The Only Christmas Carols That Are Any Good, A Definitive and Absolute List, Fight Me

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I love Christmas carols. HOWEVER: I do NOT love what most of the idiot world considers to be a Christmas carol. Songs about sleighs, Santa, sugarplums, etc., are NOT carols, they are garbage that deserves to rot on the side of the street like so much crumpled wrapping paper.

No, the truly best Christmas carols fall into at least one of the following categories:
1. Songs in Latin
2. Songs about food
3. Songs about Hell and/or avoidance thereof
4. Songs about decidedly non-canonical adventures of Jesus, Mary, and/or Joseph
5. Songs that use the word “flesh”
6. Good King Wenceslas

Bonus points are awarded if the song was clearly hastily Christianized with a few macaronic verses or if it sounds good played on the bagpipe.

There are only approximately 30 days of the unofficial Christmas carol listening season, and I would hate for you to waste one second of them letting an INFERIOR Christmas carol bleat through your earbuds. Therefore, I have taken it upon myself to let you know what the good ones are. This is my final decision and I will brook no dissent.

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The Juvenilia Files: Blackburn’s Bride

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What ho, nostalgia-teers! This week is a deep dive back into the whirling petticoats of REGENCY LONDON. For reasons I cannot remember, I decided that I was dunzo writing contemporary after my brief flirtation with “Untitled Remodeling-Centric YA” and showed up the next November to put down some words about RAKES and BALLS and SEDUCTION and stuff. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a 19-year-old writer in want of a truly good idea will probably just go with the idea that involves the most frippery.

AND SO: Blackburn’s Bride, which, if I may say so myself, is not too crappy of a title. It certainly fulfills genre expectations. As did the rest of the book! Kind of!

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The Juvenilia Files: NaNoWriMo 2008

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I found this by Googling “victorian people on porch.” It’ll make sense once you read the post.

The year was 2008. (Duh—see above.) I was a freshman in college who’d managed to amass a really great group of friends while still feeling terrifically lonely. Depression! It’s like that!

Anyway, even though I did go around a lot of the time with homesickness sitting in my stomach like an undigestable glob of gum, it wasn’t the grimmest of grim times. I was just figuring out who I was when removed from the only context I’d ever known, which is thrilling and difficult and an act of creative perseverance…

…kind of like writing a novel! (What a sophisticated segue that was.) Anyway, November came and I was ON IT, because so far in college I had basically nothing to do (I mean, classes, I guess, but compared to being trapped in a high school for a seven-hour block every day, college felt like a breeze), so I loaded up my minifridge with frozen Amy’s burritos and barricaded myself in my dorm room to write. And this time, I was writing YA. Also this time—although I didn’t know it at the time—I was going to win.

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The Juvenilia Files: NaNoWriMo 2007

Art by G.A. Bush

This painting by renowned romance cover artist G.A. Bush really captures the mood of what I was going for.

National Novel Writing Month is a thing I have been doing since I was sixteen. Sometimes I “won” and wrote 50,000 mostly very bad words and sometimes I didn’t “win” but still wrote some mostly very bad words. Anyway, intrigued by my buddy Alex’s post on her collected body of work prior to getting a literary agent, I went ahead and updated my NaNoWriMo profile with all the word counts of all the novels I had written or attempted to write since 2006, and man—almost 250,000 words! That’s…well, it’s a lot, I guess? It’s a very big number. I don’t know if it can bespeak anything to my growth as a writer because I haven’t really looked back at those old “novels” for a long, long time.

Until now.

Welcome to the rebirth of a “series” of posts I started a while ago and subsequently never made good on. You can read the first installment about my 2006 novel “His Irish Bride” here, but be warned that it’s pretty bad. Today, we will be examining my 2007 novel “Untitled Contemporary Romance About A Nanny for Falls for Her Hot Boss.” I’m positively cringing with anticipation!

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the secrets to my success

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Pictured: me, toiling

I have always wanted to be asked about the secrets to my success, because such a question presumes that I HAVE success, and that is very flattering. I also love that profiles of famous people dig so deeply into the mundane details of the Famous Person’s life, as if starting every morning by eating half a tree-ripened avocado spritzed with lemon juice will immediately transmogrify you into Reese Witherspoon. It won’t! I tried!

Anyway, until I have the kind of glamorous, sophisticated-but-youthful life that the readers of PARADE magazine are desperate to emulate, I will content myself with this inventory of low-stakes lifestyle “hacks” that I have employed to fashion myself the into gainfully employed gangling twenty-something that I am.

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Women who love sea chanties too much

One of the great perks of having a Spotify-equipped smartphone is that I can listen to my playlist of sea chanties wherever I go. With the tap of a touchscreen, I can turn mundane commuter purgatories like the subway and the one tunnel outside Suburban station where the train always goes realllly sloooowly into a vessel drunkenly bobbing on the whitecaps of the high seas!

This was a very important thing I kept up for MULTIPLE WEEKS

I hate to call myself a trendsetter, mostly because sea chanties are not actually trendy, but suffice to say that if they DO ever enjoy a resurgence I want at least a footnote on Wikipedia. Because I love ’em! It’s weird! Whatever! Sea chanties possess two different but not wholly incompatible aesthetics for me: the jolly, rum-soaked “hey ho” type songs about sweet Roseanna or getting shipped to South Australia, and the wrenchingly poignant ballads of lands and love lost to the LIFE OF THE SEA. I start to get REALLY emotional about the plight of cod-fishermen in Newfoundland. They had to work so HARD and the sea was CHILLY and FULL OF DEATH and England was VERY VERY FAR AWAY >:(

And why should I care? I’m not from Newfoundland, I think fish is disgusting, and I don’t even like being on boats, especially! But there you go. Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait pas. Le bon vin m’endort, l’amour me reveille. Maybe it’s like how country music is really popular in South Africa, or maybe I’m an 18th-century fisherman stuck in a 21st-century girl’s body, or maybe songs of the sea are so transcendent and universal that they can set even the stoniest heart (i.e., mine) aflame with longing.

Anyway, I don’t know what to make of this obsession except that maybe I should learn how to play one of those little Mr. Smee accordions. But if you’re looking to start a sea-chanty obsession of your very own, I present you with the following primer.

(NOTE: If you are a jerk and just went to look up “sea chanty” on Wikipedia, you will notice that there is a very technical definition. How technical? THIS technical:

A sea shanty, chantey, or chanty is a type of work song that was once commonly sung to accompany labor on board large merchant sailing vessels. The term shanty most accurately refers to a specific style of work song belonging to this historical repertoire.

I am going to be much more generous with my criteria and define sea chanty as “song about some aspect of maritime life, or maybe just about drinking, or maybe that just SOUNDS like it could’ve been sung by sailors at some point, okay.”)

Barrett’s Privateers

This is it, the ultimate song of seabound camaraderie by the ultimate Canadian latter-day sea chanteur. I probably shouldn’t put it first because it’s so definitively good, but I also can’t NOT start with it—particularly because this video is SO GOOD. Just a bunch of 70s-era guys in wide collars and neckerchiefs singing their hearts out and thumping a rhythm on a Nova Scotian kitchen table.

I have taught my entire family this song, including my favorite 8-year-old child, who can sing the whole thing from memory and does the “God DAMN THEM ALL” with particular gusto. We sing it every Thanksgiving.

Northwest Passage

On the “unhappy songs about longing” side of chanties, though, this one is probably your apotheosis. It works on a literal sadness level (the Franklin expedition was so tragically doomed!) and a metaphorical sadness level (because what is LIFE if not “tracing one warm line through a land so wide and savage”). All is vanity, Canada is very cold, and the harmonies on this are hard to sing. The end.

Le Bon Vin

It’s a drinking song, but the French makes it classy. “Good wine puts me to sleep but love wakes me up again,” innit that cute. These guys are also Canadian and do a mean bodhran.

South Australia

Back in the day, Australia was not a good place to go! It meant you were a criminal and likely to die being stung to death by killer spiders the size of Uluru. This one could feasibly work as an actual work song because it name-drops heaving and hauling, which are very important.

England

By contrast, England was a place that seamen (heh) missed a lot. They were stuck in Newfoundland, far from children and wives, and for WHAT—cod? Gross!

Black Sails Theme and Variations

Not even really a chanty! Whatever! This is the theme song to a show I have never seen and know pretty much nothing about except that it has some SICK hurdy-gurdy riffs in its opening number. I hear this and I’m like “lace up my corset extra tight and GRAB MY CUTLASS because we are TAKING TO THE SEAS.”

Le reel à bouche

Just a lot of guys going “hey dum de dum” a lot, but in a rhythmic and exciting and French way.

The River Driver

I maintain that sea chanties do not forcément have to involve the sea—any body of water will do, even a river. Et voilà! A song of toil and wasted life aboard a fluvial vessel.

The Parting Glass

A good song about leaving, or dying, or both. I have been known to sing this a cappella around bonfires when the mood strikes.

modern authors, middle ages

Author’s note: On Friday I had the pleasure of participating in a panel about medieval studies and fiction at the University of Chicago, my much-beloved alma mater. It was great! My fellow panelists—Prof. Lucy Pick (Pilgrimage) and Prof. Melissa Hope Range (Horse and Rider: Poems)—were superb: talented and so smart and medievalists after my own heart. Below are my remarks (my speech? My…apologia?) about translation, YA fiction, and retellings.

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My name is Blair Thornburgh, and I write young adult fiction. I know—a very, very logical career choice for someone with a medieval studies degree, right? Except I’m only kind of joking!

My absolute favorite thing about medieval studies is the study of translation—texts and stories, people and places, iconography, whatever you’ve got. How does a word, or a character, or an artifact change (or not change) when it moves to a foreign context? Where and what are the throughlines? What does it mean to adapt something?

My favorite thing about writing young adult fiction is making up imaginary people who fall in love.

So! Like every good medieval studies undergraduate, I spent my fourth year here at UChicago writing my BA paper: an examination of the treatment of female characters in the Old French Roman d’Enéas as compared to their “original” manifestation in Virgil’s Aeneid. (Cliffsnotes version of my argument: the medieval version inserts a whole mess of courtly love language between Aeneas and the chaste Italian princess Lavinia, while dragging poor Queen Dido through the mud for her adulterous affair with the hero. Also, “original” gets scare quotes, because we all know even Virgil was just ripping off characters from the Odyssey anyway.)

So that was my academic mind, swirling with ideas about retellings, and amour courtois, and feminism, and translatio studii. On the hardest of days, when the research was arduous or the interlibrary loans weren’t coming in, I repeated to myself my favorite line from the Aeneid: forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit, “perhaps one day it will be pleasing to remember even this.” Or, more loosely, “this will all make a great story one day.”

And I did want to make a great story. One day. But at the time, my creative writing mind was mostly thinking about a YA novel I was reading. This novel was—pardon my French—terrible. I will be the first to tell you that YA fiction has come a long, long way since the days of Sweet Valley High—even since the days of Twilight—and that the stories published today are engaging, well-written, literate, thoughtful, intelligent, and inventive. But this one was not. (They can’t all be winners.) It was a story of star-crossed lovers, told in dual first-person points of view. I didn’t like it. I thought I could do better. And I had just read the romance of Tristan en Prose for a seminar class.

And then the idea fell together. Tristan and Isolde in high school! How could no one have done this yet? The opening scene made instant sense to me: poor teenage Tristan, driving his beat-up car to pick up his best friend’s girlfriend, who is NOT happy to see him. The source material felt custom-made for young adult: illicit love affairs, strict social hierarchy, feats of athletic strength…plus ça change! This was going to be brilliant!

Well. As I found out, the thing about the Tristan legend is that there are two pretty major narrative linchpins that set everything in motion: an arranged marriage and a love potion. Do you know what most modern American high schools do NOT have? Plus, pretty much everyone dies at the end, and I was not going to take that dark a turn. If I wanted to translate this, I was going to have to make some changes. I had to take a story whose conflict hinges on external forces and figure out a way to make it character-driven.

This was a real challenge. (And I wrote about five drafts before I even realized that this was the challenge.) But I kept coming back to what I love about medieval romances: the so-called love triangles between king, queen, and knight aren’t really triangles at all, at least not in the Team Edward/Team Jacob sense. Each of the three people involved in these courtly affairs loves, in some way or another, each other person. Which makes it way more wrenching!

I knew I didn’t want to cheat my way into the Marc-Tristan-Isolde arrangement by trapping my heroine in an abusive relationship, nor did I want to neglect the strong feelings of friendship and loyalty between the two teenage dudes. I knew I wanted to write it from two points of view, because I didn’t want either of my main characters to be a “love interest.” I wanted them to be two fully rounded (though flawed) young people, who gradually came to meet in the middle. Yes, a reader might pick up this novel because of its high concept, but she would only keep reading if she liked the characters.

Now, retelling stories is—obviously—nothing new. Some of my favorite YA books (Tam Lin by Pamela Dean, almost anything by Donna Jo Napoli) are retellings. I still think 10 Things I Hate About You is a classic of modern cinema. But there are also a lot of pretty cruddy retellings. (I will not name names, because art is subjective.)

So what makes a good one good?

I believe that a well-crafted retelling rewards a reader who is familiar with the source material as much as one who is not.

This means a few things in practice. First, the writer can’t go overboard on winks. By winks, I mean direct or obvious references to the source material. Now, I love characternyms—characters whose names hold clues to their personality or role in the story, whence Marc LeRoy and Tristan Ritter. But I like to think that my choice is subtle. I stopped short of naming them, say, Marc King and Tristan McKnight. If my reader gets the French and German etymology, good on her! I hope she likes the Easter egg. But if she doesn’t, she’s not going to miss out. Same with Tristan’s football adversary at St. Sampson’s academy (aka his duel with the knight Morholt on the isle of St. Sampson) and Isolde’s fierce desire to attend Cornubia University (that’d be the Latinized form of Cornwall).

These little bits are fun, but in the end, I’m not writing to be clever with my translation tricksiness. I’m writing to tell a convincing love story. Remember: characters keep readers reading.

Second, a writer shouldn’t feel restricted to a completely faithful rendering of the source material. Your average teenage reader is just not willing to keep pace with a slow unwinding of events typical of your average medieval romance. Beyond that, you end up with a lot of material that just plain doesn’t work (Marc stabbing Tristan to death while he plays the harp for Isolde is just not going to fly). The writer has to make a conscious decision about what her version of the story is trying to do—what point it has to make about life, what feeling it should inspire in a reader—and edit the events of her plot to serve that artistic purpose.

Writing this novel has always felt to me like a translation in the most medieval sense. It’s so cool to take these characters, put them in a modern setting, and figure out how they would act and what they would sound like and what their favorite snacks would be. After all, if the anonymous author of the Roman d’Enéas could do it with Virgil’s Dido and Lavinia, why not me? I’m drawn to literature for the same reason I’m fascinated by translation: they are both dialogues. The way I see it, engaging with another writer’s characters is just a natural extension of the act of reading. As the wonderful Ursula K. Le Guin—who has herself written a wonderful novel based on Virgil’s Lavinia—has said: “The unread story is not a story; It is little black marks on wood pulp. A reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.”

Vale bene, and thank you.


 

Postscript: I’ve got a tinyletter! I’m going to try out writing about the books that I read. Interested parties who’d like to receive occasional but worthwhile email newsletters may subscribe here. TYVM!

i went on a writing retreat and i imagine you have some questions

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Wait, who were all these people?
My internet friends. My friends, from the internet. Yes, I’m a total #Millennial—I fly halfway across the country to hang out with strangers I’ve only ever seen before in a Twitter avatar, and it worked out great.

Why were you there?
My friend Kate Brauning—writer, editor, intelligent and magnificent human being—invited me to celebrate the launch of her debut novel, How We Fall, and her friend Nikki Urang’s debut novel, The Hit List. She hosted ten of us for a retreat and then a Big Ol’ Party which her staff videographer/husband livestreamed to the Internet™.

Where at?
Omaha, City of Dreams!

Did you—
Yes, I ate a steak, duh. I also saw the Mutual of Omaha building.

Did you guys, like, drink and stuff?
You tell me.

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What did you do?
Sat around and typed. Mostly, we took over the little high-top bar-table in the lobby and clear away the weird centerpiece baskets of grass ball-things so that all eight seats could be filled with writers writing (in Alex’s case, VERY AGGRESSIVELY. Girl types like a machine gun).

What did you do?
I was working on the twenty-fifth version of the first day of school scene in the book I’ve been writing for two and a half years. I worked pretty hard on Saturday and really hard on Sunday and by the time we were loading up the car on Monday to get to Sioux Center for the #official #YALaunch party I decided that I had to scrap it all, again.

Oh. So then what did you do?
Alex and I sat in the backseat of Kate’s car and I read aloud a book about Chardonnay grapes and switched accents every paragraph. French was my best and Irish was probably my worst (I think I got about 12 accents in, total).

No, I mean about your book.
Right, so, when I was out of accents, Alex and I sat down and plotted out what my three main characters Wanted and Needed and how that could manifest through every scene in the first third of the book. I made a lot of useful notes and Alex got a little carsick from the smell of beef jerky (sorry!) Then I talked a lot with Bethany about retellings, and points of view, and characters, and it was useful and she was smart.

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(This was directed at the book, not Alex)

My solution came on Tuesday morning when I sat down to write an edit letter to myself. It’s the best idea I’ve had so far and I think it’s gonna work.

What else did you do?
Laugh like a crazy person. Drink like a fish. Put really nifty scribbly nail decals on my fingers (poorly) and make my hair do that thing. Sleep too late EVERY DAY and then have to awkwardly launch myself from bed when the maid knocked on the door so I could politely explain that, no, sorry, I’m not yet awake at nine in the AM, could she um please sorry come back thanks? Go around the room and read from our writing—every person, and every person was good. Answer interview questions ON CAMERA like a REAL FAMOUS PERSON and wonder if I should really write that book about centaurs. Make this gif, I don’t even know:

output_KNSBEp Get gas at a Kum-and-Go (cultural touchstone of the Midwest). Watch the swirling midnight Iowa snow outside the car windows on the way home and feel suddenly very, very sad in the pit of my chest. Make friends. Gossip (a little). Leave my EpiPen in a restaurant like a dingus only to have our very kind waitress return it to me the moment I recrossed the threshold. Fly home, optimistic, laden with ideas, and sleepy.

Please list all the inside jokes.

  1. Omaha, City of Dreams!
  2. This version of the Jurassic Park theme song
  3. This version of “Wrecking Ball”
  4. This version of “My Heart Will Go On”
  5. Okay, really just anything involving recorders
  6. “Just use another cheese as the cracker for the cheese.”
  7. Cake Brauning, Éclair Thornburgh, Alex Yuschip (or Yuscheese)
  8. That one time I made Alex cry with laughter when I brought up the Chicken Bone Incident of ’13 at dinner
  9. Geckos
  10. BLOODBEARD, my as-yet-nonexistent feminist heavy metal collective

Please list all the snacks, sparing no detail.
Triscuits, Wheat Thins, microwaveable cakes, pumpkin bread, baby carrots, snap peas, sharp cheddar, another block of cheese that I think was Monterey Jack?, herb brie, Cheetos, beef jerky, Fritos, Cheese-Its Snack Mix, almonds (not for me), KitKats, Reese’s Cups (also not for me), Starbursts, M&Ms, Dove chocolates (the kind with inspirational messages on the wrapper), smoothie shots, fruit-flavored water, Goldfish (crackers), apples, the good kind of very dark purple grapes, smoked Gouda, mini cupcakes.

What was the best part?
Nearly everything.

I admire Kate so much: she is driven, smart, inventive, generous, kind, articulate, and a fantastic writer. She is just on, man. And what a thing to do for so many people. I suggest you go Buy! Her! Book!

What was the worst part?
When I came downstairs at 9:15 and the hotel breakfast was already out of egg-and-spinach sandwiches even though breakfast was not officially over until 9:30, dammit.

Oh God!!!! What did you do?
Ate two instant oatmealz and listened to Daft Punk. U no how I do.

Let’s get one more gif of you and Alex, please.
Done.

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decay

 

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I.

It hurts.

 

II.

How’s your day so far? the dental hygienist asks.

My dress is rumpled and the stained part of the slip is probably showing. My hair is sticking up weird, even though I put in the extra five morning minutes with the blow-dryer. I look terrible and I feel like throwing up.

None of this is her fault. But what does she expect me to say? Does anyone enter a dentist’s office with a cheery demeanor, knowing what’s in store there? It’s never good news to be in a dentist’s office. It’s the ‘we need to talk’ of physical locations. Pain is waiting, just beyond the beaming posters of multicultural people in multicolored crewnecks whose only common attribute is their gleaming white teeth. We’re all in this together, they are saying. Dental work is just part of being human, like headcolds or sunburn or heartbreak. Sorry, but you’re asking for it simply by having a corporeal form. Smile.

Just okay, I say. I am here to get a tooth drilled, after all.
She smiles politely, without showing her teeth, and leads me back to my chair.

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the best time i ever went to france with my sister

My sister and I do not have the greatest travel record. Until recently, all of our trips together involved someone getting hit (her), bitten (also her), or fantastically, world-meltingly angry (me).

Decked out and ready to go...

Decked out and ready to go…

...and more recently

…and more recently

But she just graduated from college, and I’ve survived two years in the wild as a Young Adult Millennial, and that plus a spontaneous Kayak search for plane tickets to Paris last November were enough to convince me that We Could Travel Together. I booked us cheapo round-trip tix from JFK and then six months later we took a train to a subway to an AirTrain to a very, very compact jumbo jet and then there we were: Paris, France, city of dreams.

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The rental car seemed like a much better idea from the safety of my American laptop. It was a very vroomy diesel-powered Mercedes—automatic, thank God—but the instant we rolled out of the Gare du Nord I started hyperventilating. We—meaning I—were going to drive this thing?! In Paris?! And then into the wilds of French farming country?!? What if it blew up, or got a flat, or needed more gas and we didn’t have a credit card with the little puce on it and the gas-station attendant murdered us? And—putain—what about the roundabouts?

Well, we made it. Turns out, Alice possess all the hallmarks of an excellent travel companion: laid-back attitude, unusually stable blood sugar, calming reading voice. In Paris, when it took us two hours to roll our bloated American suitcases (and bloated American selves) to our rented flat (apparently June 6th is some kind of holiday? Joking, joking; we will never forget except when jetlag makes us cotton-brained), she was preternaturally composed even when I was about to burst into tears. When the dashboard of our rental Mérco lit up with a terrifying red ! she told me not to worry, even though I was convinced the car was about to blow up real good (turns out, it was an alarm to tell us that there was another car in front of us, because apparently French drivers don’t just look out the windshield?) She did not complain that most of our meals were a variation on a ham and cheese sandwich (all the rosé helped) and I don’t think she even snored.

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She is also adorable. She wondered why Holland was involved in so many French political situations (that’s M. le Président Hollande, for the record) and freaked out when we saw a bunch of tiny ponies in the Jardins de Luxembourg.

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We had what can only be called a grand old time. We saw Notre Dame, Père LaChaise, the Musée Cluny, Chartres, the squat, crumbling castle of William the Conqueror, a random battlefield I made us swing by where young Guillaume broadsworded his rebellious cousin into submission, Mont-st-Michel, the Bayeux tapestry, the Louvre. We saw the graves of Abelard and Heloise, gigantic Rubens paintings and a more modest-sized Caravaggio, and three movies in theaters that were resoundingly French and definitely funny. I made a really good French joke (ask me about it, I’ll totally explain the pun to you in person), and she laughed. We went to the spectacular ruins of Jumièges Abbey and ate bullet-shaped strawberries and supermarket vanilla pudding. She drew pictures and I lay in the grass and woolgathered. We made friends with a French girl named Juju and saw an entire line of French boyscouts in berets and gloves and ponchoes marching through a thunderstorm with banners of saints held on high.

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Still, I have never spent a vacation so nervous (and I’ve had panic attacks in Reykjavik, Verona, and every airport I’ve ever been in). Alice and I have never traveled abroad without our parents (or if not our parents, someone else in loco parentis who could, you know, rent the car and make sure we had a place to sleep). The hour-and-a-half journey from the Periphérique to the rental return place on the spiderwebbing, unmarked streets of Paris remains the most charged with adrenaline I’ve ever been (though I did manage to let slip a few lusty Mais merde, connard, va t’en! through the window).But if I have our dad’s temper, Alice has our mom’s patience. We are becoming adult humans, and we can take care of not just ourselves but each other.

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“I don’t want to be one of those people who says, I just love Paris, you know? Because those people are awful,” I told her. Alice rolled her eyes. Why can’t you just like what you like? she said. Who cares what other people are doing?

She had a point. What a smart human that child grew up to be. I’ll never bite her again.