Like A Picture in a Frame

Sometimes the windows in museums are just as picturesque as the paintings on the walls.

The top floor of the Picasso museum in Paris offers up the city past its curly metal railings.117.windows.2015aIf you pause on the checkered marble landing before descending one of the side staircases at the Louvre, these lines await you.
117.windows.2015b 117.windows.2015cOh, those Haussmannian buildings.

A Preview Imprévu

Recently I wandered into an art gallery in the shadow of the Pantheon. Actually part of the fifth arrondissement’s city hall, the gallery’s unassuming entrance on a side street contrasts with the grand columned façade of the building.

The vibrant, colorful paintings by Zareh Mutafian formed an exhibit called “Peindre après le génocide” (Painting after the genocide). This year marks 100 years since the genocide in Armenia. Mutafian was a survivor. Without knowledge of the title of the exhibit, one would not know it; the paintings’ subjects are brightly colored figures and landscapes. They’re quite beautiful.

I was surprised to see some art supplies on the table in the center of the gallery. I walked around, looking at the works. There were a couple of people conversing in the otherwise quiet space. After a few minutes, the man who was there told me, “Feel free to look around, but please don’t go upstairs since we’re not done setting up yet.” “You’re not open yet!?” I said. “When do you open?” “Tomorrow,” he replied.

I finished my tour of the ground floor, thanked him, and left. I looked more closely at the banner outside, and effectivement, the exhibit was to open the next day.

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It is not the first time that I’ve walked through a door that yielded to me, then later found out that it was not open to the public. I highly recommend it. Of course, to avoid feigning ignorance, it must be an honest mistake, so the key is to not read signs too carefully.

Long Days and Long Nights

Last Saturday I went out into the sunshine. If you live somewhere where periods of the year are rainy or cold, you understand how glorious it is when a beautiful day arrives.

Sometimes when I see a church, I stop in and walk around the inside and look at the stained glass windows and statues of saints. How utterly tranquil and filled with light this church was.

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People who don’t live in France sometimes ask me if I shop at outdoor markets. The answer is: not often enough. Like many other city residents, I usually make a one-stop shop at the supermarket. But once in a while, I remember that there are markets open every day, in every arrondissement, and I go.115.market.2015a 115.market.2015b

My fridge is now stocked with broccoli, carrots, turnips, garlic, eggplant, tomatoes, and leafy greens.

I picked up mozzarella from a small grocery and fondant au chocolat from the frozen food chain Picard before heading home to make lunch.

Next was a stroll on boulevard du Montparnasse for a little shopping.

This month I didn’t buy the 70 euro monthly metro pass, so I am walking and biking everywhere. According to the weekly vélib email that shows up in my inbox, last week I biked 3 hours and 45 minutes.

My purchases and purse fit neatly in the metal basket of the heavy gray bike.

Unbelievably, the sun was still warm and shining at 7 in the evening. I took the opportunity to sit in the Luxembourg Gardens and finish Deborah Moggach’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which I had borrowed from my favorite library.

After a quick munch on the broccoli I had cooked earlier, I headed out for a group rendez-vous at Belleville. A sit on a terrasse was followed by dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant and a night out.

Is it any wonder that this is my favorite time of year here? When the nice weather rolls around and the days grow longer, I struggle to think how I spent my free time during the winter season!

Look Up

This is how I am when the sun comes out. 114.sun.2015aAnd once I look up, I realize how pretty the tree against the sky is. And I remind myself to look up more often.114.sun.2015b 114.sun.2015cUsually we live life straight ahead. One day I realized that if, while on the bus, I moved my line of vision just slightly upward, the ride was a different experience. Instead of looking at the storefronts, which is interesting in itself, I was looking at the rooftops of the old Haussmannian buildings.

When I was a kid, I sometimes walked around my family’s apartment while holding a mirror in front of me with the surface facing upwards. When I looked down at the mirror, it felt like I was walking on the ceiling. When crossing rooms, I would instinctively step over the door frame although there was actually nothing but flat continuous floor beneath my feet.

I’m not sure how I started doing that. Who knows what inspires us to see the world from a different perspective from time to time? All I can say is thank goodness that it happens.

Un Brunch

On a recent weekend, a friend and I caught up over brunch. I say that casually, but actually I have never been a go out for brunch person. I’ve always figured that I can make fried eggs and toast at home and it’d be equally enjoyable and less expensive. No travel time, no reservation, no waiting, and as much milk as I want. Brunch out always seems to be a prix fixe of a seemingly long list of items that are actually mostly liquid—coffee, orange juice, mimosas (well, mimosas in the States—there is no tainting of champagne in France). However, if visiting friends suggest brunch to me, I’m up for it—I’ve done it in New York. For groups, it means that no one needs to host or clean up.

Likewise, I was enthused when my friend suggested a brunch place in the 14th arrondissement that she had found online. When she proposes a restaurant, bar, or café, I always say yes without researching it first. I trust her to make a quality choice. She’s the kind of French person who will not snub Angelina’s because it is touristy or the glossy bar at the Louvre because it is at the Louvre. She takes pleasure in food and places that are nice, and while her choices might cost a few euros over what I would suggest, they are never out of my budget and usually worth the experience. And precisely because they are not necessarily what I would have proposed, all the more I am glad we went.

The restaurant offered a choice of brunch terre (earth) or mer (sea), meaning meat or fish. We both chose land. I was curious about what brunch in France would be like, as portions in general are smaller than in the States. Well, this place went overboard. They started us off with complimentary fruit juice while we waited for a table, then served coffee and a basket of mini pastries and bread with butter and jam, a huge platter that we could not finish (and that is saying something for me), and a thick slice of pear and prune tart.

I had never had mozzarella sticks in France.113.brunch.2015After, we parted and I walked through the slight drizzle to meet a date at George Brassens park. He and I walked around a bit before hitting this book market I didn’t know would be there but was of course delighted to find.113.bookmarket.2015a

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Nimes

Last Friday I hopped on the TGV (high-speed train) after work to take the train to Marseilles. My friend picked me up at Gare Saint-Charles as he always does, and we caught up on the drive to his place.

Saturday morning he and his family and I had oeufs à la coque—I’m pretty sure it was my first one ever. He couldn’t find the egg cups, so to my amusement, we passed around this chicken his son had made in preschool and took turns eating our eggs.112.marseilles.2015aWe then headed off to Nimes, about an hour and a half drive away. I found it to be a charming town. My friend and I both remarked several times how clean it was.112.nimes.2015bThe small, gently winding cobblestone streets with little boutiques reminded me of Aix-en-Provence, though my friend told me that Nimes was less bourgeois.112.nimes.2015c 112.nimes.2015dWe entered this Romanesque church called Saint-Paul. A Romanesque church with a palm tree in front! May I never lose this sense of wonder upon seeing places like this.112.nimes.2015eAnd what about an arena in the middle of the city? The official symbol of Nimes is the crocodile, but the bull is close behind. This figure in front of the arena is partially composed of nuts, bolts, and keys that melt into the material.112.nimes.2015fWithout a doubt, for me the crowning experience of the day was experiencing the Jardins de la Fontaine. Before entering, you walk alongside a canal with a fountain at the end.

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112.nimes.2015h112.nimes.2015iThe public park has many varied features, all equally stunning. There was this basin with many orange, white, and gray fish that we watched for a while. 112.nimes.2015j112.nimes.2015k112.nimes.2015lThese staircases are not just staircases. They’re works of art.112.nimes.2015mBeyond the steps, there are ascending paths surrounded by greenery and flowers. None of it is apparent from down below, which gave me a sense of discovery as we turned each leafy corner. At the top is the Tour Magne, which dates back to the third century BC.

Sunday was rainy, so it was mostly spent in the car and indoors, but I didn’t mind. There is a road I love that curves along a rocky hill with the Mediterranean Sea on the other side, so when my friend lamented on the weather, I requested that we take that drive. What a delicious pleasure to be driven around. I tried not to feel too guilty that if I weren’t there that weekend, they would definitely have been at the motorcycle convention taking place.

My friend’s daughter holding my borrowed umbrella provided additional entertainment, first by being so cute and second by being knocked to the ground by a gust of wind. Her dad and brother certainly had a laugh. The poor kid—she wasn’t hurt but from her sulky face I could see her pride was. It didn’t stop the pint-sized fille from frolicking with the adult-sized umbrella again, though. I will have to tell my mom that story, as my cheery flowery umbrella was a Christmas gift from her.112.noyon.2015It’s amazing how a weekend can feel like a vacation. Life can be a bit stressful at times. I find that what helps is not necessarily physically getting away from your problems (unless your problem is cold weather or a specific person, you’re not going to escape them by running away), but rather spending time with people who see the best version of you.

Next time I would like to make it to the Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct bridge forty-five minutes from the center of Nimes, and Arles, a town where Van Gogh spent part of his life.

(The Friday Before) Last Friday Night

Recently un copain and I went to an exhibit at the Hôtel de Ville called Design & Artisanat d’Art : Berlin et Paris exposent leurs créaturs. He always finds interesting free things to do in the city, although apparently he doesn’t have a secret; he searches online. This expo featured work by contemporary designers and artisans from the two European cities.

While works on display should stand on their own, one’s experience of them is inevitably affected by their setting. The contrast between the abstract, fantastic designs and the centuries-old rooms with lofty ceilings was noticeable but not incongruent. The modern-day objects, fashion, and furniture had room to breathe in the grand space.

We looked and remarked on everything on display, from the straitjacket dress suspended from the ceiling to the instrument made for relaxation therapy to the surprisingly sturdy cardboard furniture that we tested out.

We were both enchanted by this piece by designer Marbella Paris.    100_7635We found this stack of blocks by Astropol delightful as well. It reminded me of something, a childhood memory or a warm place. Perhaps a lamp in the house my mother grew up in or a diner my family had been to. I’m not sure, but the round colorful lights made me think of the 70s. Funnily enough, my companion said it was very Star Trek. I suppose there is something throwback and futuristic about it at the same time.100_7632I thought this guy was funny.100_7629I think these chandeliers are always here. Why hang one when you can have a whole family?100_7634Afterward, we had a drink and then saw a contemporary jazz concert in a church. It was really cold in the church, but afterward we were surprised to be welcomed into a large adjacent room with complimentary hors d’oeurves and tarts. Apparently the church shelters homeless people who in return prepare those snacks for a monthly concert.

A middle-aged man with a scraggly beard approached us and joined our conversation. We learned that he worked for the parish and that he sometimes invites people who live in the street to have a meal with him in a restaurant.

He then yelled at an old lady who accidentally knocked a pile of plastic cups on the floor and had kicked them under the table instead of picking them up. She snapped back at him. He told us that he knew her because she was a parishioner. I couldn’t decide whether their acidic back-and-forth was okay because they have an existing relationship. Or how I felt about the fact that he wanted to put those cups that had fallen on the ground back on the table.

There are all kinds of people, and all kinds of art.

Shades of Beige

A couple of years ago a friend gave me Paris in Color by Nichole Robertson for my birthday. A book of photos of the city seen through each color, it was the perfect gift for me. I had seen it in a bookstore before but wouldn’t have bought it for myself.

Yesterday I saw a huge block letter sign advertising “PHOTOCOPIES THESES,” which made me laugh. I suppose if your eyes are strained from writing that thesis, you will not walk by without realizing that you can copy it here. I wondered, has that sign been there for ages, or was it purposely made to look vintage? You sometimes can’t tell in an old city what’s really old.

As I took my camera out of its tattered black case (actually falling apart, not purposely vintage), a man drove up to park his scooter.

Sometimes the city seems perpetually gray, but yesterday it was definitely beige.110.beige.2015

Stranger Talk

A conversation I had at a recently opened British café chain in Paris, with my internal commentary (translated from French):

Barista: Bonjour.

Me: Bonjour.

Barista: How are you?

(I am thrown off because shopkeepers and cashiers in Paris almost never ask how you are unless they know you. This cafe’s employees must have different training due to its British origins.)

Me: Fine, how are you?

Barista: Fine. Of what descent are you? I’m just curious.

(??? Really, you are asking me this? This is an acceptable question in the context of a conversation but not as an opener by someone I don’t know. Nowadays I find this as a first question by a stranger odd or amusing, but it doesn’t bother me as much as it once did. Before I can decide which pastry to order, I debate whether to answer “Chinese” or “American.” Asking what of what descent (de quelle origine) I am would indicate that you want to know what kind of Asian I am. And yet just saying “Chinese” with my American accent seems like an incomplete answer.)

Me: Chinese. Well, Chinese American.

Barista: Ni hao.

Me: Well, I’m American.

Barista [in English]: How are you?

Me: And what ethnicity are you?

Barista: French. Well, French of Portuguese descent.

I find a nice, brightly lit table in the corner and leave my coat there, then go back to the counter to wait for my order.

Same barista: What state are you from?

Me: New Jersey.

Barista: I heard a story about New Jersey.

(My interest is peaked. New Jersey is little-known enough abroad that I sometimes have to give a summary of it and place it “near New York,” but it’s also mentioned enough in popular American TV shows and books that sometimes people know snippets about it, sometimes true, sometimes wacky.)

Barista: There are forests in New Jersey where people get attacked.

(That’s the first time anyone has ever made that reference to my state. Even fellow Americans have never given me that association with New Jersey. I quickly scan my brain. He must be referring to the Jersey Devil. I would bet that most Jersey residents don’t even know the details of that story. I certainly don’t. Suddenly I realize why our hockey team is called the Jersey Devils, though.)

Me: I don’t often go to the forest in New Jersey…

Barista: It’s a legend, of course.

Me: Well, yeah.

He proceeds to tell me that he’s been everywhere in the world but the United States. He said he wants to go but also kind of doesn’t because then he’d probably want to stay there.

I don’t know if I’m ready for this kind of hyped-up Anglophone service in Paris. The “How are you?” was like being in the States but the inquiring about my ethnicity was not. Ah well, I’ll take the smile.

Love is Kind

This time last year I would have already received a Valentine’s card from my friend Donna. She was already gone, but I didn’t know it yet.

This year I must content myself with reading her card from last year. The actual letter is safe in New Jersey, but I have a copy on my computer, too.108.donna.2015I remember, at the time of her passing, being struck by how kind my friends and family are.

– The friend who told me the news and later, attended the memorial service and recounted it to me
– The friend who had dinner with me when I arrived in Boston the night before the funeral, when I didn’t expect anyone to be able to meet up with me on late notice
– The friend who let me crash at her and her boyfriend’s apartment
– One of the career services people I knew who saved me from awkwardness after the funeral Mass; drove me to the cemetery, which was farther from the church than I realized and which I would not have been able to reach on foot; and dropped me off at a subway station so I could catch my bus back to New York
– The two friends who called me when I was in subway after the funeral to find out how it went
– My sister, who thoughtfully got a Mass card for Donna’s family
– My parents, who were supportive
– The friend who knew Donna too and with whom I could share stories
– The friends who sent me comforting words

Today I remember the envelope her Valentine’s card came in, with its pink script and matching pink postage stamp and pink return address label.

I remember sitting in her office two summers ago and her leaning forward with her whole body and laughing with her eyes all squinched up.

I remember sitting at my kitchen table and speaking with her on the phone before leaving for France.

I remember sitting in her office as a college senior, talking about the future.

I remember walking home to my dorm and talking to my college roommate about how awesome Donna was. I must have just had an appointment with her, and I can’t imagine what she would have said to leave me with that kind of enthusiasm.

I remember sitting in bed at night in Paris and reading her letter by lamplight and thinking, “Someone out there is thinking about me.” It made me realize how much value you can bring to someone from afar.

Today I think about her family and the people she touched.

Today I say to her, as I did a year ago, “Thank you.”