Tuesday, December 18, 2012

2012 Review and Reflections

At the end of each year, I take stock of all that I accomplished…and didn’t. After several years of moving forward in the acting realm, progress came to a screeching halt in April. The SAG-AFTRA merger in March actually led to less auditions, and I couldn’t get motivated to prepare for and pay to meet casting directors and agents at networking companies such as One on One and Actor’s Connection. Why? My focus was elsewhere.

My volunteer work in the cancer community was less active than in previous years, aside from speaking engagements at a few cancer conferences. Book sales for Rebirth were lackluster because marketing it this year was hardly a priority. My current thinking is that the book is out there in cyberspace and available to whomever may need it. Who knows, it may someday be a best seller, if I ever become a well-known commodity or a savvier promoter. But again, my focus was elsewhere.

So where was my focus? The answer is on France and politics. These two topics consumed me because this was my first trip to Paris—my first time in Europe, for that matter—and it was a Presidential election year.

 Planning for Paris was a blast and I delved into it with effortless zeal, reading Fodor’s France and Paris travel books and other books on Paris, brushing up on my language skills, and listening to French radio every morning on my smart phone on the way into the city (I still do) and to French music on the walk from the Port Authority to the my office on Park Avenue.

I ventured to Paris on my own. Furthermore, this was my first solo trip overseas, which was both frightening and exhilarating. I discovered that I was much more courageous and outgoing than I ever imagined and met some wonderful people. Paris was magical—one of the best experiences of my life and quite the adventure.

My October 15 post “Solo in Paris” details much of my trip in words and images, if interested in reading about it.

Once I returned from Paris on September 7, it was all about the election. I was transfixed on it. Reading blogs and news sites and watching news programs were all-consuming. Then there was the massive research and writing of blog posts I published on my own site. While I do write to persuade and share information, much of my writing is for me alone. Writing helps me formulate the reasons why I support certain positions and believe what I believe.

An enormous amount of time was spent researching, writing, and paying attention to politics and current events. I loved it even though often times it made—and still does make—me crazy, frustrated, and anxious. Then in a flash, the election was over (like Paris, here and gone) and the end of the year was near.

So, what did I accomplish this year? Well, it’s not an accomplishment, but I learned that I love to travel. I experienced several “firsts.” Paris and Las Vegas were cities I visited for the first time and traveled to both alone. In Las Vegas, I participated in a young adult cancer conference and being there by myself forced me out of my shell, to meet new people and engage with them. I also met author and healthcare activist Wendell Potter in Vegas. I emailed him before the conference to let him know I was attending and would enjoy meeting him. That bit of audacity paid off because every now and then we correspond over email.

With Wendell Potter

Another author I met this year was David Downie. He wrote one of the books, Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light, I read prior to my French vacation. I reached out to him via email a couple weeks before my trip and he was kind enough to meet me for coffee and sign my book. A couple months later, he checked in on me after Hurricane Sandy, and I wrote a glowing review for his book on Amazon.

With David Downie
These two author meetings happened because I took the initiative to reach out and ask for what I wanted. I did this in other areas of my life too with the results being that I met smart, accomplished people who may open the door for job opportunities down the road; and at the very least, my initiative afforded me interesting encounters, expanding my social and career networks. I am not naturally a connector, as many of my business-oriented friends are, but I am working on it.

Another first was NFL business travel. I assisted with the Club Business Development Sales & Marketing Conference in Chicago in November. This offered me the chance to be more involved with the work my group does and to meet many of the Club personnel with whom my relationships have been solely through online interactions. Now I am able to put faces to names and they know me, which is valuable in any occupation.

I realized this year that my interests are changing. I still love acting and should a role come along I really want to tackle, of course, I would jump at it. (I’m hoping for the opportunity to perform in Cincinnati in the next year or two – fingers crossed.)

However, over the past few years when out with my friends, even actor ones, I was not discussing acting; I was talking politics, and quite passionately. Recently I thought to myself, ‘Politics and current events are what I pay attention to the vast majority of the time. I read, research, write, and formulate ideas…’ then flash—‘this is how I should be making a living, or run for office, if I can muster the courage.’ I even explored what it would take to run for political office in March by attending a training program hosted by Emily's List and Eleanor's Legacy.

Emily's List - Political Opportunity Program - March 2012
Yet still, I find it impossible to release the image of my being an actor. It has been such a huge part of who I am for almost twenty years. How do you let go of an ingrained identity? This I believe is the biggest reason why I often feel stuck these days. I try to move forward, yet find myself clinging to the idea of a life I’m not even sure I want anymore.

Happily, I have come to a conclusion: I don’t have to shed my actor identity because it is a part of who I am regardless of if I am actively doing it at any given point in time. I have performance credits and skills and can return to acting at anytime. Just because other interests are pursued doesn’t mean performing is finished forever. Plus there are other avenues of performance: speaking and reporting, maybe even returning to cabaret and ballroom dancing, including swing and salsa. There are many options.

So, back to the question: What did I accomplish this year? A lot actually, but most importantly, the picture is clearer, though still a bit hazy, for where I am headed career-wise. I have amassed a sizable body of writing over the past eight years: my blog, a blog on Open Salon, my book, Rebirth, and a couple of published articles. I am a writer and an analyst. I can use my theatre, film, and speaking skills for on-camera reporting or anchoring, even if I create my own platform on YouTube. There are numerous ideas churning around in my brain, so I am a bit overwhelmed. Where to start? That is the question. If any of you have suggestions or contacts, I would love to hear them.

For now, I am going to spend the remainder of the year enjoying time with family and friends, not obsessing about politics or the “fiscal cliff” or thinking about careers, or anything else. Focus on the personal aspects of my life and give thanks for everyone and everything in it. Many friends’ families this year are dealing with cancer, other illnesses, divorce, and grieving for loved ones who passed away recently. Last Friday’s school shooting in Newtown, CT, was a stark reminder of how fleeting and fragile life is, and how circumstances beyond our control can bring about unspeakable sorrow in an instant. Never take those we love for granted.

Nine years ago today I was diagnosed with leukemia. It seems unbelievable that many years have passed. One thing I learned—and there were many lessons—during my treatment period was to live fully in the present. It is the one lesson I have consistently done well to remember and practice. The here and now is all we have. Don’t ignore it, no matter how mundane or unimportant it may seem.

On Thanksgiving Day, I saw a quote on Twitter that I felt compelled to share on Facebook. I think it bears repeating here:

"Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things."
- Robert Brault

Christmas 2011 in Tell City, IN (One of the big things!)
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Alone with Sandy: Journaling, Blogging, and Interacting with Friends on Facebook

October 29 - Monday

I recall the summer of 2003 when the entire Northeast went dark due to a power grid failure. It was about 4:00 pm and shortly thereafter, my brother-in–law was on his way to pick me up. However, that plan was foiled because he was not allowed entry to any road close to the Lincoln Tunnel, so I was stuck, for the duration, in West New York, New Jersey by myself.  It was an opportunity for me to meet some of my neighbors, as everyone was outside, walking around and gathering in the various parks along Boulevard East.

Once the sun went down, it became quite eerie. The New York City skyline, which is usually brilliantly lit, was dark with only a few emergency lights visible in the buildings.  I was without electricity for less than 24 hours, mine restored the following morning.

I would’ve preferred being with my family, but at least I was able to get outside and wander about. Today, that is not a possibility. I am alone in my apartment, waiting out Hurricane Sandy and a Northeaster. I am feeling isolated because I am stuck indoors. I could’ve gone to my sister’s home yesterday, but I couldn’t get myself motivated to pull belongings together and get on a train. Thankfully, my friends on Facebook are staying in contact with me, as long as I continue to be able to access the Internet, which as of now, I can. Plus I have my journal so will document my day in those pages and here.

It is 11:59 a.m. and the storm is intensifying.  The forecasters had originally predicted winds of up to 70-75 mph, but now it appears they could top 90 mph at the peak of the storm, and those winds are said to be at skyscraper levels. I am on the 10th floor of my building (not a skyscraper), so I removed all objects—pictures, candles, fans—that are in front of my windows, in case there should be any breakage. As the winds increase, I’ll need to close my blinds. I like to see what’s going on outside, but should a window break the blinds will stop some of the glass from shattering into the apartment.

I have water in my bathtub and in some large pans and three gallons of purified drinking water in my refrigerator as well as iced tea; a flashlight and candles (though they tell us not to use candles); and my iPhone and computer remain plugged in and charged. If the electricity should go out, I want them fully charged and will have to use the phone sparingly.  Fortunately, I am not in a low-lying area, so flooding isn’t one of my concerns. High winds and possible power outages are what my area will experience. If there isn’t a power outage, I will be extremely happy.

At this time, there really isn’t a huge amount of storm activity in my area, aside from some heavy winds now and again, so the threat of the storm doesn’t feel so inevitable, though I know it is. Watching the news, I see that the worst of the storm is expected to hit NYC and northern NJ, exactly where I live.  The sky that was gray earlier is now white.

 12:44 pm – I am making some lunch, using my oven while I still have electricity. I kept hearing a sound that seemed like someone was moving furniture around in another apartment. I turned down the television and am now pretty sure it is the wind that I am hearing. I slightly opened my bedroom window to see if I could hear anything unusual outdoors but the gust that met me was jolting, so I closed the window immediately.  I also stepped outside my apartment to see if anyone was in the hallway, but it was empty. I have a feeling a neighbor left a window open and is not home to close it. I also keep hearing the sound of a door shaking and it is not mine. Noises always make me uncomfortable when I cannot determine the source.

Time to eat lunch.

1:04 pm – The news is reporting the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded for a storm like this – 943.  High tide will coincide with the peak time of this storm later today, which means coastal areas are going to get hit hard with flooding. The storm is predicted to be at its strongest when it hits land. Plus it is the largest hurricane ever in the Northeast. I just looked outside, and the sky is getting even whiter and there is less visibility to the west. New Jersey is already reporting over 32,000 people without power, over 2,500 in NYC.

1:50 pm – Hurricane Sandy is about 3-4 hours from making landfall.  There is now an extreme threat level along the North Atlantic coast. The gusting winds are expected to bring down tree branches and cause widespread power outages.

I find it disturbing that there are still so many people out in this weather, looking at the waves and flood areas as if this is a benign and amusing phenomenon. It is dangerous and they are not only putting their lives at risk, but also those of emergency responders.  It’s irresponsible and careless.  At some point, emergency responders will not be able to help them nor will they be required to assist until after the worst of the storm system has subsided.

One of my biggest fears of being outside when it is very windy is that objects can get disconnected from buildings or tree branches fall off. These can land on a person, not only hurting them, but killing them. We hear about scenarios such as this all the time.  It’s a morbid thought, I know, but it’s what I think about during severe weather situations. I agree with Governor Christie: “Don’t be stupid. Get out.” He is talking to residents along the coast and flood-prone areas.

2:11 pm – I just saw on Facebook that Dave and Amy’s electricity went out. They live in Flemington, NJ. I still have power. I spoke with Karen a while ago. She called from Cincinnati to check in on me. I told her I’d keep her posted. I had an email from Mom this morning (I did respond to it) and plan to call her in a little while when there is something more to report. Right now, the storm seems rather timid. Of course, I am not outdoors so am not experiencing the heavy winds on my person. 

I also received a text message from a co-worker informing me that the NFL is going to be closed tomorrow. I figured as much and hadn’t planned on going in even if they decided to open. Thanks, Bobby, for keeping me updated on that front.

2:38 pm – Mom just called. I promised to keep her updated and she told me to fill some small containers full of water and keep them in my freezer. More ice will keep the freezer cold for a longer period of time in case the power goes out.

2:43 pm – Oh, oh – light flicker.

2:56 pm – A crane is perilously hanging from a building at 57th St and 7th Ave. in Manhattan.  The roads are closed near the building.  Apparently, it was secured but the winds are so strong that it has become dislodged. This is not good. Residents are outside trying to get photos. They need to get inside and let the city officials and safety workers do what they need to do, which is clear the area. (People were eventually evacuated from the area.)

There is nothing they can do in this weather to remedy the situation until after the storm. They are estimating at that height, over 1,000 feet up, the winds are 55-60 mph.  This building, One57, is a 90-story luxury condo. It is under construction and will be the tallest residential building in New York.

I still have power…and hope to still have it once darkness falls.

3:30 pm – Sounds like Sandy is going to hit land a few hours earlier than expected, which means the worst winds will pass the area sooner as well. I’m tired of waiting; I just want it over. The wind is really picking up. I hear threatening gusts every now and then…quite loud ones, in fact. I can see debris fly past my window every now and then, and I’m up relatively high. I can’t determine if t he debris is flying off the roofs of other buildings or mine.

PSG&E has been and are preparing for power outages in NJ.  Right now, they are working to restore power due to downed wires.

Gov. Cuomo (NY) is closing the Tappan Zee Bridge at 4:00 pm.

I have been on Facebook connecting with friends and even posting music, YouTube storm-appropriate titled music that is: Scorpions – Rock You Like a Hurricane and REO Speedwagon – Ridin’ the Storm Out. I have to retain a sense of humor.

4:19 pm - I’ve spent the day flipping from the Weather Channel, ABC 7 for New York News, and 12 News New Jersey.  They are showing pictures of downed trees on channel 12; one tree fell on a house. It may seem like I’m wasting my day engrossed in this storm, but I feel like I am experiencing it fully. I’m not thinking about yesterday or tomorrow or what I have to do in the next week. I’m right in the moment.

For the first time since this storm began, heavy rain is falling in addition to big wind gusts. We are about an hour and a half from landfall. The George Washington Bridge is scheduled to close at 7:00 pm. As far as I know, the Lincoln Tunnel is still open, but the Holland Tunnel is now closed.

5:00 pm – Time to open the Sauvignon Blanc.  My friend Mike M fears I will get so tanked I won’t be able to make good decisions.  No worries, Mike, I can handle it, and I’m not going to drink the whole bottle, though it is tempting. – LOL.

My windows on the north side are getting hammered with rain and wind. All I have to do is walk in my bedroom to get a reality check about how wild the storm is becoming. The intensity is less apparent in the living room because the window faces west. The rain and wind seem to be blowing south and west, which is weird because Sandy is approaching us from the southeast – first heading northeast then turning westward.

Lincoln Tunnel is now closed.

6:32 pm – Spent the last hour talking with my friend Mike W from Chicago, who called to check in, and then I called Mom to report in to her. Sandy is making landfall, but I still have power. I opened my window and though the wind is definitely rustling loudly through the tree leaves, the rain has subsided. The air smells so fresh, ahh…

It is now dark, which makes it difficult to assess what is going on outside. However, the lights in the streets and buildings around me remain on. This is a great exercise in letting go and releasing my need to control the situation. It is what it is.

Karen C just called. She is fine but her lights are flickering on and off. We spoke only briefly and will touch base tomorrow.

50 feet of the Atlantic City boardwalk is gone. 14,000 flights in area airports have been grounded. I keep hearing sirens along Boulevard East.

7:24 pm – Lights flickered.

Just heard on Hardball – 2.2 million homes are without power. Okay, really heavy winds blowing now…my apartment door is shaking and no windows are open.

7:48 pm – I have one of my living room windows open, and I can hear the wind clearly through the leaves—this gorgeous, intense rustling sound, but again, not much rain. The power remains on. The news is stating that this will be the worst of it from now until 2:00 am Tuesday.  If this is the worst, I’ll be a very happy camper. I can hear sirens though not sure what is happening in my area. Yes, there is some lightening…didn’t know that would happen. (Learned later that it was a transformer exploding in the distance.)

8:03 pm – Okay, I think the storm’s strength has finally shown itself now! I just closed my one living room window; holy crap—very loud and very strong winds. I thought this system hit a couple hours ago; it seems that it did not. I just opened my window again and yes, it is definitely at strength I’ve not yet experienced.

8:08 pm – Lights flickering…fascinated by the intensity of it all.  Window is open—peering out, I am transfixed by the wind. It’s almost a perverse curiosity about the extent and breadth of the damage and disruption to life this storm is causing. There are huge wind gusts, roaring. Another flicker of light…

8:21 pm – Barbara and Dan have been without power since 5:00 pm. I just sent her a text message. Ryan sent me a text inquiring about my safety. Then I looked out the window and to the southeast saw this huge flash of light—another transformer exploding.

By the way, the crane in NYC is still holding steady to the building, and I still have power. I’m hearing many sirens.

 8:34 pm – The lights did go out on Boulevard East and in some buildings across the street from me, but my lights remain on.  At this point, I’m feeling completely blessed.

Flicker…lights still on. Sirens again…

On TV, it is reported that if the weather doesn’t improve before October 31, Gov. Christie says he will sign an Executive order to reschedule Halloween so the kids can go trick-or-treating.  Thanks, Gov!

8:41 pm – Lights have been restored on Boulevard East. That was quick.

What??? I just heard the Lincoln Tunnel is still open. Seriously??? That can’t be right.

9:14 pm – Mom checked in again. My one window in the living room is open and no wind is blowing in. If this is the worst of it for me, I have been really lucky.

Power went off for a second, then back on…

9:31 pm – Just heard on the news – 2.2 million people are without power.

9:46 pm – I am feeling very humbled. So many friends and family were with me today via Facebook, email, and cell phone. I am thankful for their support and thoughts.

It is frightening to be alone in a storm, and one of this magnitude, is even scarier. Somehow, though, the storm, the wind, and the power grid worked in my favor. The area in which I live is about 150 feet above the Hudson River, and the population is large in this area and our dwellings are close together and compact, so there is not much open space. Those factors, I believe, protected me from most of Hurricane Sandy's devastation.  It is almost 10:00 pm and I still have power.

Southwest in Union City, the lights are out; I can see it from my window. I hear more sirens.

10:14 pm - 4 million customers are now without power in the path of the storm, ¼ of them in NY. My power is still on.

10:30 pm – I just received my last call from Mom. She’s going to bed. I am going to as well. Sandy was quite the adventure, though not so much for me. I was safe in my apartment and friends stayed connected in various ways. What a lucky woman I am.  A day I thought would be filled with anxiety and fear was one of love and engagement with people I care about.

Disasters are times when we all come together. Our differences don’t matter. I wish it were that way all the time. However, even if realistically it isn’t, when it really matters, we are there for one another and it doesn’t matter in other respects how we agree or disagree. We are friends and family and that is all that matters in the end.  What a day! Sandy, you weren’t all that bad—well, you were terrible, just not to me.

October 30 – The day after (10:30 am)

It’s still raining. Over 5 million people in the Northeast are without power, flooding is widespread. Half of Hoboken, NJ is under water.  Mass transit is still shut down. Gusts of wind remain strong. The crane is still hanging from the building in Manhattan and the subway is flooded in many locations. Virtually all of Newark and Jersey City are without power. However, Sandy’s wrath is waning. Now is recovery time. What a mess all over the region.

I've been watching the news this morning, and it is heartbreaking seeing all the people who lost loved ones, homes, and pets. Mother Nature while beautiful, can be deadly and vicious.

I did not sleep well last night. Sirens woke me periodically.  Thanks again to all my family and friends for hanging with me yesterday. I am blessed; I know that. I am very aware of it. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Solo in Paris

My first day in Paris

I sat at a small table, sipping my glass of Sancerre and writing in my journal as I waited for my lunch to arrive. This was my last day in Paris and the weather was gorgeous—sunny with temperatures ranging from high 60s to low 70s, but cool in the shade where I was sitting. Once again I was dining outdoors. Café culture is an integral part of Parisians’ daily lives and one in which I partook every day, sometimes more than once.

I wrote a few thoughts down on the page then looked up to watch the cars and pedestrians passing by as well as to observe diners seated near me. Smoking is no longer allowed inside restaurants and cafés, so smokers are banished to the outside tables. In Paris, I was much more tolerant of second-hand smoke than I ever am in the States. While it was annoying, I refused to let it mar my experience. However, I still find it disgusting and cringe-worthy when someone is smoking a cigarette while they are eating, which I witnessed often.

My waiter at Café Louise, located in the Saint-Gemain-des-Prés neighborhood, was young, cute, and attentive. I had meant to dine at Brasserie Lipp, a couple doors down, but accidentally ended up at Café Louis because I wasn’t paying attention—too busy absorbing all the surrounding sights.

The food was excellent. I had a salad of greens, cherry tomatoes, pear slices, toasted pine nuts, and blue cheese—and not merely blue cheese crumbles, but three quarter inch triangular slices of creamy blue cheese. My taste buds were in heaven.

From where I was dining, I could see the famous Café de Flore, known for its exceptional hot chocolate, and the legendary Les Deux Magots. I had wanted to have a café crème at Les Deux Magots later that day but failed to return to the area.

I finished my meal and took off to explore the Latin Quarter in the 5th arrondissement. After walking for a while, I decided to go for a boat ride. I had yet to take a boat tour up and down the Seine and felt my feet could use a rest. I strolled down to the river, bought a ticket for 13 euros, and found a seat on the top deck. For an hour, I relaxed, basking in the warmth of the sun as we cruised up and down the Seine.

I had arrived on Saturday, September 1, and a college friend I’d not been in touch with since our years at Indiana University was kind enough to meet me at the airport, help me get to the apartment, and serve as my guide the first day and a half. Bryan provided me with a great introduction to the City of Lights, and thereafter, I felt like a pro navigating my way through the city streets and the Métro.

In addition to being my guide, Bryan thought it in my best interest to be made aware of some of the local scams, which I witnessed several times during my trip. Of course, now that I was “in the know” about said schemes, when approached, in typical New Yorker fashion, I avoided eye contact—which was easy because I was wearing sunglasses—and put my hand up, palm facing them, implying ‘no thanks, don’t bother me,’ and strode right past.

One scam involves a ring. A scammer drops a ring on the ground and then stops an unsuspecting tourist (or tourists) who is walking by and says, “Excuse me, is this yours?” The scammer then hands it to the tourist and they take it to inspect it (and yes, many people actually take the ring). Knowing it’s not theirs, they then try to give it back to the scam artist. At that point, the scammer tries to extract money, even accusing the tourist(s) of stealing the ring if they do not give the scammer money.

View of the Musée D’Orsay from the Seine
 The morning of my Musée D’Orsay tour, as we waited outside the museum entrance for everyone to arrive, a couple from Florida decided to stand out in the sun, close to the sidewalk, because it was rather cool in the shade. As a young woman approached them, one of our guides saw what was about to transpire and bee-lined over to them to run interference, successfully too I am glad to report.

Inside the Musée D’Orsay - used to be a train station
Another scam is orchestrated in pairs. These men (I did not see any women attempting this one) approach tourists—yes, it’s always tourists because Parisians are quite familiar with these schemes. They begin a conversation and start braiding a bracelet around the person’s wrist. Once done, they expect payment for their creation. There are other schemes but these are the two I saw and encountered several times. The lesson learned: it’s good to know someone who is a local.

Bryan also introduced me to his friend Angela. She and her friend Deb joined us the evening of that first day for drinks and then dinner. Because of this introduction, I had dinner with Angela my last night in Paris. I met her at a restaurant/bar that a friend of hers and said friend’s husband opened a year earlier. Even though I was traveling solo and was alone a decent portion of the time, lonely I was not.

I signed up online for three group events prior to my August 31 departure for France. These events included a wine tasting, a tour of the Musée D’Orsay, and a small-group day tour of Versailles. During these events and excursions, I met some wonderful people who made my trip even more enjoyable.

Louvre et Pyramide

Another view of the Louvre from the Jardin du Tuileries

The wine tasting took place at ÔChateau, located a few blocks from the Louvre. This was conducted in English, and the attendees were from the United States, Canada, and Australia. Pierre, our sommelier, was fantastic—his presentation was the perfect mix of entertainment and education. We tasted six wines: one champagne, two whites, and three reds. These were no diminutive pours either. Every glass was quite liberally filled. There were a couple wines I did not finish and poured out, but we were all definitely feeling rather jovial afterward.

After the wine tasting w/ Pierre, our sommelier
  I ended up dining that evening with a family from Canada and a couple from Texas who had been sitting next to me during the wine tasting. It was immense fun and the conversation was lively, and it got livelier when the Canadians asked about the upcoming U.S. Presidential election. Guess who the Texans are supporting? I held my tongue as long as I could but had to get my two cents in, and I kept it very respectful. Thankfully, I had the Canadians on my side.

I was surprised how often American politics came up in conversation, and I was never the one introducing the topic. Political conversation arose during lunch the day of the Versailles tour and when I met author David Downie and a Florida couple with whom he had been having lunch prior to my arrival at the café.

I reached out to authors David Downie and John Baxter before my trip. I had read both of their books about Paris during the summer and thought if they had some time, it might be fun to meet and have them sign my books. I honestly didn’t expect a response from either one of them, but David emailed me and we were able to connect briefly on Tuesday, September 4, at 1:30 pm at L’Escale on Ile Saint-Louis (one of the small islands located in the Seine, across from Ile de la Cité where Notre-Dame is situated).

Notre-Dame on Ile de la Cité

Wednesday, September 5, was my tour to Versailles. Our guide, Habib, picked me up first then the other three couples on his roster. The first two couples were from Chicago, although they did not know each other, and the other couple was from Canada. They were all older than I but enjoyable companions. Habib was a brilliant tour guide, fluent in four languages—French, English, Arabic, and Italian—and about to embark on learning a fifth, Portuguese.

At the Entrance to the Palace of Versaillles
The enormous amount of information he shared with us was mind-numbing. I was impressed. A year of schooling was required for his particular job. In fact, I learned that all the guides at museums in France have to have advanced art history degrees and the proper certifications.

 At the Palace of Versailles we toured the King’s apartment, the Queen’s apartment, and the Hall of Mirrors. This is only a small area of the entire 67,000-square-meter palace complex that boasts 2,300 rooms, 2,153 windows, and 67 staircases. I was mesmerized by all of it—the grandness, the opulence, the decadence. I struggled to imagine what life must’ve been like residing inside these magnificent walls. Even harder was envisioning the upkeep and management required of the palace, which had to have been quite a feat given the number of people living there—the royals and their family, other nobles, clergymen, courtiers, dressers, readers, cooks, servants, etc. 

Hall of Mirrors
 Before lunch we were allowed to wander the gardens on our own. The gardens cover approximately 800 hectares of land with waterfalls, monuments, and statues erected throughout. One definitely does not have the time or the opportunity to see all of it. 

One view of the gardens from the Palace

After lunch, we were driven to the Grand Trianon, the Petit Trianon, and the Queen’s Hamlet. I was particularly charmed by the Queen’s Hamlet. This residence, though minuscule compared to the Palace of Versailles, is no small abode. The Queen’s Hamlet is part of the Petit Trianon, located within walking distance and is visible from certain areas of the Petit Trianon grounds. This was Marie Antoinette’s refuge from the hustle and bustle, the strict etiquette, and the political intrigue of Versailles. Much maligned and misunderstood, Marie Antoinette possessed a gentle, caring heart, and much of the slander and libel aimed at her from the press and the public, leading up to the French Revolution and until her execution day, was very hurtful and distressing to her.

The Queen's Hamlet

Rock pavilion & Belvedere pavilion - Petit Trianon grounds

French pavilion - Petit Trianon grounds
 Later that evening, upon returning to Paris, I enjoyed a lovely dinner with our guide, Habib. I had yet to see the Eiffel Tower lit up at night, so we had dinner at a café in the 7th close to the Eiffel Tower. After dinner, we walked over to the Champs de Mars, the park in front of the Tower where many Parisians hang out and/or picnic. This is the ideal place to lounge on a blanket and indulge in bread and cheese accompanied by a glass of wine, while watching the Eiffel Tower begin to glow as the sun sets. When it is finally dark, the structure sparkles for five minutes at the top of every hour. It’s quite the spectacle. I took some photos, but sadly, they failed to capture the illuminated beauty.

I explored other major sites too. On Saturday, Bryan and I had climbed the narrow, winding staircase inside L’Arc de Triomphe. I wasn’t sure I’d make it, but I did and without stopping. Once at the top and outside, the panoramic view of the city was spectacular, in particular the tree-lined Champs-Élysées. The city was radiant beneath clear blue skies as the sun shined brilliantly. Then on Sunday, Bryan and I hiked up some back roads of Montmarte to Sacré-Couer, which allowed me to see more of Montmartre as opposed to merely walking up the stairs would, plus it was great exercise. Atop the hill, we were greeted with a stunning view of not only the cathedral, but all of Paris below us. We sat there on the steps for a while and took it all in.

L'Arc de Triomphe



The Moulin Rouge
The only day that it was less than ideal weather-wise was Monday, September 3, when gray clouds blanketed the sky and it sprinkled a little. Before the wine tasting event that evening, I popped into the Musée de l’Orangerie, where I saw Claude Monet’s Water Lillies. Two huge oval-shaped rooms exhibited the grand canvases on which vibrant colors combined with subtle variations of light and shading mesmerize the viewer. The works surround the viewers, and made me feel that I was in the middle of a lake or pond.

After communing with Claude, I proceeded to the downstairs galleries to take in the other works of art from the mid 1800s to mid 1900s. These are the years in which my favorite works of art were produced. The downstairs galleries showcased more paintings by Monet as well as Edouard Manet, Pierre-August Renoir, Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, and a new artist I discovered, Chaïm Soutine, and many others.

Garçon d’honneur
 As I was stood looking at Soutine’s painting Garçon d’honneur, a nine or ten-years-old boy standing next to me asked his father three times, quite incredulously, “Why does he look so heinous?” I couldn’t help but giggle at the question and his father’s attempt to explain abstract art.

That Monday was a dreary day, but it worked out well because it forced me inside some of the time. I had wanted to visit the Musée de l’Orangerie but probably wouldn’t have had it not been drizzling outdoors that afternoon. I was inside for a little while at Notre Dame that morning and of course, later for the wine tasting and dinner. Even though the weather wasn’t ideal, I still walked everywhere, only pulling out my umbrella twice; but then I walked every day.

These daily walks were great exercise. Paris is a city made for walking and it is the best way, in my opinion, to see the city and explore the neighborhoods. Not only did I walk everywhere, only taking the Métro a few times—mainly after 9:00 pm if I had more than 30 minutes of walking to get back to the apartment—but I also utilized my French daily.

I would greet others with a friendly “bonjour’ and a “comment allez-vous?” I ordered in French at restaurants, always said “merci” for service or help and “au revoir” upon leaving. The French are friendly people, and I like to think they were both charmed and amused by my broken French and attempts to speak their language. Fortunately, most everyone with whom I came into contact spoke English too. The only difficulty I had was with the cab driver to the airport on Friday. When I paid him, he kept trying to give me change. Finally, I just shook my head when he tried to give it to me and merely said, “pour vous,” and pointed to him. His face lit up and he replied, “merci!”

I thought traveling alone would be scary, but I felt very safe in France. As is the case anywhere, you want to know where to avoid wandering around by yourself. I work and play in New York City, so I probably felt more secure than many people who reside in smaller cities or rural areas would when visiting Paris. Here I offer a few tips for traveling alone.

Jardin du Luxembourg

I suggest booking a few group events. You will inevitably meet like-minded people and may end up doing other things with them, as I did for dinner after the wine tasting and dinner with my guide after the Versailles tour. Ask friends if they have any connections in the city where you’ll be traveling and try to connect with them before you arrive to meet for coffee, a cocktail, or dinner.

However, be sure to leave yourself plenty of time to explore on your own and allow yourself to get a little lost; see some of the touristy sights, but also get off the beaten path. You never know what treasures you may stumble upon.

Gertrude Stein lived here
When I was walking back to the apartment from the Jardin du Luxembourg early Sunday evening, I decided to venture down Rue de Fleurus. While looking around, I saw a tiny sign, on the outside of a building across the street at 27 Rue de Fleurus. Upon closer examination, I discovered that this is where Gertrude Stein had lived from 1903 to 1938, first with her son, Leo, and then with Alice Toklas. As a comparative literature major in college and a lover of art and art history, I was thrilled to discover this tiny gem. Gertrude Stein was an American writer with a huge personality and love of art. She held salons at her home in Paris during the 1920s for writers and artists. She associated with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse, among many others.

Lastly, I would suggest if you want to feel more like a resident as opposed to a tourist, rent an apartment. I found a lovely little studio in a great location on airbnb.com. The woman whose apartment I rented was fantastic. She was responsive from our first correspondence, and she provided me with much information about Paris, activities to do and sites to see, plus giving me excellent directions from the airport to the studio.

She was in New York while I was in Paris, so her mother was there to greet me, hand over the keys, and get me settled into the studio. She also met me on Friday morning at the apartment when I checked out. She was even kind enough to assist me in tracking down a cab, several streets from the apartment.

The neighborhood where I stayed was safe, as was the building. Two sets of codes were required to get in: one to access the courtyard, the second to enter the building. The studio cost no more than what I would’ve paid for a hotel room. I did extensive hotel pricing last spring before a friend suggested airbnb.com to me. I was quite happy to discover that I could rent my own place at a comparable hotel price, and in many instances, for much less.

I imagined that my trip to Paris would be fantastic, and it was. Treasured memories and photos are in my possession, and September is a beautiful month to be in Paris. It was worth every penny spent. I look forward to going back.

A view from a café in the 6th one afternoon
Friends and family have asked: What was my favorite part of the trip? That is so hard to say, but if I had to narrow it to just one, it was every afternoon when I would take a break at a café, sitting outdoors while I sipped wine or coffee, wrote in my journal, and watched the world go by—just being a Parisian.

Where am I headed next? Well, perhaps to London the summer of 2013 with a friend and her family, so it won’t be a solo trip. However, I do plan to travel solo again at some point, somewhere… Still, I will always have Paris. Jusqu'à la prochaine fois!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Solo in Paris - The Joy of Planning

(Pictured right: Paris, la place de l'Etoile vue du ciel
© Guillaume Plisson Pro

Ever since I was a little girl I have been enamored with anything French because their language and culture embodied everything that in my imagination was exotic and romantic. I studied the French language all four years in high school followed by three years in college. Unfortunately, I’ve never had the opportunity to actually use my French, until now. I depart for Paris tomorrow.

I enjoy making a plan and compiling lists and checking items off that list, so I have been in heaven the past six months preparing for my adventure. Much of that planning has focused on refreshing my language skills, researching excursions and points of interest, and studying the map of the city because when I travel anywhere, I pretend to be a resident. Perish the thought that anyone would think I'm a tourist.

Initially, I had a travel companion but he had to cancel on me, so I decided to venture out on my own. I’ve never been to Europe—a fact I am loathe to admit at my age, but when I had the time, I didn’t have the money, and when I had the money, I didn’t have the time. Well, now I have the money and I’m making the time. My cancer experience reminded me that life is unpredictable and far too brief, so that which we want to do should not be postponed.

To prepare for my trip, I bought a Fodor’s guide to France because I thought my travels would extend outside of Paris to Champagne and the Loire Valley. I enjoy drinking and learning about wine so touring some of the wine country appealed to me. I’d originally planned to go for twelve days. However, venturing out solo, I decided that six days would be more affordable, and I might start feeling lonely at that point. While I embrace solitude, I am also a social creature by nature. In the end, I decided to focus on Paris, spending only one day away from the capital at Versailles.

Once I reached out to friends about my trip, people offered various books for my research and suggestions for places I should visit. My desire to learn more about the city spurred purchases of a couple amazing reads from authors who reside in Paris and now give walking tours to visitors. John Baxter, a native Australian, is the author of The Most Beautiful Walk in the World and has been living in Paris since 1989. David Downie, author of Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light, is a native San Franciscan who has lived in Paris since the mid 1980s, though now he splits his time between France and Italy. (I may actually have the opportunity for a quick coffee with Mr. Downie and have him sign my book. We've been emailing.)

Mr. Baxter lives in the 6th arrondissement (municipality) on the Left Bank where I am staying, and Mr. Downie lives in Le Marais (The Marsh) which spreads across the 3rd and 4th arrondissements on the Right Bank.

John Baxter writes in The Most Beautiful Walk in the World that the 6th is equivalent to Greenwich Village or Soho in New York City. It is also the most expensive arrondissement in the capital. (Note: I secured a great deal on a studio through Airbnb.com. To be a resident, one should stay in an apartment instead of a hotel. That's my thinking anyway. I recommend checking out Airbnb.com next time you travel. )

These books provided me an intimate knowledge of Paris. The writers' insider perspectives and stories sparked an excitement I've rarely experienced before visiting a new place. These authors provide to the curious and adventurous a history and discovery of local gems they have encountered during their years residing in and walking around the City of Light that are not listed in many of the major travel guide books.

My reading list also included Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which chronicles his time as an ex-patriot in 1920s Paris and details his relationships and interactions with other writers and artists—Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, to name a few, and with his first wife, Hadley. I purchased a paperback copy of A Moveable Feast back in the early 90s that was suggested to me by a co-worker, who was a huge Hemingway fan and whom I had a crush on shortly after a painful break-up.

A couple months ago, I plucked that worn paperback off the shelf to reread it. After all my previous reading and research, it was interesting to see the names of cafés—Les Deux Magots, Brasserie Lipp, and Closerie des Lilas—that are still operational today that Hemingway wrote about in his book.

My trip-related studies included hours of perusing the map of Paris streets and the Metro (the Paris subway), in order to know how to maneuver my way through it. The Paris Metro appears to be much like the New York City subway, so I’m not too concerned. Etched in my mind is the location of every major point of interest with respect to where I am staying on the Left Bank.

I feel infinitely more secure when I know where I am going and what is around me. However, one additional navigation tool was necessary to provide that extra bit of security—the Paris2Go application for my iPhone. Instead of pulling out a large map and revealing to the world I’m not a local, I will use this discreet guide/map during my explorations of the city. The beauty of this app is that it’s functionality is not tied to Internet or Wi-Fi; all content is available offline—a total win.

The final details included purchasing Medical Evacuation insurance for my trip because my health insurance does not cover overseas medical care or repatriation of my body, should I die in France, which I am not counting on happening. I borrowed an electrical adapter from a NFL coworker (thanks, Sid) even though the woman I am renting my apartment from is supposed to be providing one. It never hurts to have a back-up, just in case.

I informed my credit union and credit card company of the dates I’ll be traveling overseas and made copies of my passport. One copy will go to my sister in New Jersey, the other will stay at the studio I am renting in Paris. This is a precautionary measure should my passport be lost or stolen.

All loose ends are tied up and I am ready to embark on my solo adventure, living in Paris for a week. A college friend who has lived in Paris for twelve years now (I did not know this bit of info until recently) has been kind enough to offer to meet me at Charles DeGualle Airport to make sure I get to the apartment without any mishaps. Plus he will be spending some of the first day—possibly the second one too—of my trip with me. His guidance will help me to get acclimated before I set off on my own for the remainder of my trip.

It will be, for me, a huge adventure. For some people, traveling overseas solo is not a big deal, but it is to me. I still think of myself as that small-town girl from southern Indiana who has yet to become the cosmopolitan, self-assured woman I always dreamed of being. Perhaps this trip will transform the way I see myself. Stay tuned… à bientôt!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Unexpected Change Means Hitting the Reset Button

For the most part I like change, well, change that I orchestrate. However, when change occurs suddenly, it can be jarring. I suspect most people find unexpected change unsettling, whether it involves family, career, community, or the environment. Transformational events—positive or negative—can result in a small shift in one’s life, a radical reshaping of it, or something in between.

My leukemia diagnosis in 2003 definitely produced a radical shift. One day I was convinced my health issues were something as easily remedied by proper nutrition and vitamins, and the next I was facing months of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. Life circumstances can vacillate quickly and suddenly.

Change that I enjoyed immensely, yet cried for an hour as I drove away from Cincinnati, was when I moved to the Northeast on August 31, 2002. I had spent the previous year meticulously planning my departure and miraculously, the universe coordinated it beautifully. I always tell people to be careful what they wish for because if that wish comes true, following through on it is the only course of action. That’s what happened to me.

I had mentioned to a co-worker when I started my planning process that the coolest thing in the world would be that right when I was getting ready to move, my job would be eliminated and I would receive four month’s severance pay. Fast forward to six months later and two months prior to my scheduled departure, having just returned to the office after a vacation in Puerto Rico with some of my closest friends, the human resources department scheduled a conference call with all the assistants throughout the country. As I sat in the conference room, I could hardly believe my ears: almost all the assistant positions were being eliminated and there would now be only one assistant per region.

I was stunned at my good fortune but now there was no turning back. There was however one fly in the ointment, which was the fact that I was one of the top-rated assistants in the region (there was one other located in Cleveland). I knew if I were offered the position and turned it down, I would not receive the severance package that would provide a much-needed financial cushion. I immediately contacted my manager in Philadelphia, explained to her the situation, and she made sure I was not offered the job.

I left the company at the end of August and began collecting severance pay, which helped immensely during the transition into my new life. This was definitely change I was happy with and fully embraced.

These past few weeks, however, an unexpected announcement hit me much harder than I ever expected something like it would. Two NFL colleagues submitted their resignations, one I knew about, the other I did not. The one I knew about was a manager who is not only a dear friend, but like a little sister to me. Her departure leaves a hole in my heart, but I’ve known about her plans for a while so was prepared for it. The other departure was a complete surprise.

My boss, for whom I’ve worked nearly seven years, was offered an amazing opportunity at one of the NFL teams: to be their new president. We are all proud of him, and he will be a real asset to the Club. The team is lucky to have him. Still, we’ve worked together for many years, and on a couple of occasions he has had my back. He may have driven me a tad crazy at times, but I have come to love him and his family. We have a solid working relationship; I will miss it.

I considered following him to the Club to be his executive assistant—a decision I agonized over for nearly a week. My mother’s voice was stuck in my head: “Deborah, you should take it; it would pay well and you would have employer-paid medical and dental insurance, a 401K plan, a pension…all kinds of benefits.” And she would be right.

My ego was involved as well since I would be the right hand to the president of a NFL team—high profile, perks, business connections, all of which were very tempting. Yet every time I thought maybe I could make the move, I felt terribly sad.

One downside to taking the position was that I would have to buy a car because the job is not in New York City. I currently do not own a car and must admit that I love not having one—no car payment, no insurance, no upkeep, no gas to purchase, and no parking to deal with. There is much freedom in not owning an automobile, and of course, I live in an area where I do not need one.

Another reason for my hesitancy was the yet-to-be-fulfilled dreams and goals, in particular the performing one that I’d been striving toward for the past twenty years. I have achieved so many of these goals but have yet to reach my desired level of success. To continue pursuing many of my goals, I need to be in or very near the city and have easy access getting there via public transportation.

The executive assistant position would most likely mean I would have to be available 24/7 to the needs of the president. I have never wanted an employer's life to become more important than mine. I have a great life and like to be able to disconnect from my employer; to not worry about his/her every need.

Staying where I am is risky for very different reasons. I am a contractor so there is no guarantee as to how long my job will continue to be necessary at the League office. My services will be required in the short-term as they figure out how the department is going to function and if and when they will replace my boss. I like to think that the skills and information I've learned and the relationships I’ve made will ensure future employment, but however it evolves, will it allow for the flexibility to which I've become accustomed?

There is financial uncertainty because at some point I may be back out looking for temporary work and making half the hourly wage I currently enjoy. I recently negotiated a decent raise. I continue to pay for my own health insurance and dental coverage because mine is not employer-paid. I have no 401K or pension benefits, but I have set up an IRA. Still, even with all the uncertainty—and I am scared when I think about my current position being eliminated—the feeling in my gut and in my heart, when I thought about taking the job with my boss, did not feel right—at least not at this moment in time.

Once I made my decision, I felt great relief. Depsite the anxiety created by the uncertainty of my continued employment at the League, I know I made the right choice. In fact, this is the perfect time to hit the reset button. Over the past few years, I’ve become complacent in the pursuit of my other goals. Now, I have nothing to lose and everything to gain. It’s time to step up my game, be more assertive, and shake my life up. Life is an adventure; I’ve always believed that. I’m not getting any younger, so now is the time to be fearless. I beat cancer, so I can definitely defeat my fear of the unknown.

Like everyone else on this planet, I haven’t a clue how my future will unfold, and that’s probably a good thing. For now, I am where I belong and my life button has been reset.