Life, theatre, and all that's post-dissertation…in Paris.
PhD candidate in Romance Languages and Literatures (French) at Harvard University, with a focus on contemporary French theatre.
Formerly with Columbia University at Reid Hall, Paris, and the University of Paris IV--La Sorbonne.
Goals: Write my dissertation, stay in Paris
Further goals: find employment, stay relatively sane
Instagram : @effie143
Cacio e pepe, to be precise (though I did have to substitute Parmesan for pecorino…and I also added peas and red pepper flakes at the end…so…not exactly traditional).
Even with the modifications, though, it was an admittedly very comforting bowl of pasta. Actually, to be honest, I can’t remember the last time I made pasta at home. Wheat-based pasta, I mean. I kind of started cutting it out of my regular rotation a couple of years ago when I was working to get better results on my workout regimen, and I just, never introduced it back.
Time went by surprisingly quickly today. Maybe it’s just something about Sunday…
Or maybe I’m starting to get used to this being indoors indefinitely thing.
As soon as this has all blown over, I am going to take the longest walk I’ve ever taken around this city. And I won’t wear headphones to listen to music or a podcast while I do it, either.
A friend of mine started a dance challenge on Instagram today. I got tagged in it, and when I went to pick out what song to dance to for my contribution, I landed on “All of Me” by Tanlines. Well, I say “landed” but what I really mean is that I picked the first acceptable song from my liked tracks on Spotify, since I didn’t want to take the time to go through the entire list. It had been ages since I last heard that song. Listening to it felt quite good though, and after dancing around for a while, I have to say, I did feel quite a bit better.
Actually, speaking of music, it’s so odd not hearing any waft up from Café Cheri. The only sound I hear right now is the periodic lite banging of my bathroom door (it doesn’t close properly, and I leave the window in there open a crack to air it out…and it’s windy out).
It’s funny, when I woke up this morning, I distinctly remember the first thought that ran through my head was that I’m 30 years old. 30. I don’t think I’d thought about that since my 30th birthday back in November. Strange how the mind tends to fixate on otherwise minor or mundane details in times of stress. I can’t even say why I’ve been thinking about this, other than the fact that in no way do I feel 30. Maybe it was just the number that my mind was drawn to–this one constant, unchanging thing that will always be the same no matter what nonsense happens elsewhere. 30.
My graduation ceremony was officially postponed today.
I had a feeling it would happen–I mean it makes sense right now, right–, but it still…sucks.
And anyway, I should still feel lucky, right? I’m still going to defend, it will still (hopefully) go well, and I’ll still have a degree come spring.
But if things felt like they had all the fanfare of a deflated balloon before, now it’s like a balloon mixed with a bag of sand. I wanted one last moment of pomp and circumstance. Now it just feels like this whole thing is going to just waft away. And maybe it should. There are more important things than a dissertation about theatre, after all. Honestly, the more I think about it, the more I wonder whether or not there’s any usefulness in what I’ve been working on, if it could do some good somehow.
It’s just…I wanted something to go right, some good news. I feel the circumstances of the current state of the world are threatening either to pull me apart from people or otherwise make any maintenance of connection more difficult. The first is hard, but the second…I really hate the second.
I did go outside for a bit today though. Just for some grocery shopping and then it was back inside for at least the next week, but it did some good. Rumor has it this confinement will end up lasting longer than the initially announced two weeks…but we all already knew that. If it ends up going until May, however, this weekly outing might end up being a bigger relief than it already was today.
It’s not easy being alone with your thoughts all the time. Have to stay strong though…
As much as I almost hate to say it, I honestly think the thing that’s helped me get through this week the most has been teaching online.
I mean, it kills a couple hours a day, at the very least.
Tonight during the 20h00 applause for the healthcare workers, I saw the neighbors who live across from me for the first time. Well, saw them clearly, more like.
They’re a young couple. I was already leaning out my window when they finally opened theirs. We didn’t greet each other; there was just a moment of acknowledgement. The girl started clapping, and I put my phone away (I was filming the scene right before then) and clapped along with her. A moment of solidarity.
I keep seeing photos and videos of people outside, flaunting the confinement measures in an attempt to prove how overblown this all must be and how invincible they are. I mean, I won’t lie, given how lovely it was out today, I would also have spent the entirety of my afternoon outside, and yet…here I am.
And normally, I’m all for pushing boundaries, especially when those boundaries are set in place by a system that I fundamentally disagree with. But these are not normal circumstances.
I want this to end sooner rather than later, though I know we’re in for the long haul. But every day this selfishness keeps happening is another day (at minimum) the rest of us will have to spend almost entirely cut off from our surroundings.
I sat in my armchair and read for two hours today.
I tossed my phone onto the bench I normally sit on, far out of reach. I needed to quiet my brain down.
The sun was out. It was warm, so I opened the windows. I could still hear faint sounds of traffic, but mixed with those were also the sounds of birds, of neighbors popping up to their roof for a quick cigarette, of someone shaking a rug out their window. I could even smell the aromas of something really nice cooking from one of the apartments below.
And I felt myself relaxing, my brain quieting, my teeth unclenching–I’ve noticed that’s a new stress indicator for me now.
But my legs still crave stretching. I’m not sure that will ever change. Have to stay strong though, for however long this lasts.
All this talk of using the time we have while in this situation to learn or improve upon a skill/ability, and the one thing that came to mind for me was this instrument I hadn’t seriously thought about picking up again in years. And there was even a minute where I thought I had it stored somewhere here. But I was misremembering. It’s perched on a closet shelf, but that shelf is in my childhood bedroom in California.
Teaching with zoom has yet to result in the chaos some other of my colleagues were experiencing, but I felt the distance more with my students this time. In my literature class, the spontaneity, the free flow of conversation was gone, and all I felt was dead air. And then I felt as though my capabilities as an educator were being tested.
In between classes this afternoon, I went downstairs to take out the trash, and lingered in the courtyard a bit longer than usual. Most people had only been in isolation since Monday, but I’ve been inside four days at this point (yeah, the count in the title is off, but mostly because I chose to base it off of France’s official confinement start time). I needed to let my whole body breathe in air…yes, even the slightly smelly air next to the trash bins. Standing at my desk is all good, too, but my legs needed a stretch. I miss walking already.
I didn’t stay out too long though, maybe a minute. Enough for a brief respite before running back upstairs because the reminder of why I need to stay inside–because it might help save someone, or at least slow things down a bit–never leaves my head.
But then it’s in the silences once I’m inside that I think of the other thing I wish I had, and that maybe I’ll write more about one of these days…
Today, I had to chastise a student for videoing in to our virtual classroom while they were DRIVING THEIR CAR.
I think that short statement is enough to give a reasonably accurate description of this first day of a “yet-to-be-determined” lockdown.
Overall, not too bad…yet. I made sure to do my morning workout as usual, as well as keep to the rhythm of my morning routine as best I could (including showering and putting on a proper shirt instead of slugging around in sweatpants) so as to have some kind of normalcy in my day. One admittedly nice thing was that I was able to actually do a longer (and more intense) workout this morning, since I didn’t have to deal with the added stress of catching a train. Yay.
First day of teaching on Zoom was…interesting. It went alright in the sense that the technology worked fine, and discussion was able to be facilitated in a way that didn’t turn into total chaos, but not even an hour in I was already getting this strange feeling in my stomach…like something was not quite right. It’s partially the screen and the fact that all of us are so removed from each other spatially (and to a degree, temporally) when normally we are in the same present spatiotemporal moment in regular class time.
In short, I think I am really going to miss being in front of my students. And it didn’t quite hit me until I was in front of my 12th graders.
To be clear, one of those 12th graders was also DRIVING THEIR CAR WHILE VIDEO CALLING (yeah I’m going to keep putting that in all caps), but this particular class is still very special to me for several reasons, chief of which being the fact that they are the first class I will have seen from 10th – 12th grade (the high school here is 3 years instead of 4). The thought that we may not have another in-person class together is something that I am going to likely be grappling with even more as the days (or weeks…or months) continue on.
One thing that helped get at least some semblance of being in a classroom though was creating a sort of “standing desk” situation by placing a stool on top of my coffee table, two puzzle boxes on top of the stool, and my laptop on top of the boxes. Honestly, anything that keeps me from sitting down all day is a godsend at this point as far as I’m concerned. Because sitting has meant nothing but restlessness…and stress. I tried reading a bit…it didn’t work.
My other strategy: yoga in the evening. Who knows, maybe I’ll become super flexible by the end of this (unlikely).
And if all else fails, there is always the option of sticking my head out the window briefly and letting some of the fresh air and echoes of the sounds of the city in. It’s getting very quiet here, the kind of quiet that I normally only hear on Sunday mornings. An anticipatory, yet also melancholy quiet.
But a necessary quiet. Our individual actions can end up determining the magnitude of the wave that’s about to hit. It’s our responsibility to take care that those around us stay safe.
In the meantime, there’s always group video chats with friends over drinks to keep spirits up.
To be quite honest, I am almost in a state of disbelief still that I managed to submit the thing when I did (March 13, and thank goodness the due date got pushed up). For one thing, this project has been in my mind in one form or another for the past six years. I lived with it, planned my life around it, grew with it, struggled with it…and now, it’s done.
And I almost feel adrift, as if I am not quite sure where to go from here.
To be honest, the current state of things isn’t quite helping matters. I want to celebrate this moment, but then I feel guilty for even thinking that because there is something incredibly more pressing happening in the world right now which should 100% take precedence over my feelings. I will not lie though, it is very, very, difficult to go from a somewhat egotistical place of thinking that soon you’ll get your moment to be the center of attention as people gather to hear about your research accomplishments to a place of selflessness. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that I’ve been having an easy time transitioning back into the latter, shoving the dissertation to the side and prioritizing what I could do right now to make the coming weeks (and likely months) easier for others. I want to scream and stamp my feet and throw a tantrum and make this whole thing stop for just a while, be selfish and insist that I get that final moment that’s “owed” to me.
And I am very likely not the only graduate student set to finish/defend this year who is thinking this. But I think the fact that this final step was, for me, the culmination of years of schooling, the last step before leaving the role of “student” for good has made the urge to write this all out here more pressing.
I know that all this will pass…eventually…and that things will get back to something resembling normalcy soon. But that latter part also scares me because, if history tells us anything, we will have put this all out of mind by the time normalcy comes back again. There’s a reason why hubris is such a common theme to treat in tragedy.
In the meantime, I am now a PhD candidate with a submitted dissertation. I still think it can be improved upon, but honestly, the moment that I typed the last keystroke and that I finally (finally) figured out how to deal with the whole pagination thing on Word (took way longer than necessary), I felt at once light and…a heavy emptiness. I had to take a few minutes to look at my title page and process everything after I had converted the document to a PDF just to be sure it was real. Scrolling through all the pages brought back so many memories of writing sessions at home, in Greece, at the BNF, in California, and at La Fontaine de Belleville, times when I didn’t think that this day would ever happen, when the thought of writing near 300 (yeah, not counting the front/back matter, it’s about 269 pages) pages on theatre critiques seemed impossible, never mind that I had come very close to that before during my first masters (and that one was in French, too).
But then I felt this weight hit me when I remembered that there was nothing more left to do. I had no more great project that needed dealing with in the immediate future. Of course, others will come along, but in the present moment, it’s hard to envision that far ahead.
And I also could not help but laugh at the cruel irony of the situation. It’s a shame, really, that the current pandemic had to happen this year instead of last. Social distancing and self-imposed (but INCREDIBLY necessary) isolation are, after all, the perfect times to hunker down and write something like a dissertation.
I mean, Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague, Boccaccio used a quarantine during the Black Death as a frame story for the Decameron, likewise for Chaucer with The Canterbury Tales.
Meanwhile, I wrote a dissertation.
Yeah. The bar is a bit high.
So what am I doing at this point? Well, other than trying to keep thoughts about the inevitable cancelling of Commencement at the end of May (still keeping my fingers crossed that it ends up happening, but then I remember who is in charge in the US right now) out of my head, I have some grading to catch up on, puzzles to do, shows to watch, and, eventually, an apartment to deep clean.
Because I might as well make my living environment look nice for the foreseeable future.
And in the spirit of the great writers of the past–and also because I would like something more creative to do–, I am going to make a point of writing in here daily. One can think of it as a social distancing journal…but public. Who knows, maybe something interesting will come out of it (though this may have to wait until the second week of this, if not earlier). Hell, given how my job is going to be organized these next few weeks, this may just end up being a review of what it’s like to teach on Zoom (spoiler alert: I am both curious about and dreading this).
In the meantime, I have a small pile of essays from my 10th graders that is calling my attention. One of them used the word “boobies”. I have lost all hope.
That’s all that stands between me and my dissertation defense.
It’s odd being at this point, to be quite honest. On the one hand, I am almost in shock that it’s so close, given how much time I have spent thinking about this thing. On the other hand, I have this little nagging voice in my head that’s almost poking at me to push it back. It’s not because I don’t think I’m ready (I mean, it’s pretty much a universal truth that a PhD student is never fully happy with their dissertation because there is always more than can be done). It’s more that I’m somewhat…terrified.
Because this is it. This is the last degree program I will do, the last time I will be able to call myself a “student” in an official capacity (barring, of course, a second PhD, which…no). I mean, I haven’t left school since I started kindergarten in 1995. It’s been a while.
And with all these deadlines come sacrifices in other things. I’ve been seeing quite a bit of theatre since coming back from the Christmas holidays, but I honestly haven’t really felt the urgency to sit down and write about anything as much as I did last year (or even earlier this year). That’s the problem with having too much other stuff on your plate.
Full disclosure: that “other stuff” isn’t entirely dissertation related. For those (many) who haven’t been keeping up with what’s going on politically in France, there are certain major (and incredibly unequal/ill thought-out/nonsensical/etc.) changes being implemented this year that directly affect my line of work as a high school teacher (especially because the school I’m at is private but nevertheless under contract with the State to follow the national curriculum). Dealing with this mess—the strikes, the long conversations with my colleagues over what the f**k the Ministry of Education is thinking, if they’re thinking at all, and, yes, the sideline participation in some marches—has taken up a lot more of my free energy than anticipated. The dissertation, of course, is still priority number 1, but this mess has taken a close second.
Honestly, one thing that still keeps me going job-wise is the fact that I am teaching a literature course again. I always make sure I “show up” for my students, but getting to introduce a new crop to basic literary theory and comparative analysis and all the other things that make me love what I do (and which facilitate a kind of critical thinking that is becoming increasingly endangered, especially under the new educational reforms…again, I have some very choice words for the Minister of Education about this) taps into a part of my brain that always lights up in these situations, and inevitably gives me that extra oomph I need to carry on.
Then again, maybe messiness is part of the whole journey of the end of the PhD. In any case, it does match pretty well with what’s going on inside my head so…there’s that…?
It hasn’t all been nonsense, though. This past week, my sister flew over for a quick visit, and though the beginning of the week was a bit annoying because I had to work, by Thursday—my last day of work before another 2 week (yes!) holiday—, we were able to fully relax and, yes, eat so much yummy food.
I mean, I finally managed to go eat at La Cave de Belleville, a feat in itself considering that it is just over 5 minutes from my house, yet I have never managed to do anything but get a bottle of wine from there because I always forget to reserve a table.
The wine we chose that night was a very earthy red from the Jura. Upon making our selection, our server had to take a minute to double check that this was actually what we wanted, but the enthusiastic “Yes!” that Isabella (who joined us) and I answered with when she asked if we liked biodynamic wines seemed to convince her. And yes, it was indeed rather “dynamic”. The slight fizzy effervescence helped.
My sister also got to experience her first raclette dinner thanks to the machine I acquired during the winter sales (a necessary investment, as far as I’m concerned, as I have already used it three times this season).
And we made plenty of time for museum and expo-hopping, including the exhibit on the history of shoes at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, wherein I learned that, yes, there is such a thing as a too-high platform.
Moving forward, I promise I will try and get back to including some theatre reviews/commentary on here again (since I assume there are some people who miss it). That all might depend on how many edits (and re-edits, and re-re-edits) I will have to do between now and March 27, aka, D-Day for turning in my finalized dissertation.
Speaking of which: does anyone have any info on how to generate a table of contents on Word (or on other software)? If so, I may know someone (me) who is looking for advice.
Yes, I know. It’s kind of a lame excuse, but, hey, it’s better than the usual “oops, I just got so busy with things that I forgot to write.”
Though, that bit is true.
This last month has been rather hectic to say the least. Not just with the usual end of term grading binge and holiday prepping, or with the strikes, which somewhat altered my theatergoing plans.
And yes, as an aside, I didn’t go to the theatre as often as I had planned last month, but that’s not to say I have any feelings of resentment over what’s going on. On the contrary, I actually support what’s going on, in large part because it directly affects my line of work (because of course teachers and other public servants are so privileged that our pensions must be snipped away at. Unless, of course, we’re cops…obviously), but also because, to be quite frank, in this general environment of increased neoliberalization, seeing that mass worker mobilizations can still do…something…is slightly encouraging. Slightly, only because who knows if it will actually amount to anything significant. It’s hard to stay optimistic.
In any case, it is also quite hilarious (well, infuriating but also hilarious) to read the news about this and see mostly comments along the lines of “well, yes, we understand why people are striking, but why must it be so disruptive?”. I mean, I suppose that people could just go out into the streets one day for a couple hours, make some little signs, wave them around, say a couple of slogans that could later be printed onto t-shirts or pins to be sold for the low price of X euros and then go home—perform at protest, evoke the idea, the gestures of protest—, but what good would that do?
But this is part of what the general tide has turned towards, perhaps. Going through the motions for a moment of illusory subversion, a quick rush to think “yes, I feel good about myself right now” without daring to take that extra step into more difficult territory.
It’s somewhat similar to what I’ve seen in some pieces over the last few years. It’s what Olivier Neveux categorizes as theatre that is essentially “political” in name only, when in reality, it operates within—and even to some degree, reinforces—existing power structures and dynamics.
So, yes, I’m mentally (and physically) preparing myself for a lot of cold walks in the coming days. So be it.
But beyond that, I was also sent into something of a tailspin regarding my dissertation—well, more precisely, my dissertation defense date—that kind of cracked me in the last few days leading up to the break. Chalk it up to stress, or a general feeling of being so close only to potentially have things collapse from under you, but by the time I was ready to board my flight for San Francisco, the only thing on my mind was that I needed to get out of the city for a bit. Clear my head. Relax.
And I did, relax, actually. In fact, to really hammer that bit home, I did something I had never done before for a flight to California: I upgraded to business class.
To be honest, this was always one of those things I always told myself I would do one day, but never did. Mostly because I never thought I had enough money set aside to do it, as well as just generally feeling guilty about the thought of spending money on a one-time treat like this. Besides, once I saw the “other side”, could I ever go back?
Well, friends, let me tell you: I’ve crossed the Rubicon. Business class is very nice.
And it’s not just the fact that the seat turns into a full-on bed so that I could actually sleep (okay I slept for only two hours but, hey, that’s more than zero), or that I actually had enough personal space that I could get a good amount of work done (yes, I finished grading exams because I am also very responsible when I relax). It was getting a 15-minute facial (and mimosa because I get started on my relaxing early in the morning as well) in the Air France lounge. It was getting a complementary glass of champagne on arrival, a three-course dinner with actual silverware, and then a light lunch before landing, again with actual silverware. It was the amenities kit with a toothbrush/paste, eye mask, ear plugs, and hand creams that was offered after we were all seated. Hell, it was the fucking facial cleanser in the bathroom.
I mean, let’s be honest, in brief, it was just the general feeling of being treated like a human being instead of a mass in a seat.
Now, to be fair, I have had very good experiences on Air France in economy class, so this isn’t so much a dig at them, per-say. It’s more the same general comment about air travel that’s been repeated ad nauseum over the years.
In any case, it was a lovely experience, and a good way to get started on my holiday.
And it was a good holiday too, even if I did spend the majority of it working.
I did, at least, make it out for one solo adventure in San Francisco. My parents had gone down to Orange County to visit my sister, and I elected to stay behind to finish my dissertation draft (which I did…somehow). As a sort of reward to myself, I decided a walk and a visit to the SFMOMA was in order.
And eating, lots of eating.
I started with a croissant and café au lait at Tartine (because I can never leave France behind entirely) before venturing on a stroll around the Mission to kill some time before lunch (aka the reason I came out here in the first place).
I mean, I actually managed to visit the namesake Mission, for once.
But yes, lunch.
Lunch was tacos.
Now, yes, the taco scene in Paris is not too terrible (special shout-out to El Nopal), but let’s be honest, it cannot beat what I can find here. And hell, I’m not even remotely an expert. I just like a good lengua taco now and then to accompany my usual order of carnitas, and also a small salsa bar.
Well, anyway. Taqueria Vallarta more than satisfied all of that. And it filled me up for my trek to the SFMOMA as well.
The museum was lovely, as usual, but nothing stood out to me so much that it left an impression. I think it was more the general feeling of being surrounded by art that made me the most happy, or that just got me out of my head for a moment.
After that, I popped over to Good Mong Kok Bakeryto grab a red bean cake, and then it was off to City Lights Bookstore to see if I could find anything that struck my fancy. Unfortunately, I didn’t this time around, but, then again, I’ve got two rather large books on deck, and my bookshelf is pretty much full at this point. In any case, it was nevertheless a good way to end the adventure, as well as to mark the closing of the year and decade.
Yes, this is going to turn into a slight end of decade post. I say slight because I more or less did this in my birthday post (the perks of having a birthday so close to the end of the year, I guess). But I’ll add a little something here:
The 2010s for me have been, above all, the decade of Paris. Studying abroad in Paris, moving to Paris once and then back again, and spending all my time when not in Paris thinking about how I would get back. The Paris of my 2010s, and consequently my 20s, was a Paris of studying, of dealing with bureaucracy, of my first real job (which consequently, was also my first real teaching job). It was days spent at the BNF that turned into evenings. It was all-nighters (or close to them) being pulled at Reid Hall, seated behind a window in a little attic room, a pile of paper fortune-tellers acting as a testament as to how long I’d been there.
I’ve dealt with the dormitories, the landlord who got into a straight-up argument with me over giving me my security deposit back, the apartment that was too big (yep, figured out that was a thing), and then my spot now.
In short, over the past decade, as back and forth as my time here was, Paris became home.
And at the risk of getting overly sappy, I’ll end it at that. I’d say here’s to an excellent 2020, but the idiot-in-chief may or may not have just started WWIII so….eh?