World Cup Showdown Part 2: the Narrative Value of Soccer

•July 10, 2014 • 4 Comments

NOTE: This is a continuation of a previous post on the World Cup in which the tournament is itself one large game played between two sides:  The Beautiful Game and the Ugly Deception. If you’d like to read the first section please click here:  World Cup Showdown Part 1: The Beautiful Game vs The Ugly Deception


I hated sports as a child.  I couldn’t imagine playing them for fun, let alone watching them on TV.  I think that this in part sprang from the fact that my father, an avid player and viewer of sports, desperately wished to have with whom child he could share this passion.  I kind of rebelled and refused to take part, thinking it meant that he had probably wanted a son rather than two daughters – and two non-sporty daughters at that.  I became as much a non-sporty person as possible so that I wouldn’t have to deal with being too-much-in-the-middle. In childhood I tended to recoil from the things that weren’t immediately easy for me, and didn’t just come naturally and effortlessly, because I did not want to show I was bad at something (I think I can kinda thank dad for that too!  Thanks Dad, also known as “He Who Shall Admit No Weakness!”).  I also didn’t want to admit “weakness.”  So I stuck with things I was labeled as “precocious” and “talented” in and veered violently away from stuff that made me look silly or inept.  Instead of trying them enough to get better at them I developed elaborate schemes to avoid them altogether.  This included repeatedly spraining my own ankles – sometimes ON PURPOSE –  all in order to avoid PE class. I was a very determined child.

As a teenager I no longer had such a strong aversion to physical activity – I started exercising and taking dance classes, slowly re-learning how to enjoy being in my own body – something that had been easy as a very young child but I lost touch with as I ventured into adolescence.  However it still took me a long time to embrace sports because somehow as a literary/artsy/academic type of person, sports were not supposed to be something people like me were in to.  They were for the opposite of people like me and I associated them with superficiality. I saw them as frivolous and mind-numbingly boring.

But every supposition one holds about oneself has to regularly be re-examined.  I’m not really sure when – but at some point I started to realize that sports were a lot more than brute acts of physicality. I guess I started to get hints of this on trips with my dad where we’d sit down in some restaurant or bar (I’d have to sit 3 feet from the actual bar because I was only 12 years old) and watch a basketball game together.  I started to understand that sports were partially about spending time with someone caring about something together.  Rooting for something and being invested in it as the game unfolds.

And then awhile later I started to see that sports were stories.  Each game or tournament or race has an entire narrative with its plot points, its primary, secondary and tertiary characters, its ups and downs, emotions, themes, and symbolism.  Each game, like each story that is ever told, can show us something about humanity.  Seriously.

Mind you – just like novels – some games aren’t very well-written.  Some games are boring.  Some games have 2-dimensional characters that never seem to have the time to be fleshed out.  But the wide variety of quality is part of what makes it fun and surprising – just like when you crack open a book for the first time, you never know quite what kind of story you are going to get nor can you know for sure how the writing or plot will sit with you.  But you always hope it’s going to be good!

Those who criticise sports for being pointless and a waste of time and money, all just for a GAME miss the point.  Human beings not only need competition – but we need to actively participate in storytelling – both in the listening and in the retelling.  Because sports are also for community building – just like storytelling has always been. After any game you’ll see that anyone who watches is more likely than not going to want to talk about it – go over the plot structure, the pivotal moments, the villains and heros, the tragedies and victories. Just as we narrate our own lives and the lives of our people.


If you speak Spanish you’ll see what I mean in this video where 3 minutes out of one single soccer game are made into a metaphor for an entire country.  And it’s a beautiful thing: But we should get back to the game.


  The water break is over and the ball is back in play.  Brazil give the ball away in midfield again. Mexico picks it up and makes easy work of scurrying past Alves on the right, but his cross has no venom and is easily headed clear by Silva. Brazil rush forwards and you just know they’re going to give it away. And the two teams do this and do this some more and tie 0-0.

In the US people make fun of how low scoring soccer is.  What’s the point, they wonder, in watching a game it’s highly possible not a single goal will be scored?

I understand their point.  Football is one of those things that is not immediately accessible.  When I first started watching the game all I really understood was who had the ball – and all I could really get excited about was when it seemed to be getting closer to one goal or the other.

But one’s vision changes as you watch this game.  Once all I really saw was stopping or kicking the ball, but now I see the whole team – I see all 11 players moving in different directions.  I see the players in the periphery trying to make an opening.  I see the context.  I see all the drama that’s unfolding all over the whole field.

This new vision kind of reminds me of those 3D paintings that used to be so popular – where you put your eyes out of focus until suddenly they locked into place and you could see new images that were previously invisible – a whole new landscape of information.  Football has sprung from two into three dimensions for me.

It is like learning any language – you have to spend time listening/watching and then you not only understand more but also can begin to speak the language.  You understand context not just stray vocabulary.

The world cup has deepened my football fluency to a new level – it’s been like immersion learning techniques.  Almost all I’ve done all month is soccer and I can feel my brain has grown and stretched around it revealing why it is called a beautiful game.

And Italy has the ball but they are moving like slugs across the field, passing like they are playing in a rest home…

You think you know a team.  But never be sure.  Teams are moody, teams are unpredictable.  Teams, just like people have bad days, emotional days, angry days, uncoordinated days.  Italy looked strong, solid, strategic in their first game, and in the 2nd game they looked old and tired, unable to keep up with the spritely, energetic Costa Rican attack.  Italy tripped and plodded whereas the game before they had leapt and galloped.  What happened?

The amazing matrix that is a team spirit on any given day fascinates me.  How all the moods and feelings of the individuals mix and mingle and affect one another – a team is more than the sum of its parts, it has it’s own character and emotion and personality. And then that personality is effected in different ways by the personality of the competition – a solid team against one foe may become suddenly strangely toothless against another.

It’s so complex, and many-layered, and ever-changing and  and that’s what makes it beautiful. If you are interested in the endless complexity of human nature, then the idea of “team nature” and “team mood” and “team personality” is equally intriguing.

The Italians lose the ball to Costa Rica who have been solid at the back, dynamic all over and incisive going forward.  A superb Diaz cross from the left is rewarded with a well-directed header in off the crossbar from Ruiz… GOOOOOOOOL!! GOAL BY COSTA RICA FOR THE BEAUTIFUL!

ALL HAIL THE UNDERDOGS!  All hail the team that no one took seriously and SURPRISES THEM ALL!  This little country and this little team just beat two World Champions and made it look easy!

In so many other sports statistics mean something. In soccer sometimes they don’t.  There are ALWAYS surprises in the World Cup.

Football is unpredictable. The underdogs always have a chance.

I think this is why it has become the sport of the world.  Yes, usually to become a World Champion you need money and training and talent.  And money.


All the world over, every dusty alley can become a football field.  Round found objects can become soccer balls – and the game can be played.  Soccer in it’s most fundamental form is a very egalitarian sport. It doesn’t require money or private school.  It can be played anywhere and by anybody.

And so people connect to it, cherish it, all over the world regardless of the continent.

And unlike so many professional sports, there are always beautiful surprises. Always teams that vastly exceed expectations and teams that never meet them.  Costa Rica, a team everyone trivialized, surprised the world.  I love a team where every team does have SOME sort of fighting chance. Costa Rica also showed important good leadership can be.  Every country has raw talent – but it takes a special sort of coach to train players to work together so beautifully and effectively.  In soccer the smallest of nations can compete with the largest.

Meanwhile in the stands, the French fans are showing unusual exuberance, as they sing the Marseillaise like the war chant it really kinda is.  They sound ready to spill the blood of their enemies onto the earth just as their national anthem demands.

There is nothing quite like being surrounded by a group of fans when their team is playing.  The anxious energy when they are just barely losing, the sinking dejectedness when they are badly behind and running out of time, and the raucous confident joy when they get a goal that puts them in the lead.

My very first experience of what makes the World Cup special was in 1998.  I was on a summer trip to Europe with my best friend and a group of other students.  We were in London the night the English were eliminated from the Cup and it was truly remarkable to watch the mood of an entire city change from excitement and anticipation, to nervousness, to utter, undeniable depression and dejection.  I had never really seen an entire city doing something together like that before.

We then went to Paris and happened to be in town the day France won the World Cup.  I had never and may never again see celebration on that scale.  I was totally enthralled – this heretofore basically unknown sport (don’t be harsh – I’m from the US – knowing about soccer and understanding how deeply important it is, is much much less common than even learning how to drive stick shift) had the power to rock an entire nation into 3 days worth of deafening, jubilant, almost violent celebration.  A sport could do this…

It means something to us as creatures.  I am still trying to figure out why it is able to have such collective power – but that mystery is part of what keeps me coming back again and again, game after game, tournament after tournament.  Why are we so often so much more moved by the made up stories, than the real ones?  Why does play feel so much more moving and important at times than real life?  What is it that playtime allows us to be that real life doesn’t?  And why?

Watching my cats play it is clear that they have more fun playing with toys than trying to catch real prey.  When an animal is real, they suddenly are quite serious, it’s not a game anymore.  And some of the joyfulness leaves them.  It becomes work somehow.  It seems even they have a different relationship to work versus play.

There is something to be learned here…something that could be applied… how do we make ourselves take work as passionately as we take what is ostensibly an unserious thing?  Maybe we need to find ways of making that which is serious work a bit more like play – so we can find a way to let a bit of the joy, the passion and creativity, and recklessness and emotion come creeping into responsible adult life.

A Frenchman and a Swiss both head for the ball and the Swiss man is down.  He’s on the ground, rocking back and forth clutching his face.  This is no flop… this one is for real.  He appears to be bleeding profusely from his eye socket   His led off the field, momentarily blinded… we can only hope his eye will be alright…

When a player is seriously injured a game stops being a game.  When you see gushing blood out there on the field or a concussion or a broken vertebrae it’s hard to find it entertaining anymore and you have to wonder why something verging so constantly close to violence is that which seems to most please us.

It’s hard to keep rooting for France when it is obvious the opposing team is deeply traumatized, unsure if their teammate will recover his vision or not.  The French score one goal after another but I feel queasy.  It is no longer a fair fight.  I wonder how the fans around me can still look so cheery and jubilant when a man might have just lost his eye for their entertainment…

It seems like it only just started, and we haven’t even gotten to half time yet – but teams are already starting to leave the field – there goes England and Japan, Honduras and Cameroon! And now Australia and Spain have the ball but they are just passing it back and forth. They seem to both know it’s over and they can’t make a difference this game.  Although they share the same fate, Spain looks dejected while Australia walks tall and proud as they finally make their way off the field.

One man’s loss is another man’s win.  One teams humiliation is another team’s pride.  Spain left this cup feeling disgraced in front of the world, Champions one Cup and out at the very beginning of the next.  Australia was proud for even being there and for holding their own against a notorious team like Holland. Australian player Cahill said,  “today I’ve enjoyed one of the most beautiful moments of my life,”  after his team held their own against the Dutch and he made a beautiful goal.  ““It was a fantastic goal and without doubt the best of my career. I’ll never forget it,” said the New York Red Bulls star. “It’s a moment of great pride for me and my country. I know that it’s all over for me now, but I’m leaving without any regrets. As well as scoring that goal, we gave as good as we got against one of the best teams in the world and their star players.”

Winning isn’t the thing that actually makes us the most proud… it’s trying our best.

 But Italy and Uruguay are in a scuffle.  They know one of them has to go but they are fighting it out literally tooth and nail as Suarez takes a chomp out of Italian Chiellini’s shoulder…

Just as we have rules of war, we also have rules of sport. We turn a blind eye to players aiming dangerous kicks at each other or tripping or doing other dangerous moves.  But we all kinda agree – biting is not ok.  Not because of the damage done, but because it reminds us of our animal nature.  We strive in sports to maintain the facade of gentlemanly good conduct.

People have been hard on Suarez and with good cause. It is clearly not ok to bite players, just as we shouldn’t claw at them or pull their hair or poke them in the eyes.

However – did the punishment fit the crime?  Why is it that he was so harshly reprimanded when other players who are just as reckless and do far more dangerous things to each other get off relatively lightly?  Why is it when Robben actual ADMITS he cheats he doesn’t get punished at all?

…And the internet is going crazy. Suarez’ teeth are going viral!

And just like that everyone in the world is ready to judge this human being.  Yes he did something crazy – and yes it’s clear it’s a problem and he needs help.  He probably needs a LOT of therapy. But the general gist of internet is that Suarez is a bad person, that Suarez is a jerk, a monster, an asshole.  Do any of us actually know anything more about him besides his unfortunate defensive tactic?

If you are at all interested in making a bit more of 3-dimensional person out of this albeit baffling sports star, I really really highly recommend this article by Wright Thompson.  It’s a lovely piece of investigative journalism and he takes the time to push past they hype and the hysteria and the stereotypes, to try and dig into why Suarez bites.  H

Again – the beauty of seeking out perspective.  In England they call Suarez an asshole creep monster, in Uruguay he is a friendly talented hero of the country who happens to be a tremendously loyal husband, father and friend.  It is always worth digging for the person behind the meme.

This could have gone either way and got pretty scrappy at the end between these two veteran teams – but Italy finally concedes and slowly limps off the field.

It’s at this point that I freshly question why it is that I like the World Cup…This happens at the end of almost every game when I feel a deep sadness.  I almost always feel more sad than happy, empathizing more with the misery of the team that just lost than I could ever hope to feel joyful for the team that has won.  I see the fans, still in bright cheerful war paint but with the look on their faces of little lost children.  And yes it’s just a game – but that heartbreak, that’s real.

Pirlo and Buffon make a bow to their fans for what is likely to be the last time they are on a World Cup field.

Buffon is one of my favorite football players of all time.  He is just a joy of a person – and an amazing goalie and captain.  He has been the heart of the Italian team for a long time and it is strange and sad and horrible thinking about the next World Cup when the team will seem gutted, lobatomized.

It’s always hard to grok that by the time a player is 35 they are an old-timer on the verge of retirement.  Forlan who was perhaps one of the very best players last world cup has been mostly relegated to the sidelines.  He will return to the field to take over for now banished Suarez, but he is slow and ineffectual. In just 4 years you go from the best to an extra.  It’s a bitter draught to swallow.

Soccer is so bitterly fleeting.  You are a young player working on getting better, getting at the top of your game – but how many years do you really get to BE there at the top of your game before your already in decline?  So few.  When life as a real proper adult is just starting for most of us, a football player is already doddering.

And then what?  Life stretching in front of you and you already had your career.  I wonder how many soccer players spin into depression cycles as they approach retirement, having gotten a taste of old-age and death, having had to stare it in the face and KNOW their body is decaying as the youthful vigor slowly drains away, at a time when most people still feel so young.

It’s Half-Time Everyone and Beautiful is ahead 2-1!  The last few minutes there didn’t have much clarity but was packed with emotion as teams left the game.  It’s two weeks in to the tournament.  At this point in the World Cup I’m a suffering a bit of Futbol Fatigue.  It’s a bit surreal to watch this much soccer in such a short period of time.  I just have to keep reminding myself every time I wake up from a soccer dream, or find myself overusing sports metaphors when I write that it’s only every 4 years, and the first two weeks are the hardest.  Now for a bit of a halftime break and we’ll be back soon for the second half of the the Tournament!


 The game continues here:

World Cup Showdown Part 3: Sporting Subjectivity and the Fun of a Little Hate

World Cup Showdown Part 1: The Beautiful Game vs The Ugly Deception

•July 9, 2014 • 2 Comments

(Disclaimer:  In this post I may be writing soccer and football synonymously because I’m from the US but live with a South American and we use both terms interchangeably.  Deal with it 😉  )

Pre-game Postulation:  Things to Look Out for During the Match

Despite having seen what must be almost 100 hours of World Cup soccer/football coverage over the last 3 weeks, there are many moments when I still am very undecided about whether I love it or hate it.  I have on many, many occasions stormed from the room saying how much I hate this sport – whether it’s because of a crazy call by a referee, a horrible bloody injury, a stupid theatrical dive, an embarrassingly boring game where nothing at all is happening, or the sight of miserably sad fans and tortured players who know they are doomed and about to jeered off the world stage as losers.  So what keeps pulling me back game after game, cup after cup?

It can’t be denied that the World Cup is a pretty remarkable event in sheer magnitude alone, and increasingly so in our ever more connected and globalized world.  According to a report produced for FIFA, about 3.2 billion people around the world (roughly 46% of the global population) watched at least some of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa on TV in their homes.  The world cup was playing in almost half the homes on the planet… whoa…

As beautiful as it is to imagine that when you turn on a game, that there might be a billion other people out there watching it as well,  it also feels sad that the only thing we are able to agree on collectively and come together for is something as frivolous as sports.

So what is the World Cup?  A beautiful common language or the opiate of the masses, distracting us from all the important shit we should be collectively coming together for instead?  I go back and forth and back and forth on this, sometimes changing my mind several times in the course of a week or a day or even a game.  So I think it’s time to have it out – to have a proper matchup between sides.  Is the World Cup “The Beautiful Game” or “The Ugly Deception?”

Let the games begin.


The teams are marching onto the field.  There’s a strong lineup on both sides.  This game really could go either way.

The excitement is palpable here in the stadium.  The World Cup is Finally here!  After four long years of waiting, time to sit back for an entire beautiful month or soccer. Many of the details from 2010 are hazy in my memory, but fill me with a cozy nostalgia.  I’ve filled out my brackets and I’m feeling quite clever about my picks, personally invested now in the outcome of each game.

The National Anthems play. 

Perhaps the ball has not yet been put into play but the competition in my mind has already started.  National Anthems?  Hate them or love them?  Tough call. I love the camera panning across the players faces as they stare solemnly off into the distance.  I love seeing people singing with passion.  I love seeing people feel pride in their culture and history.

However… nationalism itself can get pretty ugly.    The rise of the nation state is one of the things that has made something like the World Cup possible – and yet trying to make a one-size-fits-all policy for cultural identity has caused the erasure of a lot of culture and the forced adoption of the dominant culture’s manner of self-identifying. For example until relatively recently France was not at ALL a country in the sense that we think of it today, and there was no common culture – but rather a roughly gathered collection of regions, each with its own language (or languages) and history.  Nations and borders and flags have made what was once grey into black and white – and often done a pretty shoddy job of it.  In the process it makes it easier than ever to have an us versus them mentality, making borders the frontier for “otherness.”

National Anthems started to become ubiquitous in the late 19th century – and it shows.  Most of them, whether they are Latin American or African or European, have the stodginess of 19th century European marching band music rather than sounding anything like the culture, country and history they are supposed to represent.  While expounding patriotic independence they also manage to reiterate a history utterly couched within colonial dominance.

And Croatia and Brazil have gotten the ball moving.  The Beautiful Game is dominating possession in the early stage as the fans are practically levitating out of their seats with joy and excitement, decked out in team colors and fantastic costumes.

Yes as the game begins I wonder, what’s not to love about soccer?  Look how happy everyone is!  People are in feathers and face paint and animal suits!  Here we are a whole big happy world, gathered together for proper sportsmanlike competition! Yay!

Penalty shot for Brazil!  Just minutes into the game the referee realizes Brazil needs to get into the next round but that they don’t seem to be capable of getting there on their own.  The referee himself enters play, kicking the ball across the field to Neymar who neatly kicks it across the line.  GOOOOOOOOOOOOL!!!!!! GOAL FOR THE UGLIES!

 Well that foray on the Beautiful side of the field was short-lived. Just as I was getting comfortable thinking this game was a no-brainer the referee stepped in making a bunch of pretty unfair calls seriously debilitating Croatia and more or less handing the match to Brazil.  What an embarrassing way to start the game.

Mexico now has the ball and is on the attack.  They get a corner over from the left, it’s flicked on at the near post and Dos Santos directs his header in. But a referee runs in to play 2nd goalie against the Beautiful, deflecting a goal for Mexico for the second time with the use of the offsides flag.  He then goes tearing down the field towards the other goal.  The main referee fails to call the other referee’s questionable use of flags to block well-shot goals. He gets dangerously close to the goal and shoots.   The shot goes wide due to Mexicans managing to win their game against Cameroon anyway, despite the referee playing with Cameroon – but this was a nerve-wracking moment, almost a second goal for Ugly, Corrupt and Horrible.

For the second game in a row calls are made that are clearly incorrect.  The referee is playing by his own rules and there is no one to referee HIM.  This is one of the things I hate beyond hate about soccer.  One of the things that can completely ruin it for me…and SHOULD by all rights nearly ruin it for everyone:  the referee has got complete control over the game for better or for worse – opening every game up to his potential errors, bad judgment, bias, and often corruption – and a referee almost never backs down EVEN when he is not sure about a call he has made.  He stubbornly rides it out, unwilling to allow players to challenge him.  Referees get to be dictators out there.  Why should one guy have that much power?

There is a simple solution to this – instant replay.  Not so much that it would slow the game down at all. The amount of time players and coaches spend arguing with a referee would be neatly replaced with a referee quickly taking out a nice handheld device and being able to immediately see what just happened from another angle.  He would do so only if the coach or players vehemently insist.

Other sports do it – so why not football?  The arguments are as various as they are fatuous – a) it would ruin the flow of the game b) human error is part of what makes it beautiful c) it would undermine the referee’s power (i.e. dictatorship) d) bad decisions bring more chance and debate into the game, and therefore more “entertainment potential” e) instant replay would make soccer robotic.

Blah blah blah.  Whatever.  It hasn’t ruined basketball, and it wouldn’t ruin soccer.

They made exactly the same kinds of arguments about not integrating goal line – saying this technology would impact the human element of the game and remove the enjoyment of debating mistakes.  Sepp Blatter, the slimy and corrupt head of FIFA said, “Other sports regularly change the laws of the game to react to the new technology. … We don’t do it and this makes the fascination and the popularity of football.”  They argued it would destroy soccer by changing the weight distribution of the ball, causing the player to have to (gasp) ADAPT, therefore probably ruining “the Beautiful Game.”

Blah blah blah. Seriously WTF

Well guess what – they finally buckled and got microchips in the soccer balls – and… Football DIDN’T DIE.  In fact it’s improved!.  We now know whether or not a ball actually was in the goal rather than just trusting the referee!  Now referees can only steal deserving goals from teams with an offsides flag….

So why don’t they do instant replay?  Simple really.  If they had instant replay it would be WAY way way way WAY harder to set matches.  That’s really all there is to it.  That is why FIFA is against it.  All that money.  The Football mafias of the world would be pretty darn upset.

And that is why the “Ugly, Corrupt, Horrible” team is already in the lead, only 2 days into the world cup, minutes into this match.

I’m starting to wonder if maybe we should throw in the towel, end the game early, give the win to the “Uglies” and the Cup to Brazil…

Holland has the ball and is dribbling it around midfield, passing it back and forth, edging closer and closer to  the Ugly side.  Spain hasn’t even touched the ball, and the Spanish players are like felled men in a battle as the Dutchman trip and block and nudge and elbow them.  However a glorious header by Van Persie brings the ball flying back towards the Beautiful side of the field, and the fans cheer, thinking there may still be some life in the Beautiful Game yet, even after all the ugly Ugly playing.  

Spain vs. Holland just made me sad.  I hate the way the Dutch play – they are driven and dirty and will stop at nothing.  And they get the job done.  They have revenge in mind and as they rammed goal after goal through, they seemed to be battering the spirits of every Spanish soul.

But that Van Persie header WAS a beauty.

After this World Cup match I kind of felt similarly to how I often feel after watching a scene of Game of Thrones. Queasy and surprised and deflated yet impressed. In this instance Holland were clearly bloodthirsty, cannibal Wildlings while Spain were the VERY DEFENSELESS villagers who get slaughtered….

Watching the faces of these Spanish men who I feel like I’ve gotten to know over the years in the previous World and Euro Cups, as well as Real Madrid and Barcelona games, as they basically get stabbed through the gut, was a little bit sickening.    They are a kind team, a team that doesn’t often resort to a lot of the ugly tactics you see elsewhere, and they are champions of the idea of the “the beautiful game.”  To see them mowed down by the viking like tactics of the Dutch hurts.  And to see the world saying, “well you WERE something but now you are nothing” almost gleefully, is also sad.  We cherish you one day and mock you the next.  Human beings are creepy.

But this is the way of soccer – and life.  You can’t stay on top forever.  This is the end of an era.  One could just wish it weren’t so brutal, so definite.  And I question what the point is in any case – if following victory, even the highest of all victories, if you still end up humiliated for not being able to be immortal and reign supreme forever.

But hey – isn’t that what we all have to face?  Try our best to live a vibrant, exciting successful life – but then no matter what we do, we shrivel up and die anyway, our bodies’ slow disintegration humiliating us to death.

So – I guess that brings soccer back towards the Beautiful for so often being an appropriate metaphor for life.

 Uruguay has the ball and they are speeding down to the Beautiful side of the field.  Lugano is grabbed from behind and dragged to the floor. It’s a clear penalty. Cavani’s body shape oozes confidence as he whips this into the right-hand corner of the goal.  GOOOOOOL!  

Yeah, just as I was losing hope, the tight fitting Puma shirts worn by the Uruguayans saved soccer for me, at least for a day. And then Cavani took his off at half-time and scored one for the side of Beautiful. Not gonna lie – part of the fun of the world cup for me is all the gorgeous men.  Especially Cavani.

England and Italy pass the ball back and forth, moving fluidly across the field.  They work together to make a few beautiful set pieces aimed at the Beautiful, hitting the goalpost twice – nearly scoring a Beautiful goal…

This exquisite, well-paced game between two former World Cup Champions made me love soccer again.  It was a classically European sort of game – lots of strategy and fluidity, but not much scrabbling and chaos and surprise.  Just smooth attacking football. A lot of fearless penetration, a lot of openings and interesting opportunities made, a lot of adventurous choices – but still ringing with tactics.  Exciting young players like Sterling, Sturridge and Balotelli backed up by old reliables like Pirlo, the ever-delightful Gigi Buffon. Good stuff. It was an absolute pleasure of a game.  After a game like this I started thinking that the World Cup could be like THIS – two teams head to head using strategy, taking risks, and being bold and letting their personalities shine through – but always within the context of fair play – it would be a beautiful thing indeed.

The ball is caught by Josy Altidore, for the US, but quickly goes out of play as he falls to the ground with a hamstring injury…

Just as we get our feet on the ball our star striker falls to the ground, reminding us not of either the Ugly or the Beautiful but rather of Lady Luck the Ultimate Football Referee – regularly manipulating the outcome of nearly every game.

But Clint Dempsey is on it.  Beaten, bruised and bloody, this guy just won’t give up.  He charges down the field seemingly unaware that his nose is practically hanging from his face.  The rest of the US team are right there with him, hobbled and limping but giving it everything they’ve got. 

There is something intoxicating about being the underdogs.  So often it would be sort of embarrassing rooting for the US – it would feel like being a Yankees or a Lakers fan – it just seems kind of unfair in a lot of sports where we pump so much more money and resources in the other teams can afford to do.

But soccer is a somewhat more even playing field – which makes for delightful surprises, and allows for the eternal hopefulness of the underdogs.  And the US team doesn’t have the oppressive weight of expectation on their shoulders like other teams – doing their best and playing with that classic US Can-Do spirit will be good enough.  It sounds cheesy to say so – but after watching so much cynical soccer it feels really good to root for the home team who play so cleanly – no diving, no theatrics – just effort.  They want to win fair and square and I love and respect that.  What my team lacks in seasoning and prowess they make up for with heart and determination. It’s lovely watching the team slowly make progress over the years, becoming more and more competitive. Yes it’s brutal to have them put in the Group of Death, and then to lose our main striker 7 minutes in – but something the US does so well is rise to the challenge  when we’re down.


Uh oh – it looks like it’s getting hot out there on the field. The players are parched.  It seems it’s time for a Totally-Not-In-The-Rules-But-Let’s-Do-It-Anyway Water Break.  This will give the two sides some time to hydrate and regroup.  Coming back from behind, Beautiful seems to be dominating this part of the game.  Can they keep it up? Tune in tomorrow as the game continues: more dark underbelly of soccer mixed with beautiful life metaphors coming up!


The World Cup Showdown continues here:  

World Cup Showdown Part 2: the Narrative Value of Soccer


World Cup Showdown Part 3: Sporting Subjectivity and the Fun of a Little Hate



At Home in Saudade

•June 2, 2014 • 2 Comments

Have you ever picked up a book that you had read once before, a long while back, and been struck by how different an experience it was reading it a second time?  When we repeat an experience many years later, whether it’s related to art, music or literature, a hobby or activity, or visiting a place or a person, it can reveal very interesting things about the ways in which we may have changed.

Earlier this month I saw the legendary Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso for the second time in my life.

The first time was in New York in 2004.  The first time I did not cry.  The first time I did not feel such saudade.  But the second time it was very different.

On the 18th of May, we were shown into Le Grand Rex Theatre in Paris by a lanky usher dressed in crisp black.


It had been quite awhile since I’d been to a concert, and I was happy to be there, looking forward to an evening of excellent music.  I didn’t really expect it to be a high-energy show.  I expected a polite audience of cultured Parisians looking for an exotic experience. I expected Caetano to be someone lost in translation, his philosophical, sometimes sexual, often subversive lyrics not at all understood, and turned into a pleasant bourgeois night out.  I thought I’d find a sort of quiet room occasionally half-filled with courteous clapping, and the usual academic enthusiasm you see from a French audience when they view something they don’t necessarily understand or feel but believe is ‘quality’ and therefore profess to enjoy.

We sat down in plush chairs and waited while the theater slowly filled up, every seat eventually taken, and then the lights went down.IMG_3092



In that darkness we heard the first notes from the band sprinting towards us, a pumping rhythm punctuated by atmospheric electric guitar.   The room burst into energetic, passionate applause in time with the bass drum. Joyful whoops erupted throughout the room as Caetano Veloso appeared, guitar in hand.  IMG_3059

Although the man is 71 years old, he has an agile, lively, compact body and his bespectacled face is fresh and expressive, topped with an impressive shock of white hair.  As he trotted from one side of the stage to the other and got closer and closer to the audience there was a nearly palpable delight running through the crowd.IMG_3081IMG_3078IMG_3076IMG_3073IMG_3075

I started to look around me, and I began to tune into the voices around me, picking up on snippets of Portuguese coming from every direction.  As the band rounded the bend of a verse towards the chorus, many in the audience chanted along, bouncing with the beat.  “odeio você, odeio você, odeio você.  odei-o”

As Caetano began strumming the second song and then sang the first few notes, an audible “oooooooooh” swept through the room, the sound of satisfied recognition followed by a quiet hum of anticipation.  And then everyone began to sing along, word for word.  It was as this song played and I heard all these voices around me singing in Brazilian Portuguese, all the words known, all the words treasured, doled out preciously and lovingly, that I began to tear up. There I was in Paris, so far from Rio, and yet I was surrounded by Brazilians…hundreds maybe thousands of Brazilians.  And they were singing a love song in a shared quavering voice, a group whisper, a thousand voices singing to themselves in a hush, yet also singing together, to each other.

It was so beautiful.  And so unexpected.

The tears were just flowing down my face and I didn’t entirely know why – but I felt so profoundly moved.

The jubilation expressed by the people around me created a certain kind of energy in the space.  I no longer felt like I was in Paris; I felt like I was transported somewhere special and private.

The concert was many poignant things at once.  It was the gratitude you might expect from people getting to see one of the most beloved and iconic musicians of their country in person, and hearing songs they know word for word sung right in front of them.  But all those Brazilians shared something with one another beyond a passion for the same music: the experience, for better or worse of being Brazilian living in France.  The expatriate experience.  They all were in France for different reasons, different needs, different priorities, and for different lengths of time. Some perhaps saw their entire future in Europe while others would be returning to Brazil at some point.  But the differences aside – they were joined together by the distance separating them from their land, from their roots.

Caetano himself has been an expatriate.  In fact he spent several years living in exile in Europe.

He and his friend and fellow musician Gilberto Gil had been “two of Brazil’s biggest pop stars, leading lights in the slyly subversive Brazilian psychedelic rock scene Tropicália.”  Brazil’s government, a military dictatorship, decided they were a threat and in December 1968 they were arrested in São Paulo. They had their heads shaved, spent two months in prison and a further four months under house arrest.  And then they were sent into exile, forced to find refuge in London.

It must have been a strange time – partially exciting to be in such a vibrant new city with such a phenomenal music scene, and partially horribly painful…the ache of feeling like home was out of reach, maybe wasn’t home anymore, maybe wouldn’t be home ever again.  Not knowing when or if you’d be able to return…

Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso in Trafalgar Square in 1969

Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso in Trafalgar Square in 1969

Caetano made music while in exile – but he jokingly described his 1971 album, London London, as “a document of depression” with lyrics that speak to his homesickness, like  “One day I had to leave my country, calm beach and palm beach.”

He recently said, “It is only now that I can say that I like the music I recorded there…The things we learned in exile made us more creative musicians. It also made us stronger people.”


 What a beautiful thing for someone like him, who knows the pain of exile, to be able to bring a crowd of his countrymen back home for awhile.


To be an expatriate is to accept being an outsider most of the time, knowing that many of the things that you most cherish are things that the people around you are not likely to have heard of let alone care about.  I think a lot of expats feel a great need to find others of their nationality even if they would not be friends in other circumstances, just to be around people that ground them in their national identity, their particular loves and hates, and the flavors of home, people who speaks the same language – not just the language of words – but body language, and the languages of ideas, memories, and feelings.

How special to be able to walk off the streets of Paris and enter that theater, and to go from being the minority, the stranger, the foreigner – to suddenly being mostly surrounded by other people like you, joining in the celebration of sharing something, connecting so effortlessly. There in that large theatre was the collective feeling, reminder, implication of Brazil, of a home left behind, and all those things that Europeans couldn’t understand.  There they came together and something lightened, something was easy again, like removing confining clothing and taking a deep breath.

They were home.  At least for a few hours.


I was struck by how different my concert experience was than the other time I had seen Caetano Veloso nearly 10 years before.  I was a college student, and my father was in town visiting.  My father loves all things Brazilian so we went to see Caetano at the Beacon Theater on the Upper West Side.

He had just put out an album of cover songs in English – including a surprising variety ranging from Gershwin to Nirvana.  The covers had a certain brilliance in the way he adapted them to his own persona, style and musicality. It was enjoyable and he was a fantastic performer, yet something was a bit lost in the translation.  It felt like an exercise rather than an expression, not quite as open, honest, or comfortable as he seems in his own music.

(Although I do LOVE this cover of “Come As You Are.”)

After the concert we went for a drink next door where we ran into a group of Brazilians.  My dad walked eagerly up to them and said his stockpile of Brazilian phrases, and sang them a little Brazilian song (like he does every time, without fail, that he meets a Portuguese speaker…and every time anyone even mentions Brazil).  They were pleased and amused and probably surprised.  Thinking back on that moment, I realize how unusual that might have been for them – to have their culture and language not only recognized but even exalted a bit.  In New York, people’s differences often can start blending, bleeding, growing fuzzy – because you get so used to seeing different kinds of people, hearing different accents. Strangely – in the cultural mixing pot – sometimes there is less flavor because every culture is forced into a bit of a muted state in the context of the roar and flash of the city.

And curiosity suffers.

For me to be honest they were just more of the many many people that fill up New York, speaking one of the many languages.  I had never even been to South America at that time.  We shared a city but had nothing overtly in common beyond that. I was a young, naive, inexperienced college student, in my New York bubble, where all the world comes to you. This was before I became an expatriate myself. I didn’t yet know saudade for a home that one cannot return to as you knew, or maybe cannot return to at all.


“Saudade, a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.”  Manuel de Melo

“We all experience within us what the Portuguese call ‘saudade’, an inexplicable longing, an unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul, and it is this feeling that lives in the realms of imagination and inspiration, and is the breeding ground for the sad song, for the love song. Saudade is the desire to be transported from darkness into light, to be touched by the hand of that which is not of this world … [T]he love song is never simply happy.”  Nick Cave


I could not share the specifically Brazilian experience of seeing Caetano because he is not part of my identity or my background but just a musician I love listening to and deeply admire.  However I shared something else quite important with them and I felt it very powerfully – the saudade of living so far from where we are from.

I’ve only just recently really taken in and accepted that I’m an actual expatriate.  I don’t know why it took this long – I’ve been living outside the United States for eight or nine years already, but it never seemed like all that much time had passed, not enough time to make it official.   Perhaps it’s because we haven’t ever chosen to settle down somewhere and make a traditional home there; nowhere we’ve lived has had the equivalent solidity or meaning for me as the only places thus far that I’ve actually truly identified with as home – California, Alaska and New York.

But I think that is finally changing.

Two important events have occurred recently that have helped bring about a shift for me – one was a cutting of ties, the other was the forming of new ones.

In November of 2012, my family home was foreclosed on.  This was the house where I grew up, the house that’s been in my family for 30 years, and a place I’d hoped in some naive way to never actually have to say goodbye to. The process of cutting the ties with that piece of land, those walls, those interior spaces and all the memories they contained, was very painful and left me feeling very alone and adrift in the world, unsure of where and to whom I belonged.  I felt unrooted, untethered, floating in space.  Nowhere I went felt comfortable or safe.  I felt like a kind of global vagrant, begging to feel part of something.

But like so many difficult things, I soon realized that the cutting of these ties was a healthy and important thing to have occurred.  It has helped me to feel more present actually living where I am living, rather than feeling like part of me is caught like a butterfly behind glass, preserved elsewhere, stuck in time.

The second thing that occurred was that I got married.   I plan to write about this in depth later this month, but what’s important for the moment is that in the course of planning the wedding I rediscovered how rich my life truly is in deep, sustainable relationships with wonderful people.  I learned that despite my constant feelings and fears of scarcity I am truly wealthy in love, friendship and family.  I finally understood on a very deep level that although I am always far away from most of the people I care about, that as I move around the world I am held up by a strong, beautiful and ever growing web of amazing links to people that I have found, connected with and constructed a sustainable bonds with along the way.  We are all holding on to each other, holding each other up.


The downside of this, and it is a beautiful downside, is that I know that there is never a place I can go now in the world where I won’t be missing other places and other people.  There is never a center now where the effect is lessened.  And there is always so much of this beautiful, aching, sweet missing. Endless Saudade, the flipside of all of that love. Life is never going to be uncomplicated.

I am a Californian living in France, married to a Venezuelan, whose family lives Colombia, and our friends are spread all over the world.  There’s no way to stuff it back into one place anymore.  I can’t ever just “go back home.”

But realizing that I am not on some trapeze, always risking falling, as I swing from place to place, changes everything.  I am finding myself more able to get beyond geography in my concept of home, and locate it instead deep inside that ever-growing web of family and friendship.  That way I can be at home wherever I go.

It’s complicated. I didn’t have any idea what it would mean to live for so long outside the United States, and how at a certain point there would be no turning back.  I didn’t do it on purpose and I didn’t understand the ramifications.  But I do now.  I know what I have lost and what I have gained. And I feel a certain sorrow – like a loss of some kind of innocence.  But I don’t regret it.  I am grateful for it every day, because I can feel myself expanding.  It is hard sometimes, but worth the growing pains.


“In this world, time is a local phenomenon.  Two clocks close together tick at nearly the same rate.  But clocks separated by distance tick at different rates, the farther apart the more out of step… In this world, time flows at different speeds in different locations…  On occasion, a traveler will venture from one city to another.  Is he perplexed?  What took seconds in Berne might take hours in Fribourg, or days in Lucerne.  In the time for a leaf to fall in one place, a flower could bloom in another.  In the duration of a thunderclap in one place, two people could fall in love in another.  In the time that a boy grows into a man, a drop of rain might slide down a windowpane.  Yet the traveler is unaware of these discrepancies.  As he moves from one timescape to the next, the traveler’s body adjusts to the local movement of time…Only when the traveler communicates with the city of departure does he realize he has entered a new domain of time.  Then he learns that while he has been gone his daughter has lived her life and grown old, or perhaps his neighbor’s wife has just completed the song she was singing when he left his front gate.  It is then the traveler learns that he is cut off in time, as well as in space.  No traveler goes back to his city of origin…”  

– From Einstein’s Dream by Alan Lightman



For a great article about Caetano Veloso please readDinner and philosophy with Brazil’s greatest pop star”

This is a fun piece of writing that really elucidates what is so special about both the man and the musician.

I also highly recommend Veloso’s most recent album “Abraçaço.”  I particularly love the title piece, included here for your listening pleasure:


Alone Is Not An Invitation

•February 10, 2014 • 4 Comments

The perks of the freelancing lifestyle are numerous –  you don’t have to go to an office, you don’t have to get dressed, you don’t have to make smalltalk with your colleagues, and you get to choose your own work schedule.  But after a while that sense of freedom can flip into what feels like the opposite; I often find myself regretting that I don’t have an office to go work in, don’t have to get dressed, don’t have any colleagues with whom I can talk, and never really feel finished with work, because it never officially starts OR ends. I also spend far too much time alone in my apartment.

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A sad Pau cafe on a rainy, rainy day

I know I should work out of the house more, but over my four years living in Pau I have never quite figured out where there is to go.  The public library rarely opens before 2 PM; the university depresses me because it is full of 19-year olds that seem to have already had all the intellectual curiosity trampled out of them; most of the cafés are somewhat stuffy and rigid, and designed for socializing not working.  When it’s not raining I have the option to walk to a park, and sit on grass that is far itchier than it looks and generously scattered with dog poop, which I end up leaving shortly thereafter in any case due to an inevitable need to pee. So when I get up in the morning and think about my options, I almost always choose to stay at home to work.


Maybe I’ll just stay here…


I often feel like Rapunzel.  I know there is a world outside, but I can’t really imagine it and I don’t feel connected to it.  The walls inch closer and closer, and the world shrinks down until it is no bigger than 60 m2.  And then my apartment begins to feel more like a prison than a haven. disney-tangled-rapunzels-tower-wallpaperOf course the prison isn’t actually my apartment itself, which does still, last I checked, have fully functioning doors leading into a public corridor.  The prison is my own mind; I start thinking the outside has nothing to offer, while my apartment has the inarguable benefit of containing my cats, comfortable places to sit, and a very loose dress code. I forget how much better it feels to be outside around people from time to time.  Even if Pau is always the same, it still offers far more variety than that which is found within the confines of my apartment. If I were to work outside several hours a day, it would mean I’d go back home afterwards and see it freshly, feel the walls breathe.  I’d feel the tiny distance between me and the outside, and how my apartment is not prison at all but a window outwards, like a castle in the sky with an unambiguous, un-chop-downable beanstalk exit.  I’d be able to remember that I can descend any time.

Art By Trish Ladd

Art By Trish Ladd


I finally convinced myself that as uninviting as the cafés are, as low-energy as the university is, and as prickly and smelly as the park is, they are all infinitely better than staying at home and slowly, day by day, completely losing my mind. As part of my “Lets Postpone Lunacy” self-improvement campaign, I packed up my bag last Wednesday and headed out into the exciting Ville de Pau.  It was an unusually beautiful day. I walked two short blocks until I reached the center plaza, and chose a small table at a busy sidewalk cafe and sat down.  A waitress came over , I ordered a grand crème, and pulled out a notepad and a pen.  I marveled at how giddily happy I was to be outside, out among other people.  I didn’t even really mind that I’d accidentally sat downwind from all the smokers, and now my head was haloed.  I felt free. The sun was intense and I put on my sunglasses as my cheeks began to toast. The waitress delivered my coffee and I began to write.  After I’d been scribbling for about 5 or 6 minutes, and was just teasing out an intricate thought, my table rattled, and chair across from me moved. The gnarled hand pulling it belonged to a man of a rather shriveled 60, who wore a fisherman’s style cap and was carrying a plastic bag from the discount grocery retailer, Lidl.   I looked up at him in surprise as he made ready to sit down at my table, my face completely blank.  He then backed away and chuckled, revealing that it had just been a clever joke: He wasn’t sitting down with me, he was just pretending to do so! Haha!  I raised an eyebrow and he shrugged his shoulders and walked way, still laughing, never having said a word. I was then flooded with overwhelming guilt.


“That poor old man!” I thought.  He was just being friendly, why hadn’t I chuckled back at him or at least flashed a smile? Why hadn’t I responded NICELY to his little joke?  Instead I had just stared at him, and raised an eyebrow, which surely must have made him feel uncomfortable and misunderstood. I felt SO bad.  I had been too surprised to respond with kindness, so instead I responded with neutrality, which he surely read as negativity. He probably took my surprise for coldness and my raised eyebrow for irritation! Oh no!I felt a total sinking inside over the possibility of having made someone feel bad or uncomfortable. And then I caught myself…Wait a second here, let me get this straight:  A person comes over and disrupts my private space, provoking a response from me, and I feel EXTREME guilt that my response was anything other than gushing warmth? Hmmm… I realized I was responding in accordance with the programming I had received all of my life that teaches women to respond politely even to unwanted attention.  We are trained to respond “nicely” and it’s made very clear to us that anything less is “bitchy,” unfeminine and maybe even fundamentally bad…not how good girls act. Plus it might prove dangerous to be anything but demure; it might “provoke” men into doing us harm. I had been conditioned to feel responsible for his equanimity, despite the fact that his entire joke was based on the disruption of mine.  And as I started to think about all of this, and how this man had in fact disturbed my train of thought, messed up what I was writing and generally thrown me off, my guilty feeling melted away, and was quickly replaced with resentment.  But was that fair either?


It is a bad weather time of year.  It has been raining almost every day so we haven’t had the opportunity to take our cats outside more than once every few weeks.  Today I put our new 7-month old kitten Lucca in his harness and brought him downstairs into an open space behind our apartment building. He was very out of practice, and remained crouched and rigid for the first 10 minutes, pretty sure that every noise was a threat.  “OH MY GOD WHAT IS THAT THING???” He’d look up at me with wide eyes and a panicked expression, and I’d do my best to be soothing and say, “That is just a small human child on a tricycle but I can imagine how scary she looks to you.”  Her pigtails bounced threateningly. When the cats aren’t brought outside frequently they lose the knack for it.  These little fur-footed minions of the gods Entropy and Gravity spend all day in my apartment knocking things over, shoving them from high-up places to the ground, tearing things apart, and acting surprised when the things they move actually move.   They populate their environment with imaginary predators and prey, mimicking the chaos of real life outside, all the while increasingly incapable of actually dealing with it.  Am I all that different?

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Lucca and Siena, playful Minions of the Gods Entropy and Gravity

Perhaps the anger I felt toward the man for having invaded my space was more to do with being out of practice with people.  Maybe it was just that I have a super thin skin right now after what has been a rather difficult year. After all, isn’t part of the beauty of being in public spaces that you can’t control them and you don’t know what to expect? Or was I justified in feeling resentment at having my privacy disrupted?


It seems like every time I’m on an airplane, I end up next to some guy who sits down and immediately flops both his arms over the entire surface of both armrests, one of his elbows actually digging into my rib cage, while his knee juts into mine as he spreads his legs to a 120 degree angle.  He usually fails to notice this breach of my personal space for the entire 10-hour journey.

It seems men are liberal about their expansion beyond their designated space in other forms of public transportation too, as is hilariously documented by various blogs such as the Swedish “Macho i Kollektivtrafiken” (“Macho in Public Transport”) and “Men Taking Up Too Much Space on the Train.” tumblr_mvawgheUEO1sqv9too1_1280 tumblr_mzhbs7yBGW1sqv9too1_1280 tumblr_my2p5pjidF1sqv9too1_1280tumblr_mz8wsygBbU1sqv9too1_1280tumblr_mzpoaxXKGv1sqv9too1_1280tumblr_muy3grk2Fv1sqv9too1_1280 tumblr_mxc3k877d51sqv9too1_1280tumblr_n0jlnjXf971sqv9too1_1280 tumblr_mwonfrpFb01sqv9too1_1280 Critics of these projects point out that women also take up space rudely in public places – and this is certainly sometimes the case, as visible in the blog “Going With Eddie: Documenting Bad Subway Behavior & Other Crazy Happenings in NY.”  But what you notice in these photos is that more often than not, when women are taking up more than their fair share of space it tends to be more defensive – for example surrounding themselves with their bags like buffers.


A photo from “Going With Eddie”

Other critics  suggest that this is a silly, frivolous thing for feminists to be concerning themselves over – and if they have nothing better to do than worry about space on the metro, then there must not be all that much left for feminism to accomplish. But  in researching body language, one quickly understands it is foundational to expressions of power and submission. From Women and Downtown Open Spaces, by Louise Mozingo:

Henly, researching women’s personal space, noted that women move out of the way of other pedestrians more often than men.  Women in public environments are touched more often than men, and, quite predictably usually do not reciprocate the touching when it is initiated by men. Nager and Nelson-Shulman found that women’s personal space and anonymity are invaded twice as often as men’s.  Moreover (in these invasions), men are approached with requests for information (what time is it?) while women most often are encroached upon with intrusions of a sexual nature.  They found that “gaze aversion, stiff carriage, susceptibility to invasion, and the tendency to condense space by holding one’s ams close to the body are signs of deference and submission communicated non-verbally” by women.

According to Dr. Audrey Nelson,  “territory” claimed in public space by women is also less respected and women’s personal objects that are left as territory markers are moved far more often than men’s.

Female markers in bars or restaurants – feminine sweaters, purses – tend to be less effective than male markers – a coat, cell phone, pack of cigarettes, or newspaper. Women’s boundaries are not respected and are invaded more easily, consequently a woman’s territory is overtaken more quickly than a man’s.

Philosopher Sandra Lee Bartky wrote about how acting “feminine” often means using your body to portray powerlessness.   “Massiveness, power, or abundance in a woman’s body is met with distaste,” Bartky wrote.  These features of “feminine” body comportment are also associated with deference in general.

In groups of men, those with higher status typically assume looser and more relaxed postures; the boss lounges comfortably behind the desk while the applicant sits tense and rigid on the edge of his seat.  Higher-status individuals may touch their subordinates more than they themselves get touched; they initiate more eye contact and are smiled at by their inferiors more than they are observed to smile in return.  What is announced in the comportment of superiors is confidence and ease…Acting feminine, then, overlaps with performances of submissiveness.

Recently social psychologist Amy Cuddy gave a Ted Talk about how important body language is, not just for what we project to others but also how powerful we ourselves feel.  She discussed how making ourselves larger or smaller not only relates to power dynamics, but unsurprisingly to gender dynamics.

And what are nonverbal expressions of power and dominance? in the animal kingdom, they are about expanding: You make yourself big, you stretch out, you take up space. This is true across the animal kingdom. It’s not just limited to primates. And humans do the same thing. They do this both when they have power sort of chronically, and also when they’re feeling powerful in the moment…What do we do when we feel powerless? We do exactly the opposite. We close up. We wrap ourselves up. We make ourselves small. We don’t want to bump into the person next to us. Again, both animals and humans do the same thing. And this is what happens when you put together high and low power. What we tend to do when it comes to power is that we complement the other’s nonverbals. So if someone is being really powerful with us, we tend to make ourselves smaller. We don’t mirror them. We do the opposite of them…women are much more likely to do this kind of thing than men. Women feel chronically less powerful than men, so this is not surprising.

Amy Cuddy and her colleagues  tested whether “expansive body postures” like the ones associated with masculinity increase people’s sense of powerfulness and entitlement. In laboratory experiments, people who were prompted to take up more space were more likely to steal, cheat, and violate traffic laws in a simulation, prompted by a personal feeling of powerfulness.


If as a woman you DO take up some space it usually isn’t long before someone tries to shame you out of it.  And not just men – women can be even worse reinforcers of these patterns. Once a few years ago I was in a Salsa club in Paris.  I was wearing an opaque lacy shirt, a short purple skirt and opaque black leggings.  I was sitting on a barstool, talking to my boyfriend and another friend.  A woman dressed in a pants suit walked over to me and told me to close my legs because she and her date didn’t want to have to see what I had up there. To be clear – I was wearing opaque leggings.  Nothing could be SEEN “up there” even if I been sitting completely spread eagled.  However this woman felt it was necessary to come over and shame me for leaving 3-4 inches of space between my legs.  And it worked.  To be horribly honest, I’ll admit that for a while I felt embarrassed  – not because I worried about them “seeing up there” so much as the feeling that I was somehow being gross or unfeminine. To have a stranger in a bar tell you that you are being inappropriate is demoralizing.  I can’t be sure but I imagine that for at least the next 30-60 minutes I probably not only held my legs unnaturally close together, but I probably made my body seem more diminutive in other ways, perhaps slouching or leaning or pulling my arms in closer to myself. And that, whether she was aware of it or not, is probably exactly the effect that she wanted to have.  For some reason, she desired to shame me into adopting a more powerless body posture.


France, compared to many other countries in the world, is a pretty great place to be a female.  Knowing how horrible, violent and oppressive it is for so many women throughout the world can make it these small moments seem petty.  But micro-aggressions still affect quality of life, often in subconscious ways – all the more harmful because we are not aware of them.   I realized as I wrote this post that one of the real reasons I don’t go out in Pau to work even on nice days, is that I don’t want to have to deal with unwanted interactions with men.  I actually have been bothered on most of the occasions when I’ve tried to work in the park or the plaza – like when I was reading on a park bench and two guys walked over and just stood over me, laughing, really close, hovering over me, their sole purpose to be discomfiting, until it worked and I became too uncomfortable to focus.  Another time in a park I was sitting against a tree and these two guys came and sat down against the same tree – instead of choosing any other part of the open space and hundreds of trees available. Sometimes men do these mildly aggressive things without being aware of it, but sometimes they do it quite intentionally, desiring for the woman they are confronting to feel small and powerless and either get angry, shrink up or scuttle away.  And either way it makes a woman feel angry and powerless, like she has to constantly be on run just to have some space.  Like that poor, poor cat in the Pepe Le Pew cartoons.


This old man at the cafe of course meant no harm, but he would never have done the same to another man, nor is it likely a woman would do that to a man. In thinking back to that cafe, I remember that everything about my body language indicated my desire for privacy.  I was writing, I was wearing sunglasses, I had my body tilted at angle away from the street, my legs crossed and my head inclined over the paper I was writing on.  I think it was precisely BECAUSE I looked so absorbed that this man chose to interact with me.  I think it was because he saw the bubble of my privacy that he wanted to pop it.  Yes it was all in good fun – but this lighthearted game still reminds me that ultimately I cannot expect my privacy and personal space to be respected, unless I stay in my apartment.  I think this is important. Men feel a strong sense of entitlement regarding interacting with women.  They often seem to feel that it is their right to try to get women’s attention, provoke a response, and take up or push themselves into a woman’s personal space. They act like what we are doing doesn’t matter.  Our privacy is not something to respect, as though we are fair game BECAUSE we are female.  But we are not – and we deserve the same respect and space afforded to men. Because a woman alone is not an invitation.



* On a related note, I’d like to share this recent short film (French with subtitles) that experiments with the reversal of typical gender dynamics:


If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy the following:

*The Burial of Life as a Young Girl

*The Uncertainty Principle

*Girl in the gym

Honesty is in the Ear of the Beholder

•September 20, 2013 • 7 Comments

I told a lie today.

It was an innocent lie.  It neither served a purpose nor caused injury.  The sort of lie that floats out of your mouth and hangs suspended in mid-air momentarily and then pops, disappearing and leaving no trace.

It was 100% inconsequential and unnecessary.  So why did I do it in the first place?

In some ways it happened because I was being too honest.  I went to our local farmers market, to pick up some ingredients for dinner.  I was passing by a vegetable stand when a man asked me what I wanted to buy.  I said, in French, “Well…I am going to make borscht.”  He looked at me quizzically and I repeated, “I want to make borscht.”  His eyes widened and I repeated the word borscht, realizing of course that he had no idea what that was, and it wouldn’t matter how many times I said it or how clearly I annunciated the strange array of consonants.

He then asked me if I was speaking in French or not, at which point I flushed violently, and stammered, “Of course I am speaking in French, well actually not exactly in French because borscht is not a French word, it’s a soup, a Russian soup, well not just Russian, also Polish and Ukrainian and probably some other places.  But the word borscht is Russian.  So I guess I wasn’t exactly speaking in French, since 25% of the words in the sentence “I want to make borscht” were Russian.”

He looked even more unconvinced that I was in fact speaking French.

At this point my heart was racing from the immense vulnerability of not being understood, and I was hit by the queasiness that accompanies me in moments of trying and failing at something.

He peered at me and asked (though it was phrased more as a statement), “So, you’re not French?”

“No, not at all,” I said and attempted a breezy laugh.

“Where are you from?”

“I’m Spanish.”  (In case you hadn’t guessed, that right there was the lie.) “From…the…south. The south…of Spain.” (And that was me continuing to lie).

“Oh,” he said. “From blahblahblah?” (blahblahblah being some Spanish region that I didn’t quite catch and maybe have never actually heard of).

And I nodded vigorously, “Yeah, right near there!”  (more lying!)

He smiled and said that he was Moroccan, from the north, so we were neighbors. We chatted for a few more sentences.  I bought beets, onions, potatoes, leeks and carrots, and left as quickly as possible, before he could ask me any more questions that would expose me as the lying fabricating fibber I had suddenly become.


Spanish??  WTF?

As I disappeared from the view and therefore potential scrutiny of the Moroccan (I could imagine him suddenly saying to himself, “But wait that’s not how Spanish women walk!” or “Hold on there, why is her hair cut so symmetrically and only one color – she couldn’t possibly be Spanish!” or something equally ridiculous), I felt utterly bemused by what had just happened.  I certainly hadn’t intended on, wanted to or needed to lie…why on earth had that come out of my mouth?

And not only that – why didn’t I feel bad about it?

In fact I actually felt strangely empowered by my lie…sort of warmed up, shielded, strengthened.

It felt like I’d gone into the market all raw, vulnerable and squishy, and suddenly I’d found some sort of magical armor.  I felt light and free.


To provide a bit of much needed context – this trip I took to the market was practically the first time I’d left the house and ventured into town since my cat died.  I was not at my best.

A few weeks ago my precious, delightful, amazing cat  got very badly hurt, and after struggling for a few days ultimately had to give up the fight. I was in another part of France at the time of his injury, and I rushed home by train – but I didn’t make it in time to see him again alive.  It was a totally unexpected tragedy – very hard to digest and accept because it went so against my hopes and expectations; he was only 3 years old, and I thought he and his sister would be with me for the next 15 years.  We were a family – he was my cat child.

I don’t really want to try and explain here just how much I loved that cat, or describe the intensity of my grief or the horrible hole his absence has created in our lives.  I don’t want to try to explain how the loss of an animal can be as intense as the loss of a friend or family member, or justify the difficulty I’ve had functioning on a normal level – eating, sleeping, socializing, working.  Let me just say I am devastated, heartbroken.


When I am going through difficult things, my tendency is to withdraw from the outside world.  I feel singularly incapable of presenting a happy or normal face in public when I am going through highly emotional moments.  I am not very good at being reserved, at keeping the private thoughts and feelings to myself. I find it almost physically painful to have something important going on (good or bad) and to have to hide it.  So if I am deeply depressed or in the middle of intense grief, while I am CAPABLE of going to a party and putting on a bright smile and saying “great” when someone asks me how I am, I feel sick doing so.The act of hiding my feelings and pretending things are fine can feel physically painful.  I’d rather stay home – and so when I’m going through stuff like that, that’s exactly what I usually do.

When I am feeling squishy and emotional, doing something simple like going to market can seem tremendously challenging.  In the market I am somehow required to exude personality, even if it’s only minimally  – and there are moments that inevitably come up where I have to choose whether to be sincere or not; being sincere feels dangerous and vulnerable, while being fake feels painful.

Because of this, I probably wouldn’t have left my apartment for several more days at least – but we ran out of things that I could creatively combine into something vaguely edible. So I ventured out hoping to avoid all but the most basic verbal exchanges.

I have been trying to understand why a lie materialized so unintentionally and yet so effortlessly in that particular moment, a lie that gave me a completely new identity. I think I felt a need in that moment to not reveal anything.  I wanted a kind of anonymity, invisibility.  I think in some way – in saying I was Spanish, I felt completely released, completely protected. Now I wasn’t myself at all.  And in that way I no longer had to struggle between being too open and being insincere.  Giving myself a new identity gave me complete invulnerability and no need to actually tap into myself at all.

I think on some level I was making it possible for myself to avoid the following conversation:  “Where are you from?” “I’m American. And my cat just died.” Because that’s probably what I would have ended up saying, if I hadn’t said “I’m Spanish” instead.


To be clear – I am perfectly capable of feeling and acting like a normal well-adjusted adult human being.  Just not ALL the time.  There are certain periods of time when I feel OFF.  It’s hard to explain – I feel raw, skinless, and absolutely certain that everyone that I walk by can see right inside me.

In these moments I tend to feel I really have no business leaving my apartment, because when I do I always end up feeling horrible due to my insanely neurotic response to every interaction.   I ran into this problem a few days ago when I had to leave my apartment to go see my chiropractor for the first time in 6 months to fix a displaced rib.  I described my discomfiture later that day in my journal:

“When I saw her and she asked how I was and I said fine there was this pause afterwards that felt increasingly awkward…and then after a certain number of seconds, I felt the need to fill in the space with, “I mean relatively speaking,” and I tried to form my mouth into a smile.

It was so hard for me to squeeze the word ‘fine’ out. “I’m fine.”  But I’m lying! I’m not fine.   And then I felt like an impostor…and I felt like she could see all the way through me. And in those few seconds of silence as she looked at me I was sure she could tell that there was something absolutely wrong with me.  And in those few seconds, a reel of thoughts and feelings went through my head – most of which were totally, completely and utterly neurotic. 

First of all I felt the awkwardness of not having been there for a long time – I felt guilty, like I had been untrue to her and our relationship somehow – like I was a bad patient.  Like she was wondering if there was something wrong or if I’d just decided my body was no longer a priority. 

And then I felt the tears welling up – the unspoken real answer NO I AM NOT OK MY CAT DIED! That thing I am not supposed to say to most people because that would be more awkward than comforting and I feel in a certain way that I do not deserve so much sadness, so much grief for the disappearance of this one little creature who has now been gone, has not existed for an entire 23 days…23 horrible, long, painful days…I feel people will think I am being indulgent in having daily breakdowns, tears falling, where it all feels surprising and fresh and horrible.

Besides – when she asked how I was – she meant my body, not my heart.

And in the how are you I felt the embedded question, the what have you been doing – to which I could only really answer truthfully – going through a year of loss, depression, and partial recovery paired with more loss. I’m still trying to figure out how to make myself do stuff…but I haven’t really managed to do anything yet. I track the inches, the millimeters I hope I’ve moved forward but sometimes the units of measure are so small that I can’t tell if it’s forward or backward or standing still.

And then I feel her thinking – why is this girl so awkward and raw, so not like other people, not put together, not neat and clean in her lines – why is she so wavy and permeable, like a jellyfish, like you could push molecules right through her, or take something right out of her, right from her and steal it away.

And then I imagine her judgment – wondering what I am doing here in this country, how all these months could have gone by since she last saw me and I have nothing to show for it but a lost house and a dead cat and a long history of tears and days of squishiness.

And I hear her switching into english and I imagine her wondering if I even know any french and wondering how  a person could live in a country for years and not speak the language. Of course I do speak the language- but she’s never heard me so she must assume I don’t. And then I prove my ineptitude to her by misunderstanding when she wants me to lie down on my belly because she says the word in french and then she says both back and belly in english and I am not sure which she wants and so my brain freezes and I just go for one. And it’s wrong – and I feel like I am showing her evidence of how I clearly don’t even understand easy french (but I do! I speak advanced French! I promise! I want to tell her – but then I know that if I tried to speak with her the pressure would be too much and I’d stumble all over myself and sound like a 3 year old). and how this is clearly evidence of not only my lack of motivation and general intelligence, but also proof of my inadequacy on pretty much every level. What a stupid, pathetic person…so supposedly smart and yet so useless! Hasn’t even learned French (oh but I have I haveI have!)

And then I lay there feeling horrible – like an absolute complete and utter failure.  All because I turned on my back, not my tummy.

Of course it’s not like I feel this horribly insanely neurotic and insecure all the time – but it’s a vicious cycle on a day like today where I am already worn thin by grief and then just didn’t really get anything done. I already felt a bit defeated, a bit frustrated. I think if I’d managed to spend a few hours writing, putting something together, putting something out there, I would have felt more immune…but on days like this I have no shell – I go out of my house as slug-woman. I feel faceless, formless, yet ugly, squishy, permeable, easily damaged, and generally off-putting.”

Luckily I didn’t actually tell the chiropractor how I was really feeling!!


I would say that in general I usually don’t lie enough. Lying, or at least severely disguising the truth is a necessary part of functioning in public and I am not always as good at it as I would like to be.  It is hard for me to hold my cards close – it goes very much against my nature – I tend to be very open about my opinions and the things I’m going through – to a point where I sometimes reveal things that I don’t actually WANT to reveal, and often to the wrong people. If I am not really paying careful attention and actively and consciously exercising my filtering capacity, I have the very bad tendency of just letting whatever is on my mind come tumbling out, and saying what I actually think about things, even when it is totally inappropriate.  For example, I once asked a man whose OCD had been described in great and hilarious detail to me by his wife, if I could see his closet because I’d heard so much about how he keeps his shirts folded.  Or that time I asked a young Frenchman that I had just met if, given that he said there was nothing he particularly liked or was passionate about,  he had found any compelling reason to continue living (his response was that he asks himself the same question every day.)  Or once a friend of mine was talking about potential baby names for some time in the future and mentioned a name she liked which I said I thought was just horrible, like a little crunched up old woman who smells like mothballs and likes to crochet doilies.  A year later my friend HAD a baby, and named it the very name that I had been so unfortunately honest about.  Awkward.


I was surprised by how completely unrepentant I felt after lying.   But I knew that in a few weeks the Moroccan man wouldn’t even remember me – that I’d be able to go right back up to his stall, buy more beets and onions and he’d have no recollection of having met me, let alone where I said I was from.

If it makes no difference to anyone, if no one is really listening, is it still a lie?  And if it doesn’t stick, but drifts away and  vanishes, does it even matter?

As children we are taught that lying is unethical, but as adults certain kinds of lying are not only expected but frequently required of us.  Lying is part of what we are trained to do all the time – we are required to learn how spin narratives into selective and twisted truths.

And when you run into acquaintances who ask how you are, they don’t actually want to know.   We are supposed to say “I’m good,” or at worst “I’m fine,” no matter what is actually going on inside.  And if you are honest, unless it is a good friend, it is bound to be awkward.

And when you meet new people most of them don’t ACTUALLY care where you’re from, what career you define yourself with or how you spend the days of your life.  They just ask to keep life moving, to keep the awkwardness at bay, the horrible realization of our own solitude and how very difficult it can be to connect, to love and be loved, to find ones tribe, one’s place, to actually be cared about – to have the things you say mean something to someone besides as a way to pass the time.


There is a lovely old gentleman who lives in my apartment building with an absolutely delightful puffy white mustache.  Every time he sees me in the elevator or stairwell his face lights up and he gives me a wide and charming grin.  He always has a kind word to say and I’ve always found him so adorable.

But lately I have come to notice that if we walk past each other on the streets of Pau he does not recognize me and never smiles.  I tried many times to smile at him on the street, but he looks past me, uncomfortable, unsure why this strange young person is making faces at him.

It is only within the context of our shared building that he knows “who I am.”   Something about this makes me very sad.

I think it is because it reminds me how much of an illusion connecting often is.  We pretend connection, recognition, but really we are just finding quick and easy ways of categorizing one another, usually missing 99% of what is actually important, relevant or interesting about a person.  I realize that it’s not just the mustache man, but most of the people I have met in Pau that only recognize me due to a specific context that defines me for them.  “The girl who lives in that apartment.”  “The lady with the cats.”  “David’s girlfriend.”  “The American.” “The journalist.”  Etc.  So very few people care to know more than enough to put you in a box, and put you neatly away.


How can one actually tell the “truth” anyway? Isn’t one always misleading people in some way?  For example if I’d told the Moroccan that I’m American he would have immediately assumed all sort of things about me based on whatever his idea of being American means, most of which has next to nothing to do with my actual identity.  There are so many things that I could say about myself that are true technically, but put me in the wrong box…a box I do not fit in, do not belong in.  It is so hard, so impossible to pin the self down, and find an honest box to inhabit. I am not defined by my job, by my nationality, or by any other box.  Neither are you.

It is so nearly impossible to be recognized for what you really are, and it often seems barely worth the effort to try.  I think in observing myself actively lying in the market, I realized that it wasn’t that different from how we all end up behaving with one another most of the time.

That is why I want to learn more and more how to ask the questions that don’t just put people in predictable boxes, but give them the space to be themselves, to expand past the definitions of their career or spouse, nationality or gender, to surprise me, to show me something special if they so choose, something that defies my expectations and the predictions of their supposed definitions and designations.

And perhaps that is why I need, in the times of vulnerability and heartache, to come here to this space more often rather than shy away.  Because my words and thoughts don’t put me neatly into any boxes, and I would have to believe that anyone who has read this far is not solely interested in putting me in a box, and putting me neatly away either.


France Sauvage…?

•June 14, 2013 • 2 Comments

It is a very rare moment when France strikes me as wild.


Picturesque? Of course.

Quaint?  Most definitely.

Provincial? Frequently.

But wild?  Almost never.


Not much more than a century ago, apart from a handful of relatively small cities, most of the geography of France was untamed, and unseen by the urban citizens.  Not so long ago, hundreds of dialects were spoken throughout the country in such variety that villagers just miles apart often could barely communicate with one another and viewed each other as foreigners.

This was an era before all the Italian grey wolves that had originally descended from the Alps and roamed the center of France uninhibited for centuries were extinguished by an aggressive government program meant to civilize the country, and overly-effective sheep farmers brought the population of Pyrenean brown bears down to under 10.  This was before rails and paved roads began to extend their webs in every direction, connecting the country but also domesticating it.

Modern France feels tame, tranquil, sleepy: a land fettered by humanity.  A land stripped, toiled and tied down.

But a few weeks back I lived in an alternate reality – one in which the people of France had disappeared, their buildings, dwellings, amusements, places of worship were empty and deteriorating; their roads were broken, washed over with mud, sand and grass, and you couldn’t hear their cars – no –  just waves, wind, birds and the swish and crinkle of passing storms assaulting trees and bushes.

I rode on my bicycle for hours every day through the heavy pounding rain, day after day without seeing a soul, and I suddenly found myself in a France that was momentarily unhinged – and I saw that no land is ever completely tamable.


I’ve been depressed this year.  Mostly it’s just me.  Personal stuff, family stuff, anxiety issues (hence not blogging much).  But some of it has also been the town I live in – Pau…a claustrophobia I’ve begun to feel living here, this seemingly idyllic little French town, “a place, a place where nothing, nothing ever happens.”

That feeling has been magnified by the truly crappy weather inundating Western Europe for the last many months and months and months.

Day after day.  Rain. Chill.  The rain has been falling a majority of days this year, as though the clouds are stubbornly trying to clean the landscape.  And according to meteorologists last month was the most consistently cold May in France since people started recording such things.

The asphalt is crumbling on almost every street in Pau, like some cheesy metaphor for the breakdown of the glue of society.  It feels like there is no reason at all to leave one’s apartment – because what is there outside besides puddles and at the very best, a few pockets of glum, resentful fortitude?

Central Pau on any typical day this year:


Lonely, decrepit streets


The main plaza of Pau – eerily empty in mid-June


June Pau Fashion



This sculpture immortalizing the moment of the kill, and the vulture that constantly hovers over us, appears all the more uplifting after 7 months of rain.



Blue skies surprise me, the sun surprises me, seeing human beings surprises me.  And it’s definitely not just me – last week I was at the supermarket and a cashier was coming back from a smoke break and enthusiastically said to another cashier that it was a miracle, she had ALMOST seen the sun through the clouds!  She said this without sarcasm.  She was genuinely excited.

Two weeks ago an old Spanish man stopped us in the middle of the street in a small Basque town we were visiting, pointed at the sky and then bringing his hands together in front of his chest, said “We must all pray that it will not rain today!”  and then walked on.

France is officially in a recession, as though the economy itself (along with the collective spirit of the people) has been weighed down by Seasonal Affective Disorder, by the wet, muddy, indifferent greyness of everything.

No wonder I’ve been depressed!


A few months ago I bought some Groupon deal for seven nights in a chalet on a “campsite” along the Basque coast, but it had to be used before the high season.  So my boyfriend and I drove to the coast on a Saturday in the end of May in the midst of a deluge.

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When we arrived it was clear that we were some of the only people in France who thought it would still be fun to go to a campsite in bad weather.


Despite the fact that we were almost the only people arriving on the property built to accommodate many hundreds of people, we were told we had to must wear wristbands at all times to help “identify” us.

The cheerful brochures we were handed advertising a sunny campsite brimming with smiling tan families contrasted beautifully with the mournful, desolate emptiness of the site, and the colorful structures at the entrance had an effect opposite of the intention – serving to emphasize the solitude.


After we’d settled in, we walked around the property and by the endless row upon row of chalets and mobile homes, nearly all empty.


I was very happy.

I usually feel claustrophobic doing French “camping.” I’m from California and Alaska – so when I want to camp, I want to go OUTside in nature, not to a fenced property full of little boxes, that are full of people packed together like farm animals pretending to be feral.

But the complete quiet of this place almost felt akin to real camping…all this emptiness almost seemed perhaps just the slightest bit wild…


My solitude increased when my boyfriend left on Tuesday morning to return to work in Pau.  I had hoped there might be some breaks in the rain when I could take out my bike and explore but no such luck.  I stubbornly began biking in the rain every day.  Initially I only intended to go out briefly – but the stormy landscape stripped of humans was so compelling that I found myself leaving for hours at a time, returning drenched and invigorated.


Every day my adventures by bicycle took on the fantastical qualities of some particular novel or another, as my imagination in its isolation ran away with me.  Every image I saw became part of a new story…and these stories had to be wordy, a bit silly and hopefully quite melodramatic.

On Tuesday, it was Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood) where Pacifica finds herself as Jimmy, the sole human survivor in post-apocalyptic world where human objects and structures have begun to break free from their originally designated identity.  

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Despite biking for hours I saw no other human beings, only  what started to appear like the broken remnants of a civilization. Campsite after campsite, chalet after chalet, mobil home after mobil home, empty and lifeless.

I was in a landscape strewn with flimsy human constructions.  Despite the intentionally transitory nature of such structures, when I walked on the muddy dirt pathways between them, I got the kind of feeling one has walking through old cave dwellings or Roman ruins: People inhabited these spaces – ate here, slept here, made love here – and the only mark that is left from all of the living that was done is the structure itself.


I felt the weight of the imagined destruction, a nostalgia and sadness for the nature of seasons, of eras, of epochs – the certainty of change.  As much as it seems like the French will come to inhabit these little structures every July and August like clockwork, bringing their carloads full of mostly unnecessary camping supplies, and all the comforts of home for their time inside a mobile home in the “outdoors,” someday this too will end, and these buildings – what will happen to them – how long would they take to rot away if they were left like this, just like this – empty, uncared for, until the plants break them down into more hospitable homes for different sorts of life forms?

I biked along a fat little river into the forest.

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It was so well-fed it no longer seemed to be moving quickly. Instead it seemed to take its time, moving its incredible girth with confidence and assertiveness.  It was full, ripe, ready to spill out and give itself to the land.

The only life forms I spotted were some quail that darted across the path in front of me, and several horses. I felt supremely alone on the planet and despite being within constant site of human structures, closer to nature than I had felt in a long time – like the forest and river had just woken up, stretched out, and taken one deep long breath.

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Wednesday I went wandered along the coast itself. As I got closer to the wind-whipped beach the sound of the sand flying became stronger and stronger, the rattle of tiny fractions of stone against stone, multiplied by the millions.  It was such a complex sound, too complex for human understanding, a wheezing, rattling, whistling sound, like a monstrous invisible snake, sliding along, hissing louder and louder as it approaches you and surrounds you, the force of its movement sending sand flying.  And then I was perhaps a little bit Harry Potter – facing my inner snake song, and the inhospitableness of the landscape.  It was not a place where humans should be in that moment – not an environment made for human skin, for human membranes.

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With grit in my teeth and my exposed skin smarting from the bite of each grain, I turned around and continued on a path North.

The only other human I saw was a man on a bicycle heading towards me, with a round leathery face, looking not unlike an apple doll.  He scowled at me as he passed by.

I ended up wandering down a bumpy dirt road, stumbling into mysterious dilapidated ruins, where I found myself considering ghosts.   I was transported from the beach to the moors.  Then in Wuthering Heights, I myself the narrator wandering in the heath, I tried to piece together a sad story from the remnants of destroyed lives I found around me.

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I kept thinking I saw flickers, shadows through the broken glass – but it was hard to see through thick rain. IMG_2832 IMG_2836 IMG_2839

Why was this tumbledown church forbidden?  I wondered who was buried beneath it, and if they wished to return…IMG_2844 IMG_2845

And as I explored on Thursday, the empty beach village of Labenne-Océane began to take on the look of a deserted carnival.  I suddenly entered the science fiction world of Ray Bradbury in Something Wicked This Way Comes.

There is something horrible about beach paraphernalia when it’s raining, something sinister about the once-bright bleached signs hanging over barred doors and shuttered windows, something disquieting about deserted toys and games and fun left to rot.

Where is Mr. Dark? In the Fun Palace or perhaps the Reptilarium?

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France is full of wide-open space and is still predominantly a country of villages and small towns; only 11 French cities currently have more than 200,000 inhabitants.  But despite the fact that there are plenty of stretches of land where you can still feel far away from urban humanity, the general pulse of the land of France is sluggish and sleepy.  Cows and sheep that loll across the mountains only have a vague, ancestral memory of quick hunters with sharp claws and teeth, and the prickle of anxiety that spread through their ranks at the smell of musty predators’ sweat. Now sheep, cows and horses wander the mountains, valleys and plains knowing no fear, imagining no danger, startling at no crackle of branches or quick movement out of the corner of their eyes.

It was a different land not too long ago.  But what changed France?  Transportation – roads, rails, bicycles. Tourism and money and travellers, radio and television and now internet. The slow enforcing of a common tongue, and this strange new thing called French national identity – an invention of the 20th century. And industrialized farming changed the landscape – cleared the land and gave it a strict utilitarian purpose, but no freedom to express itself.

Personally, almost all land in France feels like farmland or people-land.  Even the mountains.  So being outdoors never quite feels wild, never quite feels savage.  It’s hard to find places in nature where humans haven’t left their controlling mark.  The ancient forests where you might have walked for days and days, barely even seeing the light of day through the treetops, so thick was the growth, are mostly gone – manicured down and thinned out to little splotches of deep green between flattened farmlands.  The forests that remain are just a little too friendly and full of easy trails.


When the people are hiding in their houses, I can feel that the land still has some mischief left in it.  That much is clear.  When the tourists have given up, the rain having beaten everyone into glum submission, the forests seem cheerful and the beaches are breathing more steadily.

It’s in these “civilized” places, the places that are designed to be full of people, that I see the wildness, the potential savagery of French nature.  You can imagine the decay, the loosening grip of the human hand on things, and the wind and waves and aggressive roots and tendrils taking over.


Spring Snow in Pau, France

•March 14, 2013 • 1 Comment


The past year has been without much rhythm, a time of starts and jarring stops, a year a bit here and there and everywhere.  I have only spent six weeks in Pau total since October, four of which I was too sick with a flu and a deep, body-shaking cough to even leave my apartment.

As soon as I’d recovered, I went home to California.  But for the first time there was no home there, there was no house, no room, no bed.  No driveway to bump into and park myself in.  The bed I have had since I was a child, had been disassembled and living sideways in a storage unit with all my remaining artifacts of my childhood home since December.  I have been a traveller in so many places, but this was the first time I felt like a traveller in California too.

While I was in the states I slept in a total of 12 different beds, 2 air mattresses and 2 couches.  So it was with relief on Tuesday night, that I curled up in my own bed in Pau,the small French town I’ve been living in for the majority of the last three years, after what seemed like a lifetime away.

Despite having been 10-18 degrees Celsius in the previous weeks, the temperature dipped suddenly on the day I arrived back in France, and while I slept gratefully in my bed it began to snow.  It doesn’t snow often in Pau, although we are within site of the Pyrenees – in fact I have only personally been present for one day of snow in the last two years – so I was thrilled.  I spent several hours on Wednesday, my first day back, just walking the slick, cold streets, looking around me, taking pictures.

It’s been a long time since I have really made the effort to look closely at Pau.  It is a small town and because I have already been here for what seems like a very long time, and I don’t particularly want to live here much longer but may have to anyway, I have felt somewhat trapped and claustrophobic.   There is so much beauty here, but sometimes it seems very static.  And when I am so aware that there is a such a big, bright world beyond these small streets, I can feel very limited here, with life narrowed down to just one fine point of view, one small vantage (even if it IS a beautiful vantage overlooking the Pyrenees).  I miss cities, and I miss wilderness, places full of life and energy, and I find that Pau usually feels somewhere uncomfortably in between.

But yesterday’s walk reminded me I have to try to be more present and engaged here.  This may not be the ideal place for me, but I am here, and there is of course a lot to appreciate all around me every day.  My boyfriend asked me where I walked for so many hours, because he knows there isn’t really anywhere to walk TO.  The truth is I walked in many circles…and for awhile it seemed like the town inhaled deeply, and the world around me expanded somehow.  When you take the time to look closely, small things and places seem to grow, because the details add depth if not length and breadth.

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Snow in the near springtime seems like an apt metaphor.  Something about the fresh, innocent vulnerability of the all the new blossoms wilting under the intense coldness of the fresh, wet snow seems important.  Renewal and healing can be a messy process, and learning does not happen in a straight line.  For awhile it can appear like we are getting somewhere, only to find ourselves seemingly back where we started later on.  And yet if it snows in mid-March, do we start to doubt spring is still coming?  While the macro-graph may show progression, things on the small-scale don’t move forward in a predictable, constant way, but rather in tides, sometimes smooth, sometimes in fits and starts, sometimes regressing, sometimes leaping ahead.   I need to have a little more faith in my own process; I have to be patient, and just do the work I need to do.  It has been a hard year or two, but I can feel so much strength and potential peeking through the broken pieces, through the still-falling snow.


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And if you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy the following:

*Taken Captive by Spain

*Sensational Zaragoza Street Art

*A Weekend in Florence in December

*Prague: Image and Impression