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Archive for the tag “France”

30×30: Lesson 28: The language of self-erasure

Students in Paris, June 2014

Students in Paris, June 2014

When I was teaching French this summer in Nantes, France, my students made one mistake above almost any other: when in French to say “I’m sorry.” Rather than expressing empathy (“I’m so sorry for your loss!”) or shame (“I entirely regret my actions!”), my students were constantly attempting to use the French phrase Je suis désolé to express something else.

Sometimes they wished to say politely, “You’re blocking the Monoprix grocery aisle with your cart; could you please move?” Other times, they had just interrupted a stranger to ask them the directions to the Place du Cirque. In both circumstances, Excusez-moi or Pardon would best expressed their desire to briefly assert themselves into the life of someone whom they did not know.

But instead, from my students’ lips escaped — as we do in American English — the same words that connote deep apologetic shame: sorry, sorry, sorry.

Especially the female students.


What are the implications of a language that allows its speakers to merge the usage of such an intimate, humbling phrase as “I’m sorry” with other, more public phrases? It’s a phrase that has become coded as respectful (“I’m sorry to interrupt”) but hides a quiet self-erasure, a removal of one’s importance. I’m sorry to have bothered you. I’m sorry because you are somehow the most important.

Another example is the word “just.” Rather than summarizing (“I just want you to be happy”), the word diminishes the meaning of everything that has previously been said.

On the sidewalk in Pittsburgh, I’ve begun refusing to say “I’m sorry” simply if I am taking up too much space (I opt for “Excuse me”). I also delete “I’m sorry” from all the emails that I write that are suggestions and not apologies. When summing up my day with Jon with the phrase “I’m just… frustrated,” I now try my best to remove the “just.” I’m frustrated. Period.

My body belongs on the sidewalk, my apology can be heard without groveling, and I have feelings. “I’m sorry” is a phrase that should be reserved only for moments of sincere empathy or deep shame.

Using words wisely is a simple way to respect those around me and believe in my own strength.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

30×30: Lesson 23: Just go back to France


Paris, 2014

Paris, 2014

It was 2008. I was a college graduate with a degree in creative writing who had just gotten back from my second extended period of time living in France — this time, spent teaching English to high school students. For the hundredth time I had taken back up the apron at Kathy’s Deli in Shippensburg, PA, where I was charged in particular with delivering food and staffing events at the local Volvo Construction Equipment plant.

This afternoon in particular, I was manning a daylong series of meetings that involved me keeping assorted cookies and canned sodas stocked from a tiny in-house kitchenette. I had brought a French novel to read in the moments when I wasn’t fanning out stacks of navy blue cocktail napkins. And I was sitting on top of an overturned milk crate, knees to my chin, whenever my friend Conrad Jackson appeared.

I don’t remember what we talked about. He most likely asked me, as a fair amount of people did, why I was back here, meaning in Shippensburg, working three minutes from where I grew up. (It was a question I hated; I was in Shippensburg because I wanted to be.) I would have answered with some bitterness — half because of his question, half because I didn’t have an idea about where I wanted my life to go — that I didn’t have anywhere else to be yet. I believe he then questioned whether or not I wanted to go back to France, and I sighed with deep, romantic sighs, and told him that it was impossible because I had obligations and life and family and college loans and a cat who would miss me.

And Conrad looked at me with a very funny gaze and said, “Just go back to France. Stop standing here and telling me all the reasons why you can’t.”

I opened my mouth and shut it. I firmly believed (and still do) in the validity of my family and college loans and cat. But I heard him more deeply than I knew at the time: sometimes the only thing standing between you and your life is you.


Sometimes choices don’t exist. Sometimes decisions are made for us — sometimes made long before us — and we have no option but to follow them. Sometimes we lack power and possibility for multiple reasons — money, situation, time. However, I am pretty sure that many of us have more power than we think.

I have never been one to say “I can’t,” but I have certainly believed myself to be incapable. I may want something deeply, but I am not always able to see a pathway. For the best of us, a solid life is hedged up by an enormous amount of structures — family expectations, financial constraints, solid logic, personal obligations, logic, conflicting dreams, the desire to not hurt feelings, and fear of speaking up — but most of these structures can bend if we are willing to lean into them.

The phrase “why not?” does not just convey careless indifference; it is a legitimate question that I sometimes have a good answer to and often don’t, a question that Jon Hoey asks me often. Why not spend extra on a good meal for the two of us? Why not take an extra day explaining that concept to my French 2 students, even though the syllabus doesn’t say so? Why not be honest when I actually don’t have time to do what people have asked me to do?

What really is standing between me and the rest of my life — even if it’s only my attitude — that is causing me to believe that the possible is impossible?

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

30×30: Lesson 12: It’s about the process

I’ve written about this multiple times before, but I’ll write about it again: those two weeks in July 2010 when Lynn Palermo and I backpacked in western Europe in order to follow what had been the Western Front of World War I.

Those fifteen days beneath France’s cloudless skies still rank among some of my most eye-opening and humbling experiences. Lynn and I had begun our trek in Dunkerque, France (after not having seen each other for a year or so), then carried on to Ypres, Belgium (a city that was 90% destroyed in battle), and entered back into France by foot. From Amentières to Reims, we carried our packs along shadeless highways and between beet fields, zigzagged from village to village by following the church steeples, and stumbled over cemeteries tucked in forests and chapel yards.

We took the train whenever it was most logical, washed our clothes in hotel sinks, asked for directions and occasionally got lost, spent hours in silence only to pass hours more by singing, and cooled off in the dairy sections of grocery stores whenever the heat got too intense. We talked with strangers, slept in the shade, biked through forests, and wandered around public squares.

And I fell apart.

I wish this post was about the lessons I learned amid the grass-grown trenches, the damp caverns, or the threadbare villages with memorials to their fallen sons — although those places did provide strong, tangible evidence toward the pointlessness of war. (A discussion on peace merits a different post.) Instead, the greatest struggle for me during this trip was the seeming aimlessness of our wandering by foot, day after day, for hours on end, not knowing exactly — although this was the point — where or when we would land.

It was in Compiègne, France (where the Armistice was signed) when Lynn asked me what was wrong, and I blurted out that I really wanted to make a plan. Did she have any expectations for dinner? Did she wanted to remain in Compiègne for two nights or did she want to leave tomorrow? Where were we going afterward — was it Reims, or had I heard her say something about the Chemin des Dames? Was there a bus or train to either of these places? Had either of us checked the weather?

Lynn was genuinely surprised. “For me, it’s about the process, not the destination,” she said. “I’d rather not plan because then you’re open to whatever happens.”

In my life, I almost always curse the process. The training that goes before the half marathon. The schooling that comes before the degree. The climb before the summit. Too often, I brush off these moments as time wasted — obligatory dues to be filled before I can attain that which I feel I merit.

However, Lynn was suggesting that the process is almost more important than the place you end up. In other words, can the pain of the run be more important than the finish line? Can I look at the fatigue of grad school and realize that these days are actually moments to be treasured? Is it possible that I’ve already attained what I’ve been waiting for?

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

Exit Glacier, where I inscribed "It's the Process, Not the Destination" on the wall. 2012.

Exit Glacier, Alaska, where I etched the phrases “It’s the Process, Not the Destination” into the emergency shelter wall. 2012.

Friday Photo: Erasing the artist

Gaby et Jules

Gaby et Jules, April 2014

In baking, like in art, the artist is meant to be eclipsed by the product of his hands.

Gaby et Jules
5837 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15217
(412) 682-1966

Tuesday-Saturday: 8am-8pm
Sunday: 8am-5pm

Jean-Marc Chatellier’s French Bakery, Millvale, reinspires

Jean-Marc Chatellier’s French bakery in Millvale, PA, is just a stone’s throw across the river from Pittsburgh’s other well-known French boulengeries: La Gourmandine in Lawrenceville, Gaby et Jules in Squirrel Hill.

However, in contrast to La Gourmandine’s rustic coziness and Gaby et Jules’ glittering elegance, Jean-Marc Chatellier’s bakery better gives the impression of being a small-town cake shop of 20 years ago: a turquoise-colored awning, neon OPEN sign, florescent indoor lighting. There’s no “bonjour” when you enter; there are no frilled aprons or chef’s hats; there are just pastries — and good ones at that.

Paris-Brest, Jean-Marc

Paris-Brest, Jean-Marc Chatellier’s French Bakery

My purchase of the Paris-Brest — made of hazelnut or praline cream between two rings of choux pastry — was supposed to be the last time I was going to try this traditional pastry (which was inspired by a bicycle race between the cities of Paris and Brest in 1891). All too often, I’ve been let down, finding the choux pastry unable to live up to the flavor of the filling, due to the pastry having been too old or too refrigerated for too long.

Jean-Marc’s Paris-Brest proved me absolutely wrong. The light, firm pastry was the vehicle for the rich, powdered-sugar-dusted cream. Too big for my hands, I ate my Paris-Brest with a spoon. It was like eating a cloud occasionally studded with toasted almonds.

This pastry was not just good enough to revive my hope in pastries in general, but also to reignite my belief in humanity. Who would have guessed that such a jewel of a pastry could sit in the case next to humble American favorites like key lime pie, and be served so cheerfully in the corner of this town?

Did I really not realize that French pastries can sell not just because they are French — but because they are good?

I will be back to Jean-Marc Chatellier’s — and be back and be back.

Jean-Marc Chatellier’s French Bakery
213 North Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA
(412) 821-8533

Au Bon Lieu, Harrisburg: Crêpes that I actually stand behind

Au Bon Lieu, August 2013

Au Bon Lieu, August 2013

My students at the University of Pittsburgh recently asked me what an authentic crêpe was like, and I realized I have no good answers. I only have impressions. In my head, it goes like this: a crêpe must have a simple batter made of flour, eggs, milk, and occasionally some sugar, vanilla, or salt. The filings may be sweet or savory, but the crêpe must be folded in a triangle. I’m willing to admit that crêpes are versatile and easily made American, especially when they’re done well, but I’m least skeptical of crêpes when they harken back to Avignon, France, in 2005 when I was taught to flip crêpes by holding a coin in my left hand for luck.

Due to my dealing only with impressions, Au Bon Lieu in Harrisburg, PA, strikes me as the real deal, offering crêpes that are actually hearty, elegant, and soul-friendly. (No ham and provolone crêpe here — that’s for the deli down the block.) The batter is made daily out of unbleached flour, and many ingredients are organic, including many of those pictured above — artichoke hearts, plump olives, basil, fresh tomato, a freshly-fried egg, and herbed feta cheese.

What do I look for in an authentic crêperie? A savory crêpe that is less about avocado and more about shrimp. Sweet crêpes that are less about Nutella and bananas (although definitely include Nutella and bananas) and more about powdered sugar, jams, butter, and honey. (Our dessert was a crêpe with organic honey and pine nuts; also on the menu were sweet crêpes featuring chestnut paste and Belgian chocolate.)

Eating on the sunny front patio facing Third Street, I assert that Au Bon Lieu felt juuuust about right.

Au Bon Lieu
1 North Third Street
Harrisburg, PA
(703) 608-0871

Monday-Sunday: 10 AM – 10 PM

Friday Photo: May in Marseilles, France

Marseilles, May 2008

Interior, Notre Dame de la Garde, May 2008

Five years ago, I was traveling in Marseilles, France, after visiting my host mother in Avignon and returning to Talange, France, where I was to finish up my academic year as an English teaching assistant. These photographs were shot from the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, a church on the highest hill of Marseilles, about 162 meters above sea level. One photograph was taken inside the beautifully-painted chapel and the other, overlooking the city.

Overlooking Marseilles, May 2008

Overlooking Marseilles, May 2008

Friday Photo: Graffiti and musical rebellion, Metz, France

Metz, France 2008

Metz, France, 2008

Just days after a friend of mine visited Metz, France, and questioned why the French would ever deface their beautiful, ancient buildings with graffiti, I stumbled across this phrase, barely visible in the dark: “Beethoven is a revolutionary.”

While I didn’t answer my friend at the time, I should have told her that I love thought-provoking graffiti not only because of what is says but also how it says it and where. The combination between images and words, medium and method, never ceases to amaze me.

Here, I imagine some French teenager, in the classic image of rebellion, scampering off with a can of spray paint in the dark, only to paint a statement about classical music and Beethoven’s unorthodox take to it. Alan Woods summarizes: “After Beethoven (1770-1827), it was impossible to go back to the old days when music was regarded as a soporific for wealthy patrons who could doze through a symphony and then go home quietly to bed. After Beethoven, one no longer returned from a concert humming pleasant tunes. This is music that does not calm, but shocks and disturbs. it is music that makes you think and feel.”

In other words, even though Beethoven’s music is now considered standard in classical repertoire, his music in his time was emotional, nuanced, and breaking musical taboo.

Graffiti like this makes me rethink the purpose and the place of public thought. It makes me rethink my typical image of a graffiti artist. It also reminds me that change — even through music — is rarely appreciated until after it manages to happen.

Water, snow, sun, and sky: 8 people who define my memory abroad

The following people I met only once and will never meet again, but they helped me along, taught me lessons about generosity and about language — and define my memory all the same.

1) To the blue-eyed man on the Rue de la République in Avignon in 2005: I saw you begging for change every day in front of the Shoppi while I bought bread, and you were the first person that I ever dared give my spare coins to. (I have never met a homeless person before.) I didn’t even have to speak to you in halting French, for our eyes met, and you looked so grateful in a way beyond language. Thank you.

2) To Romina who robbed me in Strasbourg in 2007: Because of the blue-eyed man, I thought that trying to help you on a cold winter’s morning while I ate roasted chestnuts would have helped me understand something noble about me and love and poverty, but instead, you humbled me and made me grow up a little. I still wonder about you and hope you’re all right.

3) To French tourists in Avignon in 2005: A group of friends and I were standing among the cafés on Place Pi in the darkness of early evening when you approached and asked me in French where to find a particular street. You have no idea how much it flattered me that I could be mistaken for someone who knew, but the fact was, that I did know, and I directed you to where you needed to go. In the time of my life when I felt furthest from home, you showed me that I was already there.

Avignon, France, Spring 2005

Avignon, France, Spring 2005 (Katrina Charysyn, All Rights Reserved)

4) To the newspaper boy in south London in 2007: I know I asked you for directions three times in the growing dusk, and I’m sorry I kept trying to imitate your accent — and then kept trying to stop myself from imitating it — in a way that made me sound neither American nor French but German, as you properly pointed out. I was pretty stressed at the time. I hope you realize I really did have a bus to catch and was not intentionally blowing you off when you suggested we grab a drink. Anyone who was willing to help someone so flustered would have been awesome to know.

5) To the couple in the campground near les Chemin des Dames in 2010: Lynn Palermo and I had been hiking all day under the July sun on a road without trees, and I was slumped up against a shade tree next to your campsite with the summer heat press against my throat and cheeks like a fever, and at this moment you emerged from your trailer with two cups of ice and a full liter of water to share. I do not even know your name. This was the most singular event of kindness that I think I have ever received.

6) To the elderly shopkeeper in Greystones, Ireland, in 2007: When I walked up to you on the edge of the town to the sound of crashing waves by the sea and asked you if it was a far walk to Bray, you chuckled and said, “Nooo, tisn’t, as long as ‘ou gott two strong legs.” I’m sure you’ve long forgotten me, but I have been absolutely charmed — and I mean charmed — by your accent ever since.

The English Channel between Greystones and Bray, November 2007

The English Channel, viewed from a coastal hike between Greystones and Bray, November 2007

7) To the Swiss farmer outside of Grindelwald in 2008: You leaned on your pitchfork inside a warm barn while snow flew across the Alps outside, and you listened to me as I translated my father’s questions about dairy farming into haphazard German. When I spoke the words for “I see one cow, two cows, three cows…” and then gestured toward your herd, your eyes lit up and you said, “Ahhh, ich habe fünfzehn Kühe,” and I understood you. We somehow talked in German for an hour during which I managed to grasp that you had a neighbor farmer with our ancestors’ last name, and that you took your cows into the mountains in the summer and let them roam free because of their bells. Your patience — despite the fact my father and I had simply parked the car in a blizzard and walked into your barn — still stuns me.

8) To the man in the sea near Claxton Bay, Trinidad, in 2010: I was swimming at dusk with friends in a little alcove near the bay, and you bobbed up behind me and said, “Welcome,” in a voice as deep as the sea. I learned for the first time what it was like to be known as a foreigner by the color of my skin, but when you welcomed me in, you were smiling, and that made all the difference.

Swimming at sunset, near Claxton Bay, Trinidad, July 2010

Swimming at sunset, near Claxton Bay, Trinidad, July 2010

Friday Photo: International olives, Pennsylvania Macaroni Co., Pittsburgh

Pennsylvania Macaroni Co., 2012

Pennsylvania Macaroni Co., September 2012

Outside the market of Arles, France, I have not seen as many olives as those available at The Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, known as Pittsburgh’s #1 Italian import store, located in the Strip District. In addition to this selection of olives from Italy, Greece, Morocco, Chile, California, and France, the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company also sells fresh and imported pasta, local bread, bulk olive oil and balsamic vinegar, European deli meats such as capicollo and prosciutto, fresh produce, Italian sodas and cookies and candy, and 200,000 pounds of domestic and international cheese per week. Visit on a Saturday to be caught up by the nostalgic rush of the crowds made up of locals, foodies, and tourists.

Pennsylvania Macaroni Co
2010-2012 Penn Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15222

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