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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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.

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I feel a sense of dread about this year. There are various reasons for that that aren’t easy for me to verbalize.

I generally think of myself as a positive person, and I think most people I know would describe me that way, but when I think back to years ago and then move forward to more recent years, there were periods where I struggled to find something positive and some beauty in life. As is the case with everyone. Life ebbs and flows. If we’re lucky, we have more happy times than sad ones. I know in the grand scheme of things, I’ve been lucky. And #blessed, if I was someone who used hashtags.

During hard times, where I turn to find that momentary relief has changed over the years. Within the past decade one source has been nature. Looking up in a quiet space outside. Witnessing the trees that are bound to change next week.

And there’s music. Writing. People. Turning outward when it’s tempting to turn inward and stay there.

For a few weeks now certain things that I thought I had almost become desensitized to have reasserted themselves and stayed wedged in my mind past the moment. They span the levels from personal—what’s happening in my circle—to global—what’s in the news.

A small example: every time I see a homeless person in the subway now, the sadness I feel lingers longer than it used to. It seems inhuman to hear someone beg and then go about one’s day. There is a man I see sitting in the corner of the subway entrance every morning. What would help? I’m not going to give money every day. Would a smile be better than ignoring him?

I think in most cases, the feeling of malaise in difficult situations comes from feeling powerless or not knowing what to do or believing that one’s actions or words won’t make a difference.

If someone told me all this, I would probably tell them to think about what they can do, and try to do it. Sittin’ and sulkin’ ain’t gonna do anything. Well, I wouldn’t tell anyone the latter—tough love isn’t really my thing—but it’s what I tell myself after a night spent worrying or when a cloud descends on my mind.

More thoughts to come.

 

Note: I wrote this two and a half weeks ago. It’s representative of a moment in time, and good and hopeful things, as well as bad and worrisome things, have happened since then. Everything evolves (though I still wouldn’t say I’m feeling particularly cheery).

What Do You Think of French Music?

Sometimes during a conversation on French culture, people ask me whether I like French music. A popular consensus among the French people I’ve spoken with is that contemporary French music is lacking. They like their classic Jacques Brel, Alain Souchon, and Georges Brassens (do they love Brassens), but a number of them listen to more music in English than in their native language. That’s not to say there aren’t contemporary French hits on the radio in France; I heard musicians like Christine and the Queens, Black M, BB Brunes, and Julien Doré played multiple times a day. Still, you’d more easily find fans of Rihanna, Pink, Beyonce, Mika, Coldplay, and Jay Z on the streets of Paris.

I like French music, though! Usually my first answer to the music question is Alex Beaupain. Most of the time this is met with no recognition. Alex Beaupain has his own albums, but I discovered him through the songs he wrote for Christophe Honoré’s musical film “Chansons d’amour.” I once attended a concert put on by him in collaboration with actress Fanny Ardant and singer Camélia Jordana. It was a day that I was feeling down and on the spur of the moment purchased a ticket to their show for that night in Paris. It certainly did the trick.

Without further ado, here is a short selection of my favorite French songs. These lean towards the softer side, pop and piano music.

Alex Beaupain and Camélia Jordana- Avant la haine
Tété- Petite chanson
Berry- Le bonheur
Zaz- La fée
Vincent Delerm- Il fait si beau
Gerald de Palmas- Au bord de l’eau
L.E.J- La dalle

Why does current French music get a bad rap among its own people? Or is this different from what you’ve observed?

Make Music New York

Fête de la Musique was my favorite day of the year in Paris. Last month I made it a point to seek out events in the States. It was nothing like dancing like crazy in the Marais with a good friend, but I made do.

Here it was called Make Music New York. None of my friends knew it existed, but it is a legit event all over the city. There was a web site listing lots of outdoor concerts in numerous neighborhoods, and you could filter by area, time, and genre of music.

I invited a friend to check out an experimental piano concert in Greenwich Village during lunchtime. Unlike in Paris, we didn’t run into musical performances along the way, but we did find the pianos set up in the middle of the street. It definitely was experimental, not at all classical pieces or contemporary songs. Not necessarily my cup of tea, but it was nice to sit on a ledge on the sidewalk in the summer weather. That is kind of how Fête de la Musique can be anyway, hit or miss, though ideally you see enough performances that some of them are awesomely soul-filling.

That evening, I handpicked an a cappella group to continue the Fête and cobbled together a group of three friends, old and new, who had never met each other. We joined the small audience sitting in front the group. I have a feeling that I enjoyed the performance the most, although they did make positive remarks afterward. I just really think there are few things better than live music outdoors. We were surrounded by tall buildings and a sky that began to pinken.

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Home Away From Home

The night after the recent attacks in Paris, I attended a concert with two friends in New York. The performer, Jon McLaughlin, is one of my favorite artists, so when he is on tour, I am there (except when I am not. I still haven’t done the whole groupie thing for anyone). This was my fourth time around.

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During the concert, I felt a sadness and happiness. If you have been moved by music, you will understand what I mean by happiness; it rises up within me sometimes when a voice, an instrument, words fill the room. It happens most often with live music. Murmured recognition and delight as a song begins, the feeling of being encapsulated in the sound, remembering each time why live music is delicious.

The sadness I felt during the concert was ever-present, not one that I could shake off or forget for more than a moment.

The conflicting feelings didn’t compete with each other but rather, filled me right up. I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular. I had done that the previous night and during the day. There is a lot to think about if one starts: the attacks in Paris, the bloodshed, the individual stories, the aftermath, attacks in other countries, other types of killings all over the world, what individuals can do, what governments can do. One can’t think about all the problems at once. It becomes too much for one person that way, but no one said that one person has to carry the burden.

I remember what it was like to walk outside in Paris after the shootings at Charlie Hebdo and before the hostage taking in Vincennes. Exposed. And the following week, when for those who did not know someone killed, the physical motions of life had returned to normal, and yet my perspective on daily life had changed.

Surely when the shooting on the train from Amsterdam to Paris happened, I thought about how a friend and I had not long before taken that train, peacefully sleeping side by side in the early hours.

This time, I was not in Paris, but rather following the news from afar and checking in with friends. The next evening, I was going to a restaurant with friends, attending a concert with no more security than having my last name checked against a list, and walking to the subway nearing midnight while people spilled out of bars. Activities that many of us expect to do without wondering whether we’d be better off staying at home.

Unfortunately, I’m sure we’ve all had moments when a horrible event shifted how we saw the world. We witness violence in its different forms in every country. The world is still beautiful, but frightening as well and terribly sad.

One question now is what we can do going forward. I’m going to think about that.

Brocante-ing

This past weekend I went to an enormous flea market in Courbevoie, a suburb a stone’s throw from Paris. There were over 100 stands.

Often I walk around these markets and find nothing worth bringing home, but this was an exceptionally fruitful trip. I bought:
– a cozy fitted short-sleeved sweater with big buttons for 3 euros
– a red long-sleeved button-down Uniqlo blouse for 2 euros (!)
– a sleeveless short blue dress for an upcoming costume party for 3 euros
– an unopened copy of Bastille’s two-CD album “Bad Blood” for 1 euro

The only drawback to flea markets is that there are no fitting rooms. Luckily, I was able to slip on the clothes that interested me over my summer dress. Because there were no mirrors available, I asked the sellers to take a picture of me so I could see how the clothes looked. They were nice and happy to oblige. One of the Frenchies with whom I went to the brocante later told me that a French person would not have done that. True or not? It’s what I do when I choose eyeglasses too.88.brocante.2014a 88.brocante.2014bAfter we had exhausted almost all the stands, we took a cat nap on the green overlooking this long bike and roller blading path next to the Seine.88.brocante.2014c

Welcome, Summer

Fête de la Musique is my favorite day of the year.

Fête de la Musique takes place every year on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. It started in France and now is celebrated in other countries around the world. In Paris, musicians perform free outdoor concerts all over the city from late afternoon to the wee hours of the morning. There are so many performers that you could walk down a small street and see several groups playing.

This year, I felt like we lived dozens of nights in one night. My friend and I started out at the Centre Culturel Irlandais and watched Moxie, an Irish band, perform. I love Irish music, so I was in heaven.  72.fetedelamusique.2014a 72.fetedelamusique.2014b

They were followed by Gavin James, an acoustic guitarist and singer-songwriter. He had a sweet voice. In addition to his original songs, he sang classics like “What a Wonderful World” and “La Vie en Rose.”

Later that night, we saw:

– a male brass band in funny uniforms performing covers of popular songs in the Luxembourg Gardens

– a cool Christian band in a dark church courtyard strung with colorful lights

– a huge outdoor gay nightclub with smoke coming out of surrounding buildings’ windows

– a band outside a restaurant where we watched old and young people dancing for a while before joining in (I asked my friend if he wanted to go dance, and he said no. A few songs later, I asked if he was sure. He said yes. He looked at my face and astutely realized that my actual question was, Can we dance? He asked if I wanted to. I nodded my head enthusiastically. He said, Okay, let’s go. I figured he was humoring me, so I was surprised when he began to dance like crazy. If he really doesn’t like dancing, he did a good job of pretending he does.)

– a group of musicians sitting in a circle and playing traditional Irish music in only the glow of lamplight—magical72.fetedelamusique.2014cI went home humming.

Does your city participate in World Music Day?

You Won’t Find Heart and Soul in the Stars

On Monday night I attended an open mic spoken word session in the basement of a bar in the Oberkampf neighborhood. The theme was “First time/First love.” A girl originally from Jamaica performed a piece about her first love in Paris. The relationship did not end well. She thinks of him every time she eats ice cream, she said, and every time she feels sick after.

I assume she took poetic license—I have to, because a man turning someone off ice cream is too sad for me to contemplate—but her words made me think about how certain songs remind me of people or moments experienced and forgotten before a tune causes them to resurface.

Once, I was in a car with a friend when a song that he really liked came on the radio. His unabashed singing along with it thoroughly entertained me. After that I would smile and think of him whenever I heard it. Then came a time when things between us were tense, and I would change the radio station when it played. Now that things are good between us, I don’t mind the song one way or another. I no longer seek out or avoid it.

When my family was going through a particularly hard time, I listened to one song on repeat. It served me well, but I have no desire or need to listen to it anymore.

During my first few weeks in Paris, I walked around with the theme song from the classic French movie “Amélie” in my head. Though cliché, I couldn’t help it. It was a happy soundtrack to my life as I crossed bridges over the Seine River with the Eiffel Tower in view.

On the long plane ride to visit my ill grandmother who would pass away one month later, I discovered great music from Ireland, France, and Italy. I don’t think about that trip every time I hear these songs, but I can still imagine the feeling of listening to them in that cramped seat, the overhead lights all off, with my mother beside me.

Selena’s “Dreaming of You” takes me back to a dim cafeteria cum middle school dance. My friends (all girls, obviously) and I lean against the stage in this space that also serves as our auditorium. We watch some of our classmates dance to this “slow song.” Later, our parents will pick us up, but for now we in the thick of awkward pre-adolescence.

Do certain songs evoke people or past moments for you?