Monday, December 15, 2008

The River Road

The River Road

I grew up in a region with green forests, quiet valleys and rolling mountains. For a while I even lived on an island. Today I live in a populated suburban area located outside of Paris. At times I miss being close to Nature and feel a primitive longing for it. The closest substitute to Nature that I can find is the river road -- a narrow pedestrian road that runs along the river in my town. I can easily walk there from my apartment and I enjoy going there several times a week.

As I go down the public stairs, I avoid looking at the graffiti and the scattered litter. My destination is the river -- ever changing in appearance and waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs. Sometimes the water is dark green and moves with a slow, hypnotic current. Other times the water is brown and turbulent from heavy rainfall. There's plenty to see on the river road and my favorite time of day is at twilight, just as the sun is setting. The sky is a blend of blue, purple and orange highlights and the sun briefly electrifies the surface of the river with a iridescent glow.

I share the road with others, who drift past at varying speeds. Sporty joggers speed past, staring straight ahead, their legs moving like pistons. An older woman walks past at a careful but energetic pace. Her face reflects a long life, well-lived. I imagine that she knows this road very well. She has seen the trees grow through countless seasons, their branches inching skyward and their roots twisting into the earth. She has seen children learn to ride a bike and then become transformed into teenagers who come in summer to self-consciously sit along the edge of the river, kissing or listening to music. When her eyes touch my face I can feel wisdom, humour and strength coming from her. I silently wish her well.

In the darkening sky, birds move quickly and hunt their nesting places for the night. They call to each other and move unseen in the trees. I often see small bats (chauvres-souris, literally bald mice!) wildly zigzagging above me. They live in the cracks of the walls along the road or under the old bridge. I like bats and seeing them reminds me of when I was a teenager. I would throw a small stone straight up in the air near pine trees, and if bats were nearby, they would quickly zoom up and circle the stone. Their amazing radar would track the stone and detect if it was something to eat or not. My intent was not to hurt the bats, only to play with them. I can still imagine the tall, dark trees and the keening sound of the bats as they danced in the air.

As I said earlier, I live far from forests now. My walks are limited to short strolls, sometimes interrupted by my portable phone or nagging responsibilities that call me back to my desk or home. But I still toss up small stones sometimes and eagerly watch the sky. If you walked along this road in the early evening, you might see a woman smiling and tossing stones up into the sky. Don't worry, it could be me, and I'm quite harmless. When the bats answer and swirl in quick circles above me, my heart sings and fills with a joyful laughter.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Une ambiance infernale?

Christmas is coming and turning ordinary French people into wild-eyed shoppers. Angry drivers vent their impatience and frustration at the smallest delay. It’s hard to say which suffocating joy is destroying people’s tranquility the most.

Is it the ever-growing piles of marginal quality, cheaply-priced decorations in the stores? Who could find personal fulfillment in decorating their home with a plastic Santa Claus whose eyes are not carefully painted on his face? One eye looks off to the right, the other eye is half closed. The paint on his red hat is cracking. Shoppers study these strange objects, and like obedient robots, put them in their shopping basket. ‘Joy’ is cheap plastic.

Or is it the joy of hearing relentless Christmas carols? For some unknown reason, the small town where I live has installed speakers on the light poles in the shopping district to play Christmas music. Loudly and all day long. I hear songs, in English, that I have not heard in years. Less than 95% of the people around me can even understand the words but they can’t stop listening to them. “Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, jingle all the way...oh what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh!” The owner of a small shop is frustrated by the endless intrusive music and says “une ambiance infernale!” Literally translated, it suggests that we are trapped in a diabolical or hellish atmosphere. ‘Joy’ can be relentless.

I was visiting a client whose office is located near the large department stores in Paris. The sidewalks were packed with people, going in and out of the stores, and also trying to see the window displays that are decorated for Christmas. I saw a small girl laughing and pointing at a large pink motorized creature in the window that slowly raised and lowered its’ arms. Then a crowd of people passed on front of me, a man stepped on my foot, and I lost sight of the child. My colleague struggled to keep pace with me but got hit from the side by a woman with large shopping bags. “Aiie! Une ambiance infernale!” she cried, as she almost dropped her briefcase and temporarily lost her balance. Like leaves being pushed ahead by fast-running water, we got caught in the sea of humanity, then suddenly popped out on the other side of the street. ‘Joy’ for some is shopping-till-you-drop.

Later, as I waited for the train to take me away from the frenzy of the city, I saw that all trains were delayed because of an “accident grave voyageur". This is a nice way of saying that someone jumped in front of a train. According to the medical information web site, “Chaque année en France, 160 000 personnes tentent de mettre fin à leurs jours. 12 000 y parviennent.” 160,000 attempt suicide and 12,000 succeed. These tragic figures say a lot about a country that has a reputation for the joy of life. Depression is a difficult topic in France and it gets even more complex at holiday times, when suicide rates dramatically increase. ‘Joy’ for some is jumping in front of a train.

Eventually I caught a train and then walked toward my home. I saw a woman walking ahead of me and recognized her as a neighbor in my apartment complex. She is not well-liked by people because of her direct way of speaking and strong personality. This neighbor is an artist and invited me one day to see her paintings. All the paintings were grey or black squares on giant canvases. I didn’t know what to say about the paintings but I found her interesting. Her eyes are very dark brown, almost black, and they look like a section of the night sky without stars. Remote, dark, blank. I wonder about her but I respect her fierce sense of privacy that she wears like a heavy coat.

My neighbor hurried through the entrance gate and walked toward her building with her head down, not looking to the left or right. She ignored the building manager who was sweeping the parking lot. He smiled and waved at me, I appreciated his friendly gesture and waved back. My neighbor disappeared into her apartment and I thought that she too lived in an “ambiance infernale.” The origin of the word hell, in Old English, is to literally build a wall or separation around something. Perhaps this is a good description even today. When we build a wall around our hearts, we separate ourselves from all that is good and positive in life. We don’t really see other people, we only see them as anonymous shadows.

A friend of mine recently commented, “For me, every day is Christmas!” She referred to the real essence of Christmas, which is to seek a blessed peace — in the world, with other people, and within ourselves.

Walk gently on the Earth and light a candle of love in your heart.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Jallab: Sunshine in a bottle

When I push open the door of the shop, a rush of scents, colors and taste sensations are waiting for me. I’ve been a customer for five years now, and it’s the same scenario, every time I walk through the door. The owner, an obese man who sits near the entrance, stares straight ahead and talks relentlessly on his portable, pausing only to transfer nuts from his paw of a hand to the corner of his mouth. A moment of recognition comes over his face and a smile when he sees me. He rarely walks around the store, content to stay on his wooden chair by the door. Brightly colored posters, advertising discount international phone cards and money transfers, cover the walls. Lebanese music floats from the radio, with occasional comments from the announcer in French and Arabic.

A quiet, energetic young man fills the shelves with packages of spices, couscous, dried rose petals and mint. He works carefully and quickly, moving methodically down the narrow aisles. In contrast, time stands still at the self-service display of olives. A woman slowly dips a spoonful of olives from the container into a plastic bag. There’s no need to hurry, as the olives tumble down and slowly fill up the bag. As I stop to watch, the olives gleam with an oily brightness, some as large and plump as grapes. The display of nuts beckons me and I pick up a bag of feves - fava beans. Fried, sliced and salted. I can almost taste them, imagining the greasy ecstasy of the crunch in my mouth.

Next my eyes move to the bottles of jallab, a syrupy molasses made with dates and rose water. Its siren call of sweetness is what brought me to the shop today. I keep a bottle in my kitchen and use it to make beverages, add to salad dressings, or sauces. I grew up in a land far from date palms and the bright sun that matures dates into succulent sugary delights. But I have seen date palms and even slept underneath them.

My mind travels back to the Western Sahara in Mauritania. I had a small tent and I chose to set it up in a grove of date palms. I hurried to erect the tent because when the sun sets in the desert, it's like a light switch has been turned off and blackness replaces the blazing sun. By the time I set up camp, huge stars appeared in the night sky. A sweet hypnotic fragrance drifted from the blossoms on the date palms. The scent enveloped me and I felt a profound sense of tranquility. I dreamed deeply that night, sheltered by the palms, as their branches gently moved in the night wind.

Back in the present moment, I add a bottle of jallab to my basket and smile. For a brief moment, I can almost hear the wind whispering in the palms.

Here’s how to use jallab:

Hear the music playing in the shop, live on Radio Orient:

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Smooth stones, shiny stones

Pierre, my father-in-law, and I are standing next to each other, carefully examining stones. I collect stones whenever I go, a habit that I've had since childhood. Pierre likes stones too and he is appreciatively touching a smooth stone that I gathered from a beach on the Normandy coast. He has Alzheimer's and is starting to lose his short-term memory and the ability to sustain a thought. It makes conversation difficult at times, so I am replacing the words we cannot find with stones. Gentle round stones, rough stones, crystals, rocks from distant mountains and pebbles from the beach.

The stone in his hand has tiny holes in it, created by the ceaseless action of waves. Pierre meditatively moves his fingers over the stone. Then he drops it and begins looking for another rock to examine. I hand him a piece of quartz and it glistens in the sun coming through the window. Pierre looks at me, his blue eyes uncertain and hesitant, then he smiles. "This rock does not come from a beach," he says with a solemn certainty. I smile and say "yes, that's right," and I feel tears come to my eyes. But my father-in-law has already moved away, slowly and carefully making his way across the room, distracted by something new.

I take a short, deep breath and then put the rock back on the table. I follow him, and when he turns, I have created a reassuring smile on my face.

Do you know someone who has Alzheimer's? Learn more about the disease and information for caretakers at this site. Info is available in seven different languages:

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Under a luminous grey sky

Paris is a city of dreams for many people. For me, it's my home and a place of very specific realities. It's a place where almost everything in my life had changed or was lost, and then was re-born again. Some streets still have the power to create a brief, piercing nostalgia in my heart. But most often I walk past these snapshots of visual memory and see and feel only the present. The layers of time rest gently on me today.

As the train takes me from the banlieue towards the center of the city, I watch the anonymous towers of apartment buildings flash past the window. The sky is a luminous grey bowl and creates a pearlized monotone of the landscape. Inside the train, all of us are clothed in winter coats, shadows and our private thoughts. Hands hold tickets, a paperback book, or rest passively on laps. The cold wind has dried the hands of a woman sitting next to me and she carefully rubs creme on them. As passengers, we study her motions, restlessly eager for something interesting to break the monotony. When the train stops at stations, people silently move on and off the train, and a breeze enters the compartment before the door slams shut again.

The window next to me has letters scratched on it, a series of random curves and what looks like SCR. I wonder about the hands that did this act and why. Did other passengers watch with disinterest or curiosity? Who got nervous and moved to another section of the train? Who smiled and nodded?

The train shudders and jerks to a stop. I jump to my feet and join the press of people who exit the train. Within minutes, I’m walking on the street and the train is gone, taking away the echoes of my thoughts, the warmth of my seat now occupied by another traveler.