Opinion time! The gardens at Versailles are far more interesting and worth spending time in than the palace itself.
It’s a shame really that the gardens don’t get as much publicity as the palace (which yes does offer a rather obscene display of wealth) because a good portion of them are actually free to visit (excepting on certain days when they organize some musical events that are somehow coordinated with the fountains. Honestly, I’ve never been when one of those was on, so that’s the best description I could come up with). The exception to this are Marie Antoinette’s gardens and private hamlet near the Petit Trianon, but the 12eu entry fee – which also grants entrance to both the Petit and the Grand Trianon chateaus – just so you can experience one of the most fascinating displays of out of touch wealth set in a strikingly peaceful English-style garden.
I am talking of course, about Marie Antoinette’s little farm.
The inspiration behind this little farm getaway was drawn from the writings of certain Enlightenment thinkers – notably Rousseau – who advocated a return to nature, a simpler way of living, as the key to a happy pleasant, life. This in turn lead the aristocracy – who likely rarely interacted with peasants, if at all (hell, they did not, by law, eat the same bread) – to take a liking to the pastoral, hence things like this : a Disney-fication of an otherwise rather difficult life. On this farm, Marie Antoinette kept a house for herself as well as her companions (don’t be fooled by the humble exteriors, the insides of these buildings were decorated rather expensively, though perhaps without as much…obvious display of wealth), along with chickens, sheep, goats, and even a small working dairy. Really, what more could one ask for for a farm that would allow you to live the ideal peasant life without any of the hardships (or awful grain harvests)?
Nowadays, the farm is still a working farm, and actually supplies much of the vegetables for some of the restaurants in/near the Chateau (I believe Alain Ducasse’s place located in the Chateau itself, Ore, sources from there, though I could be wrong). You can also find their jams in any of the several gift shops.
And I mean, it is hard to deny how absolutely breathtaking the garden itself is, even while keeping in mind the absolute absurdity behind the creation of a large part of it.
I have a feeling my routine is going to start getting a bit more boring after this, now that I have my library card and whatnot. Perhaps I’ll just start posting daily pictures of the BNF.
For now, though, here is what I think might be one of the most amusing, if not my favorite, paintings in Versailles (this one located in the Galerie des Batailles) : tiny Napoleon holding a tiny spyglass.
One of the things that always nagged at me while I was in Boston was the thought that – although it was the right decision – I would throw myself off the momentum I had gathered during my M.A. and my M2. This may or may not have contributed to my bouts of imposter syndrome (which I’ll probably bring up again at some point), but needless to say, a lot of my mental energy was spent trying to snap myself out of whatever rut I was stuck in.
Thankfully, what with the number of meetings I was running to and from yesterday and today, I think I might be starting to get back into ‘research mode’. Student card : check. Health insurance : check (with a side of confusion trying to explain to the really nice girl at the uni helping me that yes, I have EU citizenship. No, I do not have an EU health card because my primary residence was in the US. No, even though I also have US citizenship, I do not have a visa/titre de séjour because of the aforementioned EU citizenship, etc). Library card : check.
This last one was the one I was worried about most, since the hoops I had to jump through to get my original card to access the research library – as opposed to just the public section of the library – back in 2012 were prime examples of gatekeeping at its finest (to give an idea: part of it involved proving that access to the BNF – The Bibliothèque Nationale de France – was indispensable for my work as a mere first year master student by providing a list of works we needed to consult that could only be found in the research centers. On the advice of my thesis director, I…embellished my list a bit). Thankfully, renewing my card did not involve as much nonsense as the initial inscription (and honestly, being a doctoral student helps a lot). It remains to be seen how long it takes me to fully get back into the swing of things, but at least now that the majority of the administrative work I had to take care of is done, I’ll have one less thing weighing on me.
Sometimes I do things that others might deem irrational.
Today for instance, after a meeting, I stopped by Ten Belles for some lunch as well as to pick up some coffee beans, as this morning I realized I would only barely have enough for tomorrow. Unfortunately for me, they were not selling any beans that day, as they were not expecting new stock from Belleville Brûlerie until Friday. I was, somehow, fine with this, until I remembered that contrary to what my brain was telling me, no it was not Thursday today but Monday, and thus I voluntarily placed myself in a dilemma. Or set myself a challenge, if you will, by knowingly skewing my priorities for the day.
Now, a normal person would have just chalked this up to bad timing and simply picked something else up from the Franprix that was literally two minutes away, but I apparently have a certain affinity for taking on ridiculous side-quests. And so I began trekking around the Marais, handbag heavy with SAT prep books for a course I’m teaching (speaking of : they really haven’t found a way to make these things not weigh 500 pounds, considering how much paper is wasted on these things that always become ‘obsolete’ within the year?), wondering why the hell every shop (all 5 of them) I stopped at that I knew stocked the coffee brand I was looking for was closed on a Monday. Granted, I did finally find what I was looking for, but upon finding it, I couldn’t help but think to myself that maybe this was all a bit too much nonsense.
Then again, maybe this is another manifestation of me trying to get full control back over my life after things got somewhat upended. It would make sense, wouldn’t it, to try and give even a small f**k you to the universe?
A bit of background : when I got back from Greece, one of the first things I did was go to a sporting goods store to see if I could pick up a few pairs of hand weights (because, really, there is no way I’m paying for a gym membership when youtube workout videos can give me the same thing for free). Unfortunately, the GoSport I went to near République only carried weights up to 4kg (just over 8lbs), and as I was hoping to get some heavier ones that would meet my workout needs, I decided to order them off Amazon instead.
(Also, the price labeling made it very unclear as to whether the weights cost 14eu a pair or 14eu per dumbbell, and I wasn’t exactly in the mood to find out which one was right).
Something to keep in mind about Paris apartment buildings is that how your packages get delivered to you can depend on whether or not your building has a guardien (something like a doorman, but who is usually stationed in a small office in the building’s instead of by the front door). When I last lived here, I was fortunate enough to have a building with a guardien, who would ring up if/when a package got delivered and keep it in his office for me to collect later if I wasn’t in. Unfortunately, my current building does not have a guardien, so package delivery takes on a rather potent air of suspense, not unlike one of those choose your own adventure novels where you don’t know if the next page turn will see you successfully completing your journey, or trekking out to the Chronopost office in the middle of nowhere to stand in line with about 5 other equally annoyed people as you wait for a disinterested employee to fetch your tiny package, all while wondering what you did to deserve this in the first place (coincidentally, this very thing happened to me in spring 2013).
Fortunately, I was home when the mailman rang up on Friday morning to tell me my package(s) had arrived, but then came the second problem : my building’s lack of elevator. And I am on the top floor (6th French, 7th American). I of course ran downstairs to help carry at least one of the packages, but the guy insisted on carrying them himself (because sexism). And I don’t know if I can say for sure, but I am pretty certain he regretted that decision once I told him that yes, I am on the top floor (the doubt comes from the fact that I offered again to take one of the packages, but he again said no because…sexism).
He unfortunately also had to make the trek back up again after dropping the boxes off because he forgot to scan the packages and have me sign for them. And it wasn’t until he left that I realized that there was one set of weights (the heaviest pair at 8kg each) that had yet to be delivered. Thankfully, that pair came yesterday.
I did promise him though that this would be the last pair, which I think he was more than happy to hear. *
Last night saw a reunion with an old friend at a crêperie in the 15th, and this morning saw yet another reunion with some of the Lucien Paye gang at our old stomping grounds of Cité U (where you can still get a crazy affordable breakfast formule at the café – open from 9h30 on weekends. And yes, I know that non-students can also still eat at the resto-u for lunch/dinner at an insanely affordable price, but I’m….okay with skipping that). Meeting right when the café opened meant we pretty much had the place – and the grounds in general – to ourselves, other than a few jogging groups and some ultimate frisbee players. I honestly can’t remember the last time I visited Cité. I vaguely recall stopping by there one or two times after I moved out to the 20th, but it feels like it’s been ages. And yet, nothing much has changed. We even popped in to Lucien Paye to say hello to the security guard there, who remembered some of us (I think he was still trying to place who I was after we left, but I distinctly remember him as the man who found my phone after it fell out of my purse and into the snow), and was more that happy to let us look around the entrance hall a bit. Nostalgia is a funny thing. It both makes you want to linger in a place to try and recapture some of the moments you once experienced there, and yet nags at you a bit to move along. Because really, there is no use in trying to fully recapture the ephemeral.
The rest of the afternoon was spent walking through Montparnasse and up to the Blend location near Les Halles for some burgers (I didn’t get a picture of my Came burger which was smothered in absolutely beautifully gooey camembert cheese, but after not having had a burger for like…a year…because ‘eating healthy’ is I thing I apparently started doing, I devoured that thing like it was nothing).
* A final note : is there ever really an appropriate time for a mailman to propose getting a coffee with a resident? No? Yeah, I figured.
When you live with someone for a non-insignificant amount of time, they tend to leave their mark on you in ways that are sometimes so subtle, you don’t even realize they’re there until the person in question is gone. Nowhere has this been more evident for me than in the way I now set up my kitchen.
I’ve always been very fond of cooking. Some might find it burdensome, but for me, there really is nothing better than wielding a chef’s knife to take out my day’s frustrations on an onion. But up until I started cohabitating with my ex (yeah, it still feels strange writing/saying that), I tended to stay within my comfort zone of Greek/California-healthy foods. Living with someone who loved cooking (and eating) as much as I did pushed me to expand my repertoire, and nights spent reading up on techniques or tackling a FoodLab recipe helped reshape the way I think of my kitchen.
I mean, hell, I actually researched and shopped around for a good, but still affordable chef’s knife when I moved back here.
And so this afternoon found me taking my mom to Tang Frères in the 13th (after stopping by Pho Banh Cuon 14 for, as the name would suggest, pho) to buy a couple of pantry staples whose absence has been nagging at me. I know that general wisdom often says that post-breakup should be a time to come back into yourself as a singular entity, but there are certain elements of my life as a ‘we’ that I don’t think I want to – or should – shake off. One of those things is having fish sauce and sriracha in my pantry. Cooking is my most steadfast form of therapy; the more layers of flavor I can coax out of what I make, the better.
Tonight also saw the reunion of almost all of the Cité Universitaire friends at a vegetarian Indian resto near Gare du Nord (very typical for us). Although we are all pretty much fully entrenched in the real world and don’t see each other as often as we used to, there are certain connections that can pretty much withstand almost anything. Breakups fucking suck, and pulling yourself back up after one can seem a near impossible task. But surrounding yourself with people, whether you’re sharing a meal, catching up on each other’s lives, or even just laughing while reminiscing about a silly game you all once invented involving a volleyball and grass cuttings can be enough to let some brightness back in.
Why no day 11? Because yesterday my day consisted primarily of going to a Greek épicerie (Kilikio) to buy some olive oil – and if you read my post on the Peloponnese, you will know that I am very particular about my olive oil.
So on to day 12.
Next to summer, I think fall is my favorite season (and honestly, sometimes it gets very close to edging the former out for the top spot). Something about the warm colors of the leaves, the crispness in the air, and the fact that I can go back to wearing as much black as possible makes the fact that vacation is over a little more bearable. And as I am still running on an academic calendar, fall is also a season of new beginnings, chances to start fresh.
And so my back to school shopping this year included a haircut.
I think many people would agree with me when I say that finding the right hair salon – or even stylist – can be a somewhat stressful experience. Compound this with living in a foreign country where vocabulary used in such settings is not necessarily part of your arsenal and you’ve got a situation that almost makes you never want to get your hair done again. Thankfully, during the first year of my Masters in 2013, I went through that gauntlet, and after having an exceptionally ‘meh’ haircut thanks to a Groupon, I managed to find what I think might not just be my favorite salon in Paris but my favorite salon anywhere.
The salon Messieurs-Dames, located in the upper Marais is excellent for many reasons, but two in particular stand out. One : they are bilingual, and although my communication with my stylist both this visit as well as my previous one almost four years ago was in French, it’s nice to know that you can drop in some English here and there to really clarify what it is that you want. Two : they cut the hair while it’s dry. The benefit of this is that you can actually get a better idea of what the finished result is going to look like, and for someone with wavy hair (like me), there is a certain peace of mind that comes with knowing what your hair is likely to look like when you do it at home, especially when you’re rather low-maintenance with it.
Oh and a final bonus : my stylist dried my hair with the curl/wave intact instead of straightening it. “Natural, but better,” he said. And because I really only treat myself to a haircut once (maybe twice) a year, a little primping was more than perfect.
In terms of pricing, the salon is about mid-range, with prices varying depending on the stylist (although average price is about 60eu). As I mentioned, frequent hair appointments are not something I regularly budget for, so I tend to chalk up my semi-annual visits as part of my ‘treat yourself’ budget.
And I know that there’s this sort of stereotypical idea that post-breakup haircuts are usually very dramatic, but for me, I think what I really needed was something that I knew would make me feel good when I looked in the mirror. I take risks in plenty of other areas in my life. Right now, what I want – what I need – is to wake up in the morning, take a look at myself and say “Damn. I look fucking good,” and believe it.
So here’s to haircuts and the power of letting go, of feeling light again, of casting off the weight of 6+ inches of hair and maybe of a few other things as well.
I want to get back to the whole ‘recording mini successes’ idea I had a few weeks ago because I think today’s success merits it.
I finally have hot sauce again.
Granted, I had to shell out about 9.50eu for it at Lafayette Gourmet, but when your grocery store shelves are not lined with an abundance of different hot sauce brands, you kind of take what you can get. And it’s worth it. I still need to add a (giant) bottle of Siracha to my collection, but as I have yet to make a trip to Tang Frères in the 13th – where I am almost certain I will be able to find it at a decent, if not still somewhat annoying, price – its designated spot in my pantry remains empty.
And because multiple successes are also better than just one, I’ll add a trip to Pizzeria Popolare (of the Big Mamma restaurant group) for dinner to my list. Locals and visitors who have eaten (or attempted) to have eaten at one of the Big Mamma restaurants know that due to their policy of not taking reservations, the lines can stretch around the block, with wait times at some of the restos at times exceeding two hours. General wisdom suggests to arrive a bit before opening time to make sure you are seated right away, but luckily, this being a Tuesday, my mom and I managed to get in after only ten minutes of waiting after arriving thirty minutes after the restaurant opened. This speedy entry may also have had to do with the number of large (think 4-5 people) though incomplete parties ahead of us, but I’ll just go ahead and add tonight’s experience to my list of reasons as to why it benefits to dine solo (or à deux) in Paris.
Oh and the pizza? It was delicious, and at only 5eu for a Margherita pizza (what I ended up ordering) incredibly wallet-friendly.
I’m going to get a bit political for this last success, but only because I have been asked recently what it’s like living abroad when there is so much turmoil going on at home. This success is courtesy of my phone plan, which allows me to call the US for free while in France. It’s very easy at times to forget your position as a voter while being so far removed, but voters abroad are not insignificant in number and our voices do – and will – count if we make ourselves heard. So when, for example, news started trickling in late Monday night (early Tuesday morning for me) about the impending end of DACA, I felt confident knowing that my call to my rep’s answering machine would not only not cost an arm and a leg but that I could make as many as I theoretically want. Travel is a privilege. And especially for those (like me) who have dual citizenship (US-EU in my case), the fact that I can move freely without worrying about where my home will be, or if I will even have one to return to, is something that can very easily be taken for granted, as are the numerous benefits this movement will bring to my education and future career opportunities. Travel itself may not necessarily be at the center of the conversation around DACA, but movement is. And the sudden restriction and hyper surveillance of movement of thousands of individuals – who were already under some level of constant watch – is irresponsible and inhumaine.
So if you are abroad and your phone plan (and your finances if international calls are not included) allow it, call your representatives.
Truly, there is nothing quite like an overcast sky to remind you that summer vacation is indeed over.
At least I have this new piece to add a pop of color to the walls of my apartment :
As it is La Rentrée, I will soon have the unenviable task of contacting the university I’m to be attached to in order to finish my inscription administrative. An unexpected benefit of this is that my primary source of stress and frustration has been diverted from my breakup to the inevitable encounter of some (or several) university employees who will insist they no, they are not the ones who I am meant to turn some form or other to but at the same time only give me just barely enough information as to who I am to see next.
After having done this multiple times the last years I lived here, I am convinced that this inscription merry-go-round is nothing more than a way to remind students that those days (or weeks) spent doing nothing are now effectively done with.
Every year, almost without fail, one or more of the following messages will show up in my inbox/messenger :
“Hey, I’m heading to Greece! What should I do?”
Usually, these requests are followed up by questions almost exclusively about the islands, with one or two inquiries about Athens (because of course one must trek up to the Acropolis at least once), and although I’ve been to several islands and enjoyed my visits there, my heart still lies firmly in that large peninsula to the south : the Peloponnese. I suppose it partly has to do with the fact that both my parents grew up/have roots here – my mom comes from a small village near Kalamata, and my dad, although he grew up in Athens, spent a good part of his childhood in the seaside town of Finikounda – , and consequently, my trips to Greece when I was younger were almost exclusively confined there. But with the financial crisis, as well as the many conversations around tourism in Greece that it inspired, I felt my affinity for the region grow stronger.
Because although the islands – especially this year – are boasting record levels in tourism, the mainland has sort of crept along slowly, seemingly left behind for promises of wild parties, picturesque white houses, and idyllic beaches, which is a shame.
And so, I’ve sort of taken it upon myself to try and convince as many people as possible to stay on the mainland a while.
Although summer 2017 is coming to a close, I figured I’d write a “Peloponnese appreciation” post anyway, partly to convince people to reconsider just sticking to the islands, partly because every year – and especially this year – that I come here, I always leave with a new sense of vigor, the kind of calm yet present energy that only comes after you’ve disconnected from the world for a while. Or, in my case, after you’ve been almost obligated to withdraw into yourself for a bit and just let the world encompass you, interact with you, make its presence felt on you.
The Peloponnese I know and tangentially grew up with has two faces. On the one are the mountains, basically the cradle of the Greek Revolution. The villages used to be more lively here, but what with many families having left – opting either for a life in Athens or, as with my family, in America – over the years, things are pretty quiet. The landscape is wild, rugged, with hills that almost dare you to climb them, and the occasional monastery that seems to be hanging on to the side of a cliff within an inch of its life.
Oh and the olive oil. You can’t really go wrong with some excellent, cold-pressed olive oil from Kalamata. If we can talk about terroir (a taste of place) with wine, then we certainly should be talking about it when it comes to olive oil, and especially Greek olive oil. I have a soft spot for oil from Kalamata. It’s slight greenish tinge and olive flavor is pronounced where others are neutralized. Let me put it this way : when I step outside in my mom’s village in the late afternoon, there’s a certain crisp, comforting smell of dry grass, pine, and a hint of oregano in the air. If I can taste that in my olive oil, I know I’ve found a good one.
My mom’s particular village is located in the region of Arcadia, where the closest city of note (other than maybe Kalamata), is Sparta. While I would not necessarily enthousiastically recommend anyone visit Sparta – the Spartans, as their name suggests, did not leave much behind in the way of ruins or artefacts -, if you are ever lucky enough to be invited to a village panigyri (celebration) in the immediate area, and especially for one held on or around August 15, go. Stuff your face full of salad, cheese (usually graviera but sometimes feta), and the ubiquitous roast pig that always accompanies the August festivities. Yes, contrary to popular belief, Greeks eat a good amount of pork. The souvlaki pictured above? Pork. Indeed, pork souvlaki and gyros are pretty much standard here, with chicken oftentimes being the only alternative option.
After you’ve had your fill of pork, cheese, salad and beer comes the dancing where you can work all of it off. If you’re lucky, there will be a live band. Unfortunately, this year our village had to make due with a DJ, although this did mean we got a quick, if very random, disco break a little after midnight (prepare yourselves, these things can go until 2 or 3 in the morning).
The second face of the Peloponnese is one that is perhaps more in line with the clichéd, though not entirely fictitious, images of Greece that dot tourists’ imaginations. It’s where the ‘fingers’ of the Peloponnese reach out and meet the Aegean Sea, that impossibly blue body of water where I honed my swimming and sandcastle building skills, where I got lost in Hemingway, Vonnegut, Genet, and Hugo, and where I developed a seasonal addiction to atherina – small white bait that’s fried and eaten whole like french fries. Pop a couple in your mouth, crunch the thin, flimsy bones down, and take a sip of ouzo. All thoughts of those emails you really need to send out (at some point) eventually begin to fade away.
And of course, the advantage of having our summer home where we do – at least for me – is its proximity to the ancient theatre at Epidauros. Now, this may come as a surprise to some of you, but even as someone who studies contemporary French theatre, I have never been to the famous summer theatre festival at Avignon (yes, I know, shame on me). Why? Because I’ve always been here, in Epidauros, watching performances in a theatre that was initially built as a sort of therapeutic outlet for patients at the nearby hospital (yes, even the ancient Greeks had the sense to realize theatre’s potential positive effects on mental health, although their citing of it as a cure for physical ailments is…dubious). Performances are held here on Friday and Saturday evenings during the summer Athens/Epidaurus theatre festival, but even the tours during the day/off season are worth it for a chance to explore the space and witness first hand its amazing acoustics (yes, you really can hear a pin drop on the center of the stage even if you’re sitting on the top row). If you do choose to see a performance here, know that they can be hit or miss depending on the play/company performing, but friendly ticket prices means you won’t be grumbling about having had to throw down $100+ for a dud. Another plus is that surtitles in English have become standard at Epidaurus in the last few years, so don’t worry about not being able to follow along (although, if the performance is exceptionally good, you might just end up ignoring them). We were lucky this year in that the show we saw – Aeschylus’ The Persians – was an incredibly engaging, well-paced, production, whose recalling of an almost ritualized performance style served to create an almost trance-like environment where I found myself at once wanting to draw closer to the center of the stage, into the actors’ energy, as well as acutely aware of the scent and rustling of the surrounding pine trees, nature cocooning and encroaching on us. A final bit of advice though : see a tragedy. Comedy, even when done well, can very much get lost in translation, and when done poorly (looking at you, 2012 production of The Clouds) can be so dull it almost makes you wish you were watching a rock grow. Not grass. A rock.
But before I end this somewhat rambling post, I want to go back to the sea. There’s something rather special about the particular beach I grew up going to. It’s not the sand, nor the warm, calm waters, nor the fact that it was (and still somewhat is) a locals only spot. It’s the fact that I can walk about 50 yards – yes half a football field – before I have to start treading water. And I’m 5’3″. I generally feel very comfortable swimming out in open water in the Agean, but here it’s almost like being home again. There’s a certain freedom that comes with diving down under water and instead of tiles all you see is sand and a tantalizing expanse of gradiante blue. It almost makes you want to float on your back and let the sea carry you where it may, dropping below the surface every so often just to catch a glimpse of that impossible blue color again.
Because then your stomach rumbles. And you remember there may be atherina or at least a choriatiki or ‘village’ salad waiting.
At the time of writing this, I’m winding down on my time here, as well as a little over one month out from the official split. To be honest, this vacation was not nearly as carefree as my trips to Greece usually are, nor was I expecting it to be. There were enough high points to counteract the (very) low ones, and though I am not magically healed, I can at least feel myself working towards something that could be called ‘healing’. Time is helping. Distance, perhaps even more so. There is still a feeling of dread that creeps in every so often, but it’s starting to grow fainter.
And I’m not sure, but I think that it may have something to do with the fact that I was in the ‘homeland’ for a month.
So due to a weird mixup on someone’s (mine, maybe? Who knows) part, my mom’s flight was actually scheduled for today instead of tomorrow. After a quick rush to Châtelet to see her off on the RER on the way to the airport, I went back home to actually get some version of put together before I set out for the day. And since I had an unexpected day to myself, of course I spent the majority of it walking.
Oh, and buying books.
Behold the official reading list for Greece summer 2017. The bottom two books are new additions, the top left a gift from (and written by) a friend, and Genet is there because of course he is. I’m feeling the pull towards his particular brand of sublime destruction at the moment.
Since I am leaving to spend the next month in warmer climates tomorrow, meals had to be strategized today. I wanted to get a jumpstart on all the healthy eating I’m about to do – as well as to counteract all the pastries I’ve been eating – but choices were somewhat limited, given how the whole city seemingly shuts down in August. Thankfully, Wild & the Moon was open, and as the weather today more closely resembled fall than summer, I opted for a bowl of their stew of the day. Today it was a Thai-style curry.
Granted, this move towards healthier eating was later practically nullified with a piece of apricot-pistachio tart at Le Loir dans la Théière (accompanied by a pot of Darjeeling tea), but I think the 2.5 mile walk home made up for that.
And now here I am. Alone in this apartment that I will have to fill with myself until the time comes that the lack of his presence no longer affects the way I move through it. There is a certain potentiality for creativity in that though, and the optimistic side of me wants to keep that alive and present.
Because I am here.
Because I can move through things on my terms, heal on my terms.
A month away should – will – be good. I still have a dissertation to tackle after all.