Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
Monday, October 29, 2007
Sunday, October 28, 2007
I think the French are more accustomed to smells than Americans. In the US, we work hard to eliminate odors. Fish counters at US supermarkets don't smell like fish -- even though they should. We prize cleanliness to the point of removing the sensory experience, whether it's smell or sometimes taste. But in Paris, smells and flavors seem more pronounced. I think that's part of why Americans like to eat when they come here -- you can taste the food, and smell it.
Saturday, October 27, 2007
Thursday, October 25, 2007
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Monday, October 22, 2007
But the name of the museum speaks to the problem with the collection: it’s not named after its contents, but rather after the street where it’s located. It would be like calling a museum in the US the “Main Street Museum” or the “Poplar Avenue Museum.” The name tells you nothing about what’s inside, only where to find it.
The issue, I think, is the fact that the French have these artifacts from the rest of the world because they colonized all of these places in the nineteenth century. Now that European colonialism is a defunct institution and historians have revealed it as the exploitative and brutal practice that it was, France is faced with a tough question. How to display the items that they took from other parts of the world, sometimes by force, when they ruled these peoples? What do you call a museum that is comprised of the spoils of war and slavery when you’re trying to put a positive spin on it?
So they call it the Musée du Quai Branly because it sits on the Quai Branly near the Eiffel Tower (you can see it in the background of my picture). It’s a beautiful, modern glass and metal structure with a park outside and plants actually growing out of the facade. It wraps you in nature when you enter. Maybe that helps to take the edge off of the story contained -- but not really told -- inside the building.
Sunday, October 21, 2007
1. Last night was the final of the Rugby World Cup which has been going on ever since I arrived. South Africa defeated England, something which I understand was not a surprise. There were lots of English fans in town, especially in my neighborhood. They wore funny colorful wigs and bright rugby shirts and scarves.
What surprised me was the fact that apparently the song "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is an English rugby song. I asked my Australian colleague at the Institute about it since she follows rugby. She said that they seem to sing it in hopes of "carrying" the score "home," or higher. But to American ears, this made no sense. "Swing Low" is a classic African-American spiritual about death. The song prays for a chariot to descend from heaven and carry souls back to God. This struck me as a very strange form of cultural appropriation. But I guess one person's lament is another's cheer.
2. The photo: Pschitt is a fizzy lemonade, despite the name. I though you might find it amusing too.
Saturday, October 20, 2007
Friday, October 19, 2007
I watched the strikes unfold yesterday on the internet from my office. Interestingly, another news story edged the strike out of the top headlines during the day: the divorce of President Nicholas Sarkozy and his wife Cecilia.
For the most part, Paris went on as usual. The streets had more bikes than normal, including the new rental bikes provided by the city, the Velib. But the story of the divorce was seen as both ordinary and surprising. The French pride themselves on having a very different response to the private lives of their politicians compared to Americans. During the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the French probably shrugged and said "C'est normal." After all, former President Francois Mitterand was well-known to have a mistress by whom he had a child. The polls say that the majority of French people believe that this divorce will have no effect on Sarkozy's ability to work as President.
But, somewhat surprisingly, the Sarkozy divorce seemed to become the big news of the day. The President's private life had become public and was the subject of much discussion. Perhaps the French are more interested in these things than they like to admit. Or maybe Sarkozy, the "American-style" president is getting American-style media attention. There was a little bit of Schadenfreude (taking pleasure in the suffering of others, as the Germans call it) in the press which has been critical of Sarkozy.
But there are two ways to read this episode. On one hand, someone might pity Sarkozy because of his personal loss at a moment of political crisis. He had campaigned on the idea that his wife would be an informal member of his administration (a kind of Hillary Clinton circa 1992), but now she abandons him when he needs her most. Will Sarkozy's poll numbers go up as a result of sympathy?
But the other way to look at this is to note that on Wednesday, the presidential spokesman vehemently denied any impending divorce. Then, the very next day, it was announced as a fait accompli. Did Sarkozy time the announcement of the divorce to blunt the media's coverage of the strike? Here's a quote from one of Sarkozy's political rivals as reported in the New York Times: “The Élysée has chosen this Thursday, a day of strong social mobilization, to make the information official,” said Annick Lepetit, the Socialist Party’s national secretary, in a communiqué. “We will leave it to the French people to judge if it’s only a simple coincidence.”
Either way, the strike continues today, and I'm back in the office rather than the library. And Paris rolls on.
(Image from the New York Times website)
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Paris -- and in fact all of France -- is not itself today because of an enormous transport strike (la greve). The Metro, commuter trains, buses, and the high-speed TGV that goes between cities are either not working at all or are on very limited schedules. Workers are protesting changes in the government's retirement policy, and have shut down one of the city's basic infrastructure elements to make their point. All this while thousands of English rugby fans are on their way to Paris for the Rugby World Cup final.
For me, it's kind of like a snow day. Everyone knew it was coming and made alternate plans. I cancelled my request at the library. Some things go on as normal, but other things are postponed. Our Institute tea is this afternoon, but if some people can't make it to Reid Hall, everyone will understand. We make do.
Much of the strike is bound up in the specifics of French politics. The new president Nicholas Sarkozy wants to revitalize the French economy -- along lines similar to the US, according to many -- but doing so creates not only an economic but a cultural conflict. Which is most important: working longer and making more money, or working less and having more free time? That's at the heart of the issues related not only to the strike but to why Sarkozy is so controversial. He won the presidency with a majority, but a substantial number of French voters hold onto long-cherished notions of being able to appreciate the "joie de vivre" that comes not with work but with leisure. That's why there is a 35 hour work week and a very early retirement age (in the 50s, I think).
Labor is still strong in France, and anyone who spends much time here has seen it in action. The first time I left France, the people who clean Charles de Gaulle airport were on strike; there were piles of garbage everywhere. Once when I went to do research in the National Archives, a sign was posted on the gate: "Archive on strike." I once saw a protest march by firemen. And now, the transportation strike of 2007. Strikes are a way of life here. Come to think of it, maybe Paris is acutally itself after all.
For more information, here are 2 New York Times articles to read: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/18/world/europe/18france.html?ref=world
(I got the picture from the National Public Radio website. I have not been out in the marches myself.)
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
It's interesting that Europeans are debating some of the same questions as Americans when it comes to who is allowed into the country (or the EU) and who is not. Drawing those boundaries have become important for some people in France for both economic and cultural reasons; many choose to blame immigrants for unemployment and for cultural decline. These are the same kinds of issues raised by those who want to build a wall along the Mexican border.
I'm not sure what the answers to these complicated questions are, but it seems clear that the conflicts will continue to grow. We want the benefits of a global economy without the costs that come with the increased mobility of money, jobs, goods, and people. It may be hard to have both.
Monday, October 15, 2007
Perhaps this does give me an opportunity to reflect on one thing since it's literally on my fingertips right now: French keyboards are different from those in the US. It's a small set of differences, but just enough to slow down my typing. It turns me from a pretty fast typer into something of a hunt-and-peck typer, just by moving a few keys around.
For instance, the center row of keys on a French keyboard is qsdfjklm -- rather than asdfjkl; -- so when I need the letter a, I often get the letter q because it's in the place where the a is on a US keyboard. Punctuation is in different places too, and you have to use the shift key to make a period. In the internet age, the @ sign is very important, but on a French keyboard, you have to use Ctrl-Alt-0 (excpet that it's not really the 0 key since all numbers must be made using a shift).
And of course they have keys we don't have, in particular letters with accents: é and è and à are all in the top row of symbol keys, except that you don't have to use shift to make them.
Funny how a few keys in a different place makes for a different linguistic experience in something as basic as typing.
Sunday, October 14, 2007
I've never seen so many people out and about in Paris as I did today, especially in the Jardin du Luxembourg. But then it has been a perfect fall day, mid-60s, a little warmer in the bright sunshine. Elsewhere, I encountered one of the groups of roller skaters who tour around the city from time to time. In these groups, there are hundreds, maybe a thousand people who roll together as an enormous pack through the streets. These photos don't really capture the size of the group.
Saturday, October 13, 2007
This one may remain a mystery, but it's always interesting to wonder about which parts of American culture the French choose to pick up on. What exactly do Parisians think of when they hear the name Tennessee? Apparently, some think of jazz.
Friday, October 12, 2007
Thursday, October 11, 2007
I haven't seen as many on this trip. Maybe the Metro administrators have cracked down. Lots of people have i-pods and listen to their own songs. Maybe I just haven't been riding the right trains.
Today, though, when I got onto a train, a man was singing a lovely ballad (in Spanish I think) with a guitar. Then he switched to a rendition of "Love Me Tender." The music on the Metro is nothing if not diverse.
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
It doesn't always feel this way, but according to the sign on this shop, Paris loves me. An interesting way to sell souvenirs. I like the combination of Eiffel Towers and peace symbols on the sign (you may have to click on and enlarge the image to see it).
Tuesday, October 9, 2007
The selection seemed even stranger given the audience: schoolchildren. We had to make special arrangements to get into this viewing since everyone else in the audience was about 7 years old (with a few parents and teachers scattered throughout the auditorium). In many ways, the kids' responses to the films were as interesting as the films themselves. At times, they laughed, at times they applauded. When the person from the museum finished his introduction at the beginning, they all yelled out "Merci!"
One of the shorts was an interview with the photographer Robert Doisneau who is famous for his pictures of Paris, including one of a man and woman kissing by the river. The kids had been pretty quiet up to this point (although it took lots of shushing to keep them that way). When Doisneau's kissing image came on the screen, though, they all started whispering and chatting. They seemed to know what the picture was about.
The flood footage was interesting, especially getting to see the moving water. But in some ways it wasn't much of a surprise. The film looked pretty much like all of the photographs I have seen of the flood -- scenes of rescue, of flooded streets, of water up to the decks of bridges. Photographers and filmmakers probably stood in the same locations and took the same shots. And the film was silent, giving me no voices from the moment.
Interestingly, the kids in the audience were (relatively) quiet too during that portion of the presentation, the only silent film in the bunch. I don't know if they were really watching, but a film with no sound made for an audience with very little noise, even when that audience was about 7 years old.
Monday, October 8, 2007
The sandwich shops where I sometimes eat lunch also have a menu, or sometimes they call it a "formule," or formula. But there, you choose a sandwich, a drink, and dessert.
This always strikes me as interesting because in the US, our combo meals at lunch are usually a sandwich, drink, and chips or some other kind of savory side dish (potato salad, pasta salad, slaw, etc.). But here, you don't eat chips or potato salad, you eat dessert. Does this speak to some kind of French affinity for the sweet, even at lunch?
Today, I had a sandwich, a soda, and a delicious chocolate tart -- a very dense and rich chocolate cake. But I couldn't eat it all because it was too big. So I took it with me, something which the French don't tend to do (there is no "doggie bag" tradition here). It reminded me of "the great mi-cuit abduction" of last summer when Ellen's mother, Kay, took her molten chocolate cake with her from the restaurant where we were eating. Some things are just too good to leave behind, especially the sweets.
Sunday, October 7, 2007
Anyone who studies French history knows about the troubling history of the war years, although it's something with which the French themselves have struggled for a long time. Note that the date of the plaque on the school says that it was only installed in 2003. It took American scholars to help tell the story of occupied and Vichy France because French historians were reluctant to delve into that episode on their own. What the scholars have found is that the French sent their Jews to the east even before the Nazis asked them to. They hoped, mistakenly, that they could befriend the Nazis and make the occupation less onerous. In the end, it was a devil's bargain.
Every nation has its demons -- France, the US, everyone. History is often not a pretty sight (take it from a professional historian). But maybe plaques like these begin a process of learning for everyone. I don't believe that history has strict lessons to teach us, but we can reflect on what has happened in the hopes of being better and wiser people as we confront the future.
Saturday, October 6, 2007
There’s a lycée -- a high school -- just down the street from the apartment, and most mornings I can hear the students gathering outside in the street. They stand around in little groups, just like American teenagers, but the collective effect in this little street is to create an enormous sea of kids. Their voices echo the sounds of French on the stone and brick walls of the rue Suger and fill the morning air with talk and laughter.
Reid Hall, where my office is located, is the home not just of the Columbia University study abroad program but also hosts many other schools’ study abroad programs. So it’s full of American college students, many of whom like to gather in the garden and talk in English, sharing stories of their lives in Paris.
Living so close to two groups of students, it almost feels like I’m still on campus much of the time. And there really aren’t that many differences between the French and American students I see so often. They gather to share each other’s company and to learn about life and themselves.
Friday, October 5, 2007
Alongside the river, there are a series of trees which people have used to make their mark. Although I don't like the fact that these trees have been damaged, they make an interesting visual effect lined up one after another with all sorts of messages.
People have been carving their initials into trees, walls, and other places for years, of course. But there must be something special about leaving your mark by the Seine.
Thursday, October 4, 2007
As I was riding to the Institute this afternoon, I sat across a woman wearing a floppy pink hat. She held a long chain in one hand, the other end of which disappeared underneath her seat. I thought it was attached to a bag.
But then I saw something move behind her legs. Then a little face peeked out. The other end of her chain was attached to a black dog with floppy ears. The dog came out from under the seat and looked around. It wasn't frightened or nervous, just curious.
Then, a few minutes later, two men got on with a dog of their own. The car got crowded, and I couldn't see very much, but it appeared that the two dogs were meeting each other and exploring a new friendship. Everyone around was looking down, watching the dogs, and smiling -- and it takes a lot to get people to smile on the Metro.
Paris is a dog town, something you can tell by the amount of poop on the sidewalk. A few years ago, I sat in church next to a dog that someone had brought. But they're different from dogs in the US. Parisian dogs are extremely well-behaved. Neither of the dogs today barked, jumped, or made even one sound. The dog in church didn't either. I'm sure that they're trained very well. After all, being a little dog in a big city can be dangerous.
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
Scarves are, perhaps, the ultimate fashion accessory for Parisians who live in small apartments and have much smaller wardrobes than Americans with big walk-in closets. Wear a neutral color, and you can create numerous outfits just by changing your scarf.
Someone recently suggested to me that they're good for the weather we're having (chilly in the morning, warmer in the afternoon) because you can wear a scarf to keep warm at first and then take it off later. I've strugged with keeping my body temperature constant because I dress for the morning chill, and then I walk so much with a heavy bag that inevitably I'm sweaty by the time I arrive at my destination. Maybe switching to a scarf would do the trick.
I also think the ubiquity of the scarf is rooted in some old folk medical tradition about keeping your throat warm to stave off sickness. It sounds like the kind of advice that was passed down from grandmothers to grandchildren and has lingered on as part of the cultural collective wisdom.
Whatever the reason, the Parisians love their scarves.
Tuesday, October 2, 2007
The rue des Rosiers is an interesting place, a little bit Paris, a little bit Jerusalem. Along the street, Orthodox men in black hats walked or gathered in groups to talk with one another. Signs with stars of David adorn the shopfronts as do menorahs in the windows. Someone told me recently that you can get pretty good bagels in this neighborhood -- not quite a New York bagel, but close. I saw some, along with a range of other delicious looking treats, in the window of an impressive bakery. I might go there tomorrow for lunch.
In front of me standing at the take out window were some Americans, probably college kids. One of them had ordered a pita, and the girl next to him asked, "Did you just say 's'il vous please?'" (rather than "s'il vous plait," or "please" in French). I didn't hear him make such a funny mixture of French and English ("franglais," as some call it), so I don't know whether he said it or not. But it somehow seemed appropriate for such a multicultural place as the rue des Rosiers. Either way, he got his pita.
Monday, October 1, 2007
I had never noticed this plaque in the Jardin du Luxembourg before a few days ago. It commemorates the execution of Parisians who rose up against the government in 1871 at the end of the Franco-Prussian war. Following weeks of siege by the Prussian army and the collapse of Napoleon III's regime, the city decided to go its own way -- essentially to secede from France -- and not join the new national government that was forming at Versailles. The plaque reads, "The Senate in homage to the insurgents of the Paris Commune shot against this wall on May 25, 1871." (The French Senate owns and operates the Jardin du Luxembourg.)
The reason why this piqued my interest initially is that there is a much more infamous wall where the so-called Communards (those who supported secession) were executed in Pere-Lachaise cemetery. It's called the "Mur des Federes" and was the site of commemorative ceremonies for years (it may still be) for people on the political left. But an execution site in a cemetery doesn't seem so shocking. An execution site in one of the most beautiful parks in Paris, was a jarring juxtaposition. And you can see it depicted in the plaque.