Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Boo (Hoo)

Evidence of Halloween is paltry today, not a ghoul or a goblin to be found. I don’t blame the French for not getting into the holiday – it makes no sense from their perspective.

Logistically, Halloween is a nightmare in Paris. School-sponsored events are out because the holiday falls during a mid-semester break. No Halloween parade for the kids to show off their costumes. No thematic cupcakes, no dry ice.

Trick-or-Treating, the raison-d’être of Halloween, is ruled out by building security. A child without a door code cannot enter from the street. Thus, the doorbells are not rung and the threats are not issued. The candy is purchased and consumed in moderation.

The cultural differences are more glaring when one considers Halloween for adults. Dressing up in costume is not just child’s play in the States. Some of my best holiday memories involved university parties, a hasty get-up and even hastier hallway kissing.

Costumes for adults fall into one of the following categories:

1) Trying to be sexy
2) Trying to be ugly
3) Trying to be clever
4) Not trying (see mask and sheet)
Most of my costumes fell into the third category and enabled a range of irregular behavior. Dressing as a bonobo allowed me to demonstrate my ape calls and hump assorted legs. Dressing in foliage and carrying a scythe enabled me to make a political statement...or at least to try (“I’m a Bush. Get it?”). Dressing as Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo gave me the freedom to leave little brown smears all over a friend's apartment.

Parisian adults are more limited in their choice of costume. “Trying to be sexy” is not a once-a-year frivolity here. “Trying to be ugly” is just out of the question. Clever is good, but not at the expense of decorum. Dressing oneself as a turd? I think not.

That leaves #4: Not Trying. Parisians making an effort will simply accessorize.

Others will reject the holiday kit and caboodle, deriding Halloween as an imposition of Anglo-American culture and commercialism. They’re not wrong. In absence of trick-or-treating and costumes, the only visible signs of Halloween can be found in Happy Meal boxes and at Euro-Disney.

In this context, I chose boots for Halloween. And also tights, a knee-length skirt, and fitted shirt. I put on a scarf and brushed my hair, looking for all the world like a Parisian.

It is, after all, the day to be something you’re not.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Today's Shiva: destroys and does windows

For the roughly one billion adherents of Hinduism, Shiva is the destroyer - the most powerful god of the Hindu pantheon.

For residents of Paris, however, Shiva is a maid service.

That's right, folks. Shiva, acclaimed for his ability to dissolve life in order to create, can also work magic on your carpet stains and mildew.

No larger incarnating as Hanuman the monkey god, the modern-day Shiva prefers to be seen as a kicky south Asian gal with a preternaturally small waist. And s/he's waiting for you with a cold beverage.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Blogging hands are the devil’s playthings

Father, it’s been three months and 21 posts since my last confession. Things have only gotten worse with more time spent in the blogosphere.

I’ve become greedy, desiring nothing more than visits and comments. I ignore the realm of the spiritual in favor of the material virtual. Site traffic is now an end in itself.

I am envious of more popular bloggers, coveting their traffic and leaving breadcrumb comments for their visitors.

I erupt with anger when accused that I may perhaps be blogging too much. Impatience and self-denial are my new fall accessories.

Evidence of sloth can be found in my kitchen sink or in-box. I am apathetic, short of attention, and fall quickly into sadness if my stats are down.

I am a full-blown glutton for praise. So acute is my need for flattery that I offer it falsely to other bloggers. Comments are the new crack cocaine.

Pride may be my worst sin, Father. I am love with the word, but not His. On a given day I may post, edit, and re-read my work twenty times. I deceive myself into thinking that I have an “audience” and expect at any moment to be recognized on the street.

The only sin I seem not to have violated is lust. The blood flow to my nether-regions has been compromised from so many hours at the computer. I hardly think about sex anymore, but do enjoy blogging in bed from time to time.

How much worse could it get?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Video art with an egg yolk chaser

Which Dallas character do you see when you look at this installation by Sheena Macrae? And what does that say about you?

Le Meg has posted again on Parisist, this time about the MAC/VAL and its restaurant in Vitry-sur-Seine.

Have a look-see and wonder aloud, "who's that Kansas girl think that she is?"

Sunday, October 22, 2006

When IKEA attacks

I was mauled today by Swedish furniture.

An unassuming Billy case lurched from its cardboard box, ripping through my forearm and punishing my toes.

Wiping blood from a faux chêne finish is simple enough. A newfound fear of IKEA, however, may not be so easily erased.

The first time I heard about IKEA was in the movie Fight Club. "What kind of dining set defines me as a person?" asked a soul-less Ed Norton while flipping through a catalog on the toilet.

IKEA hadn't yet come to Chicago, so it would be years before my first sojourn to the giant blue box. On that day, I came away cash poor but rich with all the barware that a graduate student could need.

Outside of one or two "experimental" visits, however, IKEA was never a habit while I lived in the States. The objects in my life came from thrift stores and alleyways. Dressers were found and re-finished, not ordered and assembled.

That all changed when we moved to France. The logic in shipping cast-offs across the ocean was questionable, so we sold the old lamps, wobbly table and velvet paintings.

We arrived in Paris planning to buy new, but there weren't many affordable options. Beyond IKEA was a world in which objects were either ugly, expensive, or undeliverable. Without a car or much money, we needed IKEA if we were going to live with more than an inflatable mattress on the floor. So we swallowed our consumer conscience and set out to fill the apartment with particle board.

In a single afternoon we ordered everything - bed, dressers, bookshelves, tables, and chairs. We waited for weeks in our empty apartment until the delivery company finally turned up.

I spent days assembling the lot of it, including a bookcase that was missing a third of its shelves. Those parts never arrived, and their sister bits were transformed into a kitchen counter. We swore we would never order from IKEA again.

Our next pair of bookshelves came from Conforama. Twice the cost and doubly fugly - they now lean dramatically to the side. IKEA cases may be shoddy, but they don't require kitchen twine to keep them from falling over.

The ban on IKEA was lifted last week to buy more shelves. The boxes arrived without incident and I found myself wondering why I'd ever made such a fuss. IKEA wasn't the devil, I reasoned. They were just a private "foundation" offering affordable solutions for better living.

That was before I was Billy clubbed - before I saw the hidden evil lurking within these objects.

I tremble now in my Noresund bed, wondering when the next attack will come. I scan the room and realize that I'm vastly outnumbered. IKEA has successfully infiltrated every corner of this apartment. Perhaps tonight I will sleep with the Kroby light on, or put a Herman chair in front of the door.

My soul, I see now, is not enough for them.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Crush of the week: ¡!

I was conscripted last night into the ¡Forward, Russia! army. Headlining Inrocks Indie Club 11 at La Maroquinerie, these DIY darlings from Leeds put on a sore-neck performance to remember.

It's difficult to choose just one crush from the band - Katie Nicholls on drums was very persuasive. But the singer Tom Woodhead made Le Meg's little head spin around.

His voice never wavered as it moved between Thom Yorke trilling and gut-bust bawling. He would wrap himself in the mic cord - turning pirouettes in bondage - then break free to play keyboards and writhe on the floor some more.

What he actually looks like remains a mystery. Just meters away, I could only perceive a blur of movement and sopping hair. I'm surprised that he didn't collapse.

A sample clip from their show is below. Click here to hear the BBC radio documentary, "A year living in the pockets of iForward Russia!"

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The milk for free

Le Meg is now giving it away at Parisist, a collective Paris blog in both English and French.

Check it out for "Actus, évènements, bars, restaurants, happenings, rendez-vous, chroniques et mauvaise foi: Paris par les parisiens, pour tout le monde."

Today's post: The Rock Menagerie.

Have a look at some upcoming shows, and feel free to make flattering comments about me on their site.

Les anglophones sont arrivés!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Party Place

I always love a good party, but the Place des Fêtes seems an unlikely setting for celebration.

One hundred & twenty-five years ago it hosted a bloody battle between the communards and the Versaillese. More recently, Place des Fêtes was the bleak backdrop for a stabbing in Paris je t’aime.

On Sunday mornings, however, red is joined by a host of other colors in Place des Fêtes. Hundreds of vendors and shoppers transform this architecturally-blighted corner of the 19th into a party worthy of its name.

When to go: The market also runs Tuesday and Friday mornings from 7:00-14:30, but go Sunday (7:00-15:00) for the real action. Arrive early for shorter lines and fresher pastry. Stay late for the best seafood deals in town.

What to buy: In October, buy mushrooms. A spore-only stand sells cépes on the cheap, along with girolles, lactaires and trompettes de mort. Apples and pears shine now, along with strange and seasonal stars like kaki (persimmon) and coing (quince). The cheese shop across from the Fun Guy is our choice. Check here for the best autumn cheeses. Finally, no trip to Place des Fêtes would be complete without a stop at the fish stand. In the last hour of business, all the food is divvied onto wax paper squares and accompanied by a song: “Red tuna, calamari - four euros! It’s crazy!!” And it is crazy, selling seafood for four under five.

Maintain a healthy blood sugar by snacking on accras de morue from the Caribbean stand or the spicy cheese Lebanese flatbreads. Shop around for the best prices on pain au chocolat, but don't blame Le Meg if you eat all five for two euros.

What’s around: Start your morning with coffee or brunch at La Pelouse, a revamped café at 86 rue Botzaris. After the market, stop in at Le Vin de Ma Vigne, a wine shop at 25 rue Fêtes. A guy doing his best Louis Armstrong voice on the grand piano will entertain while the owner prescribes an accompaniment for your sauce de girolles.

Before heading home to cook, take a nap or a pony ride in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont. It's just a stroll away down the rue de Crimée and the leaves there are currently on fire.

For a list of other outdoor markets in Paris, click here.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


I eat meat. I love to eat meat. I still love to eat meat, even after reading Fast Food Nation and working as an anthropologist in the world’s largest slaughterhouse.

I don’t cook it much at home, but almost invariably order meat when eating out. Paris bistros are a playground for those who like their dinner wrapped in bacon, drizzled with demi-glace, and slow-cooked in lard for seven hours.

In the past two years, however, nearly all of our visitors have been vegetarian. Many have been lax and willing to content themselves with fish. But strict vegetarians are difficult, a sort of bonus round in the “where should we eat?” challenge.

There are plenty of options for street or casual eating. But a sit-down dinner is a different story. Vegetarians, regardless of dietary restrictions, want a “Paris Bistro Experience.” They don’t want to be consigned to special restaurants with names like Aquarius. They don't want another cheese plate.

I was hoping that Les Allobroges would provide the perfect solution. A traditional bistro in the 20th arondissement, Les Allobroges offers a 29-euro vegetable tasting menu in addition to meaty fare.

We visited Saturday night with two friends who chose the tasting menu. The veggie parade kicked off with a rémoulade de choux fleur et endives tiédes (a chunky slaw of shredded cauliflower with warm endives). The interplay between flavors was interesting, and the endive in particular was rich enough to have been braised in veal stock (is that the secret?). Next came a risotto aux cépes and légumes sucré-salé - carrots and parsnips in a sweet and sour glaze. Both were delicious on their own but there was little harmony between them.

Meanwhile, the carnivores were sharing a (vegetarian) starter of légumes d’automne au reblochon - blue potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes & beets under a blanket of stinky cheese. This was followed on the 33-euro menu by a gorgeous cannette longuement rôtie au banyuls, chutney de fruits sec - a young duck slow-roasted in sweet fortified wine with dried fruits so that its skin was carmelized and slightly crackling. A fricassée de homard et lotte, caramel de homard (braised lobster & monkfish in a sweet lobster reduction sauce) was ordered as a single plat for 15 euros.

While the meat-eaters finished triumphantly with desserts selected from the regular menu, the tasting menu offered no choice for vegetarians. A pear poached in white wine was a bit nul in its watery sauce. The final compote de coing needed some other element to balance its singular quince quality.

Overall, we were well-pleased with the food chez Allobroges. Their menu represented a Greatest Hits collection of October produce, and a light touch in preparation allowed these seasonal stars to shine.

On the down side, the service was cool and the lights were too bright. The décor reminded me of a Midwestern hotel lobby circa 1987.

When faced with the challenge of vegetarians, however, Les Allobroges remains a good place to sample French food without Passard prices.

Les Allobroges
71, Rue des Grands Champs
Paris 75020; M° Maraîchers
Tel: 01 43 73 40 00

Friday, October 13, 2006

Bon weekend

A blanket of grey will soon be drawn across our Parisian sky, but the coming (and aptly named) Sunday promises to be gorgeous.

Locals are advised to profiter in one of the city's parks, like the Buttes Chaumont in the 19th. This photo was taken last weekend, but such golden days are sadly numbered.

If lying around in green grass isn't your thing, you have plenty of other options for the weekend:


Lire en Fête is happening this weekend, with 4,000 literary events across the country. In Paris you'll find everything from a Proust lecture to an all-night poetry slam. There's a literary brunch in the morning and a cabaret at night.


Pere Ubu is playing on Friday at the Nouveau Casino. Taking their name from a french play, Pere Ubu formed in the year of my birth in Cleveland, Ohio. Others call them proto-punk, they call themselves "Avant Garage." See them for 18 euros at 109 rue Oberkampf. For some Aprés Avant Garage rage, the P'tit Garage is just around the corner at 63, Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud. Bartenders pour cheap drinks while spinning the sweet sounds of garage nostalgie.

Bubamara looks like good fun on Sunday - a franco-balkan trio playing "tzigano-klezmer" for free at Cannibale: 93 rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud in the 11th, Métro Couronnes. They play early at 18h, but you might stay for dinner because the food's not bad chez Cannibale. And they have options for our visiting vegetarians.

Sweet pop on Monday from the over-stuffed mouths of the Magic Numbers. The first self-titled album from this UK foursome was a bit too saccharine for my taste, but "Forever Lost" sure was catchy. They play at the Boule Noire at 8:00.


New expos are running at the Centre Pompidou, including Yves Klein, Fabrica: Les Yeux Ouverts, and (what I'm excited about) Robert Rauschenberg. Don't forget that they're open late until 10:00.

The I V Y Paris artists will exhibit in the Carrousel du Louvre as part of the Expatica Welcome to France event. The I V Y exhibition will be showing off the breadth and scope of the expatriate artist scene in Paris. The Welcome to France event as a whole offers programs from 11-6 helping expats learn about everything from immigration and taxes to cooking and wine.

Bon w/e!

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Le trajet de Fifi

I recently spotted this charming couple along the Boulevard Saint Marcel in the 5th.

Is it just me, or does the dog actually look bored?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Leaving Ellie

My little elevator.

It was love at first sight when I met her in the lobby. She was slim, well-adorned, and complicated - like every other Parisian girl I would come to know.

Ellie's slender shape is what originally caught my eye. She's tiny, accomodating only three French or two American riders. Four have been known to ascend, fuelled by hope and red wine. Four have also been known to get stuck.

Pull back Ellie's glossy black outer door and there's a golden retractable gate. Once inside, her buttons must be pressed delicately and held for at least a few seconds. She will tolerate no thick-fingered jabbing.

The list of other things that Ellie will not tolerate has grown over time. There have been minor tantrums and strandings all along, but our real trouble began last winter. Without warning one day she refused to come to my floor. No technician in the world could convince her to return to me. There was nothing to do but get out at 5 or 7 and walk.

I'm not the only tenant on the outs with Ellie. More recently she has refused, following a fight with the conceirge, to visit the lobby. This creates the odd necessity of climbing up one flight in order to ride for 4 or 6 and then walk one. Try explaining that to a visitor.

With all of this drama, my legs have understandably started to wander a bit. I've been sneaking around and climbing the stairs behind Ellie's back. It makes me feel better about myself, less dependent. The more I climb, the more I realize I don't need her anymore.

We both know that it's over. And yet last night - when it was late and I'd had to much to drink - I found myself still wanting to be inside of her. Ellie opened up and took me in without a word. We moved silently in the dark as if nothing bad had ever happened.

Call it a breakup ride.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Nuit Blah(nche)

I was firing emails into the abyss last week, trying to drum up some excitement for the Nuit Blanche. Some friends claimed prior plans, but others just came right out and told me that they hate the Nuit Blanche.

How could this be? How can one hate an all-night carnival of contemporary art?

I chalked it up to that particularly Parisian quality of considering everything municipal to be chiant. No surprise, really, that the city’s “Sleepless Night” would be snubbed by those who also scoff at Pei’s pyramid and the Eiffel Tower.

In the end, with the help of Bernhard and Andreia, I was able to piece together a five-man gang for my first-ever Nuit Blanche. During our fortifying dinner of asorda des mariscos and 2 desserts we discussed options and decided to try the Goutte d’Or neighborhood. Around Paris, there were six different quartiers selected to host contemporary art events. In the Goutte d’Or – the heart of African Paris – there were 27 official installations concentrated mainly between Chateau Rouge and La Chapelle.

We set out just after 10:00 and ambled through a crisp and beautiful autumn night. The milk-heavy moon filled the train yards with light as we passed through the haunting landscape between Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est.

Our first stop was Rue Pajol and the former workshop of Carlos Regazzoni. No fewer than five Nuit Blanche installations were planned for the Halle Pajol, whose perimeter fence was newly decorated by a timeline history of the quartier. The only trace of Regazzoni, the Argentinian sculptor who had previously leased the space for over a decade, could be found by looking at the walls of the halle. They weren’t there anymore. Removing them was probably a necessity for extracting some of the 2700 examples of l’Art Ferroviaire which used to occupy the 2000 m2 warehouse constructed by Gustave Eiffel.

The streets were flowing with people outside the Halle Pajol – young and old, hip and square. Kids ran circles around their parents, clearly thrilled by the idea of a state-sanctioned all-nighter. A neon light blinked “Nuit Blanche” above a smaller sign indicating “one hour wait from this point.” Whatever was happening in the Halle Pajol was only going to be seen after several hours of standing around. We decided to move on, and headed for the area around Rue Léon.

The streets, independent of any art happening, were entertaining enough. Local boys sat on their cars, surveying the scene with crossed arms and wary expressions. Jugglers entertained the line waiting at the Comptoir Lavoir Moderne Parisien. Dingy neon cafés were uncharacteristically full, and the sounds of jazz manouche drew Nuit Blanche refugees into the small and pleasant “Shango” bar.

The only installations we managed to see were those set outdoors with no lines. We encountered Erwin Wurm’s piece “My home is yours” by chance as we were walking along rue Affre and looked up to find lamps, beds and dressers hanging horizontally from the buildings. Another nod to Debord and the situationists who were the inspiration for much of Nuit Blanche (click here for more on that).

Laurent Grasso’s performance of eternal sunshine provided the necessary excuse to cut our night short. Du Soleil dans la Nuit was set upon a raised athletic court and simulated daylight (like in the movies) using giant helium balloons. If this was daylight, I considered, and we were supposed to stay up until dawn…did that mean we could go home? My Nuit Blanche ended just past midnight – two hours after it began.

What I liked was the carnivalesque atmosphere – the mixing of people who don’t normally share space in this city. What I didn’t like can best be explained by returning to the example of Regazzoni. His warehouse, which I visited several times in 2004 and 2005, embodied the very spirit that Nuit Blanche seems to be striving for.

A visit to Regazzoni’s workshop, before the city kicked him out in 2005, brought visitors into a corner of the city that many had not previously visited. The unpublicized, unmarked nature of the space led visitors to wander through a series of squats (one run by environmentalists offering a vegan meal) before locating the atelier behind its iron menagerie courtyard. The interior space of the warehouse was warmed by the light of a canteen offering cheap meals and even cheaper drinks. Disciples from the Association El Gato Viejo wandered among the crowd offering information and soliciting donations.

The sculptures themselves, lit by cold and sparse lighting until the city cut power in June 2005, were a delight. Made from cast-off railway materials and weighing as much as several tons, his work comprised an “insane bestiary” of giraffes, gorillas, and other animals. There were planes, too. Not everything was good, but a good deal of it was great. And more than anything, one had the special feeling of being at the right place at the right time - a sense that was heightened as the threat of eviction, first issued in October 2004, became increasingly real.

The city, despite a 4,000-signature petition and some negative press, managed to get Regazzoni out and to transform the Halle Pajol into an acceptable space for the Nuit Blanche. Something spontaneous had become normative – an authentic contemporary art happening was erased in favor of something programmed. One could stand Saturday night in the graveyard of Regazzoni’s atelier and read the following (translated) words about the city’s mission for Nuit Blanche:

“Contemporary art mixes with the city and creates a singular time-space where each person is invited to circulate, rediscovering a transformed everyday terrain or exploring some overlooked places.”

It’s a nice idea. It was better in practice.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Flip the tape, dude

I rearranged the boudoir last weekend and discovered a box of mix tapes under the bed.

Do you remember the mix tape?

I'm listening now to "Mix Tape #1," which was given to me ten years ago by a bearded poet in Arizona. I can barely make out the song list now, but know from repetition how every song melts into the next. Disorientation sets in if, out in the real world, a particular Built to Spill song isn't immediately followed by Refrigerator's "Colton."

I've been putting a lot of my music on the computer lately, devising song lists to distract my culinary victims. It's not the same, is it? A mix tape was always heavy, there were choices involved. You couldn't fit everything on it - not even a fancy 90-minute tape - and the order was incredibly important. Putting 72 songs on random feels, by contrast, a bit cavalier.

The advantage to computer music is versatility. This is important in Paris because I can no longer predict what people will like. The tastes around the table may range from Fado to German electronica, from Brit pop to Django Reinhardt. I can't put on GBV after a night of drinking and expect folks to know it, much less pump their fists in the air (Loretta, you are missed).

So we experiment, all of us, with eachother's "international" music. I try the Mountain Goats with one country and get Die Sterne in return from another. Half of it I like, and the other half I hope to learn to like.

But on some nights, when every fiber is sick of growing, it's great to just kick back and rewind with a mix tape. To conjure, with the help of Uncle Tupulo, the known but long ago world where real men wore hoodies and drank Old Style - where Converse were universally filthy.

Does that not sound like paradise? I guess you had to be there.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Hairy Paree

I must have been asked this question two dozen times: How does the dog like Paris?

"Her french is coming along," I usually respond. But in truth, the hound seems quite happy here in the city of light sidewalk droppings.

Mirth, a name that rolls uncomfortably off the french tongue as Murt, is our ten year-old dog. Securing her entry into the country was no easy matter. France is not as strict as the Commonwealth countries that require quarantine, but she (and I) did have to jump through a number of hoops before getting on the plane.

The first requirement was identification through either a tattoo or a microchip under the skin. Mirth has the microchip, an electronic ID that’s read by passing a hand-held scanner over her back. As a precaution in case it’s also a listening device, we hold a pillow over her back whenever talking politics.

The chip was done by a Boston vet who also completed her rabies vaccination certificate. All together, this cost around $200. In addition, this paperwork required the stamp of a Government-approved veterinarian. There was one such vet in Massachusetts. Having already sold my car in preparation for the move, I persuaded a friend to drive me across the state to spend the day in a puke-colored waiting room. Uncle Sam’s Vet charged $100 for the privilege.

After all this, Mirth was ready to be crammed into her $100 plastic cage. Her $200 flight from Boston was relatively short, six hours, but she emerged from the plane’s hold with some serious psychological trauma. I know, I know - it sounds ridiculous. But she was shaking and yelping continuously during our first two weeks here. A French vet gave her tranquilizers, and over time she was able to forget the plane and to focus on baguette.

Which, it turns out, is her raison d’être. Unable to work in France, Mirth spends her days lying around the apartment and dreaming up new ways to steal baguette. She will climb the kitchen counters. She will lunge at dangling loaves on the sidewalk. She once circled the stash of a homeless man before being dragged away by her apologetic owner.

The french aversion to scooping poop is Mirth’s second favorite reason for living here. Markings everywhere! The sidewalks provide enough canine gossip to keep her mind busy for the rest of the day.

“No she didn’t! That bitch peed on top of my mark!”

“Mmm, that sexy German Shepard has been sniffing around again. Do I detect a faint whiff of baguette in his urine?”

I, too, enjoy her walks. It brings me into contact with neighbors who coo over her, ask questions about her race and sometimes offer a corner of their baguette. Shop owners will sometimes allow her inside and offer a little something to eat.

The only real drawback about Mirth in France is the dog hair. Her endowment wasn’t such a problem in the Midwest, but the french seem less comfortable with hair as a fashion accessory. As a result, we spend an awful lot of time vacuuming and rolling our clothes. And still nine times out of ten my black jacket is covered with a hundred tiny white hairs.

I wonder sometimes if, like other children of immigrants, Mirth is ashamed of me. I try to see myself through her eyes when we meet her friends on the sidewalk. What must she think of her American mother - covered in hair, clutching a plastic bag, and speaking with that accent?

MOM!! Do you see any of the other moms picking up poop?! You’re so embarrassing!

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Paris, plus calme

My relationship with the city always shifts, at least temporarily, when friends visit Paris. Like a sponge, I absorb their impressions and find myself both loving and hating the city in new ways.

Playing tour guide breaks my routine and forces me into neighborhoods that are usually avoided. Travelers generally don’t care about the merits of Belleville or my favorite dive bar. They want to stroll along the Seine, chase after ghosts, visit postcard Paris. And in accommodating them - usually in the 1st, the Marais, and the Latin Quarter - I’m always reminded just how beautiful this city is. I become a booster, a hack historian. “Look at this!” I squeal, impervious to the wearied faces of my companions.

And wearied they usually are. For visitors, Paris is exhausting. To get around, unless you spend a fortune on cab fare, you need to walk, climb stairs, and spend hours in the Métro. I myself was drained during my first visit to Paris. I had to buy a special numbing cream (Nifluril) for my aching feet, much to the dismay of my guides. Walking doesn’t faze me anymore, though, and I will drag visitors around for hours before I notice that they are half-crying. A Saturday stroll for le Meg can be a death march for someone used to driving.

To complicate matters, the “rest” afforded by cafés or restaurants can be quite stressful for visitors. American tourists in particular are overly-sensitive to how servers are treating them, and a five euro coffee (in the tourist zones) can feel exasperating. For dinner, I often struggle to find a restaurant that can accommodate friends’ requests for something “cheap” and “real French” that has vegetarian options (and is also open on Monday).

It’s hard to tell a tourist that they need to spend 30 euros to have a decent meal in Paris (excluding the good North African or Asian options that visitors never seem to go for). But there’s nothing worse than spending 21 euros on something awful, knowing that you could have had something delightful for 10 euros more. And when it’s awful, these wearied travelers (with high expectations for French food) seem to be slightly broken.

On the other hand, when it’s good – when Paris performs brilliantly on the food front – I find myself feeling so proud. I had this feeling the other night at Chez Casimir with friends who were returning from 3 months in the States. Chez Casimir, for those who don’t know it, is the cheaper sister bistro of Thierry Breton’s Chez Michel. We’ve been three times over 2 years and have never been disappointed.

We were just beginning to catch up when the first starter, a terrine de campagne, was brought to the table. Served in a giant ceramic terrine with a knife in its heart, this was slightly edged out by the deliciously salty tartare de haddock à l’ancienne.

By the time the plats arrived, we had landed again on our regular topic – comparisons of the US vs. France. Andy and Caroline, who lived together in the States and spend months there every summer, couldn’t wait to return to Paris. After months of eating in New York, Andy was happy to be back at the French table. “This is exactly what I want,” he said, while taking bites of his confit de porc et son gratin. “Talking with friends at a restaurant like this, where you can eat like this for not much money. It’s so calm.”

And he was right. Because I live here, it’s not exhausting to zip by Métro over to Gare du Nord, walk three blocks, read a menu, order, and then relax. I know how to speak, I know this food. I’m not freaked out over the 100 euro bill (for four) because I don’t eat out every night. For visitors, this whole experience would be completely different.

As I explained to a dear friend visiting from Norway who asked how on earth can you live here? our Paris has nothing to do with the one she witnessed around Châtelet. I work. I go to the market. I ride my bike. I walk the dog. I see shows and expos, but not three per day. It is calm.

Could this mean that I’m settling in?