November 10, 2011 § Leave a comment
Almost all my postings have been about being in Paris alone. But now I have my first visitors, two at the same time, and it is a bit of a different experience. One has never been to Paris before. Walking around with him reminds me of the intense pleasure and even awe that can be inspired by seeing this city for the first time. As much as I love Paris and appreciate being here so much, I still feel as though some of his reactions have helped brush some of the dust of habituation from my eyes. I certainly saw the Bibliothèque François Mitterrand, where I go every week, with new eyes after the three of us went yesterday to get a few hours of work in. It is an impressive feat of modernization, a stunning example of government investment in culture, books, learning, and though this last point is highly arguable, public service.
The Library has been criticized by many since it was built, and like any other institution is certainly has its faults. But the collections are fantastic and after the first visit, it is surprisingly user-friendly and comfortable. My only real wish is that the courtyard garden be open at the research level so that those of us who spend 4, 6, 8, 10 hours in the Library at a time, can breathe some fresh air.
Visitors also means eating out, which we have done twice and which I basically never do on my own. We started at the rightly famous L’As du Falafel in the Marais (34 Rue des Rosiers, Paris, 75004) where the falafel has been fresh, filling, and super tasty if a bit overpriced, for years and years. Then we went the French bistrot route and had lunch at Chez Lili & Marcel right near the Library (1 Quai Austerlitz, Paris, 75013). Huge portions and excellent French food. Though none of us had any of the pork specialties they sounded amazing, the tartare seemed to be a popular dish, as were the huge burgers, served on wooden cutting boards with piles of fries.
With food too, it was a treat to witness someone tear into a just-baked French baguette, slather it with fresh butter and homemade jam, and take his first bite. Sometimes the simplest foods are the most delicious and the most unbelievable. And oh how the French know how to bake, cook, eat, from the simplest 3 ingredient bread to the most complex scientific pastry creation.
At the same time, having less personal time and space is something I am having to adjust to though it is probably good for me to share my long walks, study spots, favorite markets, bookstores, jogging paths, and views, with someone other than myself!
November 6, 2011 § Leave a comment
November 3, 2011 § Leave a comment
Have you ever walked by an antiquarian or used book store and been able to smell that distinctive – musty, paper, ink, old, worn, read, loved book smell – wafting onto the street outside of the store? Much as I love that smell, and as many such bookstores as I have visited over my reading life, I do not know if I have ever followed, nose in the air and breathing in deeply, that smell into a store, as though it was some delicious and irresistible food, which in a sense, books definitely are.
The used book store I discovered in this way turned out to be one of those small, crowded, sort of organized sort of total book pile chaos, treasure chests. I did not buy anything because my budget is so tight and I did not see anything that I HAD to have, though I saw about twenty things I would really, very much, like to have.
The number of bookstores still all over Paris is encouraging, especially coming from New York City where the number of independent and especially great used bookstores always seemed depressingly disproportionately small for such a populous, cultural, intellectual city. And yes, of course I know about Strand Books but I never loved that store.
Paris is crowded with ways to buy books-new books at independent bookstores, used books in shops and from the bouquinistes lining the Seine, incredibly rare and beautiful books from antiquarian booksellers. This is in addition to FNAC, which is the closest store to a Borders though it sells many more products, and to the many Gibert Jeune stores at Place Saint Michel. There are stores specializing in the bande dessinée (graphic novel more or less but there is really no translation for this very specific and very popular French genre. There are shops for different languages, religions, topics, and genres, including my favorite, cookbooks and other food-related texts.
Some neighborhoods are particularly book heavy, but book shops can be found everywhere around the city. On my long wandering walks, especially when I am feeling uninspired about my own work, wandering around a bookstore is one of the most inspiring and restorative activties I can think of. I might just have to find a new one today…
November 2, 2011 § 1 Comment
I am just back from a few days in the French countryside. There, I was able to “borrow” the beautiful Golden Retriever that belonged to the family I was staying with, for my morning jogs. What a pleasure. Growing up we always had cats, but only had one dog. I took her for countless walks, but I was a teenager and not quite able to appreciate the joys of the task. But now I realize and definitely appreciate how wonderful it is to have an exercise companion.
First of all, no one will ever be as excited as a dog to go on a walk or jog or run or hike or bike ride. And that enthusiasm is contagious. My first morning I made the HUGE mistake of grabbing the dog’s leash before putting my shoes on. I then spent the next many minutes trying not to be knocked over by this huge, hyper, insanely excited dog who was ready to go on his walk NOW. Lesson learned.
Second, jogging with a dog who is in fact not leashed especially (the leash was a precaution only), means starting and stopping. No leash means no gentle yank when the sniffing becomes particularly extended. But I found these unexpected breaks to be even more inspiring because instead of getting frustrated or impatient or whatever, I took the time to do jumping jacks, or push ups, or squats, or sprints, or whatever. Any fitness advice encourages that type of change-up of activity and of heart rate during a workout so the benefits were double.
Third, it is a whole new language challenge to attempt to have a dog obey you when not only is your voice not that of his owner, but your accent and pronunciation are probably totally off as well. I was lucky though, and this guy is (mostly) incredibly obedient.
Fourth, and this has nothing to do with the dog but with the simple pleasure of experiencing the shift to fall in the countryside. So many colors, cool brisk mornings, slightly subdued afternoon sun, leaf-covered soft almost muddy paths, the smell of fires burning, plants growing, mushrooms and ferns sprouting everywhere, picking apples off the tree, eating squashes and cabbages and potatoes from the garden, and did I mention the colors?
October 31, 2011 § Leave a comment
I’ve never really been that into Halloween. I do not like to dress up because I can never think of anything interesting or creative to dress up as. I do not like candy (much as I love good dark chocolate and baked goods-yes I’m kind of a sweets snob). I do not like to be scared because I have terrible nightmares forever.
But I saw this on my morning jog up Avenue Gambetta and it seemed about as Halloween appropriate as anything I might see in Paris. I am not sure if I should call it a statue or a sculpture. It seems to have something to do with Victor Hugo but the inscription is so faded that it is mostly illegible. It is beautifully haunting though I think, if you can zoom in on the wall. Who is this woman, head thrown back in pain or in passion, surrounded by all these faces, staring out intently from the stone? And who are they? It is interesting that she is faceless and all body, whereas they are body-less and all faces. I love contrasts like that, the tension in the question of what is going on here?
Perhaps if I knew the work of Victor Hugo well I would understand. Perhaps this image corresponds to a story of his. Or perhaps the Victor Hugo inscription is being used more as a caption for the image. At this point I suppose the viewer is left to imagine whatever story or explanation she chooses. I prefer to be left with the questions. In this long, narrow, hilly park that dates to 1889 and backs up against Père Lachaise. To sit on the bench opposite and just look, trying to take in all the details. The longer I looked, the more faces I saw in the stone. The longer I looked, the more I felt the power in the woman’s body. The longer I looked, the more I thought about how a beautiful, old, city like Paris is teeming with questions and mysteries and secrets. And I guess I am seduced by the romance of that. That is why I prefer to sit with the question than to come up with my own answer, which may or may not have anything to do with whatever the artist’s or history’s truth(s) may have been.
October 28, 2011 § Leave a comment
I discovered a new library yesterday. Well, new to me anyway. La Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, originally attached to an Abbey of the same name that was founded in the 6th (SIXTH!) century. God I love Paris. Now the library it is used mostly by university students, but the reading room itself is beautiful, old, wood-lined, adorned, muraled, everything you can imagine an old library should be. Unfortunately, photos are not allowed while the room is in use, but I was told that I could return before 9a.m. and ask to visit. Which I will do as soon as I can. Basically it is a beautiful library with an incredible history, that is in extremely active use, both in terms of its space and its contents, by current university students.
I’m not sure if I spent more time working or more time looking around but either way, I loved it. Literally every seat was taken with students working and I noticed a couple of details that were quite different from what one sees these days in most American university libraries, in addition to the age and history of course. First, very few students were using laptops. Most were furiously taking notes on paper and using a broad array of highlighters, pencils and pens in every color of the rainbow. It was refreshing. Second, the shelves were lined with open-access textbooks. It appears that rather than spending enormous sums of money, students can come to this library and pick and choose what they need, when they need it. And unlike the reserve system in American libraries, it was basically a big free-for-all, but it seemed to be working out very well, partly because there were many copies of the same texts. That was also refreshing. Too often reserve texts are always being used by someone else, and the time allotted to use them is often far too limited.
As for me, I found a few texts available in the collections of la Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève that I had not found even at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, where I usually work in the research division a day or two each week. A few more great things about this library:
1) You order the books you want yourself using the online catalog on one of the many computers available, and they are delivered within about twenty minutes
2) If you are a doctorant (PhD candidate) you can get une carte d’accès prioritaire which grants you numerous benefits, from being able to get into the reading room even when its full, to getting to skip the line to get in, to getting to reserve more than ten books at a time
3) It is open until 22h (10p.m.)!
4) It is at 10 place du Panthéon in the 5th arrondisement, a wonderful neighborhood to stroll through, full of cafés, bookstores, food markets, gardens, museums, and of course history. Basically a sampling of all the wonderfullness that Paris has to offer.
I will definitely be going back.
October 24, 2011 § Leave a comment
The fact that I have not been posting is not a great sign given that this blog is supposed to be an integral part of my creative/intellectual research and writing process. Unless I was writing full-time of course. Which I am not. Instead, I have been struggling harder than ever to find focus, inspiration, clarity, and to make progress. I do get work done every day. Usually lots of little tasks that have to be completed, but do not add up to much in the end. Because the end is a completed dissertation and that feels as far away as ever.
My rule is that if I am not working, if I find myself mindlessly and endlessly surfing the internet or snacking, then I have to either go out for a walk, or do exercise. I already worked out super intensely this morning and I am just back from a long walk. Right now I do have lunch/dinner bubbling away on the stove, a sort of stew with caramilzed onions, endive, mushrooms, cooked in olive oil, red wine, a touch of butter, and lots of different spices. I even bought a small piece of red meat, something I have not had since arriving in France at the beginning of August, which I cut into long slices and threw into the pot. I started thinking, I am used to eating red meat, maybe my B vitamins are down and that is affecting my energy? Probably not, but it seemed reasonable to try.
I have had some real insights into what I need to write. I had an idea, a quite good one I think, for how I will organize my dissertation, for how each chapter will be focused. I have done an enormous amount of research and am pretty clear on what remains to be done. So all the elements are in place. The problem is getting the work done. I am not lazy. But I am also not progressing as I had hoped. But I also don’t know if my expectations were too high. I do know that what I want most in the world right now, is to finish my dissertation and successfully defend it. As soon as possible which I think is fall 2012. I can’t imagine how I will feel or what I will do if I am not done by then. Enough is enough after all. I am so ready to move on with my life. To get a good job, hopefully, settle down somewhere, in my own home, and start building a real adult life for myself, something which feels very overdue at this point.
Even during my long walk today I realized that I did not even feel like taking any pictures. I was still looking, observing, thinking, but I did not take my camera out of my bag. Now my hope is that articulating all of this will help me get past it and do some good revising later this afternoon. I will be happy with that. And I am happy to be in my apartment, with the cool crisp fall air and bright afternoon sunlight pouring in, and delicious smells coming from my kitchen. I do not feel hopeless. I know that I will get my work done, take many more pictures, and keep moving forward, a little bit more every day. The road is long and bumpy and exhausting and precarious, but I am still on it.