Now, I Ain't No Psychologist, But...

I love how Parisian street signs look...

There's a part in Amelie in which the café owner outlines the recipe for true love (I paraphrase): you take two normal people and put them in the same place for a while. In the movie, Amelie goes on to do just that, hooking up the psychotic stalker guy and the hypochondriac tobacconist, who up until that point had hardly noticed each other.

I'm not that cynical, of course, but the phenomenon of people becoming fiercely loyal to people, places, and things that they just happen to be in proximity to is undeniable. I was thinking about it today when I was walking back from my hike to the Eiffel Tower; I arrived at the Ile St. Louis and I felt happy, not just to be back to my apartment but because I've already developed a strong sense of ownership and affection for this funny little lump of rock in the middle of the Seine. For me, for the rest of my life, when I reflect back on my first time living in France, I'll probably always be nostalgic for the island. And here's the thing: it's not that great. It's covered in tourists all the time. I have to walk 25 minutes to get to a real supermarket. It has no metro stop. It is, however, beautiful and fun and goofy, and the fact that I randomly ended up here was more than enough to inspire these feelings of loyalty.

It reminds me again of that This American Life episode I mentioned, with Ira Glass and David Sedaris wandering around Paris. What Ira Glass ends up finding out as he interviews various American Francophiles is that they're all fundamentally nostalgic for France; they may well love things about France-in-general, but their feelings are ultimately predicated on remembering years spent there as children or students, family connections, or even just French stuff they fixated on as kids. This is definitely the case of the American Francophiles I know personally; they cherish their memories of a France they knew when they were younger; their love of France is embedded in those memories.

My point is that I think we're all lovers of opportunity; when opportunity presents itself, we fall in love. Naturally, it only works if the object of our affections has enough substance to reciprocate in some way (I defy anyone to fall in love with Norwich, England), which France certainly does. It's still a funny little piece of psychology, marveling over the pretty things we coincidentally run into.


Fashionably Tard

To the left: an enterprising young gentleman, dressed in the latest haute couture, ready for a night on the town.

Here's my initial critique of everyday French fashion. Just as my homie S, herself an actual real-life French person, told me before I left, French men dress basically like American gay men. I have found this to be largely true, but not because of any kind of effeminate affectations - French guys do not, in fact, carry purses - but because they're simply far more polished than American men. There's this slovenly thing American (straight) guys do that just doesn't seem to happen over here; think of all the American frat boys with boxers hanging below their shorts, the six-day shadow, the pajama pants on the street, falling-apart jeans, etc. Here, you get a lot of nice clothes in nice repair that aren't dumbed-down with affected slopiness.

This is a funny cultural thing, because if I were to dress how I've been dressing here at home, I'd feel silly. When you see a guy in unnecessarily formal attire in the states, you immediately wonder if he has a job interview or something. It's like we in America want to advertise our accessibility, our groundedness, our lack of pretension, and we do it with wrinkly t-shirts w/ Mr. Bubble on them. Here, it's just not an issue of pretension, it's an issue of common-sense seriousness: it is safe to assume that any guy you see on the street has something to do and somewhere to go, and he dresses with that in mind. He's doesn't pretend that he didn't think about what's in his wardrobe.*

En revanche, I am bewildered by French women's fashion. What I mean is that it's so subtle, the differences so unpronounced (except that you basically never see anything straight-up ugly), that I can't characterize it at all. Except that, as mentioned earlier, French women wear heels a lot.

* I just dropped a double-negative bomb on your asses.


Lousy Tourist

If you're a grand enough homme in France, you get buried here...

I am a terrible tourist. I am the opposite of the usual kind: instead of an idiot in a fanny pack with a big camera around his neck, screaming in English, I'm the overly-timid guy trying to dress like a local, one who surreptitiously sneaks his camera only when he's sure no one's watching and tries, badly, to speak the language. What I mean is that I'm terrible at being a tourist; I feel so stupid standing there in the throng, thumbing through postcards in an obnoxious gift shop, that I end up running away and not buying any postcards (and believe me, I have to do that soon.) Let me be clear: nobody cares, and I know that nobody cares, but I still act this way.

Anyway, things are pooping along. I'm staying fed and clothed and clean. I've lost some of my first-week momentum in terms of charging off to a new famous place every day; I led an excursion of students to the Latin Quarter yesterday but did a lousy job taking pictures. I'm heading back tomorrow and will try to redeem myself. I've had some luck finding André Gorz's books, one of the most important things I'm doing while I'm here, but they ain't cheap. I'm still waiting for living here to feel a little more natural.

I understood more of the French radio news I listen to today; I think I'm learning about .25 words a day. I should be conversationally fluent by the time I'm about 112.


Doing My Goddamn Laundry in France

I thought Bender would be a good one to watch over this post, because I'm having to go toe-to-toe with ornery machines.

Remember that scene in Pulp Fiction? "You know what the funny thing about Europe is? The little things. I mean, they got the same shit over there we got over here, but over there, it's just a little different." Vincent Vega (a pre-Scientology Travolta, when he was still cool) was referring mostly to the ability to buy beer in unlikely places and to smoke weed in "certain designated areas" of Amsterdam. What I'm talking about at the moment is dealing with my fucking laundry here.

Fortunately (in French: "happily"), I found a link to a short-lived blog by an American providing hints for day-to-day life in Paris (I can't find it now), so I wasn't completely unprepared. The major difference between French and American laundromats is that the former are all controlled by a central machine; you set up your load to run, then go over to the central computer and tell it which machine you're on and feed it your money. What I was not prepared for was the cost: 4.50 EUROS a load, plus 1 additional Euro per 10 minutes of drying. I spent just south of 20 bucks doing two loads of laundry...it's like a few months ago when I spent over 20 at that stupid parking garage in downtown San Francisco while dealing with the French consulate. It's a good thing I have not spent a centième at cafés or restaurants, b/c otherwise I'd be tap-dancing for change in a Metro station.

Vincent Vega was right about the little differences making things more interesting, but it's also the little differences that make things so much more difficult. Every task becomes an ordeal, especially for neurotic idiots like me. Going to buy food? Recite list of vocabulary in head, think through route to and from store, anticipate potential hazards, check and re-check wallet and keys, allez-y! Going to meet up with someone? Scour over map, re-read e-mail for the "digikode" for the door, recite relevant phrases asking for directions, go. Etc. Everyone I've talked to in the know agrees that dealing with the Bibliothèque Nationale is its own special brand of hell, dwarfing my more quotidian concerns with food and hygiene, so I haven't even started worrying about it yet.

Some people enjoy this kind of thing; they find the exploration invigorating and they like feeling themselves grow and learn in the process. As in so many things, I follow an adage of Borges: "I like having traveled, but I hate traveling."


En Retard

I'm usually en retard when it comes to media, books, music, and culture in general.* I mean, I'm turning thirty in a few weeks and this is my first time living in the place I ostensibly study. I got into The Pixies at the end of high school, I only started watching The Wire these last few months, and I was still rocking a portable CD player for, like, five years after the iPod came out.

So, in typical me-fashion, I have arrived at the following things years after everyone else started using them:
  1. Skype. Now, B and I actually use my home-brewed combination of iChat, cheapo USB webcams, and Google Talk to talk while I'm over here, but Skype has already saved my ass in terms of being able to make normal phone calls for cheap over the internet. And I don't need to blow 60 euro getting hooked up with a French mobile plan.
  2. This American Life. Nerdy leftist semi-hipsters, unite. My new default wind-down activity at night is kicking back and listening to an episode before I go to my small European bed. Side note: I can't believe Ira Glass is straight.
In Parisian news, those of you with a background in France may be surprised to learn that lots of stuff is open on Sunday now. The local boulangerie is closed on Tuesdays (for some reason) but open on Sunday, and a lot of the stuff along the left bank is open all day. This appears to be because the tourists are out in force on Sundays. I'm not sure how everyone rolls outside of the touristic ground zero, but it's actually pretty convenient for me...

I'm off to Montmarte with two of my fellow grads and another gang of undergrads. Pictures to follow, as ever.

P.S. Wasn't feelin' the fashion critique, but soon enough. I'm wearing a particularly Eurotrash ensemble today and I'm sure it will provide ample inspiration.

* En retard: late. One of my favorite phrases, for obvious reasons.


Vive Napoleon! Vive les Saucissons!

The coup d'etat Napoleon III staged in 1851 involved him staging a banquet featuring sausages for a bunch of army officers (a veritable Napoleonic sausage party), who then rode around in the streets shouting "long live Napoleon! Long live sausages!" I am doing my part to live and breath French history while I'm in Paris by eating des saucissons. Long live Napoleon.

The last few days have been eventful (it's hard to have an uneventful day when you have no leisure activities to speak of.) I led an excursion of bright-eyed UC undergrads to the Parc de la Villette way up in the 18th arrondisement, in the NE part of Paris, while it was raining buckets. I spoke a lot of Franglais to Pierre, the TA from Santa Barbara who's, you know, French. I finally started reading for my dissertation and looking for the periodicals I need on the essentially incomprehensible website for the Bibliothèque Nationale. Then I had a sumptuous feast with my fellow grads, courtesy of the other historian in the gang (who somehow managed to make a three-course meal in a kitchen the size of a standard American closet.)

My note du jour regarding Paris itself: I think one of the big reasons people remember it so fondly is that despite being a very, very large city, it still operates on a human scale. You can cross the entire city in the middle of the day in 30-something minutes on the Metro. You can walk anywhere in the city center. Despite the massive changes wrought first under Hausmann in the nineteenth century and then again under De Gaulle, D'Estaing, Mitterand and Chirac a century later, it's a city in which people live, eat, work, and relax within the same neighborhoods. It is, in short, the polar opposite of metropolitan nightmares like Los Angeles in which the actual functions of life are spread out over 100 miles. Paris is tight, man. It's dense. That's been my favorite thing about it so far.

Tomorrow I'm going birthday shopping for my girl and seeing if I can find a boulangerie that stays open on Sundays in hopes of fresher bread than the supermarket stuff I've been living off of...

Tune in next time for notes on French men's fashion.


Creepy Statue and Some Good News

This is, I'm sure, one of the creepier statues on the planet. It's at the Jardin des Plantes on the left bank of the Seine. I was delighted to have chanced upon it on one of my long romantic walks by myself.

So just a few things to note today: my landlord confirmed that I can stay in this apartment for almost all of my stay in Paris; I just have to clear out for a few days in October. That will give me a great chance to pretend I'm 20 and stay at a hostel (maybe I can find some Australians to drink with! Just like old times!) More importantly, it means I can really settle in here, which is good, and that I get to stay in a place which is about 25 minutes away from 90% of the stuff I want/need to do, which is great.

On an unrelated note, there was a big French Communist Party rally at the Bastille today. I would have stopped to hang out, but I had to go to work.

(Ooooh, snap!)


Je suis singe du bureau

That's "I am an office monkey" to you.

I learned yesterday that I don't actually have a teaching assistantship. I have an assistantship, without the "teaching." This means that my official job here in Paris is to help out in unspecified ways at the center. So far, I've handed out packets to the incoming undergrads and been volunteered to check antivirus programs on laptops tomorrow morning (no matter how the years pass, I always end up being an IT guy again...) Mostly, what my job looks like it'll consist of is sitting around at the center to make sure that someone is always physically there. Arguably, this position is somewhat beneath my massive academic credentials and qualifications.* That said, it also means I don't actually have to do any of this so-called "work" the other TAs have to do. One of them, the actual French one, is teaching an entire language class, for instance.**

In other news, I am all about the Monoprix. This is a massive chain of French supermarkets with these weird sort of anime-inspired cartoon mascots that is packed with bread and cheese and toilet paper and wine and veggies and cereal: everything you need for living! Happily, there's one right next to the center, as well as one that's a fun 20-minute walk to and through the Latin Quarter. This is how I'm staying fed.

I mentioned rollerblades in my last post. Related phenomenon: two-man scooter rides. There are practices that I've always felt really undermine masculinity, in an entirely sexual-preference-netural way:*** a dude getting a tattoo on the small of his back, rollerblades, short shorts, and yes, two-man scooter or motorcycle rides. Paris has already taught me that these practices are culturally specific, and that it is entirely possible to roll up on your rollerblades and hop on the back of your buddy's scooter and still be a real man.

* Actually, looking back at my CV, it's a pretty good match.
** Yes, his name is Pierre.
*** As in, no self-respecting gay American man would do them, either.

P.S. Sometimes I click around on the "everyone's photos" page on flickr. Go and look at this, if you think you can handle adorable kittens.


Those Medieval Cities

It's very, very easy to get lost in a city whose streetplan is still (somewhat) based on its medieval antecedents. We Americans are spoiled by our snap-on* one-size-fits-all cardinal-directions grid patterns. All it takes are some funny streets that meet at odd angles and we're thoroughly perdu. It reminds me of my year in Norwich: I spent the first month or so completely lost, wandering around until I figured out where I was. Today I left the UC Paris center after our grad meet-n'-greet and promptly wandered along about three more kilometers of streets than I had meant to.

This leads to the three things I wanted to note about Paris so far:
  1. It's fun to get lost here because there are just ridiculous numbers of famous places that you accidentally bump into. "Hmm...I'm lost. Hey! It's Les Halles! And the Jewish Quarter! And by golly, there's the Centre Pompidou! And darn if that isn't the Hotel de Ville!" Etc.
  2. Wondered where the rollerblade factories of the world shifted their output after the fruit-boot craze of the 90s finally died for good in the US? They're all right here. Probably 60% of Parisians ride scooters, and the rest are on rollerblades. It's extremely weird, especially when you come across an otherwise tough/cool-looking dude who just happens to be nonchalantly cruising along on his rollerblades.
  3. On an unrelated note, after all of my worrying about the visa process and getting here, the French customs official could not have given less of a shit about me. I'm not even sure he actually looked at my visa.
Having finally returned to my apartment, I need to go back out and see if I can find some bread and wine. What are my chances?

* That's "snap," not "strap," you perv.


Je Suis Ici

Okay: I survived and I'm typing up a blog post from my apartment on the Ile St. Louis. This is the smaller of the two islands in the Seine, right next to the Ile de la Cité (the larger one with Notre Dame on it, among other things.) While I hope a lot of my blogs from here are going to be picture-heavy, I'm not quite there yet. I do have a few initial observations:
  • French women love them some heels. From my window I can listen to dozens of them stomping back and forth on the road down below, starting at about 7:00am and going until about 1:00am.
  • The toilet in my apartment makes this scary angry-monster sound when it flushes. "GRAH! I am French toilet monster!"
  • Terminal 5 at Heathrow is like a shopping mall in Dubai.
  • I have internet, I have coffee. I'm like 80% human already.
  • "My French": nonexistent. As soon as I opened my mouth yesterday it just vanished. I listen to people on the street: nothin'. My homie T told me before I left that real language acquisition in an immersion environment just happens on its own and at its own pace, so I'm not worrying...I can read the stuff, so I know it's down there somewhere (i.e. on my last day here I'll be all "zut! Je comprends tout!")
  • It's pleasantly cool in Paris. Just like it was in SC. Score!
Obviously, updates will be more frequent than they have been all summer.

Addendum: So far, I've managed to completely mangle my French in talking to both the shuttle guy and the supermarket lady. I'm on a roll. Also, I realized that internet primetime for me is like 2 in the morning for all of my fellow left coasters back home, so I shouldn't expect anyone to be on IM...


Without Further...Adieu

Well, after about four months of worrying about it, the day has arrived. Happily, my flight leaves in the early evening from SFO, so I didn't need to do one of those early-to-rise departures that make us all wish we were dead. Under the influence of my usual cocktail of sleep meds (melatonin + Tylenol PM) I eventually passed out last night and I feel about as well as could be expected this morning.

I had a bunch of nice, auspicious events yesterday - B and I spotted several big, fat, happy otters down off of West Cliff when we went for a walk, I played a totally kickass game of Civ IV (I played Napoleon III of France...thought it would be appropriate. Those Carthaginians didn't even know what hit them), the big batch of my family's patented chicken-and-rice dish came out perfectly, and I received notice from the UC that they found a few extra Euros to toss our way since the weak dollar is screwing everyone over. Oh, and you can actually check in, choose your own seat, and print your boarding pass from home with British Airways. That is technology!

Anyway, needless to say, I'll continue blogging and updating my flickr site once I'm settled in. Expect lots of black and white photography: it makes everything look like a high school art class.


Self-Medication. Also: Links

At the start of the year I initiated a resolution to limit drinking to weekends and "special occasions," a phrase that gave me considerable flexibility in implementation. It was mostly successful up until about two weeks ago; I would have a few beers while playing D+D on Wednesdays and so on, but overall it reduced my alcohol consumption to a fairly sane level. B and I made a very deliberate decision to jettison the resolution as my departure grew closer, culminating with my semi-official send-off at the Poet + Patriot last night (BTW, thanks to everyone who came out.) It had to be done.

One of the "positives" B and I are attributing to the four months of separation is that we'll both have plenty of time and space to work out, eat healthier, drink less, and generally behave a little more like 12-year-old mormons and a little less like Keith Richards. Since I've looked exactly the same since I was about 22 (except that I have less hair), I'm curious as to whether this presumed lifestyle shift is going to have any visible impact whatsoever. Oh, also, I should add that I'm playing around with the idea of sideburns.

And...I have links:
  1. This American Life did a wonderful episode with David Sedaris in which Ira Glass and Sedaris walk around Paris going to weird stores. It goes on to have a lot on American francophiles and an interesting section on the experience of African Americans in a France that is shot-through with its own special brand of anti-African racism. Thanks to E.M. for telling me about it over lunch yesterday.
  2. Claire Potter, a tenured historian at Wesleyan, has a funny, smart blog about academia. She just wrote a really valuable set of hints for applying for academic jobs in her last post. Fellow would-be tenure-havers: read and take notes.
Today is the equivalent for me of when the robot voice says "take your marks!" to the swimmers about to dive in the pool. I'm doing laundry, then I'm packing my bag. Emotionally, I'm trying to shift to a practical outlook instead of a worried outlook. As I was telling people at the bar last night, I'm not usually the kind of guy who sweats the details. It's just that this is it for me: I'm finally going to Europe. I've done pretty much everything you can do in four years as a European history grad student except, well, go to Europe. So I feel like I have a lot riding on this.


Opening Ceremony, Closing Ceremony

A few scattered thoughts on another foggy Sunday morning in SC...

The opening ceremony of the Olympics was pretty amazing. I'll spare the quasi-academic analysis (I'm sure that numerous historians, anthropologists, and lit people are going to write all kinds of articles and monographs about it at some point soon) and just note that the US is terrified by China, or at least someone is pretty sure that we're supposed to be. Every few minutes, the NBC commentators would remind us that we should be scared: "now some people would be worried about this display of strength...now some people might note that the inclusion of martial artists is somewhat threatening...now some people might feel funny about how we are weak and they are strong..." etc.

It's just...what country has been behind almost every invasion and/or threat of invasion on the world stage for the last sixty years? The US. Which country is the only one to have ever nuked another country? The US. Which country consistently used and continues to use its strength to make other nations adjust their own modes of government and political culture? The US. It's a kind of gallows humor, that when a new superpower rises, we immediately assume they're going to do the same thing to us. It's like we, the global schoolyard bully, realize that over summer vacation that one kid grew a foot and might well decide to beat our ass next to the swings at recess, only that one kid has shown no indications of wanting to do so...

Anyway, on a personal note, B and I had a delicious sushi dinner at our favorite sushi joint last night, got some cake at The Buttery, came home and watched the Muppet Family Christmas, our ongoing favorite VHS tape. It was kind of our last weekend together closing ceremony, marking the official one-week mark until I leave.

At the risk of talking back to no one in particular, let me lay it out: I'm not just scared or worried about going to France because it's finally time for me to stand and deliver as a historian of Europe. I've spent all of these months dreading my departure because I'm leaving my wife behind for four months, because she has a professional position at the university and we can't fucking afford for either of us to stop working. I want to strangle people whose first reaction is "oh really? Why can't she just come with you?" There's this ossified sexist reaction, especially among people a generation or two older than us, that just assumes that when push comes to shove it's the woman's job to follow her man wherever he needs to go. Likewise, there's this...class-based? Historically anachronistic? something-reaction that a grad student couple can afford to pay their way on a meager stipend, because we obviously all come from big money (or something.) It's this unconscious kind of stupidity, this lack of any perspective on gender or the economic realities of my generation, that makes me spitting mad when I talk to people about the trip.

So yes, I'm excited to live in Paris, France, one of the greatest cities on earth. But I'm also dreading being away from B for that long and I'm not excited about the kind of financial vigilance that the cost of living, both there in the Ile-de-France and here on the California central coast, necessitates for both of us.


Who You'd Want in Your Corner

I won't ruin the plot for those of you who still haven't watched The Wire, but the two characters pictured above are the coolest to hit television since Bruce Lee was in the Green Hornet. B and I just watched the second-to-last episode in season 3 last night and it all came together: three seasons of meticulous plot development saw Omar and Brother Mouzon finally team up to kick ass, at the same time that another long-running plot element came to fruition. I wanted to go fly out to wherever the writers are and shower them in hugs.

I, for one, would feel much more confident walking around in SC, not to mention Paris, grad seminars, and history conferences, if I had the above two (albeit fictional) gentlemen watching my back.


Things I Have Been Good At

Today's post comes courtesy, once again, of homie A, who came up with the idea.

Things I have been good at:
  1. Super Mario 3. I'm seriously amazing at this game, still. Every secret, every level, all the time, nonstop.
  2. Bass guitar and bari sax. I wasn't, you know, a prodigy, but I think I was well within the range of "solid," which is what you want from a low-end member of a hostile rock or ska band (respectively.) I always prided myself on playing bass lines, not trying to reinvent the bass or bari as a flute or a piano.
  3. Being an IT guy. Again, I wasn't the most brilliant computer scientist (I can't code) up in the joint, but I had something 80% of IT guys don't: I'm nice to people and genuinely helpful with their computer problems. I treat the lowliest customer service rep the same way I treat the C-level execs (except that I hate and resent and shit-talk the latter more behind their backs.) And I can build and deploy a workstation faster than the jiffy lube can change out your windshield wiper fluid.
  4. Finding dope shirts and sweaters at thrift stores. Good thing, too, because otherwise I'd be naked.
  5. Doing crunches.
  6. Writing essays really fast.
  7. Like A, I am good at standardized tests. My proudest moment was getting a 680 on the math section of the GRE by measuring angles with my thumb and guesstimating the answers.
Things I have been bad at:
  1. Learning languages. This is obvious.
  2. Learning computer languages. As indicated above, I just can't fucking do it. When I started doing network stuff at the old corporate salt mine, my boss at the time tried to have me learn to do perl scripting. It just did not, could not, happen. I also sucked at subnetting.
  3. Picking up chicks in bars. Granted, this was only ever a factor for about three months in England, but my lord. I couldn't buy game.
  4. Being tough. It's just not in the cards for me. I'm 6'1" and about 165 pounds (i.e. a bad build for it) and I didn't grow up angry or violent. If someone who knows what they're doing picks a fight with me, I'm definitely going to get my ass kicked if I don't run away first.
  5. Networking. Just don't have the stomach for it. This is a big potential problem in my academic career, unfortunately.
  6. Bluffing at poker.
Lists like these are how we take stock. Consider making one yourself.


Another Big Sunday in Paradise

This is all over the interwebs right now...apparently a restaurant in Beijing ran their name through an online translator for the games and put up the resulting translation on their sign.

Homies SJ and D are visiting for the weekend. We took in the bright lights of the arcade on the boardwalk last night and had drinks at a weird funky diner on the wharf (the waitress seemed really excited that she didn't have to serve us food, just help us get drunk.) Now I understand that the ladies are planning on making some kind of savory scones and/or scrambled eggs, using technology.

Two weeks from yesterday until I leave for France for 4.5 months. I got my weird little international SIM chip in the mail for my phone, meaning I'll be semi-reachable via a UK phone number during that time. When I land at Charles de Gaulle, I need to text message my new landlord, meaning I have to figure out how to text message some time before I go...

The blogosphere is still very, very quiet these days.