While I was in Paris for three weeks this July and August, I found often that Parisians were not that aware of the beauty surrounding them. Of course I was on vacation; they were living real life. They deal with the everyday challenges of living in a big city–trains that stall mid-ride, long commutes, and high rents for tiny apartments.
But still the beauty of Paris is so pas mal. (So not bad.)
One night I joined some friends–new and old–by the river Seine at an outdoor milonga (a milonga is a place where people dance tango). As is the custom in Paris in the summer, we gathered for a picnic–wine, cheese, and also potato chips. At times I felt overwhelmed, flooded by beauty even, of the Seine, the boats floating by, the Haussman-era architecture, and the people dancing outside. The Parisians around me, as much as I enjoyed their company, seemed a bit eh about the scene.
My American friend Alexa who has been living in Paris for the last year had invited me. I turned to her and said something along the lines of, “These people don’t even see how beautiful Paris is!” She laughed, “It’s a metaphor for life, we’re all living in Paris but we don’t even see it.”
Isn’t that true?
The eye can become accustomed to beauty. The “hedonic treadmill” theory posits that human beings return to a set point of happiness no matter what positive or negative events happen to us. Would I be happier if I lived bathed in the beauty of Paris? Would I even see it if I lived there? I don’t know. I would be curious to find out.
Not everyone who comes to Paris finds the experience so blissful. Some people come to Paris and get Paris Syndrome. Paris Syndrome mainly afflicts Japanese people who come to Paris with larger-than-life romantic fantasies of artists wearing berets and high-fashion models. Tourists who suffer from Paris Syndrome get disappointed by the reality of a sprawling, chaotic, extremely multicultural city not matching their hopes–they may even enter a state of psychological turmoil of anxiety, depression, irritation and prejudice. There are doctors who treat patients for Paris Syndrome!
You need not suffer from Paris Syndrome, nor act like Paris is just blah. The difference, I believe, is the willingness to be a flaneur.
To be a flaneur is to wander the city streets, to see and be seen, and there is no city better for wandering than Paris. The concept of the “flanerie” (the wander) was itself created in Paris by Charles Baudelaire. You can certainly go to museums like the Louvre in Paris, but the city itself is a museum: all you have to do is walk at random. Parisians also call this a “balade” (a “stroll”) and “balader” is an important verb.
To discover the beauty of Paris it doesn’t hurt to meet Parisians. You can go on a solo balade (stroll), as a solitary flaneur, or you can balader with a friend or lover. You can also meet people for strolls through couchsurfing.org (join the Paris group and look for their events–the Paris couchsurfing organizers are quite nice and friendly) and look on meetup.com. I joined a Paris Shut Up and Write and went on a Hidden Places of Paris tour. If you’re online dating, go ahead and change your location to Paris! Who knows? You’ll either meet the love of your life or maybe you’ll find a tour guide, or at least someone who gives you a different perspective on the City of Light.
Speaking French helps but it’s by no means necessary. Most Parisians speak English. I found Parisians to be friendlier than their reputation and made new friends.
By the way I also had some really terrible things happen to me in Paris during those three weeks. On my very last night, I was a little too carefree with my purse at an outdoor milonga by the Seine and someone stole my purse–containing, my airbnb keys, my phone, my wallet (credit cards and driver’s license, and an amazing G-spot vibrator that I had just bought at a very cool sex shop Passage du Désir in Le Marais!) while I was dancing. The horror!
I will definitely have to get back to Paris soon to repurchase that stolen G-spot vibrator!
I also experienced seven instances of sexual harassment in one day in one of the edgier neighborhoods that I stayed in. Paris is cracking down on sexual harassment now and Parisian women are marching to call attention to the problem.
It was not all La Vie En Rose.
Still, though, I loved this time in Paris and I dream about returning. It is absolutely clear to me that Paris in summer is a kind of heaven. If I don’t live in Paris in this lifetime, I want to spend more summers in Paris.
Here are some hidden – or not so hidden – things I think are great in Paris. I found these off-the-radar spots by being a flaneur (wandering at random), checking out events I found online, and making new friends.
Paris in summer is exuberant with picnics! Picnicking might be a spring and fall activity too. Check the many parks.
In my first week I joined two picnics by the Seine and the park Buttes-Chaumont, and by the time I had left I had been part of at least seven picnics all over the city! When in my life have I picknicked so much?
The picnic phenom is great:
1) it’s a universal way of being social; everyone is outside, gathering with friends by the Seine, canals, or in parks
2) it’s cheap and easy, you just pick up food in a Franprix or another supermarket
3) Rosé (rosé seems to be the official wine of summer picnics).
I joined this tour of “Lieux Insolites” (“Hidden Places”) of Paris, which I found on Meetup.com group “Promenades et Randonees.” Every weekend the organizer Christophe gathers people by a metro stop in an arrondissement and shows them unexpected places in Paris. It costs 5 euros. We walked around and discovered a Russian Orthodox church, where we learned about Russian immigration to Paris after the Bolshevik Revolution; a Turkish bath; and the Cimetiere de Montparnasse (where we saw the graves of Serge Gainbourg, Sartre and de Beauvoir, and Charles Baudelaire).
Above is the grave of Sartre and de Beauvoir in Cimetiere de Montparnasse. Note the lipstick kisses on the grave. The grave was also covered with Paris metro tickets left as a memorial to the writers.
The tour was not only great for seeing hidden spots of the city, it was also great for meeting people–Parisians and visitors alike. The niceness level of the group was very high. I met a woman from Georgia (the country) studying political science in Paris and we have stayed in touch.
During the summer months (and I believe starting in the spring) you will find people dancing along the Seine every night of the week by the Jardin Tino Rossi (metro: Jussieau).
Every night of the week people gather in a series of circular areas lined by steps (like the above) to dance kizomba, tango, salsa, swing, lindy hop, folkloric dance, and more. It’s stunning.
If you wanted to you could go from circle to circle dancing different dances.
Most of the activity seems to be pure social dancing but I also saw a few dance classes. At the same time, people also gather nearby just to picnic, and the Paris Bla-Bla Language Exchange meets every Thursday (and in the summer in this general area) for their picnic language exchange. So you can also go just to enjoy some wine, socialize, and watch the dancing.
I stayed in Belleville for my first week in Paris and adored the neighborhood. It’s the perfect multicultural, friendly mix, so friendly I couldn’t believe that I thought Paris was not friendly before. Walking the Rue de Belleville is a fun urban flaneur experience as you move through ethnicities. If you make it to the Metro Jourdain area of Belleville (a very charming spot) you absolutely must visit this great bra store which I wrote an entire blog post about.
I found La Reciclerie completely “par hasard”–randomly. It’s really quite extraordinary. La Reciclerie is in the 18th arrondissement right by the metro and it’s quite possibly the most amazing establishment I have ever randomly stumbled on in my flaneries (wanders). Why?
The Reciclerie is a cafe, a restaurant, a workshop/atelier for repairing electronics and household goods, a garden where they grow the food they serve at the restaurant, and an urban farm and this all overlooks the old train tracks of the old train that circled Paris. It’s also a workshop space. While I was there, an “atelier de conversation” – conversation workshop – to help immigrants practice French was going on. Sunday was a sophrologie workshop – which I gather is about the art of relaxing the body. If I do the Quirkyalone Paris Adventure surely we will come here.
Whether you dance tango or not, it would be well worth your time to drop by the metro Trocadero by the Eiffel Tower to watch the tango. I don’t know that I ever saw a more romantic backdrop for watching people dance tango. The most romantic dance in the most romantic city. It’s well worth the trip.
The Trocadero milonga was happening nightly in the summer when I was in Paris last. You can find out about tango events including the nightly Trocadero milonga here.
The soldes are the sales, and the sales come at quite specific times in Paris in January and July. These are the times to shop! I got those gorgeous silver sandals during the summer sales at a great price.
Buttes-Aux-Cailles is a quiet hilltop neighborhood in the 13th, a kind of isolated village, that’s very charming and little known and very worth your while for the stroll. Here’s a walking tour itinerary.
The parks in Paris are the best of any city I know. Jardin Luxembourg and Buttes Chaumont are my favorite parks. Life is better when you can sit on one of these extremely comfortable publicly provided chairs. Such a zone of peace.
caption: Buenos Aires amantes (lovers) can be passionate. Hernan hung this sign up in the street for Flor, “I love you with all my life. Never will we be far apart again.” The phone number on the right: call it if you want to make a sign!
Argentines are very expressive, and their Spanish is distinct from, for example, Mexican Spanish. There are plenty of books and websites out there that explain Buenos Aires slang, or lunfardo–slang words you will never learn in a high school Spanish class.
Over the last four years of living in Buenos Aires I have learned there is a particular modern lunfardo, or slang, when it comes to dating, sex, love and relationships. Certain words would come up again and again. Once I understood the words I understood the culture and what was happening in my own life.
So I have put together this dating glossary for you. I thought it would be a service to the many women (and men) who come to Argentina looking for love. (Or who simply find themselves here, dating). Dating can be bewildering in another culture, and language can help guide you. Knowledge is power. When you are able to name a behavior, or a way of being, you are able to say: I want this, and I don’t want that. You can say you want a chongo, or not. You’ll know what it means to put someone “in the freezer” and why so many men and women call the opposite sex “hysterical.”
Whether you come here on vacation or you live here, here are some words to help you date in Buenos Aires.
Chamuyero: Once I was at an Internations expat event at a bar talking to two Porteños (Porteño means Buenos Aires resident), and I asked them, what is the essence of Buenos Aires? They said, with impish glee, chamuyo.
Chamuyo is bullshit. Sometimes poetic bullshit, but bullshit nonetheless. A chamuyero is a bullshitter, par excellence. Chamuyero is truly the ultimate porteño word. While Rio de Janeiro has its malandros (charming tricksters who do anything to avoid work), Buenos Aires has its chamuyeros.
A chamuyero talks in circles but really they are talking about nothing. You can’t pin them down. Everything they say is airy and unreliable.
In dating, chamuyo is flattery. Chamuyo is quite related to the piropo, a flattering or romantic compliment to seduce a woman. Piropos can be a sport; there are plenty of websites listing piropos to use with a woman or a girlfriend or wife: For example, here’s an Argentine piropo submitted on a user-generated piropo website: “Con un mate y tu compania ya es resuelta la vida!” (With mate and your company, life is already resolved!) That’s a sweet one, and not too over the top. I could believe that piropo or get off on believing it.
The difference between a piropo and chamuyo is chamuyo is clearly bullshit–and totally generic. My chamuyo red flag goes up when a guy starts using the word “princesa,” for example. You can filter out the chamuyo or you can just get off the chamuyo, knowing it’s only that. See also: Lie to me, I love it when you lie to me.
A chamuyero milonguero (tango dancer and frequenter of the milongas, events where we dance tango) may flatter you by telling you what a wonderful dancer you are. In this case, I’m all for the chamuyo. Bring it on! I love it when a guy tells me I dance well–or even better, when he talks about our dance connection (if it feels true). Argentine men are much more likely to give flattery during a dance than American men. A little flattery is actually great technique–it helps me relax and dance better.
Translation: Ah, you left. I thought you kept partying and you had found yourself a chongo for a touch and go Hahahaha Rest! LOLLLLLL Could be! But today no
Chongo: I learned about “chongo” in the best way, from one of my favorite Argentine tanguera friends. A “chongo” is a “touch and go”—usually a man (they don’t talk so much about chongas, though it’s possible to be one) who wants sex and nothing else. As she explained to me, if you’re bored, alone, and you don’t have anyone else in your life, maybe you want to send a message to your “chongo.” As if on cue, just after she told me about the “chongo,” another woman walked behind us at a table on the milonga and said a guy was “re chongo” (really chongo). This word strikes me as powerful! A lot of men (and perhaps women) want to move really fast in Buenos Aires and have sex quickly. A good percentage of them equally move on. Chongos are into seduction, quick sex, y nada mas (nothing more). These people would be chongos, or chongas, and you can decide whether you want that or not. Knowledge is power, ladies and gentlemen.
Histérico: I don’t think it’s possible to date in Buenos Aires for longer than a few months without learning the word “histérico.” It’s really a must that you learn about this word.
What is “histérico”? In English, hysterical means, among other things, “feeling or showing extreme and unrestrained emotion.” In Buenos Aires, “histérico” is mostly about drama and game-playing. A histérico is insanely seductive and passionate until you start reciprocating, then he or she disappears, and then begins the endless-hot-cold behavior. Histéricos are inconsistent. Not stable or trusted. In essence,histéricos enjoy the chase—not just once, but over and over again. So don’t take it personally if they disappear. A histérico is like a serial chongo but with more drama. Love is a battlefield. Buenos Aires is like anywhere else, there are also men and women who want relationships, so you can look for the signs of histérico or chongo and make choices accordingly.
Once you have a name for the condition of histérico, it’s quite helpful. I’ve helped two women realize they were involved with histéricos, and as soon as they have a name for the condition they seemed relieved and were better able to let go and move on.
“In the Freezer”: A guy who probably wanted to be my chongo taught me the expression “in the freezer.” He was talking about a past relationship and said that he had dated a woman for a few months, but then the relationship went “in the freeezer.” “What does that mean?” I asked. “We stopped talking for a while, then we started talking again.” I found this expression to be hilarious. I tried hard to stifle my laughter. I don’t want anyone to put me in the freezer. “Please baby, don’t put me in the freezer! I am not a chicken breast or a bag of peas!”
When talking about this expression with my friend Alexandra, she suggested an additional interpretation: If you’re going out with someone but there’s someone else you want to save for later, you might put the second person “in the freezer” to possibly take out later to thaw.
Mimosa: People in Buenos Aires are affectionate and they kiss to greet (just one kiss, as opposed to the French, who do two kisses on either cheeks.) Men too kiss each other. It’s quite a contrast to the American handshake or back-slap. I see a therapist in Buenos Aires–a very Porteno thing to do, self-knowledge is valued here. When I see my (female) therapist, we kiss each other on the cheeks hello and goodbye. A hello or goodbye kiss with a therapist would never happen in the States.
Mimosa is a word that expresses affection–but in the context of being lovers. Many Argentines have talked to me about the importance of “mimos”–mimos are like love pats and cuddles. I think of a cat as being mimosa. A snuggly person is mimosa. This might be my favorite word in the Buenos AIres dating dictionary because I am mimosa.
Mujeron: A very sexy, va-va-voom Sophia Loren kind of woman, in full possession of her sexuality and sensuality. Buenos Aires is full of mujerones.
Pedazo de pelotudo: Piece of shit more or less. You might throw these words at a histérico, if you felt like it.
Pasional: Passionate. Argentines are very passionate, whether we are talking about love, or football. See the above message from Hernan to Flor.
Pendeviejo/a: Pendejo means young person. A pendeviejo is an older person who dresses like a young person. (Viejo means old.) Imagine, a woman in her 70s. From behind you see her shapely body in tight jeans or a sparkly sequined dress and you think she is 30 then she turns around and you see she is rocking 70.
The pendevieja’s lack of shame in rocking the forever 21 look after retirement is rather spectacular. There are many pendeviejas in certain milongas. Pendeviejo/as don’t pay attention to the rules. They wear tight, flashy clothing that I never felt comfortable wearing, even when I was in my 20s. Buenos Aires is the place to be a pendevieja. You can be a pendeviejo too, an older guy in a youthful t-shirt, jeans and sneakers.
Telo: Telos are hotel rooms that you rent by the hour to have sex if you don’t have a private place at home, or you are on a date.
A few more tips on dating in Buenos Aires:
Confirming dates: Whereas in the US or Europe when you make a date with someone you can generally expect they will show up. It’s not really like that in Buenos Aires. People confirm with texts that the date is happening.
Lateness: Being late is more normal, and sometimes people think that is acceptable even on a first date (we are talking 20-30 minutes late). Sometimes the histericos will use lateness as a way to show you that you’re not that important or to play power games. I would steer clear of anyone who is not respectful with your time. (That can rule out some people.)
Online dating and apps: People in Buenos Aires are using Tinder, Happn, Bumble, and OKCupid. Your results will vary. I can say based on experience that you can meet good people on these apps—over four years, I’ve met a boyfriend, a lover, and a long-term friend. I can also say most people don’t put much effort into their profiles (the profiles are shorter, fewer words, than the States and Europe) and the swiping can be extremely depressing. Overall I would say OKCupid is the best bet because people are more likely to fill out and read a profile. The mobile apps are so geared for superficiality, which means chongos. If you want a chongo though, go for it!
Have any words to add to the Buenos Aires Dating Dictionary? I am sure there are more. Please add them in the comments. I’d love to see how tong this list can go.
Listen to the 1938 tango Song “El Chamuyo” before you go . . .
the cobbler who saved my shoes in Kolasin, Montenegro
A cap on my right tango shoe came off I discovered this afternoon, leaving the right heel wobbly and unstable. I danced about ten songs on it in the afternoon practica but I didn’t feel confident that I wouldn’t injure my ankle–and a sprained ankle is a big setback. I learned how much a sprained ankle can set you back from four months of physical therapy last year.
I asked one of the assistants in the Summer Tango Camp if there was a cobbler in town who fixed heels. The guy told me yes but only on Mondays and Tuesdays. It’s Thursday so that would be of no use. (What kind of work ethic is that? says this American.) This guy offered no more help and went back to staring at his phone.
I went walking in the streets of Kolasin, this mountain town in Montenegro (in the Balkans, just south of Croatia) where I have been staying for two weeks. I asked the nail salon woman if anyone in town fixed shoes. She did my eyebrows and pedicure so she seemed like a good local to start with. She pointed me two kilometers down the road. It’s very hot, and very sunny, and I did not feel like walking two kilometers in the midday sun. I went into a shoe shop thinking I would look for sneakers with smooth soles to pivot on but for some reason I felt inspired to ask them if they fixed heels.
“No, we only sell shoes,” the saleslady said, but she pointed me to a cobbler 100 meters away! A hundred meters–now that’s my kind of distance to walk in the afternoon heat! I found a lovely guy with a nondescript storefront who fixes shoes. They should be ready at 7:15 and if he does a good job I can keep dancing.
So reminded that it is all about persistence. Everything.
Epiphanies come and go. But the main thing, usually, is keep going. So keep going.
(Written during the Kolasin, Montenegro Summer Tango Camp. We didn’t actually camp, we stayed in hotels or houses. We–700 people–all came together for days and days of dancing, hiking, archery, tango learning, and meeting people from all over the world. An incredible event. You should come to the Summer Tango Camp + the Tango Adventure of course!)
Ibiza (pronounce it Ibi-tha), an island off the coast of Spain in the Mediterranean, was stop three on my Forever Young Tour of Europe and it’s another one of those places that a friend’s invitation brought me to. I never imagined visiting Ibiza. If I thought about Ibiza, I pictured massive, throbbing nightclubs. That image was not so off. While on the island I noticed that you could buy club tickets at ATMs and I learned that the RyanAir flights to the island could already be drunken scenes. Someone I met told me about a couple even having sex in a seat on the airplane. Luckily my flight from Brussels to Ibiza was relatively tame, and there’s another side to Ibiza beyond the Las Vegas-style party scene.
Ibiza has a party reputation but I knew that if Jody Day was inviting me to join her birthday celebration on Ibiza there must be another side to the island and there is. Jody is a woman on a mission very similar to mine. Jody started Gateway Women, a community and blog and wrote a book with the express purpose of helping women who don’t have children but who wanted to heal their grief and create a Plan B for a fulfilling life without kids. Our work overlaps since I help women own their self-worth and create fulfilling lives on their own terms with or without a man—quirkyalone or quirkytogether.
I reached out to Jody a couple of years ago after I landed on her website–when I checked out her work, I thought, whoah, this woman and I need to meet! We became friends over Skype. (You can see this interview Jody did with me about “motherhood ambivalence” a few years ago where we get into all kinds of interesting taboo topics that are rarely talked about.)
When I posted on Facebook that I would be coming to Europe in July and August 2017, Jody reached out to invite me to visit her in London or Ibiza for her birthday. I chose the birthday on Ibiza, because, hey, fun, right? So the very first time we met in person was at the airport when Jody picked me up. How amazing was that?!
Jody, her friends and I spent five days together to celebrate her birthday. We got to do things together that you just can’t do over Skype, like go shopping for Ibiza-style fashion, laze on the beach in our bikinis with coffee topped with whipped cream and spend a day on a sailboat to celebrate Jody’s birthday.
not sure it gets better than this . . .
on the boat!
I often had to pinch myself to believe that we were getting this chance to connect in person in such a beautiful place. One night we visited a side of the island where revelers from all over Europe come to go to nightclubs. Like Las Vegas, that side of Ibiza is not my scene, but it was fun to see from an anthropological, traveling perspective. My favorite moment there was sunset, when the bar played classical music to mark the dip of the sun below the horizon and the sun and party-seekers all ritualistically gather to clap for the transition from day to night.
watching the sunset watchers to classical music as the earth eats the sun
Luckily Ibiza also has a hippie, chill, new-agey side. The other side of Ibiza appears to be international, the kind of people who do yoga and also party–say, they would not shy away from the hallucinogenic tea of Ayahuasca for spiritual expansion. Ibiza is also home to Esvedra, a rock area that is said to have electromagnetic healing properties like Sedona.
Through Jody I got to meet some wonderful women—her friend Selina Ingram from Wales who has lived in San Francisco and Las Vegas, and now lives in Ibiza. Selina organizes fundraisers for low-income people on the VIP Ibiza and calls her group on Ibiza “phenomenal women.” (You’ll be hearing more about my own version of the PW later this year . . . you’ll see us talking about that in the video below.)
I wish you could just eavesdrop on all the conversations that Jody and I had over the five days we spent together at the beach, by the pool, over wine, and on a sailboat trip to celebrate her birthday. . .I’ll give you a few of the highlights as I remember them. We talked about everything from how being single for most of her forties helped Jody get to know herself and prepare herself to have the healthiest happiest relationship she’s been in now in her fifties. We talked about the lonely sides of solo travel and what one can make to do to make solo travel more social. We talked too about how women can be “overwarned” about the dangers of travel. For example, when Jody came to the US a year ago with the dream of driving Highway 1 up the coast of California, people warned her about terrible US drivers. I wondered what they were talking about. For me drivers in the US are fine. Jody didn’t let the overwarning stop her.
In my opinion, the real danger is letting other people’s fear-based projections scare you out of enjoying and living your life.
I’ve been hearing about the Belgian city of Gent for seven years now since I met my friend Griet. Griet and I met in a hostel in Cali, Colombia, the world capital of salsa, in 2010. She asked me to go out to a tango club the week we met–and the rest is his(her)story. We recognized each other as kindred spirits and we wound up spending the next two months together taking tango classes, and then, we went to Buenos Aires together for two months to discover the “real stuff” of tango together in Argentina.
Through it all, over many coffees and bottles of wine, we talked about where we had come from and where we were going. We had both quit jobs that didn’t feel true to ourselves to open ourselves to what would come next. For me that was the fast-paced, screen-obsessed world of Silicon Valley that I felt was more bent on addicting people to make money through advertising than anything else (I felt then just as Tristan Harris does now–as he sounds the alarm that most technology companies are working to drain our attention spans for their benefit and not our own), and for Griet that was organizing activities at a community center. We were both single back then, and many times, Griet told me, “Just come to Gent. We’ll find you a nice Belgian man!” She also described Gent as very cute.
Griet changed the course of my life by bringing me into tango, and just by being herself, a woman of high vitality who always says things like, “If I’m really honest. . . ” From Griet I learned that a turned-on life based on things you really want to do and embody begins with the phrase, “If I’m really honest. . . ” So I knew, when I planned this trip, I would have to visit her in the famous Gent! It had been five years since our last meeting in Asheville, North Carolina. This would be our fourth country, and our third continent, since we met in Colombia, then in Argentina, then in the U.S. five years later, and now, in Belgium!
the reunion of sasha and griet in gent!
Much has changed in both of our lives. Now I live in Buenos Aires (not Silicon Valley) where I have a tango business combining the dance with coaching (I also coach people one-on-one on everything from career to sexuality and write). Griet settled down with a man, and has a two-year-old with another baby on the way after opening a vegetarian restaurant. So I was excited to go and see Griet again. I expected our reunion would be great. I had no idea what to expect of Gent.
Belgium itself is vague in the imagination. The headquarters for the EU, Belgium always seemed to me a small place sandwiched between France and the Netherlands with no big personality of its own. I knew Belgium was split in two parts: people speak French in the south and Flemish in the north. I mistakenly thought Flemish was a language of its own. In my week in Gent, I realized Flemish is actually Dutch–a revelation on its own! In a lot of ways much of Belgium seems quite similar to the Netherlands. But it’s a small country between two big countries. I can identify with small places, having grown up in Rhode Island. I know there’s a special power in being the underdog, overlooked place.
So Belgium?! Gent?! What was it all about? People don’t really think about Belgium much–you have your Belgian fries and your Belgian beer, but beyond that, what can you say about Belgium? I would soon find out with Griet.
gorgeous Gent on my first night
On our first night we went out for a bike ride around Gent after Griet’s son was asleep. Already I was feeling bowled over by the beauty of the residential streets where Griet lived. Very simple, row houses of different hues, and most of the houses had bikes parked in front of them. It was like an alternative universe where instead of cars parked outside (though there were some) you had bikes parked outside with locks built into the structure of the bikes and the tires. Often the bikes had baby seats on them. Some of them were bikes built for two. To an outsider Gent looked like it was going through a baby boom where all the parents rode around with small children on their bikes.
the bikes in gent!
We biked past canals on bike lanes (reminiscent of my trip to Amsterdam 20 years ago) on bikes with big bags on either side of the wheels in the back. All the bikes in Gent had these bags. Then we arrived downtown and to put it mildly I was stunned. The city center of Gent is a gem. I was expecting “cute” from Griet and Gent was actually beautiful. Maybe this is part of the Belgian personality: modesty. The French have their rakish charm, the Belgians are more humble. I find that small places often have that quality. The Uruguyans too are modest and approachable compared to Argentines. (Small place next to big country.)
Gent is not so small. The city has 250,000 people and the city center is large. Here’s what Lonely Planet says: “Here hides one of Europe’s finest panoramas of water, spires and centuries-old grand houses.” I would add to that, canals, bikes, cute people, and lots of biological (organic) cheese. Gent is a kind of fantasy of urban planning: small houses, bikes, small families on bikes, and tons of organic food everywhere. Seriously, if you are looking for a great, livable, more than cute city, Gent is the one.
biological cheese! bio, or biological, means organic in Europe. Gent abounds with cute bio places.
One our first night, we went to a bar that is famous for catering to travelers. I got a mojito, Griet got a virgin mojito since she’s pregnant. We started to catch up, finally getting to the man situation for me. Would I need Griet to find me that Belgian man? I told her about the latest in my love life and after that a guy a few tables over waved us over. He was an American, obviously–we had overheard him. He was from Dallas by way of New York and his mother had started a magazine in Belgium which somehow got him established in Gent. He had been living there for years and loved it.
The American gave us his critique of Gent: “mundane.” He thought life could be mundane in Gent because everyone was expected to settle down with a partner, buy a house, and pop out a kid or two. Of course that’s what Griet had done. She agreed with the critique–that life in Gent could be mundane.
I asked Griet if she thought I would feel isolated since I’m not married and don’t have children. She thought not.
I wasn’t sure if mundane was so bad when you have bikes, biological cheese, and beautiful canals.
Would it be mundane to live in Gent? So what is life in Gent like? For now I can’t really know, but here are some pictures to show you how fabulously cute–and beautiful–the city is.
Just one of the many bikes with child on board. So many versions of accommodating parent and child.
we ate them all!
Griet ate some Belgian fries too!
chairs at the cafe at voorhut, an old socialist hall transformed into a modern cultural center
this alluring bra shop got my attention in Paris. Soldes means Sales!
I couldn’t help but take notice of the store windows on my first morning in Belleville, the friendly neighborhood in Paris where I was staying for a week in early July.
The signs on the bra shop screamed, “GRANDES TAILLES, MEILLEURES PRIX”! “BIG SIZES, BEST PRICES”!
For a woman with an ample chest a good bra–and a good bra store–is hard to find.
With the promise of BIG SIZES, BEST PRICES, I felt a need, even an obligation, to enter. I actually even need bras. In Buenos Aires, where I’m living in 2017, there don’t seem to be any bra stores with sizes above DDD. I sometimes feel excluded when I pass lingerie stores in Buenos Aires and even a low-grade panic, what if all my bras break at once? Sometimes underwires pop out, or bras get damaged in the wash.
But the store looked mysterious. Signs covered the windows. The shop didn’t look like your average bra boutique. For days I delayed.
On Saturday after four days in the neighborhood I finally ventured outside with a mission: check out the bra store.
I opened the door and stepped inside, finding myself in a small, disorganized, square-shaped shop, the walls covered by little white cardboard boxes, presumably with bras inside, and bins full of merchandise on sale: bras and underwear. The shop was a mess, a far cry from the feminine, carefully decorated boutiques I’m used to in the States. It was not what you would call aesthetic.
A short bald man with a paunch belly stepped out from the back room and greeted me, “Bonjour.” He was the only one working at the shop, and there were no other customers. I froze. Who was this guy? Why was he the only one in the bra shop?
How could I exit gracefully? I didn’t want to be trapped in a bra store with this little bald pervert. When I go bra shopping in the States, a woman often comes into the dressing room with me to measure me and assess whether the bras fit. Would he want to go in the dressing room with me?
It was a long thirty seconds before I uttered the words, “I’m looking for a bra” in French. Those words took all my courage in the world in that moment to say.
“36G,” he said, naming my size.
“Yes,” I said, astonished that he had hit the mark. He was such a bra expert he could judge my size just from my appearance. It took me a long time, until years ago, to admit that I wasn’t a D and get a bra that actually fit properly.
He went in the back and pulled out two black and nude bras and handed them to me.
“Is that all you have in my size?” I asked. These bras looked matronly. A few years ago I made a commitment to myself, I will wear bras I find attractive and sexy, that don’t make me feel like a grandmother.
“Don’t worry, I have many options.” he said.
“I’m looking for a pretty bra,” I said in French. “Jolie.”
He smiled, “Pretty? You don’t think my bras are pretty? I only sell pretty bras!”
I started to laugh too, and then pointed out the styles I found appealing, including a peach and gray leopard print a mannequin was wearing.
32 euros! amazing sale price!
Another woman came in at this point, and he started to service her giving her options to try. She and I alternated using the sole small dressing room while he found bras for us. She seemed to love him. “This store is a gem of the neighborhood,” she said. “And he has great sales.”
She came out of the dressing room with her top on to get our opinion.
I gave her a thumbs up; so did he. I also tried on bras, then putting on my shirt to let them assess the bra fit.
In fact, I found an unusual abundance of options. I settled on two cute bras. The peach and grey one I adored and it was on sale for 32 euros, a fantastic price since the same brand would cost $80 in the U.S. The gray pinstriped one was 56 euros, an average price, still cheaper than what I paid in Oakland last year.
While he was ringing me up, I explained that I’m American but live in Buenos Aires where there are not many bra options for “full-sized” women. He laughed, “Oh, you’re American. You must stay in Buenos Aires far away from Trump!”
I left laughing and feeling uniquely uplifted (pun intended) by the encounter.
We question gendered assumptions about women’s roles. What about questioning roles for men? Can a man sell bras? Apparently.
I tried to ask if it was common for men to run bra shops in Paris but the question got lost in the shuffle and I didn’t get an answer. If I could go back in time, I would also ask, What made you open this shop? How did it happen that you’re a man running a bra shop?
Life is full of surprises when I breathe past my fear and find the courage to buy a bra from a man in Paris.
Here’s our guy!
Want to find the magical bra shop? Go looking on Rue de Belleville just a block from the Metro Jourdain in Paris.
New experiment. I’m starting my Forever Young European tour this week. When I was leaving Rhode Island earlier this week to come to Paris, my mother remarked, “It’s just like you’re going off for two months in Europe after college!” I said, “That’s true!” I traveled alone in Europe for two months after college graduation, and that trip came in between my time in New York City and my time in San Francisco. Twenty years later, I’m going to Europe again for two months. So perhaps this will be a pattern, every twenty years (or let’s make that every five or ten years) I will do two months in Europe and call it the Forever Young Tour.
During my 2017 Forever Young Tour, I’m going to do a recap on the first 24 hours in a new place, or a place where I have visited before. I’ve heard it said that there are two ways of doing travel writing: you can write about a place from deep knowledge, or you can capture your snap impressions. I’m going to experiment with capturing the first impressions, with all humility and acknowledgment that they are the impressions of a first day in a new place. It’s not the same as writing about a place where you have lived for a long time–see, for example, this post from a woman who moved to Mexico with her husband who had been deported from the US. Still, there’s an aliveness and freshness to new eyes that older, more inured eyes can’t compete with. So here’s my contribution.
So my first 24 hours in Paris! Impressions! I used to think of Paris as bourgeois and stuffy but my overall impression after 24 hours is a freewheeling, artsy, super-diverse city with a lot of joy for living. I got that idea last time when I met a bunch of Parisians who complained about coldness, but I haven’t experienced that this time. People seem very warm. Maybe it’s the weather. I was here in December last time, now it’s steamy July.
Here’s a little spontaneous video I made after arriving, on the first day:
More globalized than ever
I arrived at 6 am at Charles de Gaulle on July 4 and took the RER train then the metro into my airbnb in the 19th arrondissement. On the RER train we shot through the suburbs. I had stayed in the suburbs one night last time I was here in 2009 with a Tunisian friend made from Couchsurfing, and I’ve read enough about Paris to know that the suburbs are where people from former French colonies have felt isolated and cut off from economic opportunity. The challenges of a post-colonial world are real. All that said, I have to say, Paris felt remarkably diverse and peaceful on the train on the way in. Over my first 24 hours I saw a lot of cultural and racial mixing in the cafes near my apartment in the Metro Jourdain area, a lot of interracial friendships too (how can I tell the women were friends? You can just tell). So while I can’t pretend to know the ins and outs of post-colonial racial mixing in Paris, I will say, I have never seen a city with more people in hijabs, or women in saris, or people of all races–and everyone basically seems to get along on the buses and metros. Fascinant. Oakland is the only other place where I have lived and seen such mixing. Cities like New York are diverse, but I never really felt that people mixed.
I’m staying in the perfect neighborhood
I am staying in a neighborhood called Belleville near Metro Jourdain and the people seem very mixed to me.
I am in love with the idea of people sitting drinking beer, coffee, wine.
paris cafe near metro jourdain
Wandering Paris is Parisgasmic.
During the first 24 hours, I needed to sleep, but by day two I could start to wander and it came back to me: I love being a flaneur in a new city. A flaneur is the solitary observer who wanders the streets and observes the crowd, a term coined by Baudelaire in Paris in the 19th century. There is no city where it’s more intoxicating to be a flaneur than Paris. Paris is beautiful. It is an aesthetic experience to walk the streets, to look at the way the light hits the buildings, to walk along the Seine. I don’t see any need to do touristy things in Paris. All I have to do is walk the streets and magic will come. Today I went looking for this delightful restaurant and cafe where you can literally work on your laptop inside a bathtub or on a bed! On the way I stumbled on the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. Later my friend Alexa said it’s the most beautiful park in Paris. There’s always something beautiful around the corner.
Near Metro Jourdain
The fashion feels more expressive than formulaic
I used to think there was a Parisian uniform that was neat and trim and always involved a scarf. I used to think I could never blend in Paris and I would always stick out as a gauche American. I feel more breathing room in the fashion now. The fashion is still expressive, fun, unique, but the fashion seems more diverse and expressive. My guess is that’s because there’s so much global influence now there appear to be more ways to be French.
Jumping into the global tango culture
One of the best parts about being a tango dancer is that you always have somewhere to go at night when you visit a new city. On my first day, I slept six hours so I could get up my energy to go out and meet Sabine, who had come on a Tango Adventure in March in Buenos Aires. Sabine sent me an email two months ago inviting me me to meet her at a milonga on the Seine. Sabine lives in DC but she is from France and happened to be visiting. My friend Alexa was also planning to go, so we went and met up with Sabine and Senami, who had both come on the March Tango Adventure. How magical it was to dance tango on the Seine on July 4. Tango is a global culture and it’s always fascinating to plug in in a new place.
When I left the milonga the metro had already closed so I had to figure out a way to get home. A taxi was an option but maybe it would be very expensive. Some new French friends guided me to the bus stop and we found another French woman who agreed to tell me the stop to get off at, Gambetta. I didn’t have a European chip yet for my phone, so I had no GPS. But there’s nothing like new friends to be your own personal GPS. That’s part of the magic of traveling alone, especially as a woman traveling alone. People come out of the woodwork to help you along get where you need to go. (It’s easy to forget this when fears come up about traveling alone, but strangers really do help out.)
Next door to the cafe-barge hosting the milonga there was a big USA party to celebrate the Fourth of July too. (Don’t worry about traveling in the Trump era! Generally people know how to separate people from their leaders.)
Walking along the Seine looking for the milonga. La vie est belle!
Paris milonga on the Seine on a cafe-barge (the night I arrived!)
Senami and Sabine joined me in Buenos Aires for a Tango Adventure. Amazingly we met up in Paris on the day I arrived at a milonga.
The food is still a delight, even as a celiac
During the first 24 hours I have a special challenge in any new country: eating. I was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2010 a year after my last trip to Paris. This means I need to make sure that my food is gluten-free with no traces of contamination. We’re the people who have to take gluten very seriously. Undaunted, however, I had read up on eating gluten-free in Paris and knew it had gotten better for celiacs over the last five years.
On my first day, I went in to this lovely cafe two blocks from my apartment to explain my needs and ask if they had anything gluten-free. “Nothing sans gluten,” the bar man said. “A salad?” I asked. I explained to them what it means to do gluten-free. They said sure, they could do a salad. The waitress brought the salad out with a piece of toast on the plate. Of course I had to say no. She snatched the toast away thinking this would be sufficient and I had to say no again. A piece of toast on my salad plate is clear cross-contamination. (All a celiac needs to activate the disease is 20 parts per million of gluten–a miniscule amount.) “I’m a celiac, it’s a rule,” I explained in French. “Un regle.” I asked her if she would go back to the kitchen staff to explain. She came back and said they would replace the salad, this time being careful, washing their hands and everything.
Here was the poached salmon salad that came back. it was gorgeous and delightful. I ate all of it.
poached salmon salad–gluten-free.
Update: My French friend Eric read this post and told me, actually Belleville the neighborhood where I am staying is one of the most “popular” (meaning down-to-earth, mixed, and racially mixed) neighborhoods in Paris, and that many of the other arrondissements feel like rich, white ghettoes to him where even he, being white, feels uncomfortable. Some people like that, and some people don’t. So my sense of a different Paris was confirmed. f you want that friendly mixed feel you should try staying in Belleville, or at least visiting it.
Chris Tyre over at the lovely blog Nomad + Camera interviewed me about why and how I chose to leave Silicon Valley tech stress for a more artistic life in South America. And how I got here. Plus you can read up on the tangasm. Why wouldn’t you want to read about that? Here’s the lovely Nomad + Camera interview that’s published today!
Chris Tyre interviews digital nomad types all over the world about how they have created new lives for themselves. The interviews are well worth reading.
David Foster Wallace (RIP) and his hilarious essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again” on the “nearly-lethal comforts of cruises” shaped my opinion of cruises. In 1996, Harper’s Magazine asked Wallace to go on a cruise and write a long postcard back and the result was a hilariously snide series of paragraphs that made cruises sound like hell: floating germ factories of overconsumption. After reading the essay, I thought I would never go on a cruise. Plus, I’ve generally been an independent traveler who likes to get deep into the culture and meet people when I travel. Going on a cruise was not on my bucket list. More like my not-to-do-list.
When I got the opportunity to go on a “social impact cruise” for free this year with the newly formed wing of Carnival cruises Fathom Travel, dedicated to social impact travel, I had to wonder, do cruises and social impact go together? What does that even mean? Fathom invited me on as a blogger to spread the word to my readers and I thought, well, volunteer work on a cruise in the Carribbean. Interesting.
Fathom, a dot.org, it turns out, is a very unique newly launched line within Carnival, one of the largest cruise ship lines in the world. Founded by Tara Russell from Boise, Idaho, who has a background in startups and nonprofits, Fathom has a mission to combine personal growth, volunteerism, and travel, to bring out the greatness of human potential through travel, cultural immersion, and what they call “social impact” volunteerism.
Mother-Daughter Bonding, Meeting Up in Miami
I invited my mother to join me, since I live in Buenos Aires and she lives in Rhode Island, this would be a chance for mother-daughter bonding. We would meet in Miami. My mother said yes but she told me later she was afraid she would hate being on a cruise. I felt the same way, but I had actually looked at the website and saw the cruise was integrating yoga, meditation, storytelling and design-thinking workshops along with service projects in the Dominican Republic. I nudged her along to keep an open mind, and so we made our travel plans and we met finally in downtown Miami, the day before the cruise was set to sail.
7 Days from Miami to the Dominican Republic, and What Would Happen???
The cruise would be 7 days long, Sunday to Sunday. We would start off from the Port of Miami, sail to the Dominican Republic docked for three days to do the service projects and tour the country, then sail back for a day and a half to return on Sunday.
The Sunday to embark finally came, and it was thrilling to finally be ready to see what “cruising,” which I would learn is a verb, is all about. I felt a glee when we first boarded, as I walked through the elegant lounges, bars, and dining rooms, and then out on the soupy-air Miami decks looking at the incredible blue of the water. When I proclaimed that I felt like I was on the Titanic on Facebook and my long-time friend Sara commented that only a true Titanic lover would happily make that comparison. I wasn’t really worried about sinking, no. I was just expecting tacky. The aesthetic of the ship of dark woods, antique lamps and artwork, combined with posters with inspirational travel messages, was really appealing.
The Adonia holds 700 people, as opposed to the 4,000 or so that go on a normal Carnival cruise (the kind Wallace was writing about). The sales director later said they consider the Adonia a mix of English country and rock and roll, and that’s fair, since they also had a cover band on the ship with dancing nightly (which brought together all the generations to dance). At our first dinner we shared a table with Monica, who works for Carnival, who said a normal cruise is as big as a football field and you would have to plan your entire day when you leave the room. To me, that sounded awful. But the Adonia was manageable.
The food — and the service — was fantastic, I must say. I was nervous since I have celiac disease and double-checked to be sure they would have gluten-free options. Not only did they have gluten-free options, they had two special diet cooks who would make me almost any dessert I wanted. Every night a waiter would take my order for the next day so they could prepare special meals for me. In fact, if anything, the food was too good. Even as a celiac I ate way too much. David Foster Wallace was right about the overconsumption if not the tackiness.
The people? There were a lot of families and traditional folk, but there was also a bit of everything. We met an Ottawa woman who worked for the Canadian Army in a long-distance relationship with an economics professor from Mississippi, who met up for the cruise. We met single travelers who came just because “they needed to do something” and the trip was a deal at its launch. We met adult sisters traveling together, an aunt who took her nephew on as a graduation present. I connected with some fabulous travel agents who want to do purpose-oriented boutique trips for their new travel agency Intention Travel. They may collaborate with me on the Tango Adventure in Buenos Aires. Here’s us having drinks.
Making a clay water filter with liquid silver and sawdust with the organization Wine to Water in the DR
So what about the social-impact part of the cruise? What did that actually mean? The Fathom staff was made up of mostly young people, some Peace Corps volunteers and Teach for America alums on the staff, and they had partnered with local nonprofit organizations on the Dominican Republic to organized half-day or day-long activities where the ship’s passengers could sign up to “make an impact.”
The impact activities ranged from helping to pour a cement floor for families who had only lived on mud floors, and planting trees to helping create water filters using liquid silver in pottery to kill bacteria and provide safe drinking water, to teaching English to kids and adults in communities and schools who wanted to learn.
My mother and I took part in two “impact activities.” One one day we worked with the local chapter of a global organization called Wine to Water that’s helping to create technology for safe drinking water around the world. Fathom charged $30 for the water filter activity, which went to support the project. The technology was fascinating: we helped make clay water filters that blends clay, sawdust, and liquid silver to kill bacteria.
Another day we trucked out to a village to meet with a community of kids and adults who want to learn English. We met in their homes to practice vocabulary. Here are two of the kids we practiced English with. When you imagine they are getting to practice weekly with native speakers you realize this adds up over time and can make a real impact on a community.
So were the social impact activities genuine? Do they make a difference? I wondered if the social impact would be real, but my mother and I were both impressed in the end. At our final dinner, she said, “You go to church or read the newspaper and people are all talking about these problems with the environment, safe drinking water, poverty, and then here’s this company that’s not just talking about it, they’re doing something and it’s actually effective.” It is impressive. Some of the cement floors are going to families who have infants.
We participated in the sixth cruise to the Dominican Republic and the cumulative impact so far of the cruises have been:
• 728 English learners learning English from the participants who come to practice with them
• 8,000 seedlings for plants in a reforestation project
• 1,679 cocoa nibs sorted for 49,000 chocolate bars
• 3,850 sheets of paper create for a recycled paper project and job opportunities for the women who work on this project
• 16 homes poured with cement floors
• 316 water filters made with liquid silver, sawdust and clay helping 1500 people get safe drinking water without having to buy bottled water, reducing disease and lost time from school and work
Some fun stuff: Waterfalls! Is there anything funner?
We also did fun stuff in the Dominican Republic. My personal favorite was climbing up waterfalls and then shooting down or jumping off them. I must say my mother was quite the trooper for doing this seven-waterfall hike. We’re lucky no one hurt any joints or limbs. Many thanks to our incredible guide Leoni Vargas who took these photos and was able to navigate these wild falls with his phone in a little plastic bag to keep it safe, then he sent me the photos.
Back to a “supposedly fun thing I would never do again.” Would I go on a Fathom cruise again? Yes. It actually was really fun. I love being wrong sometimes. Life is much much more interesting when you are wrong and discover something new.
Here you can see my mother and I discuss the “Fathom Experience” over cocktails by the beach in the Dominican Republic, by the “Malecon” (boardwalk) of Puerto Plata, near where the ship was docked for three days.
I'm the author of the cult hit book Quirkyalone and To-Do List and a life coach who helps quirky, creative women and self-aware men. I'm also the founder of the Tango Adventure in Buenos Aires.
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Sasha Cagen is the author of the cult favorite Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics and To-Do List: From Buying Milk to Finding a Soul Mate, What Our Lists Reveal About Us. Her work as an author, life coach for women and entrepreneur has been featured everywhere from NPR and the New York Times to CNN and Vogue.
In her well-loved newsletter going to thousands of women and men who identify with "quirkyalone," Sasha is the voice for people who don't want to settle--in any area of life.
In her coaching practice, Sasha helps smart, successful women (and sensitive, self-aware men) get clear on what they really want and then to achieve their goals while always helping her clients focus on core issues such as self-worth.
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