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]

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.

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

verveine

Harney and Sons vervaine

Speaking of delightful French gastronomy… while I was in France in January my after-dinner drink was always verveine, which I had never heard of before but which seems quite popular there as a non-alcoholic digestif. I had no idea what I was drinking until I got back to New York. Continue reading

everything I’ll eat in France

French Pastries

One (or, let’s face it, two) desserts per day:

Glacé fleur – the most delicious confection in the world. Here’s a handy guide to the best ice cream in Paris.

Creme caramel

Creme brûlée

Macarons

Chocolat pot au creme

Mousse au chocolat

Mousse aux noisettes

Flourless chocolate cake

Some sort of soufflé

Something from Chambelland and something from Helmut Newhouse, gluten-free bakeries

In addition my never-tasted but nevertheless-beloved choucroute garnie, I plan to dine on:

Raclette

Baekeoffe

Boeuf bourguignon

Brie and Camembert and Roquefort

Coquilles Saint-Jacques

Galettes

Oeufs en meurette

Coq au vin

Pot-au-feu

Confit de canard

Tartiflette

A French omelette (and by that I mean an omelette made in France)

Steak frites

Ratatouille

Brandade

Bouillabaisse

And last but not least, copious quantities du beurre, in any form or fashion.

I will accompany every single meal with a glass of Sancerre.

It’ll be hard work, but I’m up for the challenge.

up, up and away

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Yesterday, within the space of ten minutes, I checked my Delta balance, found my 50,000 miles had been deposited, and booked a 10-day trip to Paris. While I was going through those motions, the rational part of me kept saying to myself, “Maybe this is worth thinking through a little more?” But the part of me that knows how often I paralyze myself by overthinking made a “talk to the hand” gesture and continued on its way.

So now I’m heading to France in mid-January, rather inexplicably. Originally I was going to jet off for the weekend but then I realized that if I’m going somewhere I may never return to, and using valuable miles to get there, I should make the most of it. I decided to tack on an additional weekend to go anywhere in France that my heart desired. I thought about heading south to try to get some sun but that seemed like a fool’s errand. Even the Riviera won’t be able to deliver in January. So I decided to choose my destination based on whichever place has the best food, because really all I want to do is eat as many fatty dishes and patisserie treats as humanly possible, wander beautiful streets aimlessly, and speak a ton of French.

That’s how I concluded that I should go to Alsace, home of choucroute, which appears to be the best invention in the history of gastronomy. According to this handy Buzzfeed article on the 44 French foods you must try before you die, it also boasts the origin of raclette, pot au feu, coq au vin, and boeuf bourguignon. (And now my mouth is watering.) None of the other regions of France look nearly as gluttonous.

This is probably because Alsace also appears to be the coldest region of the country. They have to eat all that fat to prevent frostbite. It’s rather counterintuitive of me to have misgivings about heading to a cold city for vacation only to beeline from there to the very coldest part of the country it belongs to, but I have decided that if you’re going to do winter, you may as well do winter. And look how beautiful winter in Alsace looks!

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My own personal not-very-dramatic cliffhanger

selfie in the parkMy new miles credit card arrived in the mail and I was thisclose to registering for the NYU Spanish class with it, but nagging doubts held me back. Is it completely stupid to begin studying one language when you are just getting the hang of another one? Will it confuse my brain and ensure I learn neither French nor Spanish effectively? Wouldn’t it be a more satisfying use of $500 to go on a vacation somewhere Spanish-speaking instead? Or to put the money into my savings account towards my immersion sabbatical? Do I have the discipline to attend three hours of class each week after eight hours at work? And will I actually put in the time to do any of the homework when I already spend two nights a week practicing French?

Then there are the misgivings about my nascent plan to spend my winter vacation in Paris. Why on earth would someone with seasonal affective disorder go to a place that’s even grayer and damper than the one where she lives? Shouldn’t sunshine and heat be on my agenda instead? Why would someone with limited funds go somewhere she has been before and did not feel the need to ever go back to? Is it not silly to spend my one week out of town in another humongous town, doing things that are the French equivalent of the same things I do back home?

Both decisions seem like they come down to one central question: Will I allow myself to embrace plans that are completely illogical simply because I really want to do them?

Stay tuned to find out…

(Photo: my most contented moment in Argentina, posted here to remind me that sometimes the best decisions are also the most random ones, made by an inscrutable heart.)

solo in Paris – or anywhere really

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My favorite thing is to wander aimlessly around a densely packed city and take in the sights. That’s basically all I did in Buenos Aires from early in the morning til the wee hours of night: walk and gawk, walk and gawk, stop to sit in a park, walk and gawk, stop to eat steak (always, steak), walk and gawk, walk and gawk. I must have covered a forty square mile area by foot and every single block had something to be in awe of, whether animal, vegetable or mineral.

Apparently the French have a word for people like me: flâneur, or stroller. Stephanie Rosenbloom wrote a piece for this week’s Times travel section about strolling Paris on her own, and it perfectly captures the magic of solo travel. The way that being alone enhances the senses and imbues every experience with both grounding stillness and skin-prickling energy.

Paris, she convincingly writes, is a city that “deeply rewards the solo traveler”:

In a city that has been perfecting beauty since the reign of Napoleon III, there are innumerable sensual details — patterns, textures, colors, sounds — that can be diluted, even missed, when chattering with someone or collaborating on an itinerary. Alone one becomes acutely aware of the hollow clack of pétanque balls in a park; the patina of Maillol’s bronze “Baigneuse se Coiffant” that makes her look wet even on a cloudless day in the Tuileries; how each of the empty wine bottles beside sidewalk recycling bins is the embodiment of someone’s good time.

I have only spent a few days in Paris and that was years ago – but I remember it as gray, snobby and overrated. I’ve never felt the need to return until I read this article, which had me wanting to jump on the next plane. Instead I practiced my flânerie / joggerie along the Hudson River on a drop-dead gorgeous New York City day and was thankful to be living in the walkingest city in the world.

(Photo: I took this picture when I visited Paris in 2000. Everything about this elderly couple, from their classic dress, to their slow unhurried stroll, to their arm-in-arm charm, felt perfectly suited to the city.)