Paris, kinda

Paris, kinda

Events move fast and it’s hard for me to keep up, especially at my current glacial pace of writing. Just a few weeks ago in the shower I had what I was sure was an awesome hot take on the then-ongoing Supreme Court drama, but by the time I got out of the shower and had breakfast, my observations had been overtaken by events and the moment was gone. My hot take was cold.

Then I was all excited about going to Paris and coming back with some observations and witticisms and profundities about the French capital from my hopefully unique perspective, but by the time I was done exploring Notre Dame and finding lozenges for my suddenly-sore throat, my vacation was over.

If I failed to take any profoundly new pictures of Paris during my whirlwind tour there, I can take comfort in knowing that this is one of the most-photographed places on earth, and on a first visit I certainly wasn’t going to bring anything new to the picture.

I did eventually find cleaner bathrooms, so there’s that. And I learned that either I am extraordinarily lucky or the Parisian reputation for rudeness is thoroughly undeserved. I was pleased to find that people really do walk down the street casually holding baguettes in their hands, but dismayed to learn that it is impossible to buy throat lozenges at seven in the morning because everything is closed at that time, even the allegedly-24-hour drug stores. Once it woke up, though, Paris reminded me of New York way more than I had expected; it looked like the Upper East Side with only about 30 percent more French on the signage. I feel like at some point in my life somebody should have mentioned that. On the third day I even woke up to jackhammering in front of my apartment.

If you’ve been to Paris, or have even just heard of it, then you’ve seen these pictures before. Nonetheless, this is what I saw when I wasn’t busy trying not to swallow.

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First impressions of Paris

First impressions of Paris

Because it is a long weekend and because I have been growing increasingly restless (and probably because I’m terribly financially irresponsible or whatever) I am in Paris this week, holed up in a little apartment just off the Place de la Republique.

I’ve never been to Paris before. When I was young I lived for a time in southwest Germany, not far from the French border, and my family forayed regularly into France to feel the warmth of other supermarkets, but I take it as a measure of my parents’ idiosyncrasies that they dragged my sister and me all over Europe but never showed any interest in Paris. Indeed, my father always dismissive of the idea of going there–”Nothing but traffic and tourists.” (The only other city I heard him show such contempt for was Venice, because he saw a picture of clothes hanging on a line and declared the whole thing “ghetto.”)

(My sister, for the record, did spend two weeks in Paris on an exchange, and she did her best to convince us that we should go, but my father’s attitude infected us all and we left Europe without going.)

Given how much I’ve traveled it seems like a curious hole in my biography to have avoided Paris. I have nothing against the French, of course, and greatly admire the food, culture, and history. I cringe whenever anyone makes anti-French comments, and agree enthusiastically whenever French friends tell me I must see Paris. “Yes, I must!” I declare.

So with Ugandan independence day this weekend, and all my colleagues taking that as an excuse to miss the whole week, I bought a plane ticket and booked a room. Not bad, huh? Being an adult means never having to show self-control! (Um…what?)

Now, an American can never just go to Paris, the way one can go to London or Berlin. Every time someone at the office asked where I was going for the vacation, I was reminded of the weight that Paris, alone among cities, carries on the American imagination. Sometimes I couldn’t even say it. “I’m going to France,” I’d say, or even “Europe.”

When an American goes to Paris, or even just suggests the possibility of going, he or she is immediately placed on the continuum of obsession that is at least as deeply rooted as apple pie. An American in Paris follows in the footsteps of Thomas Jefferson, Josephine Baker, and the Fourth Infantry Division. An American in Paris must partake of Hemingway’s movable feast, and carries the burden of every fanny-packed tourist who ever joked about freedom fries and cheese-eating surrender monkeys. An American in Paris hears the echoes of a million honeymoons, and honors the wishes of every housewife whose only dream is to someday go to “Paris, France,” and every theater major who drives her roommates nuts singing Phantom and Les Mis.

It’s quite a history.

And so it is with a heavy heart that I must confess that I came to Paris extremely unprepared.

I don’t speak French, something which was noted at customs. (“Why not?” the officer asked.”I don’t know.” “ ‘I don’t know?’ This is not a good answer.”)

But mostly, I don’t know anything about Paris. I don’t even know what there is to do here besides the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower and croissants.

And so I arrived in one of the world’s greatest cities as if I’d just wandered into a little town in the middle of nowhere. What proceeds now are almost pure first impressions.

First, Charles de Gaulle Airport is the least welcoming airport I’ve seen outside of America. (My country, I admit, has some truly awful airports.) Dark, brutalist, with few amenities. But that’s okay, I’m a New Yorker, and our airports look like disasters.

How is every building so lovely? And what did this city look like before wrought iron? And when there is just one perfectly-placed flower box in the window of a building, is it because only one person cared and they hit upon the most perfect way to beautify the whole building, or are all the neighbors choosing to forgo their own flower boxes for the aesthetic purity of that one box?

What is up with the toilets here? I went to several, and all were gnarly.

Seriously, why don’t I speak French by now? All I know are Serge Gainsbourg lyrics, and I’m pretty sure it’s hard to work “Je vais et je viens entre tes reins” into a normal conversation. Funnily, whenever someone asked me a question in French, I felt the need to answer in Russian. Could not stop saying “da” to everyone.

Heavy cloud cover means I still haven’t seen the Eiffel Tower. Maybe today it will clear up.

My first day was all aimless wandering, rewarding but exhausting after the long flight, and once I checked into my room i found I didn’t have the energy to go out again. It’s a new day, though, and I’m looking forward to exploring more. I kind of like that I am here without any useful background knowledge. I’ll have to see where the day takes me.

Oh inertia!

Oh inertia!

The trouble with living in a land with no discernable seasons is that time really does slip away. I haven’t been here since February! Not because I have nothing to do or say—heck, that never stopped me before—but because, well, I just didn’t. After my little mini-safari it seemed anticlimactic to talk about my regular boring life (a new pizza place opened! yay!); and then I was determined to write another novel (10,000 words in then decided it was rubbish and needed to start over; now back up to 1,000); and then I was like, “Oh, it is April already? Crap.”

And then I went on summer vacation. I had very lofty ambitions. I bought fancy camera equipment and make a very elaborate itinerary and was going to take five thousand pictures. Instead I took about a hundred.

And didn’t share any of them.

And now it’s September and I feel guilty even doing this. But hey, if I don’t get back on the horse, then I’m not going to go anywhere.

Had I shared my rough draft, it would have begun something like this:

The first rain of the season began as a papery whisper passing a secret through the dry grasses and the dying leaves. It was mere rumor, laden with anxiety and disbelief, but then the first drops came, miraculously cold and heavy, and even if it stopped now they would all know that the rains were coming, and it would be good.

And if I had shared pictures, they would have looked something like this:

That was an up-close encounter with a cantankerous peregrine falcon in New Hampshire. Beautiful bird, though a little goofy-looking up close.

And then I would have shared some of these appealing rustic images from Vermont.

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And I would have definitely shared pictures of some of the things I saw in a museum.

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But I didn’t do any of that when it was timely, so I’m getting it out of my system, and will be returning once again to at least semi-regular posts. Because darn it, I miss this all. And the seasons are never going to help me mark the passage of time, at least not while I live here, so I have to just make sure I do it myself.

The infinite possibilities of a blank notebook

The infinite possibilities of a blank notebook

For Valentine’s Day last week I received a little red notebook, about the size of a shirt pocket. The sentiment behind the gift wasn’t explained—what was I expected to do with it?—but ever since then I’ve carried it around, debating how best to put it to use.

I opened it and could almost imagine a delightful little poem written on the first page. I’m not a poet, but I do like reading poetry, and sometimes imagine that I could write something beautiful if I just put my mind to it. Last week when I went on my little vacation I brought with me a book of classical Chinese poetry that I’d bought on a lark at a street market in Amsterdam. I chose it because it was physically light, but also because the poems were short and I wasn’t sure how raucous my traveling group would be—I might only have a few minutes’ peace at a time, so a good long novel probably wouldn’t be a good thing to try to sink my teeth into.

The poems were lovely, though, which shouldn’t be surprising considering that the book is hundreds of years old and somehow people still see fit to publish it.

Every plant and tree knows spring will soon be gone

a hundred pinks and purples compete with their bouquets

willow fuzz and elm pods lack such clever means

they only know how to fill the sky with snow

(Han Yu, translated by Red Pine)

A good poet makes it seem so easy. I’ve seen trees and flowers, too! I can do this! (Or, as my half-drunk self slurs, “Masters, shmasters. Watch me: ‘Roses are red, violets are…something. Shouldn’t they be purple? What the hell? I need another drink.’)

I fancied myself a poet in high school, for a few months at least. I carried scraps of paper and a stubby pencil in my pocket to jot down my observations. I also carried a copy of Ginsberg’s Howl in my inside jacket pocket, because it fit neatly and because I wore that jacket every day until one of my teachers asked me if I ever felt dirty wearing literally the same thing every day, rain or shine, without washing it, and I thought that maybe I should retire both the jacket and the book. The jacket subsequently disappeared, probably given to a charity without my knowledge, and my grandmother’s free-range parakeet later tore Howl into little strips to feather his nest or as an act of avian literary criticism. But I digress.

The only line I remember from my foray into writing poetry was, “The flames were doused/with mineral water.” I don’t remember what the poem was about, except that it was unusually long for me, and it had fancy but purposeless spacing, and I was quite proud of it until a friend of mine on the bus took it and read it and then gave it back without saying much. She didn’t make fun of it, but she didn’t bring it up again either, so either she thought it was so awesome that she couldn’t believe a peer had written it, or it was, you know, not good. When I read it to myself later that day, the line about mineral water (does it douse flames better or worse than regular water?) jumped out at me as particularly embarrassing, and all these years later it is all I remember.

So maybe my little red notebook isn’t meant to contain poetry. It could contain little vignettes of my life, like maybe describe the sunrise or how I feel about my backyard chickens (they are hilarious, by the way). How long, though, before such a collection becomes nothing more than a catalogue of meals I’ve eaten or movies I’ve seen?

The diminutive size of this notebook might be better suited to capturing the memories that sometimes surface from the murky recesses of myself, those mysterious surfaces that happen when, for example, I see a kid kicking a ball down the street and a chain reaction of subconscious free-association brings me back to a road trip I took with my mother and sister nearly thirty years ago from Colorado Springs to Augusta, Georgia, on a Greyhound bus. We stopped at a Stuckey’s in Alabama and I remember the tables all had those peg-jumping IQ tests, and my sister and I almost forgot to eat because we were so focused on proving that we were smart.

Not exactly the kind of gem that deserves memorialization, I suppose.

Maybe I’m overthinking it. Maybe I should just use it to write my grocery lists. I read once that a Mesopotamian scholar found a cuneiform tablet that had been on display for decades in a museum, and then translated it and found it was a to-do list for a Babylonian homemaker. I wonder if a thousand years from now my little red notebook will be on display under a glass case and someone will ask, “What was ‘Cinnamon Toast Crunch’?”

I keep carrying it around, empty and unused, and a part of me is starting to wonder if maybe the best part of a new notebook is its very emptiness, the way that it waits so calmly but eagerly for my forthcoming profundity in whatever form that may take.

In which case I’d hate to ruin it with some trifle about mineral water.

Baboons

Baboons

There are cheeky monkeys, and then there are baboons. At the ferry landing, a big male was hanging out by the gift shop of all places, acting like he was waiting for it to open so he could buy a trinket or something. We opened the door to our safari car, and in seconds the baboon shot across the parking lot. We were all sure he was going to steal one of the children in the car (to be fair, the little ones are snack-sized), but instead he reached in a deftly snatched one of the pack lunches. We can marvel for a moment about how aware this baboon was that he could spot a paper bag in a dark car from thirty meters away and know it contained lunch; and admire his ability to go right into the midst of a crowd of people and steal their food and get away with it; but mostly my take-away is that an animal that can do that can really mess me up if it wanted to.

When we returned, the same baboon was leaning against the driver’s-side door of someone else’s car, like a primate gangster demanding protection money.

Continue reading “Baboons”

Nile River cruise

Nile River cruise

The point of the river cruise is to see the actual Murchison Falls, but along the way you get a bonus mini-safari along the river. The river guide tried to his best to explain what we were looking at, but the crowd was a bit noisy, and there were some concerns that if we all stood on the same side the boat might tip over and we’d all get eaten by crocodiles, so I must confess I didn’t learn much. I did, however, see more elephants, which is always fun.

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