Monday, February 23, 2015

23 February 2015: Fangs for the Memories

fangs for the memories

It finally happened: I finally found a French theater piece that delighted me, entertained me, made me laugh, made me gasp and didn't make me pee my pants. (There was an intermission, thank the theater gods.)

It probably comes as no surprise to those who know me that the piece that finally won my heart is a musical, but the fact that a French musical won my heart surprised even me. (I haven't been the biggest fan of French theater while we've been here—check out this post to find out why...)

The piece that has set my heart on fire is none other than "Le Bal des Vampires," a campy rock musical directed by Roman Polanski (yes, that Roman Polanski) based on Polanski's 1967 film of the same name (called "The Fearless Vampire Killers" in the U.S.). As you might imagine, the show is full of blood, outlandish makeup, smoldering looks, mild raunch and a score that blows your hair back. (The music was written by Jim Steinman and Michael Kunze.)

What makes the musical such a riot is that it manages to walk that fine line between ridiculous and realistic (well, as realistic as a musical about an undead vampire capturing a young woman and turning her and her faithful companion into undead vampires at a fabulous undead ball can be). The acting is outsized but not clownish. The costumes are miraculous but functional. The sets are so lavish that Joshua and I leaned over to each other at nearly the same time to say, "They must have so. much. money." And the music. Ah, the music.

One of the ballads that gets many, many reprises in the show made my ears perk up with recognition from the very opening strains. That sounds like—exactly like—no, it is "Total Eclipse of the Heart." With new words. My brain raced with questions: How did they get the rights to rewrite such an iconic rock ballad? Why would they have wanted to incorporate such a well-known piece of music into such a different context? Why this song, when the canon of rock ballads is thick with classics? Were there other repurposed songs in the score that I just hadn't recognized?

By the fourth time the song was being sung—by a cast of incredibly strong and versatile vocalists, I must add—I figured that there had to be more to the story, so I Googled the heck out of the show when I got home. Lo! and behold, composer Jim Steinman not only poached the song, he poached it from the best source I can imagine: himself. He's an American composer and lyricist who's written tons of songs for Meat Loaf, Barry Manilow, Air Supply, Celine Dion...and Bonnie Tyler, famed for her rendition of Steinman's song "Total Eclipse of the Heart."

What I found upon even more digging further enchanted me: Steinman had originally written the song to be a kind of vampire love ballad in the first place. When interviewed about the song's inclusion in the musical, he said, "That was an accident almost. I'm surprised it stayed in. [For the original production] in Vienna, I had only a month and a half to write this whole show and we needed a big love duet...But with Total Eclipse of the Heart, I was trying to come up with a love song and I remembered I actually wrote that to be a vampire love song. Its original title was Vampires in Love because I was working on a musical of Nosferatu, the other great vampire story. If anyone listens to the lyrics, they're really like vampire lines. It's all about the darkness, the power of darkness and love's place in dark. And so I figured 'Who's ever going to know; it's Vienna!' And then it was just hard to take it out."

The show is chock-full of other Steinman melodies, if not lyrics (those were done by German writer Kunze, who signed on to turn the Polanksi film into a German-langauge musical in its first incarnation as "Tanz der Vampire," which premiered in Vienna in 1997). Somehow, the fact that the show is based on a foundation of modern rock songs rewritten to fit late-19th-century Eastern Europe makes me love it even more.

For those American musical theater lovers, you may be wondering (as I did) why this weird little bloodthirsty gem hasn't made it stateside yet. has, but the mounting of the Broadway production was so full of creative cock-ups, actor meltdowns, rewriting nightmares and producing snafus that it only ran for 56 performances before closing on January 25, 2003—becoming one of the "costliest failures in Broadway history," according to The New York Times.

There were no such problems in Paris, however, especially considering Polanski was allowed to direct the show, something he was not allowed to do in America. (Polanksi is nationalized French and was born in Paris, but he's worked all over the world. In 1977, he was arrested in Los Angeles for unlawful sex with a minor and he fled to Europe, where he's worked primarily ever since. If he sets foot on American soil, he'll be required to answer for his crime.) Rocky directorial history aside, the German show was translated into French and premiered here in Paris around Halloween of last year. Because of its smash success, it's still playing—which is how I was able to see it for Valentine's Day four months on.

I plan on seeing the show as many times as my bank account will allow because it's that wonderful rarity of theater: funny, not too deep but not flimsy, well-done, visually and aurally stunning and just generally a bloody good time. It's something you can really sink your teeth into...

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

17 February 2015: By Popular Demand


I have a confession to make: I haven't written a blog post on this site for nearly two months (which you'll probably be able to tell by taking a glance at the side bar—last post: December 18). I've been very flattered to receive questions—and some downright demands—about my next posting both online and IRL (a frightening acronym if ever there was one, but that's for another blog...), but I have another confession: I just haven't felt like writing in a while.

As many of you who have a smartphone, tablet, computer, radio, television or eyes and ears are probably aware, the satirical Parisian newspaper "Charlie Hebdo" was the subject of a terrorist attack on January 7th. While the event was not directly connected to anything in the city save a decades-old grudge against a paper that prints things in very poor taste—which incited a heinous act in even poorer taste, resulting in the deaths of many—it brought Paris to a standstill. Growing up post-9/11, I'm no stranger to living in a country that's constantly on the lookout for potential terrorists, but experiencing the fear and fervor in France was new to me. New and very scary.

Joshua and I happened to be out on a television project (I'll announce it soon, though some of you already know—and the secrecy seems ridiculous) that very week, Wednesday through Sunday of the attack on the paper, the subsequent shooting of the policewoman, the hostage situation and killings at the Jewish deli and ensuing manhunts. We were being driven by van all over the city to various neighborhoods, both ones in which we've lived and ones we've only ever seen on foot, which was both a reassuring and damning experience. It was reassuring because, while reports of pandemonium and further terror threats splashed across headlines all over the world, we were seeing firsthand many of the places tourists were being told "not to go under any circumstances" due to riots, demonstrations, violence and the like. The reality was infinitely weirder than the headlines made the atmosphere out to be. While there was indeed a very large march in the Place de la République (which throughout history has played host to almost weekly demonstrations, though none have topped this one for the sheer number of participants), the rest of the city was back to business as usual in a matter of hours. Yes, police presence had been stepped up and menacing "Vigipirate" (the French version of the terror alert system) signs had been posted at all schools, monuments and government buildings, but otherwise, people were still going to work, flooding the metros, walking their dogs, eating food. Almost nothing had changed...only everything had changed.

What Joshua so astutely observed while we were trying to make sense of our altered milieu is that what had been affected was not the actual safety of the majority of Parisians—17 people dying (gruesome though it was) out of a population of 2.2 million puts the percentage of carnage in acute perspective—but rather the sense of perceived safety that we all take for granted every single day. Sure, I occasionally think about the fact that the metro I'm riding might be carrying a bomb—terror acts aren't usually announced until they're, y'know, detonated—but otherwise, I take for granted that, due to sheer mathematics, the likelihood is that I won't be affected in my day-to-day life. What the terror attacks did was raise the tension in the city to such a palpable level that it felt like everyone was expecting bombs to rain down from the sky at any moment, blanketing the city in chaos and carnage like never before. The reality was that three sick individuals decided to take their hatred and anger out in a violent manner and were subsequently pursued and killed. End of story. Or is it?

The problem with sensationalism is that the 24-hour news cycles need fodder, and when something frightening and terrible happens, they milk that fodder for all it's worth until all that's really being recycled is fear, not facts. That same week, thousands of people were killed in the Nigerian city of Baga by Boko Haram, considered the group's deadliest attack to date. But here in France, at least, all that we kept getting blared from the news outlets was "Je Suis Charlie" (and, if you had a good eye, "Je Suis Ahmed," a phrase proclaiming solidarity with the slain Muslim police officer who tried to stop the terrorists—an overlooked figure when you consider the widespread backlash that occurred for Muslims across the country, since the media can't seem to differentiate a few bad seeds from an entire religion).

The upshot of all of this information—it seems to be flooding out of me now that I put fingers to keyboard—is that the idea of writing this blog for the past couple of months has seemed frivolous at best, fraudulent at worst. Who am I to discuss the hijinks and hilarity of living as an American in Paris when I've never felt more like a foreigner in my life? I'm not French. I felt no loyalty to the slain cartoonists—though I certainly don't think they should have been killed—but I also think a march of 4 million people to decry a relatively minor event in the grand scheme of world politics is a little silly. World leaders who have refused to share the same conference room in the past were suddenly holding signs proclaiming "Je Suis Charlie" side-by-side as they marched down the street with millions of fellow outraged citizens. Again, I think the killings were despicable, but I think the fact that the conversation about what makes angry, marginalized people so desperate that they would commit such an act—France is notoriously terrible to its immigrants, especially if those immigrants happen to be poor—is even more troubling. Je ne suis pas Charlie. Je ne suis pas Ahmed. Je suis triste (sad).

We'll be back to our regularly scheduled programming of humorous tales from beneath the Tour Eiffel tomorrow, but for now, thank you for taking the time to read this and for being so eager to read my musings. Sometimes being an American in Paris is not all it's cracked up to be, and it would have seemed disingenuous to continue writing about my usual comings and goings as though nothing had happened. Sometimes life intervenes.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

18 December 2014: Fight or Flight


I was shopping yesterday—not an uncommon occurrence, I'll admit—at one of the larger indoor shopping centers in Paris. It's as close to an American mall as you can get within the city limits, and I was craving some recreational retail.

In the very first store I entered, H&M, I was approached by a man who asked me for a cigarette. In my 28 years here on Earth, this is not one of the worst pick-up lines I've heard, but it's certainly one of the most frequent, especially here in Paris. I politely said no and moved away to continue perusing the clothes.

Undeterred, the man followed me around the store, commenting on the sweater I was holding.

"C'est jolie, non?" he said. He didn't even attempt a smile, he just felt the sweater's sleeve and stared at me. He was too close. I was done with this game.

"Laisse-moi," I said curtly, gesturing for him to leave me alone. I hurried off to another area of the store, pretending to be absorbed in the racks of fast fashion rushing past, my heart pounding in my ears. I could sense that he was in pursuit, so I made a quick dash out of the store into the open space just outside to see if I could shake him.

Not two minutes later, as I was coming around a corner, convinced I had successfully dodged him, he appeared, smiling, in my path.

"We meet again," he said in French, holding out his hand in a gesture of guiltless surprise.

I ignored him and brushed past, making a beeline to another store where he might feel more out of place and therefore give up the ruse. A makeup store. Perfect. I darted into Marionnaud and immediately took great interest in a set of hand lotions, keenly aware all the while that the man had also entered the store and was pretending to examine merchandise not ten feet from me while keeping his eye on my whereabouts.

At this point, I didn't know what to do. I had politely declined his advance, removed myself from his proximity, told him in no uncertain terms that I did not wish to be around him, and now found myself not only pursued, but blatantly so. My brain was on fire, so I quickly Googled how to say "This man has been following me" and "Leave me alone" in French (just in case I'd gotten it wrong the first time—though Google confirmed that, even under pressure, my language skills had held strong). Unsure of where to turn, I spent an inordinately long time examining every piece of makeup in the store, convinced that if I couldn't outrun him, I could at least outlast him. Even creepy people must find the chase boring eventually, if the prey isn't running.

After twenty minutes of studied perusal, keeping one eye on the makeup and one on the door, I assessed that the coast was clear and moved toward the exit to continue my day of (now shattered) relaxation. But just as I was about to pass the final kiosk of "last-minute gift sets for all the ladies in your life," I saw him walk past the window, peering into the store to find me. Once he had continued past the window and out of view, I darted out of the store in the opposite direction, hurried down two escalators and into another store, where I wedged myself all the way in the back to make sure that I blended into the crowd.

The rest of my shopping trip passed uneventfully in theory, but in reality—with the rushing blood in my ears and the thrumming in my chest—I was shaken the rest of the afternoon. This certainly isn't the first time something like this has happened to me—I've been chased onto metros, propositioned in grocery stores and, even at the tender age of seven, trapped in a children's bookstore aisle with a man who was fondling his genitals through his sweatpants, staring at me the whole time—and it's by no means the worst thing that has happened to a female at the hands of a creepy man, but it's enough. It's all enough. And it needs to stop.

The biggest problem is not that there are predatory people in the world—men and women—who don't take no for an answer. The biggest problem is that we've been trained as a society to give the prey no out. I couldn't fight—though punching the guy in the face sounded great, it most likely wasn't going to defuse the pressure, nor would it have been entirely appropriate, considering he only spoke to me twice—but I also couldn't fly. I tried to dart, feint, dash and run, but nothing worked. Not even confronting him face-to-face and telling him to get lost made him back away and think better of his actions. So what's a person trying to keep the peace but also keep her sanity to do?

I contemplated telling one of the many security guards who were stationed in each store, but when faced with the language barrier and what was sure to be my muddled mind, I wasn't sure I could adequately explain what was happening without sounding like a silly tourist, or worse, a racist white woman scared because a black guy talked to her. (Yes, I think about these things.) What I wouldn't have been able to express in my frazzled French could possibly have gotten me laughed at, even chastised, maybe helped, but I didn't want to take the risk at the time. Getting panicky will do that.

But what gets me the most is this: I have lots of friends who carry pepper spray—one even carries a small keychain shaped like a lance—lots of us have taken self-defense classes, we practice in our heads what we would say or do in the event of feeling threatened, we've even discussed our stories of violation so that we feel less alone and less like we somehow brought these idiotic incidents upon ourselves. We're all so prepared to fight the enemy—who could be anywhere at any time—that it becomes a way of looking at the world. Our fight or flight reflexes are constantly on alert: where would we run? who would we call? could we punch hard enough? would our screams be heard? The issue of safety inequality has certainly gotten plenty of media attention through the years (#yesallwomen; rallies to advocate; speeches to ignite or shame; "girls shouldn't be taught how to avoid rape, boys should be taught not to rape"; the list goes on), but despite all this speechifying, all this babbling, all these facts and figures and findings, this is still an everyday occurrence. And it's frustrating as hell.

So when is enough enough?


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

10 December 2014: Naked, Screaming, Beer-Soaked Women


It's been nearly two months since I last posted. I'm not proud of it, but it's a fact. I guess I could say that time flies when you're having fun keeping up with the grocery shopping, your freelance deadlines and your grad-school-swamped husband? (It's been stressful, to say the least.)

In reality, the past two months haven't flown by as much as they've jogged by like they're training for a marathon: fast enough, but with so much huffing and puffing that you're not sure why you even signed up for the marathon in the first place.

Amidst this time of stress, however, there's been a respite that I can only describe as not a respite at all, more like a further test of my patience and commitment to staying somewhat sane in the middle of brain-melting boredom and frustration. In short, we've been going to the theater.

French theater was something of a novelty for us when we first got here—we'd attended a few shows when we lived here in 2010, but they were mainly English-language musicals or...actually, no, that's the only thing we saw. So when Joshua had the chance to audit an undergraduate theater course that would involve attending a theatrical performance somewhere in the city practically every week, we eagerly signed up (I was able to get in on the class group rates, which made the opportunity even more attractive).

So we started regularly attending theater at some of the largest, most well-funded public theater institutions in the city—spaces like the Théâtre de la Ville, du Soleil, des Abbesses, d'Amandier Nanterre, de la Colline, de la Bastille, the Odéon and lots more. Companies in the middle of the city, on the outskirts in the suburbs, in beautiful old buildings and new-fangled warehouse spaces—it was a theatrical education of epic proportions that left us with a collective impression of all the theater Paris has to offer. Unfortunately, that impression is overwhelmingly, "Man, this sucks."

Workin' hard for the money at Macbeth
Without fail, each production we attended disappointed, enervated, infuriated or bored both of us to the point of spending each metro ride home venting about the abuse our senses had just endured. Apparently, it's a mark of French theater and their "appreciation of" (read: distaste for) their audiences that allows most shows to run as long as four hours with no intermission. Four hours. NO INTERMISSION. As someone with a bladder, this is not just inconvenient, it's pure torture. As someone with a brain and a sense of time, this is just mind-numbingly rude. And it wasn't just one show here and there that made our asses fall asleep in the chair as we surreptitiously checked our watches and noticed how many patrons had fallen asleep (or, worse, appeared to be just as rapt by hour three as they were at curtain)—it was every. single. show. We saw a production of "Macbeth"—Shakespeare's shortest show—that clocked in at three hours and 45 minutes (albeit with an intermission of a half an hour, but only because they were selling dinner in the lobby). No one needs to see a play that runs three hours and 45 minutes that includes five-minute-long scene changes that the company has added to the script. (I wish I were exaggerating, but literally every scene contained some sort of ground-covering that had to be swept up by cast members feverishly wielding brooms before the next scene of ponderous, self-indulgent "speechifying" could commence.)

Bladder-bending break-free run-times aside, the plays seemed to be daring us to revolt. Daring us to get up and say, "I'm done for now, I could really use a pee." Daring us to admit that we're just not hip enough, educated enough, cultured enough, whatever enough to submit ourselves to such irritating theatrical malfeasance. We sat through one particularly interminable production of a reimagined "My Dinner with Andre" in which a few patrons got up and left at the three-hour mark and the actors yelled at them from the stage. Yelled at them. Told them that it was "almost over, just wait." (Which was in fact a lie, considering an hour later we were still sitting there, listening to them philosophize about love and death while choking on their cigarette smoke and watching them finish the complete meal they'd eaten during the course of the show.) I'm all for immersive, interactive theater, but if someone traps me in a room full of cigarette smoke and food smells and yammers for four hours and then chastises me for finally having enough and quietly leaving the theater, that's not immersive. That's idiotic.

Perhaps the most disappointing part of this hellish actor's nightmare (where the actors are the nightmare) was that the theater has been my happy place since I was a kid. I've been a performer since age 6, I participated in every school production possible, auditioned for extracurricular theater workshops, took singing and dance lessons and finally started doing professional theater at age 15. Theater is my haven, my place where I feel the most "me." So when the chance to go to my happy place every week in my new, adopted country to discover the theatrical culture around me, I was psyched. And every week, after getting angrier and angrier at the ridiculous, badly-done, fully-funded French crap that I was being told was "good" theater in this town, I finally had enough. Or so I thought.

The second-to-last play we attended was by a Spanish woman who had just been invited to perform at the Venice Theatre Festival. Fresh off this acclaimed appearance, she brought the "dance" piece to Paris to perform at one of the biggest national theaters in the city. I got excited in spite of my wariness, choosing to believe that perhaps we were finally going to see something amazing that would make the last three months of schlock worth it. Hope springs eternal. It also apparently springs stupid.

The inspiration for the title...
What we witnessed was a two-and-a-half hour sensory beat-down that included almost all of the male cast members getting completely naked onstage, almost all of the female cast members getting completely naked onstage, simulating rape, screaming like an infant complete with fist-pounding temper tantrum, beating 20 large drums so long and so loud that my head felt like it was going to split open (the cacophony actually made Joshua sick to his stomach), and finally, in what felt like a middle finger to not only the audience but also the stage management crew (who I pitied more and more each passing moment as more and more messy objects were crushed, thrown and broken onstage), the writer and star proceeded to stand center stage and douse herself in beer. A case of beer. Beer that she partially chugged, then tossed over a shoulder, poured down her chest and sprayed around the stage. This is, of course, after removing her underwear and performing some sort of strange Russian bottle dance that flaunted everything her mamá gave her. (Her mamá probably wishes she could take it back now, whoever and wherever she is.)

Needless to say, we left when there was still a full forty minutes left in the show, but our pounding heads just couldn't take any more. I've never been so content to squeeze into a crowded metro car than when I was leaving the naked, screaming, beer-soaked banshee behind (no offense intended to any banshees who may be reading this).

So has this experience turned me off theater for good? Of course not, but it has certainly made me appreciate the performances that I've enjoyed over the years. It's a rare, magical thing to truly enjoy a piece of live theater, especially when you can't help but see the wing and a prayer that it's riding on because you've ridden that same shoddy apparatus every time you yourself have stepped onstage. But I'd rather see the string and duct tape and missed cues and flubbed lines in a piece that doesn't feel like an artistic assault than suffer through a pontificating play that's "good for me" or "high art." You can be speaking Shakespeare's words or reciting Racine, but if it's hour four and I have to pee so badly my eyes are watering, you can keep your cultural superiority and Parisian profundity. 

Personne n'a du temps pour ça. Ain't nobody got time for that.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

15 October 2014: Say Cheese!

say cheese!

Hi, my name is Jessica and I'm a cheese-aholic.

For those who know me, this probably comes as no surprise. For those who don't (or didn't realize the depth of my addiction), I ask you to take a look at the photo on the right. That is a graphic representation of the selection of cheeses I keep in our refrigerator on a daily basis. No joke. Before I wrote this post, I rifled through the fridge and pulled out every cheese I could find. (Did I mention we have a dorm-sized fridge? You can probably imagine how much of it is taken up by delicious dairy products.)

I wasn't always this cheesy (though my husband insists that's not true—I think he means a different kind of "cheesy"). I had a normal childhood filled with things like cheap cafeteria cheese pizza, mozzarella string cheese, American cheese slices, the occasional wedge of brie if my parents were hosting people for dinner whom they wanted to impress. I was never deprived of cheese, nor was I particularly partial to the stuff. As I got older and could control what I kept stocked in my own apartment refrigerator, I admit that cheese became a more frequent houseguest. Blocks of Colby jack, cheddar, bags of shredded parmesan—moderate amounts of dairy to supplement my otherwise dairy-light existence.

That all changed when I moved to Paris.

Everyone associates "good cheese" with Paris, and to be honest, I thought it was mainly a cliché until I lived here. Surely not everyone dines on brie every night as though it's Kraft slices? Surely the ostensive French obsession with all things cheesy couldn't really be so extensive—just like the French laugh doesn't really sound like the chef from Little Mermaid? Oh, how wrong I was. (About both—seriously, that cartoon was spot-on.)

The cheese aisle of any standard grocery store here in Paris is home to more varieties of cheesy goodness than any other I've had the pleasure to browse. Sheep cheese, goat cheese, cow cheese—these distinctions were never given much thought before I was faced with this plethora of divine ovine- and bovine-sourced dairy options. Not only is there brie, there are tons of different kinds of brie from different regions, each with their own distinctive "bouquet" (trust me, opening our fridge is not always the most pleasant olfactory experience).

I've observed the Parisian grocery customer in its natural habitat and discovered that cheese isn't selected merely for price, or look, or name recognition. Cheeses must be inspected before they're purchased, much like a wine snob—ahem, wine connoisseur—sniffs and swirls a glass before letting it trickle down his throat. Lids are lifted, wedges are sniffed and squeezed. It was only natural that I put these habits to my own use. Every grocery store trip now involves at least five minutes of ponderous cheese inhalation.

To give you a peek into how this addiction runs my life, I give you Exhibits A through G: In our refrigerator at the moment, we have packaged slices of both gouda and mimolette—cheese from distinctly different origins (one is smooth and creamy and Dutch, the other is snappy and cheddar-esque and French) but equally delicious when consumed as a snack or placed on a sandwich. We have a round of Le Rustique brie, which did not just attract me with its little picnic-blanket skirt (seriously, the box is lined with a red-and-white checkered cloth—too cute to pass up), but also with its delightfully pungent and unctuous bouquet. We have a generic herb-and-soft-cheese spread that's like Rondelé but not as expensive (perfect for spreading on a baguette for a sandwich or using as a dip for carrots), a bag of blended cheeses to throw on pasta, a wedge of Tomme Noire (a "rustic" French cheese from the Pyrenees Mountains that is amazingly creamy once you get over the fact that it's surrounded by a thin, black rind) and finally, the pièce de résistance: Cousteron (which my husband refers to as "crunchy cheese"). Cousteron is a mild cow's milk cheese from the Loire region (famed for its wine as well as its dairy) and is housed in a gritty, crunchy rind that takes a little getting used to but eventually makes it feel like the cheese comes with its own cracker. Gross? Only to the uninitiated.

If your mouth isn't watering at this point (or if it is, but because dairy makes you gag), that's okay. I wouldn't wish this affliction on anyone (except myself, because cheese is freakin' delicious). Those who live a dairy-free lifestyle talk about the addictive properties of cheese, that your body responds to the sugars like it would to a drug. I believe that. When I get hungry and the stomach juices are churning, I can't just have any snack—I have to have cheese. My meals aren't complete without cheese (I even get the cheese option at Indian restaurants—the madness!). I think about cheese, I dream about cheese, I shop for cheese, I research cheese...and most importantly, I eat cheese. A lot of it.

I am the cheese, and while this cheese doesn't stand alone (my lactose-intolerant husband is my biggest enabler and co-cheese-spirator), there could definitely be more of us out there. May I interest you in a nice wedge of brie?...Perhaps a slice of gouda?...A mozzarella ball? Eh? Eh?? C'mon, lemme hook you up...

Saturday, September 27, 2014

27 September 2014: Corps Values

corps values

A week before we left for Paris, Joshua and I had a routine check-up with our primary care doctor to make sure everything was in working order before we took off overseas. (We have the same doctor and she had us in the room together for the appointment—something she'd never done before but which proved kind of interesting, once we got over how much it made us feel like old people.) At the end of the appointment, she said in all seriousness, "When you get over there, would you please tell me how French people stay so thin? We doctors have been trying to figure that out for years."

After the trite responses of "It must be all the walking" and "Well, they do eat a lot of fresh food," Joshua and I came to the same conclusion about the true way Parisians maintain their enviably sleek corps (bodies): "Smoking."

Cigarette use in Paris is so profound that you can't walk two steps without getting engulfed in secondhand smoke—either from a stinky traditional cigarette or from one of those new-fangled e-cigarettes that science is proving to be even more harmful than "normal" death sticks, thanks to the vapor that allows more malevolent particles to enter the lungs. (I'm not a fan of smoking, in case you couldn't tell. What someone wants to do to their own health is one thing, but I don't wish to share your life choices simply because I walk by. My, my, this soap box is slippery...)

The thing is, I don't remember the smoking being this prevalent the last time I lived here, or the last two times I visited. I remember being overwhelmed as a kid during my first visit, but I gradually got used to the general haze that permeated the atmosphere—to the point that it seemed odd to see people huddled outside bars and restaurants once I returned to California. Now that Paris has its own set of smoking laws that mostly prohibit puffing in public places (restaurants, stores, parks, etc.), maybe I'm encountering the effects of smokers being forced out onto the streets and into my path much more than I did in 1999. But whatever the reason, Paris has really gone up in smoke.

Lighting up certainly seems to be the prime method for maintaining one's Parisian sleek, considering it not only kills your appetite thanks to the stimulating nicotine hit, but also kills your sense of smell—and with it, taste—the more frequently you inhale. The practice also keeps your hands busy (and your body outside) instead of letting you get handsy with a baguette or a brasserie beefsteak.

My other suspicion is that French people (men and women) just don't eat all that much. A proponent of this theory, Mireille Guiliano, even published a book in 2004 called French Women Don't Get Fat, and it was a veritable Bible of how to eat like a French person—small amounts of quality ingredients—and still look lean and mean in your Dior trousers. Being the impressionable teen I was then, I snapped up the book, only to discover it was basically a reiteration of what had been ingrained in me since childhood: Everything in moderation. Though the age-old adage didn't save me from a bout with anorexia in high school and a subsequent weight gain my first year of college, I'd like to think that since that time, I've naturally subscribed to the edict of "Give your body what it wants."

But I've noticed something about Parisian women during my daily study of their habits: they do eat. I frequently see slender young women marching down the sidewalk gnawing a baguette sandwich the size of their fashionable handbag. I've even seen willowy business women tucking into hearty brasserie meals of entrée, main dish, side dish, salad and dessert—with a plate of decimated bread and a half-empty wine glass nearby. They drink wine, they eat chocolate, they enjoy what gives?

Another thing I've noticed is the prevalence of products promising to aid in minceur—weight loss. Every other page in a French magazine or poster in a pharmacie window is an ad for a pill or a liquid or a powder or a cream that promotes rapid weight loss, complete with the striking before-and-after photos I'd only associated with those terrifying Hydroxycut ads in America before now. I've also noticed that the tone of these ads is nothing short of withering: there's an implication that if you stopped to read this, you're already too fat—just buy this [cream, powder, liquid or pill] to regain your "real" (read: thin) beauty.

While America could widely be considered the kingdom of fat shaming—it sure feels like it, if you've ever lived there—we also still manage to be the most obese country in the world (according to the most recent list published by The Lancet Medical Journal). But the difference is that American ads seem to target their audience with an inclusive if not condoning attitude: "Do you want to get in shape and feel amazing? Do you want to look as awesome as this handsome athlete bounding across the screen? Then get off the couch, call this number and let's DO THIS!"

The French tactic, on the other hand, is decidedly more subtle, but somehow more cutting. There's a disdain to the language in magazines when discussing weight loss, as if to say, "If being skinnier is not on your list of priorities, don't even bother looking at these clothes. They're not meant for the likes of you."

So imagine growing up in a culture that is simultaneously exultant about how delicious [insert animal body part here] is when prepared in a [insert complex food form here] and yet reminds you on a daily basis that you're worthless if you're not thin and impossibly tan—though God forbid you ever show an ounce of effort lest you spoil that chic cloak of mystery that's draped casually on your narrow, bronzed shoulders.

With that kind of constant pressure, who wouldn't want a cigarette?

And then I stumbled upon something truly funny in a bookstore in the chi-chi-est shopping mall in Paris, Le Bon Marché. There, amid the novels from abroad and the thick fashion books that are heavier than the models inside was this little tome, entitled: Sushi Slim, ou Comment Garder La Ligne à la Japonaise. (Rough translation: Sushi Slim, or How to Maintain the Line of the Japanese Woman.) 

Apparently, the Americans look to the French for lessons in thinness, and the French look to...the Japanese.

Which just seems to prove that no one really has the secret to lifelong litheness, no matter where they're from. Whether it's cigarettes, fresh food, lots of bread, lots of walking—or lots of sushi—we're all just muddling through the best we can. 

I hope my doctor isn't too disappointed.

Monday, September 22, 2014

22 September 2014: Playing Nice

playing nice

I like to think of myself as an optimistic person. (Ironically, some of the least optimistic people I know consider themselves optimists, just like some of the least fashionable "trendy" people I see are "obsessed" with the resurgence of flatform footwear. But I digress.)

I've tried to adopt an attitude of positivity throughout most of my life, though that makes it sound like a conscious effort. The truth is, optimism is my coping mechanism, and has been since I was a child. Growing up with a very sick parent and, therefore, growing up very fast puts an emphasis on action more than reaction—every piece of bad news must be met with an action plan, "how we're going to handle this," rather than the admission of feelings of overwhelming sadness and defeat that nip at your heels every moment of every day. So you excel in school, you excel at activities, you try to be as nice as possible to everyone who crosses your path—even people who don't deserve it.

But while I've been busy trying to cause as little disturbance in the world as possible, it seems that other people have made it their life mission to more than fill the void. Put simply: why is everyone so rude?

Parisians get a bad rap for being rude, cold, snooty, you name it, but honestly—before living in the neighborhood I do now—I really didn't see it. Sure, there were anomalies, but for the most part, everyone I came across in 2010 was cordial and polite. This time around...not so much.

As a native Californian, I recognize that I'm accustomed to a certain amount of aggressive friendliness that others even in my own country find alarming (ever try to hug a Midwesterner?). I realized coming to Paris that the culture would be different, the customs new, and I tried to adapt and adopt as best I could. In every shop, I would dutifully greet the staff upon entrance ("Bonjour!") and exit ("Au revoir," "Bonne journée") and in between they pretty much left me to my own devices. I think it took our grocery store clerk—the one who saw us every day for six months straight and who was always very professional, if a little cold—almost our entire time living in Paris the last time to finally crack a smile of recognition. (Cue celebratory whooping on the way home.)

But this time, my experience of Parisians has been entirely different. Perhaps it's due to our change of location: in 2010, we lived in a very diverse area that was populated with families, lots of different ethnicities and tons of different tongues; now, we live in the most touristy arrondissement in the city, two blocks from the Eiffel Tower. Shopkeepers are quick with English (often it's stronger than their French) and very dismissive—I had a butcher tell me that he has to "fight" the tourists' English when they come. (This was after mistaking me for a Brit and, when I corrected him and insisted on speaking French, profusely apologizing.)

I understand the general frustration with tourists—as you'll know, if you've read other rants on this blog—considering I get nearly beheaded or shoved into traffic every day of the week when someone decides they need to take their umpteenth picture in the middle of the sidewalk where I happen to already be standing or that their backpack couldn't possibly be as large as it is as they turn quickly in a crowd. But what's gotten to me lately is the lack of courtesy that's shown to anyone, regardless of where they're from.

Case in point number 1: the grocery store, or pretty much any retail establishment where there are narrow aisles or displays to maneuver around. In America, if I was wandering down a grocery store aisle and came upon someone in my path, I would excuse myself quietly and gently slip by after they'd given way. Here, there are no cursory "Excusez-moi"s (or even more insistent "Pardon"s), there's just the sudden presence of another human body pushing against you to pass by. No acknowledgement of one's existence, just a shove, an elbow to the ribs, and it's done. An older woman banged my basket with hers while I was inspecting the vegetables and it wasn't until I looked up to see if she was going to acknowledge the fact that she'd nearly knocked the basket out of my hands in her mad dash to the zucchini that she said, very clearly and loudly, "Excusez-moi, madame."

I felt chastised, as though not only had I been in her way, I was now making a big deal about nothing.

Case in point number 2: At a recent theater performance, the show was sold out but Joshua had a ticket (he was attending for a class), so I put my name on the wait list. I was number two and was told by the box office attendant that I'd likely get in, I just had to wait until curtain (3pm) to find out if there were any available seats. Standard practice. So I stood by and waited while the audience streamed past me and curtain ticked closer and closer. When the time came, I waited in line to get back to the same box office attendant, who told me, "No, no, the performance starts at 10 after, you'll have to wait." So wait I did, a little confused, but figuring I just hadn't understood her French the first time. Ten minutes later, the stream had stopped and I inquired again if there were any tickets to be had. Again, she told me to what roughly translates as "hold my horses." So I went down to the theater space with Joshua so he could find a seat—aware all the while that it might cost me my place if I weren't standing right there when she called my name—and suddenly saw all the other people who'd been behind me on the list traipsing up to the door, tickets in hand. I rushed back upstairs, hoping I hadn't shot myself in the foot, and politely asked if there was still one more seat left (knowing full well Joshua's professor had just turned in three unclaimed tickets). I was brushed off again while the attendant consulted the list (where my name had been conspicuously crossed out) and conducted a lengthy conversation with the man behind her until she finally deigned to allow me to pay her 30 Euro for the privilege of running back downstairs a sweaty bundle of nerves to take the last seat.

These illustrations may seem trivial. They may even seem petty or normal to someone who was raised in a big city and considers these interactions just part of daily life sharing very little space with very many people. But the accumulation of incidents like these every day—compounded by daily news stories in which people are cruel to other people merely because they can be and stories in my own circle that "So-and-So is being rude to So-and-So because she's too nice, or too quiet, or too [insert mindless adjective here]"—make me question the sanity of our society. Yes, you cut in front of me in traffic, but in the grand scheme of things, do you really think you're getting anywhere that much faster? Yes, you shoved me out of line in the grocery store—only to have a new line open up and be behind me after all—but does your food taste better because of it? Yes, you made that person feel small and left out, but does that really make you feel big, or just momentarily inflated? 

If we really examine what makes life truly livable, can't we see that it's the times we feel heard, seen, loved, trusted, respected, valued, that make us feel alive?

Can't we all just play nice?