Thursday, September 11, 2014

Ca va faire une maudite poutine

           “You can not move to Quebec and refuse to try Poutine,” my new friend Angela insisted.  We were the only two Americans in the graduate English program at Concordia University in Montreal. Angela was enrolled in the creative writing track while I was still insisting that I preferred the literature concentration that allowed me to write about other people’s writing.  After the first day of new student orientation, which was nothing more than a series of endless meetings designed to overwhelm us with thesis details and comprehensive exam anxiety, we had gathered in the student center for the mixed discipline “getting to know you” assembly.  And for the free food.

  Angela and I stood side by side at the crudités platter, a future writer of novels and a future writer about novels whose only connection was our love of words and our citizenship.  Under ordinary circumstances, the fact that it was September 18th wouldn’t have been all that significant.  But since it was 2001, I immediately recognized in Angela a kindred, artificial composure as we attempted to navigate a world so removed from the disarming vulnerability of the past week. 

            “Je m’appelle Heather,” I smiled, determined to use four years of high school French for something other than dirty jokes and impressive “Café au lait venti, s’il vous plait” Starbucks orders.

            “Angela,” she replied.  “Sorry, but I can’t do the French thing. My high school only offered Spanish and Italian.”           

“Well that’s a bummer. I was hoping to use my French here. Maybe even polish it a bit. I knew this was an English speaking school but I thought I’d be able to immerse myself …”

“You want cultural immersion? Then you have to eat this.  Period.”  Angela balanced a soggy paper plate on the outstretched palm of her right hand while she swept her left hand through the air with a Vanna White flick of the wrist.  “This stuff is Quebec,” she insisted as she raised the plate to her nose and inhaled.

            “What is it?” I asked.

            “What is it,” she echoed, as if I was still speaking French.

            “Yeah. It just looks so … messy.”

            “Wait.  For real?  You’ve never seen Poutine?”

            “No way! So that’s Poutine!”

            “Oh. My . God.  Poutine was invented in this city in like, the 1950s or something.  And the “messy” part is how it actually got its name when some random guy went into a restaurant and ordered French fries and cheese curds.”  She stopped to pop a sauce-soaked lump into her mouth. “Anyway, when the guy told the waiter to toss the fries and curds into the same bag, the waiter responded in French with something like ‘That's going to make a damn mess.’  Have you seriously never heard this story?" 

            “Ca va faire une maudite poutine!” I exclaimed. 


            “’ Poutine’ is French for ‘mess.’ I explained. And “Ca va faire une maudite poutine” actually means ‘That's going to make a damn mess.’ I’ve heard the phrase before, I just didn’t realize it had anything to do with how this stuff got its name.” 

            “Whatever,” Angela shrugged, shoving her plate toward me.  “This stuff is artery-clogging and messy and wonderful all at the same time.  Come on.”

            “I don’t know …” I hesitated.  Even though I finally felt like I was in recovery from the anorexia and bulimia that had dominated the past fifteen years of my life, I hadn’t planned on introducing normal food to my repertoire so soon. I also knew that my years of fat-free, sugar-free, low-carb veganism had produced the bland palate and fragile digestive system that required a rigid dietary schedule of carefully portioned organic foods. Yet even though I was nervous about exchanging the familiar strawberries and apple slices and baby carrots lining the perimeter of the buffet table for even a single bite of the extravagance heaped on Angela’s plate, I was dying to taste the freedom she held out to me. 

            As I stood thinking about the worst thing that could possibly happen if I slid a forkful of foreign flavors into my mouth, I realized that the worst had already happened.  At almost thirty years of age, I had walked away from my marriage, enrolled in graduate school, and taken out more education loans than I could ever hope to repay with a Master’s degree in English.  Worse still, after spending six hours at the Canadian/American border the day before with nothing but a student Visa and a class schedule to legitimize me, I had managed to convince the border patrol that I had no weapons, no drugs, and no connections to the terrorists who had just blown my country apart. Eventually, with sufficient hesitation and no eye contact, a heavily armed guard in a bullet-proof vest had ushered me into Canada with a wave of his black leather glove.  And I had simply driven forward while my country receded in the rearview mirror, along with my chances of ever going back.

            “Ok,” I said, nodding at Angela’s plate as if I hadn’t lapsed into another of the flashbacks that had haunted me all week. “Just a taste, though.  I’m not used to this kind of stuff.”

            “And what kind of stuff would that be?  Fabulous food? Cultural treasures? Once-in-a-lifetime experiences?”


            “Well, then, this’ll make you grow as a person in more ways than one,” she laughed, smacking her thick thighs. I echoed her laugh as I looked down at the greasy film clinging to the French fry tips, their thin bodies buried under the mahogany sauce pooling in the plate’s scalloped edges.  Certainly, I knew enough about Poutine to know that the standard 3-ingredient Velouté sauce of chicken stock, flour, and butter – what we call “gravy” in America – was the essential ingredient.  But Angela explained that the sauce was also Poutine’s most distinguishing feature, since replacing Velouté with Marinara turned a basic Poutine into Poutine Itallienne, while adding ground beef and fried onions to Velouté elevated regular old Poutine to Poutine Bourgennione.

“But this…” she began, pausing to watch me pluck a fry and pinch its ends together so I could cradle the sauce as I brought it to my lips, “… this is Poutine Mole.”

“Meaning?” I asked, as I tilted my head back and filled my mouth with the answer to my own question.

Chocolate!   For a moment, everything I hungered for went silent.

As surprised as I was to find my favorite flavor nestled among all the warm, spicy softness suddenly sliding down my throat, I was even more surprised by the concealed cheese curd I had unknowingly scooped with the sauce. Its wonderfully firm sweetness was the perfect complement to the prism of flavors settling on my tongue, one at a time – Garlic.  Almonds.  Cinnamon.  Onions. Corn – each one tucked deep inside the essence of the smoked peppers and chocolate.  I closed my eyes and held the moment behind my teeth until the last residual snap of cinnamon finally started to fade.

“ I like the Mole version best because it’s the closest I’m ever gonna get to Spanish food around here,” Angela explained.

“A Quebec food with a Spanish twist,” I chuckled.

“Exactly.  We both win. It has a little Spanish for me, a little French for you, and a little chocolate for … well, for us. For America.”


I wondered what my family and friends were doing back home while I stood on a college campus in the middle of Montreal violating my own dietary rules. I knew they were all glued to CNN, watching instant replays and hoping for the terror alert to drop to orange.  I knew they were talking about the fear, the destruction, the proof that there really was no safe place.  The only thing I didn’t know, the only thing I wanted to know, was who those pilots were. I wondered what they were thinking a week ago as they flew into our Towers.  I wondered if they were thinking about their families.  Or our families.  I wondered if they were thinking about pain, or dying, or whether there was an afterlife.   I wondered if I was giving them too much credit for thinking about anything.  Perhaps all they were thinking, as they aimed their planes at the 93rd floor of a foreign building in a foreign land, was “Ca va faire une maudite poutine.”

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Zen and Beer.

To the two drunk guys who wandered into my gym this morning and harassed the trainer before getting kicked out and proceeding to go through my car, recline my front seats, dump what I assume (and hope!) was water all over my console, and then steal my yoga mat out of my back seat,

First of all, yes, that was the longest open I have ever written in any letter.

Second, there was a time in my life where your little stunt would have pissed me off for days. I have a pathological sort of issue with any of my personal space being invaded in any way by anyone. Throw alcohol, obnoxious behavior, and the fact that I don't even know your names into the mix, and the old me would have been crying "victim" while I hunted you down just so I could have you arrested for what I am sure was way-over-the-legal-limit drunk driving. My only goal: to eff up your day as hard and for as long-term as possible.

But you caught me mid-transformation, you little asshats. (Note: My transformation does not preclude me from calling an asshat an asshat when the label fits), and on this day, at this moment, here is my message to you:

I hate to break it to you, but if selling my stuff for liquor and drug money was your goal, the mat and carrying bag together are probably worth about $20.

So instead of engaging in what I am assuming is your typical "F*%$ the world and everyone in it" mentality (if what I saw of your behavior this morning was any indication) try this:

Remove my cherished yoga mat from it's carrying case. The carrying case I searched for for 8 months, until I finally found one that slung perfectly over my bad shoulder at just the right angle and landed in just the right spot to allow me to lug it from yoga place to yoga place. Once you've removed my mat, unroll it with a quick snap, and listen to the sound it makes as it hits the air and then settles onto the floor. I always loved being in that particular moment, that familiar sound that told me I was about to begin something amazing and necessary.

After you've placed my mat on the floor, look at it. See the words "Peace" and "Joy" and "Love" printed on it. Know that I have been looking down at those words for the past 5 years, every time I've stepped on my mat in search of comfort and in search of some deeper, more loving part of myself. In search of healing and truth. In search of compassion for myself and for others. Next, take off your shoes and socks (this is non-negotiable), then stand on my mat. Picture my bare feet - my little, pale, post-ballet shoes/bunion covered feet, stepping around the words. Or standing on them. Whatever I needed at the time.

Then close your eyes. And breathe deeply. And stop listening to everything around you. Listen only to whatever it is you hear when you go inside yourself. Because in moments like this, you are what you hear. And if you hear nothing, as I suspect is the case, then you, my friends, have a whole lot of work to do. And my mat can help you with that.

Now move your feet until they land on either side of the word that represents the thing thing you most want and need. Is it peace? Or Joy? Or Love? My guess is, you want and need all three. But guess what? So do I. So does everyone. Acting out doesn't make you any different - well, I mean, it makes you dumber, of course. And like ... a walking felony waiting to happen. But inside, we are all the same. We all want and need the same things, and for pretty much the same reasons.

When you open your eyes, know this single truth: You didn't steal anything from me this morning. I certainly have $20. I am not so attached to a piece of rubber and a piece of cloth than I can't easily replace my stuff at Target. And you didn't even steal my belief in humanity, or anything like that. Because I know how dark and ugly the world can be, so crap like this never surprises me any more. Even when it happens inisde my carefully constructed little "personal space bubble." These days, it only unsettles me for a short while, and then I move on. Without anger. Without sadness. WIthout much of anything. Including ... as you well know ... my yoga mat.

What you stole this morning was much bigger than my yoga mat, and cost way more than $20. And you stole it from yourselves. Because when I first saw you from across the gym, you looked to me to be two sad, empty drunk guys without much to look forward to today, other than blowing donuts in the gym parking lot and taking off with a used yoga mat in a faded shoulder bag. I bet no one else on earth even wondered where you were this morning. I suspect no one even cared. And it's possible that I am wrong, but you robbed yourselves and each other of the opportunity to ever prove me wrong. You lived up to my first impression assumptions about who you were. And who you weren't. (I'm guessing you were too smashed to wonder if I was a writer. With a few social media accounts. And clearly a little more work to do with the "letting go of grudges" part of my personal transformation. Yet one more way sobreity could have benefitted you at 4am on a Tuesday morning.)

So, To the two drunk guys who wandered into my gym this morning and harassed the trainer before getting kicked out and proceeding to go through my car, recline my front seats, dump what I assume (and hope!) was water all over my console, and then steal my yoga mat out of my back seat,

My yoga mat is now your yoga mat. Because I have decided to give it to you. Since you won't make any money selling it, maybe you'll take up a daily practice instead. Crazier things have happened. Should you find your way to that path, I would encourage you to wash your mat in warm water on the gentle cycle about every two weeks, and - very important - you must not put it in the dryer or it will melt. Just drape it over a chair, then, when it is dry, roll a Downy dryer sheet inside it before you put it back in its bag - a little yoga mat trick to keep it smelling fresh.

Dukkha muccantu. Namaste.