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.

My favorite shitholes

My favorite shitholes

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” -The Great Gatsby

Many years ago, I and a few other expats were hanging out in someone’s apartment in Erdenet, Mongolia, playing a game of “Why it sucks” with an inflatable globe our hostess had lying around. The gist of the game was that we’d toss the globe up and catch it, and wherever the catcher’s finger landed (I think we went with the right-hand index finger) we all had to say why that place sucks. It was usually pretty easy—I remember landing on Somalia, for examplebut sometimes we had to be creative, especially when our fingers landed on some of our favorite places. It wasn’t fair to say, “Hey, I like it there!” We had to provide a convincing reason for why that particular place was, basically, a shithole.

It wasn’t lost on us that Erdenet, the city we were in, could be described by some people as a shithole. Small, poor, and isolated, it basically is a shithole, at least by most measures. If Erdenet was a shithole, though, it was our shithole, and we loved it.

A Soviet-built cement smudge on an otherwise barren stretch of hills, Erdenet exists entirely because of its copper mine, one of the largest in the world, and the mine’s slag heap looms over the southern side of the city. It’s prettier than it sounds, though. Continue reading “My favorite shitholes”

To the ends of the world

To the ends of the world

I was waiting for a coffee in the cafeteria and the TV was tuned to a news channel of the sort that I only ever only watch under duress or while waiting for an exceptionally slow barista to remember what exactly goes into a black americano. My thoughts drifted all around as they so often do—should I order pizza for dinner? is this room getting darker or is it just me? if I had three wishes, should I wish to be able to get away with murder, or should I wish to never think about murder to begin with?—when a long infomercial for Mauritius came on and I was transfixed.

I have never been to Mauritius, or even considered going there, and until a few minutes after that commercial ended I don’t think I even knew where Mauritius was (somewhere in the Indian Ocean, sure, but close to what?). However, I stayed on and watched even though my coffee had finally come and I did, officially at least, have things I needed to do. The commercial was all soft-focus and wide-angle and featured beautiful people doing all sorts of things that I would never do under even the best of circumstances, like attending a folk dance (because remember, folk dancing is stupid—or so I learned at 13 and it has, unfortunately, prejudiced my views for life), or hanging out in a bar late at night with potential sex partners (okay, the commercial didn’t exactly say that would happen, but it was implied; however, I don’t like staying up late and I don’t like crowds, so bars aren’t really for me).

But Mauritius looked beautiful, and I rushed back to my desk and starting researching trips there. Because, apparently, all I want to do is travel.

I know I complained about booking a trip to Jinja just a few days after returning from Amsterdam, but it turns out that the only pause I need between trips is a few days. I’ve already booked a trip to Murchison Falls next month, and rented a beach house on Cape Cod for the summer, and found a place to stay in Amsterdam on my way there (having seen it in winter, I now want to see it in summer). I have tentative plans to go to Ethiopia in April, London in October, and I feel like I’ve put off going to Zanzibar for long enough.

Can I afford all this? Strictly speaking, yes. Is it a responsible way to use my money? Probably not. That couple from Up spent their whole lives saving up for one trip and never took it, and yet here I am complaining that I’ve been cooped in my home (which is, by the way, in some exotic locale that I have no business living in) for almost two entire weeks now.

But I can’t help myself. I like my home life, and my job, and I have plenty of hobbies. It’s not like I have a lot of time to fill. I barely sleep, and my stack of books to read is almost overwhelming (though I have made some progress this week, in keeping with my non-new-year’s resolution). I came dangerously close to getting a puppy last week—while I was trying and failing to have an honest conversation with myself about whether or not I could be a responsible dog owner, I noticed that all the plants I bought at the Flower Expo last month are dead now, even the succulents and the bamboo, which really isn’t supposed to happen (so no puppy for me).

And I have long-term goals, too, that I need to save up for. And yet, here I am, figuring out yet another trip. It doesn’t have to be Mauritius. I would love to take a road trip across Europe, from Lisbon maybe to somewhere obscure in the east. I’ve never been to Japan. I am convinced that it is my destiny to start a Puerto Rican restaurant in Australia (or perhaps New Zealand; my friends here from both countries make a strong case, and if it’s possible to get a decent mofongo in either place my friends haven’t found it yet), but I’ve never been to either place so I figure I should go and decide for myself. And of course there are the wonders of Africa that I am well-positioned to explore. It’s just…I have to see it all.

Do I? Is it something wrong with me? And why the urge to go to such remote places? Why not Vegas? I wonder if all the doomsday predictions on the news have convinced me on some reptilian level that I need to go far, far away and ride out the storm.

Or maybe that coffee just took way too long.

I resolve to be more resolute

I resolve to be more resolute

I don’t really do new year’s resolutions, because when I was young somebody told me that they never work, and when you’re young you’re very impressionable. For example, I once heard one of the robots on Mystery Science Theater declare, “No matter what the culture, folk dancing is stupid,” and that has been my attitude to that ever since.

I do periodically challenge/force myself to improve myself, or at least address some of my shortcomings. Like one time I resolved to turn myself into a Roxy Music fan. Another time I took up yoga. Because I can now touch my toes and sing all the words to “All I Want is You,” I would say that these challenges I give myself are generally worth the effort.

But they aren’t new year’s resolutions, because I learned when I was six that those never work. It just so happens that when I looked in the mirror and decided that I needed to fix some issues, it was New Year’s Eve. Totally unrelated, though. I would have made these resolutions in October if I’d felt lousy enough then.

First and foremost, I need to read something. After getting off to a great start in January (Moby Dick and The Goldfinch—loved the first, gradually came to hate the second) I didn’t really do much over the rest of the year. A few short novels, mostly read during the summer, and none of them especially memorable; two books on Russian history (a package deal on eBay); and some Shakespeare that I really should have read a long time ago: that was it. Oh, and I only made it through one of those Russian books because I was the only person in the office and there was literally nothing else to do.

So I need to fix that.

I also need to write more. I was doing an amazing (for me) job at the start of the year (that whole a-short-story-and-a personal-essay-every-week thing), but then work—my actual job, that is—finally got going and I didn’t have time to spend twenty hours a week writing. I understand that there are limits, of course, but the fact is that I could do a lot more than I’ve been doing. I could spend less time on Reddit, for example, or just staring at my chickens. Sometimes I just walk around in circles thinking about how I don’t have time to do anything except walk around in circles.

Oh, and in the fall I developed a weird obsession with a game called Fire Emblem, because it let me send a bunch of warriors into battle, and they could fall in love and have children, and those children were also warriors, and so I could send a whole warrior family into battle, which was violent but still kind of sweet. Somehow this was appealing to me, and consumed most of my evenings. And no, it doesn’t make any more sense if you actually play it. It’s just weird. And time-consuming. (And, yes, fun, but whatever.)

So I’ve put away Fire Emblem and taken books off my shelf and put them in a neat little stack so they can taunt me whenever I’m in my living room, and I’ve ordered a bunch of fresh books so I can have something new to look forward to. I can’t tell you what they are, because I’ve already forgotten, but tonight I’m going to start reading either a book of Chinese poetry that I found at a book market in Amsterdam, or a history of Mediterranean pirates that I’ve been lugging around for way too long. I’ll decide over a glass of wine.

And this morning I woke up at three-thirty for reasons that I cannot understand, and instead of poking around on the Internet until sunrise I poured myself some coffee and did a bit of writing. Only three hundred words, but three hundred good ones, I think. I am pleased.

Of course I should also work on being healthier, kinder and more generous, and maybe getting my car’s oil changed more regularly. But right now, learning again how to read and write seem like admirable enough goals, new year be damned.

My tiny reading nook

My tiny reading nook

My living room is a dark cave, which is how I like it, but I recognize this isn’t necessarily healthy and is definitely off-putting to visitors. A couple of weeks ago there was a plant and flower expo in town, so I went and refused to let myself leave until I had bought enough green things to give the room some life.

And because I am basically a ridiculous person, I immediately purchased tiny decor to turn the plant in my reading nook into another, tinier reading nook.