It is National Novel Writing Month. At the urging of a podcast I adore, I am taking the month of November to write a 50,000-word novel. It is about Leni, a single, middle-aged cat lady who has an OK life but she is in a bit of a funk. In an effort to spice up her life, she does one thing uniquely French each day for a month.
From ironing her duvet cover to fixing a quiche from scratch, Leni is determined to rediscover her love of France without the expense of actually going.
In case you’re wondering, Leni is basically me. Most of the stories are true.
I doubt many will read, but I am determined to post about every 5,000 words or so to keep going, I am going to see this project till the 50,000-word end, whether Leni’s story is resolved or not.
Seriously…still two hours to go?!
Leni looked at the clock on the bottom right-hand screen on her computer task bar. It seemed like the last seven hours of her life just slogged by.
Just to kill a minute and stimulate her brain, Leni hopped on Wikipedia and quickly read the entry about Anne of Bohemia. She was Queen of England in the late fourteenth century, but her most lasting contribution was bringing the sidesaddle to England.
Leni bit her lower lip. How awful would that be that the only think you are remembered for in this life was bringing a freaking awful saddle for women to ride? Not to mention the saddle is all but forgotten six centuries later. Yikes! What the hell kind of legacy is that? A crappy one!
Leni took her glasses off and sighed loudly as she rubbed her dry eyes. She had 110 minutes left at work before she went home to her one-bedroom apartment, eat some awful frozen dinner, snuggle with her cat, then get up at the crack dawn to lather, rinse and repeat.
Like a zombie on one of those stupid TV shows she hated, Leni drove home in her subcompact, listening to NPR and dreaming of anywhere but where she actually was. Her normal tendency was to flip off assholes who cut her off, tailgated her or pissed her off in general, but she didn’t feel like it today. She didn’t even have the energy to get riled off.
Her brain registered the smug voice of NPR Paris correspondent Eleanor Beardsley reporting on some French farmers strike. Leni strained to hear the French twang as the farmers explained why the hell twenty tractors were parked in front of a KFC, but then Eleanor’s nasally, condescending voice popped on and dubbed the answer.
Smug bastard, Leni thought grimly to herself as she gripped the steering wheel. You get to interview stupid French farmers on the stupid French Riviera about some dumbass EU mandate and here I am stuck in traffic. You suck, Eleanor Beardsley!
Leni had a caustic streak, but even she was surprised at the toxic thoughts directed to the woman she shared a first name with. Where was all this animosity coming from?
Eleanor Wojtyla was not rude by nature. Nor was she French. She was a middle-aged woman who spoke French but had not been to France in a decade. Hearing Eleanor Beardsley’s voice was an audio slap in the face because she had an exotic job where she was paid good money to report on all things French and live in France. Leni Wojtyla was paid not-so-great money to do data analysis. Somehow the two didn’t quite measure up.
Leni’s thoughts drifted away from France as she pulled into her parking space and trudged into her apartment. As was custom when she got home, Leni ripped off her bra and kicked off her shoes in one fluid motion. She slid into some comfy jammies, and threw yet another microwave dinner, all while her cat Opie circled her feet like a fuzzy buzzard, chirping for food.
While the microwave whirred away, Leni poured a glass of wine and watched her sweet, obese cat gobble her expensive diet food like it was going out of style. With a sigh, Leni closed her eyes, leaned against the counter and wondered where the hell life had gone wrong.
It started out promising enough. Though she had always done well in school, Leni did particularly well in college, paying most of her tuition with scholarships. She ignored her parents’ advice to study something practical like computers or business. Rather, she followed her heart and majored what she was truly passionate about–French.
She could not have been happier with her major. She aced all her French classes, spent the happiest six months of her life as an exchange student in France her sophomore year and didn’t worry about job prospects. She went to grad school to study French literature and maintained high grades and became particularly enamored with French cinema and 20th century drama. Her ambition was to be a French professor come hell or high water, and one Leni made up her mind to do something, that is what Leni did.
But something happened along the way. What was it? She had put in the paperwork and was accepted to do a PhD in French literature, but she never took the plunge. Part of it was Leni couldn’t hack the cutthroat world of tenure-track positions with so many other candidates. Part of it was she didn’t want to spend the rest of her adult life in school. Yet another piece of the puzzle was she honestly didn’t want to spend four or more years in school. She needed to start earning a living–a real living–and she needed to do it sooner than later.
So it was off to Teacher’s College to get her teacher’s certificate. Even before she finished her education program, Leni landed a teaching job. Despite a shaky start, she taught junior and senior high French for several years before getting completely burned out and throwing in the towel. Teaching is a high-stress job and 60% of teachers quit before their first five years are over. Leni held on a little longer than that–she clocked seven years in the classroom–but it caused her a lot of weight gain, stress, sleepless nights and completely robbed her of any joy (personal or professional) every day of those seven years.
Leni could not quit teaching fast enough. One summer when she had time on her hands, she looked for a job like her life depended on it. Though she had not gone to school for it, she landed a job as a data analyst. For the first time in her life, she was a desk jockey in the cubicle jungle. She always worked set hours, 40 days a week. She had all the bank holidays off and reasonable sick and vacation leave. And–biggest bonus of all–she left her job at 5:00 and did not spend one additional nanosecond worrying about anything till she started at 8:30 the next morning.
Still, Leni was missing something. She almost hated logging into Facebook these days where she had dozens of friends living in Europe. Leni would have gladly sawed her own arm off to live in the EU, but her tepid attempts at networking never yielded her any jobs and she was frankly tired of trying. She was happy enough living in her cublicle jungle, but there was still something wrong. Ten years ago she was a grad student discussing existential philosophy and who had crisscrossed Europe. Now she was in her 30s, still not married and living alone with a cat.
What the hell happened?
The microwave buzzed and she unceremoniously plopped the too-hot, pre-packaged meal on a small plate. She planted herself on the couch and sighed irritably. She could probably look forward to another night of thinking about starting that business she had in mind. Or, like most nights, she could troll YouTube videos of cats and babies.
When she swigged the last gulp of wine—a cheap chardonnay she couldn’t even guess where it came from—Leni looked at her phone and saw she missed a call from her best friend living in Los Angeles, Jane.
“What’s up?” Jane chirped in her sunny, breezy southern Californian way.
“Saw you called, wanted to see what’s up,” Leni answered.
“Another gorgeous day in SoCal,” Jane said happily–a little too happily.
There was something in Jane’s voice that sounded distinctly different, softer, a thousand miles away. Leni was very in tune to voices and she picked up on the change immediately.
“OK, seriously Janie, what the hell is going on?!” Leni didn’t feel like BS’ing, even if Jane was her best friend.
“WE’RE ENGAGED!” Jane screamed so loud, Leni was pretty sure it made her ears bleed. “HE PROPOSED TO ME LAST NIGHT!!!”
Huh. So Jane, the stalwart single gal pal, actually jumped the gun and said yes to her boyfriend of a year.
Damn it. Another single friend off the market.
As Jane gushed the details of the dinner, the proposal and babbled on and on, Leni’s mind drifted light years away, a sick feeling sinking into the pit of her stomach.
It wasn’t that Leni didn’t wish her dear friend all the best in the world–she truly wanted her to be nothing but happy—but Leni could feel the depression that had been lingering around her like a fog creep closer and closer. Yet another friend was living in an interesting part of the world, with an interesting job and engaged to a guy who was (by all accounts) pretty amazing. Leni didn’t have any of that. The twinge of jealousy was growing into deep, longing pangs.
There was a long pause on the phone. “Say something, Len!” Jane pleaded.
“I am so happy for you!” Leni said as brightly as she could. “You’ve been planning your wedding since we met in grad school and Andy’s a lucky guy.”
“I asked you a question, dipshit,” Jane pouted.
“Sorry, what did you ask?”
“What’s wrong with you? I asked you to be my maid of honor and you’re not even paying attention!” Jane sounded genuinely hurt.
“Sorry, hon, I got some bad news at work today,” Leni lied. “You know there’s nothing I’d rather do than stand up for you at your wedding! When’s the date?”
Jane was probably too high on cloud nine to even question Leni’s bald-faced lie. She provided what few wedding details she and her new finacé had worked out and ended the call with, “Leni, I’ve never been happier in my life. Really.”
“That’s great, hon. I’m super excited for you.”
“Gotta call about a billion other people. We’ll Skype soon. Love ya!”
Leni grabbed a pillow, clutched it to her chest and let the tears which had been threatening to spill hotly down her cheeks.
You’ve never been happier? What about the late nights we pigged out on ice cream and talked about life until dawn? The road trips we took in grad school? Getting drunk and watching bad movies together while talking on the phone or on Skype. The break-ups we nursed each other through, cruel professors, job challenges, family problems…Leni really felt like a chapter of her life was abruptly coming to a close now that her closest single friend was engaged. Part of her also felt sad and more than a little jealous that Jane treasured her time with Andy more than her, like their years of friendship was also a waste.
Most painful of all, Leni was crying because she despaired of ever finding anyone who would love her unconditionally and want to be with her.
Leni gave into her grief and cried into her pillow. She had no idea how long she emptied her tear ducts onto her pillow. All she knew was that she literally cried till she had no more tears, her hands were covered in snot and she felt the mother of all stress headaches dancing around the corners of her eye sockets.
Time to stop the pity party. Leni padded into the bathroom to wash the snot and tears off. As the cold water cooled her hot skin, Leni sighed aloud and knew deep downshe really wanted Jane’s happiness and so long as she allowed herself just this one hissy fit, it was OK. It is fine to give in to the initial shock of the announcement, but at 34, Leni was old enough to put her own petty feelings aside and be there to support her best friend.
It really would be OK.
Leni cruised into the kitchen to grab an emergency spoonful of peanut butter and Nutella—two of her weaknesses. She tried not to buy much Nutella, but desperate times called for desperate measures. She swung back into the living room, grabbed her iPad and prepared to settle in for the evening. Funny clips of game show bloopers or live news fails was the first thing she could think of to cheer herself up.
Before she did anything else, Leni decided to check her bank balance. Payday was a week off and she wondered if she could hold out grocery- and gas-wise before she was paid.
A lousy $60 for a tank of gas and a week’s worth of groceries? she groaned to herself. Damn. It.
So much for an easy night at home laughing in front of her computer. Leni struggled up, threw her closet open and looked at what she could sell on eBay. One of her favorite things to do was have eBay auctions going. Leni was a clotheshorse, and she derived great pleasure from selling gently used items on eBay. She got to clear out some closet space, the clothes went to someone who actually enjoyed them and she made a little extra moolah in the process.
Leni evaluated five t-shirts she could easily sell, but they were all mummified in a fine film of cat hair. Damn it, Opie! she silently swore. Time to throw everything in the wash.
While she threw everything in the alundry, Leni looked in her closet. Though she was pretty ruthless about keeping her wardrobe lean and mean, she was shocked at how many clothes she actually had. Suits she only wore to one job interview…t-shirts she never wore…skirts that no longer fit…jeans with holes in them…expensive shoes she just couldn’t bear to part with just yet.
In short, she had a lot of crap.
Just out of sheer curiosity, Leni wondered what the smallest wardrobe she could get by with was. She had heard the term “core wardrobe” somewhere in the mists of her memory, so she turned to Google and plunged into the world of minimal wardrobes.
By the time she transferred her clothes to the dryer, Leni got sucked into a fascinating blog and YouTube channel called Chic Chick. Living in Chicago, Katie Beckett had recently written a book about lessons she life lessons she learned while an exchange student in France. Leni was fascinated to read they were roughly the same age, and while Katie was a well-to-do wife and mother of three children, she had practical, sensible ideas for incorporating all things French into her daily life.
Leni watched Katie’s YouTube video at least three times where she strutted around her bedroom in her tiny fall core wardrobe—jeans, black trousers, three dresses, two sweaters and three blouses. She could make simple modifications to wear dozens out outfits from those ten items, and made it all look effortlessly chic.
For the first time in far too long, Leni’s heart began to race. Living a French life here in the States…and I can do it on a budget. I. Must. Get. That. Core. Wardrobe!!! She could have her wardrobe pared down to practically nothing and stop senselessly spending money on big box store clothing made of crappy quality. She could invest in a few nice pieces and go from there.
Maybe it was the pity party she’d thrown herself earlier, but Leni was struck with the primal need to organize even a small part of her world. Even if she couldn’t help feeling sad, she could control one small aspect of her life and assuage the nagging feelings of helplessness and lonliness.
But why even stop there? In just a precursory glance, Beckett’s blog and videos had a lot of neat tips for incorporating all things French into daily life—makeup, fashion, food, comportment and even housework.
What do I have to lose? she wondered. I can’t go to France, so why not bring France here?
Her iPad, Jane’s engagement and her self-pity evaporated as Leni got a notepad and furiously started scribbling ideas down.
Something told Leni Chic Chick was about to change her life.
Leni could hardly wait to get off work the next day so she could hop over to the library and pick up her copy of Katie Beckett’s book Chic-rets of French Women or: How I Learned to Stop Being American and Love the French. Leni even considered going over her lunch hour, but she wouldn’t have had time to read it. Besides, this was the first thing she had genuinely anticipated in weeks, and she wanted to savor it.
When she got home, Leni ignored Opie’s buzzard routine and instead drew herself a hot bubble bath. She intended to skim over Beckett’s book and pay special attention to the idea of a core wardrobe.
As she soaked like a prune in the tub, Leni read through Beckett’s stay with a wealthy family on the French Riviera. While Leni couldn’t totally relate to all of Beckett’s experiences—she stayed with a working-class host family in a non-touristy part of France—there were so many parts of her book that rang true: eating at the table, incorporating fresh food into the diet, making culture a huge part of your life, the capsule wardrobe, using the nicest of what you had.
In short, a real savoir-faire joie de vivre.
Leni had an epiphany.
She didn’t need to book a plane ticket to France, eat in an expensive restaurant or even buy a Hermès scarf to be French. By following some of the simple guidelines in the book, Leni could live a more French life by simple everyday experiences.
Was that the way to bring her out of her funk? Leni wondered if by Frenchifying her life a little and shifting her paradigms just a bit, she could shake this funk that had followed her for the last few months. Instead of just being another 30-something working the proverbial 9 to 5, Leni could take the bull by the horns and seize her own destiny. No one could make her happy; she could choose to be totally miserable or she could choose happiness.
And Leni was just like any other woman—she wanted to be happy.
What turned into a little Google search was turning into an exciting project.
“Goodwill pile,” Kim barked.
“Really?” Leni groaned. She had only worn the sweater once, but it wasn’t a brand name and it probably wouldn’t sell on eBay.
“When was the last time you wore it?” Kim asked, quirking an eyebrow.
“Nine months ago,” Leni fessed up.
“Goodwill pile.” While Kim was no queen of organization herself, she was blunt and honest—exactly what Leni needed. She recruited Kim to be brutal in helping her weed out her wardrobe to keep, charity and sell on eBay. So far Leni had her keep pile take up just a third of a rod in her closet, the charity pile was one big trash bag, and she had over $200 worth of eBay auctions to put up. “Why are you doing this again?”
Because I read a book about how to make my life more French. Yeah, that doesn’t sound totally psycho, Leni thought grimly. “I told you, I wanted to ruthlessly go through my clothes and only get things that were really nice. Remember, I promised you ice cream when we were done.”
“Jesus, I’m not six years old! You don’t have to bribe me with food to help you out. But ice cream is always nice.” Yeah, Kim could be a little too direct, but Leni really appreciated her company and her willingness to help out with this project. She was also a fresh set of eyes to help Leni shop her own closet. No need to go out and buy a pair of black wool trousers (like Katie Beckett recommended) if she had perfectly serviceable black work pants she bought at Lane Bryant. Although Kim thought Operation Frenchie was a weird idea, she understood what Leni was trying to do.
It took less than an hour to sort through everything, but it took three hours of shopping before Kim and Leni finished arguing and Leni made her purchases. Leni bought a black pencil skirt, expensive jeans that fit her like a glove, a couple shirts and a black cardigan to supplement her new core wardrobe. The eBay sales should more than pay for Leni’s splurges.
Of course, it took Kim and Leni six hours to take pictures, measurements and write descriptions of all the clothes, but when it was all said and done, Leni had 40 auctions going.
Closet cleaned, mission accomplished. Or, as the French say, mission accomplie.
Now that her closet was under control, Leni was ready to tackle other aspects of her life.
But where to start?
Her house was mummified in cat hair and her apartment was a wreck in general. Leni wasn’t getting enough exercise. While she really cared about what she ate and really tried to eat healthy, she just didn’t eat particuallry well–fast food and frozen meals were de rigueur in her life. She had lost that spark of joie de vivre she had when she was in college. Her love of art house films, politics, music and fine arts had fallen to the wayside. In other words, she had lost her spark.
And it was time to get it back.
Between her own ideas and reading Beckett’s book, Leni had made a list of 30 very French, very practical and inexpensive things she could do to get her French groove back. She wrote the list on expensive ivory stationery she received as a graduation present over a decade ago. It’s not like it’s getting used for much else, Leni told herself. Cutting the paper into 30 thin strips, she placed them all in a black wool beret she bought a million years ago. It seemed the only fitting place to put it.
30 ideas, 30 ways for Leni to Frenchify her life.
Tomorrow couldn’t come soon enough.
Lundi (Monday) Jour Un (Day 1)
Iron the duvet cover.
Leni couldn’t help but snort at that little missive. She just changed the duvet cover on Saturday, now she was supposed to do it again?
Thankfully she had a freshly laundered one standing by. Her new iron—a birthday present from one of her sisters—hissed to life and Leni started tearing through the wrinkles like a hot knife through butter.
The cover kept slipping because it was huge, Leni had to iron both sides. But while she was tackling it, her mind drifted back to her little college town in Franche-Comté, nestled in the rolling foothills of the Alps.
“You’ve had a tiring journey?” Mme Martin asked the 20-year-old Leni.
“No, I’m fine.” Eleven hours in a plane and seven time zones later, Leni felt ready to take over the world. She’d flown into Paris and with her university exchange group, taken the TGV bullet train directly from Charles de Gaulle Airport to her new home. She’d seen plenty of things from the train that say—the Eiffel Tower, La Défense skyscraper, the Sacré-Cœur Basilica, the rolling green fields of Burgundy, herds of French cows…
And some random guy pissing in the corner of the Dijon train station. Nice.
They navigated the municipal bus system with approximately seven thousand pounds of luggage for the next six months, and the 15 college students waited in the downtown hotel lobby like a litter of puppies for their host families to come and pick them up one by one.
Leni was one of the very last to go. As her cohorts were being spirited away by French versions of the Cleaver family with French Wally and Beav in tow, she wondered how would be coming to pick her up. No one in the study abroad office told her anything about her host family, so Leni was naturally curious who she would be spending the next month of her life with.
Then she spotted her across the lobby. Iron-grey hair in a sensible, short Janet Reno-esque haircut. Sturdy shoes looked like they could have been made by SAS. Below-the-knee twill skirt, button-up blouse that tied at the collar. Sharp brown eyes that didn’t miss a detail, rimless cat-eyed glasses and aquiline nose, the woman exuded no-nonsense and humorlessness from every pore on her face.
Please don’t let her be my mom. Please, Jesus, don’t let her be my host mom!
Janet Reno read a strip of paper. “Aliénor Vozh-Vozh-tie-luh.”
Thank you God. Thank you so bloody much. John Cleese said it best on Fawlty Towers.
“C’est moi,” Leni said, her heart leaping in her throat as she struggled with her two huge suitcases. Just wonderful. I could’ve had the French June Cleaver and I get stuck with Mme Frumpy. Probably has the personality of a dial tone. How do I know she’s not a serial killer? Shit.
“Je m’appelle Madame Martin,” New Host Mom said, proffering her hand.
What, no kiss on the cheeks? Leni shook her hand. “Moi, je suis Léni.”
“Let me help you with xhfgrgd,” Mme Martin said, grabbing one fifty-pound case. Picking it up like there was nothing but foam peanuts in them, Mme Martin steered Leni out to the small, sensible Renault 106 that was half-parked on the sidewalk in front of the hotel. Leni had no idea how she managed to get two monster suitcases into a tiny Matchbook car, but Mme Martin managed and she signaled Leni to get into the passenger seat.
Leni fastened her seatbelt and they were off going 100 (100,000) kph through the narrow city streets.
“Your name, it is American?” Mme Martin finally said, breaking the ice. “Léni is a girl’s name?”
“Usually it is for the boys.” Leni was finding that after four years of high school French and three semesters at university, there was a huge, massive difference between what she thought she knew and what she could actually do. “I write my name the way for girls to write.”
“And your vcbetgyq, Vozh-tie-luh, she is fkgoejuw?”
Something about my last name. “I say ‘Woy-tee-luh.”
“Voy-tee-luh,” Mme Martin said in heavily accented French.
“No, no. Woy. Woy-tee-luh.”
“Woy-tee-luh. Léni Wojtyla.”
“C’est ça.” For the first time in five minutes, Leni allowed herself a genuine smile.
“And the vcbetgyq, it is fkgoejuw?” Mme Martin repeated.
“I don’t understand…”
“German? English? Mdfugbe? Spanish”
“My family is of Poland,” Leni explained, finally grasping what Mme Martin was asking.
Her host mother tore her eyes off the road long enough to stare at her with naked incredulity. “You are not American? You are wwqgeszqto?”
Oh, she thinks I’m Polish, not American. “No, the father of my grandfather, he of Poland.”
“Oh, I see! You are of Polish origin then.”
Note to self: Polonais = Polish. “Yes, the family of my father. Family of my mother, she is of Ireland, Germany and Angle…”
“Oui. And you, Mme Martin, your family, where is she from?”
“My family has been in France many generations.” While Mme Martin did not elaborate very much, Leni was pleasantly surprised. Then ten-minute car ride from the city center went by in a flash. Full of pleasant small talk, Leni was pleased she could hold her own and use circumlocution—the art of describing something without actually using the word—to convey what she wanted to say.
They parked the car in an underground garage, Mme Martin scooped up the heavy suitcase as if it weighed nothing, and they walked (Mme Martin walked, Leni trudged) up four flights of stairs to the apartment.
As the French do not normally give a grand tour to their house guests, Mme Martin showed Leni where the kitchen, living room/dining room, toilet and bathroom were. Saving the best for last, she opened the door to Leni’s room. “Voilà.”
Leni was pleased as punch. The room was done in blue, yellow and white. Striped wallpaper, white built-in bookshelves, a white Ikea wardrobe and desk and a plump white twin bed all waited for her.
“What do you think?”
Leni grinned. “I like a lot.”
“It is my daughter’s room, but she is living with her boyfriend right now. Do you want to take a gwrgvsy before we eat supper?”
Nap? “Yes, please.”
“OK, we will eat at sfrwfhq o’clock. I will let you dsmbip. The armoire is empty, so opdwua nvj amduqmrhjf!” With that, Mme Martin closed the door behind her.
Leni looked over the cheerful room and loved it. She heaved one of her suitcases, dropped it on the yellow bed, and she jumped back as if she’d received an electric shock.
The duvet cover was…ironed!
Now, Leni was more than prepared for duvets. But Mme Martin had actually taken the time to iron the freaking duvet and sham covers! Leni peeked under the duvet. The sheets were ironed too!
Leni couldn’t decide if it was a French thing or a Mme Martin thing. Why would she bother taking all that time to iron bed linens? They would only get wrinkled in like five minutes and they would need to be ironed every week or so…what gives?
Leni decided to take a minute, stretch out on the bed, and rest her eyes. Maybe it was the 24-hour journey or the excitement of being in France was finally catching up with her, but Leni was suddenly bone tired. Though the mattress wasn’t new or the most comfortable one on the planet, Leni might as well have been sleeping on a fluffy pink cloud. She drifted off to sleep in about .1453 seconds. The last thought to cross her mind before slumber took over was the feeling of crispness. The sheets were fresh, cool and almost crackled under her weight, cocooning her like a web and begging her to sleep in it.
Leni later found out that Mme Martin always ironed her sheets and duvet covers. While some families more informal with their housekeeping, Mme Martin liked everything to be just so. Even when Leni questioned (in her limited French) why she would do something that took so much time and only last for a week, her host mother quirked her eyebrow and merely said, “It is something I have always done. My mother and grandmothers did it, too. It just doesn’t feel right if it doesn’t get done.”
Now Leni had finally finished ironing her duvet cover. It wasn’t a particularly expensive one—she snagged it at Ikea some years ago—but it had a funky European pattern on it and she liked the vibrant colors.
Mardi (Tuesday) Jour Deux (Day 2)
Iron the duvet cover.