the stuff of my dairy dreams

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I have written about my fruitless search for rose glace in Paris before. About three weeks ago I finally found it – nearly 25 years after the first time I tasted it – at an ice cream shop just a few blocks from my new place in Belleville. And I got doubly lucky, because they also had violet flavor. It tasted sort of soap-like but still wonderful.

I am triply lucky – or very, very unlucky, depending on how you look at it – that the most well-suited cheese shop for my particular palette is also located just a few blocks from my place.

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See that top row of round cheeses? It is made up entirely of goudas. The first time I came in I bought truffle gouda and 3-year aged gouda, along with a humongous ball of burrata. It cost the same amount as the rest of my groceries for that week. I have since returned for the aged gouda at least four more times. It is crystalline and sweet and tart and creamy and every other adjective you might use to describe the world’s most delicious cheese.

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My friend got wind of my cheese obsession and recommended that I try aged comté, which I also found at the local shop. It was heavenly, though aged gouda remains my best cheese friend. That’s the comté and some chevre, below.

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Just for good measure, I leave you with the vitrine of what may be the world’s most beautiful cheese shop, in my old neighborhood of Montmartre. (I’ve been jumping around the northeastern section of Paris and its outskirts a lot; between Barbès and Belleville I spent three weeks in Montmartre and two weeks in Montreuil.) It was in this shop that I bought the best goat cheese I’ve ever had. It ate like cake.

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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.

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…

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]