Technically right now I should be working on prepping a talk from my somewhat scattered notes for a conference this Friday, but the need to jot down some thoughts on the first show I saw this season has taken precedence in my already very full brain so…here we are.
And anyway, I’ve still got tomorrow (Sunday), Monday afternoon and all day Wednesday to deal with organizing my notes.
So, with that out of the way, let’s get down to it. The return of theatre commentary / critique for the 2021 – 2022 season begins, as it should, with a return to the Théâtre de la Bastille:
Illusions perdues (d’après Honoré de Balzac) dir. Pauline Bayle. Théâtre de la Bastille, Sept. 16, 2021
Before getting into the details of this, I want to open with a conversation I was having yesterday that more or less captured one the thing that’s been nagging me about this piece since I left the theatre. In brief, the initial topic of conversation was the upcoming Spielberg remake of West Side Story, but this later evolved into a larger questioning of the ubiquity of revivals and remakes in (especially) the American theatre and film industry – that is, the use of already established IP as an assurance of returns on investment – versus the focus in France (at least in the public theatre where it is more or less mandated) on créations, new works, many of which nowadays do not even have a published text version that could then be used to produce a hypothetical “revived” version at some point in the future. In short, it is a theatre that is decidedly of its time, thus making any return to previously produced / written works subject to more direct scrutiny in its act of recall.
In short, in the choice to bring something “back to life”, so to speak, one must not only contend with the general “why”, but more precisely with “why now”. What, in other words, about the present moment makes it urgent to bring a piece / a text back again, especially when there are years if not generations of temporal distance to contend with? This is in no way to suggest that revivals are fruitless endeavors (see, especially Aris Biniaris’ truly exceptional Prometheus Bound at this year’s Athens/Epidaurus festival…which I should have written about but didn’t), but rather that the production/rehearsal phase demands a level of critical engagement that goes beyond the obvious.
Which brings us to Pauline Bayle’s Illusions perdues. I’ll start by getting this out of the way: the performances themselves were excellent, particularly Jenna Thiam as the lead Lucien. The fluidity with which the other four members of the troupe switched back and forth between multiple roles was also especially well done, as was the minimal stage design with the central, white square, flanked on all four sides by the audience evoking the crushing intimacy of a boxing ring. The energy was there. The run-time was just shy of 2.5 hours, but I never felt it particularly dragged. Even with the many cuts made to Balzac’s text in fashioning the script, the choice to focus on his dialogues did give us, for the most part, well-rounded characters, even if some were only inhabited by a performer for a moment. And yes, while I normally find the whole “oh look there is a person being rude / interrupting the performance in the audience…oh wait it’s actually another actor” thing a bit trite, the fact that it was consistent rather than an “ah-ha! Gotcha!” moment, that we could trace the actors in their various seat (and costume) shifts amongst the public, meant that the space as a whole became wrapped up in the urgency of the shifts and transformations being imposed on Lucien. There was no room for respite, for escape away from prying eyes, in other words.
And yet, even with all this, one thing I could not help but think, and that is still itching at me now, is if this piece, and in particular the point of view that Balzac’s novel – and by extension Bayle’s adaptation and staging of it – has something to say about our current era. That Balzac’s text can be read as something of a forewarning as to the impeding dangers of capitalism (note: the novel depicts a Paris on the brink of the Industrial Revolution) is not, in itself, a new perspective, at least with regards to current discourses (well, at least in the circles I run in) about the urgency for an anti-capitalist model. What I was left wondering by this piece, in short, is what else did it bring to the conversation, other than a few easily telegraphed connections, and story beats that have become almost too familiar. Lucien, young, green, naïve, arrives in Paris from Angouleme with dreams of becoming a great writer. Lucien then realizes that the machinations of the world he’s entered into are basically in direct conflict with his desires, and suddenly finds himself tangled in a mess of power and money and influence. Lucien falls. In the end, Lucien sells out. The audience watches.
Yet, as true as it is that the advent of capitalism and the cult of money and profits has resulted in societal and cultural shifts, especially with regards to interpersonal relationships, capitalism is not exactly unique in this. Moreover, this cannot be the only facet of capitalism that is depicted and thus placed up for public scrutiny and critique on the stage, as – like the Paris in Bayle’s production, or, hell, even more accurately, a hydra – capitalism has many (violent, exploitative, destructive) heads, and concentrating on just the one is not going to do much good when the others are snapping at you. What I am saying, in other words, is that we need different kinds of storytelling in our theatres, and in our critiques. In the first chapter of my dissertation, I made the argument for re-thinking what, in France, had historically been conceived as territorial decentralization to a decentralization of thought. We urgently need other perspectives on our stages, other ways of approaching / appropriating / interpreting text because the alternative is that discourse gets stuck and publics can only see half the picture. Do we need more stories of young folks with big dreams coming into a city only to have reality sucker-punch them in the face? Maybe we do. But maybe we should be actively making space for possibilities to approach them differently.
I’m technically in the middle of my (after a temporal truncating last year) usual month+ long trip back to Greece, so this isn’t going to be an overall summation / assessment of my summer. Nevertheless, before I get to the core of this post (see title), I figured I’d throw out a couple of general observations.
Call it my usual soapboxing that all of you, I am sure, know and love by now.
I’ll start with the most timely, given the current situation: everyone should get vaccinated. Additionally, more work needs to be done to make vaccines more equitable/accessible to folks in underserved communities (particularly communities of color…and this holds true for France just as it does in the US) as well as more rural areas and/or medical deserts. Insisting on maintaining patents on vaccines/vaccine development technology is ridiculous and will only serve to exacerbate the already deep divide between “wealthy” and “poor” countries. No one should be profiting off this. Period. Furthermore, the global south should not be dependent on “charity” from countries in the global north to kickstart comparatively trickling vaccination programs (though in the short-term, surplus absolutely should be redirected to countries with low vaccine supply…like, yesterday). There are scientists, researchers, laboratories there who are, I am confident, more than capable of fully engaging in the development and manufacturing of current and future COVID-19 vaccines. The greater needs of global public health far outweigh those of generating a profit / maintaining intellectual property rights.
And I also want to acknowledge my own incredible privilege in being able to write this post. I recognize that I am able to travel as I do in part because of my dual US/EU citizenship status, because I get to live in France, and because I had the resources available to me in order to be able to get vaccinated when I was (even though that whole process was its own little hell, given Education Nationale’s insistence that teachers didn’t need to be considered as priority workers).
With that, let’s take a look at Syros.
Syros is a small island in the Cyclades group, as well as the administrative capital of the region. Throughout its history, the island has seen several occupations, but of particular note is that of the Venetians in the 13th century (sometime around the Fourth Crusade). This led to the founding of the town of Ano Syros, located at the top of a hill north-west of the main port, as well as helps explain the decent Catholic population on the island. Following the Greek War of Independence, the early 19th century saw the construction and development of the main port of Ermoupoli, which, up until it was unseated by Piraeus towards the end of the century, was one of, if not the most active commercial ports in the region. The shift to a more tourism-heavy focus in the area only really took off relatively recently (within the last couple decades, give or take). Given this, one of the truly unique things about this island compared to others in the Cyclades – notably Mykonos and Santorini – is that a not-insignificant number of people actually live here year-round and, further, these folks are not necessarily all working in the tourism/tourism-adjacent industry. This is an island, in other words, that is noticeably “lived in”, as the numerous instances of neighbors crossing each other on the streets and stopping to say hello / chat can attest.
In short, if you’re looking for a spot that explicitly caters to tourists, this may not be exactly what you’re looking for. On the other hand, if you want something that is a mix between tourism and local character, you might be in the right place.
[As an aside, I’d also say the same re: a more calm/localized/less explicitly tourism-focused experience when describing Sifnos – which still remains my favorite island in the region – and to a lesser extent Milos, which sees noticeably more tourism traffic than either Sifnos or Syros, but not to the extent that it has become completely overrun. Milos still ranks pretty highly at number 2 for me, if that counts for anything.]
How We Got There
While there is a small airport on the island, the best (and very likely much more affordable) way to get there is by ferry out of Piraeus. The trip is only two hours on the fast ferry (operated by SeaJets – this is the one my parents and I took), but the island is served by most of the major ferry companies (Blue Star Ferries, Hellenic Seaways), so there are definitely other options available (though travel time may vary slightly).
Should you opt for the ferry, you will disembark at Ermoupoli. From there, you can either take the local bus to your destination (though, as with all the islands, while the buses may run pretty much on schedule, they don’t run super frequently, especially when compared to city buses) or catch a cab at the port or in the main square (about a five minute walk). We chose the latter option, after stopping for some coffee and breakfast in a café (the ferry left Piraeus at 07h00 and arrived at 09h00, so we had some time to chill before a 12h00 check-in).
Before moving on to our accommodations / other location specifics, I want to take a second to point out something many folks might not be aware of: Uber isn’t a thing in Greece (which, to be frank, I think is a good thing). As such, you will see taxis everywhere. Many times, on the islands there are set fares to get from one town/village to another (as was the case with Syros), and the cab driver should let you know if there is a set fare / how much it is when you get in (usually you’d tell them first what town/village you’re headed to before the name of your hotel/hostel so they can let you know the price, assuming it’s a standard / set route). Additionally, a cab driver may also give you a business card with their direct number on it. If they do, awesome; getting a ride on an island – especially in cases where the number of cabs on the island is very limited (*cough* Sifnos) – has just gotten a whole lot easier for you.
Plus, your cab driver can be a good source for local info, and who knows, they may even have some…interesting…observations about someone in your group’s celebrity doppelganger (my dad, for example, was deemed, in absolute sincerity, to bear a strong resemblance to JFK. I’ll spare the details, but suffice it to say that my dad looks nothing like JFK).
Where We Stayed
We booked two rooms at Morpheus Rooms in Kini Beach, a small, family-run hotel located in this little beach town on the west side of the island. The drive from Ermoupolis was only about 10 minutes by taxi, and 20 minutes by bus (which I ended up taking a couple of times to do some exploring). We chose the location primarily because of the hotel’s proximity to the beach (literally a minute), but the fact that it’s located on a relatively narrow – and quiet – street definitely worked in its favor, particularly during naptime in the afternoon.
Where We Went and What We Saw There
I’ve decided to break this down by location, rather than go day-by-day to make things a bit easier. For reference, I’ll be starting off with Kini before moving on to Ano Syros and then back to Ermoupolis.
As mentioned earlier, Kini is pretty much a beach town, so if what you’re looking for is a spot to chill, swim, sunbathe, maybe have some lunch or a drink: you’re in the right place. There is apparently also an aquarium here, though I didn’t really feel the urge to check it out, so can’t really say whether it’s worth a visit or not.
As for beaches, while the many cafés and beach bars along the long, main stretch of Kini Beach provide ample sunbeds / parasols for all-day use for a small price (the café I rented my chair / umbrella from required a minimum 5 euro purchase, so I basically just rounded up the price of the freddo espresso I ordered each morning), on the advice of the daughter of the owner of our hotel, I decided – right after check-in – to make the trek to nearby Lotos Beach. And I say “trek” for a reason. It’s not that the beach is necessarily far (if you were to look to your left while looking out into Kini Bay – which is rather small – it’d be the last small stretch of beach you’d see before a rock outcropping that marks the entrance to open water), it’s just that right before getting there, there’s this hill that’s a bit of a bitch to walk up.
The end result is worth it though. Unlike Kini, this beach is unorganized (save for a few basic, palm frond parasols planted here and there in the sand), so you can plop your towel down wherever there’s an open spot and/or some shade. Like in Kini, the beach here is all sand, and shallow, so you see lots of families with small kids here as well. Just note that, like in many of the Cyclades, the wind can get rather strong sometimes (though not to a really dangerous point), which, while honestly pretty great when it’s super hot out, might mean you should be wary that none of your things start flying about.
We did have dinner at one restaurant in Kini that I’ll post about later. Before moving on, I’d be remiss not to talk about one of the area’s most famous “landmarks”.
Ignore the lighting but behold the Virgin Mary as a mermaid. Apparently, she is the patron saint of those lost at sea. The fountain lights up at night too. This is also where the bus does pick-ups and drop-offs, which is the perfect transition into the next location.
I had briefly mentioned in the introduction that one thing that distinguishes Syros from other parts of Greece is its small Catholic community. This community was established when the island was under the control of the Venetians, who chose to settle at the top of the hill of what would become Ano Syros, primarily for its strategic location.
Also, yes, for those wondering it is a bit of a hike to get up there from Ermoupolis. Again, though, the effort will be rewarded.
I actually went up to Ano Syros twice. The first time was with the parents on our first night on the island, and we stopped at the (somewhat lower down) Greek Orthodox Cathedral to check out the view before heading back down to Ermoupolis for dinner.
The second time I went was on my own the next afternoon, and this time, I went all the way to the top of the hill.
This is probably the most stereotypically “Cycladic” part of the island, with its winding streets, white buildings and blue roofs / shutters / doorways. The bougainvillea in bloom stood out beautifully against the white, and the quiet from the lack of cars (taxis can only get you to a certain point here) was a welcome contrast from the morning’s bustle in Kini. This part of the island does come back to life around sunset / nighttime, but as I was there just before, my walk was mostly accompanied by the wind and the occasional meowing of one of the many neighborhood cats.
While there’s no real vantage point from which to take a good photo of the outside Saint-George’s Cathedral once you’ve reached it, at least the inside remains open for visitors (and air-conditioned), a little reprieve from the winding hike.
Before moving to the final location, I should also point out that Ano Syros’s other claim to fame (though not sure how much traction this one gets outside of Greece / the Greek diaspora) is that it was the birthplace of Markos Vamvakaris, sometimes called the “patriarch of rebetiko” (a kind of Greek urban popular music, sometimes likened to a sort of Greek “blues”). I’ll link a video of one of his most popular recordings here (a bit cheesy, but this one does include an English translation to follow along with). If you look around carefully, you may even find the lyrics to some of his music painted on the walls around Ano Syros.
I spent part of the afternoon of our third day on Syros getting coffee and walking around a bit in Ermoupolis with my mom. Unfortunately, it was too late to check out any of the notable sites (like the theatre, for instance) before they closed for the day, but it was also a touch early to check out any shops, as most hadn’t yet reopened from their afternoon closures / siestas (essential here, as in almost every Mediterranean country), but I did get some nice shots.
Where (and What) We Ate
Right, now to the moment many of you, I’m sure, have been waiting for. Again, I’m going to separate the descriptions out under headings (and I’ll link to any websites / socials when possible for reference). Note that I’ll be listing restaurants in the order we visited them at.
We weren’t originally planning on eating here on our first night, but when some restaurants we called in Ano Syros while exploring the area told us that they were unfortunately booked up for the evening, I took to my mapstr and found this place, right along the port. While all their outdoor tables were also booked, they did propose us a table just inside (provided we were vaccinated which, we all are). Given how windy it was that evening, dining inside turned out to be a pretty good idea, in the end.
As the name implies, this restaurant is primarily centered on serving tsipouro (a rather strong spirit made from pomace – the residue of the wine press – similar to Italian grappa or Turkish raki) alongside shareable mezze. They have several different kinds of tsipouro on offer, and your waiter will be more than happy to help guide you to one you may like, especially if, like myself/my parents, you’ve had tsipouro before but not enough to develop specific preferences. We opted for a bottle of Idoniko Tsipouro (which, coincidentally, I realized I have a bottle of at home once the waiter brought it out), produced in Drama, in the north of Greece. Note that, while the 200ml bottle may not seem like a lot, this stuff clocks in at around 40% ABV so believe me, you’ll be fine. Like ouzo, tsipouro is commonly served with ice, but unlike ouzo, you don’t add water to your glass to distill the drink down even more.
Unless you’re taking it as a shot (which can be really fun at parties…personally, I’d take a shot of this over vodka any day), tsipouro is meant to be drunk slowly throughout the meal, alongside the several mezze you’ll likely be ordering (and you should plan on ordering a few). As we had not had a full lunch that day, we went basically all out:
Greek salad (basically mandatory at this point) and local San Michali cheese
Marrinated anchovies on toast with tomato and garlic
Fried zucchini (I had never seen it served this way before – usually zucchini is fried in disks – but I want to go on the record and say this is genius) with tzatziki and loukaniko sausage in tomato sauce with a fried egg (guess who did not eat the egg? Yeah, me.)
Oven-cooked lamb with fennel and potatoes, topped with shaved San Michali cheese. The lamb was just melt-in-your-mouth good. Very glad I saved room for it.
To say that we were stuffed at the end is a bit of an understatement (though I did welcome the complimentary shot of masticha liqueur at the end of the meal as a digestif), but nevertheless, we did manage to roll our way into a cab and back to the hotel to rest up for the next day of more eating.
By the way, some of you who have read my other travel recaps before may be noticing that there are comparatively fewer restaurants on the list this time around. This has nothing to do with any lack of good food in Syros, but more with the fact that other than dinner (and one lunch before jumping on the ferry back to Piraeus), other meals tended to be more independent. No, instead, we saved our appetites for dinner. While we did not partake in quite the same level of intense feasting on our second evening as we did during our first, I would still say we ate quite well.
Allou Yialou is arguably one of the best seafood restaurants on the island, though I will also relativize this slightly by saying that contrary to what one may believe, given its geography/location, Syros is not really a big fish-consuming island. The exception here is Kini, where you can still find fishing boats anchored along the right side of the bay. Conveniently, this restaurant was also located only steps away from our hotel – and they also took online bookings – making it the perfect choice for a post-sunset dinner.
That there is not much other competition in the seafood department does not mean that Allou Yialou is not objectively good, however. It is good. Quite good. And, should you want to opt for a whole grilled fish as we did, a nice surprise is finding that the prices by the kilo aren’t that much different from what you can find on the mainland either.
The restaurant’s other claim to fame in the fish/seafood department is revisiting classic Greek dishes with a slight twist, using local ingredients. I did not try any of these dishes – as the fam and I opted for the whole grilled fish option as we almost always do when going out for fish in Greece – but judging by how other tables reacted to their meals, I’d say you can be happy with whatever choice you make here.
For our part, however, in the aim of keeping things a bit lighter than the night before, we started off with some revithada (which, yes, is a dish local to Sifnos, not Syros, but whatever):
Followed by the aforementioned fish (in our case, a whole grilled Porgy), which was presented and then butterflied/deboned tableside:
I mean, maybe I am just unoriginal at this point, but you really can’t go wrong with a whole fish like this.
To close out the meal, we were also treated to complimentary slices of portokalopita (orange cake). And yes, in case this has not become clear, offering a complimentary dessert or fruit post-meal is a thing in Greece (though not every establishment automatically does it).
For our final dinner, we opted to follow the recommendation of our cab driver and check out Mitsos, a traditional taverna, and one of the few restaurants on the island that’s open even during the winter / off-season. The spot is pretty loved by local residents, and that plus its increased popularity with visitors means that one would do well to call ahead to book a table (as we did).
We were hoping to get to try some of the μαγειρευτά (“megeireuta” or slow-cooked) dishes the restaurant was known for, but as they had unfortunately run out of portions at lunchtime (not necessarily a bad thing in terms of freshness / reasonable food quantities) we opted for some mezze and grilled meats instead.
We started with some green beans, skordalia (garlic dip – for those who really, REALLY like garlic, which I do), beets and beet greens, and fried San Michali cheese:
Followed by grilled lamb chops (which were excellent) and seftelia, Cypriot lamb meatballs wrapped in lamb caul and grilled:
And I honestly cannot remember if we even touched what they brought out as a little sweet…that’s how full we were after this meal.
Finally, I don’t have any photos from the spot where we had lunch before taking the ferry, but I do want to take a minute to highlight the place anyway. First off, the outdoor seating here is lovely. Located down a small street – and sandwiched between some other taverna’s / cafés – and covered in a canopy of bougainvillea, it provides a welcome respite from the sun, and a bit of calm away from the bustle of the nearby port. We kept it vegetarian here (which is incredibly easy to do in Greece, by the way) and along with the ubiquitous Greek salad, ordered two other dishes that I highly recommend, should any of you ever find yourselves here:
Marathopita: spinach and fennel pie
Eggplant pilaf: it sounds incredibly basic but honestly with eggplant that creamy and a warming hit of cinnamon, this became an easy favorite.
Finally, to close out all things restos, a special shout-out to a couple of café’s I visited for refreshment and (in the case of the second) decadence.
First, Café Bistro Feggari in Ano Syros where I treated myself to a nice cold lemonade on their rooftop patio after hiking up all those stairs and around the neighborhood.
Second, Ellinikon Kafeneion in Ermoupoli – right across from the main square – where my mom and I treated ourselves to coffee and quite possibly the most generous single-serving of karidopita (walnut cake) I have ever seen in my life.
As to local gastronomic specialties (other than the San Michali cheese, which made a few appearances during our meal) arguably the island’s biggest claim to food fame is its loukoumi or Turkish delight. Of course, this is not to say they invented them. Rather, that the island has an established reputation for making particularly good ones. You’ll find several shops selling them along with the Syros’s other sweet specialty, halvathopita (basically, imagine nougat sandwiched between two very giant communion wafers), near the port and elsewhere on the island.
As I mentioned earlier (albeit parenthetically), Sifnos still has my heart as my favorite island of the Cyclades (if not favorite island I’ve visited in Greece, period). With that being said, I really enjoyed my time in Syros, and could maybe even have done with another day either to do some hiking or possibly explore another beach. Ah well. Perhaps another time.
Until then – and until I come back again full-force at the rentrée with all my opinions regarding all things theatre – I hope those who’ve stuck through to the end of this recap have found it informative or, at the very least, enjoyable.
In any case, this has rambled on long enough and I’ve got another beach to get to.
It never ceases to amaze me that, with regards to the history of popular revolt and revolution (especially in France), the first thing that comes to mind to many State-side is a commercialized musical.
I say this less as a way to harp on Les Mis and more as a result of a reflection on two things: the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune and a New York Times article on theatre that I read yesterday. In the case of the former, it is rather telling that a popular movement (and let’s get more specific – one that saw the involvement of several anarchists) such as this one has joined the ranks of several others like it (not just in scope or in aim but also in the fact that it was suppressed – violently – by the powers it directly challenged and destabilized) in being largely lost in the American imagination. Then again, there are several socio-ideological reasons behind why leftist history in America tends to be pushed out, leaving only traces – symbols – behind. These symbols then get picked up, sanitized, and, divorced from their context, sold off to a public willing to buy a facsimile of a revolution, singing along to “Do You Hear the People Sing” while the image of a red flag waves in the air. It’s condensed enough to be turned into a slogan you can put on a button or a t-shirt, the illusion of being close enough to revolt while still retaining a sense of comfort that, fundamentally, not much will change once the piece is over.
To illustrate this point: I remember going to see the revival of Hair back when it returned on Broadway in 2009, and in particular, how excited I was to finally get to see something from an era I was starting to dive more into. Yet, what I most retained from that experience – and what, thinking back now, somewhat informed my approach to Re-Paradise at Nanterre a few years ago – was how empty it all felt. Holding up anti-war signs, inviting the audience up to dance on stage with the actors, extolling the merits of free love and self-expression and criticizing the war machine sending young men off to die rings more hollow in a gilded theatre space where tickets are prohibitively expensive. But nostalgia sells tickets.
This is all more or less to say that, albeit with some exception, American theatre has difficulty truly getting political. What I mean by this is that the system – as it is – fundamentally does not allow for the kind of formal and contextual reckoning that could move what goes on the stage to a point beyond consumption of “political” imagery to actual confrontation and potentially discomfort. Now, America is not unique in this (I have already spent ample time writing on my frustrations with similar trends on French stages), but I want to make this point to link to the NY Times article I read this week which concentrated on the occupation of theatres in France by performing arts students and workers that has been underway for the better part of this month.
In brief, while these occupations may on the surface seem only to be about re-opening performance spaces – that is, divorced from the reality of the pandemic – in actuality (and it is here that I believe the article should have leaned more heavily towards) the fact that they are happening at all is a direct result both of the recognition of the very real consequences that COVID and its aftermath will engender, and at the same time that these consequences did not just come out of nowhere. Rather, they are the results of what I would argue to be decades of an eroding away of public funds combined with an increased mépris for those who work in the industry. It says quite a lot, in my opinion, that the current Minister of Culture, for example, has absolutely no background in the industry (her background is in pharmacology), yet is a lover of opera, which apparently counts as a qualification.
To return to the occupation, if one were to look at the list of demands (provided here, in French), one will note that chief among them is not the mere gesture of reopening – in fact there is an explicit recognition that that is not going to solve the larger problems at hand – but rather, and this is where the Times article starts to connect, without providing much detail, back to the question of American theatre, that of labor. More precisely, the demands concern the very real worries of students and those who work in the industry (called intermittents du spectacle because of the irregular nature of their work) regarding their employment and benefits status, as well as the lack of communication from the Ministry.
(A brief side note: the Minister of Culture did speak on French radio following the start of the occupations, calling them irresponsible. Ma’am, irresponsible is not communicating with representatives from the sector your Ministry supposedly advocates for.)
Now, in non-pandemic times, intermittents are normally eligible for some unemployment benefits in periods when they are out of work, provided they complete a certain number of work hours over the course of a year (the fact that theatre jobs are as erratic and irregular as they are is largely the reason behind why the system is set up like this). However, access to these benefits can be revoked if the work hour minimums are not met. When the pandemic hit last year, the government initially declared that 2020 would be what is called an “année blanche”. In other words, given the circumstances, the work hours requirement would be waived, giving intermittents at least a little security. Crucially, however, the année blanche was set to expire at the end of August 2021, presumably under the expectation, at the time, that work would have picked back up by then (or because Macron’s government is simply not a fan of distributing monetary aid where it’s needed, but we’ll get to that in a bit). Since the theatres closed again in October after having reopened again for a hot second, there has been little to no communication with artistic directors or union representatives regarding any projections for the rest of the year. Rehearsals are still allowed to happen to some (read: minimal) degree, but this doesn’t mean much when it is impossible to know whether or not, in the end, the performance will be able to be seen at all. But more pressingly, the lack of communication also extends to whether or not there are plans to extend the année blanche beyond its original deadline, meaning that thousands of folks are suddenly finding themselves in a very precarious position.
Yet, their demands are not entirely restricted to the realm of live performance. Case in point: the demand that the government retract an upcoming reform on unemployment benefits. Intermittents themselves are not directly affected by this, but, the long and short of it is that should this reform pass (and given the right-leaning makeup of this government, this is likely), a lot of folks are going to see their unemployment benefits slashed. The post-COVID crisis is going to hit a lot of people very hard, and there’s been quite a lot written already about how, globally, the wealth gap is only going to get wider. I will not bore anyone here with my usual talk of why there haven’t been real steps (in France, but also in the US) to tax the wealthy – or better yet, actually do something about those who use Luxembourg as a tax haven to accrue more wealth than anyone would need in a lifetime – and instead close this with a final point to piggy-back on one touched on in the article.
As much as France can tout its institutional support for the arts (and it is true, it is rather generous compared to other countries), when it comes down to the people working in the arts, the actors, the professors, the directors, set / costume / lighting designers, tech crew, etc., there is a lack of consideration (by the heads of State, primarily) for the labor involved that makes the sector as rich as it is. This has been going on prior to Macron, and it will most certainly last after he’s gone, so long as the notion that some jobs are more “essential” than others persists.
Because as much as that word has become synonymous with a certain imagining of those jobs that are needed to keep things running – of hospital staff, grocery staff, postal and sanitation workers, teachers – when it comes down to concrete measures, it starts to become clear that this image of “essential” does not exactly align with reality. Public hospitals still face cuts (again, in France this has been going on for a couple decades), especially in number of ICU beds, essential, low-income workers are not always working in conditions conducive to their own safety. Hell, aside from hospital staff, everyone else mentioned – including teachers – are not as of yet prioritized for vaccines, unless they are of a certain age and/or have pre-existing conditions.
No, essential has meant that which aligns with a certain set of (capitalist / neoliberal) values for a while. It is an absolutely inhuman way to see the world, and yet here we are.
As of now, the occupation at the Odéon – itself a historical site of occupation, particularly in 1968 – is still going strong and shows no sign of slowing down. There are over 50 other theatres (and counting) across the country that have joined in. Call it the power of unions, or of the collective, but in any case, it’s the people holding the State responsible, of not waiting to be brought in to the conversation but making the conversation themselves. It is political in the sense that the people involved are, by virtue of speaking, challenging the State’s notion of “legitimized” political “actors”, of those who can or cannot have a say in policy based on the perception of their profession – and more precisely what it “brings” to the State – as “valuable”.
This is not, however, to say that this movement will lead to a glorious revolution, or a utopian reversal of the way things are done in the artistic sector. As much as I can hope for the creation of an anarcho-leftist society, this past year has also firmly cemented my cynicism. But I think, and I am having trouble wording this, that what is happening in France speaks to something that I think the arts in the US deserve in terms of recognition. There are so many folks who work in the arts back in the States whose labor is undervalued, ignored. And the lack of recognition on a federal level (to think the Federal Theatre project in the 1930s could have been a reality had FDR not nixed it…because you can’t have too much socialism, apparently) doesn’t help matters. It also does not help that the governing bodies of major theatres look almost exactly the same (because yes, any popular, labor-related movement worth it’s salt must include questions of race / gender / identity along with those of class), which, to take us back to the initial thoughts that opened the article, has a marked effect on the kinds of art that are eventually produced.
So this is what I have been thinking about on the anniversary of the Commune, on the eve of a third confinement (except this one will include unlimited outdoor time within a 10km radius), with absolutely no possibility to predict anything beyond tomorrow. I am tired, I am pissed off, and I have been this way pretty much over the past year.
You know, in retrospect, it’s kind of funny that I thought I would be back to semi-regular theatre reviews back when I wrote my last post.
Oh, optimistic Effie. Should have remembered what you’ve been repeating to your students ad nauseam this past trimester (and which basically underscores almost all of Greek mythology): man makes plans, and the gods laugh.
I should say, though, that it wasn’t just the reshutting of theatres at the tail end of October that put a dent in things. There’ve also been some developments at work (in short: I’ve been given more inter-department responsibilities for this year) that have made finding time to write between marking papers, squeezing in agree review (don’t even get me started on how my imposter syndrome has come roaring back with this), and lesson planning while keeping an eye out for any last-minute procedure changes by our *incredibly* competent (ha) Minister of Education incredibly tricky.
So with all that, here we are again, December 31, 2020, with another retrospective post.
Overall, I have very mixed feelings about this year. Pandemic situation aside, it’s hard for me to reconcile a year of isolation and intense waves of emotional mess with the fact that I accomplished a MAJOR milestone this April. And there were other good moments too – holidays in Marseille, Greece and the South of France ; picnics and terrace dining when we got a bit of respite in the summer ; rediscovering Paris again (without the throngs of tourists) ; walks with close friends when we could finally meet up again. All of those small things were absolutely fantastic, don’t get me wrong, and I am very thankful that I and those close to me have been able to stay safe and in relative good health these past several months.
But the amount of stress that has been piling up – especially from going into work to teach in person, wearing two masks – had started to take its toll on me before the holidays started. Other than losing my voice (speaking/projecting through a mask is tiring as all hell), the constant worry about being sick while trying to survey teenagers to a degree I’m still not entirely comfortable with to make sure their masks were always on properly (spoiler: there’s always two or three in each class who seem to have trouble with this), and then going straight home without having any form of outside social-based distraction has made me feel so much like a cog in a machine that I started feeling like I had lost that sense of drive that had always propelled me through past hurdles.
I’ve been spending the holidays down south with a few friends (4 of us in total), who’ve also basically been isolating prior to this. Can one make arguments about the ‘selfishness’ or not of this? Yes. But quite frankly, I’m tired of that. I’ve spent the better part of the last year in isolation, and these past few days out of my apartment have been the most restorative I’ve had in a while. If this is what I need to make it through the next few months of what is bound to be incredible shit, so be it.
With all that, what else is there to say about 2020 other than good riddance? Maybe that my friendships were strengthened, that I survived it, that I can now officially buy a plane ticket under the title of “Dr. Gonis”.
I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the theatres will be open again soon (side note / rant: I find it absolutely hilarious/hypocritical that France, a secular country, caved and allowed houses of worship to reopen under limited capacity, but would not consider the same for theatre houses/cinemas. The official justification was that the government wanted to limit instances of intermingling, but anyone who has ever witnessed a religious service will tell you that is absolute nonsense, as evidenced by the mingling that happens pre and post-service). I may even predict that they will reopen before bars/restaurants do (although, dear god, I want those back as well). And who knows, maybe we will start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
But for now, I, we, survived. And we keep on surviving.
I sometimes find writing introductions for a new post a bit difficult, so let’s not waste any time and get right to it.
I’m back seeing shows again (finally).
I’ve got two short commentaries to write here, but first, a note on how theatre-going in the time of COVID has felt so far:
To date, I have only revisited 2 out of my usual 4 theatres (yes, again, creature of habit / don’t much feel like changing too many things around right now / this could be good for comparative purposes). I originally wanted to make it so that I would start things off with a show at Bastille (the favorite), but performance scheduling deprived me of that symbolic moment. In any case, starting things off at Nanterre was a pretty fine substitute.
Based on my experience at Nanterre and then at the MC93, I can say that, generally, it almost feels as though things have gotten back to normal, the most visible exceptions being that everyone is masked and that completely sold out shows with every seat filled are a thing of the past (for now). The bar/canteens in the lobbies of the respective theatres were also open when I visited (contrary to what I had originally thought might happen), as were their bookstores. As for seating, the general rule was to have one seat between each party of spectators in a given row. The result was something like this (s = spectator ; x = empty):
Row 1: s s x s x s s s x s s x s
Row 2: s x s s s s x s s x s s s
Row 3: s s s x s s x s s x s s x
As you can see, front to back spacing isn’t being factored in (because otherwise this nightmare jigsaw puzzle nonsense would only get worse). My guess is that for seated performances that adhere to a more traditional frontal dynamic, there is some sort of algorithm being used to determine how many seats could be sold to account for most possible seating configurations. At Nanterre, for instance, the ushers mentioned that the performance was sold out, so there is definitely some kind of a cap in place. I’ll also be heading back there tomorrow to see another piece whose staging/seating arrangements involve a takeover of the plateau of the main stage—similar to how Dying Together was staged a couple years ago—, and I am curious to see how seating or spatial restrictions will be applied to a piece that, based on what I know of the director, leans more towards a loosening of restrictions and a blurring of spectator/spectacle barriers.
But more on that (hopefully) later. For now, some brief thoughts on what I’ve seen so far.
Jamais labour n’est trop profond created by Thomas Scimeca, Anne-Élodie Sorlin and Maxence Tual. Nanterre-Amandiers, September 22, 2020.
It seems almost appropriate to have started things off with a comedy.
Even more so one that touches on everything from environmentalism, climate change, collapsology, theatre in general and its former, current and perhaps future status.
There’s quite a lot in there, but this is not necessarily to say that the piece itself was cluttered (there are some other nits I have to pick with it). In terms of plot, it’s actually quite simple. It centers on four actors living in what appears to be some kind of post-civilizational collapse commune. One of these actors apparently still gets offers for work or new projects (and the salary that comes with them), but at the start of the piece, his phone is taken and smashed by another actor, who persuades him to focus on what is more important: a machine they have invented that will help make their little community more self-sufficient.
A shit-powered generator.
In fact, in this piece that revolves around the after-effects of the disappearance of nature, the most present “organic” element is quite literally a tub of hazardous, bacteria-ridden human waste. And yet, it is also this waste that, the staging suggests, allows for the lights to stay on, and the actors to engage in what they do best: perform. Extracts of Prométhée are interwoven with references to Hamlet (notably a reworking of the “Alas, poor Yorick” scene from Act V.1), a sequence reminiscent of the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey (only this time, instead of monkeys on a beach, it’s a monkey in a dumpster playing with trash) and an extended scene involving an attempt to film (with a stage light standing in for a camera and a broom as a boom mic) a scene suggesting a period piece, only with reused costumes and the bare skeleton of a set. Through all this, a small outhouse-like structure (whose fourth wall is missing so that, when it is rotated, the audience comes face-to-face with the outhouse’s occupant relieving themselves) remains slightly up stage right, with that, plus intermittent trips up to the shit-generator as well as periodic moments in which the lights go out for want of power, serving as a reminder for why we are all able to watch this in the first place.
Beauty in shit.
But with this also comes one of my primary criticisms on this piece, and no, it doesn’t directly have to do with the prevalence of scatological humor. To preface this, I should note that the creators of this piece were all formerly members of the Chiens de Navarre theatre troupe, known for its light, almost improvisational style and bent of humor, and whose work I had seen before (both times at the MC93…I even almost opted on writing on Jusque dans vos bras for my dissertation). The troupe is also known for the frequency with which they make reference to the fact that they are in a theatre and/or directly (attempt to) incite an audience to act supposedly against the bounds of what it is they are supposed to be doing while in the theatre space (an example: in Jusque dans vos bras, imploring audience members to come up and pull a boat of struggling migrants to shore, sarcastically admonishing them when no one crosses the barrier onto the stage, and then finally “attacking” the helpers via two actors dressed in silly shark costumes). This performance retained many of the elements that the performers no doubt honed during their time with the Chiens…, though it’s this question of audience participation and the veneer of disobedience that I want to focus on.
I mentioned earlier that one of the primary set pieces on the stage was an outhouse. Well, this outhouse also had a bucket in which shit and the like could be collected. At one point during the opening third of the show, two of the actors made an announcement that they would repeat periodically throughout the course of the play: any audience member who wished to relieve themselves was more than welcome to come on the stage and do their business in the bucket. If nothing else, it would aid in the running of the very necessary generator, and thus of the show itself. And this wasn’t just a quick announcement. In fact, the actors spent a good amount of time either singling out individual audience members and asking them directly if they wouldn’t like to help, or otherwise posing the possibility and waiting patiently for something to happen, for someone on our side of the space to act against what its normalized codes dictate.
(Side note: in the spirit of situational presence—and in the improv-esq spirit of Chiens…—, at one point during the initial plea, the actors went on a short tangent about how much better it would be for us as spectators, especially those of a certain age, to use the bucket since the toilets at Nanterre are located at the basement level, requiring several stairs and almost a tour of the building to get to. Despite my critics of this sequence, I will grant that they are right on this point. The toilets at Nanterre are somewhat of an inconvenience to get to).
Here’s my critique, though (and this comes from having thought about this through my research on audience participation-based theatre, and especially some thoughts I had while writing on Re-Paradise): based on other instances of similar calls for spectator action, I am beginning to come to the conclusion that arguably one of the most direct ways to enforce a traditional spectator/spectacle dynamic is to draw attention to it via an impossible request. In other words, the only way that question could have been asked of an audience is if it was done so on the assumption that no one would actually follow through. Would it have been an interesting experiment if someone had? Yes. But it also risked destroying the theatricality of the experience by bringing in an unavoidable (stinking) reminder of the real onto the constructed/imaginary playing space. Of course we know that the actors aren’t actually sloshing around in shit when they go and examine the generator, but we can suspend our disbelief enough so that, after they step out of the tank, the mud caking their boots takes on the symbolic association with shit in our minds, hence reactions of disgust. Bringing in the possibility of real human waste into this risks breaking the illusion.
What I find still more pressing, however, is the fact that often requests like this are made with an air of potential rebellion, of upending a status quo in order to open the possibilities for something different. Yet, rather than creating possibilities, calling for action while likely anticipating the exact opposite (that is, for spectators to behave as they more or less normally do) not only draws a distinct line between actors (those who do) and spectators (those who observe), increasing the distance between the two primary bodies both spatially and temporally. In other words, it becomes an act that re-enforces a traditional dynamic rather than one that works to poke holes in it and thus imagine possibilities outside its paradigms.
Now, this might not always be such a bad thing. In fact, one could read it in this case as a way of highlighting a return to a more “skeletal” (“primitive” is a word that popped in my head also, but it’s not quite the right term, and also I have some reservations using it in general) relationship to theatre, one that brings it back to its pre post-post-modern roots. Often, however (and I would argue that this is what is happening here), this is not the case. Instead, you get the illusion of rebellion while maintaining an already established relational structure.
And speaking of audience/spectacle relations…
Watch: “voyages diverses” created by Oliviere Fredj, Shani Diluka, Matias Aguayo and the Paris Chamber Orchestra, MC93, September 25, 2020
I feel like one of the most frustrating things about the MC93 is how much some of the programming visibly tries to be out of the box innovative and just comes up a little bit short.
Case in point: this show.
In brief: this piece is composed of loosely connected vignettes, each one centered on the theme of “Time”. Time as a linear progression, Time as notions of past/memory, present and possible futures, Time as measured, Time as a commodity (lost time, borrowed time), Time as in dual temporalities on stage and in the house. It was this last one that the show opened with, with a direct address to the audience via asking someone what time it was and then noting the time on the back wall in chalk (the show started about 15min late, which was a fun surprise…). From that point, we (as in those of us in the house) were supposedly absorbed in the “stage time”, spatial union merging with temporal union.
As to the texts, these were composed following a series of various workshops the creators held in hospitals, retirement homes and prisons in the nearby area; in other words, in spaces occupied by folks for whom time takes on a significant weight. It’s a communal effort and judging by the presence of several participants/their friends in the audience that evening, a highly successful one. Which is fine. Honestly, I have no gripes with this when it’s done well (see Ils n’avaient pas prévu qu’on allait gagner for when it’s not…), and I don’t want to discount the effort put in by the volunteer participants to collaborate and create something.
But why, seriously why, does it still seem to be the thing to do to try and address “high concept” things in a “meaningful / deep” way that more often than not results in a mess of meh?
To get back to the beginning of the show, the asking of the hour (which happened periodically throughout the production, each time with the hour being noted on the timeline along the back wall) could have been an interesting avenue in order to explore the passage and marking of time, had it have been accompanied by conscious control of rhythm and pacing on the part of the actors (I think some of them were beginners or amateurs, but cannot say for certain). As it was, the pacing veered from the overtly artificial / theatrical, to rushed, to steady but sometimes with mumbling. Consequently, all this served to do was throw into stark relief the reality that, as spectators, one of the key elements that defines the distinction of our temporality from that on stage was almost denied us:
The liberty of being bored.
If time is constantly marked, and there is a pattern of constantly marking it, the risk is that instead of then creating a new rhythm to “bleed into” (so to speak) the one that otherwise marks the temporality in the house, the result is one in which the most present thing is the eventual possibility of an end to all this and a return to a more autonomous sense of control over one’s temporality. It becomes, in other words, a process of disengagement rather than immersion.
Again, though, this is not to discount the collaborative work that went into this—nor the feeling in the room when the piece finally (yeah, they did one of those fake-out endings where they announce that it’s going to end and then spend another ten minutes talking about how to end things/Time and endings) came to a close. There could have been a way to tackle this subject without resorting to cliché or even documentary-style theatre. What it needs is honesty.
I honestly could count the number of times I found myself thinking ‘Hey, maybe I should sit down and write something today’ before once again putting it off. It’s not that nothing has happened (quite the contrary). It’s more that I’ve really just needed to take the time away to re-center myself, as well as think about what the immediate future of this blog is going to look like, particularly given the current state of the world (merci COVID-19).
In short: as of now, I have actually gone ahead and reserved tickets for the 2020/2021 season at one theatre (the Théâtre de la Bastille…which should come as no surprise to anyone who has either read this blog or had to hear me wax poetic about how much I love that space). I’ve done this in full acknowledgement of the likelihood of many of the performances I’ve reserved for the fall/winter being postponed (if not outright cancelled), the reason being that, given that this theatre is independent rather than public, they are in a much more precarious state than some of the other venues I have frequented over the past several years here. Furthermore, in keeping in line with sanitary recommendations, they are reducing their capacity by 50%, and given how small and intimate the space is already, reserving well in advance for certain productions (notably for anything Tiago Rodrigues or TgSTAN have coming up) has become more of a necessity than usual.
But in the event performances do get cancelled, I am also prepared to donate what would otherwise be my refund back to the theatre. I already budgeted out that money for this purpose anyway, and my determination for this space to not have to risk closing is much stronger than me getting 70eur back (yeah, that’s how much I paid, total, for like, 5 shows. Affordability is a thing).
Regarding other venues, I am a creature of habit, so I will likely be renewing my subscriptions to the theatres I frequented while I was still writing/researching my dissertation. Here, though, I am going to wait a bit and see how the sanitary situation unfolds before making any kind of commitment.
That being said, given that I am no longer in dissertation-writing mode, what does that mean about the future of this blog?
Before getting into that a quick note: while I am technically done with that now, I have moved on to another, potentially more daunting/intimidating phase of this whole writing thing: publishing. That’s right, everyone, I haven’t quite finished with that document yet. Likely starting at the end of this summer/beginning of fall, I’ll be heading back to it to start the editing process, in the hopes of having a few chapters ready to send out to potential publishers once I also finish writing out my book proposal.
(Side note: if anyone has any tips/advice on this, they would be greatly appreciated).
What this could mean for the blog is—COVID situation depending—that you will likely see more posts from me trying to work through certain larger ideas I brought up in my dissertation but want to revisit for this next phase of its transformation, along with (hopefully), my usual theatre reviews. These posts will be long. They will likely be somewhat rambling and confused. But that’s how ideas work, and I like presenting the raw-ness of the process here, on this very public forum.
Besides, using this blog as a space to type out my drafts before going back and revisiting them when writing my chapters actually worked out pretty well for me in the dissertation phase.
I’ll also likely periodically interject some thoughts here and there about my process prepping for the agrégation (a prestigious civil service exam / one that, should I pass it, will mean much better pay at my job as well as hopefully other academic/educational opportunities in the future). Right now, that prep consists of reading English lit, which, to the surprise of absolutely no one, according to France, stopped in the 19th century, and consisted mostly of white men (though they did through in George Eliot’s Middlemarch so….yay, I guess?). Once I start the prep courses in the fall (on top of teaching), said prep will also likely include some mock exams, which I will very likely have thoughts on.
But I’ve still got a bit of time before all that really gets going.
So, in the sake of brevity, I’m going to use the rest of this post to address two rather major things that happened since I last posted, then do a brief sum-up of everything else at the end (mostly for my sake because I like keeping a written record).
I’ll start with something more positive: this spring, my first class of 12th graders, the majority of whom I had taught through all three years of high school (yeah, it’s three years instead of four here) graduated.
I honestly think one of the reasons why it took me so long to get back to writing at first was because I knew I wanted to address this, but I didn’t quite know how. I imagine anyone who has taught secondary school (high school in particular) can relate. There’s just something about that first class that you’ve seen grow into young adults, ready to go out into the world on their own that really just…sticks with you. Yet, with me, this situation carries its own particular significance because this was the class that basically also followed me in my dissertation process from prospectus to manuscript to defense to, finally, my own graduation (or commencement…because Harvard). And I don’t think I ever quite expressed to them just how much not only were they (and always will be) tied to this very significant moment in my life, but also how much my teaching them (and here I will actually stress the fact that when I say ‘them’ I mean this group in particular) influenced certain directions I ended up going in in my own writing.
Would I have liked for our last class to have been in person? Of course. But given how much I experimented with them in terms of materials I’d bring in and teaching/project strategies I’d try out, it almost seemed fitting. It’s going to be so…so weird not having this class next year, this little ‘family’ as I used to refer to them (especially relevant on the difficult days).
I had some friends ask me if I think I managed to impart anything to the students I teach—I mean, anything other than writing, listening, speaking or reading comprehension skills. I honestly couldn’t tell you. But I hope I did. Even if some of them never speak or use English again in their lives (doubtful but still), hopefully a little something else that I tried to weave into my lessons will stick.
Also, I know (because they told me, ha!) that some of them have found this blog, so for those of you former students who may be reading this: you guys were a blast to teach. Thank you for those three years, and for making me a better teacher.
And now to some decidedly more difficult news
I’m not going to spend as much time on this because, first, of how destabilizing this news was, and second, how many others could probably speak more eloquently about this than I could. But on July 13, I received news that one of my committee members (basically my secondary advisor) passed away from an accident (non-COVID-related). The news was made even more shocking by the fact that just over a week prior, myself as well as several other colleagues and former/current doctoral students had met up at a restaurant to celebrate this professor’s retirement, as well as his long career (I’m not sure how much of his work has gotten translated in the States, but those in theatre studies, Christian Biet is someone whose work you should look up…like, now). During the farewells, he made a point to say he’d schedule a meeting at the rentrée to touch base on how my manuscript editing is going. I received an email with general notes to look over in the interim.
Yet, life is cruel sometimes.
It’s hard when someone like this, someone who represents an intellectual curiosity and thirst for the collaborative spirit, encounters and inclusivity that seem to be fading from some academic circles in favor of competition, profit, airs of ‘superiority’ and doubling-down on a gatekeeping that has always existed but must be eroded away rather than reinforced. I’ve been very fortunate in that my advising team was composed of professors who not only encouraged exploration and creative thinking, but also never made me feel as though I were less-than, despite the fact that—and this blog can attest to this—at times my ‘imposter syndrome’ made it so that I was very nervous before sending in any pages because I didn’t want to risk disappointing them. In any case, one thing I’ve tried to focus on these past few days is the fact that I was so lucky to have role models like this—people who I knew I wanted to be like as an educator at the university or secondary level. Prof. Biet is among these role models.
That’s part of what a legacy is, right? Knowing that something of yourself, tangible or otherwise, will go on ‘being in the world’ after you’re dead.
Anyway, I’ll round this out now on a more positive note. Tonight, I’m flying out to Greece for two weeks with some girlfriends. There will be plenty of mornings at the beach, island exploring (I’m going back to Sifnos, and yes, I am incredibly excited), and eating all the things. Of course, all of this will be done incredibly responsibly, in line with current public health measures/recommendations. Regardless, I will be glad to be out of the country for a bit, as well as glad that I am not breaking my streak of spending at least some time in Greece every summer.
Besides, I’ve already made some progress on my tan. I would like to thank a girls’ weekend in Marseille, a couple of visits down to Oppède (including a birthday surprise visit for a dear friend on July 14th), and many afternoons spent sunbathing with a book at Buttes Chaumont because it’s hot and as much as I like my fan, sometimes it just doesn’t cut it.
Until next time (hopefully sooner rather than later…)
So, I know there’s a typo in the title of my last post, but honestly, I don’t really feel like correcting it because sometimes it really does feel like we’ve been stuck in this mess for 250 days.
That being said, given that the situation has not changed much here yet (though deconfinement will slowly–hopefully–be starting on May 11), anyone who is reading this right now is probably wondering “Effie? Why are you writing right now if your life has basically been one endless string of sameness for the past seven/going on eight weeks?”
Good question, hypothetical/invisible reader.
The short answer: I had a mild anxiety attack last night.
The longer answer: I haven’t been sleeping super well these past few weeks, and frankly, the mounting stress from being inside all the time has a lot to do with it. Don’t worry, I’m not about to go parading in the streets, demanding that hair salons and restaurants and bars open up so other people can put themselves at risk for my illusion of “comfort”. But I will be honest here and say that it is getting increasingly difficult to stick to the rigidity I imposed on myself when I first went into confinement.
To give an example: a couple weeks ago, I added a trip to Mamiche, a boulangerie just shy of 1km from my apartment, to my usual grocery run. The walk there took me and the two friends I was doing my socially distant shopping with all the way down to the bottom of rue Faubourg du Temple, right up to where it crosses boulevard Jules Ferry and then ends at Place de la République.
This is a walk that I normally take very regularly. It’s part of my usual early Monday morning walks to the gym, my excursions to the library, the main artery through which I access the rest of the city (well, for the most part, anyway). I could feel the muscle memory in my legs pulling me forward as we reached the bottom of the road that day, and then, at the same time, it hit me that it had been almost two months since I had last walked that far, since I had last extended my spatial radius beyond my now-routine grocery stops. The city has become smaller for me, in a way (and there are some potentially good things about this, but I’ll probably get to those another time), and I don’t think I realized the extent through which I would have to go about “taking it back”, re-appropriating this manner of existing or walking in an urban space I had come to know almost like the back of my hand until that moment when I both wanted to freeze and turn back and also drop my groceries and keep. Fucking. Walking.
I didn’t do either, obviously. I settled on a very large cinnamon bun instead. But that moment has been eating at me lately, and that destabilizing feeling of confronting the unfamiliar in what should be familiar ended up coming back again last week when those same friends and I coordinated a taco run to El Nopal (the first time I had grabbed food that someone else made to-go rather than making it myself in…about as long as this quarantine had lasted). In both cases, the necessary adaptations and limitations to our social interactions didn’t necessarily help things: say hello from a distance, no hugs of greetings or goodbyes, orbit around each other while walking down the street as though there’s an invisible wall (or alligator, if you’re in Florida) separating us.
Sometimes, I wonder if these in-person yet very limited interactions are helping or hurting things. I want to say the former, but I am also someone who (as my dissertation, and literally almost anything else I have worked on will attest) is very intuitively aware of limits/rules/regulations/structures intended to orient or impede natural and sometimes instinctive behavior. I don’t want to hug my friends because I don’t want to put them at risk in case I somehow am an asymptomatic carrier, but this mental reminder to not enter into contact has its own darker side: it reminds me of how solitary I am now, and how long it’s been since I last felt the pressure of physical contact with someone else.
This solitude came to a head last night. I was scrolling through my instagram and noticed so many posts about the New York Times’ Cooking section sponsored “Big Lasagna Night”. Basically, everyone makes an absolutely epic looking lasagna following a particular recipe, and then at 7pm Eastern Time (yesterday), all the lasagna makers and their creations would gather together on a live stream and feast…together but apart.
And I wanted a lasagna. But the only thing that I could think of, the one thing that was just nagging me was that I didn’t want to make a whole lasagna for myself. I wanted to share my lasagna. Hell, I don’t have nearly enough fridge space to store a leftover lasagna, even if I had made one. Sure, maybe I could have strategized and somehow planned things out to make a perfect little lasagna for one, but that’s not the point of a lasagna. A lasagna is ultimate comfort food, yes, but part of the joy in making it is knowing that you’re about to share in that comfort with others, that you will all dig into the same groaning baking dish, and that a little bit of the love you put into making this incredibly involved dish will get passed on to someone else.
And that’s when I cracked.
I managed to get to sleep last night eventually (mental exhaustion post-crisis tends to help with that), so I was at least able to convincingly pull myself back up to teach again this morning. If nothing else, at least that’s a break in the monotony of the everyday now (though the stress of needing to be ON IT, mentally, hasn’t been helping much).
Before I drifted off though, I did have a small moment of clarity, and that was that I missed writing here. Even though my thoughts are more ramble-y than usual, there is something therapeutic about writing all this down and shooting it off into a very public online platform for who knows how many (ok, like…4?) people to read. And on that note, I think maybe in the next few days, I’ll finally get around to doing what I told myself I would do, and kept coming back to last night: write posts about my dissertation, about the unanswered questions in my dissertation, basically, anything to keep at least some part of myself back in the theatre (at least until they reopen again).
Oh, and hopefully my next entry will be less morose.
I wanted to write in this on Monday night / Tuesday morning.
Or at the very least, right after I finished defending (more on that in a bit).
But…then I got a bit of food poisoning from…who knows what…so I decided to take things really easy. As in doing nothing easy.
As in sunning on my floor while reading easy.
But today was one of those days where I had to read aloud to myself so I could have something resembling a conversation (or have a voice to fill the silence), hence here I am.
First thing’s first, though: yes, I successfully defended my dissertation on Monday, April 6.
And it went well. Like, really well. Like, more than I could even have imagined well.
Of course, any of the many people who have tried to talk me out of my moments of imposter syndrome-driven crisis and who was present during that Zoom call would have probably not been surprised by that. But honestly that defense was the first time I was able to get a hint of what they (and my profs) had been seeing the whole time.
Hell, I may have even finally figured out what the hell it actually was I was trying to do with this project. Funny how you have to be outside of the thing to start to see the threads of what it is you’re crafting.
Let me back up a second though. One of the main issues I came across with all this in the lead-up to the big day was the fact that nowhere on Harvard’s / my department’s website does it mention what it is that actually happens during a defense. As in, what the student should plan on preparing, and more precisely, how much time they should allot for.
Now, of course, the solution to this would have been to actually attend some of these things when I was still on campus.
In the end, I did get a time limit (~30min), and from there, basically drew from my many conversations with folks not in my field to craft as detailed – yet precise – a presentation of my work as possible, keeping in mind how I felt my work contributed or added something new to my field.
It’s this last part that I am convinced no one in the humanities really grasps the full extent of. When you’re working with data/numbers, it’s a bit easier to step back and see the bigger picture. But when. you’re working with ideas or concepts, it can be hard to pull yourself away enough from everything to see how it all really fits. And yet, there I was.
And I reread my dissertation one last time. On the advice of a friend, I took page-by-page notes as a means of keeping track of everything (honestly, a pretty good idea in all, even though I barely referenced my document), as well as to try and anticipate any questions on my methodology, on elements that were unclear or potentially polemical, on why I made the choices I did, etc. I think I maybe over prepared a bit.
And then the day / time arrived. I put on makeup and earrings for the first time in three weeks. I wore a black turtleneck (of course), and leggings because only the upper half of me needed to look professional (not going to lie, I was tempted to wear heels, but I test-drove that idea the day before and it was…quickly scrapped). I opened the call, people started logging in. I saw my advisor’s face for the first time in a year. I saw other folks’ faces for the first time in longer than that.
I saw in a virtual space for the first time people I cared about from my family, to my university friends, to my grad school / Harvard friends, to my Paris friends gathered together to listen to what I had to say. It was like the ultimate stage performance, only separated by many miles and connected via cables and wifi signals (and mine was surprisingly stable…well…for the most part).
And I presented. And it felt good (though also really weird because, again, as with my teaching, I could not read the room as I spoke, and there were moments in there where I thought I really was speaking into the void).
And then the comments from my advisor started.
And I felt really good. Like a meteor shooting through the sky good.
For the first time, I actually looked at my work and assumed it for what it was. And it was a triumph. Hell, one other committee member gave me unofficial “Felicitations”, which, for those unfamiliar with the French system, is a pretty big deal.
And yes, I am going to toot my own horn. I’ll toot it to the fucking moon and back again all night long, for all I care. This was six years of my life. Six years of success, but six of moments of absolute rock bottom shit and self-doubt as well. And fuck I loved the validation. I reveled in it. To think this thing that I wrote and that I still can’t help but nitpick at may be worth something.
And I don’t want this to be the last thing that I write that brings something new to the table, that adds to the academic conversation. I want to keep going.
I want to publish the damn thing.
And then write and publish more things.
Fuck it is so crazy the roller coaster that happens when you’re at the end of the PhD.
Speaking of which, I suppose I should change the heading of this blog at some point (because yeah, no, I’m not going to stop writing here). I’ll get to that eventually.
It’s funny, writing about all this really boosted my mood. I’m still holding on more or less well, but the silence was hard today. And there are still moments that I really wish I could just have a moment of physical human contact. Fuck, the weather’s getting warmer, and all I want to do is cuddle someone. Ha!
As I said during my talkback, though, I am full of contradictions. I live in contradictions. Contradictions are what make things interesting.
As of April 2 (last Thursday), 15h00, I’ve officially been on “vacation”.
I was supposed to be on a plane for New York on Friday. And today was supposed to be a drive up from Connecticut to Boston. But, of course, that is not happening.
It’s strange, I never thought I’d see the day where I wished I wasn’t on vacation, but here we are.
And a really annoying thing about it? My strategy of purposefully giving my students assignments that I would have to grade over break in order to keep myself occupied (and thus not really giving them homework over the holiday to take some of the edge of all this off) has gone completely belly-up thanks to the absolute “genius” work of the Ministry of Education.
In brief: baccalaureate exams are basically cancelled (which makes perfect sense, since no one knows when schools will open again…and yeah, that May 4 predicted reopening is basically nonsense). Instead, the baccalaureate grades will be the average of all term grades for each subject.
Now, already there are some issues here, chief of these being 1) not all schools grade the same way, and 2) the particularities of our present situation.
For the first point: I can’t speak for other schools, but I can tell you that as far as my school is concerned, we grade very hard. We don’t needlessly punish our students, but given the school’s reputation, we are very demanding of them in terms of how much effort we expect to be made when completing assignments (not necessarily that everyone must be perfect at everything, but they must at least try. We try and help those who are struggling). What this means, however, is that some of our struggling students might, on paper/just based on those marks appear to be on the cusp of failing their bac, but on the day of actually end up doing pretty alright, if not excellently.
Furthermore, and this is a more broad statement, it’s also very true that some 12th graders will literally do the bare minimum and then cram in the weeks leading up to the actual bac, and then wind up getting a decent mark. It’s a ridiculous strategy, yes, but it happens. They now have a very real chance of actually failing/scoring much lower than in a real-world scenario.
As to the second point, this one more directly concerns me, and it actually makes me a bit angry. But first, some points to consider:
My school has been very lucky in that we had the funds (and our students have parents that also had the funds) to have been able to quickly set up our “virtual” classrooms via zoom almost immediately following the announcement of school closures. As such, we have been able to continue teaching our students (technical glitches notwithstanding) as more or less “normal” for the past three weeks.
Unfortunately, it is also estimated that between 5 – 8% of school-aged children in France have seen their education fully interrupted. Reasons for this range anywhere from the school not having the proper infrastructure in place, to (and the more likely) families not having available computers/tablets or even internet access at home for their kids to use to access educational material. One of the public television channels has been airing programming aimed at high school students every day in order to give them some access to material that is part of the national curriculum, but what about students whose families don’t have a television, or for whom there is no space at home to quietly study?
In light of the above, the decision was made by the Ministry that even though the final bac grades would be an average of term grades, any grading done for assignments given during quarantine would not be counted in the third term grade average.
Basically, all the work teachers not just from our school, but other schools that have been trying to get virtual classrooms set up has been for basically nothing. It’s almost like we’re working for free.
Oh, and the Ministry wants to extend the school year through July 4.
This, all this, on top of how “on it” we have to be all the time, how much we have to make sure we are there and we show up for our kids to try and bring some normalcy back into their lives. This, while at the same time there is a minister in government who openly disdains us and our job, suggests that we are “lazy”, scoffs at the thought of instituting pay raises nationally, and generally has no fucking clue what it means to be a teacher.
And I am exhausted. I am straight up dreading what’s going to happen after Monday because even though I could feel myself carrying the mental load in terms of holding back my frustrations so that my students could let out theirs, I didn’t mind it. It gave me something to do, in any case. And now, with this, what the hell is going to happen once the “break” is over? Will I even have any of my 12th graders showing up? The school is going to send an email to parents explaining why all students should still show up and put in an effort, but holy shit it’s like these decisions were only 50% (if that) thought through.
Should the bac have been cancelled this year? Oh yeah. The system–try as they might to insist they are not–is already unequal in normal conditions, and this situation just exacerbates that. But, fuck, could they take a minute to think about the implications of their decisions beyond that first one?
The inequality gap is going to get worse by this.
And now I have to design pretty much a whole new curriculum to carry my students through to the end of the year.
At least that will give me something to do.
Maybe I’ll just make them all watch Twin Peaks and then write presentations trying to explain everything. Those would make about as much sense as this nonsense.
In less than a week, I will finally be defending my dissertation.
And I have no idea how to even begin processing that.
This doesn’t so much have to do with the circumstances surrounding the defense–virtual versus in-person–but more what it means for me, for my “status” in the world, for how I identify myself.
It’s one step closer to leaving the label of “student” behind, and I am almost afraid of the possibilities, of the unknown that will come after.
Researching and writing my PhD, being in the middle of my work rather than at the end of it has become almost as integral a part of me as any of the other elements of my personality. To be honest, I feel like it made me more interesting. I mean, there’s a difference between saying that you’re “working on a PhD” as opposed to you “have a PhD”. Working on something implies activity, the process, whereas the latter, in its stasis, becomes something more akin to a status symbol. And this is not to minimize anything I or anyone else who has been through this gauntlet has done, but there are certain avenues of engaging with others when you are in the middle of an intellectual project that disappear, in a way, when that project is finished.
And maybe I’m not making much sense right now. Hell, I’m having trouble unscrambling my thoughts from my head enough to coherently write them down here.
If nothing else though, prepping for next Monday has at least given me some needed distraction from my current state of isolation.