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.

Backyard adventures

Backyard adventures

I didn’t actually grow up in an apartment in the city, but it’s been a long time since I’ve had access to personal green space and so my instinct is to stay indoors when I’m at home. My house sits on a very nice piece of a land, though, so on Saturday, after an hour or so of trying and failing to find something to do in the living room, I decided to grab my camera and go outside.

My pair of backyard ibises have been joined by a new couple, so there are now four of these goofy birds that roam my yard looking for grubs, and I heard them honking noisily so I thought I’d get the group in action. By the time I came out, though, they were gone. Since I was already outside, though, I decided to make the best of it. After a few weeks of rain my gardens are looking quite lush. I don’t know squat about flowers, so if anybody can identify any of these species, let me know.

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Palm trees always make me think of the opening scene in Apocalypse Now.
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These grow high up on a tree that spills over onto my neighbor’s yard. When the flowers aren’t in bloom the tree is quite scraggly.
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I can’t imagine the evolutionary advantage to growing tiny flowers in the middle of the stem, but they do look lovely. Maybe plants prize beauty over practicality as much as any oter species.
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This is actually a potted plant on my balcony. I’m sure they guy who sold it to me told me what it was, but I either wasn’t paying attention or forgot. The flowers only bloom in the morning. When I brought it home I didn’t even realize it had flowers.
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I like the ant crawling on this thing.

Earlier this year I bought some chickens for a downtown chicken factory. They were adorable and I loved them, but in one brutal weekend they all caught bird flu and died.  In September I got around to buying new chicks, these from a farm a little more connected to nature. “Local chickens,” as they are known, are hardier than factory chickens, and I couldn’t have a second chicken plague sweep through my property in a year.

My local chickens, though, weren’t sexed, so instead of six hens I got three roosters and three hens. They’re young enough that they all still get along, but the Internet warns me that probably two of the roosters will have to go away eventually.

Anyway, my local chickens (all of them have names and personalities, by the way) are much more curious than the factory chickens, and explore all over the yard. This time I found them as far from their coop as they could go, hanging out under that purple-flower tree. I took some chicken glamor shots of them. If they were ever in a band, these could be their publicity stills.

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Left to right: Lemon Drop (vocals), Stripe (bass), P.B. (lead guitar), Chain Mail (rhythm guitar), Strawberry Shortcake (keyboards), Slimer (piano), Hey-Hey (dancer)

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I learned this summer (or rather, someone who knows about this stuff pointed out to me) that I have four coffee trees growing in my backyard. Apparently, if I really wanted to, I could harvest them, dry them, roast them, and make a cup of coffee or something. It probably wouldn’t take good, since I am doing nothing to maintain or nourish the trees.

A palm tree grows beside my coffee plants. From far away palm trees look nice, but up close I find them, or at least their bases, a bit gross. See:

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I always appreciate an inviting walkway, and I found a couple not far from the coffee trees.

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Before retreating back into my living room (so much time in the sun! it’s scary out there!) I came across this little shoot growing near yet another palm, and I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get a good shot of it. This is the best I could come up with.

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Old photos

Old photos

I dug through my photo collections yesterday trying to find a particular shot that I may or may have not taken on a trip to Uzbekistan last year. I was unsuccessful, either because I didn’t take the picture, or I did but it wasn’t as good as I remembered it being.

It doesn’t matter. Once I was in my Photos app there was no reason not to keep looking. (On the contrary, there were lots of reasons to stop what I was doing and address my actual current life.)

I have a huge stack of old photo albums that I still carry with me and lug from house to house and country to country. I used to display them in a low bookshelf that has also been dragged all around the world since my parents gave it to me back in the early 1990s. For a while the pictures shared the shelf with knick-knacks and souvenirs. On the bottom shelf was a shoebox full of unsorted pictures that I promised I would someday put into proper albums. I still have that shoebox, and I still promise myself that I’ll do sort them someday.

Eventually the bookshelf overfilled, and first the knick knacks and then the box of pictures were removed to make room for more albums. (I also made it a point to start buying albums that were slim, because there just wasn’t much space on the shelves.)

Continue reading “Old photos”

Lake Mburo wanderings

Lake Mburo wanderings

I went to Lake Mburo about a month ago. I’ve shared most of the best pictures somewhere by now—either here or Instagram (or on my own screensaver, which I realize that nobody but me can see but which is somehow satisfying anyway). Here are the last of the ones I wanted to put out, though.

I’m actually heading out on another road trip this weekend, on a loop of southwest Uganda (no gorilla trekking, though—I’ll save that for another trip). But in the meantime, a last look back on my lazy weekend at Lake Mburo National Park.

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The view from the top of Rwakobo Rock is stunning, and the drop-off not as scary as it looks.
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Uganda has a ridiculous number of birds. I forgot the actual statistic, but it’s something like half of all the bird species in Africa. I’m trying to get to know them all. I want to say this one is an African Pied Wagtail, but I could be wrong.
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This, I am pretty sure, is a starling. Starlings tend to have cool names: there is a Splendid Starling and a Superb Starling, but this one is (again, I think) a Rüppell’s Long-Tailed Starling. Bonus point for the umlaut.
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This is not a bird at all.
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A rather majestic cow.
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Mornings were misty when I was there.
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The road is long but inviting.
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It does sometimes feel like walking through a dream. It becomes easy to confuse zebras with unicorns.
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These teenagers just stood in the road, looking all annoyed at us for trying to get through.
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The only reason why they aren’t texting and taking selfies is that they don’t have thumbs.

Babies of Lake Mburo

Babies of Lake Mburo

You don’t go to Lake Mburo National Park because it’s the most exciting park in Uganda—you go there because it’s the closest to downtown Kampala, and because the park is surrounded by cattle-grazing land instead of cultivated farms, meaning that the animals on the park pay zero respect to the official boundaries, which means that you don’t even necessarily need to leave your hotel in order to look at zebras, kudus, or other wild animals.

Because I made it that far, though, I did go into the park, albeit on a very lazy loop that barely scratched the surface of what this park has to offer. Most of the best of my pictures already went up on Instagram, but there were a few others that I liked that I didn’t upload. For example, these pictures of babies (and some mommas, too):

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This baby zebra did a double take when it saw me taking a picture.
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It paused long enough for me to be sure that it was posing.
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This baby waterbuck was either about to have or just waking up from a nap. It didn’t seem to notice me at all.
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Momma waterbuck noticed me, though, and though she didn’t seem afraid, she did keep an eye on me. I took a few pictures of her, too, in case appealing to her vanity would help.
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Mama Warthog was way less chill. One look at me and she sent her piglets scampering to the nearest bush.
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Love the little tails in the air.