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.