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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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

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]

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]

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

Friday aka belated links day

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Always belated. I will try to work on that.

But in the meantime … it’s moving day! Followed by a concert in New York, followed by a trip to New Jersey to meet my new niece, followed by the same concert in Philadelphia, followed by my return to the city, followed by sustained emotional and physical exhaustion. Can’t wait.

Without further ado, here are your weekend linky links:

The latest on (American) travel to Cuba.

The world’s smallest language has only 100 words. 

This is the only dictionary I looove. It’s endlessly fascinating.

How Parisian are you? (Somehow I scored a 66%, making me a “ham/butter.”)

How to keep that post-vacation feeling.

Philosophizing inspired by the Paris love locks’ removal.

“Le Selfie” and other Internet speak translated around the world. 

Love these photos of Paris in the 50’s. 

Five truths about quitting your job to travel.

The travel industry is getting hip to solo travel. 

New Yorkers: #SeeYourCity

[Photo: Kim Love]

happy weekending!

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This weekend I plan to take advantage of the frigid temps to finally – and I really mean it this time – burrow in at home and compile all my French vocab words into one specially formatted file that will (eventually) become an Anki deck. I say “eventually” because making the actual deck will probably take me another six months to get around to.

For those who are also hunkering down this weekend… here are some interesting reads and little tidbits to keep you company: Continue reading

Paris Je T’aime

Paris Je T'aime Alexander Payne

The only vignette I enjoyed in “Paris Je T’aime” is also one of my favorite pieces of film. “14e Arrondissement,”Alexander Payne’s contribution, so perfectly and beautifully captures the unexpected jolts of emotion when traveling alone – the moments of feeling simultaneously connected and cut off, joyous and contemplative, full of wonder and full of solitude. It’s a fairly addictive experience.

The movie is old but I was reminded of it upon my return from Paris, where I didn’t get much alone time but nevertheless found myself in the headspace of a solo traveler, in all the best ways.