Thursday, February 14, 2013

Friday, February 08, 2013

Sugar Man

"What he’s demonstrated very clearly is that you have a choice. He took all that torment, all that agony, all that confusion and pain and he transformed it in to something beautiful. He’s like the silkworm, you know, you know you take this raw material and you transform it, and you come out with something that wasn’t there before, something beautiful, something perhaps transcendent something perhaps eternal, in so far as he does that I think he is representative of the human spirit of what’s possible that you have a choice, this has been my choice, to give you “Sugar Man”, now have you done that…ask yourself ?" -Rick Emmerson

Hard to believe it's not fiction. Easily one of the most heartwarming documentaries I have ever seen. Now I need to go buy his music.

His friend, Emmerson, should be a writer. Or something. 

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Cette Vie à La Française

This was taken in Jul 2012. My camera has died since,
making this one of my first and last pictures of life in Paris. 
I just finished listening to an episode of This American Life called "Americans in Paris". This series, along with "Modern Love" of the New York Times, are two habits I haven't been able to break despite no longer living in the United States. They're delicious weekly treats, even if I don't always consume them on schedule.

"Americans in Paris" is an old episode, dating prior to my discovery of the radio program. Despite it being over 12 years old, and despite my not being American, I relate to a number of things in it.

Act One

First, a digression: who knew that David Sedaris was really, really weird? The guy avoided cafes because he was afraid French waiters wouldn't wait on him. That is, he was afraid that they would simply fail to notice his existence. He went on spending sprees (of sorts) because he found that French people were only friendly when he spent money. He doesn't want to go to the Louvre or the Pantheon because well, in short, everybody else does that. While I understand the origin of some of his concerns, I don't follow his actions or lack there of. But I guess you've to be a certain level of quirky to be very funny and accomplished as a writer.

His Parisien world is shaped by people's reaction to his Americanness. If they are nice to him and his rugged French, he will go. Else that part of Paris is dead to him. Can't say my approach to Paris is the same, but every so often (and that's too often) when a French person tries to demonstrate their revelation that, goodness, I gotta start speaking, living, eating immaculate French or-else, I  want to bludgeon them with a baguette till they get the idea that the language French and associated cultural accessories are truly irrelevant to my existence, and that the little French that I speak is for my convenience in the navigation of their country, and not in submission to some grand, pro-French cosmos rule that dictates that to be human, or to be treated like human, one has to speak/be French.

There is a point in the recording when David and Ira are buying butter (at a Picard??), because David's partner had been appalled that Ira ate some low-grade butter with bread. The offending butter was some brand from Brittany. God forbid. I don't know the origin of David's partner, but I'd guess French. Let me digress a bit, but I once met an Italian man in New York who told me he just came from Thailand. He said they have great fish, but they don't know how to cook lobster if their lives depend on it. Even though I do not like fish, I asked him to pray explain. He told me that they took this great lobster, and gave it the same treatment of dousing it in one of their spicy sauces. I was confused, what was the problem. He explained that to truly enjoy fish, one has to cook in such a way that other ingredients do not erase its favor. It has to be pure. So he told me that while he was in Thailand, he started making a habit of ordering lobster and walking into the kitchen to demand that the cook make it the way he liked it. To put it mildly I was appalled. This idiot went all the way to Thailand to insist on eating Italian style lobster, and he thought that was the Thai cooks' fault.

French people do this all the time, where they seem to taste each ingredient to its death. Consequently, I must be one of the few people who finds French food extremely boring. I do recognize the merit of expensive French food, which can be quite nice. But regular French food? After a while, I feel like I'm eating CHid (except crepes, fondue au formage, fondue bourguignonne ... which aren't eaten regularly enough but can be, in their experience alone, quite pleasant)

I suspect that their obsession with their wine originates from this root problem: they taste buds are attuned to too many things that aren't worth noting. In general, I don't like alcohol. I do take wine more often than not owning to its lower alcohol content (and you can hug the glass the entire evening and there won't be some melted ice cube giving away the pour's age), but I find its taste, especially the old-world wine variety, particularly atrocious. I asked for the difference between old and new world wines, and I was told, among other things one major cause for distinction is the type of soil. The soil in France, after hundreds of years of use, grows grapes of a unique "quality" that cannot be replicated in California and Australia. When I took this info and processed it, basically I was hearing that French grapes are malnutritioned. Which might explain the rather strong and unforgiving flavor of their wine, which are so often unpleasant for a first time tasters. One has to be either a masochist (perhaps in the name of achieving refinement) or to have grown up subjected to this sh*t taste since childhood to appreciate that kind of taste. It's like Tella, if you didn't grow on it, you aint acquiring a liking for that stuff!

Normally there shouldn't be anything wrong with obsessing over fine details over one's own culture. The problem with the French is their implicit assumption (which is where they are surprisingly similar to Americans) that their version of values and culture is as refined a culture as you will ever get in any corner of the world. Uh oh.

Act Two

I had no disillusions about wanting to live in Paris, but like my feelings for the US when I first decamped in western Massachusetts  I was rather disappointed by my first experiences of Paris. It's dirty (smells like pee, just like Addis Ababa). Its people are perpetually pissed off (nothing like Ethiopian or American cities).

Paris is indeed pretty, and too often I feel like I'm walking or biking past a postcard. I never know how to respond to people who get too excited when I tell them that I live in Paris. Maybe I'll appreciate it more once I leave. Who knows, like New York, it may be the city that will keep on giving (explained below).

Act Three

She compared being African American in France to being an honorary white person in Apartheid South Africa. As disturbing at that sounds, that is really true. My French accent naturally does not reveal what other languages I speak. My English, at various times in my life has been impacted by Ethiopian, English and American accents. What I have now is a made up accent, whose three components I should technically be able to play up or down (the British one is slipping away).

Every so often when I try to speak French and my intermediate level grammar fails me, I see my French counterpart crawling into this unfriendly, and often unhelpful space reserved for conversations with Africans. That, my dear friends, is the cue for dropping some serious Americanism bombs. 100% nasal, random Hollywood airhead shit, like "oh my gosh, my French is so baaaad!? So, sorry ... let's try this again, okkaaay?!" Serve this up with a big, fake American-service smile and a dose of politeness in a not-so-loud voice. After this magic recipe, unless your particular Frenchie is in a really bitchy mood, you have all the licence to butcher as much French grammar as you like, and the person will probably bend over backwards to help you. It's really bizarre.

I have also come to realize that it is absolutely advantageous to mention that before Paris, I used to live in New York. Just about every French person is in love with NYC, either having visited, or having dreams of visiting. It gets people to loosen up, and gets shit done for me. On the down side, you may hear strange accounts of how they like NYC, because it's so ... comme on dit ... European? Again, here I want to bludgeon them with a baguette. Are they kidding me? NYC is NYC exactly because it is not in Europe, and exactly because it is in the fucking United States of America. In all its problems and perfections, New York is the quintessential American city, made of American dreams, and nightmares, and there is nothing French, or German, or British, or Spanish, or a melange of all these about it.

But I keep my baguettes to myself and let these accounts of eurocentric-NYC pass because you see, New York is the reason I got a Navigo card (regular ride metro ceurard) within the first week of my arrival in Paris, because the guy behind the counter was too engrossed in his story of NYC that he forgot to ask me to show proof of residence (which I didn't have), and god knows what other bureaucracy.  

One day, I will hide a camcorder while I tell a group of French folks that I like Paris rather than the rest of France, because the city is shall I put it ... so American.