Monday, August 6, 2012

Kinship Mapping -- or not?

In my attempts to complete a kinship map, I learned quite a bit about the structure and culture of family in France.  Initially I was frustrated by the assignment because I knew early on that questioning people about their families was contrary to French culture.  However, my inability to explain how I knew this sent me on a search that lasted my entire field study.

Ultimately, I didn’t ask any French people about their family.  To do so would have been to completely miss the point about understanding the French and the relationship to family.  Families are private, and you don’t ask about them in France.  I was talking to a woman who was telling me that she had been working with another woman for five years and had never known she was married or had a daughter about the same age until knowing her for FIVE YEARS.  Because you don’t talk about or ask about someone’s family.  They’re private; they’re not you’re business.  I was talking to another girl who said that you will never ever see pictures of a French person’s family on their desk at work.  Ever.  I thought that was odd, until remembering what the first woman said about never knowing.

I was talking to my landlady over coffee one day, telling her about how frustrated I was about this assignment because I had learned and understood that you just don’t ask people about their families in France (she’s American and married a French man).  She confirmed my understanding, she said that she had been married for eight years and she just felt like being an outsider having married her husband that her mother-in-law was only just beginning to trust her.  Now mother-in-laws are notorious for being difficult on their son’s wives.  But she said that she wasn’t sure she could even get her husband to share with me about his family.  And he was her HUSBAND.  She told me about how French people will talk to you about almost anything, but asking about their families is a serious breach of privacy.

I had experienced this before, with a boy I met.  My family is important to me, so I usually think of them often, and talk about them if given the chance.  He didn’t, and when I was sitting with him talking to him for the third hour, I finally asked about his family, and though he had been speaking with me rather openly about all sorts of things, he closed up and was tight-fisted about his family.  As soon as I moved away from the topic, he opened up again.

I knew that cutting corners and doing a kinship mapping with some American family at church was perhaps possible, but would kind of defeat and miss the purpose of the whole Field Study and learning about another culture.  I can tell you that my landlord is French, that he has an Ameriacn wife, and a young daughter.  He has a mother out in the country where he takes his daughter often, and a sister living in Paris, which I know because she had to collect my key from me when I left.  But these are all things I deduced over three months, and by talking to his wife, an Amerian, who is much more open about family than he was.

It sounds like I just didn’t do an assignment, but I honestly tried for three months to find someone I felt I could ask about their family, but I just wasn’t willing to ruin a perfectly good conversation by asking them about their family when it was something that just wasn’t done.  When in Rome, as they say.  And so I gleaned my understanding of family by watching and paying attention to the people around me.

I learned children are very important.  I learned that the family is the responsibility of mother and father, not just mother.  There were children everywhere, much more a part of the streets of Paris than I’ve ever recognized in London, or Los Angeles or even Provo.  In American cities and towns, children are hidden away at home; but Parisians live their lives and let their children be a part of them.  They take them everywhere, in strollers, and on walks, and they listen to their every word, and take them to play afterschool in the park down the street.  So attentive.  Parisian children are so very loved and encouraged in that love.

I saw fathers in parks with their children always; children are not the woman’s responsibility, but a family responsibility.  At home it seems you only see American fathers with their older sons—when their sons are old enough to play a sport, be taken to the park.  This does not seem the case in Paris.  Rather, fathers take their daughters and their very young children out into the city.  Fathers have a place, even with babies.  And they are attentive to their daughters as well as their sons.  They really play with their children, too, which I hadn’t seen very often elsewhere.

On several occasions while sitting in the tube in London during the months I spent living in London, a child would call out to their parent (you rarely saw children on the tube, but when they were there, I had seen this happen) and the parent would entirely ignore them.  The child wasn’t complaining, they just wanted to tell their parent something, and they were ignored leaving everyone in the carriage wondering why they’re not just answering the child so she’ll stop saying, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.”  Children are on the metro in Paris often, and when they call after a parent, they are listened to and typically answered.  Chances are I always saw the circumstances in London in which children were ignored, and always saw circumstances in Paris in which children were given some heed.  But regardless, it shaped my idea of how children were regarded in Paris, in ways I hadn’t seen them regarded elsewhere.

Though the family is not typically spoken of, it is very apparently an important structure in Paris.  Grandparents are just as important as they are in the closest families here.  Weekend visits to Grandparents was a typical occurrence for my landlady’s husband and daughter.  In a world where people are not let in very often, family members become necessary and indispensable parts of life.

Thursday, August 2, 2012


Learning through Personal Growth: On several occasions I met with April, the wife of my proprietor, at a café for some conversation and coffee.  She is American, but has been living in France for 14 years, married a French man and has a daughter with her husband.  Having worked in France for 14 years and having a growing daughter in France, she had some interesting things to say about the French education system, and learning in general.  She and her husband were moving apartments in Paris, to an apartment closer to the school where their daughter attended.  They had put her in a school in this area of Paris with the knowledge they would want to move to a larger apartment soon.  Now that they had an older daughter (she was an old toddler, by this point, about 5) April was concerned about her daughter having her own space, and some semblance of privacy, and being able to lead her own life.  This was very important to April, and indeed is an important value in France.  The autonomy of children is of a different caliber in France, and as such, as a five year old, her daughter would begin to need things like a room away from the dining room where her parents might entertain guests, so she could sleep.  She might need a door, which could be left open or closed at her daughter’s desire.  When I was in high school, living in a very small house where my parents did not have the ability or means to give me my own room as the oldest of three, my mother decided to give up her work area so that I might have a desk and a computer; this became my domain until I went to college.  But this autonomy and domain that was given to me was not afforded to me until much older than is typical in France, where April said she had recognized very young children were treated not as cogs in a system, or even members of a family, but downright entities of their own being.  There were things she both liked and disliked about this.  It fed into her American belief, she said, that every person is an individual and deserves treatment as such.  But it was of a different variety, and oftentimes she had noticed French children were unkind to each other, each of them believing life should go their way.  (This she had noticed in dealing with her daughter going to school with other French children.)  French children learned, she said, that they were their own person, very early in life, not in the way that they were individuals with spirits and wills all their own, but that they were entities with the right to have what they wanted.

Values of Learning: She mentioned this again when talking about how this translated to the work place.  The French were not good at working in groups, she said.  Whereas in America, children are forced to do group projects and learn how to work with other people, how to split up that work, and how to keep each other on the ball, in France the education system is so individualized—and is a series of test-taking—that they often never learn how to work with other people on projects, and when it is asked of them at work, they go about it in odd and inefficient ways.  I found it interesting that someone was making the assessment, basically, that though the French education system is efficient, sometimes that doesn’t the most efficient student create.  The American school system, railed on constantly, is more then inefficient, but, she said, often makes for very efficient workers.  Trial by fire, she assessed.  Americans learn how to get through all the crap of American school system and float or sink; they become efficient, or they don’t become anything.  The French learn facts through their school system but they oftentimes don’t learn much else.  I thought this shed, whether entirely true or not, a very interesting light on values of French education and values of American education.  Indeed, for better or for worse, neither has changed in a long while, and that reveals what each culture values in the end.

Formal Education: I spoke to Naomi today.  She’s been in France for eight months, doing her International Relations study-abroad year.  She was in Toulouse for 6 months, and now will be in Paris for 6 months.  Her mother is Swiss, so she has been speaking French in the home since she was a child, and knows the language well, like she knows English well.  At University in the UK, which is usually a 3-year program, apart from the study abroad, they study one to two languages, and if their emphasis requires it, they go abroad in the country of their language study for a year.  She’s also been to Spain for six months, to learn Spanish, which was her other language.  The way she explained it is less as a requirement, and more as a step.  You do your first year and university, and if you pass (40% or higher), you do your year abroad, and if you do that, then you go on to your last two years and university which determine how well you do.  The first two years are not factored in, but are just marked as ‘done’ more or less.  Because she grew up in Africa as the daughter of missionaries she grew up with a lot of Americans, speaking French in the home and English at the mission school.  When she was 16 and all the Americans were preparing to take SATs, her parents decided it was time to move to England so she could take the correct tests and go to University.  They now live in Northampton, which is not terribly “home” to Naomi, but she enjoyed her first year at University and did well in Spain and is doing well here, but is excited to go back to the UK and go to “Uni” as she calls it—University.

Spiritual Learning: Another interesting aspect of education for Naomi, however, is that of a religious education.  Growing up as the daughter of missionaries, she believes very strongly in a relationship with God, rather than blank beliefs in him which require attendance to church but no particular life-style choice.  She identifies very strongly as a Christian and sees that as being a very good and righteous thing.  She questions and doubts, but not God.  She roots her spiritual knowledge in the Bible, and in her experiences with God, with others, and with her family.  She believes God is good, and merciful, and doesn’t believe in church authority the way Latter-day Saints do.  When I speak with her, I connect with her on levels of identifying myself as a Christian, and even by identifying as a Protestant, on most counts, though we usually abstain from identifying ourselves as Protestant—because it implies reformation—our history most closely relates to that of a Protestant, and is something she better understands.  She’s open to talking about religious beliefs, even ones we disagree on, and she gives them thought.  I try to ask her, too, what she believes, and we find we agree on most things.  I think that she considers part of her knowledge and education to be spiritual is rare in people our age, but shows a multi-faceted understanding of where knowledge is found, and how it can be used.

Learning by Living: Thibaut is French, and went to lycée (high school) which finishes around 18, then went to University.  He was involved in Amnesty International at University, and is about 25/26.  He seems to have gone to school because it gives him something to do, and though he said he was interested in making the world better, getting rid of guns, stopping war, I couldn’t decipher if he had a passion for education, though he had done University, a masters, and was about to do a second masters.  It is cheaper to go to school in France because much of it is subsidized, very much like BYU for church-members; French universities for the French.  Thibaut was particularly adamant about travelling being the crux of his education.  He’s lived all over the world for months at a time.  He talks about them as vacations, but its apparent that the people he met, talked with, and partied with in the cities and countries he visited has shaped what he thinks of the world, and has shaped why he wishes for peace.  He thinks everyone is different, but in thinking that believes that everyone is more alike that we give them credit for, and therefore war is ridiculous to him.

Living by Loving/Spiritual Love vs. “Just Benefit”: Being French, he believes strongly in love, affection, and in some ways this manifests itself in terms of learning.  He said his mantra is “Just Benefit.”  Of course this is the opposite in many ways of a religious or spiritual mindset, but in ways where Naomi and I agree that spiritual knowledge can be a large portion of where our learning and reasoning centers are housed, the idea of “Just Benefit” implies that one need not overthink anything, but go with the flow, and love others, and let things happen.  There is no reasonable argument against this.  It is a sound and reasonable mantra to live by when one lacks a sense of spiritual learning, and I think in the place of spiritual learning, it serves many people well.  In many ways, he taps into human learning sans religious institution, and that reveals basics of human nature that are God-given, which he understands and many religious people do not.  He believes showing love equates to treating people well; this is of course true, when coupled with respect and intent to understand.  Unfortunately the former is usually held only by non-religious, and forgotten by those who value the spirit, while the latter is one that is forgotten by the non-religious, and with which the religious still struggle.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


He was very concerned about it.  So concerned, in fact, that he dragged me out of Luxembourg Garden, where we had been talking for over an hour, down Boulevard St.-Michel to the main and largest Gibert-Joseph bookstore on the Boulevard and took me inside.  Until that point, I had only been in small French bookstores, akin to the small quaint bookstores in the small coastal towns of California or the Mom & Pop stores of small-town America.  But even this is not a particularly effective description.  Bookstores in Paris are actually called Libraries and what we typically call a Library is called a Bibliothèque.  There’s a librarie near my apartment that looks exactly like the bookshop in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which is supposed to be set in France, isn’t it?  And if you can imagine a small store-front room off of a little road, with paned windows, a painted façade, and the word Librarie painted in white or gold letters, you’re closer to the idea of a typical bookshop in Paris.

Gibert-Joseph, on the other hand, is a large store and is too large to look anything like the little libraries throughout Paris.  I’d seen the stores along St.-Michel, some for books, some for DVDs, some for music, and one a papeterie—where one buys paper and the necessary tools for writing—others for school books, some for selling and some for buying, but because there were so many, I didn’t expect the store he pulled me into to be as large as it was.  Seven floors; but that didn’t keep it from being packed with books.

In our conversation in Luxembourg, lasting a little over an hour, we had talked about literature mostly, for he had read everything.  Like most of the people who I like, and who like me, they all read more often than I do.  I’ve found through them that I’m not much of a reader.  He spoke to me about American writers, English writers, and French writers, and he wanted to know what I’d read, and what I thought about it.  I told him I’d read Zola’s L’Assemoir, which is so depressing its impossible to forget you’ve read it, and I’d read Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron, Chronicles by Jean Froissart—the original historian of the Hundred Years’ War, and La Cité des Dames by Christine Pizan.  We talked a long time about some of these, but he had not read all of them.  He also spoke to me about some of the American writers he’d read—the one I remember now was Virginia Woolf.  He’d read To the Lighthouse in English.  I was impressed, to say the least.

Have you ever read Woolf’s To the Lighthouse?  He said it was beautiful writing, but that he was lost on some of it.  I told him it was stream of consciousness and he asked what this meant.  So I explained, using her book as an example.  It’s when she writes everything that comes into her head, as it comes into her head, exactly the way she thinks it—rather than filtering the thoughts through organizations of structure like accepted sentence syntax and punctuation.  It was her feminist response to male structure.  He found the term ‘stream of consciousness’ most interesting.

And after we talked about literature for a while, and he shared with me that his favorite writer was Marcel Proust—and had I read anything of his?  I said I hadn’t, but for those of you who know me, this shouldn’t surprise you, since I never seem to have read what people ask me if I’ve read—and he’d seen the English cover, and are all English covers that way?

I stopped him.  « Qu’est-ce que veux-tu dire? » He responded again, “They are ugly.”  “What are?” “English book covers!”  And that’s what it was, that got him so riled, we had to leave the garden and go into several bookshops so he could prove his point.  He went the Gibert-Joseph showing me the nice, expensive French editions of books which were bound in cloth, and which he admitted were too expensive for a typical purchase, and then he went to the French translations of English books, which covers were clean and simple.  They usually had a picture on the front, with a white bar at the top with the book title, and a white bar at the bottom with the author’s name.  They all looked very much like Penguin’s Classics Series--except white, instead of black.

I had realized this before while walking by the libraries that the books all seemed to be white, and difficult to tell apart.  It occurred to me that the must be technical books of some kind, since some libraries sell merely les livres médicaux (Medical), or livres anciens et rare (Ancient and Rare), livres jeunesse (for Children).  I’d also seen people in the garden reading books, all of which seemed to have the same cover, and took them all for classics.  In fact, I’m sure I have somewhere in my notes: “The French all seem to be reading classics.  Either they’re all very cultured, or they’re catching up on the reading they should have done as young-adults.”  It turns out, and I learned through this tour of Gibert-Joseph that any French literature had these book covers, and it had nothing to do with them being medical books, or law books.  He proceeded show me all sorts of French books, all of which looked very similar.

Then, he spent a long time trying to find the English-language books, and when he did, he was proud of himself.  He touched the flashy book covers and confirmed, “See?  Ugly.”  I admit, I kind of laughed.  I liked the French literature book covers.  They were simple and clean, the way I often like my book covers, and far be it from me to purchase a book with an ugly book cover—no seriously, I won’t—but as always, in comparisons, you realize the mentality of your own culture.

I proceeded to explain that we had book covers like the French ones, too, and pulled out a few of the classics off the bookshelves to show him the covers which looked similar to his beloved French book covers.  Then I told him that we had artistic covers for best-sellers, classics, historical-fictions or non-fictions, and the like.  I pulled out a few books for some other covers, things written by Jack Kerouac or John Steinbeck which often require a book cover more artistic than the ‘classics.’  Then, of course, there were the books whose covers intended to catch your attention so you’d see them and pick them up while waiting in line, or while passing the bookshop into work.  This apparently was not the scenario of his book-buying experiences.

I realize, in retrospection that books have to be this way now.  At least in the United States, book stores are going out of business rapidly, thanks to the likes of ‘digital’ books.  And for those of us who are still holding on to our desire to turn physical pages, amazon will always save us a trip out of the house.  Except for the even smaller population of persons who regularly go into bookshops, wander the books, and purchase one or two to keep the whole thing going a little longer—my father is one such person—bookstores are becoming unnecessary.

Since coming to Paris, I have come to appreciate bookshops a little more.  There’s an art to the proper browsing of books in a bookshop which I observed my father do my whole life, but never tried or put into practice until I came to Paris.  To properly browse a bookshop and then make a purchase, one firstly needs to be somewhat knowledgeable either about books or authors and secondly cannot be searching for any book in particular or else you will never find it.  One must scan the book titles and authors until something strikes a chord, and then one must pull the book off the bookshelf, page through it, and decide if it’s something one wants to buy.  Sometimes walking around the bookshop while carrying said book helps make a decision about the purchase.

The problem with five easy steps to perfect browsing is that most Americans are rather impulsive buyers when it comes to their entertainment, and also, most working Americans don’t believe they have the time to meander through a bookshop.  If we need a cook book we go to the cooking section and find one we like.  If we’ve read a review about a good book, then we go to the bestseller stands and buy it.  But we rarely browse, we rarely have an infinite bank of knowledge about authors and we rarely buy a book we’ve never heard of or read about.  And that’s why we need catchy/flashy book covers.  If we’re in line, and something catches our eye, we’re more likely to read it and decided within seconds if it’s interesting enough to spend time reading.  The French book covers would never do for a working-class American who has so little time to spare.

Or else, that’s what we believe.  Thanks to my French friend from Luxembourg gardens, I now know this about French culture: the French don’t think that way—that they have little time to spare.  I mean, I’m sure they do think they don’t have enough time, but it doesn’t keep them from taking their time.  They browse.  They browse everything.  I found out early on that if I stood in front of the cheeses section of the grocery store for five minutes, no one would find that strange.  The old French woman next to me was doing the same thing.  Browsing the cheeses.  Furthermore, Paris is an entire city of shop windows and if something catches your eye, it’s not so strange to stop and look.  Shoes. Clothing. Jewelry. Food.—and books.  There are stalls outside of bookshops for browsing, something you rarely see in a big city in the United States.  And to me, that’s a significant cultural difference.  Browsing.  Who knew?

*13/7/12 Update: My neighbor gave me this gorgeous french phrase used to express 'window shopping': faire du lèche-vitrines.  Literally it means to lick the showcases (or shop windows).

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

To Thomas Paine: 4 juillet 2012

The bread I just purchased from the Boulangerie is so fresh, it still smells like yeast.  As an American, it makes me wonder if Thomas Paine ever remembered to eat while he worked.  Geniuses rarely remember such things.  And if he did remember, or if someone brought him food, was it ever fresh straight-out-of-the-oven bread?  And if so, how often did he get it?  Was it a pleasure, or was it something he took for granted?  Biting into, with ink-stained fingers, writing tirelessly.

Speaking of taking things for granted—Happy Independence Day.  Of course, it’s July 4th, 1776 that we always take as the birthday of our country—236 years old, now that’s something!—but it wasn’t until September 3rd, 1783—an entire seven years later—that the King of England officially recognized the independence of the 13 colonies.  Now, personally, I think that the country you’re at war with getting beaten and officially ‘recognizing’ you as a country is merely a formality.  Who has the right, after all, to officially recognize something else which already exists?  But, I digress.

That treaty was more than just an official recognition, it was a promise to the end of the war, and that is a celebration to be recognized indeed.  Now, I suppose you’ve always wondered where the treaty that ended the war with Britain was signed.

Ha.—Knew you always wondered.

That’s right, here in Paris.  There it is.  It’s not much now, but 56 rue Jacob used to be the Hotel d’York.  This is where Franklin, Jay and Adams met with two British delegates to sign the treaty which is a moment in history that goes un-celebrated.  It’s not too far from the Seine and about ten-minutes’ walk from L’église St.-Germain-des-Prés.

Not far from this area is where the original Shakespeare & Co. bookshop was established, and where Thomas Paine lived (Rue de l'Odeon) while he helped the French during their Revolution--which, I'm guessing you didn't know about!

56 rue Jacob is also not too far from Café Procope, the first Café in Paris, where Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson often dined.  Also, Voltaire supposedly drank 40 cups of coffee a day there, though he mixed it with chocolate, so does that really count?  Later, Robespierre, Danton, Marat and Cordeliers—all important men of the French Revolution—would dine there to discuss politics.

This area was teeming with politicians, writers, philosophers, rhetoricians and idealists alike.  Throwing around ideas, the worst of them and the best of them, some to be tried and tested, and others to fall on deaf ears, never to be heard again.  Though the French Revolution is somewhat looked on as a dark spot in history, both by the French and by others who deemed it too radical from the start, it was a war of ideas which came out of the Enlightenment far before it was a terror of blood.  A war of ideas was something Thomas Paine wholeheartedly encouraged.

(From Shakespeare's Globe production of "The New World")

I dedicate this post to Thomas Paine.  Might Americans someday give him a retrial and find him among our most important founding fathers.  Might they find him praiseworthy for preparing Americans to understand freedom.  Might he be recognized as the man who prepared the world for the later writings of Jefferson, actions of Washington, and hopes and dreams of Madison, the Adams', Hamilton, Jay and Franklin.   It was Paine who convinced Americans they had the right to be free; and Paine who convinced them freedom was something worth fighting for.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Bourgeoisie Mentality

I live on one of Haussman’s boulevards in Paris in an old bourgeoisie building which fits Haussman’s charming “street-wall” façade regulations splendidly.  The ground floor is for storefronts mostly—pharmacies, bakeries, boutiques, and the like—but amidst the storefronts is a large double-door that acts as the entrance to the apartments on the floors above the magasins.  The first floor apartments have proper balconies with iron railing while the following second through fifth floors (in France, the floors start at 0) have similar façades as the first floor, sometimes with, but often without, a balcony or railing of any kind.  The apartment façade is completed by a mansard roof with a 45° angle and dormer windows.

At the end of the hallway from the street-entrance to the apartments is where the concierge lives, and where a lavishly carpeted staircase leads up to the bourgeoisie apartments.  There are two bourgeoisie apartments on each of the first five floors, one on the right of the staircase, and one on the left of the staircase.  These apartments each take up half of the floor and contain several rooms, much like any apartment would.  Whereas in the western United States, one might rent an apartment only until a house can be purchased, a Parisien is a little more like a New Yorker and rents or owns an apartment for the mere sake of living in the city.  And owning an apartment in this part of Paris is what one considers “well-off.”  There is no ill connotation to the word apartment, here.  Furthermore, it’s apparent by the red-carpeted staircase and the extravagant hallways and the red doors of the first-five stories of apartments that you are standing on the doorstep of someone who lives in Paris like one might live in Beverly Hills: no qualms about social status.

Yes, this is the apartment building where I live.  Only, I don’t take that main staircase to one of those nice bourgeoisie apartments.  Instead, I walk through the small inner courtyard off of the hallway on the ground level, where they keep the trash bins, to a door that leads to the old servant’s staircase: narrow, damp, wooden, dark—no carpet.  The staircase winds up to each floor of the building, leading to servant’s entrances to each apartment, until it comes to two floors of servant’s quarters.

(Rachel, notice apparition.  The team has debunked this as a dust particle.)

I was intrigued by the history of these old staircases before I was struck by their blatant separation of the classes.  After living in Paris for even a short amount of time the mentality one adopts concerning architecture and old buildings changes.  Though the 21st century inhabitant of my building can take an elevator up to the sixth floor and follow the hallway to the servant’s staircase up to the seventh, the elevator is such an unabashed ‘addition’ to the building, one is immediately aware that it exists for the pure sake of convenience than as a statement of social status.  I didn’t realize it until I came to Paris, but that’s what an elevator is in the United States: a sign of social status.  In America, for cultural reasons of our own, the newest and best technology is expected of the rich; but in this bourgeoisie building, the elevator is not efficient, nor is it fast, nor is the building the proud owner of the elevator (assuming buildings can feel pride).  So what one understands, as she uses the elevator every day, is that if Parisien’s could have gotten away without adding an elevator to their old buildings in the latter half of the 20th century, they would have.

As a resident of the seventh floor, I am quite pleased with the advent and addition of the elevator.  It took the maintenance of the elevator for me to understand just how pleased, for without it, all those living on the two upper floors of the building have to take all six or seven flights of stairs up to their floor.  As there is no electricity in the servant’s stairwell, it is impossible to see the steps, the wall, the handrail, or even your own hand—even during the day-time—until you get to the fourth or fifth floor, where seventh-floor skylights and glass blocks affixed into wall afford some light.  In addition, whereas the bourgeoisie staircase grants its climber a steady and gradual ascent to their floor, the servant’s stairwell is steep and too narrow to heft even groceries comfortably.  In my exodus to the seventh floor, I couldn’t help but imagine building maids, leaving their rooms on the seventh floor five minutes before their day began so they could stop outside the servant’s entrance to their employer’s apartment and catch their breath.

Servant's entrance
An American might ask, Why not take the main staircase up to the fifth floor—enjoy the climb, at least—and then take the servant’s staircase the last two levels up?  Our misunderstanding of any sort of class system makes this a fair question, albeit a non-applicable one.  There is no access to the sixth and seventh floors from the main staircase—you must take the servant’s staircase.  Furthermore, there is no secret door or hidden hallway connecting the two staircases.  Here, I get images of some young maid cleaning the steps of the main stairwell on the fifth floor, only to realize she’s forgotten something, have to go down all the steps to ground floor, out to the servants staircase, up all seven flights of stairs to grab what she needs, only to come down seven flights of stairs and up another five to get the job done.

After my own hike up the staircase, I was entirely aware of the class differentiation endured by those living atop the sixth and seventh floors.  And to be honest, the structure of the building ensures that not much has changed.  At best, the elevator was an attempt to equalize the social status of the buildings occupants, particularly in the case of the upper floors.  But even with an elevator which services the sixth floor as well as the first five, the lives of the two types of inhabitants are quite separate.  Much like what one would expect of the bourgeoisie and servants of late 19th century Paris, there is no crossing paths by way of staircase; nowadays the only interaction is the occasional ‘Bonjour’ when exiting the elevator on the ground floor.  No one is treated poorly or looked down on—it is the 21st century—it’s just the way the whole staircase/elevator system works.  But the history of bourgeoisie apartment owners and their servants who once lived above them explains the reason for that system.

While the seventh floor was most certainly the old servant’s quarters, the sixth floor of this building is an anomaly.  The hallway of the sixth and seventh étage is floored by red-clay hexagon tiles, rather than wood or carpet, the walls are textured white, and the doors are painted dark green, the color of Paris’s park benches.  On the first five floors of the building, there are two apartments per floor, each with multiple rooms; on the seventh floor there are sixteen individual doors to sixteen individual apartments.  Given that the seventh and final floor of the building has roofs angled in at 45°, the space for these sixteen apartments proves even smaller than any other floor.  These apartments are mere rooms; even ‘studio apartment’ fails to express their size, for when an American thinks of an old studio apartment, she thinks of Joe Bradley’s quaint living space in Roman Holiday, not an apartment the size of a guest bathroom.  The sixth floor has seven green doors, meaning the apartments are larger than that of the seventh floor, but still significantly smaller than that of the apartments below.  Though the exact capacity of the sixth floor is not formally documented, some old bourgeoisie buildings had one or two upper floors for middle-class families, merchants, or perhaps head-of-staff employees.  Now, the apartments on the sixth floor have been altered to create three larger apartments.

I had my mother ask me about my apartment when I first moved in, which despite my scathing review of their size, I am quite fond of.  I described it to her.  The man, who bought the old chambre de bonne, repainted it, installed a shower, a desk, and a small kitchenette.  I sent her pictures.  I received an email from my sister later in the week with connotations of the belief I was living in squalor, for, “Mom saw no toilet in the pictures.”  I explained that my toilet was across the hall in a separate room, which I had a separate key to.  In other buildings, the toilet is often shared between many tenants of the old servant’s quarters.

My own apartment
The view out of my window

Later, when I met a neighbor who moved in across the hall from me, and I started spending some time in her apartment, my suspicions of each apartment on the floor being owned and renovated separately were confirmed.  While each one of the sixteen green doors used to lead to a separate room, now, many of the rooms have been combined to create appropriate livable square-footage.  I recounted the size and shape of my neighbor’s apartment to my family, and expressed how interesting it was that three of the old chambres were combined to create her apartment.  My family asked several questions about her apartment—Why is her apartment the size of three rooms, and yours the size of one?  Why does she have a toilet, and you have to walk to a separate room?  Why does she have a shower with a curtain, and yours is merely an alcove?—all of which confused me; they were hardly applicable to the interesting fact I had just relayed about the history of the apartments.  Weren’t they more interested in the living conditions of someone living in a room a third of the size of my neighbors?  Weren’t they curious about how the old maids would have kept clean, or used the toilet?  Instead my family was preoccupied with why my neighbor’s apartment was so different from mine.

Then I realized the misconception at work in my family’s questions.  American apartment buildings are typically several stories high, and no matter which level you live on, each floor has the same blueprint.  Furthermore, each individual apartment typically has the same layout.  The structures are built to fit a certain number of apartments which apartments will house a certain number of families which families consist of a certain number of family members.  The person across from you has an apartment with a mirrored layout to yours; the person under you has an apartment with the exact layout as yours.  It wasn’t that they didn’t understand why my neighbor’s apartment was different from mine, they didn’t even fully comprehend the whole system of bourgeoisie apartments: the fact that the lower floor you inhabit, the better-off you are, the fact that the main staircase doesn’t even go to the sixth and seventh floors, the fact that in order to get to the top of the building, you are forced to take the servants entrance.  Hearing I had a studio apartment sounded more like I lived in an apartment complex with several other studio apartments, not that I lived in the top floor of a well-to-do bourgeoisie home where social class was separated by floor levels.

And it runs deeper than that.  It’s not that Americans don’t understand class and social status, in fact, our class system is just as complicated as others’.  It’s that in the United States, the poor, the middle-class and the rich don’t live together in any capacity.  The person living across the hall from you, above you, or below you, is usually at the same economic status as you are.  Even if the person who lives across from you is an immigrant, or if your child goes to a better school than the children of the family living below you, your economic status is accepted as being in the same range.  And when it isn’t anymore, and an American believes that the people moving in around them are of a lower class than they are, they move.  Take Harlem as America’s best-known example: what used to be an area inhabited by the wealthy and old-Dutch families of New York, in the 20th century became a place renowned for crime and poverty.  It’s also true that there are poorer parts of Paris, where the well-off do not live, but the difference is that they never lived there.  The difference is that the French would never consider moving out of the Luxembourg Quarter just because their new neighbors might seem to be of a lower class.  After all, the Luxembourg Quarter is the Luxembourg Quarter.

The American culture of capitalism was another road-block for my family to truly understanding my living situation.  Surely, someone realized the profit to be made from renting the top floor apartments to young students, bought up the entire floor of sixteen rooms, and renovated them to create eight apartments—for there are eight tenants currently living on this floor.  Each of the apartments would be affixed with a kitchenette, and a shower, and use a bathroom down the hall.  The fact that my neighbor’s apartment was different meant that someone made the two apartments noticeably and intentionally inégal.  This makes no sense to an American—and probably wouldn’t make sense to the French either, if the argument were presented that way.  Except this idea of snatching up this real-estate city space, improving it, and renting it out for a profit is an American mindset, not necessarily a French one.  The French might be more likely to think, “They’re just the old servant’s quarters, after all.  Writers, students, and the elderly sometimes rent them because they can’t afford anything else, but the rooms are probably better suited for storage space,”—which is perhaps true. 

But this doesn’t answer the question: If the area is unfit for living, why doesn’t someone gut the whole thing and make it fit for living?  This is, after all, what an American would do to a nice bourgeoisie apartment building like this one, in the middle of a nice area like the Luxembourg Quarter.  The French wouldn’t.  The French wouldn’t gut any building built before 1915—if they’d consider gutting any building at all.  They’ll demolish them, and tear them down, and build up around them.  But they won’t tear out the insides of a building that is just fine the way it is.  Recall my explanation about the elevator; how if the Parisien’s could have gotten away without adding one, they would have.  They are not the proud owner of the contraption, it is just a convenience.  Similarly, gutting out the servant’s quarters to create nicer apartments would be like fixing something that isn’t broken.  Let me also use my own apartment as an example: the apartment may have been wholly renovated to include electrical outlets, a kitchenette, a shower and a heater, but the floor remains the red-clay hexagon tile.

Consider the idea that it’s in the blood of American culture to improve on what isn’t broken and to consider broken what is merely less efficient.  Europeans in general—particularly when dealing with domestic buildings—are not this way.  The British have a saying they use often, “I couldn’t be bothered.”  It’s not a thoughtless, rude or dismissive statement—it is recognition that there are some things there is no reason to doing, like turning the page of  newspaper when there’s still a story on the front page that interests you, or getting up for a chocolate when there are almonds in a bowl beside you.  It’s not that the idea isn’t worth doing, or that there wouldn’t be a point to doing it, or even that doing it is a significant amount of trouble.  It’s just that it works fine the way it is, and no one is really complaining, and individual proprietors are improving the apartments little by little, so why should anyone be bothered?

I lost my audience long before I could accurately explain these cultural differences I find so fascinating: something as simple as a staircase or whether or not an apartment has a toilet is attached not only to history but to mentality—a mentality which runs deep.  Buildings aren’t just about form or function; they aren’t just about changing and being changed.  In fact, it’s a little more than that.  Carl Jung afforded to artists the responsibility of tapping into the collective unconscious and presenting its truths to the world, but it turns out that cultural experience is organized not only by painting or tapestry, but by the very halls we walk in, and the very stairs we climb.  The detailed truths of how we consider the world around us are presented to us by small inefficient elevators, by the remnants of old doors in the hallway, and by whether or not we would gut our seventh-floor servant’s quarters for a profit.  The very fact that an American would do something so differently than it has been done here is proof that our histories have a place in our cultures, that our cultures have a place in our mentality, and that our mentality shapes the world we inhabit.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Attire and Adornment

Parisians are notorious for being well-dressed.  I've taken a few notes for you on what I've noticed.  (Images  provided by EasyFashionParis blog and GQ (except image of Hotel de Ville, and the Wedding photo).)

Men wear accessories, too
See-through shirt = normal
Casual day-to-day
Looking good is important to Parisians.  Both men and women have several types of looks, but they do not seem as varied as those in the United States; those who attempt to dress well have one basic look: classy.  This differs from America in that there are many groups of people who are very careful with how they dress, even if it is to look intentionally sloppy.  While the French do not fret about what they look like once they go out, and sometimes their hair appears un-brushed, it should not be mistaken for sloppiness.

Women wear cardigans, blazers and/or jackets, particular to an outfit and fitted correctly.  They wear blouses, never t-shirts.  Never.  Their blouses frequently are looser, and sometimes semi-transparent.  Seeing a bra through a shirt is normal, and not considered risque.  They are always a classy fit; loose should not be mistaken for baggy, which they never are.  Men typically wear dress-shirts with collars, v-neck shirts, sweaters, blazers, and/or suit jackets.

Or all three. Collared shirt, blazer, suit jacket.
Trousers/pants for both men and women are tailored and dressy.  While every type of pantaloons is worn, they are never baggy or too big, and never too tight, though may look tight to the typical American.  Women do wear leggings or tights as pants, usually under a pair of short-shorts, but sometimes under a long shirt or short dress.  Somehow they get away with it, looking great.

Tights as pants; shoes; blazer

Shoes are paramount to a Parisian.  Men and women alike rarely wear tennis shoes—only when they go running, and they go running in parks or around parks, never in city streets.  Right now it seems cobblers-like shoes, ankle boots, flats, and vintage-style spats are in style for women, while cobbler-like shoes, leather dress shoes, and spats are in style for men.

Men wear accessories: scarves, watches, and even bags are an important part of the way a man walks and carries himself around the city.  Women tend toward scarves, rings, and one necklace, always a part of the outfit--never several.  Hats are worn often in Paris, compared to what is normal in the United States.  It's part of the outfit.

Hairstyles seem more of a man’s realm than a woman’s.  Their hair is very particular to the man, though must look natural.  Women’s hair always look natural, is always perfectly cut and style when down, even if styled “naturally” (i.e. messily, to us).  Black women in Paris have long hair--extentions or otherwise, very well taken care of, curled and or straightened.  I mention this because black women in the United States typically cut their hair short, or keep them in braids.  Parisian women in general keep to natural-colored hair.  Also, Parisian women wear little to no makeup.  Younger women wear eye makeup, while middle-aged women don’t seem to care as much about mascara or eyeshadow.  Make-up, when worn is very natural-looking with hardly any color on their faces. 

Hat, jacket, loose shirt, accessories.

Worship Service
The people who attended mass were not dressed for church in the sense that we expect them to be.  Everyone’s shoulders are covered, their legs are covered at least to the knee, but most were wearing day clothes.  Older women and men wear skirts, dresses or suits, respectively.  Even the kids leading mass wore normal clothes, not anything fancy or dressed up.  I think this is a fairly normal trait of Catholic mass, even in antiquity.  To come to church with attire one could afford/work in, though the rich would have certainly come dressed for Sunday best.  Though I do think it’s a lost “art”, as it were, to come to mass dressed for the Sabbath.  It is religiously expected, however, to cover shoulders and to wear shoes.

Business attire/Interview
Businessmen are easier to pick out than are the women because their attire is how you imagine every CEO to look.  Fitted black dress trousers, a fitted white dress shirt, often with cufflinks, and a fitted suit jacket.  Leather shoes—usually black.  Business men wear ties.  That is usually how you can tell the difference.

Funeral --> Baptism 
Since funerals are family services in Paris, and one cannot crash a funeral--nor are they often held at the churches, as the French are no longer quite as religious--I jumped on the opportunity to take notes on the attire for a baptism, which I walked in on at St. Eustache.  In attendance were the parents, their one or two children, and the baby being baptized.  Everyone--parents, children, and family and friends who attended the baptism were dressed in what we would call "Sunday best."  The Priest was dressed in his normal frock and hood, and kept his book on him always; he sung many of the prayers.  One friend of the family walked around in the chorus area where the baptism was held, taking pictures during the service, which I suppose was a normal expectation.  The children—girls—had their legs covered with tights, their shoulders and arms covered to the wrists by cardigans, and wore hairbands.  The mother and father stood around the baptismal font while prayers were said.  The women, including the mother of the baby, were dressed in skirts.  The men in colored dress-shirts and and dark-colored trousers.  Everyone was brightly dressed.  The men did not wear ties--you rarely see a Parisian man with a tie on...I can't think of a single instance.  The child being baptized was in nice clothing but was covered in a body-length white robe over his clothing.  After the baby was baptized, the father and mother were blessed.

I have so far run across three weddings at various churches, two at Notre-Dame, and one at St. Sulpice.  The two at Notre Dame contained brides and grooms in quite normal western wedding attire.  Large white ball-gown-type dresses on the brides, and typical “costume” (to use French vernacular) suits (3-piece suits).  The third, at St. Sulpice was (apparently) an Indian-Christian wedding as the entire party was dressed in traditional Indian sari’s and I think for men what are called the Sangeet kurta (please pardon me if I’m wrong on that).  The bride’s sari was red, as I believe is traditional for a wedding sari, but—here’s an interesting note—she also wore a white veil!  As her ceremony seems to have taken place in the church (I came to the church afterwards while there were still some of her wedding party in the church, but most of them were outside taking pictures), I’m assuming the white wedding veil was a sign of the Christian tradition.  They also wore necklaces of flowers.  The members of the party wore various colored sari’s and kurta’s—beautiful colors.

She's not expressing her love for any particular team.
It's just fashion.
Sports Event
I have not been to a sports event in Paris, nor do I plan on it.  All the same, I do not recall seeing masses of people wear sports paraphernalia on certain days the way I have seen in Los Angeles on Laker-game days, or in London when Arsenal, Chelsea, or Liverpool is playing.  And because there are so many immigrants in Paris, one can always pick out the Greeks or Brazilians the day they're playing an English team.  I have never seen anything close to that in Paris.  However, during the Tennis Open, the plaza in front of Hotel de Ville was set up and reserved as a seating area for Parisians to walk in and sit down to watch the tennis matches.  No one dressed differently, but the square was always full of people.  Take my earlier comments about classiness into consideration and that may explain the lack of sports paraphernalia, though that does not mean the French are not interested in their sports.

Communicating with Attire:
The person has reached maturation
I believe a sign of maturation in Paris is beginning to smoke, as many teenagers do.  There is no particular piece of clothing a teenager in Paris would wear different from a young adult or man or woman in Paris to communicate he or she has matured apart from growing into more adult casual day-to-day attire, opposed to children’s attire.

I know it's difficult, but notice the ring.
The person is married
A wedding ring on the right or left hand—I have seen both.  There are so many immigrants in Paris, it is hard to tell which is particular to place or origin and which is particular to age, for some older women seem to wear rings on their right and left ring fingers, but younger women wear rings on their left ring finger.  Men also wear rings on their left ring-finger.

Distinctive Regional Identity
While there are very distinctive regional identities in France, and the French are very particular and proud of them, being a Parisian is a culture which swallows all others.  Therefore if a Frenchman or woman is determined on living in Paris, he or she will probably not hold on to a regional identity through clothing, but rather through patterns of speech, types of food, and their friends.  I am not talking about or including the immigrants of Paris in this assessment.  Their religious and regional identities are often more apparent, especially if they are first-generation.

Notice the diamond necklace.
Wealth in this western culture is not denoted on obvious terms the way it might be in other cultures by certain colors or types of clothing.  Noticing wealth, therefore, is a fact of noticing brand-names, of realizing that shoes are made of real leather, rather than faux leather, that someone wears a new outfit every day, rather than mixing and matching what little clothes one has.  But as looking good is important to all Parisians, it is far more likely that whether wealthy or middle-class, so to speak, what you  own you will be good quality and you take care of well.  Wealth is also, of course, denoted by where one lives, and so may not always be clear in one’s clothing decisions.  As Parisians are careful and particular about their jewelry, one would have to know how to tell diamonds and gold apart from faux diamonds and gilded jewelry.  Furthermore, it is an element of being French that you walk with confidence and certainty.  In this way, the wealthy do not appear any different from someone who might be middle-class.

True homeless poverty is simple to see in Paris.  There are many who appear to wear all they own, who beg in the streets for money, or who wander the metro carriages asking for money, or playing instruments for money.  Many of these people do not own shoes, they are seen in the same areas day-to-day, and they often stake out places where they sleep with what few possessions they own.  Poverty for those who try to integrate into middle-class life is less easy to spot on a purely observational basis.

Looking "nice"

(See Casual day-to-dayA woman is always dressed for the occasion, and looks nice wherever she goes.  Particular to looking extra “nice,” as looking well is always important to the average Parisian, are heels for women, and leather shoes for men.  Dresses for women, typically tight-fitting—what one might call “sexy” opposed to “carefree” or “windblown”—and suits or blazers for men.  Depending on the woman, she may wear more eye make-up when deciding to look nice, but still wears limited foundation, but has clear skin.  Her hair may be up or down, though this is clearly personal preference rather than tradition.

Medieval Garden piece

In the center of one of Paris’s busiest quarters—the Latin Quarter, near Boulevard St.-Michel and the Sorbonne—is the Musée National du Moyen Age and Hotel de Cluny.  This area is so busy, in fact, that one can only be alone on the intersection of St.-Michel and St.-Germain, where the museum is located, early on a Sunday morning, before Paris has awoken.  The museum is an important one for France, and also for the sharing of medieval history; inside are the famous La Dame à la licorne (The Lady and the Unicorn) medieval tapestries, numerous religious sculptures, illuminated manuscripts, and an uncovering of the site’s history back to its Roman founders.  Less celebrated, however, is a garden, which adjoins the museum, modeled after what little is known about gardens of the medieval ages.  Although open to the public, it, unlike its surrounding area, is rarely busy; there is always a place to sit.

If you know about the history of gardens, then you know that the gardens of the medieval ages were slight and humble compared to later royal gardens like those of Versailles or Luxembourg. Neither were they wild and expansive, like the now-protected Bois de Boulogne—the remnants of the old forest that spanned western Paris up to Normandy.  Instead, medieval gardens were small and manicured. Most were for growing food, but the rich kept “pleasure gardens,” specifically for the pleasure of the senses, which grew flowers and herbs.  These gardens’ various uses were usually sectioned, included seating, and sometimes—if large enough—areas for musicians or entertainment.

The park adjoining the Hotel de Cluny is separated from the busy streets of the quarter by fences and surrounded by trees, not dissimilar from most other Parisian parks.  It has a lookout area where park-visitors can see the old ruins of the Roman thermes—or baths—and another area with sand and “jungle gyms” for children to play.  This park along-side the garden is always open to the public and usually populated.  Further secluded behind a wooden enclosure or gate are le préau and la terrasse, the two areas of the park created by the museum most closely modeled after what little is known of medieval gardens.  Though its hours are regulated by the museum, it is usually open to the public.  The wooden enclosure around the garden gives less of a sense of further barrier or separation from the street and instead confirms intimacy and quiet thereby retaining its instructive quality as part of the Musée du Moyen Age.

There are two entrances to le préau and la terrasse: one through the park by way of the children’s play area and up a wooden ramp, and the other I quite prefer, by way of a small cobble-stone walk separated from but alongside Rue de Cluny.  The walk’s pragmatic utility is slight: it only gives entrance to le jardin or gives exit onto Rue du Sommerard.  Unless one is using the walk to get to the garden, it serves no purpose different from Rue de Cluny.  If used as an entrance to the garden, however, it is particularly effective in preparing the visitor for their experience of the garden.

The narrow walk has a Secret Garden spell to it: the trees and plants which line the walkway and its surrounding fence muffle the city sounds, or else the visitor intentionally forgets them.  Birds live in this area of green—not just pigeons, but sparrows, and robins and songbirds—they live throughout Paris’s gardens, however hard to believe.  The area is shaded; it’s secluded.  And all of these things make nature more important than the city—not unbridled, sprawling nature—but the kind of nature placed, grown and cared for by human hands.

Though the view of the pleasance garden and the terrace are far more man-made than that of the walkway, the walkway is only a preparatory step to transporting you into an older time.  Before you walk up the steps to the wooden walkway of the garden, you see the Hotel de Cluny, a seamless blend of Gothic and Renaissance architecture bursting with medieval acknowledgment.  A townhouse in Paris for the abbots of Cluny, the building was later owned by several other religious figures, an astronomer, the Revolutionary state, and Alexandre du Sommerard, an art collector.  It was finally purchased by the state and converted into a museum, which it has remained for 170 years.

As you ascend the steps, in front of you is le préau or, the pleasance.  This is a garden of various flowers and grasses surrounded by clear baths of water.  This area most closely resembles what one might expect from a pleasure garden, while off to the right sits the terrace, “evoking the domestic nature and diverse facets of a medieval garden” (translation my own,    Every aspect of the garden has a meaning or dedication.  A ménagier aligns and separates the different potted areas: basic medicinal herbs are planted in one, vegetables in another.  One potted area contains only flowers which symbolize the Virgin; a sunken path and its surrounding flowers are dedicated to the ancient Sainte-Geneviève, patron saint to Paris; another flower bed evokes l’amour courtois—courtly love—the expression of which, so the stories and poetry say, gave pleasure gardens their utility.  No area of the garden goes without purpose: pleasing to the senses, useful for survival, or in memory of beloved religious figures—all important and vital aspects to medieval life in France.  For a moment, it feels you might exist alongside an older realm.

It is curious to me, why, then, erected in the center of le préau, is a shiny, metal, modern-art installment, impossible not to be seen from anywhere in the garden.  Spanning half of le préau are several narrow strips of shiny metal, bent into elegant and clean swirls and lined up beside each other.  It isn’t that the installment in and of itself is something laughable, but that it so obviously out of place.  It is not a stone sculpture of a saint, neither is it a recognized commemorative art piece.  These obtrusive sheets of bent metal disturb one of the few places in Paris that has the potential to be somewhere truly apart and outside of modernity.  It is not the unfulfilled desire for such a place, but the sheer attainability of the space to have that unique charm which makes the breaking of that charm so disappointing.

Yes, there are children in sneakers and backpacks traipsing down the wooden walks after their teachers who are explaining about the vegetable garden.  And yes, the man sitting across from me in the park is rolling and lighting a cigarette; we’re eating lunch out of plastic bags; we’re texting on cellphones, we’re changing the song on our iPods.  Each visitor is aware we’re living in the 21st century, but apart from the people themselves, there is very little to indicate that within the garden, or amongst the trees, or beside the stone building—except those ill-fitted pieces of metal.  The garden itself is an edifice dedicated to a different time, place, and people.  There is no need for a commemoration inside of a commemoration; there is no need for a reminder of modernity; there is no need to apologize that the garden was a creation of the 21st century instead of the 14th.

With the dedication and study put into the gardens creation as a place inspired by medieval places of beauty, why not hold the illusion?  Let garden visitors believe for a moment, even in the busiest quarter of Paris, that experiencing a space the way it might have been experienced by that different time, place, and people, is possible.