Archive for January, 2010

Reading and Race: The End

We were a packed crowd seated on child-sized fold-up chairs. Whoever had set them out clearly had forgotten that people have legs, the rows too smushed together.

Salvatore Scibona was trying out his small repertoire of French – nearly nonexistent, but endearing. I hoped the French audience members weren’t cringing.

He had never been to France before, he said, quickly switching to English. No one in his family had, either. He couldn’t believe he was here. The French translation of his debut novel had come out. The End.

That’s the name of the book, but there seems to be no end to the accolades heaped upon it. The book has won numerous awards – The Young Lions Fiction Award, The Whiting Writer’s Award, finalist for the National Book Award.

At the reading at Shakespeare and Co. last night, Scibona jumped right in, his summation something like this:

“White flight.”

His hometown of Cleveland (the “flyover part of the country” he claimed New Yorkers call it – I have never heard that, but it’s pretty good), used to be a series of ethnic enclaves. Italian here, Polish there. Slovakian and all slices of Eastern European.

After the second world war a lot of blacks from down south moved up to Cleveland and other industrial areas. Just like that, people “stopped being Italian [or insert ethnicity] and started being white,” he said. And all of the privileges that came with that.

With a name like Salvatore, there’s no hiding his origins. But he’s never thought of himself as anything other than white. (A year spent in Italy probably confirmed he wasn’t Italian – he spent the entire year there crying, he said).

His book explores 1950s Cleveland, using a town carnival as the conceit. From the way he talked about it and the excerpts he read, it sounds as if he takes on tense racial dynamics all while grounding them in believable story. His characters are racist, he said, but they are real people. His primary role as the writer was to let his characters express who they were, not try to create a book to serve a political message. Though, of course, it does.

I haven’t read the book so I can only conjecture how he pulls it off. But it’s refreshing, an author diving into such meaty territory, not shying away from what others might be too scared to touch.

It made me think, the US has a mighty messed up record on race, but at least we talk about it. Not always well, not always as much as we should, but we do discuss it.

The French lag behind in this regard. You can’t even use the word “race” in a conversation. (I’ve tried it. It is obviously an offensive word.) No statistics are kept on ethnic background because everyone is “French.” Nice sentiment, sure, but not a reflection of reality.

I haven’t been following the debate on French “national identity” too closely, but there seem to be some pretty strong opinions about what French does and does not look like.

Remember the youths burning cars in the “suburbs” a few years back? They were disenfranchised youth, and yes, mostly of a certain color. But were the French able to say that? Not really. Frustrations build ever further when you’re not even allowed to name who you are, what seems abundantly apparent. There are a lot of French citizens who feel they are not French.

Every society has its own demons to contend with; there is no end in sight. More frank discussion might help, though. Liberté, egalité, fraternité, looks good as a motto, but would be even better as the truth.


Open for Business

The Open Shop, most certainly not open

There’s no point trying to be a morning person if bleary-eyed, grumpy, and alarmingly catatonic is the best you can manage. As I found out today, there’s also no point strolling down Rue Faubourg Sainte-Antoine on a Monday – most everything is closed.

Monday? Don’t people work on Mondays?

OK, full disclosure: I am not a morning person, but am not as nonfunctioning as described above. I was also not ‘strolling,’ but rather walking purposefully to an appointment. And by ‘everything’ I mean ‘more than to my liking.’

Still, it brings me to a point: It’s supposedly charming that most things in Paris are closed on Sundays: a true day of rest, time for family and friends. The crude call of capitalism not trumping cultural tradition, and all that.

It’s also nice for workers that they receive two days off in a row. Thus, shops open Saturday were not open today. The Sunday/Monday weekend.

In my more generous moments, I can get behind these ideas. But in practice, I’m not a big fan. After living in New York, Paris can strike me as provincial – as strange (or snooty?) as that sounds. I have enough trouble with the ‘Sunday blues’ (surprisingly less virulent now that I don’t have a job), that shuttered storefronts lead only to further depression. The cold metal door on a Monday? Just silly, really.

So should everything everywhere be available at all times?

Well, now that you ask….um, yes?

Ok, no, no. I concede: it might change the character of the city. I mean what do we really need? (Not banks surely. Not bread.)

Inconvenience as elegance. Paris has duped me again.

Societe Generale, shut to the world.

What do you think? Stores closed Sundays and Mondays – charming or inconvenient? Comment below!

Scooby Doo in the Latin Quarter

Do you see a mouse in this picture? Behind the Scooby Doo? (Ok, what am I doing in a café with a large Scooby Doo figurine? Never mind that).

Having overpriced hot chocolate (5 euros!) in the Latin Quarter and my friend Danielle’s eyes suddenly grow huge. “Oh my god,” she says.

“What?” I ask, knowing full well I probably don’t want to know what, judging from the look on her face.

“There’s a mouse behind you.”

“No!” I say.

“Yes! Right behind your head. Behind the Scooby Doo.”

I slowly turn around to look, then think better of it.

“While I haven’t seen it,” I say, trying to stay calm, “I’m going to get up and move very far away.”

In other words, if I don’t see it, I will not start screaming and knocking tables and chairs over. (Though passing as a strong and capable woman most of the time, I am one of those throw your hands in the air, jump on the table, and scream for her life girly-girls when it comes to episodes like these).

I get up as quickly as I can, grabbing my coat and backpack, and run to the other side of the room (which is not very far, incidentally, but far enough).

Danielle rescues our two hot chocolates and places them on the table.

I inspect our new seating arrangement – just a simple wall behind me, everything plainly in sight. No random cartoon character sculptures where rascally rodents might hide. Danielle spies a small hole in the ground, but I reason that ground level is more acceptable than head-level should something else come popping out.

“We can pretend we’re having a Ratatouille moment,” Danielle says, trying to make the best of it.

Yes, Ratatouille, I loved that movie, with the cooking cartoon rat. But then I start thinking of a real rat and gross myself out.

“Thank god it wasn’t a rat,” I say, leaving it at that.

We go back to our engaging conversation (you must realize by this point how fascinating my companion is – even a mouse behind my head isn’t enough to distract me too long from our chat. Plus, a 5 euro hot chocolate. I was going to finish it, damn it!)

You would think by trying to tactfully ignore the establishment’s mouse-incubating interior, the servers could give us a break.

But no, what do I hear a few minutes later?

Quel bordel!” What a mess! The waiter is complaining about the disarray of tables and chairs we’ve left behind in escaping the offending area.

“There was a mouse,” Danielle says. Should be explanation enough. It doesn’t seem to be, though. He continues saying something – I’m no longer listening.

I’ve had bad service in Paris, but being made to feel as if I’ve done something wrong by moving away from a mouse – well, it’s pretty up there.

Just another night out in charming gay Paree!

‘P’ is for Pretentious

Day Two of what was to be a literary lovefest (a reading almost every night) and already I am rethinking. After last week’s amazing encounter with Nam Le – a writer brilliant, funny, and shockingly down to earth – this week’s offers have rubbed me slightly the wrong way.

The fault doesn’t lie entirely with the authors, though they haven’t been my favorites. The audience itself has also induced some dismay. Front row of Shakespeare and Co. and there’s a beautiful young woman sketching in red pencil. She glances up-down, up-down as she transfers the writer’s likeness to her drawing pad. I assume she’s quite earnest, but she seems to know she’s on display.

Right next to her is the real article, however, who won’t reveal himself until the final round. My eye already on him (his profuse profound nodding a clue), it wasn’t until he asked the last question that I truly knew.

In a meandering philosophical ramble, invoking too many ideas and names, he did (finally) ask a good question, but his way of doing it – totally lame.

Nevermind, it’s a new night, this time in the 7eme. Only, there he is again! And saving his worst for last! A digression from Fitzgerald to Byron, he recites whole passages of poetry, then challenges the author to do the same.

Smart, but show-offy. So not my style. I’ve managed a full week of blogging about Paris without once saying “pretentious.”

Looks like now I am forced to. Let the real games begin!

Skakespeare & Co.

Still French?

Banal as it may sound, bureaucracy is truly one of the worst parts of living in France. I won’t bore you with my particular travails (plural), but suffice to say that the stereotype of a labyrinthine (and laborious) system is true.

So I couldn’t help but be tickled today when Yahoo France’s main story was titled, “Sarkozy, Still French?” Seems it gets dicey for even the president of the republic to swim in these administrative waters.

The French are all for their polemics (there’s a big one on right now about “national identity”), so part of this is simply political showmanship.

Still, it’s kind of telling how the story came about:

Jean-Luc Melanchon, head of the ‘Left Party’, (and formerly with the Socialists – yes, many more than two parties here!), went to renew his French ID card. Should be easy, right? He already has one. And he’s French. And he’s a freaking government minister.

Oh, chuckle. Tee-hee. Snort.

No, naïve ones. Of course it’s not that easy.

I like Jean-Luc, because he’s in a position of power – someone for whom it’s normally easy – and decided to go public and say, you know, this system is kind of loony. He was asked to “prove things that one cannot prove” he recounts of his ordeal. (One of my stories of proving things you cannot prove was providing a “certificate of celibacy” before my wedding. For real. Promise I’ll tell you about that later).

It got him to wondering, how does Nicolas Sarkozy, born to Hungarian immigrant parents prove this stuff? Sarkozy, with all the anti-immigrant legislation he’d like on the books, Jean-Luc contends, just might not make the cut as French himself.

So still French? Well, we’ve already established that I’m an etrangere, a foreigner, a stranger. So I can never be French (French in the way the French mean it, I guess).

I would like legal French citizenship one day, though – dual nationality is like my wet dream. I’m married to a French man, so it should be possible. Part of the admissions test, however, is proving that I’m assimilated, of “good character” and “loyal to French institutions.”

Ah yes, the vagaries. As good and loyal as I’d like to think of myself, I’d agree with Jean-Luc – sounds like a darn hard thing to prove.

Well, I have a few years to work on that. And I’m getting some pretty good practice in the meantime.

Haiti in my Heart

I cannot say whether the gut-wrenching catastrophe in Haiti this week has touched more deeply in France because of the two countries’ history. All eyes – from all over the globe – are on Haiti. Our hearts there, too. We are all moved, all in mourning.

I scroll through images of the injured, the dead, the trembling, the terrified, watch reporting from an entire city now in complete ruin and I can’t stop from crying. Anyone would weep, no matter where they are from.

France does have a unique link to Haiti, however, and it seems has a special responsibility due to its past. Its former colonial rule – brutal and unforgiving – should not be forgotten.

I don’t know enough about these things, certainly not as much as I should. I am experiencing this tragedy as a human being above all – not as an American or a resident in France. There are interesting things to consider there, though. The French government must understand that, too, as they have already called to cancel all of Haiti’s debt and for an international donor’s conference to discuss rebuilding.

I donated to Partners in Health (PIH) today, and found some measure of inspiration as I learned of the organization’s history. Founded 25 years ago with a mission they call both medical and moral, they have been providing health care to the poor on a consistent basis, not only when natural disasters strike. They operate the largest hospital in central Haiti and 98% of their staff comes from the local community. Paul Farmer, one of the founders, won a MacArthur genius award, and is truly an amazing person.

Please consider donating to PIH today. They are already on the ground and know how to use resources and aid effectively:

Here’s a video on Partners in Health work, from before the earthquake, if you are interested. Though I feel helpless in the face of such towering suffering, I feel also the humanity and the hope when I learn of an organization like this:

Shakespeare on Ice

Is it really so strange? That I don’t like strapping blades, wheels, or other moving apparatus to my feet?

The Hotel de Ville – not a hotel, but the most beautiful administrative building you’ll ever see – still has its holiday decorations up: illuminated Christmas trees, flashing blue lights on the façade. Most striking is the large ice skating rink where funny spectacles await – put people of all ages and ability on a large slippery surface, you’re sure to have good times.

I was coming back from a book signing (Wally Lamb – sweet and talented man) at Shakespeare and Co. (a tale for another time) when I happened upon the rink. I heard a voice being pumped in over a microphone, then realized there was a skating MC as I approached – slow down, speed it up, yes folks, let’s keep it fun for everyone.

While I happen to like my two feet planted firmly on the ground, it gives me great joy to watch other people give skating a try. I’m a people-watcher anyway, but the interest level can skyrocket when you put them on ice.

There are the small triumphs and tiny setbacks, small moments that aren’t so serious – something to hold onto in our time of very serious moments.

“Si tu puedes, mon amour!” “No, no puedo” the Spanish couple gripping the railing in front of me were saying. “Start like this,” the gallant French boyfriend explains, holding his pretty (terrified) girlfriend’s hands.

Couples and families, showoffs and friends. Little dramas as one person wants to go faster and the other can barely stay upright. Little kids with their daring, cheeky adolescents whizzing by at dangerous speeds. The slips, the falls, the getting back up, the trying it again.

I’m not sure why these people don’t mind us watching, but I’m glad that they let us. Their vulnerability and their tricks, the glee as someone learns to glide.

Thank you, random ice skating rink, for reminding me of such simple pleasures. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll join you sometime.

Skaters at Hotel de Ville

Of Champagne and Party Crashers (or ‘Bah Humbug’ and Bon Vivants)

Last night I went to a party where the number of champagne bottles seemed to outnumber the number of guests. We were colleagues, most of us friends, toasting an end to things as they had been. Our company was “downsizing” and we were out of work.

The mood was festive (France’s great social system can almost make a layoff something to celebrate) and far be it from anyone to refuse another refill.

Though the bubbly doesn’t actually do it for me (I’m not a big drinker, in general), I’ve learned to appreciate that champagne is a drink for all occasions. Not simply for special events, it’s just as common to see people order a glass on ordinary days in pretty ordinary cafes (or is it just my friends? Hmm.)

In any case, we were having a good time (me with some tasty ice wine) when the doorbell rang. Seeing as it was past midnight, we knew it probably wasn’t good.

Our host opened the door and I saw the right half of a very tall man on the other side. I could tell he came in anger, even without seeing his face – his large hand was curled in a fist and planted firmly on his hip.

I didn’t hear any words pass between the two men, and our host closed the door.

Seconds later the doorbell rang again. And again. And againagain. In varying patterns and for differing amounts of time, angryman pressed the buzzer, playing an annoying ditty on the doorbell.

“He’ll go away,” our host said.

After a few minutes he did.

Turns out, it was the dreaded complainer of the apartment building.

Our host went into his bedroom and retrieved a letter featuring some slightly worrying handwriting as he showed it around.

“We received this from them last year.”

Reading the letter aloud to increasing outbursts of laughter, the highlights go something like this:

“We are tolerant people,” (they always are) “but this has gone beyond the beyond. You do not seem to realize you live in an apartment and the noise that you make. Last night we were unable to sleep due to your antics – and we could hear the toilet flushing very late in the night!…We are sure that we will not be forced to bring this up with the owner now that you understand your offenses. Very cordially and with our most distinguished salutations, Monsieur and Madame XYZ.”

Not to be defensive, but when flushing the toilet riles your neighbors, it’s probably not you with the problem. Despite the general growing tipsiness, we were not actually being loud. Unlike a lot of apartments in Paris, this one was well insulated and seemed to block most noise.

“They’re probably just waiting for you to flush your toilet!” a friend exclaimed.

It’s true. These are the type of people who are waiting to pounce on anything.

Now I’ve lived in apartments with paper-thin walls (the things I heard in New York could make my already-peeling paint peel more). There are ghastly noises and disrespectful people. In Paris, though, it seems blowing your nose can cause offense.

One aspect of living in ‘gay Par-ee” I find less than perfect, is, well, it’s not really all that gay.

I’ve been told and read in various books that the French don’t understand why we Americans smile so much, especially at people we don’t know. Not only don’t they understand it, they think we are stupid for doing it.

As someone who smiles a whole lot, it has caused some actual pain to train my smile muscles to stop their work (they’re atrophying as we speak).

Many times, in response to my (admittedly, full-bodied) laugh, I’ve received cutting stares enough to stop me in my tracks.

The city is gray, it rains, and yes, I understand you don’t know me. Still, life might be a little more pleasant if we didn’t regard each other as distasteful beings for showing some spirit.

Now I’m not saying everyone’s like this, but outside of people’s own social situations, the generalized mood strikes me as a little too somber. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before (again, New York – an even bigger city – displayed nowhere near the hostility towards undirected happiness I feel here. There’s a price on fun’s head if it’s caught outside of well defined borders).

I’ll stop complaining (oh no! am I one of them?) because after three years I’ve learned the solution. Seeing as the French think I’m strange anyway (the word for ‘foreigner’ – which now seems to be my main identity –  is etrangere, literally “stranger”), I take it as license to just be strange. Besides reclaiming my tennis shoes, it means smiling when I want to and laughing though it disturbs the peace.

Because really, should I allow Parisians to ruin my enjoyment of Paris?

The next time I’m chastised for having a good time, I’ll yell “Bah-Humbug” into the startled French(wo/)man’s face. It will be strange. And, at least to me, really, really funny.

Imperfection as Possibility

They’re expecting a large snowstorm in Paris tonight, though the sky remains clear for the moment. But the cold (the cold!) – it’s continuing unabated. Parisians have pulled out their puffy coats (I didn’t know they wore such things in France), all of us starting this new year bundled up tight, awed at the flurries that keep appearing to blanket our streets in white.

Despite the chilly evening, I ventured to the Village Voice Bookshop in the 6eme to hear Nam Le – fiction editor of the Harvard Review and author of the award-winning story collection The Boat – read to an entranced international crowd.

On the metro ride over, I had been pondering whether to finally start a blog.

See, I’ve been avoiding this for years. I guess you could say I’m a Luddite who still loves her words on pages rather than computer screens. More truthfully, though, I’m a perfectionist terrified of putting anything in the public realm before it’s finished.

Only, I hardly ever finish anything. I keep tweaking (see: fiddling/futzing) until there’s nothing original left.

Or, I don’t finish because I never even start. That’s no good! That’s not right! I berate in my head before I can even set the words down.

I’m a writer who has an awfully hard time writing. The thought of posting any old thing that occurs to me seems antithetical to who I am.

But that’s exactly why I think I should. This new year (new decade even! what are we, the 20-teens?) seems to call for a new way of doing things. What would happen if I simply ‘let it fly’ without censoring? If I allow the imperfect to see the light of day? (Would I see what I really have to say?)

Every place has its hardships, and everywhere its own brand of magic. I have neither wanted to rant nor rave about my new home. People will often withhold their sympathy when you complain about life here – “but you live in Paris!” they exclaim.

While this sentiment does get to me at times (but the bureaucracy is horrid! but they really can be rude!), I’m also coming to realize, hey, I do live in Paris! There is definitely something to this.

Paris is popular for a reason – it’s pretty, it’s posh, passion (or the pretense of it) is played out in some way or another on every city block.

It’s not paradise, though. But what would it be if it were perfect? Certainly not interesting.

And so, welcome to my experiment, my life in all its imperfections. By allowing myself to record some of my experiences – in even imperfect ways – I might just remind myself what a gift living here truly is.

The term ‘imperfect’ comes from Latin, referring to an ongoing but uncompleted action. (In learning French, you get more than your fill of grammar.)

This is my ongoing, incomplete adventure. My unfinished project. My idiosyncratic take on an idiosyncratic place. My Paris Imperfect.

paris (im)perfect?

Sion Dayson is paris (im)perfect. Writer, dreamer, I moved to France on – no exaggerating – a romantic whim. As you can imagine, a lot can go wrong (and very right!) with such a (non)plan. These are the (im)perfect stories that result.

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