samedi, septembre 05, 2009

Souvenir 03: The Welcome Home (with Seuil)

OK, so I'm writing this more than two months after the event itself, but I just had to document one thread of events from the party that I thought was really interesting:

At the party itself, sometime around 2 or 3 a.m., a girl dancing near me approaches and asks, “Hey, are you Luis?” When I say yes, she seems really thrilled and says, “It’s so good to finally meet you! I’m really good friends with O [a friend from France that lives in Chicago now and was co-organizing tonight’s event] and I’ve heard so much about you. I’m Lola.” She’s originally from Poland and I just returned from a year in France and Germany, so we talk a bit about the differences between North America and Europe and the odd situation one can develop of feeling at home in one place while longing for another place. We cross paths occasionally throughout the rest of the party and check in with each other, saying things like “How’re you feeling?” and lightly grasping each other’s shoulders.

The afterparty at a friend’s warehouse loft starts at about 7 a.m. and runs until some ungodly hour that evening (9 p.m., I think). I have a great time and hang out with friends, but eventually I tire and need to get home. I’m still marginally jet-lagged from my return from France, and I’ve spent all week unpacking things and running errands. It’s nearly 2 p.m., I haven’t slept all night/morning, and I was beginning to run out of energy. I make the rounds of the room, saying goodbye to everyone.

As I’m saying goodbye to O., she sees Lola nearby and asks us both, “Do you know each other?”

Lola says, “Of course! We’re best friends.”

Her arm comes up around my shoulder, and my arm winds around her waist. While still facing O., as if we were performing for her, we turn to each other, press our torsos into a half-hug, and reach out with our other arms to rub each others shoulders affectionately. I turn to give her a peck on the check and she turns her head toward me and we end up exchanging a brief peck on the lips.

We had just met for the first time in our lives a few hours ago, and we had hardly said anything to each other after our brief conversation at the party. Nonetheless, something about our encounter made is possible for Lola to claim that we were “best friends,” for me to agree and engage smoothly with her in these gestures of intimacy. It was casual and undramatic, as if we were making observations about the weather rather than claiming a deep, 12-hour-old friendship.

O. smiles with an expression that could be indulgent or bemused or merely pleased, and she says, “Of course.”

(By the way, Seuil’s set, both at the party and the afterparty, kicked major ass.)

mercredi, septembre 02, 2009

On the importance of knickers

A piece of advice on packing and unpacking clothes: do it in your underwear.

Why, do you ask? Because, before sticking yet another 10-year-old shirt or over-worn pair of pants into a box or back on the hanger, you can slip it on and remind yourself why you rarely ever wear it. If the item only barely fits you, toss it aside and donate it to charity. I managed to clear nearly one quarter of my shirts and pants, which is quite the accomplishment for me. Yay, closet space!

mardi, septembre 01, 2009

Confit de Canard in Chicago

Today, I spent most of the day unpacking things with my friends LEO and Peeto. Well, it was mostly LEO who helped, since her workdays were a bit more flexible. Peeto, showed up after work and accompanied us on a trip to Target. Nonetheless, I was pretty impressed with how effective we were today. We got the remaining boxes out of the storage space, unpacked a few more book boxes, and made a run to Target for a few household items that I needed (especially cleaning products and the like).

For dinner, we cracked open a bottle of French wine that I had apparently had the forethought to squirrel away in my storage space before leaving Chicago, and I made the confit de canard that I had brought from France. First, I took the duck thighs out of the can and fried them in a skillet, using just the fat that clung to the meat. Once the meat was heated through and the outside had started to brown and stick to the pan, I removed the meat and threw in some roughly sliced potatoes. Then, I dumped in the remaining fat from the can of confit and let it simmer uncovered until all the liquid had either evaporated or been absorbed by the potatoes. So, in essence, it was a meal made entirely around duck fat.

In my defense, I did make some salad as an appetizer.

lundi, août 31, 2009

Die Unheimliche Heimfahrt

So, the title of this post translates to “The uncanny return home”, but the wordplay only works in German, where both expressions are constructed around the word heim [home]. Anyway, let me explain what made this so uncanny.

After a reasonably uneventful flight back to Chicago, I got off the plane and waited for what felt like an hour before finally going through immigration and customs. In a fit of honesty, I declared that I was carrying wine, confit de canard (duck cooked and preserved in its own fat), and dry sausage. This meant that my luggage got opened up and taken apart by the Department of Agriculture people, who TOOK MY SAUSAGE!!!11! The wine and the duck were OK, apparently, but I wasn’t allowed to bring in the sausage. Well, I learned my lesson: next time, don’t declare anything. I have to go back to France for a few days in late September, so maybe I’ll bring back some raw-milk cheese, too, just to be a badass.

So two friends were waiting for me at the airport (bless their adorable souls), and after making a valiant attempt to say hi to another friend that was leaving for Britain the same day (and running into another set of people), we finally made it to the parking lot and headed out. We drove back to my old apartment—which is still my current apartment. Rather than give up my lease and put all of my furniture and such in storage like I did the last time I went to France—which was super stressful and rather expensive—I decided to put my apartment up for sublease and offer to sublet it furnished for no extra charge. I still put my clothes and books and valuables into a small storage space, but the furniture, kitchen stuff, linens, and hardware stayed. At the last minute before leaving for Europe about 14 months ago, I finally found a lovely Scottish lad that was willing to take my apartment for the full year. He was just moving into town and had nothing to his name but a backpack full of clothes, so the arrangement worked out perfectly.

Now, a bit more than a year later, I was heading back to my apartment, hoping to find my apartment in the same state that I had left it. What I found was far more than I had expected: everything was almost exactly where I had left it 14 months ago. The same bottles of soy sauce and oil that I had left in the pantry were still there, in the same places, the bottoms of the bottles beginning to fuse with the shelves. The bottle of minced ginger in the refrigerator was still there, along with the few jars of Peruvian hot pepper pastes I had left behind. The bags of rice were exactly the same ones I had been using, still half-empty. There was one lonely head of garlic, now completely dessicated.

There were only a few traces of the previous tenant to be found in the house. The bathroom mat—the same one I had left a year ago—had gone from white to mottled grey. The kitchen utensils that stood in a container next to the stove were all sticky with the residue of vaporized oil from a year’s worth of cooking…although I have no idea what he was cooking, considering the same dry goods were in the same places in my pantry. There was a half-empty leather wallet, forgotten on an empty bookshelf, filled with various membership cards and photos of him and his girlfriend, whose long black hairs were still lurking around the apartment. The kitchen’s leaky faucet had clearly sprung a leak one day, as the cabinet under the kitchen sink had taken some water damage and collapsed downward.

For the rest of the day, as we made trips to the storage unit to retrieve boxes and unpack them, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the apartment had remained empty and abandoned for the last 14 months. The most disturbing place for me was the kitchen, where traces of emptiness and activity were layered on top of each other. I obsessively re-washed all of the dishes in my cupboards and tried to scrub the oily residue off of all of my utensils, while trying not to look too long into my time-capsule pantry.

How I Spent My Summer

Well, hello there, stranger! It sure has been a while, hasn’t it? I promise, I have a good excuse for being absent for so long. As you might recall from the spate of tardy posts I made in late May / early June, I had The Never-Ending Stream of Houseguests, which continued right through June (with a weekend jaunt to Berlin, thank you very much). My parents also came into town for two weeks in June to celebrate my birthday, which included dinner at Taillvent! So delicious, and only for the price of one month’s rent! A bargain, really.

Anyway, we had a great time, and even managed to get down to Nantes for a couple of days to visit some friends of the family, where we had some excellent food and wine (of course). After that, I spent about two weeks at the end of June doing an intense set of interviews, which turned into hours and hours and hours of transcription work. I easily spent 8 hours transcribing one hour of interviewing. It didn’t help that I let my interviewees choose the location of the interview and it was summer, which meant that everyone wanted to meet on the patio of a café somewhere, usually facing a noisy street. After the first badly-recorded interview, I switched from my iPod/Griffin iTalk setup to a new Olympus digital Dictaphone, which has served me magnificently ever since.

So I spent 12-14 hours a day working on transcriptions, during some of the hottest days of the summer (35ºC/95ºF), in my tiny attic apartment, with skylight windows and no air-conditioning. I think I lost a few pounds a day just from sweat. I got a break when I went south to visit a friend near Rocamadour, in the Lot region of France (south-west). I would work on transcriptions during the day, and then head out on hikes in the neighboring valleys and fields before dinner. It helped that the days were a bit cooler there and that my friend’s place was an old sheep’s pen, built out of stone and half-embedded into the hillside for natural air-conditioning. Oh, and the food was delicious. Rocamadour is the region that produces Rocamadour cheese, which are these little discs of goat cheese that are just on the border between crumbly and creamy. The south-west in general is the land of everything duck, so there was lots of foie gras and confit de canard (duck cooked in its own fat). And in addition to all of that, it was the tail-end of strawberry season, and the mara des bois type of strawberries were available, which is a variety that resembles Ontario wild strawberries in their sweetness and intensity of flavor. All in all, good times.

I was only in Lot for a few days, then I came back to Paris and kept working away at my transcriptions. For the last two weeks of July, I rented out a room in a flat in Berlin for super-cheap and spent two weeks saying goodbye to my favorite techno paradise. I also treated the trip as a writing retreat, and I have to say that I’m impressed with my self-discipline. I would work on my chapter from 9 or 10am until 5pm, then I’d save everything, close my computer, and head off to meet friends, go for walks, etc. Saturdays and Sundays I did no work and concentrated on just partying hard—to do justice to the Berlin scene.

I came back to Paris at the beginning of August and tried to keep up the same work schedule I had developed in Berlin. Since it was still excruciatingly hot and I had no air-conditioning, I adjusted my schedule a bit. I would get up early and work until noon, then bike over to the Bois de Vincennes and lay out in the sun until the late afternoon, then head back to my apartment and do a bit more work. Sometimes, when I was in a section of my chapter that required less citation and more argumentation, I would bring a notebook with me and just write by hand, later editing and inserting it into the chapter.

By mid-July, I finished a chapter, which was pretty much perfect timing. I sent out the chapter to my committee, partied like a fool over the weekend, and then started planning my return to Chicago. Some things were really simple, like doing a thoroughgoing purge of my wardrobe, cleaning the apartment, and sending some of my books off by mail. Other things were complicated, like arranging the closure of my French bank account when I still needed it to receive my safety deposit from my landlord here.

My friends here gave me a great farewell, including a surprise party at a friend’s place that came with this amazing photo-montage of all of us together made by one of the crew that is a professional graphic designer. I also organized a dinner during my last week here as well as a night out at the clubs that I dubbed “Luis se déchire avant de partir” (Luis gets tore up before leaving). Despite all of my preparations, the final few days were a bit hectic, but I was able to spend my last night in Paris having a pleasant dinner and a bottle of wine with some of my friends. Yay, Paris! As you can imagine, I’m really sad about leaving Paris, even if I’m also thrilled to see my Chicago friends again. Thankfully, the pain was alleviated a bit by the knowledge that I was coming back for a few days later in September. Paris, I don’t know how to quit you.

So you might wonder what I’m going to do with a blog called Luis in Paris, now that I’m no longer in Paris (well, I’m writing this from the airport in Paris, but you see what I mean). I’ve been wondering, too. Much like while I was in Berlin, I’m hoping to keep posting about my nighttime adventures and so on while I’m in Chicago, although the frequency of my party notes will vary according to my teaching workload. Also, once in awhile, I’ll post little anecdotes or short observational essays about France and Paris; little fragments that never made it into my day-to-day postings in Paris.

For example, take these pictures:

These are the little paper bags that most grocers at Paris’s open-air markets and corner shops use to sell you tomatoes, mushrooms, bananas, and pretty much anything that fares better in paper bags than plastic. I’m kinda fascinated by the images that are printed on them. In one, you have this rather simple collection of fruits, vegetables and flowers. On another, you have this basket character with an insane grin on his face, stuffed full of the same groceries. On another, you have a mixture of fruits with a palm tree looming in the background. What’s interesting is that all of these conspicuously present at least one “exotic” fruit—that is, a product that isn’t grown naturally in France. In the first image, the pineapple dominates the image from the center; in the second, the half-kiwi is one of only two items that is not in the basket; in the third, you have both the banana and the pineapple, not to mention the palm tree. Considering that most Parisians (at least the middle-class and bohemiain-bourgeois folks I know) tend to place a lot of value on products in season and grown locally, it’s an odd contrast that the bag designs used by the grocers of Paris features exotic fruit prominently. Anyway, I’m going to miss these bags, which I would re-use to store my garlic, steam-peel peppers, and preserve cut vegetables.

Stay tuned for upcoming stories of Luis’s return to Chicago!