I have spent the last four days in Paris and it has given me the hope in humanity that at times I find losing with the rise of populism. The Kardashians and reality tv has made me question what we value as a society and if there is hope for us.
Though it isn’t the high season yet, Paris is packed with tourists, wandering around with their smart phones which have replaced thé Galeries Lafayette maps as the means to find the next landmark. You see people from everywhere, speaking every language and a lot of them are Americans.
Why are they here? It’s not always fun. It’s been raining so they are trying to shelter themselves with cheap plastic raincoats sold by sidewalk vendors and take shelter under awnings as they try to figure out which way the GPS is pointing. The French are not great at English so communicating can be difficult and it’s expensive. If you are not a great walker, forget it, the kilometers and cobblestones will kill you.
My only answer is beauty.
The French, and in particular, the Parisiens are masters of beauty and being here, for just a short time, allows one to live in beauty as well. Beauty of good food and taking the time to enjoy it. Beauty of architecture and the value of preserving it, not destroying it. Beauty of design and not buying more but better. Beauty of conversation and knowing the value of spending time at a cafe talking and not looking at a phone. Beauty of knowledge and history found in bookstores.
When one is here, one gets a chance to be apart of all of the beauty. One has no choice but to linger over a meal because it will not come any faster. One walks, not drives. One wanders in small shops, not large wearhouses. And one takes photo, after photo of the beauty everywhere. For a small moment in time, one is beautiful as well.
On Friday, many of my fellow tourists will be cursing the French as Air France and the SNCF go on strike, but that too is part of the beauty. The beauty of saying, life is not about working, life is about living and one should not work 60 hours a week until they are 70. One should have at least 5 weeks of vacation and be able to retire while they are young enough to enjoy it.
But for now, we wander the streets, eat the croissants, take selfies in front of Notre Dame and embrace the joie de vivre. It is clear what the visitors to Paris value.
entschuldige/entschuldigen Sie (bitte)!(do or please) excuse me!, sorry! (bei Bitte, Frage etc) excuse me (please), pardon me (US)
After one year in Switzerland, my German has not made much progress. I understand more than I can say. What I say is apparently atrocious if I am to believe Joost and Charlie who correct everything that comes out of my mouth. There is one phrase though that I can say remarkably well, probably due to the fact that I use it several , if not many times a day. It’s the phrase that I begin every interaction with, even if I just say it in my head.
“entschuldigen, do you speak English? Parlez-vous francais?” I know I should speak your language but it’s really hard and not particularly pretty – maybe if it was Italian I would be a little more motivated.
“entschuldigen”, I’m sorry I forgot to weigh the bananas. I know I’m an idiot and now you have to get up from your chair and go weigh them and everyone behind me needs to wait longer. Between trying to convert kilos to pounds and francs to dollars, sometimes I just forget to weigh my produce and put the sticker on it.
“entschuldigen”, I’m sorry my deranged miniature dachshund just attacked your Bernese Mountain dog, I know it’s “keine normal” but it’s a rescue dog and you know how they can be, well actually you don’t because there are no rescues here. Everyone is just responsible and neuters their dogs but I’m from the land of the irresponsible and there are millions of dogs no one wants and well those dogs can be a little messed up.
“entschuldigen”, I just said “Gruezi” and it’s before noon so I should have said “Guten Morgen” but do you know how much concentration that takes?
“entschuldigen”, I walked out of my exercise class in my Lululemons(not actually Lululemons but Target knock-offs, oh what I wouldn’t do for a trip to Target right now where I could get a slushie and spend $100 on things I really don’t need like those Halloween jellies you stick on your windows for the holidays…). I know it’s against all rules to be in the street in your exercise wear. I should have changed before leaving but sometimes, sometimes, I just want to say “screw it”. Am I, in yoga pants, really that offensive? Don’t answer that!
“entschuldigen” may I please have some ketchup for my fries? I know, I know… yes, I will pay extra for sauce.
“entschuldigen”, I know he’s an ass but I did not vote for him, no, I do not understand it and no, I do not know if he will start WWIII…
“entschuldigen” my voice went too high when I saw a friend on the tram and then we spoke really fast and too loud because that’s just what Americans do when they are happy to see someone and here that happens so infrequently that it’s just that more exciting.
“entschuldigen” I will pick it up, you don’t have to stand there and watch me. I simply ran out of poop bags but I will walk to that poop bag dispenser which is 5 feet away and get a bag as soon as this dog is done with his business.
“entschuldigen” I know there are weeds growing in the cracks in front of our house and we will get to them but we live in a freakin jungle here and things are always growing and it’s so hard to keep up…
Being a foreigner means always having to excuse yourself for who you are and who you aren’t.
There has been the constant sickness. Between the end of November and the end of February I counted two weeks when there wasn’t one of us sick. Charlie bore the brunt of it. I was so exasperated that I finally took him to the doctor after he hadn’t stopped coughing for three weeks straight. The doctor looked at me and said that this was perfectly normal and that we had “weak” immune systems as we were from a Mediterranean climate. Apparently, Europe suffered an exceptional flu season.
It also suffered an exceptionally brutal and long winter. Something they hadn’t seen in Basel for twenty years. Boy do we know how to pick the year to move! Besides the snow and the gray, there were about two weeks in January where the temperature never made it past 20 degrees fahrenheit. No one wanted to leave the house, in particular me and the hounds. My stores in the freezer came to great use.
So the question is, how does one survive all of this awfulness? The answer seems to be to bathe. Bathe in warm water with people you do not know.
My dear friend Kelly introduced me to the art of the European spa. Kelly is American and has lived in Basel for 20 years. One fine, actually not so fine, pouring buckets of rain, she took me to Sole Uno just outside of Basel. This is not an American spa in any sense. A spa in our part of the world consists of indoor and outdoor baths of warm water and cold , saunas, steam rooms, and jacuzzis. They are completely co-ed and not just for the young and beautiful. In the contrary, they attract a lot of elderly people who come to relieve their aches and pains. The idea is you go from bath to bath and spend a couple of hours relaxing in the salt water. You are supposed to come out feeling a lot better and you do and for a very reasonable price. You pay by the hour and two hours will cost you $22 which is just about enough time.
Having been to Sole Uno a couple of times I figured it was time to go big time in the spa experience and make my way to Mecca, otherwise known as Baden-Baden. Baden-Baden is a historic spa town on the edge of the Black Forest in Germany. The first baths were built by the Romans and the ruins of these baths still exist. Later, the European elite made it their to-go destination and today it still draws people from around the world especially Russians looking for a place to get “refreshed” at European prices. In addition to the spas there are numerous plastic surgeons for that nip and tuck and amazing hotels where one can recuperate in luxurious settings.
The town is beyond lovely. The center has the requisite cobblestone pedestrian only streets filled with exquisite shops, delicious restaurants and of course the famous Cafe Koenig where you get to pick your pastry from the case, then find a seat and they bring it to you to go with your coffee or tea.
The architecture is mostly 19th century and still intact as the town was spared destruction from both World Wars. Along the outside of the town, the Oos River flows and on one side is a beautiful walking path called the Lichtentaler Allee. Here, you can stroll and admire the grand hotels and mansions and imagine what it used to be like traveling this path in a horse and carriage.
But the main reason to go to Baden-Baden is to bathe. Visitors have the choice of the traditional and historic Friedrichsbad Irish-Roman Bath or the new Caracalla Spa. Besides the architecture and facilities, the main difference between the two is that the Friedrichsbad is a no bathing suit spa – as in you cannot wear a bathing suit – you must go nude.The spa is open to men and women. Every other day, the facility is divided in two and there is a men side and a woman side but the main bath, the really beautiful one is always co-ed.
For my visit, I was able to talk my friend Angie into joining me. Angie is open to any adventure but we both had to pause over which spa we would go to. We both wanted to go to Friedrichsbad because of the architecture but….. so we read on tripadvisor what other Americans had to say and everyone said “once you are in there you don’t even notice everyone is nude as you just relax and let the warm waters take all the stress away”… hmm. I wasn’t buying it but Angie was game and so I got my courage.
We decided to spend one night. It was only an hour and a half from Basel. We arrived early enough for a stroll in town before making our way to the spa. The outside of the building is very impressive, kind of Versailles meets Rome. Once inside, we made our way to the reception desk where we had to pay and make our chose of packages. At Fredrichsburg, the program is a little different. Instead of wandering freely from bath to steam room as you want, there is a 17-step program that you follow(if you follow the link you can see little videos of what happens at each step, attention Americans – there is NUDITY). They are basically a series of showers and baths and steam rooms at different temperatures designed to improve your circulation and remove your aches.Each step has a suggested amount of time one should spend there. In addition to the included 17 steps you can choose to add on the brush massage and the creme massage. Having decided we were going for the full Euro experience, we decided to throw in the brush massage and the creme massage and throw caution to the wind. The receptionist, hearing our American accents, made sure we understood that this was a clothing free establishment. The hotel receptionist had already checked and made sure we knew there was a spa were we could keep our bathing suits on. But heck – we decided to move to Europe and apparently that meant throwing caution and our clothes to the wind so we were going for it.
Having been to the Haman in Istanbul a few years ago, I was already familiar what it meant to be treated as a piece of meat. To the attendants of these spas, this is basically what you are. After putting your clothes away in the locker, you get a towel which you get to keep for all of two steps. After showering and steaming, you make your way to a room where there are three beds. If you opt for the brush massage, your towel is taken away and the attendant proceeds to brush you everywhere with a soapy brush that my mother would have scrubbed the floor with. She flips you from side to side and brushes you everywhere till you feel completely tenderized. Then off to more showers and pools and steam. As I was enjoying the experience, I did feel the tension ease away. I got used to ignoring my fellow bathers though it went against my friendly – look someone in the eye and smile – American habit.But the whole time, in the back of my head was Step #11.
Heissruheraum im Friedrichsbad in Baden-Baden
Step #11 was what I came for. The grand Roman pool with the vaulted ceiling, columns and frescos. I had seen pictures of it years before in some travel magazine and told myself at the time, one day…
Well the day was here but Step #11 was also the one place that was co-ed for the day. At this point, I had already spent about an hour embracing my nudity and that of my fellow women but I wasn’t sure about embracing the nudity of German men. I don’t know about you but my mother told me one shouldn’t swim naked with a man until one was sure “he was the one”, well actually she never told me that but I am sure it is something she would have said. But my mother wasn’t there and I was in Europe and I had something to prove so I bravely walked under the magnificent dome and dove right into the pool. Alas, there were only other women. Relief was met with disappointment because I could not walk out wearing the badge of courage. Angie joined me and we spent a few minutes talking about the architecture when behold! a couple of men in all their splendor walked in. What to do? Look? Make eye contact? Pretend they weren’t there? Swim to one side? We decided to stay on one side of the pool and wait till the suggested 15 minute stay was over which we did and then left the pool as gracefully as possible though I am sure they were not looking.
After all the excitement, the last steps were pure bliss. First the creme massage which was similar to the tenderizer treatment but with a lovely honey cream. After, we were sent to a huge dark round room with beds all around the edges. There, the attendant wraps you like a cocoon in warm blankets and you can sleep for 30 minutes. Definite womb like treatment. You walk out feeling like jello.
After all this, we celebrated our courage and our new Euroness with a lovely tapas dinner and a conversation about nudity. It was about the time the Administration was looking at rescinding the protection of transgender students in public schools. Where people pee is never an issue in Europe. Last week, we had Carnaval in our town. There were porta potties and urinals. The urinals were not hidden, they were right on the sidewalk. Of course it made me look twice. In many public places like the train station, there is just one really large bathroom. Everyone uses the same facilities unless they use a urinal which is out in the open for everyone to see. At the spa in Basel, the changing room is co-ed. You may go into a stall to change or you can change in the general area. There are penises and breasts everywhere of all different sizes and ages and shapes. When discussing this with Charlie he wisely said that nudity would not be a big deal if man hadn’t invented clothes. So true. The conclusion we came to with Angie is that we Americans are like middle schoolers going through puberty making a big deal out of anything remotely sexual where Europeans are the mature grandparents who realize there are much more important things to make a fuss about. I think I will need a few more trips to the spa to gain some more maturity.
Full on parenting face-plant. Nose broken, eyes black and blue. I couldn’t have done a worse job if I tried.
On Monday morning, Charlie left to ski with his class in Gstaad. There is no school, you either go skiing or you stay home. He didn’t want to go but I didn’t give him much of a choice. He said he didn’t want to get hurt and that he would have a horrible time. I attempted to get him excited by telling him how fun it would be and how nice it would be to hang out with kids from school for a whole week. He didn’t buy my story but went off without much grumbling.
That evening, he called me almost in tears. His legs were cramping after an afternoon on the slopes. He lost control at one point and skied through the snack shack area barely avoiding people and landing in a snow pile. Some kid took all the hot water and there was none left. He could barely stand. The other kids in his bunk were mean kids.
My heart broke. It took all of my self control to not get on the next train to go and save him. Instead, I told him to go ask for an aspirin and told him the next day all would be better. Then I crawled into his bed, held on to his stuffed animal and proceeded to not sleep for the whole night.
I imagined him in his bed fighting tears as the mean kids taunted him. I saw him the next day paralyzed with fear on the slopes, feeling embarrassed because he is now at that age where he is aware of his weaknesses. In one of my worst decisions ever, I wrote to the director and told her I didn’t care if he didn’t ski all day, I just wanted him to have a positive experience. Above all, I wanted to save my child from his fear and to prevent him from humiliation.
It’s the same humiliation that I remember from my youth. The humiliation of being the absolute worst at a skill that everyone else seems to get. Being the last one chosen when teams are being divided. Being sent to deep swamp, the place past the outfield, where no ball ever ended up in a baseball game. The humiliation of not being able to do a cartwheel. Being paralyzed with fear and as a result, not being able to dive, or catch a ball or stand on my hands and certainly never being able to ski.
The next morning, I spoke to my very sensible friend who reminded me that we all need to suffer somewhat as children in order to be prepared for the pains and difficulties that will inevitably occur as we enter adulthood. While what she said was true, in my heart, I just wanted to prevent my child from pain and heartbreak. Being embarrassed hurts. Being the worst hurts. I do not want my child to hurt.
All day I was a wreck. I hadn’t slept so that led to the inevitable headache. The headache led to weapiness syndrome. Then I received an email from the director assuring me that Charlie was fine. I am sure that she thinks I am a big baby and will never look at me again without thinking that I am holding my child back. And here’s the thing, she’s right.
Charlie called that night and every subsequent night telling me how he was having an amazing time. He was the worst and he skied slow but he did everything that everyone else did. He went down big slopes. He skied backwards. By the time I picked him up Friday night, he was high from the experience. He can’t wait to go back next year. In his words, not only did he learn to ski but it boost his overall confidence.
So we are in Switzerland and my child can now ski. He is apparently obtaining the coveted grit. As his parent, I am the one who is supposed to help him but I am afraid I have been his problem. I want to protect but what he needs is encouragement and the knowledge that there are things we just need to do. In Switzerland, we ski. Thank God he has great teachers.
“Do I need to bring back anything from the States” asked Joost during his last trip to LA. “Two bags of Hershey kisses and a can of baking powder” was my reply.
I grew up on the best street ever. None of the houses were special, they were post war 1950’s 3 bedroom, 1 bath specials on large pieces of land. But the street and the people who lived on it were something special.
Anola street was slightly sloped with elm trees on both sides. Everyone had big front yards and porches. Our house was white with green trim, the lawn a thick Saint Augustine and there was a huge olive tree in the front that was great for climbing and hanging out. It also provided shade to our home during the heat of summer. It was “base” during games of tag and a provider of stains on the wood floor when its purple fruit fell during the summer.
Everyone knew each other back then and would spend the warm summer nights talking to each other over the fences and on the lawns. The neighbors made up an extended family, hosting each others kids for dinner and always there with the needed cup of sugar.
Across the street from us lived Mr. and Mrs. H. Their house was light blue and somewhat larger as they had expanded when their children were younger. When we moved in, their kids were on their way out to college and marriage. Mr H was a reader and lover of history and loved to talk to my mother about France. He had a weimaraner named Madchen which after my few German lessons, I now know to mean girl. Mrs H. worked at Hinshaws department store at a time where department stores were still glamorous. Every year for my mother’s birthday she would help us pick out a new pyjama or robe for my mom.
The H’s looked after us like grandparents. During the hot Whittier summers, they let us swim in their pool. After my mom went back to work, my brother and I rode our bikes to school which was about 3 miles away. When it rained, they would come pick us up so we wouldn’t have to ride our bikes in the rain. And then they spoiled us. For Halloween, there was always a special box from Sees just for us. For the Fourth of July, we were invited over and given sparklers and for Christmas there were the Peanut Butter Blossoms with Hershey kisses.
The cookies were something different for me. When my mom baked, she usually baked cookies that were more European. Mrs H’s cookies were pure peanut butter chocolate delight. For me, those cookies represent the meanig of Christmas. It’s the taking of time to think of others, to find a way to make them feel special which Mrs. H always did.
Tonight, Charlie and I made Peanut Butter Blossoms. They weren’t quite perfect as we don’t have brown sugar in Switzerland so I had to improvise mixing regular sugar with maple syrup but the taste was there. We shared them with our British neighbors and explained to them that they are an American specialty. As we sat down to eat a few, I thought back of my childhood and the H’s and how it is the small kindness in life that really make the difference.
Have you ever walked into an Ikea showroom and thought ” Why can’t I live like this”? Simple design, no clutter, everything matching perfectly. Well until last week, we have and I have to say, it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be.
When we got on the plane 4 months ago, we left with 5 suitcases of clothing and personal items. We stored our most cherished pieces of furniture as well as books and photos and some things we thought we couldn’t live without. We got rid of everything else. The idea was that we would live more simply in Basel with a lot less stuff.
We did though send things over. We packed winter clothes, and some photos and the Kitchen Aid mixer and all of Charlie’s books and every little piece of important plastic item he has ever owned. The idea was that we would move into our new home in the beginning of September and our things would arrive shortly after. If only that has been the case…
A few days before moving into our new home, we went to Ikea and bought everything we needed. Couch, chairs, dining room table, beds, dressers, nightstands, lamps. Everything – we had nothing and needed to furnish a house. The house literally looked like an Ikea showroom. Wood floors, white walls, and Ektorp and Malm everywhere. For a few days I really liked it. It was clean, sparse and with the huge windows in the house it had that Nordic feeling. But then, I really started to feel as if I was living in a hotel, or worse in Ikea. It just lacked personality. There was nothing to say it was our home.
New (old) cow
Old dog under mom’s quilt
New(old) cow I bought for $5 and old dog under mom’s quilt
The original estimate for our container to arrive was mid September as they had picked it up on July 10. At the end of September, after numerous emails, I found out that our container did not leave until August 10 because it had gone through secondary inspection by customs in LA. I thought it was a BS story but after seeing the boxes that had been slashed and then resealed with the bright green US customs tape, I believe it. Why did they have to open the boxes labeled “Charlie’s stuffed animals”? The new arrival date was set for mid October. As time went on, despair began to set in. For one, we were cold. We arrived here in August with summer clothes. By October, Fall had set in and it got really cold.
The other issue is we missed “our stuff”. Charlie in particular. He had been adjusting remarkably well but he needed his most treasured possessions, in particular his Pokemon comic books. He has read them all a million times but he needed them. I needed the little things that would turn the house into a home. Things that reminded me of where I came from. And I needed my mixer! As the election crisis was worsening, I just wanted to bake and bake to relieve the stress.
We did buy some small purchases to try to turn Ikea into Casa Ouendag. There are amazing thrift stores here where you can buy everything you need and antiques for next to nothing. It’s incredibly expensive to throw away things so items get donated to organizations like the Salvation Army and are reused. I bought a great side table for $5 that Joost hated but learned to love. On a trip to Holland, we bought a funky sheep’s head that was named Juliana and a great light up globe lamp that makes me very happy.
Finally, we got word that our things would arrive on November 10. Charlie and I whooped it up. Because we had had so many ups and downs with the move I wasn’t counting on it but it did arrived. The delivery man was originally from Jamaica, now living in Munich. We had a great discussion on the art of living simply and of using money wisely, for things that are important like travel. He unloaded box after box into our garage where we could slowly go through and bring things in.
It has been great opening these boxes after four months. There are things I really shouldn’t have brought like tupperware and tablecloths but there are other things that have brought us so much joy. Wooden spoons that were my mom’s and always part of our household, Charlie’s horrible stuffed green dinosaur pillow, quilts, pictures, favorite books and art. Not a lot of things, but things that say this house is ours.
Opa’s handmade trucks
The collection and Opa’s handmade trucks
This exercise has made me think a lot about the importance or lack of importance of stuff. I am really glad that we got rid of so much when we left but I am so glad that we have here some of the things that we do have. Things in themselves are not important but the memories that are attached to them help me feel grounded. Charlie now feels more at home because of his books as I do with the art and quilts. It also makes me think of all the refugees around the world that leave their homes with nothing. We have refugees here in Basel. They get what they need from donations, people’s cast off items. On top of everything you go through, to not have anything left to tie you to something must be terrible.
My mom’s bird on top of a new(old) mosaic coffee table
On this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for my health, and friends, my boys and this new life we have. I am also thankful for “my stuff”. For it reminds me of my past and those that are important to me.
On July 11, 1471, the Emperor Friedrich III granted the Mayor of Basel, Hannsen von Berenfels, the right to hold an Autumn Fair in Basel “in perpetuity”. For the last two weeks, we have been celebrating the 546th Autumn Fair in Basel, an event that brings about a million visitors every year depending on the weather.
546th! What was going on in the US when Mayor von Berenfels organized his first fair? Well the Native Americans were going about their lives and had yet to see a white man. By the time Columbus landed, Basel was already celebrating their 21st Fair which would have had some of the same components it does today.
The main objective of European fairs has always been trade and commerce and it is still the case. Where you used to be able to buy material and goats and silk and spices, today you can buy candles and handmade pottery and jam and scarves and fondue pots. There is still a contest to attract customers, those with the loudest voices or free handouts win.
There is also fun. In the Middle Ages the entertainment probably consisted of juggling and dancing little people. Today, there is a ferris wheel where you can see all of Basel and merry-go-rounds and bumper cars.
And what’s a fair without food? Charlie and I made the rookie move on our first day to the Fair and decided to try everything at once, after 5 items, we saw the error of our ways but we did have fun. There was Chinese food served in a pop-up pagoda and raclette and stewed plums with whip cream on top and chocolate covered fruit and mangenbrot (stomach bread) which is a specialty of the fair. It’s supposed to be good for digestion but it is chocolate covered ginger bread…..
Trying to choose our favorite item was tough. It was a toss-up between the Alpen macaroni which is macaroni noodles with bacon in a cream sauce with melted cheese on top and apple sauce and the fondue cheese in a hot dog bun. That was definitely the best experience. They start with a closed hot dog bun with a hole in the middle and pour in piping hot fondue cheese. You get a napkin and that is it. Then you just start making your way into the bun and cheese. It is an amazing thing but between the two of us, we could not finish one. I think it must be a big hit with the late night crowd.
The fair closes tomorrow. We have been 3 or 4 times to eat, buy some yummy things and just take in the atmosphere. In 2 weeks, the Christmas markets will start in Basel which feature more things to buy and more yummy things to eat. I guess I will eat my way through the dark days of winter.