06/16/14: Yes, it matters if you leave out the comma in a compound sentence

“OK, now go ahead and edit this story. Do what you need to do.”

Such a proposition would normally be child’s play; my face would light up as the words chimed in my ears. I’m the girl with a sign that reads “CAUTION: I’m judging your grammar” on my bedroom door in Chapel Hill (yes, by the way, it really does matter if you leave out the comma when it’s a compound sentence; you can thank me later).

Two weeks ago I started as an editing intern at the storied Philadelphia Inquirer. Its bank account has seen better days, but it is still a highly respected regional newspaper with a circulation of about 315,000 when combined with its sister paper, the Philadelphia Daily News. It has 20 Pulitzer Prizes to its credit, the highest award in journalism. I was already a bit starry-eyed when I walked into that newsroom for the first time.

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And those words, to “edit this story,” were what my supervisor left me with after giving me a whirlwind 30-minute training of how to use the paper’s complicated computer editing system. I stared at the screen, the story staring piercingly back. I scrolled down the page; it was a long one, at least 28 inches (or about 900 words).

How much editing was I supposed to do? Was I supposed to make it fit into a certain space on the page? What if I had a problem with the lede (the first sentence in an article)? Was I allowed to make serious changes or just edit for grammar and style? How was I supposed to track the changes I did make … he told me, damn, what was it, CTRL + F9 or something? Where even was the CTRL key? I hadn’t used a PC in three years, how did they even work? Oh, right, I was supposed to write a headline, too — where the hell was I supposed to find that?

Questions racked my brain at rapid-fire pace. I sat there in a sort of daze.

Then I realized my boss was still standing behind me, watching me.

“You good?” he asked. I snapped back into reality with an “oh yes, of course” and began reading.

He walked away, but I still felt like a dozen eyes were judging the job I was doing, wondering how good this new girl hailing from “wait, you’re from where?” was going to be. It’s the first day that’ll make or break your summer, warned Dr. Ed Trayes, my internship program director, before sending me and a dozen other editing interns off to work at The New York Times, The Washington Post and other major East Coast publications.

I read six or seven paragraphs before I realized I hadn’t processed anything I’d just looked at. I couldn’t focus, and I was afraid to touch the story. Who was I to tell this reporter, a 16-year veteran of the Inquirer and a 2012 Pulitzer winner, that I could improve her writing?

“After you finish that, you’re done for the day,” said a voice behind me after about 45 minutes. It was the head copy editor for that day.

Wait, what? My shift was 2:30-11:30, and it was barely past 6 p.m.!

I made a few small edits, fixed a name, and clarified a fact, but my confidence was completely shot. I thought I’d ruined my whole summer, and I wasn’t even sure how. Had I done a bad job? Did I take too much time? Not enough time?

Once I got home I sat in my room for a good hour, my head swimming with uncertainty about my abilities in this job. But I knew there wasn’t much I could do except come in the next day and quietly try to remedy whatever I’d done wrong.

And somehow, things got better — fast. I was allowed to handle both of the front-page featured stories for the next day, including edits, headlines, read-ins, and photo captions.

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That felt more like my first real test. With a sigh of relief, I decided that, for the time being at least, I had passed.

I had good days and bad days that first week. Once I handled 13 story edits on my own and barely had any headlines or photo captions rewritten, but the next day about two-thirds of my headlines ended up changed. I’m still getting the hang of Philly style — Montco and Delco for Montgomery and Delaware counties, but only in headlines; the Philly mayor doesn’t need a first name, just “Mayor Nutter” on first reference; there’s PennDot, SEPTA, and far too many Pennsylvanian townships (1,454 to be exact) to possibly keep straight.

Turns out the Inky, as it’s known around town, is also the ONE daily paper in the country that uses the Oxford comma (in a list, it’s one, two, and three; not one, two and three). Anyone reading this who is also a journo will understand why that is, like, really weird.

And two Fridays ago, in a seemingly innocent list of “things to do this weekend” or whatever it was, I let it slip by that “the gallery features their photos from Africa after they spent six weeks in the country.” Yes, the COUNTRY of Africa. The main copy editor told me gently and laughed, though I was pretty mortified.

On the flip side, I somehow ended up with stories involving marijuana three days in a row last week — and all of my weed pun headlines made it to print. Proud moment.

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I wouldn’t call editing “more difficult” than writing news by any means, but it requires a type of concentration, commitment to detail, and ability to switch rapidly back and forth between topics that I haven’t had to use in a newsroom before. Until midnight every day, too. Writing is something that my journalist friends and I know how to do, and well, without second thought (and the hours are, occasionally, a little more mainstream).

It was also tough at first to gauge exactly what the paper wanted me to be doing as an editor, though I think I’ve got it down now. Some newspapers want editors to preserve the longer, context-filled style (the NYT, for example), while others prefer them to cut articles down and keep ‘em short, sweet, and to the point. Some only want them to fact-check and leave the rewriting to a section editor, others (like the Inky) expect the copy eds to do everything that needs to be done. And the AP stylebook might be known as the unofficial journalist’s bible, but every paper has its own style and weird “regionalisms,” and if you’re the editor it’s your job to catch them all. The learning-the-quirky-computer-system curve is an added bonus.

But really, I like this job a lot. Though I miss the writing aspect, I can tell this constant editing is already making me a better-rounded journalist. It’s a fun office atmosphere, too; I’ve bonded with UNC graduates, fellow horse racing lovers, sports fans (we’ve had quite a time watching the World Cup since it started last week), and avid state and national politicos. Also notable is that everyone who works with me has lived with the paper through its ownership and management upheavals and mass job cutting since 2008, and they’re just grateful that the Inky — and their jobs — are still around.

As legacy print media continue to struggle, I know I’m pretty lucky to be here, too. From what I gather from coworkers, the Inquirer’s philosophy is that, while the web is a growing and important part of the paper’s DNA, the print product is what it does best — and it’s still what matters the most to readers. Call it a strategy of the past, but as someone who is stubbornly a lover of “old” journalism, I don’t mind at all.

And despite five ownership changes in eight years (including the immense tragedy of a co-owner dying in a plane crash the day before I started working there), that paper has been in the boxes every single day, without fail, no matter what. It’s been in print continuously for 185 years. Tenacity definitely counts for something.

5/15/2014: Two days in Paris, then from one “home” to another

I called Paris home for a little more than four months. “Home” was never a word I thought I’d use to describe the place.

I remember spending my first run in the city with a constant scowl on my face as I was forced to stop every 30 paces for either crosswalks or swarming masses of people on the streets. I remember the first time I took the metro to school and being literally squashed flat against the door in the crowds, and I remember having my phone stolen out of my coat pocket in a metro station only days later, after I’d let down my guard for 15 seconds to remove my scarf.

I remember looking at the Seine for the first time and seeing its grimy color and the rampant city pollution diffused throughout its waters (just enjoy the view at night; it’s easier to forget how gross it really is). I remember friends being mugged in the streets or uncomfortably followed most of the way home after a late night out. And I remember the 10.5 million people, 20 districts, 16 metro lines and half a dozen train stations just within the city limits; that’s anything but comforting for a small-townie.

But now I can’t help but look out the window of my Southern Pines, North Carolina bedroom, expecting to see the tall, off-white facades with black metal accents lining each balcony. I can close my eyes and imagine the view now. It’s firmly imprinted on my consciousness; it’s what I’ve come to see as “familiar.” When I returned from trips within and outside of France, it was this sight that put a smile on my face. As wonderful as traveling is, I knew I’d come “home.”

On my last afternoon in Paris (it appropriately rained for hours), I crossed the familiar expanse of rue Saint Antoine and walked into my favorite neighborhood boulangerie one final time. I bought a baguette and a pain au chocolat, figuring I’d stop by the supermarket and get a small wedge of brie cheese to make a nice, student-budget final Parisian dinner.

As I walked down the street and sank my teeth into the delectable pastry, the best chocolate croissant I’ve managed to find in the city, I saw a woman and her two girls sitting on the wet ground to my right, leaning against the back wall of a newsstand. They had a little cup for coins, so it was easy to know why they were there. I wondered if I’d seen them before; I walk this street at least once a day. But I couldn’t remember.

Des centimes, mademoiselle?” I heard the cry so often voiced by the homeless on the streets of this city, the so-called City of Lights and Love, where poverty stares you bluntly in the face every time you step out of your apartment and the gap between the rich and the poor seems to grow ever wider as weeks go by — despite a welfare state that is supposed to help the less fortunate. I’ve had conversations with study abroad friends about this “other” side of Paris. It’s affected us all at times this semester: on the metro, outside grocery stores, near museum entrances and lining the length of major boulevards.

I usually follow the example of most Parisians in the streets; I avert their pleading looks, I don’t acknowledge them, I continue on my way with barely a second thought. I know some of them aren’t even really homeless; I’ve heard that women and children in particular place themselves near popular tourist areas to fool passersby. It’s pretty easy to get “played” if you look foreign enough.

I was wearing dark jeans, black shoes, a faux leather jacket and a scarf; it doesn’t get much more Paris than that. But I’d fallen victim to the other “no-no” — I had made eye contact with the woman. I looked at the two adorable girls, perhaps ages 4 and 8, and I felt my heart twinge.

So, yeah, I might have been getting played. But I remembered reading a story just two months earlier about French homelessness, revealing statistics that a homeless person dies every 20 hours in France and that the number of homeless people has risen by nearly 50 percent in the last 12 years. And I know that in France, le chômage, or unemployment, has yet to return to its pre-economic crisis rate. I had a hunch this family really could use the help. Maybe I was right, maybe I wasn’t.

I tore my glance away from the family and looked down at my half-eaten croissant. I wasn’t even hungry; I’d been eating it for pleasure, to treat myself — honestly, to romanticize my final day in Paris and probably write about it later. I felt greedy. This semester I’ve given a number of street musicians coins as I’ve gone by, but I’d only given half a baguette to one homeless man, one time.

I turned on my heel and marched back to the boulangerie. I fished out the last coins in my wallet and bought two more baguettes, a total of 1.80 euros. I returned the way I’d come and met the woman’s eyes again. She opened her mouth to speak, but I started first: “Bonjour, madame. Comment allez-vous aujourd’hui?

She responded with a small smile. “Alors,” I continued, squatting in front of her, “je vous apporte quelque chose. Vous voulez du pain?” I held out the two baguettes. Her eyes lit up, and the younger girl let out a small gasp in delight.

Oui, oui,” the woman said. “Exactement ce dont j’ai besoin. Merci, merci à vous.” The older girl stood up and hugged me. “Vous êtes gentille. Et belle,” she said, eagerly taking one of the baguettes from the woman and tearing off a piece. They wished me well with an “au revoir, merci!” as I stood up to leave; the youngest girl blew me a kiss.

The simple choice made me feel good, as such decisions often do for people. I didn’t let myself think too much of it; giving away two baguettes isn’t particularly selfless. But I allowed myself to smile as I turned down rue des Tournelles and walked to my apartment. I hoped I’d made their day a little better in any small way, as the act had for me.

I recalled similar sentiments I’d felt from other Paris-induced highs of my final two days: an egg, tomato and onion crepe from my favorite stand in the Bastille area, a long solo bike ride along the Right Bank in glorious 60-degree weather, an afternoon stroll through my favorite city park, Buttes-Chaumont, an evening with some of my closest friends and cheap wine while watching the Seine by night.

As I reflect on those 48 hours now, I can’t say it enough times: Paris has been so good to me.

That’s not to say that I don’t have mixed feelings about the city. I know I’ll never again be able to read “ooh, la la!” travel columns in newspapers without a critical eye. Paris, like anywhere else, has got the good, the bad and the ugly. And I don’t want to romanticize my study abroad experience, which has had its share of stresses and lows.

But I have been so fortunate to have such an incredible journey this semester. I’ve managed to become relatively confident interviewing people in French. I’ve made wonderful international friends I hope to be able to visit someday. I’ve been a tourist, a tour guide to friends, a student, an observer and listener, a long-term city resident with somewhat competent French and a “stupid American” who played dumb with a police officer to get out of a ticket while riding a bike (yes, really).

Four days ago, I went from this Paris “home” to home in Southern Pines, and in five days I’ll be trying to find “home” elsewhere, as I move to Philadelphia for the summer. I just returned from a brief excursion to Chapel Hill — immediately upon my first sighting of the sprawling grassy Polk Place quad and the rickety old brick pathways, I breathed a sigh of familiarity. That magical campus and quaint downtown really are “home,” too.

I think I’m starting to enjoy that concept of having different “homes,” of being less rooted and yet still feeling embraced metaphorically by each home with a hug and a warm smile upon return.

So, I’m back, America. I’m still baffled by the necessity of driving a car everywhere, and I still have a sleep schedule that’s stubbornly synced with a different time zone. I miss discovering centuries-old churches and off-the-beaten-path museums around every corner. I’m craving a one-euro freshly baked preservative-free baguette terribly. And what the hell, 95 degrees and stifling humidity is a thing?!

But as I took an early stroll along Franklin Street this morning, a copy of The Daily Tar Heel in one hand and a Starbucks coffee in the other, I felt completely and entirely in my element.

I whispered to myself, “Welcome home.”

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4/11/14: Bidding adieu to my Parisian street shoes

At the ripe old age of seven weeks old, my little pair of Parisian street shoes is about to enter a graceful retirement.

Well, perhaps graceful isn’t quite the word. They look pretty beaten up. “Well loved,” if you want to put it nicely.

I bought them in February with the intent of having some reliable all-around footwear to last me through the year — or at least through the warmer weather at the end of the semester. “Ils seront parfaits au printemps, mademoiselle,” said the saleswoman at the store, nodding smartly and commending my choice.

But it wasn’t meant to be. Spring has come to Paris, but amid verdant public parks sprouting anew and tiny white petals swirling in the fresh seasonal air, my little shoes have taken a turn for the worse. The soles are torn up and battered, all traction has completely disappeared and their exterior color is only a vague hint of their original storefront appearance.

Our relationship is ending far too quickly for my liking. Still, I acknowledge that I didn’t exactly go easy on them.

These shoes have been faithful company on virtually all of my trips in and out of France, hell-bent-for-leather sprinting through airports and train stations, marathon walking adventures (one of more than 20 kilometers), daily bike rides (one absurdly long one in pouring rain) and, of course, those nights out on the town. All without so much as a pitiful whine or complaint. I look at them now and say soberly, “Dudes, you could have said something?”

I regret that I never offered them the proper attention and gratitude they deserved. Think about it — when is the last time you stopped for a moment to really appreciate your shoes? So, to you, dear little ankle boots, I dedicate this blog post.

Thank you for being the perfect fit in that store — the only pair that was any match for my size 9.5, wide feet (do Parisians just not sell large-sized anything?!). When I started the walk to take you home and heard the classy “click, clack” of stylish boots hitting the European cobblestone sidewalks, I knew we would get along.

Thank you for being the ideal neutral color to accompany every pair of pants, every dress and skirt, every combination of worn-out utilitarian study abroad clothes I could throw on haphazardly in the morning to get out the door in 10 minutes and make it to class on time.

Thank you for sticking it out with me through those long nights out in hot, crowded bars with beer-slathered dancefloors. I don’t want to know what those floors felt like. And I’m sure there was trash and dog poop all over the path as I walked home. I cringe when I think of what you had to go through.

Thank you for humoring me as I just had to veer off the road on that rainy bike ride in Montpellier to march through a sodden meadow probably replete with manure and who knows what else to visit the horses on the other side of the fence. You shrugged it off when one of the horses accidentally trod on my foot as I was stroking him. You didn’t even judge me as I squealed for five straight minutes in delight at the sight of them (or were you judging…?).

Thank you for being the stable footwear I needed in difficult situations — for example, dutifully cooperating when I was hopelessly wandering alone in the middle of Rome at 1 in the morning. And thank you for tolerating my mad dashes all semester as I was predictably late to everything, including (but not limited to) class, planes, trains, meetings and friend gatherings. You weren’t remotely designed as running shoes, and you still tried your best.

Yeah, I know, they’re shoes. But last I checked, offering a “thank you” or two never hurts.

I don’t think I’ve had such an attachment to shoes before. Maybe it’s because they’re from Paris, the capital of fashion, bien sûr. Maybe it’s their global perspective — they went to seven countries in those seven short weeks. Maybe it’s because they remind me of experiences, of highs and lows of this semester, of even the smallest, yet significant, study abroad memories.

I’m wearing the little boots this evening, for what I swear to myself is the final time. I look down and flex my feet, feeling their familiarity, how perfectly they have molded to my soles. I take the left shoe off and see that the bottom has actually cracked straight through at the ball of my foot.

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I laugh. Sarah, I tell myself, there’s a difference between being frugal and being ridiculous.

Alright, little guys, you “did good.” I can cough up 20 euros to replace you.

Like every material aspect of life, shoes are ephemeral — but they work hard for you, and anyone or anything that labors for your benefit deserves a bit of love. I hope that’s a lesson I won’t forget.

3/24/14: Pictures aren’t quite everything, part 1

My increased use of Facebook while living in Paris makes it no surprise that I’ve thought a lot recently about the meaning of photos, particularly in study abroad and in the context of how sharing your experience with friends and family has changed.

European study abroad’s popularity for American students really took off after World War II, when communicating with loved ones back home was a matter of occasional letters and telegrams. Perhaps an expensive phone call if need be. An old photograph or two on a bedside table would allow you to think of them every day and see their faces in fixed expressions, unchanging day in and day out. And that was pretty much it.

These facts are well described in Dreaming in French, a book I’ve nearly finished reading that chronicles three notable 20th-century American women — Jackie Kennedy, Susan Sontag and Angela Davis — and their respective years abroad in Paris. A few old photos remain as memories, and there are pieces of journals they kept and a letter or two they wrote. Then of course there are the intangible and indescribable impacts that Paris and France had on their later cultural lives. Though no doubt American students’ imaginations still ran wild when thinking of the far-away grandeur of Europe, there were fewer young adults going abroad, and, without the worldwide connection we have today, I assume there were fewer feelings of “look at all of these people I know going over there, I’m jealous, I need to do something that cool!”

Jackie Kennedy, left, and her friend Claude de Renty in the south of France during her year abroad.

Study abroad today, on the other hand, often consists of daily Facebook updates, a smattering of profile picture changes in a different country every month, perhaps a blog post each week to elaborate on this adventure in a castle or that transformational art museum visit. I’m not criticizing the phenomenon, simply stating the facts; I’m as much a part of this tendency as any other student. My photo albums from a six-day span during a spring break venture to Ireland and Scotland contain more than 200 photos alone — and those were significantly edited down before publication.

These Internet connections mean that you can share your abroad life with a 1000-plus friend base, and they can live vicariously through friends’ experiences on a daily basis. Comments on photos or statuses are frequently some variety of the following: “aw, jealous!” “you are so lucky!” “can I please have your life k thanks bye.”

What these masses of photos do, in my eyes, are paint an even more romanticized ideal of study abroad than was already the case before the Internet — largely because the reminders are constant. I came into this semester in Paris having scrolled endlessly through photos that friends studying in Germany, Scotland, Italy and Australia had posted during previous semesters. I’ve wanted to study in France since my freshman year of high school, but when I made it here I naturally felt an enormous pressure to “have a good time.” That meant filling my Facebook profile with as many “Europe is wonderful” updates as possible.

Really, Europe is wonderful. But that pressure is undeniable.

I had an hour-long discussion on this subject in late February with one of my spring break partners-in-crime Kelly Anderson. We’re two of the biggest picture-takers I know from UNC who are currently studying abroad. But we’re also trying to remember that even friends who looked like they had a perfect time on their semester abroad probably encountered just as many bumps in the road as we have. In doing so, we’re trying to remain committed to our own experiences and to not feel influenced by what we’ve seen from others.

I immensely enjoy taking photos, scrolling through them at my leisure and reminiscing. But the select photos I choose to take and publish online don’t always reveal the whole story.

Consider the following:

Drinking a pint during my first night in Dublin!

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This is as fabulously stereotypically Irish as it gets — I’m even wearing a shade of green!

DISCLAIMER: I was actually running on zero hours of sleep the night before (because Carolina basketball, because early-morning flight) and had been walking and traveling all day and felt quite awful — dizzy, dehydrated, getting chills. Instead of partying in pubs all night I struggled back to the hotel (Kelly was so kind as to sacrifice her night and head back, too) not long after this was taken and collapsed almost immediately.

Frolicking on the Glasgow Green!

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Beautifully manicured park sprawling right through the middle of the city. Included a great deal of architecture worth admiring. And as a former horse girl coming from life in Paris, virtually endless green space = me as happy camper.

DISCLAIMER: I loved seeing the stunning park, but I was much more concerned about someone in the group who was starting to feel faint due to various stress factors, probably including sleep deprivation and dehydration (traveling ain’t easy, y’all) — and we were in the middle of a vast 10-acre park, a long way from anything or anyone helpful, and miles from our hostel. And it was my choice to walk to the middle of nowhere in the first place! I was feeling quite guilty and worried when this was taken.

A stroll through the Scottish countryside!

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A promenade through unperturbed Scottish rolling hills? Dream come true!

DISCLAIMER: I had planned to hike a couple of kilometers farther up this incline and reach Arthur’s Seat, an iconic lookout in Edinburgh, but the ground was in terrible shape and I stupidly hadn’t worn proper attire for the rough terrain. I was pretty upset with myself when this was taken that I’d gotten all the way over there only to not be prepared and have to skip one of the activities I wanted to do most. I stopped immediately after this photo was taken and walked right back down onto city sidewalk.

Sunset over Tuileries Gardens with the Eiffel Tower in the distance!

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I was watching this with my boyfriend. ‘Nuff said, right?

DISCLAIMER: Not exactly. We had come back only a few hours before from a traveling mishap, getting stranded in the Normandy countryside near Bayeux (a story that will merit a blog post soon). We’d just spent half an afternoon in the Louvre, which was lovely. But we’d only eaten a tiny meal all day, our feet were in a lot of pain after walking close to 20 miles the day before, and we were cranky and tired.

It was still very beautiful and a real treat to share with Ted, just not the flawless romantic experience it might appear to be.

Running the 5k at the 20th annual Maratona di Roma!

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I might not have been doing the full 26.2, but a 5k with 80,000 other participants isn’t too bad of a consolation prize. We’re about to cross the start! Exciting!

DISCLAIMER: It was really cool. But those of us at the front of the pack had been standing outside through steady rain and two significant downpours for more than two hours — many of us, like me, without rain gear. We were soaked to the bone and shivering when I took this; I don’t think I’ve ever wanted a race start to go off more quickly. Of course I felt much more sympathy for the marathon runners, like my friend Jenny, who faced a truly grueling battle of wills with the weather.

This is not a call to cease the “ooohs” and “ahhhs” over friends’ incredible abroad journeys and the adventures they share on social media. I’m not going to stop doing so any time soon. And all of the scenes in my photos above were blessings to experience. What happened when they were taken was, to put it simply, life. No matter how hard my friends and I try to plan ahead and make trips run perfectly, they never do.

This post is more a gentle reminder, one I’m giving myself as much as anyone else. Go travel or don’t travel, love your photos and those of your friends for what they are, learn from the mistakes and don’t feel like your experiences are any less significant because they don’t look as “fun” as someone else’s. It’s not a competition; there’s no need to make it one.

3/5/14: Taking the long way home

I took the long way home from school this afternoon.

Why did I take the long way home? A sunny jacket-free day of 14-degree temperatures had beckoned to me from classroom windows and done a damn good job of distracting me for a solid two hours, so no doubt that was one reason. There was also the prospect of saving nearly two euros by not taking the metro back to Bastille — I mean really, that’s a whole bag of pasta and a whole freshly baked delectable baguette. Priorities.

But that’s not all. Each day I’ve spent in Chapel Hill during the past three school years, I’ve tried to remind myself how fortunate I am to be where I am. But I think being blessed this semester with study abroad and the chance to travel Europe has opened my eyes more fully as to just how lucky I am to be how I am. Small everyday activities seem to mean more to me. Like this hour-long walk.

Before I go on, I need to make clear that I’m not trying to proclaim self-righteousness or anything related. This is not about morality. I’m being completely honest about how I’ve felt during the last two months. There has definitely been a change. Maybe it has to do with my faith, maybe some experience I had, or maybe it’s something else — I don’t know. And I’ve really wanted to write it down somehow. Today seemed like the right time.

I was also inspired after reading my friend, fellow UNC student and DTHer Kelly Anderson’s most recent blog post about her roommates in Spain. One of them has two parents with cancer, and she has battled health problems for her entire life. A blood clot in her leg means that she can’t go more than a couple of hours without walking around, making travel even within Spain near impossible. Reading her story is guaranteed to make you grateful for how you are, and if you’re that sort of person you’ll send her and her family a little prayer, too.

I took the long way home this afternoon for those who are unable to walk or run — to appreciate my health, my fitness, my ability to walk the nearly three-mile distance without pause. I thought about the young woman perhaps only two or three years my senior who I saw on the way to Sciences Po this morning; she was being pushed down the sidewalk in a wheelchair.

I thought about something mentioned during my class that day, a Pulitzer-winning series of articles in The Huffington Post chronicling the struggle of many who return from Iraq or Afghanistan as triple amputees, forced to live with prosthetic legs and only one arm, to reintegrate into American society.

I thought about the 54-year-old man on the front page of The (Raleigh) News & Observer recently who caught the flu in December and woke from a coma two weeks later to be informed that he had no legs and would be losing both of his hands as well to an unusual infection.

I thought about the star cross-country runner from Winston-Salem profiled just days ago in The New York Times, a teen girl with one of the fastest 5k times in the country. She has M.S. and could become wheelchair-bound any day, any time — for now, she logs 50 miles a week and is heading to college on an athletic scholarship, hoping and praying that her career will last as long as possible. But that could change in a heartbeat.

It was a day to be thankful for my legs.

I took the long way home for those who are unable to see — to relish the rare sight of Paris and the Seine on a virtually cloudless day. I thought about the man I’d seen in Luxembourg Gardens several days before, a blind middle-aged man walking arm-in-arm with a woman who was guiding him gently along the path. They were smiling, happy, in love. But I’m sure they’ve been through a lot of pain together, pain I can’t understand.

It was a day to be thankful for sight.

I took the long way home for those who are unable to go to a home — to remember how fortunate I am to have a warm, comfortable apartment to return to at the end of the day. I thought about the many homeless lining the streets near the Bastille and shivering inside the nearby metro station on a cold day.

One street in particular that leads to the tourist bar district tends to have more young children on its sidewalks. It absolutely kills me to walk by two- and three-year-olds with nothing but pavement and a thin, ragged blanket for a bed. It’s not fair, and it’s not right. Socialist leaders in power in France have said that they’re working to combat the rising homelessness here. But I don’t see improvement. And I hate feeling helpless.

During middle and high school I was an avid volunteer with an outreach organization linked with my home church that assists homeless families and gets them back on their feet. I’ve also helped cook and serve meals to the homeless in Chapel Hill on several occasions. But this time around I have no idea how to make it better for them, and it’s frustrating.

It was a day to be thankful for my home.

I took the long way home for myself, too. For the benefit of exercise, of fresh air. It allowed me to pick up a baguette and a small pastry at one of my favorite French delis on the way. While doing so, I thought about the numerous friends of mine with food allergies, whether it be lactose intolerance or gluten or nuts or whatever. I don’t know why I should be able to walk into any cafe and order anything (meatless) whatsoever without a second thought while others have to be so careful, often for fear of serious or even fatal reactions.

So I decided it was a day to be thankful for my diet, too.

Then I thought more about friends. And family. I thought about how it’s always friends and family that pull me out of any depressing, stressful or anxiety-inducing situation. I thought about how many young people, many UNC students like me, don’t have that support system, or it’s simply not enough.

I thought about The Daily Tar Heel‘s recent series revealing many of the troubles that students have with UNC’s on-campus psychological services. I, too, have been to UNC CAPS, and I can testify that it’s got flaws. During freshman year I poured my heart out to a counselor for an hour, who then proceeded to say “thank you for sharing that” and did nothing more but give me a sheet of paper referring me “into the community” for further help. I was at a low point. I didn’t have the guts to call someone up myself and admit my issue and take the initiative. I threw the paper away and recoiled back into myself.

It was my friends and family, even those who didn’t know anything was going on, who gave me all I needed. In many student cases, that support and love isn’t there. Their mental struggles impact their daily lives far more than anything I’ve experienced.

It was a day to be thankful for special people in my life.

And as I walked by two homeless people sitting beside a filthy mattress on Rue de la Bastille on the last leg of my promenade, I thought about how I didn’t really need the other half of my baguette. I gave it to one of the men, who smiled and offered a “merci mademoiselle, vous êtes trop gentille” in return.

It was the first time I’d interacted with them besides a “bonjour” during the two months I’ve been here. And I know people here who do so much more to help them, to help others in general. Maybe being grateful will push me to do a little more myself.

3/3/14: American horse trainer trades deadlines for finish lines — Q&A with Gina Rarick

Gina Rarick is a journalist-turned-horse-trainer living just outside Paris in Maisons-Laffitte — the only American currently training in France and the only American woman ever given a French trainer’s license.

Raised on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, Rarick has been through odd jobs and worked the financial news and turf writing beats at the International Herald Tribune while simultaneously getting bitten by the horse training bug. Now she’s got a yard of 12-15 horses, and she’s sending out more winners at the track with each passing year.

Q: How did you get your start in journalism?

A: I started out as a music major, dropped out, got married, was a bartender, worked for an undertaker, worked at the airport, worked at various other things.

I was driving past the Milwaukee Journal one night on the way home from work and thought, “Gee, that’s interesting, wonder what they do there?”

Q: And that was that?

A: I got hired as a news clerk on the metro desk.

I immediately loved it. I thought, people are swearing, they throw phonebooks, there’s a deadline. It was back in the days where newsrooms had a buzz to them. There was a hierarchy, there was a city editor everybody was afraid of, there were phones ringing everywhere and it was great.

Q: How did you get to Paris?

A: (After leaving the Journal) I was working as a reporter in the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade. All these foreign postings kept rolling up on the bureau wire.

I sent my resume out to the International Herald Tribune. I had never seen Paris before, and I didn’t speak a word of French, but I got a job as an editor on the financial news desk.

I find financial news deadly boring, but you got eight weeks vacation and it was in Paris. I wasn’t going to say no.

At that time the Herald Tribune was owned jointly by The New York Times and the Washington Post, and it was a fantastic place to work. You could play the two parents off each other and get the best of both correspondents. It was a completely independent editorial operation — we had our own voice.

Q: So when did the horses come in?

A: I had signed up for riding lessons (while reporting in Chicago) just because it seemed like a fun thing to do. They gave me Spanky the cart horse, and he was as big as a house — I needed a ladder to get on him.

After about a year and a half of living in Paris with my husband and two dogs, we were going nuts. It’s just no place to live if you’re a country sort of person.

I got more and more into riding after we moved outside the city. It became sort of like religion — you start with once a week, but then there’s the twice a week, then you can go a third time. It’s a slippery slope.

The house we managed to buy cheaply in Maisons-Laffitte in 1999 happened to be right across the street from a racing yard.

Around the same time, I had said to the sports editor at the Herald Tribune, “Hey, this Arc de Triomphe race, isn’t anybody going to cover that?” And he said, “No, we haven’t. But yeah, go ahead.”

I went to the Arc to write a story for the newspaper. I didn’t know anything about horse racing — besides the fact that they run fast and somebody wins and a pretty horse finished second and some other horse finished third.

I wrote this little 450-story for the Herald Tribune, and that sort of opened the lid.

Q: And you kept up the turf beat?

A: I took all my vacation and the paper sent me to every major race meeting in the world. I developed a racing beat that became pretty well followed.

It was like international racing school. I went to Hong Kong, Dubai, the Breeders’ Cup in the States, the Grand National.

You learn that the only thing these places have in common is that there’s some equine DNA at the end of the lead shank and everyone has their own way of doing it. And in the end, the only thing that counts is the winning post. It was a great way to learn.

Q: How did you transition from journalism to full-time horse training?

A: When I went to the Arc de Triomphe to write the story, there was a little paper posted in the press room saying: “The Annual Journalists’ Race will be held at Saint-Cloud racecourse.”

If you’re a journaliste hippique — if you write about horse racing — there’s a race every year. Trainers donate horses, it’s just for fun.

I didn’t realize at that time the undertaking, what it would be to actually ride a racehorse. Oh, my God. It was a mile race with a starting gate with race horses — not ponies, but Thoroughbreds.

Q: Do they still do this?!

A: Well, uh, that’s another story. They don’t anymore.

My first thought was, is there a parade of lawyers following people around? This is the liability insurance Olympics! Nobody in America would ever let this go off.

Well, I won. Then, I was walking out, and this old turf guy said to me, “You know, madame, you should think about taking out your amateur license. You rode a very nice race there.” And I looked at him and I said, “Look at the size of me, are you kidding?”

It planted the seed. Once you sit on a racehorse and do that, it’s pretty hard to go back to Spanky the cart horse and trot around a little ring.

I hadn’t even owned a scale. But I lost 22 kilos and got my amateur trainer’s license, then my amateur jockey’s license, then bought a horse. The whole thing started to snowball.

Q: When did you quit journalism for good?

A: I started to get more and more interested in horses and less and less interested in journalism, because not only did Kay Graham die and The New York Times took over the Herald Tribune, that all happened at about the same time when this thing called the Internet really came into full fruition. That threw every newspaper in the world into panic mode.

People said they would support my training at the beginning, and I was getting very, very sour at my job. There was less and less money and time to cover the racing, which was what I loved, and the editorial staff was being slashed and butchered.

In 2007, they had another round of buyouts. I wasn’t on the list to go, but I took it. It gave me the start-up money I needed.

Q: You’re the only American training in France right now, and the only American woman ever given a license. Did you feel a step or two behind the curve?

A: There are a lot of people who were jockeys, who were lads — they were born into it, this was their whole life.

I’d come to it with the benefit of experience, of having a whole career behind me that was different. And I’ve seen racing all over the world, which puts me about a light year ahead of a lot of people who are trying to get started.

Am I really making any money? I’m not going to get rich doing this, I know. My retirement plan is either prison or cat food, but I’m OK with that, too.

Q: Would you ever train in America?

A: I’d like to think that I could race in America if for some reason I would like to go. But horse racing in America is a completely different sport.

It is isolated from the rest of the world, because it is based on precocious speed and race-day medication. The catastrophic breakdown rate of horses in America is three times that of anywhere else in the world. Nowhere else can you run with so many drugs in your system.

Lasix (a diuretic used in most American racehorses) was the lid to Pandora’s box, and I don’t know that it could be closed. If the horse is bred properly and conditioned properly and trained over the right surfaces and toughened up to race, they will not have a bleeding problem. It just doesn’t happen here (in Europe).

The American industry is driving itself into oblivion, which is sad because there’s a lot of history there.

Q: Biggest accomplishment so far?

A: Winning my first race at Longchamps. I raced there, I’d placed many times, but I could never manage to crack a win. I had to wait until last year.

Q: You just came back from the Cagnes-sur-Mer race meeting down south. What’s next for you?

A: I’ll be starting the Paris area circuit. Saint-Cloud is next.

Q: So you’re in this for the long haul?

A: It’s a hard business to quit. I do know some trainers who would theoretically like to quit, but they don’t even know how.

It’s so hard to get going, and once you’ve got it, it’s an adrenaline. I can’t imagine what else I would do.

(Photo courtesy of turfbloggers.blogspot.fr)

2/18/14: A tale of two surprising cities

Before the past two weekends, when I considered the names “Florence” and “Amsterdam,” I had some preconceived notions. Major cities, like Paris. Busy. Constant go-go-go. Lots to do, but simultaneous clusters of traffic and tourists obstructing the view.

But I was proven wrong, for the most part, on all but one of those counts. Florence and Amsterdam were the first international excursions on my study abroad agenda, and they were definitely not lacking in choses à faire — but the metropolis-style hustle and bustle were much tempered.

Every small-town girl needs a little calm, and it can be hard to come across a decent calm in Paris.

In Florence, if you get up early enough — as Jenny and I did for a morning run — there might be two, three people in sight at any one time. The bridges are still in a peaceful slumber, barely brushed by the sunlight that is just emerging on the Arno River’s horizon.

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The tourist hordes did show up, eventually. But I was there to play the tourist. Which makes this casual selfie with good ol’ David reasonably appropriate.

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The streets were highly European: generally narrow, framed by beautiful architecture and buildings rising no more than six stories up. Every turn around a corner revealed another centuries-old church or monument. An aroma of leather, one of Florence’s biggest industries, tended to waft its way through the street air, reminding me comfortingly of the barns and equestrian tack rooms in which I spent most of my teenage years.

You can walk virtually everywhere in the center city within about 30 minutes. The vast majority of that area is pedestrian only, and cars are few and far between as is. In other words, my attempt to do the entire city in a day actually worked.

We probably walked a good five miles during the day, plus the several hundred steps to the Piazzale Michelangelo. It was beyond worth the hike.

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And that effort, along with two art museums and half a dozen other activities, gave us both an excuse to consume entire delicious 3.90-euro calzones in one sitting without batting an eyelash. No shame whatsoever.

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Later that night we joined a passionate throng of sports fans for a professional Italian football (yeah, yeah, soccer) match between Fiorentina (the home squad) and Atalanta. Ended in a 2-0 shutout for Fiorentina.

It was a real treat to see the pros’ footwork — some of the best forwards in the country skillfully navigating a brick wall of stubborn defense to come up with a score. Plus the constant choirs of fight songs ringing among the tens of thousands in the stadium…for a sports nut, it was way cool. There might need to be another European football game (or three) added to my calendar.

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And then Amsterdam.

For those of you who are UNC students, you might understand this. When I first stepped into the city of Chapel Hill, I fell unconditionally in love with the place. Instantly. For no specific reason. It was one of those (go ahead, roll your eyes) incredibly cliché moments you can’t explain. There were visits to other colleges, but UNC was the only campus where I felt that rush of happiness, of welcoming, of love.

Chapel Hill is still number one in my heart, no doubt. But Amsterdam is the first European city this semester where I’ve felt a sensation that I could call similar. (I love Paris, of course — but this was different. It was more of a wow-I-really-belong-here kind of thing.)

It’s metropolitan, sure. But, as one volume I was glancing through in a local bookstore put it, Amsterdam is a metropolitan village.

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Where I was staying with a group from my university, next to Vondelpark, I immediately noticed the lack of traffic congestion, the slower pace, the canals that sprawled for miles in all directions and boats gliding silently across the water’s glassy surface, the classically romantic metal-accented pedestrian bridges across them— it was breathtaking.

We only did three so-called tourist-y activities: the “I Amsterdam” sign, the Van Gogh museum and a stroll through the somewhat infamous Red Light district. The Anne Frank house is also a must-see, but the three-hour line was sadly not in the cards for such a short trip.

Most of our time was spent on casual and aimless exploring — a choice that was gloriously free of charge and gloriously just fine.

That architecture. Love, love, love.

And I mean no offense by saying this, but the Dutch language written out has got some lol-worthy vowel arrangements. I had to laugh. Just a little.

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All of us had several too-close-for-comfort encounters with oncoming speedy bikers (a word to the wise: Every flat surface, unless otherwise indicated, is a bike path). But given my newfound love for biking (I bike almost everywhere in Paris, for those who don’t know), I’m quite keen to return in a warmer month and do nothing but rent a bike and roll for a few days.

In short, it’s not all about the cannabis in Amsterdam. Definitely not.

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