Getting ready for Paris

16449141Steve Martin has a comedy routine where he observes that “the French have a word for everything!” I particularly love this when I think of the French word for “diet” which is “regime.” Interestingly, what we Americans think of when we think of diet is “lose weight” (we are so straight-forward, n’est-ce pas?) and what the Brits mean when they say “diet” is “slimming.” (Less straightforward but still means basically the same.) But what the French mean by diet is NOT either of those two concepts at all but rather the way one eats.

I love this because “regime” doesn’t mean “change yourself,” as much as it means habit or just  “this is how I do things.” (So French!)

The reason I’m thinking of diet and “regimes” at the moment is because 1) I live in America and 2) I care about my weight since I care about how I look in my clothes (and oh yeah there’s the health thing) and 3) I’m headed to the food/fashion capital of the universe in 8 weeks.

There’s a reason why “diet” means something different in Paris and anybody who has spent longer than a weekend there knows what I’m talking about. I think the French paradox is more than just how do the French eat butter and not croak from heart attacks like Americans do? I think it also has to do with the fact that you can spend a week in the food capital of the world and eat the most high-calorie, high-fat foods there are and still come back to your own country five pounds lighter.

38065267It’s no wonder French women don’t get fat! (Well, at least Parisian women.) And the ones that do are probably bedridden or something. Because Paris is a walking city and not only is it way easier to lace up your Converses and walk to wherever you want to go (rather than study your Metro map or find a taxi or unlock a velo, start a civil war with Uber or God-forbid rent a car), it’s such exquisite fun to stride down just about any block in Paris. (You know this is true!)

Sometimes when I’m huffing and puffing away on my treadmill at the gym, counting the minutes until I can get off, I imagine how much more pleasurable (not a word I associate with my hour at the gym) my 10,000 steps would be if I were instead scurrying from the Galeries Lafayette to my favorite neighborhood café to a cute little boutique or bookstore or museum before meeting up with my husband for dinner at some amazing little bistro. Rather than begrudging this necessary hour at the gym I would be in a flurry of delight all day long—eating, shopping, and marveling at the history that surrounds me—before looking at my Fit-Bit to see that I’d logged in twelve thousand steps. Without even trying.

Naturally most Parisians aren’t on vacation all the time and I imagine even they have to spend a certain amount of time sitting at desks. But a city like Paris is forgiving. You can lounge in bed (with or without your lover) until noon (or sit at your desk for seven hours) and still have plenty of time left in the day to walk everywhere and eat everything.

Which brings up another food observation I have about Paris.

Is it even possible to be hungry there? I’ve tried for years and have yet to succeed.

I’m pretty good “back home” only eating when I’m hungry or not snacking. But in Paris, how is your appetite ever ready for the next meal? How is it possible? (I’m seriously asking so please jump in on the comments because I would love to know.)

In Paris, if I wake up, enjoy an espresso or a café mocha and maybe a Nutella crepe at one of the convenient little crepe kiosks on every single corner in Parisbonbon or hit my neighborhood boulangerie for bread that is so amazing it will make me change religions and lead nations into battle, then how am I possibly going to be tempted by that amazing little macaron shop on the way to the museum? And once at the museum, how am I going to do justice to that life-changing quiche or boeuf daube I’ve read so much about? (I mean, of course I’ll eat the macarons and destroy the lunch—bien sûr!—but where’s the edge? Where’s the hunger?)

Bottom line—how can you be hungry in Paris when every step you take puts you in front of a dish or morsel that is the epitome of that particular food in all of history??? (I’ll look for your responses in the comments section but when answering kindly refrain from using words like self-restraint, hold back, or skip a meal. Thank you.)

Meanwhile, I’ll sign off for now. I have a standing date with a daydream of me striding down La Madeleine to Fauchon’s for lunch and turning the treadmill incline up to 6.0 as I do it. After all, I’m the practical sort and everyone knows certain neighborhoods in Paris can be quite hilly.

À bientôt, mes amis…

Seeing Paris through young eyes

Me at age eleven with my very-quotable father. At the Frankfurt Zoo.

Me at age eleven with my very-quotable father. At the Frankfurt Zoo.

My father had a very cool saying (one of many, trust me) that basically said “Paris should be seen through young eyes.” I don’t think he meant nine years old but that’s how old I was when I first saw Paris. Even though my folks took me to Paris several times during my childhood (my father was in the USAF and we were stationed in Europe in the mid-sixties) and I always felt an indelible connection to the city, I never went back as a young woman.

I don’t know why I didn’t. I had friends who went right after college but I never found myself thinking Oh, I should do that too! And that was odd because I defined myself as a Francophile from a very young age. We lived in a village in Alsace-Lorraine and I attended school in the village convent school, so when I returned to the States I always took all-things-French as my thing. Which is why it was so weird that all throughout my young adulthood—through moves and careers switches and various boyfriends—I kept Paris as my internal magic place…the place I imagined I’d l someday live when real life settled down—but never went.

When my husband and I married and talked about having kids, we always painted a picture of throwing the little fellow in a backpack and moving to Europe. My husband actually did live in Europe when he was a young man. He did see Europe through “young eyes,” Paris included. But as for tossing babies in backpacks and heading out to live an expatriate life of adventure, stepchildren, mortgages, aging parents and careers kept the concept firmly in fantasy realm.

I suppose if I’d REALLY wanted it badly enough I could somehow have made it happen. I wrote a book in 1992 called “Quit Your Job & Move to Paris” where I researched how it might be done. Like a lot of things—here comes another quote from my dad—I took the thought for the deed—and that satisfied me well enough such that I didn’t have to rip up my life (or need to talk my husband into ripping up his too) and actually move to Paris.

I had an expatriate experience in my early thirties—young enough that I wasn’t too set in my ways but still not really young—and coming back to the States after two years in New Zealand felt like taking off a hat that was three sizes too small. As much as I loved the experience and am eternally grateful for having had it, living overseas was harder than living here. (And that was in a (largely) English-speaking country!)

The door to my next adventure!

The door to my next adventure!

Which brings me to the present. It seems life has settled down somewhat and the roadblocks to moving to Paris have budged at least a little. I still have an aged parent I don’t feel I can abandon. Plus, I’m a little aged myself these days which brings with it its own level of hesitancy. (Bathrooms—location and cleanliness—matter more to me than when I was right out of college.) Also, while it’s true my son no longer requires my attention the way he did, I’m not yet at the point where I can comfortably live an ocean away from him—not for longer than a few months anyway.

But there is presently a bit of a gap through which I can see a possibility where moving to Paris might still be in the cards for me. Which is why I’m throwing hesitancy to the wind and finally doing it.

I’m  moving to Paris.

For a month.

Well, okay, not quite a month. In fact, just over two weeks. Not a life-changer. Doesn’t require visas or house sitters back home. But it’s as close as I can get—maybe ever—so I’m not waiting. It’s already too late for the “young eyes” thing. I don’t want to be looking into websites touting wheelchair access in Paris ten years from now.

A nutritious and healthy breakfast every single morning I'm there...!

A nutritious and healthy breakfast every single morning I’m there…!

Two weeks is better than nothing. And next time as God is my witness (as Scarlett used to say) it’ll be four.

I’m going to live in Paris with a boulangerie down the street that will become my boulangerie for fifteen full days. The ladies at the neighborhood Tesco will recognize my face, my body will memorize the steps to the Gallerie Lafayette (or Ladure!) and the Tuileries. I’ll write while I’m there, bien sur! I’m scheduling a big Maggie Newberry mystery for autumn—and setting it in Paris—so that I can walk in Maggie’s steps, imagine dead bodies bobbing up in the Seine as I walk alongside it each morning, and observe blatantly suspicious-looking Frenchmen plotting murders as they hunch over their morning cafés.

Hoping to find a favorite neighborhood café during my stay in Paris!

Hoping to find a favorite neighborhood café during my stay in Paris!

Sound good?

I can’t wait.

 

 

13 Ways to Celebrate Christmas

 Madame Renoir pulled out a tray full of Calisson d’Aix cookies. “I have much still from the réveillon,” she said, indicating the pale oval cookies. “You are familiar, yes?”

Maggie nodded. “The réveillon. That’s the thirteen desserts, right? The ones everyone eats on Christmas Eve?”

Exactement. Before the Mass. They symbolize Christ and his apostles. It is a Provençal tradition.”

“I see you’ve got a lot left over.”

Madame Renoir placed the tray of iced cookies on the counter. “The people of St-Buvard care little for traditions,” she said, frowning. “They will eat the cookies for the…little snacks, yes? Not for the purpose I am baking them. You understand?”

—-Excerpt from “Murder à la Carte

If you’re from Louisiana, you’ve likely heard of a French tradition that happens at Christmastime called the réveillon, which is a long dinner, or sometimes a party, held on Christmas Eve after midnight mass. The word réveil means “waking” which is appropriate since the dinner involves staying awake until midnight…and beyond. The reason you might have heard of this tradition in the States is because it’s still observed in New Orleans at various restaurants that offer special réveillon menus on Christmas Eve.

36849922In Provence, the réveillon is seven separate courses plus thirteen different desserts, which is totally my kind of tradition. Some sources say  les enfants are not allowed to have a single bite of dessert until they can name each one correctly. The number thirteen has to do with the number of apostles plus Jesus at the Last Supper. (The réveillon is also connected to Easter with some folks saying the Christmas Eve feast is a lead up to Mardi Gras before nose-diving into Lent and, traditionally, fasting and sacrifice.)

I loved using the réveillon in the Maggie Newberry mystery, above, first because one of the main characters in that book was a baker and the timing was Christmas. It would have been weird, especially in a small rural village, not to mention the réveillon. Besides, the tradition is so layered and visual, it was a delight to describe it and so, experience it.

Okay, what are these essential thirteen desserts that kick off Christmas and take us all the way to Easter?

Voilà mes amis, I give you, the réveillon!

  1. The pompe à l’huile is a flat bread flavored with orange blossom and brown sugar. (Some people believe cutting the bread (as opposed to breaking it as Jesus did at the Last Supper) brings the risk of bankruptcy in the new year. So watch yourself.
  2. Two kinds of nougats, white and black, representing good and evil.
  3. Hazelnuts which represent St. Augustin
  4. Almonds, representing the Carmelite Order
  5. Raisins for the Dominican order
  6. Dry figs representing the Franciscan Order
  7. Candied citron representing I honestly do not know what.
  8. Quince paste I assume one may get creative with this since all by itself it doesn’t feel like much of a dessert to me.)
  9. Pears
  10. Apples
  11. Oranges
  12. Dates
  13. Calisson d’Aix (this is a Provençal favorite any time of the year but I always send away for it at Christmas. It’s made of ground almond paste that’s been extruded into petal shaped cookies and frosted with royal icing.)

As you can imagine nowadays, people add many more desserts to this list to celebrate the réveillon. (I mean, come on, apples as a dessert? Where’s the buche de Noel?) But, however you celebrate your holidays, I hope there’s lots of good food and even more loved ones crowded around your table.

Joyeux Noel everyone!

 

When did our food all start to taste the same?

60502563A young French friend of mine did an advertising internship at my ad agency a few years back. During that time she used to say the food she ate in the States tasted “like it had been dipped in caramel.” She didn’t mean that in a good way in case you love caramel. She meant it all tasted the same, like one big cherry-cola-flavored piece of food.

Once I started looking for the differences in how American foods taste—this is especially true with fast food—I could see what she meant. Because I didn’t run into this situation when I traveled, I soon came to the conclusion that it’s a cultural thing: we Americans need salt to punch out the flavor to us and we need sugar because we’re like big babies who really want to eat doughnuts all the time. Because let’s face it, doughnuts taste so good.

But how did we get to this point?

untitled-324I got an inkling the last time I spent a few weeks in France. The food market was a major focal point to the whole town. I recently regaled American friends with the story of how every morning the town squares would be transformed in the wee hours to a bustling congress of produce booths, fishmongers, bread stalls, flowers, soaps, oils, olives and oh-my-God-the cheeses. It looked like the market had been there for years. And yet, every day at noon, it was all taken down, the cobblestones hosed clean, and café tables put up instead in order that people might relax, sip an espresso, eat a meal in leisure. My friends were agog with the titantic effort to recreate these two different settings every single day.  The fact is, we Americans wouldn’t go to the trouble.

And we are seriously suffering as a result of it.

When was the last time you ate a strawberry that really tasted like one? Or a tomato that made you close your eyes and taste the feeling of summer through your taste buds? You remember that scene in the movie Ratatouille where the evil, brittle restaurant critic came into the restaurant and chef made him a bowl of ratatouille where one spoonful instantly catapulted him back to his boyhood with a visceral reliving of some of the best moments of his life? Yeah, that.

Are you fueling or feeding your body?

Are you fueling or feeding your body?

Why did we decide in this country that food was really just fuel and it didn’t need to be much more than that? When did we decide that baby food and caramel coated meat was fine for a lifetime of nourishment? You know what I think? I think the insidious philosophy of our fast food nation has wheedled its way into our national psyche to the point that we want the very same eating experience in Boston that we have in San Antonia that we have in Miami. The first time I ate a McDonald’s burger in New Zealand, I could taste the grass in the burger. (McDonald’s burgers in the states are made from grain-fed cows not grass-fed.) I couldn’t believe I wasn’t going to get the same burger that I got in Atlanta.

So what’s the answer? With no food markets to dilly dally in? No school system or family to educate us as to how to put food in proper perspective and enjoy what we eat without getting fat? Well, frankly, doing it the French way is as foreign as if you’d landed in a Bedouin tent and had to break up camel dung to start the fire for your morning coffee. 34853560So much work! And you’re all alone! None of the other moms are bothering with it and their kids look okay (a little chubby maybe but who isn’t?) And honestly, take-out and pre-packaged food has improved so much in the last ten years, right? Almost no transfats in them! And, really, food that tastes like caramel is delicious!

Right?

Pushing Pause Mid-Bite

1747288One of the ongoing scenarios that I take pains to describe in the France-set mystery series I write is the one where people make a big deal about sitting down together and breaking bread. Food is important to the French so dining is a BFD in all its forms–at home, in restaurants, on park benches or cafés. When I’m writing about characters who live in France I like to explore as many of those forms as possible because I’m so attracted to the style and ritual and pleasure of slowing down. And I can’t do that here in the States.

Six years ago, an anthropologist named Cheryl Swanson, a partner in a trend-tracking firm, was quoted as saying that  Americans are now processing information at 400 times the rate of our Renaissance ancestors. But we haven’t yet adapted physically or mentally to do it in a way that doesn’t compromise our health.

When you add that 400 times more information we are all attempting to process with the fact that we don’t have 400 extra hours in the day to do it, you see where the problem is. If you’re not mindful of your habits and of what you’re giving up to get those extra hours inevitably the things you lose will be those things that used to enhance your life and heighten your quality of life: sleep, staring at a sunset, walking instead of riding, watching a chrysalis hatch, eating a slow meal with a friend.

Here's what the family table looks like now that we're all off doing other things.

Here’s what the family table looks like now that we’re all off doing other things.

I’m an amateur chef and a baker. I used to fantasize about a place-setting for twelve for Thanksgiving dinner complete with matching turkey saltshakers at every place. I have always been drawn to beautiful tableware in stores and catalogs and imagined wonderful meals chez moi with family and friends about me. And yet, the year before my son went off to college, our family meals consisted of the three of us standing at the kitchen counter to wolf down our meals. (Honestly, half the time John Patrick took his plate to his bedroom with his calculus homework.)

Swanson’s research indicated that in the sixties, dinner was 45 minutes long. By the nineties, it had shrunk to fifteen minutes and today—fewer than five minutes. It takes more time to make the meal and clean up after it than to “enjoy” it. And of course, food manufacturers have been hard at work to help us with that part of the equation by creating cheap mix-and-go food that’s a snap to make and even digest.

It's a fact: you don't have to eat with other people to have a lovely dining experience.

It’s a fact: you don’t have to eat with other people to have a lovely dining experience.

Naturally, it tastes like donkey vomit and brings no moment of pleasure or satisfaction beyond killing hunger pangs but at least you can skip the wash up and just dump the cartons in the trash and call it done. (What next? An IV drip?) I guess there was some important reason that forced us to live like this. There was obviously some important trade off that made it worthwhile. I quake to think it was just so we could get extra time in front of the computer terminal or worse, the TV set.

Let’s face it. Wasn’t the last time we all slowed down, lit a candle and stared peacefully into space sometime during the last power outage? Or how about that time you got sick and stayed in bed with magazines and a box of tissues and just the sound of your own sniffling and the cat purring? Wasn’t it kind of wonderful at the same time it was miserable?

Let’s all take a breath and slow down.

An open love letter to the city of Aix-en-Provence

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

In my mind, Aix-en-Provence is a city created for the way people should live. Should really live. I am finishing up a too-fast week in Aix but I feel pretty confident in my statement. Now it’s true I’m probably inadvertently, unavoidably comparing it to the city I’m currently living in back in the States. (A Facebook friend posted on my timeline yesterday the fact that north Florida was experiencing three digit temperatures and an outburst of yellow flies. She kindly didn’t even mention the humidity.) I’m not sure there’s even a word in French for humidity. (Well, I guess there’d have to be because of Tahiti.) The weather for mid-summer in Aix is probably described most aptly as pleasant, warm and breezy but more succinctly as perfect. I sat out evenings here in weather that just didn’t exist. It wasn’t hot or cold, wet or dry. It was exactly right. It was so perfect you didn’t have to think about it. It just was.

I’d have to say the key reason I think Aix is a city made for how people should live is because of the daily food markets. The idea that you can wake up and take a quick (and gorgeous) walk to an outdoor array of the freshest, best possible choice of seasonal food—is something we Americans have largely given up on and the French wisely would never.

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

When did we Americans decide that we don’t need fresh-baked bread? Or to have strawberries that taste like strawberries? Or vegetables in season? When did we accept the fact that the way food should taste—succulent and specific—was something we could live without? (I have a French friend who did an internship at the advertising agency I worked at and she used to bemoan the fact that all American food tasted basically the same—like it was coated with a light caramel coating: sugar and salt but no real distinct flavors. Live a week next to an open air produce market and you’ll know exactly what she means. I feel like I’ve rediscovered my palate this week.)

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Not surprisingly, I haven’t seen a single seriously overweight person since I’ve been here. Could the availability of delicious, fresh food ingredients combined with a beautiful walking city have something to do with that?

Yuh think?

Okay, so now Aix has seen to it that you’ve gotten your cardio in such a way that you’ve window shopped and wound around and through ancient alleyways and streets. It’s de-stressed you by insisting you stop every now and then in your daily round to sip a cup of coffee (which everyone knows is good for you) and maybe nibble on a hand-made pastry (balance! Everything in moderation.) It’s made it practically impossible to find processed foods so you’re stuck with the real thing—ten kinds of olives harvested from the area, olive oil so pure it will make you weep even if you use only a dribble on your salads, tomatoes plump and red that make your plate look like a work of art (this is France after all) and that really taste like tomatoes.

Now on to the social aspect of this city. As a writer, I spend a lot of my time alone. When I finally break away (or come up for air as my husband puts it), I go to the grocery store or drive to a restaurant to meet with friends for an hour or so or maybe wander around St Augustine to find an art gallery.

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

In Aix in the summer time, because it doesn’t get dark until after ten o’clock each night, and because the city is made up of French people, the city markets are taken down and the cafes are re-erected so that people can come together—to eat, to drink, to laugh, to talk. It is such a healthy, amazingly fun, exquisite way for people to commune and connect that I literally found myself longing for anything similar in my life back home.

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

How can you not relax and unwind in a café setting? You’re outdoors, the waiter is unobtrusive but ever-there, all the food tastes better, the warmth of the day has hardly dissipated but the most soothing of breezes has been added, and you’re surrounded by your friends. As I watched café life from my own café table, I noticed over and over again how people in the café were joined unexpectedly by friends or family members wandering by (usually with ice cream cones or Nutella crepes in hand). I couldn’t help but think how it would change a person to be enjoying the evening air with the expectation that they might well see, unplanned, a loved one or friend.

Community. Food. Beauty. And on that last note, I have to add one more thing: I travelled with two men this trip and one of them a photographer. I am sure he’ll be doing his own page about the beautiful young women of Aix but even I could not help notice them. I loved watching all the city life saunter by my café table—or balcony—but the exquisite Aixoise in their inimitable fashion and style, their confidence in their beauty and youth added a intensified sense of panache to the trip. In a phone conversation with my ninety-year old mother, she asked, “Are the French women still beautiful? (We lived in France in the sixties.) How do they wear their hair styles? Their clothes?” I was happy to tell her that while plus ça change, the facts were clear when it came to French women and style that plus la meme chose too.

I leave you now until next time, mes amis. I am off Googling immigration possibilities…

Vive la France…where food meets style

In excited anticipation of my upcoming Provençal research trip, I’m going through my cookbooks and scanning favorite recipes to be uploaded to my iPad. I expect to live in the daily food markets in Aix and environs and–if just for a few weeks–live the life I write about and love.

I  stumbled across a recent article that said the French were annoyed because there was a grass roots movement to close some McDonald’s restaurants in France. And while granted, if you read the piece you’ll see that their Mickey D’s are nothing like ours, it was still a shock.

IMG_4348I hate to think that our American way of eating is leeching across the Atlantic to the land of food and style, but there are some things that seem to be the same no matter where you live and the combination of holding down a job and raising a family while attempting to bring good nutrition (and taste!) into the equation seems to be one of them.

I don’t think it’s  impossible to eat healthily and work full time, but it’s hard. That’s because here in the States our “convenience” foods—frozen processed foods and snack-packs (which tend to be tasteless and generally bad for you) are often the only things we have time to “make.”

I mean, really! Doesn’t preparing, then cleaning up after evening meals (if you bother to do it before slumping  in front of the TV set) wear you out? You work hard all day and then there’s all that chopping and prepping in order to put out a seasoned, cooked piece of meat—hopefully with some kind of sauce on it—a vegetable (better make it two, we didn’t get anywhere near our quota of fruits & veggies today), a salad, a starch (rice or risotto—both of which take at least forty minutes to cook), a piece of bread or a roll to help move it all around the plate with, and something to drink. And it’s all eaten in less time than it takes to change the channel.IMG_3209
If you have  a full time job, any kids at all, and maybe a spouse  who expects your occasional participation in his/her life AND you have the least desire to stay up with current events, friends, extended family, a clean house, and keeping your family’s shirts and shorts laundered, not to mention possibly writing a chapter in your latest murder mystery, you will be, without question, no two-ways-about-it, totally crunched for time all of the time.

I  love to cook  my family’s favorites: cassoulet, chicken and dumplings, etc. But if I do it on a weeknight, I end up agitated and grumpy—if I’m able to pull it off at all. So I reserve the creative cooking for the weekend when I have a little extra time (in between soccer games, birthday parties, church, and yard work!) and during the week I take a page from how the French dine when they dine simply and perfectly.
30770518It doesn’t take an elaborate morney sauce or a counterful of mise-en-place bowls to make an exquisite, satisfying meal, (and I’m not leading up to take-out here). Sometimes the simplest meals are the best. If you can get your hands on really good tomatoes, for example, you needn’t do any actual cooking.

The French can do wonderful things with a cold plate of pickles, a little pâté and a hunk of fresh bread. It takes seconds to assemble. (Be sure and give everything a finishing drizzle of your best quality olive oil.) Set a pretty table, open a decent rosé wine and voila! Nothing simpler.
Come to that, it’s hard to beat a good couple of cheeses (say a Brie or Gouda with a blue cheese, varying the hard and soft cheeses) with a salad, fresh bread and maybe a simple tapenade.  All of which you just pull out of the fridge and put on a plate.

Now, if you want to do a little something ahead of time—say, on the weekend when you have all that extra time— roast some peppers or shred a bunch of hard cheese or pre-bake some eggplant and store them in the fridge. Then, come Tuesday night, you can get a little jiggy with dinner without spending a lot of time in the kitchen. You’re still just assembling, but some of your ingredients have been pre-assembled.

I guess I hate the thought of anyone longing for McDonald’s–even if they do have McCamemberts instead of Monster Macs–but especially not the French!

At least not until I have one more perfect summer in fantasy land.

Why do we love Europe so?

19007453Is it weird that Walt Disney, among his fantasia rides and fairyland worlds, also re-created Europe at one of his theme parks? I try to imagine what I would think if I found out that a bunch of Europeans created an amusement park where bears talked and pirates roamed, cartoon mice and castle princesses cast spells and in the midst of all this fantasy was a replica circa 1975 of my suburban neighborhood in Indian Harbour Beach, Florida. I think I might be a little insulted.

Is it presumptuous to think of another culture as our idea of an amusement park? I think some Brits and Europeans come to New York City on holiday and I’m not quite sure why. The bagels, maybe? It can’t be the history, like us with Europe. New York is, like, five years old compared to what they have back home. It can’t be the friendly natives or the pastoral vistas, the geological landmarks or the food. I’m frankly stymied. Is it just to be someplace different?39194840

The last time I visited London, I was disappointed to discover it looked and sounded a lot like the US. (Come to think of it, Paris last year felt a little too much like Epcot Center for my comfort too.) I found the charming English accents blunted by watching too much American television. I found the architecture modern and attractive—but hardly English. I found the pubs, for the most part, a strident attempt to be pub-like for all the tourists, and the department stores, although fun and attractive, devoid of everything that had set them apart—except for their names—from American retail.

I shouldn’t be surprised that the Internet is turning us all into one big homogeneous blob of diluted Americana. But I didn’t think it would happen this fast. The last time I was in Germany, my husband—who is fluent in the language—never found a single opportunity to speak it. Everyone spoke English.

37743092Even the bathrooms have done a tip of the hat to the Americans. A few years ago, one was always challenged, especially in France, with public toilets and usually had to take a moment to negotiate even hotel room bathrooms. No longer. Europe now out-Americans the Americans for modernized bathrooms. There even seems to be fewer and fewer bidet sightings.

Not that Europe’s charm was all in its bathrooms, but it did help make the whole experience feel foreign. And that’s partly the reason I travel—to jump outside my comfort zone, to struggle to order from a menu, to snap out of the somnolent death-march that marks much of my daily round in the States, and to find the unexpected around every corner.

Jeez. Is that too much to ask?

When a fake is nearly as good as the real deal

When I look at a situation that needs changing, I first try to imagine how the flawed situation would look in a perfect world. That at least gives me a target to shoot for. I then either rearrange things that can be rearranged to head in that direction, or I camouflage the situation such that it at least looks closer to the ideal. I’m not sure how well this works on a small scale but I find it pretty effective for big-picture scenarios. And maybe that’s because the details don’t matter quite as much.

For example, when I was younger by a couple of decades, I used to imagine myself a published author. In addition to stealing hours from the night while the baby slept or from my lunch hour on my job in order to write, or to read craft books and structure endless query letters and so forth, I had this habit—usually indulged while I was driving when nothing more constructive could be accomplished—of imagining myself as a successful author being interviewed by Oprah on her show.

Feel it, baby! You're almost there!

Feel it, baby! You’re almost there!

Just the feeling of stepping into that role—smiling benignly when asked by the Big O about where I got my story ideas or did I feel guilty receiving eight-figure advances when there were still starving people in (fill in the blank)?—helped me feel more confident in my dream of becoming an author. And trust me, as with a lot of things, feeling the part goes a long way to being the part.

There’s a lot to be said for feelings following behavior. I once dated an actor who was wonderfully good—brilliant, in fact, in the way he could transform himself from an impoverished, not particularly witty thirty-year old living in Atlanta, Georgia to a smoldering powerhouse in the character of Silva Vaccaro from Tennessee Williams’ 27 Wagons Full of Cotton. It wasn’t just my fondness for him that made me think his portrayal was one of the most mesmerizing performances on stage I’d ever seen. He was that good. Which was why when he scraped the makeup off it was so perplexing to have him resort to a whiny, depressed artiste—nothing like the characters he brought to life on stage.

Oh, fie! Where is yon lip gloss...?

Oh, fie! How canst thou smile if yon lip gloss is gone mayhaps forever?

When “Robin” complained to me about some amorphous tragedy he was in the midst of (it was never anything specific like needing rent money or having an annoying boil on his nose or something), I would say: “You’re an actor. Just pretend you’re happy! If you smile—like you do on stage—you’ll eventually end up feeling that way!” (BTW: This tact totally didn’t work with him. OTOH, I imagine my Pollyanna advice was at least as irritating to him as his whining was to me.)

19088982I’m not saying I believe that we can necessarily control how we feel or what we think. I get that unwanted thoughts and emotions squeeze into our minds during our daily round derailing our best intentions, our plans, our goals. But I think creating a pretend-world is a lovely exercise in make-believe that can, for at least a little bit, supplant reality when you really need reality to be blotted out. Or if you just need a level playing field to get your mood up, your confidence running, your mojo topped off—and I think once you’ve done that—and even gotten in the habit of doing it quite a bit—you’ll end up feeling a little better.

Anybody else subscribe to the fake it ‘til you make it line of thinking? Does it work for you? Got another idea?

 

A little early morning rant with your espresso?

16451156Okay. I admit I don’t often read the Administrative Science Quarterly. Okay, well, I never read it. But it was cited recently in a mash-up piece on The Passive Voice and while I’m still not going to read the paper, I will throw my two cents in on what seems, combined with my own growing experience, to be an unfortunate and unpleasant phenomenon.

Here’s an excerpt from the paper in the Administrative Science Quarterly, that started this rant:

Comparing thousands of reader reviews on Goodreads.com of 64 English-language books that either won or were short-listed for prestigious book awards between 2007 and 2011, we find that prizewinning books tend to attract more readers following the announcement of an award and that readers’ ratings of award-winning books tend to decline more precipitously following the announcement of an award relative to books that were named as finalists but did not win.

First, we propose that the audience evaluating a high-status actor or object tends to shift as a result of a public status shock, like an award, increasing in number but also in diverse tastes. We outline how this shift might translate into less favorable evaluations of quality.

Second, we show that the increase in popularity that tends to follow a status shock is off-putting to some, also resulting in more negative evaluations. We show that our proposed mechanisms together explain the negative effect of status on evaluations in the context of the literary world.

So basically, it seems there is a tendency by the general reading public–once a book is deemed worthy  by some measuring stick respected by the literary-reading world–to attempt to devalue that work.

I know there will always be haters. Got it. I’m a University of Florida alumna so Been There. Won the National Championship. Got the T-shirt. It’s not the fact that, as an author, I feel vulnerable to the masses weighing in on my stories or writing ability. I  had a long career as an advertising copywriter so not only have I suffered the literary slings and arrows of clients (and account execs) as well as Creative Directors (who started out as Art Directors I feel inclined to point out) in reference to my writing, I’ve run my precious literary babies up the flag pole and had readers as far away as Australia and India use them as target practice, too.

But even as thick-skinned as I tend to be, after experiencing a couple of bad mornings which were the result of reading a particularly cruel review on one of my titles, I generally don’t go there anymore. I’m lucky enough to have a buffer between me and my reviews, good or bad. My husband  checks Amazon frequently for me so I don’t have to. I’ll often get texts from him throughout the day that read: “Another 5-star for SOF!” or “Check out your 4-star on FF…from a male reader, no less.” (Note: he’s not being sexist, most of my readers are female.)

What my husband typically keeps to himself are the 1 and 2 star reviews that inevitably come down the pike. Because he has an inquisitive mind and because he wants to know why one title with three hundred 4 and 5 star reviews would prompt someone—especially someone who goes onto the review page and SEES all the love–to write a vitriolic rant condemning it, he often tracks down the reviewer.

30326822Now I don’t mean he gets their GPS coordinates, but he traces the reviewer’s link back thru the Amazon website to find out who they are and what their story is. Once in awhile he’ll tell me: “You got a 2-star from some old lady in Tampa who’s only ever reviewed foot powder ’til now.” But usually–and it makes me mad just to write it–usually, he’s discovered the ultra-negative reviewer is not only another author–but one in my genre and one not doing well (which you can easily determine by the ranking on the book page.)

Let me say, if not from the get go (little late for that), that I’m not trying to say my books are just so awesome that someone’s negative opinion—if it results in a two-star review—must be wrong. I’m saying I see a pattern related to most of the one and two star reviews I receive on certain of my books. And it seems to reveal that the more visibly loved a book appears, (ie 300 4 & 5 star reviews) the more one-star reviews it attracts.

This post is not really about crap reviews. It is a lamentation about the fact that it appears that the higher up you go, the more people want to jerk you back down. I follow several authors’ blogs who used to regularly tell how much money they made on their book sales in an effort to help other authors figure out possible promotion methods, etc. Frankly, I’ve found those blog posts very helpful in showing me what might be. It’s unusual in publishing to have that kind of transparency and it was refreshing and beneficial to see it. Recently, I’ve been reading those same authors say that when they release that kind of information they then see an avalanche of 1 and 2 star reviews show up on their Amazon book pages. Most say they won’t do it anymore.

"While I only read part of the first chapter of this book, I knew the whole book sucked. In fact, probably ALL her books suck! In fact, I think the AUTHOR sucks! Don't read any of her books ever! You've been warned!"

“While I only read part of the first chapter of this book, I knew the whole book sucked. In fact, probably ALL her books suck!”–Signed Disgusted Reader who also has a book you’ll like lots better available for 99c HERE.”

Keep in mind, these are not blogs addressed primarily to readers. These are blogs focused specifically on writing and indie publishing. So unless there’s a bunch of Big Five spies lurking on their blogs, these knee-jerk bad reviews are coming from jealous writers!

And not just newbies–in fact, I’d say rarely newbies. My husband’s own investigations show the poor reviews that I get from other writers are writers who are either traditionally published or are attempting to sell their backlist from back-in-the-day when they WERE traditionally published.

Which makes me want to ask: does it really make anyone feel better about themselves to tear someone else down? Does it really help?

Really?