Monday, September 22, 2008

Movable Feast

"If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go, it stays with you, for Paris is a movable feast."
-Ernest Hemingway

Last week we went feasting. Here is our trail of crumbs.

First, the premiere of an original theatrical production. A dear friend of ours is the writer and director of Sweet Ladies, his first opening in Paris. We wended our way through the 11eme arrondissement to the Theatre a l'Epouvantail, a tidy little black box tucked into street with the eyebrow-raising name of rue de la Folie Mericourt. Sweet Ladies, indeed. But this was anything but a "folie" (burlesque comedy in parlance of old). Rather, it was a sobering look into the human condition, dipping the pen of Shakespeare directly into the heart of man, and seeing what came out. Two women, a mother and daughter, grapple with their estranged relationship through the lines of the Great Bard. Simply amazing.

Next, it had always been my intention to visit the former abode of Victor Hugo at 6 Place des Vosges, which is a stone's throw from my workplace. With the ghosts of Esmerelda and Jean Valjean hanging on my shoulder and whispering in my ear, I trooped over during the Journees du Patrimoine (Heritage Days), which earned me free entry. It was an elegant space indeed. And a glorious surprise - I cam across a watercolor that depicted a bell tower in Gentilly, the suburb where we live. Apparently, he used to rent a room out here, which of course was a little village at the time.

As long as I was looking into powerful figures, I decided to hunker down and wait in line at the Palais Royale, which was also giving free tours. This was built for the influential Cardinal Richelieu, and now houses the various members of France's democracy - the Senate and the Judiciary and others. Curiously enough, they have preserved the little prayer-room of a former monarch in this most strict atheistic spaces. Of course, I overheard French people commenting on the tiny oratory - isn't that quaint. I gently suggested to one monsieur that it certainly wouldn't hurt if the Senate members did pray every once in while.

Sunday was our final go at taking advantage of Heritage Days, so we both headed out to Versailles. We eagerly grabbed pastries and coffee and a train, only to arrive to a vast sea of people. You'd think all of Paris has come to recapture the king and queen. Helas. After a disheartening forty minutes in the ticket queue, we finally decided that we'd save the chateau for a quieter day and go off to see La Domaine de Marie-Antoinette - you know, her home away from home away from home away from...

Well you get the idea. We got to wondering - how many beds did this woman have? Well, we all know that her extravagances were solely responsible for the governmental deficit that led to the downfall of monarchy, so what was I supposed to expect? Well, let's just say we underestimated a wee bit. There was Grand Trianon. And the Petit Trianon. And her hobby farm, where Marie-Antoinette and her ladies-in-waiting could cleanse their rich-fat souls and consciences with some good old-fashioned farmwork. Apparently, the cows were also carefully cleaned, before they could be milked by Your Highness.

One last little vignette. After church, we jumped on with a group a friends headed off to the North of Paris near Montmartre where a friend's band was playing. This was chanson francaise at its best - flirtatious and funny and we washed it all down with pate, pain, fromage, and a good glass of Bourgeuil. I mean, really. What else do you need for dinner?

Yes, it is good to be back.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Good Times

Venturing out for a run in the chilly air this past week, I was reminded that - oh yes! - the sun does indeed slant both ways. Owing to jetlag, this obvious fact had been a rather faint memory as of late. Yes, I am indignant that a mere bodily weakness has stolen some dozen similar beauties from me since our return, but who can stand against the heavy eyelids of seven hours' time difference? I am weak.

Not everyone will be able to relate to the minor shame I suffer related to sleeping in - there are a blessed many who can sleep a very long time with no qualms whatsoever. I envy you. And yet, I am glad for my own disposition on the whole . Even when northern climes eventually do yield days that are short and dark, the first half has always seemed to me to be life magnified - something akin to putting on your glasses after a good wipe.

By contrast, the midafternoon finds me short-tempered - if not irritable beyond recognition. I think it has something to do with the hours spent staring at that bright false angel, that lighted box of counterfeit glory so omnipresent in our modern lives. We try to revive our beauty-starved souls with catnaps and coffees, but these prop our sodden spirits only by mere increments. What will return us to the first glory? His mercies are new every morning, but what about the afternoon doldrums?

And how about this for a cheery thought?

There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by.
-Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

What then is this lifelong fling? What transforms a series of good days (or "good times", as Karl is fond of inserting into the conversation at any given moment) into a good life? There is the evening with the good wine, the morning with the stunning sunrise, and the glorious couple of moments when you catch a whiff of baguette walking past the they add up to nothing more than random occurrences? Are those brave words emblazoned on the side of the Walker Art Center unduly optimistic?

Yes. As usual, I have painted myself into a metaphysical corner, trying to grapple with impossible questions of here and there, then and now. Help me, T.S. Eliot.

Not the intense moment Isolated, with no before or after But a lifetime burning in every moment.
-East Coker

A lifetime burning in every moment. Slightly more on the optimistic side, that one. Which can be helpful when you're wondering what lies on the road ahead. Especially when you buy too often into the lie that only people falling between the ages of 18 and 25 or so are beleaguered by decisions regarding God, work, love, school, and the like. Culture seems to dictate that we should have these bits and pieces put together by our late twenties. (With the occasional allowance for the unhappy 45-50-year old male who wants a red sportscar, of course.) The truth is, we all face these maddening seasons of rethinking and re-evaluating. (Er - you don't? Well, I do.) Indeed, I had been in something of a tizzy over grad school recently, but after much turmoil gratefully fell upon the following passage:

I have taught you the way of wisdom; I have led you in the paths of uprightness.
When you walk, your step will not be hampered, and if you run, you will not stumble.
Proverbs 4:11-12

He has taught us, so now it is time to walk. Maybe this kind of exhortation (with a little minor help from the poets) is the only thing that will keep us sane in a life that tends to the labyrinthine. The trail may twist, turn, ascend and descend, but if we have been teachable in the way of wisdom, we will not stumble.

I think tomorrow morning calls for another run. (And maybe tea around 4 pm or so...groan.) the intense moment

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Melting Potstickers

The Midwest is assumed by most French people to be a culturally-starved, hopelessly-homogenized region. As in, you poor thing, you come from there? You know, if the States were the afterlife, the few elect would go to New York and San Francisco, while the multitude of sinners would languish in the vast stretches in between those venerated cities. Case in point: we chatted with a guy in a bar near Bastille the other night who had studied in Wisconsin as a teenager for three weeks on a study exchange. While his well-intentioned host parents planned his visit to the minute to take full advantage of their corner of the globe, the 17-year-old was high (okay, probably in more ways than one) on dreams fueled by Jack Kerouac. Somehow downtown Madison just didn't do the trick.

Still, we Americans tend to pride ourselves on our country's status as a "melting pot". And I must say, it's true. After six weeks in Minnesota, I am still relishing in retrospect a smörgåsbord of experiences that would shush any Parisian into respectful silence in a hurry.

For starters, I clapped and cheered as my little brother earned his next belt in Japanese martial arts. We attended our friend's milonga, an Argentinian tango party, meeting fascinating dancers from the world over. We watched in delight as our friend Ledung belted out the eighties to the last hangers-on in a Vietnamese wedding. Karl made his new fancy Swedish keyboard wail the American blues on several happy occasions. And fabulous French, German, Italian, Vietnamese, Spanish, and countless other culinary influences kept popping up in both fancy dinner parties and casual suppers.

And then there was the Minnesota State Fair. Heck, we didn't even make is to the "International Bazaar"- our experiences were already plenty diverse as it was. We were reminded of the importance of dairy consumption, principles of hot dish, proper handling of firearms, and the joys of polka-ing to Norwegian airs played by a traditional accordion band. You just never know what you might find in Minnesota - if you go looking for it, that is. And this, I believe, is the key difference between life in the Midwest and our life here in Paris. In the States, one quickly becomes bogged down by everyday suburban life where everyone kinda looks the same (thank you Target) and complains about same things (i.e. gas prices). You have to go out of your way to find something different.

Here in Paris, "something different" tends to come and find you.

We arrived back a week and a half ago to live with a family from the States - a Japanese/American couple with two great kids. They are hospitality incarnate, so we weren't the only houseguests involved. A mutual friend of ours from Malaysia had recently come back from studying for six months in Sweden and was ready to introduce us to as much Asian cooking as we could handle. Which turns out to be quite a bit. As a Malaysian, Thomas is also from a "melting pot": his home country is a mix of various influences, which comes out in language, religion, cooking, and outlook. All week has been a tasty and fascinating introduction to a continent that we have yet to explore. This all culminated when we all went to a Chinese family's house for the mooncake festival.

This holiday usually involves small children carrying lights around in the dark streets, singing, and eating mooncake. Despite a lack of small kids at the party, we still enjoyed the barbecue, conversation, traditional folklore stories, dessert brought direct from Taiwan, Karl's improvised hymn to mooncake ("my little mooncake...where are you?"), and the glow of the pretty red lanterns. And for this joyous meeting, we sang "thank you Jesus" English, French, Spanish, Chinese, and Malaysian.

I guess we'll stick to whatever melting pot we can find.