When every word matters

In English, I am sloppily verbose. I have a treasure trove of vocabulary at my disposal and search for just the right words to make my points. I use two, three, four different ones per idea with slightly different nuances to deliver the completeness of what I’m attempting to convey.

In French I am spartan. I have minimal command of the language. I have no nuances—everything I say is stated clearly and plainly. There is no subterfuge or verbal manipulations. I do not have the capacity for double entendre, coded language or farcical humor. If I want to express a new thought or idea, first I have to look up the words.

My initial reaction to life in France was frustration. I could not communicate. Period. I wanted to but it was beyond my grasp. The process of learning was sluggish, tedious and fraught with verbal traps. I often insulted people either through my choice of pronoun (informal versus formal), incorrect usage or word choice, or simply by my abhorrent grammar. Though people were kind and patient, I was desolate at my inability to connect.

And then slowly, slowly I began to learn. I made horrid faux pas’ but managed to apologize my way out of them. I started to collect a vocabulary. I forgave myself for the bad grammar that others simply took in stride, being far more accustomed to talking to foreigners than me.

Now two years in, I still struggle daily but less with small talk and niceties and more with larger philosophical constructs that I feel compelled to discussed (I think therefore I am but surely mere existence is not the essence of a purposeful life!). This means I regularly have to decide in terms of communicating: what are the words I need to know?

In conversation with a French friend who speaks no English, he observed this about me: “I thought when I met you, that you were not for real. I kept expecting you to not be so nice, to get angry or to do something mean. But you never did. You never get angry!”

“NO” I said. “I DO get angry! But I do not know the words. So I have to choose: Should I look up the words to express my anger? How important is it to me? Do I want to know how to fight or say mean things? I decided no. So then I stop being angry. Because I don’t know the words.”

Here’s the funny thing—in English I know all the words. I know how to say exactly what I’m feeling. I can say mean things that make people cry, though I try not to. I can swear and curse and argue and apologize and swear again. It’s tiring. It makes my blood boil, it makes me sleepy, it makes me sad, it makes me weep, it can be cathartic but mostly it’s just exhausting.

In French, I can be polite. I can order food. I can talk about the weather. But I can also talk about things that make me happy. Like my friendships. And travel. Or what I want to do with my life and how much I love art and music. And a whole host of other very positive things. But I cannot complain or argue or say unkind things.

It wasn’t a conscious choice to focus only on positive things. It was just plain laziness. Looking up everything you say, word by word or sentence by sentence is time consuming and tedious. I don’t like this task. It bores and irritates me. (I am a TERRIBLE student, by the way.) When I have something positive to say, however, I am excited at the prospect of sharing this idea. I look it up, knowing I will be rewarded by the other person’s reaction. As we are rarely rewarded for negative feedback, there’s very little incentive for me to research those words.

The amazing thing is that, over time, I’ve come to realize the change in attitude that I’ve adopted in my French life. I don’t know negative words. Therefore I cannot use them. Therefore my French life only tends to reflect the positive. That doesn’t mean I’m happy all the time. It means I’ve got a blasé attitude towards the negative things that happen to me in French. I have to let them go more quickly.

This is not denial of the sort that comes back to bite you harder when you least expect it. There is truly no bad aftertaste or malingering side effects. This is honest, Buddhistic letting go of hurt, pain and anger to get to a place of peace. I’ve acknowledged the feelings, reviewed them and decided they are not essential for me to take further on my journey.

I’m not so smart—I didn’t do this as an experiment in cognitive communication practices to drive positive changes through neurolinguistic programming. This is dumb luck, stumbled upon by someone who likes to communicate but doesn’t want to do the hard work of learning how. I take the path of least resistance. No classes for me, just chit chat at my neighborhood restaurants, grocery stores and dry cleaners. And if you know me in English, you know I LOVE a good conversation with a stranger or friend so I’m kept plenty busy learning new words.

I wish I could say that I’ve carried this golden nugget of embracing peaceful living over into my English language life. I’m afraid I am not yet that evolved. I can’t unlearn the nuances of 40+ years of wordsmithing. But I’m seeing the value of speaking simply, of ordering my thoughts by their importance and understanding the gravity of what I say. I’m hoping by the time I learn the negative words in French, it will be equally balanced by my unlearning of some of those words in English.

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What is Home?


I’ve been trying my whole life to identify what “home” is for me. I’ve never been very attached to houses or objects or (gulp!) people in making my home. I’m admittedly a bit of a drifter, which is why it was relatively (relatively!) easy for me to pick up and move to a foreign country.

But “home” is a constant, nagging search, lurking around the jagged edges of my heart. There’s the family “home” that you’re born into, the “home” you retire to at the end of the day, the “home” you create with loved ones; and there’s the “home” of hometown memories. I always got stuck on that last one, since I left Monroe, CT for college in Boston, MA at 18 with barely a backward glance.

And yet, “home” has a way of sneaking up on you, especially as you grow older, mellower and more philosophical. After facing the trauma of my 20-year reunion a few years back, “home” as in hometown ceased to be such a monster in my memory and started to feel a bit more warm and cuddly. Not that I wanted to come back. But visiting was ok.

Each time I went back, I reached out to a few of my old friends. I’ve been back more in the last 4 years than the previous 10. I’ve reconnected with really good people I knew a long time ago, who have also aged, mellowed and philosophized but retain the essence of the personalities that made us childhood pals. And I’ve made new friendships in a place that my youthful hubris never deigned to consider returning to all those years ago.

But home started meaning something else, too. It wasn’t specific to my actual hometown. I annexed the neighboring town of Newtown, specifically Sandy Hook. It was my adopted haven, somewhere to rest, rejuvenate and hide out that felt welcoming and kind.

I don’t want to write about “What Sandy Hook means to me” because this isn’t a post about Sandy Hook—it’s a post about “home.” But I can tell you, think of the pleasant words that come up when someone says the word “home” to you and that’s how I feel about Sandy Hook.

I’m also not going to write about what happened there. We’ve seen too much of that and there are no words eloquent enough to capture the heartbreak.

What I will say is that I was crushed and still cry when reference is made in the news or in conversation. It took me the last month and a half to figure out why. I mean, besides the obvious.

After years of sturm und drang feelings about my “home” of Connecticut, I’d finally reclaimed it and Sandy Hook was the tipping point. It was where I started to feel at ease. I reconnected with New England flora and fauna on wooded, lakeside pathways. I went to baseball games in the summer and on snow hikes in the winter. I sat in local coffee shops, chatting with strangers; I observed the small kindnesses of small towns. It was right with my soul and the place I could almost (almost!) see returning to when living abroad became wearisome.

We all have our fantasies, our wishes and dreams. We build them up quietly in the dark parts of our souls. They are what ultimately shine a light into the corners, sweeping away the cobwebs saying, “Here, come sit. Have a cup of tea and rest. You’re safe here.” Without our dreams to bolster us, we’d easily slip into the darkness and go stark, raving mad.

So I guess I’ve been a little stark, raving mad. Sometimes mad crazy but also sometimes just mad angry. Angry that my peaceful dream was exposed and broken. Angry that I am far away and impotent, powerless to affect meaningful change. Angry that, in truth, Sandy Hook is NOT my hometown—I am an interloper, a usurper and my pain rings hollow in comparison to those who really do have a vested interest in my fantasy hometown.

But when I really dig deep, down past all the junk and soot and mud, I get to the core. For everything that has changed, nothing has changed. It is still a good place. A good town. With good people. If anything, it has been a catalyst the likes of which we haven’t seen yet this century. Sandy Hook now stands poised to be the tipping point for the rest of the country. The qualities that warmly embraced me and changed my views on what it means to be “home” are now and forever opened up to the rest of the world, for better or worse. I think it’s better. I pray it’s better. Please, god, make it better.

Because it’s my home.

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Je parle un peu le français

The best advice I received upon arrival in Paris was this:

Give yourself permission to fail.

Your first year is a wash. You’ll pay too much for things, buy the wrong clothes and go to the wrong stores for groceries. You’ll get lost–a lot. You’ll waste too much time in lines and filling out forms and re-filling out forms when you get it wrong the first time. And the second time. You’ll be frustrated and angry and you won’t be able to communicate because you don’t speak the language.

I am grateful I got this talk within my first 2 months. Because that’s exactly what happened. Somehow it made it easier to know it was coming.

I’ve now been here 18 months. I picked and chose the things that I would focus on during my first year because there was so much it was just overwhelming. The number one focus was establishing myself in my new job since, without that, this whole adventure would have been over rather quickly.

The main thing I neglected during that time was my language training. I initially had a grand vision of arriving and mastering French (with little to no effort!) within the first three months of arrival. I had done quite well in learning German in my summer abroad so I figured, heck—how hard could it be?

Well, for starters, I had 3 years of German studies before I dropped down in a small town outside of Hamburg. And secondly, it was total immersion; if I hadn’t learned fast, I was going to be sans audience—and if you know me, you realize what a great motivator that was.

French I’d studied twice; the first time for about six weeks in 5th grade and then for one year in college with a teacher who was perpetually late and unprepared. I got an A but I’m assuming that’s because she lost my final. And let’s not discuss how many years ago that was.

Other impediments to my language goals are that my work is all in English; my friends are all expats from a variety of different countries and the only language in common is English; and Paris is a very metropolitan city—in some ways, not speaking French is only a minor inconvenience.

So French language studies were sidelined until recently when I undertook it with the snarling ferocity of a toy poodle trying to earn its place with the big dogs. Not that I actually studied (much), mind you. I’m still a slacker to my core. I got myself a private teacher but mostly I just started using it*. And looking stuff up. And forcing very patient people to suffer through my 5 minutes of “ummm…je….je voudrais…ahhh…je voudrais un café…crème. S’il vous plaît.”

Contrary to popular belief, there are many very kind, gracious, patient people in France. Look for immigrants—they always have the encouraging “been there, done that” smile as you stumble through 5 different conjugations before ultimately landing on the (wrong) one.

Unfortunately for me, my most intense several weeks of French were followed by a trip to Germany, which completely unhinged me. I found myself gawping at a ticket seller at the Munich airport, in line for the train to downtown, unable to speak. After several moments of my stupefied “uhhhh….ahhhh…uhhhh” sounds, the seller said, “You can speak English, if you like.” AND YET I COULDN’T.

I had lost all powers of speech.

I knew what I wanted but I had such a jumble of languages in my head. My native tongue is English. I had been speaking French all that morning. I had just arrived in Germany. My brain went on overload and completely shut down.

This went on for TWO DAYS.

Finally, the German kicked in somewhat and I was able to have simple conversations. Had I been there another week, it would’ve all come back. Thank god I got out in time though because, of course, upon return to France, I lost the powers of speech AGAIN.

I am anxious for the day when I can fluidly bounce back and forth between languages. It may never come. I don’t consider myself fluent in German. I am a train wreck in French, though every day I understand more (my teacher told me she is so impressed! I feel like a second grader who’s gotten a gold star on my spelling test—whoohoo!!!).

My greatest joy right now is the accomplishment of being able to communicate with people, however messy, clunky or grammatically incorrect it is. And I’m glad to know that failing is just an acceptable step on the way.

*NOTE: I do not attempt to use French at work, despite the encouragement of my dear colleagues. I just can’t get over my fear that whatever little respect I’ve earned over the last year and a half will be immediately lost upon hearing me babble like a 5 year old.

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I have now been twice blessed with the gift of revisiting my past to clear away obsolete behaviors and exorcise the hauntings of childhood follies. In the process I’ve re-discovered old friendships and built new ones with people I missed the first time around.

The first was my 20th high school reunion in 2008. I had all the usual qualms about returning to the “scene of the crime” and a few of my own personal demons to contend with. There were heartbreaks and betrayals that scarred me well into adulthood (yes, I was a sensitive child). I had a complete breakdown in a bank parking lot prior to the event, calling on all my friends back in Los Angeles to remind me that, no matter what my previous relationship with these people, I had grown into a successful, kind and beautiful woman. Funny how just the mention of “high school” can make you forget this.

I finally mustered the courage to walk in and was immediately confronted by the woman who I’d been most conflicted about seeing. In our sophomore year, when we were the closest of friends, I felt betrayed by her in such a significant way that it colored many of my relationships through my adult life. Before I could say anything, she started with, “You are the reason I am at this reunion. I always felt we had unfinished business.” It was such a bold, heartfelt statement indicating that she recognized the serious hurt of her actions and had considered it for the last 20 years. In one, glorious, miraculous second, every last vestige of the fear and mistrust I had lugged around as “victim” of youthful indiscretions completely dissipated. “We did,” I said. “But now we don’t.”

These kinds of moments are rare and special. They are those moments you dream about—what would I say to the one who wronged me (or who I wronged) if I met them on the street? Could we ever forgive one another? Should we even try?

Saturday night I once again found myself standing at the threshold of another reunion. This time I was clear on who I am and my place within the hearts of those close to me. I was solid in my self and surrounded by my dearest girlfriends, who had flown into town for the event.

I had been waiting for this moment for a full year—the E! Entertainment Television 2012 reunion. After E! celebrated it’s 20th anniversary a year ago in a very corporate manner, neglecting to include any of the thousands of previous employees who built it out of blood, sweat, tears and grand, grand dreams, one ambitious employee took it upon himself to arrange a reunion for us “have nots.” Eventually it grew into a reunion committee, a swag “museum”, a multimedia presentation and comfort food all held in a large, dark, hipster bar in Hollywood.

An hour prior to the official start of the event, I was invited to a small gathering of closer colleagues and friends from our era at E!. My trepidation this time was knowing that, after 10+ years, I would be facing the person who represented the most significant relationship of my 20s (see post “No Mayonnaise in Ireland,” November 2011).

My rock, Kris, recognized my disquietude and was looking out for me. When she noticed my rather elaborately tied halter top sliding askew, she lead me to the ladies room to fix me up, intuitively knowing my niggling insecurities would require me to look my very best. As luck would have it, we exited the restroom and ran right into S. who was just entering the restaurant.

It was an awkward hello but a genuine one. I immediately noted his corresponding discomfort. As focused as I had been on mine, it never occurred to me that he might also have some anxiety about seeing me again.

We all walked across the street to the nightclub housing the party and mixed and mingled with the larger gang. We flowed into the reunion crowd, everyone joyfully hugging, kissing, laughing and jumping up and down with the absolute ecstasy of reuniting with all these people who had meant so much to us at one spectacular time in our lives who had then slowly slipped away as dust blown off with the daily grind. We never knew how special that moment was while we were in it but we can all look back now and see the remarkable gift we had been bestowed so early in our careers. How many companies engender the kind of loyalty that causes the employees to organize their own reunion 15 years after most of them had left?

I arrived at the reunion excited to re-establish friendships from such a poignant epoch. In regards to S., I had hoped only to weather the storm of revisiting a heartbreak from so long ago. I hadn’t expected the gift of kindness and resolution. But S. turned to me at one point during the night and said, “We were so young and we made a lot of mistakes but there were moments of brilliance. You’re a very talented and remarkable woman. I don’t think I ever told you that. I’m sorry.”

There are the things you always hope you will be brave enough to say if you ever get the opportunity. There are things you desperately want to hear from those who have been most important to you. But most of the time in life, we have to resolve those things internally ourselves because, chances are, there will be no do-overs, no apologies, no recognition that we are all fallible and human. And we’re usually too embroiled in our own hurt to graciously offer that up for others.

So, twice now, I have been blessed by the grace of others in unanticipated fashion. I cannot help but hear the opening of an e. e. cummings poem that a mentor wrote in calligraphy on parchment for me 25 years ago to remind me of the glorious quiet gifts that sneak up on us without warning.

i thank You God for most this most this amazing day:

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To consume and create

This has been a year of consumption for me. There is some poetic symmetry in this—I’ve come to the home of La Boheme, the eponymous Bohemians, who lived passionate, artistic lives in Parisian garrets before their romantic muse expired from consumption (tuberculosis), accompanied by dramatic, verismo swells of orchestral grandeur.

By comparison, I’ve enjoyed relatively good health and my “Parisian Garret” is a quite well equipped, modernized apartment with heat and an elevator. And, alas, much to my chagrin, the only soundtrack punctuating the highs and lows of my adventures resides on my iPhone and is peppered with, yeah, I’ll admit it, Britney Spears. Perhaps this is what has led to my creative complacency—too much comfort. But there is always the whisper of “more” rustling through the creaky windmills of my mind, never quite allowing me to rest easy and grow spiritually fat and smug.

I’m currently reading two books simultaneously which are of great compliment to one another: Paulo Coehlo’s 1987 book, The Pilgrimage, detailing the author’s spiritual journey along the road to Santiago and John Bunyon’s 1678 allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress about the trials weathered by a man who embarks on a spiritual journey sparked by a dream.

At the core of both books are the following tenets:

It is hard. The path to enlightenment/fulfillment/enrichment/God (call it what you will) is fraught with challenges, disappointments, fear and, sometimes, horrors. Without the crucible of these trials, there is no understanding of the true nature of grace.
It is for all. If a path is exclusionary, or impossibly difficult or claims to be the singularly legitimate path, it is not the way (I say this though both books are rooted in Christianity. While my interpretation might not exactly match the authors’ intent, the books’ contents easily lend themselves to this reading).
It is deeply personal. There is no substitute for personal strength, courage and determination to forge through the aforementioned obstacles. However, one must also have the humility to accept help from others as well as the kindness to offer help to others, lest you lose your humanity along the way.
Its main goal is be love. BE love, not GET love or be LOVED. To be it’s pure embodiment, divine love in all it’s renditions; nirvana, enlightenment, agape, acceptance, tolerance, whatever. A tall order, which is why the next tenet is…
It is constant. The rewards are sweet but the process is “without end.” What is hard won must also be maintained and protected with one’s very life in order for it to flourish.

While all of the above ebb and flow in importance for me, the most poignant of these themes right now is the last—the constant requirement to nourish and grown one’s talents in order to be the love that you hope to grow. I have often found myself in thrall of another’s creative glory, the beauty and poetry of another’s work, whether it be literature, art, music or, in broader terms, great works of science, commercial endeavors or charity. I am a gross consumer of all types of information, constantly replenishing my stores of knowledge via all available mediums. But consumption without reciprocal creation is at its best meaningless and at its basest greedy, slothful, gluttonous and prideful—4 out of the seven deadly sins.

So as not to commit myself to eternal damnation, I felt compelled to at least attempt a modicum of creativity and thus, the following poem. Be kind, dear reader—I do not ask that you like or admire it, only that you understand the impetus behind it’s creation: the desire to always be arriving, never to have arrived.

Without ceremony
Do not lay the table for the feast
Knowing the invitations lie unsent
There is no glory in perfection
So long as the ballroom is empty
The anticipation of the feast
Will always surpass the repast
If the wanting
Is the holier moment
Than the getting
Throw open the shutters
Throw wide the oven
Let air the baking, the broiling, the bubbling infusions
Let your joy be the invitation
Be yourself the holy moment of reception
Be yourself the feast for all
Open the door! Open the door!
The great knocking has begun!

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Painting by the numbers

A full year has passed since I set my feet on Parisian soil and so much has transpired that I felt the need to tally it all up numerically as I am often wont to do when trying to make sense of an incredibly large and unwieldy amount of data.

Following are some stats from the whirlwind of the last year. I’m a bit flabbergasted at how it’s all played out but thankful I’ve been keeping records, if only to revisit in my dotage when I’ve not longer got the stamina for constant travel.

13 – Countries visited
7 – New countries visited

24 – Cities visited
18 – New cities visited

27 – Individual trips
8 – Multi-leg trips

18 – Business trips
11 – Personal trips

18 – Visitors to Paris
10 – Visitors who stayed with me

3,189 – Pictures taken
46 – Facebook Albums created
20 – Blog posts

Incalculable – New friends
Innumerable – Old friends

Countries visited: Belgium, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Monaco, Poland, Romania, Spain, Sweden, UK, USA

Cities visited: Boston, Brussels, Cannes, Copenhagen, Connecticut (cities grouped), Frankfurt, Gothenburg, Heidelberg, Jukkasjarvi, London, Los Angeles (cities grouped), Madrid, Margival, Milan, Mont St. Michel, Monte Carlo, Reims, Rome, Sarajevo, St. Malo, Stockholm, Timisoara, Versaille, Warsaw

A selection of significant sites/events in and around Paris: Champs Elysee, Christmas Market, Arc de Triomphe, Tour de France, Eiffel Tower, Bastille Day Fireworks, Bateau Mouche on the Seine, Paris Plage, Opera Garnier, Palais Royal, Tulieres Garden, Louvre Museum, L’Orangerie Museum, Musee D’Orsay, Branly Museum, Sacre Coeur, Grey Goose Ice Bar, Luxemburg Gardens, Marais, Centre Pompidou, Place de Vosges, Notre Dame, St. Germain-des-Pres, Cluny Museum, Vincennes Chateau, Pere Lachaise Cemetary, Versailles, Notre Dame de Reimes, Walled city of St. Malo, Mont St. Michel Monastery

Selection of significant sites in Europe: Ice Hotel, Sweden; Heidelberg Castle, Germany; Duomo, Milan, Italy; Old Town Warsaw, Poland; Rosenbourg Castle, Denmark; Tower of London, UK; Olympic Ski Jumps, Bosnia; French Riviera; Casino, Monaco

It has been a remarkable adventure and one I never take for granted, not one minute of any day. I have been humbled and grateful to have been able to take you all along for the ride. I don’t know how long this will last but it’s pretty clear that I’ve built memories to last a lifetime, no matter what’s next.

And, according to my calendar, “next” so far includes the Rhine Valley, Mallorca, Madrid, Basel and a summer visit to the States.

Pictures to follow…

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Everything Wrong is Right Again

Ice Hotel Totems

The Ice Hotel in Jukkasjarvi defies explanation and is impossible to capture on film. These are my blatant excuses for taking so long to write about it. However, I will do my best, as it seems to be the single most requested topic for a posting from friends and family.

First, there is absolutely no way to describe the pristine environment. Yes, it is a tourist destination but even at its peak, the number of individuals is limited simply due to the difficulties of arrival and the potentially harsh conditions—the weeks leading up to my visit were -40 degrees Fahrenheit. The hotel kindly offers a no-penalty cancellation policy for weeks that drop below -30 though, with the complexities of travel in getting there, it is rarely used.

My flights in took me through stops in Copenhagen and Stockholm. In my flight over Denmark, I viewed two remarkable things that will stay with me forever, though my camera was not at hand.

The first was a view from above of the modern engineering miracle, the Oresund bridge tunnel connecting Denmark and Sweden. You may well have seen this as part of a photo blog that went viral years back—I had. I just had no recollection of it til I saw it again. Here’s a site with lots of cool pictures

The second thing I saw was one of nature’s miracles and I will never get it out of my head which is good, considering my lack of shutter speed. I took the sighting as a grand omen of the days to come. While peering out my window on our descent into Copenhagen, but still above the clouds, I saw a circular rainbow. It was faint, and I doubted myself even as the colors became clearer. I thought that perhaps it was a figment of my imagination but upon further research I found they were rare though not unheard of and are mainly viewed, as I did, in a plane above the clouds. Some folks are not as slow with the camera as I am so, if you google “Circular Rainbow from an Airplane,” you will get a pretty good view of what I saw.

With a 5-hour layover in Sweden’s capital before my connecting flight to Jukkasjarvi in the northernmost settlement of Sweden, I had plenty of time to meet Andreas for lunch. I was traveling solo on this trip but, considering my proficiency at befriending new people, I wasn’t too concerned—Andreas and I met last August on my second trip to Stockholm and have been fast friends ever since. So I figured I’d be fine for a 4-day trip.

By the time I made it to Kiruna airport, it was cold and dark—but not as cold and dark as I anticipated. There was still low-level light at 5pm and the sheer brilliance of the moon on the snow meant it never got truly dark. This counteracted the limited daylight effect (5 hours a day during late February) significantly, as it wasn’t oppressive darkness. And during the daylight hours, the snow reflected back in radiance like fine crystal—which it is, albeit the melty kind. It was blindingly beautiful at every turn.

Arrival in Kiruna Airport

Now, I had done my homework. I had looked up the Ice Hotel on trip advisor before booking. There were a number of dings on service—that the staff in the “cold” portion of the hotel (the rooms made of ice) had no idea what the folks in the “warm” (the traditional cabins with heat and other amenities) were doing. Same for the activities coordinator. I hate to admit that this was true. In some senses it was chaos. I had quite a number of conversations, every day I was there, about where I was supposed to be staying or what I was supposed to be doing. They lost my reservation; they found my reservation; they changed my reservation to the wrong date, etc. etc. etc. The weirdest part was when they called on Sunday, desperately searching for me, as the bus to the airport was waiting for me it and it was holding up all the other passengers. My flight, however, was Monday. I was so thoroughly confused I had to pull up my calendar and my itinerary, just to make sure it wasn’t ME that was crazy, at least not in this circumstance.

However, that said, the Ice Hotel more than redeemed itself, and not just via its scenery. On a side note, I’ve worked for many years in customer service training and I can tell you that, for the most part, it doesn’t work. Either someone is customer oriented or they are not. You can ameliorate the issue by imposing a good structure around service parameters but the second the structure falters, it will all go to hell if someone is not naturally inclined towards helpfulness.

This staff was one of the most pleasant, helpful and caring staffs I’ve ever encountered, hands down. Not only did they apologize for anything that went wrong, they took personal responsibility and clung to it like a pitbull until it was resolved. While the mishaps could have damaged my view of the organization, the staff response skyrocketed them to superstardom in my estimation–though the infrastructure holding them together could still use a bit of Six Sigma/LEAN to get them on track (oh dear, did I really just say that???).

I arrived, checked in (with some difficulty, but we got there) and collected my weekend gear. This consisted of a bulky jumpsuit suitable for subzero temperatures, a set of heavy-duty “flipper” style mittens, moon boots with 2”+ soles and a fleece balaclava. Fortunately, it only got down to around -8F during my trip, so I remained rather toasty warm.

Dinner that evening was an event—6 courses (plus an amuse bouche) and almost all of them served on blocks of ice. And, yes, I did my best to work my way through the specialty cocktail menu as well. Who could say no to such delights as “Sea Buckthorn” or “Cloudberry” drinks? Or martini glasses that arrive with enormous blocks of ice, hand-hewn to resemble diamonds? I certainly cannot.

Regarding the unique and beautifully modern dinnerware, I asked my waitress if any of it was reused. “Oh yes,” she said. “We just take it back into the kitchen, run it under really hot water to sterilize it and then use it again.” “Really?” I said. “No, not really,” she said. “We just throw it in the sink and let it melt.”

I will not leave dinner to your imagination. I suggest you view it here

The staff took special care of me. It seems I was the ONLY person staying at the hotel alone—I found myself adopted by staff and travelers alike who were worried that my singular experience would diminish the effects of the hotel’s charms. Au contraire—I believe that, absent distractions, I experienced it to its fullest effects, and then some.

My waitress was a beautiful, charming and funny young Swedish woman who had, ironically, just spent the previous year living in Wilton, CT as a nanny. Not only was she genuinely solicitous of me that evening, she went out of her way to locate me throughout the course of my stay and ask how I was doing. She was a fantastic asset to the Ice Hotel experience and all she was doing was being herself. At one point, as I was showing her the photos I was taking of the food and atmosphere, she said, “You should be in marketing!” to which I replied that I actually was. “You’re doing the right thing then,” she said, somberly.

Another gentleman was assisting in serving and drinks and we had a long conversation about his impending trip to the U.S. I found out much later that he was the bar manager and was personally responsible for that year’s drink menu in the Ice Bar, all of which are served in glasses made of ice (they’re good for about 5 drinks before they start to degrade). By the end of the weekend, he quietly slipped me one of the acrylic menus they used in the bar in lieu of paper menus, which wouldn’t withstand the extreme conditions (fyi, they clean the bar with a blowtorch when it gets messy—A BLOWTORCH). It is my most treasured item from that trip, as the menu is not for sale and changes yearly, based on the names of the art room designs that year.

Ice glasses and drink menu

A word about the art rooms: there is nothing like them and pictures are not enough, though I’ve done my best to include them here. Even the standard room, which I stayed in, is glorious. But the art rooms are a genre unto their own. Each room is designed by a different artist, their visions submitted by June each year for judging and award. The artist then must construct their rooms to their proposed design by hand within a two week time period, with no other assistance allowed other than a single helper designated in their original prospectus.

There are no detailed parameters for design other than the size and shape of the room, the required space for a bed and the fact that everything—absolutely everything—must be constructed of ice and snow. Talk about engineering miracles…

I was the first arrival at the world famous bar that first evening and it started out as difficult. The bartender, 22 and surly, was opinionated and bossy. I tend to like difficult people but he was getting on my nerves. I finally said, “Why you gotta be such a punk-ass kid?!” Which made him laugh and sealed both our friendship and his nickname, which he proceeded to share with everyone else. Throughout the rest of the weekend, he insisted all the other staff treat me well because I was “special.” We bonded over talks running the gamut of his psycho girlfriend who called or texted every half hour to his homesickness to his next gig in Greece, “where it’s warm.”

When I arrived at the hotel for my first night “in the cold”, I was strongly advised by the girl at the desk to use the rest room prior to bedtime, as it would be unlikely I’d want to get up, walk through the hotel, cross the courtyard and use the facilities in the lodge in the middle of the night. Best not to drink much pre-bedtime either. I retired to my room around 10:30pm, completely neglecting her advice and full of fine food and cocktails. While I made it through, it’s not a challenge that I recommend taking on lightly.

The experience, however, of sleeping in what is essentially a fancy igloo is one I highly recommend, if only for one evening. It was slightly uncomfortable—I could have used one more layer. I was in a heavy sleeping bag and each time I rolled over, some part of my neck seemed to get exposed to a blast of frigid air. And, considering that I was sleeping on a bed of smelly elk skins covering a wooden platform on top of a solid block of ice, I rolled over a lot. But they woke me in the morning at 7am with a steaming mug of lingonberry juice and gave me a certificate authenticating my stay (It was 23F inside that night; -8F outside).

Good morning!

The next day, after a breakfast including the best scrambled eggs I’ve ever had in my life, (seriously, different blog topic but it has become a quest of mine as I travel to try to recreate the eggs from that Ice Hotel breakfast. What is their secret? How do they do it? Why are they so rich and yellow and light and fluffy? WHY AM I CRAVING THEM RIGHT NOW???) I wandered around aimlessly without a hat. It didn’t seem like much of an issue. I walked the 15 minutes down the road to the old church, removing my gloves to clumsily snap pictures along the way as best I could. FYI, don’t even try using the “touch” feature on an iPhone in sub-zero temps. It’s an exercise in futility, as doesn’t register your body heat.

By the time I got to the end of the road I remembered that old adage that “90% of your body heat is lost through your head.” Okay, that is a LIE—the actual amount is more like 7% but at some point it just becomes semantics. Freezing is freezing. And I had a 15-minute walk back ahead of me (no pun intended). Needless to say, I did not forget my hat the rest of the weekend.

And a hat was not enough (nor were the 2 balaclavas, the heavy sweaters and the rest of the aforementioned arctic gear) to keep me warm on the dogsled ride later that day, though I was thrilled enough not to care. I wasn’t so cold as to be terribly uncomfortable but it certainly kept me alert. The dogs were gloriously friendly, hyperactive mutts whose greatest love in life was to run. They needed to be monitored closely, as they are known to either overheat and/or run themselves to death if they are not kept in check. Our mushers told us that it was a bit warm for them that day—it was around 14F—as their ideal running temperature was between -4 and -40.

Sweet puppies

We stopped to give the dogs a moment to eat snow (they don’t drink water) and I stepped off the trail to get around to the front of the sled. Bit of a mistake in judgement. The trails are packed snow. Within a moment, I was up to my hip in snow. I clawed my way out, laughing and crawled back onto the track, face to face with our lead dog. Thank goodness he was friendly!

The next day was a bit less frenetic, as reindeer run a bit slower than sled dogs (and are quite a bit surlier). I went on a tour of a Sami camp, the indigenous, nomadic reindeer herders of northern Sweden, Norway and Finland. I will not attempt to detail their plight, only to say that it is much like most indigenous tribes; the Aborigines, the Maori, the Native Americans, the Inuit. It is the same story of persecution, forced assimilation, purposeful destruction of language, family and religion that has occurred throughout history whenever another culture comes with the intent of “civilizing” the native people, often through forced Christianity. It is always tragic and, considering the beauty of the Sami traditions, textiles and rituals, especially poignant. Traditional Sami dress consists of brilliant blues, yellows, greens and reds and evokes the beautiful colors of the summer hillsides as well as the winter auroras.

And speaking of the northern lights…

I lived in LA for too long.

I saw them. My second night I walked alone out onto the frozen Torne River and gazed up into the sky. In the direction of the city of Kiruna, two giant pillars of light reached at opposing angles up into the darkness. I was unfazed. Why?


Really. The only thought in my head was, “Oh. I didn’t realize there were enough people here to support club culture.” It wasn’t until I was informed the next day what I had been looking at that I understood it. So the NEXT night when they were out, I was much more observant!

While I didn’t get to see the brilliant sorts of multi-colored lights that one sees in the best of aurora borealis photos, I was lucky enough, two nights in a row, to see the more common green lights, once in the aforementioned columns and the next night in a bit more of a shimmery dust format spreading across a significant swath of the darkened sky and lighting the trees from behind in silhouette. For those of you looking for pictures, I’m afraid they don’t photograph well without special, time-lapse equipment (I tried).

While I may have been slow on the uptake regarding the aurora sighting, the overall experience of the weekend was one of slow magic, the kind that creeps up through your toes gradually, seizes your heart and then floats away in happiness above your head. I immediately followed the Ice Hotel trip with several other combined work/play trips, including Cannes, Monte Carlo and Brussels but for as thrilling as they were, they all suffered by comparison.

For anyone who is considering the visit, I highly recommend it. And let me know—maybe I’ll come along again with you…

The rest of the pictures:

Ice Bar & Hotel
Reindeer games
” target=”_blank”>Dogsled video
” target=”_blank”>Reindeer video

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The Meaning of Life

In honor of my 42nd birthday and to stave off the doom and gloom of a few weeks ago, I booked a trip to give myself something exciting to look forward to. Next week I am taking a short but eventful trip to northern Sweden to hopefully catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis whilst honing my skills as a dogsled musher and cozying up in the Ice Hotel (average room temperature, 23 F/-5 C). I have a few pangs of anxiety regarding undertaking such a journey alone. But I’m confident that no matter the outcome, the rewards of throwing myself into life with joy and love and excitement will continue to nourish me.

I know that many people do not like traveling alone; they may be nervous, uncomfortable, embarrassed or bored. But there is a freedom and confidence born out of solo travel that can develop into a strength of character that is difficult to rattle no matter what the world throws at you.

At 24 (the reverse of 42!) I was newly separated and rather unsure of what my next steps might be. Lacking other plans, I decided to revisit the dreams I’d put aside when I’d gotten married two years before, still in college and completely void of any discernible identity of my own.

In my teens I’d built elaborate timelines for my expected rocketship to stardom as an opera diva (I was a bit of a nerd). By 24 I’d sidelined my musical ambitions (to be picked up again at 27 though that’s yet another story) but I still yearned for an international experience. So I spent an entire year planning my move to Japan—before moving, on a whim, to Prague instead at the age of 25.

But prior to that adventure, there were several other, smaller adventures. The first was Joshua Tree. I was scared and scarred but I still had a spark of bravery left in me and I intended to fan the flames. I headed out alone one morning on the 2+ hour drive to Joshua Tree to hike and, well, just think about things. I had never been that far out of LA on my own before since moving there 3 years ago.

I’d just reached a point along the freeway where civilization seemed distant and help seemed far away when I had a panic attack. I pulled over to the side of the road. I was terrified because suddenly I didn’t know where the hospitals were and I was far enough away from anywhere that looked inhabited that I was sure I was going to die out there in the desert.

This may sound like an unfounded reaction. It was not.

Since I was young I had suffered from inexplicable bouts of swelling, hives and dizziness that sent me to the emergency room on a regular basis, sometimes up to six times a year. It struck without warning and seemed not to follow any apparent pattern. It was alarming to feel that I could be stricken at any moment or that I might require emergency intervention due to airway restriction.

I had been to many specialists to no avail. Because there didn’t seem to be a pattern, it was assumed that the only possible trigger could be hysteria i.e. I was doing this to myself. This made me even more self-conscious and fearful and contributed to a sense of fault and blame—that I was responsible for these episodes. And, of course, I was in a constant state of stress and anxiety, waiting for the “next” time this would happen. It would be several more years before I was diagnosed with an extremely rare condition called Food Related Exercise Dependent Anaphylaxis. Try saying that 5 times fast!

So there I was at the side of the road, NOT having an allergic reaction but having an anxiety reaction. I was ready to turn the car around and go home—I didn’t think I was capable of going on this daytrip out into the desert by myself. That was when I had my epiphany.

I didn’t want to die. I really, really didn’t want to die. Not physically. But not figuratively either. And if I chose to turn around, a little part of me was going to die that day. Each time that I closed myself off to new experiences or turned back because I was frightened, I was going to die. And eventually there wouldn’t be anything left inside of me at all.

I decided in that moment that I would rather die physically than figuratively. That I would make the choice to take the risk, even if it might cost me my life someday. Because I was not the kind of person who could live in a box, who could be content with a small world existence. I wanted everything and everyone and the rich, joyful life that I felt I could only get through unfettered movement around the globe and that needed to start in my own backyard.

At the time, my now dear friend Greg was my boss and he had a view on life which I took to heart. The general version was, “Is it going to kill me? No? Well, then, it can’t be that bad.” And then, when something more serious came up, “Is it going to kill me? Well, maybe. But the truth is, I’d rather not live like that so what the hell?”

I put the car in drive and continued onward and didn’t look back.

I didn’t die that day.

That trip became the first of many that I undertook alone. Several months later I took a 5 day trip to the Grand Canyon through the back roads and byways of Arizona. I found myself in a town that was so far off the grid that when I showed up at the local gas station (which was also the local eatery and local hang out) I instantly became a town celebrity. I was surrounded by natives who, out of genuine curiosity, wanted to know who I was, where I was from and why I was there. I was offered trailer accommodations for the evening and a sorry looking mongrel, neither of which I accepted.

Each solo trip has offered up a new set of insights and escapades that have shaped me and I’m grateful for that. Next weekend I hope to add another notch in my adventure belt. Perhaps, out there on the snowy white tundra in sub-zero Arctic temperatures amidst the yawping huskies, I will learn the meaning of life.

Which, as everyone knows, is 42.*

*Read “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” by Douglas Adams

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College Boys and Crying in Your Beer (it’s not what you think)

Today I had the privilege of assisting our 20-year-old intern in composing his college transfer essay. This is the same intern mentioned in the “Stockholm Syndrome” blog post, so you can immediately see that I owed him one.

The process was, for me, exhilarating and, for him, exhausting but I think we came out of it with the first skeletal draft of something substantial enough for submission to his Ivy League choices. The intern is a very smart young man with a bright future. I’m just hoping he’ll remember my kindness and hire me when he’s CEO of his own company and I’m trapped in middle-management corporate purgatory.

We spent a couple hours at Starbucks discussing the “kernel of truth” he wanted to express. This brought back exceptionally fond memories of the 2 year sojourn that ultimately became “Red, White & Brew: An American Beer Odyssey” by Brian Yaeger (St. Martin’s Press, October 2008).

RWB was an emotional rollercoaster and I wasn’t even the one writing it. But Brian needed a partner to both push him on his deadlines and help him refine his storytelling and I happily obliged. We spent many days arguing the “kernel of truth” to each chapter and defining the thread that strung all of his ideas together. I drew up elaborate excel spreadsheets, outlining the chapter components, broken down into bite sized pieces and tagged with word counts and due dates.

Brian was still in the interview process for his book when we started working together and at times had trouble getting his subjects to open up to him. I had been doing transcripts for him and, with his permission, gave him a suggestion on one of his later interviews, as well as something to incorporate into his overall writing.

“You need to give something of yourself. You need to share something in order to gain your subject’s trust.”

“But the interview isn’t about me. It’s about them. Why should I talk about me?”

“So they feel like they know you and feel safe confiding in you.”

Poor Brian. He took my advice. He returned from his last interview looking shaken.

“What happened?”

“She cried. Like, a lot. I’ve never had that happen before—I didn’t know what to do!”

Congratulations, Barbara Walters—that, my friend, is the ultimate success!

Our final due date for finishing the manuscript in order to get it to the publisher on time was December 31, 2007. My most rewarding New Year’s was meeting up in a bookstore in San Francisco after he had dropped off the manuscript for the last FedEx run of the day. We looked around and said, “by this time next year—RWB will be on these shelves!” And it was.

It’s taken several years for me to embark upon writing for myself as opposed to helping others in their process. I’m finally at a point where I’m comfortable enough to take my own advice.

Last week I wrote a blog post that garnered the most responses to date. It was a combination of two things; folks checking in with me to ensure I was not about to throw myself into the Seine (I think people misunderstood and thought I was CURRENTLY depressed, as opposed to FORMERLY) and others who were grateful for the candor and shared their own stories and challenges. My goal is to encourage the latter response without eliciting the former concerns.

The most challenging part of writing is to be able to engage the reader, to allow them to feel what you are feeling without going so overboard as to become maudlin. It’s a tough middle ground to find. I tend to swing from cool detachment to emotional vomit post to post. I’m learning moderation in writing as with everything in life.

Today’s essay exercise was a poignant reminder that the best writing is a story guided by universal truths but driven by personal passion. Who we are, our very identity, should permeate our art in such a way that we differentiate ourselves from the rest of the 7 billion people on the planet and make our story our very own.

Or it should at least get you into a good school.

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Sorrow Floats

There is a remarkable scene in the John Irving book, “Hotel New Hampshire” in which the beloved deceased, stuffed family dog, named Sorrow, floats to the surface of a lake after the plane carrying their belongings crashes. The book and characters are so complex, I don’t care to go into details (I highly suggest you read it) but the crux of the scene, as I remember it (20 years ago) is the sense that sorrow can have it’s own sort of buoyancy—that even in the throws of despair, there can be that bubble of hope that helps us rise to the surface.

This has been a week of many unfortunate occurrences, none of which I feel may be posted publicly on my blog. There have been both personal and professional setbacks. Add to that my birthday this past week and the recent events have caused me to step back and take stock of who I am, where I’ve been and what comes next.

The conclusion is: I am ultimately optimistic and hopeful for the days ahead.

I find I can be this way because I’m now old enough to have seen both joyful and terrible things in my life and to understand how transitory every state is. This may sound obvious to anyone with even a smattering of Buddhist training but, at 10, 16, 24 and even 31 I still had trouble understanding that.

I can also honestly admit that I was severely depressed for the first 2/3s of my life, without ever fully understanding that I was. I don’t even know exactly how or why it started, whether it was environmental or organic, only that it was hard to live in my own skin. I can say that because nowadays, in the face of disappointment or uncertainty, what I feel is normal, appropriate sadness, as opposed to lung-crushing, breath-taking fear, anxiety, paranoia and paralysis.

On December 31, 1999, I was pulled over for speeding. Unfortunately, I was driving a car that was registered to someone else, insured to me in California and handed over a Connecticut driver’s license. The police officer was already skeptical. The final blow was when he came back to me after checking my information and said, “Uh…you HAVE a valid California driver’s license!” (NOTE: It is illegal in the US to have a driver’s license in more than 1 state). The officer was apologetic but he took my car away. And that’s when I sat down on the curb and started to cry.

I felt like my whole life was crashing down around me—it had been a terrible year of defeats and it felt like the culmination of the world ending (remember Y2K?). To me, it felt like normal behavior to sit on the ground crying hysterically. Apparently, not so the police office, who asked me ever so politely to please calm down or he would need to call an ambulance to take me to the hospital. This was the first time I ever recognized that perhaps my reactions were out of balance with the incidents that prompted them.

It was around this time that I finally started the hard work to unravel the kind of thinking that caused those reactions and started rewiring my brain towards acceptance and cautious optimism in the face of obstacles versus my previous chicken-little/the-sky-is-falling! manner. (Not coincidentally, that was one of my favorite fairy tales growing up. It made perfect sense.)

What followed was years of soul-searching, enlightenment seeking, therapizing, exercising and fantasizing. I had a lot of guides along the way—wonderful folks who helped me out, either for a fee or out of the goodness of their hearts. I learned that there are so many selfless people out there who have problems of their own but will never turn down the opportunity to make themselves feel better by helping others. And their generosity made me whole in unanticipated ways. Especially since, until that point, I hadn’t even known I was broken.

Several weeks ago, I heard that my friend Greg, who has terminal cancer, was failing. I was devastated, as Greg is a very dear friend who has been quite influential in my life (read Greg’s fantastic, laugh/cry cancer chronicle here). I’m going to jump ahead in the story and tell you he is as fine now as a terminal cancer patient can be, having undergone surgery to remove a pesky brain tumor. But in the interim, there was a time when we didn’t know if he was on his last go-round.

I was sad. I cried. I stayed home and didn’t really talk to people but I let everyone know what was going on and let them be kind to me. I still got up everyday. I wrote. I ate. I cleaned house. I went to work. I grieved the potential loss but I wasn’t consumed by it.

This last week sucked in a way that would have kicked my feet out from under me in my twenties. But it’s just life—things happen, we adapt and we move on. If we’re smart about it, we find those people who care for us and let them support us as we cry a bit before shaking it off and doing what needs to be done. I’m blessed in that I’ve got a world wide web of support spanning the globe so, no matter the time of day or night it is, there’s always someone there for me.

To quote Paulo Coelho in his introduction to “The Alchemist”:

I ask myself: Are defeats necessary?

Well, necessary or not, they happen. When we first begin fighting for our dream we have no experience and make many mistakes. The secret of life, though, is to fall seven times and get up eight times.

All the failures of my life do not preclude a miracle. Somehow, somewhere along the line, amidst all the turmoil, the pain, the self-sabotage, the guilt, the despair, the sturm and drang, I managed to claw my way out of my own way and manifest something equally dramatic but on the opposing end of the spectrum. I am grateful every day, whether that day is joyous or tragic. Because Sorrow floats…

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