Jumping over the lazy dog

or, taking the bull by the horns.

City mouse, country mouse

My internet-silence these last few days is not because I’ve given up on this blog, but because I was taking a much needed vacation of sorts.  Now, you might be wondering why someone who is supposedly on summer break needs a break from said summer break (how’s that for a tongue-twister?), but sometimes you need a vacation from your vacation.  Life gets routine, even when you’re not in the midst of academic deadlines, and between studying for the GRE and early-mornings at the gym, my summer schedule has been pretty monotonous.

Lounging around on a lazy Saturday with puppies and a groomsman

Lounging around on a lazy Saturday with puppies and a groomsman

So this weekend I went to a wedding.  My friend’s sister got hitched at Beautiful Run Farm near Charlottesville, Virginia, and I’ve spent the last few days soaking in the sun by the pool, puppy-sitting and playing volleyball under a lightening storm.  My stay out on the farm was a very welcome respite from “city-living” – that is, the work-work-work atmosphere that’s reflective of busy-bodies that flock to the city (aka, me).  Granted, the City mouse learned that when you live out in the country, you still have to work, and don’t get me wrong – I was put to work. I got my hands dirty hauling supplies and setting tables for the wedding, making flower arrangements and putting up signs directing guests to the farm.  But all that hard work was more than worth the pool-lounging, sun-soaking, relaxing atmosphere that I found out in the middle of nowhere.

The bridal party takes a quick huddle during the wedding rehersal at Beautiful Run Farm.

The bridal party breaks for a quick huddle during the wedding rehearsal at Beautiful Run Farm.

The drive to the farm is about two and a half hours, door to door. But when I arrived at the farm on Thursday it felt as though I had been teleported into another reality, a world so much more vivid than the one I had just driven through.  And the moment I stepped off the farm on Sunday afternoon, I was once again in a more muted world, as though my sunglasses were tinted grey.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that you sometimes need a physical distance in order to liberate yourself from whatever mundanity your life has fallen into.

I felt that when I traveled in Europe, alone, wandering without a cellphone for three weeks, no laptop and paying a couple of euros twice a week to shoot emails to my parents.  Being untethered is a fantastic feeling, and I’m happy I got a chance to taste a bit of freedom this past weekend.  I’ve promised myself to take some more mini-vacations this summer.  They seem to rejuvenate me much more than any reading or painting ever does (perhaps because while I read and paint for fun, they’re also inexorably tied to my chosen profession – architecture and research). Hobbies that are too close to home, or work, as it were, aren’t quite hobbies after all, I suppose.

This rejuvenation is quite hedonistic, some might say, taking time to do nothing but enjoy living (through good food, good friends, good conversation, good atmosphere).  I see it as rather meditative.  It allows me to clear my mind from the clutters of every day life so that when I return, I return with more focus, more determination, and hopefully with an end in sight, i.e. the next retreat.

Filed under: Around the world, Close to home, , , , , , , , ,

LDAH: Long distance apartment-hunting.

It’s harder than a long distance relationship, let me tell ya.

The very second I found out I was going to be teaching right outside of Paris I started scouring the internets for places to stay in the city.  Last summer, when I interned in DC, my only regret was not staying closer to the city.  I stayed in Reston with some family friends, which was fantastic, but it meant that I had to be home by a certain time so that I didn’t miss the last bus (yay public transportation!).  So this time, I’m going to do the reverse.  I’m teaching in a small town outside of Paris, and since I’m only teaching 12 hours a week, I figure I’ll want to spend most of my time in the city anyway, so I’m going to try to look for a place in the city that’s within my budget.

So that’s the first problem: budget.  As my maternal unit can attest to (and as she more often than not mentions) I’ve led a rather cushy life.  My parents have paid for pretty much everything so far when it came to my education, which included tuition, supplies, room and board, etc.  I’ve spent my pocket money (comprised of the random cash I’ve earned from freelancing and savings from summer jobs) on travel and fun stuff (i.e. movies, dinners out with friends, etc.).  Now, not only am I out on my own for the first time, I’m out on my own in a foreign country!

Anyone can tell you that a teacher’s salary is nothing to brag about.  I’m not even going to be a full-time teacher: so I guess you could say that my salary is something to shove under the couch cushions and never mention. But I’m going to say it anyway – I’ll barely be making enough to sustain myself.  We get paid €950 per month, which after taxes is €750 a month.  A small studette in Paris (a tiny room 9 m2 with a mini-kitchen, a sink and a shower – not necessarily a WC) costs between €350 and €550 on average.  The nice thing is, because I get paid such a paltry sum, the government wants to help me! If I fill out a whole bunch of paperwork (here’s that word again), I can apply for an aide du logement through CAF, basically, welfare.  But the amount of money I get back is based on the type of place I’m renting (size, furnished/not, etc.), its cost, my income and the income of my roommates, if any.  And the predictor online is a) hard to understand and b) not very accurate.

And then there’s the whole bit about looking for a place that’s a couple thousand miles away.  I may not have apartment-hunted before, but even I know that you shouldn’t sign on for a place if you haven’t seen it.  And odds are, the French landlord won’t rent it out unless they’ve got proof I’m paying: I’ve been told I’ll need a garant, or co-signer, on some places (but not on others…which ones don’t need one I have no idea).

And if that’s not enough, I have to decide what kind of place I want to stay in: a studette? a studio (slightly larger than the former)? an apartment with a couple of roommates? rent a room from a family? a foyer (dorm-room-esque)?  One of my friends who did the whole teach-English-in-France gig a while back said I should make a decision quick, so that I can narrow my search.  I’m thinking my order of preference is as follows:

  1. A room with a family. This will hopefully allow me to better my French.  And I’d be happy to give English lessons to the kids or baby-sit for a night or two in exchange for a reduced rental rate.
  2. An apartment with roommates.  If they’re French roommates, it’d be nice to improve my French.  However, there are a couple of American assistant(e)s that will be living in Paris, so that would work as well.
  3. A room in a foyer.  I hear it’s the cheapest, and gets you the most money back on your aide du logement. And ideally, I won’t be spending much time in my room that isn’t spent on sleeping or cooking a quick meal, because I’ll be out exploring!

I suppose the best I can do from the US is ask around if anyone is renting a room, and work via references (that way I don’t get a super sketch landlord and a shoddy apartment that I’m sharing with Ratatouille and his family – though come to think of it, if the critter wants to cook me a pasta dinner, I wouldn’t protest) – and maybe check out the foyer.  But I’m hesitant to book an apartment without seeing it, or meeting my potential roomates.

Filed under: All things French, Close to home, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Love is in the Argentinian air…

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford: love affairs aren't affairs of the state until you peace out on the job.

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford: love affairs aren't affairs of the state until you peace out on the job.

It never ceases to amuse me that the private lives of individuals (involved in politics or otherwise) are considered newsworthy.  I’m generally of the opinion that if they’re doing their job, what they do outside of work hours is their own business, especially when it comes to politics.  That’s something I learned from the French.  Sarkozy’s affair with Bruni: gossip, for sure; front-page news, not necessarily.  Britney and whoever she’s with now can go about their business, as long as she keeps making crappy music that someone will buy.

The most recent news story, on the other hand, is a matter of affairs of the heart interfering with affairs of the state.  Gov. Sanford’s six-day absence “hiking on the trail” (er, that’s a euphemism I’ve never heard before) would be private business, in my book, if it weren’t for the fact that he’s a Governor, with a job to do.  He didn’t exactly take a paid vacation, or even sick days. He told his staff where he was going (hiking up the AT), but then ran in the opposite direction (almost literally – if you’re savvy enough with a compass to hike the AT, surely you’d recognize that your plane is flying south.) That’s not cool, to say the least. What if they had to reach him on an emergency? What if he had to be present in SC for a state crises?

I know he has staff, and I know that the world did not end because he left.  But no one else in the working world takes a week off with no notice and doesn’t have to deal with the repercussions of their actions.  Most certainly, no one in a position with that level of authority.  With great power comes great responsibility, and his responsibility to his position is to not lie to his constituents, not lie to his staff, and be available in emergencies.  All three of which were left unfulfilled on his little trip.

Most people (i.e. those talking about it on the Today show, or on the local radio) are up in arms over another politician cheating on his wife and are calling for his resignation.  Ok, that’s fine, you can believe that morally he’s in the wrong.  But what he should resign for is the fact that he didn’t do his job. Not because he was a terrible father (really, having a love affair on Father’s Day?!), not because he made a bad decision when it comes to his marriage, but because he was unable to fulfill his gubernatorial obligations during his absence.

In his press conference he appologizes to letting down his wife and family and to the “people of faith across South Carolina” because of bad moral judgement.  I don’t care about your moral judgement.  Sure, you’re a role model, and no, I wouldn’t want my kids to follow your steps when it comes to making extramarital experiments, but there are other role models out there to whom my kids could turn, and there’s currently (as far as I’m aware) only one Governor of South Carolina.

So here’s my request to both politicians and the media: If a politican’s hanky-panky doesn’t affect his ability to fulfill his job-related obligations, then leave him be; nobody wants their dirty laundry aired in public, and if he’s truly sorry for his actions, he’ll appologize to the people he hurt and won’t let it affect his job-related obligations.  Don’t give a press conference on what you’ve been up to in the sack, we don’t care.  Do give a press conference on what you have and haven’t been up to on the job – that’s our business.

Filed under: In the news, , , , , , ,

I <3 food.

That shouldn’t be too surprising to those of you that know me.  One of my earliest baby pictures is of me, arms out, stretching to grab the piece of birthday cake my mom is holding right out of reach.  I’ve been known to drop quite some cash on a nice meal, and many of my memorable travel experiences revolve around the meals I ate and the people I ate them with (asparagus and scallop soup in the Jordaan district, roasted duck in a bistro on the Seine, half-lobster and champagne on the Mediterranean, to name a few).

What is newsworthy, however, is that now I’m <3-ing cooking, as well.  If you knew me well enough to know just how much I love food, then you also know just how little I actually know about food preparation.  Well, that’s starting to change.  This summer I’ve been discovering the pleasures of cooking a three course meal, of baking cookies from scratch, of making up simple dishes as I go along.

What’s at the root of this new path of discovery? A couple of things.

  1. I rediscovered Anthony Bourdain.  He’s an incredible writer, and if anyone can convince me that cooking and eating food is a pleasure as close to sex as you can get, it’s him.  When I read an excerpt from his book, Kitchen Confidential, in which he described the orgasmic pleasure of eating an oyster, I had found my culinary-literary soulmate.  I remember my first taste of oyster: raw, chilled on a bed of crushed ice, drizzled with lemon juice, scooped out of the shell with a small silver fork, placed on a salted cracker and topped with a dash of horseradish sauce.  Delicious!
  2. I’m living by myself.  Well, sort of. I’m in my parents’ house, so dinner is covered, but lunches are all up to me – and Lean Cuisine packets only get you so far before you start craving a real meal for lunch!
  3. Transatlantic dating.  My beau is currently to be found across the pond and, in what my friends describe as a sickeningly sweet tradition, we “dunch” together. That is, we plan, prepare and consume a meal, supplemented with some wine and conversation, via Skype. Go ahead, gag.  I like it. And it’s making me a better cook, so there.

So far, I can catalog five experiments, with a handful of little exercises (i.e. helping my mom with dinner) along the way. I’ve made chocolate chip, pecan, and coconut cookies from scratch, made tuna and salmon sushi, a delicious coconut-honey glazed salmon dinner, a three-course Indian meal and invented my very own grilled tuna with mango salsa over pasta dish.  Any suggestions for my next go around?

Chocolate chip, pecan and coconut cookies.

Chocolate chip, pecan and coconut cookies.

Seasoned and grilled tuna with mango salsa over mini pasta shells.

Seasoned and grilled tuna with mango salsa over mini pasta shells.

Tandoori chicken, "jumping" potatoes and mixed salad

Tandoori chicken, "jumping" potatoes and mixed salad.

Chocolate gulab jambun with vanilla ice cream.

Chocolate gulab jambun with vanilla ice cream.

Filed under: Close to home, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This post will self destruct in 5…4…3…

The topic du jour is secret identities.  More specifically, secret identities on the web.  Even more specifically, secret identities on blogs on the web.  Okay, I’ll just come out with it: I’m curious to know how people decide on a) their own nom de plume and b) the special names for the characters that trapeze through their posts.

Let’s start with a couple of examples.  One of the blogs I’ve listed in the “Foxy reads” section to the right is Petite Anglaise In one of her first few posts, the author explains her reasons for selecting petite anglaise as her blogging alias, and while eventually she was outed to the public as Catherine Sanderson (and not for the worse, I might add, as now she’s writing under her real name and has a real published novel, to boot), she continues to blog as petite anglaise. As for the characters in her blog (I say characters, as it’s easy to forget that these are real people, living real lives on the other side of the ocean), we have: Mr. Frog  (the former partner and father of her first child), Tadpole (said first child), The Boy (the now husband) and an arrival on the way that has yet to be named.  Now the Mr. Frog title makes sense (he’s French), the Tadpole follows logically and The Boy is aptly named, seeing as he is, I’m assuming, male (which, however, begs the question, why not The Man?).  There are other characters, few and far between, that are mentioned, like the boss, or a neighbor, or what have you, but do not get enough air time to merit an alias.

Or, for example, over at Phil the Pill, we have Phil, the author, who’s gone as far as to use his full name in his biography, but who maintains some sense of privacy by assigning code names to his cast of characters: Heathcliff, Pocahontas, Invisijet, and Lupuskiller. Ok, some of the real people behind those identities even I’m not sure of, and I hang out with the guy.  But it adds an interesting mix to his blog – and it brings me to a point: why mention the real names of people online unless you absolutely have to? And do you ever absolutely have to? Even Perez Hilton is a bit obtuse at times!

I chose to use my real name when I created my WordPress account for simplicity’s sake.  I’ve done the alias thing in the past, my first AIM screenname was something godawful, like NDNPrincess007 or RITA4NSYNC or something else equally teeny-bopper-esque. I’m not going to write anything on this blog that will incriminate me, I don’t think, and I figure if employers are looking to learn more about me, they should get a sense of the whole package anyway – someone once told me the interview was more about seeing if you fit into the company’s culture than whether or not you’re capable of fulfilling the job’s tasks.  So I chose “amritaraja” because that’s who I am.  Granted, the blog’s web address is “www.hellobrownie.wordpress.com.” Yes, that means I’m brown (and friendly – hello reader!).  Did you miss the fact that the blog’s title is an allusion to the classic typographic exercise? And the majority of my audience knows who I am already, since there haven’t been any search-related hits yet, only people stalking me on Facebook.

And if using aliases for the RL people that must be mentioned in a personal blog (since it is about what’s going on in your life, and I’m assuming there are other people in your vicinity) is a matter of preserving their privacy, I’m all for it.  It only bothers me to think that using the aliases online reinforces the divide between “online life” and “real life” – that is, it reinforces the notion of leading double lives (or triple lives, if you consider your private life and your public life in “real life” to be two different things).  Anybody got a cure for that problem? A cure, that is, that doesn’t sacrifice privacy and won’t get me into some lawsuit that will drain me of money I don’t have?

I’ll end this post with a poll: if you were to be mentioned in a blog, how secret should your mention be?  And hey, if you think of a specific secret identity you’d like me to use in this blog, shoot me an email at amrita.j.raja@gmail.com!

Filed under: Close to home, , , , , , , , ,

Roissy-en-Brie and gay Par-ee

Mairie de Roissy-en-Brie

Mairie de Roissy-en-Brie

After a long drought of communication (read, since April), my inbox is now filled with emails from the French Embassy and their compatriots on the other side of the pond.  This is a good thing.

I now know that I will be teaching 15-18 year-olds at the Lycée Charles le Chauve in Roissy-en-Brie, a town 30 minutes from Gare du Nord in Paris, from October 1st until April 30th.

I, of course, as an information-searching nut, went online and scoured the internet for any dirt I could gather on Roissy-en-Brie and the lycée, as soon as I received the email.  And here’s what I learnt learned:  Roissy-en-Brie is a lot like Fontainebleau, minus the château. So it’s pretty, and close to Paris, and has outdoorsy things to do like hunt in the woods by following dirt trails and trees marked with street names, and quaint downtown streets with cafés that charge an arm for 3 boules de glace.

The lycée‘s website gave a bit of insight into the titular Charles, but was not as forthcoming with information about the English program.  It seems, however, that they have a fantastic music program, and it might be nice to get back into some piano playing – perhaps I can learn some contemporary American pop pieces to share with the class.

Speaking of the class, I’m slightly terrified of teaching 15-18 year olds. I mean, I’m turning 22 in October, so that makes me what…4 years older than the oldest and 7 years older than the youngest of the bunch? How much did I respect the young-ish teachers when I was in high school? Well, I do recall wondering if they knew what they were doing (*cough* and harboring crushes on the younger male teachers *cough*)…do *I* know what I’m doing?

I’ve tutored kids before, and TA’d 2 university-level courses, even come up with lectures for both and led discussions…I suppose it shouldn’t be too difficult to translate that for a high-school audience, since the students I was working with at uni were 18-20-year-olds. I read (in my pursuit of all things France-and-teaching-related) that it helps to set your foot down at the beginning of class: only English in the classroom, no disrespect, strict grader, etc., etc. Which makes sense – once a push-over, always a push-over.  And that shouldn’t be too difficult for me anyway, as I tend to expect a lot of other people, mostly because I expect a lot of myself.  I think deep down I want to be that tough professor that everyone hates and loves at the same time.  Some of my best professors have really made me work for their approval (hmm, there might be some psychology to this worth exploring), and didn’t Colton say that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery?

Anyway, it seems the easy part is over: I got the gig.  Now I just have to get my visa, book my flight, figure out health insurance, get travelers insurance, find a second job, get a French bank account, fill out more paperwork, get a French cellphone and find some place to stay.  Oh, and breathe.

Filed under: All things French, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


No tour of Roanoke is complete without a visit to the Star...

No tour of Roanoke is complete without a visit to the Star...

In an effort to slowly whittle away at the enormous Travel Bug nibbling on my back à la Land of the Lost, I took a mini-trip to a local landmark: The Roanoke Star.

When my family first moved to Roanoke (well, technically to Salem), I was seven years old.  For the next five years, I remember enduring endless trips to the Star with every new wave of visiting relatives.  So many trips, in fact, that I refused to visit the Star any more.  This pilgrimage marks my first trip to Mill Mountain in nine years.  I thought I’d make a day of it, so I invited a friend along for a short tour of Mill Mountain Zoo followed by an even shorter hike to the Star.

If I’m honest, this trip was as much a desire to visit these local spots one last time as it was a desire to find subjects to photograph.  And there was no shortage of interesting subjects even in this small zoo! This shoot reminded me how much I love photographing animals and children, because the challenges of capturing a moment are well worth the rewards: glimpses into the psyche of beings that communicate with their eyes rather than their tongues.

A couple of facts about the Star, for those not natives of this valley:

  • It is the largest free-standing illuminated man-made star in the world, soaring above the valley, 100 feet tall and 10,000 lbs heavy!
  • Built in 1949 to kick off the Christmas season, the Star was intended as a permanent structure, though engineers weren’t sure if they could keep it lit after the season ended – turns out, they could!
  • Normally illuminated in red, white and blue, the Star had been used to signal a traffic fatality or drunk driving accident in the Roanoke Valley when it glowed red.  In April 2007, the Star glowed white to mark the April 16th Virginia Tech Massacre.
  • For those interested in the views from the Star look-out point, you can follow the Star Cam: it’s mounted directly on the Star and refreshes every 15-seconds for your viewing pleasure.

So here are a couple of photographs from our expedition, from a hornbill that liked to ham it up, to the ever-elusive Amrita, caught…surfboarding on a bench?

Filed under: Around the world, Close to home, , , , , , ,

Oh the places I will go!

Specialists at the Travel Channel have identified my genre of Travel Bug and offered suggestions for treatment. They say my symptoms are characteristic of the Explorer subset, that my travel-persona is a “mind-blowing combination” of organized, intuitive, sensitive, quiet and determined and I should be ware that I “occasionally freak people out.”  My symptoms become more prominent when I: step off the beaten path (as I am wont to do), start feeling the bubbly sensations of a dream come true, and get the all-over shivers upon viewing a spectacular sunset (or sunrise, as was in Carcassonne).

This was my last view of the city as I trekked down the hill to catch my early, earely train.

My last view of the city as I trekked down the hill to catch my early train.

I am quite happy to follow the specialist’s recommendation of  a regular dose of Anthony Bordain: No Reservations and will promptly make plans for Road Trip USA.  In the mean time, here’s my prescription, a running list of exciting remedies I ought to visit to alleviate (or perhaps aggravate) my buggy issue, in no particular order.

  1. Florence, Italy
  2. Venice, Italy
  3. New Delhi, India
  4. London, England
  5. Loire Valley, France
  6. Prague, Czech Republic
  7. Vienna, Austria
  8. Edinburgh, Scotland
  9. Dublin, Ireland
  10. Tokyo, Japan
  11. Shanghai, China
  12. Dubai, U.A.E.
  13. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  14. Strasbourg, France
  15. Zurich, Switzerland

Filed under: Around the world, ,

Spontaneous wanderlustion*, or, these boots were made for walking.

I’ve been weeding through old magazines and stumbled upon this article in the January 2009 issue of O. As I read the piece I had a moment of déjà vu, as I was struck, once again, with a strong desire to move, to get out, to feel this freedom that Hutton found in Paris. When I first read the piece almost six months ago, it had been six months since my last journey, a three-week solo expedition to Europe. Now, almost a year later, my feet are itching to get on the road, my taste buds craving a the crackly crust and gooey filling of pain au chocolat, my neck craving the crick you can only get after spending your time watching movies on an impossibly positioned screen during a six-hour flight (okay, maybe not that last one).

I felt a certain kind of peace in these craggy trees mounted with battered road signs directing wanderers further into nowhere.

I felt a certain kind of peace in these spindly trees mounted with battered road signs directing wanderers further into nowhere. (Fontainebleau, France)

Is this wanderlust something that strikes every twenty-something?  Or perhaps every twenty-something of my generation? It hasn’t struck my brother: he’d much rather be indoors playing Rock Band (a wonderful game that even I, a techno-failure, can enjoy) than gallivanting off for a quick tour of the Netherlands.  Am I predisposed, then, in some way, to this condition?  My aunt and uncle have been travelers their whole lives, and I recall even as a child being in awe of the photographs my uncle projected onto the white screen set up in my grandmother’s apartment in Bombay.  There must be something of a traveler-gene, not so much a bug, that managed to skip sideways a generation: my parents don’t seem as infatuated with wandering as I am, either.

What I admired particularly about Hutton’s tale is its spontaneity.  I’m a spontaneous person…when not dealing with a shrinking bank account, rising gas prices and my parents’ roof over my head.  There’s a fine line between a life of spontaneity and a weekend of financial suicide (I don’t, for example, have $7000 to blow on a $2000 per night room at the Ritz in Paris).  Eco-friendly travel ought to stand for economy-friendly travel. Yeah, sure, I want to help the earth – but I could use some tips on how to do it while traveling cheaply!

For the time being, I suppose I’ll have to console myself by remembering meandering through Paris’ City of the Dead and dancing on houseboats until 3AM in Lyon…and maybe taking a quick hop skip and jump to Roanoke.

* That was supposed to be a little play on spontaneous combustion. It clearly failed.

Filed under: Around the world, Read all about it, , , , , , , , , ,