Tuesday, September 30, 2014


An article popped up in the paper this morning -- about the state of being happy. Research shows that some people have a very real fear of happiness -- either because they feel  they cannot reach that state of bliss, or that they cannot sustain it because, you know, it always will end with a crash. I understand that because this perfectly describes me as a kid (and, to an extent as I reached adulthood). I worried about the crash that surely would wipe the last bit of joy out of a day.

The researchers suggest that maintaining a constant state of giddy happiness is, in fact, problematic. (What a surprise.) But, too, equally problematic is the fear of allowing yourself to feel happy. You could say that the optimal state to aim for is happiness at a moderate level.

Well now, good point! What I find interesting though, is the term itself: "happy." That word has no good translation in Polish. The best that my native language offers is "szczesliwa" -- which, to me, is more about feeling yourself to be blessed with good fortune and pleased with the state of life. And I think that's a valuable distinction. "Happy" is just such a loaded (in all the wrong ways) term. Happy connotes wearing a wide silly grin on your face. It implies a giddiness, a child-like desire to jump up and down with delight. It really is an odd word, or at least an odd state to aspire to.

Far more useful, I think, is the term "content." I love that word! It means at peace. It means that you are able to find pleasure: you're not struggling to attain it. You're satisfied with the turn of the road, despite the dips and breaks. You think of life and you smile, but you're not doubling over from a belly laugh.

So when I ended last night's post with the words -- I am happy with the piece of news I received, that's one thing. But a far better way to describe the entire evening that evolved is to say that I was at peace.

This little digression is not unrelated to my morning on this supposedly wet day in Alsace -- notably my last day here, as I leave tomorrow. I went out at a modestly early hour -- at 8:30 -- in search of a breakfast treat to bring back to my apartment. There had been rain at night. The cobbled street was still shiny from wetness. Quite lovely to see at this gentle morning hour.





Riquewihr really starts coming alive right at around 9. Not yet with tourists. This is the time when deliveries are made. Suddenly, the main street is looking like this:


 But about that morning breakfast treat. Yesterday's pain au chocolat was fine, but I have to admit -- the pastries at the Salon du The (of my first morning here) were better. And if you buy a croissant as a take-out, it's only 1.1 Euro.

So I go inside the Salon-Patisserie and as I complete the purchase, I ask Madame why they have a sign in the window (which I just noticed the day after I was told not to photograph the pastries) saying "no photos." I mean, if the best Parisian pastry shops, ones that are packed solid with waiting customers, don't mind your camera, why do they mind here in Riquewihr? I could not imagine the reason, so I ask.

Madame shrugs her shoulders. I really do not know. It's not me, it's the owners. Me, I am "decontracte" (laid back). I don't care about the sign and I never tell people to put away their cameras. I have a "do what pleases you" attitude.

Mystery solved. Somewhere in there, the owner developed a grudge against the camera. And the delighted tourist is told (at least by some of the clerks) to reign it in and put it away. Pop! Your bubble of happiness is burst. Unless you're simply content with the world and yourself in it and then you just smile, shrug and move on.

My breakfast at home is delicious. An almond croissant, a cup of milky espresso.


Now what? The forecast calls for rain, with a 90% certainty.

I pace the main street for a little bit. French school children have arrived and their youthfulness really sparks most everything around us. These two girls are all smiles at the cuteness of a dog -- a visiting dog from Germany -- who carries a purchased souvenir, the sold everywhere small stuffed stork.


It's not raining now. I can't resist a hike. I've walked the vineyards for two days now. How about the forest to the west of us? Up the mountainside?


Just as I enter the forest -- it's a mix of chestnuts, of all things and tall pines -- I encounter two men coming out of it. They carry baskets of mushrooms and chestnuts.


It's after rain -- the best time for mushroom picking. I notice the chanterelles and I am reminded of my own mushroom picking days so many decades ago! Can I still do it? Do I have that intuitive eye for the clumps of the orange variety? My sister and I used to be so good at it (in the forest by my grandparents' house in Poland)!

I'm not as lucky now, or maybe the two gentlemen picked the clumps close to the path and left nothing behind, but I do find a few odd varieties and it is enough. There is some satisfaction in merely poking around for mushrooms after the rain.


After an hour of following the path up the mountain, I turn back. It's too quiet up high in the forest and in places, not much light comes through the thicket. When I'm alone, open spaces feel gentler on the soul. Too, I'm not convinced it wont rain.

I amble around the perimeters of  Riquewihr, choosing the road that climbs between rows of vines.


It's not possible to tire of the views toward the village!


I encounter a German couple with their boxer girl. They see another dog on the loose and they immediately put a leash on their own. The loose girl is local.


Her owner is watching from the sidelines.


The loose girl comes up to sniff the German girl, they circle each other and engage in a mild growling banter. Madame shakes her head. My girl is gentle. They should release their dog so these two can work it out. It's not good to stand between them.

The dogs look like they could be twins. Or mother and daughter.

I watch this scene and I think how well the dogs know the rules of their own game, regardless of the nationalities of the owners. Sure, French dogs tend to have good table manners (I'm a little bit joking here, though not really), but put them in the field with their own kind and their language becomes that of dog.

A few more paces, just a few more! It's so beautiful here!


And then I'm back in my apartment again. I munch on cheese and tomato, I pack my suitcase. I'll be leaving it in Paris tomorrow and immediately flying out to Warsaw. I don't need more than a day pack for my three nights in Poland. I still have half a week of travel before me and yet I already feel like I've started the return.

As I settle in to do some late afternoon work on the blog post and, too, on polishing up the final draft of my book project, an email pops into my box. It's from Jean-Paul -- my host here, in Riquewihr. He caught sight of Ocean and, being supremely good at his hosting business, he suggests we grab a glass of wine in town.

I am grateful for this chance to meet him, since I think he and his wife are probably up there in the top 1% of thoughtful landlords who spare no effort to preserve quality and history of the buildings they renovate, at the same time that they create spaces that are without doubt superbly comfortable for guests. At reasonable prices.

I am fascinated by his account of how they took a crumbling structure and turned it into what it is today.


I think about people who put passion into their work. How is it that they maintain the enthusiasm for something that can be unnerving and stressful? Jean-Paul says that stress, anxiety -- they drive creativity. If that's true, then is it good to keep a modicum of stress burning somewhere subliminally within you?

I suppose much as I have sought to erase stress from my everyday, there will always be a thimbleful of it left within me. Ed is nearly 100% stress free. I'm not. But I would relinquish that bit of creativity within, to get as close to 100% as I can. (Honestly, it will never be 100: I wont, for example, eliminate my hyper movements all over the planet and these do, oftentimes, invite stress.)

We drink a wonderful Riesling from a small wine house run by a woman. I'm hearing more about these vintners now: women, in a world that has for a long time been dominated by men.

Evening comes early now, on the last day of September. The skies are clearing, the moon is out.


I can't retreat just yet!  I have one more meal in Alsace!

I go to La Grappe d'Or. It's a darn good place. I know, I hit four good ones in a row! How often does that happen?!
Jean-Paul tells me that Alsace has one of the highest concentrations of Michelin starred kitchens. I'm not eating at Michelin starred places and still, I see the quality in even these "lesser" kitchens. How is it that Alsace is so... delicious? He tells me that in a place like Riquewihr, they watch each other closely. Half of the places don't care - they cater to those who just want to drink and eat typical anything. But the other ones -- they do care. Very much.

I am filling myself with foods I don't ever think about back home. I've eaten my way through everyone's supply of duck liver, I've ordered meats, beef tonight -- foods that I avoid back home are my friends now.

The restaurant is packed. And next to me, there is a threesome that again does not understand that I am completely on their language plain. They are Polish. And they are dismal. I'm not even looking for "happy" here, I'm just looking for "okay."

They are not okay. At one point the woman chastises her partner (assume husband) -- nie krzyc, nie krzyc! (dont shout!). But he wasn't shouting. She just didn't like what he was saying. It spiraled downhill from there.

Me, I will order anything with mushrooms tonight. I am all about mushrooms! And still, I am distracted by the Poles. I want to go up to them and say -- excuse me, but what language are you speaking? It sounds so... poetic! But I stay silent. I don't want to appear like I'm mocking their Polishness. God knows, you rarely encounter Poles in French eateries.

I look around at the other tables. A young couple has just claimed the only free space. They ask if there is a menu in English. The proprietor tells them that there are translations on the main menu. They ask -- how about Swedish, do you have a menu in Swedish?

People are funny in all their yearnings and longings. Who can blame them... Precious days -- you want them to be perfect. And for some, that means having a menu in Swedish.

Tomorrow morning I'm off. Stay patient! Internet issues are always a big question mark until I settle into my new place. Which in this case is going to be my sister's home.

I leave you with my dessert:  a heavenly meringue with ice-cream and forest berries.