Monthly Archives: October 2015

Hungry in Paris (Ask and it shall be given, part 5)

The following is a true story about one of the most randomly extraordinary things that’s ever happened to me. I want to share it with you here, to the best of my recollection.

I was 16 years old in 1992 when I went on a student trip from Puerto Rico to Oxford, England for a 3-week intensive English course followed by one week travelling in France and Spain. While I’d already been bitten by the travel bug years earlier, this was my first time away from home without my family or friends. That was its own big deal.

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The view from atop Carfax Tower in Oxford

The host family assigned to me in Oxford was an elderly couple living in a tiny house on a street almost identical to the Dursleys’ Privet Drive in Little Whinging.

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Left: the house I stayed in outside Oxford. Right: a photo I took of Privet Drive during a visit to the Harry Potter tour at Warner Brother Studios (London) this year.

The woman kept a padlock on the house phone, presumably to keep us student boarders from making long distance phone calls for hours and hours. She never hid her dismay when I turned down constant offers of tea throughout the day. “How can you not want a hot drink?!” (I lived in Puerto Rico where it’s 85 degrees year round!) And the sandwiches she gave me for my school lunches were either cheese and tomato, or tuna fish with butter and cucumbers. One time she asked me what I normally ate cheese sandwiches with, and turned her nose up when I answered ham.

But I digress.

When the three weeks in Oxford ended, my fellow students and I were revved for the upcoming week of straight vacation, starting in Paris. We grabbed our last packed lunches from our British host families, and hopped on a bus to London, where we boarded a train to one of England’s southern port cities (I think it was Plymouth) for the ferry boat crossing over the English Channel into France. I’m pretty sure I ate my sandwich (was it tuna and cucumbers or cheese and tomato? I can’t remember) well before I got on the ferry, and had basically no more food for the journey after that.

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Starting the journey

To say that the waters were choppy that day is an understatement. Though I was mercifully spared the miserable seasickness, I did witness a good number of my fellow travelers running to toilets with pale, drawn faces.

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The ferry boat ride

After that was over, we still had to take a train to Paris.

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Train ride to Paris … by this time in the day I would’ve given anything for a tuna and cucumber sandwich.

Finally, it was a drizzly early evening when we arrived at our Paris hotel. It was, in fact, dinner time, and just a few minutes too late to exchange money at a bank or at the hotel’s front desk. This was a time before you could go to any cash machine and withdraw money. Most people still traveled with travelers’ checks, the currency was francs, and none of us had any. We had a few British pounds left over, which did us no good whatsoever. Since most of us were high school students, we didn’t have credit cards, and I have a sense (my memory on this is a bit fuzzy) that some of the restaurants where we asked didn’t even take plastic.

What could we do? A group of about four other students and I started to walk around the city, trying to figure something out. We were wet, exhausted, and hungry. So we came up with a plan to approach someone who looked local, and ask them to withdraw cash for us using their bank card in exchange for pounds and travelers’ checks. It was a long shot, obviously, but we were starting to feel desperate. The first few people we asked –wait for it!– said no.

Right as we were about to give up, someone looked up and noticed the names of the cross streets where we were standing: they were Rue de la Providence and Rue de l’Espérance.

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So we figured, since we were literally standing on the corner of Hope and Providence, maybe we shouldn’t give up … surely someone would help us! That’s when we saw a pregnant woman exiting an apartment building. We approached her and quickly explained our situation.

To our shock and delight, she told us yes, she would withdraw francs for us in exchange for our travelers’ checks and pounds … on one condition: that we sit and have a drink with her before heading off to dinner. Starving as we were, we agreed. The woman went to an ATM, got out cash, and together we found a bar and sat down for a drink. I have only a very vague recollection of what she looked like, and she didn’t tell us much about herself. Funnily enough, we did learn that she was headed to the UK the following day, so she’d been on her way to the ATM machine anyway, and she was happy to take our British pounds.

She was also lonely. I got the strong sense that her baby’s father was not in the picture. Then she said something like this: “How funny that we met each other on the corner of Rue de la Providence and Rue de l’Espérance, and that we were able to help each other. See, it wasn’t just me helping you get your money, but you have also helped me by sitting with me these few minutes and talking to me, keeping me company. So in a sense, we needed each other.”

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Paris the next day

I think she declined to join us for dinner. Soon we completed our money transaction and parted ways, wishing each other all the best. Then my friends and I took the money to a Chinese restaurant where we had the grandest and finest Chinese feast I’ve ever had in my life. At least that’s what it seemed like in my 16-year-old mind, and who is my 40-year-old self to tell that girl otherwise? Mistaking our jadedness for wisdom is such a common blind spot among us grownup types.

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the kindness of strangers in France. In fact, I’ve shared the stories here, about the incident with a cash machine in Paris and the time a few years later when my husband and I were hungry in a tiny French village. Isn’t this trend kind of mysterious and amazing? But all these things really happened. And remembering them touches a place deep in my heart where my own pure goodness lives alongside my faith in the goodness of others. Call me crazy, but I think we could all stand to tap into that place more often.

This is my favorite one of these stories, though. I have no idea if the woman would remember the role she had in helping a group of hungry Puerto Rican students get money for food on a drizzly Parisian evening 23 years ago, or that the thought of her poignant generosity and vulnerability still moves me deeply and lifts my spirits every single time. I especially think about the power of asking. It’s not just that you might actually get what you’re asking for (which in itself is pretty awesome), but it’s how the act of asking for help opens the door to keep kindness flowing. And to think it happened on the corner of Hope and Providence!


 

Note: A new friend I made on this trip was a law school student, (I believe) at the University of Puerto Rico. By the time we made it to Seville, I had all but run out of money, and she lent me money so I could buy souvenirs for my family at the World Expo. I promised to pay her back, but then we lost touch completely after coming home from the trip. I don’t even remember her name! But I did circle her face in the only two photos I have of her. I would love to track her down, to thank her again and to pay her back. Please help me share this blog post, so we can keep up the spirit of pay it forward! (Or in my case, in the spirit of paying her back…)

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Grace (Ask and it shall be given, Part 4)

Confession: I, like roughly 9.9 out of 10 of you, suffer from feelings of unworthiness. Thankfully, I also believe in grace. It’s because of grace that I ultimately rarely let such feelings run the show. (There’s a reason why people always talk about saving graces.) I’ve had good reason to count the extraordinary blessings of my life in recent weeks, and I’d like to share some of them with you. Sorry if it sounds like bragging. I assure you, it’s nothing more than overwhelming gratitude. It’s a short (very short) list of some the past month’s gifts, and a story about how these gifts are helping me heal the feelings of unworthiness.

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I’ve spoken before about my love for Elizabeth Gilbert, and for my 40th birthday, I decided to try to see her again at an event. After a very quick search, I saw she was going to be one of the speakers at one of my favorite places ever (the Omega Institute), just ten days after my birthday. Done, and done!

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I also learned she’d be visiting DC one week after the Omega Institute retreat, to promote her new book Big Magic. Obviously, I bought a ticket for that, too, just for good measure.

The weekend of the retreat arrived, and two minutes after I checked in at Omega, I ran into one of its co-founders, a personal beloved hero, Elizabeth Lesser. I was tongue-tied and in hindsight feel silly and shallow (see how easily the self-berating happens?) that all I did was ask for this photo. Thank goodness I did also remember to tell her I love her and that it was an honor to be there.

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Saturday morning Liz Gilbert took the stage. It lived up to every expectation. One of my favorite quotes from her talk was, “No creative act can take place until you stand in the arrogance of your belonging … against the terrorist inside your head that says, ‘Who do you think you are?'”

Later on … can you believe it? I ran into her and got to give her a hug and snap this photo!

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It then seemed like an embarrassment of riches that I’d be seeing her again in DC just one week later. That week, my mother was coming into town, and I decided to try to take her with me. I felt that if I at least shared it with her, then I would feel more deserving. But the event was four days away, my husband was headed to Morocco, and we didn’t have a babysitter. It would have felt pretty lousy to go by myself and leave Mami behind, but even if I tried changing my ticket to her name, I doubted she’d go by herself. And by then I really wanted her to go. My first step was to go online and see if there were tickets left. There were, and I bought her one. (Later that same day I looked again out of curiosity: Sold out!) You know what else? I found a sitter just two days before! So, Mami and I went.

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And she was as inspired and energized by Liz Gilbert’s talk as I knew she would be. My heart swelled with gratitude that things had fallen into place so perfectly.

One of my two favorite quotes from that evening was, “You need magical, mystical thinking to do creative things because it’s an absolutely irrational thing to do.” That I possess such weird and irrational ways of thinking is without a doubt one my graces in this life.

The other one was, “When someone tells you they are brutally honest, it’s rarely about real honesty; they’re asking for permission to be brutal to you.” Holy crap. I’d never thought of that before, but it’s true. I can’t stand snark disguised as sophistication; you know … that person with a mean streak who tells you you can’t take a joke? Oof. Steer clear, folks, steer clear. I know I do!

But my favorite moment of the evening came when a cancer survivor got up to speak, and offered Elizabeth an engraved bracelet (sadly I forget what word(s) it was engraved with) as a gift. Elizabeth accepted the gift, and said something like this: “I used to say no to these types of things. Then I realized, they are grace, and I don’t want to stop the unfolding of grace.” Boom. Wow. A few minutes later, Elizabeth gave the bracelet to another cancer survivor who stood up to speak. I cried.

And there it is: Grace. If nothing else, grace is what definitively inspires me to overcome thoughts and feelings of unworthiness. Because it’s not about me. None of this is about me. It’s about something so much bigger than me.

I’m not really sure how to stop the cycle for myself. The script of unworthiness seems so deeply and irrevocably embedded in me, it’s like my constant annoying companion. It happened just a few nights ago when I visited a book club as the guest author. The awesome women who asked the read my manuscript described it with words like “page-turner … a great sense of place … deeply-developed characters … ” and most importantly said, “don’t give up, you’ve got something good here.” I’m not going to tell you that I didn’t spend most of the drive home telling myself they were just being nice. Two days later, the night after some details for a new family project in the works for 2016 (which will likely involve stamps on our passports and shedding a few lbs in preparation) began to fall into place –I’m not exaggerating– thoughts of undeserving ‘who-am-I’s kept me awake for hours.

But I have now amended my script from ‘who am I to receive such gifts?’ to ‘who am I to stop them?’ Who am I to stop grace? Who the hell is anyone to dare mess with the ever unfolding poetry and dance that is grace? That’s what your “friend” is doing when s/he wants to be brutally “honest” or tells you you can’t take a “joke.” It’s what I’m doing when I dwell on feeling undeserving. Why don’t we stop the cycle, or at least turn it around? It’s not about me and it’s not about you. It’s about keeping grace in motion. Seeing Liz Gilbert for my 40th birthday taught me this. Grace begets grace. Love begets love. And what the world needs is love.

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Tostones

I recently made tostones and posted some of the pictures on Facebook. Several friends responded with a request for the recipe. Here it is!

First, a language lesson. The appropriate singular form of tostones is tostón, not tostone (pronounced toston-eh). I’ve heard people, including high profile TV chefs, mispronounce it all the time. It grates on me. And I’ll be damned if I let a single tostón go the way of the tamale!

Thank you. Now let’s begin.

Start with very, very green plantains. In fact, it’s pretty critical for the unique flavor of these Latin-Caribbean delights that the plantains not show any signs of ripening, such as yellow spots (even a dulled green), or feeling soft when squeeze-tested. Green plantains are now relatively easy to find at most grocery stores.

Trim off the ends. Using a dull kitchen knife, run a lengthwise line down the middle, and peel. You will notice the skin is quite hard and heavy on sap. But a dull knife does the trick very well, and it’s a lot safer than a sharp knife given that it will take a bit of elbow grease to get this part done. Don’t be surprised if your fingers end up heavily stained from the sap. (It’s worth it!) Cut each plantain into 2-inch rounds.

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Preheat a frying pan with about 2 inches’ worth of your preferred high-heat frying oil to medium high. Fry the rounds in batches (to avoid overcrowding them) for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, and drain.

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Flatten the rounds. I use the bottom of a plate against a cutting board. It’s best if the plate has a flat bottom, no rim. Once flattened, the rounds start to look like tostones. You may need a knife to unstick the flattened tostón from the bottom of the plate. Fry them a second time for 3 to 4 minutes per side.

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Drain them on a fresh piece of paper towel. Sprinkle both sides of the tostones with salt the instant they come out out of the hot oil.

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You’ll realize right away that you can’t make these without needing to taste test the first one(s) to come out. The challenge is to not eat them all before the rest of dinner is ready to be served.

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TOSTONES

Prep time: 15 minutes. Cooking time: 30 minutes. Two plantains make about 1 dozen tostones.

Ingredients

  1. 2 very green plantains
  2. oil for frying
  3. salt

Cooking instructions

  1. Preheat about 2 inches’ worth of oil in a shallow pan to medium high
  2. Trim the ends off each plantain, and peel with a dull knife
  3. Cut each plantain into 2-inch rounds (about 6 per plantain)
  4. Working in batches, fry each round for 3 to 4 minutes per side
  5. Drain and flatten using a flat-bottomed plate on a hard, flat surface
  6. Fry a second time for 3 to 4 minutes per side
  7. Drain and sprinkle each side with salt
  8. Enjoy!
  9. (Serving these with homemade guacamole –recipe available– is optional, and highly recommended)

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