Thursday, April 6, 2023

Curating vs creating

One of the many writing projects I work on in fits and starts is my general autobiography (working title: “My extraordinary ordinary life”… and honestly, I think the title falls more into the category of “accurate” rather than “pretentious”). Anyway, one major impediment to making progress on this thing — and by extension, on every other writing project I have — is that I like to futz around with the things I’ve already written, rather than compose something new.

I have written quite a bit over the years, to say the very least. And I’ve saved most of what I’ve written, from a few theoretically poetic lines to long essays, comment series, and so on. But most of those writings happened well over a decade ago, and sometimes multiple decades ago. Yes, whether formal and already published pieces or simple transcriptions of random handwritten scribblings, all such material does provide snapshots into my thinking or frame of mind and/or feelings at particular points in time; as ever, however, it’s easy to let the details drown out the broader strokes and themes — or, rather, it’s easier to concentrate on the damned trees rather than spend time working on the missing forest.

The outline of the forest(s) exists. Part of me wonders if I’ll manage to fill in the outline before time and age end up permanently clear-cutting the trees of memory, despite the leaves and branches of words from years past. A lot of trees are already gone.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Heading back to France tonight… er, no, but soon

 I was originally going to fly back to France from Seattle tonight in order to start dealing with our house and our stuff, but my flight on Condor was supposed to land in Frankfurt tomorrow (Friday the 17th) — and due to a massive strike of German airport personnel (not to mention the continued ripple effects of Lufthansa’s massive IT failure the other day), the flight is going to be landing in Düsseldorf instead.

There are no easy connections at all from Düsseldorf to Marseille (au contraire!), so I have rebooked for next week.

We have been in Seattle for six weeks now, and in our apartment for about four weeks. Seattle continues to fascinate. Carless as we are, we have walked to many different parts of the central downtown area, walked along the waterfront, hoofed it over to Queen Anne and South Lake Union; we’ve hopped on light rail and numerous buses to go farther afield, and we’ve taken a water taxi over to West Seattle. We’ve found ethnic grocery stores nearby and in Seattle’s international district (a.k.a. Chinatown). We’ve found some good restaurants. (Most recently, we randomly went into a taquería that was serving brunch and discovered that brunch would be accompanied by a drag show featuring the “Belltown Babes” — very fun.)

Living beside busy thoroughfares (though thank God, not close to the I-5!) has taken some getting used to. Multi-paned windows help block the noise, but sirens and ferry horns come through. (As does the noise of hot-rodding assholes gunning the engines of their muffler-free cars while zooming past in the wee hours, rrrrrr.)

Seattle also continues to break my heart every time I step out of our building. Food prices (well, pretty much all prices) are truly astronomical here. I see (for example) some cheese listed at $12.99, and I think to myself that that isn’t too bad — the numbers look about the same price I’d pay in France… but then I realize that the price is per pound, not per kilogram (2.2 lbs), so the cost is more than twice as much as I’m used to. Who could help but wonder how people are managing to pay for food and clothes and shelter? Far too many clearly are not. I can’t live here without trying to do something. I will sign up to help when I return from France in a few weeks.

The other evening, building management invited residents to a “roses and rosé” event. (Yes, such a vast gulf between what I experience inside the building and outside of it! Staggering.) As I was too late with my RSVP, I finagled my way into the event by reaching out and offering to talk about the region featured in the invitation, as Mr Mo and I have lived there for the past 16 years. I prepared a brief slide show, and going through those photos of our village and the surrounding areas, of the vineyards and the olive groves, of the lavender … phew. We’ve been so busy trying to get settled here that I hadn’t really come to grips with how much I am going to miss living in SE France,  living in our tiny village and all, but that realization is starting to dawn on me now.

To be continued.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

A new home amid the unhoused in Seattle

Although partially occluded by the tall buildings across the street, the view of the Seattle harbor area from our apartment in the Belltown neighborhood is a source of endless fascination, especially at night, what with ferries and water taxis coming and going, the colorful Seattle Great Wheel turning, and the reflection of lights on the water. Through a combination of online ordering and going all over Seattle by foot or by public transport, we are slowly acquiring the basic things we need to live “normally” here. 

We have discovered Pike Place Market and its warren of shops, we have tried several different kinds of new-to-us cuisines (Laotian, Filipino), we’ve been taken aback by the high prices of just about everything, we’ve been forced to remember that the prices on stickers and signs for non-grocery items don’t include sales tax (as price tags do in Europe), and… we are daily reminded of the disparities in fortune, of rampant economic and social inequality, of classism and racism, every time we step out of our building.

Much of downtown Seattle’s unhoused population used to subsist in a large encampment right at City Hall, several blocks away. From what I’ve read, continuous, destructive police sweeps during 2022 have driven the people into other parts of the city — and in particular, into Belltown. Small tents and sleeping bags, repurposed umbrellas, blankets, shopping carts dot the various entryways all along Third Avenue — particularly the entryways of vacant buildings marked for demolition to make way for even more high-rise office and apartment buildings. (In other words, buildings like ours.)

I know that France and Germany both have large numbers of unhoused people, but there were none in our tiny village and very few in Grenoble. Even in Berlin, the unhoused population was some 6,500 out of 3.5M, versus 11,700 out of 2.5M for Seattle, so we did not see as many “rough sleepers” there as we do here. 

I have a lot to learn about what Seattle and the state of Washington are doing, and what charities and non-profits are doing to try to address the needs of the people on the streets, and how I can meaningfully help. That so many people — including veterans, the disabled, and the mentally ill — in one of the world’s wealthiest countries are without a safe place to live and to shelter from the elements isn’t something I can comfortably ignore anymore. And for some reason, this problem did not figure among the many other reservations I had when thinking about moving back to America. How naive and wildly overprivileged of me.

Friday, January 13, 2023

A sudden move back Stateside

 In February 2001, our Boston-based family took a trip to Turkey and stopped in Grenoble on the way back so Mr. Mo could interview for a job there in the vallée du Grésivaudan — France’s equivalent of Silicon Valley at the time. Mr. Mo and I had been toying with the idea of possibly moving to France — perhaps a joint mid-life crisis for us in combination with our then-fresh disaffection with the Mormon church: we had both served as full-time missionaries in France in the late 1970s. We’d loved living in France even under such unusual circumstances, and we wondered what it would be like to live there as “civilians.”

Though the February interview went well, the company had a hiring freeze, so by the time summer rolled around, we’d given up on the idea. What was our surprise when a job offer came through on August 1st! Mr. Mo ended up going over with our younger two daughters at the end of August so they could begin school on time; oldest was in college, but couldn’t bear the thought of being left behind, so she joined them in Grenoble about a week after Boston-Logan airport reopened after 9/11. I was in charge of dealing with movers, putting our house on the market, and transporting two very unhappy cats when I finally joined the family in mid-October.

We spent five years in Grenoble, during which time I became the “accidental principal” of the American School of Grenoble (then called the Marshall McLuhan American School, and yes, McLuhan was Canadian, and no, I was not the one who picked the name). For a variety of reasons, we ended up moving to a very small (pop. ~450) village about 1.25 hours NNE of Aix-en-Provence, almost exactly three hours due south of Grenoble by car, and that’s where we have lived since fall of 2006. 

…Until a bit more than a week ago, when suddenly (very suddenly) we find ourselves living in Seattle. The German company for which Mr. Mo had been working was swiftly acquired by an American company, and part of the deal was a pair of handcuffs that was simply too golden to pass up. Mr. Mo is now employed by the acquiring company and as most of his new team is on this side of the Atlantic, it made sense to come back.

We’d been thinking that eventually we’d move back, since our children and all other close family members live here, but that idea was simply part of our nebulous, foot-dragging future. After all, we (dual-nationals — we became French citizens in the late 00s) would be giving up France’s fabulous health care, among so many other things. Plus we’d be returning to a country whose political landscape has shifted so radically to the right that it frankly scares us.

(Yes, France is likewise shifting scarily rightward, but its basic center is so far to the left of the USA’s that it seems unlikely to achieve Crazyland status. And yes, more and more French people are being influenced by QAnon-style assholery, but conspiracy theories — and behaviors based thereon — are not as widespread there.)

Despite the challenges of dealing with companies that apparently have never considered how to handle people like us who are moving (back) from a foreign country, who are homeowners instead of prior renters (etc.), we have been approved for an apartment here and are trying to purchase a few very basic things (mattress! bedding! towels! cookware! etc.) for when we move in next week.

We didn’t expect this to happen so quickly. We were supposed to have returned to France yesterday. Mr. Mo will stay here, and I have booked a return to France in mid-February to deal with … everything. For the moment, we will keep our little house in the village. Will it simply become a storage unit for the acquisitions of our entire married life? How often (and when) will we go over? What should we do with all of our stuff? What should we ship over here, if anything? What about our thousands of (English-language) books?

Am I now retired? What about Medicare? How does all this work? I finally get used to metric, and I’m now back dealing with pounds and miles and Fahrenheit! Hmm.

There is a lot to process, and I will likely do so here. Stay tuned.

Friday, November 18, 2022

A mast year and a newly dark village

(Cross-posted from DailyKos)

From 2010 to 2020, my husband and I lived a significant part of each year in Berlin. And from fall 2015 through 2019, I sang first soprano with the Berliner Konzert Chor. (If you click on “View Image” in the bottom left corner of the landing page, I’m 5th from the left in the front row.) It was a wonderful experience getting to sing in the Philharmonie and the Konzerthaus Berlin Gendarmenmarkt. I miss choral singing… but I digress. 

Singing meant that I was almost always in Berlin in the fall rather than in our tiny village in Upper Provence (SE France). Because of how complicated traveling back and forth between France and Germany became during the Covid lockdowns and border closures, we regretfully gave up our rental apartment in Berlin in August 2020.

I didn’t notice anything unusual here in France during our daily walks in the fall last year. But this year, the oak and walnut trees have produced acorns and walnuts in incredible abundance — maybe a hundred times more than usual. Oaks far outnumber the walnut trees, and acorns are still dropping all over and crunching underfoot everywhere. Up until this fall, I hadn’t really known that there were any walnut trees here. Now I know. And I have gathered more than a thousand walnuts from a handful of trees (mostly just from two situated in a corner of our village’s municipal park). Most of the nuts are not very big, but they’re delicious.

Don’t laugh, but my having been brought up with a “Jesus is coming very soon!” mindset actively cultivated by the Mormon church started me wondering if all the hyper-abundance was somehow a Portent of the Last Days — though for me these days, such portents would be of catastrophic climate change, not a “second coming,” especially given how hard France and much of western Europe were hit by drought this year. (Our village is next to the Verdon River, parts of which were closed to recreation this summer — something that had never occurred before and which had a huge economic impact in one of France’s poorest départements that relies on tourism.)

Anyway, given my upbringing and natural inclination toward catastrophism, I started asking myself, “do the trees know? Are they overproducing because they somehow sense the drought will continue next year? Are they telling us to gather while we may because of doom to come?” (Yeah, I can get a little dramatic.) Well, it turns out that the hyper-abundance is a natural phenomenon called a mast year, which happens at varying intervals. We’ve been living here for some 15+ years now, but as I said, we’d never seen this before since we weren’t around at the right time of year before.

So no, not necessarily a harbinger of doom, these yummy walnuts, and hooray for that.

For my second little tidbit — two nights ago I got up after midnight to make my usual offering to the Bladder Goddess (aging sucks) and noticed how very dark it was. To my surprise, there wasn’t a power outage — our power strips were still aglow. But all the street lights were out (at least all the ones I could see from our windows; we live in the center of the village). I’d only this very week become aware of a movement among smaller towns and villages across France to turn out their lights from midnight onwards to save money and energy — especially important with the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the throttling of energy supplies, etc. I did not know that our village had decided to do this — an apparently recent decision, as the lights had been on after midnight just a few days ago. (Mr. Mo tells me that the lights went back on this morning at 6 a.m., presumably to facilitate people’s getting to work and school during the lengthening winter darkness.)

I am glad for the darkness — it’s a lot quieter (not like there’s a lot going on here after midnight right now anyway, though don’t get me started about the noise during high season), it’s healthier for human and animal life, and it’s good to be able to see a lot of stars right through our skylight. Studies show, by the way, that while people may feel more protected and secure having public lights on, dark villages are just as safe as lit ones. 

I hope this is a permanent change and not simply a temporary response to war-related fuel shortages. And I hope that more towns and villages will follow suit… and dare I say it, maybe in the U.S.A. as well?

Saturday, January 1, 2022

And then there (was) Max

I suppose every village has its share of eccentrics, and Quinson is no different. We have a few lost-looking souls who seem to get through their days stumbling about in an alcoholic haze, non-French-speaking residents who show up at the local grocery from time to time… and then there's Max. Max lives across the street from us in what appears to be a one-room studio apartment, if one can call it that. It's not clear that there is running water in his place — I mean, I think there must be a toilet, but I'm not sure there is a kitchen sink. And Max goes daily to his favorite watering hole — and this is meant literally — to some spring with a spigot on the other end of town, nearly out of town, to bring back jugs of water that he believes is more healthy and pure than other water available in the village.

I wrote the above back in December of 2012. Since that time, Max has died — specifically, in late spring 2019 at age 83.

And I wrote the previous two sentences exactly a year ago. “Minou”— the semi-feral cat whom Max fed and allowed into his tiny apartment during cold weather (at least when she was cold enough to want to be indoors)—is still alive, still fed by a variety of villagers in a variety of places, including in the “remise” next door to our little remise up the street. I don’t see her that often these days, nor do I hear much in the way of cat fights on the street, so I assume that she’s found more comfortable places to hang out. I did see her fairly frequently on top of our remise roof (but under the shade of the neighbor’s intensively overgrown rose bush) during the warm months this past late spring, which behavior I can only imagine continued during the summer. (For our part, we spent all of the summer and into fall in the USA, thoroughly enjoying being around a very limited number of other people after more than a year of strict no contact with anyone because of Covid-19.)

Ah, Covid (and Happy 2022 to us all, right?). Even though I’ve worked remotely for much of my post-French educational career, doing so under these conditions, where there’s really no choice, has quite a different feeling to it, and not a particularly positive one at that. However, while I miss the occasional on-site work assignments (having discovered that yes, I like working around other people), what I miss most are … well, I miss Berlin. I miss playing snooker there, I miss the restaurants and specialty grocery stores, I miss the ambience, the language, and I miss the choir— specifically, the Berliner Konzert Chor (BKC), whose Zoom rehearsals I have faithfully attended even from afar off (read: USA). Choral singing has been hit particularly hard by this damned virus, and even when (if? please, God, “when”) things can return to a semblance of normality in this regard, it’s not clear how many such choirs will be able to recover.

Even for the long-established and relatively well-funded BKC, not only is virtual attendance way down (many male voices being conspicuously absent), but even the restricted in-person attendance represents at the very best, maybe 45% of normal cohort size—and again, the already undersized men’s sections are still way below normal (at least so far as the Zoom camera has permitted visual confirmation). For the Grenoble choirs I sang with, Anne has managed to keep things going with Méli-Meylan (now Arcanum), perhaps in part by combining its efforts with those of the University of Grenoble choirs, which she also conducts. (I regret I could not go up to Grenoble at the beginning of December to attend the dress rehearsals for the Mozart and Michael Haydn Requiems, but it simply wasn’t worth the risk.) 

For all that Arcanum and other choirs survive, it seems highly likely to me that the only choir my former friend Marine was still conducting at the time I left Grenoble, Choral’In, will not come back. For one thing, it was a CE (“comité d'entreprise”) activity at Hewlitt-Packard, and a lot of HP employees, including Choral’In singers, are likely to continue to work from home even when no longer required to do so (as in this moment when the omicron variant is raging). And that makes it highly improbable that the CE will fund it going forward, though I hope I’m wrong about all this.

Choirs and Covid are quite a ways away from the late Max, whom I suspect would be among the all-too-many unvaxxed folks in these parts, though I can imagine he would wear a mask (which to me fits well with his personality). Another of his peculiarities worth mentioning is that he very rarely went in and out of his little studio via the door, preferring instead to climb through his street-facing window. Why this would be, I do not know, but he continued doing so pretty much up until the week he died. He hadn’t been doing all that well for a while — not since being left on the side of the road by a hit-and-run driver some months before. (One of the perils of fetching water from afar, I guess.) I witnessed his asking another neighbor to drive him to the hospital in Manosque (I think, though he may have gone first to the frankly pathetic clinic in Riez), where he died a couple of days later. 

I’d known that Max had first worked with his father and then continued to run the long-defunct gas station / little automotive shop not far from the village church (and whose antique gas pump was still a feature when we first moved here), but I learned a bit more from his eulogy about this never-married, not-quite-solitary soul, and one comment I heard repeatedly was how very opinionated he was. I never knew him well enough to engage, and part of that may have simply been the linguistic/cultural gulf (both real and imagined) that has colored a lot of my interactions here in France. Max and I would always say hello and he always remembered to ask about Youngest, whom he knew from her Olive Tree International days. 

Since Max’s death, two other Quinsonnaises of note to me have died—Annie Lartigaut, a talented artist from whose daughter I bought some paintings, sketchbooks, and art supplies, and who had the coolest art studio in the area, housed in a turret across from the church; and another woman whom I wish I had tried harder to get to know better — Hélène Bottet (pronounced “beauté”— “beauty” in French, appropriately enough). Hélène was well into her 90s and so very fragile when last we saw her a few months before she died—skin so thin as to be translucent, reliant on a full-time nurse for pretty much everything, but still quite intact mentally. (Note to self: Also Sabine, Nellie)

Not long after we began living in the center of the village, Hélène invited Mr Mo and me to her place for tea, and she told us about her father’s having hobnobbed with some of the pre-war jazz greats. Her house on Place de la Paix (what we saw of it) was filled with interesting art and mementos. The house still looks lived in (shutters are open and all). Her alcoholic and abusive son—and I say this knowledgeably—could scarcely wait for her to die, and barring that, was pressuring her to move into a rest home, wanting to get his hands on whatever he could of her estate even while she was alive. One warm evening I was passing Hélène’s place; the windows were open and I could hear the son’s absolutely vile invective directed at his mother. It was so awful and so upsetting that I ended up asking the president of the village social club what I could do about it, what could be done about it. She knew the sad story and suggested that I call the mayor, who as mayor has constabulary powers — in short, he’s the lone cop here. So I did.

“Bref,” there was nothing Monsieur le Maire could do about the son’s abusive behavior (which he knew all about, as it had been going on for many years), because his mother would not press charges, would not protect herself. The best he could do (and hopefully did do, though a huge and hopeless sigh accompanied his words) was to talk to the son yet again.

At least Hélène’s granddaughter seemed like a good soul. Mr Mo and I were too late for the funeral but went up to the cemetery to see where Hélène’s remains had been laid (more like… inserted horizontally into a crypt), and then went back to the church. The granddaughter was there and we told her about her grandmother’s kindness, and expressed the hope that Hélène had written down at least some of her life story. Alas, this does not seem to be the case. Yet another set of stories lost, all the more so when those who knew her also pass on.

Finally, given how long it’s been since I last published any writing at all, I want to close by mentioning that my dad died the end of August 2020, not of Covid, but of congestive heart failure. He was mentally intact right up until the end and when I’d said goodbye to him in mid-March 2020 — heading off to the Las Vegas airport to catch the last flight to Frankfurt before the borders closed — I knew I wasn’t going to see him again. The last three or so months of his life were pretty unpleasant for him and those around him, and my siblings all took turns helping Mom take care of keeping him cleaned up and so on. I couldn’t go to the funeral, but at Mom’s request wrote his eulogy and recorded it for the funeral. 

Mr Mo and I have also sat shiva with our dear friends who in 2020 lost their oldest daughter early on during the pandemic, and then their son-in-law to cancer early in 2021. I hope not to be forced to remain at a such a distance should Covid or other causes wreak havoc in the lives of other loved ones. So yes, here’s hoping that the latest variant peaks quickly and is not followed by yet another so that 2022 will end up resembling more 2019 than 2020/21. (Let’s not get into politics and climate and all just yet. Sigh.)

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Repopulating mofembot from past posts

Last year the web hosting service I had used for years — hosting had been part and parcel of the fee for my domain name, which I still pay for — stopped hosting, and I ended up downloading everything I'd published and moving over to blogger. The downloads were all in a plain text format with… unfortunate markup additions, and it has taken a while to clean everything. I am republishing everything worth republishing here, and will change the date stamps to match the original publication dates.


Having now started going through these old posts, I realize that many of them are definitely products of their time period, particularly the political posts from 2008 and 2009, so it’s not clear to me that they’re worth posting again now that GW Bush and Barack Obama belong to the past. I'll have to think on all this further.