Saturday, April 30, 2011

In a break from Francophilia...

-I finished Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question. The book has some amazing lines. Such as:

Page 190: "As Assistant Curator of the Museum of Anglo-Jewish Culture, Julian Treslove did not exactly have too much on his plate."


Page 211: "Human vermin, Libor thought, lover of the English though he was."

And more, but I didn't make a note of them yet. So, so well-written. Also, while the novel's certainly more about men than women, more about Jews than non-Jews, no one's a cliché. The characters are to a certain extent types - the artistically-oriented liberal-minded Jewish woman in ethnic shawls, for example, made me picture a specific store on Broadway just below Columbia - but not clichés. If that makes sense.

If I didn't know it had been a huge success, I wouldn't have been sure what others would have thought of this book. I mean, I just had the rare experience of agreeing with the political stance of a novel - correctly described on "Sounds Jewish" as more anti-anti-Zionist than Zionist, although there's certainly some Zionism in there, but not the rah-rah cliché of Zionism that holds that Israel can do no wrong, or that its supporters are saints. That, plus - as commenter rshams, and my mother whose book it is, both suspected - it deals with issues of Diaspora Jewish identity in a way that meshes incredibly well with the way I do in my work, on this blog, and when my mind wanders while I gaze at the amazing cheese selection that is Paris. Rather than being one of those hyphen-Jewish novels that worries about being too parochial, it addresses the "parochial" question head-on. Well done, Howard Jacobson!

-So white-ish dresses with long lace sleeves are the new "it" look for brides. This is presumably because KM's people (yes, yes, the Marxists) heard my mother telling the somewhat incredulous salesman in the more casual/youthful womenswear section of Bon Marché that the dress she was getting me would be for my wedding, and thought, hey, put a nine-foot train on the bottom, and that's just the thing! They totally saw me reaching for it and trying it on first at the BHV, then once more at Harrod's (where it was a good bit more expensive, although Kate/the British people could've gotten a deal by comparison) just to be sure. Somehow I suspect the item (in bridespeak, my dress, The Dress) - remarkably similar, but above-the-knee - will now be worn for that purpose by others as well, no doubt sold out of the store it comes from. Let it be known that this dress-selection happened well before April 29th, and no I did not have lace sleeves sewn onto a preexisting dress, as The Brides Today are apparently doing in the aftermath. Just like, no, I was not named after Phoebe from "Friends." Sometimes these things just happen.

-Anyway, no, Kate Middleton's dress was not "timeless." Presumably no one responded to Diana's gown at the time by saying, wow, what a ridiculous cupcake-like 1980s monstrosity. I couldn't tell you - no one could tell you - what aspect of the Middleton gown will look so 2011 in a few years' time, but it will, that much is for sure.

-Her brother, however, has a timeless Rufus-y thing going on. But we only ever hear about Pippa, perhaps because there's a Facebook page devoted to her rear.

-What, no, since you asked, of course I didn't watch the thing. Not the part where her father givethed her away, or when the most preposterous "for richer or for poorer" was spoken. Not when all these horses suddenly appeared. I did not admire the ceremonial outfit William wore, nor did I ask my own betrothed, in vain, if he'd consider tracking one down for our wedding. (While one might think/hope astrophysicists would have a cool space-age uniform for special occasions, they don't.)

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Jews and Princesses: the Official WWPD Royal Wedding Post

This reminded me: if I were not writing my dissertation on Jews and intermarriage in 19th C France, it would be on the relationship between Jews and the nobility (in, obvs, 19th C France). I had had a hunch there was something there from mid-19th works on the Rothschilds as the new feudal lords, in particular Toussenel's book declaring Jews "the kings of the era." But I didn't have much to go on. This, however, has changed, to the point that I kind of am writing about Jews and aristocrats.

But first, to back up for a moment: what was the relationship between Jews and nobles in those years between court Jews and "Jewish American Princesses"? Because it's really the bookends of this we're most familiar with - Jews serving as money-folk for royals, and young American Jewish women, of new-money backgrounds, being compared, not-so-reverently, with genuine royals. What came between these? Was there any relationship?

Oh yes! And this can be divided into two categories.

First, Jews-as-aristocrats:

-From 1789 on, "parasitic" heredity castes were considered by many to be the opposite of what the new French nation was all about. Check, check.
-Jews represented a new order, in which wealthy bourgeois were the elites. Yet aristocrats were still hanging around. They got to be elites all together. (Because the existence of poor or even just not-rich-or-influential Jews was easily forgotten.) See: Proust.
-Romances between Jewish women and aristocratic men were huge - huge! - in literature. First as beautiful young girls having to choose between dashing suitors and the wishes of stubborn uncles. Then as rich but grotesque women of no particular age getting married off to penniless, decadent noblemen. (And I suspect that some combination of these tropes explains, along with the "Goldsmith" thing, why people were so intent on claiming, incorrectly, that KM is a Jew.)

Next, Jews-as-anti-aristocrats:

-Aristocrats alwaysalwaysalways owned land. Jews, not so much.
-Aristocrats, on account of keeping track of their bloodlines, had an especially firm claim on Frenchness. Jews, on account of having allegedly pure bloodlines, were assumed to have virtually no claims extending prior to the Revolution.
-Aristocrats represented the height of manners, social graces, proper French, etc. Jews, no.

What's above is either a) the outline to one of my many ideas for a book-no-one-would-read (Jews and Royals: from Court Jews to the "JAP"), b) the outline to a small portion of the chapter I'm currently writing, which at the very least five people will one day read, or c) the blog post that kept me busy during an especially good dinner of orrecchiette alla dorm-room.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Punishment, reward

"La Libre Parole." On microfilm. Not 'fiche, 'film. Then Le Boulanger des Invalides Jocteur. With, for the first time since I've been going, at least, millefeuilles. Predictably the Platonic ideal of a millefeuille. Best and worst of Frahnce, all in one afternoon.

Slim pickings

-Yes, it's frustrating that women's clothing sizes are meaningless, and that no woman today 'is' a particular size. There's a simple answer to this, and it's not radiation: start embracing styles that are not form-specific. As in, until we return to an age of made-to-measure, there's really no point trying on a million pairs of jeans, only to find the one that looks least awful, when dress plus belt fits.

In the comments to the recent NYT story on this, the complaints about vanity sizing read as opportunities for women to announce that they've been 5'9" and four pounds (or close - the number of not-short sub-100-lb NYT commenters is astounding) since high school. "The smallest 'pencil skirt' I could find at J. Crew was large enough to clothe a farm animal," one woman laments. Aside from the mental gymnastics it takes to figure out how a goat of any size would fit into a pencil skirt, that's... a nice image. And the woman who's 5'6", 92 pounds, and sick of how fat everyone else is has just about led me to make an exception to my usual rule of not telling perfect strangers on the Internet to seek professional help. Bizarrely, the women who used to take a 16 and now take an 8 are not making a fuss; the ones who were an 8 and are now a 0 are just traumatized by the experience. It's like they're vanishing!

Small women, yes, do have the experience of everything at a store being too big, but it's a mixed bag - it's a hassle, fine, but it's also a flattering problem to have, even if, as in my case, you know full well it's because you're short, not because you're a supermodel. Point being, the women who comment seem to think vanity sizing is about making the 16s fool themselves into thinking they're 8s, when the reality is, it's the 6s for whom a 0's now baggy who are most delighted (but if you ask them, horrified) with the new order.

-Library-thoughts of the day:

1) There is a "mute" function on computers. This memo has yet to go out.
2) The best way to feel super-productive is for the person sitting next to you to be fast asleep.

-I'll admit that I initially clicked on a Refinery29 (mildly NSFW, it turns out, if your W frowns on shots of emaciated women in bikinis) link that read "Ex-model Jenna Sauers breaks down just how much debt you can dig yourself into in the world of modeling" because I'd just finished a 300-page French novel, on microfiche, and by "finished" I mean "finished taking notes on," not just perusing, and this seemed like as good an antidote as any. Whatever this was, it was not going to be about the doomed marriage of a Belle Epoque anti-Semite and an ardent Zionist. Also because I was curious how any profession, assuming we're talking modeling-as-job, not modeling-as-front-for-scam-or-brothel, any profession, that is, that one does not need to go to school for, could bring about debt at a level worth blogging about. I would have assumed modeling would be like any other glamorous field - a lot of people working for next to nothing, all aspiring to be among the few who make it big. And I'd read that certain really high-profile assignments in that industry are unpaid, 'for exposure,' which is consistent with how it goes with writing sometimes, too. But debt? Was this, like, spending more than earning debt, which could happen regardless, but might be more tempting if you're young, thin, and surrounded by nice clothes? Seems not - it's quite literally debt owed to agencies. Apparently modeling - like law school, like every other human endeavor - can take the form of a scam, even if you're ostensibly qualified and going through legitimate channels. Huh.

But that's not what stuck with me. Nor was anything fashion- or body-image-specific about the post, although that would bring some good continuity with Item 1, I realize.* No, what I was struck by was the extent to which the piece is written from the perspective of someone who can hear the chorus of YPIS forever in the background. The dual and dueling impulses of 'I'm aware of how lucky I've had it' and 'I'm not, you know, privileged' take up the bulk of the preface, and resurface later in the piece. We learn that the writer graduated from college without debt. But! not because she's from a wealthy family or anything. No, she's scrappy! But privileged! And she will take a moment to thank all who helped her along the way, because she's not the clueless sort who'd take such things for granted. But let's not forget, just because she graduated without debt doesn't mean she's one of them. Yes, her shoes were Gucci. But $8.99!

Here is as good a place as any to note that Sauers is a writer for Jezebel, a site notorious for its YPIS-ful atmosphere. My sense is that this is an example of someone who writes well, and who has an interesting story, but who is held back by the disclaimer requirement that has been foisted upon her. One comes away from the piece with a very precise idea of where, socioeconomically-speaking, the writer is coming from, something that could have been summed up as 'high cultural capital, middle economic capital', but that we now know in excruciating detail. My question, then, is: what does this add? For one thing, we're not really privy to the entirety of the writer's place on the privilege spectrum - it's kind of unusual for international students to do undergrad in the US, which suggests even more cultural capital than first meets the eye. But who cares? Before we even get to the part about the rather shocking exploitation in that industry, we've heard so many apologetic disclaimers that we've forgotten what the point of the whole thing was. It becomes far more navel-gazing than an article that begins with pictures of the author's actual navel need be.

*OK, I will admit that it did occur to me that someone with a college degree, cultural capital (but not economic!), and looks that would make a career modeling plausible might consider channeling that into any number of professions for which being especially good-looking would be a plus, but not the bulk of the job description. Which is, I suppose, where she's ended up.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Bichons? Aisle 4.

Sometimes the whole dorm-and-microfiche part of my time in Paris overshadows the beautiful-weather-and-pastry one. Today has been very much one of these days. And the microfiches were super interesting! And useful for the dissertation! But reading 300 pages of novel in that format, all at once, while taking notes, brought back the headache, as one might expect. And there's only so much reading about French anti-Semitism - even when the anti-Semites are fictional characters, albeit ones with whom the author sympathizes - a person of the Jewish persuasion can take before becoming oh just a little bit less rah-rah Frahnce.

The rah-rah returned, however, at a supermarket near the library.

In NY, there are dogs in strollers, in handbags. But this precise combination of scruffy lap-dog and shopping basket... this is what makes Paris great, the famous off-the-beaten-path, non-tourist Paris one hears so much about. And yes, I had the owner's permission to take the photo. Whether she had the supermarket's permission for this set-up is another matter.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Quote of the day

"I'm assuming that at least until your blog goes viral, your mother makes up the bulk of your readers." -Prudie.

(The quote, for what it's worth, is probably funnier if you don't have the context, and if you interpret "mother" to mean immediate family and Google-happy exes more generally - no blogger in his right mind should expect readers beyond that, let alone assume those folks are not reading, however pseudonymous you think you are. Thus an advantage of just launching into it with your real name, so as not to be under any illusions that a blog is your little secret. Meanwhile, who/what is the "female divine"? Is this generally known?)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

When straight men talk fashion UPDATED, TWICE!

Often, so very often, gay men stand accused of ruining things for women through their imagined machinations in the fashion industry. 'They want to see boys, not women!', accusers claim, as if that explains the absence of breasts and hips from the runway, and the requirement that the female models be heights that would count as tall even for men. Which is ridiculous - gay men, in the fashion industry, in the auto industry, whatever - are attracted to men, not preadolescent Estonian girls. But there is a certain sense in which the fashion industry ignores that which straight men traditionally find appealing - aka a body for which a bra is necessary for looking dressed in the conventional sense. Without getting all sinister and conspiracy-theory on the topic, it's fair to say that fashion is not about the hetero male gaze.

Which is why it's amusing when a straight guy claims authority on the topic. Slate has reposted an article from the Financial Times, in which Geoff Dyer, a straight man - or at any rate, a man who refers to being married to a woman, and who's given us no reason to think he's not straight - muses on "the perfect summer dress." (Accompanied, alas, by an ad for American Apparel, another case of straight men in fashion.)

The essay - written in that lighthearted way that just dares you to take it seriously, only to laugh at you for having done so - encapsulates how straight men (who are not employed in the fashion industry, or what was for a time referred to as "metrosexual") understand women's self-presentation, and, as such, is worth a read, even if one does not come away from the article with ideas of what to wear as the season turns.

-The "natural" look. No makeup, no heels. Optimally no shoes. No artifice for Dyer's summer-dressed lass. Nothing frilly or fashiony, please.

-The emphasis on health. The essay fixates on the idea that a woman in a summer dress must look not merely good, but well. This, combined with the "natural" notion, is because men who are attracted to women are judging such things as whether she'll look similar at 50 and whether she'll produce "fit" offspring. The theoretical summer-dress-wearing woman is being judged semi-holistically, one might say, and not necessarily for better.

-The ignorance of cut, design. "It does not require special treatment. It can be crammed into a duffel bag. It doesn't even have to fit perfectly. Price is irrelevant. You can pay a lot but, equally, it can be the kind of thing you can pick up for next to nothing." Now, this does happen to be my own personal philosophy of dress-buying, especially for warm weather, which is how so many Gap nightgowns/tunics end up getting worn outside. However! The cut of an item does matter, and, to a degree, the fit may be better if you pay more. Again, this is coming from someone for whom long tank-top+5'2"=dress. But a straight man might well notice a woman whose dress fits a particular way, whom he would not notice if her dress were cut wrong. Cut can make a woman look much thinner or wider, bustier or straight-up-and-down. Again, again, I'm not saying women should make decisions based on this, but it is what it is.

-The ignorance of the fact that women typically wear underwear. The summer dress is "the last layer separating the naked fact of a woman from the world." Just as straight (and, I suppose, gay) men see makeup-less when a woman's spent an hour getting mascara and 20 other products just right, straight men can easily suspend disbelief and think a woman is almost naked, even if that's not so much the case.

-The air of having 'discovered' that which women already know. Wait a moment - the summer dress must be sleeveless, yet not too short? Dyer expresses this notion as if it were a new one, but the rule about wearing something revealing only on the top or the bottom, not both at once, is high up in fashion's Constitution - that sweet spot between hooker and Hasid. Same with the thing about not wearing tights - tights can be used to make a summer dress fall-and-spring-friendly, but are obviously not worn with casual attire when it's 85 degrees out. This is not "fashion," but common sense. As in, a summer dress should not be made out of heavy wool or quilted down. And not because of the ethereal essence of what a summer dress symbolizes.

Dyer gets one key point right - one of warm weather's great perks for women (not working in corporate law offices, PG) is that we can get away with wearing what is essentially a long t-shirt, but designed in such a way as to make the woman appear to have made an effort/dressed up, while men have no comparable alternative. The summer dress is a thing, but only insofar as women can all of a sudden switch to a low-maintenance uniform and still look put-together, as men continue to face the suit-jeans dichotomy. But overall, one gets the sense that this is an essay about Woman, not Fashion.


The commenters there have arrived, and the verdict is in - dude's male privilege is, it seems, showing. He's even directed to a male-privilege checklist. Argh. I mean, perhaps so, but that's not what's interesting. What is is that here's a straight man entering a conversation that the likes of him typically don't, and that it plays out precisely as we might have imagined it would: dude's utterly ignorant about fashion, proudly ignorant, and thinks artifice is yuck because, well, he doesn't even quite get what artifice is, or how much of it women he thinks have on just a spot of lip gloss have going. He may ooze with privilege in all other arenas, but in this one, not really. Yes, the male gaze exists, but the business of telling women specifically what to wear is one straight men don't generally delve into.


Compare and contrast: a "fashion" take on the summer dress. A slideshow with commentary, not a going-for-witty-essay format, but an argument of sorts. And evidence of the far opposite side of the spectrum: different new dresses for barbecues, music festivals, day weddings, formal weddings, beach, and brunch? Brunch? We are now buying special clothing for this? So I'll take this opportunity to argue for a middle ground between $685 silk dresses for outdoor rock concerts and the one magic shmatta that looks just as good at a party as on a camping trip. (Which, actually, as I type this, reminds me of why the whole dress-for-hikes-and-cocktail-parties angle is so amusing. It's totally the dating cliché of 'I'm just as happy going out as staying in.')

Behind the acronyms, another post about privilege

SOUB, or YPIS, the double/meta version. Summary, for those without the privilege of clicking on the link to Gawker: the site reposted (and heartily endorsed) a comment to an earlier post about Gwyneth Paltrow (daughter of rich and famous parents, clearly naturally good-looking underneath whatever it is she does with herself these days) and privilege, in which a commenter recounts a story of having dated one of those pink-shirt-collar-poppers, aka a rich douche. Or we are meant to see him in that light.

Read it? OK, so...

Note that we never find out a) if ex-bf's family's wealth was ever given to him, or whether his family has any connections in the movie business, b) what ex-gf was doing that she was in a social situation to meet someone so wealthy in the first place (such as, for example, maybe she was herself - gasp - privileged, but grew up with only two family estates rather than eight - and we might guess this is the case, both because who else hurls a YPIS, and because only someone who's led a pretty comfortable life would not see a partner's immense wealth at least in part in terms of, huh, that would make things easier for me if we stayed together), or c) what gives the Gawker poster himself/Gawker commenters themselves the right to claim, mainly by implication, that they worked for everything they have.

As I've said about this precisely one billion times before, if YPIS were about those without privilege ranting about life's unfairness, that would be acceptable. Same if it were about creative types whining about how frustrating it is that various fields (see: acting, writing) seem open primarily to the children of parents successful in precisely the same field. (As in, amorphous privilege - coming from an UMC family in a Chicago suburb - doesn't lead to a job in Hollywood or at Vogue; specific connections in your immediate family, however...)

What's unacceptable is the way YPIS actually operates, which is, someone with plenty of P wants to pat himself on the back for being self-made, regardless of the truth, because someone, somewhere, surely had it easier. It's a contest, not a form of social justice, and anyone who dares question the game gets labeled out-of-touch and unaware of his own status as a privileged douche. Meanwhile, the people who go around being rich and out-of-touch don't care about YPIS, don't have those conversations, and as such are in no way impacted, in no way de-aloofified. Oh well. At least one commenter gets it.

WWPD Guides: Fine dining in Paris

People are often asking me how it is to be in Paris, especially now that the weather here is on the perfect side. And I'm always saying, it's not bad, not bad at all. The eternal microfiche, the hours it takes to actually enter the BNF - let alone reach one's assigned spot - once one has arrived at the closest bus stop, the dorm, the intense hatred that by law exactly one out of ten Parisians must feel towards even the best-behaved Americans ... Never mind! Yay Paris! (Yay a day when the microfiches have all been scanned onto Gallica. Of course, then I'd have had less of a reason to be here in the first place.)

A note on some recently photographed food:

-The cappuccino was not mine, but my friend Grace will vouch for it, as will I for my pretty but less photo-worthy macchiato. Coutume has won the approval of discerning Americans.

-The Greek salad, same place, is a grad student dream come true - six euros, comes with a basket of excellent bread, and the opportunity to sit for hours in pleasant environs, with fellow grad students (as I did this past time) or with work (as I will no doubt end up doing soon).

-Coutume has iced coffee! I did not know this when I ordered the macchiato. This is good to have found out, however. The iced coffee-Greek salad combo, with this weather, and it's almost possible to pretend Paris is Tel Aviv.

-Tel Aviv, with better pastry. The third photo brings us back to Le Boulanger des Invalides Jocteur, aka the best place in the world. More specifically, the pain au chocolat basket ("chocolatines," apparently - how Canadian!) is something I wish I could summon at any time, and just kind of dive in.

-Next up is Kunitoraya. Among my favorite meals out in Paris, if remarkably similar to my meals in.

-De Clercq, les Rois de la Frite. I've been only once, because I still can't figure out what point in the day it makes sense to get fries as a snack, as in, not as a meal accompaniment. I suppose the answer is, at the end of a night of debauchery, but I'm ancient and this does not so much apply to my life. But it's nice to know it's there.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Oh la la Bean

Sometimes, I just want to be like, New York Times, enough with the French stuff. Is France really that great? I mean, congratulations, Inès de la Fressange, for being "almost 6 feet tall, about 125 pounds and hipless." She will teach us, oh, she will, the essence of being a Parisienne. Might it involve wine, cigarettes, and scarves? A certain insouciance? A certain je ne sais quoi?

What she can't do, alas, is teach you how to wear the boring clothes you already own, yet look ... what creative word could we use here?... chic: "One of her uniforms — a navy crew-neck sweater, rolled-up jeans and brown loafers — makes her look elegant-casual; most anyone else would look like the L. L. Bean catalog."*

So I was delighted to read Jon Caramanica's "Critical Shopper" column about a new Agnes B. store/gallery that's opened in Soho/Chinatown. In the very same Style section as brought us the Fressange profile, Caramanica really gets at the heart of commodified Frenchness as marketed at suggestible Americans:

"[Agnès B.] specialized in, essentially, up-market basics with minor flourishes, one of them being an air of Gallic impossibility that made a white button-up shirt so much more than just a white button-up shirt. After the brand peaked in the 1990s, its mantle was picked up by A.P.C. and, to some degree, Isabel Marant. Like Agnès B., both companies promise more than they deliver, if you’re counting only the tangibles. The clothes are fine, the pose is better. "


"[...] that would probably cost one-third as much at Uniqlo [...]"

Yes to that! And!

"Agnès B. made the original fancy French basics, pawned off on thin American bodies that didn’t know better. Globalization has rendered it more or less obsolete, but it’s still trying."

*Speaking as one who goes around Paris with brown loafers that honest-to-goodness are from the L. L. Bean catalogue (well, the online version), I will attest to the fact that pairing those with jeans and a sweater, as a mere mortal, a hip-possessing one at that, has not made me the toast of this town. The street-style photographers are not exactly lining up. Nor are the cat-callers who apparently make life impossible for the young women of Paris. It would be possible to walk stark naked down the street in Paris with those loafers on and get no reaction. (Man-repeller blogger, consider the not-refined loafer, and turn your blog, which was a brilliant idea, into what it's meant to be.)

Ostentatious relative asceticism

What are we calling the genre of, outlandish rich-person behavior exposed, with the express purpose of eliciting comments from readers who are all in a race to announce how not-fancy and not-schmancy they are, unlike some people? Exhibit A: this Jezebel post about expensive prom dresses. (No, I did not watch the video. I was already aware that some girls spend this much on prom, I think from reading about it before, not even that long ago, on Gawker or Jezebel.) The commenters are all delighted with themselves for having spent less than $3,000 on prom. Bonus points if thrift stores, part-time jobs, or DIY sewing projects are mentioned, but even just having spent $300 on a dress from the mall is cause for celebration. The entire thread is just this list of $80, $100, $10 and we have a winner!

So I came up with CCOA, YPIS, and scrappiness oneupmanship, but on this I'm drawing a blank. What do we call this phenomenon? ORA is an option, but it's not exactly "asceticism." "Frugality" doesn't quite get at it, either, because it needs to be not that you chose not to spend thousands of dollars on your prom experience, but that you couldn't afford to do so. This needs to be presented in such a way as to suggest that the norm is to be able to afford the $3,000 prom prep, but that you, scrappy, unique, could not. But I do like the sound of ORF.

Most navel-gazingest blog post ever

When meeting new people, two things that typically come up early on are what one does and who, if anyone, is coupled off with you. When I meet other grad students/academics especially, the general outline of what we work on tends to get mentioned. And sometimes, I feel as though I'm repeating myself: intermarriage, specifically Catholic-Jewish intermarriage, answers both questions.

I will, in keeping with the title of this post, address this in the form of an interview with myself.

WWPD: Would you describe your dissertation as autobiographical?
PM: No.

WWPD: Maybe just a little bit?
PM: Dissertation=19th-C France, history and literature. Life=one couple in 21st-C NY, whose more salient "inter" is country of origin. Neither Belgium nor America come up much in my research.

WWPD: But you research intermarriage, and you're about to enter into one. Are these things related?
PM: Yes and no. Mostly no.

WWPD: How fascinating! Do explain.
PM: I'll begin with the "no." My interest in representations of intermarriage in literature began with one of my two senior projects (called a "thesis" - ha!) in high school English class, when I wrote about two young female characters in Philip Roth novels whose curse was that they were the offspring of one Jew and one Christian. Back in 12th grade, I had, strangely enough, not yet met my fiancé, who was busy being in the 12th-grade equivalent in Belgium. So it's fair to say that this interest - depictions of Jewishness and its limits in literature - preceded my meeting him, let alone having set a date.

WWPD: But surely you entered grad school with no set topic in mind... 
PM: I came to grad school wanting to study French Jews, Zionism, and the Dreyfus Affair. Apparently this had already been done, so after a variety of other incarnations (Algerian Jews, conversion among French Jews), my topic evolved into one about intermarriage. It met the various criteria (hadn't been done, about both French and Jewish identity, about literature and history, and about issues of gender that I had not come to grad school expecting to work on but had ended up getting interested in), and I had a hunch there'd be something there. And there is! That's what keeps me busy. 

WWPD: But the timing of this... Had you met your now-betrothed when your project, as you so grad-studentishly put it, evolved in that direction?
PM: Yes, and here's the "yes" part of the "yes and no." A certain Birthright Israel trip I took not long after Jo and I had started dating got me thinking more about how preoccupied Jews today are with intermarriage, which no doubt played a role in making me wonder what the nineteenth-century French Jews I'd already gotten to know fairly well thought about the matter. So when I saw that there were sources for this (and I now see that there are more than I'd expected, even), the topic met that extra-important dissertation-topic requirement of being something that could sustain my attention.

WWPD: Do you have trouble conflating Then and Now, Here and There (more like There and Here)?
PM: Not really. The aim of my dissertation - well, one of them - is to understand the phenomenon and how it was represented in the context of nineteenth century France, and in doing so, to learn new things about 19th C France and its Jews. This means looking at the issue with, to the extent possible, no preconceived ideas of how it would have been discussed - by Jews or Christians - at any given moment. And it's often quite surprising!

WWPD: Is it difficult, given your personal involvement, to avoid taking a stand? Or do you take one?
PM: I make arguments in my dissertation, but these are arguments about, for example, what the evolution in representations of intermarriage tells us about French and Jewish identity. I don't have any opinion whatsoever on whether 19th C French Jews ought to have married out more or less frequently than they did, and so there's no danger that my thoughts on this would seep into my work. Also, I don't think about the question in must-justify-my-life-through-categorical-imperative terms, which is to say, I don't think Jews who marry out are in some way superior - more enlightened, etc. - than those who don't... nor do I think, obviously, that those of us who end up in such couples are 'continuing what Hitler started,' especially given how not keen racial anti-Semites were/are on this sort of 'racial' mixing. A problem with writing on this topic is it often enough does take a stance 'for' or 'against,' rather than trying to explain a historical issue on its own terms.

WWPD: So has your relationship status in any way impacted your work?
PM: Actually, yes, but it's not that straightforward. Basically, while I'm not a religious Jew (or, for that matter, a religious anything), I am, as you well know, WWPD, more interested in Jewish matters than the average person, perhaps than the average Jew, certainly than the average non-observant Jew. I'm a Zionist (new readers ready to get angsty, not in the right-wing sense; see the archives for further explanation), and I have at various points semi-seriously considered moving to Israel. In other words, not pious, but not apathetic, not self-hating, not interested in converting to anything else, etc. And yet! I've ended up with someone who isn't Jewish. Meanwhile, if I'd been even a super-apathetic, not-at-all-practicing Jew in 19th C France, I would have almost certainly ended up with a fellow Jew. This has led me to wonder whether perhaps factors beyond one's attitude towards one's own Jewish identity - such as how integrated Jews are into society, how oriented families are to orchestrating matches - impact intermarriage. 

This is important, I think, (WWPD, stop yawning!) because the way the question is typically discussed these days, one gets the impression that Jews who marry out do so as a way of sticking it to Judaism, of asserting themselves as universalists, of breaking free of the shackles of overbearing relatives-read-mothers. In short, one gets the impression that spousal choice is a political or ideological decision on the part of individuals. When in fact, a ton of other factors enter into it. I could go on...

WWPD: No, thanks. One last question, though. Do you see yourself in the scenarios you read about?
PM: I almost wish I did, but no, not so much. The mid-19th ones are all about belles Juives, and from the descriptions of these women (well, girls), I do not resemble them physically. (That I'm not a 15-year-old maiden hidden away by male relatives in an Orientalist palace is, I think, a given.) I picture them looking like Lisa Edelstein/Cuddy on "House," and indeed if I were casting one of these works, she and Hugh Laurie would be perfect, especially what with the latter's experience in period dress. Also, in these works, the union must survive attacks from stubborn relatives and communities who oppose it. Not an issue Jo and I have faced, with the exception of my free 10-day trip to Israel. The fin-de-siècle stories, meanwhile, are about bankers' daughters marrying penniless aristocrats. I don't come with a dowry, nor Jo with a title. 

The closest I've found to something resembling our situation is in Les Eaux mêlées, a 1950s French novel about a couple a bit as we'd have been if we'd met in the interwar years, with the small-town Catholic wine-producing family meeting an urban Jewish schmatta-peddling one just escaped from the shtetl, in what is the most spectacular meet-the-parents scene ever. But that novel falls outside the years my project looks at, so basically, no, I don't typically get to identify with these stories, for better or worse.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


OK, so a lot of bus-stop-waiting later, and I've listened to more of Jason Solomons's "Sounds Jewish" than any podcast ought to be consumed in one go.

A common factor in these is the question of cringe. British Jews, everyone on the show seems to agree, are in a constant state of cringe-readiness, prepared to cringe every time Jews are mentioned in the newspaper, every time the words "Jew" or "Israel" are brought up. This is what the show's title plays on, but rather than declaring that it's time to get past that archaic attitude, the show kind of embraces it, or takes it as a given that British Jews don't want to ruffle feathers, not by supporting Israel - nothing so outrageous! - but merely by identifying openly as Jewish. There's a lot of nervous laughter about such concepts as the existence of American Jewish women who don't apologize for their existence (and, the "yentas'" accent is Boston/Massachusetts, not "Jewish," whatever a Brit might think - not like we can tell their accents apart, either), the fact that, tee-hee, the host married a non-Jewish woman... oy! Gefilte fish! Woody Allen! Singles' events where the best-looking women are non-Jews, hehe. Can male Jews be masculine? Can they?

Each time I hear the word "cringe," I feel inclined to cringe, but I guess I'm of a generation or two past the one in the States when people would whisper "Jewish" as though it were a secret or a disease. It would not occur to me to cringe when something Jewish is mentioned, or at the fact that I'm going around with what at least some identify as a Jewish last name, and what anyone with the slightest experience in such matters would identify as an Ashkenazi Jewish appearance. When I hear of, for example, Madoff, or something idiotic happening in Israel, I don't cringe. I think of the impact it may have on Jews, yes, but cringe? Not a word that comes to mind. But I feel, when I listen to this podcast, like cringing at the cringing of the participants. Relax!, I want to tell them. The cringier you are, the more of a big deal in a bad way it will be to the others whose opinion you care about so much that you're (shh) Jewish. Read some Dreyfus-era literature. Trust me on this.

What surprises me about all this is that I'd always learned that there's on the one hand the French-universalist model, in which you must be French/human before all else (and not going to get into where that causes issues, but for starters, how can a national identity be anything but particular?), and on the other, the so-called "Anglo-Saxon" model, which allows for multiculturalism, hyphenated identities, and so forth. After chatting with Australians recently, my sense of Australia from what they described - replacing, I realize, no preconceived sense of Australia - was that it's more "French." Canada, which I know a bit better (but obviously, when it comes to Canada and multiculturalism, not as well as do some Friends of WWPD), strikes me as kinda-sorta "French." Now, several podcasts in, and Britain, well, Sounds French. The way they wistfully discuss how, sure, in America it's possible to be openly Jewish, makes me wonder to what extent this "Anglo-Saxon" way exists, or whether it does but Jews are, for whatever reason, the exception. Meanwhile I have no sense at all that French Jews these days (19th C's another story) cringe when things juif-related come up.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Ma cuisine me manque

There's a "Seinfeld" episode where Kramer and Jerry make a bet about whether Kramer will, as he claims, install "levels" in his apartment. We never see what he means by this, because he of course never does it. He claims to have won the bet, however, because the levels could be done, even if they were not, in fact, done.

My experiences of cooking in the dorm are sort of like if Kramer had gone ahead and installed those levels, and in an even more complicated way then first anticipated.

With a small saucepan (no cover), a spatula, a small plate, a large plate, two forks, two knives, one sharp knife (a newish addition!), a small plastic cutting board, a strainer, a cereal bowl, two mugs, and an increasing number of glasses as things like mustard get finished, I've made lentil salads and steak, steamed artichokes and from-scratch tomato sauce. Poached eggs that fell apart, and poached eggs that didn't (trick seems to be removing the pot from the heat while you put the egg in). A wide variety of salads, and a wide variety of pasta dishes that involve putting said wide variety of salads on top of pasta and increasing the amount of cheese accordingly. I not only have no devices, but every time I want to prepare anything using heat, I have to manage to get whatever I need down the hall without dropping it, while managing also to lock my door and to open the kitchen door once the long walk is over.

When I first agreed to move into a dorm at the ancient age of 27, after having first taught myself to cook, then taught myself to cook decently well and with the help of a dishwasher, I assumed I'd be living off bread, cheese, fruit, pastry, and prewashed bags of arugula. Which wouldn't have been a tragedy, but my will to eat hot meals proved too strong. So off I go, dressed in such finery as an NYU t-shirt, Old Navy lounge pants, and a Uniqlo fleece, and a, uh, fancy feast is accomplished.

So it can be done. But I wouldn't say it should. I mean, I think I'm doing the right thing cooking, given that the alternatives - be hungry all the time, or spend all my money and then some on eating out. But I don't think it's especially noble or authentic or effective to cook in a bare-bones way. Give me a food processor and a dishwasher (or better yet, reunite me with the ones I have back home), and I can make a pizza.

Megan McArdle's story about non-cooks' kitchens is the latest installment of the genre of social commentary picking up on how the flashier the kitchen, the less committed the cook. The contrast of the grandmother who cooked with nothing (although no doubt more than I have going in the dorm) and the yuppie who uses her fancy stove as a closet extension (isn't this from "Sex and the City"?) is no doubt one we all have anecdotal evidence to back up, no doubt (and here the stats McArdle cites are helpful) evidence of a social phenomenon. So, while WWPD is all about having quibbles with articles, I don't really have any here.

What I wonder about, though, is why we have to turn this into a question of causation and not correlation, why we have to imagine that a comfortable kitchen is a soulless one, that something is lost when you add a blender or a silicone cannelé mold (want! want! but not spend-15-euros-on-it want) to the mix. Maybe in practice, these things go hand in hand, and maybe they developed for interconnected reasons, but they don't necessarily have to coincide.

Bride insufficiently 'zilla

-After nearly everything I'd requested at the BNF was, for a change (and I mean this sincerely!), not useful, and after I saw a man at the library expel from his nose the largest gob of snot I had ever seen, and in the rare-and-damaged-books section at that, I spent part of the afternoon trying to find a wedding band of the same material as my engagement ring, a long story having to do with metal laws in various parts of the world. A futile quest, and a reminder that even though I'm a bad feminist for wearing the one ring, I'm a bad conventional heterosexual woman for nearly passing out at the various jewelry counters of Paris's equivalent of 34th Street/Macy's area trying in vain to find the latter. Women find jewelry stores interesting? Even the cold-but-not-iced-because-it's-France mocha I had to recuperate did not quite yank me out of the stupor.

-Major life decisions time: I caved and bought ice trays at Monoprix. Given the communal-freezer set-up and all the passive-agressive notes about kitchen theft that adorn said fridges, this means I bought some enterprising hall-mate ice trays. Hopefully I'll get at least one glass of iced coffee before that time comes. Given what a rare commodity iced coffee is in Paris, the price of the ice trays about equals that of the iced coffee at Pain Quotidien, the only place that semi-successfully produces the stuff here.

-Noticed while browsing: the Au Printemps underwear section is this odd Venn diagram of underwear-like articles including not only the usuals (socks, pajamas) but also a section designed for professors looking to aggravate CCOAs. The underwear just keeps getting lacier and lacier, frillier and frillier, until, hey!, there's a table covered in replicas of male genitalia. Sometimes France out-Frances itself, just for the heck of it.

-My new favorite thing - my "cocktail chatter" if I were a participant of whichever Slate Gabfest has that concept - is the Guardian's "Sounds Jewish" podcast. British Jews are something of a mystery to me, and yet I can totally understand most everything they say and write! So far, my sense is it's a whole lot like American Jews who've been the Other amongst WASPs. Further investigation is necessary.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Moving on up, moving on down

I've said it before and I'll say it again: the Amy Chua-fest was about regression to the mean, aka the fact that sometimes kids with all the privilege in the world still don't get into the Ivies. We-as-a-society are accustomed to discussions of how unfair it is that smart and hard-working kids without all the privilege in the world are held back, but we're not sure what to make of the reverse phenomenon.

This is a problem, of course, primarily for the kids in question and their parents, parents who believe in social mobility through education, who are themselves its beneficiaries, but who now have to contend with the fact that their children, however wonderful, are not certified wonderful by the relevant authorities.

Chua's contribution, "Chua" defined as an amalgam of the phenomenon as understood by those who did and did not read the whole thing, was to say a) that it's OK to want certified-wonderful offspring, and b) that amorphous, milieu-propelled, 'privilege' alone is not enough to get them there. Oh, and c) that, absent the kind of obstacles that the kids we generally think of as less privileged (more specifically, children of immigrant families) experience, young people have no drive to succeed, so if you want your privileged kids to stay that way, you have to create an artificial atmosphere of absence-of-privilege. Not just stuff like, no designer handbags in 8th grade, but more like, if you get a B, you will starve to death in the gutter. Basically, Chua's innovation was rethinking the concept of privilege, both in terms of declaring it acceptable to perpetuate hard-won high-status, and in terms of pointing out that we-as-a-society overestimate the extent to which simply having educated and well-off parents guarantees class maintenance across generations. To put it another way, aka to repeat myself, we're used to thinking of social mobility in terms of its inadequacy as a way of propelling people upward; she's reminding us that it functions decently well in propelling some downward.

The rest, as I see it, is secondary. The 'Asian vs. Western' bit; the question of whether one can, in fact, get a good education at a school that isn't Harvard (was this ever in doubt? was 'a good education' ever the issue?); whether 'success' means Harvard or Stanford and Berkeley too; how to foster a child's creativity or individuality or whatever... none of this is what made Chua's... phenomenon any different. Which is why Caitlin Flanagan has, I think, missed its significance. The "good mothers" she postulates hover in this on-the-one-hand, on-the-other sphere of wanting their children to Find Themselves, yet to end up at Ivies all the same. There is this paradox, fine, but the paradox that matters is the broader one: they want the Ivies to be meritocracies, but they want to make sure their own offspring get ahead.

Meanwhile, Flavia's suggestion, that parents encourage their kids along the way, but not in any definitive direction, "then see who your child is, and what she can do, and recalibrate," strikes me as altogether reasonable, but fails to address the anxieties that drove the wave of Chua-fixation. (Not that Flavia claims to be addressing Chua-fixation.) Chuaism is about making sure your children remain in the same class, about pushing them beyond what's needed to be in that class, just to be extra sure, and in order to make sure they do the same with their kids. It's not about producing children who are, god forbid, well-suited to the work they end up doing.

I, for one, think Flaviaism is more reasonable - why focus on class maintenance, when having wealthy offspring is no guarantee they'll be amazing let alone nearby when you're old? Unless you believe in an afterlife during which you'll be able to bask in the glory of your great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren's i-banking careers, when it ends, it ends. But if you're losing sleep over the possibility that future beings with your DNA will worry about where the next meal is coming from, you're better off advocating for more socialism - or better yet, moving to a country where that's a done deal - than banking on your descendants being smarter, luckier, and more hard-working than most. Sort of like, as I've also said before, if your number one concern in life is that your offspring marry fellow Jews, you're better off moving to Israel than exerting pressure on them as individuals, when it could well be that they'll obey, but their kids won't.

But Chuaism isn't about reasonable. It isn't about looking at what it's supposed to matter if in 2150, people with your last name are lawyers or janitors. It's about taking whatever twinge of paternal angst compels parents to find it mildly tragic when their children, however happy, fail to be certified as wonderful, and rather than suppressing it, as is reasonable, making that the focal point of parenting.

Don't try this in the dorm

By "this" I mean read the academics-who-study-France listserve's Housing Digest. It is, like so many Woody Allen movies, real estate porn. Even the tiniest studio walk-ups sound so delightful. But oh, the sprawling 2,000-euro-a-month ones... And someone renting out an estate in the South of France...

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Feminism and ooh shinyism

Whenever there's another round of veil-law discussion re: France, what comes up is whether the Feminist Position is to support the right of women to wear the head-covering in question, or whether it's to ask the state to protect women from the men who'd force them to dress a certain way. I thought of this when I read this: a man "decided for philosophical reasons" against getting his fiancée an engagement ring.

All the heh-hehs from the not-so-progressives about how much money men could save if they claimed enlightened views in this area aside, this would, I think, be a reasonable position if the bride-to-be shared it. Instead (why oh why to people who are no doubt reasonable otherwise, who seem to be coming from a sensible place, opt to be profiled in the Style section?) she was kinda not thrilled. Not infinitely unconventional, although she was not pro-diamond, she wanted something. For a time, but then... "But when [the bride] realized he was coming from a 'sweet, feminist perspective,' she said she quickly came around to his view on what engagement rings, given only to women, represent."

Hmm. There would have been other ways around this. Both could have worn engagement rings. Or he could have gone this route. Or they could have accepted that symbolic is symbolic, tradition is tradition (and is still tradition even if it does not date back to the dawn of time) the white dress doesn't literally convey virginity, nor does a ring mean a man is buying a metaphorical cow. Is it still feminist if the choice is one the woman in question doesn't want? (Keep in mind the caveat that perhaps this woman really was OK with this all along, but the reporter prodded her into overemphasizing some microqualms, because without that there's no story.)

What this also reminded me of, actually, was the time Emily Bazelon wrote about how her sons have "book swap" birthday parties, when they'd rather receive gifts. Both of these seem to be about the idea that there's a slippery slope of materialism, that we're all one 'ooh, shiny!' away from unabated greed. (Tangentially related: every time I buy Passendale cheese at Bon Marché, I'm contributing to Louis Vuitton. Good to know.)

But this concern seems especially true with weddings, where (as I feel like I mentioned once on WWPD before), a woman who'd happily spend lots on a dress under normal circumstances will feel the need to get the absolute cheapest potato sack she can find for her wedding, because otherwise, you know, Princess Bridezilla. My sense of this all-or-nothing business is that, as with most all-or-nothing attempts, it can backfire, with fetishization of that which cannot be had because it would just be wrong. The $20,000 dress might be a lot more interesting to the woman who went with a $5 option than the one who opted for $200 and moved on with her life.

WWPD Guides: Being an American in Paris

Are you American? In France? Paris, for example? You fall into one of two categories. First possibility: you're in town to see the sights, but you look down on them Gallic wimps. You proudly yell at people in English, wear as many national-identity-identifying brands as possible, and complain that the portions are too small, the people in service profession SO RUDE for not all responding like especially cheery American waitstaff, in flawless American English and smiles. You express great relief at the sight of the familiar: Starbucks, McDonalds, Gap.

So either you're like that, or you live in utter fear that you'll be found out as an American. You try to figure out all the subtle rules of Frenchness - an impossible task, but you try - and honor these unwritten laws with greatest seriousness. The French don't get coffee to go in paper cups? You make sure not only to avoid walking around with a coffee, but to avoid patronizing establishments that offer that option. You express awe at their thinness, while ignoring the extent to which Parisian female existence includes cellulite creams and dieting. You shop at markets - Monoprix being too Walmart-esque - and conveniently ignore the fact that said markets are a whole lot less interested in "local" than the ones back in dreaded 'merica. 

Corgi (with undocked tail!) disapproves of market pineapples.

The stereotype of the American in Paris is thoroughly Category 1. But Category 2 is prevalent, because Category 2 types may be fewer, but they come to Frahnce more often.

So, a third way...

What I will do:

-Speak French. Yes, yes, being a grad student in French, with three years of teaching the language behind me, makes this easier. But it's possible to at least start in French even if you only know the language slightly. (Grace, I approve!)

-Dress French-ish. Despite wanting to go out in Old Navy lounge pants, I restrain myself. I spent 15 euros on a linen-type scarf at a market over the summer, and yeah, I wear that unless it's hot out. I also happen to think horizontal-striped shirts are the greatest. While I would not advocate going out and buying a whole new wardrobe out of respect (especially not at $1.40 to the ugh), it's a nice gesture to look kind of together. This doesn't have to mean stilettos, which would at any rate mark you as a certain sort of tourist all the same.

-Celebrate the good foods that are not-like-at-home, and remember those when I notice what's missing. Sure, I do sometimes think of how, on one small stretch of 4th Avenue near where I used to teach, one can get delicious tacos and spectacular cold-brewed iced coffee. Then I remember: Raw-milk cheese. 3-euro wine that tastes really good. Le Boulanger des Invalides. Did I mention Le Boulanger des Invalides? 

What I will not do:

-Refuse to eat on the street. Sometimes one is hungry, but not in a restaurant or in one's fahbulous 7th Arrondissement kitchen. Sometimes, for example, one lives in a dorm and does work in libraries. If I've packed a sandwich, or bought a pastry, I will eat it as I walk down the street. I will not bow down to the idea that we must respect second-hand smoke as charmingly French, but that the mere sight of a person eating a food that isn't even messy or smelly outside is oh so offensive. I tend to be of the New Yorker school of you can do whatever you feel like on the street, and people can always look away or walk away. There's no right to find those around you delightful. Yes, I am imposing this fern ideal, but with cheese that's altogether French.

-Play the stupid game of, 'Haha, I found you out as a non-French, so I will now speak to you in my hint-of-English so as to drive the point home that you're a ferner not worthy of the Great French Language.' Most of the time, obviously, I interact with people in stores and such in French. Sometimes, when, for example, I pay for something with a foreign credit card (which Monoprix, god bless it, accepts), or I can't think of the word for a more obscure everyday item, the person I'm speaking with, whose English is... limited, will switch into that language, not so as to make me comfortable, not 'customer is always right,' because that does not exist in Paris, but because they want to make a point about my being an outsider to their Culture. This used to bother me, and I'd persist in French, only to have these kind of show-downs that got the other person more and more annoyed that I was sneakily posing as a Frenchwoman, insofar as I was going around, without being the least bit French, yet speaking that language. Now I just let the occasional interlocutor who wants to play this game win from the get-go. "French" conversations in which the other person is speaking English are poor practice, anyway.

-Allow someone else to take my assigned seat on the train. It's really not so difficult to point out that the seat marked on your ticket is the one someone else has plopped down in. This is not how the French do it? That may be what "Romain" who David Lebovitz asked claims, but the tickets give specific seats, and when you ask someone to move, they will. They may glare at you, but - and this is key - so what? Too many Americans in Paris think it is tragedy of all tragedies if a French person - a real French person - makes it clear that they dislike them. When really, who cares? There is, in Paris as anywhere else, a balance. Don't go out of your way to ignore cultural norms, but don't treat them like they come from a higher power than the cultural norms anywhere else. Respect for, not worship of, the particularities.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Ninth

-For future reference, let it be known that visiting certain Jewish buildings in Paris is only slightly more complicated than getting on a flight to Ben Gurion. The ridiculous thing is that it had occurred to me this might be the case, but it was only once I'd taken the mile-long journey from my room to the exit of the building that I remembered I'd forgotten my documentation folder. I'm not talking mere bag-inspection, metal-detection. It's a full-on interrogation about what you're doing there and why. Poor, poor security guards who have to hear about my dissertation. Bet they now regret choosing that post!

-So I went to the now-famous Rue des Martyrs. Where are these Bobos? I did find a place that sells flan that tastes more like creme brulee, which is something, but I don't think what the Times had in mind. And there appeared to be one Brooklyn-ish coffee place, which charged a whopping 4 euros for a cappuccino or similar, and as much as I wanted to get my second-ever "flat white," whether or not they make a mean one will remain a mystery. I mean, other than that one place, it's a nice, typically-Parisian shopping street, with a mix of Paris-only (France-only?) chains and nondescript but upbeat shops. Not hipstery or David Brooksy or lined with rich hippies. NYT, why are you sending readers to these random neighborhoods? Why not, assuming newspapers don't need to explain such things as there is the Louvre, there is the Eiffel Tower, why not the Boulanger des Invalides - Bon Marche - Bac - Saint-Germain - Seine loop? Why waste time? Unless I'm being too naive about this, and these articles are not for those for whom a trip to Paris is, if not once-in-a-lifetime, a special-occasion thing, but rather for those wondering where to get a pied-a-terre.

-Sorry, library, but my stomach is just going to make these sounds until Japanese Noodle Hour, which is, obviously, not going to happen until I've left.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Life of a princess

-I had a little chit-chat with the janitor assigned to my floor, and he agreed to put soap in the container in the bathroom! All you have to do is ask, I thought, patting myself on the back metaphorically... just as he told me that he was happy to provide us with soap, but that it was broken. The soap dispenser, I thought. No, the sink. No water. What with the lack of soap, I had not been trying this sink - an option now that I once again have a room with a working one - so this was news to me. There is now, however, a whole lot of soap in the communal container. One step at a time...

-Who'd have thunk? The Alliance Israélite library is located in Paris's "Bobo Heaven." Somehow I've managed to spend heaps of time there without ever noticing anything bobo or heavenly about the area. OK, there was this one lemon tart that qualifies as the latter.

-So many daughters of Jewish bankers, so very many penniless aristocrats, so little time.

-And, uh, sheesh!

-Why is this so can't-look-away? This installment especially. Part of me is proud of spending far less time and money on a beauty routine that's far more visible (aka black eyeliner, pink or "nude" lipstick, concealer; the last of those is at least meant not to show), but another small, nagging bit is wondering whether maybe The Glamorous Woman spends a ton on creams and potions that do not produce a made-up look, just an all-around enviable lifestyle. I did succumb to curiosity and get La Roche-Posay waterproof eye makeup remover (and whoa, no more dry eyelids!), as well as "Effaclar" frite-induced-acne-fighting face-wash by the same brand, and I spent last weekend in a chateau, not a dorm. Related? Who can say?

At my most alluring

There was an article a while back in the NYT about how, if you're a black man in the US, dressed however professionally, no one will sit next to you on a commuter train in a white area. I must be whiter than whiter than white, or something, but I have the opposite problem: everybody, but everybody, wants to sit next to me on the Paris bus. There can be empty seats next to other people that are closer to the doors. Empty seats next to other empty seats. Facing front, even. Doesn't matter. People make a beeline for the seat next to the one I'm in. It doesn't matter if I have lots of bags with me and need to adjust those to make room. The seat next to mine is never empty for long.

While it's easy enough to figure out what the NYT writer was experiencing - hmm, black, in the US, might it have been... racism? - I'm finding my bus situation, though of course far less upsetting than racism, far more mysterious. I'm by no means the whitest person riding public transportation in Paris, nor am I the smallest. The latter is sometimes the case in NY, which is why, when the empty seat next to me on public transportation back home inevitably fills, I'm not that baffled. I'd think that those with racist tendencies would not be inclined to park themselves next to someone as non-Gallic-looking as I am, but that the occasional riders wishing to make a PC point would opt for someone more of-color, veiled, or both.

This aside, I tend to think I give off an air of unapproachability in public, even when not intending to, honed from... years spent riding subways and buses in big cities. People do not gravitate to me in this way in other public situations. So, what is it, and how can I make it stop?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The good men of high school

Remember "game"? I haven't checked to see if those blogs still exist - no doubt they do - but as I recall, the premise was that men should give women the impression that they - however plain-looking, low-earning, and dull - are hot commodities, to be fought over. That men should manipulate women into feeling grateful for every shred of attention they receive, leaving supermodels distraught when a paunchy guy who lives in his parents' basement hasn't called them back.

Hugo Schwyzer (via) tells us, in effect, that young women have bought into this notion, convinced that they need to have won some kind of beauty pageant to get a decent boyfriend. Depressing if true, but I'm not sure I'm convinced. Schwyzer's right that girls and women often imagine that being thinner would solve a whole heap of problems unrelated to their weight - this, of course, because wouldn't life be so much simpler if that were the case! But are relationships really so dire for the female youth of today? A disjointed attempt to assess below:

-It seems odd to place the "scarcity" issue as one particularly affecting teenagers and college students. I'd always assumed the 'men are scarce' narrative was being hurled primarily at women 25 and up. I thought it went, first girls and boys are in one big horde, then with each passing year, men have more options, women fewer.

-Which brings up the question of how this meshes with that other popular narrative, about how the youngest women (age of consent-to-25, so same demographic as Schwyzer is talking about) are this hot commodity for older men, stealing "good guys" away from women their own age, and otherwise feeling great about their wrinkle-free selves. Frankly, I've never bought that - who cares that 18-year-old women have the theoretical option of high-earning 40-year-old men, when real-life 18-year-old women are worried about whether their 18-year-old love interests will text them back, comparing themselves not with older women, but with their peers? It's not necessarily that 18-year-old women believe 18-year-old men are scarce, but more that they do not see themselves as the ooh la la barely legals that society-at-large imagines them to be. The guys they're interested in are themselves close enough to 18 that this trait is not the draw.

-But maybe it's a thing. Maybe young girls have such low self-esteem ("Arrested Development"!) that they're willing to put up with anything. Who knows. With the usual caveat that I went to geeky schools and don't know a thing about how it goes at a Real American one, I remember exactly one instance of an acquaintance thinking the best she could hope for with a guy she liked was an asymmetrical and definitively-not-going-anywhere hookup. And this, because re: an acquaintance, I'm not even 100% sure ever happened. But in general, it was just so obvious that the guys at my high school and college (and in this, the ones I attended were most typical) did not have porn stars or Victoria's Secret models or whatever as options, that a girl would have had to have been awfully neurotic to think this was what they were holding out for. I remember male classmates over the years pining over girls whose resemblance to Hollywood ideals was minimal even by geek-school standards.

-All of which is making me think that the issue for this cohort is less a competition for boys/men than one about attractiveness that plays itself out via the question of who gets the most male attention. It just seems too clear that being supermodel-hot does not guarantee happiness, and clearer still that the girls in good relationships do not typically look all that different from those who are not.

-The number of positive adjectives describing young girls/women in the post was, I found, distracting. Schwyzer tells us of "smart and amazing young women," "bright and beautiful girls," then of how "amazing and wonderful," "'pretty and smart,'" girls correctly assess that their friends are, and if only they saw themselves in the same light. Distracting, that is, because people - male and female alike - are not all above average. Also counterproductive, because it reinforces the idea that there are all these beautiful-brilliant girls forced to compete over mediocre guys. If we'd just accept that most people are gorgeous and fascinating only subjectively, and that subjective attraction is what attraction's largely about, we could make strides against a problem that, again, I'm not 100% convinced actually exists.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Normandy, where poodles are ombré

-I spent the weekend at a chateau in Normandy, thanks to an invite from Rachel Hills. Whee! Made for a slight change from the dorm.

-Originality, please! The "Armchair Ethicist" is a fun idea, but the question of what to do if your coworker and friend suddenly drops dead and leaves behind correspondance that would be upsetting to their spouse, and you of course are knee-deep in that correspondance because it is for whatever reason your job to do this, has already been addressed.

-Now that my academic still-in-Paris goals are where they need to be (appt to meet a prof, books and books and microfiches galore reserved, etc.), I'm thinking of what I need to do otherwise prior to leaving. And by "otherwise" I mean cookbooks, in particular a good one for recreating a boulangerie at home, as well as measuring implements for metric so as not to have to constantly look this up when switching between cookbooks. Specific suggestions re: cookbooks/easy-to-transport and cheap French kitchen-improvers are most welcome.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Coffee in Paris: not quite a guide

-The issue, lest there be confusion, is not that Parisians drink their coffee black because they're sophisticated existentialist-types, and so do not go in for such Anglo-Saxon inventions as mocha-frappa-whosawhatsis. It's that even if what you want is black coffee, espresso, or some combination of the above with foamed milk, there is no expectation in Paris that this will taste good. No doubt some Americans are disappointed when coffee arrives as an espresso and not a milkshake, but for those with that complaint, there's Starbucks. If, however, you're used to Oren's/Stumptown/Intelligensia/Gorilla, if you, in other words, have out-pretentioused or (more generously) out-quality-obsessed the Parisians, you're in more of a bind.

-If you're in town for a week or less, and have good coffee where you're from, this is not the thing to go around looking for in Paris. And it's not a matter of going off caffeine or switching, god forbid, to tea. The coffee you get at every café is perfectly drinkable. It's just not anything special, and always tastes exactly the same. Focus on the cheese, the pastries, the produce, the wine, the pavé de rumsteck, that which can't be replicated at home. Be grateful when a place that serves pastries also serves coffee, because that itself is a rare occurrence.

-If you decide you do want to go looking for good coffee, don't be under any allusions that you will be getting good French coffee, that the place you find will simultaneously have good coffee and be 'authentic,' filled only with locals, etc. (Speaking of filled with locals, if local teens count, Starbucks is for you.) You have to choose between that-which-is-French and places that are microcosms of Back Home, whether that's New York, London, Sydney, Portland, etc. The places that offer more than drinkable sludge with or without milk are... a bit like when you go into a place in Montreal, and speak on and on with someone in French until it's revealed you're both Anglophone. But if you don't speak French, it's a safe bet that anywhere known for its coffee that you just walk into speaking English, you'll find yourself welcome.

Today, for example I had a whole back-and-forth in French with a man who turned out to speak English with an Australian accent - the fact that he stood seven feet tall (I exaggerate only slightly) was something of a giveaway that he was not French, but otherwise he passed. Then, when it emerged that not only was I 'merican, but I wanted a cappuccino to go, a barista was called out of the woodwork who could, I'm not kidding, have been one at Oren's, Joe, Think... And I of course left with a caffeinated beverage of a quality that only a barista who discusses "bands" and "shows" while making your drink can produce. Which is to say, highly recommended. This was at Coutume, which will henceforth be where I get coffee to go with Invalides pastries, and then I'll sit and have this in a park with some Zola because this does, strangely enough, constitute work. But there's also Merce and the Muse, an NYU-grad run café which was where (long story unrelated to the coffee) I paid rent in the summer. There's also Le Bal Café, which is near the Alliance Israélite library, which is to say not in a posh tourist spot. If the cappuccino hadn't been 3.90 - all the more shocking given that the street it's just off is the Avenue de Clichy - who knows, maybe I'd have tried it and could report back. And then there's Oliver Strand's follow-up post about how coffee in Paris is no longer so horrible - that plus its many comments may provide more examples. Point is, there is good coffee in Paris, but it's not a matter of being in-the-know with the locals.

-There is no ice in Paris. None whatsoever. OK, maybe at Pain Quotidien, but for the most part, ice is not a thing here. So if good coffee in warm weather is something you associate with iced coffee/cappuccinos, from this point on you might just be best off making coffee at home (and for non-dorm-dwellers with freezers, ice is very doable) or just caffeinating for addiction purposes only at whichever café is most convenient.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Important life update: "Maybe the dingo ate your baby" edition

While I still have trouble saying the word "fiancé," having grown up with "Seinfeld," I've now got one of those. Any and all poodles, dachshunds, and (a girl can dream) llamas Jo and I acquire will be legitimate. And I will soon be 100% madame. Woohoo!

Not new information, but I figured I'd wait to announce this here until making it known off-blog, something that took a while in part because I was busy battling ants and a demolition team in my old dorm room. At any rate, there will be a dinner for close family, then (eventually, better get on that...) some kind of party for friends.

While I see how one would have been something, I have neither the time nor the inclination to organize a theatrical display with Flemish and Ashkenazi-American motifs in equal measure. There will be no glass broken with a clog, no huppah constructed from leeks. No tradition-invention whatsoever - Flavia would approve!

I may - stop the presses - get a manicure, and will most definitely wash my hair with the good conditioner, but otherwise I'm not going in for the bridal primping (no "Japzilian," thanks, but what a name), workouts (at most some jogging around especially lap-dog-filled neighborhoods), or diet (limited time in Paris + le boulanger des Invalides = I expect to be if anything larger than usual in the photos). I have instead channeled all 'zilla urges into the shoe purchase of the century, namely going into the Repetto store in Saint Germain - a space I'd always looked upon as a museum, a shrine, but not a shop - and buying a pair of 1920s-ish silver shoes. (These, but in silver.) The shoes cost more than the (also-1920s-looking) dress, which strikes me as appropriate considering that I'm likely to get a whole lot more wear out of them than a dress that, while not precisely a gown, is off-white and "bridal" (says my mother, and I fully agree), and while no doubt purchased as a sundress by some Parisiennes, is going to be my wedding dress. It could get lint on it!


-Pff. "Paris's Tiniest Kitchen"? The sink and desk in my dorm room - plus whatever part of a communal kitchen I can claim at any given time - win this one. And it's not just me - lots of us here, grad and undergrad, French and fern alike, cook despite conditions far less favorable than a studio kitchen. But when ingredients are spectacular and inexpensive - a trip to the Bon Marché food hall will set you back less than one to a dreary Whole Foods - space is irrelevant. Or so says last night's 3-euro pavé de rumsteck.

-It has happened. I'm sick of croissants. I'm also now living in a room so far from the building entrance that my old habit of going out for one each morning would eliminate the possibility of doing much else that part of the day, meaning time for breakfast in the room. I'd heard French yogurt is supposed to be fantastic, so I got some ridiculously fancy and farm-y looking vanilla variety that was of course cheaper than bad yogurt in the States, put some muesli and berries on it, and washed this down with coffee made from water I'd heated in the saucepan - the one and only - that continues to give off a whiff of pavé de rumsteck. Delicious! And whatever grease I now find lacking from my diet will be more than made up for now that a place claiming to be Paris's only Belgian fry stand has opened up shop near the dorm:

Better than they looked, even. And with this, applications to French PhD programs skyrocket.

-The CCOA discussion continues. And I'm running out of thoughts - neither a professor nor a conservative, I may have reached the end point of what I'm capable of contributing to this discussion. But where the Athens and Jerusalem discussion has turned is a question that's also of interest - is the professionalization of academia, in particular the strict requirement these days that profs (with some rare disciplinary exceptions) have PhDs, a good thing? I suppose, as with most cases where things were once otherwise, one would expect the CCOA position to be that things were better when Great Men with merely a junior-high education could become profs. But let's leave CCOAdom out of it. My views can be found in the A&J thread. Tell me yours!

Monday, April 04, 2011

The unintended benefit of the end of artificial food dyes

Brightly-colored food is appetizing. Is it our innate sense that multicolored implies a balanced or high-quality meal, or an aesthetic shaped by Alice Waters or walking by the salads at the Rodin Museum café, or other Parisian salades composées with those eggs with almost orange yolks, bright red tomatoes, bright green and in now way brown-around-the-edges lettuces...? Before this devolves into food porn, my point is that the difference between vegetables-as-iceberg-lettuce-and-dried-out-carrot-sticks-struggled-down-in-a-cafeteria-where-the-only-edible-food-is-PB&J and the kind of salads that inspire lust is, in part, color-based. Artificially-colored foods give us the sense that we're eating something varied and that hasn't gone bad. A bag of M&Ms, for example, can have been sitting in a Duane Reade since the first branch opened, and still look bright and shiny as the day they were produced. So if artificial food dyes disappeared, we'd be forced to look to (pardon the phrase) real food for the kind of intense colors we associate with deliciousness. This strikes me as a more convincing reason for chucking Red #40 and so on than the possibility that food dyes themselves are secretly poisoning us or making our children hyperactive. (For all I know the connection is real, but I lived for four years in and around Park Slope, where kids eat "natural" and are known for being plenty rambunctious.)

Sunday, April 03, 2011

CCOAdom further explained

The CCOA discussion continues. Withywindle has more thoughts; Isabel Archer and Britta promise theirs are forthcoming. I'm waiting!

In the mean time, to continue (or sum up, really) the discussion following Withywindle's post about Epstein's credentials, and apparently not to make it to Withywindle's next point, re: research, I think the important thing to take away is not whether the more rigid requirement of a PhD to teach at a university (in most, not all) fields these days is a good thing, but whether the conservatives most hot-and-bothered about academia are actually academics.

Googling the first few authors at Phi Beta Cons, for example, I find one assistant professor of marketing, and several college graduates affiliated with a conservative education think-tank (?). Now, obviously people can be journalists who cover X without being themselves participants in X. But the problem with the CCOA genre is that it tends to be more a repetition of the same old complaints, ones that someone who, for example, sat in - with an open mind - on one grad seminar about gender would be unlikely to make. What results is, people with no interest in being academics address an audience whose involvement with academia is limited to attending college and maybe professional school. Academia is generally agreed upon to be a terrible universe of liberals and libertinism; all new CCOA contributions are designed to merely confirm what everyone reading them already assumes.

My theory about this, as I've mentioned before, is that picking on academia is a real uniter for conservatives who'd otherwise have little to agree on - social conservatives can freak out about coeds on the student-insurance-subsidized Pill,  elitist-conservatives can fuss about how there's too little Plato or how too many mediocrities now attend college, and populists can roll their faux-rustic eyes at the fancy coastal book-learnin' that's never done anyone any good. It is more productive for conservatives to use academia as an entity to bash than for them to try to reform or (counter-) revolutionize it in ways that would make it more receptive to them or their ideas. So, under the guise of protesting academia's ways in order to change them, the real CCOA goal is to provide ideologically-diverse conservatives without anything to do with academia with common ground. CCOAs say they're upset that conservatives are poorly-represented and that academia tilts left. When in fact, this is something that helps their cause.

Granted, Phi Beta Cons is not everything, and it appears there are conservatives genuinely interested in altering the academy. I'm not likely to be on board with any but a fraction of their platforms, but I'd much rather see profs imposing Great Books (or, for that matter, Withywindle pondering the role of research) than yet another article about, say, a prof using rap - rap! OMG! the world is ending! - in the classroom.

Yet the trend, it seems, is to use academia as a symbol in the culture wars. For example: "NAS membership is open to all. This is a change as of October 2009. Before that NAS restricted membership to academics. We now encourage anyone who agrees with the principles we espouse to join." To be a member of the "National Association of Scholars" - a professional guild of sorts, one might think - you do not need to have diddly-squat to do with higher ed, you just have to think it's a den of iniquity. Given the timing of this shift, one suspects the economy played a role. But this is also consistent with the overall popularity of (I haven't followed this well enough to confidently add "newfound") academia as a way of generically riling up conservatives about Young People Today.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Assorted profundity

-Attempting to send a text just now to a friend, telling her I'm too tired to go out, my phone seemed to think I wanted to type not "tired" but "three-way." I guess this is what the kids are using texting for these days, but telling a fellow grad student that I'm planning to stay in on Saturday night seems the precise opposite of what my phone was going for.

-Found on a college acquaintance's (excellent) blog that I have just learned about thanks to opting for Facebook over the 15-minute walk out of the building required to get from New Room to Building Entrance: shaygetz-as-shiksa.

-Going to Paris? Let this be your guide. The upper Marais is pretty much the central Marais I remember from study abroad - drool-worthy boutiques, tiny streets, hip cafés, beautiful people... Just watch out for the fascistic fashion designers, and you're all set.

-Love it:

Occupation: Graduate Student 
What is the most prominent color in your wardrobe? Black  
-Big Sunday plans: baby wallabies!

Movin' on up

Dorm life is much improved in the used-to-be-moldy room. With a bed - finally! - without protruding coils, I slept as well as a college freshman home for Thanksgiving break. Which is to say, I missed half of a beautiful spring Saturday in Paris, but am now awake as I hadn't been for ages, and will presumably not do things like send out important emails that could be construed as a joke... on April 1. And now I'm next to the laundry and (incredibly moldy but otherwise superior) showers, no further from the kitchen. If I'd had this room all along (in the demoldified state, that is), I'd have a totally different impression of the dorm. Pays to complain.

Not only can I now do such remarkable things in my room as read and brush my teeth, but once outside of the room, I can focus on the best Paris has to offer:

Friday, April 01, 2011

April Fools if only

After living next to what had clearly become not only a loud and dusty construction site, but a dangerous one - and by "next to" I mean the empty room next to mine - and those around it - is being demolished, with full-force drills going into the adjoining wall - I had had enough. I not only needed to be up by 8am when it started, but out, done with breakfast and showering, and ready to leave. Leave for where? A non-existent office? The library I need most is only open from 1pm on.

Regardless, it was when the water from the tap in my room switched to a thin brown stream that I was almost at my wits end. However, it took for the construction workers to enter my room when I was out - no warning ahead of time, no information from them following - to put a bag over the faucet and turn off the water in my room, for me to really wonder what this "free" room had amounted to. I came back to that accompanied by a note in the sink from a fellow student here explaining what was going on. Meanwhile, I'm thinking, not only noise, possibly toxic dust, and no water, but people can just enter my room whenever.

All this, combined with the fact that when I opened the window, it was to what was by day yet another construction site, by night a smoking terrace, combined with the fact that said construction balcony's workers have twice when I was undressed opened the blinds I'd specifically kept closed for that reason to do repairs or "do repairs" or who knows, and I was about ready to pick up and head back Stateside. I had privacy from exactly neither opening to my room, and was not thrilled.

But I did first give complaining in person a shot (an email was acknowledged but never replied to or dealt with), which wouldn't have worked except that they keep extra rooms for foreign students; the girl I went with, my across-the-hall neighbor, is, it seems, screwed. (Before it was known that I was an exchange grad student - something I'd have thought would be clear what with that I'm pushing 30 and don't know the French for things like "welding" - we were asked which of us had it worse, in case only one room became available. Gar!)

Lucky, lucky, fancy-American-grad-student me, I made it to the new room. No ants! Freshly painted! No mold! Mattress without protruding coils! Lightbulbs present!

After moving stuff in shifts for oh the whole day (and this is still in progress), some friends from the hall (but a bit further from the need-to-flee zone) helped me move the not-so-mini-minifridge. When we got to the new room, one of them confirmed what she'd suspected: my new room is one another grad student friend of hers had not long ago moved out of... because of some kind of atrocious mold all over the walls. The school's solution had been to paint over the mold, thus my recently-painted room. Now that I know to look for it, I see the traces of what will any day now be the mold explosion.

So here's the thing. I'm probably not princessy enough, in that at 27 years old I agreed to live in a dorm room, with communal bathrooms, kitchens, and showers, for a semester. In that I was totally OK with the peeling paint, willing to accept without fight the coil-protrusion mattress. I told myself that communal facilities meant never having to do serious cleaning. Now I'm wishing I were a whole hell of a lot more high-maintenance, because these living conditions are pretty damn ridiculous.