The Great French Paradox

Today I took my first post-France trip to an American grocery store. After nine months of piping hot baguettes, fresh organic farm vegetables and full-on cream yogurts, I was not at all prepared for what I found at my local Rainbow Foods.

Upon walking into the store, the size alone shocked me. The ceiling nearly touched the sky and I couldn’t see from one end to the other. But that was only the beginning.

As I entered the vegetable aisle, I was bombarded by oversized squash, mammoth watermelons, bin-busting tangles of grapes and enormous bags of lettuce. How could one, even four, people consume that many legumes before everything began to rot? I was momentarily reminded of the two small tomatoes, three carrots, one head of lettuce and three mushrooms that were the result of my market shopping in France.

Avoiding the salad dressing section (I never was much of a ranch fan), I moved towards the organic foods. Ah yes. I had discovered what I had been missing since I’d come back to my homeland six days ago. Soy drinks and cashews, self-serve granola and yogurt-covered protein bars. Thai noodle mixes, wafer crackers and vitamins to the sky! Perhaps American cuisine wasn’t going down the tubes after all.

But then it happened. The snack aisle.

I hadn’t even been back in the country a week and the culture shock was too much for me. I nearly had a panic attack as I saw bags as big as my head of sour cream n’ onion potato chips, Doritos in eight bazillion flavors, chocolate chip cookies galore and at least three new kinds of Oreos. Before I knew what was happening, I was walking towards the entrance of the store to find myself a shopping basket.

In went Cheez-its, Mint n’ Cream Oreos and two different Doritos. No fat was to be spared, no flavor either. When I reached the end of the aisle, that old familiar pang of American guilt plunged into my side and I almost turned back to return everything to the shelf, but I held strong and carried on.

Next was the dairy section, a sight to behold. After being endlessly chastised by the Frenchies for eating pasteurized everything, I willingly grabbed packs of cheddar, havarti, and string cheese. I found my precious lactose-free milk, Philadelphia’s original cream cheese and a decent “thick and creamy” yogurt. The French would have been cynical about my selection, but I was already imagining my first book: “The Hundred-and-One Ways to Prepare Dairy.”

Nearing the end of my trip, I walked past the bakery section, skeptically eyeing the “croissants,” and “baguettes.” Did those people at Rainbow Foods really think they could replicate some of France’s true masterpieces? Only one way to find out, of course, and so I piled a few baked goods into my basket for good measure.

On my way to the checkout counter, I gave one last look around. What else did I need? Meat? Don’t eat it. Dairy? Got it. Fruits and vegetables? Don’t need ‘em. Snack items? Got ‘em, got ‘em, and got ‘em again. Got ‘em? Plural? Panic attack beginning.

After unloading most of my stash onto the shelves, I walked feebly back to the front of the store, dropping BBQ sauce and a pack of Wildberry Frost gum into my basket. I almost got lost finding my way back, but with an employee in practically every aisle and easy-to-read signs hanging overhead, I made it to the checkout counter with my sanity intact.

“Hello, there. Did you find everything okay today?” the checkout girl asked in a sickeningly sweet Midwestern accent.

“Yep,” I said, half-smiling. Were we friends? Did we need to be so jolly towards one another? I realized then how entirely Frenchified I had become. The “Minnesota nice” was going to send me into hysterics.

I paid $12.41 and leisurely packed up my goods into a brown paper bag. There were 15 other checkout lanes, so why rush myself? When it was all said and done, I had purchased a box of Cheez-its, Banana Nut Crunch cereal, cream cheese, two packs of gum, soy milk, one yogurt, a bottle of Perier and BBQ sauce. If there was a correlation between everything in my bag, I was too dumb to find it.

As I got into my car, the guilt-trip already beginning about the tantamount of fat grams I had stowed away in the trunk, I began to think about the fat crisis in America versus the slender trend in France. It’s not so much that the question should be, “Why French Women Don’t Get Fat,” but instead, “Why All Americans Aren’t Morbidly Obese.” With potato chips, fatty cheeses, and sugary soft drinks galore, it’s really a wonder how anyone has control over their waistline. When a majority of the food is power-sugared (and most of it carefully hidden) how can people not get fat? Talk about “three meals a day” and “enjoying your food” as much as you want. If you’re eating chemically fabricated and altered foods all day long, you probably won’t fit into your pants by the end of the year, much less the month.

Yet, the question remains, how do Americans adapt the ever-expanding sugar industry to their wannabe healthy diets? Is it possible to replicate the French and trim our waistlines while eating whatever we want? I say no, if only because the food is so very different. If we were comparing apples to apples, the theory would apply. French or American, we are just people, after all. The tried-and-true “diet and exercise” philosophy should work. Unfortunately, the food is not the same, and this is where Americans are in trouble. If a French person eats a piece of bread from their local bakery, they won’t gain as much weight as an American will when he bites into his pre-packaged white bread roll. While the French are piling homemade sausage and aged cheese onto their plates, Americans are eating processed pepperoni and Kraft singles. In order for Americans to get healthy, we have to get back to our country roots and stop eating so much junk. Enough with “thiamin mononitrate,” “pyridoxine hydrochloride” and “yellow 5.” Give me ingredients that exist in nature—and that I can pronounce.

When I arrived home after a 15 minute car ride (oh, how I missed France’s walking culture already!) I unpacked my new American groceries and deliberated over what to eat first. Going on instinct, I opened my much-missed Oreos and bit into one with a burning passion. Oh, how sweet and full their flavor was, how incredibly rich and chocolate-y. Just one more, I decided. Oh, how sweet and full their flavor…. ok, just one more.

After my fourth delectable sandwich-cookie, I felt happy, satisfied and increasingly bloated. If only someone could just pop me, then I could eat some more. I was so full, so very, very “double stuffed,” yet I wanted another one. Maybe if I just had two more cookies, in fact, it would be okay.

I checked the Nutrition Facts on the back of the bag and considered putting the cookie down, but the offender in question was already in my mouth, working its way around my re-virginized palate. As the sugary goodness burned its way down my throat, I knew then and there that my pants size would never be the same.

“Have we met?” The highs and lows of happenstance

There is a girl from my university – I do not know her name – who I see absolutely everywhere. In the grocery store in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, at a bar in Bastille, at the gym at Republique. We have no friends in common (that I know of) and we have never actually spoken, yet this random person seems to have an inextricable link to my existence. But why? What is this driving force that has pushed us into the same space at the same time repeatedly? Is it the world telling us we simply must meet and now, or just that little thing we call “happenstance?”

It seems that more and more, I am having these “Wow, small world!” moments. Often, there is no more rhyme or reason for these fateful meetings than there is for Sarah Palin to have ever considered running for US president.

As the global population expands to its breaking point, with a seven billionth person landing on the planet a few weeks ago, I find no fewer connections between people in my life. Perhaps with all the extra humans on earth, we are being pushed ever closer by some cosmic force. Maybe globalization has gotten the last laugh. The more we spread out across the globe – for work, love or the promise of adventure – the more we are connected in miniscule, haphazard ways.

But what does it mean? Or does it mean nothing? As a regular tarot card reader and astrology nut, I find myself placing meaning on situations when it is convenient, or fitting. That girl from university I see everywhere? Must just be random. But the dashing blond man I see everywhere from the Gambetta metro station to the Monoprix at Opera? We simply must be destined to be together.

This is what psychologists refer to as “confirmation bias.” It’s the tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms our preconceptions, but avoids information and interpretations that might contradict our prior beliefs.

Yet I am not the only one fostering meaning into these ephemeral meetings. I still remember the time I saw an old friend in a shoe store in Paris. We hadn’t seen each other for years and it just so happened, he was leaving for India indefinitely the next day. We stood there staring dumbfounded at each other for five minutes until the storeowner kindly asked me if I was actually going to buy the shoe still stuck on my foot. As my friend and I parted ways that evening, he said, “Don’t you think this means something?” Fully knowing his romantic feelings for me and my platonic ones for him, all I could utter was, “No, not really.”

But even I couldn’t believe that statement. Everything means something. We would not be here, in this place where we’re standing, without all the little experiences before, now, everywhere. Without every moment, person met, job taken or love lost, I would not be everything that I am right now.

Yet, I’m still not convinced. There must be some better, more concrete explanation.

My friend’s father, a religious Jew, would undoubtedly respond to situations like the ones I’ve explained with, “Is it odd, or is it God?” Indeed, a more religious person than I would equate these random experiences with makings of a higher power; of a God who is trying to teach me something with every person met, every connection made. But isn’t that taking the easy way out? Explaining the unexplained by something I can’t tangibly construct doesn’t necessarily help me understand why I seem to be connected to some people more than others, or why those connections can fluctuate between strong (to the point of scary) to non-existent.

A couple of years ago, an ex-boyfriend and I seemed to be banded together like white on rice. However you want to explain it – the planets aligned, it was fate, destiny, whatever – our paths seemed to cross whether we liked it or not. And then one day, the connection broke like a flimsy thread. Without warning, that link was gone, dead, never to be revived again. Maybe there’s no reason for any of this, maybe I’ve looked far too long and hard into the matter. Or maybe the I Ching can explain.

The ancient Chinese texts use a complex set of 64 hexagrams that show how energy flows throughout a situation, and its answers are extremely sensitive to the nuances of human interaction. For many, an I Ching reading can provide guidance on how to proceed during difficult times or even a glimpse into the future. By the tossing of three coins, an I Ching prophecy could explain the probability of why people cross paths at certain moments in life.

Then there is the theory of “synchronicity” by Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. In the 1920s, Jung first coined the term to describe what he called “temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events,” or in other words, “meaningful coincidence.” Synchronicity can describe the governing dynamic that underlies human experience and leads to our collective unconscious. Under this logic, events that are seemingly unlikely to occur together by chance may occur together in a meaningful manner.

So maybe there is some reason this random girl and I keep crossing. Up until now, I’ve been too lazy or scared to bridge the gap and actually ask her her name, where she is from and what she is doing at the Eiffel Tower on a Tuesday morning, just as I am. Perhaps there is an important meaning in our meetings, a meaning I couldn’t possibly know yet because for whatever reason, it has not yet been the time to find out. Maybe it will be something profound that will change the course of my life forever. It could be like Edward Lorenz’s “butterfly effect” within the chaos theory, where a small change at one place in time can result in major differences in a later state. Our connection could change history as we know it.

Or maybe, who knows, it could just be happenstance.

Fed up with Facebook: Why I quit my social media addiction

My friend Celeste says our generation’s contribution to evolution will be smaller thumbs. Why? With all the cell phone communication of today, our thumbs will progressively shrink in order to aide us in texting, scrolling, and emailing from the comfort of our mini hand-held telephones. If you live in a bustling metropolis, you’ll know what I’m talking about. While you will still find many riders abord city transport reading the newspaper or, heaven forbid, a book, most people are attached to their cell phones like a druggie on crack. As the world grows increasingly more individualistic and our opportunities for virtual relationships go up, our outlets for real human interaction are reduced to the size of a peanut. Blame it on the Blackberry or the iPhone or Twitter, if you like, but when was the last time you looked your fellow metro rider in the eye and said hello? Here in Paris, such audacious friendliness would get you at the very least an annoyed stare and more realistically, mutterings of “Leave me alone, crazy lady.”

I have recently decided to take a self-imposed social media vacation. Call it amazing willpower if you like, but I think it has more to do with intense exasperation. How could I not be fed up with myself? My morning ritual had become: Wake up to alarm. Check emails on Blackberry. Check Facebook wall. Check weather on Blackberry internet browser. Get ready for work. Listen to music on Mp3 player. Get on metro. Check Facebook wall again. Look at new text messages and respond. Witness funny, interesting or weird event in metro and describe, using witty repartee, for publication on Facebook wall. Arrive at work. Check to see if any “friends” have “liked” comment about funny, interesting, weird event in metro. Put phone in pocket and repeat above steps.

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

https://i0.wp.com/everystockphoto.s3.amazonaws.com/uiuc_high_school_1497278_o.jpg

Needless to say, I’ve had enough. Last night, I stayed on Facebook searching friends’ photos and obsessively checking who was on the chat in a last attempt to be connected before I shut off for good. (In reality, all I have to do to get my Facebook account back is sign in, but it’s the thought that counts.) At midnight, I checked myself out. Yet, I still felt I hadn’t done enough. To the Blackberry I went, removing the Facebook application as well as the internet browser. No more impulsive searching for needless information I simply must know rightthisminute. And finally, I set my phone’s email alert to quiet and hid the application in a place I hoped I wouldn’t remember to find.

Three days later, anxiety set in. Of all my media cut-offs, Facebook withdrawal was the worst. I started to fret about what everyone else was doing and had the sneaking suspicion I was missing out. Worse, were there events I wasn’t going to be invited to because I was no longer people’s “friends”? Would I be subject to the dreaded “Out of sight, out of mind” adage? The next day, I got caught in the rain without my umbrella, not having checked the weather from my Blackberry in the morning as usual. And in the metro without my Facebook to check on my Blackberry, I twiddled my thumbs staring at all the bored Parisian faces… who were all on their cell phones.

But then a funny thing happened. The anxiety of worrying about what I was missing in other people’s lives was replaced by the filling up of my own reality. Instead of wasting all this time in my virtual life, I started truly living my real one. That bored Parisian face on the metro wasn’t in fact bored. She was crying, perhaps over a lost lover or sick parent – who knows – but she smiled gratefully when I offered her a Kleenex… something I may not have thought to do if I were attached to my phone. And for the first time in months, I read the whole newspaper on my ride to work, without interruption from one of my many handheld media outlets.

Not only was the mental fog slowly lifting, but so were the needless thoughts about people I really should be forgetting. The frenemy who offended me last week is easier to ignore when I don’t have to see her face on my Facebook wall every morning. And that email from my mother about what meal I want when I first arrive in the US next week? It can wait until I get home tonight.

What disturbs me in all of this is what I thought I was getting out of my virtual social circle. With constructing the perfect witty comment for all my Facebook friends to see, I was also inevitably hoping for a response, a “like” or a virtual pat on the back. It didn’t so much matter that my 407 friends knew about the Spanish tourist who spent five minutes on the Parisian metro floor in his attempt to dislodge an Orangina bottle from the vending machine, as it did that people thought my comment was damn funny. But it’s more than needing mass approval or validation. It’s the need to be part of something bigger than ourselves, to be a member of a community in the world at large, to not feel so alone in this expanding universe as people get more spread out by globalisation, and increasingly disconnected from one another. Why else would people feel the inescapable urge to post things like, “I ate strawberries for dinner tonight!” or “Go Bears!”

But being connected isn’t always so rosy. The need to “Keep up with the Jones’s” is palpable, what with the bombardment of friends’ beautiful baby photos, wedding announcements or news of new houses, jobs or clothes. You’ll be hard-pressed to find friends who will publicly announce their parents’ divorce, alcohol addiction or daily unhappiness. Thanks to Facebook, Twitter and the like, grass on the other side always seems better manicured, mowed and watered. On this side, there’s always something that needs improving, which I suppose is fine if that means being more motivated to make positive life changes, but if every friend’s beautiful baby photo makes you less and less happy about being without child, your mood is doomed to go sour.

Now a week into my social media break, I feel better. Calmer, more in control. Present. When I’m at the grocery store checkout, I’m not simultaneously festering over the photos my ex-boyfriend has posted of him and his new girlfriend on Facebook. I’m just looking the cashier in the eye and taking my change. Life feels simpler, less chaotic… strange. It will take me a few weeks to get used to this. Already the urges to get reconnected are trickling in. I almost cracked yesterday but I resisted, with the help of my friend here in Paris. That’s the difference between a Facebook friend and a real one. When the shit hits the fan, your virtual community can only help you so much.

Maybe someday I’ll go back. Maybe that someday will be next week, or even tomorrow. But living in the present seems pretty good to me right now, so I’m holding my ground. After all, despite what this bustling world might emit to the contrary, all we really have is right now, this moment, in the place where you are reading this very article. And if you’re playing Sudoku on your cell phone instead, you just might miss it.

Riot police clear Tunisians from Paris gym as government cuts aid

 

French police have cracked down on Tunisian migrants who have come to this country since the revolution that ousted president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. A group of squatters were flushed out of a Paris gym on Tuesday and the city council says that, thanks to government cuts, their situation is set to get worse.

Maamri is 30-years-old and has been living homeless in Paris for the past six months. On Tuesday night, he was looking for a garden to sleep in after finding his temporary home at a gymnasium in the north-east of the city, closed and blocked off by more than 100 CRS riot police.

“Today, I came back after looking for a job to take a shower, as usual, and to take my things, my bag, my medication, and there was a police officer who told me ‘get out of here and shut your mouth’ before pushing me … I don’t know what I’m going to do … where I’ll go to sleep,” he says.

CRS vans drawn up near the Belleville gym

(Courtney Traub)

Maamri joins upwards of 100 Tunisian migrants who found themselves on the street without their belongings around 10 pm, Tuesday night. They had been illegally occupying the Belleville gymnasium since 1 May but the Paris city council had let them stay – with repeated warnings that the situation was only temporary.

Finally, after extending the deadline at least once, the city moved to shutter it for good on Tuesday.

“We decided to close the gym rather than have it evacuated because we wanted to avoid having to make arrests,” says deputy mayor Pascale Boistard, who is head of integration of non-Europeans.

“We also need to give back this centre to the community, which was unable to access its services since the illegal occupation of the gymnasium. And the roof, in particular, needs repairs,” Nathalie Royer of the mayor’s office added.

Boistard says the city of Paris has struggled to secure alternative housing for the migrants, in cooperation with the NGOs Auroreand France Terre d’Asile. And they were warned in advance that the gym would be closed, she says.

“We had a list of around 80 Tunisian migrants whose situation we have been following closely in cooperation with several organisations, and who have been sleeping regularly at the gym,” says Boistard. “We managed to find emergency housing for 40 of them. Of the 40 others, several refused our propositions and some remained without a solution.”

Royer says that Paris is the only city in France to have set up an action plan to aid the migrants, who left Tunisia after the revolution that overthrew Ben Ali’s government. More than 5,000 people landed on the Italian island of Lampedusa in January and, as the French governmentanticipated, many went on to France to find work and a better life.

But budget problems have caused services to Tunisian refugees to screech to a halt. The mayor’s office says by the time the emergency action plan will have expired on 31 August, the state will have spent 1.4 million euros on emergency housing and aid to Tunisian migrants since the start of the Arab Spring.

“Unfortunately the plan won’t be extended. The resources are simply not there,” says Boistard. “And it’s not our job but the state’s. We started the action plan because this is a terrible humanitarian crisis. The state refuses to take care of the Tunisian migrants, and its only response is to arrest and deport them.”

Boistard sees the situation getting much worse in the face of severe budgetary constraints and plans by Nicolas Sarkozy’s government to cut back on emergency housing.

“By September, I expect 5,000 additional homeless foreigners and French people to be out on the streets,” she says.

The city’s explanations were of little comfort to many of the Tunisians left on the street on Tuesday night. They blamed the French government for the lack of aid.

Brahim, 16, says he came to France looking for work and a better life but has felt disillusioned since arriving. “In Italy, people helped us all the time. Now that we’re in France, nothing. There are so many Arabs here but no one is helping us.”

For Maamri, every day since he left Tunisia six months ago has been a struggle. Living without an income, he says he subsists on one meal a day, which he usually scrounges from local cafes. “It’s like I’m doing Ramadan [the Muslim fasting month],” he jokes.

For many like Maamri, dreams of creating a new life in Europe are wearing thin.

“I came here because it’s Paris,” he says. “You know, the dream of Paris. But it’s been so hard. I think I might just go back home.”

Reprinted from Radio France International on July 7, 2011.

The ‘F’ in February stands for F%$#ing cold!

It is not human to endure this sort of suffering. I seem to tell myself this each and every February, as hellish January (and December, for that matter) has come to a close, leaving me with unbearable February. There is just nothing good about this month, apart from the cheap chocolate fallout from Valentine’s Day, a holiday that inevitably has me alternating between gagging and feeling incredibly sorry for myself.

But my real bone to pick with February is this god awful, torturous cold. It’s like that nagging ex who just won’t get the hint to fuck off once and for all. I know I am from Minnesota and I am supposed to be “used to it” (as every French person tells me during the winter months, as if my being born in a cold state means I was also born with a thick coat of fur like a polar bear), but I’m just not. I’m so beyond fed up.

And I wondered how many others felt this way, in a city such as Paris where girls walk around in sheer tights, miniscule leather coats and wet hair in the middle of a snowstorm. Until I listened to the not-so-subtle clues… and turns out, everyone is fed up. “J’en peux plus!”, “J’en ai marre!” Ok, Frenchies, we get it, you’ve had enough! Me too.

But what to do? I do not have enough cash from my pathetic high school girl’s job to take a trip to the islands, or even the south of France, if that’s even better than here.

In my dire state, I have plastered cheesy pictures of tropical beaches – white sand, shimmering turquoise waters… the occasional tiki hut – to the wall in front of my desk. So, while I am actually typing about Iranian female autobiographies written in exile, I am imagining myself lying semi-clothed in the shallow end of the Mediterranean. I can almost taste the sweet syrup of my Pina Colada – served, of course, by a tan, bare-chested barman – when BAM!!

The window in the hallway is blown open, the black packing tape that my roommate has affixed to keep it wedged closed having come loose, and an enormous “courant d’air” sweeps through my bedroom. And great. My lungs go directly into spasm. Bronchitis. Again. Damn those French people and their fixation on “attraper le froid” – come on, people, you don’t actually catch a cold by “catching cold”…. or do you. I really, REALLY hate to admit that they are right on this one, but it seems to be so. I suppose the snotty-nosed brats I work for aren’t helping my cause much either.

Back in my bed I go. I HATE winter. When is it over. I will hibernate here until the sun comes out again. I have enough canned goods to last at least two months, running water and three small bottles of aged Scotch, so don’t worry about me, I will be just fine. But better check on me in a few weeks, just to be sure I haven’t forgotten that showering and teeth brushing are necessary components of life. Otherwise, go out and enjoy yourself, kids. Send me some updates from time to time about life out there in the arctic. I’ll hold down the fort here.

Riding through Paris in a Sardine Can…

There was a time, long ago I suspect, when I still had some semblance of personal space. Personal space and a wee bit of sanity.

Now is not one of those times. As I march like a member of the national guard through the Saint-Lazare metro station, I wipe that silly Midwestern smile off my face and assume the Paris Stance: shoulders up and back, eyes that could stop a deer in its tracks, and a pair of 2-inch boots that aren’t afraid to step on your heel if you even think about slowing down. I’m carrying a Saint Bernard-sized purse to boot, which not only holds my entire life inside but is also quite practical for taking down those groups of teenage girls who clog up the metro corridors.

As I push past yet another graying man walking 3 mph, I let out a deep and very French huff, puffing my cheeks out to their breaking point and throwing in an eye roll for good measure. I snicker at the woman who has somehow managed to trap herself between the bar of the turnstile and the metal barrier, her four crisp designer brand bags wedged up against her face. I tap my metro card over the barcode reader and slide through effortlessly. No one, and I mean no one, will take me off my course.

But wait, what’s this? A huge crowd has formed around some guy singing Curtis Mayfield for small change. Haven’t French people ever heard soul music before? Apparently not. I break past them, narrowly missing the foot of a blond model-type in a red pea coat, who seems to be entranced by the jams, as she comes at me from the other direction. More huffing and puffing ensues.

At last, line two! But first I have to navigate the throng of passengers exiting before I can go up the stairs to the platform. I feel like a rainbow trout trying to go against a river current. It’s no use. Whatever I do, I’m pressed in from all sides. I go left when the woman coming towards me goes right, so I swing right, only to knock into an angry businessman. I finally get to the right lane and assume the Paris Stance in order to make my way up to the platform without being killed.

After three whole minutes of waiting (I am forced to pull out my 200-page novel to cope), the metro finally arrives. Ugh. I forgot that it’s Wednesday at 7:15: Primetime, baby. I cram in with the rest of the sardines, my already sweaty back pressed up against a stocky old man and my face in a head of black curls. If questioned, I could undoubtedly tell you which shampoo the woman used this morning (Garnier Argan Cranberry, by the way). I’m suddenly reminded of my friend Kass, who once said during a particularly packed metro ride home in Tokyo a few years back, “If someone touches me, I’m going to get pregnant.” We are that close.

At Opera, the cars spit out hoards of people. Only half come back in. I scramble frantically towards a seat. My back is killing me with this humongous bag. My tuckus is inches away from freedom when I spot the doe-eyes of a very pregnant woman before me. I smile pathetically and say, “Allez-y.” I feel like crying.

As I grab onto the sweaty pole in the center of the aisle, contemplating the difference between Dante’s inferno and my current situation, I pan back to a recent email from my friend in the Dordogne, which I have not yet responded to: “Hi Colette! How is city life treating you? I hope you’re still the same person as before and haven’t turned into one of those arrogant and pretentious Parisians!”

Nah.

Originally published in Brit’mag, No. 44

Hold on, we’ve got a crier: Gender equal weeping on the political stage

I was starting to have hope that Americans were finally riding the feminist wave. The U.S. has several women in higher office and Hillary Clinton was a viable candidate for the presidency in 2008. Even Sarah Palin, as embarrassing as she is to my gender, has managed to take a certain lead in the political arena. Yet why, after all these advancements, are women still expected to conform to some antiquated notion of what a woman in power is supposed to look like?

Tough, unemotional, severe, uncompromising. The list goes on. Why must a female politician be a masculine, uncaring brute while her male counterparts are allowed to tear up, whimper and all-out sob at the podium with nothing more than a congratulatory pat on the back for having feelings?

Case in point, Time Magazine’s November 15th article on John Boehner. First, we are expected to cozy up to Boehner’s deep, dark tan and likening to a slightly older John F. Kennedy. Then we are supposed to thank our lucky stars that the man knows how to cry.

“You can tell a lot about a man from his tears, and U.S. House Speaker-to-be John Boehner has always been a weeper. He cried on the House floor while defending the Wall Street bailout and once choked up during a partisan speech accusing Democrats of abandoning the troops in Iraq. But he also used to bawl every year during the fundraisers he co-chaired with his friend Ted Kennedy for cash-strapped Catholic schools. “John’s got the biggest heart in the House,” says Republican conference boss Mike Pence, who lost a leadership election to Boehner in 2006. “My preacher used to say, ‘When the eyes leak, the head won’t swell.”

Now, can you imagine if, say, Hillary Clinton opened herself up to this type of emotional bearing-all? The few times Hillary has showed her feelings on the political stage, it has cost her. She was described as “weak” and many doubted her abilities to handle all the tough decisions that come with a job in politics. While male politicians are rewarded for showing emotion, women are penalized and only praised for expressing uber-masculine traits.

A good example is in the same Time magazine issue, where the Arts section has a special piece on Sarah Palin’s upcoming reality TV show. Among the half dozen pictures are shots of Palin doing the following: Holding a hunting rifle. Driving a four-wheeler. Mounting a log with a chainsaw in hand. Are we supposed to believe that the only way to take this woman seriously is when she is “acting like a man?”

The day we can say that we have reached gender equality is the day when a woman is allowed to dress as femininely as she desires and openly weep during a campaign rally, without being judged for abusing her sexual prowess or lacking emotional stability. Or when a man is not applauded for tearing up over the thousands of civilians killed in a war abroad — not because it isn’t incredibly sad, but because crying is merited by any human being in these horrible circumstances. Until we embrace emotional outpouring as a human condition and not a gender condition, we just aren’t there yet.

And please, for the love of God, someone take that chainsaw away from Sarah Palin. Nothing good can come from that.