I don't often use my blog to write about controversial topics, and the closest I have ever come to being an activist is my pet No Love Locks project. But I read something today that hit a nerve. I started to write about it on Facebook, and what started as a quote from the article and a short comment soon turned into something much bigger: a blog post.
The Guardian published this article by Lindy West on cyber-bullying a few days ago. From reading that article, I jumped to one of the links to another article the same author had written for Jezebel.com, about why she sometimes chooses to confront the "trolls" (i.e. cyber-bullies) who frequently attack and even threaten her online, despite conventional wisdom dictating that she should ignore the trolls altogether, that "feeding" the trolls is precisely what they want and she shouldn't give in to them.
"I talk back because the expectation is that when you tell a woman to shut up, she should shut up. I reject that. I talk back because it's fun, sometimes, to rip an abusive dummy to shreds with my friends. I talk back because my mental health is my priority—not some troll's personal satisfaction. I talk back because it emboldens other women to talk back online and in real life, and I talk back because women have told me that my responses give them a script for dealing with monsters in their own lives. And, most importantly, I talk back because internet trolls are not, in fact, monsters. They are human beings—and I don't believe that their attempts to dehumanize me can be counteracted by dehumanizing them."
Oh, I could so relate to this! This is precisely why, though I rarely have had problems with trolls on my blog or social media (I'm just not that controversial), there have been times where I have chosen to talk back to a troll using the best tools I have at my disposal: my words. Others have told me the same thing they told Lindy: Don't feed the trolls, don't give them the attention they want, ignore them and they'll go away. It seems like sound advice, the same thing your mother might have told you when you were a child and some snarky kid on the playground was pulling your hair or shoving your face in the sand. Take the high ground! Be the bigger person! Don't give those losers the satisfaction of noticing them! Don't show them you care what they think! Ignore them, ignore them, ignore them!
Except for one thing: Lindy is right. Internet trolls and bullies DON'T go just away, in most cases, whether you feed them or not. In the Internet age, it is more and more difficult to fight back against the sort of cowardly person who would venomously and almost always anonymously attack a total stranger for no reason other than THEY BELIEVE THEY CAN.
It was a little different in the pre-Internet days. When someone was bullying you at school, for instance, you could at least have a name and a face to connect to the torture. You had at least the possibility that something might be done, if you were brave enough to speak out. Not that you would necessarily be that brave, but at least the attacks weren't anonymous.
Let me share a story: When I was 13, some girls in my class decided, for no good reason other than I existed in their space and breathed their air, to start routinely torturing me verbally and occasionally, physically. One of those girls had been my best friend until she decided, for reasons of her own, to hook herself up with the so-called "cool kids". And so it began: the breaking of my heart by the betrayal of a friend, and spending every single day trying to figure out how to avoid the abuse and keep myself sane. It got increasingly difficult. Other kids in the class quickly jumped on the bully bandwagon, although a few did not and remained kind to me. But no one actively stood up for me or encouraged me to fight back; they didn't want to be targets either. Could I blame them? I went home and cried nearly every day. My mother wanted to contact the school; I begged her not to, afraid of the inevitable backlash, because at 13, peer pressure is all there is, and you don't yet have the life experience to know you can survive it if you speak out.
But finally, one afternoon, I snapped. The bully group, led by one girl in particular who always seemed to be the meanest of the mean, pushed my buttons once too often by literally PUSHING me down the school hallway after the last bell at the end of the day. Usually, their tactics were verbal, but this time, this bitch put her hands on me. Suddenly, without thinking about it, I whipped around with my hand balled into a fist, fully prepared to knock that girl flat on her mean, skinny ass, if that's what it would take to get her/all of them to back the fuck off. I had never hit another person in my life (excepting sibling slap-fighting with my little sister), and I was mortally afraid of fighting this girl or anyone, but by this point I no longer cared. It was my "Scut Farkis" moment:
Well... not quite. The FEAR I saw on that mean girl's face in those long seconds, where I stared her down with my fist at the ready, was all the satisfaction I needed. In the end, I didn't hit her. I didn't have to; I saw that SHE knew I meant business, that I was no longer willing to take it from her or from any of them, and that she was an inch from serious pain if she didn't stop. She stopped.
I turned away and walked down the hallway with my head held high and with no more pushing or taunting from the bullies. I got on my school bus and went home, where I promptly burst into tears again. Then I flatly refused to return to school until the principal had changed my entire class schedule so that I wouldn't have to be with any of those kids again (even though there was only one month left in the school year). He tried to reason with me, assuring me the other kids wouldn't bother me again, that he'd make sure of that; but I wouldn't budge, and I no longer cared about retribution from my peers at school. I named names and gave details. I told him everything. I wanted freedom from their abuse and from even having to see their faces every day, and I wanted them held accountable.
I won. The principal not only changed my schedule, but he hauled the five worst bullies (the three original girls plus two of the boys) and their parents into school on the following day so that the kids could be appropriately punished (I think it involved a few days of suspension). I went back to school the next day, nervous but relieved. Their dirty looks I could handle, but at least I didn't have to be in a classroom with them. I got through that last month without any further problems with those kids. The next year, and for the rest of my school career, I never had any more bullying issues, either. I made other friends, got involved in activities, and generally had a good social life. Looking back, I now think of my last years of high school as one of the best times of my life. By the end of it, I was even on speaking terms with the girl who had once been my best friend but betrayed me; in my senior yearbook, she even wrote me a full-page apology for what she had done to me at 13. Wow.
And you know what else? Last year, out of nowhere, nearly 40 years later, that meanest of the mean girls, the one I nearly punched in the face, actually contacted me privately on Facebook and apologized for having been mean to me when we were 13. I could not have been more shocked, quite honestly. She also wanted to be Facebook "friends", but although I accepted her apology with good grace, I also politely declined her attempt at virtual friendship. I mean, we weren't friends before, so why pretend now? Still, I forgave her that day, and easily so. Actually, I had forgiven her decades earlier.
Forgiveness isn't about telling an abuser that what he/she/they did to you is permissible, acceptable, OK. It's about not holding onto the negative emotions that stem from the abuse, about not letting those emotions define and impact your life or your vision of who you really are. So I forgave those mean girls and boys long ago. I may not have forgotten, and I didn't care to be friendly with them, but I did forgive them in the sense that I let go of their good or bad opinion of me and decided that MY opinion of myself was the one that mattered the most. In that sense, those teenage "trolls" probably did me a big favor by bullying me. I learned to stand up for myself for the first time in my life, and discovered that sometimes it was OK to fight back; this was a lesson I have carried with me ever since, and my life no longer revolves around the need for the good opinion of others.
(Not that I don't love it when someone compliments my writing, of course. Writers thrive on love from readers, we all know that.)
For the record, though I don't have many trolls passing by this blog (you Bold Soul readers are super-awesome!), you would not believe some of the hate mail and nasty comments my No Love Locks co-founder and I received as a result of trying to get people to stop putting locks on historic Parisian bridges. Whether the hateful words came from a minority of French who just can't stand Americans, or from Americans who either loved the love locks or else hated the fact that we chose to live in France (i.e. we must be traitors to the good ol' U.S. of A. if we wanted to live somewhere else especially FRANCE), the thing we most often heard was "Why do Americans have to stick their big noses into other countries' business? What makes you think you have the right?" And all we thought we were doing was supporting the city and other Parisians by getting the ugly locks cleaned off the bridges! I can't even count the number of times profanity was used, including the infamous "C" word. And that word sure wasn't "Class".
Now, when I do encounter the rare Internet bully, what do I do? Many times, I ignore them. Most of the time, they are not worth the effort of responding. If I do write anything in return, I try to take that high road and rather than attacking them directly, do my best to use the power of my words to make them look like the idiots they really are, but in a sarcastic, amusing way. I mean, there is nothing a bully hates more than when you point your finger and laugh at him, like the boggart in Harry Potter. Some well-placed sarcasm can be your Riddikulus charm against a bully.
And then, every so often, when I feel like it really matters to me personally and that not speaking my truth will be worse than backing off, I will stand up at my keyboard and tell it like it is, and to hell with the high road. As Lindy said, if it makes me feel better about myself, then why not say what I want and do it my way? Especially when it's on my blog or my social media account. Because now you're on MY turf, you twat.
Do I think I can change the opinion of my biggest critics, or even silence them, by speaking up and fighting back? Not really. They may shut up and go away. I may be forced to block them if I am able. Yet they will still be "out there", and it is a very rare thing when a troll sees the error of their ways and then apologizes, as happened to Lindy or when my former classmate contacted me after 40 years.
But I will be damned if I sit silently and take it when some wanker crosses the line from "critique"/the freedom to disagree with me to bashing, insulting (or worse, threatening) me, just because I am a woman and a blogger and I have the audacity to put myself "out there" on the Internet and voice an opinion they don't like. Or, heaven forbid I go so far as to post a mocking photo of a Turkish toilet on my blog, which for some insane reason resulted in a lot of heated commentary that mystifies me to this very day.
I'm lucky, in the sense that in the 10 years I have been blogging and "putting myself out there" in the public eye with my writing, it has been rare that a persistent troll has tried to shut me up, and even more rare that I've felt the need to resort to a strong response in my own defense. But there are so many other women bloggers who are getting slammed by these jerks on a daily basis, and not only slammed but threatened terroristically with rape and murder, and as much as we can try and tell ourselves it doesn't sting or scare us, the fact is, sometimes it does, and then you have a choice to make: stay silent with your tail between your legs and try to let it go; or talk back and risk the troll army advancing even further.
There is no perfect solution here. We live in a world where bullies exist in all forms: from the mean kids at school who make your (or your kid's) life an adolescent hell; to cyber-bullies and blog trolls who try to crowd-force you into disappearing from the Internet; to people who will tell you your religion or your politics are wrong because you don't believe what they believe; to open-carry gun activists hanging around the Walmart or your local diner because they like to show off their "rights" by scaring the rest us with their legalized heavy artillery (THERE, I said it: showing up with your damn gun in a public place because you're trying to prove your point makes you a BULLY); to actual terrorists who hijack planes, level buildings and kill hostages on camera. There will always be some bully, somewhere; it's just a matter of degree. Sometimes, it's okay, maybe even prudent, to remain silent when faced with a bully. You will always have to use your own best judgment about that.
But sometimes, you have to stand up to the bullies and speak out, if for no other reason than to keep your self respect. Especially in a world where some will still try and silence a voice raised in defense or protest, just because that voice is female.
So whether you're a prominent female blogger who's being told you have no right (write) to be on the Internet or that you're a terrible mother, or whether you're a teenage girl or boy who is being cyber-bullied by your peers, the point is, you will take back your own power when you choose to stand up, ball your virtual fist, and find a way to say, in your own best words: "That's enough, Troll. I've had it with you. You've crossed the line. So just back the fuck off."
It's silence that allows the trolls to win. That's why, sometimes, I also talk back. Thanks, Lindy.
Happy to report that today, I'm going "back to work" on editing my manuscript. Feels good to be getting back into this project, which I had to put on the back-burner in November at the start of my illness.
Now, one of the things I need to accomplish as part of getting a book deal is boosting my following on social media. It's a sad but true reality of the publishing world that agents and publishers will frequently take a first-time author seriously, no matter how great the book might be, if they already have a sizable presence on the Internet. Publishing is, after all, a profit-centered industry, and publishers now see social media as a measurement of potential sales, especially when considering an author with little or no track record to fall back on. Good numbers on social media can not only affect your ability to get a contract, it can also affect how much of an advance you'd be offered.
While my stats on this blog are excellent (10 years next month, over 800,000 vistors and over 1 million page views), my Twitter and Facebook numbers could be better and they need some substantial boosting -- and FAST.
Can you help? I know we are all inundated with social media and if you're like me, you try to limit your intake to messages from the "essential" people in your life. But I promise I don't (and won't) over-post to either medium (my recent tirade against FoxNews' entirely falsified and inaccurate claim of "no go zones" in Paris was a rare exception). And at least with Facebook, you can "like" me but then "unfollow" my daily feeds (and I still get credit for the "like" part).
Please help me make a strong impression on these literary big-wigs by following/liking me on one (or hopefully both) and by introducing me to your friends, followers and fellow Francophiles and encouraging them to follow/like me as well.
My Facebook "Author" page: Facebook.com/LisaTaylorHuff.Author
My Twitter feed: Twitter.com/theboldsoul
Merci mille fois, mes amis!
P.S. If you follow/like me, of course I'll return the favor!
That sound you hear is the tapping of my keyboard.
It's Day 3 of my après tourism job life, and right now I am "installed" (as the French say) at a table in the Starbucks next to the Gare Saint Lazare.
Starbucks may not have the most ambiance for cafe-writing, but I'm meeting a friend here for a coffee, they have free WiFi and great air conditioning - and on this October day, we are definitely having Indian summer weather.
On Day 1, I allowed myself to be a lazy sod. Did a load of laundry. Read a little. Watched a lot of videos. Slept a lot. On Day 2, I did some other housework and then went to an eye doctor appointment followed by a trip to the eyeglasses store to choose my new "look". I'll have the new glasses in a week, and I can't wait because I am now suffering through glasses with scratches and lenses that no longer meet my needs. (Insert requisite "aging sucks" sigh here.)
But now, enough lazing around. Time to get to work. "Work", for the moment, will consist of catching up on things at home, keeping my eyes out for a paying job that would meet my needs and interests (and where perfect French isn't a factor), getting the rental apartment listed with an agency and rented for the coming year, getting the memoir smoothed over and published, and breaking into paid magazine writing.
Oh, and continuing the crusade to rid Paris of parasitic padlocks. Every girl needs a hobby.
This week in France was the rentrée. Technically that means the "return" or "re-entry", the time when people come back to work after their vacation and when the kids go back to school. Because so many French (especially Parisians) take most of August off for vacation, when everyone comes back nearly all at once, it's like Paris goes from being a sleepy summer town to a crazy metropolis, almost over night. Once again, the lovely half-empty buses and metro cars of summer are packed like sardine cans at rush hour.
It's always a busy time for us because we still have a school-age child at home. His first full day of school was yesterday, so now we're back to our normal school-year routine on the weeks when he's staying with us. In a few days, my little peanut will turn 13, too -- although he hasn't hit his full-on growth spurt yet, he's no longer the Little Guy. Now we have a teenager on our hands.
For me, I was already back at work two weeks ago; for Georges, he went back to work last week but because many of his colleagues were still en vacances, it was pretty quiet and not much was going on, so this week was his real rentrée. But I came back to my job in mid-August to discover that our biggest reseller, the one who was mainly responsible for our reservations team processing 400-500 bookings a day in July, had started booking their own reservations through an official link into our systems. That, coupled with the fact that with the colder weather (and fewer tourists) coming, my employer will be cutting way back on many of the outdoor tours and Eiffel Tower visits, and in short this means that now we only have about 50-80 bookings a day to process, and that's barely enough work for one person. With between 2 and 4 of us on the reservations team scheduled to work each day, you can imagine how MIND NUMBINGLY B-O-R-I-N-G it has been. And that ain't good news when you've got a half-dozen people whose work contracts end on September 30th and who were all hoping to have enough work to stay on through the winter. When there aren't any reservations to do, they've got us doing anything and everything else to keep us busy since they have to pay us for our contracted number of hours and they don't want to pay for us to surf Facebook all damn day (not that I can blame them for that). I haven't actually been asked to clean a toilet (yet) but I've been wondering when they might ask me to -- and let me just say that one thing I have learned since working in tourism is, TOURISTS ARE TOTAL PIGS. It's like, people go on vacation and any sense of common decency evaporates because it's not THEIR home or office toilet they're defiling. Our toilets -- in a beautiful new office space, too -- start out clean each day because our staff cleans them, and within a few short hours they are completely disgusting and OH MY GOD THE STINK RIGHT NEXT TO OUR OFFICE/STAFF LOUNGE TOO and it's because of our lovely customers.
Yesterday, I found out they aren't keeping ANY of us on the reservations team. Not a single one. Whatever reservations need to be done after September, the permanent crew of supervisors will handle it until things pick up again in the spring. Probably not the most efficient system, to have to hire summer help every year and train a whole crew of new people, but that's how they've decided to play it.
Suffice to say, I am a little disappointed but not at all surprised by this news. I always knew the job was probably temporary, and although I had been hoping to be able to stay on part time through the winter, it's fine the way it is. I know they were actually really happy with me and that having to let me go is nothing personal. C'est la vie. Au revoir, touristes. Go home and clean your own toilets and think fondly of your memories of Paris.
Now I just have to focus on the next thing.
What might that be, you ask? It depends. I am looking around to see if there is another job out there that might be right for me, something where I'm not standing on my feet all day and where perfect written or telephone French is not required. I like bringing in at least some money and doing my share to fill the family coffers, so if another decent job is out there and I can get it, I'll take it.
But I also like the idea of having more time to focus on my writing and photography. For some time now, I have wanted to try my hand at getting some paid magazine or newspaper writing gigs, but to break into that I need more time than I had when working a full-time job, especially as I'm new at it and don't have contacts or a track record. I need time to research markets, write stories, pitch queries. Same with my photography; I've been wanting to see if I can find a way to sell some of my images, perhaps come up with my own line of post cards or stationary or small prints.
I also started, over my vacation, reassessing and reworking parts of my memoir, after some reflection and still feeling something was "off" with it (25 rejection letters from literary agents also made me wonder if I could do better). So having more time to finish cleaning up that manuscript will be valuable... and after I get it cleaned up, I need time to figure out how to set it up on Amazon as an e-book because I've decided to go ahead and publish it myself so I can go back to working on my novel.
Perhaps the "next thing" will end up being some combination of a job (part time), magazine work and working on my books. That wouldn't be bad at all. The main thing is, I want more time to focus on what I feel I'm meant to do, what I do best.
I'M A WRITER. Sometimes I just have to remind myself. It's too easy to let other things get in the way.
Well, it looks like I'm going to get that time now. And I'm happy to tell you that rather than being upset that my employer couldn't figure out a way to offer me a new contract, I'm actually relieved and excited when I think of getting all that time back. I know what a luxury it is, to have that kind of time, and I'm so grateful.
Now it's just up to me to make the most of it.
It has been no secret that I have struggled with my weight for... well, pretty much forever. Being overweight and the fact that you are someone who uses food as a coping mechanism is one of those problems you can't hide from the world; it literally just OUT there, in the physical form of your muffin-top or your flabby thighs, for everyone to see. There are many reasons I am overweight, ranging from the habitual (bad habits ingrained over a lifetime) to the emotional/psychological (let's not even open that Pandora's box, you don't really want to go there and who has that kind of time, anyway?) to the logistical (I love eating but pretty much hate everything to do with cooking from the food shopping to the planning and preparation to the actual cooking).
Now, understand me: I'm not talking about all this so that you can send me all your great tips for changing my behaviors. I know the tips. I've had lots of great advice and coaching on this. And all I can say is, I'm still working on it.
No, the reason I'm bringing this up is because I had an interesting "a-ha!" moment the other day that I wanted to share.
Having struggled for the majority of my life with my weight, and my self-image as a result of any excess weight I've carried (even when I was a LOT thinner in my teens and 20s, I still THOUGHT I was a total cow), you can well imagine that I may have allowed my weight, or my perception of what I look like, to impact some of my choices in life. There are a lot of things I have not done that I have wanted to do, things I have put off doing "until"... until I'm thinner, until I'm more fit, until I'm happier with how I look, until I'm a certain size, until my clothes fit better.
The list of things I haven't done because of my weight or my concerns about my appearance includes: shopping in chic stores, even for things like shoes, handbags and jewelry that are 1-size-fits-all, because I feel the saleswomen would take one look at me and "Pretty Woman" diss me; doing physical activities that I might actually like (including yoga) because it's too hard to move when you're big and klutzy; and for about 10 years before I came to France and forced myself back out there, I avoided meeting men, because I was afraid it would be like THIS, only without the great ending line from Colin Firth:
I think that at least one of the reasons I put off moving to France for so many years was because I thought I was too fat. I thought I would come to France and be unhappy being surrounded by all those thin Parisiennes, that it would make me feel bad when I couldn't go into the stores and shop for clothes. For years, I had an image of how it would be when I finally moved to France: I'd be thin, I'd be flitting about town in stiletto heels and a chic scarf, sitting in a café with men drooling over me, a proper French girl. And because that unrealistic picture of how it "should" be didn't match up with the reality, I kept telling myself, "Not yet. You're not ready yet. Wait a little longer."
Until one day around eight years ago, I realized I had waited long enough, and waiting was just... well... STUPID. Waiting for things to be "perfect" before I could pursue a dream that meant so much to me was really idiotic on my part. There IS no "perfect" time to do anything big and brave and bold in your life. So I stopped waiting to be thinner, and I got on the damn plane. And here I still am. Yes, I am a fat woman in a city where thin is and always will be "in". I can't wear the clothes, and yes, that really bums me out sometimes. But I'm not sorry I came. I'm only sorry I waited as long as I did, that I let my ideas about "perfection" keep me from doing something I really wanted to do.
This brings me to my recent "a-ha!" moment, and it has to do with the love locks project and all the press attention we've gotten in just two months. I've lost count of how many interviews I've done but estimate it to be between 40 and 50. A good percentage of those have involved a camera of some kind.
And here is my one of my personal nightmares come to life: having to be in the press while FAT. I hate having my picture taken. I don't think I'm especially photogenic. And carrying extra bulk doesn't exactly help with that. I've always been afraid that, if I ever had to do any on-camera interviews for any reason, that other people would look at me, and no matter how great I might be in every other respect, no matter how smart, funny, articulate or even pretty in my way, all people would see (at least in how *I* imagine it) is that I'm FAT. As if being fat somehow invalidates all those other positives. That because I'm overweight, I'm not ever going to be good enough in the eyes of the world (and even in my own eyes) because I haven't been able to "fix" this oh-so-evident problem of being overweight. I assume, rightly or wrongly, that other people are automatically judging me because I'm overweight, and you know what? Sometimes, maybe they ARE. The world is just like that, and being fat is one of those apparently unforgivable sins in the eyes of many people.
So, I have often, in many scenarios over the course of my adult life, tried very hard NOT to put myself in situations where I could be judged by even more people, like, say, an AUDIENCE. Now, I got over this in some ways, and even grew to like doing public speaking. I did a few interviews for local newspapers when I was a life coach, and didn't mind (much) having my picture taken for those because they were just head shots. And radio? No problem there -- I could shine because I could focus on my message instead of worrying about what I looked like.
But I never did television interviews. Because, you know, TV adds 10 lbs, right? And when you've got 70 or 80 to lose, an extra 10 is not a happy thought. Luckily, there was never a REASON for me to have to do any TV interviews or to get in front of a video camera for any reason.
Until the past couple of months, of course. When I started doing TV interviews. ON TV. Talking about why love locks are horrible and have to be stopped. ON TV. Here. In Paris. Where people are thinner and even more judgmental of the non-thin.
When it first occurred to me, early on in our love locks project, that I might end up having to go in front of a camera at some point, if the press took interest, I cried about that. Once again, I was going to be "the fat, frumpy one" - my friend Lisa is petite and trim and looks like a million bucks in clothes, and has fabulous taste. She looks every bit the chic, trendy New Yorker and Parisian; I do not. She will read this and protest, but it's not her fault she is who she is, and I am who I am.
I thought I had come to terms with the fact that, physically, I don't really "fit" the idea of the Parisian woman, and perhaps I never really will. After all, I have a husband who adores me and who tells me every day that in his eyes, I am beautiful and sexy just the way I am. He loves my wobbly bits and everything else about me, and for this I am very blessed. I love how he sees me. And my life in Paris is a good life, so I don't need the good opinion of Parisians -- especially the types who would judge me for how I look -- to make or break my existence.
But the first time, after one of the video interviews went out, that someone wrote in and made the "fat American" remark, I won't lie -- THAT hurt. And it didn't happen only once, either. Despite my own feelings about my size, I have actually never in my life had someone look at me and say a single mean word about my weight, or call me fat. Until now.
And yet, what I realized -- and here is the big "a-ha", I promise -- the other day, while sitting in the makeup chair at LCI, preparing to go on live French TV, is that another HUGE thing I had been putting off doing in my life, solely out of fear of what people might say or think about my size, was being a successful writer.
I have been holding myself back for YEARS as a writer because I worried about what would happen when I finally "made it". I thought about when my books would be published, and I'd have to go out and do book readings, and TV interviews, and have photos taken for the press or with fans of my book. And oh my God, what if one of my books actually got optioned and made into a MOVIE? Imagine me, 80+ lbs overweight, waddling down the red carpet, wearing... what, a stunning "couture" (ha! as if!) gown in a size 20? I thought that surely, the reaction of the public would be something akin to: OH MY GOD, why did we buy HER book? She's FAT! SHE doesn't deserve to be a successful writer! FAT people don't deserve to be ANYTHING. Right?
It has long been my contention that it is not fear of failure that keeps us from achieving our dreams, it is the fear of what will happen if we actually succeed. And in my case, with my writing, I think I have always sensed that if I really, REALLY put myself out there, if I were to take away all the self-imposed barriers I place upon myself, and if I were to just write and write and write from my heart until I am ready to spontaneously combust from the heat of how damn HOT I am as a writer, if I ever let that incredible talent loose on the world, there will be NO STOPPING ME. I will succeed as a writer, and I will succeed big-time. I will be famous. I will be known.
And I will most likely also be fat.
This, when I'm honest about it, is probably the #1 biggest obstacle that I have created for myself. Perhaps it's even the ONLY obstacle: my fear of being famous and successful as a writer, while at the same time being someone who happens to be fat. Because "that's NOT now how it's supposed to be". I don't WANT to be one of those "fat writers"; I want to be one that looks smart and sexy and slim on that book cover, on that book promo poster in the book store, and on my own web site. And I especially want to look thin and sexy on TV... or on a red carpet. Fat people aren't supposed to be successful. They have failed at being thin, so how can we expect them to be good at anything else? And why on earth would be we interested in anything that fat writer in Paris has to say in that book she wrote?
But you know what? I have now crossed that great divide, that chasm of my own fears about myself and my value in the world. Like it or not, I have now been on television... fat. I've done it nearly a dozen times already... fat. Next Friday, I'm going to do it again -- still fat, because lord knows I can't drop 3 dress sizes in 6 days -- for German TV, and for the first time, will have the opportunity of doing a TV interview with my good friend Lisa, something we've had to put off for weeks, being in two different cities. But now she's coming back to Paris and we are doing this interview, and it will be so much fun! I will still be thinking about how big I probably look standing next to my tiny but very feisty partner in the patrimoine, but I will also be happy and excited and proud to be standing next to her, because what we're doing is important and it matters to us, and the fact that TV journalists from all over the world want to talk to us is a really big deal.
So, I'm fat, and I'm going on TV. Again. And the world has not come to an end. Sure, a few incredibly rude and insensitive people have seen fit to point out that I'm fat... but I have had to laugh at the fact that THAT was the best insult they could come up with! I mean, seriously? I'd rather be fat than be so limited in intelligence, social grace and vocabulary - not to mention humanity.
I think that the unexpected surprise for me in what has happened in the past few months, is the realization that I can finally let go of my last obstacle to stepping into my rightful place as a successful writer. I can sit here and say to you, without arrogance but with full confidence: I AM A WRITER. And I am a damn good one. It is what I was always destined to become, it is how I have always been meant to shine and to make my mark on the world. Everyone has his or her special gift, the thing that they are meant to share with the world, and writing is mine. It's not what I do, it is WHO I AM at my core. It's how I express myself, how I connect with the world and with the people around me. Words are what I'm all about. One of the hardest parts about living in France has always been that the language barrier does make it harder for me to express myself fully in French. I still have difficulties there, and I will most likely never be as articulate or funny or graceful in French as I know I can be in English. But that doesn't change the fact that a writer I am, and as a writer, I will ROCK THIS WORLD, in my own way. I may not be the next Jane Austen. But I am the one and only Lisa Taylor Huff. Watch out, literary world. I am here.
The wall to succeeding as a writer was never about my confidence in my abilities. It was only ever about my confidence in my appearance, and I can see that now. Isn't that silly... and also sad? In about 8 days, I will turn 53. Think of how much time I have wasted in my life, being afraid to put myself out there in so many ways, especially as a writer, because of how I look and how I feared someone's impression of me if they liked my writing, but then met me and discovered "OMG she's FAT!"
The long and short of it is, I have decided to stop waiting for the Magic Literary Agent to fly in with her wand and get me a publishing contract. I am a writer. I have written a book, and a good book. I want it to be published, to make it available to anyone who wants to read it. And then I'm going to go and write the next one. And the one after that. I'm going to take matters into my own hands and get that first book out there NOW, and take advantage of some of this press coverage while I've got it. An agent or a "real" publisher may still come along, and if so, that will be wonderful. But I'm through with waiting around, and through with making any more excuses for following my own destiny. The "fat buck" stops here.
In the next few weeks, look for an announcement about how you can FINALLY buy a copy of my memoir about how I came to Paris for love of Paris, and stayed for the love of my life... It's Always the Last Place You Look.
I knew I picked that title for a good reason. It has resonated with me from the day I wrote the first page, for all kinds of reason, even though the book isn't at all about being fat. Because the last place *I* ever thought to look, to learn how to be "OK" with being out there in public and being fat at the same time? Was in front of a TV camera.
To continue on with our tour of Victor Hugo's former home in the Place des Vosges...
After the Chinese room, the next is a dining room, which had a number of rather ornate, dark pieces of furniture. I wasn't entirely sure if these were actually used by Victor Hugo and family, or were they simply "of the period" when he lived there. He did design some of the furniture that was in the apartment, however, so it is possible this piece was among them.
The next two rooms were a small study, and a larger study, both being used primarily as exhibition space where they had some works by another artist. However, in the larger study has this iconic portrait of Hugo, done by Léon Bonnat:
The last room was a bedroom, a recreation of Hugo's bed chamber from his last residence on Avenue d'Eylau. It may not have been Hugo's actual bedroom when he originally lived here, but his grandchildren donated some of the furnishings, including a desk upon which Hugo would write while standing up, and the bed in which Hugo slept... and died on May 22, 1885.
Victor Hugo died in that very bed.
The "standing" writing desk is on the left; you can just see the plumed pen.
On the way out of the museum, there was a book where visitors could leave a word or two about their experience. A lot of the comments were clearly from visiting school children. This one was especially amusing:
"It's very good. The visit was very rich but I couldn't find #11 on the children's audio guide. But otherwise it's perfect!!! Long Live Victor Hugo!!!"
A drawing of Hugo by a young visitor: "I am Victor Hugo, yippee!!"
The rest of the images which follow are from the staircase leading up to the apartment, which had some very nice stained glass windows, and around the apartment.
A lovely vanity table, belonging (I assume) to Hugo's mistress of many years, Juliette Drouet.
Window with stained glass inserts in the staircase.
Dining table and furniture.
Small plaque at the start of the visit, showing the dates Victor Hugo was in residence.
The Maison de Victor Hugo in Paris is open daily except Mondays from 10am to 6pm. Admission is free, audio guides cost 5€ to rent (children's guides are available). Groups must book in advance; there are special conference and guided activity visits possible for groups, for a fee. Check the web site for details.
Last week, I finally got around to visiting Victor Hugo's home at No. 6 Place des Vosges. His former second-story apartment is now a free museum (audio guides are 5€) tucked away in one of the corners of this very chic square.
In France, Victor Hugo is considered to be one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, writers the country has ever produced. The lasting influence of both his written works and his politics are such that in the French collective consciousness he is on a par with William Shakespeare's impact on English literature (about whom Hugo actually wrote in 1864). Hugo was a prolific writer, publishing over 55 works during his lifetime (with another 10-20 being published posthumously), although in the Anglophone world he is certainly best known for Notre Dame de Paris, otherwise known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) and Les Misérables (1862).
The beautiful architecture of the Place des Vosges.
No. 6 Place des Vosges was where Victor Hugo lived during the earlier part of his adult life, from 1832-1848. He lived, wrote, and raised his family there with his wife, Adele; they had four children that survived past infancy. In 1844, his oldest child, a daughter, drowned in the Seine at the age of 19 not long after her marriage, when a boat overturned and the weight of her heavy, wet skirts dragged her under the water. Hugo was traveling with his mistress at the time, and actually learned of his daughter's death while reading a newspaper in a café. It is said he never got over it.
Museum entrance, located in one corner of the square.
Hugo actually had two residences, both of which are featured on the same web site. His home on the remote island of Guernsey was where he lived (after first living on the isle of Jersey for two years) when he was in exile as a result of his speaking out against Napoleon III, publicly denouncing the Emperor as a traitor to France. (I can well imagine he would have to get out of town after that.) Hugo lived in exile for about 18 years, spending 15 years of that time on Guernsey. Even after Napoleon III was prepared to offer amnesty, Hugo refused to return to France as long as Napoleon was on the throne, because he would not have been free to speak out against the Emperor as a condition of the amnesty.
In the staircase leading up to the second floor apartment/museum.
He finally returned to France in 1870 when Napoleon III was defeated and there was once more a République in France, though he left for Belgium the following year during the Paris Commune. However, he was kicked out of Belgium for offering help to the communards and he spent the next couple of years in Paris and again in Guernsey. Those were difficult years for Hugo, as both his sons died during that time, and at some point his last daughter, Adèle, was committed to a mental institution. In 1872 he wrote his work, L'Année terrible (The Terrible Year). I doubt this title was a complete coincidence.
Hugo was active in politics, although his political beliefs swung from being a royalist in his youth to becoming a staunch supporter of the Republic later on and until his death, and he was also a member of the Académie Française, the auguste organization that regulates the French language, even today.
Victor Hugo's funeral cortège. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Victor Hugo died in 1885. He was given a full state funeral that was attended by more than 2 million people. His body lay in state under the Arc de Triomphe before he was enterred in the Pantheon, where he now shares a crypt with Alexandre Dumas (père) and Émile Zola.
Victor Hugo lying in state under the Arc de Triomphe. Source: Wikimedia Commons
A visit to the house on Place des Vosges is divided into three periods in Hugo's life: Before Exile, During Exile, and After Exile. When you enter the apartment, which is on the 2nd floor (3rd floor if you're from North America - but there is an elevator if you can't climb that many stairs), you enter the Antechamber, where there are portraits and furniture from the period during Hugo's early years. The other rooms on display lead one into the next, although as there was only one bedroom (Victor's) and no kitchen shown, I have to assume there were other rooms used by the Hugo family but not included in the tour.
Next is the Red Lounge, with a lovely view over the Place des Vosges and red damask on the walls and ceilings (most of the ceilings in the apartment were covered by fabric and/or tapestries, as were the walls, probably to cover cracks, stains and other imperfections in the plaster underneath). Authors Dumas and Lamartine were friends of Hugo and were frequent visitors here.
The rosette on the right was Victor Hugo's Legion of Honor award; the others belonged to Hugo's great-grandson, Jean Hugo.
The view over the Place des Vosges from the Red Lounge.
The Chinese Lounge is decorated with furnishings brought in from the home of Hugo's mistress, Juliette Drouet, from her (their?) home in Guernsey. It was my favorite room in the house, with the colorful fireplace surround, and all the beautiful Chinese porcelain, dishes and artwork.
The lounge also got my attention for a very interesting piece of furniture: a table designed by Hugo himself (who, among his other gifts, was actually a very talented decorator and furniture designer; a number of the pieces in the apartment were his designs). In 1860 while they were in exile in Guernsey, Adèle Hugo wanted to donate something for an auction to raise funds for poor children on the island, and she asked that four of the age's greatest literary minds give their own inkwells! Hugo then took an existing Louis XIII table and modifed it to showcase the names, inkwells (with pens touched by their own hands) and framed letters from each of the writers: himself, George Sand, Alexandre Dumas (père) and Alphonse de Lamartine. Unfortunately, the table did not sell, so Hugo bought it himself. This was by far one of the most interesting pieces of literary "memorabilia" I've ever seen, and as a writer I felt like I was standing just inches away from genius.
The inkwells, pens and signed letters from (clockwise from lower right): Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Alfonse de Lamartine, and George Sand.
Signed by Victor Hugo
I took so many photos that I decided to continue the blog "tour" with a second post, coming tomorrow. You just can't rush a look at Victor Hugo's life!
Writers will do anything to avoid trying to write when they feel blocked. Including making comic strips of themselves having a writer's block.
Yeah, we're kind of like idiots that way.
Comic created with Bitstrips via Facebook.
I'm at L'Ecritoire (which means "the writer's desk") at Place de la Sorbonne on a Sunday. Normally I'm only here on the odd weekdays when I'm meeting Georges, who works in the neighborhood.
But today I'm planning to do something I've never done before: read my first chapter to a group of writers. I've been participating in this writer's group for several months now, but have never been brave enough to share any of my work. Now, since I'm also sending it out to agents, I figure this is the time to get over my qualms and just read it, out loud. Since I estimate I wrote about 50% of the book here in this very café over the past few years, it seems a fitting place to do this reading.
But of course, I need chocolate to sustain me.
There's a blog award contest sponsored by the Mairie de Paris, called the Golden Blog Awards, and I've entered my blog under the "Paris" category!
If you feel so disposed, I'd appreciate your vote! In this award, you can vote once per day, per computer/IP address. If the icon is blue and says VOTE! - then do it!
There are a lot of blogs entered and I have no idea if I'll win (especially since I'm up against 99% French-language bloggers) but it's fun to enter. Perhaps I'll attract more French readers!
Please spread the word: you can send people directly to my voting page by copying and pasting this link:
And thanks for your vote!
(Registrations end 18 October; voting ends 25 October.)
You may have already heard of this famous poem about the proclivities of English language pronunciation, but just for fun I decided to reprint it here. Georges couldn't get through more than a few paragraphs the first time I showed it to him, and I can easily imagine for a non-native English speaker, our pronunciation would drive that person a bit nuts. (Of course, I suffer with French and have an 11-year-old constantly correcting me.) Most English-speakers can't get even 90% of these correct, let alone a perfect 100%.
How many do you know how to say correctly? Which ones have you scratching your head? (Those British proper names catch me up every time!) And don't forget: there's BRITISH English (the author's mother tongue), AMERICAN English, CANADIAN English, and AUSTRALIAN English, and we all have our own little differences in pronunciation. So what is "correct" these days might just be relative anyway.
Have fun with it (and this Dictionary might be able to give you some hints)... and have a big drink after you're done.
* * * * *
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye, your dress you'll tear;
So shall I! Oh, hear my prayer.
Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word.
Sword and sward, retain and Britain
(Mind the latter, how it's written!)
Made has not the sound of bade,
Say-said, pay-paid, laid, but plaid.
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
But be careful how you speak,
Say break, steak, but bleak and streak.
Previous, precious, fuchsia, via;
Pipe, snipe, recipe and choir,
Cloven, oven; how and low;
Script, receipt; shoe, poem, toe.
Hear me say, devoid of trickery:
Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,
Typhoid; measles, topsails, aisles;
Exiles, similes, reviles;
Wholly, holly; signal, signing;
Thames; examining, combining;
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war, and far.
From "desire": desirable--admirable from "admire";
Lumber, plumber, bier, but brier;
Chatham, brougham; renown but known,
Knowledge; done, but gone and tone,
One, anemone; Balmoral;
Kitchen, lichen; laundry, laurel;
Gertrude, German; wind and mind;
Scene, Melpomene, mankind;
Tortoise, turquoise, chamois-leather,
Reading, Reading, heathen, heather.
This phonetic labyrinth
Gives moss, gross, brook, brooch, ninth, plinth.
Billet does not end like ballet;
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet;
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Banquet is not nearly parquet,
Which is said to rhyme with "darky."
Viscous, viscount; load and broad;
Toward, to forward, to reward,
And your pronunciation's OK.
Rounded, wounded; grieve and sieve;
Friend and fiend; alive and live.
Liberty, library; heave and heaven;
Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven,
We say hallowed, but allowed;
People, leopard; towed, but vowed.
Mark the difference, moreover,
Between mover, plover, Dover,
Leeches, breeches; wise, precise;
Chalice but police and lice.
Camel, constable, unstable;
Principle, disciple; label;
Petal, penal, and canal;
Wait, surmise, plait, promise; pal.
Suit, suite, ruin; circuit, conduit
Rhyme with "shirk it" and "beyond it."
But it is not hard to tell
Why it's pall, mall, but Pall Mall.
Muscle, muscular; gaol, iron;
Timber, climber; bullion, lion,
Worm and storm; chaise, chaos, chair;
Senator, spectator, mayor.
Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
And enamour rime with "hammer."
Pussy, hussy, and possess,
Desert, but dessert, address.
Golf, wolf, countenance, lieutenants
Hoist in lieu of flags left pennants.
Courier, courtier, tomb, bomb, comb,
Cow, but Cowper, some, and home.
"Solder, soldier! Blood is thicker,"
Quoth he, "than liqueur or liquor,"
Making, it is sad but true,
In bravado, much ado.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Pilot, pivot, gaunt, but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant.
Arsenic, specific, scenic,
Relic, rhetoric, hygienic.
Gooseberry, goose, and close, but close,
Paradise, rise, rose, and dose.
Say inveigh, neigh, but inveigle,
Make the latter rhyme with eagle.
Mind! Meandering but mean,
Valentine and magazine.
And I bet you, dear, a penny,
You say mani-(fold) like many,
Which is wrong. Say rapier, pier,
Tier (one who ties), but tier.
Arch, archangel; pray, does erring
Rhyme with herring or with stirring?
Prison, bison, treasure trove,
Treason, hover, cover, cove,
Perseverance, severance. Ribald
Rhymes (but piebald doesn't) with nibbled.
Phaeton, paean, gnat, ghat, gnaw,
Lien, psychic, shone, bone, pshaw.
Don't be down, my own, but rough it,
And distinguish buffet, buffet;
Brood, stood, roof, rook, school, wool, boon,
Worcester, Boleyn, to impugn.
Say in sounds correct and sterling
Hearse, hear, hearken, year and yearling.
Evil, devil, mezzotint,
Mind the Z! (A gentle hint.)
Now you need not pay attention
To such sounds as I don't mention,
Sounds like pores, pause, pours and paws,
Rhyming with the pronoun yours;
Nor are proper names included,
Though I often heard, as you did,
Funny rhymes to unicorn,
Yes, you know them, Vaughan and Strachan.
No, my maiden, coy and comely,
I don't want to speak of Cholmondeley.
No. Yet Froude compared with proud
Is no better than McLeod.
But mind trivial and vial,
Tripod, menial, denial,
Troll and trolley, realm and ream,
Schedule, mischief, schism, and scheme.
Argil, gill, Argyll, gill. Surely
May be made to rhyme with Raleigh,
But you're not supposed to say
Piquet rhymes with sobriquet.
Had this invalid invalid
Worthless documents? How pallid,
How uncouth he, couchant, looked,
When for Portsmouth I had booked!
Zeus, Thebes, Thales, Aphrodite,
Paramour, enamoured, flighty,
Acquiesce, and obsequies.
Please don't monkey with the geyser,
Don't peel 'taters with my razor,
Rather say in accents pure:
Nature, stature and mature.
Pious, impious, limb, climb, glumly,
Worsted, worsted, crumbly, dumbly,
Conquer, conquest, vase, phase, fan,
Wan, sedan and artisan.
The TH will surely trouble you
More than R, CH or W.
Say then these phonetic gems:
Thomas, thyme, Theresa, Thames.
Thompson, Chatham, Waltham, Streatham,
There are more but I forget 'em-
Wait! I've got it: Anthony,
Lighten your anxiety.
The archaic word albeit
Does not rhyme with eight-you see it;
With and forthwith, one has voice,
One has not, you make your choice.
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say: finger;
Then say: singer, ginger, linger.
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, age,
Hero, heron, query, very,
Parry, tarry fury, bury,
Dost, lost, post, and doth, cloth, loth,
Job, Job, blossom, bosom, oath.
Faugh, oppugnant, keen oppugners,
Bowing, bowing, banjo-tuners
Holm you know, but noes, canoes,
Puisne, truism, use, to use?
Though the difference seems little,
We say actual, but victual,
Seat, sweat, chaste, caste, Leigh, eight, height,
Put, nut, granite, and unite.
Reefer does not rhyme with deafer,
Feoffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Dull, bull, Geoffrey, George, ate, late,
Hint, pint, senate, but sedate.
Gaelic, Arabic, pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific;
Tour, but our, dour, succour, four,
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Say manoeuvre, yacht and vomit,
Next omit, which differs from it
Bona fide, alibi
Gyrate, dowry and awry.
Sea, idea, guinea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean,
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion with battalion,
Rally with ally; yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, key, quay!
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, receiver.
Never guess--it is not safe,
We say calves, valves, half, but Ralf.
Starry, granary, canary,
Crevice, but device, and eyrie,
Face, but preface, then grimace,
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Bass, large, target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, oust, joust, and scour, but scourging;
Ear, but earn; and ere and tear
Do not rhyme with here but heir.
Mind the O of off and often
Which may be pronounced as orphan,
With the sound of saw and sauce;
Also soft, lost, cloth and cross.
Pudding, puddle, putting. Putting?
Yes: at golf it rhymes with shutting.
Respite, spite, consent, resent.
Liable, but Parliament.
"The Chaos" by Dr. Gerard Nolst Trenité [1870-1946, a Dutch author and teacher] first appeared (in a shorter version) in an appendix to his textbook Drop Your Foreign Accent, published in 1920.
Now that the major stages of trip planning are pretty well take care of -- I've got my Eurostar tickets printed and my other train tickets from TheTrainLine.com arrived a few days ago, and I've got places to sleep paid for and confirmed for all four nights -- now it's all about the details of what I'll be doing and when.
I now know how much time I will have in each place I'm stopping, which makes it easier to figure out just how much I can "fit in" to my timetable. This forces me to set priorities: what are the things I MUST spend time seeing and doing, and what are the things that would be NICE to see if I happen to have the time.
The 4th day of the trip is taken care of, for the most part: that's the Mad Max Tour that leaves from Bath in the morning and will take me to Stonehenge, Avebury, Lacock and Castle Combe, and will return to Bath by around 4:30 or so. Since I'll be spending the day before that doing all my walking bits around Bath -- the Roman Baths, all the pretty Georgian architecture, and tea at Jane Austen's (hee hee) in the afternoon -- I was thinking that on my last evening in Bath, I would literally TAKE a bath, and spend a couple of hours relaxing my weary body at the Thermae Bath Spa! It's not expensive and you can go at the twilight hours to their rooftop pool (with the same heated mineral water the Romans enjoyed centuries ago), and that sounds like heaven to me. They offer spa treatments but as I'm trying to watch the budget I may have to forego that.
For my second day, I'll start out going to Stratford-upon-Avon and for the sake of time and expediency, I'm going to use the open-air tourist buses to get around to all the attractions; since Anne Hathaway's house is actually a bit outside of town, I would need transportation to that anyway, plus the bus route goes right past the train station anyway. You can purchase tickets when you get there, from the bus driver, and to save a few quid you can buy a combination bus ticket plus entrance to some of the other attractions.
I'll be back in Oxford by mid-afternoon, and because I really don't know much about Oxford and I find all their various "colleges" so confusing -- there are so MANY of them! -- I opted to take another tourist bus (same company that operates the one in Stratford, as it happens) which leaves from the train station and goes all around the city. I found a number of free "City walk" apps for my iPhone that have helped me figure out what there is to see and do in most of the cities I'm visiting (the exception is Winchester but the city does have a decent tourism web site) -- in particular Bath has their own walking tour downloads and I also found one on Shakespeare. After I've done the tour I'll let you know which ones I used and how they worked out for me.
The past couple of days I've spent thinking about packing and walking. I am committed to traveling very light on this trip, and decided to go with just a backpack, and a normal-sized one at that -- the type you might use if you were a student, not the type you'd use if you were doing a two-week hike around Europe. We are not hikers and campers, so that sort of larger bag would be overkill; but a decent, lightweight pack with some good organizing features like pockets for gadgets, water bottle holders and security features can be useful for anyone. And if the Garçon is ever in need of a new backpack for school, he could always use this one later on.
I went to Aux Vieux Campeur in the 5th arrondissement: they are an awesome store that is actually split up into about a dozen smaller boutiques around the Rue des Ecoles area. And as it happens, I couldn't have timed it better as they've got a huge 20% off sale going on, on EVERYTHING for hiking. Cha-ching!
And I chose red, not black. Georges was grateful that I didn't choose pink or purple (which wasn't an option, but I came very close to taking an acid green pack only I decided 18 liters was too small and didn't have enough pockets). This pack by Osprey is a 28-liter pack and weighs about .875 kilos, I think. It felt comfortable when I put the floor model on my back (they stuff them with a lot of plastic bags so you can get at least some idea of how it might feel when loaded). I can't say I got any great customer service there, but then again I didn't really ask anyone for help; I just went in, went to the part that had the smaller packs, and started looking around. There is an overwhelming selection, however, and if you did need help at least their salespeople are trained to help you make the best choice based on your needs.
I also came away with a protective camera which proved too small for my digital SLR -- since I'm not planning to bring my laptop I thought I might bring my real camera to get better quality photos than I can get with my iPhone -- so I'll have to (gasp!) return it to the store next week. I bought some good padlocks and a theft-proof mini-purse from the PacSafe brand, which makes excellent products for travel. I was going to spring for a waterproof cover for the backpack but figured this pack is so small that I could simply bring a big plastic trash bag from home to cover the pack if it rains on days I'm walking around with the bag; it's not the most elegant solution but it's certainly cheap.
Today I also found what I think will be a good pair of walking shoes, not only for this trip but in general. I have so many problems these days with pain in my hips, knees, ankles and feet that good shoes are an essential. I found a store not far from us that sells Fitflops brand shoes; I bought a pair of their sandals last summer on a friend's recommendation and love them. They didn't have much in stock and in fact had nothing on display, but the saleswomen were extremely nice and one of them went down a ladder into their cave, and came back with something I loved!
So check out my new travelin' shoes:
Sassy, huh? I love that they're this sort of pewter-silver metallic color, they'll look great with jeans or shorts all summer long and into the fall.
I still have one or two things to buy -- a rain jacket with a hood or else one of those tacky rain poncho things that would make me look like Quasimodo with the backpack underneath -- but I'm super-happy with my decision to go with a backpack and "rough it" without a lot of extra clothing and a hairdryer. I have short hair and it's going to be May, so if I go out with wet hair, who is really going to be looking?
Next up: more details as I figure things out.
Read all the posts for my 2013 British Countryside Literary Tour:
Plans for my upcoming British Countryside Literary Tour are definitely progressing!
I have booked accommodations for my two nights in Oxford, and found something that looks quite nice, reasonable and convenient via Airbnb. A few years ago, I would never have thought of staying in someone's home, but now having used Airbnb as a host, and seeing the sort of checks and balances their system provides to help you ensure you will get what you pay for, I now think it's an excellent way to find inexpensive places to stay when traveling on a budget. For starters, while they billed my credit card for the full price of the room, the homeowner doesn't receive that money until the day AFTER I arrive, which means if I get there and there is any sort of problem, I can contact Airbnb immediately to stop the reservation and find myself another place to stay. Also, you can select locations where the homeowners have received multiple good reviews from past guests (hosts can also have their Facebook friends enter positive remarks about them, but these are counted separately from actual guest reviews, and frankly I wouldn't book a room solely on the say-so of someone's Facebook posse). For both the rooms I have booked in Oxford and Bath, the homeowners each had more than 15 positive reviews, a number of them very recent. They were also very prompt and efficient in responding to me when I contacted them. I'm renting from a couple in one instance and from a woman in the other; as a woman traveling alone, I wouldn't rent from a man living alone. So, I feel confident it will work out well. And I'm an easy guest to have around, and the hosts can also leave me reviews as to how clean and well-behaved I was when staying in their home; those will be added to my overall Airbnb profile. Everything balances out.
Today I sat down and finalized the times of day I want to travel by train from place to place, doing my best to estimate how much time in each city I want to allocate for sight-seeing. I am resigned that in such a short time, I have to be choosy about what I see and do, and I won't be able to see and do everything I would ideally want. I went to TheTrainLine.com web site, and for each step of the trip, plugged in the details and was given the best possible rates; they ranged from as little as £5.00-6.00 to as much as £30.50. In total, for 6 tickets (one of them a round-trip between Oxford and Stratford, the rest all one-way) it came to £100 which includes taxes, booking fees and the shipping costs to get me the tickets (I could have printed them from a machine when I arrive in London but figured if there were any complications I might miss my first train to Oxford).
Compare this price, and an hour or so of my time to get it all worked out and booked using the web site, to the cost of a Britrail pass (about £150) or renting a car (more than £200) and clearly I chose the best deal. For some of the tickets, I'm limited to that exact train, no flexibility and no refunds if I change my plans; for others, especially on the last day when I've got a tight schedule from Bath to Salisbury to Winchester to London complete with sightseeing in Salisbury and Winchester, I chose the more expensive tickets with more flexibility -- just in case.
I expect to be exhausted but happy by the time I stumble onto the Eurostar that last evening at 8:01pm for the trip back to Paris.
Next up: booking one of those open-roof buses in Stratford to get around more easily and quickly; figuring out exactly what DO I want to see while in Oxford; making a reservation for tea at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath and sorting out when to see the actual baths in Bath; and getting down to the final details. The "details" include figuring out how to pack with only a smallish backpack for luggage, where I must leave space for my Macbook Air (and charger and UK-France plug adaptor) so I can offload photos from my camera every day.
I have three weeks before the school holidays begin and we head to Saint Raphael, and everything has to be ready to go before then. So I have at least a week before I go into full panic mode, worrying about if I've forgotten anything important in planning this trip. But mostly I'm still just EXCITED!
Read all the posts for my 2013 British Countryside Literary Tour:
After a lot of thought and research, last week I changed my mind about driving on this trip. I still think I could do it, the driving on the left thing, and that once I got the hang of it I would probably have a blast despite the stress of learning to shift with my left hand and trying NOT to turn on autopilot into oncoming traffic. But it seemed to be the most expensive option available to me (add paying for parking along with the rental and insurance fees) and budget is a strong consideration for me on this trip. Also, if I was going to arrive on Sunday and with Monday being a Bank Holiday, I wouldn't even be able to get a rental car until Tuesday. So it was back to doing everything by train or bus or tour bus, and I would need to plan accordingly.
Knowing that I would now spend the last 2 nights sleeping in Bath and would probably plan to spend the first two nights in Oxford, I reworked my proposed itinerary, which now looks like THIS:
Having had such success in 2007 with traveling via Eurailpass around the Continent, I assumed a Britrail pass would probably be my smartest choice, both in terms of cost and convenience. My first round of research uncovered something call the Britrail Southwest England Pass that covered (I thought) all the places I wished to go by train. The problem was that they seem to have 2 different possible agendas depending on your country of origin (and payment). If you're coming from the US they had passes for 2, 3 or 4 consecutive days, but if coming from Europe, I could only find the 2 and 4 day passes being offered, and I was planning to pay with my French bank card since that's where the money is these days.
Then, I learned that Stratford-upon-Avon is outside of the Southwest pass region -- just BARELY. Pfft. Then I found another one, the Britrail London Plus pass, that seemed to cover all the cities including Shakespeare's town, but in order for me to get from Bath to Salisbury, which were both covered, I would have to travel WAY out of my way as their map didn't seem to cover direct connections between those cities.
Despite having had several British nationals tell me how costly it is to travel by train in England (they aren't eligible for the Britrail passes) I decided to see what it would cost me if I planned and pre-ordered advance tickets for each individual leg of my trip, based on the above itinerary. And you know what? I used a site called The Train Line and got quotes for all the individual tickets, and in the process found some super-cheap fares (such as one for only £5.00 to get from London to Oxford that first night!) when you buy the tickets in advance online and are willing to commit to taking specific trains. Britrail and Eurail passes, in comparison, offer more overall flexibility with regard to what trains you can take, and that can be quite nice in case you change your plans during your vacation. But here on the BCLT tour, price is important and I have the ability to plan my time around finding the best fares. So all totalled, my train fares should cost me quite a bit LESS than the Britrail pass, and I will still have all my tickets in advance which will save time at the train stations. I haven't booked those tickets yet, but plan to do so in the next few days to get the best prices. Another win for the budget!
Plus with doing this totally cool Mad Max tour on the 4th day, I'll get a bit of a break from all those trains, something I wouldn't have been able to do on the Britrail 4 consecutive day passes (you pay more for flexible passes).
Next up: where to stay in Oxford -- Airbnb, Guest House, Hotel? And in which part of town? And figuring out tour details in each place I'm visiting: what do I want to see most, and what can I fit in if there's extra time?
Also: putting together a list of all the literary references having to do with the places I'm going to visit. For instance, years ago I read The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester, which was a very bizarre but true story of how the Oxford English Dictionary was written in part by an American doctor who was committed to an insane asylum in England after having murdered someone. It was a selection in a book club I was in at the time and not the type of book I ordinarily would have wanted to read, but I really liked it and may now try and re-read it before my trip. I'm also reading Sarum by Edward Rutherford, and very much enjoying his historical fiction work about the evolution of England as centered on Salisbury -- which was originally called Sarum.