Straight to the Heart

Let me start from the end. My last day in Paris this past vacation found me sitting at the bottom of the long staircase at Montmartre, crying my eyes out with the beautiful Sacré-Coeur Basilica in view at the top of the hill.

When I recounted this story to my friend a week later, back in our routine of Tuesday lunch in New York, he laughed and said, “That’s so Parisian!”

I had to laugh. I know he didn’t mean it in an unsympathetic way, and I wasn’t in an emotional state at that point. I guess it was quite an image. I hadn’t seen it from his perspective since I could hardly see through my own tears while living it.

No, I hadn’t fallen down the stairs of the Sacré-Coeur. I had had an unexpected negative interaction with a close friend, and in that moment, it knocked the wind out of me and seemed to put a damper on my whole trip, which upon reflection during my flight back to the States, had actually been full of beautiful and fun and pleasant moments in addition to the disappointing and frustrating ones.

Some vacation, eh?

I have traveled quite a bit, and I realize that my experience on this trip was due in part to my ties in France, which have loosened from being away but are still rooted. Ever evolving and changing but still existent. I was coming back to a place where I have history, a place that I love where people I love live, but once in a while who and what you love can hurt you.

From what I’ve seen, most expats and immigrants have a multifaceted relationship with their adopted country. It is enriching and spectacular and difficult and challenging to make one’s life in another culture. I admire those who do so to escape a precarious political situation, for their safety, or for a better life. When I moved to France, it was just for myself, and indeed there were still hard moments. I know that I was lucky in that despite the frustrations of applying for visas and getting paperwork through and dealing with administrative systems, I had a country to come back to where I have citizenship and the right to work.

Let’s go back to the bottom of the staircase. I thought of calling someone to talk to. Who would be available back in the States? Mon copain ? I considered. I wasn’t going to call my friends in France, who would be at work. As I sat there, lo and behold, a French friend called me to ask how my trip was going. The poor guy, who was probably expecting me to tell him I was gallivanting around Paris eating pastries, got a blubbering explanation of my tears. He gave me some words of strength and insight and comfort, and after patiently listening to me a little more, kindly told me that he had to get back to his meeting and that he would call me that night. He had phoned me during a break and they were waiting for him.

I contemplated what to do next. Nearby, a girl started to play the piano that was set up at the base of the staircase. It was composer Yann Tiersen’s song from “Amélie.”

How magical.

If you’ve watched “Amélie” starring Audrey Tautou, you will know why. There is a scene in this classic film where a character runs up this very staircase. We are held in suspense along with him as he darts up to the top, wondering and hoping to find what he is seeking. I love this song in general, and to hear it here—well, I hope you can imagine. It was the stuff of dreams.

Paris, what you do to me.

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Read Between the Scarlet Letters

During my trip to France this summer, I saw this sign on a school’s front door in a Parisian suburb.DSC00727

“A case of scarlet fever has been detected at the school.”

No explanation accompanied the sign. With its bright red writing, it may as well have said “Enter at your own risk.” What did they advise? Were any precautions being taken? Was there any reason to be act differently than normal? It reminds me of when the police told me the Bois de Boulogne were dangerous and then drove away.

Did you know that scarlet fever was still a thing?

A day or two later, the sign was gone. Crisis averted, on espère.

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I was stressed and I was worried, and that hung over me during my walk to meet two good friends for dinner.

I came upon this community garden and made a detour to walk through it.

Then, the first to arrive, I sat outside the restaurant and looked down this alley for the first time.

And those things made all the difference.

And I wished that everyone with something weighing on them could feel this wonder to lighten it from time to time.

When I take a walk, I can’t predict where the relief will come from, and that is part of the beauty of it.

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Scraps of Memories

I readily admit that I have sentimental attachment to objects. When I see minimalist friends’  living spaces, I admire them and think that I would like having so many clear surfaces too, but then I go to recycle my piles of paper and the process is slow because each brings back a memory.

Recently I went through my paper bag from my recent years in France and found:

  • Printed list of “Contacts in France”- names, phone numbers, and addresses. It was only one page and listed literally everyone I knew in the country. A family friend, the former director of my undergraduate study abroad program, my former host family, a friend, and several acquaintances. Included a note at the bottom on how to dial French numbers from the U.S. and vice versa, which would later become second nature to me. +001…
  • Printed list of my online address book, just in case. Contrary to the previous list, was very long and in tiny typeface.
  • My boarding pass from Newark airport to Paris Charles de Gaulle.
  • My ‘carte jeune’ and its cute little holder provided by SNCF. The carte jeune is a travel pass for 18-27 year olds that cost 50 euros a year at the time. It paid for itself many times over through reductions on train tickets.
  • A faded receipt for my first dinner in Paris—Chez Gladines with my friend and her boyfriend, the people I was staying with while I looked for an apartment. I remember sitting in the restaurant with them and feeling grateful to be with familiar friends rather than alone.
  • A form I had signed authorizing the school region I taught for to post on their web site an audio recording of me and two other teaching assistants (a Welsh and a Texan) singing Christmas songs.
  • A handwritten list an American friend and I made of Christmas carols we planned to sing in front of Hôtel de Ville.
  • Sketches of girls doing crew. In preparation for a customized tote bag I painted for a friend who was my Secret Santa recipient.
  • A list of rules for a photo competition that I entered at a public library. Thème ‘la gourmandise.’ All photos were displayed at the library.
  • Ticket stubs for museums, exhibits, and shows. For ballets, operas, plays, and concerts, often offered by friends and acquaintances. Including:
    • A terrible play a date took me to. At least we both thought it was bad.
    • “Cinquante Nuances.” No, I don’t think it portrays a healthy relationship. Yes, it was a heck of a fun night with two girl friends. As long as you don’t romanticize the story or think it is something to aspire to, I say enjoy its ridiculousness guilt-free.
  • The name of a singer and song title noted on the back of a receipt by someone I dated. I enjoyed listening to him play it on his guitar frequently, but I never remembered what it was called, so I had asked him to write it down before I left Paris.
    I never listen to it.
  • Handwritten by me on a scrap of napkin during a brief trip back to the States:
    I don’t know how to swipe my Metro card.
    I don’t know how to order coffee.
    But there was cocoa, cinnamon, brown sugar, white sugar, soy milk, and cream.
    I don’t know how to hug.

No need to reprimand me for keeping these– I threw out all of the above items, enfin. With regards to the last item, I have relearned how to live in the land of choices and to commute in the city of “Please swipe again.”

A Tradition Transported

Fête de la Musique became my favorite day when I lived in Paris. It takes place on the Summer Solstice every year. Along with other cities around the world, New York has adopted it and made it its own. Nothing has changed since I celebrated Make Music New York here last year; there are still a lot of free concerts around the city, and it still isn’t mainstream.

When I arrived at the midday concert featuring a quartet performing Brazilian and jazz, there were only a couple of people there. I sat on the grass right in front of the musicians: an Italian singer and a guitarist, drummer, and bassist. Gradually, more people came and scattered about the lawn and ledge nearby. The music was soothing and breezy, upbeat and chill, perfect for a summer day outside.

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The concert I attended in the evening was well-attended (by locals?) in a community garden. Though the seating area was small, it was the right size for the number of people, and there was ample room on the grass. I snagged a seat on a bench next to a lady who had arrived early. The sun was bright and low in the sky as it slowly set in the west. Kids ran around and played and danced and ate ice cream during the performance, which were again a female singer and three male musicians. They were great. I love old love songs, which they honored while adding their own twist.

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After the hour-long performance, I scuttled across the street (is that verb ever used for beings other than crabs?) to meet a friend for tapas and drinks outside. It was that rare café terrasse in New York that is on the quietest of avenues. I am realizing that there are always new places to be discovered.

The Delights of Anticipation

In a few weeks I plan to return to France for a couple of weeks. For work? some have asked me. Purely for pleasure, I respond gleefully.

I bet you can’t wait, my colleague says. I can, I say, I’m enjoying the anticipation.

You must be excited, my friend tells me over lunch. I’m so excited to planifer my train trips, I nod. He laughs. You’re excited to planifier? he says, emphasizing the last word and implying that that’s not what he thought I’d be excited about.

I was never in a rush to move away from my family and go to college. To be of legal drinking age and go to bars. To graduate from college. To get to second base. To start the weekend (except that time I hated my job).

Don’t get me wrong, I looked forward to these things. I was ready for them when they came, and I dove right into the next stage with oomph. But I didn’t wish for them to come quicker. The way I see it, we live in a moment and then it passes, and we won’t get it back, so I don’t want to live for the weekend if it means I’m not enjoying my weekdays.

What this post is really about, though, is something I picked up from Anne of Green Gables. I must thank my uncle and aunt for sending my sister and me the movie based on the book by Lucy Maud Montgomery. The story is about a young orphaned girl named Anne who ends up living with Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, who are sister and brother and quite a bit older than Anne’s birth parents would have been. Anne is a chatterbox and dramatic and, well, a kid. Marilla is a stern, no-nonsense figure who tries to rein in Anne.

The scene in the story that stuck with me was a conversation between Anne and Marilla. Anne is wildly excited about an upcoming picnic. She must go! What can she bring? What can she wear? She has only ever dreamed of going to a picnic! She goes on and on about it.

“You set your heart too much on things, Anne,” said Marilla, with a sigh. “I’m afraid there’ll be a great many disappointments in store for you through life.”

“Oh, Marilla, looking forward to things is half the pleasure of them,” exclaimed Anne. “You mayn’t get the things themselves; but nothing can prevent you from having the fun of looking forward to them. Mrs. Lynde says, `Blessed are they who expect nothing for they shall not be disappointed.’ But I think it would be worse to expect nothing than to be disappointed.”

I have always remembered that line: Looking forward to things is half the pleasure of them.

I was only a kid, but the concept resonated with me.

I’m so excited to go back to France. I remember vividly the flight to move to Paris several years ago; it was nighttime, and the future seemed to be as black a void as the sky outside. In a good way. A blank slate with unknown adventures to be had. No apartment secured, a job that could very well turn out to be ill suited for me, and only a friend, an acquaintance, and a former host family as ties.

This time I am going back after having created a history in Paris. Friends, lovers, and colleagues, current and former, will be roaming around the city. Every park and metro line has a memory. I have a long list of people I want to see, food and drink to enjoy, and places to revisit. This is by no means a written itinerary or a crazy schedule; it mostly consists of sitting along the Seine with fondant au chocolat and cidre rosé and people who love me and whom I love.

I can’t wait. But I can.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Going out four to five evenings a week after work and avoiding the computer during the weekend is not conducive to blog writing, in case that is the schedule you were thinking of following. You should follow that schedule if you are looking to write a post two months after you mean to.

Are you familiar with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire? If you’re American, you probably learned about it in grammar school Social Studies class. I’m not sure if it’s taught outside of the United States.

On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in a factory in New York City, and because doors were locked, 146 employees, garment workers who were mostly immigrants, couldn’t escape and thus died.

The incident spurred the creation of work safety regulations, hence its appearance in our history books.

On a rainy afternoon almost a week after March 25th this year, I came upon this outside what used to be the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Each carnation was tagged with the name and age of a person who had died. It made the whole tragedy a lot more real to me. Mary Floresta, 26. Ida Pearl, 20. Ross Friedman, 18. Esther Goldstein, 20. Frieda Velakovsky, 20. Over one hundred years later, a group had remembered these individuals. I felt a connection with those long gone, thanks to the New York City Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, which advocates for working people and recognizes the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire each year. DSC00313DSC00314DSC00316DSC00317DSC00318There is a balance to be struck between learning about and from the past and living in the present and moving forward. Sometimes it seems there is so much knowledge to be acquired, taking into account everything known and unknown and the necessity of sifting through countless opinions and worldviews to find one’s own truth. I am glad for these everyday moments to learn and relearn and remember moments that led to progress.

Night Lights

After my Spanish class last week, I walked through Herald Square on my way home. The temperature was freezing (literally), but I stopped and took in the scene. I crossed the street, then turned to look again and take a picture, then walked a few steps, then stopped one more time before continuing on my way. A passerby would have thought I was a tourist in New York for the first time or a resident New Yorker on her last night before moving to a new city. I’m neither, of course. I can walk here whenever I want, and I do, at least once a week after my class.

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I’ve passed through this touristy area many times, but for some reason the atmosphere of colored lights and city night reminded me of certain evenings near the Opéra Garnier in Paris. Some Monday nights, one or two British girl friends and I would meet at the same café for a slice of quiche or a hot chocolate. I’d walk there from work, when it was almost dusk, and by the time we emerged from our chats, it was nighttime. I’d turn the corner to walk to my bus stop, pass lit up commercial stores and theatres, and there would be the Opéra Garnier. Like Herald Square, it was a normally busy area that cleared out on cold nights but kept its buildings aglow.

I think I just realized why I like Hopper paintings. Or do I feel myself expand in these real life scenes because I like Hopper? Rhetorical questions. Words rarely encompass feelings.

I’m not as head in the clouds as my writing makes me out to be. Not all the time, anyway. If anything, my feet are firmly planted on the ground, looking at what’s around us.

Do you get those moments
in between all the running around and responsibilities and worries
too?

Nirvana

Lunchtime in the park in Manhattan. On the next bench over from me, a man sits and chats with his friend who has rolled up and parked her wheelchair next to him. I’ve seen her in the park before; she has some kind of handwritten sign affixed to her chair. They seem to be regulars who linger in the park without anywhere to rush back to. A girl comes by and greets them. She is a student, perhaps in college. I wonder how they know each other. They talk about her classes a bit. In the course of their conversation, she mentions Nirvana.

Man: Nirvana? Is that a white girl? She won a Grammy, right?
Girl: It’s a band.
Man: It’s a band? It sounds like a girl’s name.
Woman: You’re thinking of Rihanna.

An old man approaches. I scoot over a bit to make room for him. He obviously knows the rest of the group, but they merely tolerate him. He is very drunk and has a small bottle of alcohol with him. His manner is subdued, not raging, though he’s definitely out of it. He tries to talk to me about his travels during his time in the service and his anxiety these days, but he has trouble completing his sentences, so his thoughts taper off as quickly as they begin. However unfinished, his brief mumblings reveal more in a flash than decades of greeting a distant neighbor or colleague in passing.

People in the park.

The Glass House

Last fall a friend and I took a tour of The Glass House in Connecticut. It was a great suggestion on her part because it was located equidistantly between us, about an hour’s drive northeast for me and southwest for her. She booked us tours ahead of time. Designed by architect Philip Johnson and located on what was his private property until he died in 2005, The Glass House can only be accessed through guided tours.

We met up for lunch at a cute café, opting to sit at a table outside. It was a short walk to the building where the tour began. The guide started by showing our group a wall of photos from Johnson’s life and talking about his beginnings and influences. We then hopped on a shuttle to take us to the actual property.

The entrance was imposing. The guide discussed Johnson’s sense of humor; the gates resembled a guillotine or tombstones and rose far above us in a manner that could be considered menacing, yet they didn’t really block access to the grounds. One could in theory just walk around them, as they weren’t connected to a fence.

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The two-hour walking tour was much more than The Glass House itself. On our walk to the house, the guide showed us other buildings on the property, all designed by Johnson—Da Monsta, his studio, the Ghost House, the Sculpture Gallery (yes, there was a gallery on the grounds—he had money to spend)– and spoke about his design choices, not only for the buildings, but also for the placement of paths and trees and walls. The property was created with its relation to nature and visitors’ experiences in mind.

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Do you see the Ghost House below?101_1273

The Sculpture Gallery, sculptures temporarily hidden away in boxes101_1304

It so happened that we were there in the year of two anniversaries—the tenth year since The Glass House opened to the public and 110 years since Johnson’s birth. To celebrate these milestones, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama had been commissioned to create several works on the property. She plastered red dots all over the transparent house, placed 1,300 silver spheres to float on the lake below, and created a large steel pumpkin that sat a short distance from the house. She likes circles and pumpkins. The tour guide told us that Kusama is the most popular female artist in the world (determined by number of visitors to her exhibitions).

At first I was a bit disappointed that we wouldn’t see the house in its standard state, all glass and striking to the eye. After hearing about Kusama and actually seeing and standing inside the house, however, I appreciated the dots, which I found joyful and whimsical. The structure was as striking and fascinating as ever.

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Johnson used The Glass House as his summer home and for entertaining. It would have been too cold in the winter.

What it must have been like to attend a party there.

It was a perfect day. My friend and I both have an art history background, and one of my favorite classes in college was Intro to Architecture. (I also took an Architectural Design class that kicked my a**, but that’s a story for another day. It was enjoyable but kept me up all night bent over foam boards while gripping a box cutter.) The tour was like being in school again, learning with visual aids and asking questions of someone who could answer them. Not to mention that in this case most of our “class” was outside on a beautiful fall day with the most moderate of temperatures.

The Glass House is closed for the winter and will reopen on May 1.