Category: solipsism


On Monday B and I went to the Préfecture du Police in an attempt to renew our paperwork so that we can continue legally living and working in France.  Because, uh, it’s kind of unclear as to whether or not we are currently legal, a state of affairs that is strikingly reminiscent of the first three hazy months I spent in France.  It was a dark time.  I didn’t have hot water or internet or a bank account with money in it or real friends just yet, so I spent most of my time eating falafel and shivering next to my radiator.  I had been told that renewing my contract and my visa would be a snap compared to last year.  I should have seen this headache coming, but somehow in the halcyon days of summer it didn’t seem like anything could possibly go wrong.

Somehow, however, papers managed to not get filed by my employer to reauthorize me to work in France. I’m not blaming anyone, though I do suspect that the bug-eyed woman at my university who is supposed to be handling our affairs with the office of immigration might have slacked off a bit this summer.  This woman has made an art form out of plaintively blinking and stammering. She’s an expert in this peculiarly French office-drone trick of passing the buck, usually down the hall to her unsuspecting colleagues. I guess that person exists in every office, in every corner of the world, but somehow it never makes you feel any better to know that when someone drops the ball and suddenly phrases like “You’re not getting paid!” and “You might be deported!” start getting tossed about.  So I’m waiting, nervously, for a renewal of my “authorisation du travail” (work visa), so that my “carte de sejour” (life visa?) might also be renewed, so nobody can use my name and “deported” in the same sentence for a while.

“Visa” is a problematic term here, as is “carte de sejour,” “titre de sejour,” and “authorisation du travail.”  I apparently have anywhere between one and all four of those, though I don’t actually have in my possession anything that is actually titled as such.  So it’s difficult to say what paperwork needs to be filled out for renewal. I have no idea what that paperwork is actually called, and neither do the French people. There were some reforms made sometime recently, reforms that were supposed to make the process easier for people like us.  You know, people who are only here for a limited period of time and make the equivalent of six sesame seeds in wages ever month.  Apparently not everyone in the Kafkaesque bureaucracy that deals with foreigners has been alerted to these reforms, however, so the process that one goes through for renewal is decidedly unclear.

There are many of expat blogs devoted to bitching about French bureaucracy, which is admittedly Byzantine. If I could write a novel about it and make a million bucks I totally would, but I think that has already been done six hundred times or so.  It hasn’t been that bad, not by a long shot, and I feel guilty when I bitch about the number of hours I’ve logged at various offices around town and seemingly millions of copies I’ve made for various applications that seem to go nowhere.  Obviously, most foreigners that find themselves trying to work in countries like France and the United States have a much more difficult time than I do, which is why you shouldn’t be interested in my kvetching (and also why you should give Stephen Colbert a big giant round of applause for his recent testimony before Congress, the final moments of which we watch on a near-hourly basis).

So anyway, we went to the Préfecture on Monday with everything from our electric bill to x-rays of our lungs, all in triplicate, so that we might have the opportunity to continue teaching the youth of France outdated American idioms for another year.  Oh, yeah, and so that I can also continue going to restaurants and taking pictures of things I eat and sharing them with you here.  Let me tell you what, going to the Préfecture sucks.  It’s the place where Marie Antoinette crashed the night before she hit the guillotine, people.  To say that it has a lousy vibe would be the understatement of the year.  After being nearly strip-searched at the entrance, you go into the special area for renewals.  The smell of nervous foreigner body odor hits you like a wall when you walk in.  You take a number, hope for a chair, and then wait for what feels like sixteen years, only so you can be told that you don’t have all the paperwork you need (even though you’ve brought everything on all seven different lists from four different websites that you’ve managed to get your hands on).  They’ll give you what’s called a “recipisse,” which is basically a document with a stamp on it that certifies that you are indeed jumping through all the hoops that are being set in front of you, and this is apparently enough to keep working and living in France, that is, until you get your mother’s cousin’s birth certificate and your dead dog’s immunization records and return for another round in two months.  It’s awful.

Despite having strictly-worded appointment times, B and I had to wait three hours to speak with our immigration officer.  B, his usual cool-as-a-cucumber self, quietly read poetry and examined the maps on the walls.  I sweated through my shirt, agonized about how I had filled out my forms, tapped my foot, and picked the cuticles on my thumbs until they bled.  I had to pee about an hour in to the wait, but I was terrified that my number would be called if I went to the bathroom and they would deport me for my transgression.  After another hour of fantasizing that I would actually wet myself when I sat down with my application, I finally decided it was worth the risk and went to the ladies room.

The bathrooms were horribly bleak, with no toilet seats and crusty door locks.  The sink was a long, trough-like apparatus, with cold water and soap that smelled of ammonia.  As I was washing my hands, I glanced down at the drain and saw a trail of blood that led to a cream-colored object.  Horrified, I examined it more closely and discovered that someone had left a bloody tooth in the sink at the Préfecture.  And not just a baby tooth or a little chip of a filling either – a huge, ghastly-looking molar with long bloody roots still attached.  I gasped and redirected the steam of water so that I could turn it over and get a better look at it.  I was so aghast that I almost went to get B so that he could see it.

What the hell happened there?  I could just imagine some poor woman pulling out her own tooth, abandoning it, and then returning to the waiting room so she wouldn’t be deported, perhaps with a wad of toilet paper stuffed in the oozing socket. Can I admit something to you? I have to say that tooth kind of made me feel better about my day. I mean, no matter how bad things got for me from that moment forward, I wasn’t having the worst day possible. Not even close. Not by a long shot. I was practically relieved when I was told by the immigration official that my file was incomplete and that I would have to return again in two months. Paperwork! Paperwork is easy compared to extracting your own tooth in a dirty public restroom!

Anyway, I haven’t felt like I’ve had much to write about lately, but I knew I’d have to tell you about that tooth. Man, I wish I’d had my camera, though there were enough complaints about the cyst-popping video thing that I suppose that the really abject stuff isn’t what you really go for, dear reader.  On the off chance that you are the one person reading this blog that really does go for the gross stuff, I’d love to direct you to my newest obsession: ear-wax extraction videos.  There are lots of different kinds, but I like the medical ones where you actually go inside the person’s ear canal with some kind of amazing little camera and watch as whole giant slabs of crud are pulled out with tweezers, revealing the shiny clean eardrum beneath.  The best part is when the person with the earwax clod goes “OH WOW!” because they can suddenly hear for the first time in like six years.  They do it every time.  There’s something comforting about that.


Docteur Papa Update!

Remember this little Freudian nightmare?

Well, looky-see what we found at the used bookshop yesterday!

Apparently a diet high in carrots, bat wings, and magnesium will help you have a boy, that is, if you think genetics are a load of baloney (who doesn’t!). Your progeny might end up looking like this guy, however:

Clarence Trolls J-Date: Getting Your Deli Fix in Paris

B has been working hard on learning Hebrew the past few weeks with the eventual goal of reading the Old Testament. I’ve been working less hard, spending my time buying books that relate to my dissertation and putting them in stacks, working on my origami, and marveling at B’s capacity for filling notebooks with lists of words and conjugations for hours on end. I spent the last few lazy afternoons reading Mary McCarthy’s The Group, which my mother loved when it first came out in the 60s and I’ve been meaning to read for ages. It was pretty great, though it made me thank my lucky stars that I wasn’t born in a different generation. As I have a penchant for loving jerks in literature, my favorite character was Norine Schmittlapp, the nemesis of “the group” and the closest thing to a real radical that McCarthy’s 1930s New York has to offer us.  Even so, her portrait is terribly bleak, if surprisingly funny. After her first marriage fails, she marries a wealthy Jewish banker whose family has changed their name from Rosenberg to Rogers, a fact that she shares with “a particular kind of relish” with her aghast acquaintance Priss.

In fact, Priss’s chance encounter with Norine near the end of the novel was one of the best and sharpest parts of the book.  Priss meets Norine in the park, where Norine is pushing her infant son Ichabod (“‘Aren’t you afraid he’ll be called ‘Icky’ in school?’ she asked impulsively. ‘He’ll have to learn to fight his battles early,’ philosophized Norine. ‘Ichabod the Inglorious. That’s what it means in Hebrew. No glory.’”) around naked in his expensive stroller. Norine casually pats her son’s penis, a practice that scandalizes Priss, who is terrified of arousing her own toddler son and would almost rather “he be dirty than have him get an Oedipus complex from her handing him.” Norine insists that Priss come over to her lavishly furnished but disheveled home that nevertheless the site of a well-regarded bohemian salon. There, Norine recounts to Priss her affair with another woman’s husband and is brashly matter-of-fact about her sexual proclivities and experiences. When Priss attempts to describe her (or more accurately, her husband’s) behaviorist theories of child-rearing, Norine condescends the poor woman.  “‘You still believe in progress,’ she said kindly. ‘I’d forgotten there were people who did.  It’s your substitute for religion. Your tribal totem is the yardstick. But we’ve transcended all that. No first-rate mind can accept the concept of progress any more.’” When Priss accuses Norine of having abandoned her political radicalism, Norine declares that she leaves politics to her husband Freddy:

“Being a Jew and upper crust, he’s profoundly torn between interventionism abroad and laissez faire at home.  Freddy isn’t an intellectual.  But before we were married, we had an understanding that he should read Kafka and Joyce and Toynbee and the cultural anthropologists. Some of the basic books. So that semantically we can have the same referents.”

According to Norine, Freddy tolerates this curriculum requirement because

“Freddy’s philopregentitive; he’s interested in founding a dynasty. So long as I can breed, I’m a sacred cow to him. Bed’s very important to Freddy; he’s a sensualist, like Solomon. Collects erotica. He worships me because I’m a goy. Besides, like so many rich Jews, he’s a snob. He like to have interesting people in the house, and I can give him that.”

In her own self-diagnosis, Norine’s only real problem is “her brains”:

“[I was] formed as an intellectual…Freddy doesn’t mind that I can think rings around him, he likes it.  But I’m conscious of the yawning abyss.  And he expects me to be a Hausfrau at the same time.  A hostess, he calls it. I’ve got to dress well and set a good table. He think it ought to be easy because we have servants. But I can’t handle servants. It’s a relic, I guess, of my political period. Freddy’s taken to hiring them himself, but I demoralize them, he says, as soon as they start in the house.  They take a cue from my cerebralism. They start drinking and padding the bills and forgetting to polish the silver. […] I’ve been trying to turn over a new leaf, now that we have a new house. I start out with a woman who comes to massage me and give me exercises to relax. But before I know it, I’m discussing the Monophysites or the Athanasian Creed or Maimonides. The weirdest types come to work for me; I seem to magnetize them. The butler we have now is an Anthroposophist. Last night he started doing eurhythmics.”

When Priss asks if Norine really regrets the Vassar education the women shared, Norine declares “ ‘Oh completely…I’ve been crippled for life.’”

Of course it’s obvious to both Priss and the reader that Norine’s real problem is not her cerebralism but her narcissism and anti-Semitism, which become apparent when calls her own husband a “Yip” and asks Priss with more than a touch of anxiety if she thinks that “Ichabod looks Jewish.” Norine is the great satirical monster of the text, a totally unsympathetic character that is an ingenious cipher for the other women’s anxieties, be they about housekeeping, sexual prowess, education, or parenting. But in her own right, she is such a riveting mess, with the neck-rings on her blouses and her dirty polar bear skin rug; her theories about underlying lesbian drives, oral gratification and penis-envy that are coupled with her brassy declaration that “Freud is out of date”; and her ad hoc parenting cues taken from anthropological texts about the Pueblo Indians. She wears little Ichabod in proto-Baby Björn to a funeral and declares that it serves the same function as a papoose, allowing her to give Ichabod the experience of death early, rather like the mumps.  She serves enormous wedges of chocolate cake to the children for lunch. I rather loved her.

Anyway, I don’t know if it’s my boyfriend’s newest obsession with acquiring Hebrew or reading about old-school New York and the dangerous shiksa Norine for the past few days, but I’ve been longing for some serious kosher deli food. I usually get my fix in Paris with a quick trip to Florence Kahn (24 rue des Ecouffes
at the corner of 19 rue des Rosiers, 75004 Paris, Métro St. Paul), a fabulous Jewish traiteur in the Marais with one of the best tile mosaic storefronts you’ll ever see.

Inside, you’ll find an amazing selection of fresh bread and pastries, pickled herring and other smoked fishes, blinis, pickles, goulash, latkes, and pierogis, as well as house-cured and smoked pastrami, corned beef, and tongue.  My go-to choice:

The Big Pletzel Sandwich. That’s really what it’s called, meaning ordering it always feels kind of silly:  “Je voudrais un Big Pletzel Sandwich, si’l vous plaît.”  For about seven euros, you get an enormous fresh bun filled with layers of homemade pastrami, pickles, roasted red peppers, fresh tomatoes, and some kind of unidentified special sauce. You can get it warmed up and take it to go, or you can sit in their lovely outdoor seating and watch the rue de Rosier hoards line up at L’As du Falafel. Florence Kahn is a great alternative to falafel if the lines at L’As are daunting or if you want a real carnivore fix.  It’s also a lovely place to buy the fixings for a picnic or an easy dinner, like this one I made earlier this week:

I bought the blinis and the glorious lox at Florence Kahn. I gave the blinis a quick shake in some melted butter in a pan, and added some crème fraîche, capers, and red onion that I had in my fridge.  Much fancier and more delicious than it had any right to be, especially given how easy it was to prepare.

The one thing I hesitate to buy and reheat, however, are latkes.  Somehow preprepared or frozen ones are never quite right, even if you fry them in oil. Ever since I saw a soggy tray of them at Florence Kahn, I’ve had proper latkes on the brain. Today I pushed up my sleeves and got to work. I’d never made them before, so I got some ideas from Epicurious and the food section of the New York Times online.  I settled on this compromise recipe (based on what I had on hand):

9 all-purpose white potatoes, peeled, grated, and drained

½ of a white onion, grated

1 shallot, grated

3 eggs, beaten

¾ cup of baguette breadcrumbs (you’re supposed to use matzo meal, but all the kosher stores are on vacation, just like the rest of Paris in August)

Salt and pepper

Canola oil for frying (I used extra virgin olive oil, because my kitchen is too small for ingredients I rarely use)

Applesauce and sour cream for serving (crème fraîche if you’re on this side of the pond)

After peeling and grating for what seems like forever, incorporate your potatoes, onion, shallot, and eggs together.  Then, add breadcrumbs (or matzo meal) gradually to soak up the excess liquid.  Salt and pepper to taste.

Heat up about two tablespoons of oil in a deep frying skillet. When crackly, add a heaping tablespoon of the batter to the oil, patting it down with the back of your spoon to form a thick pancake.  Fry each side 2-3 minutes or until golden brown and lacy at the edges. I was able to fit three latkes in each batch, and each batch took approximately one Róisín Murphy jam to cook. I incurred only two minor splatter burns in the whole process (the cost of doing business if you ask me).  I may or may not have been pretending to be Polly, the most sympathetic member of The Group, who cooked grandiose meals every night for her publisher lover (scandalous!) on her tiny hotplate.

Drain on papertowels.

Keep the earlier batches warm, either in a low oven (aren’t you a fancypants!) or in a covered pan.

Serve with sour cream and applesauce, preferably to a bewildered student of Hebrew, who will likely seem very impressed at your labor-intensive weekday lunch.


My 100th Post!

I was going to write about a museum today, but when I checked my WordPress statistics, I noticed beneath the line graph of my declining popularity that I had posted 99 entries, making this little bugger the century mark here at Keeping the Bear Garden the Background.

The last few weeks have gone by in a bit of a haze.  I’m in the stupidest, most juvenile sleeping schedule imaginable, staying up until the wee hours of the morning and sleeping until morning coffee must be accompanied by a “Good Afternoon.” I’ve always loved to stay up and sleep late. Even when I’ve had jobs that necessitated rising early on a daily basis, I never really got the hang of it. This natural proclivity is exacerbated by the fact that I live across the street from the loudest bar in all of Paris and the warm summer months means that the bar patrons are outside squawking until 4 a.m. and my windows must open or the apartment is stifling. I couldn’t sleep if I wanted to, because the minute I dozed off, someone would start singing a rousing Madonna number on the street. At any rate, I’ve been waking up everyday resigned to the fact that I have already failed at being a grownup.

Upon waking, I immediately check my e-mail, which allows me to troll the listserv for my academic department and read about the many accomplishments of people that I know, a group who has become annoyingly prolific in their acquisition of fellowships, grants, publications, and tenure-track jobs lately. By the time B has made the coffee, I’m convinced that I have become a withering failure. I’m a burnout, a wash-out, a hoser, a flop, a late-life lemon.

The most significant thing I’ve produced in the past year is this blog, which, if the WordPress statistical counter is correct, actually becomes significantly less popular on the days that I post something. My biggest Google hits are for kimchee, Sàlo, Aperol, and anchovies. Every day or so someone Googles “bear in garden,” which I suspect has more to do with a wildlife containment problem than my musings on Parisian restaurants.

Even so, this silly little blog is one of the best things in my life. For the first time in my life, I’m writing on a regular basis and putting that work out into the world for people to see. I’ve always wanted to write, you see, but have been crippled by the fear of not being smart enough, or serious enough, or avant-garde enough to deserve an audience. While cocktail recipes and Pasolini films are a million miles away from the kind of writing that I really want (and need, from a professional standpoint) to be doing, this blog has gotten me into the habit of sitting down on a regular basis and producing something with other people in mind. Moreover, having this blog has made my life more interesting, as I am compelled to try new things so that I can tell you all about them.

I know that some people probably think this blog is stupid, or a waste of time, or merely a symptom of my malignant narcissism. But a few people don’t, some of whom have been coming here from the beginning and a some who have joined me along the way. I guess what I’m trying to say, in my usual longwinded way, is thanks for coming here, for reading, and for commenting. I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you are supporting this silly project. This place is starting to feel like something that isn’t just mine anymore, as evidenced by the fact that I feel guilty when I haven’t been here in a while. To those of you that read regularly enough to chastise me if I haven’t posted in a few days, thank you for being the best friends and interlocutors a gal could ask for.

Developments, both happy and stupid

“What happened to you?” all six of you may be asking. I was doing so well, what with those ten thousand word accounts of my vacation that nobody was reading.  I jest, of course. My mom and dad were reading them. I’m a real hit with my parents. I was really in the groove with this blogging thing.  Then a few things happened that took me away from this little site, some happy and some stupid.

I’ll start with the happy:  B moved in to my apartment. I don’t know what I was anxious to tell my family and friends about this development. My parents are old hippies that lived together for the better part of a decade before getting married, so I probably should have anticipated that they would regard this as good news.  Half my friends are living in sin, for reasons that range from the deeply romantic to the flatly economic.  Yet I still anticipated a chorus of “It’s too soon!” and “Young people these days move in together far too early!” and something about cows and milk and my rapidly degenerating looks. Well, either my looks have already degenerated to the place that everybody thinks I should just take whatever I can get, or B is actually a really terrific guy, because everyone I’ve told about this news has been nothing but congratulatory.

I’ll admit that it’s kind of a big deal for me, as I’ve never lived with anyone before. In fact, in the five years I’ve been living alone, I’ve been the poster child of judgment towards those who rush to cohabitation, projecting all my own fears onto the happy couples around me. Fun, right? To be honest, most of my previous relationships led me to assume that living with someone was going to be a huge pain in the ass. A lot of my relationships were with guys that owned giant Jagermeister posters and left Coors Light cans and dirty dishes around the house, the kind of men who looked at an empty garage or dining room and thought “What a perfect space for a beer pong table!” It had genuinely never occurred to me that living with someone could actually make my life better, or easier, or simply more fun. Living with B does all of those things.

One thing that is especially strange for me is that having him around 24/7 doesn’t annoy me. He left for a few days earlier this week and I spent the whole time moping around my apartment. I’ve realized that I actually like it much better when he is around than when he isn’t, something that might make anyone who has known me for a long time gasp. We’ve been having a really great time getting everything set up for the two of us, including purchasing a giant poster for our bedroom that reads “Après le fait, mais avant le déluge.” Cohabitation is awesome, people.

Now for the stupid stuff.  First of all, I decided in B’s brief absence to do one of these juice/raw food detox things that I’m constantly reading about on the internets. I chose the one that Gwyneth Paltrow did on her lifestyle blog GOOP, which I read with rapt fascination week after week. Feel free to strip me of my intellectual street cred immediately. Anyway, it’s basically no red meat, alcohol, sugar, dairy, caffeine, shellfish, wheat products, and nothing in the nightshade family. Basically everything that comprises my totally hedonistic diet. I’d been having some lingering health problems that I won’t bore you with and I hoped that it would help me feel better. The good news: it did! The bad news: I would kill myself if I had to eat like for more than a week. All I could think about was my next disappointing meal. I literally spent the whole week fantasizing about the things I couldn’t eat, to the point where B actually came home to find me rolling around on the couch in a fugue state muttering “pizza.” Anyway, now I’m trying to exercise this horrible thing called “moderation,” which means that I haven’t really been going out to eat very much, given that the French philosophy of cooking tends toward adding more butter until delicious. We’ve also figured out though the process of elimination that I may have developed a late-life allergy to raw tomato skin, a realization that has sent me into a blithering state of mourning for BLTs and caprese salad. At the same time, I’m glad it isn’t something else and better, like cheese or cured meat or booze.

The other stupid thing:  I fell down the stairs. I knew that this would happen eventually, what with the three flights of steep, slippery, uneven stairs that I pound up and down daily and my lifelong penchant for clumsiness. I could actually do an entire feature on the stupid injuries I’ve incurred over my lifetime.  But I really nailed the stairs when it finally happened.  I hadn’t seen B in a few days and was off to meet him at his old apartment. I had bought him a jar of tartufo (white truffle paste) as a gift, which I had in a bag in one hand,  I wasn’t holding the railing because  I was fumbling with my iPod with the other hand as I began running down the stairs, which happened to be wet because it was raining and my neighbor’s dog is like an animate sponge. I promptly slipped on the top stair and tumbled down an entire flight of twenty stairs, somehow managing to make it around a curve and crashing headfirst into my downstairs neighbor’s front door.  I screamed the entire way down, so everyone in my building rushed out of their apartments to see what had happened. While I was really quite hurt, I was so mortified at the small crowd of concerned French people examining my crumpled limbs that I couldn’t do anything but aggressively apologize for the noise. One of my neighbors is apparently a doctor, and he looked me over in case I had a concussion (I bashed my head twice).  The biggest casualties seemed to be my now black-and-blue ass, which took a significant percentage of the stairs, and my right arm, which looks like it received an Indian burn from Arnold Schwarzenegger circa 1984. My left arm was miraculously unscathed, as I somehow managed to hold it high in the air as I fell so that I wouldn’t break the jar of tartufo. Yes, I’ll go ahead and say it for you: my priorities are probably pretty warped if I managed to protect a jar of mushroom paste over my skull.

I’ve effectively been a rickety mess since I fell, as everything seems to hurt and I’m nothing if not an excellent complainer. I’ve also been enjoying far too much the reaction that strangers have to my terrifying bruises.  B and I were at the vegetable market yesterday and I noticed the cashier gawking at my arm as I handed him a bag of lettuce. The cashier immediately shot a hateful gaze at B, who smiled uncomfortably, unaware of his sudden interpellation as an abuser. I almost cracked up. B has since been enjoying telling people that I “fell down the stairs” in scare quotes.  Domestic abuse isn’t funny, of course, but it’s helped to lighten the mood while I look like a human punching bag.

Anyway, sorry for being a slacker the past week. There will be new food-related content in the next few weeks, including the inaugural entry in a series called HUNGERDOME (two restaurants enter, one restaurant leaves!).  See you soon!