One of the hardest parts about being an expat is the cravings. It is like being pregnant for years and years and never being able get that one item that would satisfy your hankering.

Now I live in France and from what I have heard, the food is pretty good. Sure we can pick up duck and fois gras and creme fraîche in any supermarket in town but man, what I wouldn’t give for a can of Spam.

Growing up in Ohio, I lived off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, tuna fish casserole with crushed potatoes chips on top, Campbell’s soup…. But in my 20’s I decided to move to the land of croissants but now pushing 50 I am cursed with cravings for Pop Tarts.

Yes, I can get organic ham from black pigs that have raised range free in a forest feasting only on acorns, but it is not SPAM.

When I hear that a colleague is going on a business trip to the States, I try sweet-talking them into bring me back some contraband. The easiest thing I can ask for is extra crunchy Jiff peanut butter. (Yes, my cravings are specific and brand loyal.)

I would like to think of myself as a generous person but the story is still circulating at work about the time a French colleague saw a jar of extra crunchy Jiff peanut butter that had just been smuggled in and was sitting on my desk. She asked if she could taste it, …now, I really don’t believe this version of the story…. but it seems I bluntly said no.

She insisted and I explained that 1. She would not appreciate it and 2. She would probably criticize it.

Really. That hardly sounds like me.

I do go back to the States with my son every summer to visit the folks back home.

Kind of like salmon.

But my primal urge is to go home to eat processed food instead of spawning. (Can’t really spawn, I am at my parents…)

I usually make a list of everything I want to eat in a two week stretch. Denny’s, Pop Tarts, chips and salsa, Chex mix, triskets, Taco Bell, American Chinese, ohhhh. And Big Red gum. I tend to look like a baseball player with a plug in my cheek the entire two weeks I am home.

I usually buy an extra suitcase to put in the hold on the flight back that is full of peanut butter, crumbled bacon, Pop Tarts and my gum. I can usually make my stash last until Christmas but I make an exception for Big Red.

Like people who only smoke that one cigarette on the weekend and on Saturday night, I ration out pieces of Big Red to last untill at least May.

But it is more than just junk food. It is a taste of home, of comfort, of love. When I have a hard day at work, I know that a can of Campbell’s soup will be waiting for me at home. Proust had his Madelines, I have spoonfuls of crunchy peanut butter to calm me down and take me back.

Last Saturday, my 15 year old son asked if some friends could sleep over and play video games. Sure, why not? We had a BBQ and they dragged mattresses down to the living room to set up for an all night geek fest. I went upstairs at about 11 and told them to keep the noise down. They are good kids, the lot of them, I thought as I made out my light.

The next morning when I came down the stairs a familiar odor hung in the air. A feeling of dread hit me. What was l thinking leaving 4 teenage boys alone? The boys were dead asleep on the floor as I ran to the kitchen thinking “ohnoohnoohnoohno.”

I ran right past the fridge stocked with beer, I continued past the kitchen sink where I store the hard alcohol. I reached right for the highest shelf in the farthest cubbard where I stash my Big Red gum.

My worst fear was confirmed. The little bastards had found my stash in the middle of the night.

The house reeked of cinnamon and little wrapper lay all over the kitchen counters. Adding insult to injury, there was even one chewed piece casually tossed and stuck on my dining room table.

That was it. As a punishment, I drove to the little bakery and bought croissants. Huh. No Walmart extra fluffy pancakes for them! That will teach them.

When I got home, they were waking up. I told them that a certain piece of disgusting on my dining room table and all wrappers should be disposed of IMMEDIATELY. I sent them outside to eat their flaky croissants on the terrace while I stood inside, hold down my tongue with a giant spoonful of extra crunchy Jiff peanut butter…. that was put aside just for this kind of occasion.

You planted what?

Neighbors make good fences and fences make good neighbors, the old adage goes. So what does that make for neighbors who destroy a hedge?

I have the most wonderful neighbors, they are quiet and respectful, their three children are adorable and when we bake, samples get passed over the hedge.

Or they used to until one day they decided to pull six feet of the hedge separating our terraces down. “Do you mind?” They asked, with hacksaw in hand. “No…no” I replied weakly.

If we had sprawling estates, that would be one thing.. but we shared a common wall and if we stand on our terraces, we can shake hands. Or wave, or have no privacy.

Once I had a gentleman caller over and we were sitting in the garden. The wife sent her 8 year old son out with some cakes. We thanked him and as my guest bit into the first cake, a little voice over his shoulder asked if he liked it. His mother waved him into the house but the feeling that we were not alone soured the taste of those cakes.

They did put up a retractable screen but since it can get quite windy in Toulouse, it is not permentally up. I used to like going outside in my bathrobe and enjoy my first cup of coffee in my garden…now I drink it standing up looking out my French doors.

I decided I needed something that could grow up the now exposed chain link fence…and fast. I went to the garden store, made an impulse purchase, and voilà.

The next day at work I stopped by to see two of my favorite people, who just happen to share an office and are both British. Now, If I go to my French girlfriends for fashion advice, the Britanic duo are my gardening experts.

I explained to them my brilliant solution to my problem. C. Sipping her tea asked what I planted. She almost spit it out when I replied, “ivy.”

They both said incredulously, “you planted IVY?” I weakly answer that I want to grow something fast. Calming down and assessing the situation, they asked what kind did I plant. I started to reply that I bought… They looked at each other and started laughing…”she bought!” “What, what? Com’on, what?

They went on to explain that ivy is considered to be a pest and that most people try to get rid of it, much less pay money for it.

“Next she will say she watered it…” “…or fertilized it!”

It? Not it. 5 plants worth. This set them off rolling in their chairs…

When I went home that night I checked on my gremlins. Right now they are little and cute. And I did water them. And fertilizing might not be such a bad idea…

Who says you can’t buy friends?

On the drive back from a long weekend in Spain, we pulled off at a shopping area right before we crossed the border back into France.

I was on a mission.

At band practice, one lady would always bring in a thermo filled with a potent punch. After my humiliation and the obvious fact I was in Philippe’s crosshair, I needed allies in the group. As perceptive as Jane Goodall when sitting in that jungle, I too was trying to find ways of being accepted by the other musicians. Well, practicing and getting the trombone part down pat would have been the OBVIOUS choice, but I had another idea.

As I was pushing the cart down the wide asiles, I found what I was looking for, the liquor section. Now, I don’t normally drink. I have beer and wine at home when I entertain but I usually steer clear of the hard stuff. So my son stared at me, mouth wide open, as I struggled to get a 3 litre box of rum off the shelf and into the cart. “What are you doing?” He said incredulously. “Mommy is buying friends, dear,” I retorted as I headed to check out.

The next Thursday, I showed up early to set up my music stand and as brown-nosy as putting an apple on the teacher’s desk.. I set out the carton of rum. The others arrived and started saying hello when one of them spied the box. “Qui a amené ça?” She ask. I nonchalantly raised my hand, trying to look like I was studying my sheet music. The others saw it and shot appreciative glances my way. There was a spout on the box and everyone was spiking their punch.

So by the time we started, everyone was loose and in a good mood. Now my partner in crime, Eve, couldn’t make it that night so I was playing akwardly solo. And I was standing there even more akwardly whenever they rehearsed a song without a brass part.

But that night was different.

When Philippe called out that the next song would be “Shout” but the Isley Brothers, one of the backup singers motioned for me to join them. I put my trombone down and walked up to the mic trying to remember if I had garlic at lunch. This was a classic from my high school days back in Ohio. At every school dance in the cafeteria, they would play this song. So singing back up on the shobie-do wap…wap wap waps was not a challenge at all.

In fact, it was glorious. We were dancing and singing, the lead singer was on fire as were the guitars and the drums. A collective whooohoo went out when we finished. Before I even had a chance to leave the mic, the next song started.

Lucille Ball could not have found herself in a more awkward situation with Desi at the Copa Club.

The girls started dancing and I started to panic. I stared at their feet and tried to mimic their dance moves. I started to gain confidence until they started to sing. In Spanish.

The song was “El Negro Zumbon”.. umm what, come again? It is a classic known throughout Europe. It was even featured in the film “Cinema Paradiso.” I can assure you. It was not played at the high school dances back in Ohio.

So I tried to fake it.

Fake it as best as you can while singing into a live mic. In a language you don’t understand. While dancing a choreographed routine you don’t know.

Philippe thought he would help.

He slowly walked over singing and playing his guitar, enunciating the lyrics to me. He could have been singing in Greek. It is like when the teacher approaches and you don’t know the answer… Go away, I wanted to hiss, you are not helping. The song finally ended and signaled the end of rehearsal.

The others asked if I was taking the box home with me, I said no and told them to use it for the punch for the next time.

And after that night, I was sure there would be a next time.

Adventures in Botox

When I called the plastic surgeon for an appointment, she asked what I was interested in. “Ohhhh, I’ve got a droopy eyelid.” Which is true. My grandmother had it, my mother had it. Grandma did nothing and my mom got a tuck.

So, since 50 is around the corner, and the droop is becoming visible, I went to see the good doctor recommended by a friend.

After looking at it, she said the one word I was not expecting…”Botox.”


Really? She suggested injections would work better than any surgery. I hesitated.

There is a stigma about using Botox, like it is cheating, in a way.

Concidering my six years of extensive orthodontistry as a child and my monthly hair appointment now to cover the grey, what difference would a little Botox make at this point?

I admitted to a few close friends that I was considering Botox injections. The reactions were varied. Some said I didn’t need it, some were horrified, others asked if I could give them my doctor’s number.

In the end, I decided to go for it.

That is how I found myself on a Thursday afternoon, laying on a table with plastic wrap on my face. Another new experience, as my mother would say. But she didn’t know I was there.

Because I didn’t tell her.

Over the years, when I could call home, my parents would casually mentioned various surgeries, but only after the fact. “How’s Dad?” “Oh, recovering well from his gall bladder surgery…” “What? You didn’t tell me he was having surgery… I called you Tuesday!” When it has been cosmetic, my mother doesn’t mention it at all … waiting, I guess, for me to notice. This game is very unnerving, like trying to see if Mom is now Mom 2.0.

So, now it was my turn to play, guess-what’s-new. But first, I had to be brave enough for the injections. The doctor came over once the numbing gel had worked its magic. After taking a pen and having drawn nine (9!) dots around my eyes, she started the injections. The ones by my forehead were barely noticeable but when she went to the sides of my eyes, I had to hold myself still. But compared to an orthodontist visit, this was nothing.

When she had finished, I went to see her assistant for payment and instructions. “Sleep only on your back tonight” she warned. “Why? Why?” I started to panic as I could feel my forehead freezing up. “You don’t want the Botox to spread..” Spread? Where would it spread? Turns out to other muscles in the face causing, guess what… A droopy eyelid.

So sleep on my back it would be. I was also told not to rub my face and why not forgo make-up for a day or two. The list was getting long.

I then asked a question that I am sure I am the first woman ever to ask after getting Botox, “but can I play the trombone tonight?”

The answer, dear reader, is no.

I took the afternoon off just in case I started to swell or had a bad reaction. I went home and settled in with an Advil and Netflix on my reclining couch. I sent a message to Philippe that the doctor told me it was unadvisable to go to band practice that night. (All true!) And I waited for the Botox to work its magic.

I slept on the reclining couch propped up with pillows. It was a restless night, with starts of fear that I had turned my head too far and now would looked like a cartoon character that had just been smacked in the side of the head with an anvil.

I woke in the morning and rushed to the mirror. No changes. Nothing. All that for that? I read that noticible changes appeared after a week. But I did feel a pulling like Jell-O that was solidifying in my forehead from day one. Two weeks on and I can report that my forehead feels tighter and it is a bit unnerving that I can’t move certain muscles anymore.

Like I can’t furrow my eyebrows. As hard as I try, I can’t look pissed off. I can declare as loudly as I want “I’m mad at you!” But I will scowl at the victim of my rath with a pleasant look on my face. Shouting “I’m scowling here!” seems counterproductive.

Like a fairy godmother, my plastic surgeon has left me the non verbal power of sarcasm. I can raise my right eyebrow to “calling bullshit” levels quite smoothly and rapidly.

Oh, my droopy eyelid, you are wondering? Honestly, not much seems to have changed but maybe it is the subtleness and the time it has taken to kick in that I can’t really tell. Before, it bothered me. Now, both eyelids look the same. Colleagues have been asking me for a week if I changed my hair color (no, hehe) because they can see something has changed. One of my closest friends who knows me very well says it looks as if I had a very good night’s sleep.

The best case scenario is that it will last 6 months. So, I will see if this was just a one shot at 9 shots.

Unless, things start to droop again…

A lesson in humiliation

Philippe raised his hand suddenly and all the musicians went quiet. He bluntly said the concert was in two days and he didn’t think the trombones should join.

Eve and I had been dancing and having a good time while the others were playing a song with no trombone part. OK. Maybe doing the limbo with our slides was taking it a bit far, but the atmosphere was so… joyous. Everyone had been singing, playing, and dancing wildly…except Philippe.

He had been watching us.

He went on to mentioned that we would be playing before a crowd and we could not behave like that on stage. And we didn’t play all that great either. His dissing my trombone skills, fine. But not knowing how to behave on stage? It made my ears burn. Eve lowered her 24 year old eyes. My 47 year old eyes burned with indination.

The room was silent. The others just stared. So when Philippe called out the next song, ignoring the tenion in the room, it was no surprise that the joyous spark was no longer there. ‘Shout….kick your heels up and shout.’ sang the lead almost in a monotone voice. The backup singers were no longer dancing. The stood there, with their arms by their sides … Leaning half-heartedly in to mumble…”shout….shout….shout.”

When I walked out that night, I was debating if I should go back. Good lord, I had told all my friends that I was playing my first concert… How could I even announce that I was … told not to come? I was even writing about this in a f***ing blog. Oh, the humiliation.

I debated telling my son. The entire week I tried to cajole him to come watch me play in my first concert, how would I tell him I was cut from the band? When I got home, I looked at him, and decided to tell him the truth and the real reason he didn’t have to go to a concert he didn’t want to go to in the first place.

Is this what it feels like for him to get cut from the first team and have to tell me? To come home to announce to me a bad report card? If you are lucky, as a parent, there are not many occasions where your kids have to witness your public humiliation. And being a parent, it makes you think twice on how you react… To set a good example. My pride and ego wanted to sell that horn online that same night and send Phillipe a scathing email.

But I knew my son would be watching my every move. And could throw sometime in the adolescent future “but YOU quit” right back at me.

So, I swallowed my pride. I wrote to Phillip to ask if we could come earlier to practice to … practice. And maybe see if we could play at the next concert.. in June.

The night of the concert, I took my son instead to watch the local soccer team play.

After a half hour of practice.

You have to suffer to be beautiful

She had just poured excruciating hot liquid wax on my body. “Il faut souffrir pour être belle,” she said as she ripped the wax, all the hair and my dignity off in one swift gesture. I let out a bellow that shocked her. She then laughed said I sounded like “un cerf en rut.” … A rutting stag. Still gasping from the pain, I managed to ask how the hell did she know what that even sounded like, she shrugged and said that she was dating a hunter.

That sums up the relationship the French have with being beautiful, you first have to suffer. Maybe that is why they are world renowned for being beautiful and as tough as tacks.

When you make a monthly visit to have hot wax poured on your private parts as well as other parts of your body, you know that you are a warrior and really don’t need to take shit from anyone.

A friend recently told a story at a dinner party how she opted for electrolysis. How each individual hair was removed permenantly and… painfully. We sat there with rapt attention as she explained how she was in tears with the needle sharp poking pain … everywhere. But instead of being horrified, we whipped out our phones to write down her dermatologist’s number.

…but not all French beauty techniques are painful. Massages, spa days and other pampering is de rigueur. AND French women find the time to take care of themselves. In between full time jobs, home, husband and kids, they still find the time to have their nails done… and pay for it out of their own bank accounts.

Last Mother’s Day, I decided that I would take advantage of a deal at a spa. An hour of anti-age facial treatment. Sounded good to me! I show up for my appointment with my hair in an updo. They asked me to remove all jewelry and any metal Bobby pins in my hair. Strange request, but alright. I settled in on a comfortable table, the lights were dim and calm music was playing. I was just starting to relax when the massuse walked in.

She spoke to me in soothing tones and I nodded dreamily while I listened with closed eyes. And then I felt two cold pieces of metal on my temples. Still going with the flow, I tried to stay in the zen zone.

That is when she turned on the electricity.

Waves of pain coursed over my forehead and I jumped up screaming “what the hell” in French. I made her show me what she held in her hands and she explained in a trembling voice that by using electricity it will relax my wrinkles…and that nasty line that was clearly apparent in between my eyebrows.

Oh, as I tried to relax my face and the angry lines I looked at her tools and they resembled what I had seen in pictures of electrical shock therapy, in mental hospitals. But if they could reduce my wrinkles… So I laid back down on the table.

She started again …and turned the electricity back on. It was ok. Really.

More on the scale of a whimpering dog than a rutting stag, but ok.

She worked on my forehead, my temples and I started to relax again when she brought those babies down by my jaw line. My eyes shot open as every nerve and every cavity ever touched by a dentist or orthodontist in 40 odd years came vividly to life. “Ahhh AAAH”

Remember the scene when Dr Frankenstein brings the monster to life? That was me, that was us. I sat up garbling incomprehensibly, she cowering with her “happy” sticks in a corner. She squeaked out, “do you have any metal work in your mouth? Metal work? METAL WORK??? My mouth is nothing but metal work. I still have a bar left over from my orthodontist days when I was 16 and is still holding my teeth in place.

She was trying to talk me back on the table by saying it would make me look younger. That stopped the monster. I raised an eyebrow, quieted down and asked, “how much younger?”

“12 months younger”

Nope. Nopity nope nope.

Only 12 months? For 5 or 3 years even I might have gotten back on that table, but 12 months? She needed to work on that marketing pitch.

Even I won’t suffer for a measly 12 months….

then again…

My Mother Never Did Anything For Me

I think it started when my son was about 6, while he was sitting comfortably with his feet up and I was on all fours with an old toothbrush trying to clean the fungus out from under his toenails. Tired and a bit disgusted, I looked up at him and quickly said

say my mother never did anything for me.”

He tore his eyes away from his cartoon and said quizzically “what?” I sat back on my heels and told him while waving the toothbrush around “I do things like this for you all the time and you know what? When you will turn 15 you will probably say that I never did anything for you. So, I want you to say it now..right here… while I am working on your toenails WITH A TOOTHBRUSH that your mother never did anything for you…so say it.” He just stared at me. “No, really, say it, I’m not kidding. ” “My.. mother.. never.. did.. anything.. for.. me?” He said slowly. “That’s right,” I replied, as I bent down to attack another toenails, ” and don’t you forget it.”

What was said one night out of exasperation turned out to be a ritual. After getting up from the table to wipe him I would say “say it.” After driving him to every garage sale in town to find Pokemon cards, cleaning up vomit, sitting outside for hours waiting to see a famous soccer player, making minion cake for the entire class, getting him water in the middle of the night … I would say, “say it.”

He would grin and say, “My mother never did anything for me.” Hehmmm, and don’t you forget it.

My son has reached that magical age of 14 and a half. He is affirming himself, finding his own way and I am dreading that his selective memory will soon kick in. But the last time I said “say it” to him.. he looked me in the eye and replied “my mother did everything for me.”

Ain’t that sweet?

….But the next day he said “don’t you ever think before you speak?” I finally realized that it if we want our species to continue, and deter infanticide, parents as well as budding teenagers should use their selective memories… selectively.

The Greatest

I had just changed out the tape in the camera when the man who called himself The Greatest walked in. Good lord, it was Mohammed Ali.

It was 1992 and I was working the odd job for Miami University’s A/V department, basically covering the hours that the regular staff didn’t want. While my fellow students were sleeping it off, I was at the lab, picking up my equipment and loading it on a dolly to drag across campus early on an April Saturday morning.

Normally these gigs were long winded professors who had put in a request for their lectures to be recorded for all eternity. I just had to set up my video camera on a tripod, hook the professor up with a lapel mic and let the camera roll.

I checked my schedule and that day promised to be a long wind-lollapalooza. “Great,” I thought, “a symposium.” I had 8 hours locked up in a lecture hall to look forward to on a beautiful April day. Well, tests were coming up and I needed the money so might as well get on with it.

I got there early and started to set up before anyone arrived. I heard the professors before I could see them. The were chattering away and basically ignored me in the back of the 100 person lecture hall. I made my way to the front to make sure the mics were ready before settling down with my books in the back next to the camera.

I don’t remember the hall being very full even though the event was open to the public and the topic was a bit more interesting than the usual fare. It was a symposium on one of the greatest boxers who ever lived, Mohammed Ali.

One by one, the professors took their turn at the podium to read their papers that focused on varied topics such as Ali’s political, historical, and religious impact on America and the world.

I believe it was at the start of the second presentation when I looked up sharply because the speaker seemed to have lost his place in his notes. He was staring at the two people who just walked through the doors. There was an audible gasp when the handful of people in the room recognized Mohammed Ali.

It was if they had mentioned his name one too many times and they had unwittingly summoned him to be there. Ali and his manager quietly took their seats, the lecturer cleared his throat and tried to continue.

It is one thing to write a paper and criticize an icon, it’s another if he is sitting there six feet away listening to your every word. Like if you would write a critical paper on Michaelangelo and he walks in to listen with a raised eyebrow.

At one point, one of the lecturers read the part in his paper about Ali dating white women. Ali slowly held up a finger that trembled slightly, and slowly admonished the speaker. The lecturer laughed uncomfortablly but he had to carry on.

Some parts were boring, both he and his manager would look around the room at times. Once, his manager caught my eye when I looked up from my books and rolled his eyes dramatically. I tried not to giggle. It seems the three of us were the only ones not taking ourselves too seriously.

During a break, Ali stood up and was very kind to his fans, slowly signing autographs and doing magic tricks for the few people there. I quickly took the camera off the tripod and started shooting footage. He looked at me, looked at the camera and shaking slightly, pointed right at my lens. Like he used to do. Wow. Wow. wow. wow. Chills.

Several hours later after the last person spoke, the host got back up on stage for his closing remarks. Everyone applauded and the symposium was finally over. As I was collecting my equipment from the stage, I overheard them talking about the reception. I was hungry but I could feel that I would not be welcome to join them. The professors did not even thank me nor aknowledge me as they left the room.

I was the last to leave the hall and I slowly pulled the dolly behind me down the empty hallway. As I was walking out, I saw two people in one of the alcoves on a pay phone. It was Ali and his manager. Their eyes lit up with recognition when they saw that it was me and both gave me a friendly wave goodbye.

They didn’t have to. They could have ignored me like the others. But they didn’t. Ali might be considered the Greatest for the impact he made in so many domains… I think he was the Greatest because he didn’t make you feel like you were anything but.

A Cow named Georges

It was early evening and the snow capped Swiss mountains were turning pink. My new host mother stood up and announced that she was off to fetch the milk. Milk? Where was she going to buy milk at this hour? We were in a small village halfway up the side of a mountain of 300 souls.

“Why, from the cow,” she replied.

“Wait…. you have a COW?” I said all excited. A cow, a Cow, A COW !!! I love cows, always have. Family lore has it that when I would see a cow, I would have to moo at it. Important detail.. at it.. from a distance. I had never known anyone who HAD a cow!

I rushed up to my host sister’s room and found her doing her homework. “You have a COW!” She sighed and rolled her eyes. This was a detail that for some reason she never shared with me at our high school.

I must have gone on and on about it because the parents suggested that the next night I could go fetch the milk. “You mean I can go get the milk.. from the COW?” Ohhhh, I misunderstood what they said in French …. it was not only get, but also MILK! I was so excited! My host sister just shook her head.

So the next day, my host mother had a laugh as she dressed me as a “Swissesse” … I put on her long pants that were almost pedal pushers on me and one of my host father’s old blue work shirts that hung loose. I put my hair up and she tied a blue kerchief that completed the Van Trapp family look. Just before I walked out the door, she handed me a silver canister…with leather straps. A milk backpack!!! She pointed to a path up the mountain and indicated that I should go that way.

So off I went.

To my left was our side of the mountain, to the right, a spectacular view of the valley and the towering snow capped peaks. Swinging my arms and whistling, I gave a hardy “bonjour” to the villagers I crossed on the path. I was surprised at the people out and about, and that they seemed to know who I was and what I was doing.

Ah, naive me. As if a six foot tall American girl about to attempt to milk a cow would go unheralded in this small Swiss village halfway up the mountain.

My host father was standing outside the shed, holding a glass of wine, and talking with some neighbors I had not yet met. He greeted me good naturedly as I joined the group. (Yes, they even served wine at this first time event.) We stepped into the warm wooden shed that held two cows, one was being prepped to be milked by a large man. I gestured towards the cow and asked “comment il s’appelle?” That was my lame attempt in French to ask what its name was. My host father answered simply “Georges.”

Wait a minute. Were they trying to pull a fast one on me? When the man by the cow gestured that it was time for me to take my place on the stool, I stole a glance underneath to make sure it WAS a cow. Yup. All good to go.

Now the stool was a tricky thing. It had only had one leg so that it was easier to swivel into place and move if the cow moves. BUT it was made for a smaller model of people than myself. When I sat down, by knees knocked together and my calves served as tent poles spread out to the side to steady myself.

At one point I lost my balance and since both hands were grasping the udders, I smacked my face right into the side of the cow. To cover up my blunder, I thought I would make my audience laugh by saying “excusez moi, Georges.” And strangely enough, the large man in the group said that it wasn’t “grave.” (Why was he answering for the cow? The Swiss are really weird….)

After I had milked 5 squirts worth (hey, it’s harder than it looks!) They told me to pour it in the canister and take it down to the communal village milk reservoir.

Oh, I was so proud as I hiked back to the village. The first person who greeted me asked what I had been up to (ohhhh, as if he didn’t know.) I cheerful replied in French “I milked George!” The person did a double take. “Georges.. qui?” He sputtered. I was really perplexed. Did they give their cows their last names, too? Ok, these people are beyond weird. “Bah, Georges B_______.” I replied. Well, he stood there and just stared at me so I decided that I should just say adieu and continue on my merry way.

And then I got to the reservoir. I climbed up to the vat, opened the canister and said as I poured my meager drops of milk in

“c’est de Georges.

The two men manning the vat stopped mid stir as I made my announcement.

When I got back home, I sauntered into my host sister’s room and announced that I had a successfully milked Georges. She put her pencil down and slowly asked,

“Georges who?”

Really? Her too? I let out an esasperated sigh and said “Georges B______.” She started to laugh…and laugh…. and laugh.

“Georges,” she was able to finally wheeze out, “is my UNCLE!!!”

Shit. One week in the village and I had announced to everyone that I had “milked” her old bachelor farmer uncle. Yup. That’s how you ruin a good reputation, folks. OR build one. Georges, now had a certain swagger… Even a good 20 years on at my host sister’s wedding he was still strutting about.

Last year, when I went to visit my host parents for the last time, my host father’s memory was fading fast. I was warned that he might not recognize me. So I just introduced myself to him as a girl who likes cows. It was the first time that I truly wished that someone would be able to remember the story about me and a cow called Georges.

Allen Who?

Svetlana ran up to me on the street and excitingly announced that Allen Ginsberg was coming to Olomouc! I hitched my backpack on my shoulder and asked, “Who?” She looked at me incredulously and repeated, “ALLEN GINSBERG!!!” I looked at her blankly. She looked at me in disbelief. “Oh,” I chuckled, pretending I misunderstood her, “Oh ALLEN…yes, yes… When is he coming?”

While I was racking my brain trying to figure out “who the hell is Allen Ginsberg?

This was 1993 in Olomouc, Czech Republic. People barely had landline telephones and it was years before Google. It was not like I could just look up who this Ginsberg guy was.

I just thought he must be someone from our university who was coming over to give a talk. So I shrugged and didn’t think any more about it.

That is, until my roommate wanted to go for drinks Ondrej.

Ondrej wanted to go for drinks with her BUT he was going to listen to Allen Ginsberg speak and wanted to see first if he would go for drinks with HIM…. That is where I came in. I was to go to the lecture with Ondrej and I would be the one who would confirm if he would finally be meeting my roommate or not.

(What was life like without phones? Like this. One step up from Paul Revere. I was the human one by land, two by sea.)

I was surprised by the crowd in the lecture hall. We barely got seats and we were behind the TV cameras from the Prague television station. “Wait, who is this guy again?” I mumbled out of the corner of my mouth to Ondrej. He barely glanced at me because he had his joyful face turned to the stage. “A poet. One of the best, from the Beat Generation.”

Oh, another artifact from the 60’s. The Czechs had lived closed up behind the iron curtain for decades but they had had a slim peep at what was happening in the rest of the world during the Prague Spring in 1968. Anything that was able to seep through from the West during that time, be it movies, books or ideas, were clung to until the Wall came down.

When the movie “Easy Rider” came to town for the first time since the revolution, it played to a sold out audience. For two weeks. Straight. The night I went, I remember the Czechs around me were enthralled. I remember looking bewildered. Why are they getting so excited over a hippie movie?

For them, the hippies represented what they thought freedom must have been like for us on the other side of the Wall. That we all drove around on our choppers saying, “easy rider, man.” They didn’t realize along with Wall Street and corporate America, the yuppies had pushed the hippies out of the way years ago.

Growing up in Ohio in the 80’s, the Beats were not on my reading lists either in high school or in college. Sure, a friend had loaned me “On The Road” and I remember one kid, who I took to being a poser, reading “Naked Lunch” while lounging, limbs askew, over a dorm chair. That was pretty much it.

I had been living in the Czech Republic for about 4 months and I had seen a fair share of Western carpetbaggers trying to take advantage of the Czechs. Several religious groups had moved in as well as some unscrupulous capitalists with shaky business deals. I became quite protective of my new friends and got defensive when I thought someone was trying to take advantage of, in my opinion, their naivety…

So that take us back to our lecture at hand. The entire audience was on the edge of their seats. Whereas I was sitting back, with my arms crossed. A door opened and out walk this man called Allen Ginsberg. The audience gasped and broke out in applause. I was still sitting there, skeptical. He looked like an aging hippie in a suit with a wild grey beard.

He started the lecture off by asking everyone to take a few minutes to mediate. “Oh good lord,” I thought to myself as everyone settled in, closing their eyes. He then continued on to talk about spontaneous writing and poetry.

At the end of the lecture, the host announced that Mr Ginsberg was willing to meet with some students afterwards, if anyone was interested.

Ondrej grabbed my hand and I followed about 15 Czech students to an office that was set up with chairs facing a desk. They nervously took their seats, I just sat there, unimpressed. I looked around the room and saw a framed picture on the wall. I was taken aback that it was a black and white picture of a American theater marquee with “Allen Ginsberg” written is bold letters.

Saaaay. Who was this guy and why had I never heard of him?

That is when Ginsberg walked in the room. The students sat up a bit taller as he took a seat behind the desk. He started fielding questions from the students. I remember one boy saying that he had a hard time coming up with topics to write about. Ginsberg started to make up a poem on the spot to show that a poem can be about anything.



“I was walking down the hallway and didn’t know if I wanted to take a piss or take a crap.”

Oh brother.

Everyone was listening with rap attention. I just rolled my eyes. He started asking questions directly to the students and after awhile he surprised me when he looked me right in the eye and asked,

“what are you thinking?”

Chairs squeaked as everyone turned to look at me. I then in turn squeaked, when I spontaneous said “I’m amused?” (25 years on and I still cringe that I actually said that.)

Another student later on shared his frustration that no matter how hard he tried, he always wrote about his ex-girlfriend. In all seriousness, Ginsberg replied,

“have you ever thought about trying LSD?”

I wanted to cry out no-no nononono…and cover their innocent ears! Here was a fellow American persuading them to take hallucinogenic drugs…this was so wrong! Who let this guy in here? I looked around the room and they were nodding and taking notes. I felt powerless to do anything to stop this.

About that time, Ginsberg started another impromptu poem. “…With her long black hair and her big blue eyes….” I don’t remember the rest. Because I realized that I was the only one in the room with long black hair and big blue eyes. He was making up a poem about me. And it creeped me out.

Yes, one of the most amazing poets of our lifetime made up an impromptu poem about me…. And. It. Creeped. Me. Out.

What did I do? I said goodbye to Ondrej….and left the room discreetly. I figured I would be drinking alone with my roommate that night.

Yes, with time, I learned who Allen Ginsberg was. His name has been jumping out at me in books and magazines for years. Each time, I smile and cringe simultaneously. Frequency illusion, perhaps, but it never fails to creep me out.