Learning to be comfortable in the air

chez Goldroot


What if birds were afraid of heights?

Looking out our kitchen windows on a sunny morning at the top of the tallest tree on the hill behind us I could see a bird perched on the tip-of-the-tip-of-the topmost branch. The tree swayed gently in the light breeze. The bird looked to one side, seeming to defy gravity. There was no sign of weight on the sprig where it perched. The bird was carefree, confident. He didn’t seem worried that the branch could bend with a gust of wind, that he could tumble unceremoniously down, to be quickly surrounded by neighborhood cats ready to pounce. Plus, he was really high up there. He’s a bird, so I guess that stuff doesn’t bother him. Should he be disturbed in any way, I am certain he would simply fly.

That’s when my fifty-year-old brain suddenly goes from pastoral wondering to randomly curious – what…

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Culture Shock – Part II

The story I had originally intended to publish next describes a completely different situation. It’s about my first night in France and another adventure courtesy of AirBnB. On a more optimistic and entertaining note, here it is:

It’s good to be back. Though arriving in a completely different manner – this time landing at St. Exupery in Lyon, then renting a car and driving through unfamiliar countryside after 14 hours of travel – I felt comfortable and empowered. It didn’t hurt that after reaching my destination, with just a brief moment of confusion over the address, that I was greeted by a surprisingly mature high school girl, welcoming me to her “mom’s” house in a perfectly American accent. The old farmhouse where I would spend the night was big enough for four people and set on a lovely plot in St. Bonnet de Mure, just across from the owner’s house. After setting in, I took a walk around, briefly discovering a typical small French town with Mairie, Iglese, Poste, Gendarmes, and small shopping district. A few people were out in the park feeding birds. Overall it seemed pleasant and safe. I returned and met Tracy, aka “mom”, a Brit who had emigrated 20 years before and who makes her living in oncology research in a lab on the east side of Lyon.

Thinking it a bad idea to crash and get on the wrong side of jetlag, I searched briefly online for something to do. It was too late in the afternoon to visit a museum but I did discover there was a dance festival going on in the 8th arondissement of Lyon, about a 20 minute drive from here, at La Maison de la Danse. Tonight’s performance had seats available and was looking to be rather contemporary – c’est bonne pour moi! I got dressed, jumped in the car, and made my way to Lyon. Along the way I passed through what appeared to be the local ‘brico’ and ‘meubles’ shopping districts – you can furnish, build and repair your house here, yes you can. The 20 minute drive took about 35 due to local traffic and concurrence with the tram, then a brief search for street parking, but I arrived.

The modern, and very tall, dance performance space was next store to the Mairie for the 8th and otherwise surrounded by apartments and hospitals. Not too much else happening other than a few bars and restaurants. I bought my ticket, center in the third row, but only after a slightly confusing conversation with the very nice man in the ticket booth. His accent, the vocabulary, or the context, my fatigue, all combined to make it so, but I managed a purchase and to learn that if I came back early something would be happening, though not sure what.

Maison de la Danse has a little café called Fred and Ginger so I decided to find dinner there rather than wander the neighborhood. There was no one by the name of Astaire or Rogers as far as I could tell. It was lively with people of various ages mange-ing and bois-ing, at tables between the bar and the small stage with extremely avant-garde danse-arte films projected on the wall. I was seated right away. Service was swift, my food tasty, and I was feeling confident. Returning to the lobby, I observed that indeed something was happening. A crowd was gathered and about 12 young danseurs were moving slowly through the crowd, synchronized, but not, very slowly shedding their layers upon layers of unmatched clothing from head to toe. After slowly folding their piles of clothes, they slinked away up the stairs, most of them wearing only underwear and camisoles. The night was getting more interesting.

The performance was a piece of danse-theatre by Alain Platel, “Tauberbach”. The music, by Bach stopped and started throughout the piece. The scene, a clothing dump in Brazil staged brilliantly from corner to corner of a full sized stage with no backdrop. There was one sound effect, that of a persistent fly, buzzing. Six people danced, writhed, stripped, convulsed, emoted, murmured, one of them a schizophrenic who talked and sang and yelled to herself in English and a little Portuguese. There were subtitles in French projected on the back wall. 90 minutes of avant-garde modern dance, extended vocal technique, choral singing, amplified bones, and almost but not quite porn on the stage, in and out of clothes that covered the stage and on catwalks that raised and lowered. In the face of dense and very difficult material, at times repulsive but impossible to ignore, with very few exceptions, the audience (which included college age, parents with babies, the retired, working people and me) stayed for the 100 minute spectacle without looking away. I might have dozed off for a minute or two here and there fighting the time change, but I wanted to see how this would end, and I did. The dancers stood in silence facing the audience for a full minute. Then the ovations began. One or two people stood. Most clapped their hands above their heads, the middle-aged couple next to me shouting their sincere “bravos”. The French public clapped their hands in unison for almost a full 15 minutes.

Then I drove back to my little BnB. It did take about 20 minutes this time and I did not get lost, well almost. When arriving back in St. Bonnet de Mure about 11pm, I thought I could turn right at the Mairie to return to the house, but the turn was restricted. Having pulled too far forward in the intersection in anticipation of the turn, I could no longer see the traffic signal at shoulder height behind me and to the right. The car facing me across the intersection began to drive straight ahead, so I assumed it was my turn too. The gendarmes who approached and pulled me over did not agree. I had been driving in France for less than 8 hours. One of the men in the police van approached me. No drunk driver returning from a carousing trip in Lyon, just me, freshly arrived and a little too bold. Somehow remaining calm, I explained in French, that I had just arrived, was staying at a house in town and was a little confused. The man asked for my permit and the car registration. He explained that I needed to pay attention to the “red fire” (feu rouge), that it was dangerous to pass through them. Then he asked me for the address of the house. I clamored for it and showed him. He told me to follow, that his colleague would use the GPS and escort me. Would there be a ticket? Would they awaken the family and inform them of my crime? No and no. They simply wanted to make sure I got home safe.

The next morning I chatted with Tracy and her partner about life, her property, travel, teenagers. Then I set off for Lyon, a quick look around the Institut Lumiere, and a pleasant drive through the Rhone-Alpes countryside to Riorges. I reached L’ecole des Trois Ponts around 5pm. No incidents. Not a moment of stress. Rene was waiting for me. It was like coming home again.

St. Bonnet de Mure, between Lyon and St. Exupery Airport

L’hotel de Ville, St Bonnet de Mure

Maison de la Danse, Lyon

L’institut Lumiere, Lyon

Professeur Rene, previous visit to l’ecole. Riorges.

Nouvelle amie, Holly, et moi. L’ecole des trois ponts. Riorges.




Culture Shock – Part I: Cagnes-sur-Mer

The mind and body are curious machines. At once, engines of courage, yet, at the drop of a hat, a source of stress and disquiet. Today I am feeling decidedly different, not so fiercely independent, if not a little bit lame.

After my short run on the promenade and delightful breakfast on the front porch, I have tried leaving the house four times. The first time I made it as far as Musee Renoir by car. I managed to peruse the tranquil grounds and maison where the master spent his last days, surrounded by friends and family, painting from his wheelchair. It was a quick visit with entry free of charge because it is the first Sunday, but nearly closed for the midday break, making it difficult to linger. So where-to next? I would have thought it a great next stop to take a leisurely drive up to Vence and then return for a visit to Haut-Cagnes and the Chateau Grimaldi. A few minutes down the road, that’s when the rich Italian coffee, or my nerves, or both, kicked in. Feeling a little shaky for some reason, I decided to return to ma chambre sur la plage.

The grounds are beautiful at La Locandiera, an old stone Maison on the Cros de Cagnes where fisherman, sailors, tourists and local residents form a mélange of humanity in the Mediterranean sun. I grabbed my hat and a book and stretched out for a read on one of the chaises thinking it would be best to just profit from the perfect weather for a while. It was starting to feel relaxed, and the storyline in the French romantic comedy was getting interesting, but I just couldn’t get comfortable. Perhaps it was my back aching from the six hour drive yesterday, or the glare of the sun. I tried a quick walk – the shakes returned. I decided to try reading inside where it was quiet. After a while I tried to take a little nap. Feeling stronger, I set out across the way and grabbed a sandwich from the café on the port. Optimistically, I made another attempt to set out by car for the hills. Two minutes in, the nerves returned. Breathing deeply and humming to myself, I made just a brief tour around the neighborhood before returning here to write this story.

This time I went up to my room, closed the blinds, and shut the Windows to block out the world a bit. I could be coming down with something, yet somehow this feeling seems different to me. I think I might actually have a little case of culture shock. After all, yesterday was a big departure from my state of familiarity and confidence at the language school. By myself, I drove six hours across the country, with some difficulty involving a wrong turn and very strong wind. I arrived here, not knowing where to park, not being part of a group, no longer in a tranquil neighborhood away from tourists. Last night was leisurely, with a walk on the beach and takeout dinner al fresco by the sea but on my walk I was also propositioned by a seemingly nice French man on a moto who said he loved to have parties with Americans. He offered me dinner, champagne “tout en amitie” (just in friendship). He said he was a believer and a very good Salsa teacher. I giggled, thanked him for his kind invitation, and allowed him the French “bises” he requested. Who knows what bullshit that could have led to, perhaps it would have been fun, but I decided to “reste toute seule”. I returned to my room about 9pm, watched some good French TV, then slept like a baby, but with earplugs.

This morning started out well, but eventually ended up with me back here, writing in the dark.

I read about culture shock and its symptoms when I was in school last week. Evidently it is quite common. In fact, there was a friend at school who had never travelled alone before and also hadn’t expected the demands of living and thinking in another language weeks in a row. She had a little “crise” mentally and physically and was about to change her plans and go home. Heartened by the support of others, the next morning she felt better and decided to stay, albeit with a lighter class schedule. So to my readers, I admit that I am in paradise yet locked in my room, and I apologize to you who are at home wishing you could be here. I am optimistic about tomorrow. Just be patient.

1 La Locandiera. Cagnes-sur-Mer. Peaceful just before dusk.


2 Musee Renoir.

3 Haute Cagnes, in the distance, so close and yet so far

4 Ma chambre, aah

A memory recaptured

Alain de Botton   “It seemed an advantage to be traveling alone. Our responses to the world are crucially moulded by the company we keep, for we temper our curiosity to fit in with the expectations of others…Being closely observed by a companion can also inhibit our observation of others; then, too, we may become caught up in adjusting ourselves to the companion’s questions and remarks, or feel the need to make ourselves seem more normal than is good for our curiosity.”
Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

Je vien d’arriver….  I just arrived here in France. Or it seems so, but so many little moments have already passed, and even some big enough to warrant a story or two. Before I get to those, I have been remiss in recounting an important travel episode that happened in summer 2012. At the time, I was so absorbed in the experience, and perhaps posting pictures on Facebook, that I couldn’t find a way to write it down. As I think about the last 24 hours here, with new memories courtesy of Airbnb, I think it is appropriate to account for my first experience with the service, which has opened the door just a little, for this shy geek girl with dreams of being worldly.

Airbnb started as a graphic guy’s quick scheme to make his rent in the bay area. It has since become an economy, a social network, and more personally, a burst of courage and small stories that have enriched my storybook, making me much more entertaining at parties. It first brought me to a corner of Rio where the artists and bourgeoisie live alongside the homeless, the persistent throng of Friday and Saturday night, and a yellow streetcar beckoning another era in this colonial city. It was July 2012, I had just been in Buenos Aires on business, traveling on my free weekend, not just to Rio, but to Isa and Paolo, and their stack of colorful boxes called a home on the edge of Santa Fe and Lapa near the center of the city.

Arriving at nearly 2am, without enough Real to pay the cab driver. Paolo, an ex telecomm engineer from Italy who first came to Brazil to follow his passion for African drumming, with a smile paid the fare and said “don’t worry about it”. The pulse of Lapa, at the bottom of a steep urban staircase leading down from the house, was still strong and I could feel it humming through the green wooden shutters in my simple room on the upper, entry level floor.

I awoke the next morning to warm coffee, cake and conversation with Paolo. Isa was working at her computer and perhaps more shy due to her limited English. At noon, my driver, Carlos, arrived to shuttle me around to the sites in Rio. We danced a sort of made-up language tango as he tried to teach me a little Portuguese and I faked my part by adding some extra ‘zhh’ to my French/Spanglish responses. Carlos was quite a bit younger than me but treated me as if we were kids playing together. Excitedly taking me by the hand and pulling me, because he discovered a friend who could get me to the front of the queue for the shuttle up to Christ the Redeemer atop the Corcovado. The day went like this, he directed me, I visited, he fetched me, and so on. As the sun set, I was staring down at the lights of the city from Pão de Açúcar – Sugarloaf mountain.

The day was not over. Around 9:30 pm it was time to go out for dinner. I was invited to join Paolo, Isa, and their neighbors, a young couple – husband, Lino, also from Italy, pregnant wife, Rita, a Rio native – and their friend, Elisabetta, who had just arrived from Bologna for a visit. A neighborhood steak grill restaurant – cook at the table, side dishes shared all around, trust your companions not to poison you – hosted a group with three duets crossing and in parallel, in Italian, Portuguese, and Italian. We laughed until midnight, when Paolo asked if I’d like to see Lapa. He drove me in the van he uses for his recycled fabrics business, and gave me a tour of the all night outdoor party, with young people absolutely pouring out onto every street, something I would have been very nervous to do alone. Paolo proudly showed me the best clubs and restaurants, and how the colonial buildings had been gentrified to host the entertainment tastes of a new generation.

After a happy sleep, I braved the rainy Sunday to visit Santa Fe’s artist studios which were open for the weekend. I met and talked with the starving, the struggling, the passionate, and the well-established. I viewed not just their studios, but their homes. That evening was a baby shower for the neighbors. I met all their friends, most of whom had come from a rally for the local candidate running on a marijuana platform. I, having known Rita and Lino for less than 24 hours, was welcome as part of the family. Among the local delicacies were hot dogs and popcorn (Pipoca). And from the faithful Mac, tucked into a nook in their tiny apartment, blared the cool tunes of Gilberto Gil.

My last day took place on a tropical, undecided Monday. Elisabetta, with her jetlag and fresh mosquito bites, walked with me for miles around the city center and it’s massive park. With her poor English and my lack of Italian, we found that we had a reasonable French proficiency between us. Later, after discovering the metro and enjoying our beer on Copacabana beach, we had somehow connected as fellow travelers, though we were 10 years different in age, and in other respects maybe worlds apart, with our only common connection that of speaking French and a set of coincidences set in motion by Airbnb.

At the top of the steps outside Isa and Paolo's leading down to Lapa.

At the top of the steps outside Isa and Paolo’s leading down to Lapa


View of the favela on the way up Corcovado. Carlos suggested we stop and take a photograph.

View of the favela on the way up Corcovado. Carlos suggested we stop and take a photograph.


Carlos insisted on taking my picture as well

Carlos insisted on taking my picture as well


View from Pão de Açúcar at dusk

View from Pão de Açúcar at dusk



With Isa and Paolo at the baby shower

Copacabana after the rain

Copacabana after the rain

Elisabetta and Me

Elisabetta and Me

Buenos Aires between meetings…

Most popular billboard shot, taken from my taxi, Windows folks, look familiar?


It’s winter, it’s raining, we have only one afternoon to be tourists, so what the heck – go where all of the tourists go. El Caminito in La Boca. The taxi driver took us for a quick tour past the famous stadium where Boca JR, the famous soccer team has their home games. Then on to the street where tango was born and souvenir shops rule the roost:

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Soccer fans, recognize this famous Argentine?


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And on this crisp but clear morning. The view from my room on San Martin viewing out towards the central train station and the harbor….


Unfortunately this may be my last glimpse of the city as meetings continue through tomorrow afternoon, then we are off. At least tonight I got a taste of the famous Argentinian beef as Las Lilas in fashionable Puerto Madero.  If you go, bring a credit card, a lot of cash, and your appetite. Be sure to sit on the covered terrace. Ladies, the maitre d’ will physically attach you bag to your chair Smile. Loved the atmosphere and friendly service. Thursday night is a big night out, lots of families with kids and I’m sure the tourist/business folks like ourselves.

Ciao for now, more meetings tomorrow!