French History for Foreigners

I just went to my first-ever football game: my friend Scout’s high school students getting whupped by a fancy private school with cheerleading boxes.  Look at them, we kept saying as the score hit the mid-thirties to zero, they have cheerleading boxes.

I felt, before I went, that I kind of knew what football was about.  There were tackles and fumbles and touchdowns and quarterbacks and they wear the weird outfits that make them look like anthropods. This was the sport my dad watched once a year in the basement by himself while eating a couple of gallons of popcorn.  Yep, football.  Hut!

Turns out, there was popcorn at this game, too. And there were fumbles and touchdowns (by the other team at least) — but I couldn’t actually tell that by looking.  Mostly it was a big pile of boys and a man in a stripy shirt throwing this little yellow cloth on the ground. There were also the two JV players practicing a pass over and over on the sidelines, crouching with the little one behind the big one, like a pug trying to hump a newfie. There were the cheerleaders at half time joining up with the enemy cheerleaders to dance around singing “Riding my Pony,” and “Gigalo,” and pretending to all like each other.  Jump north, jump south, introduce yourself! What the heck, by the way? Football was at least as weird as I thought it was.

The Gay Blade and me trying to look like a Gay Blade but actually just laughing

Also, I didn’t actually know what a fumble was.  I just knew that it was. It’s the same with French History.  I had heard of the Revolution, King Louis, Napoleon, the Commune, the French Resistance, blah, blah, blah.  The words were as familiar as runningback and end zone.  And as half-understood.  Then, while I was in Paris, I read a fat history book called The Seven Ages of Paris.  It had a hot air balloon on the cover, because they used hot air balloons to send messages out during one of the sieges. Messages came in by pigeon. These are the things I never knew.

Here are some more: King Henri IV, fondly called the Gay Blade, was a Protestant and sieged Catholic Paris to convince them that they should respect his right to the throne despite his unpopular religion.  When, after many months, that didn’t seem to be working, he converted.  Then the city he’d been sieging cheered him in and he was wildly popular both with the ladies and the citizens at large until a mad priest jumped his carriage and stabbed him to death.  They tortured the priest and tore him apart with horses.  Then the mob descended on the priest and someone even ate some of him.  This is Western Civilization, not as long ago as you might guess.

Napoleon was after the Revolution.  I knew that, of course, but I never thought about how quickly the French democracy turned into a dictatorship.  Also, some people think of Napoleon with some real respect.  I guess there was more to him than his red pants and his namesake complex.

Then there are the sieges.  Paris has had a whole lot of sieges.  And a whole lot of times when Parisians killed each other, or when other people killed them, right up through World War Two. Starvation in Paris: not just an ancient thing.  And Bismarck: that’s a name people toss around, at least in the kind of historical novels I read as a kid.  Sure, sure, I would have said.  Bismarck.  But I had no idea who I was talking about.  I picture the puffy oven pancake.  Turns out, he was the guy who united Germany, dominated Austria and France, and set up a long period of peace before World War One, but also set up some of the psychology that made the Allies so punitive with the Germans after the war.  That’s no pancake.

There is much more to French history, though kings and sieges and unrest seem like common themes.  Likewise, I am informed there is more to football than people tangling up and falling down, which may or may not include something called a fumble.  But that, at least, is how American football is like French history.

Also, they both have lots of men in tight pants.


Iceland on 80,000 a Day

I have been to Iceland now, and I can tell you this: the area around Reykjavik is like Eastern Idaho, only with an ocean.  The same volcanic stone, the same flat yellow-brown, the same desolation with mountains in the background.  In Reykjavik, however, unlike say Salmon, the architecture is very sleek and minimal and Scandinavian.  I saw no cow skulls or split rail fences.

Idaho or Iceland?

The bones of the town lack ornament – no floofy French ironwork for these people – but that is remedied through graffiti.  The city is full of bright murals and graffiti.  I saw a few small boys with spray paint in the skate park, broad daylight, and it seemed almost like everything had been painted with permission, partly because it felt like the kind of place no one did anything they weren’t supposed to do.  I don’t really like places like this; I don’t trust them.  And I don’t like the efficiency of the architecture. But I did like the air, and the freshness in things.

In Iceland, they count their money in Icelandic krona, which is kind of like counting in pennies.  You buy a chocolate bar.  Two hundred and ninety, they say.

When I got to Iceland, I was very hungry.  I had been in England. I had been living most of the day on cake.  I don’t think very straight when I am hungry, but I knew I needed money.  I went to the ATM and got out what I calculated was about eighty dollars, which seemed like enough for a day.  A fat stack of bills spit out, and I went to buy a yogurt.   It was only when I went to my hostel and it just took one of the bills to pay that I realized I was off by a power of ten.  I had 80,000 krona on me, or almost seven hundred dollars.  When I checked my bank balance, I had nine cents in my checking account.  Thank goodness for internet bank transfers.

I would say more about Iceland, but the truth is I don’t know that much about it.  I was there for barely twenty four hours, an unpaid cameo on my way home.  The air was clear and cold and smelled like fall in the Rockies.  The mountain ash trees in town were ripe, and the berries were squished on the sidewalk.  Many people, but not everyone, were blonde.  The old people I saw had very bright eyes.

I stayed in a place called KEX Hostel. It was a great hostel, the kind that is so nice you’re sort of tempted not to leave, especially when it’s forty degrees, dark, and blustery in the rest of Reykjavik.  I did leave, though, with a couple of other people from the hostel.  We wandered around the city doing an inclusive survey of the restaurants, determining that Iceland restaurants are expensive and that you can buy whale at the Mexican restaurant.  We didn’t buy whale.  We ate delicious salads (beets and grapes! Eggplant with coconut milk, thyme, and pomegranate!) at a coffee shop, then went back to the hostel and drank beer.  Earlier, I also ate some dried fish, which is served with plain, cold butter and is a great thing to eat when you’ve been living on cake since Sussex.

On my way to the airport, I went in the Blue Lagoon, which is a funny spa in a volcanic wasteland where you can be delivered by bus. The lagoon is full of milky, salty hot water.  Afterwards, my skin felt thick and clean in a way it never has before.  My bangs were straw.

And then I left, and now I’m home.

Last Day in Paris

Last day in Paris. Heat and blue skies, and I am tired, my own body’s tiredness that has nothing to do with Paris, but Paris is like something seen through water; it shimmers and seems unreal.  Everything would be that way if I were to see it.  Or is it this: I have become accustomed to this place to the point where I no longer see it with that wide-eyed intensity.  I walk past the Notre Dame thinking my own thoughts; I go to the Seine because friends will be there and I remark about how beautiful the river looks at night in the lamplight because I am happy, not because I would expect the night to be any other way..  (But the city is also always full of amazements. Just now, down the street came a burly man in a toga.)

The Seine at night

Last day in Paris.  I am in my favorite square, the one with the roses.  Only a few are still blooming, and the leaves of the trees are the tired green of late summer.  The man who was snoring on a park bench last time I was here is snoring on a park bench this time.  His leg is slung over the back of the bench, as if he was frozen in mid-action.  He has been that way for a long time.  Two men were playing gypsy jazz guitar when I got here, but now they have been distracted by talking to two women in ugly pants.  One still holds his guitar; I hope there will be more music. And there is

Last day – did I get what I came for? I have been pretty much everywhere I meant to go. I have a favorite square, a favorite bar, and I am recognized by the fruit vendor and the Turkish soup waiter on my block. People ask me for directions; some think I am French.  My French has not gotten much better, but my pantomiming has and I am happy in my friendly public silence. I have eaten enough éclairs and pain au chocolat to last me a while – I think my dentist will second that opinion.  I have a new taste for blue cheese.

While I was writing, an elderly French woman and her daughter, a retired teacher, have joined me on my bench.  They sit contentedly, tapping their fingers along to the guitars.  Will you be back? they ask me.  Yes, I say without hesitation.  I love Paris.  They smile.  I love it too, says the daughter.  She says it almost fiercely; it is not just conversation.  It is happiness.

Is any of this why I came here? To be sustained without the things that usually sustain me – wild nature and the people I love – was one thing.  And it’s happened, through parks and the Seine and aesthetical architecture and sometimes holing up in my studio, which is a study in blue, I have had plenty of the kind of beauty that sustains me. Enough even, to be able to launch out into the crazy human river that is Rue Faubourg St. Denis and to find I could float on it.


Another thing was to do a quick study in whatever it is that the French have got down that I envy – call it a certain sense of style, but it’s more than that.  And a calculated exercise in loneliness, which is a feeling I have barely felt here.  Whether that makes the exercise a failure or a success, I don’t know.

The snoring man has woken up, straightened his yarmulke and lit a cigarillo.  Then, testing a bum knee, he heads out of the park.  A young man in a white rabbit costume has settled on the grass with a beer, his rabbit head in the grass beside him.  The old woman beside me is amused. The shadows shift and people come and go.  After a cigarette’s pause, the musicians play on.  The daughter leaves her mother and me to muddle on without her translations. Now comes a flock of boys, fast as starlings, leaping the fence around the grace and crowding around the musicians, who play, unfazed.  Then the boys are over the fence again and climbing on the ruins of pedestals and fountains along the wall of the square.  One poses as a statue, then flings himself off the pedestal into the grass.  The old woman cringes. Is any of this why I came?  Yes, though of course I couldn’t know that.

The laughter of the children echoes off of the buildings, and the light comes in slanting and full of shadows.  Finally, the musicians wipe off their guitars with a ripped white shirt, wave to the old woman and me, and go.


Window Licking

There are a lot of stores in Paris, France.  I didn’t even really realize this until recently, because when stores are closed here – which they do, for instance, most of August – they pull down metal shutters over their entire faces and disappear.  The street is dead.  And yet even when the street was dead there was so much going on there – a scattering of stores open, people walking, people walking dogs, dogs peeing, men peeing, honking cars stuck behind delivery trucks that have parked in the only lane, scooters and bicycles and pedestrians weaving around the parked cars – that only when it came back to life did I know it was dead.

Even lamp posts can be aesthetic.

Stores in Paris are super into their window displays.  They have turned them into an art form.  Beautiful things are laid out in beautiful ways in every window. Even the locksmith on my grimy street has his display of interesting old tools artfully arranged below his tiny window.  When the displays are in progress, stores will put out a sign that says Vitrine en cours – window in progress – so nobody judges their (still beautiful) display in the making.

The phrase for window shopping in French translates to “window licking.”  This is a main activity of mine.  Walking around and looking in windows. I’ve done a fair amount of actual shopping, too, which I tend to do when I spend big chunks of time alone.  A few days ago, I was walking around with one of my Paris friends at the Marche de Puces, the ginormous flea market.  We were looking at all the 18th century gilt glitz and the plastic baby dolls and talking about good taste, which we both felt, in the most modest way possible, that we had.  We felt we could pick out the well-made and beautifully designed from the flimsy-but-trendily-expensive, regardless of the actual style.  Give us a bunch of midcentury chairs, or Louis the 14th candlesticks, and we’ll pick out the quality ones.  We will beeline towards them, unfortunately for our wallets.

“What if there is an actual quality in well-made things?” he suggested.  “What if it’s like umami, the sixth taste. That thing soy sauce does. Most people can easily discern between sour and salty and sweet, but umami is more subtle.  What if it’s like that?”

Which I think it is.

This is, I think, a big part of what makes Paris such a great city – aesthetic quality has been built right into the most mundane things, like lampposts and bollards.  Just walking down the street can feed a person’s sense of taste. Things’ forms are pleasing beyond their utility, in a way that is all too rare in mass-produced objects.   On the other hand, parts of the city, like many of the streets in my neighborhood, are also a parade of tacky, tacky things.  For instance, the tiger-stripe dress in a sidewalk display I saw this morning, where the bust of the dress is a snarling head of a tiger.  Even most of the trendy clothing stores have this feel of cheapness and glitz.

But regardless, the window displays catch me.  I can’t stop licking their glass.