Saturday, February 5, 2011

My opinion: whoever said life isn't fair was just plain wrong.

In taking a year off to travel, I hoped that with the experiences would come rest, healing, peace, understanding and acceptance of my life. In all of that I had an ah-ha moment: life is fair.

After thinking about fairness in the larger global scale and reflecting on my life, I realized that life is fair and God is good, even if it doesn't feel true in the moment.

During the years of my mom being sick I'd sometimes be so mad that I'm the one with the mom battling cancer, the one watching her best friend die. Though her death is devastating, it isn't unjust because we have a God of Righteousness, and Goodness and Love. It feels like my mom died way too young , but for 31 years I had an incredible mother, caregiver, travel companion and friend that I hope to be more like every day. I wouldn't trade that quality for quantity, ever.When I meet orphans in Africa who have never know their moms my life seems way more than equitable.

I could argue that it is not fair that my parents got divorced when I was nine. But as a result my mom, brother and I developed a unique, tightly woven family relationship that was wonderful growing up. It can seem impossible to find justice in our lives, but it's there if we just look hard enough. Just because life is fair doesn't mean it isn't heartbreaking. It is, but heartbreak without hope isn't a sustainable way to live.

I saw a man on the news several months back whose entire family was killed in a home robbery. After the guilty verdict, his words  rang so true for me. He said that the hole in his heart will never heal, it will never go away. But that over time, the edges of the hole become less jagged. The hole though, it will remain forever. I agree with him. I'm just trying to learn how to live with that hole that goes through my heart and pierces my soul.

Tomorrow will be two year since she left this earth. I miss her now more than ever, I miss her completely every day. She would want me to live out loud with the resilience she instilled in me rather than live in sadness. I honor her though my earthly living since she no longer can, and await the day we are reunited in Heaven.

It seems appropriate to finish with words my mom wrote in 2003:

"Some days I find it ironic to be praying to live.  I'm sure when I get to heaven I'll wonder why I wanted to delay the trip.  But we're made of dust, and it's hard to shake the dust off our feet.  I know that when I'm old and tired, or sick and tired, I'll be ready to leave this earth.

My desire is to hang around down here and be a grandmother several times over.  So I'm praying for continued remission or healing or whatever it is I'm experiencing.  If God says, "No," I will have to depend on Him to help me be strong and brave and surrender gracefully.  I'm not worried about being dead; it is the dying part that scares me.  Actually, I'm really hoping for the rapture. But whatever happens, I know I'll be okay.

I'm thankful that I'm learning to recognize that God's plans and mine haven't always coincided. My plans usually revolved around certain circumstances dealing with temporal happiness, and His revolved around obedience and trials and lead to inner joy for me and glory for Him.  So now, I try to write my plans in pencil and be ready to erase as He teaches me more about my purpose as His child."

- Sharon Jacobs

(I've included my mom's testimony video she recorded for her memorial service, it's split in two parts...)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The thing about Paris

I struggle to sum up my summer in Paris. I'll start with what I know for sure: these past few months have been one of the most incredible experiences of my life. The uninhibited fun I had this summer rivals my college days. I'm certain I've never worked so hard or so much. My life in Paris required an inordinate amount of energy and the ability be highly functioning - even entertaining - on very little sleep. Even though my days were seemingly repetitive giving the same speeches on the same tour routes, every day was filled with an unexpected adventure.

Being a bicycle tour guide in the City of Light has to be the greatest job in the world. I met so many wonderful and interesting people this summer. I also met really annoying ones. How I'll ever sit in a cube again after having the streets of Paris as my office is hard to imagine. This job requires more patience and toughness than I ever knew I had in me. Back in July when I was working triples (16 hour day) and completely exhausted I thought that 31 August would never arrive. And now that it soared past I'm left me wanting to wind back the clock, not ready to say goodbye to the people or the position.

One evening a few weeks back after work a group of us had relay races on kiddie bikes. A bunch of ultra-competitive tour guides racing around on tiny 20 -inch bicycles was absolutely hysterical.  I recently went to an "en plein air" cinema in a park and watched Grease. We sang along with Sandy and sipped French wine. It doesn't take an organized effort to have a wonderful night in Paris. Like the night I biked to meet friends at super cool restaurant called Ave Maria and devoured Himalyan food, then pedaled around the city. Those are perfect nights.
Bike Race

I'm all about biking now. I love biking to the market and putting fresh produce in my bike's basket. Pedaling home with a baguette makes me feel so French. Fortunately I never had one get stuck in my bicycle spokes. I'd love to live in a city where biking is a popular mode of transport. Lately I find myself day dreaming about what kind of business I'd like to open in Paris....taqueria perhaps? I'm also noodling on starting an adventure travel company for women. One that combines self-discovery, reaching stretch goals and devouring delicious food all while staying in a villa on a beautiful ocean for a week. Many new dreams and ideas noisely roll around my head like my suitcase wheels on cobblestone streets. I may get tired of the noise so pick one of the ideas up and carry it somewhere new.

I met a man on a train on my way down to Bordeaux that challenged me in conversation on the idea of "blissipline." His thought is that we need not worry about being disciplined and instead focus on what makes us happy and content. Making money in and of itself should never be a goal for someone; rather it should only be a means to the real goals, be them traveling, gardening, shopping, golfing. Travel is my blissipline. Engaging new people and triumphing over challenges are my blissipline. The past eight months since I left the US have been charging after my bliss.

Ten years ago I took my first bike tour in Munich. That's when I got the idea in my head that it would be great to be a bicycle tour guide in Europe. It's been a dream of mine for years to pack my corporate life into boxes and pack a bag for a trip around the world. I finally decided to turn my ideas into reality. No one gave me this chance, I just simply decided to stop waiting for my dreams to come to me and instead go after my dreams. It is never too late, too hard or too impossible to experience life in the way we really desire. The biggest obstruction standing in the way is ourselves. Now I'm warming up a whole new crock-pot full dreams and ten years from now I hope to be writing about how fulfilling they were, and coming up with new ones.

Monday, September 20, 2010

I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream, gelato and sorbet

Before I left for my around the world trip in January I had a question of great importance posed to me. One which required thoughtful consideration before answering, one which would be a true window to my soul. The question: what is your favorite flavor of ice cream? I thought about it for a minute and landed on vanilla as my favorite flavor. Good old fashioned creamy vanilla. I was scorned for my choice, scoffed at for such a simple choice. I knew that this summer on Fat Tire's night bike route that we stop for Paris' famous Berthillon ice cream (that I get for free) so it became my goal that by summer's end I'd have an answer for my favorite ice cream that is as firm as a fresh from the freezer carton of Blue Bell.

So with great vigor I set out on this quest of self-discovery. I've had sorbet, gelato and ice cream. I've had flavors I never knew existed. A few that I tried this summer: licorice, Speculos (like gingerbread), chocolate nougat, nougat with honey, pistachio, hazelnut, cherry, melon, lemon, mango, peach, pear, grapefruit, lychee, passion fruit, fig, lavender, banana, avocado, chocolate picante, chewing gum, Grand Marnier, yogurt with berries, Nutella, caramel and gingerbread, cactus, profiterole, Bounty, chocolate, dark chocolate, white chocolate, cappuccino, cafe, caramel with butter and salt. So much of the ice cream experience is the pairings. Picking two flavors of ice cream is a skill much like pairing fine wines with stinky cheeses. Only there is no class for this; something this delicate comes only with many years of practice. Two of my best parings of the summer were on night bike and they were chocolate nougat and pistachio, and cherry and melon sorbets. The biggest disaster was the pairing of Bounty and cactus. Often times I leave my pairings to the real pros and I tell the gelato scooper to surprise me with the two "best" gelatos. This technique has rarely failed me and generally pushes me to the outer bounds of cold creamy deliciousness.

The chewing gum gelato was a result of a communication barrier in Nice and when actually wanting vanilla with jelly beans. I would have never picked chewing gum and it turned out to be a surprising treat. I felt an obligation to try the avocado as I had never seen it before but love it in the non-ice cream form. It really didn't really sound that appealing, nor was the taste of it. Speculos is something we don't have in the US, when really it's so fantastic it should be our largest imported product from Europe. I'm bringing home as many jars of the Belgian gingerbread spread as I can fit in my bags. (I mailed a jar to my brother earlier this summer because it's just that good and he too has placed an order for me to bring him back Speculos.) Be it in the form of a spread, cookies or ice cream, Speculos is definitely vying for the top of my list.

But one night it happened. It started out as a night bike like any followed by 23 tourists on bikes dominating the streets of the Latin Quarter en route to Ile St Louis (tiny island in Paris next to Île de la Cite which is the island Notre Dame stands on). Île Saint-Louis has been home to Berthillon ice cream since it started there in 1960s. It's made fresh every morning, no preservatives, nothing artificial and it's shipped no where in the world. It's only available on these two tiny island sandwiched between the left and right banks of Paris. The flavors are always different so you must approach the ice cream counter with an open mind and a burning in your belly that can only be quelched with two frozen scoops of Bertillion. As the guide I cut to the front of the line where my girl Margot scoops me up a treat and then I head back to the bridge between the two islands to watch my group's bikes. Often times I tell Margot to pick, which she does a sublime job of doing. But on this night, I saw on the flavor board "caramel avec gingrebred." I wasn't exactly sure what to expect but since those are two of my favorite flavors I knew I was in for something good. The ice cream ended up being caramel flavored with pieces of freshly baked gingerbread mixed in it. It was as if someone baked fresh gingerbread then cut it into tiny pieces to be intermingled with the cararmel ice cream. Somehow the bread maintained its soft bounce and delicate moisture. The only thing I can think of is that it was truly an ice cream miracle. And so it came to be on that fateful nightbike tour that caramel with gingerbread ice cream came to be my answer to one of the greatest questions on earth. It became my favorite ice cream.

Realizing that I was unlikely to ever see that flavor of ice cream again anywhere in the world I contemplated again this great mystery of my favorite. I went back to the wise poser of the question and told him that with great bravery and valor I completed my journey this summer to discover my favorite flavor. Only I'm back where I started: vanilla is wonderful and so are many, many other flavors. I asked if it was okay if I didn't have a favorite? Parents aren't suppose to choose favorites among their children, right? So I cast myself as "mother ice cream" and choose not to have a favorite.

I heart tourists.

Some people are bird watchers. Me, I am a tourist watcher. And I'm no amateur. After this summer I'm full-fledged professional. Of course, I was also thinking earlier this summer that since I get paid to ride a bike that I'm a professional athlete but that logic is likely a bit skewed. Birds are beautiful and graceful. Tourists are annoying and oblivious.

I've always been a people-person. Still am. But after this summer I'm completely jaded against tourists. Especially the American species of tourists. It may sound harsh, but if you spent every day navigating the streets, sidewalks and bike lanes of Paris weaving between tourists and herding 25 people behind you, you too would feel the same way. Bike lanes are painted to be obvious. Two small lanes with a picture of a person on a bicycle every 15 feet or so painted on the lane. The person on the bike picture even indicates which way the bike lane goes to remove any complication for our friends from Commonwealth countries that may forget to ride on the right. Only I spend much of every day yelling at people walking in the bike lane and pointing to the pictogram. "Bike lane, no pietons! Velo Velo! Watch out! Move.You're walking in a bike lane!" I probably say it in my sleep now. I can definitely say it in several languages. And my favorite is the people who not only walk in the bike lane, but come to a stop in the lane perhaps to look at a map or pick their wedgie that rides high under their fanny pack. Whatever the reason, it makes me nuts. The people who I yell at actually have the nerve to yell back or muster up a dirty look and flash it my way. I'm really yelling for their safety! I'm the one on the bike - I could clearly mow them over and have my flock of 25 sheep behind me do the same thing. There was a girl walking in a well-marked narrow bike lane near Place de la Concorde, literally right next to a foot path. She had her iPod in and was choosing whether to play Beyonce or Brittany so she didn't hear me yelling. I didn't have much room and I literally hit her with my handle bar. Not on purpose, I'm not that hateful. But she left me no choice. I won't comment on the record if it felt just a little bit satisfying to ram her.

The American species is the easiest to spot. Men with their khaki shorts, white tube socks, white tennies and baseball cap make them an easy mark. I've seen people walk around with cameras so large around their necks they can probably see into the future with their giant lenses. I wonder if they really know how to frame a shot or extend a shutter speed to accommodate the darkness of night. No one can fill up the width of a broad sidewalk like a group of American tourists. We tend to spread out so much that three people can fill an entire 12 foot path. We meander completely obvious to two-way foot traffic, and give a startled little jump, sometimes even a yelp, when 25 bikers or 8 Segway riders come zooming past. It's the stopping with no warning that is the ultimate bane of my existence. Common sense says if you want to stop, move to the side. It's like being a tourist completely sucks the sagacity out of people. I can be guilty of it too; I am by no means a perfect tourist.

The loudness with which Americans tend to talk is also a big clue, especially in restaurants. Ordering food is a sign of origin, because in France no one is interested in holding the butter, putting the dressing on the side or making your latte with soy milk. It's not that the French are rude and want to be unaccommodating; it's just not the culture of the French to come into a restaurant and go all "When Harry Met Sally" on the servers.

On tour I get asked a lot of questions. I warn my groups I'll try my best to answer their questions and if I don't know I'll just make something up! The best questions are the ones that are really, really stupid. Yes, Notre Dame is open on Sundays as it is a church after all. No, Napoleon was not in the Italian Army. No, the Texas flag is not the Confederate Dixie flag. No, we do not have adult training wheels for our bikes and if you're asking that you should not come out on tour. Yes, I do live here...what do you think I commute here from the US every day? No, I do not speak French. Yes, I still do manage to survive in Paris. The one question I absolutely love and am asked at least once a day is if I just graduated from college. It helps me live in denial about the wiry gray hairs I see in the mornings as I pull my hair into a pony tail.

Little kids tend to want to ride up front with me. And even though their bikes have bells that they incessantly ring I enjoy having them up front. I generally ride up front alone and the kids keep up with me and pepper me with questions the entire tour. They absolutely crack me up. I had an adorable nine-year-old boy that was super smart and a great rider. The ENTIRE tour he would say, "Miss Stefani, can I ask you a question?" And then out would come the most hilarious question about Napoleon or French hot dogs. My favorite question he asked was, "you said that over 500 people have fallen to their death off the Eiffel Tower. Out of those 500 people, what percent do you think jumped, what percent got pushed and what percent accidentally fell over?" I said, "Well little man, I'm afraid that they all chose to jump." To which he simply replied with innocent wonderment, "wow." I hope I didn't give him nightmares.

I poke fun at tourists and I stand by my reasons but have not turned into a misanthrope. Truthfully, I'm just glad to see Americans traveling. According to the US State Department, only 22% of Americans even have a passport! It's shameful. So when my rubber bicycle tire meets the road, I applaud them for coming to Paris. For some people coming on a bike tour is a big stretch. For many it's been years since they were last on a bike, and riding down St. Germain Blvd. into the heart of Latin Quarter with taxis and buses honking and weaving through our lane is intimidating to some riders. I applaud those who push themselves beyond the comfort zone of familiarity. So for saving their pennies, getting out off their sofas and crossing the pond to Europe I think tourists really are a good thing. Everyone should be a tourist...just watch out for the bike lane.