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.

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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.)

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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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