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.

 

 

february

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.

 

plus ça change…

plus c’est la même chose.

for the troisième fois i embarked on the search for housing in paris france. and for la troisième fois, i dove head first into the agonizing process of running around frantically, constantly refreshing the page on particulier-à-particulier and desperately trying to convince stubborn landlords that my lack of french nationality does not automatically render me a crook, threat to national security, flight risk, or bad tenant. i think this time around i saw at least 20 apartments. the pages of my planner in november 2013 resemble those from august 2012 and 2009: lists of addresses, phone numbers, door codes, stairwell numbers, and metro stations, all mapping out my daily dance around the city in search of a home. and while i handled the early days of the process with perhaps more grace than i had in the past, frustration, feelings of desperation, hopelessness, and anger took over me, as they tend to, with my fingers crossed for so many apartments that i’m surprised they’re not permanently mangled. like always, landlords failed to show up to planned visits. i created elaborate hopes to find my dream apartment based on the way its described in the listing, only to find a dark hole in a dilapidated building for 800 euros a month. and as always, i leave, sigh, and find refuge in the fact that, despite all the annoyances, it’s not really bad at all. because i’m still in paris.

and with that, i was offered an apartment last friday. in belleville, oh belleville, one of my favorite neighborhoods, filled with delicious restaurants, home to café chéri(e) and to the endless lineups of asian prostitutes, consistently dressed to impress in business casual (really, though). but the apartment wasn’t perfect, of course, because it was on the 1er étage and was sort of dark, drab. so in typical karina fashion, i had to keep looking. i think that, as tumultuous as the apartment-search process is, i become addicted to it once it starts. i get overwhelmed with parisian apartment fever. it takes over me. as i walk the streets i peer into others’ apartments, wondering if their windows are double-pained or whether or not the floor is hardwood or carpet or tile. how high are their ceilings? are there exposed beams? do they get morning or afternoon sunlight? am i losing my mind?

yes, karina. you lost your mind long ago. your ability to maintain rational distance from anything paris-related is a remnant of the past. you are, from the moment you arrive in paris, a complete lunatic.

but all that’s okay. because i found an apartment that i liked even better, so once again my tireless obsessiveness served me well. i will move in this weekend, to a cozy sunlit studio with exposed beams and a mezzanine bed, in the 2nd arrondissement, smack dab in the middle of the good ol’ 75 and just footsteps away from everything i want all at once. because i once again realized that if i lived in belleville my happiness about being in belleville would soon be challenged by my longing for being in another neighborhood. i am consistently disappointed by the reality of my inability to be in multiple places at once. i think this really needs to be worked on. stanford grads, can we get started on creating a bilocation app? i would invest.

and so my return evolves, as it does. last night it occurred to me that i had only been back for barely three weeks, yet it felt like i had never left. my enthusiastic leap out of charles de gaulle and into the rer seems like ages ago. now i’ve slipped right back into a comfortable readaption, blended into the cold, readjusted my red wine consumption, and walked many streets contemplating my existence. it does not feel like i was gone for five months, and when people ask me if i’m happy to be back i stall, entering a three-second-dig into my brain to figure out where i was before, or whether or not i ever left. it’s strange, it’s similar to the dream i had once i was back in davis after studying abroad where i saw myself suddenly back in my old studio, only to find a shower caked over in dust, but couldn’t seem to understand how it had all accumulated between my arrival and departure, nor could i place whether or not i had ever left, or when, if i had indeed left, my departure occurred in relation to my arrival.

it only gets complicated when i try to think about it. but considering my propensity for long walks and introspection, i frequently fall victim to such aimless mental exercises.

i’m currently at la chope de chateau rouge, my new favorite café du quartier. their coffee is cheap and the bartenders are friendly, casually chatting with locals as they slink in, greeting 11am with a pastis and noon with a verre du vin. the beaujolais nouveau, a new wine that comes out every year, was released last week and is currently only 2,50 a glass, but like every year, i’m always puzzled by the very disappointing discrepancy between the hype surrounding its arrival and its taste. the beaujolais is not good. it’s never very good. and i am no connaisseur of wine but i know for certain that the headache i wake up with every year in mid-november can only be from an arbitrarily celebrated fermented grape product. but alas.

i arrived at la chope around 11 and shift between sifting through my interviews from tunis, trying to map out my thesis, and observing the mostly middle-aged male clientele that enters, greets the bartenders and proceeds to perch at the bar, oscillating between espresso and rosé. the cement-colored buildings outside almost look like sketches against the uniformly gray sky. they’re not going to be colored in. it’s all so typical and caricatural, these things that inform stereotypes of paris, but somehow come to life when you sit and stare at them for hours on end. the café has some sort of mixed soundtrack that consists of the slow jazz playing in the background, the intermittent slamming of espresso pucks and the fuzzy sound of coffee brewing. add to that the periodic “allongé s’il vous plait”s that have more recently blended into “demi de leffe”s as it is indeed 3pm and early apéro is in full-gear on rue de clignancourt. the afternoon’s onset adds a chattery buzz, perhaps as people get off work (?), or as those au chômage wake up and come to enjoy their late morning beverages, grace à the government’s generous unemployment package.

either way its just perfect to watch the day unfold at la chope de chateau rouge, the man next to me reading and calmly annotating some spinoza book and others seemingly discussing what seems like a business project but could very well be an early draft of a script for a play. montmartre is a silly mixture of things, and this café is a snapshot of its mixed composition, its free internet bringing in occasional student-esque looking people or perhaps freelancers or aspiring novelists who sit next to old algerian men who have now moved onto red wine (3:10pm), who share conversations but simultaneously read newspapers and occasionally stare out the window.

la saga avance

this retour is sweeter than all the others.

i landed at 2pm on tuesday. i sprinted off the plane, flew through customs and baggage claim and hopped onto the rer with a smile so big that the other passengers certainly thought i was a lunatic. it is genuinely possible that no other soul has ever been so overwhelmed with pure glee while on the rer. my enthusiasm did not wear off as i powerwalked through gare du nord, practically running with my insanely overweight suitcase (fyi: no security at tunis airport. none. al qaida in the maghreb, vas-y, la tunisie is ALL YOURS) to transfer to the line 4 and head towards chateau rouge, where i will be spending the next couple weeks until i secure a logement permanent.

my pace did not slow. i exited the metro and took a deep inhale of the seasonally appropriate brisk parisian air, looking around and relishing in my seconds of reuniting with my only true love. the movement, the noise, the energy–it all hit me at once, consumed me. i felt reinvigorated, restored from my five month hiatus. and i was only 30 seconds in.

i stopped to observe the scene that surrounds the chateau rouge metro stop in the 18th arrondissement: a chaotic crowd of paris’ west african diaspora, selling everything from corn to peanuts to sunglasses to cell phone chargers. i turned left, walked up rue poulet, turned up clignancourt and made a quick right on rue muller, where i would be retrieving my keys from a friend. upon taking off my headphones, the first words i heard were not in french but in tunisian arabic, “lébes, ca va?” (tunis can i quit you?). i laughed to myself, punching in the code to the beautiful ancien immeuble and home of my dear friend scout and her boyfriend, andrew. i ran up the stairs to the 4ème étage and greeted andrew with what he later described to scout as “the most enthusiastic i’ve ever seen karina…seriously, i didn’t know she could abandon her cynicism for so long.” but i had. my pure joy was inexplicable. in the worlds of my father, the wisest person i’ve ever known, “paris is an elixir. it brings life where it doesn’t exist.” and it’s precisely that. it has a healing and revitalizing power rivaled perhaps only by coffee or red wine. and i’m sorry hemingway, but i think the beauty and accuracy of my father’s statement threatens your “moveable feast” analogy. just putting it out there.

and it is that reentry to paris that has characterized my last few days, overwhelmed with a restored sense of purpose, belonging and relevance to the world that i suppose had felt lost. the best part about all this–i realize in writing it down–is how ridiculous it is; it’s not like my last several months have been devoid of meaning. quite the opposite: i discovered a new city, new country, new culture. i learned unprecedented amounts about a political transition that interests me. i made new friends, challenged myself, worked in new environments with new people. but there’s something about paris, something that permits it to succeed in making every other experience look frail and insignificant, or at least less important. when i’m in paris i feel great, i feel important. i feel pretty. i feel like each step i take is worthwhile. this is completely arbitrary and absurd, and i’m almost embarrassed to be writing all of these things, but i also can’t help myself. because all i’m trying to do here is document the way my life goes down.

on wednesday morning i woke up at 730, tired but too excited to go back to sleep. i slipped on heels, shamelessly applied lipstick and headed to a patisserie. perusing all the delicious treats i had to contain myself, continuously telling myself that no, karina, it is not okay for you to consume four pastries for breakfast, and if you do so, you will not feel good. i settled for one delicious pain au chocolat, but during that time prior to ordering i felt like a child, wanting to eat all the treats, but i also felt like a mother who tells her child that no, he can’t actually eat all of those things. it was this strange tiraillement between knowing better and being overtaken by my impulsive desire to eat all the things. i suppose it’s that strange in-between-ness that defines 24 years old: knowing better but wanting worse.

my initial feelings of inexplicable excitement have transformed into pure joy that borders on comfortable complacency. the usual constraints that characterize my arrivals in paris have already been taken care of; i already have a bank account, cell phone plan, and at least a temporary place to stay that allows me to delve into the apartment hunting process calm and collected. i have a couple visits set up for next week, but for some reason i don’t think i’ll find myself in too dire of a situation this time around. perhaps it’s age, or maybe experience, or it could just be that it’s not la rentrée and the september masses of students aren’t swarming every studio under 800 euros a month in every corner of this city. or maybe it’s just that i’ve realized how to do things without them exploding into a big deal.

my reintegration into parisian glory is unfolding with the knowledge that this could potentially be my last séjour in this magnificent city (the realization that, after grad school, i might have to make decisions based on employment rather than desire–part of the whole mid-twenties internal mother/child conflict). so with that in mind, i’ve taken it upon myself to fulfill some unsatisfied wantings. yesterday i dropped off a CV (mind you, a french CV–which includes a photograph, regardless of how unethical this might be by american standards) at café chéri(e). i figured that at this point i’ve spent so much time there over the last several years that i might as well get paid for it. i’m waiting for a call back, but the girl seemed pretty confident. so perhaps i will be café chéri(e)’s next serveuse; this might be my opportunity to truly bond with the resident crazy lady once and for all. it will be glamorous.

this time around, my relationship with the city that keeps giving continues to blossom, as it tends to. i’m currently living in a neighborhood i don’t know too well, one that is constantly changing. apparently paris, in all its glory, is by no means immune to gentrification and what i consider to be a ridiculous disintegration into brooklyn-inspired hipster culture that i think i need to just make my mission to avoid at all costs. yesterday on one of my standard walks i found myself walking up a rue du faubourg poissionière now lined with shiny colorful shops selling cupcakes, bagels, and cheesecake, yuppies in costume lingering in unnecessary lines to pay 13 euros to eat something trendy. the canal saint martin has been similarly overcome by what i consider to be obnoxious additions, like a hyper-hip fish and chips place that had rue des vinaigriers swarming with hungry hipsters.

and now i find myself at café lomi on rue marcadet in the 18ème, which all my friends had insisted i go to because the coffee is allegedly so good. i’m in northern paris on a bleak boulevard lined with colorful graffiti, nearing the péripherique, surrounded by parisians who have recently discovered the wonders of kale salad, scones, les cookies, and, of course, le fameux carrot cake that has now taken up standard residence at this genre du café à la newyorkais. trop brooklyn. franchement i’d trade in my free trade café filtre for a shitty parisian espresso just to feel like i still lived in a place that i had glorified to be immune to my generation’s obnoxious tendencies. the 10th is hardly cool anymore because it’s become too cool, as all the true bobos move further north towards marcadet poissionier, jules joffrin, and lamarck clignancourt. but i think i’ve conquered the aspect of paris that made me feel sickly anxious, that made me feel constantly incapable of taking it all in at once, the fear that i was missing out on something happening one place every time i was somewhere else. it’s like in one fell swoop of a 5-month hiatus i became décomplexée, i shed it all off. i can’t say the same for the tattoo-covered barista encouraging customers to opt for le carrot cake over le coffee cake, however. he’s on his own.

my séjour in tunis is already long-gone and the seven minutes of sun and blue sky that i woke up to this morning quickly vanished into a rainy gray that is, as always, the perfect background to paris. yesterday i walked from my apartment through the goutte d’or neighborhood, passing through an eclectic mix of senegalese, camerounian and north african butchers and grocery stores that, curiously enough, make me feel even more comfortable being in paris than the manicured streets of the marais. i headed towards belleville, dropped off my CV at café chéri(e), treated myself to a magical bahn mi sandwich, walked down towards the marais, saw a “for sale” sign on my former apartment, and headed back up towards montmartre, stopping at a café by gare du nord when the rain got a heavier and my feet told me it was time to stop being so abusive. paris is so beautiful in the rain. it really just is.

this morning i checked out the marché alimentaire at barbès-rouchechouart, right near my current place of residence. and as i pushed through the initial influx of chaos i realized that, as much as i insist i’m attached to eastern paris, any neighborhood would be just fine by me. the barbès marché makes belleville’s seem like switzerland, a village in crisis taken to a new level. i keep finding myself tempted to speak the few words of arabic i picked up in tunisia because sometimes it seems like i haven’t really left, except here the infrastructure is better and the diversity doesn’t prompt everyone to insist that i’m north african. but really, if i took a few snapshots, one could be fooled.

so i’ve returned to a paris that is occasionally williamsburg and other times tunis or algiers, but that is, at the end of the day, still absolutely parisian. but i think that it’s time for me to acknowledge that as much i want the city to exist in some timeless wonderland, absolved from trends emerging “aux states” that diffuse globally in under sixty seconds, paris is also vulnerable, dynamic, subject to change and evolution. but what’s great and comforting is that even as new neighborhoods emerge in “up-and-coming” areas, fully clad in cafés à la newyorkais and denim-adorned, ramones-t-shirt-wearing (seriously, when did the ramones become a symbol for hip? have any of you ever listened to the ramones?) 20somethings eating 5 euro carrot cake, the brasseries, bistrots, and boulangeries remain. the old soulards haven’t budged from the comptoir of bars, starting their day right with an 11am pastis. cafés still have regulars and old men still enjoy long lunches over pichets of wine. so once again, paris is doing it right, managing to maintain its charm and defend its authenticity against a global proliferation of carrot cake.

 

and, by the way, paris has trash cans, though the other day i was genuinely tempted to litter.

 

final countdown

my final days in tunis have begun.

and while i thought i had secured an apartment in paris for the 1st of december, i recently learned that my plans had fallen through. so i will, once again, be roaming the streets, frantically searching for a place. but this time it will be winter, and it will be cold. and beautiful. and crisp. and luckily, there will still be pastis, which will also be cold. and beautiful. and crisp.

i suppose it is no surprise that things just got complicated again. after all, it would be uncharacteristic of my overall paris experience to have something like the perfectly located, furnished, beautiful apartment just handed to me on a plate. that would be far too simple, and would undoubtedly have given me much less to blog about. but it is indeed quite un vrai dommage. in the back of my mind i think i knew that i would have to dive head first into the process once again. and so it goes. and so it will be. pap.fr, mon ancien ami, prepare for us to reunite. it will be tumultuous. as things tend to be. the experience will, as it has been in the past, provide great writing material, as they all do.

and it was with this version of paris on the horizon that i entered my last weeks in tunis. i’ve recently had the opportunity to get out of the city and explore a little, facilitated by louages, or shared taxis that cost next to nothing and take you pretty much anywhere you’d like to go. i stayed on a friend’s farmhome in the middle-of-nowhere, hiked mountains, and explored caves. i spent aid al adha with a another friend’s family in bizerte, got to witness the ritual sacrifice of a lamb, which i proceeded to ritually consume. i’ve seen different beaches across tunis’ northern coastline, continued to eat more fruit (though sadly figs are out of season), and almost successfully ridded myself of my strange stomach ailment, though i think some tests might be necessary upon my return to france. my overall improved ability to properly digest has enabled me to try more tunisian food, which is notably distinguished by its unprecedented use of oil and hot peppers (and no, this isn’t really a “french paradox” situation: tunisians are not particularly thin or fit). i must say that as delicious as these things are, i think i’ve had enough salata mechouia (a blended combo of roasted peppers, tomatoes, spices and OIL) to last me for the rest of my life. really, about oil usage: when you drive through the country, people on the sides of the road sell gigantic 1,5 litre water bottles, filled.with.oil. it is possible that my three months here have shaved some years off my life, though i can’t say my parisian indulgences are much healthier. oh well. i’ll eat kale at some point before i die, maybe.

the summer has not faded, with temperatures rarely dropping below 30 celcius, 80 fahrenheit (have it be known that i continuously misspell that word, despite the obscene number of times i have written about the weather). only over the last few days have temperatures dipped to tolerable. last night i even wore a cardigan. it felt good.

i’ve mentioned this before, but each of my experiences here only seems to further bolster my claim that this city/country operates under a general haze of chaos. over the weekend a friend and i went to korbous, a beautiful coastal town with hot springs. over the last couple of weeks she and i discussed how i needed to go to a hammam, a spa/steam room/public bath. she had told me of the beautiful ones in her hometown, bizerte. in korbous we decided we’d check one out, only to realize upon entering that it was a hammam populaire, apparently synonymous with an inferno of chaos and saggy naked women battling for buckets and hot water. it was like an underground war zone of undesired nudity. the floors were covered in hair and the women were essentially clawing at one another in order to obtain the necessary means to scrub themselves. we left unrelaxed and feeling dirtier than ever.

and so i think that i am certainly ready to leave. my research came to a natural pause as deputies became less and less available, as the three-month-long political impasse has finally been broken by a national dialogue that started a couple weeks ago. the security situation is getting volatile and everyone is pointing fingers at everyone else. over the last few weeks: the police killed an alleged terrorist who just turned out to be some kid driving drunk. ennahda’s offices in different regions of the country were attacked; confrontations between extremist salafists and national guard soldiers left 9 dead. a man blew himself up in front of a hotel in sousse, an attempted attack just afterwards was thwarted by the police. 

bref, ça chauffe. and paris is waiting. a room in an apartment in montmartre that i will rent by the week until i find something permanent is calling my name. the streets are waiting to be roamed. t’en fais pas paris, j’arrive.

over the last couple weeks i think i entered a state of ultimate delirium and longing, where i’ve literally started fantasizing about paris in my waking life and drifting off into strange work-related thoughts when i go to sleep. it’s sick. one day i came home from work, napped for two hours and spent the entire time dreaming about truth and reconciliation commissions and victims of torture and some sort of conference that took place in a hotel in tunis, where they served melon and pomegranate.

i woke up feeling confused and, as usual, overheated. i took a cold shower and went to bar l’avenue, drank some celtia with friends and then headed over to the jfk, another bar in the neighborhood. i was well into my celtia consumption and found myself in a rare situation where the two people i was with were deeply immersed in exclusively arabic with some bar-randoms, enabling me to, for the first time since i’ve arrived, sit in a public space, slowly sip my beer and just devour the smokey scene without having to share my thoughts or smalltalk with anyone. all the men, all the noise, all the smoke, all the chaos. and then suddenly i turned inward. there’s something about crowded environments that facilitates introspection, something about being small and solo in a big sea of intoxicated socializing that sends me straight into deep contemplation mode.

and so i mentally drifted into the blur of these last three months in tunis. for the first time, i am certain that my arrival seems like ages ago. that everything has changed since the evening i stepped off the plane into 40 degree evening humidity and arrived at my hotel, confused and unsure of whether or not i could go outside. those first few days where i wandered around trying to navigate tunis’ streets, appalled by all the leering and tsstsst-ing and trash, bashfully handling my empty ice cream cups and still looking for actual dried fruit at the “fruits secs” vendors, who actually just sell nuts. a whirlwind of three months, filled with questionable decisions, excessive harisa consumption, friends, enemies, crazy new insight into a political situation that i once that thought could be understood from afar.

and in this daydream it occurred to me that my retour à paris would be different this time, that i would be going back to paris, as my home base, picking up where i left off, getting out of my three-month tunisian adventure and getting back on track in…paris. it occurred to me that my decision to galavant around the world as a permanent state of existence might mean that i should consider reassessing my constant residence in an alternate reality. i think i’ve been under the impression that residing outside of the united states absolves me from the “rules,” that because i am a stranger in a strange land i can run my own show, indulge my impulses and test my arbitrarily imposed boundaries. and it’s been great. there’s something to be said for a state of mind that facilitates the active undertaking of bad decisions. it’s rare, and important. last night (or early this morning), after hours of dancing at tunis’ coolest hipster bar, le plug, i asked a friend of mine–an american journalist who has been living here for about the same amount of time as i have–if he ever felt like an asshole for living so far away from home. all the time, he said. we agreed. do you think you’ll regret it? yep, he responded dryly. do you think it’s worth it? i think so. we agreed. and so we decided that there is no such thing as a wholly good or bad decision, and that each ends up being the other, eventually.

today, my second to last day in tunis, i went to the marché central to say goodbye to my favorite vendors, get a last bag of my favorite olives (and kindly tell the olive vendor that, unfortunately, i am engaged), and grab some spices to take with me back to paris. when the afternoon rolled around i took my last walk through sunday’s deserted medina. dusky haze started to set in around 5pm, i looped in and out of windy ruelles lined with blue doors and blue windows, circled back to place halfaouine, one of the first neighborhoods i encountered during my initial tunisian walking expeditions. i turned towards avenue bourguiba, passed la porte de france and started walking towards place barcelone. the pre-sunset dimness combined with my neglected myopia (seriously, when will i wear my glasses?) lent itself to an overall fog over tunis that made the whole city seem like it was fading away. it seemed very appropriate.

my sister asked me if i was going to miss tunis.

i think that my answer has to be no (other than the femme de menage at work–amel, i will miss you. sahmahni, i’m sorry that i didn’t get mariée fi tounes. maybe next time. this city has no shortage of ineligible bachelors, so if i’m ever in a rut…).

but that doesn’t mean that, in any way, do i regret anything about coming here. and in every way am i wiser than i was before getting here. objectively. it’s just a thing. it’s true.

also, i think my stomach is finally better. and i ended up making a couple friends that i think i’ll keep.

so in just 48 hours i’ll be back for yet another retour à paris, inshallah. it’s been a long five months. it’s going to feel damn good to get off that plane. the brisk november air. the buildings. the streets. the clouds. the inexplicable energy. i feel a little ball of electricity building up in my chest. AH! and best of all, i have this crazy feeling that as soon as i step off of the RER, i’m going to get a piece of myself back. it’s a bizarre premonition, but i think it’s what awaits.

i’ll let you know how it goes.