Sunday, July 29, 2007

So Long, Farewell......

Pressing their noses against the glass, screaming their little heads off, and (much to dismay of the airport workers), pounding their tiny fists against the glass window that specifically proclaims “VEUILLEZ NE PAS TOUCHER”, Benji and Toby bid me farewell. I walked backwards from passport control, nearly toppling many times under the weight of my way too heavy backpack and suitcase, and waved and screamed to them too until they were out of sight.

Then, I cried.

Tears of joy, at these two amazing little people that I would like to think I have affected in a positive way. Happiness at the thought of getting to see my mom, dad and dog in a mere 13 hours. And of course, sadness, at leaving the home, life and people that have become a second family to me over the past year.

I continued to walk, through to security (praying that I wouldn’t get busted for my grossly over-weight-restriction baggage…. I didn’t, WHEW), and onto the hard plastic chairs outside the duty free shop, thinking and wondering and reflecting on where life has taken me, and where it will bring me next.

I came to Geneva able to sum up my emotions in one word: terrified. After a bad senior year where I lost several close friends and even more confidence in myself, I wondered if my experience as an au pair would be doomed to fail. The trying first months, working 13 hours a day, Michelle as demanding as ever, and Toby telling me he would “take me to the aeroport and send me back to Michigan” whenever things didn’t go exactly his way ( although I am happy to report, when he actually did get to take me to the airport and send me back, he wasn’t gleefully happy about it) made me question if I could do it. Stick out the whole year away from my family, with no friends and kids that don’t seem to care one way or another if I’m there??? I wasn’t sure.

But things began to fall in place. I met Julie, and Mel and a whole gaggle of other “fille au pair’ (yes, we are like a species here in Geneva), and the good times started t roll. Frolicking through the green hills of Switzerland (seriously!), jetting off to exotic destinations every chance we got, running a marathon, sky-diving, and of course the crazy yet wonderful misadventure in Spain and Greece.

The kids warmed up after the first few months too, and now my mind is filled with wonderful memories of all the things we’ve done together. Picnics in the park, building snowmen, dancing like fools to Toby’s favorite Hebrew CD, seeing Benji successfully ride his first two-wheeler….this list could fill pages. I will so dearly miss Benji’s sweet, kind, gentle nature, always complementing me on my hair or clothes, as well as Toby’s Mr. Bossy approach (the other day, after getting out of the pool and my hair having dried in waves, he looked at me, furrowed his brow, wagged his 4-year-old finger at me and ordered, “Meggie. DON’T move your hair. It looks TOO beautiful like that!” I almost fell over laughing, all the while melting on the inside.

But now they’re gone, off to have french fries and pizza as a special treat at their Mummy’s work. Saying goodbye to the boys, to Michelle, and to my life in Geneva has been difficult (no doubt compounded by the pit in my stomach about flying, and not knowing what to do with my life when I get home) was incredibly difficult. Although in this situation, good-bye was the "faux mot", and a much more appropriate expression applies, both because of our physical location in French speaking Switzerland, and to the fact that I know my “good-bye” will be short-lived.

Au revoir, boys. Au revoir, Marc, Michelle and Flora. Au revoir, Geneva.

Until we meet again. Surely, I’ll be seeing you soon.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Opposite of Culture Clash

Eating my burnt vegetable stir-fry last night, I hear Flora stomping up the stairs with her characteristic short, powerful steps. “Maggy-ee,” she emerges at the top, clutching 3 different tops. “What one is nicest? After a mini-fashion show in the kitchen, Flora asks me, “You, you know I like when you do makeup, it’s nice. You will do mine??” Ahhhhh! On the one hand, incredibly flattered, on the other, terribly betwixt because I rarely wear makeup, and it’s always ME who is begging my more cosmetically inclined friends to help me with smoky eyes or lined lips. Nonetheless, I give flora a mini-lesson in applying eyeliner, eye shadow (light on the lid and dark in the crease, thank you Bridget and Caroline for those many pre-teen makeover sessions…you taught me well) and mascara. In the end, Flora looked really nice, and she sat while I did my maquillage and kept oohing and ahhing at my technique and the result.

Together we hopped on the tram, surely looking like an incredibly odd couple; the tall, American girl, and the short Filipina woman. We arrived at her friends’ studio, right near the water and with a view of the jet d’eau (famous fountain on Lake Geneva). I took my seat, and was treated with the utmost kindness, as well as curiosity. There was Ramon, the pseudo lecherous middle aged man who made a few marriage proposals and innuendos towards me throughout the night, only to be hit and clucked at in Tagalong, the others continually reminding me that he is “big jokester”; Nora, the quiet, kind girlfriend of Ramon, who asked me tons of questions and kept inquiring if I was enjoying myself, visibly happy when my response was an enthusiastic yes.

There was Laurie and Donald, the bantering, funny live-in domestic couple of a Senegalese family. The first thing Laurie said to me was, “Maggy-ee (yes they all say my name this way) you have lost weight! And you look very pretty!” The second thing Laurie asked me was how old I was, and the third if I had a boyfriend (they all can’t comprehend how I am 23 and not only not married, but have no intentions to tie the knot in the near future). I could see the wheels in her head turning, and she matter-of-factly stated, “Ah. Then you can meet my son. He is 21 and photographer in Manila. You leave Thursday? I will show you his picture and give you his email. You want to come to Philippines soon? When you go, no need for hotel, you stay with my family. And you meet my son.” Donald, her boyfriend, kept cracking jokes about the Swiss, and jumped to refill my wine as soon as I finished a glass. And of course sitting next to me was Flora, my gracious host, who was so much fun, and amazing at making me feel comfortable among her friends. While they all speak English well, together they speak in Tagalong, and Flora translated everything so I wouldn’t feel left out.

We arrived to the practically empty Little Manila karaoke bar, which to Flora was great news because this way we could all sing before the crowds came (Gulp. I don’t sing but I know Flora had been telling them I would). Immediately, a Chinese waitress appeared with a pitcher of beer and the song book. Flora wasted no time getting 2 requests in. She has an amazing voice, and sang her favorite cheesy Celine Dion love songs better than the Québécoise herself. Flora passed the songbook to me, and kept urging me to sing. I’m sure the beer and wine had something to do with it, but all of a sudden I just didn’t care what anyone thought. Here I was, in a dimly lit, semi-seedy southeast Asian karaoke bar, surrounding by the kind friends of Flora, plus some drunk Irish men and the wait staff. Looking through the book, I saw they had French songs. Pawing through I saw one of my favorites, a cheesy French classic called “Aux Champs Elysees,” something every French person knows and loves to hate, that I think we learned in my 9th grade French class. What the hell, go big or go home….I’ll never be able to sing French karaoke in the states, so WHY NOT!?!? My turn came, and I belted it out with best rolling R’s, liaisons, and back throat hocking sound that I could. Of course my voice cracked, and I sounded like a pre-pubescent boy, but Floras friends and some other very drunk Swiss people even joined in the chorus. And there was applause at the end. I even got up enough guts to sing “The Gambler,” the quintessential college bar song, which nobody knew but nevertheless accompanied me, their Filipino accents enthusiastically proclaiming, “you’ve got know when to hold em’…..know when to fold em!!!!!” Flora and I also did a duet of “Sweet Caroline,” which I belted out in pure happiness thinking that very soon I will get to see my dear curly haired friend.

As the night progressed, many of Floras friends came by, all welcoming and happy to meet me. Flora and I had a tête-à-tête, huddling in the back corner sharing our crazy Funk family stories. She pointed around the room to the different Filipinos (“see that one there, he is a gay. And them there, they are how do you say….. liking girls?” “Lesbians?” “Ah yes, they are lesbians! Watch how they dance.”) She also pointed out the different Asian factions; “see they, are Chinese, they are OK. But over there, the Mongolians, they are not good. They are hard and cause trouble.” This point was reconfirmed to the Filipino crowd when one of the Mongolian girls elbowed Flora and her friend while they were dancing, causing the men to confront each other, resulting in a beer getting spilled (on Flora and almost me!), and the police coming. I was worried when I saw the gendarmerie arrive because I know most of Flora’s friends work here illegally, but she waved it off as the stupidity of the Mongolians…..they were angry so they called the police, and if anyone would get in trouble it would be them.

Around 2am we had to catch the last tram (which we missed and had to take a taxi). Flora was on her cell phone the whole way home clucking emphatically to all her friends recounting the drama of the night (the only part of which I understood was when she would emphasize “Mongolian” with an acidic distaste, then keep clucking away). Before we said goodnight, Flora even advised me, “Maggy-ee, you must take 2 aspirin, so that tomorrow you don’t have a headache” (which I of course forgot to do and am now suffering, albeit mildly, the consequences.

The whole night, I couldn’t help but reflect on how wonderful it has been to have Flora in my life. She’s been my shoulder to cry on, my partner in commiseration, my storyteller, and my anchor…grounding and humbling me when I get upset about the little things. Even tonight, she was always leading the way to cross streets, putting her arm across me at the cross walk if she thought I was too close to road. In a way, she has been like a surrogate mother this year. When Michelle told me that I “had to be sure about taking the job, because we have someone who watches the kids that we will have to let go,” I never knew it was a live-in nanny/housekeeper who had been with them for 6 years, and who the kids were as attached to as their mother. When I learned the true nature of what had unfolded before I arrived, I fully expected Flora to hate and resent me. It was out of my control, but I had replaced her and caused her to lose work and a lot of money.

Her friendship and companionship has been the most unexpected gift of this past year. To learn about another culture, of the hardship and duress people suffer for the love and well-being of their families, and to be a recipient of incredible kindness from someone that doesn’t have a lot to begin with has been eye-opening and wonderful. In a few minutes, I’m going with Flora to her church picnic, where she assures me there will be great food, lots of games and even, in her words, “the contest where you do drinking beer to see who can finish the can fastest.”

I only hope one day Flora will come to visit me, and that I’ll be able to show her the same warmth and kindness that has made my life here one that I will dearly miss.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Bisous d'anniversaire (Birthday Kisses)

The alarm sounded and I woke up to a quieter than normal morning, no stomping feet or little voices yelling in French upstairs. My au pair instincts immediately made me wonder if everything was OK, and fear the all too likely stuck-in-the-house-all-day-with-a-sick-kid sentence. Which of course, on my birthday, would much more painful than usual.

Up, dressed, normal morning routine. Dishes unloaded, bowls set out, cornflakes poured and milk readied for the boys’ voracious morning appetites. My fear had thankfully dissipated when Toby streaked downstairs, half-naked, to grab his clothes, flashing me a big grin and a mischievous “HEHE” before flying back upstairs to get dressed. One healthy child going to school down, one to go.

I poured myself some muesli and cut up a banana (my current favorite breakfast), and even found some strawberries in le frigo for an extra delicious birthday treat. The boys came down, strategically dressed in their Michigan football and Michigan soccer t-shirts, and started blabbering about nothing in particular, totally forgetting about my special day. Because part of me is still 6 years old, and I don’t think I’ll ever tire of my own birthdays, I said, “So my mummy sent me 3 birthday cards on the computer this morning,” just to have someone to talk to and share my excitement with.
“AHHH,” Benji exclaimed, “And did she send you presents through the computer, too?”

“No sweetie, you can’t really do that” I replied, secretly wishing you could, and that I was now in possession of a massive stack of colorfully wrapped and bowed packages.

Toby looked over at me, gave me a goofy, head-tilted grin, and told me, “happy birthday les nanas” (les nanas is colloquial French for “the girls,” and was the only form of address used by Toby, Benji and Marc to Julie and me while she was still living with us.)

Seeming as though my birthday excitement with the kids had lived it’s rapidly combustible life span of 4 minutes, I went back to enjoying my muesli, losing myself in thoughts about the nice day ahead; baking a cake, reading in the park while the boys went to judo, and later attending the au pair meeting, where they would be talking about preparing to re-enter your home country….even just talking about it makes it seem closer! Deeply and pensively staring into my cereal bowl, I didn’t even hear Marc come down and give a sleepy, half-hearted “Bonjour.” I looked up as the kids immediately barraged their papa with questions and requests. As Marc went to pour himself some cornflakes, he looked over at me and questioned, “Aujourd’hui c’est to anniversaire, toi ?(Today’s your birthday, right?”).

Oui,” I replied, half shocked he had remembered, despite the fact the kids had been talking about his birthday (June 13, the day before mine) and mine for the past 2 weeks.

He walked towards the fridge, going to get what I had presumed to be the milk, but then swooped in for the trois bisous (three kisses) that are apparently customary to give on someone’s birthday. The first time I gave bisous to Marc I was jet-lagged, semi-drugged, and in shock about my new life with the family, that I’d been living for all of an hour and a half. I happily report that this time was (marginally) better. While I still had muesli in my mouth, I was successfully able to negotiate my cheeks and his without A) accidentally kissing him on the lips or B) inadvertently spitting muesli in his face.

After this fait was accompli, I watched Toby pull over his Papa and beckon him to bend down, so he could whisper something in his ear. Marc reached in the chair and scooped Toby up, his strong arms flying him through the air until he was face to face with me. Toby smiled, then moved in, giving me three big, wet, adorable little-kid kisses on the cheek before finally hugging me and whispering in my ear, “happy birthday Meggie.”

I was grinning like a fool. This is a child who shows minimal, if any, affection for me, and whose daily emotional response towards me is indifference. Benji saw what his brother was doing and, the little crowd pleaser that he is, requested for his Papa to do the same thing. Boy number 2 flew through the air, landing on my lap and giving me my bisous, a bear hug, and nestling his head into my neck and purring like a kitten (Benji’s trademark, he’s obsessed with kittens and puppies right now).

The morning carried on as normal. I cleared the dishes, stood vigilant in the bathroom making sure both boys actually brushed their teeth, not just eating the toothpaste and wriggling the brush around in their mouths, then took them to school. Walking back, I thought about birthdays past. Being 19, and having my cousin Kalli pile as many of my friends as possible into his Blazer, buy us a fifth of (in retrospect) nasty orange Smirnoff, and drive us to Canada, where we proceeded to get drunk off of sickly sweet Long-Island iced teas and dance the night away like fools, getting our first glimpse of the bar culture we would frequent over the many years to come (thanks again Kal, love you!). My 21st, where I met all my friends at the Ann Arbor underage institution Scorekeepers, and drank my night away feeling like a celebrity, while someone kept a tally of my drinks in black marker on my arm. I remember how much fun it was until I couldn’t remember anything, then feeling so grateful to my mom and dad when they were understanding about me spending the next 24 hours on the couch, and not wanting to go out to our favorite fancy restaurant the next night.

My birthday en Suisse will be ordinary. I’ll work, do dishes, do laundry, and probably go to bed at a decent hour. I will however have my favorite dinner (9 jewel spicy vegetable curry), a *hopefully* delicious cake that two of my good friends are coming over to bake shortly, and most importantly the love and affection of two amazing little boys, and the respect and kindness of their father, a man whom I wholeheartedly respect.

And of course, my 9 cherished Bisous d'anniversaire, birthday kisses that I will never forget.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Griswold Family Vacation: Part Deux

The moment our plane lifted off the Barcelona Runway, I felt relief in place of my standard emotion; impending doom of certain death. Four hours later, we touched down in Athens just before sunset, savoring the beautiful landscape of rolling hills, odd shaped trees (possibly olive?), and the much needed newness of it all.

We found a (rather seedy) hostel in Athens, and started to plan our Greek island adventure. At this point, we had been through so much that we decided to go all out, and take the high speed ferry to the volcanic island of Santorini, where we could relax on the black sand beaches below dramatic cliffs of hardened lava.

In the early AM, we trekked to the port, and after the unexpected and delicious Greek breakfast specialty of Mocha Frappuccinos, we were on our way. Five smoky and expensive hours later, we arrived at the island. Because we were flying by the seat of our pants, and making up our plans as we went, we had no planned place to stay. Walking off the ferry, we were immediately accosted by hotel owners, shadily flashing us pictures of their accommodations, assuring us that, “just for you, this 15 euro.”

One large Greek man approached us and offered a private studio with kitchen and balcony, 200 meters from the beach. We were interested. He started at 20 euro per person a night, but after playing a little hard ball got it down to 10. Considering the youth hostel right down the street was more expensive, it was a pretty great deal. We gathered our bags and went to wait for Costa (the owner) to drive us to the hotel…transfer from the port being included in the price. And then we saw his transportation. All white “kidnapper” style van with one sliding door and completely blacked out windows. Gulp. We had no reason not to trust him, but as he shut the door and fired up the sputtery engine, we couldn’t help but exchanging glances of, “shit, what have we gotten ourselves into now.”

Lighting up a cigarette with one hand, controlling the bouncing vehicle with the other, we flew up the side of the island. With winding roads not much larger than the van, we cringed when other cars came to pass--- the two options were collision on one side, cliff diving on the other! When we finally made it on flat ground, I couldn’t help but letting my mind wander, and wonder if the three of us girls could fend off a large Greek man, who probably weighed more than a small horse, if need be when……..

We finally arrived at our destination; a small, typical Greek villa, absolutely beautiful with bright blue domed roofs and flower vines snaking beautifully up the stairs and over the terraces. Brightly colored tiles led the way into our room, surprisingly the exact picture Costa had shown and described to us, view of the Aegan sea.

Settled in, we put on our bathing suits as fast as we could, grabbed a quick gyro for lunch (ridiculous restaurant, complete with caged bird hanging over our table) and made a beeline for the beach. The black sand and volcanic cliffs shooting straight over our heads were pure heaven—after going through hell and back these last 2 days, we all were able to sink our feet in the sand, and finally really relax, soaking up the sun along the way.

The rest of the day was perfect. We rejoiced in having our own private bathroom, not having to walk half naked down a co-ed hall, showering in thin curtained stalls as throngs of people milled about mere feet away. A great dinner, some wine, and a nice walk later, we were ready to call it a night. Sprawling out on the comfortable bed, I couldn’t help but think that the worse was over and our luck was finally changing…….

Until I woke up the next morning. Opening the blinds, there were clouds all around. Stepping out of the balcony, I wanted to jump right back in to grab a sweater. Crap. It was to be a cold, then rainy day in Santorini. The beach was obviously out, and as we went to rent mopeds to explore the island, a steady downpour dampened our spirits further. So what to do on a Greek Isle when it rains? Our solution was shopping, food, and booze. We walked around Fira, the capitol, and drank, ate and tried to be merry. There were winding stone paths up the sides of the cliffs, and with the amazingly beautiful views it was hard to be bummed out with the cold and rain. That night we finished off the rum we had started in Barcelona, and then went out to the “Moon Bar,” where about 3 other tourists and 6 locals had congregated to drink and dance. The music and atmosphere made it like the Rick’s of Santorini….only tourist season doesn’t really start until the end of June, so people were scarce. No matter. We danced it up, drank it up, and tried to forget the sound of rain pouring above on the tin roof.

We woke up to more pouring rain the next day, and as we had already done pretty much all you can do on an island when it rains, we decided to head back to Athens. Oh Athens. We spent the next 3 days there, which was quite the experience. Our perpetual black cloud was still following us around, so it was cloudy and rainy every day we were there. The highlights of Athens were definitely the Acropolis and Parthenon, which is deceptively high above the city, the flea market in the Plaka, and the Olympic stadium. Besides seeing the sights, we had some great food (tons of greek salad, gyros, and Moussaka, a traditional Greek dish with potato, eggplant, meat and cheese in lasagna form), and some really fun times drinking on our hostel’s rooftop terrace with a stunning view of the Acropolis.

Drunkenly wandering the streets of Athens, being chased by the numerous packs of wild dogs that inhabited the city, we cursed Apollo, the sun God, demanding the reason for his obvious disdain at our presence in Greece. Although it didn’t seem funny at the time, now I look back and laugh at the utter hilarity of the entire vacation (if you can even call it that). The disgusting dorm, the ridiculously incompetent Spanish security, our flights on Alitalia where the steward interrogated a slightly middle eastern looking man as to whether or not he ate pork before handing him his in-flight snack ham sandwich, the incessant, unending rain, and the admittance by management at our last hostel that they hadn’t done laundry in 3 days—2 days after we had arrived (yuck).

Comfortably back in Geneva, I’ve had time to reflect on the trip, the ridiculousness and the seriousness of it all. Lessons were learned, tears were shed, and laughter was shared. One of the most intense, scary, exciting 2 weeks of my life, this experience is one I will never forget. I’ve already replaced the things I lost, in fact my new camera and ipod should be arriving in 3 days. But the memories will be etched in my mind for the rest of my life. The only way I can sum it up: this trip, it was quite a TRIP.

The end.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Griswold Family Vacation: Part 1

“When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.” -Susan Heller

Packing for Barcelona and Greece, I got one of these mandates right. I removed 2 pairs of unnecessary pants, and took less tank tops that I originally wanted to. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the far less useful piece of advice.

Arriving in Barcelona at 2am, me and my traveling companions Nicole and Jessica were ready to crash. We checked into Kabul hostel, in beautiful Plaça Reial, got our rented 2 euro sheets and went to find our room. Opening the door, the stench of beer and body odor steamed out, permeating the air and wafting into our nostrils at full force. Creeping into the room so as not to disturb anyone (although I doubt we would have…everyone in there was so drunk/stoned an earthquake wouldn’t have woken them) we strained our eyes to search for our beds. We had to navigate the maze of beer glasses, mattresses on the floor, and limp appendages hanging from them to finally reach our spots. Of course there were already half-naked, defunct revelers in them. Too tired to care, we each found an empty bed, and called it a night.

An hour later, the lights flip on. I hear rustling and think, “ What assholes are turning on the lights at 3 am?!?!” I half open my eyes and see Jessica standing there with all her sheets, with the ferocious looking Spanish hostel security and a bitchy looking girl. The hostel-bouncer starts giving the 20+ people in there an impromptu lecture. “People please,” he says in a thick Spanish accent, “if there are RANDOMS in your bed you come get me. You pay for your bed! You do not let anyone sleep in it!!”

He walks over to Jessica’s bed burglar and taps him on the shoulder. No response. Taps him a little harder. Still no response. Finally he just starts smacking him on the shoulder, then the back, then the cheek, with the entire room bursting into laugher, before the kids finally wakes from his drunken stupor. When the hostel-bouncer finally rouses him, he just stutters, “UM, uhh, yeah, but there were two girls in my bed, so I just slept here.” Exasperated, hostel-bouncer throws his hands up and walks out…..but at least now we are able to sleep.

The next morning I woke up early because of the incredible stuffy heat. I lay in bed, resting my eyes, until I hear noises coming from my right. I turn over, and see movements under the blanket of the bed directly across from me. Then there are the slurping noises. What the f…… AHHHHHHHHH! Oh my god. Hooking up in a 20 person dorm room!!! Probably the most disgusting thing I’ve seen on any of my travels so far….and I’ve stayed in a 40 person room. I scrunched my eyes closed tight, fumbled for my pants, and bolted downstairs for the free breakfast (although the thought of what was going on in that bed kinda killed my appetite).

Sexual escapades and musical beds aside, we had a lovely time in Barcelona. The main attractions were the works of the architect Gaudi, whose modern buildings are whimsical and based off flowing shapes found in nature. His unfinished cathedral, La Sagrada Familia, has sky reaching towers carved with intricate, wavy patterns, and is decorated with colorful shapes and statues, unlike absolutely anything I’ve seen in Europe so far. Only 7 or 8 of the towers were finished before he died, and they estimate that it won’t be completed until 2030. He also built this crazy park, Parc Guell, which is high up on the fringes of Barcelona. It has bright colors, whimsical statues of animals and abstract shapes, and the largest park bench in the world. My best description would be that is a real life incarnation of a Dr. Seuss book, tripping on magic mushrooms.

Besides the main tourist sights, we also enjoyed the great Paella and of COURSE the sangria. We went to the beach one day, ate ice cream almost everyday, and partied until the wee hours of the morning (hey, we just wanted to follow the local traditions!). But by Monday night we were ready to head to Greece. We packed up our backpacks, bid good riddance to the brothel that we called home for 3 days, and headed to the airport.

Our flight to Greece was at 6am, and we would have had to leave at 3:30am just to get there on time. So we arrived at the airport at 1:30am, and settled in for the rest of the night. I laid down on my towel, rested my feet on my backpack, and tangled the straps of my purse in my arms, hugging it to my chest. The floor was cold and marble, and I never thought I would be able to fall asleep but….

I jolted awake to the unpleasant feeling of a sleeping foot and a cramped calf. I groggily looked at my watch which read 2:30. I sat up, then panicked. My purse was gone. I looked under the chairs, in my back pack, and under my fleece. Nothing. I go to wake up Jessica, starting to freak out. “Jessica, wake up. I was robbed.” She bolts up, looks around, and realizes her purse is gone too. We both had passports, money, cameras and ipods, plus other random personal items. In short, our traveling lives!

We wake up Nicole, who was sleeping behind a column and had her stuff intact, and run to find security. Clearly in distress, no one offers to help and just stares at us like we’ve gone mad. 10 minutes of searching and we finally find a Spanish vigilante, a stereotypical looking, donut eating airport rent-a-cop. He speaks no English at all, and ambles uninterestedly to our aid. He calls the police, and sits around looking bored while we use our limited Spanish and the policemen’s (who look younger than us) even more limited English. We successfully cancel our credit cards, and get left by the police with the American consulate’s telephone number. Obviously without passports we can’t fly to Greece in 3 hours, and at this point we think we’re going to lose the $400 we paid for our Alitalia flights to Greece, and that our trip, not even half over, is finished.

In line to speak with the airline representative (at this point we hadn’t slept in well over 24 hours), a cute young American couple informs us that our flight has been cancelled due to the airline’s strike in Italy. This turns out to be our saving grace; the representative is incredibly understanding about our situation, and transfers our flight to the next day, no questions asked. Now all we needed were little things called passports………

Freaked-out, mad as hell, and indescribably over-tired, we start the trek to the American consulate, situated in a beautiful suburb of the city. It didn’t open until 9, and we arrived at 8:30. We camped out in front of the heavily guarded door, like suburban white-girl hobos, being stared at by the security forces with curiosity and pity. Finally gaining entry into the consulate, we started the proceedings to obtain emergency passports. I had absolutely no identity on me; it had ALL been in my wallet. Walking into the office, nightmare scenarios were flashing through my mind of having to, all alone while my friends went to Greece, take the train to Madrid and wait for days to get my passport, while sleeping on the American embassy’s couch.

Talking to the administration, it turned out to be scarily easy for me to obtain my passport. Literally, all I had to do was write my name on a piece of paper, and that was it. Although I feel that Barcelona’s consulate is well prepared for these kinds of situations….there were 3 other people in the hour and a half we were there who had also gotten their passports stolen!

One hundred dollars, 2 hours, and a lot of tears and frustration later, we both finally had our emergency passports (which will turn into our regular passports in a few months….so I’ll get to remember that wonderful day and my gorgeous photo after not sleeping for 27 hours for the next 10 years. Hooray). We checked into the first hotel we saw, and passed out in a dreamless, dead sleep for the next 6 hours.

The happy news was, I could go to Greece. The bad news… I had no money, was out 500 euro, plus my new ipod nano and my digital camera. I thought about going back to Geneva to get my life back together, but when I ran the idea across my mom, I received emails from every member in my family to the tune of “you can’t go back with your tail between your legs, you can’t quit. In this family, we are NOT quitters.” It was fast turning into the Griswold family trip to Wally World, and I was starting to sympathize with Clark after he pulverized Marty Moose, proclaiming they were going to have the “hap-hap-happiest damn vacation” they would had ever have!

In a somber mood, the three of us moved about like zombies the rest of the day, trying to suppress the horror of the morning. Things went smoothly the rest of the night, the next morning getting to the airport, and finally (it seemed like it would never come) we were on the antiquated 80’s style hunter green Alitalia plane, bound for Athens via Milan.

So much had already gone wrong so far, we were sure the rest of the trip would be as smooth as a baby’s butt…..

Oh how wrong we were.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Allez les filles: le marathon de Paris

Speeding out of Geneva at 200 km/h on the train de grand vitesse it still hadn’t hit me. Collecting my goody bag, my impossibly-small-for-a-medium t-shirt, my race bib and timing chip, reality had still not sunk in. Later that night at the hotel, laying out my shoes, socks, spandex, sports bra and U of M alumni dry-fit t-shirt, the big day still seemed eons in the future. Braiding my own hair and Julie’s into two tight French tresses, so that errant fly -aways would be the last of my worries on the 26.2 mile trek, what I was about to undertake still had not fully registered. It wasn’t until the next morning at 5 am, when my cheesy Migros themed cell phone ringer jolted me from a fitful sleep that I sat up and thought, “Shit, I’m going to run 26.2 miles today.”

After a hearty breakfast in bed (not intentionally, our hotel room was so small we literally couldn’t have eaten our petit-déjeuner of peanut butter and toast anywhere else), we double and triple checked our gear, made a desperate and unsuccessful attempt at procuring coffee from the machine in the lobby, and made our way to the République métro stop, where we were bumpily propelled to Charles de Gaulle- l’étoile….the site of the busiest traffic round about in the world, the Arc de Triomphe, and the start of the marathon.

The sight of 35,000 other runners packed into a small area on one of the most famous streets in the world (the Champs-Elysées) had me looking around every which way like an ADD kid in a toy shop. Luckily we had gotten there early enough, and had ample time to check our gear, snap the requisite pre-race “happy” photos, and wait a half an hour to pee in the porta-potty’s (I was insanely jealous of the men who could take advantage of France’s lax or non-existent public urination laws, and just line up at a wall and let it go). With 20 minutes left before race time, we ran some warm up strides, stretched, and finally went to join la grande foule at the start.

Packed like sardines amidst tens of thousands of other runners, all who appeared to be more seasoned than me, I really started to get nervous. Hearing chatter of “when I ran New York,” or my “3:30 in Chicago” I started letting myself psyche me out. I glanced at my brown 5-hour pace bracelet (which has the times of where you should be at major mile markers to complete the race in 5 hrs), an eye-sore amongst the majority of shocking pink 4hr 30min bracelets, and bright green 4 hour bracelets, and just for a moment wondered if I could really do what I was about to do. Then I snapped out of it, made a mental recap of my months of training, and chucked the bracelet to the ground; my only goal for today would be to finish the race.

The start was anti-climactic; I was so far back from the actual start that I never even heard a gun go off (in the end I found that it took be 9 minutes to get from where I was to the actual starting line). Julie and I waddled in silence and nerves, squished between the hordes of smelly runners. Approaching the start, we gave each other one last high five and went our separate ways. Funny how, surrounded by 35,000 people about to do the same exact thing as you are, you can feel so incredibly solitary. For the next 26.2 miles, there would be no music, no running buddy…..just me.

One upside that’s actually a downside to running an international marathon is that they are incredibly accommodating to foreign, non-European runners. Unfortunately, this meant that they marked the course at every kilometer, and at every mile. So at any given time during the race you knew exactly how much (or how little) you had completed, and exactly how much torture was left to come. The first 6 miles were sluggish, neither my legs nor the congestion on the street helping much. It was forecast to be a 26 degree day (79F), yet in the city, with thousands of people and buildings enclosing on all sides, the heat was definitely increased. Luckily the sights helped ease the discomfort; we ran past Le Louvre, La place de la Concorde (where they be-headed Marie-Antoinette), and La place de la Bastille (the place of the infamous prison that was stormed on July 14, leading to French independence).

After this first stretch, probably around mile 8, we headed into le bois des Vincennes, a giant forest on the outskirts of Paris. The first few miles here were probably my favorite of the entire race; my legs were feeling good, I got plenty of jeers and cheers (and even one very inappropriate joke) pertaining to my Michigan shirt, and I met some very interesting people. One woman started speaking to me in French, yet it was obvious she was an Anglophone, so we turned to English. Turns out she was also living in Geneva, and a cellist in the chamber orchestra, who had driven up the night before, and arrived a mere 3 hours before the race! I ran with another man, a 6’5’’ Brazilian who probably weighed 300 pounds, because he had asked me if I went to Michigan. I replied yes, and he replied, ‘’Me, 4 years at MSU. I may be Brazilian (tugging at the flag emblazoned on the soccer jersey he wore), but my heart is in East Lansing.”

The camaraderie and festivity stopped, however, around mile 10. I was getting dehydrated, and seeing an aid station at that point was like spotting a non-mirage oasis in the desert. I picked up the pace knowing water would be waiting…..only it wasn’t. “Il ne reste encore plus, il ne reste encore plus!”(There’s none left) was the only answer the race volunteers could give anyone. There were lots of angry jeers, but it didn’t seem worth wasting any energy in telling off les bénévoles. I tried to suck it up and continue, but another 3 miles without water was a long way. Luckily it was in the forest, and the shade helped a bit. But a mile away from the defunct aid station, I couldn’t take it any longer and grabbed a bottle off the ground, desperately guzzling it all in one go. I painfully stooped and picked up another, and poured this one over my head. Gross, I know…..but desperate times call for desperate measures. The next aid station was out of water as well, but at least this one had a hose. I caught a quick spray, soaked myself and was on my way.

Exiting le bois des Vincennes marked the important 13.1 mile half marathon marker. There were balloons, bands, and people stopping to take pictures with loved ones. My legs were on auto-pilot, starting to get tired, but also knowing they had come this far before and could surely do it again. Pushing on, we started the return on the banks of the river Seine. There was tons of crowd support as we passed Notre Dame, les jardins des Tuileries and la Tour Eiffel. The Parisians seemed much more impressed by the women running the race, and my running was sometimes set to the constant yelling of “Allez les filles, Allez les filles!” (literally: go the girls). Tons of spectators were yelling, “Ouaaais (yeah), Meee-SHEE-gan!,” and I had several people scream “GO BLUE!”, or “I went to Michigan too!” I was desperately happy at this point to have some distraction; out of the forest there was no more shade, the temperatures were really starting to rise, and we were running on rolling hills, in and out of stiflingly hot tunnels. This lasted until about mile 19. It was difficult, but in retrospect merely scraping the surface of what would come in the last 6.2 miles.

Approaching the sign for mile 20, the longest run I had completed in training, there was a woman screaming repeatedly at the top of her lungs, “C’est tout dans la tête!” (It’s all in your head.) Entering “no-man’s land,” I set the rhythm of 5 footfalls to my new mantra "c'est-tout-dans-la-tête", and crossed into the final leg of the race. By mile 20, my legs felt like wood. I was sweating buckets and drying up in 5 minutes, leaving a grainy film of salt coating my face and neck. I was burning in the afternoon sun, and the only thing to get me through was the promise of water and a couple of orange slices at the next aid station (which they thankfully still had). Never mind I only had 6 miles to go, my only objective was to get to where there was water.

Slowly but surely, I passed mile 21. Walked a few yards, refueled, and painfully restarted my awkward, plodding jog. We had now entered another forest, Le bois de Boulogne, and merciful shade enveloped large portions of the street. Mile 22, water, walk, restart. Just get to mile 23, just get to mile 23 was my anthem. At this point the finish was SO close, a mere 3 mile jog, yet seemed like the longest eternity of all eternities. After mile 23, (and slightly perking up by running past Roland Garros, the tennis stadium where French Open takes place), I shuffled to mile 24. We had to go around a lake, which was psychologically defeating because you could see the faster runners around the other side of the lake, heading to the home stretch. I was so dehydrated and thirsty, yet my stomach was sloshing from my over zealous consumption of water, and my whole body was aching like all hell. I had to stop and walk at this point, and was dazed off in my own little world until I heard a voice say, “Hey, when did you graduate?” Another runner stopped next to me, and started chatting. Turns out she, Liz, had graduated from U of M the year before me, moved to London to work, and had already done 2 marathons. We walked for awhile, then ran, then walked. I was not all “there” at this point, but having something, anything to focus on other than how awful I felt was extremely helpful. I didn’t want to be the one talking, so I asked her all kinds of asinine questions about her time at U of M, her work in London, and her other marathons (London and New York), to save what little energy I had left and still attempt to be amicable. I told her she should go ahead and not slow down for me, but to my surprise she said she’d been walking most of the past 5 miles, and that I was the one helping her.

Up in the distance we saw the God-Send that was the 25 mile marker. Passing it, I asked my new found companion if she had any wisdom for the next 1.2 miles. “Make sure you sprint the end, it feels amazing” she said “and don’t cry if you think you should see the finish and you don’t. It always comes eventually.” Passing the 25 mile mark, the clock read 4:57. WHAT?!?!?! I was in shock. I knew there was no chance in hell I would be able to run a 3 minute mile at the end of the marathon, but with the lag time between the actual start and the time I crossed the start line (which would be my official time), there could be a chance for me to finish under 5 hours. I started to pick up the pace, and Liz fell behind. I turned to ask if she wanted to pick it up with me, but she just grinned and said, “No, I’m good. Go and try for your 5.”

With that I took off. Well.....took off might not be the right word. But I certainly tried as hard as I could to run as hard as I could. I was absolutely dying, but I was passing people left and right on a nice shady stretch to the finish. A certain amount of time passed, of which I have no idea….I was totally in la-la land. I heard people yelling “500 mètres! 500 mètres!” Quoi?!?! Holy crap, I am almost done. I looked in the distance and couldn’t see anything, so I tried to keep a steady pace. Pretty soon, yelling of “200 mètres, 200 mètres!” I still couldn’t see a finish, but at this point I started sprinting in. Turning a corner, I could see a huge crowd, and very un-impressive black scaffolding to mark the finish. My lungs, my legs, my whole body was burning, but I was still moving and passing people in the home stretch. “Allez,
Marr-GAR-ettttte, ALLEZ” (our names were on our backs) I heard people yelling. I could see the finish, the carpet you had to step over to record your time, and thousands of people cheering on all sides. 50 meters, 20 meters…….I passed a final cluster of people and squeezed my way through the still crowded finish line. I stomped on the timing carpet, and slowed to walk. 5:17. It definitely hadn’t taken me 17 minutes to cross the start line, so I knew I hadn’t gotten under 5 hours, but at this point I could have cared less. I just completed a marathon.

Elated and dazed, I continued through to receive my medal, and tried to stand straight and not wobble or fall over as a race volunteer placed one around my neck. Continuing down the line I got a poncho, and stocked up on free water, apples and bananas. Walking back to get my stuff, I was smiling like an idiot, but the pain was also starting to set it. I had tremendous pain in my toes every time my feet touched the pavement, so I took to walking on the outsides of my feet. I made a half-hearted attempt to find Julie in the crowd, but pretty soon walking became too painful so I cleared some gravel on a curb, put my poncho over my head to I wouldn’t continue to become a lobster, and waited to share my joy of having finished my first 26.2.

Turns out Julie had finished a long time before me (3:50….WOW) and had waited at the finish for me until 6 hrs, figuring I had either already finished or gotten hurt. She checked the first aid tent (I did the same thing when I couldn’t find her) then went for a free massage. We finally found each other, hugged and started babbling like idiots at each other about everything and anything marathon related. Walking like grannies back to the hotel, we napped, showered and went out for a celebratory and way over priced kir royal (champagne and crème de cassis liqueur) and dinner, then called it a night. The next day, we hobbled around Paris to do some sight seeing, half-smiling at everyone else we saw hobbling and limping around the city of lights.


One week later, and the soreness is gone. In fact, all I have left form the marathon now are my t-shirt, medal, number, and 3 black toenails, due to fall off any day now. Finishing the marathon, I was so incredibly happy to have completed my goal, but just as ecstatic about not having to run anymore. In the moments just afterwards, I probably would have said I will ever run one of these again. But I think marathons are like child birth; you swear it off for good immediately after, then look back and don’t remember the pain, only remember the amazing moments and the incredible feat your body was able to accomplish. And before long, you want to do it again.

I ran today, 3 miles in beautiful albeit hot weather. It felt good, but also strange to be running just to be running, without a plan or goal in mind. Enjoying the scenery, enjoying my music, enjoying my stride. Running just for running can be pretty amazing too. Thinking back to crossing that finish line, being able to tell myself that “I ran 26.2 miles today” makes me feel like I can accomplish anything that I set my mind to. And leaves me hungry to improve my time, break the 5 hr. mark or even 4:30, and maybe someday qualify for Boston.

I guess I should enjoy running without a cause, plan or purpose, because I don’t think it’ll be long before I lace up mes chaussures for the next marathon, wherever it may be.

Friday, March 30, 2007


Peeling off my long john’s after a long day of boarding, I walk into the kitchen (a disaster as usual after the weekend, God forbid they actually put their own dishes into the washer for once) and see the dreaded note. Illegibly written and especially difficult to decipher on the odd graph paper that is commonplace en Suisse, it contains any new information, errands, tasks, or sugar-coated reprimands that Michelle may have for me.

This list, I can tell, will be particularly difficult. Although I won’t know for sure until I talk to her tomorrow, I’ve become somewhat of an expert at understanding the written monosyllabic caveman language that nearly all her printed communications contain.

Lotion. Shirts. Press-on. Juice. Pumps; a tricky code, yet I think I have it mostly cracked.

Lotion. Every morning before Benji gets dressed, I have to dip my hands into slimy goo and slather it on his little body….and I mean everywhere (the best way to describe my feelings towards doing this is the shudder Homer makes when he sees Mr. Burns getting out of the bathtub…..EwhhhUUuhhhHH). While I have faithfully applied the cream every morning since the day when it first appeared on “the list,” she feels the need to constantly remind me that it is one of my duties. Either that or Benji has lied and said I haven’t been putting his moisturizer on him, as he has already done on several occasions.

Shirts. Simple. Every week like a good little au pair/servant girl, I drop off and pick up mounds of Marc and Michelle's dry cleaning at the local tenturerie et Pressing. Come on, gimme something a bit more challenging that that!

Press-on. Most definitely a tricky one. My immediate thought was press-on nails, but after reflecting for a minute, I realized that since Michelle is neither a Ghetto fabulous woman, nor a 13 year old girl, that this was probably not that case. Plus they wouldn’t go with her $500 dollar pants and designer shoes. So what then? Stickers for the kids, those press-on boob covers (I believe to be called “Pasties”) for when you are a backless prom dress? Totally stumped. Touché! [Later found out, after much confusion and gesturing, that this is what Australians call a snap.]

Juice. Hmmm. Do we need to buy more? Did I (*gasp*) accidentally get non-organic? Did a juice box explode in Benji’s backpack and she wants me to clean it out? Ohh how I wish any of the previous scenarios had been correct. But alas, no. Over the weekend in Chamonix, Michelle decided that “they [the boys] should have fresh orange juice in the morning” because “it’s just soooooo much nicer and fresher, and has all the vitamins they need.” So now, 2 to 3 times a week, I get to wake up 20 minutes earlier to slice, sqeeze and strain (because quelle horreur if her babies were to ingest any errant pulp) 6 or 7 oranges per morning. I was secretly rejoicing when the first time I juiced, Toby threw a shit fit and refused to drink it, screaming his despise for juice at the top of his lungs. But after much cajoling (read: bribing) from Michelle, he decided that he liked it too.

A seemingly simple task, yet so maddening, because it’s something that, if they didn’t have an au pair to do it for them, they would never think to do themselves, especially during the week. Without someone to do it for them, the 5 franc per bottle organic, vitamin infused juice that they buy would then surely suffice. To me the situation is unjust and them using me, and making me do it solely because I’m there. As if making oatmeal, unloading a dishwasher, packing lunches, and wrestling a toddler into multiple layers of clothing wasn’t enough to do in the 45 minutes between the kids waking up and them having to be at school. But here I am sentenced to juicing the majority of the week, the only outlet for my frustration being to bang the strainer and the juicing apparatus loudly against the metal sink, trying to let some of my anger go while neatly hiding the ruckus under the cloak of “de-pulping.”

Pumps. The last and by far most bizarre item on the list, I would rationally think she wanted me to take a pair of heels in to be fixed, or perhaps even buy an air pump for bicycle tires. But then, something in a bag on the floor catches my eye. A half dome mounted on a piece of foam, with a long plastic shaft attached to the bottom with an open hole at the opposite end.

Certainly not shoes, and I see no pins to connect to a bike tire. What other types of “pumps” exist in the world, and what kinds of things do you use them for?

Let your mind be creative with this one, and be thankful your life isn’t as strange as mine.