In the spirit of relaxing/recharging/recuperating/renewing, I decided to take a break from things for my birthday weekend. Well, for the most part anyway. Sure, I found time to read one or two articles, but other than that, I decided to devote the majority of the weekend to ‘treating myself’ in the fullest extent of the term.
The exception to this was a tutoring session on Thursday (aka my actual birthday), but on the plus side, this afforded me some extra pocket money that I used to buy the rest of the ingredients I needed to make a pumpkin pie (because honestly, I’m not going to be home for Thanksgiving this year, and finding pumpkin pie in this city is almost like finding a needle in a haystack…with rare exceptions). Oh and also a bath bomb and bubble bath bar from Lush.
I don’t care if my tub was momentarily stained by golden glitter: if any evening deserves a bubble bath accompanied by bourbon (my other gift to myself), candles, and Christmas music, it’s definitely my birthday evening. Plus, it got cleaned up the next day anyway. Along with the rest of my house.
Yes, that’s right everyone, I spent Friday cleaning, something I have not done since a bit before I left for Boston. Call it a need for a fresh start on my first day of being 28 – or, if we’re being honest, an understandable reaction to spilling flour on your floor while making a pie crust – but at least I’m starting this year off on a high note. 27 was…interesting, tumultuous, kind of shit at points quite frankly. I’m determined to make 28…not that.
And anyway, it wasn’t all about cleaning. I ended my day with a night at Red House celebrating my birthday with friends (as well as with…an undisclosed number of Old Fashioneds…because my friends are wonderful). The fact that a good number of us ended up staying until the lights came on to announce last call was, I think, the surest marker of an evening well-spent.
Of course, this did mean that Saturday ended up being a day of resting, sleeping, and in general doing nothing.
Rounding off the weekend was a late lunch at Pho Banh Cuon with an old friend who’s in town for the week, followed by a walk along the Seine just as the sun was coming down. We’re in the tail end of fall now, and the last golden leaves are still just hanging on to the trees (which, I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this, have a dark, almost black trunk that contrasts beautifully with the bright yellow leaves, especially after a bit of rain). This also means that Christmas decorations are going up, signaling the start of one of my favorite times of the year. Really, I just cannot get enough of twinkly Christmas lights.
First things first: I finally finished writing that conference paper (hence the lack, in part, of posting here).
Second, I’ve been wanting to post something like this for a while, but wasn’t sure how. Partly because I didn’t quite have the words yet to fully express how I am feeling right now, partly because I felt almost self-conscious about it.
Let’s backtrack: not that long ago, I wrote about how I hit another low point in my recovery, a post which ended with a sort of affirmation of my presence here, and why that more than anything was pushing me along this strange, winding road to recovery.
In theatre, we often talk about catharsis, this purge or cleansing of emotion that often occurs in the midst of tragedy. Well, I don’t know if the travails of my personal life can compare to those found in classical drama, but to be completely honest, ever since that day, I have been feeling increasingly better, more myself, about everything.
The reason why I’ve been hesitant to talk about this, though, is that I feel sometimes to say that I am genuinely doing fine – actually more than fine, I feel pretty great right now – would be interpreted as doing a disservice to my past relationship, as though I hadn’t mourned enough. But if part of my goal with this blog is to be honest both about my journey through the dissertation nonsense, as well as my recovery process, did I not owe it to myself to embrace this happiness, this self-assuredness, this confidence that’s steadily and strongly been coming back to me? Everyone heals and recovers differently. One person’s timeline does not necessarily equate another’s. And to be frank, I think the reason I’ve been feeling this strong confidence is because I have – before and since the move – actively put myself in situations where I had to make choices about what I wanted to do because I wanted to do them. I can spontaneously buy that ticket to that show I want to see, for example, something I haven’t done in a long time, least of all here, because before I had a language-barrier issue (not mine, the ex’s) to take into consideration. The choice for me personally to be happy was right in front of me, so, since I have the privilege to make this choice, why wasn’t I taking it?
So last night when I met up with a friend for drinks and she asked me how I was doing, instead of doing my usual rundown of “yes, I’m doing alright. It’s been difficult. I’m getting by, etc.” I just flat out said that I was doing great. And it felt pretty fucking good because I meant it. And I understand I am very lucky to be able to say this and mean it. But I think the point I want to try and make here is that it is absolute shit that anyone has to question their recovery story/process, whether it be slow, fast, or somewhere in between. There is no right or wrong way to do this; it’s just a matter of working to a point where you can let yourself be honest (and what the hell, a little selfish) about what you want, what you need, and damn the rest.
So, a week ago, during one of my (thankfully rarer) low points, I decided to download this app called Mend, which labels itself as a kind of personal trainer for heartbreak. Given the ‘cleanse’ style of this first week on the app, I think the idea is to download and start using it not long after a breakup, but honestly, sometimes three-ish months (holy shit) after is better than nothing.
Using the app has been alright. Sometimes the ‘training’ it provides can feel a little too…simplistic? Surface level? I’m not sure how to describe it because it’s clearly designed in such a way that it can be applicable to a variety of situations, and which can kind of leave you feeling like you want to probe deeper, while knowing that you can’t because you’d be talking to a recording.
Anyway, what I have liked about the app are the journal prompts. I’ve started refocusing my thoughts more on myself than solely on the breakup and all that came with it, and although I’m still not quite where I want to be mentally/emotionally speaking, I feel like I’m slowly getting back there. The key word being slowly.
As I had finished the first week of using the app today – and as my mood was a bit shaky from all the wandering my mind inevitably does when I’ve been reading/studying for a while – I decided to take up the app’s prompt to ‘treat myself’ this afternoon. So I got an ice cream cone from Berthillon.
I’ve mentioned before how much I like black sesame, so you can bet that when I saw it listed as one of their available flavors, there was no way I was changing my mind. And yes, I am aware the scoop is a bit on the smaller end, but you’re paying for quality here. For a treat, I think it did just fine.
I actually could have treated myself a bit more as well, had I left the BNF a bit earlier, but fortunately for my wallet, the bouquinistes were closing up shop for the day by the time I got to the Île St Louis/ Hôtel de Ville area.
Overall right now? The ups and downs still happen, but slightly less. At times it gets hard being alone – especially when you’re so used to having someone around to share your day with -, but I’m readjusting I think. And when the days get particularly hard, all I have to do is go outside and see this : And remember that I’m here.
I know I’ve talked before about the perks of walking in this city, but I just want to take a moment and add this…gem to that list :
With some determination on my end, I did manage to get up early enough to get a workout in and have time to hit the market early. This is the same outdoor market I visited before, but I think after today, I might designate Wednesday rather than Saturday as market day.
I mean, look at how not crowded it is :
I didn’t take a picture of it, but I made a pretty excellent butternut squash soup with some of the produce/herbs I bought today (including carrots that were some of the sweetest I’ve ever tasted). Unfortunately, being somewhat of a klutz at times, I kind of bumped my thumb on the top of the oven when putting in the squash and carrots for roasting, so now I’ve got quite the scar forming. I did not, however, have a breakdown while cooking (like what happened last week when I tackled another post-market cooking project), so I’m still chalking this one up as a win. Baby steps, after all. Baby steps.
So I think I underestimated just how exhausted I was from this past weekend because yesterday I slept in until noon. This threw somewhat of a wrench in my study plans (as well as my grocery-shopping plans), but I made up for most of that by going to FNAC and buying a book that I think is going to kick my ass (hello again Merleau-Ponty…). I did manage to get a bit of reading in over a pot of tea at La Fontaine de Belleville – as well as a new bag of Belleville coffee…finally -, so I’m not about to call the day entirely wasted.
Today though brought my reading experience to a whole new level.
Pictured above is the reading room of the Institute Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Art (INHA) at the Richelieu site of the BNF. This is actually the site where the original national library was located before moving over to its current location in the 13th, but as it has been under extensive renovation for the past few years, I wasn’t able to stop in here until now. Most of the people who come to study/work here are art/art history students – as evidenced by the kinds of books on their desks -, but I and my small yet very substantial philosophy book felt very much at home. The downsides of this reading room, however, are that places are first come, first serve, and I can’t exactly request all the materials I need to be delivered there, considering they are either 1) housed in the main library, or 2) housed in the collections of a specific department, and thus cannot be transferred out of said department. Ah well. I don’t doubt that I’ll be coming back to work here again, though. The pull back is too strong.
In any case, now that I’m finally caught up on all my sleep – which, yes, I am aware that such a thing as catching up on sleep doesn’t actually exist – , I’m going to try and make it to my local market tomorrow morning (bright and early!) before getting started with whatever else I plan on doing. While I’m on the subject of food shopping, it’s crazy how much I miss having someone around to bounce ideas off of in terms of what to cook for dinner that night/week. Normally, cooking projects are things I look forward to, but lately I’ve been feeling kind of meh about the whole process of cooking in general. Maybe a market trip will help. I certainly hope so.
Another marathon study session – this one in the reading room of the Arts de Spectacle department at the Richelieu site of the BNF – another burst of energy that must be walked off.
I think one of the things that really cemented my love for Paris was how easily walkable it is. Now, some people after hearing that I don’t really mind regular crosstown walks tend to look at me like I’ve lost my mind. After all, why would anyone choose to walk when there is an extensive metro system?
My thoughts tend to clutter me though, especially after several hours of thinking. Rooms start feeling stuffier, and with that comes an almost uncontrollable itch to clear out, find something more open and just let a part of me other than my brain do the heavy work.
One thing about my walking habits has changed recently, however. Normally, if you see me walking down the street, I’ve got headphones plastered to my ears, listening either to a podcast or one of my many Spotify playlists. As much as I have mentioned regaining a sense of ‘ownership’ over the media I consume post-breakup, music has, so far at least, been the one thing that has evaded me. It’s not just the (very strong) memories associated with almost every song that comes up that affect me; it’s just all too orderly. Too rhythmic when I want the sounds I take into myself to be as random, disordered, chaotic, scattered as my current state of mind sometimes is. Besides, I like taking in the city more, and not just all the traffic noises. Yesterday, for instance, I walked past a nondescript building and heard a woman praticing an aria a few floors above me.
I closed out my walk with a visit to Shakespeare and Co, partly to browse around the theatre section, partly because I’m still getting over a cold and needed to find somewhere a bit less damp for a while. Having not been inside for a couple of years, I was a bit lost initially, given that they moved the theatre section from where I remembered it was, but in the end I was able to get a decent bit of browsing in (honestly, the fact that I went into a bookstore and resisted buying something is like a new record for me).
You know what’s awful? Getting good news, and then the minute you think about who you’re going to tell first, the thought slams into you that that person is not there anymore, that the position they formerly occupied is now vacant.
And then you recover from getting the wind knocked out of you – again – and you wonder if that blip of excitement, the one that comes only when you have something good, small or big, you just have to share with someone, will come back and stay a little longer.
So I’m just going to tell you lovely people. All…5 or so of you.
One of the things I did when I first moved back was reach out to the school I where used to teach English/run a theatre club to see if I could start the latter up again (I had it on good authority that there would be interest among the students). What they offered me was the opportunity to teach an SAT prep class, as well as run a theatre club. The catch was that for the club to happen, at least five students had to register.
And because the universe likes me just a little bit…I got exactly five. Hooray for me!
Guys. I’m going to get very, very basic for a minute here, but, today I discovered – to my surprise – that my local marché has…kale.
This discovery came as a surprise to me because three years ago when I first lived in this neighborhood, there was no kale. As someone who grew up eating hearty, leafy greens on a regular basis – greens, or horta, are actually a very big part of the Greek diet – including kale, not being able to find it (or comparable greens, aside from maybe chard) easily was a bit of a downer. Hell, it’s why I used to trek out all the way to the marché in Bastille because at least there I’d have a chance of finding it. Maybe.
And really I am quite surprised I did not come to this marché more often when I lived here last because it’s actually rather good. The photo above is the only one I took during this visit, but you can just imagine an entire street lined with produce stands similar to this one, displaying seasonal fruit and veg (including another Paris rarity, corn! Spot it on the left side of the photo), butchers lining their stands with terrines, sausages, and cured meats, cheesemongers proudly showing off giant wheels of comté and huge hunks of butter, and fishmongers scooping mussels into paper bags.*
Indeed, this morning’s trek was a bit of a shift from how last night ended.
I joined a friend at the Gaumont theatre on the Champs-Elysées for the French premier of It last night, and while I won’t say it was the most frightening thing I’ve seen, the kids’ performances – as pretty much every critic has said – really sold the film for me. And because it was a premier night, several members of the theatre staff were dressed up as Pennywise, though the creep factor didn’t really set in until, before the film started, they told us to reach under our chairs to see if we found a red balloon (those who did would be able to claim a prize afterwords). Not gonna lie, I genuinely thought for a minute that when I reached down, one of the roving Pennywises would end up grabbing my hand from under the seat.
I think what hit me most though was the whole 1980s setting in general. This is a period that I think – for now anyway – I’m going to almost always associate with him. The classic movies of the period that It – and to a greater extent, Stranger Things – were ones we spent evenings watching together, particularly as they recalled a time he grew up in, and that I only caught traces of what carried over into the 90s. At the same time, going to the movies was one of the first things I did alone after the breakup. Maybe I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ve found that ‘taking back’ some of the pop culture things we consumed collectively and ‘rebranding’ them for myself has been one of the more effective ways I’ve found to process everything. Feeling like shit after heartbreak is like trying to lift an impossibly heavy rock off your chest, but, at least for me, not allowing yourself to enjoy things, even the things that you used to do ‘together’, only makes that rock heavier. This film – and others set to come out in the very near future – was one we were ‘supposed’ to see together, that we had talked about when it was still in production. But there’s no hard rule that says that these ephemeral things that once belonged to the ‘us’ need to be divided out, crumbling assets of a once stable life.
Anyway, all that is to say that even though this time, I spent the evening at the theatre in the company of a good friend, going to the movies by yourself is actually really nice (and in a way, very self-affirming).
*One thing I learned when I last lived here was that shellfish, and in particular oysters, have a ‘season’, which starts to kick in at around this time of year. It’s not uncommon, therefore, to see stands at markets selling oysters by the case (as well as individually), but my lack of confidence in my ability to not stab my hand right through when I shuck one has, for now, kept me from buying them.
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.
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.