We are all Tragically Hip

As I begin writing this article I am sitting on my balcony in a small town not too far from Geneva, with a beautiful view of the Swiss alps. I am listening to The Hip – Ahead by a Century, probably too loud. I don’t care , I am feeling rebellious. Rebellious and nostalgic.

Rebellious and nostalgic and another feeling I can’t quite place.

Vulnerable?

This may come as a surprise to most Canadians, other than those who live or have many friends outside of Canada. Most people in the “rest of the world” don’t actually know the Tragically Hip.

As a Canadian living over here in Europe, I was surprised by the announcement that Gord Downie had terminal cancer. But the second biggest surprise was when I started talking about it around me –  “Did you hear about the lead singer of the Tragically Hip?!?!” I said,  shocked.

“Who?” was the reply.

“The Tragically Hip! You know! Ahead by a Century? Wheat Kings? Bobcaygeon? New Orleans is Sinking…?”

Blank faces.

Yes my fellow Canadians, I know this will come as a shock to you too: it turns out, many things we consider sacred, obvious and significant in Canada are actually not that well-known outside of the country. But in a way, that makes it so much more important to us, because we own them.

Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip are ours.

Their summer tour  was an amazing gift to us all. Canadians across the world were able to tune in to CBC and watch their last concert in Kingston.

I just watched this amazing compilation by Maclean’s magazine, of fans singing the last song of the evening… (Hold on a sec, just have to turn the volume up here a bit.)

Watch the video and you’ll notice something amazing.

 

 

Did you spot it?

Watch again, carefully… It’s not the fact that people are smiling while crying, singing and hugging… It’s not even the sheer number of people who turned out everywhere across the country…

Do you see any phones or cameras, filming, taking photos? Nope, almost none. Any other concert, event, major celebrity moment, famous person’s public appearance, important event – the phones come out to record the moment and share it with the world later.

Not here.

Everyone is right there, in the moment.

Every person is 100% present at that very second in time, with the band, with the music, in the experience, together, alone, and nowhere else. Some people dance, but most are just standing, facing the music, swaying a bit maybe, eyes and heart wide open, listening. Recording it with their souls.

We like to think we’ll live forever, don’t we? We like to believe that we’ll live forever, or at least until well into our 90s, and “pass away” in our sleep after having spent a fun day rock climbing or windsurfing or something like that.

53  years old, to be told your days are numbered – that just feels wrong. Unfair.

But the truth is, we’re all just here temporarily. I want to write that maybe the reason Gord Downie’s diagnosis and death hits so hard is because he’s one of us. But that’s not quite right. The truth is, we are one of them. The Hip is our band, a part of our country, our heritage, our generation, and dammit I am so glad we didn’t share them outside our borders.

I saw them in Halifax in 1990, at the Misty Moon. I was 21 years old. Gord Downie is just a few years older than I am now.

Seeing him on that stage, singing through tears, has brought our own mortality crashing down on us as we all realize we are all on a road with the same destination. Suddenly, some of the lines from their songs feel like they were written for this moment.

No dress rehearsal, this is our life.

There’s no simple explanation
For anything important any of us do
And, yeah, the human tragedy
Consists in the necessity
Of living with the consequences
Under pressure

If I had a wish
I’d wish for more of this

 

 

 

 

I Did Not Go to the Women’s March

the-truth

Saturday, across the globe, people participated in Women’s Marches – this movement is not “just” for women, but for everyone. From Sydney, Australia to Vancouver, Canada, people gathered to march against intolerance, to take a stand for women’s rights, minority rights, rights for lesbian, gay, transgender people, rights for disabled people, rights for immigrants and refugees.

And to stand up for Truth . With a capital T. Because apparently that’s up for grabs now.

Here in Geneva,  Switzerland,  a march was organised.  But there was one minor technical problem: I had to work.

I wanted to march.

My friends were going. Tons of people were going. Men, women and children were travelling in to Geneva from as far as Zurich to participate.

But…  I was stuck at the other end of the city at work.

Ok,  I thought, maybe I could still make it happen. I am ever the optimist, after all.

I calculated that if I was replaced a bit early for my lunch break I could maybe – just maybe get to downtown Geneva by bus, have about 10 minutes to spend there, and then race back.

I had made a sign,  bought a sandwich to eat on the ride,  got bus change ready.

But fate was against me. I was replaced a measly 2 and a half minutes early.  I raced outside,  heart pounding,  and watched the bus drive off. Not even close.

I could have screamed.  Possibly,  I did actually let out a couple choice words.  Not sure if it was in my head or actually spoken.  I did stomp my foot.

Feeling dejected,  hopeless,  excluded,  frustrated,  angry and sad,  I img-20170121-wa0005-2went back inside.

Trying to make the best of it, I took a pathetic little photo of myself with my sign in the hallway at work and texted it to my various friends at the march.

They texted back with their amazing signs and photos of the thousands of people walking across the bridge downtown Geneva.

To not be there for the actual march was heartbreaking.

I wanted to be there. I planned to be there. But I wasn’t there.

And yet.

I was there.

Because “there” is where we are when we decide to take action, to speak up, to stand together, to step forward into this new world of activism that has opened up before us.

People around the world stepped forward together Saturday, and I was with them.

The incredible number of people who participated is impressive. Some of the aerial footage is stunning – and inspiring.

Later that day my husband and I watched the news come in with reports of the massive rallies around the world. And my husband said simply: “This makes me feel better.”

“Oh really”, I asked. “How? I mean, about what?”

“The world. The future,” he said simply.

We were there. We are there.

And we’re not turning back now.

Mom’s Words of Wisdom to a Grown Up Child

A few pearls of wisdom from a mom watching her son move out and far away…

walkingaway

  1. Take care of your body. Eat vegetables. Use sunscreen. Drive defensively. Drink moderately. In other words, please take good care of this person that I have protected for the past 20 years!
  2. Take care of your brain. Eat vegetables. Read books. Keep learning. Drink moderately. In other words, please take good care of this person you have created for the past 20 years!
  3. Don’t let anyone change who you are.
  4. Life is long. You don’t have to get everything done right away, or accomplish everything quickly. What goes around comes around -eventually, the good guys win and the bad guys learn – it just takes time and patience.
  5. Life is short. Don’t waste your time on people or things that drag you down, that hurt you, that stop you from being happy.
  6. Don’t let anyone make up your mind. You don’t have to think like everyone else. The world’s greatest minds have often been independant thinkers with their own ideas, who didn’t allow themselves to be drawn in to a way of thinking just because it was popular. Be careful of small minded people.
  7. The world is huge. Many people have not had the chance to see the world like you, to experience 4 cultures, live on 2 continents, to be immersed in 4 languages, and to travel extensively. It is possible you will encounter people who live in their small corner of the world and think they know everything. They don’t. You don’t.
  8. The world is small. The theory states all people in the world are linked by 6 degrees of separation only. No matter how far you travel, you will never really be away from home, because you are always home.
  9. Avoid intolerant people. It is always easier to judge an entire group than to try to understand. Very few arguments can be won against someone who has made up their mind to be racist, sexist, homophobic or generally prejudiced. You cannot convince someone with words. But you can win by keeping your own heart and mind open and not letting generalizations influence how you see others.
  10. Choose love. This sounds silly but it’s the truth. If you can’t decide betwen two options, choose whatever is kinder, more tolerant, nicer, more fun, or will lead to more happiness.

My son survived – why bother pushing for research?

Beautiful boy

 

A few months ago I attended at conference on Accelerating the Development of New Oncology Drugs for Children and Adolescents. The first day was packed with fascinating, complicated presentations all revolving around the issue of how to get new drugs and new treatments available in order to save more children with cancer.

Later that evening, I sat in the bar with several parents, oncologists and industry reps, as we discussed the need for research.

Many of the parents attending that meeting had lost their child to cancer. They were there because they are committed to making a difference for other kids-  the kids diagnosed today, the ones of tomorrow.

At one point, a person (not a cancer-parent) asked me why, since my son had survived, I was so committed to advancing research.

It’s one of those questions that, when asked, feels like the answer is so obvious that you actually struggle to put words on it.

Why am I involved? Is it my place to be part of this battle?

My son Elliot was in treatment for almost a year, along with several other kids. I made good friends during those long days spent at the hospitals, friendships are forged in those difficult moments that are unlike any from the outside world.

Even my online friends, many of whom I actually met for the first time at the conference in Brussels, feel like people I have known for ages.

And it’s true, while many of these friends have lost their child, mine survived.

So I don’t have the grief that they do. I don’t have that intense pain that they all carry and hold tight within them, surviving every day, every moment, by taking one step at a time.

I feel incredibly sad for the loss of their children but to say I feel anything remotely close to what they feel would be wrong.

I don’t have the grief they carry. I am so incredibly lucky, because it is a grief that is incomparable to anything else, that I can sense and understand, but not really feel.

But I do grieve. I am sad and angry. Sometimes overwhelmingly so. Just not for the same reasons.

I don’t grieve for the loss of a child.

I grieve for them. These parents. These moms and dads who have suffered the loss of a child. My friends, who suffer, and will continue to suffer, even though they all bravely get up every day and choose to make the best of the day and try to look for the sun shining.

While I may not feel the loss of a child, I know what it is to visit a little girl’s grave with her mom. To pick a few weeds from between the flowers, to straighten the candles and dust the light snow off the little teddy bear sitting there. I know what it is to talk to someone who’s child had the same cancer as Elliot and didn’t survive. The injustice. I know a friend relives the last moments of her child’s life when she closes her eyes sometimes at night. I have another friend who is haunted by those last moments because the palliative care was not up to par. I have a friend who was by her son’s bedside when I first started to write this article (it always takes me several days to complete as I proofread several times) for his last few days, as the osteosarcoma he had could not be cured. He’s gone now.

Osteosarcoma, which has seen almost no change in treatment in decades. The same chemotherapies thrown desperately at the same cancer cells, which hold them back for a little while until they adapt and come back even stronger.

I feel such anger, sadness and frustration about this.

I don’t want to watch any more moms lose their child. I don’t want to hear any more dads talk about their daughter in the past tense. I can’t. I won’t.

I have to make a difference.

That’s why.

 

How to help someone who is grieving, in 5 easy steps, from an Absolute Expert on the Subject

I know I haven’t written a lot recently. I’ve been doing so much for Zoé4life, I haven’t had time. We’re working non stop to fund research. And we’ve also put in place a system by which families can apply to us for financial support through the social workers who are at the hospital. The first time a request for help came through Natalie and I both jumped for joy and simultaneously felt like crying. It felt so good to be able to help other people who are actually in the cancer-fight, a battle we are both all too familiar with. But we also acutely remembered the pain and shock of a family hearing the words “your child has cancer”, and knew how limited our help really was.

Still, it felt good to do something.

Because sometimes, there is nothing you can do. And the powerlessness can be overwhelming.

Like when your close friend’s daughter dies.

What do you do? How do help with this?

Some people have actually asked me for advice on what they can do to support Natalie and Zoé’s family, or other friends who are grieving, deal with their loss. They are afraid to say the wrong thing, so they say nothing and assume I have some kind of magic technique.

So here goes. My list of Expert Advice. This is of course based on Actual Scientific Evidence. You will note that any time I capitalize words I am being ironic. Except at the beginning of sentences, and then I am being a Literacy Expert.

My rambling thoughts on the Obvious Clear Path to helping a person through intense grief.

Step 1. Make sure you talk a lot about the child, share memories and photos. Uh, no actually bad idea. Showing them photos you happen to have of their child is just going to make them sad. Revise that:

Step 1. Never, ever talk about the child, make sure you avoid all subjects that could bring up a memory, including: school, vacations, Christmas, any holiday, any other child in the world, any illness, toys, bedrooms, car seats, clothing, hair cuts, movies, tv shows, books, food, travel, any other person, kitchen tables, animals of any kind, toilets, grass, trees, clouds, stars, and the beach. In fact the only safe subject is the weather and then only if it’s raining. Hmm no I think Zoé thought rain was fun. Dammit, there is no safe subject.

So, avoiding the subject is useless and wrong. In fact the person wants to talk about their child. They need to talk about her. Not talking about their child would be like pretending they hadn’t existed, which would be the worst torture.

So Step 1. Make sure you talk about the child and make sure you don’t talk about the child. Good luck with that.

Step 2. When your friend is sad, cheer them up by reminding them of how great it was that their child existed, even if for too short a time. Uh, no. Wrong. That would be denying the fact that they have every right and reason to be sad.

Revised Step 2. When your friend is sad, distract them with talk of other subjects to get their mind off the child. Be careful to avoid all subjects from Step 1.
Ok that’s all wrong. Getting their mind off their child is an impossibility, it would be like telling someone to hold their breath and not think about breathing.

So, Step 2, Feel free to talk about and remind them of the wonderfulness of their child and accept their sad thoughts that are the result of the wonderfulness of their child.

Step 3. If they need to talk about the sad parts, the horrible parts, the injustice, the anger, the pain, encourage them to open up and share these feelings and acknowledge the unfairness.

But wait, are you not therefore encouraging them to stay in a negative place?

Revised Step 3. If they want to talk about all the bad stuff, remind them of the good times, and say things like, “Your child would want you to be happy”.

Nope, that’s not right. The fact is, everything about the situation sucks. They should be mad, sad, and resentful. I’m mad, sad and resentful.

Step 3. The horrible parts happened. There’s no way around it and there’s no distraction.

Step 4. If they have a happy day, a good day, are laughing or behaving otherwise normal, remind them that they are grieving and that their behavior is odd and probably they are crazy from grief and don’t really know how they feel.

Oh wow if I actually did that I would not live to see the sun set. 😉

Step 4. Ha! If they are happy, that means the grieving is over! We can all get back to normal now.

Uh nope. That’s just not how it works.

Step 4. Happy is happy. Every moment when the person is not feeling crushing pain is a gift. Don’t question it. Embrace it and enjoy it with them. And when it’s gone, trust that it will probably come back later. There is no normal way to grieve.

I guess it turns out there is no proper way to support a person through this incredible grief.

There’s no subject to talk about to take away the pain.

There’s no distraction.

There’s no going back to the way it was before.

There’s no normal.

And I am far, far, far from an Absolute Expert on the Subject. All I can say about that title is that when Natalie read it she might have laughed. Which is at least something.

So here is my ultimate Step 5.

Step 5: Just show up.

Show up scared, and angry, and sad, or worried, confused and desperate, or anxious, overwhelmed and frustrated. Show up happy and at peace, ready to have a wave of anger blow past you if it’s that kind of day. Show up serious and sad, only to be laughed at. Enjoy the gratitude and appreciation for your presence one moment but expect to be forgotten or ignored another time. It’s ok. There are no rules, just as there are no steps that show a clear path to take through a grieving process. There’s no perfect right thing to say, and there’s no reaction that means you did the right or wrong thing. It’s not about you.

Just.
Show.
Up.

 

Becoming Swiss

me swiss

 

Years ago, I started writing about moving to Switzerland. My articles were surprisingly wildly popular, not just with the local expat community but with people back home who were interested in experiencing such a dramatic change in life vicariously from the comfort of their cozy homes.

Twelve years went by in the blink of an eye, (ok there was a long moment there in the middle while I dealt with getting maried, having a baby, moving twice and dealing with other major life-shaking events), but in any case, there I was, still in Switzerland.

Twelve years is the “magic number” here. It is at this point that the Powers That Be have determined I might be able to actually qualify for Swiss citizenship.

Oh don’t go jumping to conclusions and buying me a decorative cow bell or fondue pot yet! The 12 year residency rule is just the beginning of the many hoops I have to jump through in my quest to… become Swiss!

On a bright Tuesday morning in October 2013 I set out for the “Administration communale” – the local city hall for my small town. It was exactly 12 years and one day since I had stumbled off the plane in Geneva with my two kids, one black cat and small mountain of suitcases. I entered the room marked “office de la population” and waited.

A woman came over and I correctly said “Bonjour” before explaining my reasons for being there. I felt I was clearly qualified to be Swiss, having mastered the subtle bonjour/bon après midi/bonsoir rules of social etiquette as well as having the correct number of years of residence (plus a day).

She checked my C permit and then searched in the nearby file cabinet for the right paperwork, then happily handed me some sheets.  I left the building  a short while later clutching the forms which would pave the way for me to Become Swiss.

And then, it almost seemed too easy. I quickly filled in the various forms and mailed them in with a copy of my passport and work permit. And then I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Perhaps, I considered, the true test of Swissness is patience. I would show them I was up to the task.

Six months went by. And then, lo and behold! A letter in the mail! An explanation  that my request to request Swiss citizenship had been approved. Yes, you read that right, my request to request it. I now had a letter stating that I was qualified to make the request. And a long form to fill out…

This one was not so easy. The Swiss really want to know everything I’ve done since I was born. Everything. Every address I ever had, every school I ever went to, every job I ever held. E-ver-y-thing…

It took me a while to fill it in. For one thing, I have lived in 20 homes, went to 11 schools and have held 10 jobs if you count the time I was an elf. (I actually worried about that one as it might be seen as weird. Should I specify that it was only during the christmas holidays, so that they wouldn’t think I had a closet full of weird green clothes and long felt shoes with curled toes and a hat with bells? Speaking of which, what if they come to inspect my home? How will I ever get it clean enough?)

In any case, I also had to provide a variety of documents certifying I really was who I claimed to be and then also certifying that this person I claimed to be had no criminal records or bad credit ratings (both very, very bad things if you want to be Swiss).

It took me almost six months to get all the documents together and I mailed the whole package in victoriously.

About a year went by, and then one day the police called me. Now, if you’re like me, as soon as the phone rings and the person says they are the police, you immediately: 1- hope your kids are alive, and 2 – hope your kids have not done anything that makes you want to kill them. Not always in that order.

But in this case, it was ME they were after! I was being summoned for an interview to discuss my Swissness request . (By the way, they don’t actually use the word Swissness here, that’s my invention. I hope it doesn’t cause me problems. I’m already probably on thin ice with the elf thing.)

A couple weeks later I arrived for my appointment at the precinct. I made sure to park in a blue zone s2016-01-13 11.49.52pot and put my timer-turny-thingy in the window (there may actually be a name for the thing, but anyone in Switzerland knows what I’m talking about. It basically marks how long you have been parked in a limited time zone.) Then I worried that I would run out of time and have to interrupt the meeting to come out and move my car. That would be rude, wouldn’t it? Oh but maybe that’s the test! To see if I abide by the laws enough to be willing to put my Swissness request in jeopardy by running outside during an important meeting?

In any case, the police escorted me into a small room where I sat under a hot bright light and they drilled questions at me, hoping I would crack .

Ok it wasn’t really like that. We sat around a table on mostly comfortable chairs and they did ask me lots of questions, but nothing too intense. Mostly, they seemed to be trying to determine whether or not I adhered to the Swiss way of life and Swiss values. They asked several questions which I answered as best as I could, and then they actually just came right out and asked it, the one key question, the most important element:

“What is your opinion about democracy?”

They stared directly into my eyes in an unbroken gaze, the two of them, which made it hard for me to gaze back because I wasn’t sure who I should stare back at to prove my unflinching dedication.

Believe it or not, that’s actually a hard question to answer descriptively. What do I think about democracy? Well, I’ve never known anything else, so it’s something I’ve always just taken for granted. I scrambled for an appropriate answer, something that would convey my decidedly certain absolute positivety about being resolutely in favour of the democratic way. What I actually said was probably something resembling, “Uh… I’m for it?”

I thought quickly, stumbling over unsatisfying words to add to this answer in order to assure them that I was not here to overthrow the peaceful and fair system of government in order to rule the land and change it’s name to Nicoledom. (To be fair, who wouldn’t want to live in Nicoledom? Free ice cream guys.)

photo-57 (1)

I basically did manage to convice them that my political views were acceptable in a typically Canadian way, that is, I didn’t have any extreme views about politics as long as there were no crazies in charge.

55 minutes later (just in time for the parking spot! Coincidence? I think not!) I was released into the general population. Apparently, I had passed.

Step one: live here 12 years check mark

Step two: request to request citizenship approved check mark

Step three: citizenship request submitted check mark

Step four: police interview passed check mark

I was well on my way to true certifiable Swissness!  I almost felt like breaking out the chocolate to celebrate.

Little did I know, more tests, challenges and chocolate were to come…

 

chocolate

 

 

Awareness = Action ?

 

“Never-doubt-that-a-small-group-of-thoughtful-committed-citizens-can-change-the-world.-Its-the-onl

Yesterday, February 15th, was International Childhood Cancer Awareness Day. Many amazing awareness campaigns took place, and two in particular are so brilliant I have watched their youtube videos several times over:

TheTruth365: A National Movement

Child4Child- We Are One

I am honoured to have been able to take part in sharing and promoting these awareness campaigns.

Awareness is crucial.

Too many people still don’t know the facts about childhood cancer.

It is considered rare, and statistically speaking, it does fall into the rare diseases category.

But childhood cancer is the leading cause of death by disease in children. The number one cause.

To me, that’s not rare.

Getting struck by lightning is rare.

Winning the lottery is rare.

The number one cause of death by disease? Not rare.

What are the odds of a child having cancer before he turns 20? Try to guess at the answer, I’ll give you a hint: it’s either one in 300, one in 3000 or one in 30000 kids will be diagnosed with cancer before they turn 20.

Stumped? Or you kind of have guessed but can’t really believe it because it just seems so… un-rare?

That’s right, it’s one in 300.

Here in our very tiny country of Switzerland, which is so small it would fit into one of our Great Lakes in Canada (possibly the tip of an alp might stick out here or there), one child dies of cancer every week.

Not rare.

And yet, most people still don’t know about it.

Which is why raising awareness is so important. February 15th is childhood cancer awareness day, and September is childhood cancer awareness month. (Nobody in the childhood cancer community is quite sure why there are two awareness moments, but we’re going with it.)

Now let’s talk about action.

Yesterday, on February 15th, you became aware. Today, on February 16th, and every day after, you take action.

Awareness must lead to action.

The founding members and supporting organizations of Unite2Cure have an action plan in order to change the way research into childhood cancer is prioritized. We have a plan to turn this amazing awareness into action.

The time for action is now. Share this post, share this page, sign the petition, and stay tuned for the next step.

New Year’s Resolutions

Conversation With My Husband…

 

We are sitting in the breakfast room of our hotel in Copenhagen on the morning of December 23rd.  We leave later today for Næstved to spend Christmas with Martin’s family and head home and back to work next Monday. No plans for New Year’s eve since Martin works in the evening till 11:20pm on the 31st and I work at 5:50am on the 1st.

Which makes me start to think about new year’s resolutions. Since I am a list-maker, the resolution idea is an list-making opportunity that can’t be skipped.

“Hey!” I say suddenly, waking all of us up from our dazed slow motion breakfast, “Do you have a new year’s resolution?”

Martin looks appropriately dismayed. He probably had harboured the secret hope that I would somehow forget about the concept and we could quietly pass from one year to the next without anyone proposing he reform anything about his already perfect-in-his-mind life.

Hoping to change the subject by using nonsense talk (a technique he uses frequently), he replies: “Yep. Eat less fish.”

I stare at him. He stares back. Elliot watches us and opens his mouth to comment (most likely something about the fact that his dad hardly ever eats fish). Before he can, I say: “Ok, that sounds good.”

“You think?” Martin looks slightly surprised and vaguely worried.

“Sure. Eat less, and fish.”

“Huh?”

“There was a comma in that sentence, I’m sure. So you’ve decided to eat less, and to take up fishing. I think that’s a great idea. We can go fishing with my dad next summer. I love fishing. In fact, that’s brilliant.”

Martin is staring at me with an unchanging expression, nothing in his demeanor betraying the rapidly evolving thoughts racing through his mind as he stares unblinking at me, but inside I am sure he is thinking: oh crap is she actually serious or just joking there is no way I’m going fishing even though I have never actually tried it I already know that I’m not going to like it and I’m not going to eat less nobody is going to tell me how to live my life although she’s probably right I need to eat healthier so ok I’ll give it a try but the fishing thing is out I’m putting my foot down on that one well except if there’s beer involved I could sit out in the sun holding a fishing rod if I have a cold beer at hand so ok I’m into the eat less and fish idea dammit why is she always right.

He decides to change the subject because he is not someone who can admit defeat but I know innately that I have won this battle.

“More coffee?”

Ah, true love. It’s great, isn’t it?

🙂

IMG_20151224_164745

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paris in the spring with the girls

Or, The Story of the Infamous Butt-Bra Jeans.

One of the things about being an expat is that you leave friends behind in your old homes. No, I don’t mean I left someone sleeping on my couch in my house in Canada, closed the door and they are still there ordering pizza for delivery on my old credit card. I mean back “home”, as in, the “home” I left behind to move here to my new “home”, which in many ways is more of a home that the old home since, well, I actually live here. It makes me wonder about the whole “home” expression, because expats here often ask each other, “Are you going home soon?” or, “Do you get home often?” which makes me feel like I’m just kind of floating through life on a boat with no real home. Like a pirate. Actually, now that I think of it, I kind of like that idea.

Anyway.

Every year I meet up with some friends from “home” somewhere in Europe. This now infamous yearly trip, cleverly called The Girl’s Trip, has occurred several years in a row now. In May of last year, we met in Paris.  My  friends flew over from different parts of Canada: Sylvie (she of the saddle bar stool fable) and Lisa (she of the beer-cheese horror story, and both these stories shall remain untold until another day.)

I was to meet them in Paris, so in true European style I took the train from my small town in Switzerland to Paris, switching trains to the TGV in Lausanne. TGV stands for “train à grande vitesse”, meaning literally, train that “has big speed.” My train 2014-05-14 11.13.22sped off through fields and towns at ridiculously high speed which
2014-05-17 15.19.29 allows little possibility for taking photos of the scenery properly, but still I tried, making it clear to the others on the train around me that I was obviously a tourist.  When I got tired of that I took a photo of the very sophisticated breakfast meal they served me (I was given a choice between the sweet or the salty breakfast, and this is what I got. Can you guess what I chose?)

2014-05-14 09.28.50 (2)

Arriving in Paris at the Gare de Lyon, I took a taxi to our hotel. Taking a taxi in Paris is one of my favourite things to do. It should really be in the guidebook for tourists. You zoom through the streets at breakneck speed, the driver mumbling things to the other drivers, sometimes actually slowing down and rolling his window open to yell at them a little or just chat to the guy on the motorcycle next to us if we’re at a red light, both drivers zooming off quickly as soon as the light turns green in a desperate race for first place at the next red light.

If you take a taxi in Paris you will learn that roads don’t actually have lanes and that turning left at an intersection is a life-altering event. You may have the opportunity to listen to a French radio station while you drive, which is quite relaxing if you need to close your eyes to avoid worrying about the numerous motorcycles that whizz by on both sides of the car randomly, sometimes practically colliding with each other when they join up in front of you.

We rented an apartment in Paris, which was owned by an artist. Enough said.

Sylvie always gets there first because she’s Sylvie. I am always second but later than the time I said because I’m Nicole. And Lisa is always last and has had some kind of harrowing travel experience which meant we had absolutely no idea if or when she might show up . Because she’s Lisa.

In Paris it was because right after she landed at Charles de Gaule a person threw themselves under a train which meant the line from the airport into the city was closed. She tried to find a taxi but of course all of them had been taken so then walked for 45 minutes to the next train station, dragging her impractically large suitcase behind her, to finally find a bus. She made it into town about three hours late. Which is roughly when we were expecting her anyway because we’ve grown accustomed to this. We had gone out for some coffee and local exploration and when Lisa showed up at the apartment  we were on our way back. She was not in the least bit worried about our absence. We walked around the corner and spotted her sitting there on her huge suitcase, on the narrow cobblestone street in front of the locked gate leading to our apartment, casually drinking a coffee.

Some day I’ll tell you about the time she broke her thumb minutes before boarding her flight to Munich. Or the time she missed the connection in Toronto for her flight to Budapest and ended up on an airline she referred to as Tyrannosaurus air.

In any case, she got there, and we settled into our highly artistic Parisian pied-à-terre.

The next day was dedicated to furthering our education by visiting educational historical cultural heritage sites.

Oh who am I kidding, we went shopping.

In fact, we are becoming quite the experts in shopping, eating and drinking in some of the greatest cities in the world.

After a very French breakfast (the French really do make the best croissants), we hit the streets.

First thing we did was shop. After that, we did a little shopping, followed by some shopping and then of course we shopped.

Sylvie and I tend to have awkward shoe store incidents – something that is foreign to Lisa.

It goes something like this. We walk slowly by a store, and gaze curiously into the “vitrine”, when something catches our eye. Unanimously and without having to speak, we decide by silent accord to enter the store.

Walking in, the warmth hits us (no it’s not a hot flash, it really is warm in these shops). We circle the shoe racks slowly, like vultures carefully eying their prey before zeroing in. Then we dive, catch the victim in our hands, and turn to the innocent looking clerk:

“Do you have this in size 35?” Sylvie asks, her lazer-eyes defiant.

“Do you have this in size 42?” I ask simultaneously, hope floating around my question like a life-raft bobbing in a stormy sea.

The light in the clerk’s eyes extinguishes like a match that flickers off in a sudden wind.

“Non.” He says dismissively, glancing surreptitiously at Sylvie’s ridiculously small and my insanely huge feet, wondering, probably, how we manage to stay standing. “All our sizes go from 36 to 41.”

Lisa perks up hearing that and, with a small but very obvious halo appearing above her head, asks in a voice that drips with honey, “Oh I’m a 37, can I try them on?”

The feet situation
The feet situation

We repeat this act in every shoe store. The only benefit is that Lisa inevitably spends way more money than we do, which we compensate for on other clothing.

For example, the infamous butt-bra pants.

We were in the Marais district. Very fashionable, small boutiques crammed together in little streets that wind around each other like delicate spider webs.

A tiny shop, one shopkeeper chatting with a young man sitting on a stool apparently just there to socialize. We see some nice jeans, piled high on a display table, and start rooting through them.

The shopkeeper urgently comes to us. “You like these?” she says in a heavily accented voice. “Very nice, they have lining in the butt you see”, she takes the pants out of Lisa’s hands and turns them inside out, displaying a very interesting extra lining inside . We stare at the lining, none of us daring to comment. The woman stares at us. “To lift your bottom up” she explains, moving her hands in a circular and upwards motion, which I assume is to demonstrate the possibility of having a higher flying bum.

Lisa decides to try them on (she is the most adventurous one, after all). She bravely steps over to the pile of jeans and asks what sizes they have. The saleswoman, without batting an eye, replies, “Turn around and let me see your butt.” We are frozen in time for a fraction of a second, then Lisa obeys. The woman frowns in a serious contemplation of Lisa’s bum, then digs through the pile to hand her a pair.

Sylvie and I are both feeling skeptical (this is not something we actually have to say to each other, we know it instinctively after years of friendship.) But when Lisa steps out of the changing room, she does look great. We make a beeline for the pile of jeans, but are immediately stopped by the saleslady.

-Turn around, let me see your butt.

Not a moment’s hesitation this time.

Bizarrely, Sylvie and I are given the same size jeans. This is bizarre because our dissimilarities extend higher than just our feet. But the miracle of the butt-bra jeans is that they do not follow any normal clothing size rules. We step out of our changing rooms and we know we have just struck gold. Butt gold.

Here is where the funny twist to the story comes in (I know you thought the funny twist was the sales lady, didn’t you?) Lisa actually decides NOT to buy the butt-bra jeans. See what happens when you buy too many shoes? You start to consider your budget. You remember how much money you spent. Whereas Sylvie and I could buy our jeans guilt-free and even with the additional knowledge that we deserved compensation from the City of Paris for all the shoe-size prejudice.

Lisa left the store without any jeans – even though all four of us (Sylvie and I, the saleslady and the guy sitting there uselessly) swore she would regret it.

And guess what. She does. Sylvie and I wear our jeans regularly but Lisa – no, she must remain in saggy-butt-land by herself.

Karma.

The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful except for the Last Meal, which we decided to eat at a restaurant next to our apartment. What we had not noticed was that this restaurant was called The Carnivore – the type of place you go to if you want to eat huge pieces of meat. Sylvie felt quite guilty ordering foie gras without her husband, who adores it, (you can see it in her sad eyes in the photo below) and so we overcompensated by having champagne to drown our sorrows and there was an incident with horn-shaped salt and pepper shakers.

Guilt-ridden
Guilt-ridden

I won’t go into detail about the fact that the restaurant owner dared us to eat only one single solitary strawberry for dessert (we lost), or the fact that he went and got his son to introduce to us (he had just visited Canada, so it was obvious that his dad needed to show him the Canadians he had found in his restaurant right here in Paris.)

 

We finally dragged ourselves out of the restaurant and waddled back to our art studio/apartment and quickly changed into our “lounging clothes” (Lisa’s expression).

Friends, pink champagne and a warm blanket!
Friends, pink champagne and a warm blanket!

 

Another Girl’s Trip over, with much success. Paris in the Spring, beautiful!

Next trip? Berlin during the Christmas market!

 

 

After Paris, Look for the Helpers

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” — Mister Rogers

Again.

The feeling of anxious dread mixed with a horrible need to know.

It starts with a message from someone telling you something has happened, and a link the news story. This time it was my son who sent me a message at 1am, which I only saw when I noticed my phone blinking at 3am.

Paris under attack.

Heart sinking. Not again.

By the next morning it’s the only topic in the news and on social media. People are changing their profile pictures in support, or in anger, or conversely criticising those who do. Some write out in detail their opinion on why this happened, who is to blame, what needs to change.

Virtual arguments flare up in comment-form under people’s posts. I feel the anger wafting out from facebook like the computer is on fire.

Stop. Some people are in mourning today. Some people didn’t make it home last night.

As a mom, my first thought in moments like this is for the moms who were given the bad news that their child is dead. And the moms who are panicking, sending out endless messages searching for their child who hasn’t come home yet…

Our social media, the very one we cling to when we look for information, is partly to blame for our overwhelming feelings of personal tragedy – we live vicariously through the people actually present on the scene.

And yet, overwhelmingly, in the face of terrorism, people are not terrorized. Shocked, saddened, horrified, outraged, yes.

Angry. Worried.

Defiant. Resistant.

Because, ultimately, there will always be more good guys than bad guys.

Remember Boston? The horrific scenes of the marathon, the chilling tales of people recounting their experiences that day?

On some of those photos, you can see people running TO the scene.

To help.

I was in London in 2005, one day after 7/7, when 56 people died and over 700 were injured by bombs on the underground and a bus. The mood of the city was electric and tense, the sun kept trying to break through the heavy steel clouds, but gloom pushed down on us. People were in shock, people were scared. But also… People were kind.  Everyone seemed to be going out of their way to show kindness and patience to others. People held doors, waited patiently instead of grumping, said thank you, let others cut ahead in line, smiled at each other, made eye contact. There seemed to be a subconscious current of niceness having struck the city. Engaging in small acts of care towards other strangers was therapeutic.

Friday night in Paris one of the hashtags that quickly went viral was #porteouverte. Because of the sudden police-imposed curfew, many found themselves in the city, far from their home or hotel, and unable to get back.

#Portesouvertes

In an amazing show of solidarity, the people of Paris opened their doors to anyone needing shelter. Hundreds of connections were made online between people needing shelter and those opening their doors to them. Taxis also turned off their meters to help out when the public transit was shut down.

It was a moment of light in a night of darkness.

Let’s hold onto that.

There will always be more good guys than bad.