new york n00b

summer’s sticking but its sweltering days seem to be dwindling after months of a beckoning prospect park, trips to the rockaways and catskills (which sound uncomfortably east coast, if you ask me), uneven tans, and an inevitable sheen of sweat not doing wonders for my face.

in the lead-up to my one-year mark in new york i fidgeted endlessly then switched out my everyday for something new. summer’s a time for lulls, clouded by humidity and heat and beer consumed probably too early in the day, but chez karina things seemed to pick up. i traded an upper east side institution for an office in dumbo, and a world of startup yuppies (or yuccies, which, as i was unhappy to read, are now a thing) has supplanted my previous surroundings of botox queens.

and so i appear to be working and living in brooklyn; i am now one of its inhabitants, after my endless mockery of the parisian obsession with all things indigenous to the borough. (though i have thus far refused to go to two brooklyn establishments called ‘cooklyn’ and ‘nooklyn’ because if it’s that damn cute it stops being cute) (but if they get good yelp reviews, i might just have to).

brooklyn didn’t exactly match the way i imagined it while still in paris: in my mind everything was williamsburg (which i found strangely frightening and intriguing). but i landed in south park slope, that cluster of sweetness, tree-lined streets, cookies, and young parents gliding on clean sidewalks pushing little white babies in pretty strollers and lalalala.

it softened my arrival or departure, or whatever that was, and all the confusion and disgruntlement that it spawned. but it wasn’t manhattan and that saddened or surprised or unsettled me, emotions that seem unfounded about a place where i had never lived. new york, as i imagined it–manhattan–was my consolation prize for leaving paris; the state-side corollary to my late(st) infatuation.

circumstances color reactions.

i returned to new york a few weeks ago after two weeks in california and my subway train launched into the city through queens, heading toward brooklyn. and when i got off the train on seventh avenue i couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed, because, well, it wasn’t getting off the train at chatelet or gard du nord. but that might always be the case.

the thing about paris is that it’s prettier than most places, and the thing about new york is that it’s not paris. each year i spent in paris sent me into a cascade of back flips, life-changing events and epiphanies fueled by long walks and too much to drink. and so as my one-year mark in new york approached i felt a bit at a loss; upon returning to the city that is now definitionally my home i was struck by how not-at-home i felt.

but enough of that simplistic nostalgia.

the thing is that i’ve started writing this post at least six times and keep trailing off before i can possibly hit “publish.” i’ve updated my weather report nearly each time, though it’s all been some iteration of how hot it’s been. but now that fall’s approaching and the humidity’s dissipating i’ve gained some clarity of mind and think it’s time to write things down. i wrote paris when paris told me things, when i could document grandiose declarations about my discoveries, about what that quiet alleyway told me about myself and the city and myself in the city and what it meant to be whichever age i was during whichever season. but what’s happened in new york is that i keep trying to jot down a series of observations in anticipation of some disruptive yet grounding moment of belonging and longing, the kind that regularly befuddled and filled me with some cocktail of warm fuzzies and chills up my spine during my love affair with paris. but for some reason new york hasn’t afforded me that luxury, or perhaps i haven’t given it the chance.

maybe what i need is to go to manhattan, start at the bottom and walk to the top. or perhaps i need to get a bike to more thoroughly explore the colossal mass that is brooklyn, or maybe i just need to formally disconnect my imagination of new york with what it’s turned out to be. i must say i imagined more bohemian walkups and encounters with sultry strangers, not in continuity with paris, necessarily, but some sort of mirror that would allow me to switch the backdrop on an experience i loved, but to keep living it in a new setting. but that experience had actually expired. nothing is similar at all. instead i found a comfortable spot in a calm and quiet neighborhood with–in an apparent regression from my complacent studio-inhabiting solitude–roommates who make me fantasize about murder in ways i didn’t think i was capable (really, though, sometimes i need to check myself). when i left paris, i thought i was embarking on adulthood, but here i rarely feel like much of an adult at all.

what i can say, after one year, is that i still know oh-so little about new york city. i’ve memorized the streets that surround my apartment and exchange smiles and hellos with the caricatural south-slopers that stoop at their storefronts: the three chainsmoking ladies talking requisite-brooklyn-accented shit in front of the hair salon, whose bleached tips and outgrown roots make me wonder why anyone would take the risk of paying for their services; the old italian man with a cane–i’m not quite sure what his role is, though i typically see him slink between the laundromat and the supermarket two doors down; the famed (at least in my imagination) mike daddy, though i’m not sure if he is in fact mike daddy, but he works at Mike Daddy’s pizza, outside of which he sits solemnly on a bench, fadora-clad, assessing his territory (i think he’s the real mike daddy); and lastly, the young japanese father who smokes endlessly in front of the sushi joint as his little kids, all adorned in matching pajamas, play and play and play. there’s also the resident white-trash family in the building next door on sixteenth street, and some amalgam of old dominican and irish families as you ascend toward the park. south slope’s a strange mix, hanging onto its roots as small plates and wine bars rapidly encroach on what must be rent-controlled apartments.

what’s remarkable is the vastness of new york, its sheer mass, its endless diversity. i was impressed by how paris, in such a small space, managed to pack so much in. and i’m awestruck by a place that packs even more in, in even more space–a supersized metropolis with no limit of neighborhoods, communities and their cuisines.

i reveled in paris’s consistency, in the fact that the architecture, the café menus and the price of bread remained constant even as neighborhoods changed from one to the next. a coffee in the marais and in belleville offer different scenery but are fundamentally in conformity with paris’s style, its look, its texture. i loved that homogeneity, strangely enough; it cushioned the foreignness of it all, smoothed it all out into one swirling circle of a city, punctuated with endless crevices for discovery but a common thread that weaved it all together and ultimately made me feel at home.

but just 2 miles from my apartment in brooklyn there are other worlds, and in under an hour i can be in residential queens, or in chinatown, or back on the upper east side. and then there’s a strange stretch past 93rd street on the west side where the beautiful brownstones fade into high-rises reminiscent of anywhere, usa, just before it slips into harlem, which is anything but anywhere. and just on the other side of prospect park nothing looks like my neighborhood, and above it, and to its east, chasidic jews with thousands of children seem to comfortably coexist with blacks and immigrants from the caribbean.

when i settled into my neighborhood i thought it was one that couldn’t be unpacked; what i’m now realizing is that it’s just one speck on the entanglement of neighborhoods that stuff each borough, and that i hardly know anything about any of it at all.

positive references

i admit that it’s been a long time. in march i attempted to write–i even wrote out an entire post. i’m not sure what followed that prevented me from pressing “publish;” it’s possible i fell asleep.

so i here i am in june, rounding off 10 months in new york city, 10 months in my not-so-new job, and eleven months since i vacated 28 rue saint sauveur.

my most recent attempt to write followed a strange and exhilarating experience, a sort of milestone between the big apple and me. a rare moment, a hybrid of belonging, grounding, and excitement.

it was a normal day at first: several snooze buttons to the shower, coffee and toast to the F train for my daily indulgence of reading and people-watching (sometimes, i think my subway rides are the most enriching moments of my day). work offered a special trip to the human zoo: press check-in for the CIA director’s speech. the sign reading “press” did not deter other guests from approaching; a parade of aged wealth flowing through the doors off of park avenue, furs and bald heads and well-tailored suits–new york’s upper crest. one man approached me, i asked “are you a member of the press?” he looked at me like i had just insulted his mother: “do i look like a member of the press?!”

a day in the life.

but then the plot thickened. i left work early into the the crisp air that emerges when winter meets spring–warm sun with a residual chill. walked down madison and turned onto 44th where i stopped at the harvard club, which is everything you might imagine it to be–dimly lit lounges with deep-set and plushy crimson chairs, the whole room lined with mahogany furnishing, peppered with a crowd similar to the one described above. i spent an hour rattling off random information in one of the strangest encounters i’ve had as of late and trying not to laugh at the absurdity of the hahhvahd club; details upon request.

when i reemerged onto midtown’s less plushy streets i jolted down fifth ave, digesting my last hour and realizing it was still light out and i had left work. i started walking and when i got to the flatiron building; it became clear that i would keep walking because suddenly lower manhattan opened itself up to me in full daylight.

i was in chinatown on a hunt for duck legs (really though) and wandered into a chaotic market overflowing with shopping-caddy adorned old ladies and long purple eggplants and a sea of foreign pink meat parts. i bought a piping hot bun and devoured it in front of a shuttered storefront, digesting the mess of the scene. new york chinatown is a force to be reckoned with.

and that’s when i felt a shock to my system, the feeling that defined my exhilarating wanderings throughout paris–that thrill of conquering new ground–consumed me in a sort of repackaged nostalgia. i felt what i felt in paris without being there: that warmth and relevance and sense of being in the center of the universe. but this time, gravity’s center had shifted.

and all this hit me as i had begun to recline into brooklyn complacency, the treelined, spacious streets that soften a stressful day, a comforting contrast to exiting the subway anywhere in manhattan and walking up a staircase reminiscent of children of men. (YES, i am comparing new york’s population density to scenes of apocalyptic disorder, and no, i don’t think i’m being hyperbolic.)

perhaps i needed to earn that moment, seven months in–brooklyn cushioned my arrival but left a dash to be desired amid my post-paris come-down. something about that moment, standing on elizabeth street fully clad in shopping bags of duck legs and chili sauce, that made me feel centered, repurposed, and ready. things clicked–not out of familiarity, but from realizing that new grounds were waiting. grounds that i had barely tiptoed over.

it started when walking from point A to point B became an energy-propelled glide from down fifth avenue, an array of buildings and fast-walking strangers interspersed with sneakered tourists awestruck at their colossal surroundings.

as i made my way toward the market’s butcher counter (recall: this entire story is based on obtaining duck legs) i felt something like a pang of nostalgia for my ancien boucher on faubourg st. dénis (karim was his name)–not a longing to return but a dull yet pleasant reminder of what was.

up until that day i had thought that the exhilaration and satisfaction paris brought me could not be replicated anywhere else. but what i didn’t realize was that paris taught me how to feel a certain way–everything i learned became a baseline for what would come next. it was a silly assumption, an oversight that could have stalled my exploration and fooled me into thinking of paris as the final frontier. but in retrospect it’s so obvious–nobody is limited to one love per lifetime. but each time it’s a new story. so now i’m thinking that my time in paris, and all the stupid things i did–justified within my arsenal of anecdotes “for the book”–gave me a pretty good sense of how to be in a place while really being there.

i was seven months in that day, with no end in sight. spring’s earliest signs were draping over the city with gusto, the snow melted (and may have revealed hefty piles of trash), but also hit me with a new lease on new york city.

on that day i thought i had broken through, but three months later i’m still not so sure. brooklyn is great but it’s also a suburb–albeit the trendiest suburb on the planet. but manhattan is just more–a condensed cluster that is apparently much smaller than the endless maze i once thought it was. but it’s far from being mine. several weeks ago my train stopped (yep, just stopped) on my morning commute. in a moment of impatient and strategic thinking i pushed through the crowd of huffing-and-puffing morning-commuters and climbed out onto lower manhattan’s morning buzz, a stew of humidity-baked trash piles, rows of emergency-escape-adorned buildings: a strange hybrid of urban beauty and filth. it seemed like such a more logical place to be, amid urban chaos, rather than floating on some peripheral suburban cloud.

conquering cities, inserting yourself into new environments, dissolving comfort zones–all that. over the course of ten months you learn how you unfold on an unfamiliar landscape, how your moods mesh with your everyday locales. paris spoiled me by offering a poetic backdrop for every feeling. on a couple sundays ago i woke up to a passerby whistling. tom said it was like a movie, but paris came to my mind first.

it’s hard not to bellyflop onto new york, and i’ve been trying to do a good job. uncertainty is a challenge. human relationships require anticipating reactions: how will a friend react if i cancel; how will that boy react if i ask him on a date; what will my boss say if i ask for a raise? cultivating relationships with places require that same calculation, but it’s harder to foresee how a new city will welcome your moods and decisions.

sadness as a test case: paris welcomed it poetically; new york’s schedule can’t accommodate melancholy. sulk and you’ll trail behind–you’ve probably already missed two trains. you’re definitely late. sometimes amid new york crowds you’re not quite sure what you’re feeling at all, but you’re probably just tired.

recently i’ve been a bit confused about what i’m doing. my former self-contained reality, my completely selfish existence of long walks and midday apéritifs and tiny studios has dissolved.

silly things “for the book” are now real decisions that allegedly matter, but i can’t figure out why. my book might need two parts (says she at the tender age of 25, thinking that her dabbles in new york yuppie-land constitute the second and final part of growing up).

it’s strange: that day in chinatown i thought i had learned how to belong in new places, but faced with new york’s impenetrable wall i feel compelled to search for new beginnings. fellowship this, research grant that, think of some way to study extremism in europe so that i can drift back into an alternate reality where choices were just fuel for anecdotes to fill chapters of an imaginary book that i’ll likely never write.

after my duck-leg expedition, i recall a furious need to get things down in words welling up in my chest; i feverishly typed out most of my afternoon on my iPhone while on the subway. i remember the guy across from me looking at me like i was a complete lunatic–and new york has a pretty high bar for lunacy. i’m glad i felt that urge to write that day–that momentary satisfaction i felt in unexplored territory is a good reminder that i shouldn’t constantly reach elsewhere.

a subterranean rant

it’s safe to say that i only miss paris when i’m sad. but then i really miss it.

new york has gotten wintry but it’s mostly fine; the cold is refreshing and brisk. lots of hubbub emerged over a blizzard that wasn’t: governatorial and mayoral announcements of impending doom that boosted sales at grocery and liquor stores but ended in a measly 5 inches of snow after warnings of 20. it was pretty, though.

the subway gets worse in winter. delays upon delays, everyone crowded into non-consensual moments of human intimacy, i can see way too much of the old man’s nailbeds and the cracked skin on his knuckles as he holds tight on the subway poll. but amid the heaving sighs and eye-rolling, unintentional eye contact reveals some common ground–at times, lips even curl into a smile.

last week a man in his mid-thirties wearing a stupid hat plopped down next to me, opened his legs too wide (manspreading is real) in complete disregard of his surroundings. and then, in a shockingly predictable turn of events (consistent with his oblivion to his neighboring passengers), he opened ayn rand’s the fountainhead. my eyes locked with the woman across from me; we burst into simultaneous laughter.

new york city is as vast and individualistic as its massiveness would entail. but the subway, perhaps by sheer virtue of its germ-infested containment, challenges all that. this morning i was stuck underground somewhere in the subterranean abyss between delancey street and second avenue stop for over thirty minutes, sandwiched between an overly-perfumed woman and a hefty man whose soggy coat made him smell like dog. en face a black chasidic jew mumbling his morning prayers and a bleach-blonde rummaging through her purse, her lap scattered with envelopes and plastic bags. all that, even before i got to the office.

on a good day, so most days, my door-to-door is fifty minutes, but on the worst of days it nears ninety. so i read books, one after another. more than i’ve ever read in my life. in paris i could hardly read books because the city’s details–pristine and preserved, yet inviting–left me no space for fiction. my long walks were entire novels, a plot of arrondissements that concluded differently every time. but new york’s details and edges are lobbed onto one another; the city forms a greasy casserole of bodegas and pizza joints and halal trucks that sell impossibly good-smelling chicken that probably contains as much car exhaust as it does oil. so it makes sense to avoid it all with books.

brooklyn is a pretty respite from all that, sometimes. it’s even more massive than manhattan but its lazy sprawl makes it less intense. and its colors change within blocks: gentrification has altered the borough’s landscape–neighborhoods shift rapidly, the faces and smells and buildings vary from one to the next. there’s no haussmanian architecture, no boulganeries or butchers or standard cafes with their standard drunkards to tie it all together. paris had an underlying continuity, a consistent blueprint that propelled its vibe and made it possible to absorb. but new york is fragmented: scattered bits and pieces that often bear no relation to one another. park slope to bed stuy could be divided by a transatlantic flight, but really you just need to take the express train. that’s not to say that paris doesn’t also house diversity and dynamism: take the line 4 from st. germain to chateau rouge and you’ll emerge in another land. but something remains the same–it’s still all paris, somehow.

and i guess that’s what i miss sometimes, times when i feel disconnected and like i can’t manage to connect all the moving parts, can’t finish all the tasks in the lists upon lists because something about new york city makes me feel like i’m constantly behind–less exhilarated but more exhausted. but there’s a catch: that feeling of being impossibly scattered is also thrilling. by the end of my parisian sejour, the familiarity, the tired routine and that sameness that i now fondly describe as the stucco that holds paris together, interfered with the potential for anonymity–perhaps a city’s greatest gift. new york offers–if not forces–that anonymity that can be simultaneously liberating and confusing. sometimes getting lost is as intimidating as it is calming.

new yorkers are fighting and pushing for a spot in the subway, squinting and looking upwards as they remove their headphones to try to decipher the message broadcasted over the always-muffled MTA loudspeaker. but for the number of things that seem to be broken (or perhaps never worked at all), the city manages to sustain itself quite well. so there’s that.

growing up again

i’m slowly shedding my former reality. i resolved my feud with bnp paribas and no longer feel betrayed that paris continues in real-time without me.

my commentary on new york since my arrival has revolved around a sort of not-there-yet type attitude; i put my cataloging on hold, an excuse i chalked up to busyness and all the chaos that accompanies change. i was stuck somewhere between ruminating over my abrupt departure from paris and the misconception that moving to new york was actually moving to manhattan, and that, because i moved to brooklyn, i wouldn’t have anything to write about until i somehow tallied up enough saturday afternoons in the east village to have something to say about it.

but that’s completely ridiculous. i don’t live in manhattan; i’m just one participant in the daily high-heeled exodus that scurries off the F train and into desk chairs and video conference calls, and then retreats to brooklyn’s calm, stroller-lined streets. imagining the unknown lends itself to big anticipations–delusions, maybe–of what awaits, and i doused my big jump across the atlantic in imaginary predictions. i created a blueprint to forecast my imminent new york experience–the next frontier in urban exploration, a rite of passage back into the united states.

why i assumed new york would be manhattan is unclear. i’ve caught onto a general consensus that manhattan’s day is done–one that i refuse to believe, because i can’t help but gaze upward at skyscrapers and with intrigue into chic bars and restaurants, and because an island so dense must have endless offerings. but there’s certainly something to be said for the impossibly expensive real estate that can only house the most unsavory of finance guys, corporate lawyers, and ad-men.

about a month ago, the enchanting zadie smith wrote in the new york review of books that you can “find your beach [in manhattan], find it falsely, but convincingly, still thinking of Manhattan as an isle of writers and artists—of downtown underground wildlings and uptown intellectuals—against all evidence to the contrary. Oh, you still see them occasionally here and there, but unless they are under the protection of a university—or have sold that TV show—they are all of them, every single last one of them, in Brooklyn.”

when i discussed the article with a colleague, he said that Zadie was close to correct, but that she should have replaced Brooklyn with Queens. apparently new york city shifts too fast for even the most astute observers.

so what is it like in Brooklyn, the alleged refuge for displaced former manhattanites, forced to take their creativity and bohemianness to more affordable pastures? i can’t speak for all of it, but i can say that south park slope, where i live, is an imaginary wonderland. i can say that it’s the whitest place in brooklyn, if not in the entire united states (though according to a june 2014 report, starr county, texas, is in fact the whitest place in the united states).

sometimes when i stroll to the store on a sunny saturday i laugh to myself at how other-worldly it is: hipster dads with their hipster babies, beanies abound; everyone sips kale smoothies and eats gluten free banana bread as they wander up to prospect park for a brisk walk or jog.

there’s a trend among yuppies to seek out grunge, to transform drafty warehouses into drafty coffeeshops disguised as cozy hangouts, to, on one side of the spectrum, fill bushwick with shiny condos or, on the other, create strange social collectives based on witchcraft just down the street. so by that measure, my living in south park slope is perhaps the least cool thing i could do as a twenty-something: i opted for tree-lined streets with brownstones and babies and steered clear of the jam-packed gentrification train. to put it simply, i moved to a part of brooklyn not in need of gentrification. south park slope is home to yuppies without a cause.

i went home to berkeley for thanksgiving: a weekend of hilly runs, abundant avocados, small babies, and gray sweatpants (what is it about gray that makes lounge attire even more comfortable, conducive to overeating, and disallowed in the outside world?). after a turbulent flight back to new york, i realized that this would mark my first “return to new york” since having moved here. and i don’t want to be a debbie downer–after all, i had plenty to be thankful for this thanksgiving–but my return-to-brooklyn paled in comparison to my retours-a-paris, those epic and exhilarating moments of reuniting that used to consume me so entirely and relentlessly. airport to subway to quiet park slope street was hardly the chaotic morass of the chateau rouge metro that greeted me upon my retour to paris just a year ago. my return to new york felt so underwhelming that i spent the next day in a haze of jetlagged sulking, wondering when i might recreate that “restored sense of purpose” that characterized my reentry to parisian territory last year.

when i left tunis in november 2013 and came back to paris i felt an unequivocal sense of being-at-home. but i also recognized paris’s uncanny ability to dwarf other cities and experiences, to make everything else feel insignificant and flat. looking back on that blogpost i think i might have been tipsy (i was definitely tipsy) when i described how pretty and important paris made me feel, an underlying sense of purpose that i lacked elsewhere. i was so thrilled to feel that way after my five-month “hiatus” from the city that i was almost embarrassed.

i want that again.

it would be too harsh to deny new york that potential to exhilarate, to uplift, to define. it’s too soon to be so categorical (even for this girl). but i’m not sure if brooklyn has it. it’s too comfortable, too dispersed, too pleasant. too much like summercamp, even in winter. but i’m going to bet that manhattan–with its infinite possibilities, constant chaotic buzz, and powerful energy–might be capable. but where, to me, paris was tirelessly beautiful, manhattan’s intimidating buildings feel almost brooding, and my brief encounters with the island’s streets make me feel like a small, insignificant child lost in some powerful businessman’s labyrinth more than like the elegant and pretty lady i imagined myself to be in paris. manhattan feels far away, even when i’m there.

so i guess i’m wondering where i can find my beach, or if i already found it and left it behind, or if manhattan once had beach-potential but i missed the last ferry, or if it could have beach-potential if my salary tripled or i won the lottery.

when i first arrived in paris, i approached the challenge head-on. karina-versus-paris would be a finite saga; i knew i wouldn’t live there forever. and, aside from brief moments of bliss that clouded my vision, i didn’t fantasize about expatriating permanently. and so i raced against the clock to make paris my own, lest i lose the battle i had set for myself. and when i felt ready to leave, it meant that i had won.

but karina-versus-newyork is different; a challenge without an end in sight. no administrative blockage, bureaucratic nightmares, flailing economy, or longing for my maternal language will push me out. i can’t run back to my home country because i’m already here. so i’m trying to be cautious in drawing conclusions, to tread lightly before i decide where i belong or don’t belong.

the good news is that there was a time when even paris made me feel like a silly baby, and it wasn’t just because i was nineteen years old and, in fact, a silly little baby. and six more years hardly bestow me with wisdom, and grappling with the unknown has once again made me a little kid. so i suppose i’m wondering when i’ll actually feel like a grown-up–like i warrant the pencil-skirt and heels i wear to cover up the fact that i should probably be wearing keds and pink leggings. i grew up in paris, but need to start over in new york. i’m back at zero.

if there’s a moral to these musings, it’s that i just don’t know. i can’t decide how i feel about my new life, and i can’t yet invade new york like i did paris because i have yet to cope with the fact that i’m here.

i should probably start trying to grow up again. we’ll see how it goes.


and then it was fall.

new york’s summer heat has faded into a brisk autumn breeze and brown and orange leaves line prospect park. everything is pumpkin flavored.

i’ve settled into that sunny park slope apartment and finally have the calm that comes with unpacking and decorating.

now that i’ve reclined into my subwayoffice routine it seems easy. most weekdays zip by as i float between edits and emails, a whole mess of thankses and bests, and sometimes even a thanks-in-advance if i feel so inclined. i take a walk on my lunchbreak; my daily dose of manhattan. everyone seems to be jewish, but carts selling halal meat line every sidewalk in town. there’s a fruit vendor near my office and in the morning i hand him a quarter for a banana — we don’t even talk about it anymore. he’s the quiet type, and i’m always late.

over the weekend i took a ferry from red hook to manhattan. the boat dropped me off in the financial district, whose empty saturday streets made the gargantuan buildings seem even more colossal. i was the smallest little creature in a place that hardly seemed like earth, staring up at angular metallic giants. i walked north toward tribeca and the buildings calmed down but everything seemed far away, lofts and brunches and vintage stores that sell five-hundred dollar jackets. when i walk around lower manhattan i want to eat, drink, and buy everything, but i feel like i’m not allowed. i didn’t get invited. when i look at all the people in the streets i wonder how many of them feel that exact same way, or how many of them are wealthy enough not to.

paris has started to seem far away. thinking about it recently provides the same sensation as reading fiction: my imagination informs vague scenes of elsewhere. the colors are off and edges are soft, like i’m dreaming, but shapes aren’t convoluted and i understand what i’m seeing. i’m imagining something that no longer exists in real time, and i only see it in fragments, but i know it’s real. when i think about the last two years i don’t have a cohesive picture but snapshots of street corners: walking up rue faubourg poissonière towards barbès, where faubourg saint denis hits rue des petites écuries. walking past le sully and waving at the barman with the long dark hair — he had really nice hair. thick and straight and brown.

two weeks before i left i didn’t know that i was leaving. it was hot, and i had my first of several interviews for my current job. i paced across my miniature studio in striped pajama shorts and a blazer drinking a glass of rosé out of a yogurt pot (a time-tested skype-interview-preparation technique).

i felt that the interview had gone well. i swapped pajamas for jeans, returned the blazer to its untouched corner in the closet (oh the days when blazers occupied untouched corners in closets), grabbed my headphones and ran down my stairs. i stood in front of my apartment and assessed my options (left or right). which way would rue saint sauveur take me.

i walked up faubourg poissonière and winded through the ninth arrondissement until i found myself on rue des martyrs. i had energy. i walked up and up towards sacre coeur and turned before tourists might swallow me. just days before i had walked those streets thinking i was going to stay, and now, energized by a seemingly successful interview, i balanced the idea that i was going to leave.

i kept walking. fast. i lingered momentarily in front of a building on rue pigalle where i had visited an apartment, a studio on the 1ère étage vu sur cour, to move into in september. i thought i was going to stay, i had accepted that i was going to stay. the interview left me feeling triumphant but less grounded than ever; i thought i could recline but i had to stay on my toes.

i turned back and started walking home. i wanted to cry but i didn’t know what about. i walked down faubourg saint-dénis in the middle of the street, vaguely perusing each side. and then i ran into Sari. the owner of au chat noir, my favorite café. i ran into him in my neighborhood. it was like seeing your teacher at the grocery store when you’re a kid — a misplaced and vaguely unsettling reminder that people exist outside the context you’ve assigned to them. Sari belonged at au chat noir, or at least in its immediate alentours.

we fait’d la bise. he offered me a kurdish sandwich. i gladly accepted. we stood in front of the kurdish sandwich shop eating freshly baked bread filled with ground meat and spices; Sari, a kurdish man in his mid-forties who lives in the apartment above his café and gives unlimited gingery shots and peanuts to the group of lush 25-year-old girls who frequents his establishment, and i, perched outside of the sandwich shop, devouring our wraps as much as we were the whole scene. i told him about my interview and that i might be moving to new york. he told me to go. paris is great, he said, but new york is new york, after all.

we finished our wraps and parted ways, i by foot and he by bike. it was a new bike, he said, and he had recently quit smoking. sometimes he just liked to go ride for hours, up past jaurès, and all along the canal de l’ourq. helped him make sense of things. ain’t it the truth.

paris is great, but new york is new york, after all? i’m still trying to figure that out. brooklyn feels like oakland with better-funded city planners. a project in charming gentrification that you’d have to be lying to say you didn’t like. everything is pumpkin flavored, and all the babies have nice strollers. everyone seems to get along, and all the coffee tastes good. park slope is all smiley, and nice. but i’m not sure if it’s more than that.

it might not be more. chances are it’s not. and so it occurs to me that i’m residing in a place that can’t be unpacked, that lines its streets with all it has to offer. restaurants, bakeries, and cafes adorn park slope’s bustling avenues.

i’m not sure if that upsets me, or if it’s okay. i like the restaurants, bakeries, and cafes. i want to purchase the things they sell. i might not be looking for more than that in park slope. i left my paris glasses at charles de gaulle. now i see things with my own (myopic, literally) eyes, and they’re just fine, but not much more than that.

manhattan might be a different story, but i won’t find out for a while. the good news is that the wide-eyed-ness that colored my first encounters with paris informs my every glance in manhattan. the bad news is i haven’t had time to indulge. so far manhattan just seems like the life’s dirt that tarnished paris. or maybe it’s that i’ve graduated from that dirt-free period of life. i think it might be that.

today something happened. i relaunched a war with my french bank, from afar, disrupting the dreamlike fiction paris had started to become.

i spent too long talking to yannick, my conseiller-en-ligne, about how he couldn’t provide me any of the information i needed to access my account, from which i am blocked. i patienter’d several times but malheureusement it was 19h45 in paris, and my agence closed at 18h. i’m going to need to call back pendant les horaires d’ouverture.

and this is where i expose myself. because as frustrating as my exchange with yannick was, i secretly enjoyed his company. battling with bnp paribas–a cornerstone of my parisian experience–filled me with chills of nostalgia. but it also made me feel less far away. like part of me (albeit in the form of thousands of euros in a bank account i currently can’t access) still resides in the glorious 75, as if my bureaucratic dealings from afar someway indicate that i haven’t officially left.

i felt rather flustered by the end of my conversation with yannick. i wished him a curt bonne soiree, partially frustrated that he could not address my needs (though not surprised either), but mostly confused by the longing i felt for 19h45 in paris. that perfect parisian time, nearly an hour into apero, streets glossy with rain. that’s the nostalgia i’ve avoided thus far. and now it’s all over me.

why is it that, as yannick explained that i should contact my agence directement pendant les horaires d’ouverture, images of rue andre del sarte, where i once sublet a room, flooded my brain? today it’s rainy in new york but all i can think about is rain on rue charlot.

the knowledge that 19h45 paris time still exists in my absence is clouding my vision, disrupting my bests, thankses, and serial commas. yannick just uncovered a bout of tucked-away queasiness that’s about to envelop the rest of my afternoon.

entre deux

my transition to new york seemed so smooth that it must have been the calm before the storm. there were a couple of initial hiccups: accidentally boarding an express train, losing my unlimited subway card. i’ve accepted that living in this city entails a general and unavoidable hemorrhage of funds that makes paris seem inexpensive.

i thought i had secured housing but it fell through days before i had planned to move in. but after a brief sob-sesh on second avenue and a beer or two, i realized that my clash with life’s unexpected dramas was in fact the official debut of my new york experience. if my romance with paris dwindled as it became comfortable, it would be illogical for my newest adventure to begin smoothly. and so it went.

several days of panic and aggressive apartment-hunting landed me a new spot. check. and so i’ll officially be among the hoards of twenty-somethings making their daily commute from brooklyn up to manhattan, the reality that “moving to new york” seems to entail. from what i can tell, manhattan is an impossibly expensive island, whose only affordable rooms are dark, windowless cells in three-bedroom apartments, dungeons that still cost $1250 a month. i didn’t move to new york for that. nor did i move here to live in the stretches of anywhere, USA that defines some areas of brooklyn.

and so i’ve struck a balance and will be moving to a sunny (for now) apartment in park slope, home to the world’s hippest thirty-somethings and their kale-fed babies. if brooklyn is, broadly speaking, summercamp for yuppies, park slope is where they go to hatch.

though my brief spat with new york’s housing market is behind me, my discovery process has yet to take off. my weekdays shift between the subway and the office. but don’t be fooled–my indoor routine provides sufficient entertainment, from the subway’s human zoo to the inane interactions that define office professionalism. among this week’s F-train winners include the old man who popped six pieces of trident into his mouth, which he chewed for approximately six seconds before promptly spitting them out. also worth mentioning is this morning’s young couple: the boy so helplessly fawning over his gregarious female companion, constantly trying to kiss her neck and touch her waist but routinely thwarted by her endless attempts at conversation. i imagine this is a common annoyance for men. women really do talk a lot.

which brings me to the formalities of an office: the constant hum of “how-are-you”s, “doing well”s, and trying to make what you’re working on sound interesting, just to follow the flow of weekly meetings. sometimes meetings swallow the day. sometimes there are no meetings at all. sometimes i read things and edit from when i arrive to when i leave, and my eyes hurt, and the next morning when i read the new york times i question comma-placement, dangling members, hyphens, and dashes.

and so this seemingly mundane routine of shuffling from office chair to subway car begs the question: does karina miss paris?

sort of. abstractly. missing holds a negative connotation–a state of longing or wishing that i were elsewhere. that’s not how i feel. thinking about my little studio, my street, the canal, and my daily wanderings, i don’t want to be there, because i’m too consumed by where i am. but i relate to these associations with a distant nostalgia: my parisian routines have become an abstract reference, tucked beneath layers of busy-ness and the exhausting process of constantly getting my bearings in new york. but every time there’s a lull in the madness, that string of parisian snapshots resurfaces in my head. and a funny feeling starts brewing in my stomach.

i have yet to diagnose that queasiness. nostalgia is a strange beast. paris became mine, and now that it’s gone i’m torn between propriety and letting go.

so now i’m trying to figure out what to do with that prior attachment. searching for ways to weave paris into my new reality without falsely hoping i can reinvent it.

and i’m also trying not to forget how i felt before i left paris. that feeling that my time there had gone stale. my realization that the city could perhaps no longer satiate me, and that, as my friends slowly parted, the loneliness i had for years thought impossible might find its way into my long walks. that possibility remains unproven. i won’t know if karina-in-paris could be forever-resilient to loneliness, but she was, while it lasted. and i guess i like it that way. that i left before paris could have completely soured.

but now that i’ve returned to the usa, to a city where i’ll probably reside for an indefinite while, i’m trying to accept that my time in new york will not benefit from the resilience that accompanies an alternate reality, but will constantly be marred by the frustrations and difficulties of everyday life.

paris always offered an escape, a way to decompress, to be revitalized, energized, rejuvenated. when i last returned after a 5-month hiatus, i recalled the way that the city made me feel like i mattered. like i was important and pretty, that i had a sense of purpose even while taking the most aimless of walks.

new york is the opposite, it seems. i’m here because the city matters, but i pale in comparison to its global relevance. i’m the smallest i’ve ever been, one of a million sardines clawing at the last bit of remaining space on the subway.

i can’t tell whether resigning to being insignificant is about paris and new york, or if it’s just about growing up. or if feeling special is actually just feeling at home–that wonderful sensation of being where you’re supposed to be.

it’s possible that i won’t ever recreate that sense of belonging, that in indulging my attraction to paris i locked myself into monogamy with its streets and sounds. it could be that nowhere else will ever compete.

i suppose i’ll just have to wait and find out. so far i can say that i’m not displaced in new york, but i’m far from grounded. i’ll see when that floaty feeling settles, or when i discover new things, or if i burst into tears on any more street corners.

then i’ll reassess.

new backdrop

it’s been seven months since i last wrote, but in short: i left paris in a flurry and am now in new york city. most of you readers already know the details that fill the gaps in between, so i’ll leave them out here.

i work on the upper east side in a in a six-story mansion right off of park avenue and when i go out for my lunch break i see swarms of middle-aged women with puffy lips, tight skin, and legs so aerobiscised that their designer linen slacks barely coat their thighs. others, the majority of whom boast astonishingly toned arms, take brisk walks in central park while occasionally sipping iced coffees and chatting (loudly) about their now-grown children. many have very small dogs on leashes.

but really, what’s with all the toned arms and brisk walks? and don’t get me wrong–i do my fair share of running. but where parisian women intimidate with their delicate waifishness, manhattan’s skinny bitches could probably kick your ass.

little print-outs adorn the stairwells at my office to remind employees to “take the stairs, it burns 10 calories!” health benefits cover programs to quit smoking (which is illegal on the premises) and human resources offers an attractive gym-reimbursement package. there are “regular” (chain-brand chips) and “healthy” (more expensive, attractively-packaged chips with likely similar nutritional value) vending machines in the basement, though my plan is to go crazy on the “regular” treats and take the stairs all the way back up to the 4th floor to, according to the motivational signage, burn forty whole calories. see, i’ve already cracked the system and i’m only four weeks in.

zoom back to my last post. in february, i wrote that i finally felt content with my parisian experience. the city no longer paralyzed me with its beauty, but its wonder hadn’t worn off completely. boredom remained a foreign concept, because my aimless walks never ceased to entertain and café scenery remained a space ripe for musing. still, somewhere between march and august something changed. that exhilarating paris-high i could always count on didn’t go away, but it became part of the reality. that was just it–everyday nuisances infiltrated what had been my alternate parisian universe. waiting in line at the post office was no longer funny because it was french; it was actually waiting in line at the damn post office for an hour when i was on my way to my thankless job, irritating boss, the works. the boundaries had blurred. life’s dirt was messing up my paradise.

as daily annoyances slowly pushed paris off its pedestal, i felt homesick–for the place itself, not for its associations–for the first time in years. i missed the u.s. of a.

no, i’m not just talking about iced coffee, customer service, and tacos (though i’m not negating their greatness either). my window for european gallivanting was closing naturally, if not expiring. after years of idealizing elsewhere, of trying to crack parisian code, and of searching for ways to prolong my french fugue state, it lost all its glimmer. my status as an etrangère devolved from thrilling to constraining. i was une petite californienne above all, stubbornly defending my americanness while earnestly trying to convey my intimate relationship with paris, flaunting the fact that, despite my foreignness, i had made it my home. but that sense of ownership, however satisfying, was a finishing touch on my parisian séjour. my triumph over my wide-eyed 19-year-old dream of truly living in paris, whatever that meant or means, also stripped the karina versus saga of its raison d’être. my battle was no longer antagonistic, and so it tapered off. it was time to go.

so when i found out that i was moving to new york and, two days later, did just that, i didn’t curl up into a ball and retreat into some existential crisis. i packed up my apartment and left, more or less, with a goodbye walk, a croissant, and a farewell pastis at au chat noir somewhere in between. i bid adieu to my first ever parisian home, at 6 cite martignac. i kept bracing myself for some big moment where i’d pause from packing and look out my window at all the parisian rooftops and take a long sigh and then burst into tears, realizing that i was abandoning the world i had created for myself. it didn’t happen until i got to the airport, and, during a goodbye hug with my first friend in paris, became a weepy baby. but even then, i wasn’t mourning paris. i was just suddenly overwhelmed that life was happening, and that i was tucking paris away indefinitely as part of the past. it was closing, but i had closure.

new york feels like the big leagues. the real deal. no nonsense. lots of garbage. loud sounds. all the smells. sandwiched between chasidic jews, jamaicans, and lululemon-clad, hair-straightened blondes that get on the subway at the west 4th street stop. an obnoxious woman hanging on her boyfriend so loudly, quite audibly telling him her life story on an 8:31 a.m. F-train (everyone here is very loud). a chaotic morass where all the world’s parts converge. the whole mess of it all makes paris seem quaint, almost to the point of insignificance, a collage of old postcards that, while nice, exists on a different plane. and, because it’s amurrica, everything seems to work–disconnected parts meld together efficiently, everything is open all the time, and services don’t necessarily take a week to complete. my first day of work attests to this: en route to the office, my shoe broke (of course, because that’s how things go). after destroying my finger tips and manicure with superglue i managed to slap together a poor cobbling job, which unsurprisingly broke just an hour later. during my lunch break i found a shoe repair man, to whom i gave a long speech about my broken strap and how ann klein had single handedly wrecked my first day of work, in hopes that his sympathy for my helplessness would compell him to fix my shoe in a timely manner. he looked at me puzzled, nodded, and told me that it would take five minutes (and five dollars) to save my day. i was stunned. had he really just matter-of-fact-ly told me that he could fulfill my request in FIVE MINUTES, much less within an hour, or under a day or a week, no flirtation, negotiation, or complications involved? he had already run circles around my beloved cordonnier on rue du faubourg du temple, who, while charming, seemed to focus more on inviting me out to coffee or to watch algeria’s soccer game than on promptly addressing my shoe-related needs. veuillez patienter will no longer be the constant refrain delaying my every move.

paris is undeniably poetic in a way unrivaled by any other place i’ve been, and that’s special. but for the first time, i’ve stopped trying to locate its glory in other places. i’ve accepted that paris exists in paris, and i like it that way, to the point where i resented its embrace of foreign trends. i laughed at cafés à la newyorkais and hip paris’s decision that brooklyn had become the barometer of all things cool. i was bewildered at why the 10th arrondissement would trade croissants for carrot cake. bref, i fell in love with paris because i was convinced that it was timeless, and then felt betrayed when i found out that, like any other city, it was vulnerable and in flux.

(i’ll mention here that i recently ate carrot cake at a café in brooklyn and enjoyed it tremendously. carrot cake is actually really good.)

over expensive cocktails a week or two ago, a friend who has been living in new york for years told me the city is characterized by its constant dynamism. “to live in new york you need to accept that it’s never going to be the same thing from one minute to the next.” i was shocked at how perfectly that seemed to contrast with my understanding of paris, and it made sense that parisian trendsetters would so avidly import new york’s style.

paris was my place, and will remain so until some other city snatches its spot. but at the end of the day it may not have been where i belong permanently. i had mastered its geography, smells, and sounds, but still felt a degree off.

i haven’t decided yet if i like new york. that discovery period will only start when i move into my own apartment, unpack my bags, and hang things on the wall (there’s something undeniably grounding about decorating). so far, i’m trying to make sense of it all. landing on unfamiliar ground is as humbling as it is exciting. after triumphing over my parisian challenge, i’m reverting to zero. here it goes.




i know it’s been months since i’ve last written, but i’ve been experiencing what seems to be a sort of writing-juice drought, at least regarding anything unrelated to tunisia and my thesis.

we’ve had an uncharacteristically warm winter in paris, despite gossip about this being the “coldest winter yet” (though i think that’s an annual refrain, at this point). i thought things might get nasty come february, but…it seems to be february, and things remain comfortable and only occasionally rainy.

but today it rained, so i suppose i will blog.

i’ve become slightly obsessed with my thesis, and have realized that the hours i’m investing may be disproportionate to the assignment’s importance. but oh well. i tend to have trouble doing things only half way (except cleaning my room. that can exclusively be done half way. sometimes i intentionally leave something on the floor, because if i put it away, i might forget where i put it, but if it’s on the floor, i can see exactly where it is).

this daily routine has, as my routines tend to, left me with a great deal of time alone. curiously, i haven’t been feeling lonely, or even like i’m by myself. what i’m saying is that paris has transformed, evolved from an endless ocean of independent discovery to a comfortable companion that has started to feel like a community. i’ve become quite chummy with the staff at my two most frequented cafés, au chat noir and la chope du chateau rouge, to the point that we fait la bise when i arrive, and i think there was a mutual sentiment of nostalgia last week when la chope closed for renovations (i was certainly sad). the vendors at the barbes marché, which has replaced bastille as my go-to cheap-produce-haven, greet me with a warm s’bakhir in the morning and are starting to remember that i purchase 6 exactly apples at a time, and that 5 or 7 would offset my weekly equilibrium of apple intake.

so i’ve finally arrived at what i hoped i would achieve when i first landed in paris on august 20, 2009, so inexplicably naive and inexperienced that each of my parisian encounters was overwhelming and challenging. my wide-eyed-ness has faded, but not yet into the drab glare of parisians that line the terrasses chauffées on rue du faubourg saint dénis. it’s something else. i rarely feel the inexplicable elation that i used to upon finding new streets but experience something just as strong when i curl up in the corner of a favorite café and seep up the dim yellow-lighting, taking in the scene.

the café thing is central in this achievement. my daily life seems to uncoil against a backdrop of au chat noirle sully, and la chope du chateau rouge. apéro starts when the bar tells me it does, once the scene progressively shifts from freelancers and doctorate students to drinkers, ready to wet their appetite with a pastis or start the night correctly with a cocktail. the degree to which i’ve become attached to these places is very strange. i’ve never felt so drawn to physical spaces before, and cycling through my different locales as a regular provides with a sense of ease and belonging that i’ve never encountered before. the idea of potentially leaving paris (recently someone asked me how i felt about the “next chapter” of my life starting once i finish grad school) makes me anxious because i wonder where i will go when i want to read a book or write an article or stare at people and decide what the world is like based on who i see on a given day. i think that, if and when i leave, i’m going to miss the owner of au chat noir more than, say, some of my friends (maybe). his name is Sari, he’s Kurdish and always gives us ginger-rum shots made of his special recipe that are delicious but never seem to serve me well the next morning. he also gives us so many bowls of peanuts that i might actually stop liking peanuts soon, or cease to distinguish between the taste of salted roasted peanuts and ginger, and rum, and pastis, and beer. sometimes things get messy at au chat noir when the forces that be decide it’s time to close the books and open the bottles. it can get dangerous.

i know what you’re thinking: karina, just stop. all three of us have been reading your blog since 2009 and we’re sick of your descriptions of your pathetically easy exist, slinking through parisian streets and punctuating your drinking routine with tiny espressos and alleged “homework.” recently you’ve been talking about this “thesis,” thing, trying to fool us into believing that you actually have work ethic. enough of the nonsense. cut the bullshit.

but really. these days i actually have been doing a lot of work. work of all kinds, even. i have a series of petits boulots, most of which involve unsuspecting parents trusting me with their children, convinced by my veneer of legitimacy bolstered by sciences po and my american passport. it’s very bizarre.

on saturdays i have a little girl and her friend on rue d’athènes in the upscale 9ème arrondissement, clémentine and léonore, who are somewhere between 7 and 8. they essentially refuse to speak to me in english and léonore runs around the house yelling at me to stop following her. her favorite things to talk about are poop and pee, and each of them separately asked me whether or not their dolls would have sex, after, in a game we were playing, we decided that they were in love. léonore’s bedroom is bigger than my studio and she has no brothers and sisters. last weekend she told me to shut up and i told her it wasn’t allowed, to which she spewed a series of “tu m’énerve, tu me fais chier, tu m’agasse.” she is not a very happy child. her friend, clémentine, is much nicer, but her often falls prey to léonore’s bullying. and last weekend, after léonore and i reconciled, they both realized i was capable of lifting them up and spinning them around.

they are 8.

8 is heavy.

i was sore for one week. this is not a reflection of my physical fitness.

my next set of children are 3 sisters who live in the 19ème on quai de la loire, they’re inexplicably adorable and all share one little room in an apartment overlooking the canal. they’re 8, 7, and 4, each one cuter than the next. turns out not all kids are disastrous demonic species. i leave smiling. the youngest one, paloma, gave me a drawing and a kiss on the cheek.

so amidst my café lounging, tunisia-musing, and child-monitoring, i don’t have lots of time for much else. this might mean that i’m “busy,” and sometimes i actually get “stressed out” because of said “business.” and this is where the wide-eyed excitement and constant discovery that always hits me in paris comes back, even when i think it had faded away, as at the end of a long day i walk down faubourg saint dénis onto rue saint dénis and subtly acknowledge the prostitutes that line the street. at this point they must recognize me, that bashful slightly preppy girl with too much brown hair that tries so hard to divert her gaze but can’t help but wonder what it’s like to be standing in those stilettos on cobblestone for so many hours a day, like some strange caricatures of the trade trying to attract customers but remain invisible to everyday citizens.

i’ve also created a new framework for justifying things i do and for categorizing strange experiences, which all become ammo for a potential book that i will write at some point. it will comprise some schizophrenic mélange of pieces of my blog and analyses about tunisia, or something, and also occasional musings about french administration and different kinds of beer, maybe.

the two men at the table next to me at le sully are ruminating over the scene while sipping two pints of stella. they’re speaking maghrebi arabic because that’s the only language i really hear anymore, until i cross the river to go to school in the super chic sixième arrondissement where a gallon of white paint smothers faubourg saint dénis’ colorful clash of turks and north africans. i walk up rue dauphine from the seine and find myself in a scene so much more foreign than the the 10th arrondissement’s stew of diasporas, as flocks of mindlessly wealthy parisians fully clad in fur and armani slide between galleries and outrageously priced lamp stores, or boutiques that sell 400 euro umbrellas. who would have ever thought that i would end up living these first years of my allegedly “adult” existence in such a strange context, in paris, france, a place that i now suddenly know and understand more than the one i was born in. what’s most curious is how all this currently factors into my identity, but how that equation might be weighted completely differently five or ten years from now. twenty-four is this strange age, an all-at-once realization of what things are against the backdrop of knowing that i’m still so young. my perspective is limited because so much is still going to happen. apparently, there’s this looming period during which i will “settle,” a heavily-loaded term that i’m yet to really understand. its components include things like marriage and a career, which are supposed to entail being physically stationary. settling in one place and not moving after that because otherwise you will disrupt the natural order of your settled, stable existence.

i like being settled. i’ve realized more than ever recently that i don’t like my self-imposed routine to be destabilized. it interferes with my daily existence of essentially doing whatever-the-hell-i-want. i map out my weekends in paris in order to maximize on going out at night, because that’s apparently what one is supposed to do when they’re in their 20s, lest they experience what some of my friends have informed me is referred to as “FOMO” (fear of missing out), the dreaded phenomenon in which you might not experience something that you would actually really enjoy. so all the kids my age and i are grasping for air, dancing around potential loopholes that might send us face-first into FOMO-land, as if one glitch in our schedules might drop us into an abyss of missing out. but what i’m realizing is that it’s an impossibly structured obstacle course, because, guess what, kids: we’re always going to miss out! that’s what happens when you can’t be multiple places at once (still waiting to hear back on that bilocation app, seriously).

so i’ve just tried to embrace this realization that, inevitably, i will MO. i’ve embraced my FOMO. i’m trying as hard as possible not to be MO-phobic. also i just need to add that this slew of acronyms like FOMO and YOLO is yet another less-than-admirable characteristic of my generation’s cultural habits.

and i don’t really know how we’re actually going to miss out if we’re awake. and that’s the best thing about paris. you can be completely passive about addressing the imminent possibility of potentially MO-ing and then you go outside and realize that you’re not missing out on anything. today i pushed through way too many old veiled ladies with grocery caddies at the barbès marché, desperately fighting for the last green pepper to make their famed salata mechouia. i fought my way in line at the poissonerie to get a piece of fish and i did my best not to buy three kilos of everything, despite all the vendors’ demands. that market is a microcosm of all the conflict in the whole god damn middle east, i’m telling you! transposed onto the 18th arrondissement. it’s a mess. but i’m digressing: what i mean is that, when all this is just up the street, i’m not sure how i could possibly miss out on anything.

forgetting and remembering

it’s been over a month since my grand retour. when i jumped off the plane i leapt right in, pushed tunis aside like it had never happened. i have a 90-paged document of interview transcriptions and a silver ring covered in coral stones that i bought in the medina the night before my departure, my two tangible pieces of evidence that i was there. i sunk comfortably back into what i associate with my comfort zone and didn’t give myself a moment to think about all the things that had happened. the experience is to be academically documented in graceful, well-structured prose, grounded in theories about popular uprisings, democratic transitions, and meticulously crafted analyses of the relationship between islam and the state.

several days ago i sat at a café, writing. i was in the zone, based on the realization that in the next not-so-many-weeks i have to somehow churn out one hundred pages about the constitutional transition, political assassinations, ideological polarization, and media narratives. i happened upon an “about us” video of a tunisian organization whose members i had interviewed, clicked, watched, and then suddenly someone i knew appeared in the video, speaking in arabic. i didn’t understand the words but the voice was there, the face, the gestures. it was someone that i, like the rest of my stay in tunis, had brushed off with my grand retour, someone who i had met one day who quickly became an unexpectedly significant part of my tunisian experience. the person had been tucked away in a remote corner of my brain, piled over with apartment searching, reuniting with old friends, and my forever-multiplying to-do lists, all written in black or purple pens in my planner. a brick dropped in my stomach and my stress-induced focus vanished. i sat up and looked around, as if i hoped to see the other café-sitters suddenly taken aback by my strange sighting. it’s unsettling how interactions can be so transient despite their intensity, how something can seem, or perhaps be, significant, and then disintegrate. it’s all actually weightless, another refreshing exercise in perspective. oh life, you weird beast.

i drank a glass of water and swallowed my queasiness. i went back to work.

two days later i went to a seminar on the tunisian transition. one of the panelists presented on the role of public spaces in the transitional process, naming the squares and streets that lined my old neighborhood, the barbed wire in front of the interior ministry that once unfortunately caught onto my newest pair of black skinny jeans, ripping tiny little holes right near the ankle (the pants survived; the holes are luckily not so visible). suddenly everything flashed back, a rolling video in that little space right between my brain and my eyes, that strange area where nostalgia gets visually catalogued. and i felt this uncomfortable reminiscence that was neither happy nor sad, and it occurred to me that i, since leaving, haven’t given tunis the time of day for reflection. so i decided it was time to do so, or maybe not, but i at least acknowledged that i had yet to ponder on the experience. it was a bizarre sensation, like there was a foreign object lodged in my throat that i had yet to fully digest. i haven’t addressed it much since, clicking between interviews.docx and thesis.docx, forgetting about everything else that informed my experience. but perhaps a different sort of analysis awaits. i’m not sure what a reflection process is supposed to entail. maybe its just about realizing that something happened and was significant, but its effect might be delayed and hit in waves.

so until i decide to contemplate august through november, i will just continue to muse on my daily life and let those three months marinate. my days in paris have been lovely, as they tend to be. i wake up, run, and write,  working remotely for a Paris-based company reminiscent of Lithium Technologies, my part-time job during college that provided me with ample writing material, from time to time, and some extra cash. i’ve taken up residence at several cafés, each of which provides its own scenery, offering the perfect backdrop for paragraph-izing my tunisian observations. my criteria for the ideal café are as follows: must have wifi, must not serve food (so that i can show up around lunchtime and stay all day just ordering a coffee), must frequently welcome strange characters (typically middle-aged men), and must have large windows.

one day recently i arrived at au chat noir, my number one hangout for both work and play–quiet during the day, cheap coffee, cheap happy hour, and live music at night. i was the first customer to arrive, apparently they only open at 1pm on sundays (i biked by at 12:57pm and was very confused that they were still closed). i ordered my allongé which they serve with a square of dark chocolate (okay, fine, that’s why it’s my favorite hangout. one of the baristas gives me 2 every time, but he wasn’t there that day…) and got to work. customer number 2 was a man in his 70s who walked in and  curiously greeted the empty room with “bonsoir” (good evening), despite the very evident fact that it was indeed afternoon. he sat at the comptoir and ordered a pastis sans glace (no ice!) which he proceeded to consume in a well-spent seven minutes before bidding us “au revoir” (i was anticipating his “bonne soirée,” but maybe he acknowledged his error and opted for a more general “goodbye”) and embarking on his buzzed early afternoon. as i’ve returned numerous times over the last couple weeks, i’ve noticed that he too is a regular, announcing his entrance with an enthusiastic “bonsoir,” posting au comptoir, quickly polishing off his pastis sans glace, and gleefully frolicking off to greet the day. sometimes, a group of men arrives at the bar later in the evening, one of whom clearly dominates the conversation, complaining about his boss, his wife, etc. the others stand by listening, lucky to find a pause to interject. between tunis and paris i’ve had a good time observing what seems to be a camaraderie between men that i never seemed to have observed in the states, or perhaps i just never had the chance, as i certainly spent fewer days solitarily seated in the corners of cafés, occasionally looking up to digest the scene.

after several consecutive days at au chat noir i realized that i was, to a certain extent, becoming monsieur “bonsoir pastis sans glace,” though perhaps more feminine and more in touch with the time of day, reflected in my early-afternoon-appropriate “bonjour un café allongé.” it seemed necessary to find another locale to throw in the mix, lest the people at au chat noir clump me with the other admirably pathetic regulars. so i stumbled upon le carillon, located on the corner of rue alibert and rue bichat in the 10ème, just above the canal st martin. i’ve previously frequented the bar at night time, but recently discovered that they had wifi and, like most dingy bars that are suddenly deemed cool, are fairly empty during the day. so i stationed myself by a window with my laptop, ordered my allongé, and sat down to write. le carillon’s clientele differs from au chat noir’s, offering a strange juxtaposition of what seems to be the maghrebi brigade of paris–a group of rowdy north african men that are all certainly friends with the owner–and occasional appearances by young hip 20-somethings (i belong to the latter category, fyi). it’s strange that i sit in a parisian café filled with maghrebi immigrants, writing in english about their region’s political transitions. it’s a bizarre reflection of globalization and my place in it, i suppose. but what’s perhaps most enjoyable about my observations at le carillon is how continuously surprised the members of the maghrebi brigade appear to be when cute young thangs clad in skinny jeans and denim button-ups enter their daily locale, colonizing the seats on the terrasse while sipping demis of leffe and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. gentrification has an unprecedented ability to put working-class immigrants and yuppies in the same room, reflected in the wave of shock-and-awe that passed over each man’s face when a tall blonde in tight black pants walked in earlier today.

i’ve also never actually heard “inshallah” and “putain” (the rough french equivalent of fuck or damn, used to express both positive and negative sentiments) uttered in the same sentence until now, another inconsistent, contrasting combination of things.

so, at this point, i suppose i’ve been back long enough to decide whether or not my prediction of returning to paris to write my thesis and wallow in my sorrow over three-too-many pastis has proved accurate. i certainly spend my days writing my thesis, in such a surprisingly concentrated manner that my wanderings have been fewer. but there has been limited sorrow to wallow in. as i tend to while here, i find myself in a mixed state of introspection/observation/living/joy that i can’t seem to access anywhere else. i don’t know why paris’ streets, buildings, sounds, and smells and i have some sort of chemical reaction, but i don’t think i’m the only one. the pastis-factor could very well inform this…perhaps one of the other reasons that i am so fond of au chat noir is that, come 6pm, happy hour starts, and their absurdly-large pastis are a mere 2 euros. i’m not sure if they make me especially large ones or what, but i certainly always leave with a renewed sense of optimism about my evening, my week, and, to be honest, my life. sometimes i find myself with an stupid smile on my face and, despite parisians’ general irritated disposition, i occasionally spot people sharing my idiotic complacency. and i feel it too, sometimes, even in the morning, before i am anywhere near pastis (rest assured, it hasn’t gotten to that point).

when i wake up in the morning i open the shutters that cover my windows, and, within the hour that follows, most of my neighbors do the same. i don’t know any of them but there’s something unifying about living in a building with a courtyard. it creates a strange sense of community with my neighbors that i occasionally spy on (to the best of my ability, given that, once again, i rarely wear my glasses). it’s curiously comforting.

tomorrow morning i have to go to the préfécture de police to address a visa issue, because, as usual, my existence here is defined by inexplicable satisfaction and a consistently ambiguous administrative status. i will arrive at 8 in the morning and line up with the sorry masses, because, given my state of bureaucratic limbo, i am not eligible to make an appointment like those more fortunate than i. that’s why i decided to blog today: i figured that, come tomorrow, my positive attitude will be drowned in dark clouds of frustration about the number of hours of my life i have devoted to dealing with immigration papers at the hands of ruthless, impatient, and unkind french bureaucrats. hours of my life that i will never get back. if only my french social security would reimburse me for the countless euros i have spent printing out the novella of documents i’m required to present at every step of my séjour here. i’d be rich, or at least less poor.

i’ll try to quell my anger between tomorrow morning’s event and my next post, unless, of course, my experience reveals itself to be adequate musing material, which it may. stay tuned.

smoothing things over

and the luxury of being settled has arrived.

my apartment is box-shaped with visible wooden beams on the ceiling. the floor is terra cotta and the bathroom is inappropriately large given the whopping 20 square meters the entire place boasts. my windows look onto a courtyard that enables me to creepily spy on my neighbors (and perhaps make optimistic judges about their looks, given that i, once again, never wear my glasses).

tunis is forever ago. paris crushed the whole séjour. it’s strange to think that when you’re somewhere all you can do is be there. this isn’t another endorsement for a bilocation app (really, though i did hear that two guys named Jon Woo and David Goldenstein just dropped out of stanford to start working on it. facebook offered to buy it but they were like naaah, in 5 years we’re gonna get like 4 gazillion bitcoins for this shit!). what i mean is that i think i’m realizing that one of life’s biggest challenges is allowing yourself to embrace a moment while keeping in mind that it will most certainly pass. it’s a delicate balancing act because time is deceptive in its linearity.

and so it passed. there are no more mosquitoes and the streets only occasionally have trash on them (but certainly make up for it in dog shit). there is something strangely comforting about the permanent possibility of leaving, almost as much as the possibility of staying.

i sit at cafés alone and nobody looks at me twice, i order pastis as i write about the rise of salafism in tunisia and munch on salty peanuts that inevitably give me a stomach ache. and here i am, on rue saint sauveur in the 2ème arrondissement, sandwiched in between la super bobo rue montorgueil, which is currently fully adorned in christmas decorations, and the far less boboisé prostitute-lined rue saint dénis. it’s just another beautiful reflection of paris’ density that crams a million things into a tiny little space. rue saint dénis meets a big arch which turns into faubourg saint dénis, full of turkish soup places and my frequently-referenced muslim boucheries that provide me with deliciously greasy five euro roasted chickens. i’m no longer confused and don’t accidentally say “salem” when i enter, though when they talk amongst themselves in tunisian arabic i understand every fifth word (okay, every seventh) and feel inexplicably at ease. it’s peculiar how my tunisian experience, however mixed, left me with a slight smile. when i look back it seems so very far away, and also somewhat strange. strange that i just one day decided to plop down in a tiny country in north africa and live there for three months in a very small colonial-era apartment in the center of town. though i suppose some people do that for their whole lives. non merci.

i’m 15 minutes from the canal saint martin, which these days is barren of apéro-ers lining its quais, but is lovely nonetheless. winter hasn’t fully hit yet but it’s getting there, the air is brisk and a little chilly but i think that i’m still residually warm from tunis. last week i did a mini-internship/training at France24, an international news channel. it was my first window into what life might be like if i lived here as a real person as opposed to as a student. i finally got a glimpse at the “métro-boulot-dodo” (metro-work-sleep) drill that parisians whine about but that i have so conveniently avoided by prolonging my studies (recently i’ve been dabbling with the idea of a phd…perhaps). i’ve also, for the duration of my parisian séjour, somehow successfully avoided taking the métro, by some combination of finding centrally-located apartments and being borderline psychotic in my affinity for walking immense distances. but everyday last week i had to go to issy-val-de-seine, a long journey down the line 8 to balard, the end of the metro line. once the train stops, everyone exits the station in a great exodus towards the tram which offers a tour through paris’ neglected industrial suburbs.

the métro is bizarre. i sit or stand in a corner staring at a bunch of strangers squooshed together in a moving box. everyone looks up or down or sideways, picking at their fingernails or reading a book or sliding their finger up and down their smartphone screens, doing anything they can possibly do to avoid the accidental eye-contact with a stranger. if you catch someone looking at you, you should be scared. something could be wrong. you could be in danger. it’s like one gigantic elevator, that, depending on your destination, lasts 1,000 floors.

what’s strangest about the métro is that, as much as nobody wants to, passengers are inevitably obligated to interact with one another just in order to fit on the train. as soon as you board you’re forced into silent subtle communications that require people to momentarily abandon their proud individualism. that’s what it feels like. a cesspool of individualism. still, you might have to switch places with someone in order to accommodate the older lady boarding the train, or you might have to silently indicate to someone that if they don’t give you a bit of space to grab onto the railing, you will certainly fall down into the crowds of people, plummeting to an unfortunate injury or at least an unpleasant embarrassment.

but what’s even more curious about the parisian aversion to the métro is that the majority of its characteristics resemble those of parisian bars: overheated, overcrowded, unappetizing odors, creepy men. sometimes i even prefer the metro, because at least it’s socially acceptable to listen to my own music in headphones instead of the frequently unfortunate choice of the bartender. the critical difference is that in bars you can pay 5 euros for a pint of beer which will remove your inhibitions just enough to prompt you to pay 5 more for another, and then suddenly it becomes not only acceptable to make eye contact with people but also to strike up a conversation about something nonsensical, with the ultimate goal of perhaps getting lucky. the extent to which context influences what we let ourselves do is quite incredible. a friend once told me that she regularly sees attractive men in the métro but is at a loss regarding how she might approach them. we came up with a list of pickup lines, ranging from blatantly telling a guy that “sérieusement mec, t’es le plus beau dans le métro, certainement sur la ligne 4” (seriously dude, you’re the hottest guy on the metro, certainly on the line 4) to a more subtle “t’as pas ton ticket de métro? tu veux passer avec moi?” (you don’t have a metro ticket? do you want to pass with me?). we had some other ideas about lingering in front of the vending machine while waiting for train and offering to share a kinder bueno candy bar (“parce que j’ai faim, mais pas aussi faim que ça”), but we figured that offering to share food with a complete stranger might come off as a little bit creepy, or at least overbearing. *note: we have yet to test any of these.

jokes aside, it’s an interesting anthropological exercise, as life’s activities tend to be (i’m glad that i spent precious tuition money taking anthropology classes in college when i have since realized that all i needed to do was go outside). sometimes at the end of the day i laugh because our daily gestures are in fact hilarious. i tend to notice this more when i’m in big crowded cities, because everyone’s ridiculousness clashes and merges, melding into one steaming stew of bizarre. the other day i was meeting a friend at the porte saint dénis (the gate i discussed above) and while i waited i noticed an old crazy lady (there is no shortage of them in paris) standing in the middle of a big crowd of pigeons, ranting and screaming about how “les gens s’en foutent des animaux,” about how nobody cares about the animals, les pauvres pigeons. a server at the café en face stood casually looking on, half engaged in his work but participating in her save-the-pigeons soliloquy, interspersing responses between drags of his cigarette. “c’est vrai,” he consoled her. their conversation trailed on for several minutes, his facial expression revealing that he, too, found the whole exchange to be completely absurd, but also normal. his contributions were in complete resignation to the fact that the moment, however ridiculous, was just part of the scene, just another detail on the intersection of faubourg saint dénis and boulevard de bonne-nouvelle. “moi non plus je sais pas quoi faire,” he added, showing his solidarity for the crazy lady’s disappointment upon realizing that she could do nothing to help feed the pigeons. he exhaled smoke. “moi non plus.”

my phone rang, interrupting the mini-pièce-de-théatre that was casually unfolding below the porte saint dénis. i was to meet my friend up the block and abandon the scene. farewell crazy lady, i’m so terribly sorry that the pigeons will go hungry and that nobody cares to help. i admit that i too am part of the problem.

as i walked up the street i looked back, wondering how long la folle du faubourg saint dénis would stand immersed in a swarm of pigeons, holding approximately seven different bags, contemplating human selfishness in the face of the parisian pigeon population’s tumultuous plight.