Rush Hour

Rush Hour

It’s a crescendo, a rumble, a woosh of the wind coming down the tunneled track. Crush of bodies, tang of sweat and soap, wet wool coats and perfume, squeezing into a space no bigger than the average American closet. It snakes through the underbelly of Paris, wheels shrieking against steel, a high-pitched cry of a child never soothed. From my earliest memories of Paris as a child, the metro represented the thrill of urban unpredictability and excitement, a roller coaster of sights and smells that terrified and delighted me all at once as I gripped my mother’s and aunt’s hands tightly, eyes fixed on the edge of the platform as if I might find myself suddenly propelled over it if I let it out of my sight. Currents of people and music and noise, train after train, wave after wave.

Now a regular commuter and in possession of my own metro pass, navigating through this pulsating network of tunnels and trains has become routine. The things that made my pulse quicken as a little girl have faded into habit and even annoyances. Every now and again, however, something unusual occurs during those periods of the day spent underground that shakes you out of autopilot and grabs your attention. With so many people sharing space and breathing the same air day in and day out, boundaries between private and public life become blurred. Whether it’s as gruesome as projectile vomit or a sweet moment shared with a stranger, they remind me not to lose the wonder I felt as a child at the first tastes of the big world. Here are three little stories from the Parisian underground to wake up your senses as they did mine.

The One with the Projectile Vomit

Let’s start from the bottom and work our way up. It’s a bright early morning, cold and clear, and the rush to work is off to a grind. Tailored suits and leather shoes, sleepy eyes and breakfasts on the go, headphones and screens to block out the rest of the world, as if living in their own orbit. In this way, we walk swiftly in one mass, together yet always apart. Up and down the steps of the metro, our legs take us over the crests and valleys of concrete hills, from one platform to the next. We descend into the ground just to pop up through the ground at our destination, tunneling our way through the earth like moles, blinded by the light that awaits outside. Our hub is Chatelet/Les Halles, a palace of intersecting corridors and processions of weaving bodies right in the center of the city where despite the lack of sunlight, time can be measured by the urgency in footsteps.

I am with a friend. After navigating through this giant fortress of activity, we make it to one of the major exits, Porte du Louvre, a 12-foot wall of stairs up to ascend to reach the street. Side by side, we trudge up the steps, concentrating on our footing and staking a claim to what little amount of space is ours among the pack. As we come up on the street, I see a woman up ahead plop herself down on the edge of the sidewalk, a large suitcase beside her. The morning commotion on the street mirrors that in the metro, bodies in motion whose individual faces have been erased in our little bubbles. A few more steps forward and we are passing this woman when a stream of liquid escapes from her mouth and projects through the air, landing at least two feet away from her. For an instant, this little pocket of the world stands still, stunned out of the clouds, shocked by the sheer force hidden in the depths of this woman’s stomach, and the mere centimeters between ourselves and the spray that could have changed the course of our days. Nonetheless, the circling orbits of so many lives played out in one space have finally collided, forced to acknowledge one another’s presence if only for a short moment.

The One with the 90€-Conversation

It happened while I was changing lines, heading home just as the late afternoon storm of too many limbs and stoic stares and insults was gathering. A tap on my shoulder and I turn to find a middle-aged man asking me if I could do him a favor. I don’t answer but the look of suspicious skepticism must have been pronounced for he says that I shouldn’t be scared, he won’t bite. People are flooding past us and I think about walking away, how easy it would be to be swept away with the crowd. He says it will only take five minutes and I can’t help myself from telling him that’s kind of a long time, enough for me to switch lines and catch the next metro going home.

But I’m trying to be more patient and in reality, I have nowhere to be, so I stay. He launches into a long story involving running out of gas, not having enough money on him to pay for more, not having the right papers on him for his bank to help him (footnote: this is kind of probable in France, land of bureaucratic hassles), and spending the whole day asking strangers for help only to be ignored or told no. He’s from a small town in the middle of France and he just wants to get home tonight. I can sympathize with both of these sentiments, having often bemoaned the lack of kindness Parisians have for one another.

“How much do you need?” I ask, reaching for my wallet. I happen to have 40€ on me and it’s been a good month so I know I can spare it. But he tells me he needs 90€ to make it all the way back home, that if I give him my mailing address he’ll write me a check to reimburse me and put it in the mail tomorrow. He also promises a bottle of my favorite perfume as his sister apparently works in a beauty shop.

At this point, we are outside on the street again, having gone outside the station while he explained his story and I’m not sure what to do. I want to be kind and trusting but you just never know and 90€ is a lot. I start to change my mind and voice my doubts, saying i am happy to give him what i have on me. He then becomes distraught, almost angry, saying he thought I understood his situation and that he’ll never be able to get home with 40€.

I should have walked away. But something provoked me to stay, maybe the part of me that hates disappointing others, and so I give him my address before walking to an ATM to withdraw the remaining difference. After handing him the money and wishing him the best of luck, I can already sense the feeling in my gut telling me that maybe I’ve just been emotionally manipulated into giving a perfect stranger 90€ for God knows what. There’s something guilty about his expression as he walks away but I try not to think about it too much, reminding myself that a good deed isn’t about being repaid anyway.

It’s as I’m recounting the details of this odd encounter to a friend later that night that I realize just how many holes there are in his story, all the questions I should have asked but didn’t think of. Suddenly I feel very vulnerable, imagining intruders at my window thanks to the address, and sheepish for being so naive. And why did this man pick me out of the crowd? For a couple of days, I find myself on edge in the metro, watching my back and trying to appear as unapproachable as possible.

But in a few days, the feeling passes and the whole experience is filed under the many lessons I’ve learned while living here. Only my curiosity remains about what a well-dressed, middle-aged man’s intentions could possibly be in singling out a young woman in the metro for 90€.

The One with the Giggles

On the first day that spring finally conquers the winter grey, a friend and I decide to meet at le Sacré Coeur in Montmartre to enjoy the sunshine after months of seeking refuge in cafés. It appears that we are not the only ones who have decided to take advantage of the weather as Line 2 is particularly crowded for the early afternoon. Every car is packed, passengers standing with bags pressed tightly against them and faces practically against the necks of those around them. Normally such rides seem interminable but the promise of a warm spring day awaiting just above has appeased the Parisian spirit and these irritations are forgotten.

Somewhere amidst the crowd the side of my car, a young woman in a baseball cap is talking loudly on the phone, apparently recounting the events of a night out. She begins to laugh, and not the cute little “tehehe” kind. This is a loud, rollicking laugh, the kind that sucks the air out of the lungs to make a strangling sound at the end of a riff, one that sometimes leads to snorting. It rings out through the car above the clamour, filling the empty spaces above heads and between legs. It sends a ripple through the crowd, soft at first, until shoulders shake, hands cover mouths, and faces bury into the backs of friends. A peal finally escapes from someone’s lips and breaks the seal, everyone laughing and not knowing why and laughing even harder at the absurdity of it all. Through eight different stops and new sets of passengers, the chorus swells and when I finally reach my stop, I don’t want to leave. But I’d like to imagine the laughter spreading down the length of that train as it continued along the serpentine tracks that day, greeting each wave of people with the pure unbridled joy of being alive in this city so hardened by life.

 

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a.k.a on facing situations of letting your guard down and taking people on human being to human being

  1. projectile vomiting in the metro:
  2. money lending in the metro

The Plunge

The Plunge

There’s a place I go in the mornings, to wind down after the first hours of work and gain momentum for the rest, letting the mind churn out excess thoughts and reset. It’s commonly known as a swimming pool but in Paris, this name is too benign, conjuring up images of your friendly, local YMCA pool where the water is a place where community thrives as much as where exercise takes place. In Paris, this scene takes on a more aggressive atmosphere, as strenuously competitive and cramped as other aspects of life here.

I am generally greeted with a long line waiting for the doors to open. There is no profile for the Parisian swimmer; from the moment the doors open, it’s a mad dash for the changing rooms, businessmen and grandmothers alike stripping down with astonishing speed, and charging into the showers. Be it a lunchbreak on a weekday, early morning on the weekends, or late at night, lanes fill, water flies, and the ants fall into line, one behind the other, in an endless circuit of dizzying movement for this myope. Like playground days long gone of timing your leap into the spinning jumprope’s vortex, entrance into this cog requires careful timing and an assertive push off the wall.

One, two, three, four, breathe. Head bowed, I follow the fizzy wake of the swimmer ahead, making the necessary adjustments in pace. The water offers respite from the incessant noise of the world outside, all sound dissolving into the vacuum, pools of refracted light shimmering at the bottom. Despite my predisposition to excessively worry about other people’s judgments, I try to ignore the looming presence behind me and the pressure of not lagging behind, focusing on my own shadow gliding along the bottom of the pool. We’re all in this together. Traffic becomes heavy at the end of each lane as swimmers readjust googles and caps, catching their breath and putting some distance between themselves and those ahead before getting back on the race track. Through my half-blinded state, I assess the landscape, counting the blurred arms flying and heads bobbing on the surface. At peak hours, which seems to be always, there can be as many as 16 limbs coming towards you.  It seems one can never escape the density of life in the city, always compacted tightly together.

Though unspoken, a certain code of conduct reigns over the splashing madness of the swimming pool and as the lanes fill up, a miniature model of the population emerges, a collection of bodies of varying proportions and personalities. The most fit, serious swimmers set the pace, their movements strong and sure, unwavering in their confident circuit up and down the pool. They are the leaders, wired to push forward and attract others to follow. These followers include those who are able to keep up with the general rhythm but are also attune to the needs of the group as a whole, willing to adjust their own behaviors to benefit the overall group. I most certainly fall into this category, preferring to adapt than to force my way through the tangle of limbs. We make the accommodations necessary for creating a peaceful environment conducive to everyone’s needs. Meanwhile, the leisurely and slower swimmers go at their own pace, and though at least one lane is usually reserved for them, limited space and high demand lead to a mingling of skill levels. There’s also always that one person doing water gymnastics, somersaulting all the way down the length of the pool at the speed of a porpoise, carefree and oblivious to any interruption they may be causing. But we adapt, the swifter swimmers  respectfully passing only when feasible and the rest of us courteously hugging the lane’s shoulder and pausing at the end to let them go before us.  Under the auspices of these rules, fluid movement is maintained and this micro-system functions nicely.

Perhaps inevitably, however, this harmony quickly breaks down. Whether from lack of oxygen or sheer arrogance, a group of impatient individuals systematically disregards everyone else’s right to an enjoyable experience. These are the swimmers who breathe down your neck as they pass down the narrow median with oncoming traffic directly ahead, volleying for a prime position in the line-up. Such “road rage” forces everyone else to yield, shield their faces, break their breathing pattern and roll on their side in order to avoid catching an elbow to the face, groin, or stomach. As these dissenters muscle their way through, all cohesion disintegrates and resentment begins to build. Once courteous swimmers become as tyrannically insenistive as these rude rule-breakers, succumbing to the temptation to resist this callousness with equally bad behavior.  A few elbow jabs and tidal waves sending me scrapping against the ropes and I feel all the meditative qualities I love most about my swim leaving me as my irritation rises. What began as a mentally-stimulating, invigorating work out becomes a race to see how long I can stay in the game before my patience maxes out.

With few exceptions, these people who feel entitled to disregard everyone else’s space and feelings have been men. From the bulkiest, balding tanks to the sleek young businessmen with ripped swimmer’s bodies, the message has been clear: “my time in the swimming pool is more important than yours and if you don’t move over, I don’t care if I hurt you in the process.” They go back and forth in this way, violently churning up the water and pushing people aside as they go. At best, their behavior is disruptive and disrespectful, but it is also unsafe. Worst of all, it goes unchecked, with lifeguards and other swimmers turning a blind eye until a confrontation occurs. They stand smugly at the end of each lane as if daring anyone to say something. I have even witnessed a few shouting matches between offended swimmers and these aggressors, the most dramatic involving a man trying to block a woman from swimming in the middle of the lane with a paddle board, refusing to let her pass on either side and resulting in blows from said object. Interestingly, this woman was one of the few who herself was swimming aggressively. How convenient that a man swimming in a way that endangers others around him is left unchecked or approached with great deference but a woman behaving with similar aggression merits to be attacked with a paddle board.

These confrontations have left me with the feeling that though so much progress has been made for women in our society, a large proportion of men continue to move through this world with rampant indifference towards the consequences of their behavior. It is disheartening to see so many generations of entitlement within the confines of 12 feet of water play out and wonder if it will ever be different. Our world is in crisis in so many ways and yet we are still incapable of thinking of others and functioning with a modicum of respect for one another.  No, instead it appears we are fated to continue pummeling one another, pushing the weak aside and forgetting that we are all humans deserving of love and respect. Even in a chlorinated basin of water.

 

Image courtesy of Jay Mantri @ http://jaymantri.com/

 

Around the Neighborhood

Around the Neighborhood

For months now, I’ve organized my days around the premise that there isn’t much to do in Neuilly. Just on the western perimeter of the city between Paris-proper and the sleek skyscrapers of the business district, its wider, tree-lined avenues afford more room for the families that seem to cluster here. And while I’ve appreciated the calm nights with little street noise, it’s always felt a little bit stuffy, strollers and small children running along the sidewalks with grandparents not far behind. This, coupled with the extreme satisfaction I get from hearing the ding of my metro card while passing through the turnstile, have pushed me out into the city, constantly in search of a quiet corner of some library or café with an outlet, a packed lunch and a book for the trip to and from home in tow.

The choices are overwhelming; I dream of the day when I’ve sat in every café but that is at least 10,000 coffees away. There’s always something new to explore and for a small town girl, the contrast between neighborhoods is delightful. One metro stop you’re surrounded by vestiges of France’s history and the next, you can feel like you’re in a different country, surrounded by other cultures’ cuisine and language, blended together and infused with its own energy. This piecing together is how cities are made, starting from a tiny center centuries ago and gradually incorporating the extremities, constantly redefining boundaries and the regions found within.

But due to my increasingly busy work schedule, the back-and-forth on the metro was beginning to tire me out. As efficient as public transport generally is over here, there is always the risk of the unpredictable happening – a bus strike or a sick passenger or an abandoned piece of luggage that shuts down the whole station for at least an hour, to name a few examples. Though the routine of waking up early and getting out in the city had become familiar and pleasant, I needed to conserve my energy a little more throughout the day.

In my eagerness to experience every inch of Paris, I had forgotten the key element that distinguishes life in the city: the central importance of your own neighborhood! This notion can seem so foreign for those of us accustomed to American suburbia, sprawling and erratic in its distribution of resources. A microorganism of life unto itself, the French neighborhood dictates the pace of daily life, each with its unique rhythm. Within a couple of blocks lies all that one needs to survive. Though you may be attached to some other area because of work or school, these do not define you as much as where you live, for even the fact that you come in from somewhere else becomes part of your daily identity.  Everything outside is extraneous, superfluous.

So out of necessity as well as curiosity, I have spent the past two weeks learning more about where I live. The first task was to locate a laundromat, as this appliance-needy writer is ashamed to admit that in the past few months, lunch at Grandma’s had become synonymous with Laundry Day. For this transgression, I can only blame my American half for finding any logic in dragging a suitcase full of laundry halfway across a city and onto a suburban train line bound for a town north of Paris. Silly, silly American! The laundromat, albeit one of the few in my bougie area, is only two streets away from my apartment … and right down the street from an excellent bakery. So while waiting for my clothes to finish, I can treat myself to a coffee and pastry before settling in for an hour of writing.

Among the apartment buildings of different eras and styles are a couple of corner cafés, their dark wooden interiors warm against the winter blueness, mouth-watering delicacies displayed in glass cases. Scattered throughout the grid system of the neighborhood, they offer a window into its social workings, friends greeting one another from the terrace, businessmen out for drinks, children bent over homework spread out over tables with cups of hot chocolate nearby. I can sit and observe the array of life unfolding before me, planning my lessons and writing to my heart’s content, or simply duck in for a quick espresso if I’m early for a lesson; these tranquil refuges are never far away. And as I’ve sat in these neighborly establishments, I have begun to recognize faces from around town, characters out of a story I have yet to finish reading. There’s the man who always wears a colorful fishing cap and galoshes who appears to spend hours at the local library writing poetry whenever I see him there. There’s also the woman who is always walking at least three dogs, one of which is always a new one … I’m sure there’s a story there somewhere!

In any case, the time spent right here in my neighborhood has decreased my weariness and increased my appreciation for where I live. Though it may not be as vibrant and trendy as other regions of Paris, Neuilly has everything you need. From the small grocers who are open on Sunday evenings when you realize you have nothing to eat and all the supermarkets are closed to the community cinema featuring two movies at a time in plush little movie theaters for spontaneous afternoons, its gentle nature provides a steadiness that my life sometimes needs. As for those children racing around on scooters and old folk dressed with a tasteful class of another century, I have come to think of it as a privilege to be surround oneself with groups to which we do not necessarily belong. The delight in being able to have children run down a city street or for an elderly resident to continue to be able to do their groceries at grocer’s around the corner. That is the heart of Neuilly.

 

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Neuilly in the fall.

 

 

Ebb & Flow

Silver mornings, grey skylines, gusty walks, choppy water and frosty noses. Seeking refuge in coffee shops, cavernous and cozy or open and bright, steamy windows and damp air riding in on dripping coattails. Emerging under blue winter skies and sharp light, mastering the art of layering and learning the many discrepancies in heat retention provided by different pairs of sock material, trial and error of frozen toes. Echoing museum galleries, overwhelming color, the exhilaration of travel plans slowly turning into reality. Chlorine up my nose, gliding through the water while words churn around in my mind, the relaxed relief of tired muscles and endorphins.

Auxiliary verbs, irregular conjugations, anxious tutor and uncertain students, dwindling patience giving way to the satisfaction of a student Getting It. A healthy mix of crumpled and deleted spaces with growing Word documents and scrawled sheets of notebook paper. Thrift shop steals, music in the metro, morning plans stretching out ’til late afternoon and drinks on a Thursday evening running into the wee hours of the morning. Yoga mat, face-down, mantras, push and pull, lion’s breath. Sundays on the Seine, conversation, new connections, familiar faces, lots of handshakes and the awkward half hug-bises that characterizes Franco-american relations. Good days and bad days, productive days and lazy days, days when I feel like I’ve got it all together and days when, well…

I try to stay away from journal entry-like writing on this blog; I don’t think it serves either one of us very well. But this month was such a mash-up of wonderful and challenging and gratifying things that seemed to add up to form a wholeness, a steadiness I’ve been craving for a while. There was an unconsciousness of time passing, a welcome respite from 2-, 5- and 10- year plans. Right now, my life is here in this city. I must build from this point, this moment. A structure will fall if it cannot push back against the forces pulling at it. Our organism, built with the refined complexity of a masterful engineer, adheres to the same principles. As we ground down through our center, grasping for roots, we must cultivate the energy to reach up out of ourselves and to step into the world. Push and pull, give and take, ebb and flow. This is the energy upon which our world, our cities, our souls are balanced. Give yourself over to it; cherish its current. What do you have to lose?

rainy paris

Marketplace Chatter

Marketplace Chatter

It’s a Friday morning, the fridge is empty, and you haven’t received your paycheck yet. In a city where food is expensive, particularly if you like fresh produce and unprocessed meats, this can only mean one thing: it’s time for a trip to the market.

But not just any market; depending on where you live in the city, markets can be just as expensive, if not more, as buying food at the grocery store. While markets such as le Marché Saint Quentin and Saint Pierre are well-known for the quality of their products, the prices can be exorbitant if you’re on a tight budget. So what is a young 20-something year-old who wants to eat well while living on a small income to do? Pack a good book and an empty backpack and ride whatever public transport you have to take to get to a market at the edge of the city! Make a coffee date with a friend who might live nearby for afterwards and you can make a morning out of it.

Down at the southern edge of Paris in Malakoff, le Marché de Vanves  has become my go-to for produce and other perishable good needs. It’s about a forty-minute trip from where I live but the ride doesn’t feel that long with thoughts of all the good food I am going to walk away with swirling in my head and the satisfaction of saving money. As soon as I step off the metro, I follow the steady stream of people pushing caddies and carrying empty bags into the streets of Malakoff. Along with the distance from the city’s center comes the refreshing feeling of being in a small town. A couple blocks down and the main square is filled with tents selling everything you could possibly need, a taste for what is to come when you step inside the covered halls of the market.

The market offers a slice of life in Paris, the place where so many different people gather – the elderly, for whom the market serves as the social outing of the week, stopping to chat with their favorite merchants, some of whom they have frequented for years and where they are greeted by name. Housewives and working women, young and old, families and students alike line up by the stands with their baskets and bags of every shape and variety. Stands of representing different nationalities and cultures – Indian samosas, Algerian delicacies, Lebanese falafel and hummus, and freshly made Italian pasta – bring together the cultural variety normally separated into neighborhoods by the social boundaries of the city.

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Within the marketplace’s narrow aisles, the tough Parisian exterior falls away. Strangers smile to one another and make friendly conversation, virtually unheard of anywhere else, pointing out the best deals and remarking on the weather. A woman shows me how to pick the best clementines – not too ripe but one that gives a little to a squeeze. My sweet potato merchant – as I now feel I have the right to call him for never failing to supply me with my favorite fall vegetable – asks me how my week has been as he weighs my vegetables and a conversation ensues. Where does he get his vegetables? Little town southwest of Paris, part of a food cooperative. Maybe it is simply the product of living on one’s own and occasionally being in great need of social interaction that leaves me open to conversation with such strangers. This is the meeting place where the human need for nourishment, nutritionally and socially speaking, dispels the petty judgments and preconceived notions of daily life to which we often give ourselves over.

As I pick out my apples at one of the many fruit stands, an older man recommends I try a different variety I’ve never heard of before called une reinette, a muted yellowish color. I hesitate. I am drawn to the dark red apples that shine like jewels next to the drabber reinettes.

“Don’t be fooled by the color. It’s not the outside that counts,” he chuckles.

All varieties are going for the same price today, 1.80€ per kilo. It won’t hurt to try. I pick a few of each. He nods in approval. I learn that he used to live in Maine where he dated a beekeeper. Go figure.

After packing my week’s worth of veggies into the backpack and a cup of coffee with a good friend, I head home, laughing to myself at how carrying a cauliflower through the metro has become normal. I unpack my loot at home and calculate that I’ve spent about 12€ on food that will last me a little over a week. Not bad at all. And the apple was delicious. Not the red delicious but the unassuming reinette. Thank goodness for marketplace wisdom.

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A Happy French Friendsgiving

My silence on the blog has felt as tense as the atmosphere in the city; bursting at the seams with thoughts and feelings, yet unsure on how to proceed in this new reality. I have not wanted to sensationalize what I personally experienced on that Friday night or the residual trauma that inevitably continues to seize up in all of us. But it is undeniable that life seems different than it did a month ago. Sirens have taken on a new meaning and extended delays on the metro have us holding our breath. On a casual stroll on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, marks of mourning stretch across the city, flowers attached to doorways where victims formerly lived and makeshift memorials set up against lamp posts and statues, flags waving from windows and buses. The six year-old I watch has acquired the word “terrorist” to her vocabulary and I must find a way to engage in an appropriate and honest dialogue about something I have trouble comprehending myself. This is how life has changed for me.

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Almost two weeks later, the fourth Thursday in November arrived in Paris carrying no greater significance than being a rather abnormally sunny fall day. Work went on as usual, though the day may have felt longer for those of us missing elaborate turkey dinners and pumpkin pie back home. I myself felt wistful all week for the comforts of family antics, my dad’s shuffling about in the kitchen, and the general American-ness that characterize the holiday for me. Sometimes it takes being far away from home to realize how attached you are to certain holidays and traditions.

In light of all that is going on in the world, it has been challenging to express my thankfulness during this time of national mourning. As humans, we cannot help but feel grateful it wasn’t us while looking into the eyes of those who suddenly find themselves bearing an incurable pain and thinking, “I’m so sorry it was you.” The state of our world, from extremism of all kinds and violence to the destruction of the environment, weighs particularly heavy on me this year, with Paris currently at the focal point of both topics. How long will checking every person’s bag and coat at every point of assembly be sustainable for protecting against a threat whose origins are intertwined in a complex history of muddled foreign interests, humankind’s fated egotism and cruelty, and the hatred that is born from the three? How much longer will bombs be used as the method of resolving this hate and extremism? I believe in the resilience of the human spirit. But our ability to be kind, empathetic, and tolerant of one another has been put into serious question for me. We seem to be spinning faster and faster to our own destruction.

As life resumes and a city comes to terms with the fragility of the present, it felt especially important to gather with friends and share in the traditions that tie us together. Unable to declare our own national holiday on Thursday, we held our Friendsgiving on the following Sunday in a little apartment on the very top floor under the rafters. The 3 kilo turkey was splayed open in a baking dish in order to cram it into the tiny oven (capacity of 1.5 kilos…) and we crossed our fingers that the turkey would finish cooking before the sagging rack gave way under its burden. Friendly debates about the quantity of garlic and butter to add to mashed potatoes, how to describe stuffing to our French guests, and the proper way to carve a turkey filled the cramped kitchen as the familiar scents of home began wafting through the air. Everyone had to compromise on at least one element of the meal since each of us have our own attachments to family recipes and tastes. For my part, I contributed my family’s veggie-filled stuffing and experienced my first marshmallow-topped sweet potato casserole but I missed my cousin’s tart cranberry sauce. No one had a problem with the wine, though – we’d never had better on Thanksgiving!

But the combination of these various traditions spiked with French accouterments shared among friends with different histories and backgrounds represented everything I wish for our world. As this month of violence and changes in a way of life comes to an end, I am thankful for things that I didn’t know how to be grateful for before. On this first Friendsgiving in Paris, we raised our glasses to France, friendships that break down language barriers, distance and religion, and the choice to feel grateful every day of the year.

 

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Photo courtesy of Briana Stroh

A Birthday with Hemingway

A Birthday with Hemingway

To write about Hemingway in Paris is to risk drowning in the vast array of musings and information surrounding him and his compatriots of the Lost Generation. This infatuation that writers have with Hemingway’s legacy intertwined with that of the city’s is profoundly unique; despite its position as the epicenter of publishing, New York City fails to inspire the same kind of romanticism in the young American writer. Guidebooks, articles, and Midnight in Paris all paint a picture of a city still dripping with their aura, rattling off a list of addresses that their lives encompassed while living in Paris. And while some visitors may still feel this way, the notoriety of these locations has resulted in an over-saturation of tourists that has soaked up any remaining molecule of their prolific essence that once lingered. Any time I’ve ever wound up in Les Deux Magots, the number of selfie sticks and expensive cameras clicking away took away from its transcendent past. It is noisy and crowded which are not attributes that I am drawn to in dining experiences, let alone in a writing environment.

But then there is Le Sélect: unassuming, calm, and charming. Sitting near the corner of what used to be known as “le Carrefour Vavin,” this French bistro has remained as much of a well-kept secret as an establishment frequented by those of such historical renown can remain. Situated in the Montparnasse district, it came to prominence during that short-lived era of rowdy abandon and loose responsibilities between the end of the Great War and the stock market crash in 1929, thanks to its Lost patrons. These were the days before St Germain-des-Près, when the seedy streets of Montmartre were left to those remaining from la Belle Époque and the next generation of artists and thinkers took up shop on the Left Bank. Le Sélect became part of a colony of businesses offering respite, financially as well as socially, for this wave of starving expatriated artists that flocked to the city, with each group of nationals adopting one bistro or the another.  Though this southern migration may have seemed haphazard, the area of Montparnasse already had a long tradition within the arts, right down to its name. In Greek mythology, the nine muses of the arts and sciences lived on Mount Parnassus and this location was held sacred by Apollo and Dionysus. Montparnasse, now located in the 14th arrondissement of the city, inherited the name during the 17th century from students who would gather at this outpost, at the time, to recite poetry and rehearse plays.

Arriving as the afternoon faded, I spotted the illuminated script of its sign from down the street. The yellow light bottled up within the winter patio’s walls, silhouetting the forms of the clientele, gave the impression of intimacy that one needs on a birthday spent on one’s own. Stepping into this halo, I quickly understood that this was not just an impression. A server greeted me with what really felt like sincere warmth but without the pressure of making any decisions. The sleek wooden bar stood near the entrance, the helm of this rich art deco interior, and the seating area was partitioned to accommodate the diverse preoccupations of its patrons (and which I suspect contributes to the agreeable level of noise). Mode apératif generally takes places at the bar or on the terrace, mode pensive artist occurs in the back room, mode very important business spreads out in the side dining room, and mode I’m just here for the food is sprinkled throughout the restaurant. Of course, these categories are fluid but this is how the biosphere appeared to be divided on the day I came.

99 boulevard du Montparnasse
99 boulevard du Montparnasse

I took my time deciding where I wanted to sit, walking through each section before opting for a table at the front of the side dining area, where I could enjoy the splendid yellow, dark green, and maroon decor, as well as a view of the street. I started by ordering an espresso to sip as I jotted down some thoughts but ended up staying for dinner: duck confit with potato gratin and salad. Did I mention it was my birthday? Every exchange with the waiter was friendly and attentive, to the point that I can say without exaggeration that Le Sélect provides the best customer service in Paris. Point final.

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As I sat at my table-for-one savoring every bite of this tasty meal, I did not feel lonely. The elegance of my surroundings mixed with the knowledge of those who sat here before me filled me with excitement and a feeling of certainty that “presence” does not always have to be tangible. On a day that ties me to my past and propels me forward at the same time, I was grateful to feel the weight of those spirits, of Hemingway and of my own. Spending your birthday alone in a big city is like carrying around a secret, a mischievous grin spreading across your face when it occurs to you that despite the unexceptional list of tasks for the day, it is not just an ordinary day. In this eternal city, only the souls of those I encountered at Le Sélect were privy to my secret.

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