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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I am a wind-up toy

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By design, I didn’t speak French for the entire month I was in the United States, apart from a few days before I flew to Paris, when I had a refresher phone call with Philippe. I have found that stepping away from the language for a few weeks, months, or even years, has a marinating effect on my brain, and I always return to it having taken a strange and unexpected leap forward rather than having fallen behind. I mentioned this to my mom and she said that there is an actual theory that supports this model of language learning, but she couldn’t remember its name and I could not for the life of me find it via Google.

So, it was not entirely unexpected, but still delightful, to arrive in Paris and discover that a light bulb had gone off. I could now speak and understand at a distinctly higher level than I had in Dakar. (It had nothing to do with accents or speed of speech, as these have varied greatly.)

I’ve been making a huge effort to have a social life here, and as a result of that, I end up having at least one extended French conversation every day. Each one feels miraculous and wonderful. We discuss real topics, in the same depth as I would cover them in English. The only catch is that after two or three hours of sustained conversation at this level, I find a strange thing happening. On a dime, I go from crisp and lucid to foggy and drunken. My words start to slur and I begin to mispronounce everything I say, to a much more ridiculous degree than usual. And then a wave of exhaustion comes over me and I want to put my head on the table and doze off. I have basically wound down and died, and it’s not until after I get a full night’s sleep that I can start speaking French intelligibly again.

My behavior reminds me of the two furry wind-up toys we had as children – YipYip, a puppy, and ChipChip, a chipmunk. They made cute little noises while walking across the floor and moving their heads up and down. They were technically not wind-up toys since they operated on battery power – but please allow me to take this creative license. When their batteries started to die, their little “yip yip”s and “chip chip”s would become lower pitched and ominous, and their limbs would move ever more slowly until eventually they’d stop completely, suspended in mid-air. And they’d hang out like that – inanimate and inarticulate – until we found some more D batteries to put in them.

That’s me, in a nutshell. I am hoping, though, that unlike YipYip and ChipChip, my brain’s battery pack will somehow learn to hold a bigger and better charge every time I turn my French back on.

[Photo: Christopher Lance]

dropping in

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It’s been awhile. I’m writing this from Paris, after a whirlwind tour of southern New Jersey, New York, and Los Angeles, where I caught up with family and friends and generally ran around like a crazy person doing an average of twelve things each day compared to the one or two things that was my norm in Dakar. Hence, no time for blog posts.

I actually did write one on my phone, but I never found a moment to upload it and now it’s obsolete. Ah well.

So anyway, I got to Paris on Tuesday, which makes today my one week anniversary. Not that I’m counting the days or anything… Rather, I’m frittering them away like a retiree who doesn’t realize that she’s about to run out of money very, very soon. Or, like a retiree who does realize this and yet somehow feels very emotionally insulated from that knowledge. I don’t know what’s going on with me and my usual stress response, but I’m living the good life here in France while doing the bare minimum to find work, even though I estimate I have about three months left to bleed money before my good life will come to an end and I’ll be on the next flight to wherever someone will give me a job.

But for now, here are some random tidbits about my time in Paris thus far:

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For a month, I have an AirBnB rental in a heavily West African neighborhood called Barbès. I did this by design, figuring it would help me pretend that I hadn’t completely left a place I didn’t really want to leave. What I didn’t realize when I booked the apartment was how close Barbès is to everywhere else. Paris is a much smaller city than I thought. A few days ago I walked from my house, which is fairly close to the ring road that encircles the central city, all the way to the Seine in the middle of the city, in about 40 minutes.

The tiny apartment has two windows, one towards the front of the house and one towards the back. The front one – my bedroom window – has a view of a blooming lilac tree and an apartment building painted dark magenta across the road. It’s quite picturesque. But the view out the back window – the one in the image at the top of this post – steals the show. The frame is filled by Sacré-Cœur in such a way that it looks like a backdrop for a set. At night they light up the church, and I turn off the lights in my kitchen and just stare out the window grinning.

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My plan had been to spend every other day of my one-month Paris trial, as I’m thinking of it, strolling aimlessly around a different arrondissement to get to know the city better. (And I was supposed to spend every other day at home in front of my computer, working hard to find a job. I may or may not have stuck to that plan.) I found a box of 50 index-sized cards in the rental, each one with a different short tour of a Paris neighborhood, and I decided to use those to guide my walks instead. They are amazing because you don’t look like a tourist holding a map or a guide book when you walk around with one of the cards, and the landmarks include some fairly random yet intriguing places, like candy stores from the 1700s.

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As expected, I am continuously tempted by the million and one ways to dispense with my money here. When I visited the Galeries Lafayette as part of one of the walking tours, it felt dangerous to linger too long, because everything looked perfect and amazing and I feared getting sucked in to a buying frenzy. IMG_7997.jpg

(When I took a picture of the famous cupola I noticed that with only slight modification, the bunting echoed my nostalgic thoughts: Trop cher. Fly me to DKR forever.) And yet, I can’t even blame the French for their overconsumption of luxuries the way I do Americans. Haute couture and gastronomy are part of French cultural heritage (even UNESCO says so.); how can you begrudge them their Chanel and their artisanal cheese?

On that note… I did some grocery shopping so that I wouldn’t have to keep spending money eating out. I stopped in to a charcuterie shop and picked up a few slices of ham and a wedge of emmental, which I figured would last me a few breakfasts. When the cashier rang it up as 19 Euros, I gasped, “Jesus Christ,” which is appropriate given that my own god would have been like, “That’s what you get for eating pork.”

Also what I get for eating pork (and six kinds of cheese, and ice cream, and Sancerre, and steak with blue cheese sauce…): I became progressively more and more sick to my stomach for the first four or five days I was here. The theory I came up with in Senegal holds water: my stomach does a million times better in places where other people’s do much worse, because my stomach does not like the good life the way my heart and taste buds do. (I’m ignoring my stomach and trying to push through.)

To conclude: I will soon be both broke and physically broken, but in the meantime I’m quite happy. This is a really nice life to lead, however long it lasts.

P.S. The most random of the random tidbits: I find young trendy French people’s relationship to the English language hilarious. Today I passed a hipster-bearded guy wearing a cap that said MILF on it, and I really wanted to ask him if he knew what it meant. Instead I laughed out loud while checking him out and he caught me in the act. I don’t know, maybe he does know exactly what it means and is just taking the concept of wearing things ironically to a rather brilliant level.

French and FOMO

I realized recently, after a conversation with a Frenchman that left me floating on air simply because it was an honest-to-goodness French conversation: my impetus for learning languages may be nothing but misguided FOMO.

I remember my frustration during visits to Israel, when 15 or 20 extended family members and friends of my cousins would pack themselves around my aunt and uncle’s long table and everyone, young and old – except for my brother and sister and me – would enjoy hours of boisterous conversation in rapid-fire Hebrew. I would tug desperately at my mother’s sleeve whenever anyone laughed or yelled, asking her again and again, “What did s/he say???” My mother would answer me maybe twenty percent of the time, and I can’t blame her, because I was like a broken record, demanding line by line interpretation services.

I think maybe that sense of missing all the fun has haunted me up to the present, because why else would I consecrate so much time to understanding strangers?

In related news, it occurred to me that I ascribe way more coolness to the French than they actually deserve, simply because I don’t fully understand them. (Also because they dress really well.) The other day this song came on the radio, and I noted that it perfectly encapsulates how I feel when I’m hanging out with a bunch of French people.

I hardly ever feel that way with the Senegalese, for several reasons: I’m used to their accents. They tend to speak more slowly and enunciate more clearly than the French. And they are usually more patient with me, probably because for most of them, French is their second language as well.

My goal during my month in Paris, more than finding a job or making it a home, is to relieve myself of the sense that the French are all having a party that I’m not invited to. I thought I had aged out of that less-than, outsider feeling – the one I used to have in college in New York and in my early 20’s in Los Angeles – but apparently I am not immune to the language barrier-induced variety. It’s ridiculous and I know it, so I’m hopeful that the mystique will fall away pretty quickly. My only fear is that the moment it does, my motivation to become fluent in French will disappear with it.

[Photo: WSIFrancis]

My plans, or lack thereof

So… I’m leaving Dakar. Which I know sounds ridiculous coming just days after I posted a love letter to the city. I meant every word of it, and I’m sure I would fall even harder the longer I stayed. But sometimes you can’t be with the one you love. Continue reading

immature humor

My favorite faux amis yet, spotted in Ouagadougou.

In French, this sign advertises custom-made stamps. But in English, it seems to tout very, very unappealing candy.

As I wrote that last sentence I realized how weird it is that you are allowed to double your very’ies and really’s for effect in English. I can’t recall if I’ve ever seen the same in French with très or tellement. Can anyone confirm if it is ever done?? (Double question marks: not grammatically correct but I like them anyway.)

catching up on 2016 before it’s over

Above, a belated shot of the Los’ Christmas spread this year. I got home from my three week-long shoot just in time to celebrate with them. Note the turkey! I have managed to make my mark in Senegal… The family loved our Thanksgiving turkey so much that they decided to make it again for Noël instead of their usual mutton. Unfortunately, I think there was a bit of beginner’s luck at play with the first one, because this second attempt didn’t turn out quite as delicious. I hope they nevertheless turn this into a new Christmas tradition, so that I can leave a legacy here!

Below, lots of links I wanted to share this month but didn’t have the time to until now:

Ten food names with unusual origins.

A world map of every country’s tourism slogan.

A visualization of what each country is best (or worst) at.

Italy’s last bastion of Catalan language struggles to keep it alive.

How i became I.

As double-dutch wanes in New York, competition comes from abroad.

On non-Swedes’ obsession with “hygge” (and the ironic conspicuous consumption that accompanies it).

32 movie accents analyzed by a dialogue coach.

FOLO = fear of living offline.

Atlas Obscura’s greatest finds of 2016.

Spin the globe to listen to radio stations around the world.

This makes me so sad, and it’s one of the reasons the call back to New York has grown fainter and fainter for me.

What each country is most worried about, and how satisfied they are with the direction of their country.

Comedians from repressive countries offer words of wisdom to Americans devastated by the election.

And on that inappropriate note, happy new year to all of you! Thank you for reading my blog this year, and for encouraging and commiserating with me as I grope my way towards French proficiency (while forgetting all the Spanish I’ve ever learned). It’s been way harder than I naively thought it would be when I arrived in Dakar. Writing about the ups and downs makes it so much more bearable, perhaps because I feel a confidence in English that I lack completely in French. Nice to remind myself that I can at least speak one language well…

Anyway, I wish I were more prepared to look back at 2016 and make some sort of meaningful statement about it the way everyone else seems to do when they have a blog.. but the only thing I’ve been capable of for the past few days is listening to George Michael and wallowing in angst about my lost youth and our doomed future.

I should have quit at “Happy new year”….

Thoughts on Poutine

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[More bored airport musings.]

Whenever the French newscast scrolls an all-caps headline including the word “POUTINE” across the bottom of the screen, I wonder excitedly what my favorite dish of French fries with cheese curds and gravy could have possibly done to vault itself onto the world stage.

Then I remember. Ah yes, the Russian president.

I really wish the French would reconsider their spelling. It thrills then disappoints me, every single time.

[Photo: Melanie K. Reed]

Leave it to a French fashion magazine…

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…to explain English slang to me. I was never sure if bae meant boyfriend, girlfriend, best friend, or something else entirely. Now I know.

Next, who can tell me what chanmé or grave means? (In slang, that is.)

P.S…

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Only the French would appropriate English with such ass-backwards (pun intended) aplomb. Whereas Asian appropriation of English is usually bizarre and thus adorable, the French specimen above mildly annoys me. It seems to indicate a total disregard, chez les français, for the actual meaning of non-French words. It did not occur or does not matter to the cosmetics company, nor to the magazine that so breezily embraces their product, that no one in their right mind wants to think about rubbing their hands with shit. Even jasmine-fig scented shit. It does not matter, perhaps, because in the French consciousness ‘shit’ does not mean ‘shit’ but rather ‘cool and somewhat edgy English word that becomes even hipper when plopped into a French sentence.’

Perhaps I am reading too much into this… And the company could be American for all I know. I’ve been sitting in the Casablanca airport for nine hours waiting for my connecting flight and I’m a little stir-crazy.

I could have used that time to post my Benin pix but I was too tired after a week-long shoot in Mauritania (pictures of which I will post after I get back from the second, third and fourth leg of the trip).

Onward!… In four more hours. Ughhhhhh.