LSS: Beauty goes further than skin-deep

The mud and seaweed bath I took Friday is officially filed in the “It seemed like a good idea at the time” category.

Our French friend Helene invited us to Normandy to visit her grandparents cottage. In 1950, when they built the cottage, within a stone’s throw of Juno Beach, the area wasn’t exactly a tourist destination. But, the family had too many children to take destination vacations and built the tiny cottage instead.

Back then and for years afterward, it was the only structure around. These days, signs of World War II have hardly vanished, but with the scenery, sun and sand, getting to a vacation-state-of-mind is easier than I expected. Little things like, “The neighbors built their home on a German bunker and now use it as a wine cellar,” jolted me into perspective every now and then.

But back to the bath.

Helene’s grandparents cottage is in a village called Luc sur Mer. More than 100 years ago, the area gained some renown because of its thalassotherapy center.

Thalassotherapy, I now know, is a seawater body care center.

It’s in a casino. I thought it was a spa.

I was wrong. A little research beforehand could have gone a long way.

Perhaps a red flag should have arisen when Helene mentioned she had never experienced thalassotherapy – which I thought was the name of the spa.

When we arrived, Helene and the nice lady behind the counter reviewed the menu, smiled at me and made the decision on what we should do.

I knew mud and seaweed would be involved, but what I expected and what happened were two very different things. Suddenly, I found myself in a tiny room with a French woman, a table covered in Saran Wrap, a bucket and a tub of tepid water. The only thing I understood with any certainty was that this was not, in fact, a swimsuit optional experience.

I barely had my bearings on the Saran Wrap when the French lady started slathering mud (from Mont Saint Michel, mind you) over me. She unceremoniously covered me in Saran Wrap and exited, leaving the door slightly ajar. There I lay, covered in mud and wrapped in Saran Wrap, not quite knowing what to expect next.

After what seemed like an eternity – and I gather it was supposed to have been relaxing – she returned with another bucket. She instructed me to get in the tub. I obliged. I thought I was going in for a rinse and then she would tenderly wrap my limbs in special seaweed.

No such thing occurred.

Once I was in the tub, she reached in the new bucket and pulled out the real surprise of the day.

In an innocent net bag, similar to the one you buy tomatoes in, was the slimiest, stinkiest green seaweedy goop I had ever borne witness to. Before I could screech, she plopped that bag right in the tub with me, soaked it once and brought it up with a slithering gob of slime that would be the envy of runny-nosed children around the world.

And she walked out.

She had motioned that I was supposed to bathe myself with the “sponge.” I considered just getting the mud off and getting out, but the experience didn’t come cheap. I wanted my money’s worth and began following her instructions. After the initial shock, it turns out that slime feels rather nice. At least, it stops being gross.

My whole family swears my skin feels softer and better than ever.

Yes, beauty comes at a price. I’ll debate the cost of soft skin for a while.

Jan Risher’s column, Long Story Short, appears on Sundays in Lafayette, Louisiana’s The Daily Advertiser. She can be reached at

LSS: We come from France…

The first week in another country is almost always overwhelming. Our first week in Paris has been no exception.

There’s such a fine line between making the most of your time and running yourself ragged. Perhaps we crossed this line occasionally this week.

Soon, I hope we will find a healthy tempo. With any luck, this new pace will play a role in my feet feeling better.

Our trip, thus far, has been about more than seeing sites. French friends have taken us places they know well and places they have never been. We’ve been in their homes, met their families and eaten their food. One of our friends’ families has connections throughout France’s history. Her grandparents were a part of the French resistance of World War II. Her great-grandfather served in World War I. Further back, her father’s family were French pirates who worked the Mediterranean.

Another friend is an example of the modern-day melting pot France has become – a level of blending of people from a variety of places that I once thought reserved only for the USA. For example, my friend Jean-Claude’s mother is originally from French Guyana. His father is from the north of France. His sister recently married a man from Cambodia. His older brother will marry a girl from Ireland in August.

We’ve spent time in sites that offer as much juxtaposition as our friends.

We nearly froze as we picnicked in the gardens of Versailles, but were warmed as we walked its halls. (In fact, we saw the very bed where four kings of France were born — in public, mind you, as to not leave room for any question about the heir to the throne.) We went to the cathedral in Chartres and walked the ancient labyrinth. I took my shoes off and walked the pathway’s intricacies on the smooth, cold stones laid nearly 1,000 years ago. I saw one of the miniature Statues of Liberty in Luxembourg Garden and reflected on the deep connection between our two countries. We watched the military displays of the Bastille Day parade and the fireworks over the Eiffel Tower that night.

In the not-so-touristy realm, we ventured to the self-proclaimed “world’s largest flea market.” After walking through its endless allies, nooks and crannies, I don’t doubt that it is, in fact, the world’s largest flea market. Additionally, as the fireworks danced in the sky near the Eiffel Tower, we wandered into a Bastille Day “Bal” in a local fire station. I learned that nearly every fire station in the France hosts a Bastille Day Ball. What surprised me at first began to make sense as I considered that fire stations were the only municipal buildings in every neighborhood. The concept doesn’t seem at all odd to the locals because some fire stations host dances every Sunday evening throughout the year. I wonder if such a concept would fly in the States?

Tomorrow we leave for a few days in Normandy, where I’m sure we’ll explore further connections between our country and the one we’re visiting.

LSS: slightly dated column…

If you know that we left for our trip July 6, you’ll know I wrote this column a week ago, but here goes:

Not to encourage letting a feel-good summer blockbuster musical shape major life decisions, but if truth be told, ABBA’s “Mamma Mia” songs played a bigger role in my family’s upcoming travel plans than some might think is wise to admit. Even still, I happily own the reasoning.
First, it was a song I’ve mentioned before, Slipping through my Fingers. In the spirit of not wanting the day to come when it was time for my daughters to move away or marry and me being full of regret at not having done the things and gone the places I had hoped we would, getting back into teaching offered an opportunity for more family adventures.
Our Last Summer also stuck in my head. “Walks along the Seine. Laughing in the rain. Our last summer. Memories that remain.”
All in all, those lyrics resonated in my head to the point that I had to do something.
As I write this column, my family is scurrying around the house printing boarding passes, washing clothes and finding all the pieces to the smallest games we own. Tomorrow morning, we leave for a month in France. We’ve rented an apartment in Paris but plan to travel around the countryside some, as well.
French friends have welcomed our plans into their schedules and lives. For example, the French student we hosted last year is picking us up at the airport and has invited us to spend a few days with her at the Normandy beach cottage her grandparents bought in 1950. Other French friends have invited us to their homes and offered to show us around — including our youngest daughter’s French immersion first-grade teacher, the French mime who performed in Lafayette this spring, a former student and a fellow journalist I met last summer in Canada. Having real people share the places they live, the food they eat and things they do with us is the way I prefer traveling.
The whole adventure isn’t nearly as extravagant as it may seem to some. Renting an apartment is more economical than a hotel. Plus, there’s the added benefit of having a kitchen – and bread and cheese around the corner. I am a travel-guidebook-reading-fiend. However, deliberately, we have not made many set plans for the trip. Yes, somewhere along the way, we hope to do the biggies. We’ll see the Mona Lisa and Versailles. We’ll sail the little boats in Luxembourg Gardens and take picnics and walks along the Seine. We’ll also spend our share of time in washaterias since we’re only taking one bag each. Beyond that, the month is wide-open and cell phone free.
I’ve wondered what our daughters will take from this experience. For now, Greer, 11, who wants to become a chef one day, said she thought the trip might affect her ideas on food and cooking down the road. Piper, 7, said she hoped the trip would make her a better French speaker.
We shall see.

Morning walks and apricot tarts

Just back in from a morning walk. Since we arrived earlier this week, I’ve taken walks each morning to one of the three bakeries on this tiny island where we are living. This morning as I bit into an apricot tart as I headed down the street, I thought, “This has to be the best thing I’ve ever eaten in my life.” Seriously. That’s a statement. It’s simply unbelievable.

My family is still recovering from jet lag. Thus I’ve had lots of time either to walk, think, read or surf the net. It’s been kind of odd to be the one away so much more than the rest of them. At home, I definitely am the sleeper-inner of my family.

Today my dear friend Amy arrives. Not sure what we’re up to, but we may head to Chartres to walk a labyrinth. We’ll see.

in France…

Last night as we got ready to go to bed after our first day in France, I heard a siren in the distance. We had heard several during the evening. Greer said, “Why do I keep hearing the Jeopardy theme?”

Our apartment is small, but it works for us. It’s certainly not fancy, but it’s in a great location. Check out this link to google maps to see the street scene. If you haven’t already, use the little man icon to “walk” around the area. Very cool. I had done so several times and doing so gave me a real feel for the area, and I sort of knew my way around. (If the link doesn’t work, just copy and paste in your browser.)’anjou%22+%22paris%22&oe=UTF-8&um=1&ie=UTF-8&split=0&ei=qDxUStWDNJ7UjAf6xYyhCQ&sa=X&oi=geocode_result&ct=title&resnum=1″>



LSS: One girl’s amazing journey

Complicated stories are tricky to tell.

So began last week’s tale chronicling Jade’s journey from an orphanage, or Social Welfare Institute, in China, to our home in Louisiana.

Jade, 29, missed the international adoption craze and has spent her life in the SWI.

A year after we adopted our daughter, I returned to her orphanage with my friend and daughter’s godmother, Michelle. We went to work with Jade and the older girls. They stole our hearts.

Michelle has made several trips back to visit. A few years ago, she and I noticed that Jade had made another close connection with an American family. She often referred to “Ken and Nancy” like we should know who they were – after all, we were all Americans.

Michelle and I finally figured out that Ken and Nancy were the grandparents of another baby adopted from her SWI. Eventually, we learned that Ken and Nancy accompanied their daughter to China to adopt. Shortly after they met the newest addition to their family, the little girl became very ill and was hospitalized. With no way for the family to communicate with the Chinese medical staff, Jade was sent to act as a sort of translator.

Jade’s English skills are owed in large part to yet another American. Paul went to China to teach and has made it part of his mission to work with the older girls at the SWI for more than eight years. His consistent efforts have opened all manner of doors for Jade and others.

In the hospital, Jade bonded with the family. Once their granddaughter recovered, Ken and Nancy returned home to Illinois and maintained contact with Jade. Like Michelle, they helped sponsor her education and encouraged her. In the back of all of our minds was the idea of getting Jade to the States for a visit. I never believed it would happen.

For Chinese nationals, getting a tourist visa to the U.S. is tricky. I know of many who had good reasons to visit who have been denied visas. Miraculously, Jade was granted a tourist visa. Ken worked with airlines to keep her travel expenses to a minimum. Two weeks ago, after all these years of hoping, Jade arrived in the United States of America. We were her first visit.

I think it all may have been too much to take in. For example, she had never been swimming. After going twice, she doesn’t seem to think she’s missed much. She simply could not believe we let water get in our ears. She had never worn a pair of high heel shoes, but after her first shopping trip to the mall, she took to it quite naturally. We went to dinner with friends. They grilled steaks – another first for Jade. She nibbled away.

Culture shock was a definite factor. At times, she seemed almost dazed. I often asked if she wanted to go somewhere or do something. Her usual reply was, “No, I just want to be here and live like a family.”