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.