One and a Half Months

Yesterday's picnic lunch: fresh baguette, charcuterie, camembert, washed down with a good Bordeaux. You could do worse.

I've been here long enough that I've finally arrived at a kind of quotidian calm. I'm not doing the daily expeditions and I'm not pushing myself to get a whole lot done every single day, but I'm also not counting down the seconds like I was.

Speaking of daily expeditions, I've kind of run out of destinations. I've hiked to all of the obvious ones within walking distance. Today I'm going to do the Cité Universitaire, but I'm not sure about tomorrow. My mom and stepdad arrive Thursday, at which point I can relax into a tour guide routine for places I've already been to. The funny thing is going to be figuring out where to eat; I've been to a total of two restaurants, two cafés, and two bars since coming here and I don't know the deals, the routines, or the hidden hot-spots at all. I suppose we'll figure something out...millions of tourists who know less French than I do manage to pull it off every year.

"I really enjoy forgetting. When I first come to a place, I notice all the little details. I notice the way the sky looks. The color of white paper. The way people walk. Doorknobs. Everything. Then I get used to the place and I don't notice those things anymore." - David Byrne in True Stories.

P.S. I found out that my homie C, one of my fellow grads here, has a blog. And now that blog has a link, and the circle of life is complete.


You're Only a Virgin Once

...isn't that great? There are lots of things that give me that same amazing feeling I got when I lost my virginity, that special "hooray! I never have to be a virgin again!" feeling. In contrast, there are other things that I don't mind being a virgin of or for until I'm dead. Examples!

Happy to not be a something-virgin (France-related activities category):
  1. A having done actual research in France virgin!
  2. A figured out the laundromat virgin!
  3. (Probably should be the first one): A survived getting here from SFO virgin!
  4. A discovered the automatic checkout machine at the monoprix so I don't have to deal with the bitchy exact-change-crazed checkout ladies virgin!
  5. A developed rudimentary speaking skills virgin!
Things that I'm fine with never losing my something-cherry of (generic category):
  1. Shooting a gun virgin.
  2. Operating a motorcycle virgin.
  3. Voting Republican virgin (sorry, cheap shot.)
  4. Wearing a cowboy hat virgin.
  5. Drinking a wine cooler virgin.*
All of this is, of course, inspired by finally having gone and done actual real-life research at the BNF. I made an idiot out of myself in front of all but one of the people I had to talk to (this time, not so much with French, just with not knowing where I was or what I was supposed to do next), but overall it was still a neat experience. It's very quiet there and the people look very serious while they sit in their little rows reading and tapping away on laptops. I think it'll be a good place for me to spend my days once it gets cold; I could happily spend all of November in the rez de jardin, ignoring the outside world.

Unrelated notes: It's a warm and sunny day in late September here in Paris, and it's Saturday. This means that the Ile St. Louis is awash, nay, immersed in tourists. Happily, my apt. is on the troisieme etage, so I am slightly above the fray. I expect the idiots will be out in force this evening for the official weekly woo-screaming. Tomorrow, I'm meeting my homies for a picnic in the Luxembourg Garden. Next week, my mom and stepdad are visiting, and our shared touristy outings will inspire more picture-taking on my part.

* I wish I could say that I was a bitch-beer virgin, but I'm not. But it's not my fault. Matt-O: if you're reading this, remember when certain fruity drinks were offered to us as "beer"?


Classy Bitch

...that's me. Check my flickr page to see what I mean.

Also, be sure to read this awesome, and accurate, article from CNN/Time: United States of France. (Don't worry...it's short.)

So I want to announce my emotional, spiritual, and eschatological revival. Since coming to France, I have been very sad, because I miss my wife and I miss my friends and my command of French vacillates wildly. But I figured it out, guys. Here's my secret: I just don't pay attention to the fact that I happen to be in Paris. It makes a HUGE difference. I just walk around, I buy some food sometimes, I read for my dissertation, and I happen to be in Paris while I'm doing it! Also, as was re-confirmed by the little reception thing tonight at the place I work at, I got really lucky with my fellow grads. They are rad and they make me less depressed.

On the agenda for right now: more pasta. Listen to Motorhead on my iPod.


How to Get Set Up at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France

  1. Fill out the online Pre-inscription form. Wait until they e-mail you back.
  2. Go to the east entrance of the BNF. You go through security, which is quick, and then take a left. The Service d'Orientation des lecteurs is over on the left. You go in and sit down and the two front desk people get to you when they get to you. They'll give you a number after they briefly sound you out.
  3. When your number comes up, you go back to one of the cubicles behind the front desk people. If you're lucky, like I was, an incredibly nice grandmotherly lady will fill everything out on the computer, take your picture with a webcam, and produce your card. You have the option of getting a 15-day pass or an annual pass; they're almost the same price, so especially if you're a student, you might as well get the annual pass.
  4. You don't pay for the card there. You have to go back to the main entrance hall and go to the caisse (I know, I know, I should have already known this word): the cashier. You pay him and your card is activated.
  5. You then have to go the big long security desk by the escalators and turn in your bag, if you have one, and put all of your stuff into an transparent plastic briefcase thing (my phrasing for this: "Il faut prendre une...une valise en plastique?") This is to prevent you from stealing all of their shit.
  6. Then you go down an escalator after you beep a kiosk thing with your card, which registers your presence there.
That's as far as I got today; it turns out that the material you request can take up to an hour to show up if you haven't reserved it, so I figured I had pulled off enough heroics for one day and I'll reserve stuff online before I return on Friday. I'm just relieved to have jumped the initial hurdles.


Atsa Spicey Blog Post

IM Conversation between my homie K and I the other day regarding the tranny contestant on the latest America's Next Top Model:

"I don't think the tranny can cut it."
"I know, I'm just wondering how long the tranny can hang in there."




Those of us in the UC system have been known to shake our heads in bewilderment at the existence of the newest campus: UC Merced. First off, we don't know where it is. Last year I remember a group of three history grads speculating that it must be somewhere in the wasteland east of LA, possibly in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Further, we can't imagine what it must be like to work there, with the predictable dearth of facilities and the rest of the system looking down its collective nose at you.* Finally, it's one of those issues that doesn't have an easy answer: the state system guarantees that its top 10% of high school graduates can enter the UC, but it lacks the facilities. It had to build somewhere.

It turns out that Merced is due east of San Jose, not LA. It's out in the central valley a few hours from the south bay. Back in August, the NY Times ran this brilliant article about how Merced is also on the short list of worst-hit American cities in the housing bust. There's a lot of compelling stuff in the article, but here's the most important paragraph, IMHO: "He was selling houses for $300,000. That means a buyer would have needed a household income of about $100,000 to comfortably make the payments. But Merced’s per capita income of $23,864 ranks among the lowest for metropolitan areas in the country. “None of us paid much attention,” Mr. Glieberman says."

To me, this is the essence of what has happened and is happening as the world market goes bananas, the inevitable endpoint of the "free market." So long as there's a short-term profit to be made, the fact that it's predicated on absolutely nothing doesn't bother anyone. I'm not even going to throw an anti-capitalism hissy fit here; I'm just mad from my family's solid centrist Democrat perspective that the last four presidents (yes, Clinton too) did everything they could to unleash speculators, the blood-suckers of commerce, from any and all regulation.

And now even the mainstream media is starting to come up with "that was a bad idea" op-ed pieces. I just wonder what's going to happen next. Is it possible to move away from the model of constant growth toward something approaching stability, or is that just absurd naiveté on my part based on reading far too many European lefty theorists over the last few years?**

Personal notes for the day: Almost got run over by a bus on this morning's hike out to the Observatoire de Paris. There's a park there I wanted to sit in and read, but it's closed for some reason. Lunch tomorrow with the other grads in my program...I'm bringin' the wine. My stress was alleviated somewhat earlier today when I discovered that I actually can get the journals Gorz wrote in, all of them, back in the states. That means if they laugh me out of the BNF on Tuesday, I can still write a dissertation. Still very lonely and bored most of the time, but I'm hanging in there.

* Which I am doing right now. I am now part of the system.
** Don't answer that question.


Update on the Researchin'

My homie A has been off in Peru, kicking ass and stomping all over archives. Among her many positive qualities, she has the gift of laser-focus, so I am not at all surprised that she's already dug through tons of data in the few weeks she's been down there. Inspired by her tales of funny Marxist reading rooms and wee museums, here's a quick update as to progress on my end.

At this point, I've gathered almost every book my guy, André Gorz, ever wrote. I started by haunting the bookstores of the Latin Quarter, but discovered that A. everything is too bloody expensive and B. they only had the stuff he wrote in the last ten or fifteen years before he died, anyway. In a bright fizzling 40-watt stroke of pseudo-genius, I decided to check out Amazon.fr, the French cousin of amazon.com. Sure enough, tons of books I could never find in the bookstores here or back in the states (or on the English-language main amazon site for that matter) popped right up. I bought 'em all and had them shipped to the UC center.

The search interface for the Bibliothèque Nationale is a nightmare, but I hunted down the one periodical Gorz wrote in back in the 50s that I'm quite sure I can't get in the states (Paris-Presse, AKA l'Intransigeant). The BN reopens next week after its annual month off, so I'll be there on Tuesday, swallowing my terror and confronting the full awesome power of French bureaucracy in hopes of getting a few reels of microfiche out of it.

On a happier note, I verified that the main periodicals Gorz wrote in (Le Nouvel Obs, which he co-founded, and Sartre's Les Temps Modernes) are not only available in the states, they're available in the bloody UC to the SC library! Yay for SCHOOL! Also, I got in touch with one of the major scholars who knew Gorz and wrote about him, and he agreed to answer a bunch of questions for me. Yay for E-MAIL!

This morning the latest book showed up in the mail at the center...Gorz's one true philosophical treatise, Fondements Pour Une Morale. It's...well, it's 600 pages of dense phenomenology. I've been steadily working through his better-known and more accessible stuff, but this one is going to be a bitch. Oh, André! Why did you have to party with Sartre and get inspired by him! One Critique of Dialectical Reason per century is more than enough!

So, basically, things are going ok. I feel like I'm truly lost in the surreal mists of dissertation research, shot-through with doubt. And that's how the system is supposed to work.


Another Grande Jour in Paradise

The picture is of me in my Parisian disguise: bic-ed (pronounced "bick - ed") head, new 9-euro shades from some crappy souvenir shop next to Notre Dame, and "I am obviously going about my business" attitude to SPARE.

Here's how the day goes down for me:
  1. Oh, god, I'm awake again.
  2. Cheerios (yay!) and coffee (more yay!)
  3. Clean, shower, decide on destination.
  4. Hike somewhere. Hike or take the metro back.
  5. Read Gorz, take notes.
  6. Mid-afternoon malaise. Take another hike? Half-heartedly do crunches and push-ups? Too early to start drinking...crap.
  7. Whew. Made it to evening. Open bottle of cheap-ass wine. What's for dinner? Ha ha! Just kidding. It's pasta.
  8. Webcam chat with B! Or, sometimes, just IM or e-mail.
  9. Watch stuff. Thank goodness for TV on the internet and funny French movies my landlord left in the apartment.
  10. Ugh. Time to try to fall asleep for a few hours.
Rinse, lather, repeat, bitches!



If I Had a Mind Left to Lose...

As have most of you I'm sure, I've often felt like I was utterly at the end of my rope on various occasions over the last thirty years (in fairness, mostly in the last fifteen or so.) But that's the funny thing about being at the end of your rope: 90% of the time it just means you've reached a critical threshold of bitchiness, and then you break on through (to the other side) and bitch even more. I was thinking about this on my morning hike, this one up to the Place de la Republique, down to the Place de la Nation, then back to the Place du Kungfuramone (i.e. my apartment.) The daily grind of stress, boredom, and alienation have me pretty stretched thin, but it's not like I'm going to do anything about it besides complaining a lot.

On days like today, I'll just select one thing about France that drives me crazy and elaborate briefly. Today's topic is: Exact Change. The French are psychos about exact change. The surest way to get a dirty, dirty look from a cashier is to try to pay with a bill one denomination or more larger than you need (i.e. a 10 for a 4 euro purchase, a 20 for a 9 euro purchase, etc.) The only thing that can slow down the otherwise lightning-quick process of ringing you up and getting you out of the store are change issues; I think this one chick was ready to call security on me the other day when I didn't have the 70 centiemes over my 20 euro total and she had to break another bill.

But here's the thing: French ATMs give you fucking 50s! Even if you were the nicest, most change-conscious person in la belle France, you still have to find some store, somewhere, that will do the initial breakdown on your pocket full of 50 euro bills! This sounds silly and trivial, sure, but you try knowing that you're on every supermarket shit-list intra muros and see how you feel!

I asked my homie Pierre, certified French guy, how most French people deal with it. To my relief, he said that it sucks just as much for them, that they get the dirty looks too, that they hoard their change and carefully dole it out only when they can't deal with one more pissed-off guy at a boulangerie or café, etc. I feel better knowing that I'm fucking up with my poor change-making just like the French do.


Bon Anniversaire à Moi!

Sartre and Beauvoir's Grave, Montparnasse Cemetery.

I'm 30 today. I hiked out this morning to Montparnasse Cemetery, the second-most famous cemetery in Paris (after Pere Lachaise), and walked around taking pictures. I stumbled across all kind of interesting stuff, including the graves of the guy who seized the Ivory Coast for France and Susan Sontag* (pics on my flickr site, as always.) I finally tracked down Sartre and Beauvoir's grave, which is, as a matter of fact, right by the main entrance. If I had walked to my right upon entry, I would have found it in about 10 seconds. I preferred wandering around, anyway.

The cemetery was probably my favorite place in Paris so far. It was quiet and beautiful and profoundly peaceful. Montparnasse itself was immediately my favorite neighborhood, as well. So much of Paris is pure liquid insanity, and Montparnasse struck me as a place you could actually live.

I'm happy to be 30. I remember telling people when I was 16 or 17 that I was looking forward to 30, that I thought I'd be good at it. Whether or not that latter point is true, as much fun as I had, I'm glad I don't have to relive my 20s and I'm happy to be where I'm at now.

Since I can't party it up with B and my friends back home, I'm having the other grads in my program over for some wine and cheese tonight, along with a couple of other American grads who happen to be in Paris. Predictably, tomorrow is my first official workday at the center, so I'll have to restrain myself from drinking all the wine.

Anyway, like the greeting cards say, wish you were here.

* Please note that Susan Sontag and the Ivory Coast seizer were not, in fact, buried together.


Oh, Also

From Fail blog, which is probably the funniest thing I have seen on the internet since Achewood.


Fuck Sarko: Strange Anglicisms in France

I went on another hike today, this one all the way out to the 20th arrondisement, almost as far as the Boulevard Peripherique that surrounds Paris proper. Along the way I snapped a shot of some more French graffiti, featuring the concise exhortation pictured above.

It makes me think of the weird ways people use English here. It was just "la rentrée," when everyone goes back to work or back to school after the traditional August vacation, and there was a whole series of children's clothing stores with big signs that said (in English) "Are you ready to go BACK TO SCHOOL?" There are tons of stores with really obvious English names, like "Shoe Store" or "Rent Cars," with helpful explanations in French below the actual names explaining what the store does and/or sells (same goes for "PEEP SHOW" and "SEX SHOP," incidentally.) And, as noted, the graffiti tends to be as much in English as in French.

As you may well already know, the mission of the Academie Française, the official governmental body with jurisdiction over the French language, is to try to preserve the purity of French and to stave off neologisms and foreign (read: English) intruders. I'm hardly the first person to note this, but it's not really working.

On a related note, I've been interested to see how much English people know in Paris. The answer: a weird amount. Many people speak a very school-taught awkward kind of English (not the insanely fluent kind you run into in Holland or Germany), but they still understand it perfectly. I would be elated if I could do the same thing in French; I've found to my dismay that I can speak well enough to get my points across, but I often have no idea what people say back to me.

On a semi-related note, I'm really tired. When I had coffee with my cohort C (the other UCSC grad in the program) before we came over, she told me about how when she had been an undergrad at the Sorbonne for a year, she used to just go to London sometimes so she could speak English and relax a little. Everything about this experience is exhausting: the language barrier, the cultural differences, plus just the stuff that comes with living in a new city anywhere, like learning to navigate it and keeping yourself fed and clean and healthy. I think I was cursed, in a sense, by growing up somewhere I loved...I'm always nostalgic for home.*

* Above and beyond the obvious I-miss-my-wife-my-bunny-my-friends-my-family stuff in this case. I'm talking about a deep-seated ontological nostalgic longing. Word.

P.S. "Sarko" is the nickname people use for the president, Sarkozy. I'm pretty sure it's reserved for people who don't like him.


Sort of like Kafka / Pants Like a Genie's

So: the deal is, there was a very severe health issue with a family member, and while it isn't resolved, it is looking much more positive than it was a few days ago. I'll keep the fist-shaking at the heavens to a minimum and just report on a few things Parisian:
  1. Today I got my Sorbonne ID card. As part of the UC program, we're set up as official exchange students at the Sorbonne, without having to deal with inconveniences like actually needing to go to classes. It's mostly for the visa, although it does allow us to attend lectures and seminars and so on, which is neat. To get into the Sorbonne, you have to get past a guard in a snappy blue uniform, then once inside, you have to try to find where you're going. The building is right out of Kafka; floors and stairs intersect like an Escher painting, there are courtyards with whole sections of the building cleverly hidden behind nondescript unmarked doors, and every bureaucrat you talk to sends you somewhere else. The surprising thing is that so many brilliant people have been educated at the Sorbonne since 1253 - I'm not sure how they found their classes.
  2. I mentioned earlier that I had little to say on French women's fashion, because its subtlety defied my powers of description. Well. I was reminded yesterday of a very unsubtle phenomenon that I think I can describe rather easily: chicks here are wearing crazy genie pants. Like, things Aladdin would wear while snake charming on a flying carpet. They're not everywhere, but I've spotted enough well-appointed women about town in crazy genie pants to be sure it's a trend. Coming soon to a continent near you!
I've had a chance to hang out with people a little more in the last few days, which has gone a long way toward cheering me up. I'm too much a social whore to be left to my own devices for more than a day or so, so it's been nice seeing people.

I also had my first official tiny cup of coffee at a café. It was so tiny, you guys!


Back In a Bit

I'll check back in with the internet and the people on it in a few days. Bonne journée from Paris in the meantime...



Life, C'est Stupide

Here's a clip from a movie my landlord left here that neatly summarizes the abstraction of me living in Paris, alone, for four months:

The best part is when Dr. Mustache throws the casual F-bomb into the midst of the Lionel-Richie style jam.

Side note: I appear to have spontaneously lost hearing in my right ear. I'm not sure how that happened.

Things are not so great. Back home, really bad news on the family front. Worldwide, the usual carnage and desperation. I think the reason all of us tinhorn existential atheists have a soft spot for Buddhism is that it's the only religion with the balls to start from the premise that life is suffering and not try to invent panaceas or excuses that argue that, instead, some benevolent force inures that's everything's really alright, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

It's not alright.