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?

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