Friday, July 30, 2010

In defense of effort

If one word could be removed from fashion writing, I'd pick the following: "effortless." It never, ever, ever, ever accurately describes the look in question. How is a shot of someone who clearly takes care of herself hair- and body-wise and took particular care to dress nicely that day evidence of a lack of effort? It's nearly impossible to come up with a styling result that couldn't be labeled "effortless," so meaningless is this adjective in the fashion context. I've contemplated images of "effortless" and tried to figure out what was being referred to about a given shot. Some "effortless" looks include slightly mussed-up hair, but even that isn't necessary. Never does "effortless" manifest itself as an outfit that's the obvious result of whatever was lying on the end of the couch.

The implication with "effortless" is that some women are simply born in Chanel suits and with perfect hair. These are the women whose perfection, we're meant to believe, is on the one hand unattainable in that it's innate, but on the other slightly attainable, if we'd only spend the money aka make the effort. I suppose this is really a standby in fashion mags and blogs - it's always on the one hand about various purchasable goods, but on the other about a sphere the reader could never enter on account of being insufficiently fabulous. If the Impossible were to disappear, it would all just be stuff, some nicer than other, but nothing implying a world of amazingness just past the reach of all strivers.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Imaginary proxies

Ethan Bronner, I'm confused: "Many American Jews consider the Netanyahu government to be too hawkish, and the conversion controversy is seen by some analysts here and in the United States as a proxy for a broader set of disagreements, including settlement building and the Gaza blockade." Such as: "'There is increasing discomfort among American Jews with Israel,' commented Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, which is devoted to exploring Jewish issues. 'This issue is a place where they can express the displeasure that they might not be willing to state on the flotilla and other political matters.'"

I'm not convinced. Do American Jews who wish to distance themselves from Israel really need to mask their real reasons for doing so? Haven't we established that for liberal American Jews it's if anything more socially-acceptable to be critical of Israel than not? I don't buy the idea that there's this closet filled with pro-Palestinian American Jews afraid to come out. They're out and proud, to the point that liberal American Jews who do identify as Zionists feel uncomfortable.

But more to the point: One can be an unabashed Zionist and for this reason think that Israel's shooting itself in the foot by pushing away those who identify as Jews and want in on the Jewish state. Israel's success as a Jewish state depends on Jews actually living in Israel. What I'm getting at is that a desire to see Israel break free of the super-strict conversion, marriage, and day-to-day religious restrictions is not a roundabout way of expressing one's discomfort with the idea of Israel as a Jewish state, but is in fact just the opposite. Someone who thought the Netanyahu government wasn't hawkish enough (and Petey if you still read this, before you get worked-up, I'm not identifying with that camp) would do well to hold this view. 

Meanwhile, if your number-one concern is the plight of the Palestinians, and you believe Israel is primarily responsible for that plight, you're not advocating for Israel to be more inclusive in its definition of Judaism, because this is something that would strengthen Israel as a Jewish state and make the one-state-solution, Palestinian-right-of-return scenario that much less likely.

What I get from the article, then, is that its author and/or and least one "analyst" would like it if deep down inside, American Jews who question Israeli domestic policy were in fact trying to express an entirely different and arguably contradictory set of criticisms. Which is a different issue entirely.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

In defense of owning 14 to 21 t-shirts

The charms of the stripped-down life are just about always greater in theory than in practice. Not having a computer, for instance - the stuff of escapist fantasy, but as I learned the week mine was out of commission, in practical terms it makes getting things done just about impossible. And having lived both with and without air conditioning and a dishwasher, I'd have to say that having both is better than not. By all means only use the a/c when it's super-hot out, or the dishwasher when it's full, but abandoning these amenities for the heck of it is not so rustically delightful when the sink is piled up with dishes and you've got a 100-degree kitchen to wash them in.

Another luxury I don't see the point of denying one's self is the ownership of enough t-shirts or tank tops to allow for a clean one every day for the duration of a laundry cycle. Permitting themselves only fresh underwear and (and this I really don't understand) limitless accessories, a group of women and token men are restricting themselves to six items of clothing for a month, and referring to this as a "diet". This is some groundbreaking reporting from the Times.

As with any attempt by first-world types to lead a simpler life, this round is all about some minor sacrifices being made, mimicked, and publicized. No electricity! All local foods! But only for a set period of time, after which the proceeds from book sales will fund an electric conveyor belt connecting the author's home to the kitchen of his or her preferred McDonalds.

Anyway. Shirts, especially in an especially hot summer, start to stink. I suppose if the wearer simply goes from air-conditioned house to air-conditioned office and back again, a shirt could last a bit longer, but that loses something of the anti-consumerist message. Or maybe they just wash the shirt every few days? Isn't this the cloth-versus-disposable-diaper debate all over again? And I suppose of these "dieters" are, as the article and images suggest, stunning blondes who exude wealth and have an eye for choosing basics, people in the room probably just assume the stench is coming from someone else.

But seriously - one shirt? Or is "underwear" being loosely-defined so as to include everything but outerwear? Because if that's the case, and every garment that touches more skin than it does clothing falls outside the rules, then what's the point?

The commenters are great. They're appalled that anyone might dress in more than a burlap sack, and seem convinced that only the hoitiest and toitiest own more than one pair of pants. They've been surviving on six items or less "for years." The exceptions, those who believe owning clothing is not a major sin, are self-righteous in their own way - they point out either that they grew up poor and/or deprived by their parents/school uniforms and now enjoy variety, or that the six-items experiment wouldn't work for people with Real Jobs, for whom "jeggings" are not a corporate basic.

But I especially like this comment: "I bet there are people in this country and around the world who would like to have six items of clothing. Food for thought." A comment that finds an "echo," if not several. There really needs to be a disclaimer on the front of every Styles section, warning that the articles below will not be about starving children in Africa, accompanied by an address to write to if you want to complain about the section's very existence.

Or maybe I'm just particularly enamored of clean t-shirts, even by first-world standards. With the Soldes ever more impressive and the laundry at the laundromat costing as much as the shirts at Petit Bateau, these are dangerous times.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

But it's Jewish chlamydia!

One aspect of Birthright Israel I found especially perplexing/distasteful was the emphasis on hooking up with a fellow trip participant during those ten days. The anti-intermarriage indoctrination was one thing, but the implicit and sometimes explicit requests to get it on with any-Jew-will-do made it seem as though we were endangered zoo animals - pandas perhaps - who needed to be artificially fused together to propagate ourselves. (Also, it might have been nice if the powers that be accepted that some in the 18-26 range are already in committed relationships and are on the trip for the Zionist propaganda only.)

How this was distasteful is, I think, self-evident. But it was perplexing because it was this full-on embrace, so to speak, of The Hook-Up Culture. Normally, right-leaning adults with an agenda for The Youth discourage casual sex. On Birthright, the idea was somehow that if both people are Jews, whatever happens, however impulsive, is to be celebrated. As though any gonorrhea contracted in the name of keeping the "shiksas" at bay was somehow For A Good Cause.

I was reminded of this by a much-reported story about an Israeli woman who successfully accused a man of rape for claiming to be Jewish to get into her pants. Do the Israeli courts so fear intermarriage that they, like Birthright, make a distinction between "mixed" hook-ups and those only Jews are involved in? Honesty's great and all that, but this is almost as though being Arab - or simply non-Jewish - is being equated with having a sexually-transmitted infection, something one must disclose because of a damaging, potentially life-altering impact on even a one-night stand. I don't know if it's right to think of this as being about anti-Arab racism, though, because it would not at all surprise me if a Western European or North American non-Jewish man went through the same charade, he'd be in the same boat. But I could be wrong.

Given how many Israelis don't even want to live in Israel, let alone diaspora Jews (except, it seems, the French), maybe, maybe, Israel could consider approaching its populationist concerns in ways that aren't so destructive and coercive. When really, what Jews, particularly in Israel, ought to be doing is taking advantage of the fact that this is an era, unlike just about any other in recent memory, when not only are non-Jews interested in marrying Jews, but some are even ready to pose as Jews to get sex with Jewish women. People want in! I'm not saying send out missionaries, but converting in should be both doable and, once done, recognized. I mean, imagine that - make more Jews without resorting to natalism or bizarre hook-up legislation, simply by recognizing the Jews who already exist.

The French art of romance

Walking home from the train this evening, a someone stretched out a leg as though to trip me. I turned around, to see who the leg belonged to, and the man whose leg it was somewhat lasciviously blew me a kiss. Charming. Who knows what women who aren't clones of Liz Lemon have to put up with in this city.

A not-uncommon sight in Paris

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Europe, you baffle me

French cellulite ads, NSFW, depending how Francophilic your office is, after the jump (or, for the time being, by clicking on the post).

The French are intellectual and unaffected by American cultural imperialism


Le Boulanger des Invalides, where I intend to sign up for a meal plan.

Pastry and coffee served in same place, check.
Pleasant indoor and outdoor seating options, check.
Reasonable prices, check.
Croissant made with butter and noticeably superior to what would be found on a random corner in NY, check.
Non-croissant options available as well, check.
Open all summer (!), check.

Slight disadvantage: not anywhere near where I'm living, or will live, or any of the libraries. But if a dome-shaped attic apartment were to fall into my lap...

Monday, July 19, 2010

Pretty ugly*

There's an entire category of fashion that gets labeled different ways ('ironic,' 'clothing men don't like,' 'fashion victimy,' etc.) but that amounts to the same thing: clothing that's intentionally ugly, yet worn by women who want to look pretty. Think Chloe Sevigny. Think one-pieces with harem-pant bottoms. Think... think absolutely any garment, worn on a woman who clearly pays a good deal of attention to her appearance. If styled in a way that implies This Is Fashion, or put on a model (see: why "models off-duty" is a useless concept), it's all fair game. Unitards, high-waisted jeans with pleats, men's workshirts, flannel...

The latest installment: Jessica Grose, a Slate writer, discovered German orthopedic sandals, which she's been wearing "for years," and which can now, and I've seen it myself, be found in trendy shoe stores in the US.**

Here's where things get tricky. Grose writes: "I don't know about other Worishofer owners, but my love for them is earnest—I genuinely think they are attractive." And yet! For the "grandma sandals" look to work, the wearer cannot herself be of grandma age, just as for the "boyfriend" look to be that and not simply "butch," the wearer must (go out of her way to) give off the vibe of someone who'd have, well, a boyfriend. This is the difference between menswear-as-trend and crossdressing. And these are fine lines, so to speak. Grose may believe she genuinely likes these sandals, but she first noticed them on a stylish (and presumably sub-80) friend. Indeed, she refers to the shoe's "under-40" wearers. What happens at 40?

Because the effect is in the contrast - pretty-young-thing in outfit intended for someone far older - or far more masculine. It all hinges on the visible non-membership of the wearer in whatever category of person one imagines the garment or look to be for. Straightforwardly pretty (or chic, or sexy) clothes, meanwhile, are quite obviously intended to enhance the appearance of the wearer. The message sent by pretty-ugly clothing is that the wearer must be the following to pull that outfit off: 1) naturally beautiful, 2) unconcerned with how she's seen (aka not trying too hard), 3) you get the idea.

I'm torn. On the one hand, I support all trends that permit women to wear the hot new thing without cutting off circulation or stumbling into train tracks or what have you. On the other, I don't like this whole 'let's not look pretty, yet in doing so show off how pretty we really are' strain of fashion, either. All of this brings me back, boringly enough, to the straightforwardly this-looks-nice gamine look so easily procured in Paris, and so conducive to wearing flat shoes and otherwise comfortable attire. Breton stripes and narrow (not "skinny") jeans, ballet flats, feels a bit costumey when actually in France, but basically, problem solved.

*Not to be confused with "jolie laide," which is French for either, this young woman's ugly but has rich and famous parents so we have to say something nice, or, this woman's all-around attractive but has 'ethnic' features that prevent her from fitting the Bardot standard.

**A well-kept secret is that some of NY's best shopping is on residential and untrendy West 72nd Street. Those sandals included, although in that locale it's a fair bet they're being worn unironically for real.

Stereotypes confirmed:

-Nearly every food establishment I passed by on my way back from the market (itself stereotype-confirming by its very existence) is either already closed for a long vacation or about to be. (Add to the "Frenchwomen don't get fat" files: one month per year of semi-starvation can't hurt.)

-A man sits enjoying a beer and cigarette at an outdoor café. My first thought is that it's so early I have yet to have my first coffee of the day. The second is that he's sitting there with his baby in a stroller. Not Park Slope, this.

-Passed a newsstand where there was a magazine with Napoleon III on the cover. The magazine is entirely devoted to the Second Empire. As in, this is something people who aren't necessarily studying the topic read about for enjoyment. I do notice on the Metro that just about everyone - punks included - is reading Literature. At first I thought this was just that I was deceived by the aesthetics of book covers here, but glancing at the titles, there really does seem to be less interest in Heidi Montag's attempts to get a H-is-for-Heidi-cup chest, or in some French equivalent thereof.

-The bureaucratic procedures needed for me to look at a couple library books ought to be providing a large family from some politically-controversial country with papers to live here.

-It is always, always, always cheaper to get wine, whatever the alternatives.

Stereotypes challenged:

-I used the bathroom in a French home without causing controversy or offending my friend whose home it is.

- A different Real Life French Person friend came by wearing flip-flops and shorts. These are supposed to be the marks of the American male, but it turns out, contrary to stereotype, that French men are allowed to acknowledge summer weather and leave home in something other than evening-wear or skintight jeans. (French women, so long as they're thin and burqa-less, can pretty much wear whatever.)

-But wait! Ever since the article about how French women eat nothing, ever, I've seen many obese locals, along with the usual hordes of skinny-rich American girls on study abroad. I also saw - and this I've never seen in NY - a young man get up to give his seat to a woman simply because she was so obese that she looked like she needed to sit down. Clearly not pregnant (putting the 'should I get up but what if she's just fat?' dilemma into perspective), not elderly, not (otherwise) disabled. Was this woman, in Frahnce, offended? No! She happily took the seat and looked relieved.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Elusive libraries

-If you're already going to a library for weeks, why do you only then learn that all this time, you were supposed to be a fee-paying member to do so? I paid (and am saving the receipt, since I'd say this qualifies as a grant expense), but am not quite sure what this changed, since it's a still-greater fee to take books out.

-If you've reserved books at a library (a different one, whose fee you've paid and card you've received) for both Friday and Saturday, and find out once you see your Friday books that they're not what you need, and you check online and see that the Saturday ones have arrived, theoretically you'd be able to start on the Saturday books on Friday, perhaps eliminating the need to come back Saturday? Non. Pourquoi pas? Not a question worth asking.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

In defense of the French-women-age-well article, up against the NYT commentariat (will the NY-Paris comparisons never end?)

-Yes, it's annoying, especially if you are French or study France, that The French are forever conflated with a) French women (are there men in France?), b) Parisian women, c) wealthy Parisian women living in a few neighborhoods, and d) Catherine friggin Deneuve. But seriously. This is a NYT Styles article! There's an implicit comparison being made between Parisian women in the 16th and 7th Arrondissements and their equivalents on the Upper East Side. It's an act of great inclusiveness for an article in that section to go beyond the lives of wealthy NY women. And save the outrage: the neighborhood my grad-student stipend allows me to live in is roughly a pre-trendy Prospect Heights, and virtually no one is obese or in sweats. Paris is, for better or worse, a more aesthetically-minded city than NY, across class and racial lines. The author might have mentioned this, but at any rate, that it wasn't in the article doesn't mean, as it happens, that the article only applies to women of immense privilege.

-Yes, it's a shame that women are so judged on the basis of looks, and I wish that men were judged a bit more and women more than a bit less in that regard. And the fact that people tend to look their age (says this Madame) should not be understood as some kind of disaster that half of humanity must battle. But if women are going to be judged on the basis of beauty, aren't the sort of good looks that can be achieved through overpaying for skin creams and accessories better than that which results from continuous exercise plus liposuction? It's a tough line to draw, but female beautification rituals can be divided between the miserable and the guilty-pleasurable. As in, shoes and neon nail polish, fun, elliptical machine and fat-free yogurt, not so fun. Yes, it's oppressive from a gender-norms standpoint that these women are expected to be ultra-feminine, but their American equivalents are expected to shun The Frilly, The Fancy, and The Schmancy, yet have flawlessly toned upper thighs. I'll take peer pressure to buy a scarf over the sort that would have me surgically deschnozzified. The comparison, then, is between older women feeling they have to look 16, and older women feeling they will always have to care about looking chic. There's an obvious answer to this question, even from a feminist, lesser-of-two-evils, perspective. Regardless, the issue isn't and shouldn't be framed as "natural" versus "artificial," because it's all artifice.

-If it were really true that Frenchwomen ate only subatomic particles of fromage, that would be a problem, but people here strike me as being more not-fat than what would, on the Upper East Side for example, count as "thin." Aside from Paris's fashion models, who for reasons and by mechanisms I don't understand are half the width of their NY equivalents, the intentionally emaciated are few and far between. There's absolutely without a doubt more social pressure on the average Frenchwoman to be thin than on the average American woman. But if we're talking snooty urbanites, the never-thin-enough attitude of the community I grew up in does not seem to be mirrored here.

On not changing teams UPDATED

Last night, while waiting to meet some friends for Bastille Day, I found myself in the middle of a free concert. That concert turned out to be a meeting of a pro-Palestinian Communist student group. What can I say? They convinced me.

Nah. I'm off to buy a handbag (convinced by my mother, who thinks my $15 early-college-era H&M standby has to go, and by Amber's ode to quality leather goods - no details on this particular bag's price other than that it is to a grad student what the bags discussed at Prettier than Napoleon are to a corporate lawyer) and then to study at the library of a proto-Jewish-nationalist organization. Zionist and bourgeoise as ever around here.


Amber asked, and I'm answering:

Image from the Valérie Salacroux website.

Size may be tough to picture, but it's good for a wallet, book, phone, keys, etc., but is not, nor is it intended to be, a backpack replacement. I wasn't sure about the long strap at first, but it turned out quite comfortable. It's not the most expensive thing I own (that's what I'm typing on) but it made a change from H&M.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

New York vs. Paris, the Jew Edition

I know, I said no more comparisons, but before that, I promised an explanation of why I suspect that cultural Judaism lives on here in a way it doesn't back home.

My first inkling of this came the first night I was here, when I attended a movie premiere for an Israeli romantic comedy. The film was supposed to be premiered somewhere else, but that theater decided a boycott was in order and replaced it with (what else?) a Rachel Corrie documentary. The movie itself - A cinq heures de Paris - was nothing special, but the rally that preceded it left me with plenty to think about. The whole event was organized by a French-Jewish student group, and the speakers included prominent students, film directors, how many of each I can't remember what with having basically just gotten off the plane. Anyhow, what I noticed was that, while the speakers made a big and very French fuss about the importance of Art and Cinema, and about the universalist (French) values, they were very clear that they believed the boycott to be motivated by... anti-Semitism. Yeah, they said it. American Jews, in my experience, go through the motions of making it clear that they wouldn't in a million years accuse anyone or any institution of that. I also found that the energy of the crowd, particularly on the topic of the climate towards Jews in France, was such that French Jews - or at least those in this particular packed theater, who did not seem especially religious for the most part - feel a) that the Jewish Question (for lack of a better term) is a current one, and b) that the state of the Jews in France is something up for discussion. For all kinds of historical (Vichy) and present-day (Middle East policy) reasons, secular-ish American Jews do not, again, in my experience, gather to discuss whether or not America is a good place for Jews. This much is taken as a given. Anyway, it's tough to gauge 'types' in a new place, especially on no sleep, but my sense of the crowd was that these were people who, if American, would not be at an event like this. I personally felt much more in sync with this set than with any group of Jews in NY, but felt odd about applauding after the speeches, given that, in a sense, their fight isn't mine. In another sense, it is.

Next, French-Jewish radio. When my computer was kaput, I'd run out of podcasts to listen to while cooking dinner, and ended up with something called Radio Shalom. The programs were everything from secular literary discussions to fairly middle-of-the-road (to American ears) discussions of Iran, but the ads! The ads were directed at an audience either about to move to Israel or living half of the year in that country. One in particular was a Jewish Mother chatting with her Nice Jewish Son (yes, stereotypes can cross the Atlantic) about whether he'd prepared his family for their aliyah. The ad was for some kind of Francophone health services in Israel, and ended with the mother asking his son if he'd eaten yet. ("Oui, maman," he says, exasperated.) I don't know of any secular yet aliyah-oriented Jewish radio station back home, but I can't imagine the demographic it would be addressing.

Finally, there's the persistence of Jewish neighborhoods. New York kind of has this, but typically far from the city center and very religiously-focused - Orthodox or, in the most-equivalent case of West 96th Street, Modern Orthodox. My sense - again, only a sense - is that, whether because of more recent immigration or who knows, culturally Jewish areas exist here in a way that's not quite present in NY. There are places like the UWS (below 96th)* or LES, which were once Jewy but are now just yuppie. A possible equivalent to N. African Jews here would be Russian Jews in NY, but my sense - again, again, I haven't researched this - is that they see themselves and are seen more as Russians than as Jews in New York (as in, what does "Brighton Beach" bring to mind?), whereas there's little sense that Moroccan Jews here are undifferentiated Moroccans.

Basically, the disclaimer that's the undercurrent to all of this is that I don't have a clue, and have barely just arrived.

*This happened: an American couple was having an argument with a security guard at one of the Jewish museums here in Paris. All I overheard from their argument, which was in English, was the (possibly Israeli, possibly French) guard telling the couple, "This isn't a supermarket." The man was wearing a hat and shirt with the orange Zabars logo. Never have I felt such a sense of Jewish peoplehood.


Paris needs from NY:

-Cold-brewed iced coffee. (What I've attempted with the French press here half-works, but what I'd give for some Think or Third Rail.)
-Garlic scapes.
-Air-conditioned public transportation.
-Real sales. None of this 20% off nonsense.
-Shake Shack.
-Places it's possible to sit and read a book with maybe a coffee and a pastry around 4pm. This would seem to be the very essence of what Paris is about, but cafés at that hour are in fact intended to sit with six friends in, consuming only beverages. Fun, but not conducive to dissertation writing. There are salons de thé, but these seem to be places where, for the low low price of 24 euros, I'd be in for far more than, say, an espresso and a macaron.
-Dermatologists. It's not permitted here to ride the Metro if you're not currently picking at a very active skin disease of some kind. I'm not a dermatologist, but if even I can think of roughly what creams need to be prescribed in these situations, imagine what a professional could do.

NY needs from Paris:

-Signs on the subway with when the next and the following train will arrive.
-Cheesewinepastry, obviously.
-Beautiful buildings everywhere.
-The Seine. (Sorry, Hudson, East River.)
-Creative alternatives to leggings-as-pants. This would be the weather for super-casual attire, so the fact that I'm not seeing leggings-as-pants must mean it's not a trend here.
-Women with their original noses. Or just generally, women who, though rich and attentive to appearance, do not appear to have accounted for every square-inch of their bodies, the way the women of the Upper East Side or Tribeca have, with some combination of exercise, diet, and surgery. Here, I get the sense that women just slap on a (placebo) cellulite cream and focus on what really matters, such as clothing and accessories. That said, the cosmetic alteration one does see here is typically over-the-top - cartoon inflated lips, breasts, and so forth. But it's unusual.

But overall, these two cities are so similar, it's easy to forget which one's which. Crowded subways, tiny apartments, a skinny and racially diverse populace, French-speaking shoe-shoppers, Uniqlo bags everywhere (and no, I have not - yet - visited Paris's flagship), the potential to do or buy virtually anything, the knowledge that there are always streets you haven't seen... In terms of compare/contrast, I think this may be all you're getting for a while.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Bizarro security

Normally, to get into and out of a research library requires some variant of opening your bag to show a security guard. If the library in question is Jewish-themed, add to that the possible x-raying of said bag, if not a frisking with a metal detector. This is the general rule, which is why I was so surprised to find that one of the (seemingly infinite) French-Jewish libraries here has nothing beyond the usual signs warning you that you're under video surveillance. You just walk in, nod to the guard, and, at least assuming you look like someone who's spending the summer researching Jews, or look otherwise unthreatening,* off you go. There's no bag-checking, no food-and-pen policing (although I haven't seen anyone eating in the place, but it is France), no procedure of any kind.

That is, until today, when, as I was leaving - as opposed to entering - the library, I noticed the door wasn't opening. A guard who isn't the usual guard asked me if I worked there. I explained that I was doing research in the library (can't have been the first time this had happened) and had been for a couple weeks, and was then asked if I was on The List. There's a list? I gave my name, even though I knew I wasn't on any list, and it was confirmed that I'm not on the list. The guard then asked me again if I worked there and, because I hadn't to my knowledge been hired at the place in the past thirty seconds, I explained that I was just at the library to do research. This, this time around, was deemed acceptable, and the guard unlocked the door for me.

What I can't figure out is why, if there's going to be security, it would be at the exit, rather than the entrance. Normally, the fear with Jewish libraries is terrorism, not book theft, and at any rate none of the guard's questions had anything to do with books, nor did he have any interest in looking in my bag. Is there some kind of interrogation chamber you get sent to, rather than being allowed out, if your response is not adequate? Or is the punishment an overnight stay at the library? In which case, sign me up - the place closes at 6 normally, so this would mean extra, air-conditioned, hours with my sources.

*The most surprisingly pleasant thing about Paris - and a point in favor of travel - is that here, I'm, if not tall, then average height, and in platform sandals, taller than many men. And, without the usual population of broad-shouldered former high school athletes (French Women Don't Get Ripped), I'm not especially small here all-around. What this means is that I command more respect in public places than I do in my own native city. By this I mean, I don't have to step aside on the sidewalk for people whose line of sight doesn't register my existence, and I'm not crushed to a pulp on rush-hour trains. I could get used to this.

"What does the Gap in Rome have that the Gap on Broadway doesn't?"

This question, which Puddy asks Elaine after their failed European vacation, or a variant of it is a Major Question of our Age. One of the highlights of travel is the chance of finding something you can't get back home. This is true of stuff you buy for yourself, all the more important for gifts - if you're getting someone something from France, it probably shouldn't be from H&M. Or Uniqlo. Or... If you live in a major city, and are shopping for others who do as well, or even if not given the existence of the Internet, you're unlikely to find a whole lot that can't at the very least be mail-ordered domestically.

I thought I'd found this bastion of only-abroad French basics, a brand called (of all things) American Vintage, available in Belgium as well as France. I somehow had the sense these t-shirts were not to be found back home. Then a longer look at their website revealed:


Flying A
169 Spring Street
New York NY 10012
Tél 00212.965.9090

62 Grand Street
New York NY 10013
Tél 00212.941.8506

GC William
111 West 72Nd Street
New York NY 10023
Tél 00212.873.2314

170 Ludlow St.
New York NY 10002
Tél 00212.995.8660

Basic Basic
710 Broadway
New York NY 10003
Tél 00212.477.5711

Wink Nyc
188 Columbus Avenue
New York NY 10023
Tél 00212 941 7078

Olive and Bette'S
155 West 72Nd Street
New York NY 10023
Tél 00212.712.0473

644 Broadway
New York NY 10012
Tél 00212.473.3980

One of the stores is literally right outside the subway station I take to campus every day.

The same is true, occasionally, of sources. I constantly have to check that sources are, in fact, only available in France. If they're at the NYPL, JTS, CJH, Columbia library, Bobst, or on the Internet, what's the point?

The tape here is rouge

The aspect of adulthood that I most dreaded growing up was bureaucracy. To be an adult meant, I realized, having to fill out your own forms, make your own appointments, make phone calls that lead to getting put on hold, not only paying bills in the sense of needing to earn money but also, more horribly, having to keep track of account numbers and receipts. All of this has turned out to be an accurate assessment of adulthood, although in retrospect, the makework homework of childhood, added to the forced socialization with other kids on account of you're the same age, you must have tons in common, meant that childhood was not such a free life-stage either.

Somehow, despite not being terribly much a fan of red tape (is anyone?), I decided to study France. This was all well and good until I started to study France in France. The amount of fuss required to do research on the one hand makes the moments when I'm actually sitting with a text all the more delightful, but on the other makes me wonder if spending my entire stipend ordering appropriate text from French Amazon and, if necessary, antiquarian bookstores and doing the whole thing from NY wouldn't have been the worst idea.

But! The cheese!

But! The complete and utter lack of cultural germophobia, such that every time you hold onto anything in the Metro, it's a safe bet that the person who did just before you coughed into that same hand, and/or picked at a scab with it.

But! The wine! The flan!

But! And so it continues.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Hot in France

People often romanticize the idea of not being on the computer. One imagines a hammock, a New England cabin in which novels are being written by typewriter or fountain pen. But I have to say, it hasn't been all that romantic to finally get to the primary sources I came all the way here to consult, and to take notes on what I've found by hand. Also, not being able to communicate with friends, family, and work, this too lacked a certain charm. It's one thing if you're going off the grid in order to get away from it all, but this happened during about the worst week for all categories, when I really most needed to be in touch.

But! Apple fixed the thing, so onto usual bloggery, which is to say, unsolicited observations about life in Paris.

-I'm here to study intermarriage in 19th C France. Which is probably how I was primed to notice that the most frequent mixed-race coupling one sees here in 21st C France is black women with white men - these couples are to Paris what East Asian women - white men couples are to New York. As in, there aren't nearly so many couples the other way around (black man - white woman). The couples appear to be young and old, hip and dorky, rich and poor, and so on, suggesting the pairing is not specific to any one demographic.

This information ought to be shoved in the faces of the sort of racists who claim that the breakdowns occur on account of which ethnic groups are 'inherently' more feminine or masculine. (I have specific racists in mind, but no links.)

I can't begin to understand why pairings occur in the proportions they do in the places they do, but I have a couple ideas. One is that in France, The White Man symbolizes, depending who you ask, Vichy or torture in Algeria, but not slavery (in metropolitan France) or Jim Crow. This might make for less tense black-white relationships, given how many other Others here have at least as much reason to be wary of the unhyphenated French. As in, it's not as though there's no past or present of racism against blacks in France, but that's not the racism here the way it is in the US. Another - and this one's a bigger stretch - is that whereas America has brought us "shiksappeal" and France the "Belle Juive," the two countries are simply opposites in terms of ethnic fetishization. Whereas in the US, black and Jewish women are the two groups whose sex appeal the culture most often denies, these same forms of difference were/are eroticized. The final, and most likely, possibility is that people here are in some ways less racist than back home, and that there really aren't so many black women with white men, but rather there are so few back home that to me, here it seems frequent.

-Cultural Judaism seems to exist here in a way it no longer does - or does, but barely - in New York. A full post on this to come.

-The obligatory French-Women's-Heft-or-Lack-Thereof comment, to get this out of the way: One can get the sense that Parisians - across race and class lines - just plain don't eat, and that all the food in the city is a function of the tourism industry. I'm almost always stuffing my face (such as: today's flan, yesterday's macarons, or the previous day's molten chocolate cake à emporter), but I'm American and this is my birthright. Generally speaking, no matter what the (often extensive) menu - brunch, Italian, Tex-Mex, regional French - you can pass a non-tourist café at just about any hour, even what I've been told are the meal times, and it will be filled with people having nothing more than cigarettes, coffee, wine, or soda. Upon further reflection, I suspect that Parisians do eat, because if they're not fat, they're not vastly thinner than, say, New Yorkers, whose food consumption is plenty conspicuous. Parisians, I figure, must just eat at home. Groceries here are much cheaper than in NY, and even "cheap" restaurants much more expensive. What this means is that dining out isn't so much about convenience as it is about an evening activity, hours spent with friends, 90-plus % of the time drinking something, 10% or less actually in the vicinity of food. My sense from the few times I've ventured beyond espresso and Cahors is that food is not really the focus, at least not at places I can afford, with one exception - and a climatisé one at that.

One final point on the subject: There are Surgeon General-type warning labels on ads for food, including what look to be healthy, balanced meals, from something called Manger Bouger, basically warning you that if you're going to mange (eat), you'd better bouge (move) in compensation. It's like, 'if you must eat, you ought to know what you're getting into,' as though eating were an activity human beings could altogether eliminate. I mean, for all I know maybe this is something entirely possible, but only if you're French. Which would, of course, explain what I've observed in the cafés.

-I'm bouging constantly, what with the Metro transfers my apartment necessitates and the stairs up and down and up and down each transfer must entail (and if the Metro itself were air-conditioned...), so mange I must. This leads me to another pastry dilemma. Paris is known for croissants. What I can't figure out is why, whereas in NY at any place even remotely claiming a French influence, croissants are presumed made with butter (and lots of it), here, bakeries offer two croissant options: butter and regular. What's regular? At best, a tasteless croissant. Meanwhile, all pastries that aren't croissants will only come in the regular option, which is to say, a pain au chocolat, unless it's from one of the special bakeries like Poilane or Dalloyau, will taste pretty much like greasy bread with chocolate in the middle. So my question is: the price difference of the regular versus butter croissant will be something like ten centimes. Once you've made the leap to get breakfast out rather than, say, dip into the bulk oatmeal, it's hard to imagine the inferior product being worth saving the ten cents. So is the issue something understandable - veganism or lactose intolerance? I sort of doubt this, both because the French tend not to recognize dietary restrictions, religious or otherwise, and because I'm not entirely sure what non-butter source of fat goes into the regular croissants, and would not rule out something not-so-vegan. So why are butter-based pastries so tough to come by?

-Why did I think Paris in summer wouldn't be ridiculously, near-NY-like, hot? Why are the libraries I need clustered around the Soldes, which would be tempting enough even if I didn't have the fantastic excuse of having not brought enough clothes for a sweltering summer in a country that 99% of the time doesn't believe in air conditioning?

Friday, July 09, 2010

The finest words in the French language

"Votre macbook est prêt ! Le changement de disque dur est fait."

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Thank you Genius Didier

For precisely zero euros, I should have a working computer within a week. Till then, don't expect much in the way of WWPD.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Les bienfaits de la colonisation

A short walk or even shorter Metro ride from the library is some truly excellent Vietnamese food. Pho I expected, but I'd somehow forgotten about the existence of Vietnamese iced coffee. Yes, coffee, with ice, in Europe.

In other news, I do miss having a working computer. French Mac Geniuses, my ability to take legible notes is in your hands.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Computer kaput

While I seem to be adjusting to life in Paris just fine, the same cannot be said for my three plus year old laptop, which chose an inconvenient moment to stop working altogether. I am going to visit with the Paris "Geniuses" to see if they can fix this, but it may be a while till I leave nineteenth century France.