Sunday, September 30, 2007

Another Kind of Church Music

I went to church at the American Cathedral this morning, the Episcopal church that serves the American and Anglophone community in Paris. Usually I go to the American Church, a multi-denominational Protestant church, but I wanted to try something different. I had never been to the Cathedral, and it was beautiful: Gothic architecture, powerful organ, intricate stained glass. It's like a French church in many ways, except for the flags of US states that line the nave.

In any church service I've been in here, there's a sound that you almost never hear in the US. When they take up the offering, you hear the constant clinking of change. Since French money -- whether the old Franc or now the Euro -- is made up of many more coins in larger denominations that in the US, people who put in 1 or 2 Euro coins or some combination inevitably cause the other coins in the plate to jingle. And, if the plate is metal, as it was this morning, the plate itself makes a sound when the money hits it.

There’s something exciting and worshipful about hearing the sound of money against the offering plate. In the US, we put in checks or bills, and many people do here too. But even a small donation at home of $1 makes no sound, whereas here even a small contribution of 1 Euro announces itself. This is not to say that people try to make noise to show off. But hearing the jingle of Euros as they fill the offering is another kind of music or prayer that is missing in most American churches. It's the sound of God’s work going forward.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Buying a Piece of History

My friend and Rhodes colleague Katheryn Wright and I went to the flea market today at Saint-Ouen, just north of Paris. The Marche aux Puces is legendary as the biggest in town, and it certainly lives up to its reputation. It's row after row of booths, shops, and stands selling everything imaginable, from clothes to antique furniture to junk to CDs and DVDs. It's a shopper's dream.

I bought some old postcards of the 1910 flood, the subject of my current research. When we asked the dealer if he had any, he pulled out 3 stacks of about 75 cards which we had fun sorting through. People collect cards of their flooded neighborhood, he said, or based on themes or scenes that interest them. I bought a few too, including one dramatic scene of a little girl being rescued from a flooded street. It’s definitely going in my book.

Flipping through 100 year old postcards, I could feel the dust come off on my fingers. It’s similar in the archive. When I pulled century old (or older) documents out of the archival storage cartons at the Archive de Paris, they had that distinctive smell of decaying paper. Bits of them crumbled onto the desk where I was working. And when I left, my fingers were stained with age.

I wonder if the people who wrote those documents realized that I, or anyone, would be going through their work nearly 100 years later. Will anyone be examining my things a century from now? And I wonder whether the people in the postcards -- especially that little girl being rescued -- ever thought that I would be buying their picture at the Paris flea market on a crisp fall day.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Power of Language

I've long understood that language is an important part of identity, but I'm finding out just how powerful the connection is on this trip.

I am a very verbal person. I read, write, and speak as we all do, but it's an especially important part of my life as an academic. These are the tools of my trade, and I've worked hard to develop them over the years. As a result, I'm not only proficient in my native language, but rely on nuances of expression and vocabulary to get my ideas across. I say things with a certain turn-of-phrase or a particular kind of inflection to make a subtle point. My ability to use the finer points of language is a crucial part of how I communicate with others.

But here, much of that ability is gone. My French is OK, especially my reading knowledge. But speaking and especially listening has always been difficult. To be deprived of a central aspect of what I'm used to doing on a daily basis has proven to be a bigger challenge than I expected. It means that, at least with the French, I can't fully be myself because so much of who I am is expressed in what I say and how I say it.

There are plenty of English speakers here, of course, and with them I can say what I really mean. But sitting in a cafe surrounded by nothing but French can be quite isolating. It means that I can't fully connect with the world around me and that, in some way, a part of me is missing.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Nature at the Archive de Paris

Up until yesterday, I was spending most of my time in this building. It looks kind of like a spaceship or a futuristic prison, but it's the Archive de Paris, the municipal archive, where all sorts of documents related to city government and administration are held. Despite its very modernist appearance, on the walkway leading up to the building, there are lots of herbs and flowers (I've harvested rosemary there on the sly). My work there is done, and I don't plan to go back to this archive. But as I was leaving, I noticed these fruit trees which I hadn't seen before. I thought it was a striking contrast to have beautiful fruit growing outside a building which looks so stark and forbidding.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Selling Civilization?

This image in the rue Montorgueil has always puzzled me. Apparently, it is a remnant of a time when a coffee or sugar dealer sold his wares here. The caption states that this is not a branch store or part of a chain. Here, you're dealing directly with the dealer, or planter, as the text above indicates.

Of course, the image reinforced certain racial stereotypes about both Africans and the French. In the 19th century, Europeans -- and the French in particular -- considered themselves to be the height of the racial hierarchy and sought to bring "civilization" to other parts of the world. But one man's civilization is another man's barbarity. Consider this picture from the African's point of view. He's half naked and reduced to serving the owner of this plantation. The shop may very well have been an outlet for a Caribbean plantation where the French owned slaves until 1848 (I believe).

Considering the sometimes tense race relations in Paris today, it's almost surprising that this image has survived. There's another similar one in the Place de la Contrascarpe. Maybe I'll post a picture of that one too someday.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Public Prayers

Paris is a noisy city with few places of respite. But the numerous churches provide a welcome space for peace and quiet amidst the hectic streets. I went into St-Germain-des-Pres recently. It's not too far from my apartment. I saw that on the columns next to statues of several saints, the church had posted large sheets of white paper so that people could write out their petitions (that's St. Anthony in the photo). I had never seen this before; maybe they do it elsewhere. Still, I thought it was noteworthy because not only can you leave a lighted candle as your prayer but also a little note to God. Others might read it too, of course. I guess it's another form of public prayer.

Psychologists say that expressing your feelings is very helpful because it prevents them from being bottled up inside. And writing them down has been shown to be a very effective form of therapy. Apparently, it's good theology too.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Holy Monday

This morning in a cafe, I heard The Mamas and the Papas singing "Monday, Monday." It reminded me how strange Mondays are here.

Centuries ago, Europeans had an informal holiday on Mondays which was sometimes called "Holy Monday." If Sunday had been a saint's day which involved a day-long festival, no one wanted to work on Monday. And in an agricultural economy where no one punched a time clock and working hours were more flexible, taking off part or all of Monday was not a problem.

Paris seems to have preserved the practice of Holy Monday. The Bibliotheque Nationale (the National Library) doesn't open until 2:00 PM, and the Archives of Paris where I've been working lately doesn't open until 1:30 PM. My neighborhood grocery story -- a large chain store, not a small operation -- doesn't open until noon. Of course some things are open on the weekend, so taking off Monday morning isn't too much to ask for them, perhaps. But the street seemed so empty this morning when I left the apartment.

Holy Monday throws off my timing and reminds me that the pace of life in Paris does not proceed by American time. Paris is not a 24/7 city, although more things are that way than the first time I came. Funny how a matter of timing, so ingrained in our routines, can make another place feel so different. Especially on a Monday morning.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

La Maison Suger

Here is a brief tour of my apartment at La Maison Suger. I have a kitchen, bedroom/living room/office, and bathroom with shower. The view from the window looks onto the rue Suger. The street is named for the Abbot Suger who was a very important 12th century clergyman and is regarded as a key patron of Gothic architecture, especially the use of stained glass. The church at Saint-Denis where the kings of France are buried (and were reburied after being dug up during the Revolution) is one of the earliest examples of stained glass in France and was begun by Suger himself.

I normally wouldn't show you the toilet, but it has come to play an important role in this blog. This building has wireless internet, something I've never had before in any apartment. That makes it easy to check email and to post entries onto this blog. But the signal is very weak in the main room where the desk is. After some trial and error and being told by the woman at the reception desk that I need to remember to have my window open to receive the signal, I realized that the wireless is strongest in the bathroom. So, in order to be on the internet, I either need to sit on the edge of the bathtub or, for greater comfort, sit on the toilet. So when you receive email from me or read this blog, you can picture me sitting in the bathroom with the computer on my lap typing away.

France has a very strange relationship with technology. Wireless is now everywhere in the city, even in many of the parks and most of the cafes. But somehow the idea that I need to have my apartment window open and sit on the toilet to use wireless internet is something that I can only see happening in France. The understanding of technology here only seems to go up to a certain point. Then it becomes this mysterious thing that no one can figure out.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Mississippi Rice

Sorry this picture is fuzzy, but I was trying to take it discreetly in the grocery store this morning. I guess Mississippi is a rice growing state, but I had no idea that identifying it as such would help to sell it in Europe. On the side of the box is a little picture of Mississippi with the central region of the state circled and highlighted as the point of origin of this rice. I don't know if I've ever seen Mississippi rice in Memphis.

As another reminder of Memphis, I also saw this book on Memphis music in the bookstore today. Who knew there were so many Franco-Memphis-Mississippi connections?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Unexpected Architecture

Paris is famous for its interesting architecture, but sometimes there is also unexpected architecture. Guess which of these buildings is actually the architecture school. The building on the right is the more typical Haussmann-era (late 19th century) Parisian building with the Mansard roof. The left is a combination of Renaissance and Moorish in deep reddish brown. Not what you expect to see in Paris. I pass this building when I walk from the apartment to the Institute at Reid Hall.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Do You Know Elvis?

One of my theories as to why the French and other Europeans speak very good English (other than the fact that they're taught it in school) is that they 're constantly surrounded by it. It's hard to spend much time in Paris without encountering American popular culture, especially music and films. Not long after I arrived, I heard some French girls break into an American song in English on the street. I hear the same songs here in the supermarket that I hear on the radio at home.

Most Americans are shielded from other languages by comparison. When was the last time you heard a French song on US radio? How many European films come to the movie theater in Memphis or most American cities? But other languages are everywhere in Paris. Here, everyone knows Elvis, or at least his modern-day counterparts.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Paris Beyond the Myths

It goes without saying that Paris is a city of myths, especially for Americans. We believe in the Paris we want to see, but that doesn't always match the way Paris really is.

Last night, I went to a part of the city that I've never visited before, Chateau Rouge, to meet the journalist Michael Deibert. We had some great conversation about Paris, travel, writing, and other things. Michael lives in this neighborhood which he described as the "most African" in the city. When I came out of the Metro, I stepped into the middle of a lively market scene with food (like manioc) that you might not find elsewhere in the city. These were working people who have made a very different kind life in Paris than the kind you see in the movies.

Michael also told me that the illegal street vendors selling jewelry regularly get roughed up by the police, but never really put out of business. The police sometimes seem to treat the Africans poorly just because they can. These vendors may make 30 or 40 euros a day if they're lucky -- not much in one of the world's most expensive cities.

One of the things we talked about is how hard Paris is to explain to lots of people who only come as tourists or who know Paris purely through its myths. Paris is a gritty, harsh place for lots of people, from the immigrants of Chateau Rouge and the suburbs, to the homeless sleeping in the Metros or in an encampment I saw one night alongside the river. Like any city, Paris has its beauty. But I like to remind people of the complexities too, if only to deflate those myths a little.

I want to see Paris for what it really is, not for what I want it to be. That's a little easier as a historian because I've studied the highs and lows of French history -- the parts that everyone celebrates (like the way the city has encouraged the life of the mind) and the parts that many people would rather forget (like the collaboration with the Nazis). With that kind of knowledge, it's been a long time since I "loved" Paris only for its myths.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Memory Is a Strange Place

I ate lunch today at La Croissanterie, a French version of "fast food" of a sort. It serves sandwiches (on baguettes, of course), desserts, salads -- typical French lunch fare. But I realized that it's a strange combination of past and present.

The decor is a kind of pseudo-French country pastiche featuring paintings of cows and sheep. The floor is wooden and has a rustic look, like a barn. The women working there wear a sort of bonnet that makes them look like milkmaids. On the menu, they use words like "terroir," which means "soil," but in a very charged way that is more like "homeland," some place to which one has an emotional connection. And their slogan is "Le gout de natural" -- the natural taste, or the taste of nature. Clearly, this restaurant plays on a "return to the land" and a sense of tradition.

But the set-up is extremely modern and efficient -- some would say American. One proceeds through the line almost cafeteria style. There is no table service. The furniture and many of the light fixtures are sleek and hip in bright colors. And there is nothing rustic about having your sandwich served on a real plate and being given a plastic cup into which to pour your soda. In these details, urban civilization reigns supreme.

It occurred to me that La Croissanterie -- like many other places in Paris and in the US (Cracker Barrel comes to mind) -- are selling nostalgia back to their customers. They evoke a mythical rural past which seems comforting and pleasant -- simpler and more "natural" -- even though, historically, many people worked very hard to leave that rural life behind and live more modern lives. They make us feel safe by recycling myths about "the way we never were," and sell sandwiches in the process. But by throwing in a little bit of modern life, they make us feel safe too. After all, if we tried to eat our sandwiches amidst real cows and sheep in a rustic barn, we might not go back.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Wild "Ouest"

One of the enduring images of the US that many Europeans hold is of the "wild west." When Buffalo Bill's Wild West show toured here in the late nineteenth century, it left a lasting impression.

I've never eaten at the Buffalo Grill, a chain restaurant that plays on this stereotype of Americans as frontiersmen, and I don't plan to. But part of me is curious to know what their take on barbecue is.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A Trick of the Eye

Often, when a Parisian building is undergoing construction, the work is wrapped with a fake facade which looks like a regular building -- an kind of enormous tromp l'oeil, or "trick of the eye" painting. That way, passers by don't have to see unsightly scaffolding and the eye is fooled into thinking that the street looks normal -- unless you get up close. It's probably a good safety measure too since pedestrians walking next to a construction site on sometimes narrow sidewalks might encounter debris from above and a nasty bump on the head.

I have seen a few fancy or extravagant building covers. If I remember correctly, the Louis Vuitton store was wrapped like a package at one point. But I had never seen anything like the fake facade on this building located on Avenue George V, just off of the Champs-Elysees (not far from Louis Vuitton). My camera is not broken, nor have I used special computer effects. This is what the building's construction covering looks like from the street.

Paris is a city of images and image-making. Looks matter, not just to people, but to neighborhoods, buildings, and to the urban space. People come from all over the world to see Paris and expect a beautiful city. Perhaps that's also why construction is put out of sight, especially in this swanky district. People are paying for the beauty. I'm just not sure what they think when they see this building. Perhaps an eye doctor has his shop inside and is trying to drum up business!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Fashion Sense

There are numerous reminders of the French-American friendship throughout Paris: Avenue du President Kennedy, the Metro stop Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the miniature version of the Statue of Liberty in the middle of the Seine.

Near the Musee d'Orsay, there is a striking statue of Thomas Jefferson. But who knew that Mr. Jefferson had such a flair for fashion, especially in the form of a red feather boa?

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Culture of "Non"

The only real requirement as a Fellow-in-Residence at the Columbia University Institute for Scholars at Reid Hall, apart from a 15 minute research presentation, is the weekly tea.

Yesterday, we had our first featuring tea from the venerable Parisian tea shop Marriage Freres (we drank Marco Polo). We made our way around the table introducing ourselves and our research projects. It's an impressive group, and I'm sure I'll learn a lot by being here. The director
of the Institute, Dr. Danielle Haase-Dubosc, and one of the Research Coordinators, Dr. Mihaela Bacou, hosted the gathering, and engaged the group in a lively conversation about everyone's research. It was a warm welcome, both socially and intellectually.

When one of the other participants told us that she was having difficulty getting access to an archive in Dijon, Danielle told us something that we probably all knew from our experience, but I had never heard it put quite so well: the first response of most French people, she said, was to say "non."

According to her theory, the French are collectively stuck at that moment of the "terrible twos" that every child goes through when he or she learns to say "no," thereby beginning to establish a separate identity. According to Danielle, French culture had not gotten past this point of saying "no."

And there are many ways to say no: "Non." "Non, non, non." "C'est impossible!" "Ah, non." She quickly ticked off some of the ways. But, she said, persistence is the key, and usually you can get past the "non." These kinds of sweeping generalizations are dangerous, of course, and not always true. But everyone in the room, including Danielle and Mihaela, chuckled knowingly, memories of such incidents coming back to mind.

I purchased an international phone card to call the US, and I tried it for the first time today. After dialing a multitude of digits, the digitized voice on the other end of the line said that there were too many calls in the system to complete mine and that I should try back later. France Telecom was essentially saying, "Non, c'est impossible!" and shrugging its shoulders. I'll try again later, hoping that persistence will indeed pay off.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

River Dance

Alongside the Seine, not far from the Jardin des Plantes, are two small amphitheaters which look out towards the river. I had never seen them before, and they would have been interesting on their own. But it was the music that stopped me.

The sounds of strings wafted into the air, and I saw a small gathering of people in one of the amphitheaters. At first, they just stood around while the music played, although one person was clearly in charge and looked like he was trying to get something started. After a few minutes, it became clear that this was a dance lesson.

A group of about five men formed on one side, moving slowly in time with the music and tracing the steps that their teacher laid out. Unfortunately, there was only one woman, so they had to share her. Each man swapped her off after a few tentative steps. The other group appeared to be learning some kind of line dance, but I could never figure out what it really was.

I've always thought that people in Paris -- maybe this is true of any big city -- are more accustomed to being in public than the rest of us. Americans in particular go to great lengths to create zones of privacy: our cars protect us from interacting with others on public streets, our big back yards with their fences and decks mean that we never have to go to the public park. When we do venture in public, certain "private" things are taboo, such as affection. The French, of course, have no problem with public displays of affection. Just go to any public park in Paris and see for yourself.

Nor, apparently, do they have any problem learning to dance in public. I can't imagine many Americans doing this. It requires a person to put too much of his or her self esteem on the line in front of others. But these Parisians didn't seem to mind -- did I mention that they even had an audience?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Beware the Singing Scotsmen

I've always known that Paris is one of the most cosmopolitan, international cities on earth. And the best place to prove it is in the Metro.

Today, I hopped onto a train at Chatelet, the huge Metro station right in the center of the city. The doors closed, but we only went a foot before we stopped and the conductor announced a small delay. Nothing unusual about that.

A minute later, a large pack of Scotsmen dressed in kilts came down the platform. This, however, is quite unusual. They didn't let the fact that the doors were closed dissuade them as had most everyone else outside the train. And wouldn't you know that they headed toward my car.

In Paris, the older Metro cars are not automatic but open by pulling up on a small lever. Once the Scots had opened the doors, they all piled in at once. I didn't count, but there must have been about 15 burly guys. Some were draped in the Scottish flag, a couple were middle aged although most were probably in their late twenties and thirties. And they were loud.

Last summer when Ellen and I were here, the World Cup (football -- or soccer, depending on where you live) was on. But this time it's the Rugby World Cup, and Paris is hosting the tournament. That accounts for the Scots.

We were still sitting at the station when suddenly they decided to sing -- apparently without the aid of drink. The first song, believe it or not, was the theme to "Dallas," the global TV hit of the 1980s. Then a Scottish song. Then, when a woman (hopefully one they knew) went by the still-open door, they sang "Hey, Baby (I Wanna Know Will You Be My Girl)," some with their heads out the door just to make sure she heard it. Then another Scottish ditty. A truly cosmopolitan group of men in one of the most diverse places on earth.

This episode also reminds me of Franklin Foer's very good book How Soccer Explains the World. Foer discusses how soccer as a sport reveals a very powerful tension within the world today. On the one hand, it is the most global sport of our time with clubs from nearly every nation competing on a truly international stage. In many ways, soccer helps everyone to understand each other by providing a common culture the world over. But soccer has also been a way for old national and regional identities to find a very powerful expression, sometimes at the expense of tolerance and a world-wide sense of the common good. Soccer clubs can be downright nasty toward each other, and the result can be racism, hatred, and even violence.

These rugby fans demonstrated that same kind of duality. They were fiercely loyal to their Scottishness, but they mixed American songs into their performance on the Parisian subway. We may sometimes be glad that it's a small world, but the distances between us can still be comforting to a lot of people.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


People in every culture have a distinctive way of responding to situations, but perhaps the most revealing is how they react to injustice.

At the grocery store this morning, just as I was leaving, a woman approached the security guard and threw down her purse. I'm not sure why -- perhaps he had questioned her about something. Her skin was darker than most, so perhaps she was of North African descent. But I couldn't tell for sure.

Then she began pacing around yelling, "la honte!, la honte!" which means "shame!" The security guard picked up her bag and began to carry it away. Even though I had left the store with my heavy load, all the way down the street I could still her shouting, "shame!" at the security guard. And perhaps the whole store, and maybe the whole world.

The same situation would be almost unthinkable in the US. Most Americans avoid making a scene in public places. Or if they do, they might ask to see the manager. Some might shout, but their choice of words might be a bit more profane.

To yell "shame" in a public place is to invoke a powerful category beyond law or ideology. To heap shame on the security guard, this woman was saying that the moral order had been disturbed somehow. Maybe she hoped that others would recognize the immorality of the moment and rush to her defense.

This woman did not fight injustice with a threatened lawsuit, but by crying out to her neighbors that the guard, the store, and maybe everyone else too, had something to answer for in their souls.

Blink Twice

Sitting in the airport in Amsterdam on my way to Paris, I thought of Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink, which I read a few months ago.

Gladwell shows that many of the decisions we make happen in a split-second -- the blink of an eye -- and that they shape how we see the world and how we react to others.

Although those kinds of knee-jerk reactions can lead to prejudice, they can also be an important mechanism for self-defense. Especially when in a foreign country.

But, sitting in the airport, I realized that my "blink" response was not working. The people I was watching as I waited for my flight to Paris were mostly Europeans and some Japanese. When I looked at them, I could make very few if any "snap" judgements because they were sending all the wrong signals. Wrong, that is, to American eyes.

Sizing someone up in a "blink" requires both people to share a common culture, the same set of reference points. Clothes, behavior, hairstyles, etc., all the little clues that make "blinking" possible weren't there. Or they were there, but they were in different combinations, different packages, different sequences. Did the Japanese woman's dyed blond hair mean the same thing in the US as it did in Japan -- or in the Amsterdam airport? Did the t-shirts with messages mean the same things to Europeans as they did to Americans? I found that I had to blink twice, or more, to even begin making sense of the people I saw.

All this reminded me that living in another country means giving up a kind of comfort not only with language but also with the ability to think on your feet about your surroundings. It requires a bit more concentration to "get" the world around you, if that understanding ever fully comes.

Of course, the difference is part of why we travel. But anyone who has travelled knows that it is hard work.