French At Almost 40…

Let me begin by acknowledging that learning a foreign language, once you have made it past that magical stage as a child when your brain greedily laps up languages like an illicit pre-dinner bowl of chocolate pudding, sucks.  Why? Because of the crappy “free gifts with purchase” of impatience, fatigue, and the paralysis inducing need to know “why,” that come with being an adult.  Kids don’t require a mind bending explanation of the subtleties of the subjunctive mood.  We do.

It doesn’t help that attempting to learn a language as an adult is often dismissed as a luxury or a fool’s errand.  If I had a Euro for every time someone incredulously asked, “why” or “is your office requiring that now,” after I inform them I’m taking French lessons,  I’d be the proud owner of my own pied `a terre in Paris. Despite this reality, there is nothing I hate more than having my goals scoffed at, particularly by those who probably never had the stones to even try to learn a language as an adult.

It is with that mindset that I began my odyssey to “apprendre le francais” in my 30s.  I started 7 years ago by signing up for a “Beginning French Conversation” class at the local junior college.  Going to a JC, after having completed my undergraduate education and law school, felt more like a wrong turn at a continuation high school than an institute of higher learning.  My class was a rag tag mix of adult Francophiles and those who either registered too late for the class they really wanted, or simply had to sign up for something as a condition of their probation.  Our professor, whom we simply called “Madame,” was exactly the kind hearted and patient soul that one would expect to find teaching death row inmates life skills.  Despite the fear that my class would at any time erupt into a violent mutiny, I hung on, and even enrolled in French 1, for the college bound. Sadly, I ended up dropping that class within a couple weeks, having realized I had just vigorously cross examined the guy sitting 2 desks away from me in a terrorist threats and assault with a deadly weapon case.  Gulp.

Here lies the body of a woman who dares to learn French in her 30s...

Here lies the body of a woman who dares to learn French at almost 40…

With a renewed commitment to my personal safety, I realized if I wanted to be serious about my French, I’d have to take more drastic measures.  That’s how I found myself at the  Alliance Francaise de San Francisco.  Charmed by the impressive class list, the certainty that the expense would weed out those “lacking in commitment,” the tres Parisien underground cafe, and the decidedly Euro feel, I enthusiastically said, “Oui.” In the 70 Saturdays that I spent at AFSF, my French improved by leaps and bounds.  Between the San Francisco city-chic and being surrounded by others who nerd out like me to most things French, I was in utter bliss.  But, with my heart leading me North, to The Ranch and My Beloved, I knew that my quest for French fluency would require me to be “plus debrouillarde.”

My need to be “more resourceful” immediately led me to the internet. During my search, I managed to reconnect with a former professor from the AFSF who now lives in Amsterdam.  Since 2012, we have had a weekly rendezvous via Skype that has kept my French “en forme.”  I can say with absolute certainty that the one on one attention I receive has pushed my French past the road blocks I found in group classes.  Now, I’m no longer wedged between students that either just don’t get it, or those whose French is so advanced that I feel like an idiot.  Mes lecons particulieres with Monsieur Zarhouni are my warm bowl of just right.

In addition to finding my private lessons sur Skype, I stumbled upon Conversation Exchange.  It’s a free, easy, and super cool way of meeting native French speakers from all over the world who also happen to want to learn English, with a California accent in my case.  All you have to do is create a user name and look for someone who looks cool and is at about your same level of skill.  I have found it to be very useful to learn real French and you can’t beat the price of “Free 99.”  I have to admit it feels weird at first to speak French with a complete stranger, but in some ways it’s perfect! They don’t know you, you don’t know them, if you sound like a fool, who cares?  If things get weird, simply say `A Dieu.

In the end, the most important chapter I had to study in apprendre le francais, was written by moi-meme. It’s titled, “Just Get Over Yourself.”  I found that once I let go of my fear of sounding ridiculous and tuned out negative self talk, my French advanced significantly.  I stopped cursing the fact that neither one of my parents are Francophones and just got off my ass and put in the work.  I’ve resisted the temptation to spend too much time on the “why” of those hideous grammar rules and just accept them, much as I would have if I was 7 again, instead of almost 40.

Don’t let a hate spiral of self doubt get in your way, just par-lay luh-frahn-say!  Bon Chance!

French Workbooks J’adore: Grammaire Progressive de Francais,The Ultimate French Verb Review and Practice, and anything by Annie Heminway in the Practice Makes Perfect Series.


A Year Later…A Ranch Retrospective

It’s been just over a year since I packed up my bags, my dogs, the convenience of city life, and followed my heart to The Ranch.  It has taken me a while to digest all that has happened, all I have learned, and all that is on the horizon.  In a sense, the most telling thing about my Ranch experience is that I am still here. But, for me, as I sit here and savor the memories of the past year, with a healing patch of poison oak on the inside of my left bicep, it’s no surprise.

I’m not going to sugar coat it for artistic convenience, I knew when I set foot on this property that I was in for a huge helping of “WTF.” Not only had I moved to a Ranch, with a long history of inspiring outlaw-Redneck behavior and giving sanctuary to those ill equipped to deal with the “confines” of city life, but I was moving into a house that was still (and to a degree remains) an active construction zone.   Not fully appreciating the stresses of those two circumstances combined, on more than a few occasions I fantasized about making my escape back to civilization, or just plain sobbed.

Our Redneck Chimney

Our Redneck Chimney…don’t worry, it’s been fixed…

But, as I have said from the beginning, when I came to The Ranch I was following my heart.  I don’t mean that in the Cheez-Whiz, Nicholas Sparks sense.  I mean actually listening to my heart.  For most of my adult life, I had made almost all of my choices based on a cold calculation of fact based logic and reason (at least what I thought was logic and reason.) I prided myself on being someone who was not prone to flights of fancy.  I routinely subordinated, or flat out ignored what my heart was often screaming to me.  In some ways that robotic, emotionless existence worked out.  It got me through law school and helped me build a successful career in a field where virtually any show of emotion or vulnerability is seen as a sign of incompetence or worst of all, weakness.   The problem is, the most horrid mistakes I have ever made were the direct and brutal consequence of not listening to the emphatic pleas of my heart.

Clearly, logic and reason didn’t factor into the equation when it came to deciding to leave the comfort and convenience of city life.  I refused to ignore my heart shouting at me to be with My Beloved, and reminding me there could be more depth to my life than the thankless 13 months in grueling back to back trials, from which I had just emerged.  My heart craved something grounded and real.  Trust me, The Ranch is real.

Amongst other things, my world now includes a chicken coop for our 10 Ameraucana chicks and an organic garden.  I have even shoveled horse manure! A year ago one would have been better off wagering that I would do something insane, like vote for a Democrat, or wear acrylic nails, before I would get anywhere near horse poop.  Getting my hands dirty and being free to reach beyond the life I had known has made my heart sing.

Tending to our organic garden...more boxes to come!

Tending to our organic garden…more boxes to come!

I love my chickies!

I love my chickies!

Fear not, I have not been completely body snatched by the local 4-H, nor have I left my inner city girl stranded on some dirt road.  The evidence of her survival can be seen most strikingly in the absence of taxidermied animal carcasses in our house, not to mention in my victory at The Battle of the Bidet.  Hands down, I would still chose an afternoon in a city cafe over a ride on a 4-wheeler into the wilderness of The Ranch, but I am grateful that I have been able to experience the two.

My experience has shown me that there is no irreconcilable contradiction in being a Francophile City Girl that lives on a ranch. I love the things I’ve learned–hair raising critters and all.  It’s my truth.  It’s a reflection of what’s in my heart.  My life is richer for it.  Thank goodness there is room enough on The Ranch and in my heart for both.

Wisdom in “The Perfect Cappuccino”

Anyone who has spent even a day in a European country knows that coffee and “the cafe” play a central role in European culture.  Having traveled extensively through France, Spain, Italy, and dipping a toe into Germany I know this to be true. One of the first things I do after I land in a European country and shower off the nearly 11 hours of funky flight scum, is get my hands on a respectable espresso drink and nuzzle into a seat at a cafe.

At home here in the States, I am not much of a coffee drinker. I limit my intake mostly to the occasional decaffeinated coffee or espresso (I can hear the boos, hisses, and cries that I am a poser already), as my system is very sensitive to caffeine. I will brave a full octane espresso only when I know that I will not have access to windows higher than the ground floor, for fear that I might jump out. Yes, it gets that bad, and no this is not a cry for help.   Caffeine also causes me to perspire, act like a cranker, and I swear I can feel my hair growing when I have it.  None of the listed side effects are particularly attractive, hence my desire to limit my descent into the imminent “crazy” to only those times when I know the espresso and the experience are worth it.

From the moment I first tasted coffee in a European cafe, I have asked myself, why doesn’t coffee taste like this at home?  In the States we have amazing access to coffee beans from all over the world, we have local producers of the finest quality organic dairy products, and of course we have American ingenuity, that has to count for something, so again why?  I am convinced that the answer to that question is culture.

Save places like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York, we don’t really have a cafe culture. On a whole, we don’t place much emphasis on lingering and savoring an artfully crafted “cup of coffee.”  We are usually rushing around drinking coffee on the go, expecting it to serve only as a conduit of chemical fueled energy to get us through the day.  If you have any doubt about the validity of my position, just count the number of people in the drive through at Starbucks, or even the number of people rushing around with a to go cup of coffee in their hand–a guaranteed anomaly in Europe.  Now don’t get me wrong, I love my country dearly, but we can stand to learn a few things about taking the time to savor excellence in the craftsmanship of food and drink the way Europeans do.  There is an amazing world outside of our McDonaldized, fast, cheap, and easy tendencies.

Still think I am a traitor American with a tendency toward self-loathing?  Check out this really cool film by Amy Ferraris that I stumbled upon on Netflix last week called, “The Perfect Cappuccino.”  Stream it.  Ms. Ferraris presents her case for why Europeans, particularly Italians, have a leg up on us.  She captures the essence of why the European coffee experience sends any well travelled American into blissful reverie at the mention of it.  She also exposes some spooky moves by Starbucks to torment a gifted espresso craftsman in of all places Tulsa, Oklahoma!  The film isn’t about bashing the States, or corporate America, rather it is a call to action for us as Americans to take the time to savor things that are truly great, and to examine the product of our own rampant, mindless, consumerism.  Luckily, a few of the small operations leading the charge to whet American tastes to espresso excellence are here in the Bay Area, as she features Ritual Coffee Roasters and Blue Bottle Coffee in the film.  This is no work of typical leftist “commie” blather. It’s 89 minutes well spent.

On The Ranch, I am at least 90 minutes from any place where I can get a truly great cup of coffee, so I have learned to take a stab at it on my own, thanks to my Nespresso machine.  Luckily, when I feel like living dangerously and having a caffeinated espresso, I only have the second story window to worry about and there are tons of well placed objects in between to graciously break my fall.  And yes, I make a point to sit and savor.  I dare you to do the same.

Watch the film.  Tell me what you think.

My cappuccino is by no means "perfect," but I can guarantee it beats souless Starbucks

My cappuccino is by no means “perfect,” but I can guarantee it beats souless Starbucks

I love my Nespresso Pixie!

I love my Nespresso Pixie!

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Authentic on The Ranch: Sleepwalkers Need Not Apply

Image of Alan Alda taken at the World Science ...

Image of Alan Alda taken at the World Science Festival launch press conference (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Having spent the last day and a half at home plagued with a gastrointestinal flu that has mercilessly raged through my household, I have had a significant amount of time to just lay in bed and think.  This can be a dangerous situation, as there is nothing like a fever and dehydration to dust off the welcome mat for one’s neuroses. I’d like to think however that my thoughts flowed in a more productive direction.

Prior to being kicked in the gut by this stomach bug, I happened upon a quote from Alan Alda that I could not get out of my head: “You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition.  What you will discover will be wonderful.  What you will discover is yourself.”

Maybe it was the fortuitous timing of reading that quote, along with being asked about “life on The Ranch,” with a rather sarcastic and skeptical tone, that really got me thinking.  What would life be like if all you ever did was live according to the confines of whatever pigeon hole others put you in?  This question isn’t new or particularly clever, but it is important.  There is no doubt in my mind that most people, myself included, would like to think they are leading a life guided entirely by their own unique compass, but getting to the truth requires stepping a bit closer to the edge and asking, “am I really?”

That 3 word question, if answered with painful honesty, is a foolproof bullshit detector.  You will feel the truth in your gut.  Ignoring that truth is a recipe for the kind of soul scorching disaster that can only come from betraying yourself.  You feel the burn every time someone tells you your ideas are stupid–and you listen.  You feel it when someone tells you that “you can’t, “you’ll never,” or the bitterly dismissive, “good luck with that.”  Not to mention the thousands of images we see everyday through print, TV, or the internet, preying upon our insecurities in order to make a profit.  Throwing your hands up (literally or figuratively) and asking, with the kind of authoritative tone that only comes from believing that you are a person worthy of respect, “Seriously?” is the first step toward calibrating your compass to your own true North.

The Ranch has been the perfect backdrop for refining the vision that I have for myself and shedding the dead weight of expectations not authentically mine. Anyone who has followed this blog will know that this is a very different world for me.  I have learned a lot.  Here, convention is more likely to get “the finger,” than compliance.  In many ways the freedom and inspiration I feel on The Ranch reminds me a lot of Paris.  Clearly, they are not the same, but both have a long history of fostering individualism in wildly varying ways.

Have I perfected the art of living with 100% authenticity?  Hardly, but then again, perfection isn’t the point.  Being the exact dog mom, writer, chef, knitting enthusiast, Francophile, organic gardener wannabe, good friend, daughter, sister, all black wearing, other half of My Beloved that I define IS.  No more sleepwalking through the day, guided by someone else’s ill conceived expectations. Being a follower was never really my thing, but everyone can benefit from a fever induced slap in the face every now and then.  No one dimensional category or pigeon hole can contain me. Now when someone asks me quizzically about my life on The Ranch, I just smile.

Make people uncomfortable. Labels and categories are only for the convenience of others.  Be your most authentic self. It doesn’t matter if you have failed in the past.  Start small.  It’s never too late.  I dare you!  Let others say what they like–trust me, they’re probably jealous.  The people who really matter will love you for it.

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Winning the Battle of the Bidet

While some deservedly wax rhapsodic about their honorable service in battle on foreign shores, my battleground was much closer to home.  My master bathroom to be exact.  The day I stood my ground against 2 relentless, nay-saying Rednecks, will go down as my proverbial day of infamy, “B-Day” if you will.

From the first time my eyes made contact with one, on my first trip to Europe, it was clear to me, that these simple, porcelain, wonders of personal hygiene weren’t just officious European fluff.  They are an undeniably tangible sign of decency, progress, and just plain good manners.  With one test drive, I was hooked.  I swore that one day I would have one.

I Love Lucy

I Love Lucy (Photo credit: elena-lu)

Fast forward past many homes and many moves to The Ranch. My Beloved gutted our Craftsman style home, built in the 1920s, giving us a perfectly clean slate.  The word “bidet” passed my lips on more than one occasion, when the subject of our master bedroom design came up.  At first, he acted as if he didn’t hear me.  When it was clear that his selective hearing routine wasn’t going to work, he resorted to Ricky Ricardo-esque “Now Luuuuucy,” style withering looks.

Try as he might, My Beloved could not run from the B word for long.  Just over a month ago, our contractor, his dearest friend and fellow country boy, started work on the plumbing for the upstairs.  Up to that point, I had pretty much stayed out of the construction conversations.  But, as I saw “M.T.” working upstairs, I had to ask, “what about the bidet?” From the look on his face, I could tell that My Beloved had kept my demands for a bidet, a dirty secret.  “A what?” He then shot an incredulous look over at My Beloved.  Was this heretofore impenetrable bastion of  American roughneck masculinity going the way of the European pointy-shoed wimp? Rather sheepishly, My Beloved began to explain that there would need to be plumbing for both a toilet and a bidet in our water closet.  M.T. shot me a look, then looked back at My Beloved.  We may as well have been asking him to install an altar for human sacrifice.

The profound misunderstanding that these two men had of my continental daydreams, manifested in the single waterline coming out of the dry wall for the bidet.  That single waterline was for cold water.  Only cold water to a bidet? Did they need to be reminded of the intended function of this fixture?   For these two devoted outdoorsmen, indoor plumbing is a luxury, but seriously? Was this pay back for my fancy-pants bidet nonsense?  When I pointed out the hot water oversight, it was met with grumbles, groans, and fervent calls to abandon my pompous plumbing plan altogether. Not a chance.

With a hot waterline begrudgingly added to the mix, next stop?  The Special Order desk at the home improvement store.  My Beloved let me do all the talking–it was obviously painful for him to utter the word “bidet” to another masculine, grown man.  The old, salty dog of a salesman took delight in my request, and promptly asked, “you aren’t from around here, are you?”  He went on to confess that he had only sold one other bidet in his decades long career.  He sold it to a local woman a year and a half ago who came in wanting ” one of those European foot washer things.”

Now, I can happily say that one of the ultimate symbols of European sensibilities has finally taken it’s rightful place in my home.

My glorious bidet!

My glorious bidet!

Should there be any doubts, rest assured that no Rednecks were harmed during it’s installation.  In fact, both My Beloved and M.T.  are still wearing their Dickies and Wranglers, and it appears that both completed the job with their masculinity in tact.

Bottom line? A little Paris in one’s poison oak never hurt anyone. In the Battle of the Bidet, I’d like to think that My Beloved and I both won.  At the very least, it was a clean fight.

The Weary Executioner

As you well know, My Beloved is an avid and accomplished hunter.  When he is on the hunt, game beware.  The man will trek 15 miles into the Trinity Alps during an Indian Summer heat wave in search of a buck.  He has multiple game heads mounted and ready to hang in commemoration of his kills–although we have yet to find a suitable place outside the house to hang them.  Despite the tenacious heart of a hunter, for some reason, when it comes to insects, My Beloved suddenly transforms into some kind of pacifist Buddhist monk.

Case in point, just prior to my Ranch relocation, I had the grave misfortune of finding a very large spider, of the “terrifying” variety in my bathroom.  Hearing the shrieking, My Beloved came running, like the dutiful man he is.  I immediately ordered its swift execution.  I should have noticed the minute hesitation in his countenance.  I assumed that with my decree, the errant arachnid would be promptly meet it’s maker.  It is never that simple.

About 5 minutes later, believing the area was spider-free (and therefore safe), I walked back into the bathroom and entered the commode area to finish what I started.  From my seated position, I could see the trashcan where My Beloved deposited the tissue holding what I believed to be the intruder’s crushed remains.  Within seconds, I could see the edges of the tissue rustling and brown legs emerging.  Instead of having a peaceful tinkle, I witnessed a resurrection.

The spider was back and mad as hell.  The shrieking started up again, like an air raid siren.  This time, it was peppered with expletives and a healthy degree of inquiry about the quality of My Beloved’s work.  What had gone wrong?  My Beloved is an enthusiastic administrator of “the beat down,” when need be.  Had he gone Benedict Arnold on me?  Was he part of a scheme to help the spider fake it’s own death, thus avoiding my death warrant?  Wait a minute…I swear I saw a couple books by the Dalai Lama in his collection.  To this day, he has never offered a reasonable explanation for this calamity.

Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth and current Dala...

Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth and current Dalai Lama, is the leader of the exiled Tibetan government in India. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Photographed during his visit in Cologno Monzese MI, Italy, on december 8th, 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fast forward several months to The Ranch and yet another “spider in the bathroom” incident.  This time, the spider was larger and faster.  My Beloved had his work cut out for him.  My screams roused him from the Giants game he was watching.  Tissue in hand, he knew the drill.  This time, when he pulled his “I’m not squeezing tight enough to kill this thing” turn-coat shenanigans, it bit him in the ass. For the first time in my life I heard My Beloved scream.  It was a manly, Carhartt wearing, proud Marine scream, but it was a scream.  The spider had made its way out of the tissue in his hand, and wrapped its hideous legs around one of his fingers.   Cringe worthy indeed.

Just this past weekend there were a few suspiciously ineffective attempts at murdering flies and a wasp that made their way into our house.  Although they were killed “dead,” it was only under my vigilant supervision that they received the death knell.  My Beloved claimed to have dispatched a “huge” spider on our porch, but I have my doubts.

Clearly the timing of this rant is fortuitous.  Just moments ago, My Beloved knocked me out of the way in order to prevent my contact with a large brown spider seated on our mahogany window frame–clever and rather devious camouflage.  He ran to get a rag, which he immediately twisted in order to “snap” at the disgusting bugger.  My Beloved marksman, inexplicably missed and according to his account, it jumped out of sight. Right.  I am convinced that he is in cahoots with the vile insects plaguing this house.

Like any self respecting Parisienne at heart, I decided to direct my attention elsewhere until I can find a suitable solution to this treasonous, unholy alliance.  Champagne tasting! Cin-cin for now.

Some respectable French delights…not a spider in sight!

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Sunday Dinner on The Ranch, Je t’aime

I used to absolutely hate Sundays.  The bitter dread of the impending work week would creep up and punch me squarely in the face around 4:00 PM.  The late afternoon used to mark the time when my imagination would go into overdrive about how to delay the inevitable, mundane, often the painful return to my work-week reality. Sometimes the thought of having to return to the confines of my windowless office, with the occasional jaunt “upstairs” into the cesspool, clearing house for criminal activity was too much to bear.    In order to avoid an extended period of time in a women’s prison, I determined that instead  of allowing my thoughts to drift toward automatic weapons, I would channel my angst into something I love.  To redirect that energy is my way of blocking the punch of the dreaded work week, and smiling back at it as I kick it in the neck.  From this, Sunday Dinner was born.

Cooking is my escape.  It is my catharsis.  I have no technical training in the culinary arts.  Rather, whatever skill I have in the kitchen comes from sheer determination, an addiction to cooking shows (from Julia to Giada), a life long love affair with food, and a passion for entertaining the people I love.  Sunday Dinner is my ritual, it is my relief.

Sundays are now my favorite day of the week.  I spend all day in the kitchen dicing, chopping, browning, roasting, and baking–with my Pandora channel set on Dave Brubeck or John Coltrane, and glass of wine in hand.  I usually decide the Sunday Dinner menu by Thursday, and do all of my necessary shopping by the time I am Northbound to The Ranch on Friday evening, thus avoiding the supermarket wasteland that lies north of Whole Foods.  My Beloved steers clear of the kitchen, except to offer to be the official “taster” of my work.  Unlike my day job, Sunday Dinner affords me the unique opportunity of having tangible evidence of my efforts, be it in the form of braised grass fed short ribs, Valrhona chocolate pot de creme, or otherwise.  I love, love, love Sunday Dinner.  It is the one time during the week that the Ranch Family can get together and catch up.

Like any true Parisienne at heart, for me, the sound of my friends’ and family’s laughter and witty repartee, coupled with great food and wine, keep the specter of the work week at bay.  Isn’t this exactly what life is all about? Indeed, the work week is imminent, but my Sunday Dinner talisman against it’s evil, ensures that I don’t let it’s stink pollute my precious weekend a minute sooner than necessary.  Work will always be there.  These small, but powerful moments won’t.

Give Sunday Dinner a shot.  Spend your last hours of freedom from the work week sharing a meal with the people you love. It doesn’t have to be “fancy” or perfect.  You just have to mean it.

Tonight’s Delights?  Flank steak marinated in Meyer lemon, olive oil, and garlic, along with roasted garlic mashed potatoes, roasted brussel sprouts and carrots, and fresh pumpkin pie, of course.  The wine? 2010 Unti Segromigno from Dry Creek Valley.  Delicious.


Marinated Flank Steak--DIVINE!

Marinated Flank Steak in Meyer lemon, garlic, and flat leaf parsley–DIVINE!

The Makings of Pumpkin Pie from scratch!

My faithful kitchen sidekick…Diego

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