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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Graffiti

Sometimes when I see graffiti, I think of:

– The day one of best friends and I rented bikes and took them along the Canal Saint-Martin far out of Paris. This was before I signed up for the cost-effective annual Vélib subscription, so he and I were racking up a fee, but I think we’d both say it was worth it.

– Sitting along an isolated part of the canal on a warm day having a conversation with a Right Bank mec I knew. It started drizzling, and we skedaddled to find cover. Where did we go? A bar? Was that the day he taught me how to play pétanque? I don’t recall, but I remember the grinning cat graffiti across the water.

I guess there is a lot of graffiti along parts of the canal.

Somehow they hold for me pleasant memories of unrushed afternoons en français.

A Sunday Stroll in Parc de Bercy

After a crepe lunch in Montparnasse with a friend and her partner, I called another friend to meet up. After hemming and hawing for a few minutes about where to go, I apologized for not having thought beforehand. I hung up, and after a quick look my Paris map, called right back. Often a quick reflection alone is all it takes.

What about Parc de Bercy? I asked. I hadn’t been there in a long time, and it would be convenient for him to get to.

We met by the Bercy Arena, where I used to ice skate with a friend who would speed skate around the rink ahead of me. We would go on weekend nights, when the rink turned into a sort of club, with loud music, darkness, and buckets of teens on ice skates, plus us.

My friend and I spent a moment at the ledge overlooking the adjacent outdoor skate park, where skateboarders, bikers, and rollerbladers attempted tricks on the ramps. They’re just okay, huh? my friend said.

Continuing on, we reminisced about our previous rendez-vous in the area. Passing the quaint shopping strip Bercy Village, I remembered one of our outings early on in our friendship.

Crossing a bridge above the park, we stopped and looked on both sides; one showed the Seine and a shopping mall, and the other was this road of zigzags and a green city bus and bikers and still-summer trees.

125.parcdebercy.2015aMy friend vowed to show me the best place to draguer (hit on) someone.

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I am still not sure why the pedestrian bridge Passerelle Simone de Beauvoir would be appropriate to bring one’s would-be beau, but I was delighted to walk on it for the first time. Somehow, in all my park and river wanderings, I had never ascended and descended the wooden waves of this bridge bearing the name of my beloved Simone.

On a related note, I once crossed the bridge Pont des Arts with someone who told me that it was known as being a place where men draguent women. I had never heard that before and was skeptical. Where do French guys get their information on bridge drague-ing? And here I am, perpetuating what is probably a myth.

We made our way back through the park to meet a friend who was joining us. On the way, I stopped to giggle at this large bunny that bounded next to the smaller carousel horses.

125.parcdebercy.2015cThe three of us were out of place at Parc de Bercy, as many of the young people walking around seemed to have just come from an anime convention.

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We strolled in a garden within the park that housed a brick structure that made me feel we were far from the city of Paris.

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Our afternoon in the park ended with us around a checkerboard table with stone seats and grass underfoot.

The Pizza Pilgrimage

The pizza is excellent, he said. The owners are from Naples. The place is really small, though, and you can’t make reservations.

That’s okay, I said, we can also take it to go. Oui, he responded, we’ll sit along the river and eat if there are no tables available.

We met up around 9pm and walked to the street, which was quiet. I hope it’s open, he said. We approached the clearly shuttered storefront. A sign on the door indicated that the owners were on vacation for the majority of August. They’re probably in Naples right now! I said.

We walked away, my friend lamenting that it was closed. It’s okay, I said, I wasn’t surprised. It wasn’t my first time in Paris in August.

My friend suggested another good pizza place nearby, located in an inconspicuous passage that was nevertheless full of life and people spilling out of bars and restaurants. We walked to the end without seeing a pizzeria. He checked the address on his phone. Apparently it was at the beginning of the street, so we must have missed it. We made our way back.

It was closed. The façade was dark, which is why we hadn’t seen it the first time. In fact, it was the last day of the owners’ vacation; the restaurant would reopen tomorrow.

My friend ran though his mental index of restaurants in the area. We decided to stay on the pizza path that we had started. He pulled out two more pizzerias, one of which he knew was open because he had passed it earlier. We headed to that one, because how much do you want to bet the other would have been closed? We were done gambling.

We snagged a table for two on the sidewalk terrasse. The menu was plentiful in choice, and the service was good. The street was quiet but for the busy pizzeria and the restaurant next door.

He asked if I had enjoyed my long-awaited pizza, topped with halved cherry tomatoes. Yes indeedy.

I still like August in Paris.

People are People

When you spend a day out and interact with enough people, some are bound to be pleasant and others unpleasant. There are those special days when everyone seems to be especially nice. Otherwise, if I have a negative encounter and then a positive, I consider it to be all in a normal day.

I recently stopped by FNAC, a bookstore chain that also sells electronics and other items, to look for picture frames. I approached two employees who told me the photo area was closed due to construction. When I asked them if they knew of anywhere in the neighborhood that might have cadres, they said no without giving it any thought or suggesting another FNAC location. They then looked over and past me even though there were no customers waiting for their attention. Conversation over, case dismissed. They clearly didn’t give a flying fig. It’s the second time I’ve gone to a FNAC and encountered a set of two or three employees who were utterly unhelpful and went back to chatting among themselves. It’s unfortunate, as in general I love bookstores and they are a pleasure when an employee knows what’s in stock and exactly where to find it. And if they don’t… isn’t that why they have access to a database?

That same afternoon, I chose an internet café at random to laminate two documents, fully expecting the same kind of non-service. I imagine that many people who work at that sort of shop aren’t necessarily passionate about their job.

After I showed what I had brought and asked for the price, highway robbery at almost three euros for a half-page, the employee plugged in the laminating machine and explained to me that it had to heat up. I wasn’t rushed, but in any case it really didn’t take that long. He passed one of my sheets through the machine and told me that he would send it through a second time to reinforce it. He asked me if I wanted to cut off the extra plastic border before he inserted it again; the laminated edge would be stronger if I trimmed it before instead of after. Careful, it’s kind of hot, he said, handing it over to me. As the scissor cut close to my hand, he asked me to be cautious because he was afraid I would snip myself.

As we waited for the sheet to roll through, I mentioned several chains that sell picture frames and asked him if he knew of any locations in the area. He thought about it and told me there was one in the Chatelet neighborhood.

He pressed the toasty laminations on the table and said he would let them cool for a few seconds so that they would stay flat. He said that the lamination is guaranteed to last ten years. You just made up that number, didn’t you? I asked. No, he said, he had read it on the paperwork with the machine.

Some scraps of plastic lay on the table from my refining snips earlier. I’ll clean that up, he said, you have to get going to Chatelet. Tired, I said, “Je ne sais pas si j’ai la force” (I don’t know if I have the energy). “Vous avez la force,” he responded. Besides, it’s a good day to go, as it’s raining, he went on to say.

He was a salesman when he didn’t need to be and explained when he didn’t have to. After all, what were we doing? Pressing plastic over a piece of paper. But the details, the details, in fact every act and every gesture holds details.

It was a reminder: Any job—and really, any action one does in day-to-day life—can be done with care and attention. Secondly, encouragement can be received in the unlikeliest of places. Especially for an English-speaker, being told that I have the “force” was quite wonderful and unexpected. Although he meant force in the French sense, I of course thought of the stronger meaning in English.

Later, I sat on a staircase outside in the same neighborhood, and a young man discreetly told me I might want to change the way I was sitting because my culotte was showing and it was très jolie, but well. In the balance sheet of the day’s encounters, I suppose I would count that as neutral.

Easy Breezy

A nighttime scooter ride around Paris with someone you hardly even know? Why not!

Well, there are many reasons why not—if it’s someone you just met randomly on the street or you don’t know the city, your gut should tell you that public transportation with your own money and your hand firmly on your sac à main will do.

In my case, I had just had a drink with the other volunteers I work with once a week. I left at the same time as a volunteer who usually participates at another site but came to ours for the first time as a one-off au cas où there wouldn’t be enough people to help out. I told him I was going to go home on foot. He offered to drop me off on his scooter. I had to pause and think for only a second before answering, “Oui !”

On the walk to his scooter, he asked if I wanted a little ride around Paris before going home. I was not going to say no to that. He said it was un cadeau for himself too, as it would be more enjoyable than heading straight to his apartment.

I undid my bun so the casque (helmet) would slide more easily over my head. We put my bag in his top case and my bike helmet under his seat. I climbed on after him, and we were off.

We passed Bastille, the Tour Saint-Jacques, rue de Rivoli, the Louvre, and the Pont des Arts. Everything was lit up in the City of Lights. As we scooted at a leisurely pace through Concorde, the Eiffel Tower started sparkling. It was eleven o’clock.

As I held onto the side handles of the scooter, I began to relax. I’ve had a tense few days. I recognized this moment for what it was: a gift. One of the first times I rode on the back of a scooter, I held on for dear life and felt my heart beating out of my chest. This night, I leaned back and loosened my grip on the handles, my light sweater fluttering as I watched the buildings and lights and river go by.

No contact information exchanged, no promises, just a summer ride around the city and a “bonne soirée.” Life can be complicated, but sometimes it is wonderfully simple.

Close to Earth

Paris residents say the Tour Montparnasse is a monstrosity, but it’s not so bad when you’re looking up at it while sprawled out on the grass on a hot day. The grass next to the gare may be dry and yellow, but it is there for the public, as is the blue, blue sky. 100_8677100_8678

Grass sprawling was always latent in me, though I never did it. I attended a university with a lovely campus full of greens. At some point I created an idyllic mental image of lounging on them with friends, but by the time the weather was nice enough, we were usually in the thick of studying for finals and writing papers. The last week of senior year, my friend and I finally did lie on the grass for a few minutes outside one of the academic buildings, and we have a nice picture to remember it.

In my subsequent years in the States, I frequented parks but somehow never lay on the grass.

Since then, I’ve daydreamed and night-dreamed on grass all over parks in Paris and a few in Italy and England. I have to catch up and try out the grass in the States.

Do you think grass sprawling is blissful or boring?

Haute Couture at Sotheby’s

A friend and I recently checked out the haute couture exhibit at Sotheby’s, one of the major international auction houses. One hundred fifty items were on display, mostly dresses but also some hats and shoes and other accessories. All belong to Didier Ludot’s collection and will be auctioned off on July 8 in the first high fashion auction at Sotheby’s Paris location.

To my surprise, there was no line to enter the free exhibit. We had space to roam around the two floors and no competition to view the several catalogues available for reference.

The clothing ranged from the 1920s up to today and were arranged by color. Many of them have been worn by actresses and models.

My friend was the perfect companion, which is why I invited her—how can you go wrong taking a French woman who enjoys shopping to a fashion exhibit?

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My favorite dress was this pale pink John Galliano. The diagonal lines, the lace, the satin, the color… The lace-up made it sexy but not overly so, as the skirt was long and only slit up to the knee. Upon closer examination, I saw where a zipper began on the side but couldn’t find the end, the execution was so seamless. It was really beautiful.

sothebys.2015a 100_8641100_8640From Sotheby’s web site:
John Galliano, 2000
Robe longue en dentelle et satin duchesse rose pâle
A pink satin and lace sheath with asymmetric ‘corset’ bodice and diagonal lacing

Estimation: 1,000-1,500 euros

http://www.sothebys.com/fr/auctions/ecatalogue/2015/collection-didier-ludot-pf1570/lot.32.html

On the Sotheby’s web site you can view the estimated buying price in 20 different currencies. The paper catalogue included it in euros and dollars.

My other favorite was this elaborately pretty dress by Yves Saint Laurent.sothebys.2015bYves Saint Laurent Haute Couture, printemps-été 1963
Robe du soir courte en tulle tilleul brodé de perles et larmes de rhodoïd en nacre par la maison Lesage
Yves Saint Laurent haute couture, s/s 1963
A lavishly embroidered, beaded and sequined cocktail dress

Estimation: 2,500-3,500 euros

http://www.sothebys.com/fr/auctions/ecatalogue/2015/collection-didier-ludot-pf1570/lot.17.html

My friend’s pick in “Which one would you buy?” was this simple, chic dress, which appealed to me as well.sothebys.2015cCourrèges Haute Couture, 1967
Mini-robe en lainage rose buvard
A pink double-faced wool mini-dress with top-stitched detailing

Estimation: 2,000-3,000 euros

http://www.sothebys.com/fr/auctions/ecatalogue/2015/collection-didier-ludot-pf1570/lot.28.html

Her other favorite was this long printed dress. sothebys.2015eSchiaparelli Haute Couture, printemps-été 1938
Collection “cirque” ensemble du soir en crêpe de soie imprimé d’après un dessin de Marcel Vertès
‘Circus collection’, s/s 1938 a rare silk crepe gown printed with designs after Marcel Vertès

Estimation: 2,000-3,000 euros

http://www.sothebys.com/fr/auctions/ecatalogue/2015/collection-didier-ludot-pf1570/lot.26.html

There were more costume-y dresses as well—polka dots, a jumpsuit that resembled a space suit, a one-piece that was laced up from sneakers to pants to top.

A ball gown with full skirt prompted me to explain what an American prom is to my friend. When I think about it, it is a funny tradition that a bunch of 17 and 18-year-olds dress up in gowns and tuxes and ride in limos to dance. But really, unless you move in certain circles, how many times do you get to do that?

I wonder if I can find an opportunity to wear my prom dress. Assuming I can still fit in it, that is.

Sweet Potatoes in the Woods

This past Saturday I spent a good part of the day with a friend at Bois de Vincennes, the largest park in Paris. We began by stretching out on the not-quite-green grass next to the lake and basking in the sun.

After heating up, we took a long walk that turned into what we dubbed a “tour du monde” (a trip around the world). In looking for the Buddhist temple located in the park, we stumbled upon a Tibetan festival. We didn’t pay to enter but peeked through the fence at the colorful flags and many stands.

Further on, we came upon a clearing and experienced a moment that I soon after pronounced several times as magical. A wooden structure rose up before us with people milling inside and around. Most of them were of African descent, and about half of them were in colorful printed loose clothing. Some of the men wore light blue button-down shirts and black pants. Women stood behind tables and served food. People stood under trees, lounged on the ground, or sat on the grass and talked and ate. The best word I can find to describe the atmosphere is peaceful.

We stood a close distance to look at the sign on the structure, and a French man in a fishing hat approached us and told us they were an association that recently built water-providing structures in Mali. It is a partnership between people there and French engineers who contribute their skills. They have been around for 20 years, and this was their 15th annual picnic. He explained that since Ramadan is next weekend, there were less attendees at the picnic because there were other events happening pre-Ramadan. He invited us to partake in their bounty.

My friend declined, but as food and I prefer to live in the same sentence, I climbed the several steps into the wooden house and approached the tables. Before taking a plastic plate, asked a woman behind the tables if I could contribute something. She said no, no.

I filled up my plate with a little of everything, not exactly knowing what the dishes were but eager to try them. As I descended with my full plate, a woman looked at it and said to me, “C’est tout ?” (That’s all?) She was serious, and I thought, That’s hospitality.

My friend and I sat in a shady spot on the ground, and I ate and marveled at this oasis that appeared right as my stomach needed filling. We agreed that with the landscape and African dress, it felt like we were far from Paris.

117.vincennes.2015a117.vincennes.2015b 117.vincennes.2015c 117.vincennes.2015d 117.vincennes.2015eMy favorite dish was composed of a kind of white sweet potato, carrots, and cabbage. I inquired about it, and a woman told me it was a Senegalese dish called “tcheb.” I wrote it down to ensure it would not be the last time I had it.

The man who had approached us at the beginning came back and asked me if I had tried the ginger juice yet. When I answered in the negative, he beckoned me back to the tables and asked one of the women for a bag of ginger juice—the other option was hibiscus. The juice was packaged in clear plastic bags for exactly one portion. To set it free, he held it over a plastic cup, pierced it, and handed the bag and cup to me so I could wait for the cup to fill up. I was surprised by the taste—at first, the juice was clearly sweet, then moments later became spicy with ginger. It was good.

Sated, we got up and continued on our way.

We later passed through a woodsy area with lines of tables with food and Latin American music resounding. Why not?

Our afternoon was punctuated by iced coffee outside at a café in the twelfth arrondissement—I have only recently discovered that some French cafes serve it—and watching people walk by. I find watching people’s summer fashions a wholly entertaining activity.

With hours of daylight still ahead of us, we walked to my friend’s suburb and stopped along the way to buy groceries for dinner at the kind of massive supermarket you will never find in the city.

At his apartment, we found his friend who is staying with him taking advantage of his large balcony. The three of us had the pleasure of dining en plein air as night slowly fell.

The night finished with my friend pulling out his guitar and singing songs by Georges Brassens, a classic French singer. It is not the first time I’ve kicked back in a French man’s apartment while he performed Georges Brassens on his guitar, and I have to say it is a rather pleasant experience.