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?
I’m not sure if this has more to do with the fact that I’ve just not had as much time to write here as I like, or that I’ve just not been out to see as many things as usual (blame time, of course, but also maybe the fact that this fall has been more dance-heavy in terms of programming at my usual haunts compared with the last couple years), but as we head towards winter, I’m getting the impression that this fall season has not left as much of a mark on me as previous ones.
This isn’t necessarily to say that everything has been terrible—The Way She Dies was, as expected, a highlight of the rentrée—, but more that I haven’t been “marked” by what I’ve seen to the same degree as I have previously. Maybe I’ve just become more discerning (read: picky haha). Maybe it’s just mental fatigue from the fact that right now the finish line for my dissertation is right within my reach and I just don’t have the capacity to open myself to much more (and anyway, the rest of my mental energy goes towards dealing with my teaching).
Or maybe it’s quite simply because a number of things I’ve seen so far have just been…eh.
This isn’t to say that none of them tried to go outside the box at all. A couple of weeks ago, for instance, I went out to Nanterre-Amandiers to check out Pillow Talk, an immersive experience that involved transforming the main stage of the Amandiers into a sort of futuristic lounge space, with pillowed pods set up for individuals to lay down in. The general idea was that you would talk to an AI for about an hour, the position of the microphones on the pillows designed in a way that, in order for the AI’s voice to be heard, one would have to arrange one’s body in such a way that it would mimic cuddling.
Listen, as someone who really thrives in (and ok, maybe really craves right now) that kind of intimacy, let me confirm to you that there is nothing that will shove you into the uncanny valley faster than listening to an AI whisper a joke in your ear and then “laugh”. Ok, maybe it asking you to sing “Killing Me Softly With His Song” with it comes a close second.
And yes, I get the whole thing about using this medium to question our own perspectives on interpersonal connectivity, but it’s also become such an obvious approach, I wonder if it even makes sense to do it anymore.
Anyway, enough of that. That’s not what I actually want to talk about today. No, today what I want to do is tackle a question that has been asked many times, yet nevertheless still remains relevant.
Why the hell are we still crafting redemption stories for asshole men?
Now granted, the asshole in question here is a character who, in the grand scheme of things, didn’t do anything particularly egregious other than just generally be a dick to other people (especially the women in his life). Compared to some other real-life less-than-savory individuals out there, this dude is almost inoffensive. Almost. Because at the end of the day, the everyday, small-scale nonsense of his that his friends and colleagues are convinced to forgive in order to help him have a moment of revelatory introspection is the kind of thing that, once it starts building up, contributes to the larger toxicity that not only keeps a certain hierarchical power structure in place, but also, and to varying degrees, silences those (read: anyone who is not a straight white cis-gendered man) who are not at the top of said hierarchy.
Anyway, let’s get to it.
Mort prématurée d’un chanteur populaire dans la force de l’âge. Written by Wajdi Mouawad with Arthur H. Dir. Wajdi Mouawad, La Colline, November 17, 2019
Of course, this also just happened to be the first show I saw as a 30-year-old. Eh, can only go up from here though, right? Right.
Actually, I almost ended up missing this show entirely as I was still…recovering…from the festivities the night before. Somehow though, I managed to shower, eat something, and make myself look just presentable enough to make it out the door in time.
It’s the small successes in life that count.
Much like the other of Mouawad’s pieces I’ve seen recently, this one (other than the aforementioned character problem…which I’ll get to in a moment) suffers from a certain imbalance. More precisely, similarly to Notre Innocence in spring 2018, its first half is much stronger than its second.
The piece opens at the end of a concert given by the singer mentioned in the title. Alice (yes, that is his name; no, it’s not for “Alice Cooper”) is an aging former punk rocker who, like many others before him, is contending with the discrepancy between his past and his present reality as, well, a “sell-out”. No longer outside the system, he is now part of it. And he’s sick of it. Literally. I mean the first thing he does when he enters the backstage area (the set design is such that the concert that opens the film sees Alice upstage, facing away from the audience, with the backstage area set up downstage) is shut himself in a toilet and take a very long, very vocal, shit. And then he complains about his stomach hurting and needing to shit more. And then eventually he shits himself during a photo session.
Clearly, something is rotten on his insides.
I should also mention that this first half is very clearly a satire, as based on not only the rapid-fire jokes and “second degree” humor flying around, but also because the characters themselves that are featured here can be reduced down to certain tropes:
-The aging, cranky rocker
-The overworked manager (who Alice always refers to by a nickname rather than her—yes her—actual name, at least until she has a breakdown over it in Act II)
-The critical journalist who, with one brutally honest article, sets our protagonist on a downward spiral that ultimately contributes to his decision to do something very stupid (though also very silly)
-The former manager with questionable judgement and a nostalgia for the “good old days”
-The girlfriend who is an established artist in her own right, but who is nevertheless still second to the whims of her partner.
-The newcomer who has travelled over from the other side of the world (in this case, Canada) and, though she may not know the other characters well, nevertheless becomes the key to them rebuilding their relationships (and themselves), after a crisis. Oh, and she also does this using a mysterious ritual (that, yes, is made-up, but it relies on tropes and stereotypes of First Nations culture).
And honestly, if the tone did not shift so drastically between Act I and II, this could have ended up being a decently entertaining piece. Alas.
Anyway, the short version of the story is that Alice, in a rather low point after being skewered in an article (worse still: he was replaced on the magazine’s cover by a new, up-and-coming musician), reconnects with his old manager with whom he had parted ways with after he started becoming successful. The two commiserate a bit about what their lives once were, what they used to stand for before money, marketing, and success got in the way, when the latter of the two comes up with a plan. A last “f**k you” to the system, if you will. Simply, Alice would fake his death. The moment was perfect. Yes, he was just taken down a notch in the press, but he was also in the middle of a successful tour, and there was no indication he would need to be slowing down any time soon. There would, of course, be a period of mourning. And then, after the initial grief had died down a bit, the manager would release a “recently-discovered” (in reality: recorded in his in-house studio while he was making the necessary press calls) album of unpublished recordings. People would go crazy for it: I mean, it would truly be the last new music they would ever get from Alice, and really, given how hot posthumous records sales have been in recent years following the loss of several high-profile artists, huge profits were almost a sure-thing.
In the meantime, Alice would go lie low in Ukraine (yes, Ukraine). For added security, a sham funeral/cremation ceremony would be organized so that there would be no doubt as to how really dead he was. After a year in hiding, he would return to France, triumphant, a middle finger in the face of all those who bought into the ruse, a true condemnation of our consumerist society.
Of course, one thing that Alice and his manager did not count on was the former’s girlfriend. See, in order for the more essential part of their plan to work (read: the cremation and funeral), they would have to have had a closed-casket funeral. The girlfriend, on the other hand, insisted that the ceremony not only be open casket, but that she and those close to Alice be present up until the final closing of the casket and the final shove into the fire.
Anyway, to get around this, some associates of Alice’s manager gave him some drugs that made him fall stone asleep as if dead. This worked to fool the doctor who came in to sign the death certificate (no autopsy though?), but the dosage needed to be upped if they wished to keep the illusion going through a full-on funeral (getting Alice out of the coffin in time would come later). As expected, however, the dosage wore off a bit early. More precisely, it was during the funeral when Alice’s girlfriend was in the middle of singing a song he loved to hear her sing.
Anyway, it’s not like he got off easy. Other than terrifying literally everyone, Alice also ended up blinded by the drugs. Classic punishment.
So ends Act I.
Act II largely involves the fallout from all the above, with Alice’s girlfriend dumping him for the trauma he put her through (as well as for his general selfishness), his current manager standing up for herself and refusing to represent him any longer, the press eviscerating him even more than they had previously for his nonsense, and Alice having to attempt to navigate the world without the use of his sight (instead of going to see a doctor like literally everyone was telling him to).
It’s in this period of loneliness that Alice reconnects with a superfan of his who had come all the way from Canada to follow his tour, and who he had first met outside his stage door following the concert that opened the show. Her name was Nancy. He signed a condom wrapper for her because it was the only thing he had in his pocket.
Nancy had expressed to Alice during their first meeting how grateful she was to him for how much his music had helped her through some difficult times, and now, seeing him in this state, she decides to take it upon herself to give back some of the help he had given her. This is where this piece truly started to lose me. Nancy kind of helps Alice navigate around for a couple of days, but then she ultimately takes it upon herself to call all of Alice’s former friends together. She had a plan to help Alice rid himself of the demons, of the bad thoughts inside him, but she needed their help.
They, of course, wanted nothing to do with any of it, and with good reason. This is where I want to go back to what I mentioned earlier about why the stories some people create still feature men like Alice getting a full redemption arc in which the burden of the work is not placed on them but on those they have wronged “getting over themselves” first before banding together to pull the asshole in question back “into the light”, so to speak.
And this could have played as a satire as well, except Mouawad had written and directed it with incredibly evident sincerity that it was impossible to interpret it otherwise.
Anyway, as Nancy points out as a means of convincing the others to put aside their anger, it wasn’t like Alice had done anything incredibly terrible like kill someone, or start a call for genocide. He just happened to put his friends through a short period of an incredibly stressful Hell, and that, plus the fact that he was an artist whose music had helped others like herself, meant that he deserved a second chance.
But what she doesn’t bring up—and conversely what the other two women in the room do—is the lasting damage his regular behavior has caused. His manager has sacrificed not only time with her daughter, but also ended up suffering a miscarriage because of the constant stress he put her under, what with his steadily bad humor, his erratic behavior, and his preferred manner of addressing others by yelling at them. His girlfriend, meanwhile, brings up her feelings of not just betrayal at what he did, but also her general frustrations at their relationship, at the imbalance felt when it became clear that one of them was investing in it slightly more than the other.
But we can put that aside now.
And in any case, as a sort of Hail-Mary, Nancy mentions that she is ill, that this trip to France was a sort of last hurrah for her before she begins treatment.
Ultimately, what Nancy’s plan consists of is her leading Alice out into the woods under the assumption that once there, he would encounter a shaman who would perform a ritual to cleanse him. Nancy—who mentions she is part First Nation, though the actress playing her is white-passing—will of course play the shaman. Alice’s friends, meanwhile, would dress up in bird costumes (there is literally no purpose for this other than the fact that this is happening in a theatre, as Alice wouldn’t be able to see them since he is still blind), and at the appropriate moment, swoop in and “peck” at him, thereby removing all the bad things inside his spirit.
There is a lot of sage. Nancy at one point starts banging a drum.
And ultimately it works. The final scene of the piece opens on a hospital waiting room in Quebec where Alice has come to visit Nancy, after having discovered she was ill via his friends…with whom he is back in contact with.
He mentions to her during their last conversation that her ritual managed to push him not only to see a doctor (miraculously, he can see again…because “clarity”…), but also to take the difficult step in reaching out and apologizing.
And you know what, yes, that isn’t really an easy thing to do. But it’s also something that 1) only happened as a result of an initial effort of forgiveness on the part of the hurt parties and 2) occurs offstage. His act of apology, of taking the necessary steps to interrogate himself and engage in a process of self-assessment are, to a degree, secondary to his friends momentarily ignoring his bullshit to see the goodness in him. There are times when, perhaps, such a stance could be justified, but one could argue that those moments generally follow events that are out of the person’s control. This situation, on the other hand, along with everything preceding it, is, on the other hand, a direct result of Alice’s conscious behaviors.
Yeah, it’s true that he didn’t kill anyone. But to minimize his past actions for the sake of advancing the question of his supposed “goodness” (that we have had little evidence of, other than Nancy’s comments on his music) is, for lack of a better word, lazy. We can do better. Our stories can do better. No one should have felt the need to forgive him. The choice to not forgive, to step away for the sake of one’s own mental/physical health is also a justified one, yet here the sacrifices are continually made by those who have performed that gesture time and time again.
But, then again, this also all fits in with Mouawad’s greater ethos on the spirituality of theatre. It goes back to his affinity for the classics (especially the Greeks). Maybe I’ll address it here in another post.
For now though, I have a dinner to get to.
Here’s to the end of fall (and hopefully a more inspiring winter theatre season).
So, I’m actually writing this while balancing my laptop atop two large rolls of paper towels, minding the first layer of a carrot cake I’ve got baking in my oven. This is the first time I’ve actually made my own birthday cake (because why not), and of course I’ve decided to be ambitious(…ish).
But more on that in a minute.
After a (very) quiet October, my theatre-going has ramped up again, with, as a little bonus, a return to a writer (and a play) that not only largely defined a large part of my graduate work from my first masters all the way to—and even through practically the first half of—my PhD.
Les Bonnes by Jean Genet, directed by Robyn Orlin, Théâtre de la Bastille, November 9, 2019
I find it almost amusing that, despite having written a good part of my first masters’ thesis on productions of this play, I had never—until this performance—seen it live. Despite that, and just based on the sheer number of recordings of live productions I’ve watched, I went into this half-expecting it to fall into a trap that is not necessarily present in all of Genet’s pieces, but, I would argue, is very much a factor here: pacing.
Generally, when first getting introduced to Genet, one of the first things that comes up is his pointedly ritualistic aesthetic. While this is of course very evident in his writing—and this goes for his novels as well as his plays, what with their constant repetitions of gestures/phrases, circular structures, and evocations of the divine or a process of ascension towards a moment of transcendence in the lowest, most abject of settings—, what it has also led to is a tendency to almost always literally translate that to the staging. Les Bonnes (The Maids) is only one act long but is often stretched to close to 2 hours or more, in part because of the tendency to really “amp up” the ritualistic aspect.
I mean, I can remember at a certain point during my research, after watching the I-can’t-remember-which-number version of the piece, thinking ‘We get it. It’s meant to be precise and de-li-ber-ate. But is there really only one way to evoke this…?’
Thankfully, this version did not fall into that trap.
It also—and this is a rarity for this piece, despite it actually corresponding more closely with Genet’s original intentions—featured an all-male cast.
Yeah, funny how this need to emphasize ritual makes exceptions for certain things. Then again, this piece did originally premier in 1947, and back then the biggest issue was people not believing that their maids would ever speak of them in the way Claire and Solange—the maids of the title—do of their mistress (who is only ever referred to as Madame).
What may have partially contributed to this piece’s divergence from the “standard” aesthetic was Orlin’s background as a choreographer. That, and the fact that she grew up in South Africa. With the dancing, the influence was seen in, of course, the way the performers moved and carried themselves, but more significantly (for me, at least) was its effect on the overall rhythm of the piece. Namely: it actually had one.
This isn’t to say that the piece was sped through, but more that there was both a sense of reverence AND a sense of urgency in play (often tricky things to try and strike a balance between, but also elements that underscore a number of Genet’s dramatic works). Honestly, it was almost like seeing the piece with fresh eyes.
As to Orlin’s origins, these, according to her director’s note, had a more direct influence in her approach on the casting. Though her version still highlights the commentaries on class division and the sometimes ambiguous dynamics of dominant/submissive relationships, Orlin (who is white) chose to integrate an additional element through her casting of two black actors in the roles of Claire and Solange and a white actor in the role of Madame. It’s a move that evokes the apartheid-era South Africa Orlin grew up in, as well as the very much still-present racial disparities not just in South Africa, but in much of the West as well (including France).
And the way she has the public confront these disparities is rather fascinating, in that it is based in a way of consuming media and information that is both familiar and yet, when it is transposed to a theatre setting, rather destabilizing.
The stage at the Bastille was rather bare, save for a clothing rack stage right, two stools upstage center with a small camera propped on a tripod in between them, and a DJ booth stage left. A video screen on the back wall played scenes from a 1970s film version of the piece, first as a sort of way to set up everything that happened before the opening scene (mainly the arrest of Madame’s husband, the appropriately-named Monsieur, based on a false tip letter sent by Claire to the police, which is brought up several times in the course of the piece), and then, through the use of freeze frames, as a sort of virtual scenic design.
As for the camera, the actors—especially in scenes featuring only Solange and Claire—spend a good chunk of their time when on stage playing to it rather than facing out and playing to the audience. What this meant was that, physically, their backs were facing us, yet at the same time, the projection of their faces on the screen—and therefore in the environment of the ‘virtual space’—meant that they were still performing to us. Yet, this manner of performing, and more precisely of consuming performance, through a video screen (as though on a Youtube channel, or, perhaps more relevant here, through camming) is both isolating and voyeuristic. Isolating in that it evokes private moments at home when one streams a new video from a Youtube content creator or adult cam performer. Voyeuristic in that there is the sensation that we are not meant to be seeing this. Indeed, we can’t be seeing this because if Solange and Claire’s roleplay sessions as Madame in the latter’s absence become exposed, the two are, for lack of a better word, fucked.
But then, when Madame does eventually make her entrance, she pulls out an iPhone and, after filming Solange and Claire in close to extreme close-up, turns the camera on the audience commenting on some pieces certain patrons were wearing. It was a moment very much anchored in camp—Madame’s coat made up of a bunch of child-size pink puffer jackets attached together added delightfully to this effect—with an added palpable threat. Madame could loosely slap Solange or Claire’s visors (worn as part of their uniforms) to the sides of their faces, sometimes swiping at their dreadlocked hair in the process, without even the hint of a potential rebuttal. She, in the end, is more powerful than perhaps anyone wants to let on.
And I think before I move on from this, I just want to say that should Orlin ever decide to stage another of Genet’s pieces, I would be one of the first in line to buy a ticket.
Actually, to be perfectly honest right now, I did not get a good amount of sleep last night (oh hi winter cold and your nonsense), so my brain is having a bit of trouble concentrating/remembering things. Though this could also have something to do with a big milestone that I’m going to be hitting tomorrow, November 16.
Turning 30 is something that, even up to now, seemed both inevitable and so far away. Though I think I’ve been able to avoid most of the absolute ageist nonsense that is often marketed toward women regarding reaching this particular birthday, I have nevertheless spent the past week or so reflecting on the last decade of my life, trying to figure out the best way to summarize it.
Because I went through—and did—a LOT over the last ten years.
I graduated from my undergraduate program, then 2 masters programs, and started my PhD.
I lived in so many different places: Irvine, Paris, Boston, and now back in Paris again.
I visited new countries I’d never seen before, both solo and otherwise:
Czech Republic (Prague)
Scotland (Glasgow and Edinburgh)
Italy (Rome and Bari)
Sweden (Stockholm and Uppsala)
And I saw more of the countries I call (and called) home, as well as the country I call my homeland.
Speaking of the homeland, I also got my Greek citizenship and with that, a passport that has changed my life in more ways I could imagine.
I ate so many delicious things, discovered my love for red wine, whiskey and bourbon, and upped my tolerance for all things spicy.
But with that I also had to learn (and am still learning) how to cultivate a healthy relationship with my body. Developing an actual love for working out (and discovering HIIT training) when I was 24 helped.
I fell back in love with theatre again. I performed on stage fewer times than I would have liked, but I also saw shows (Hamilton in London, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 in Boston, and Bovary and Sopro in Paris come to mind) that reminded me why I love theatre in the first place.
And with all the moving and show attending and studying and starting over, I found my independence. I learned that, yes, I could do things on my own. I could move to a new country, a new city and figure out my life, deal with apartments that were absolute shit, live in dorms and realize that what mattered there was less the accommodations and more the people I was sharing the space with, and find a sense of determination and stubbornness that would help me deal with almost any “no” that came my way.
And I learned how to advocate for myself.
Hell, I travelled by myself.
And as for love, I felt love—and loved—and knew love in many ways, two of them more significant than the rest. And there was heartbreak. But there is also hope. And there is the feeling of telling someone you care about them, and knowing you’re cared for in return. And there are also those things that still haven’t changed: like getting the courage to open your heart up to someone. But then there’s also that feeling of being held, of feeling someone pull you into them, steady you for a moment, and knowing that maybe being vulnerable wouldn’t be such a bad thing sometimes. That maybe someone will be there to catch you.
I laughed a lot—so many more times than I can even remember. Yes, there were tears too (and oh god with a PhD there are always tears), but it’s the laughter that stays.
I still feel like I barely know what being an adult is, but at the very least, I do have an ever-growing list of recipes to keep me well-fed while I figure that out.
So, with that, farewell to my 20s. You were, in the ups and downs, truly wonderful.
Ah fall. The crispness in the air, leaves changing color, the return to the hearty foods that make the lack of warm weather bearable…
And vacation. Yes, one of the many perks of being a teacher in this country. Just when la rentrée winds down, it’s time for another two-week holiday.
I’m spending most of this holiday at home (because I still have a dissertation to write…joy), but I did plan out some time to get away for a quick weekend.
I guess the first question would be ‘Why Krakow?” and the answer to that would be, well, because Eastern Europe has been a bit of a theme in my travels as of late, and I thought, why break with tradition?
It also has a lot to do with where I went on the morning of my second full day there, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Basically, though, what with it being fall break and all (yay for a little break from teaching), what I ideally wanted was a weekend somewhere that screamed autumn (as in, lovely foliage) and where I could indulge in some food that I only ever get in the mood to eat when it’s nice and crisp outside and my belly needs fuel for warmth.
So, Poland it was. And because Krakow was selected as the European capital of gastronomy for 2019 (yes, that’s a thing and it’s wonderful), the decision was pretty much set. I knew just a bit about Polish food from having been exposed to some of it (read: pierogi, kielbasa and Polish vodka) back in the States, so I was very much looking forward to experiencing more of it.
Spoiler alert: Krakow is a very excellent food city, and may have just topped my (very short, since there are only three items on it) list of food tours I have done. More on that in a bit, though. For now, in order, the things I did.
I arrived at the airport early in the afternoon, meaning there was plenty of time for some early exploring before dinner. After taking a cab into town (I had just missed the train into the city center and the next one wasn’t due for another hour…), I checked into my private room at the Secret Garden Hostel. Actually, “hostel” is a bit of a misnomer. This place was not only incredibly clean, quiet and updated, it also had probably one of the most comfortable beds I had ever slept on in a hostel (or even in a hotel for that matter).
Really though I am not lying when I say I wanted to roll the thing up and transport it here.
The hostel is located in the Kazimierz district, known as the Jewish quarter, as well as the place to go out for dinner/drinks and get a general feel for Krakow’s cultural life for both locals and visitors. Ongoing construction on the main street cutting through the neighborhood made getting around a bit tricky, but other than that, staying there was positively delightful (and delicious).
My first food stop wasn’t in Kazimierz, however. Instead, I walked all the way up to Old Town and over to Gorace Paczki for a traditional Polish donut filled with rose jam. I grabbed a seat on an empty bench in the park nearby and dug into the still-warm pastry. Fluffy, yeasty, with just the right amount of jam filling to be stuffed without exploding everywhere, this treat was the best way to start my trip, and a definite step-up from the last jelly donut I had before this (which I’m pretty sure was from Dunkin Donuts…). The best bit, however, was that it only cost 3.5 zloty, or $0.91.
Oh yeah, for travelers on a budget, Poland is definitely a good place to check out.
After devouring my donut, I had a bit of time to kill before my dinner reservation (for 1, ha!), so I spent it basically walking around the park that encircles the Old Town. I found out on the walking tour I took the next day that the park, designed during the period when Krakow was under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, replaced the walls that formerly surrounded the city, but that evening, my biggest priority was taking pictures of every tree, trying to capture some of that golden color I’ve missed so much.
As mentioned earlier, my dinner that night was a solo endeavor in a sit-down, slightly above casual restaurant, something I have managed to avoid in all my other trips before this one. Don’t get me wrong, I actually have eaten dinner out by myself before, but there is a difference between doing it somewhere I am familiar with (as in, here at either my neighborhood dumpling place, or the slightly less nearby ramen place by the BNF), versus in a place where I have never been and don’t know anyone (or the language, for that matter).
But I wanted something cozy, and Dawno Temu Na Kazimierzu (or Once Upon a Time in Kazimierz) delivered that. Yes, the restaurant is a bit more touristy than what I might otherwise go for, but the food was good, there were candles on the table (a bit of a theme in Krakow and Kazimierz in particular, I soon found out, and one of my favorite little details about the neighborhood I chose to stay in), the décor was just the right amount of kitsch, and there was live music.
For my dinner, I ordered roast duck breast with cranberry sauce, potatoes, and side salad as well as a glass of wine. It cost me less than $20 total, not bad for my “treat yourself” meal! If I hadn’t been so full (seriously, the portion sizes were very generous), I may have even ordered a small dessert.
Instead of heading straight back to the hotel to sleep after dinner, however, I ended up walking a couple of streets over to Eszeweria, a cozy (more candles!) bar on Józefa street. The weather wasn’t quite cold enough to call for it, but I decided to order a mulled beer anyway because why the hell not. And so my night wound down with some reading by candlelight, clearly as good an indicator as any that this weekend was getting started on the right foot.
It was an early wake-up for me this morning (another habit I have during my solo trips), as I wanted to get a good breakfast (and coffee) in before heading out on the first of the two free walking tours I wound up taking while here. For my breakfast, I walked about a half hour north of my hostel, towards Krakow’s main train station, to check outWesola Café, a spot that had come up in my research into the local coffee scene. The café was pretty packed when I got there, but I managed to snag a spot by the window to enjoy my filling breakfast of warm, spiced millet with fresh fruit accompanied by a very much needed flat white.
After polishing off my breakfast, I walked the short distance over to the former gate into the Old Town to meet up with my walking tour (organized with Walkative). Our two hour excursion took us through several sites, such as:
The aforementioned Barbicon gate:
The central market square, featuring (in order) Saint Mary’s Basilica, Cloth Hall, and the lone remaining tower of what was once Krakow’s town hall
Poland’s first university (founded by King Casimir the Great)
Before finally ending at Wawel castle
As far as free tours go, I would recommend this one, but I was not exactly the biggest fan of the guide who was a bit more brief in his explanations of things than I would have liked (this is personal preference though). That’s kind of par for the course when it comes to these things, and I will say that I had a much better experience with the guide on the second tour (moral of the story: try and go for current/former history students). Plus, it did kill about two hours of the day, which was good since I didn’t have anything else planned until much later in the afternoon.
Still, it was only just after noon when the tour let out, so there was a little question about what to do in the meantime. This issue was promptly resolved with a brisk walk across the river and to the Krakow Museum of Contemporary Art. Now, those of you who look up the museum on Google Maps will notice that it is located just next door to Oskar Schindler’s former factory (now a museum with a permanent exhibition on WWII and the Holocaust). I ended up not going to visit the factory on this trip, instead opting for the decidedly less crowded art museum, which at the moment was also hosting several exhibitions on or around the Holocaust.
I managed to kill another couple of hours browsing around here, leaving me plenty of time to walk back to my room, rest up for a quick minute, and then head out again to my next activity (and the reason why I skipped lunch that day).
Yes, everyone, it was time for my food tour.
Unlike the other two tours I have taken on my solo travels thus far, this one (Delicious Kazimierz operated by Delicious Poland Food Tours) did not center around touring a market but rather on visiting different places in the Kazimierz neighborhood. One of the advantages of this approach is that it puts visitors in contact with locally-run places at the same time as it showcases what the city/Poland have to offer, culinarily-speaking. I can happily say that I ended up adding a couple of places to my mapstr after taking the tour (for when I eventually come back, of course). The group was relatively small (12 total, including the guide), and the overall atmosphere was very convivial, I’d say more so than the other two tours I had been on previously in Budapest and Riga.
Though the beer and vodka may have also helped a bit with that.
And it was definitely a good thing that I came hungry too because I was positively STUFFED afterwards. Here’s a brief rundown of what we tried.
Four different kinds of pierogi, including potato and cheese, mushroom and cabbage, spinach, cheese and garlic, and “sweet” plum with sour cream. Those are the potato/cheese pierogi (also known as Russian-style pierogi) in the photo.
Several different Polish tapas like herring, smoked kielbasa (this is the way it’s traditionally eaten here, so a big difference from the kielbasa in the States), grilled mountain cheese with cranberry sauce, pickles, and sliced Cracowian bagels topped with mushrooms or apples and thin slices of lard. These were also accompanied by a tasting of two different vodkas: the famous bison-grass vodka that is usually taken as a shot (and pairs very well with the herring) and then a digestif vodka flavored with quince that is meant to be sipped.
Zapiekanka, a sort of Polish pizza made from a baguette topped with cheese, mushroom, ketchup (yes, this was invented around the 80s, so there’s an explanation for everything) and chives. The nosh of choice for folks here after a night out (though kebab is starting to make some inroads).
Two different craft beers locally brewed by an organization who uses the proceeds from their sales to fund bear conservation in the mountains where the beer is made. If you’re ever in Krakow, I recommend checking Ursa Maior out for yourself.
Then it was on to dinner which featured two soups (sourdough soup and beetroot soup with meat dumplings) followed by a variety of mains: potato pancakes with Polish-style goulash and sour cream to top them with, hunter’s stew (sort of like a choucroute garnie in that its main components are cabbage and pork products), and cabbage stuffed with beef/veal and rice and topped with tomato sauce.
And because we weren’t already almost full to the brim, there were also apple fritters with a sour cream and red fruits dipping sauce.
You’d think I would have just rolled myself back to my room after this (the hostel was only two minutes away), but instead I decided to have a nightcap at Alchemia, a local bar with an underground venue that happened to be hosting a series of jazz concerts that weekend.
I won’t say too much about this other than it was very experimental jazz. Like, incredibly so. If I could post sound clips on here, I would, but for now, just imagine a dude playing a guitar with a teacup, and you’ll get what I mean.
It was an overall early night though because the next day I had to get up incredibly early (well, actually earlier than even I had originally anticipated, since a headache that had been ‘nagging’ me all day decided to kick into high gear that night…joy).
I started my early (as in out of the hostel by 06h15 early) morning by marching over to the only 24hr pharmacy I could find within a reasonable vicinity, picking up some ibuprofen, grabbing a coffee and apple muffin from one of the only bakeries open that early that was also on my planned route, and then hopping on a charter bus. The bus was part of the other reason for my deciding to spend the weekend in Krakow. Rather than touring more of the city, I was going to spend the morning on a guided visit of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Coming to visit this site has been on my mind for a number of years now, but it gained a sense of urgency with the current state of things in the world. I have no immediate connection to the site. Going was, instead, more about furthering my own education. Prior to this, I had never visited a site of a once-active concentration camp. I had, however, visited several museums and exhibits dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust, the most affecting of these having been the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. I was fourteen then, and it was while on a trip with my Girl Scout troop. I don’t remember much about that visit, except I think it’s highly likely that my eventual decision to want to visit Auschwitz in person originated there. I think it may have felt something like a responsibility I owed to those who were slaughtered or the comparative few who survived there that someone of my generation go.
Honestly, it’s a somewhat similar reasoning to one I would give if someone were to ask me if I ever would want to visit a plantation. For the record, I have (in New Orleans), but what was notable about this one, and where I as a visitor ended up spending the most time, was in the former slave quarters where a new exhibit was just getting off the ground, documenting the reality of life in and around that ornament of a house. The younger generation owes it to the past to acknowledge and directly confront moments like this, and then learn from them, even though such a process may be difficult.
With Auschwitz-Birkenau, however, one thing that I had not really counted on as much as I should have was how much “notoriety” it as a memorial/tourist site has built up. Yes, I was very much aware before going on the controversies surrounding the taking of selfies or staged “insta-worthy” photos along the tracks leading to the main gates of Birkenau. Thankfully, I didn’t see any of this on my visit. No, what ended up standing out more during this visit was the number of people who were there in the first place.
The question of mass tourism is one that gets brought about often with regards to cities (see: Venice, Barcelona, Dubrovnik and even many areas of Paris), and I think soon it will have to be reckoned with in regards to sites like this one. On the one hand, more people visiting and educating themselves on the history of the place is good for the spreading of knowledge. On the other hand, sites like this one are not quite the same as ancient ruins or big cities. Sites like this were designed (especially in the case of Birkenau) to torture and kill en masse, and as such, demand a different approach on the part of the visitor.
I’m not saying everyone must go in expecting a profound, life-changing experience. That would be fetishizing the space on a somewhat different level (and commodifying it even further than it already is, in a way). What I will say though is that pushing and shoving (more so from some individual visitors than guided groups as a whole), snapping a photo and moving on without regard for others in the (relatively small) exhibition rooms is a bit much. Of course not everyone will want to linger on everything, but when your guide (who was otherwise very informative) starts getting exasperated and cutting some bits of her lecture short, it tends to put a different perspective on things.
The sites can be visited independently or with a licensed guide (what I ended up doing). If I had to do it again, I would have likely tried to find a way to get there myself and done an independent visit. The site at Auschwitz overall is very well-curated, and there are brochures/guidebooks available in several different languages to accompany the already-displayed plaques, should visitors want more information. Due to the difference in building material (bricks here, versus primarily wood in Birkenau), the bunkers here that formerly housed prisoners have been transformed as exhibit spaces and archival storage. Our guide took us through most of the spaces dedicated to specific aspects of the history of the place, but there were several others that, due to time, we were unable to visit as a group. These included former barracks now dedicated to exhibits curated by the different countries prisoners were taken from. It is, in short, a site that demands a few hours of visitation should one want the time to truly engage with everything there (and one should take the time…really).
Birkenau, on the other hand, was a bit different. Birkenau (at least for me) was when the scope of everything in that space hit the strongest. I don’t know if I can properly explain in words what walking down the central pathway by the train tracks was like, looking out onto a great, open expanse of rows of what were once wooden bunkers, the rows neatly planned out, straight lines, each bunker equidistant from the other. There’s a line of trees at the back, beyond the barbed wire, just behind the memorial, pictured above. And it’s quiet there. And you are very exposed.
We were able to walk there on our own a little bit more before we had to be back on the bus. The time for reflection was welcome, in my case.
After getting back to Krakow, I grabbed a small sandwich for lunch (I hadn’t eaten since the morning, and it was already 14h15), before heading to Cloth Hall in the main square for some souvenir shopping (earrings, of course). After making my purchase, I popped upstairs for a quick peek at the 19th Century Polish Art Gallery, a branch of the National Museum of Krakow.
And I found a little slice of home there. Honestly, I didn’t even have to read the accompanying placard to know exactly what this painting was depicting.
While I was walking around the gallery, I decided that I still had it in me (and my legs) to do one last walking tour. A visit in Kazimierz centered around the history of the Jewish community in the city before and after the war (there was another tour focused on the War/the Holocaust, but that was starting in the neighborhood where the former ghetto was located, and a bit too far from where I was) was going to be starting a couple of hours later, giving me plenty of time to grab a little something sweet beforehand.
The Polish-style almond cheesecake from Ciastkarnia Vanilla hit just the spot, considering, again, how very little I had eaten that day.
As alluded to earlier, this second tour was provided by the same group as the first, though this time with a different (and more engaging) guide. We started our visit at the Old Synagogue
Before moving on to hit some other sites
Of course, a stop in the courtyard where they filmed some scenes from Schindler’s List was also included (several others in the group seemed rather excited about this bit).
And by the time the tour ended, it was dark, and I was starting to feel the first rumblings of hunger for my dinner. So, after a quick stop back into Eszeweria for a cozy glass of wine in a very comfy armchair (and the candles, I still could not get enough of them), I was heading back to the Old Town for one last dinner.
To say that U Babci Maliny is a bit tricky to find is an understatement. I mean, there is a sign above the building whose courtyard (well, courtyard basement) it is housed in indicating that you’ve come to the right place, but when the door to the building seems to lead to a library, it tends to inspire confusion rather than confidence.
Luckily a group of (French, of course, they follow me everywhere) tourists was about to walk in as well so…I followed them in. Once you cross the main hall and enter the courtyard, there is another little sign with the restaurant’s logo, only this time, it’s above the actual entrance.
The name of the place roughly translates to Grandma Raspberry. Staying on theme, immediately to the left of the entryway was an older woman, dressed not unlike the woman in the logo, knitting and pointing patrons in the direction of the dining room. Once inside, it’s pretty casual. You go to the counter, order your food off their (rather extensive) menu, they give you a number, you grab a seat and wait for it to be called out.
I went for some mushroom and cabbage pierogi (boiled, of course, as the food guide from the day before mentioned they should be) with a red cabbage salad on the side, so thankfully my food didn’t take too long to come.
And with that, it was back to the hostel, and back to sleep. The next day, I woke up just early enough to make it to Wesola for one final breakfast right when it opened (and before the crowds descended) before hopping on the bus to the airport and flying home.
Overall, I am very happy with how this trip went. Honestly, Krakow might just beat out Budapest for my favorite of my solo destinations (at least so far). At the very least, I can honestly say that, as with Budapest, I left Krakow feeling as though I needed to come back and see more of it.