letter of recommendation: the macaron tower

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The New York Times’ letters of recommendation oversing the praises of silly or humble things that usually don’t get much love. My letter of recommendation oversings the praises of something fancy that is already amply adored but upon which I would like to heap more adulation.  Continue reading

the stuff of my dairy dreams

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I have written about my fruitless search for rose glace in Paris before. About three weeks ago I finally found it – nearly 25 years after the first time I tasted it – at an ice cream shop just a few blocks from my new place in Belleville. And I got doubly lucky, because they also had violet flavor. It tasted sort of soap-like but still wonderful.

I am triply lucky – or very, very unlucky, depending on how you look at it – that the most well-suited cheese shop for my particular palette is also located just a few blocks from my place.

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See that top row of round cheeses? It is made up entirely of goudas. The first time I came in I bought truffle gouda and 3-year aged gouda, along with a humongous ball of burrata. It cost the same amount as the rest of my groceries for that week. I have since returned for the aged gouda at least four more times. It is crystalline and sweet and tart and creamy and every other adjective you might use to describe the world’s most delicious cheese.

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My friend got wind of my cheese obsession and recommended that I try aged comté, which I also found at the local shop. It was heavenly, though aged gouda remains my best cheese friend. That’s the comté and some chevre, below.

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Just for good measure, I leave you with the vitrine of what may be the world’s most beautiful cheese shop, in my old neighborhood of Montmartre. (I’ve been jumping around the northeastern section of Paris and its outskirts a lot; between Barbès and Belleville I spent three weeks in Montmartre and two weeks in Montreuil.) It was in this shop that I bought the best goat cheese I’ve ever had. It ate like cake.

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assorted observations

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In no particular order…

In New York City, it always seems to take longer to get to my destination than Google Maps’ time estimate, but in Paris, I always seem to get places faster than what the map tells me. At first I thought maybe Google calculates walking time based on the average pedestrian speed in each city. New Yorkers practically run while Parisians saunter – and I walk at some pace between the two. Then I made another observation, which I now believe probably better accounts for the difference: Continue reading

5 things I admire about France

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    • Half of Macron’s cabinet are women.  I think that is awesome, even if other forms of diversity, along with much of his political agenda, are lacking.
    • France plans to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2040. Ambitious environmental leadership at the national level – unfortunately now a foreign concept to me.
    • Starting in 2018, vaccination of children will be mandatory in France. This while the anti-vax movement and anti-science sentiment in the United States appears to be growing stronger.
    • Right around the time it was looking like Obamacare would be going down the tubes, I went to the doctor in Paris. I paid for the visit out of pocket, without any insurance, and the cost was around $35. If I had had French social security (which includes health insurance and a bunch of other benefits), it would have been no more than $12 or so. On the other hand, if I had gone to the doctor in New York without insurance… well, I wouldn’t have, because it would have cost me like $300. I knew theoretically that the French health care system puts the American one to shame, but experiencing its straightforward humanity in real life, at the same time as I was following the events in DC with ever-growing disgust, made me highly emotional.
    • And finally, on a “one of these things is not like the other” note: I recently found out that France has almost 250 distinct varieties of cheese. If I were more gutsy about the stinky ones, I might make it my mission to try one of each.

Also, an honorable mention. I couldn’t include it in my list since it’s not actually true, but oh how I wish it were:

I was sad to learn that Paris Plages – wherein the city creates beaches along the Seine – would be sand-free this year, since it looks like it was amazing in years past. But, when I heard a rumor that the cancellation of sand was because the construction company that provided it had put its hat in the ring to build Trump’s wall, I couldn’t have been prouder of my temporary city. The truth is a little more complicated. Apparently the decision was more to do with environmental considerations and / or the company’s having indirectly funded terrorism. Both of which are highly admirable reasons… It’s just that I really loved the idea of Paris giving up its summer fun to take a stand against the Trump agenda.

two perspectives

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Today I went to see a mental health professional who was very helpful, for the most part. But as our time was drawing to a close he said to me point blank, “You need to leave France. There is nothing for you here.” It was highly inappropriate, yet well-intentioned and perversely delightful in its utter Frenchness. He went on to say that there are no jobs here, that life is getting more difficult for everyone, and that I’m all alone, which is no good. Then he joked, “Everybody wants to leave France and you’re coming in. You’d have to be crazy to want to stay here.” Pretty fast and loose for a head doctor.

Anyway, that’s not the point.

Yesterday, I was doing a volunteer shift at the refugee / migrant center in the 18th arrondissement. I signed up with an interest in serving Syrian women and children, but it turns out the shelter only houses men, and most of them are from places in Sub-Saharan Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. I go about once a week, and though it feels good, there’s also always at least one moment during which my heart hurts for these strangers in a strange land, who are penniless and without possessions, who are mostly traveling alone, and who may never see their families again.

When I do daytime shifts I work in the laundry and when I do evening shifts I work in the “restaurant.” Both are frequently hectic and understaffed, so while I serve clients directly, I don’t often get into long conversations with them. But last night, one young man, Ousman, stuck around past dinner to chat in very, very broken English with the staff member running the space. He was half-joking about how he was not going to budge from the shelter, even though he was on a very long list of people who were due to be transported the next day to more long-term facilities throughout France. He said he didn’t want to leave Paris and he looked like he was going to cry.

I started asking him questions since it was clear he wanted to share. Turns out this was a boy of 16 years old who left Pakistan when he was 11 to work in Turkey. After five years there, he moved on to Germany, where he stayed for half a year before coming to France. He had been living in the shelter for three months. In a soft voice he murmured, “I want to go back to Pakistan.” The staff member asked him why he didn’t, since that could be arranged. He said he had to stay in France for six years first, to get his papers. He had a lead to somewhere he could live in Paris, where rent would be 1000 Euro a month split between three unknown others. Whether it was a full apartment or just a room was not clear. By this point I had noticed that his face bore an uncanny resemblance to my nearly 3 year-old nephew’s, and I had to turn away to regain my composure.

Apparently Ousman’s nickname is Bambino. When I come back next week, he will no doubt be gone.

[Photo: Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho]

hyper bien

Tonight I had drinks with a woman who told me I speak “hyper bien français.” When taken with a grain of salt – as all compliments about language skills should be – this means that I actually speak “bien français.” And that’s good enough for me.

Not three months ago, I wrote about how I would consistently peter out after two or three hours of French conversation, but these days I feel like I don’t really have a time limit. Comprehension is still not at 100%, but it’s getting continuously better. And I now have enough evidence of attaining new language heights to convince myself not to get too frustrated or feel too stuck at any one point. I am reminded of this Mari Andrew drawing I saw on Instagram recently. Like life in general, language learning requires resilience:

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And I have built up this resilience. I can swim across this ocean of a language gap. (Other oceans,  less clear.)

to do, and done

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Things that I still want to do in the near future even though I have taken little to no action on them to date:

  • Spend at least two weeks and preferably two months doing Spanish immersion in Spain or South America.
  • Take a tour of the South of France.
  • Visit a bunch of Europe’s tiny states and principalities: Luxembourg, San Marino, Monaco, Andorra, and Lichtenstein, to be exact.
  • Practice my French conjugation the way I used to in school, with drills and tables and such.
  • Convert my ever-growing French vocab list (2,661 words and counting!) into an Anki deck.
  • Read more than five pages of a book at any one time.
  • Get back to running two or three times a week.
  • Earn an income.

On the other hand…

Things that I have done in the recent past and/or am continuing to do in the present:

  • Committed hundreds of new French words to memory.
  • Learned my way around Paris. Though I still can’t keep the arrondissements straight and probably never will.
  • Got out of town more than once, to bucket list places both near and far.
  • Met a ton of new people.
  • Started taking photographs with my video camera.
  • Finished my first (small) paid assignment in Europe.
  • Started my own documentary project, which can only be described as Grey Gardens, in Paris, with British people.
  • Ate my weight in cheese.

Eight for eight: proof that for everything I have not done (yet!), I have done something else worthy. Because you know that my annoying brain is keeping score.

[The photo is from my documentary project.]

airing my dirty Parisian laundry

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I have been a little, and sometimes very, depressed and anxious since coming to Paris. Having arrived with no plan to stay yet no plan to go anywhere else, I was counting on the universe to tell me what to do. But things aren’t falling into my lap the way they did in Dakar, and I am finding myself with a million different possible paths to pursue, none of which seems likely to be immediately satisfying or fruitful. It’s been a recipe for paralysis, with all its attendant emotions.

Apparently I am on a fairly common rollercoaster for the newly arrived and jobless. So I’m trying to be gentle with myself.

Things like running, and writing, and studying French would all help my mood but I’m stuck in that vicious cycle where I can’t get myself to do any of these things frequently enough to lift my spirits enough to provide the energy to keep doing them.

Apart from the feeling that my angst is crushing my soul like an industrial-sized garlic press, my day to day life continues to resemble every Parisian visitors’ fantasy: eating decadent food, drinking dark espresso, dallying at cute corner bistros, visiting amazing art and cultural spaces, wandering beautiful streets, and being serenaded in and by French.

A new friend of mine arrived here from the States a month before me, in similar circumstances and mindset (i.e. without a job and ready to hustle; followed by discouraged and unsure). We quickly admitted to each other that we were having a pretty tough time, but we also acknowledged our hesitance to tell anyone else, for fear of being written off as assholes.

“Oh yeah, it’s so hard being unemployed in Paris, poor you. Nothing to do but eat macarons all day, how depressing.” Well, yes, it turns out it is, if you are unable to compartmentalize your anxieties in order to appreciate your joys.

Every time I go through one of these emotionally challenging times I tell myself it’s an opportunity to learn how to center myself no matter what the situation. And then I curl up into a ball and panic.

Well, what can I say. Tomorrow is another day…

Flowers for Algernon / me

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It’s funny, I hadn’t thought about this book in years and if you had asked me to describe it for you just two weeks ago, I would have drawn a blank. But it all came rushing back to me in the days following my quick trip to England last week, when I realized I felt a bit like the main character in the book.

From what I can remember – and I’m sure I’m a little bit off – he is a young man with severe learning disabilities. Then he undergoes an experimental surgery that little by little increases his IQ to the point of brilliance. While he’s on his upward trajectory, a woman who is somehow involved in the study of his progress falls for him, and he falls for her. But then it becomes clear he’s hit his peak intelligence and started a descent right back to where he began. The tragedy is that he is painfully aware of what is happening and that he will soon lose his love once he can no longer hold up his end of the intellectual relationship.

I went to England on the 14th of June sure that I would come back on the 20th speaking much better French because of my week away. This would be in keeping with my marination theory of language, which posits that taking time off after an intense period of learning a foreign language helps it to sink in. But I think I have to amend my theory to include a minimum time away, maybe a month or so. And I also have to adjust for the possibility that perhaps if you spend too little time away, your abilities suffer instead of expand. I came back from England feeling as though my French had slid backwards to its pre-Paris level, which is to say, miles away from the high point it was at on June 13. And now, irrational as I know it is, I’m terrified that my peak French is no longer re-attainable (let alone surpassable).

And much like the guy in Flowers for Algernon, I fear that my descent will have a deleterious effect on all the relationships that I conduct solely in French.

The human mind is such a mystery, though. The fact that I hadn’t thought about Flowers for Algernon since I read it in eighth grade and then the plot magically materialized in my brain when sparked by a connection to the present, is proof of that. Who knows, maybe my French will likewise spontaneously return to me from wherever it is currently hiding in the recesses of my brain. Come out, come out, wherever you are…

[Photo: Kissing Toast]

Paris <3's New York

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One thing I noticed in France a few years ago and which appears to remain steadfast, is Parisians’ fascination with New York and especially with Brooklyn. [It’s also well-documented.] This is both wonderful and terrible for me. I left Brooklyn hoping for something altogether new, and yet my old New York neighborhood keeps creeping into my new Parisian ones. On the other hand, as a product of Brooklyn I am quite a hot commodity here, and I really cannot complain about that.

For some reason, many people here think that my accent in French is that of an Italian. It probably has to do with the fact that I have no ear and just approximate everything in a way that randomly cleaves more towards Italian sounds than American ones. In any case, I always correct people rather apologetically when telling them that I’m actually from the United States, even though they’re always thrilled. By now, I delight in the inevitable next question, ‘Where in the United States?’ because I’ve come to expect that nine times out of ten my response will elicit pure joy and predispose the person to like me based solely on my provenance.

I started out telling people that I had come here from New York by way of Dakar, assuming that Dakar was the most interesting thing about that statement. It certainly is to me. But no one here really cared about Dakar and now I’ve taken to skipping the Senegal part and saying that I’m from Brooklyn instead of New York, to optimally exploit Parisian sensibilities. On more than one occasion, people have squealed with delight when I’ve told them where I’m from, and then breathlessly peppered me with questions about it. Sometimes I withhold my origins strategically, waiting to throw my Brooklyn cred into the mix until I sense that a conversation is petering out and needs revitalizing. It’s like my secret weapon. (My other secret weapon, ridiculously enough, is my terrible accent. Men especially find it endlessly charming, which is great but also incredibly bizarre. I sound objectively awful when speaking French. The pull could only be the anthropological imperative to diversify the herd.)

A few incidents that have highlighted for me the ongoing hotness of the New York / Brooklyn brand:

In the supermarket in Barbès, there was a minuscule offering of four books for sale on the checkout line. One was called “Une Femme de Brooklyn.” You really can’t get more on the nose than that. I was tempted to buy the book to see what kind of offbeat characterizations they would make about Brooklyn women. The cover offered no insight.

A couple of weeks ago, I passed a McDonalds ad publicizing a month-long special menu called ‘New York Street Food.’ (The menu items bore no resemblance to New York street food.)

I just booked an apartment for July and August in Belleville, a rather hip neighborhood I am interested in exploring further. The apartment is perfect for me, but I was a little dismayed to find that the building is situated next door to a brunch-serving cafe called Topknot, and next door to that is a hipster barber shop. Also, I’m subletting from a guy with a Tom Selleck-like mustache. Have I left Brooklyn only to end up right back where I started?

Nah. The French are too delightfully off in their rendition of Brooklyn for it to really be threatening. [To wit: the photos above and below, from the Clignancourt flea market. Apparently Brooklyn = hot dogs and bicycles with a side of tattoos. While I suppose that’s technically correct, the ratios are way out of whack.]

And since there’s no danger of brunch spots overtaking cheese shops anytime soon, I can still afford to be amused rather than horrified by it.

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