Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Bonjour! Je m'appelle Paisley! Je suis un idiot!

So I'm learning French dans ma voiture. Having decided to live for a significant period of time in at least three different countries means, obviously, signing on to sounding like a complete moron for a year. It also means buying some very expensive packages of language CDs in the hopes that one of them will be able to overcome my innate NON-language learning abilities, and help improve seven years of what can only generously be described as lackadaisical French studies in school. What to buy? Not the Rosetta Stone, which comes in at a whopping $400. No, I got the bargain-basement Ultimate French which, at $50, includes 8 CDs (!), a dictionary, and a thick workbook. (Parce que je suis professeur, they had me at "workbook.") For half an hour or more each day (depending if I drive to Ikea), I studiously repeat each phrase I hear, cheerfully articulated at me through my Subaru's tinny speakers. Which means for the past week, I've been driving around town talking to myself in the voice of an over-caffeinated air hostess.


Interestingly, my boyfriend (let's call him Mr. Annoying Pants) is nearly fluent in French. So when I come home bursting with all sorts of new and useful phrases about where one might find books (dans la bibliotheque!) or a refrigerator (dans la cuisine!) that will surely win me many friends and admirers in Paris, Mr. Annoying Pants tells me that maybe the best strategy would be for me to just keep quiet.

Va t'en, monsieur pantalons d'ennuyeux!

What I find myself thinking as I drive around town is how my old, batty, irascible French teacher from grade school would surely throw a fit if she heard my babblings now. Madame X, whose name I forgot but whom I will refer to as Madame Sosostris for this post, was a REAL FRENCH PERSON, about 60 when I was in grade school at Villa Academy, with bright orange hair and lipstick the color of a fire hydrant. She loved plaid skirts pinned closed with what looked like an enormous brass paperclip and she had an amazing, withering sigh only the morally exhausted among us or those who work as French waiters can ever master. She was barely 5' tall and roughly the width of a grasshopper. And she was, though a REAL FRENCH PERSON, a terrible teacher of her own language. She was easily enraged or distracted and, if distracted, would spend the class hour waxing poetic about her youth during WWII outside of Paris. You wouldn't think this was a particularly romantic time, but the story she had to tell would convince you of the opposite.

Evidently, at age 16 Madame Sosostris was living in a small farmhouse with her mother. Her father was missing, or dead, or working for the Resistance (this part was never clear to us), and so Madame S and her mother eked out a living on the farm by themselves, foraging in the woods, milking their one cow, occasionally killing a neighbor's errant chicken. Years passed like this. Then, one day, the Nazis came. ("Nazis!" breathed the class.) The Nazis commandeered their farm, turning the modest place into a kind of military headquarters, then leaving behind a young communications officer to stand guard when the rest of the squadron left. The young officer was supposed to remain at Madame S's farm to send and receive or translate radio messages for the rest of the German army. (This part was never clear to us either.)

Because of the presence of a German communications officer in their house, and because it was the war, listening to a radio was strictly forbidden. In fact, Madame S warned us sternly, it was an offense punishable by death, should any unlucky French girl be caught. But one night, while setting the dinner table in anticipation of the lovely last neighbor chicken her mother had just killed, Madame S couldn't stand the silence anymore. She couldn't stand the interminable gloom of the farmhouse, the war, her 16 year-old life. She broke. She turned on the radio.

As she was dancing to the cheerful sounds of American big band dance music (her phrase, not mine), she heard a sudden sound in the doorway. She turned. But even before she turned, she knew. It was the officer.

("Nazis!" breathed the class.)

Madame S stopped dancing. The young officer had one hand behind his back and was staring, sternly, down at her. Madame S swallowed. The young officer began to march into the room. Madame S dropped the fork and knife she'd been holding. The young officer drew up to the table. He began to remove his hand, slowly, from behind his back. Madame S croaked something weakly, hoping her mother would hear.

"For you," the young officer intoned. Madame S looked down at his hand. It was gripping the neck of a wine bottle. The officer put the wine bottle down on the table, bowed neatly to her, and marched back out of the room.

"And zat was what it was like to be in France during ze war," Madame S finished, as our whole class burst into cheers.

You can imagine how much we loved this story, especially when it came time for French verbs. "But Madame," we'd beg when the subjunctive loomed, "WHAT ABOUT THE NAZIS?" And Madame, ever pliable, would launch back into her story.

Considering how many of us in that room were hovering at the palpitating cusp of adolescence, I'm certain Madame's story had long-lasting and, shall we say, fevered effects on some of us. Probably one of my classmates right now is scribbling a tome entitled Naughty Nazis, one of a series of erotic tales for the Historically Impaired. (That "one of my classmates," by the way, would NOT be me.) Regardless, Madame's story meant we never learned the subjunctive, any numbers over twenty, and gained, only at the last, the shakiest grasp of the past tense.

And it is why, every morning, I greet my car in French.

So this post is for you, Madame, and your young German officer, and for the subjunctive tense that I wish I could learn (alert: inside grammar joke. HA!), and pour ma Subaru Legacy Wagon, and for all people learning to speak the languages of the world on their commutes, among the sandwich wrappers and empty coffee cups of the ill-accented damned, bleating their sad requests for directions to the metro or the library or just a decent, cheap restaurant to their steering wheels. Bon chance, mes amis! Mon semblable-- mon frère--!

Here's a little song that should amuse you.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Organizational Aria in the Key of Logistics

I've been thinking of Gerard Manley Hopkins a lot this morning as I prepare the groundwork for preparing the groundwork to leave the country for a year. I am specifically thinking of that line from one of his Terrible Sonnets in which, overcome by yet another spiritual crisis, Hopkins ends up gnashing his teeth at the heavens while wailing something like 'I wretch lay wrestling with/ (my God!) my God.' Which pretty much sums up how I've been feeling these days about getting my life organized enough to travel.

Because, (my God!) MY GOD there is a lot to do. If you are planning to leave the country for a year, you have to check and make sure things like passports and driver's licenses haven't expired (Guess what? Both have!), that your bank won't screw you with foreign exchange commissions and ATM fees (Guess what? It will!), that you don't need visas for everywhere you want to be (Guess what? Even France needs one if you stay there for over 3 months!), your airline tickets booked (Guess what? Those frequent flyer miles are useless due to blackout dates!), that your health record is fairly clean and you're up to date on your shots (Guess what? The doctor LOST that record!), that maybe you should get your Pap smear and mammos done to make sure you aren't dozing happily on a nude beach somewhere while little rivulets of cancer are silently trickling through your body (Guess what? The doctor also lost those test results too so now you have to take them over!), that your computer has skype so you can do all those pesky dissertation committees from abroad (Guess what? Your computer, possibly out of spiritual sympathy, broke down!) and that maybe you need to get your house rented and thus your closets emptied and organized and your dogs newly housed and your vet stuff sent to the new vet and your phone situation re-thought and your job notified and your life, essentially, entirely, utterly, exhaustively redone.

Guess what? I just drank all the scotch in my cabinet!

So I'm trying--in between belting out stress arias at my beloved and my pets and even my mirror reflection at odd hours of the day--to look at the upside of all of this. I've come up with four upsides:

1. I really needed to go through my closets.
2. Turns out I was getting HOSED by bank fees: I just never noticed it.
3. I will be so used to having my feet in stirrups and getting shot full of dormant viruses that, should any actual emergency take place, such annoyances will cease to frighten me.
4. At the end of this, I'm going to eat a bunch of snails in France.

In the meantime, however, I would like to find the nearest customer service representative for Delta Airlines and THUMP HIM.

For those of you contemplating a year abroad, let me offer the following bits of advice:

1. Get a Capitol One Venture Card. A friend whose spouse has been living in Rome this past year let me know about Capitol One, and this card is the best deal going. For those of you in the market for a new checking and savings account, they also offer a very sweet interest rate and no foreign exchange fees or ATM fees on their debit cards either. Win win.

1.5 To find out how your existing card and bank stack up, check out www.nerdwallet.com and it's blog on foreign transaction fees.

2. Delta Airlines is the devil's airline. To think you can fly internationally using your hundreds of thousands of frequent flier miles is, evidently, tantamount to imagining yourself as the next vessel (or victim?) of the Immaculate Conception. Evidently, this little miracle happened to someone, somewhere, and no matter how widely reported this tale continues to be, it sure as hell won't be happening to YOU. Those thousands upon thousands of air miles? They get you one free checked bag and an extra packet of peanuts.

3. Air Treks, however, is awesome! For you world travelers, check those folks out. What I learned? It is cheaper to fly halfway around the world on a leg-to-leg route now than it would be to fly RT to Europe. Or it is, at the very least, comparable. This is not the year to travel RT anywhere. It is, however, the year to wander in a (somewhat) direct line until you somehow end up in your driveway. Wanna go to Italy? I recommend you just keep going East.

4. Tax fiends: if you get paid to live for a year outside the country, this is tax-free money. That is, if you stay for the WHOLE YEAR. If you come back a week early, all bets are off. This is hard--nay, I say, (my God. MY GOD!) impossible for many. The good news is this: everything you eat, wear, sing to, sit on, snort up, and visually take in is tax deductible. You just have to keep a lot of receipts. Oy!

4.5 On top of that, the post-Lowellians I've started to talking to about their tax situations have all indicated that, in terms of taxes, the year's a wash: nothing usually gets owed because, in the end, the money doesn't go so far. Gulp.

5. Get rich and HIRE SOMEONE to do all this stuff for you.

Kathy Graber, who had the Lowell two years back, informed me that I-Tunes Europe doesn't exist or something, thus I should download everything onto my nice new I-Pad, (which I've named Ling Ling) NOW before I go. And I plan to. Only I can't get Ling Ling to turn on. Because (deep breath. My God. MY GOD.) my current Apple Product (very very old and itself recovering from recent nervous breakdown) doesn't have the rightly recent software to run the rightly recent version of I-Tunes to EVEN RECOGNIZE THAT LING LING EXISTS.

My God. MY GOD.

Must buy more scotch. Must find Apple customer service rep.

Must thump him.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Eat, Bitch, Moan

Friends with whom I've discussed my upcoming travels have asked whether I might use this year to write a bestseller, À la la Elizabeth Gilbert's wildly successful Eat, Pray, Love. To this, I respond: not likely. Not because I wouldn't like to write a bestseller (it's amazing how often relatives suggest this as if the very idea would offend me, or as if they think I'm holding out on them by not doing this. How often, in fact, they earnestly suggest such a thing as if I'VE NEVER THOUGHT OF THIS BEFORE MYSELF, or that writing a bestseller were something anyone could do with just a touch more gumption or discipline, something creatively equivalent, say, to the decision to invest the money one spends in coffee shops each month into one's Roth IRA, which I also don't do; I drink that money right down, my friends, because I feel like saving over 20% of my salary in case I really do live to be 100 years old and have to live off root vegetables begged off my neighbors is enough, but that's another discussion for another day). No, I would love to write a bestseller. I would love to be able to bask in my own Eat, Pray, Loveness of commercial preordination. I go to bed each night hoping against hope that someone, somewhere, will eventually beg me to "sell out" in ways that I have yet to comprehend. And while I know there are many literary types who sneer at what they perceive to be the cultural schlockitude to all things Eat, Pray, Love, I'm not one of them because, let's be honest here:

The money would be nice.

Unfortunately, I won't be able to write such a book. I'm a poet, and unless overnight I become an adorable 12 year-old with cystic fibrosis, this kind of writing doesn't tend to sell. Also, I lack one of the real forces behind that book (from what I've read, that is: I only got through the first third, because I love eating, and because it was my mother's book and she needed it back for her book club): the voice. Gilbert seems like a very humorous and very generous travel companion. I aspire to that. But I lack her voice and, from the little I've read, I lack interest in the two other Big Things Gilbert's book seems to be about: God and finding yourself.

I have no interest in God. I have no spiritual life. I have (as the poet John Berryman might say) no Inner Resources. And there's a good reason for this: I went to Catholic school.

So let the reader of this blog rest assured that, while eating will be featured and discussed at near pornographic length, God and prayer won't be. If I'm in a church, it will be to look at a fresco or scout for some loose change near the offertory or to sit in air conditioning for an hour. If God speaks to me, it'll be because of the mushrooms someone named Pedro probably slipped me. There won't be spiritual crisis, yoga, or any clothing made out of bamboo.

As for finding myself, I think I have, at age 40, a distressingly clear sense of who I am. I'm the unmarried, intimacy-challenged, obsessive-compulsive over-sharer at your potluck. I'm the woman with three huge, ill-mannered dogs who (oddly) can't decide whether or not to take on the responsibility of a child. I'm the one who bought a duplex with her boyfriend so that she can still have her own apartment. I'm the one who drives around town wondering to herself, If an earthquake were to hit right now, would I freak out and drive up on the sidewalk over all those people right there? and who plans--and deeply worries over--all the potential funerals of her still-living loved ones just to make sure she's truly prepared for the worst life has to offer, because half her family is Norwegian and if Norwegians know anything, it is that Worse Things Can Always Be Offered Up by Life.

But I also have a Roth.

And now, this great award. So here's the "Bitch, Moan" part of the post: I find that the amazing opportunity of this year has presented me with yet another (somewhat dismaying) picture of myself. I'm the woman who may just be too comfortable in her current life, too enamored with her routine at work and gym and writing table, too essentially mortgaged and staggeringly happily partnered and be-dogged to want to go. Essentially, someone who may be too old for this award at all. Were I 28, I would have left yesterday. But at 40, I find myself fretting about leaving all my nice friends, my home, my books and worrying about what will happen to them all in my absence. I have to fight against my urge to collapse on my new couch with my sweetie, eating all day and knitting expensive sweaters no one in her right mind would ever wear. In essence, to go on this trip is to try and become someone I now am not, not to find some more authentic self that has continually eluded me. My authentic self is a bourgeois slug. Which is why, as I waddle around the world in my newly middle-aged daze, I will be forever grateful to friends and strangers who help give me an idea of what it would be like to be adventurous. Who help me, in other words, be the woman I never truly was.

That said, let me say that I have traveled, and widely. I've lived in three different countries, traveled for short periods of time in over 20. I'm not a total rube. Just lazy. And this decision to travel around the world for a whole year is an entirely new category of adventure for me, one that certain mornings leaves me kind of dizzy. I admit it: I need help.

One friend, Jennifer, knowing I am dead set on living in Vietnam sometime next spring, has requested that I experience ear picking. While this potentially violates one of my own "rules" set forth in my last post and certain of my most cherished physical boundaries (these boundaries being legion, and as heavily defensed as the DMZ), I am still willing to try. For those of you interested in finding out more about this practice (and to try and dissuade me from it perhaps?), she's given me a link here.

A perhaps slightly kinder friend, Lisa, knowing I am going to spend my first four months in Paris, has suggested that I go see an art exhibit. This is right up my alley. The passive viewing of attractive objects has ever interested me. I excel at it. Here's the link for that.

What I particularly like about this exhibit is that, in Paris, there is an exhibit about Winnipeg. WINNIPEG. Maybe this is for the moral improvement of all Parisians, who might be too used to having won the planetary lottery of All Great Things To Eat and See in their choice of city. Still, Winnipeg. The mind boggles.

Again, I urge you: send in your requests! So far, my travel plans include living in Paris from September to the end of December (with week-long jaunts to Spain, Germany, Austria, Italy and Greece thrown in--as inexpensively ((gulp)) as possible), a week or two in Istanbul, three months in Hanoi, then it all just falls apart until I can end up in Buenos Aires for the summer months. I am up for any and all suggestions. And I need them. Or else I'm just going to wander around the world, looking at pictures of Canada while having various of my orifices scraped.

And do you really want to read about that?


Friday, April 8, 2011

A Little Bragging, A Little Offer

So I won the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Fellowship for 2011-2012. Actually, I am one of two winners: the fabulously talented Spencer Reese is the second winner of this fellowship (making me even more excited and humbled by the award), and if he ever reads this, I'd like to offer him congratulations. Congrats, Spencer! For those of you who may be interested in the minutia of this award, having two winners of the award is historically unusual, though there was a precedent set for this as of last year's fellowship, which the poets Paula Bohince and Elizabeth Alexander won. Personally, I'm very glad they're giving this award to two poets at once now because once those of you who aren't poets find out what this fellowship entails, you might want to chew your own fingers off in a fit of despairing envy. Which is what I did many years ago when I first applied for this and didn't win and had to read the winner's name and think about all the great things he'd get to eat for a year. Anyhoo. For those of you who don't know about the award, here's the deal:

1. The winner(s) receive $53,000 from the Amy Lowell trust at Choate, Hall and Stewart.

2. The winner(s) must (MUST!) live outside the North American continent for one full year. (Canada and Mexico naturally being excluded, though the lawyers also suggested that Central America might also be a tad too close for legal liking. Other than that, anywhere. Antarctica, if that floats your boat. France. Lake Titicaca. Basically: Anywhere. You. Like.)

3. To earn this great and financial staggering privilege, the winner(s) must produce three poems at the end of the year. That's right, people: Three WHOLE poems. The brow sweats at the prospect.

You can imagine the barely concealed hysteria some of my scholarly colleagues experienced when I told them about this. If there was anyone among them who'd privately suspected that poets were the academy's pampered brats before, this news didn't exactly win over any hearts and minds.

That said, the constraints of the award, as minimal as they appear to be, are constraints. Imagine leaving your family, house, pets, and your job--possibly forever!--for a year. Imagine where you want to live and think about the amount of money you're being given. Now do some research about how much apartment rents are in this city. People have resigned from this fellowship because of these kinds of considerations, and one other (I've heard rumor of) has been stripped of the award because he never left the country at all. Probably because the idea of REALLY GOING ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD was so difficult to comprehend and grasp that no decision to leave could ever be made. I mean, really, every time a commercial comes on TV showing yet another fabulous foreign destination, you keep thinking to yourself, I could go there, and there, and there, and there, until your head practically cracks open from from quandariness. To misquote a beloved poet.

Still, let's be honest, these are some seriously bourgeois problems here. And if I've experienced them-even for a nanosecond-- it's my duty to suck it up, get on that plane, and go eat locally produced brie with all the good-looking, organically inclined people of France. Because if I don't go, they don't give it to some other poet. The award vanishes. No one but poor Spencer Reese (who likely doesn't have these concerns right now: he's already on his second bottle of Prosecco, laughing like a hyena about how awesome this all is) will have to go. And then I won't just be screwing myself, I'll be screwing over all the other people who applied and didn't get it.

And that's just not right.

(Don't worry: I know I sound like an utter ass. Even typing this up right now, I can't believe I'm writing these things out loud.)

So, that's the bragging part of this post. And while I'm doing that, let's just get that other thing you're thinking out of the way once and for all, the thing I'm sure at least one of you out there (like, maybe, my mother) is privately muttering: Why exactly did I get this award?

And here's the answer, dear reader: probably because you didn't apply. I don't say this at your expense. I certainly don't mean it in any snide or snarky way. I simply think it's true. I received this because someone the committee thought was better didn't apply. Before the economy crashed and I got to watch so many of my friends and students struggle and flail on the job market, I, too, mostly thought there was some correlation between wanting, hard work, and eventual success. Mostly, I still want to hope there is. But increasingly I have to admit that I'm at a loss to explain (to myself or my friends or students) why one of my friends or students gets an award or a book contract or a job and others don't. It feels increasingly arbitrary out there, and the luck of this award, the very parameters of this award, reinforce for me the blunt fact that, at the end of the day, more of this shit is luck than we'd feel comfortable admitting to ourselves, folks.

Which brings me to the "offering" part of this blog. Since I got lucky here, I'd like to offer a little of my luck up to you. I've mentioned to some friends that, though I can't take them along on all my travels next year (which will start September 1, 2011), and because I know many of them can't get the time or money together to visit me (though the offer always stands. Visit! Me! Please!), I'd like to offer my free services in Totally Vicarious Living. I'll post about what it's like to spend one whole year traveling the world, from the planning stages to the actual travel itself, occasionally offering myself up as willing test subject to my friends' and readers' whims: What, if you were in Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi, Paris, Istanbul, Buenos Aires, Berlin, or Iceland, say, would you like to do? What would you like to see or eat, ride or buy, or what, perhaps, would you like to have done to your body (there will be some serious limitations to this last offering. I'm not coming back pregnant from some misspent orgy with 24 year-old Italian footballers ((though, really, is the word "misspent" truly the right word in that scenario?)), married ((again)), tattooed ((again)) or pierced in places that cause me to wince when sitting. And I hate massages. And pedicures. And Norwegians. Actually anything that involves having my feet touched by Norwegians. Though I liked Norway itself. Uff-da!). Besides all that, I'm open. If you want me to visit a particular museum, say, or eat a live squid or track down one of your ancestor's homes, I'm game. I'll even take pictures for you and write about it. And maybe, just maybe, this will make you a tiny bit happy.

Or maybe more pissed off at not getting to go yourself. Who knows. I still offer my services in the spirit of (self-involved) generosity.

On a side-note, one student has already suggested that, if I'm in Germany, I should rent a race car and drive the Nurburgring. I misheard her and thought she said Nuva Ring, at which point I told her I'd already been driving THAT for a very long time. But I was totally up for renting a race car!

Anyway, this is what this blog is going to be about. The Poetic Pessimist's World Domination Tour, shared with you, dear reader, who may just be my mother. If this is the case, ignore the crack about the Nuva Ring and the orgy with Italian footballers. And the Norwegians. I know how you feel about them. And the tattoos. I don't have those. Actually, I don't have them anymore--they recently disappeared under one of the folds of my burgeoning, middle-aged flesh. Let that offer you some comfort.