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]

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…

mission update

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It has been a month since my last post. I don’t know why I haven’t written. It’s not like I’ve been too busy. In fact, I have had more time on my hands than I know what to do with. I’ve spent much of it dedicating myself to something that Jean-Paul Belmondo, in my favorite line from Breathless, calls “improving Franco-American relations.” But for some reason my brain and body are unwilling to devote any mental or physical resources to more puritanically productive pursuits like writing or finding a job or studying my French verb conjugations.

Instead, I have spent far too many hours lazing about with a growing sense of distress at my inability to snap out of it. Last week I finally gave myself a strongly worded pep talk and since then I have been getting back, slowly, to responsible-person things. Today I’m forcing myself to write something here even though the words are coming slow as molasses and I circle back every five seconds to approach from a new angle.

I have been wanting to report on my progress attempting to fall in love with Paris. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to unlock some hidden depths of feeling for this city, though I can’t say I’ve fallen heads over heels yet. But I have felt the first stirrings of passion, and I’m pretty sure it has everything to do with my repeated return to the following activities: Continue reading

a very happy blogiversary

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Three years ago today, at home in Brooklyn, I wrote my first post for this blog, which I had conceived as an exercise in keeping my eyes on the prize. What prize? My big new dream was to spend two years saving up money while practicing my high school French and re-learning elementary Spanish, and then to move to Senegal followed by Argentina a year later. It was a ridiculously ambitious dream… but I did it all. Well, not Argentina. Not yet, anyway. Paris somehow got thrown into the mix first, the result of a post-Brexit fear that my EU citizenship might not be around to open Europe’s doors for me much longer.

The point is that I actively changed my life from one that was boring me and leaving me unfulfilled to the one I had dreamed about having since I was a kid. This blog has borne witness to all of that, and so I deeply appreciate this blog. Likewise, I deeply appreciate everyone who has followed along with my journey, whether dropping in once or reading every post.

Who knows what this year will bring. Maybe I’ll run out of steam (read: money) and go back to New York. Maybe I’ll return to Dakar. Maybe I’ll move on to Barcelona or Buenos Aires or somewhere else entirely. Maybe I’ll fall in love with Paris (I’m really, really trying) and stay. It’s all very, beautifully unclear. (And also very scary, let’s be honest.)

Whatever happens, I will write about it here.

[P.S. The photo has nothing to do with this blog post, but I took it last night when I was out in what apparently has become a hopping neighborhood of Paris. It amuses me. These poor residents just want to get some peace and quiet, but little do they realize that draping an indignant sign out your window (it says: silence, [we have] the right to sleep) is an invitation for rowdy revelers to yell even louder. At least it is in America. Maybe French young people have more respect.

and another thing…

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As I said yesterday, I’ve now been to Paris four times. The first time was in June or July almost 23 years ago. The second time was in March of the year 2000. The third was in January, two winters ago. And finally, I’m here again in April. Thus, three out of four seasons are quite well represented.

And yet… can anyone tell me why the temperature has been pretty much exactly the same every time I’ve visited? Is it ever not 53 degrees in Paris? (Fahrenheit, people.)

And why, WHY, does it always feel more like 33? This morning I actually stood in front of an outdoor chicken rotisserie broiler to warm up.

Despite my lack of pure unadulterated love for Paris, I’ve been finding it highly enjoyable to be here under my current circumstances (unemployed yet with a certain sense of possibility). I keep breaking into the widest grins while walking down the wide boulevards and happening upon things like the Benoit Hamon rally at place de la République last night. But… this weather is really cramping my style. It takes me like an hour to will myself out of bed in the morning, as though it’s mid-January. I didn’t bring my winter coat with me, and there’s only so many layers I can put on in a day without looking like a bag lady.

So I’m cangry. There’s hangry for hunger-induced anger and now I’m officially coining cangry for cold-induced anger. Oh wait, it already exists.  I bet whoever beat me to it is Parisian.

[Photo of Paris from the air, oh whoops, my mistake, it’s actually the Arctic tundra: Jack French.]

Paris as Bradley Cooper

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Yesterday as I was strolling the stunning streets of Paris, I began again to wonder why I have such a chip on my shoulder about this lovely city. None of my explanations were plausible, until I decided to apply my “city as boyfriend” analogy, and then all of a sudden it made sense. My relationship to Paris is exactly like my relationship with Bradley Cooper.

Which is not to claim that Bradley Cooper is my boyfriend. He is not, nor will he ever be. That’s the point.

Everybody loves Bradley Cooper. They think he is the most beautiful, sexy man on the planet. In his real-life presence, they become giddy and take beaming selfies. There are some who would even pay extravagent amounts of money to spend the night with him.

Me, not a chance. I acknowledge that Bradley Cooper has exceptionally beautiful eyes, but that’s where it ends. He seems like a standard-issue faux-hunk who has cultivated nothing soulful below the surface. The chemistry is just not there. And what’s more, he seems to have an air about him of the arrogant A-lister who thinks only the hottest babes are worthy of him. So, if I ever crossed his path, I’d make a point of turning on my heel and walking the other way before he could take the non-time to look right through me.

And that’s Paris and me in a nutshell. The three times I’ve been here before, I could not love the city because I was sure the city would not find me worthy of loving back. I thought I didn’t look good enough, dress well enough, or speak French elegantly enough.

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I suppose I could have fallen for Paris anyway, given my romantic predisposition to run after those who don’t give me the time of day. But, like Bradley Cooper, I was never that attracted to Paris to begin with. While I recognize that the city is objectively gorgeous, it does not move me in the way that, say, Barcelona with its wonder-inducing Gaudís does. All this week, I’ve been walking past jaw-dropping buildings, and while they do fill me with delight, I also feel a sense of disconnection and resentment of their superfluous, easy beauty. 

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They remind me of Victoria’s Secret models. The kind favored by Bradley Cooper, not so incidentally. Is there anything that’s strikingly peculiar or unconventionally dazzling about this place? Anything that is lovable and wonderful rather than simply stunning? Until I arrived last week, I found that prospect doubtful.

Now that I’m here, I realize that’s ridiculous. There must be. I am trying hard to withhold judgement and to earnestly search it out. I realize it’s equally ridiculous to think that an entire city is judging me. No one cares. Parisians are just going about their business, and there is no velvet rope keeping me from joining them.

That said, I should also withhold judgment of Bradley Cooper. I do not know him nor have any basis to tell what he is really like. For all I know, he could be an unselfconsciously offbeat sweetheart. Perhaps he loves playing gin rummy with his grandma. Perhaps he has three pet hamsters named after Hollywood royalty. Perhaps he still writes to his Kenyan pen-pal from the fifth grade. Doubtful, but possible.

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[Top photo of Bradley Cooper in Paris: Just Jared; Bottom photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images Europe]

my favorite pictures from Dakar

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Because I’m in NYC feeling reverse homesickness, if you will, here are the pix that I love the most from my time in Dakar.

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The architecture I love combined with the car rapides that I love = a feast for the eyes.IMG_7236 copy

On Tamkharit (or Tamxarit), a week after the Islamic new year, Muslim friends and relatives of the family I lived with brought around huge bowls of a spiced millet couscous and a sweet stew called thiere. The picture above represents perhaps half of the generosity shown to the Lo family by their Dakarois neighbors. On every holiday, I was touched by how many people stopped by to visit and drop off food. IMG_7436 copy

And on my own holiday – Thanksgiving – I made an American feast for the family. It was a really fun night.

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I went with Mamie and Tantie Lo to a fabric market to pick out material for a dress Mamie needed made before a wedding. She waded deep into the piles upon piles of fabric and I love the expression on her face as she listened to Tantie advising her from the street.IMG_7119 copy

And I love this one of Tantie and Mamie and me. We were getting “sundowners,” as they call sunset drinks in Dakar (I could never figure out if this was a British or French expression), at a hotel bar overlooking the ocean.

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One morning I came downstairs to catch everyone in the household in the same exact pose. I found it fairly adorable.

I loved living with the Lo’s. They were endlessly warm and welcoming, and through them I learned what daily life is really like in Dakar. (I also got incredible French practice.)

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Seeing Youssou N’Dour from front row seats on the eve of Senegalese Independence Day was hands down my best night in Dakar.

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One day many months into my stay in Dakar, I happened upon this baguette truck in my neighborhood. From then on I saw it everywhere, and I swooned every time. IMG_20170211_233743081 copy 2One of my last nights out was for a women’s association event hosted by the matriarch of the Lo family. A Tuareg man from Timbuktu, Mali was at the table next to mine, and until the “Parade of Nations” at like 2 in the morning, I didn’t realize that he was carrying a sword as part of his traditional dress for that parade. I thought he must trot it out for every special occasion, and I was in awe. Just goes to show: never draw conclusions based on observations of cultures that are unfamiliar to you.IMG_20170214_161939270 copy 2

My last month in Dakar, I raced my way through every spot left on my “to see” list. Yoff beach was one of those places, and once I saw it I regretted not having come earlier so that I could revisit. It is miles of beachfront, at one end of which is where many of Dakar’s fishers dock their boats. The line-up of brightly painted pirogues, the wandering sheep, the horse-drawn carts, and the fishermen and fish market saleswomen running to and fro creates a very picturesque tableau.

And now, I turn tearfully back to the reality of New York in the supposed Spring…

12 months, 12 countries

I came to Senegal hoping I’d be lucky enough to see a bit of this country and a few others nearby. Things worked out beyond my wildest dreams, and I ended up visiting 12 new countries in 12 months, a personal record. Half the trips were for work, half for vacation, but all of them were a pleasure to see. (Though they were definitely not pleasurable at every moment, to say the least.)

I’ll share my favorite pictures from Dakar later, but first, here in one place are my travelogues from all the countries I visited from last February to this January.

Senegal: the western and northern parts, and a central / southern part

Portugal

Morocco: Marrakech and Casablanca

Liberia

Ethiopia

Tanzania: safari on the mainland and Zanzibar

South Africa: Cape Town and Johannesburg

Benin

Mauritania

Burkina Faso

The Gambia

Cape Verde: Cidade Velho, Praia, and Mindelo, and the island of Santo Antão

And with that, I’m off to the airport, America-bound…

handmade in Senegal

Just in case my baggage gets lost en route to New York, here are the clothes I had made from the fabric I bought in Senegal, Benin and Ethiopia.

The only thing I didn’t end up liking is the blue, orange, and yellow shirt (top row, center). It was supposed to be a fairly androgynous camp shirt just like this zebra one.

But it turned out looking more like a woman’s leisure suit jacket from the 70s. I gave it to Mamie and somehow it looks awesome on her.

The zebra shirt, by the way, is the only thing I ordered from a different tailor than Adama Paris. I walked by a children’s clothing shop, Bapribap, in my neighborhood one day and saw the cutest zebra shirt for little boys, along with an adorable wax-print romper for little girls. I went in and asked if they could make them in adult sizes, and indeed they could. So I ordered one zebra shirt for me and one for my 2 year-old nephew. 🙂 A few weeks ago I went back to the shop and bought something like nine other outfits for my nieces and my friends’ babies. They are all going to look so cute, just the thought of it makes me giddy. Plus I was really happy to support the business of someone I became friends with over the course of my year here. Annica is awesome, and she happens to be married to the reporter I worked with a few months ago (who I met separately, because like I said, it’s a small ex-patriot world).

All in all, not a bad haul, huh?