After reading A Moveable Feast I decided to venture to Café de Fleurs, one of the places mentioned by Hemingway. I had already done the other major ones like La Rotonde, Brasserie Lipp, etc. I met a couple friends there, we sat in a cramped booth (definitely more suited for turn-of-the century butts) against a mirrored wall. I drank in atmosphere, waiters bustling about in crisp white aprons, carrying things around on silver platters. The patronage was mostly tourists and old couples. While surveying the scene I enjoyed a decent café au lait while waiting for my food.
Finally, after a decent wait, my soupe à l’oignon arrived, piping hot. I dug in enthusiastically and burned my mouth on the melting gruyere. When I could actually taste it, I was disappointed. It was probably the most bowl of French onion I’d had in Paris. It also cost about 15 euros.

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In New York I spend a lot of time walking. I never take the train if I can help it, especially if it’s twenty blocks or less. Sometimes I’ll even leave at midnight and walk into the wee hours of the morning (well, not that wee). This may seem reckless or unsafe, but I’ve honestly never felt any real threat or fear being out at night. Unless you walk down some really obscure deserted part of town, there are usually other people out too. I love interacting with the city and having constant visual stimulus and things to think about. In this way, I really connect to Breton being inspired by the street, as well as the concept of the flaneur, someone who can dissolve into the woodwork of the city and witness it unfold. I was looking forward to discovering Paris in the same way.
When I got here I was enchanted by the immediate beauty of Paris, its pristine and genteel façade, but I was eager to scratch beneath the beautiful surface. My first walk alone in Paris was a terrible experience, to put it bluntly. After a long day of flan-ing, in a rare move, I decided to take the train home. As I boarded, immediately I felt oppressive gaze of a leering old man sitting across from me. When the person next to me disembarked he moved next to me and started whispering things in my ear. It was vile and demeaning. I got up and tried to explain to an older woman who has holding onto the rail, but she ignored me and scoffed. I made an unnecessary transfer to try to escape him, but he followed me and even touched my waist. Eventually I escaped his pursuit but it took a while, and was traumatic nonetheless.
Of course I had had experiences in New York with men who have given me negative, unwarranted sexual attention, but never so aggressive as this. My space was never violated. I always knew that if it were, I could turn to someone in solidarity to help me out of the situation. The inability to communicate verbally made me the experience all the more overwhelming. I felt powerless and threatened. Unfortunately, I found these experiences to be the norm in Paris, while female and walking. Some even more violent and aggressive than this. As time passed, I learned better how to navigate my diminished status. Still, the joy of the street in Paris did not equal my experiences in New York. Instead of disappearing into the landscape the Metropolis, I felt painfully visible.

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A man sits in the corner with a very small, very sad looking dog. The sound of the buzzer on the metro doors is informing the entirety of Saint Michel that they are closing. Of course, the French rush on from every direction and have no sense of letting people off first. The fact that the sign saying “02” does in fact mean that another train will be there in two minutes does not deter them from worming their way into the last inches of space in the metro car. They show up nowhere on time, but they rush in the metro.  The dog makes very triste eyes at me, but his face is located too close to the man’s bare feet for me to have more than a moment of sympathy before turning immediately to a strong urge to vomit.  It all smells like urine. Right then, I hated Paris.

The station is crowded and men are leering and I’m still nervous about those pickpockets that everyone speaks of constantly. I notice a man spit and I’m just happy it didn’t land on me and then I remember it’s 2011 and I shouldn’t have to worry about being spit on because that’s absolutely ridiculous. It feels more like I’ve entered Hell than one of the major cities in the world. How can people actually live here? How can anyone like it? They must all be lying to themselves.

Twelve hours later, I walk down the Seine and watch the roofs meet the sky and I think about how I couldn’t think about anywhere more perfect than right here. Everything is quiet and slow and easy. I wished it could all go on forever, the Seine never ending. I think the city is so beautiful, so sadly beautiful. I think about how old it is. I begin to comprends why everyone has been inspired by it, I think. I see its beauty. I see its ability to encourage thought. I feel more rooted to this place than anywhere else.

Worrying about fitting in is gone. How could I possibly not work here? It feels perfectly correct. The people don’t matter. I could walk this river for years and not have to speak to a soul. I’m more connected to Paris than anyone has ever been in the history of the world. Who needs anything besides a baguette and some red wine? Maybe a couple cigarettes. I’ll sit on the bank and swing my feet and tilt my head back and just think. Je pense donc je suis. Cogito ergo sum. I think this is the most beautiful city. I think I’m meant to be somewhere else.

 

My question is this? Can there be a balance between hating Paris and loving Paris? Is it a city about which no one can be indifferent? It seems that people are either blinded and distracted by the beauty or disillusioned by the smell. I tend to oscillate between the two extremes, as it seems most of my fellow temporary transplants do. Woody Allen said, “Americans are raised to love Paris,” when speaking about his most recent film Midnight in Paris. This city has become a symbol of romance, of class, of fashion, and sophistication.

I just want to think of Paris as something normal, like any other place. I can’t though. I think of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein in the Latin Quarter and I’m upset that it isn’t still like that. I walk through Montmartre and I think about James Baldwin and traveling with only pennies in your pocket. It all seemed so perfect.  I ask myself where that Paris went. Then, I think maybe it was never here or it’s still here but hiding.

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My Brief Stint as Shakespeare’s Intern

Shakespeare and Company: the center of the literary expatriate movement in Paris. Hemingway borrowed books from the shelves and Joyce published Ulysseshere. Still holding English-speaking readings on Monday nights and shelving crammed with English books, it still seems to attract all those holding onto The Lost Generation with wine-stained skin of their teeth, like myself. My first in the shop, I thought it smelled a lot like 1920. My 2011 self went home and googled it. The website said they take volunteers so I got on that pretty quickly. I thought I’d surround myself with people like me, people who would rather gush about books and sit staring at the Seine than do anything else in Paris.

A couple weeks of emails are exchanged and I’m set to start on a Saturday for four hours. I thought I’d get to organize books and talk to people and do things in back rooms where I could imagine Joyce sitting while Ulysses was being printed. Him sitting in his round glasses, double breasted blazer, looking out the window and watching the printing press. This was supposed to be what was going to connect me to the Paris I dreamed about. This would connect me to the contemporary Hemingway and I’d move to Paris forever and have everyone in the 6th over to look at the art in my living room on Saturday nights and I’d spend summers watching bullfights in Spain.

 

I arrived at 10:50, being as that I was supposed to start at 11:00, when the store opens. The front door was open and a three people stood at the front cash register, seemingly in a serious discussion. They were all dressed in earth tones. The girl was very plain, no makeup, straight brown hair to her shoulders. One guy was dressed like it was 1935. The other wore glasses that screamed I’m intellectual and a sweater that screamed I don’t bathe often.

“Hi. I’m here to-“

“We’re actually not open yet,” she told me before my sentence was completed. I must have look confused so she continued, “nous sommes ferme.” Her eyes seemed very cynical, very judgy, and her upper lip was held in a way that seemed to say “even if we were open, you should leave.”

“Oh no. I’m actually here to volunteer. I talked to Terry. He told me to start today at 11:00.” Three pairs of eyes stared at me with such indifference toward my presence. I strongly felt the urge to turn around leave, but I thought for The Lost Generation, I’d need to put up with it for a little while.

After about 45 minutes of showing me how disorganized the store is, the girl told me to start reorganizing the biography section. Unlike the others, this is organized by the last name of the subject of the book. It is also in a back corner, covered in dust. While shelving, I learned books are dirty and start to turn your hands black. I learned that people will ask you questions in every language. I learned you’re expected to be able to answer them, despite my salary of zero dollars per hour.

Another volunteer starts shelving next to me. He seems nice and normal. He says this is his second time volunteering here. He’s American, just graduated from college in California and is now on his way to a job in northern France, stopping back in Paris on his way up. I think it’s awesome to know people who do things like that. I think about how I could never do anything like that.

I go to the “apartment” which is actually a weird room on the second floor of the building next door where there is a bathroom and a room with a cot in it. A guy is getting changed. I have a big block of wood attached to a key labeled TUMBLEWEED KEY. I am not in fact tumbleweed, but I learn about them.

[The bookstore runs a program where young writers can stay for free on a bed in the apartment if they work in the shop and write everyday. You can’t reserve it in advance. You just show up, with your things, and see if they have room for you. I like it because it seems to really stay within the spirit of the place, keeping writers afloat when they don’t have money. Then you realize that that isn’t the world we live in anymore and people who hold onto other things aren’t always the most socially accepting.]

I leave the room and return downstairs very confused. I go back to work organizing books that seem to never seem to actually get organized.

Then, my first encounter with a tumbleweeder: I’m re-shelving Philip K. Dick novels and I’m sweating a lot because there is no air conditioning and I woke up too late and too hung-over to accurately access the weather and wore a long sleeve shirt with jeans when it was 75 degrees outside. He is wearing pants like it’s the 40s and speaks with an accent that could be British or Swedish or French or anything but what it actually is which is from South Dakota. He says something that I can’t hear.

“Sorry, what?” I wipe my face with dirty hands and feel kind of dizzy from the heat.

He rolls his eyes and responds, “It’s Yeats,” and walks away.

 

Three weeks later, I showed up to work and felt sick. I asked if I could leave early and then said they’d have to check, except that I’m working for no money. I was then told I put stickers on crooked. I never showed up again.

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Saint-Denis

As a resident of Place de Clichy, my neighborhood and street become the stomping grounds of the Banlieu at night.  Often when I come home from ExpatLit I have to ask a group of men to move away from my door so I can enter. Every time I run into this situation, I find myself feeling nervous about how they will react. In turn, I am complicit in marginalizing this group further contributing the pervasive French issue. However, the reaction of the men is always kind, courteous, and respectful. Where is the banlieu? What constitutes its starting point? In my eyes, it was a world away… maybe even a 40-minute metro ride from my house. The mystique only contributed to my own stigmatized thoughts of it.

One day, I decided to head to Eglise Saint Denis with my friend for a visit not knowing where it was precisely located. After our class, we hopped on the RER and headed off. Fifteen minutes later I stepped off the train; it was like stepping out into another world. A world I had been slightly exposed to because I’ve been residing in Clichy, but a world that was distinct from Paris. Soon we were strolling down the main strip of activity where tacky goods and people of all ages were congregating and looking each other up and down. Ultimately, after passing numerous fried chicken and kabab joints, we arrived at Saint Denis. An amazing cathedral housing the royalty of France surrounded by the “degenerate hooligans” of modern Paris’ banlieu. A bizarre strain is noticed. The church is left standing, relatively untouched and unfrequented while the surrounding plaza is turf for prostitutes and street gambling.  Beyond the illegalities, there was a distinct culture from inner Paris with a strong feeling of community. Everyone seemed to know one another and everyone was chatting all created in the shadows of the forgotten church. Regardless, it was a unique experience to see the cathedral but also to experience the 93 in some small capacity opened my eyes to the dramatic difference in the way the two worlds operate. You can feel and see it.

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Pompidou Thoughts

After visiting the Centre du Pompidou to visit the Yayoi Kusama exhibit, who happens to be one of my long time obsessions, I found myself outside staring at the building from the massive pit. The space was filled with life: tourists, gypsies, musicians, students, tout le monde. I stood contemplating the significance of the building’s existence. Since its construction it has been a source of controversy with many Parisians thinking it as an ugly, obtrusive structure in an otherwise classic location. Constructed with the inside being exposed to the outside eye, the building’s pipes of various colors stick out in the French landscape. Each colored piped corresponds with its contents: yellow for electricity, green for fluids, blue for water, red for gas. Fragile yet beautiful it stands challenging what is valid architecture in Paris.
The Pompidou resists assimilation by drawing attention to itself as in a Haussmann-ized Paris. Even though its location is in Paris, it is one of the few monuments that don’t actively distinguish it as representing “the Parisian”. The building ultimately represents modern global culture even since its inception. While it was the ex-president of France Georges Pompidou who commissioned the museum, Italian, British, and Irish architects designed the Pompidou collaboratively. All of the architects came together to create a design that would turn perceptions of architecture upside-down. Beyond just its unusual exterior, the interior showcases modern works of art from artists of all ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds. Numerous topics are discussed through the art and are publicly accessible. The greater area of the Pompidou center even promotes the notion of a global community in Paris rather than just Parisian existence with various demonstrations taking place in the courtyards covering global political and social issues.
While being here in Paris, I find I can enter a distinct piece of mind when I meander through the exhibits at the Pompidou or roam the streets in the surrounding area of the museum. Here, I am free to explore without the constant pull to assimilate into “le mode de Parisian”. Rather I can freely enjoy the cultural offerings of artists from around the globe however I choose to.

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Love in the Afternoon Crowd

A couple of weeks ago I saw St. Vincent perform at Café de la Danse. Before playing the opening track from her most recent album, Strange Mercy, she described the film that the song title was taken from: Chloe in the Afternoon, by Eric Roehmer.

(You can watch her do that here if interested: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ioWsyWb0jE8 )

So I went home and I watched Chloe in the Afternoon or L’Amour l’après-midi and was pleasantly surprised to find the spirit of both the flâneur and the crowd alive and well in the main character Frédéric.

If you watch a clip from the very beginning of the film, (specifically from 1:10-3:37 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4BVbHmdNVSk ) you will hear Frédéric extol life in cities. Frédéric feels a certain obsession and intoxication particularly with the crowds he finds in cities. He says:

“I love the city. The suburbs are oppressive. And despite the crush and the noise, I don’t mind diving into the crowd. I love the crowd as I love the sea. Not to be engulfed by or lost in it, but to sail it like a solitary pirate, seeming to follow its rhythm, but finding my own when the current breaks or dissipates. Like the sea, a crowd is invigorating. My thoughts come to me in the street, even those that concern my work…

And when I see lovers, I think less of me and what I was, than of them, and what they will become. That’s why I love the city. People pass by, and vanish. You don’t see them grow old.”

While we did not read Baudelaire’s “Crowds” in class, Frédéric is almost a literal incarnation of the man Baudelaire describes, especially if that man happened to wear a red turtleneck and was alive during the 1970s.

Baudelaire says,

“It is not given to every man to take a bath of multitude; enjoying a crowd is an art; and only he can relish a debauch of vitality at the expense of the human species, on whom, in his cradle, a fairy has bestowed the love of masks and masquerading, the hate of home, and the passion for roaming. 

Multitude, solitude: identical terms, and interchangeable by the active and fertile poet. The man who is unable to people his solitude is equally unable to be alone in a bustling crowd. 

The poet enjoys the incomparable privilege of being able to be himself of someone else, as he chooses. Like those wandering souls who go looking for a body, he enters as he likes into each man’s personality. For him alone everything is vacant; and if certain places seem closed to him, it is only because in his eyes they are not worth visiting. 

The solitary and thoughtful stroller finds a singular intoxication in this universal communion. The man who loves to lose himself in a crowd enjoys feverish delights that the egoist locked up in himself as in a box, and the slothful man like a mollusk in his shell, will be eternally deprived of. He adopts as his own all the occupations, all the joys and all the sorrows that chance offers. What men call love is a very small, restricted, feeble thing compared with this ineffable orgy, this divine prostitution of the soul giving itself entire, all it poetry and all its charity, to the unexpected as it comes along, to the stranger as he passes. It is a good thing sometimes to teach the fortunate of this world, if only to humble for an instant their foolish pride, that there are higher joys than theirs, finer and more uncircumscribed.”

Between Baudelaire and Eric Roehmer, there is a power in anonymity that is worth being discussed. On a personally level, it can be fulfilling in a world full of human relationships that are disappointing or restricting. Being one of many, one of the crowd, is the ultimate escape.

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