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.

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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Foiled by Flan in France

Any meaningful attempt at self analysis must include (amongst a myriad other things) the discovery and acknowledgment of one’s triggers, weaknesses, and perhaps most importantly…one’s Achilles Heel.  Until you know these things, you will forever be vulnerable to the sucker punches of life, and less likely to survive torture by foreign operatives for the national secrets you might be concealing.  As you read this, you know exactly what “it” is or “they” are, and if you don’t, it won’t be hard to figure out.  My guess is that most of us, with tenuous bravery fueled by bravado, think we can vanquish these evils with the steely, ice-blue eyed, slightly unhinged, laughing resolve of Daniel Craig as Bond in Casino Royale (you know the scene of which I speak.)  The truth, if you are willing to face it,  is that we would more likely to quiveringly cave, than to laughingly beg for more blows from a sap.

For me, that trigger, that weakness, that Achilles Heel, that moment of weakness in a dark, damp interrogation chamber is flan patissier.  When faced with sharp objects, spiders, beatings, water boarding, or any other manner of torture, I guess it would be easy enough to just give up and die.  In my twisted foodie mind, I believe the cruelest and most persuasive misery would be to use something seductively delicious.   To this day, you could wave chocolate, prime rib, the perfect Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, lobster, caviar, or even butter in my face and as tempted as I may be, no government secrets would pass my lips.  Flan patissier is a different story. A slice would have me singing songs of treason like a canary!

I never really had a chance against it.  My Mom tells fantastic tales of having wild cravings for custard during her pregnancy, she religiously fed me Gerber’s Vanilla Custard Pudding from infancy, and it is now undoubtedly mutated into my genetic make up.  I was custard primed for what was to come.  From my earliest trips to Paris, when my eyes first made contact with it I was hooked.  When I first tasted it, I was toast.  I make it my personal mission while there to consume as much as possible, within reason of course.  Like any discerning Parisienne, I will ruthlessly sacrifice quantity for quality every time.  I am flan patiessier mad.

What is it you ask?  Quite simply, it is thick custardy luciousness baked into a butter crust shell.  The custard is so thick, that a slice can be held up and eaten without the officious  interference of utensils. (Much like a  cool slice of Zachary’s Chicago style pizza.)

Flan patissier is on the left, and a freshly baked Parisian baguette is on the right. The baguette, although tempting, was not even a contender…and yes, I was wild eyed!

The challenge whenever I get home is how to hold myself over till my next trip to Paris.  I have searched high and low in every city I have been to near home, that claims to have a French Patisserie. Rien!  Nothing even comes close.  All were French flan flops. Never one to accept “no,” or “can’t” for an answer, I set out to make my own.

After years of sifting though recipes in both French and English, I stumbled upon one that worked from none other than the slightly satanic, jailed, but unrelenting domestic goddess Martha Stewart.  Her version is one based on a recipe developed by chef Sebastien Rouxel of Bouchon Bakery.  My version is further modified from that recipe and I omit the prunes.  The result is the best thing I have found this side of the Atlantic.  Am I saying I am an ace baker? Absolutely not, rather I am a lawyer who can read and follow directions.  I am certain that the unrefined edges of my crusts would make any real pastry chef cringe and avert their eyes, but I swear, you won’t regret looking past the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree of pate brisee crusts.  Cradled inside is a custard lover’s delight.  I made this for the first time ever this year, after I moved to The Ranch.  In this way, I have been able to use my kitchen to make the dirt roads around here seem a little more like the Boulevard Saint Germain.  Quick tip: I don’t have a baking ring, so using Ranch Ingenuity, minus the blood loss and brushes with heavy machinery,  I jerry-rigged one using the outer ring of my spring form pan!

As I wrote, the lines above, my flan patissier baked away in the warm cocoon of my Jenn-Air double oven.  The proof, as they say, is in the pudding:

Pate Brisee crust in the making

Stirring the custard dreaminess…

Going into the oven

Golden brown flan “skin”

One tall flan!

Perhaps you will share in my dream and go just a little flan mad.  Bisous!

The recipe:

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Solo Flight to Paris: A Phobic’s Tale

Being the product of parents who came from two very different parts of the world, I spent countless hours at SFO and OAK–picking up and dropping off relatives, my Dad (who travelled weekly,) or heading somewhere with my family. I was enchanted by the cosmopolitan, sophisticated romance of air travel.  There was something magical about the electric air of purpose and anticipation at the international gates.  I especially loved watching the glamorous European women breeze through the terminal.  (Not one of them looked like one of the herd over in the Domestic Terminal, dressed in old comforters, and looking like they should have passed on that second packet of peanuts.) So chic!  I vowed to be like them.

By my early twenties, I had crossed the Pacific no less than 9 times, and had flown all over the US.  I made my first solo trip to Europe at age 23—Madrid to be exact, with only a month of Pimsleur Spanish, and not knowing a soul! (Indisputable proof that I am my Mother’s daughter.)  I made my first trip to Paris with my maverick traveler Mom just a couple years later.  Air travel was an easy-peasy way of life.

Most people can pinpoint when “it” happens.  That moment when everything changes. My once blissful romance with flying ended in 1998, as I attempted to cross the Pacific on a return flight from my cousin’s wedding.  The pink cotton candy bunnies that used to skip through my mind as I thought about flying, and for that matter while I was on a plane, were shot dead with an AK-47, by the new slimy, green, blob-like bully sheriff in town called, “Fear.”   Lulled into a false sense of security, I bought the notion that even in the “unlikely event” of an “in flight emergency,” things would play out exactly as illustrated on the eerily sticky, laminated, passenger safety instruction cards in the seat pocket in front of me.  I scoffed haughtily at the notion of disaster, with likely the same characteristic arrogance of one of the First Class Passengers on the Titanic.

Long, torturous story short, my Northwest Airlines flight blew an engine 3/4 down the runway on take off, setting off a chain reaction of events that left me terrified of flying.  At first, I  wasn’t alarmed.  It wasn’t until it hit me that our flight path takes us over the Pacific for almost 7 hours with virtually nowhere to land that I freaked. The gravity of what “could have” happened sunk in.  Thankfully, semi-rational thought intervened.  I remembered some show I had watched about the wonders of the Boeing 747 and how it could still stay in the air with 2 engines.  That show could have been shameless Boeing propaganda, but in that moment I didn’t care.

Things  did not improve when I was re-routed to a new flight. To soften the blow of being a refugee from my original flight, I was graciously given an upper deck seat.  Upper deck, miles away from the unwashed masses!  Twenty minutes into the flight, it didn’t matter where I was sitting–I was convinced we were going down.  We hit the worst turbulence I have ever experienced.   It was as if Lucifer decided to amuse himself by violently jerking the marionette strings holding up the aluminum cylinder I was riding in, as it hurdled through the air at 500 miles per hour. The other passengers who had been thus far orderly and silent could be heard shrieking in the lower deck.  Even the flight attendants, who were usually my trusty barometers, were sheet white.  With the shrieking, I could feel myself becoming unhinged.  Had part of the plane been ripped off?  Could someone see a gremlin destroying the wiring in the wings? (Yes, I was scarred by seeing that scene in Twilight Zone: The Movie.)  The rocking and rolling went on for most of the flight.  I swear I lost 10 pounds sweating and was so exhausted from terror that I passed out.   When I landed safely in San Francisco half a day later, I resolved to never fly again.

In the years since that incident, despite my proclamation, I have continued to travel. The classic phobic move of simple avoidance wasn’t an option. The siren song of European travel was just too sweet.  Like any self respecting phobic, I developed slightly irrational rituals and strategies to deal with my fear.  First, I always sit by a window.  If I can’t get a window seat, I take a different flight.

I get to the gate early, so I can take a good look at my fellow passengers.  I have no idea exactly what I am looking for, but in the wake of 9/11, I keep an eye out for possible crazies and people who I think could help me kick some ass if the need arises. Word to the wise?  Seeing people pray as if their lives depended on it, as they are about to board a plane, is a bad sign.  Take the next flight.

I immediately engage the in flight map on the seat back screen–I need to know exactly where we’re positioned in flight at all times…just in case the pilot needs my help.  Speaking of the pilot, I make a point of scanning the faces of the pilots and flight crew.  Does anyone look like they might have just had a fight with their spouse?  Do they look sober? Do they look like they are having a religious or existential crisis? If anyone looks like they might have some issues to work out on my flight, I’m out.  It would be to awesome to have clones of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and put them to work on every non-stop flight to Paris.

I have a flight uniform.  It may have some connection to  my sincere belief that if one is to meet their maker, they should have the decency to dress for the occasion. Formal? No. Neatly comfortable? Yes.  Dark jeans, black t-shirt (not a bit faded), perfectly tailored wool blazer, a freshly dry cleaned cashmere pashmina, and polished black loafers.  I always, always, always wear a watch.  I look at my watch hundreds of times during the flight hoping that somehow 5 minutes would turn into 5 hours and I would be landing that much sooner.  (The irony is that all that watch gazing probably makes me look pretty damn suspicious…)

I have a firm policy of rarely leaving my seat during the flight. Inexplicably, I operate under the bizarre idea that if I move from my seat I will immediately cause the plane to tilt to one side or the other.  Preposterous, but who cares!  My neurosis, my rules!

On occasion I have even called upon the strongest talisman of all against air travel evil–my Mom. Cheerful, funny, and prepared, she has the unique ability to keep me from going off the deep end.  With her on the plane, nothing could go wrong, and even if it did, I would have my Mommy to hold me as we plunged into the abyss.

Since “it” happened in 1998, I have survived crossing the Atlantic during hurricane season, a specific terrorist threat against my Air France flight on Christmas Day in 2003, a multitude of patches of turbulence that caused me to seriously consider the purchase of a parachute to place in my carry on, and in 2005 the wing of my United flight bursting into flames at 130 knots as I was about to take off from Charles de Gaulle in Paris.

By the time I decided to make a 5 week solo trip to Paris in 2010, I had some serious baggage when it came to flying.  That baggage was heavy and unquestionably of the phobic’s Louis Vuitton variety. Nevertheless, renting an apartment in Paris and living like a local for a period of time was a lifelong dream.  I cast fear aside as I purchased my ticket for August 31, 2010.  When I got to SFO, I felt confident.  I was excited to be on my way.  32 hours prior, I had secured an upper deck window seat on the Air France flight. ( A steal at a mere $70, available online.) Maybe my luck would differ from the last time I had an upper deck seat.  After I waved `a dieu to My Beloved and parents at security, I made my way to the gate.  I scanned the waiting area and happily determined that there were no members of Al Queda on the flight.

In the upper deck, I was seated next to a pleasant American woman and her French boyfriend.  Their presence was mildly comforting.  Before take off though, I had a “holy shit” moment.  I started to ask myself, “what the hell am I doing?” A few hours into this flight it will be dark and I won’t be able to see the ground! I am entirely on my own!  If there is an emergency, they will start shouting the instructions in French!  Will my formal French be of any use when the flight attendants are speaking freak-out French? Not wanting to scare away the nice couple next to me with my panic attack, I managed to conceal it (or at least I thought I did.) Instead of having a screaming meltdown, I talked their ears off for 4 hours until they passed out from exhaustion.  Panic did wonders for my French.  Once the American woman stopped talking, I dove headlong into conversation with her boyfriend.  Decorum be damned, this was about survival people! There is no doubt in my mind they must have thought I was on methamphetamines.

Once they were out, I was left to my phobic rituals and devices.  I looked at my watch every few minutes.  As I looked out the window, I could see the occasional lights here and there as we flew over northeastern Canada.  I was glued to the inflight map, trying to calculate whether if we went down at any given moment I could safely swim to land.  Why didn’t I just watch a movie to pass the time you might ask?  Heavens no. That would only distract me from my vigilant observation of the map.  There also seemed to be a rather suspicious correlation between me not looking at the map and a sudden increase in jostling around of the plane.  Phobic irrationality at its finest.  Up to that point there were a few small bumps, but nothing to send me into a panic.

The story changed when we started to go over the southern tip of Greeland.  Jarring bumps and dives.  I started sweating profusely.  I waited to hear the screams from the lower deck. I started thinking about the Air France flight from Rio that had gone down just months prior.  Was this pilot going to have the sense to slow the plane down in this turbulence so we didn’t break apart mid air? Had the perpetually striking Air France mechanics actually addressed the speed sensor issue that was blamed for the Rio to Paris tragedy? Could metaphorical lightning strike the same airline twice in the same year? Why was I such an idiot for booking an Air France flight!?

I looked all around me and almost everyone was asleep. How in the hell could they sleep through this?  We were going down!  My arms were completely wrapped around the under sides of the arm rests.  Why?  Why did I have to live out my dream to be in Paris?  Why couldn’t I just be a sheep and stay at home day dreaming? It would be a lot safer. I looked over at the American woman and her French boyfriend–should I wake them up?  They had the decency to be patient with me earlier.  Didn’t I owe it to them to wake them up and inform them that were were going to die?  There was not a single flight attendant in sight, so I had no barometer.  Had they decided to jump?  I began working out a plan in my mind to take a Norwegian fishing boat home if I was able to survive this flight.

Then, it stopped.   As dawn broke, I started to breathe easier.  Relief washed over me as we flew over Scotland, then down through England.  The view of Normandy as we glided over the English Channel was magnificient.  As we flew into Paris, we made a giant loop of the city, putting the Eiffel Tower clear in my sights on the right.  That view, that magic, the anticipation of living out a dream, is what I braved that crazy flight for, despite my fear and baggage.  I could see Parisian life playing out on terra firma below me.  I was ready for it.

Am I cured of my fear of flying?  Absolutely not.  Every time I get on a plane I am in crisis.  For me it is about choosing to live my life, rather than having fear dictate my existence.  Paris (and a few other things) are worth it.  N’est pas?

Elation at Landing in Paris in One Piece