  If you want honesty, as raw as it comes, then watch Before Midnight to see what true intimacy means.  Building a life with someone always results in scars and resentments right up there with the love.  It’s just the way it is.  So when you’ve been married and have had two kids, talk talk talk talking can be dangerous territory because you may not want it all to be said.  But I’m an optimist and like to think that they re-group and try again, precisely because of those moments by the Seine, when they were brave enough to say what they felt and not what they should have.  You do not bulldoze over your life for just anyone.

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Blank slate

I want to buy my first house and paint it fifty shades of grey.  Most people get rid of their IKEA furniture when they move in with someone or buy their condo.  We are finally at that stage and I am so excited.  I’m using the same precision I practice to rid myself of things I do not want, to thoughtfully invest in pieces I actually want to own now.

Furniture shopping with my husband is a constant negotiation.  Ha.  Much like our marriage.  But still I’m pretty forthright when there is no room for discussion.  I think my exact words are usually “that ugly-ass lamp is not coming with us.”  His solution is to always put it in the basement.  If you ever come over to our house you’ll understand why you are not allowed down there.

I am inspired by two schools of interior design because of their warmth: arts and crafts and french country.  These styles look like actual people live in the space and it is not a transient hospital room or airport lounge.  But the reality of making a house functional for a family is that you need clean, minimalist designs with materials that can be easily washed like leather, glass and metal.  Plus, I think Andrew once cited an academic article about the connotations of low cultural capital associated with hoarding.  He’s made his point.

If we’re going with contemporary, which is a melding our tastes, then I am going to work hard to add some humanity to it.  Like with fashion I think rooms look awful when they’re too “done”.  There is always one piece that puts it just over the top and makes it camp.  The most stylish ladies look a bit undone.  Even for the boardroom there is a way to balance your business casual to look like you didn’t come straight from Ann Taylor.

But these design objectives are reliant on us committing to living in a certain place.  One time Andrew mused on how we are not “cottage people.”  Funny thing coming from someone who never had a cottage to run to every weekend in the summer.  But still, we both agreed that we’d rather go to Paris or any other place with museums and restaurants.  I sometimes think that being rooted to one city scares him because we would have to get someone to water our plants or something.

I believe that it was John Green who said, “It is so hard to leave—until you leave.  And then it is the easiest goddamned thing in the world.”  Moving to the States was exhausting not just physically but mentally.  Trying to make sense of all the different bureaucratic circles was harder than taking the MCATS.  But I think in some ways Andrew reveled in it.  During the snow storm last December when half of Toronto had no power, he looked to me and said, “I kind of like this because it means I have to problem-solve.”

We figure we’ll reevaluate things in five years and decide if we just commit and move to Europe.  Some people call it a plan B, we call it an exit strategy.  Furnished apartment, three suitcases, and you’re there.

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Take care

We often tells ourselves that it’s a waste to live one’s life in fear.  And it’s true.  It’s such a waste to feel that any moment may be our last because what sort of living is that?  Perhaps a better approach would be to enjoy what is given and savor it for all it’s worth, so that when the time comes you can go forth bravely, feeling like you did all that you could.

But sometimes you are not granted this wish.  You leave this world with such terror and pain and very much alone.  Last week two British tourists were brutally murdered in Koh Tao, a popular island destination in Thailand.  They were probably doing all the same things that we did when we were 24 years old, having some drinks and feeling like the time and place could not be more perfect.  David Miller and Hannah Witheridge’s lives ended that night, which they thought would like be any other night, and it ended so violently.  And it impacts me because I feel for their families, their friends and all those who will miss them the most.  They make me see so many others I met in my travels and they make me see myself.

Here’s the thing.  You could be walking down the street at home and be hit by a car.  You do not need to be abroad to be in danger and robbed at gunpoint.  I love Thailand, I love the people and I love the place.  One cannot and should not fear what is to come because I think it would be missing the point.  There is also the case of Tomoko Kawashita, whose life ended at a Buddhist temple at 9 o’clock in the morning.  How could anyone ever predict there would be danger in visiting a religious site at the height of Loy Kratong, which is a major celebration each year in Southeast asia?  In the daylight?

It is only respectful and vigilant to remember that violence against women is possible at anytime.  There is a reason why Stieg Larsson’s “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” was originally named “Men who hate women.”  Because it is this hatred against our body, towards our mind, towards our very existence that gets us subjugated and brutalized.  It’s not just us they hate, they hate themselves.  So for these young victims and all victims of violence I truly hope that you are at peace.  And for all women traveling alone please take care.

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Help!

My grandmother always said that your relatives are forced to love you but you want to make the job as easy as possible.  I suppose it is true that there is a social code that encourages for family members to be supportive, forgiving and tolerant of flaws.  But is blood really thicker than water?  I’m not quite sure and this belief is put into even more question when you move somewhere else.

One of the realities that comes with relocating to a new city is that you have fewer people to count on.  Of course you make friends and meet your neighbours but they probably don’t want to drive you to the airport at 6am or pick you up medication on their way home from work.  Nor should they have to.  I think we all prepare for this before the moving vans are packed because we don’t want to be shocked upon arrival.  You expect to cocoon into each other, make a party of three and lean in.  What is not spoken about enough are all the ways that people do help you, the various times they go out of their way to make life easier.

Most of our belongings are traveling by land in a truck, stowed away in boxes or bubble wrap.  These possessions are all that we carry and they bumble along the road of life much like we do.  It takes time to cross the US-Canada border and days pass before the miles are traversed and these reminders and memories land at your doorstep.  So you plan and prepare your suitcase to last a few days, in our case it will be closer to two weeks.  The positives about moving to a neighbouring country are that the culture and currency are similar and the language is the same.  So you buy all those objects to start a home, to survive and eventually thrive.  Now, what you travel with as a single or even a couple is very different from boarding a plane with a toddler.  Extra baggage in the form of car seats and fold-out cots are essential along with a carry-on suitcase of toys.  This is when it gets heavy and tricky.  What surprises you most in these situations is the kindness of others: the stranger on the airport shuttle who helps you unload your bags, the other passengers who don’t roll their eyes at your fussy child and the rental car agent who leaves his desk and carries your suitcases right to your car.

When you begin a new job you know that your first connections will be with your colleagues.  This will be one of your circles, maybe not an inner one but an important one nonetheless.  So when they host a barbecue to welcome you on your first weekend in the state and serve you lobster tail, scallops and shrimps, basically the best that New England has to offer, your heart aches a little, and not in a bad way.  But you do get a bit teary when they buy your son organic animal crackers, juice boxes from Whole Foods and crayons galore.  When from the start they treat you with a warmth and genuine care that you only expect from your relatives and those who know you most, you are surprised and humbled.

This isn’t the first time that I’ve experienced this form of support or friendship.  During my fieldwork in Thailand so many individuals offered such great advice, help and camaraderie that can make a place less daunting and lonely.  I remember when my colleague and friend V picked me up from the Chiang Mai airport because I had never lived alone in a foreign country before.  She got me home, gave me water, and turned on the fan, basically the first things you need when you’re a bit intimidated and unsure.  I also cannot say enough of my friend M who drove me to the mall to get a cellphone and to grocery stores countless times to get good cheese and chocolate.  My roommates L and K allowed me to hitch so many rides to jazz bars and cinemas because I could not operate a motorbike.  Well, I could but not without severely compromising my personal safety and the safety of others.

All of these experiences with such giving and generous friends makes you want to be better.  You hope for opportunities to help someone out and pay it forward because you were so lucky to find what and who you need, when you needed it the most.

From my heart, thank you.

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Flying solo

Traveling alone is one of the best things you can do as a woman.  It’s almost as if the positives and negatives go hand in hand.  You have to consider your safety but that mindfulness forces you to build some character.  Not having anyone to rely on, you learn to do things that you normally would have relegated to your partner, friend or mother.  For example, I used to be awful at giving directions and it was a better option to ask a stranger on the street rather than have me read a map.  Now, I am quite proficient at orienting us when we travel because I was forced to practice.  I learnt to navigate street names and intersections because I had to find my way around in a strange place, often in the dark, slightly intoxicated and alone.  The other benefit is that you challenge your preconceived notions about who you give the time of day.  Being in a foreign country bonds individuals from different backgrounds together and it’s from these friendship that you recognize how distinctions enrich your life.

Being on my own also gave me the freedom to call all of the shots.  I no longer had to consult another person and make concessions on film choices or the plans for an evening.  Having been in a relationship since the age of 16 it was quite liberating.  I ate alone and did not feel like a loser.  But with all of that freedom from familial obligations came a whole lot of time and at some points boredom.  Just like nothing good happens after 2 am nothing good comes from being idle.  Lets just say that I went looking for some drama when it didn’t come a knocking.  After I got that out of my system, I read a lot of books, drank some coffee, and sat in some air conditioned theatres to fill up the spaces and silences.

Within this context I spent many hours on my own.  I still had my family of close friends with whom I connected with on a regular basis but this didn’t account for when I was traveling from site to site, researching and writing.  Reflecting on it now there were several instances where I could have easily disappeared to never again see the light of day.  But like with anything in life we roll the dice and hope for the good outcomes.  I even took a romantic trip to Bali solo and ate breakfast in bed every single day.  All of this is fine and good till several months into my time abroad I started preferring this state of solitude.  The upside is that it’s rather peaceful to go days at a time not speaking to anyone.  It was a whole lot less work that’s for sure.  But when I started to view human interaction as a source of fatigue I knew I was on the precipice of some not so healthy tendencies.  But there is a middle-ground between the extremes.  There’s nothing worse than someone who cannot be fulfilled without some sort of social affirmation.  The balance is just hard to achieve.

Please let me demonstrate the dangers of a hundred years of solitude.  I recently saw a documentary called Guys and Dolls about men who buy life-size love dolls to serve as their companions.  They speak to them, shower them with affection, perform sex acts and buy children’s clothes to dress them up.  So, basically Lars and the real girl without Ryan Gosling to take the edge off.  Now, there’s a politically correct reaction and a more honest one that I felt.  Why don’t I give you both.  PC: “well, that’s interesting.”  Honest: “that’s some weird shit.”  I have no problem with men owning dolls and I’m even fine with them assigning personality traits like meek, standoffish or traditional to them.  We all have desires and enact them in various ways.  Truly, I believe that as long as you’re not disrespecting or physically harming anyone there’s enough room for all of us.  I am more uncomfortable with the motivations behind the ownership.  Research indicates that many of these men have not been rejected by women and could probably have actual relationships, they would rather have a woman who will not speak back and whom they can fully control.  They can’t achieve this with actual human beings with their flaws and multiplicities.  I think that’s when your fantasies cross over to the slightly delusional and unhealthy side.  When the uncertainty of life is a source of fear rather than excitement it might be time to ask yourself a few pertinent questions.  In this life you cannot make anyone reciprocate your feelings or remain in love with you.  Yes, people do leave but when this debilitates you it becomes kind of sad.

These stories are not be fetishized or gawked at.  It’s a reality that we are continually becoming more disconnected and feelings of alienation can isolate the best of us.  But perhaps instead of withdrawing completely to material cultures to cope it might be more fulfilling to try to make some contact.  Join a drum circle, Amnesty international, a house league.  Anything, just open the door and step outside.

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Paris

I hope that if I am a very good person I will be reborn as a Parisian.  Seriously though, how does anyone get anything done in that city?  If I was living there I would be too busy choosing my next outfit or kissing the beautiful, beautiful French men to do normal, mundane things like holding down a job or filing my taxes.  My girl-crush began about a year ago when I started reading travel accounts, parenting and fashion guides by those lucky enough to call Paris their home.  I’ve assigned the place a gender because I imagine her as a tall, willowy woman who does not give anyone the time of day.  When we bought our tickets to visit, I told Andrew that my obsession with French culture had come full circle and that I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.  I know that when you like and want someone so much, it always ends badly.  Surprisingly my expectations were not shattered and I fell even harder.  As if that’s even possible. I’ve put off writing this post for a long time because I find it difficult to articulate my affection for a place that mostly makes me see feelings and colours.  So here is my attempt to express my love for a city where I will never ever belong.

The care and consideration that the French assign to their food is inspiring.  It’s not just their emphasis on eating fresh, locally grown products but also in their practice of consumption.  Many Parisians are trying to maintain a healthy weight because really, their exceptionally cut clothes would not fall the same way otherwise.  As a result their portions are smaller but very flavourful.  It’s as if they know that the first taste is the most enjoyable and what remains on your plate is filler.  By introducing various dishes to their palate throughout the course of a meal, the process becomes much more of a sacred ritual, rather than to fulfill the caloric intake for the day.  And surprisingly for someone whose weakness lies in sweets and pastries I did not eat them every hour.  Perhaps it was because it was plentiful and ever-present, they became almost banal and I did not desire it as much.

Their relationship to material and sartorial cultures is equally as meticulous.  Much of the clothing in Paris is fairly expensive, with sales only occurring a few times a year, so I wondered how there were still so many well-dressed individuals on the street.  It’s because they do not take trends at face-value but rather invest in good-quality but classic pieces that plays on their strengths.  This also goes hand in hand with being within a certain weight range because you cannot buy a new wardrobe annually.  I’m pretty sure that you would go bankrupt.  There also seems to be a social expectation to be well-groomed when entering society, not just to respect those around you but yourself.

Having produced some of the most influential theorists like Foucault, De Beauvoir, Derrida and Bourdieu engagement with the cultural and social milieu is encouraged.  Now here comes my problem with Paris, one that I hope to address prior to returning to live there for an extended period of time.  You need the language to even stand a chance.  Every account I’ve read has detailed how difficult it is to breakthrough socially but at least by speaking broken French there is still the potential for encounters and perhaps friendship.  Why do you think I want to reincarnated as Parisian and not just immigrate there?  I’ve never felt more powerless than when I was stringing together nouns and verbs, and the only impression I gleaned was that they were being rude to me.  Please, you find impolite people everywhere and they’re not worth wasting your mental energy over.  Still, I wish I could know how annoying they find us “Americans.”  But overall, Paris is a lovely place with some kind, considerate and fascinating souls.  Truly, you do not disappoint and what is more seductive than a city that makes you want to put your best version forward, a community that makes you want to be better?

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