Thursday, January 31, 2008

what I’m up against

I have a friend who is completely oblivious to trends. If a repair tool works, he’ll not upgrade it just because the market offers something sleeker. If a woman can chop cabbage by hand and let her mousy hair hang down her back – why would you want to improve on that?

Modern is not necessarily better. Cheaper is always better.

I ask my friend (okay, I’m talking about Ed, my occasional traveling companion) to help me put up a hook by the shower. He agrees. He brings this tool to get the job done:

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What is that?

It works – he’ll tell you.

In the meantime, as he leisurely surveys the spot by the shower door, I am crazily making improvements on my lecture. I haven’t bothered to look decent. My mind is on the class ahead. Ed glances over, mumbles some nicety and snaps this photo.

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To him, I looked nice and tussled.

In the late afternoon I visit my man Jason, the brilliant man of color. Hair color. Jason does magic. Jason scrunches his hand here, blows some air there and I leave feeling like I could face the world and hold my own.

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Tonight, Ed is coming over for supper. He has professed an interest in recreating a Bittman recipe. He likes Bittman and I’m willing. We’ll be eating chopped cabbage and potatoes. He will dutifully look at Jason’s efforts and make some pleasant remark. Then he’ll pick up his repair tool and work on putting the hook up.

[All this to deflect from what really captured my attention tonight: the debate.]

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


Wednesday. The middle of the week. The middle of winter. And we're feeling it, here in Wisconsin. I leave the house in the late morning and it's only - 7 F.

Still, there is a charming beauty to it all, especially when a kind soul volunteers to drive me to work. The long way, past landscapes that are an impressionist's image of winter.

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In my office, I have some more meetings, student meetings, and then a half hour of peace before my long class of the late afternoon.

I notice the phone is blinking. Funny, no one calls me here. They know better. They email.

A voice telling me I should call my credit card company. What now? I love my credit card company (it's there for me when I need to go places) and it loves me (it charges interest when I go places). I call.

We're just checking a purchase.
Oh that. I travel, I spend money in strange places, what can I say.
Did you make a purchase two hours ago in Laon, France? In an electronics store?
Did I? No, wait, in France, two hours ago? Electronics? No!
Our records indicate that someone swiped your card there.
I have my card here. In Madison.
Is there another?
There is no other.

I love my credit card company for not believing that I would buy $1500 in electronics in Laon, France. Thank you, credit card company.

But who?
And how?

It is a tough world that we inhabit.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

from forty four to four

It’s all about The Storm, here in Madison. Monday? All balmy and foggy and March-like. Tuesday morning? All balmy and foggy and March-like. Forty-four outside. And a bleak view out my office window.

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Then comes The Warning. Huge storm system WILL PASS THROUGH! Airport will close. Visibility will fall to zero. Temperatures plummeting at the rate of 10 degrees per hour. (Until what?)

Sounds scary.

So I pack my book bag and head home. Anxiously waiting at the ugly (so ugly) bus stop, worrying that the above will hit me straight in the face and send me flying into a freezing hell of sleet, wind, snow and horrific thunder. (They said!)

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Home. I slam the door behind me. Safe. Cancel all appointments for the evening. No need to go out. I’ll watch from the inside.

Sure enough, by mid afternoon, the rain turns to this (from the safe haven of behind my window):

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And then it stops. Just like that. No thunder, lightening, no zero visibility. None of it.

Except for the cold. We got the cold.

Monday, January 28, 2008


Say I had a friend who loved to fish. In the company of others. (I don’t have such a friend: no one close to me fishes with a passion. Or at all.) Would I agree to stand in rubber duds days on end with a pole and a line, waiting for a pull? Or, to sit in a hut on icy Lake Menona and watch my bucket fill with bluegills, crappies and perch (that’s what I’m told fills buckets here)?

Surely I would go along, so long as it wasn’t significantly uncomfortable. Maybe I would request a hut with some heating options, like this one:

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And yet, there is this to consider: how far would you go to do something you regard as substantially boring with someone you cared for? Not very far. You are more likely to tolerate boredom when you are young. Very young.

Musings on a winter evening, while preparing fish for dinner.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

jumping off a cliff

It’s gone out of fashion – telling your kid “and if your friend jumped off a cliff, would you follow?” – in response to the standard kid plea of “but my friend does it!”, whatever the “it” may be. [In my case, it was biking the streets of New York (“no!”).]

It seems that following the herd is dumb, but ignoring cues from where the herd is grazing is even dumber.

So if my commenters tell me I should bowl, and I should wear a special bowling shirt and I should drink beer while bowling, who am I to ignore the green fertile lands of commenter experience?

Ed and I went bowling this Sunday morning. So full of hope…

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Light ball. I need a light ball. I have weak wrists and weaker than weak thumbs.

A glance, to the left, a glance to the right. Oh, I see that there are others looking for light balls.

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But the little guys get help!

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And still, there are the gutter balls. And tears.

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I so understand!

Ed and I start out with placing our balls straight in the gutters. Secretly, I am pleased. I am well matched!

But within four rolls, Ed gets a grip. The man is powerful. I am surprised that when he hits his pins, all pins in all lanes do not fall.

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And he becomes accurate. Strike. Split. Shit. I mean, darn. Me, I’m getting weaker. He’s getting stronger.

My pickle shirt isn’t working. Hey, commenters, you told me to wear a shirt! Ed explained that you meant one with words. I have a pickle shirt. I'm wearing it! So what happened??

Oh! The beer. I forgot about the beer.

Do you sell beer before noon?
Of course!
What do you have on tap? (This is one bad question to ask in my home state: there’s too much choice.)
Blue Moon? That sounds cool. What’s it like?
Great! Like having Sunday brunch with a mimosa. Fruity!
(I have never in my entire life had a beer before noon. But, if this is what it takes…)

At first, my game (we’re on the second one now) falters. My wrists are protesting.

But soon, I get out of the gutter. And by the third game, I end with my best: 59!

On the phone with a close one later on, I say: guess what, I got more than half! Fifty nine!
Really? Just that? Hmm.
Wait, this is good, no? I mean, you told me you’re not so hot at this either.
Fifty nine, eh?

Saturday, January 26, 2008

bowling, not alone*

It’s a day for indoor work, yet again. But with breaks.

Movies, yes, of course. Winter movies. Depressing, excellent but horrible movies.

Ed, want to see another?
In a day or two…

Searching for alternatives, Ed proposes bowling. Now, some people do not like engaging in things they are not good at. They like to smell at least the possibility of success. I am one of them. And so I remain quiet.

Ed asks: How about if we just take a look.

We do.

It’s sweet. Saturday. Kids’s day.

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So if these little tykes can do this, maybe you can do this?

I have bowled only a handful of times (bowling was an unknown in Poland) and even if there are bumper guards, you can count on my ball jumping lanes and finding a safe haven in an unguarded gutter. Still…Ed is so enthusiastic, so eager. I'm wondering if bowling is to Ed as France is to Nina.

Tomorrow. Let's bowl tomorrow.

To get through January and February (see post below), one has to, I have to, think broadly and acquiesce.

We drive through white fields in gray light. Nothing pulls me toward the outdoors now. Nothing.

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Tomorrow, we bowl.

[*it’s a mind spin back to this title.]

Friday, January 25, 2008

the long stretch

A colleague one said to me – you should never make any important decisions in February. That month just messes with you.

Can we extend that idea to the end of January?

p.s. Snowscapes are magical. Sometimes. Other times, they are like this (title: “last steps home”):

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(can we agree on the word "bleak"?)

Thursday, January 24, 2008

walking home

Do understand that, in all essentials, I am a person who has had a fantastic amount of good fortune. And I know it.

Posts about cold weather and work? Take them in the context of, for the most part, a charmed existence. The hugely unfortunate things that happened to me, happened in ways that didn’t destroy anyone. That’s sheer luck!

I am aware of all this. It’s why I’m not really a good candidate for whiny blogging. It would not be authentic.

Still, it was a cold day, a long day of work, and a cold walk home.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Crowds, cold, work hard, work hard, food.

My day. If yours was bigger, better, richer – go ahead, tell me about it.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

bus ride

For you, who do not live in an extreme, northern state. This post is for you. It’s about a morning ride in to work.

I check bus schedules. Good. Here’s one at 8:30. Not too far from my front door. The sun’s out, but we’re not in positive digits yet. Brrr.

Darn. The bus isn’t here. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Brrrr.

Cheeks are feeling it, of course. Mouth too.

Ah, there we go. Bus. But wait. It’s a different number. So what. It goes downtown. It’ll do.

Nice and warm inside. Cap removed, gloves off. I look around. Many foreign students. I live not too far from apartments that are favored by an international community of scholars. So many ipods!

I’m getting comfy, but darn, this is a snail’s pace. Exodus of passengers at hospital. Ah – I took the bus that first goes to the hospital. International community knows which bus is theirs. Smart people. As opposed to me. I am taking the long way into work.

Finally. Close to my stop. Oh oh. Bus is in a resting mode. An accident just in front. Seems a car slid into the bus before us. Driver nicely lets us out. But it’s a bit of a walk to the law school. At least ten, fifteen minutes. Up this way:

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Finally, in, just minutes before class. Cutting it close? No! That ride was supposed to be 13 minutes long! It was more like 45. Adjustment needed for the future.

Defrost in office briefly, load mug with tea, proceed to class.

P.S. Trader Joe’s roses are a steal. Brighten up your sweetie’s table with these:

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Only $7.99 a dozen. Worth it. Takes the mind off of what’s outside.

Monday, January 21, 2008

the red bag

I had one, not too long ago. Bright red. I thought it would look bold. A woman on the move.

But, it was large and at the same time not commodious. So that my camera, for instance, could not be tossed inside.

I spent this day in my office going through mountains of papers, correspondence, etc, so that I could feel fresh and clean for the semester ahead. And I watched the snow fall and it was pretty, in a cold sort of way and because this was a holiday, I saw very few people on Bascom Mall.

Except the students with red bags. The sign of a new semester: red bags.

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Not purses, mind you, but bags, filled with books for the classes they are about to take and I thought – red bags do make a statement and it was good that I had mine for the years that I did.

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Even though at some point, you have to move beyond just appearing bold. You have to be bold, or else people will see through you.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

making do

My state is focused on the football game this evening. Men in green take the mind off of the bitter cold. I tune in for the last five minutes and watch my home state team lose. It is often like that: I don’t care at all about a game, I tune it, I send my vibes of indifference and the team loses.

I’m sorry, Wisconsin.

I didn’t mean it. I am tired from working all day and playing not at all. I watch the sun move from one end of the room to the other. This marks my day. Last week I was taking photos of bees in rosemary bushes. Today, you get this:

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My flowering rosemary at home. No bees.

Just before sunset, I take a walk. Past empty chairs and empty tables just outside my building. Poignant, no?

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Still, I am not oblivious to the sharp air, the crisp contours, the harsh beauty of it all. How could I be – it is a cold but beautiful evening.

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But I am sorry about the Packers. I really do feel homestate loyalty, even if I do hate football.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

warm days, happy days

The warmth must come from within, because, after a multi-hour, multi-stage day of travel, beginning, pleasantly enough, this way…

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…and ending with the coldest O’Hare bus ride ever…

I thought to myself – welcome back to the Midwest, where outside temperatures can be extreme and inside temperatures are never warm enough. It does not help that we are in for a week-end of Arctic, sub-zero temps.

As I wiggled the key and pushed back my condo door, I could tell right away. The furnace was dead.

Luck would have it that space heaters, on loan from when the furnace was out the previous time (just before I left for Europe), are still here, ready to be plugged in, so that I never really saw icicles inside my unit.

And eventually, someone will come and the problem will be fixed, so that there can be one interior in all of Wisconsin that makes me feel warm. Maybe.

Back in Cassis (and in Paris as well, but in Cassis this was just so extreme, I had to smile), everyone bundled up in heavy sweaters, coats, scarves, always the scarves, men and women, wrapped in miles of wool, even when the temperature hovered near forty or fifty. When you would go in to a café, you’d be greeted with a heating unit right at the entrance (hello! welcome! we'll keep you warm!) and oftentimes a thick curtain to kept the gusty air from permeating the rest of the space inside.

But, I live in a place that's more hospitable to polar bears and arctic hares and a harp seal. Maybe not a harp seal. And where no one thinks about putting a thick curtain by a café door, and where it’s perfectly acceptable to skimp on heat but waste resources on chilling the air in the summer. A permafrost land of thick skinned and warm blooded people. People like me, with a blood composition that matured in less frosty conditions, shiver and hide and dream about Cassis or New Mexico (I’ve not been there, I imagine it to have a near perfect seasonal variations).

Green grass, easily imagined, elsewhere.

Ah, but truthfully, I am happy as anything to be back, on this side of the ocean. Because it is home. And, most importantly, because I can easily pick up the phone and tell my petite fille, the one who isn’t so petite anymore, happy birthday today. One tap of the finger and she is there and her voice sings with the joy of her special day and I sit back and listen, thrilled to be so close, even though really, she is a thousand miles away. (But only one time zone. It's all in the time zones.)

Happy birthday, little one. I love you more than lilies and roses!

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Friday, January 18, 2008

from Paris: going home

There is a new love of the outdoors in France. Cafés, bars, restaurants have spent more on heating lamps and other warming paraphernalia.

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People are filling every inch of sitting space out on the sidewalk. Cigarette butts are littering the curbside all evening long.

And inside? Sure, still crowded. It’s France, after all – people have to eat. But there is a huge change, a perceptible difference: as of January 1st, every eating and drinking establishment is smoke free.

If Paris felt alive and bustling before, now, more than ever, it is a January madness out there. A wonderful sea of faces, a friendliness and joviality, spilling out along the city streets.

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I’m heading home today. Seems that we could use some of those blankets in Wisconsin. And the heating lamps. And furs and prtable radiators and woolies.

Still, it’s home. I’m hoping that my heating system is up and running.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

from Paris

So what would you do if you only had one day in Paris before returning home? (To a place where the forecast forebodes a high of 1 degree F on the day after your return?)

Toward evening, after a full day, even by my standards, I say to Ed – let’s get back. It’s getting cold. It is, after all, in the 40s, and there’s a misty drizzle of sorts. Not great for more walking. And we did walk. In fact, I say, as we get on the metro – we have twelve stops before we get back to our hotel stop.

Twelve stops? He asks. Did we really walk that far? Stops. Let me count them. We stopped first for breakfast, then at a store where you looked at clothes, then for an apple tart, then to look at the Thinker, then at the market, then at the Eiffel Tower, then across the river from the Eiffel Tower to look at the view back, then at another clothes store, then at the café for lunch, then at that Monet Museum. That’s only ten stops.

Than man thinks of unique ways. But, let it be his way. I wont post all ten – you don’t want to see me examining with longing the clothes at Maje or Et Vous and you certainly don’t want to see me yet again eating a chocolate croissant at Les Editeurs, where I nearly always have breakfast when I am in this city and nearly always post a picture of it. But the rest? Stroll along if you wish, after a brief introduction to Paris, recounting yesterday’s late arrival.

So, yesterday: we arrive. We’re cheap. No taxi for us, no. We want to walk to the Metro that will take us directly to our hotel area. Walk. With bottles of wine rattling around in Ed’s tote bag and in my suitcase. So we walk. From Gare de Lyons, across the bridge, to Gare d’Austerlitz. A mere nothing if you are unencumbered.

Pause for quick photo – there, in the distance is the familiar.

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In the evening, we go back to a place I haven’t been to for years. It’s tiny, it’s good, it’s modestly priced and it has and always has had an appetizer that I love: endive tatin.

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Okay, now let’s get on to Ed’s recollections of our stops today (with a couple of freebies – photos in transit from one stop to the next). Nothing extraordinary, or especially insightful, mind you. Paris for me is beautiful in the most prosaic, predictable places and happenings. It’s what I look for when I come here.

No. 3 for an apple tart on Rue du Bac.

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No. 4 at the Rodin Museum

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No. 5 at the market on Rue Cler (serious about cheese)

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No. 6 at the Eiffel Tower. Because it’s on the way. And because it’s the Eiffel Tower.

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(after: the boat, the car on the boat, and the metro above ground)

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No. 7 on the other side of the river, looking back at the Eiffel Tower.

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No. 9 for lunch. He told me to ask for ketchup. I obliged, but explained to the waiter that it was for him.

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No. 10 at the Marmottan Museum – with all those Monets.

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There you have it. A day in Paris.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

from Cassis, France: the everyday

Nino’s staff is already prepping lunch when we go to the dining room for breakfast. They leave us thermoses filled with coffee and hot chocolate and nod to our request for soft boiled eggs. We’re part of the morning wall-paper in their large work space.

The sun is out, of course, with a light dusting of cloud cover. The air is fresh, damp from yesterday’s rain (they’re still talking about it). Outside, the small cars roll up to the restaurants with deliveries. A cook turns heads of lettuce, inspects them, buys the whole lot. Sacks of baguettes rest on a chair.

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I think I should always vacation over a restaurant. Working in one is too strenuous. Watching others fuss about food is deeply gratifying.

We set out again to find the wineries. With maps and instructions now. How tough can this be?

We pass by the port where a fisherman is selling sea urchins. I ask him how early he pulls in each morning. Sunrise, he says. What, six? He laughs. More like eight. Okay, I’ll watch for you tomorrow – I tell myself. Maybe.

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Finally. We come to the first vineyard and Domaine on my list – Domaine Bagnol. It’s closed. Bummer. I thought I heard “open until noon.” It’s nowhere near that. And the next one is far. Double bummer.

We walk along the highway. How pathetic is that! But, we are car free and proud of it, so now we have to share space with speeding, belching motors.

After being rattled by trucks and cars, we approach the Domaine Fontcreuse. Truly an Ah! moment. It’s lovely here. I taste, I buy, just before Madame closes shop for lunch.

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The vineyard is mostly on the northern slope of the cliffs. Just below the mixed forest. So tempting to climb up and take it all in from above! And why not. Ed hides the box of wines in bushes and we climb up through wet branches, bramble and firs, in every conceivable shade of green, up a slippery, muddy trail until Ed tells me to give up. The summit is far, the climb is ridiculously hard.

I can’t I can’t – I say this now to express my desire to continue. He shrugs and waves me on. My boots are a mess, but it hardly matters. I should write here now that I was rewarded for my efforts with the most spectacular view, but life is not like that. I shout down “you were right!” to Ed and retreat.

Still, the forest scamper was worth it. I tell Ed – “inhale deeply!” “Why?” – he asks. “It’s good for you!” And I believe this. The scenery is pretty, but it is the fragrance here, in the forest, that makes your heart dance.

Through a combination of back lanes and some trespassing, we find a gentler way back to Cassis and even manage to locate someone at the first winery, where I purchase six, yes six bottles in radiant jubilation, just before their gates close for the day.

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We pause for a snack at our favorite café – the little one, where you can spend many pleasant hours watching monsieur and madame fuss with coffees and chocolats while their dog keeps tabs on who is in, who is out.

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Time, too, for one more trip to the pastry shop. A fraises des bois tart. Perfect.

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And the circle is complete. We’re almost back at Nino’s. The port is dazzling in the evening light. Do you notice this if you live here?

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At dinner, I pick all things local: a fish soup, a grilled scorpion (“the only Mediterranean fish on the menu!”), a crème brulée.

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In the room above the restaurant, I think about making the various train connections to Paris the next day and I listen to the wind. It is wild again. Roaring in from the sea this time. I get up before dawn to watch the fishing boats come in, but I know there will be no boats to see. The waves are brutal.

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It’s market day in Cassis and I go to the square to watch the sellers unload. My biggest envy may well be that they have this glorious market twice a week, year round.

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At Nino’s I pull Ed out of sleep so that we can have our last breakfast before the train takes us west, then north. Oh, and one more stroll. Just one more. We have time. You have to see the market and the pounding surf! – I say to him.

We watch moms take their little ones to the market and (mostly) men congregate at cafés, and I think this is the Cassis of everyday France.

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When I asked Ed to come back with me for a return trip to France after the semester, he said – when you travel here, it’s like the same trip, over and over. But the regions – each time they’re different! New corners to explore! New hiking trails!

But he is right, to a degree. There is definitely a pattern. And predictability. And to a person who feels herself to be displaced and suspended, this is a welcome feeling.

We shake hands with Nino. We’ll see you again? I say this wistfully. We’ll always be here, he says. Yes, exactly. How wonderful.