Parisians, I have discovered, know what to do with their hair. It is tucked behind their ears, perfectly combed, tied into a bun, with just a touch of spray or gel to hold it together. It is held, exactly in its place, by a perfectly positioned pin. It is styled. It is precisely shorn.
All Parisians, regardless of short-sightedness, have agreed to wear roundish, geometrically shaped glasses. They stride purposefully to and fro across their city in fashionably hideous sneakers, perfectly pressed tee-shirts, and blouses. They will probably not stop to talk to you, or even to regard you. They have places to be. They are constantly sipping coffee or clinking glasses of wine at one of six-trillion round white brasserie tables that dot the sidewalks here.
Hello again! It is Sasha Goldstein. It’s October, and despite all odds I’m still in Paris. Moreover, in recent weeks I have become acutely aware of certain things — things that never felt important before: the unruly blond hydra atop my head; the inevitable wrinkles that permeate my clothing; the facts of my beat-up shoes — there are holes (holes!) in their cloth uppers, and while they may have been white in pre-historic times they are now stained a mottled, splotchy grey. They are a pax upon my feet.
The precise French stylishness, which I obviously do not share an affinity for, extends to everything here. It is both accidental and intentional. A palpably radical vibe emanates from the hewn cobblestone roads and patchwork pavement, towering gothic churches, street art, enormous Versace billboards and relics of art-nouveau and avant-garde littered about — an amalgamation of layers upon layers of social, cultural, and actual construction. But the French, knowing they’ve had a good thing going, have erected an empire of “fashionably cool” atop this bedrock in the form of innumerable wine bars, restaurants, boutiques, and other such establishments. The density has given rise to a near-hyperbolic level of fragmentation and invention among mercantile institutions, one that only occurs at such scales. Some favourites: a bookstore selling “Mooks" (magazines published in book format); a sandwich shop specializing in gourmet Arayes (fried, stuffed pitas from Jordan); a gym built inside an old church, complete with stained-glass; a cafe operating out of small room, smooshed between two adjacent business, that was once a cordonnerie (boot repair shop).
Everything, from shop signage to hospitals to government office buildings, effuses aesthetic, as if some royal decree centuries ago forbade anything or anyone to be ugly or boring. This wouldn’t actually be out of character. The French regulate with a fervour unmatched by mortals elsewhere on this planet. They regulate radio music. They regulate grape harvest. They regulate the precise weights of their baguettes. They regulate their swimwear. They regulate vacations. They regulate their language. They regulate regulate regulate, with a special intensity, the ingress and egress of anything or anyone born outside of France. If it exists, the French regulate it.
100% fact: In the airspace above the wine-producing village of Chateauneuf du Pape, it is illegal to fly a UFO. After a man in the 1950s reported that he saw two figures emerge from a cigar-shaped UFO, the mayor passed a law forbidding any aliens to fly above the town. This law remains in place today. If you are wondering what they put in the drinking water out there, you are not alone.
The Fucking Croquembouche
Life here is full of circular logic that must be side-stepped rather than met head-on: upon my arrival to France I was denied a SIM card because in order to purchase one I needed to supply record of a French utility service, which I couldn’t set up without a French phone number.
After days of head-scratching and attempts to establish utility accounts, I happened into another telecom shop down the road, where the salesman barely even glanced up from his Nintendo Switch before selling me a card. I was out the door in 5 minutes.
There is a French aphorism that translates loosely to “if being ridiculous was a crime we’d all be in jail” and most of the French I have met seem painfully aware — even apologetic — of the abundant paradoxes, double negatives, and absurdities embedded in their way of life. From afar, French society always seemed to me dignified and resolute, maybe a little lofty, but up close the ethos seems to wobble on a knife’s-edge between pride, conviction, bemused apathy and chagrin. There is an insistent belief in greatness here, yet there is also a sincere, almost melancholic acknowledgement, any time the subject surfaces, that much of this greatness was born of another age; pining for la belle époque seems to be as popular here as commenting on the weather (the waxing and waning of the French empire is a fascinating subject, and one that explains much about the French themselves).
Of course, you would have to be blind to ignore the cultural legacy of this country, and many of France’s artefacts have become so entrenched in the cultural production of the world that we don’t even realize they were born here: Modern dining, existentialism, wine, feminism, and modern cinema can all be traced back to France at some point or another. Even the declaration of independence was based on ideas imported from Paris. John Oliver summed it up perfectly in a short bit following the 2015 Paris Attacks:
If you are in a war of culture and lifestyle with France, good fucking luck. Go ahead, bring your bankrupt ideology. They’ll bring Jean-Paul Sartre, Edith Piaf, fine wine, Gauloise cigarettes, Camus, camembert, madeleines, macarons, Marcel Proust and the fucking croquembouche. You just brought a philosophy of rigorous self-abnegation to a pastry fight, my friend.”
Such cultural riches, both past and present, supply no end of opportunities for entertainment. I was perusing a small, unassuming gallery space recently and nearly fell over when the gallerist told me, yawning, that the small clay vase I had ambled past about twelve times so far was a Picasso. I also spent a few joyful hours observing the outrageous circus/spectacle/bedazzling extravaganza that is Paris Fashion Week. While I am by no measure important or well-connected enough to have been invited to any of the actual events, I discovered to my delight that the general Parisian rabble have turned spectating at the entrances and exits of runway shows into a sport. From the balustrades above the courtyard of the stately Palais du Tokyo, we watched, for nearly an hour, processions of elaborately-festooned socialites bristling with self-importance jostle to pose for throngs of paparazzi and camera-wielding fans. My favourite thing about the whole ordeal was how, from our vantage point above the frenzy, we could see the rest of Paris going about its evening, completely oblivious to the empires of influence being created and destroyed beneath our gaze.
Headcheese for dinner
Of course, in the context of arts I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the food here. It is excellent, but to say that food in France is excellent is such a reductive statement it is almost criminal. The food is not merely excellent… it is everything. Bien-étre (literally: well-being, but probably better translated to “lifestyle”) is the center of the French universe, and living well here revolves around egalitarian, abundant, and widespread access to good food. Really, really good food. This is not just an ideology or aspiration as it remains in the United States, but a dictate enforced by laws (of course) and embraced by culture. From my small studio apartment in the north-eastern corner of the city, I can throw a stone at six produce markets, two wine shops, a cheese shop, a butcher, three grocers, three pâtisseries (pastry shops), and three boulangeries (bakeries), each carrying the type and quality of products that only exist in high-end, expensive North-Americans food boutiques. I do not live in a monied area — Paris’s 20th arrondissement is decidedly working class — and yet, I can stroll into any shop and, for a few euros, fill my kitchen with enough beef tongue, tripe, chorizo ibérico, fresh bread, pasta, straight-from-the-farm produce, raw cheese, and goat or sheep’s-milk yogurt to feed a legion of starving sumo wrestlers.
Of course, there are good reasons for such abundance. France is blessed with fertile soil, plenty of arable land, and moderate weather. But more importantly, they have venerated, enshrined and coddled own agricultural (and gastronomic) institutions since the middle-ages. Long before America began swindling itself out of the nutrition and flavour with commercial feedlots, GMOs, and ultra-refined grains, France was developing small-scale, seasonal farming practices, levying protections on traditional preservation methods, and developing social and economic value systems to support its farms, fields, and the people who worked them. French lords were status-signalling with extravagant meals prepared by highly trained cooks, and French writers were publishing elaborate books of recipes long before Columbus began massacring natives in the New World.
All of this adds up to a country that has enjoyed centuries of the kind of cultural and political support for food that Americans have only developed in the past decade, without the headwinds of already-embedded, politically powerful mass-agriculture and chemically addictive fast-food. French children grow up eating veal and beef cheek in their public school cafeterias, and then become French adults who don’t bat an eyelid at the pig’s head for sale in their local grocery store. This is wonderful and in many ways edenic, no matter where your opinions lie on the question of headcheese for dinner.
Upon This Rock
I have been reading some illuminating memoirs — David Chang’s Eat a Peach (insightful first-person account of the birth of the Momofuku/Chang empire), Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw (sequel to the famed Kitchen Confidential and fascinating ex-post account of the publishing career it flung him into), Eric Ripert’s 32 Yolks (chilling chronicle of exactly how maniacal and F’d up some of chefdom's most celebrated figures were in the 90’s/early aughts), Marcus Samuelson’s Yes, Chef (I think you can detect a theme here), alongside a smattering of other food and restaurant-related books. I have also put down Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life (my second read, but it may as well be my first — such is Annie’s mastery of prose and penchant for spinning a yarn out of pure blissful nothingness) for just long enough to pick up a collection of essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan called Pulphead. On the latter: I am floored. Stunned into submission. I can’t believe I am just discovering Sullivan now, and feel foolish for my blindness. He is a masterful storyteller, a bit of a cowboy, and exactly the kind of writer I love most; honest, unabashed, intelligent and thoughtful, disarmingly casual, yet so emphatically hilarious he has me laughing out loud as I read.
One snippet of his prose, taken from an essay titled “Upon This Rock” — a story about the author’s visit to a huge Christian Rock Festival — pure comic excellence:
The reason twenty-nine feet is such a common length for RVs, I presume, is that once a vehicle gets much longer, you need a special permit to drive it. That would mean forms and fees, possibly even background checks. But show up at any RV joint with your thigh stumps lashed to a skateboard, crazily waving your hooks-for-hands, screaming you want that twenty-nine-footer out back for a trip to you ain’t sayin’ where, and all they want to know is: Credit or debit, tiny sir?
In other news, I have just begun my second semester of training here in Paris. I am roasting whole racks of lamb, shelling langoustines, peeling potatoes, and studying scallops. Did you know that scallops have beards? Neither did I. Did you know that you can make scallop stock out of those beards? And that you can spoon said stock into scallop shells, thusly cooking your scallops in their own beard-broth? It is almost sadistic. It is too much for my lunkish brain to handle.
I am also learning some things about wine, trying to carve out time for extracurricular practice (nearly impossible), and beginning work on another literary project, which I hope to be ready to announce by next month.
Until then — á bientôt,
P.S. A letter from E.B. White to the children of Troy, on libraries.
P.P.S. In case you’re wondering, good headcheese is fantastic. It’s essentially a terrine; herby, gelatinous, melt-in-your-mouth-porkiness, often served with very nice spicy, rustic mustard. If you can find it, I highly recommend a taste.