Saturday, February 16, 2019

Travel: Does it Expand Your World View?

I Embedded in Paris in Search of the American Dream

By Norma Jaeger Hopcraft

I saw a question online: “What are the top 10 places to travel to in 2019 to expand your world view?”

I’ve traveled quite a bit—more than I dreamt possible—but wasn’t changed discernibly by two weeks in Italy or 10 days sailing in the British Virgin Islands.

But when I bought a one-way ticket to Paris, when I went there to live for a year, when I lived chez famille with a French woman and her two nieces, when I embedded in the language and the culture and knew that I couldn’t go home for at least one year—that changed me.

The vast distance from home—3,000 miles of ocean, and I couldn’t afford to jump on a plane to traverse it—made me homesick after the first month more deeply than I’d ever experienced. I could not return to the familiar faces and things of the States. I found it a bit distressing that everything was different in France, even the plastic wrap. It was tinted green and thinner than the stuff I was accustomed to. Fixtures in the bathroom, tiles, fabrics, the foods offered on the shelves, were all different.

Below: pictures from my life in Paris and more on embedding.

in search of the American Dream
Driveways in the Paris suburbs are different than in the U.S. Ancient stone walls, for one.

in search of the American Dream
Martine's niece Daphne, who taught me French and became a lifelong friend. She's visiting me in Brooklyn in May!

in search of the American Dream

Statue of Charles DeGaulle outside the Metro.

in search of the American Dream

I didn’t expect that. I had thought before I left, “France is a Western country, steeped in the Judeo-Christian mindset. I won’t be that much different from here.”

Wrong. And the distance from home, the inability to fly back for a quick fix, being embedded in a culture I found profoundly different, made big changes in me.

I was forced to redefine "home," and I could only find it within myself. And since I believe in a Higher Power, whom I choose to call Emmanuel, I had company in my home within myself.

I did not have to be defined by labels imposed by myself or others, like “American writer” or “mature woman” or “expat”—though I rather adored that expat label and did everything I could to remain an expat in Europe. See my blog post about how I ended up living in Barcelona here.

I felt free, with Emmanuel, to cultivate a childlike wonder about Paris, and all things French, and for how Emmanuel had orchestrated my life that I would end up here. Read how here.

The immersion in a culture vastly different from the U.S. made me see that we aren’t the center of the world. Other countries have much higher priorities than news from the U.S. Though we feature in their news much more than they do in ours.

My appreciation for the French deepened too. My landlady Martine and her two twenty-something nieces opened their hearts to me. It was unlike any experience I’ve had from American friends.

I learned, because I had the time to learn and to experience, which I wouldn’t have had if I had rushed around Paris for a brief vacation, that they have a different attitude toward life, work, family, friends, money. Most French, I think it’s safe to say, work in order to live, not live to work. They keenly value friends and family and aren’t willing to give up time with them for the sake of the Almighty Euro. I learned so much. Including that this orientation is changing, sadly, under the influence of the United States.

My worldview expanded when I lived in Paris because I realized that Putin’s tanks in the Crimea and Ukraine could conceivably roll all the way to me. News stories of suicide bombs in Israel and Palestine were scarier because those places were much, much closer. India was closer too. Many French go there for vacations, and it’s a much shorter flight than from New York. It’s doable.

The last worldview change that I experienced from living in Paris and Barcelona is that I’ve never felt at home in my own culture in the U.S. since. Martine had warned me that going back to my own culture would be the hardest part of having lived abroad.

Martine grew up in the Saumur region tending the vines and trodding the white grapes the region is famous for. She had dreamed of living and working abroad—and she made the dream come true. She lived in Kuwait, Malaysia, Burkino Fasa, and India. So, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and South Asia.

While I was embedded in her Paris home, Martine and her nieces taught me French expressions and cooking. We threw parties together. I cut beautiful loaves of crusty pain into baskets for guests to smear one of France’s 350 types of cheese upon.

I had all kinds of memorable experiences. Martine was an actress, and belted out Les Marseillais on Bastille Day, with a nice touch of irony, while the President of France marched with a brass band down Les Champs Elysees on her TV. I could hear her from out in her jardin. I would not have gotten that unforgettable experience if I’d floated into Paris for a look-see and floated out again.

She sold the beautiful house she had in Paris, the one I lived in for a year, and moved back to the Saumur region recently. In both homes, I hear her say she doesn’t feel at home.

I still recommend not just vacationing around a place but embedding there long-term. My answer to the title question is: anywhere that you embed is the best place for a permanent change of worldview!

Two friends from my Paris Writers Circle

in search of the American Dream

Everything was different in France. Coming from New York City, I marveled at how there were no right angle corners in Paris.

The flowers left in dismay after the Charlie Hebdo shooting. It was a taste from home--the U.S.--mass shootings and terrorism.

Some of the art left at the site.

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Momentoes left in grief and shock. 

How about you? Where would you like to embed yourself and learn about the culture, language, and landscape? Comment below!

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Paris vs. New York City in Winter

Battling Out Winter in Two Great Cities

By Norma Jaeger Hopcraft

Paris (arguably the capital of Europe) and New York City (some say the capital of the world) offer very different experiences of winter.

Cold? Both can be, but the winter I was in Paris (2014-2015) was a typical winter. Temps went to 33 degrees and stayed there. New York can dip to 0 degrees, and the wind can whip down the straight streets, lined with tall buildings, to give that beloved canyon effect, and we’re talking wind chill way below zero.

In New York City, the wind comes off of the Atlantic, through the Verrazano Narrows, through Upper New York Harbor, and then splits in order to howl up the Hudson on the west and the East River on the east. It makes its presence felt all the way to the center of the island, on Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

Paris wasn’t windy in winter, though the air always moved along the Seine. And there is no canyon effect – there’s only one building more than six or seven stories tall, and that’s the hideous Montparnasse tower. Also, the streets rarely run straight for more than one block, which means the wind can’t howl down them very well. In fact there are no right-angle corners in Paris. Every corner is at a unique angle. It’s great.

The air moves along the Seine, winter and summer, but it doesn't debilitate people the way the wind does in New York City.

La Conciergerie, in which Marie Antoinette was imprisoned before being beheaded. There is a re-envisioned apartment in this building now, envisioning what her cell would have been like.

Of course, along the Seine, the famous vendors of books, posters, postcards.

A cobbled ramp (in a beautiful scallop-shell pattern) leading down to the quai.

Another view of the Conciergerie.

No matter which angle I viewed it from, Paris was beautiful.

New York has colder temperatures, magnified by wind. But it has more sun, and this is an important difference.

Paris is as far north as Newfoundland, Canada. More north than the northern edge of Maine. This means it’s much closer to the Arctic Circle than New York. So the sun is low in the sky in winter, much lower than in New York.

In Paris in winter, the sun barely makes it above the roof of a two-story building, even at its highest point in the day. And most of the buildings are six- or seven-stories.

On top of that, the skies are normally full of dense clouds that barely ever let a sunbeam through the cracks. If the clouds do part and the sun does burst through, the clouds make a point of blocking up that crack just as fast as possible.

So between a low, weak, northern sun and clouds that are diabolically intent on denying earthlings any sunlight, Paris winters are very gray, very dimly lit, and very difficult to endure if you’re accustomed to a more New York sort of winter.

I would be writing in my favorite library, La Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, with an eye cocked out the window. I was sun starved, and I intended to do something about it. I would watch, wait, write. There it was! A sunbeam! I would pack my stuff up, race outside, and stand in the sunbeam—even if it was in the middle of an intersection. Nobody’s moving very fast in Le Marais, where the library’s located. It's mostly tourists strolling. I’d stand there absorbing the sun’s rays on my face – and a minute later clouds rose and the sun was gone. For another three, long, agonizing weeks.

I was shaky, cranky, feeling ill. How did people in Copenhagen, Scotland, Sweden--all closer to the Arctic Circle than Paris--get through winter? 

Somebody said “Light lots of candles and take Vitamin D-3,” so I did. I felt no better.

Next time: what I did to deal with light deficiency.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Traveling Writer Went to France in Search of the American Dream

Scenes from Paris, including Notre Dame

By Norma Jaeger Hopcraft

I love Europe. I want to explore it more.

I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to live in Paris for a year, on a creative writing sabbatical. It was beyond my wildest dreams. God turned the tables on me -- I had told myself a hundred times that I would never bother to visit Paris because Parisians didn't have the right attitude toward Americans. Then I found a book, described in my blog here, and ended up not just visiting Paris but LIVING there for a year. Exploring. Experiencing life with a French family (an aunt my age, and her two nieces).

I capitalized on that year to write The Paris Writers Circle. You can click on the book's cover in the right hand column of this blog to read reviews.

I was a big fan of New York City when I moved to Paris. Paris was going to have to work hard to capture a place in my heart. 

Somehow, it managed.

the traveling writer in search of the American Dream

I fell in love with Paris and with Paris doors. There were so many, as beautiful or more beautiful than this one. Feel the history oozing from it and from the surround. Generations have passed through the door, living their Parisian lives.

I do know that Paris is not anywhere near as energetic as New York City. Barcelona is getting there, though. It's a hub of design and entrepreneurship. Pics and stories about my Catalan family in my blog here. I've heard London is full of energy, but I haven't been there in 40 years : (

Paying 70% of their salaries in taxes, and being guaranteed a retirement income, I believe, is a disincentive for Parisians to do the manic level of hard work that I intuit New Yorkers are doing. 

Also, France and other European countries are older, and have more history, which means more history of national mistakes and abuses, which dampens patriotic enthusiasm perhaps.

But Europe exhibits the glories of the Roman Empire and gives us the glories of centuries of excellence in the arts, most of it nurtured by Christianity, I might add. Europe gave us Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi, Palestrina, Paganini, Verdi, Beethoven, Saint Saens. To name a tiny portion of the whole.

Europe fostered and gave us the Pieta, the paintings of scenes from the life of Jesus that still stop us in our tracks, the glories of the Vatican, the statues of David and Mary Magdalene and John the Baptist.

And gave us churches and cathedrals, tons of them. Soaring ceilings, sculptures in stone, carvings of wood, stained glass. Incredible achievements of design, engineering and construction.

We in the United States are all blessed by Europe and the incredible hotbed of creativity it once was and that I hope it will be again.

the traveling writer in search of the American Dream
The rose window of Notre Dame.

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It's gorgeous from every angle.

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This is the nave, a tiny portion of the cathedral.

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I could look at it all day.

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On the place outside Notre Dame, tourists mill while guarded by the gendarmerie.

the traveling writer in search of the American Dream
An Audrey Hepburn look-alike thinks this horse is pretty cool.

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Then she wonders off into Paris, dressed for breakfast at the King George V. How about you? Do you love Europe too? Crazy about Paris? Comment below!

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Discoveries in the Pennsy Woods While in Search of the American Dream

The Traveling Writer Finds Love, Family and Creativity

By Norma Jaeger Hopcraft

Dear friends of this blog,

I'm sorry to keep you waiting for a new post from me! I just want to remind you that I've gone to bi-weekly posts (every other Saturday). But I messed up around Christmas time. 

We're back on track! 

For Christmas I went to the Pennsylvania woods, staying in a rented house with my siblings and their significant others.

When my sister and I first opened the rental house and explored, we were totally lost for a couple of hours. The layout was so unusual and quite bewildering. For example, it had two full kitchens, within footsteps of each other. Hunh?
The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
Our Christmas house was large, rambling, and organized around no floor plan that we could figure out. But I enjoyed the wall of windows in the breakfast nook that overlooked the woods.
The driveway to the house was 1/3 of a mile long (not unusual in this part of Bucks County). Parked halfway up the driveway was a sad scene, a sailboat that had been sitting there wrapped in plastic for what seems like a long time.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
My brother rents a house near our Christmas house with a stream running alongside the property.

My family went for walks along the nearby Delaware Canal. Here's a footbridge, reflected in the water.

 Turns out we needed both refrigerators, however, so that worked well. Needless to say, we did our cooking in the kitchen that had the gas stovetop and the view out the windows to the woods. Even though it had less counterspace than the second kitchen, it had the view and the gas, whereas the second kitchen had no windows and an induction stovetop. I knew immediately that we'd end up in the kitchen with the view and gas, and it turned out that way. So my last prediction of 2018 turned out to be completely accurate!

My brother got married to a great woman, Adele, over the Christmas holidays, and that was a beautiful event. They got married by the mayor of Riegelsville, PA, on the Delaware River, right next to a bridge to New Jersey. The mayor did an excellent job and had us laughing and crying. We're so happy these two found each other! 

My brother and his new wife Adele, with the mayor of Riegelsville in the middle.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
Here's my whole family, me in the center with the olive coat and red scarf, with the bridge to New Jersey in the background.

Here's the cutting of the cake, in a farmhouse the two are renovating.

They met while walking on Pennsylvania state game lands -- Adele with her three rescue dogs and my brother with his memories of his beloved hound, Beezer, who had passed on to the gamelands in the sky. 

They found out immediately that they both volunteered at Last Chance Ranch in Pennsylvania, and took care of rescued animals, everything from horses and pigs to cats. 

They stayed in touch, met once a week or so for dog walks, and continued on that basis for a long time. Their love for each other has blossomed and grown! It's a beautiful love story. 

I think I need to get a dog...

To prepare for the wedding, we went to The Novel Baker in Dublin, PA, to pick up Charles’s and Adele’s wedding cake. 

Walking in the door of this business was a treat. The shop was decorated in a whimsical style, so appealing. And the treats! Everywhere! 

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream

Sugared cranberries. With that much sugar on it, a cranberry was delicious!

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream

I loved the whimsy of the decorations.

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Detail of a wedding cake.

The Vulcan Oven that the Novel Baker bakes in.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream

Snowflakes make of fondant, which is sugar with glycerin, which makes it pliable.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream

Here's the Novel Baker herself! She was funny and delightful to be with.

A chandelier.

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Trays of treats awaiting delivery.

Cupcakes with fondant snowflakes on tops.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream

A behind-the-scenes look at the everyday supplies and tools of the Novel Baker.

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This oven is a beast.

The macarons we bought for the wedding.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
Fondant snowflakes.

The thought occurred to me that I’m a novel baker, too. I mix in my ingredients of story, characters, predicament, along with the engine of my burning question. This is an important ingredient. Jane Austen’s engine was “Will she marry well?” Short, pithy, and powerful, with lots and lots of miles in it.

My burning question has tended to be, “Will my life be a success?” I haven’t answered it with a yes yet. But over Christmas I read Madeleine L’Engle’s book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. She wrote that for a Christian, success isn’t defined the way the world defines it, but as love. Well, I don’t feel totally successful with that definition either. I’m 62 years old and I still don’t want to do the dishes for my siblings. I still think it’s better to dodge them as much as possible, the way I tried to do when I was a kid. Disgraceful.

We went through many one-horse Pennsylvania towns: Ottsville, Ferndale, Upper Black Eddy, towns that consisted of a post office and a gas station. The rolling hills were so beautiful, the houses charming, the farms interesting, the woods restful....

I happen to need cities, however. I'm thinking of retiring to Rochester, New York, where my daughter, beloved son-in-law, and baby grandson are moving. With Eastman School of Music and University of Rochester there, I might be OK for artistic input. And Buffalo, for decades a dying city, is now a big arts scene; it's only a one-hour drive away.

I'd love to be involved in my grandchild's (children's?) lives. I guess I can suck it up and endure the winters there. Cleaning your car and your driveway off every morning isn't that big a deal, is it? Walking on ice everywhere for six months a year is not a problem, right? And just think, the new snow daily covers the old snow, so it's always a winter wonderland...winter is two months longer in Rochester than it is in NYC…and darker, cloudier. Yike. This is difficult.

I'm back in Brooklyn today. It's quite the shock after the quiet of the Pennsy woods. Sirens, horns honking, buses chugging along, breaks Pennsylvania, I could hear the wind in the fir trees.

But for the foreseeable future, I'll live in Brooklyn, writing as best I can and doing research for my next novel, about a set designer in Brooklyn. I'm participating in theatrical productions in order to soak up the theatrical vibe. I’ve found theater people to be tremendously hard working, very kind, very appreciative of help—truly great.

They believe deeply in the power of theater to change human lives for the better. I guess I agree, but I believe even more deeply in the power of God to change human hearts for the better. I’ve still got my wounds, issues, and dark side, however, and my propensity to not want to do dishes for other people, and these things still send out tentacles that trip me up…sigh. But I’m very glad to have God’s love and light to aim for. Without it, I would be on the street, pawing over my plastic bags full of rags. Or in an insane asylum. Or long dead.

So here’s to life! In my case, a life powered by Higher Power, whom I call God, or Lord, or YHWH, or Emmanuel (Hebrew for “God with Us”), or Creator of the Universe. He makes creative power and wisdom available to all, believers and non-believers alike, cake-makers and novel-writers alike. But the better way by far is to walk and talk with Him daily, otherwise known as following Jesus. 

Here's some more pictures to help me endure over-peopled, over-vehicled, over-built Brooklyn.

This is the overflow from Lake Nockamixon. That's my sis in the left corner.

Some people started putting locks on the fence to prove their everlasting love for each other. I hope it works...

A beautiful fallen tree.

The highest falls in Bucks County (20 feet), at Ringing Rocks State Park.

Here's the falls again, with my brother in the lower left.

I happen to like lichen.

I like moss too.