Monday, February 18, 2019

How to Stop time?

My laptop prompted that it would be my birthday the next day just like how it usually tinkles about a public holiday. In my teens and twenties, what’s another birthday? I was never one about adult milestones such as career deadlines, marriage deadlines, parenthood deadlines. No thanks to someone who had made me feel really bad about being laid back when I was two to three years shy of thirty. That did affect me and it took me a while to rethink and work things out. In my early twenties, my supposedly best buddy from secondary school chided me for being immature and she even compared me to my younger sister who was  apparently more grown-up than me.  She had meant that I  had not prioritized what's important rightly and that it was time to stop dreaming and be a grown-up. She was well-meaning. While I appreciate that growing up is a necessary part of life, I felt the sting in that comment and we naturally grew apart since. Why could I not do the growing up thing in my own time? Must there be a formula that everyone follows? Who dictates those rules?

According to Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig, the authors  of  Twenty Something :     Traditionally, five milestones have been used to define adulthood – completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a first child.’

Consequently we are all sucked into  having to work out our life plans and goals at some point of our lives, then we realise that the career path or the partner that seemed right  in your twenties might not fit so well a decade or few decades later, but by the time you are past middle age, you probably have to resign to accept  the path that  you have set for yourself. How you wish that you had the crystal ball in your youth? Even if you did have the foresight, could you have known how you would possibly feel  about how you now feel many years later? The optimism in you would not have stopped you in your tracks. After all you are young, you feel that time would be on your side. Life is what you make it out to be, isn't it? 

HOW TO STOP TIME  written by Matt Haig is a book about 41 year-old Tom Hazard who has lived through more than four centuries (439 years to be exact) , from Elizabethan England to Jazz-Age Paris and from New York to Sri Lanka. If one sees him, he looks forty but he was actually born on 3rd March 1581 in a small French château. Just imagine Tom has seen it all as he  is actually ‘old -old in the way that a tree, or a quahog clam, or a Renaissance painting is old’. Tom has to keep changing his identity so he can stay one step ahead of his past and  in order to stay alive, he must not ever fall in love.  He is now a history teacher and in his extremely long  lifetime he has met Shakespeare  and Scott Fitzgerald.
Haig writes,
That was the familiar lessons of time. Everything changes and nothing changes.

How To Stop Time, the time travelling tale is about losing and finding yourself and as we know all about the mistakes that humans are doomed to repeat,  change is the only certainty in life. How many lifetimes does it take to learn how to live ? That is the ultimate question in How to Stop Time.

No matter what , I still believe that it is definitely better to have fallen in and out of love, actually loved somebody, be it a child or an adult even if it means heartaches and heartbreaks ( it just means that you have the human heart) , it is also better to have ventured into some business enterprise even if it has not turned out the success that you have hoped for. What will be, will be so long as you go on experiencing and live life. You only know what you are made of when you go through life with gusto.
Can one be focused and experimental at the same time?  We definitely need more than one lifetime to learn about how to live.

Indeed , how to stop time  ?

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Reading Room

Daunt Books @Marylebone, London
A few school friends started looking up one another when their lives became settled into domesticity or a fixed routine. Did they feel the void or nostalgia somewhat hit them? Perhaps. Within years, a good number of friends from school have been getting together regularly to rekindle old ties.  For those who married in their early 20s or right after leaving school and if their children followed their footsteps, they  have since become grandmothers while those who have settled abroad make regular trips back to visit their aging parents. There are also those who divide their time between home and visiting their children who live away from home. Nostalgia seems to be affecting many of them. After all once upon a time, we were teenagers and that feels like another lifetime.  I wonder if we could be the same people we once were.  I certainly hope that every one of us would have evolved and grown up during these past decades. I would regard these school friends a little more than acquaintances rather than friends.
Diagon Alley, London

Occasionally I attend such reunions. When friends ask why I seem to be so busy with my work,   I say I have far too many books to read. I am inclined to find kinship in people who read and I do not find that with these school friends. I do find people fascinating but there are often moments when I'd rather be with a book. While friends find joy in each other's chatter, I rather hole up somewhere with books and more books. Too many good reads. 
Mr Penumbra’s 24- Hour Bookstore written by Robin Sloan is a fable about future of books and friendship. It was  Sloan's first book and published in 2012. Like the protagonist, Clay Jannon, I am in love with the tangible, the feel of the papers and the smell  and weight of the books, their bindings and  the written words caught between their covers. When Clay loses his job as a San Francisco web-design drone during the Great Recession, he lands himself a new gig working the night shift from 6a.m. at  Mr Penumbra’s 24- Hour Bookstore. The store has only a few repeated graying customers who walk in  and “check out” impossibly obscure volumes from strange corners of the store. Each comes in alone and single-minded about ‘the object of  his or her current ,frantic fascination.’ Strange things are afoot at Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Clay asks himself the question,
 Is this a book club? How do they join? Do they ever pay?
One of the job requirements is that he must not browse, read, or otherwise inspect the shelved volumes. Clay will retrieve them for members only.

You must keep precise records of all transactions. The time. The customer’s appearance. His  state of mind. How he asks for the book. How he receives it. Does he appear to be injured. Is he wearing a sprig of rosemary on his hat. And so on.”

Clay is shown a low shelf where there is a set of oversized leather-bound tomes, all identical except for bright Roman numerals on their spines. These are the logbooks that go back to nearly a century, he is told by Mr Penumbra.  So he spends his time writing about the customers rather than spend his time staring at the forbidden shelves. Clay decides to rope his geeky technophile friends in to figure out what is going on.

Penumbra’s customers are, in fact, exactly the kind of people you’d see in coffee shops, working through one-sided cheese problems or solving  Saturday crosswords with blue ballpoints pressed perilously hard into the newsprint.’

These customers are the members of the Society of  Unbroken Spine that has its code of conduct. The fellowship was formed five hundred years ago. Their Codex Vitae contain the wisdom and knowledge about key elements of life and secret to longevity and perhaps immortality. Through  Kat Potente and Neel Shah, his childhood friend, Clay has access to computers and the latest Google technology to decode the mystery as to what these members of the Unbroken Spine seek. 

The author  tells the story with dashes of humour.
     ‘Ring ring.
These days, the phone only carries bad news. It’s all “ your student loan is past due” and “your uncle Chris is in the hospital.” If it’s anything fun or exciting, like an invitation to a party or a secret project in the works, it will come through the internet.’

Clay muses,
' To be honest ,my life has exhibited many strange and sometimes troubling characteristics , but shortness is not one of them.It feels like an eternity since I started school and a techno-social epoch since I moved to San Francisco. My phone couldn't even connect to the internet back then.'

Kat feels that life is too short when there is so much going on with the technology world. 
' I would absolutely, positively freeze my head."  She tells Clay that she would freeze his too and she reckons in a thousand years, he'd thank her. 

Ultimately the story is about fast moving technology, digitalization and the love for words, whether it is e-books or printed version, books are books. No matter how advanced technology progresses, the magic of words remains.  It is the perfect story for those who love books and technology. Robin Sloan used to work at  Twitter click and lives in San Francisco. 

Friday, February 8, 2019

Retour en PROVENCE

ARE WE FRENCH YET?  A Book Review 
Are We French Yet

After living demanding and fast-paced lives in Silicon Valley, taking on a less commanding pace of life living in Provence is a welcoming change but not without surprises and the challenges of diverging cultures and the language barrier for Keith and Val.  Take a trip to France with Keith Van Sickle Author's website and discover and experience the splendour of  French living through his travel memoir.

 Dresher Publishing
One Sip at a Time Keith Van SickleAre We French Yet BannerASIN: B07L6N3JK7
                    157 pages

Years ago,  Keith Van Sickle and his wife, Val had a chance to live abroad when  Keith  was  offered an expat assignment in Switzerland and during their stay they had a chance to travel all over Europe and they found that every country had a different language and culture and cuisine. When they returned to the Silicon Valley, they felt that life back home was akin to black and white while life abroad was in colour so they decided to become part-time expats splitting their time between two countries and they chose  Provence/ France as their second home. For a long time they were living two separate and different lives, the French and the American but gradually their two worlds started to collide and blend together bit by bit. Their adventures have proven to be most fulfilling as they forge new friendships and make significant progress in learning a new language, not just French language but Provençal patois. 

Keith is observant and informative in sharing his entire French experience and he muses about how neither he nor his wife has a talent for languages and the idea of speaking French is way beyond what he ever thought he could do. In  Are we French Yet the Van Sickle's French experience is portrayed to be positive   and their optimism is certainly infectious and inspiring.

 Keith and Val are indeed the lucky couple who live the best of both worlds, spending some months  in the centre of the dynamic and technology driven world and the other part of the year living the balance in French life and indulging in sipping wines at vineyards,  picnicking  with new found acquaintance amidst olive trees and rolling hills and playing pétangue. What started as a vague idea how they would do it, together Keith and Val have made it happen and together they courageously embrace twenty-six tenses of French verbs (not easy for someone in their 40s and 50s)  and together their hearts are in France and America. Last but not least, together  Keith and Val enrich their lives as a couple with new found friends and endless new surprises.
In Are we French Yet, Keith Van Sickle writes,
 ‘ In France, they say that the best wine, the very best , is a wine that you share with friends. It doesn’t matter what kind of grapes are in it , or the kind of grapes are in it, or the vintage, or the name of the label. It’s the act of drinking it with friends that make it great.
He also writes,
'.......but to really know Provence takes longer. It needs time to seep into you because Provence, like the best things in life, can’t be rushed.'

Besides liberally sharing his French education and knowledge on festivals such as  Fête de la Transhumance and history of France, Keith’s narrations are interjected with humour, insights and warmth. Are we French Yet is indeed an engaging and delightful read particularly if you are a Francophile like me. The book will kindle the sense of adventure in travellers who do not just want a vacation but to live like a local.

I thank Keith Van Sickle for answering the following interview questions. 

 1.  Mr Van Sickle, you are presently splitting your time between Silicon Valley and Provence. What was the turning point that made you decide that that this was really what you wanted to do?

My wife and I were once expats in Switzerland. It was a wonderful experience but over far too soon. After we returned to California we tried to find another expat gig but no luck, so one day we decided to invent our own! We quit our jobs (that was scary), became consultants for the flexibility, and started living part of the year in France. Oh, and we didn’t speak French at the time.

2.     How long did you normally plan for a sojourn in France ?
We start about six months ahead of time, finding a place to stay and buying airline tickets and organizing the car. Then not much happens until about two months before departure, when we begin working through our long checklist of things to do. We’ve been doing this for ten years and you’d think it would get easier but there’s always plenty to do!

3.     You started on St Rémy and after trying out different parts of Provence, you decided on St Rémy as your favourite. From your description of St Rémy, it is quaint and compact. Is St Rémy that different from the other towns like Avignon or Arles? What was it about St Rémy that made it stand out to you?
St-Rémy is just the perfect size for us, about 10,000 people. It’s big enough to have a nice variety of shops and cafés, but small enough that you can walk across it in ten minutes. It’s also right next to the Alpilles Mountains, which we enjoy for hiking and biking (slowly). Arles and Avignon are lovely towns but too big for us (50-100,000 people).

4.     Did you pitch the idea to a publisher  before you completed the travel  memoir?
A friend of mine, who is a successful author, advised me not to. He said that for an unknown like myself it was such a longshot that it would probably not be worth the time and effort. Because self-publishing is so easy today, he advised me to go that route. I’m glad I did because it’s worked out well and I have much more control that I would with a publisher.

5.     What was it like adapting to the lifestyle in France? What were the most challenging aspects?
I live in the so-called Silicon Valley in California, where everything is always gogogo nownownow. By contrast, Provence moves at the pace of the seasons rather than the speed of the Internet—it was easy to adapt to that! As for the most challenging aspect, it was definitely learning the language.

6.     How did you build a new social circle?
We decided that we wanted to make French friends in France, rather than connecting with the established English-speaking expat community. Not that we have anything against English-speakers, of course! But we wanted to really understand France and make French friends.
One way we’ve done it is through our language partners. These are people we’ve met who are trying to learn English. We get together for language exchanges—part of the time in English and part of the time in French. We’ve met some wonderful people this way and become friends with many of them.

7.     Did anything about the French culture surprise you?
One thing I’ve been very impressed with is how the French can disagree without being disagreeable. In the US, serious disagreements can easily become personal, rather than remaining at the level of ideas. Whereas in France, I’ve been in a number of discussions where people have had passionate disagreements and then moved on, still good friends. “Ok, we’ve discussed that, now who’s ready for dessert?” that sort of thing.

8.     Have you always been interested in European history ?
Yes! I had the good fortune to study in England for a term during college and took some fascinating classes on European history. I was hooked!

9.     Food is obviously a big thing in France. Do you divide your time fairly between eating out and dining at home?
We usually have breakfast and dinner at home and lunch out, because we are usually out and about during the day. Often our lunch is a picnic in the wild and beautiful Provencal countryside. Three years ago I learned that I have celiac disease (severe gluten intolerance), which makes restaurant dining more challenging, but we’ve found ways to deal with it.

10.  Can you share any anecdotes about misunderstandings caused by language barrier ?
We’ve made the classic mistake of mentioning preservatives in food (oops--“préservatif” means condom). And I once served our guests a goat cheese with edible ash on it. Not knowing the French word for ash I faked it and assumed it was the same as in English. Not so! Announcing “Chevre avec ash” was actually saying “Goat cheese with marijuana.” The children were shocked and their parents were not amused.

11.  Regardless of where an individual come from, all humans have the same fears and insecurities, do you agree?
We are certainly affected by the circumstances in which we live—a child in Syria has very different fears than a child in Beverly Hills. But at the end of the day, I agree that people are people.

(Note : I received a copy of the title from the author for purpose of writing a review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own.)
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