Sunday, February 22, 2009

Paris Days 43, 44, 45 - the saddest oysters in Paris

[diarist's note: comments for this blog are now open to anyone - you no longer need a account]

Autobiographical writers are happy, or should be, to have any friends at all, given our propensity to write about people we know, usually without warning or permission. I'm especially happy to know my San Francisco friend Joel, who's living in Paris these days, right in the part of the Marais where the Jews and gays collide, which in Joel's case couldn't be more appropriate. Joel has not only fed me and wined me and given me, in an hour, more French history than I've read since college, but introduced me to his polyglot circle of friends who this weekend gathered not once but twice to kill several hours at his place. These are mostly friends, including the teacher, from an Alliance Français language class Joel enrolled in on arriving here, and everyone - the Spaniard, the Italian, the Texan - everyone but the San Franciscans, actually - has secured a Parisian lover or job and prattles away in apparently perfect French and has the grace to compliment us on our halting attempts to keep up.

The Texan, Gwen, is a beautiful singer and graced Saturday night's gathering with a song:

Saturday's replay was the result of the Italian's having made a big tiramisu for a party the 21st, only she learned Friday that that party was March 21st. So the seven of us gathered, same hour and place, because this tiramisu had to be eaten.

The tiramisu party was my second gathering yesterday, my day off - the first was at the swank Hyatt Vendome, where two American friends I know independently of one another were meeting other friends in Paris in the lounge there before heading out to dinner. When I saw the price of the cocktails people were ordering, I began to get nervous, and when the conversation turned, repeatedly, to the subject of organic French wine, which it sounds like this crowd downs by the case, I saw the rest of the evening in color at once vivid and dismal: these guys living it up, ordering another bottle, appetizers, amuse-bouches, main courses, desserts, French organic dessert wines, and me sitting, stone-cold sober and in fact still a little hung over from Joel's party the night before, in the corner, with a glass of ice water and a little plate of bird seed. "No, I'm fine, really. I had a late lunch."

So I bailed, picked up a 5-euro falafel sandwich brimming with oil-soaked eggplant at that famous place on Rue des Rosiers, and had that and 0-euro tiramisu for my dinner.

I felt ungracious leaving Joel's the moment my licked-clean tiramisu fork clattered to its plate. But in fact it was nearly four hours since the party had begun (people do not rush their socializing here) and I was bitterly tired. Joel said he understood, that when he first came to Paris he would leave a party where everyone was speaking French, go home and sleep for twelve hours. Yes, that's it, I thought, too much French - but this morning I woke up with a sore throat. This was a bummer: I was expecting the judge for lunch, our first date in a couple of weeks and the first time in a nonpublic place. I thought I'd be well enough to get through lunch, but even if I write about people without permission I do try not to give them colds without warning, and so I sent email explaining my condition and offering to reschedule.

The only trouble was, I didn't have the judge's phone number, and what if he didn't check his email before coming over? The maid was coming at noon, the judge might be coming at 1:30, and the market on the Blvd. Richard Lenoir was in full swing. So I took my sore throat and empty backpack down to the Bastille and had a dizzying hour at the market.

Old lady twins at the mushroom stand!

Chickens with their heads still attached!

French organ grinders singing cheesy old French songs that the old folks hummed along to as they bagged chickens with their heads still attached!


I shopped well - I stuffed my backpack. I found great bargains - huge Haas avocados, three for a euro and a half. Fresh large oysters from Normandy, a dozen for eight euros (you have to burn a few gallons of gas getting yourself up to Tomales Bay to get them that cheap at home). Great stuff! Enough for a real feast in case the judge showed up - but he did not. I came home to email from the judge, thanking me for the warning, looking forward to next time
, correcting my French.

And so I stood at the sink for the next twenty minutes shucking the toughest oyster shells I've ever shucked with my new Parisian oyster knife, and I put out the confit duck leg I'd gotten for three euros, and the little round of goat cheese, and the fruit, and the bacon, and the fresh bread, and the eggs whose yolks I knew would be orange and viscous and rich inside, and the firm broccoli and the pineapple and bananas and clementines, and I arranged all of this on the table just so and felt how sad it was not to have anyone to share it with. The whole thing was so pathetic that I took a picture, just so I could always remember how low I sunk in Paris -

- and the more I thought about it the sadder I got, thinking about having to eat all dozen Normandy oysters, all by myself, and I almost roused myself to the computer, thinking I could still email the judge, tell him I was feeling better (which was true), that he should just come over, we would open the windows and I would keep a respectful distance. And then I looked at the oysters, all dozen of them, with their little lemon wedges wedged artfully here and there, all sundered from their shells so I could just suck them down without a fork, and I finally decided, after a moderate amount of reflection, to accept that fortune had dealt me the solitude card that morning, and that it was my fate to eat them, all dozen Normandy oysters, all by myself.

I was midway through this terribly sad experience when I realized I had nothing to drink. This is so pathetic I can hardly bring myself to write it down, but I had had this fantasy of offering the judge a mimosa, and had both orange juice and my favorite bottle of six-euro French sparkling white wine all chilled and ready. The thought crossed my mind that I could open the bottle - but then I thought, no, it's a work day, and drinking alone is terribly pathetic, terribly sad, and I'm already halfway through the oysters, and I decided I would not open the bottle of champagne.

But then, even knowing how pathetic it was to sit there by myself drinking champagne and eating oysters, I did, in fact, open the bottle of champagne, and poured myself a glass, using one of those Eiffel Tower flutes, and I sat there looking out at the sad, sad Parisian Sunday, drinking the champagne and eating the oysters.

But before I had any of the champagne, I took a picture:

I am now totally out of oysters.

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Sunday, February 1, 2009

Paris Day 24 - tell me again what we're doing

Saturday, my long-deferred day off, was not restful. First I overslept, giving myself a scant hour to straighten up the apartment and buy food for my first guest of any kind in the studio, for brunch. I raced over to the St. Vincent market, on the Blvd. Magenta, where, faced with the ostentatious display, I fell into a stupor - brilliant glistening whole fish beside lobster and shrimp and scallops in the shell at the fish monger's, the cheese stand mobbed so you couldn't get near it, regimented stacks of perfect clementines and blood oranges alongside heaps of chanterelles at the grocer, surrounded by their own throngs, bakers and butchers and wine vendors all chit-chatting with their customers as though this were some sort of time-honored cultural ritual instead of an American queen's mad panic to put brunch on the table.

After darting around from vendor to vendor, unable to penetrate the crowds, I finally settled on a woman selling a wide variety of Portuguese delicacies where I was able to get meat and cheese and dessert pastries and found myself spending twenty minutes chatting with her and tasting this and that and getting in a significant amount of my day's French practice comparing notes on her products, on our travels and tastes in music, and hearing, for the second time this week, that my accent sounds more Italian than American. I'm not well enough versed in local snobbery to know whether this is a good thing.

In any case by the time I left the market I was hopelessly late for brunch and my guest, Charlotte's Dutch friend Edo, had already come and left. But he's a close neighbor and didn't mind coming back at noon, so we had a nice hour here over mango and Portuguese soda bread and goat cheeses and raw cured paper-thin-sliced bacon. Our plan was to apartment-hop, so we then went to his beautiful top-floor flat a few blocks away for whiskey. After hanging out with Edo I thought I would take
Anna Karenina to a cafe, but instead found myself on an impromptu date with Marc, Ryan Philippe's much better looking younger brother.

This was my fault - maybe it was the whiskey, but suddenly
Anna Karenina didn't seem like the right means with which to close the distance between brunch and the three parties scheduled for the evening, and all my resolutions about not getting involved with someone who was not going to further my French studies seemed misplaced on this long-deferred day off, and so, in a victory over my workaholic goal-orientation, Marc and I met a few text messages and half an hour later at Les Halles for a screening of Slumdog Millionaire. I was late, he was later, and by the time we got to the front of the ticket line the 4:45 show was sold out. So we opted for the 6PM screening of Afterwards, the new Gilles Bourdos film starring John Malkovich and Romain Duris.

One of the problems with my inability to focus on a single creative discipline - writing, or film, or music - is that I am stretched thin not only in producing work but in consuming it. I read a handful of novels every year and see a handful of movies and go to a handful of concerts. I am shamefaced admitting this. But there are only so many hours in a day and several of them not committed to finishing the novel and shooting video and chit-chatting with the Portuguese delicacy monger are going to wind up swirling down the Facebook time toilet - it's just a fact of modern life. Everyone's busy - book title spotted today:
I Should Probably Kill Myself but I Can't Find the Time. And this makes actually going to a movie or a concert a kind of dicey experience, because when you have so little time and money and commit a chunk of it to a work of art, you would really like for it to be good.

After about 25 minutes of brutalizing sentimentality, numbing bathos, sledgehammer symbolism, contrived, labored and transparently manipulative plot devices, intelligence-assaulting script and editing, maudlin soundtrack, raw-sewage overflow of philosophical kitsch, and a performance by Romain Duris that suggested that the director had asked him to indicate every emotion by imitating a Parkinson's disease victim, I slipped Marc a note asking if he was having a good time. He wasn't, but wanted to stay to see what happened, so we suffered through the whole 107 minutes, which easily felt like twice that. Did Malkovich read this script before he took the job? The movie encourages you to make peace with death in order to live more fully, and in this it succeeds, because in the 106th minute you find that you have more than reconciled yourself to your own.

The worst thing was that they hardly played any commercials beforehand, and I was counting on those to give me at least some French practice for the evening. I knew better than to expect any from Anglophile Marc. Sometimes I wonder, when Marc is groping for a French word, is he really even French? Is he really 23? Or is he one of those virtuoso hustlers who prey on the gullible, the half witted, half willing mark? What if he's 31, American, wanted on 20 counts of kidnapping and identify theft? He was a little rough in bed. What if he is from Cleveland?

We left the theater and stopped to check out the pool at Les Halles (pictured above) and the tropical greenhouse. We walked through the Louvre, pausing by the blue fountain (below), and, despite the nasty bite of cold, kissed on a pedestrian bridge over the Seine. Over the hour a few parts of Marc's story unraveled. "I have a confession to make," he said when we got back to his place. "My name is not really Marc. It's Matt." Marc, it turned out, was just a
nom d'Internet. The whole thing became even more confusing when I explained to him that I had mentioned him to friends (that's you, dear reader) by a pseudonym - so Marc turned out to be a fake name for a fake name (Matt is a fake name for a real one, presumably, but stay tuned). Matt/Marc/Ryan Philippe's much better looking younger brother was excited to have been named Marc - I had chanced upon a favorite of his - and decided he would be Marc the rest of the evening. Before we left his place for Rive Gauche parties he also clarified his age. He's not 23. He's 22. And I confessed my own age, which is routinely five years older in reality than it is on Craig's List.

Frank Browning's Groundhog Day party was splendid, rich with charismatic natives and expats and we could hardly tear ourselves away to attend Guy Livingston's a few blocks toward the river, where we arrived just as most of the guests were heading out. We had the host and his wife and a friend of theirs to ourselves. Guy is a Facebook find, of sorts, another musician/filmmaker, whose brother Hugh (cellist) was a Yale classmates of mine and my sister's. We rose to leave a half hour later and finally left the apartment another hour after that following a Jewish goodbye of grand proportions that involved being served a plate of desserts and a glass of white port.

Matt and I caught one of the last metro trains back to Gare de l'Est, where we found ourselves locked into the front courtyard along with some other Saturday night Parisian party animals; we all wound up hopping the 8-foot iron gate. At two in the morning we were back in the monastery with my noisy neighbors and unquiet ghosts and thus I had my second guest of my residency and day off.

I haven't given up on getting Matt to speak French with me, but it's an uphill climb. I stumble for everything in French, and he stumbles for basic vocabularly - "pre-cum," for example. "It's too clinical in French!" he protests. "Do you really want me to call it
liquide séminal?" He prefers the English language, he says - he loves it. "You are the French Academy's worst nightmare," I told him, making a point of saying this in French. I botched the adjective-adverb order; he corrected me.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Paris Days 18 and 19 - pseudoflaneur

I've always understood the flaneur to be the guy who has time to just amble around town, checking things out, seeing if life might happen to him on his rounds, no big deal if it doesn't. My American friend Joel here in Paris has that written on his card - I almost wrote business card but a flaneur with a business card is oxymoronic (and there's the difference between here and home in a nutshell - the French word for business card is
carte de visite). The online dictionaries give other definitions for flaneur: an aimless idler; a loafer, according to; an aimless and usually self-centered and superficial person, according to the Word Tutor on the same site (take that, Joel). According to Edmund White, whose book by that name I haven't read, "a flâneur is a stroller, a loiterer, someone who ambles (ambles!) through a city without apparent purpose but is secretly attuned to the history of the place and in covert search of adventure, aesthetic or erotic." Or he might just be looking for something to blog about.

My first stop on today's afternoon rounds was the Church of the Trinity, where Messiaen was the organist for six decades. I have an idea for a project there and went to see if I could bounce it off someone. On the walk over, I alternated between getting carried away by the second and third of the Vingt Regards, and suppressing a looming panic attack - the movie's a little racy here and there and I have this persistent paranoia that someone in Messiaen-land is going to clock me when we're introduced. The woman at the office showed neither any indication she'd ever heard of the film or me, nor any inclination to violence, and pressed a brochure into my hand with generic contact information. I sat at the nearly deserted cafe across the street, imagining that Messiaen and his wife must have been regulars, and wrote Juliette a letter almost entirely in French - who knows what it says. On my way out of the neighborhood I climbed a pole and posed with the street sign, above.

Flaneurs who don't know the history of the place they're ambling through are condemned to keep finding things that remind them of friends. Has Milton scholar and Apparition of the Eternal Church star John Rogers walked the length of Milton Street, as I did today?

When I encountered it, Rue Milton was overrun with elementary schoolchildren just getting out of class:

I looked for one of those historical markers, wondering if Milton had lived there or otherwise earned the naming rights locally - did he flee to Paris after the regicide? - but when I found history on the wall it was of a more recent vintage:




And then, after standing in front of that plaque along with a dozen mothers who were waiting for their children to come running through the front doors, I continued on my walk, stopping in at a little Armenian grocery where half the items were named for my friend Artashes:

I bought Artashes eggplant spread and fig jam.

Today's diary entry is supposed to account for yesterday as well as today but yesterday was one of those days I spent the last diary entry worrying about - nothing happened. Back in San Francisco, Tony and Kristen had a baby, but here there was less going on. I woke up, I wrote, I drank my freeze-dried coffee crystals, I wrote some more, I prepared food and cleaned up after myself, I contributed to
La Creation du Monde, I wrote, I moved the furniture around, I ate, I posted a diary entry, I passed out. I had made a resolution not to spend any money all day, and as a result didn't once set foot off the monastery. You could even say the day was monastic.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

diary: day (two) of the blog

I know that with my sprawling posts I am violating blog decorum but I enjoyed yesterday's prolix experiments so much and was up until three in the morning monkeying with them. Part of being up until three in the morning was ending my monthlong abstinence from alcohol and caffeine and getting further amperage from the cataclysmic electrical storm that blew through last night. The sky was constantly flickering at the horizons and then, after midnight, it was exploding with light. While it was still at a distance--we had stars overhead--I threw a blanket down on the lawn and blasted Holst's Planets: Mars, the Bringer of War, from the colony sound system, which with the clouds at the periphery of the valley lighting up as if under bombardment was the ideal accompaniment. One of my great experiences as an orchestra musician was playing first fiddle in that piece with Paul Zukofsky conducting the Juilliard Orchestra. He took it twice slower and drier than anyone I've ever heard and the resulting sense of menace was devastating. Zukofsky understood the Planets intuitively--as the violist in my quartet observed, the suite is a sort of "Ma Vlast" for him.

I have five hours left in my studio and have only blogging ambitions. Lots of photos to go through and edit and post, and also I owe the blog a piece of literary criticism promised near the launch.

I will try to keep my entries short.

But first a word about alcohol and caffeine--the latter came exclusively from a bittersweet chocolate souffle with Earl Grey custard sauce that I made for the group because everyone was ending their residency with a massive egg surplus. Even though I had to substitute soy milk for cow's, the dessert was a big success--especially the sauce. Here's the recipe, which is by far the most basic I've used for souffle.

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