How to be a Parisian

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What you’ll need: a baguette, a beret

Songlist: April in Paris or any of these

Further reading: A Moveable Feast…or any of these.

Everyone has their own Paris.

My parents will be going to Paris in a few weeks, and everyone has advice for them. You must see this! You must eat here! You must! You must! You must!

Paris is the most-visited city in the world, and thus it’s not surprising that so many of their friends have visited, revisited, and made lists for themselves and acquaintances of what must be done in the City of Lights. But, of course, all this is a testament to the fact that you can’t go wrong in Paris. While those of us who have visited only a few times would recommend the few places we’ve been to, those who have lived in the city know that there is no one view of Paris. Each story written on the city is unique. We may think that the city itself is the story, but that is an illusion; Paris is impervious.

And so too, I think, are its inhabitants. How else could you deal with the influx of tourists, the requisition of so many public spaces for photo-ops and souvenir sellers?

This past April I flew to Paris to meet up with a friend studying in Fontainebleau, a town just 45 minutes to the south. I ended up spending only about 5 hours in the city itself. I’d been to Paris twice previously, spending about a week both times. I’d seen the Mona Lisa, the Eiffel Tower, Moulin Rouge, even the Catacombs. So this time I planned visits to the Palais Garnier, the Marais district, and Notre Dame, which I’d only seen from the outside.

When I got back to Fontainebleau I flipped through a book of photographs of Paris from the air. I was amazed then to see so many gorgeous sights–French gardens, museums, palaces–that I’d never seen, never even considered visiting. I understood then that you could spend a lifetime walking the streets of Paris and never see everything.

Do you appreciate it if you’re Parisian? Do you notice that everything you pass by would be the most-visited tourist site in any other city?

One can only hope that the answer is yes. That day I spent in Paris this past April was cold and rainy, and my boots were soaked through immediately after exiting the Metro. But at the end of my few hours, I emerged at Cité, the Metro stop nearest Notre Dame, and found myself surrounded by a flower market. It was unexpected and breath-taking. Instead of going to the Cathedral right away, I strolled through aisles of hydrangeas, pressed my nose into roses, took pictures of lime trees and birds-of-paradise. I don’t think I could ever not love this.

Emerging from the Metro with the flower market behind

 

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2 days in Paris

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When I was traveling from Minnesota to Paris fellow travelers asked me one question: “Is this your first time visiting Paris?”

I can understand the question: I’m young- and perhaps idealistic looking. But when I answered that it wouldn’t be my first time in Paris, but that I’d also be visiting Germany and it was my first time there, they’d invariably be disappointed. By the third time I realized I should just lie and say, yes, this will be my first time in Paris and I’m so excited to see the Mona Lisa and the Eiffel Tower in person. There is, after all, a magical quality to Paris that seduces all without exception.

My fellow travelers need not have worried: Paris is a city that never ceases to amaze. After an arduous process meeting up with my friend who lives just outside of Paris I went into the city again the next day. I visited the gorgeous Palais Garnier and finally went inside Notre Dame. And my favorite moment from the whole day was emerging exhausted from the Cite metro station and finding a huge flower market in the middle of the main island of Paris.

That’s the thing about traveling: as much as we can plan for wonderful experiences, it’s the unexpected ones that take us by surprise and linger on in our memories.

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How to road trip around Europe

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What you’ll need: Euros

Songlist: The Muppets singing Movin’ Right Along, From Paris to Berlin by Infernal

Further reading: On the Road by Jack Kerouac

I don’t know a lot about this topic yet, but I will soon since I’m flying to Paris in a few hours. After a few days in France, I’ll take off for a road trip in southern Germany to see mountains, medieval towns, and a metric ton of castles.

Thus I’m going to temporarily highjack this blog while in Europe and make it a travelogue. Hopefully I’ll be able to write brief updates (on my iPhone, so they’ll be very brief) and post a few pictures along the way.

Dilettante will resume as normal on May 8th when I return to the USA. Frankly, stories and pictures from Europe will probably be more exciting. Á tout à l’heure!

How to be a historian

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What you’ll need: A vivid imagination, a tolerance for dust

Songlist: John Lennon’s Remember or any of these songs about historical events

Further reading: Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

25,000-year-old handprints at cave in Lascaux

I had an epiphany during college. It was sophomore year and I was walking with a friend who had chosen history to be his major; I was still undecided. History, he told me, explains how the world came to be and gives us guidelines for how to live our lives in the present. Only by studying history will we ensure a better future.

It occurred to me then that history is a lens like any other potential college major, and our field reflects the way we understand the world. An economics major could easily argue the same point: decisions are driven by economic factors and economics therefore explain the way the world works. A psychologist would say the same thing for psychology, as would a physicist for physics, and so on.

I ended up choosing creative writing as a major because I understand the world as a vast network of stories. History is full of such stories. However, in high school, I never got that sense. I memorized dates and names of famous wars and men. But data doesn’t interest me nearly as much as narrative and so I never took any history classes in college.

It’s only after I started this blog that I realized how fascinated I am by history. If you’ve followed, you may have noticed that I often include a post about the history of the week’s theme, whether about spies, diseases, beer-brewing, or witches. I spend countless hours researching these histories and find myself engrossed in their richness.

Nazi soldiers sightsee in Paris

Two weeks from today I’m flying to Paris; I’ve been researching the city’s history in preparation. The period of the Nazi occupation particularly interests me. Whenever I learned about terrible historical events as a schoolchild, I would always imagine myself a hero: the person who gave food and shelter and transportation to the persecuted, the voice of reason that opposed the rulers. Though certainly there were some Parisians who “resisted” the Nazis, most inhabitants tried their best to continue their lives as normally as possible. I wonder what I would have done–written secret pamphlets and distributed them at risk of being executed? Helped foreign nationals escape into the unoccupied territory? Would I instead have accepted an invitation to a concert at the German Institute if it meant warmth and a filling meal? Or perhaps I would have clung to my ration cards, avoided making eye contact in the streets, and kept my mouth closed.

Each choice is illustrated in history by a multitude of narratives. And, due to my chosen major in college, I am of course creating my own.

 

How to be a museum curator

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What you’ll need: an art history degree

Songlist: Can’t Touch This by MC Hammer, The Art Teacher by Rufus Wainwright

Further reading: The Night at the Museum by Milan Trenc, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (but don’t actually read this one)

Monet's waterlilies curve around the specially designed rooms of Musee L'Orangerie in Paris

Yesterday my boyfriend and I went to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for a family-friendly event called ¡España! I had been lured by the promise of flamenco guitar in the galleries. Since I was fairly sure I would know the guitarist(s)–the Twin Cities flamenco community is not all that big–I was more interested in the concept of looking at art with flamenco guitar as a backdrop than the music itself. After wandering around the galleries waiting to hear guitar strings vibrating in the vicinity, we finally just asked a docent where to find the guitarist. He pointed back the way we came: all the way to the end of the hall, take a left, and all the way to the end of that hall. We wound up in a bright white atrium–no art on the walls–facing an empty black chair with a microphone forlornly angled at the floor and a sign saying “Flamenco guitar: 12 pm-4pm.” I looked at my watch: 3:15 pm.

The day was not a total waste, though, because I always love wandering the Institute’s halls. We walked past old favorites–the easy to love Monet haystack and Van Gogh olive trees, the more violent Max Beckmann triptych that my mom and I discovered last April–and temporary galleries of photography and modern art.

It wasn’t always like this. When I was a kid and it was one of my parents’ birthdays or we had a visitor from out-of-town, we would invariably go to the MIA. I was not bored by the art at the time, but I always assumed beforehand that I would be; this assumption, voiced in protest to my parents, meant that I could not thereafter be seen enjoying myself at the art museum.

Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!)

Perhaps it was when I visited London with my mom at the age of 14 that I suddenly realized how much I do enjoy being at art museums. We went to the National Gallery and I fell in love with two paintings there: Henri Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm and The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche. Because they were the first paintings I truly loved, they are still the paintings I love best.

And while I haven’t fallen quite so hard for any other painting, I have been strongly affected many times since while touring art museums: at Madrid’s Reina Sofia I stood shocked at Picasso’s Guernica and felt intensely nostalgic in front Dali’s Muchacha de Espalda. I felt awed by the gigantic water lily paintings that wrap around two ovular galleries in the Musee L’Orangerie in Paris. And I was giddy with excitement seeing Van Gogh’s Starry Night in person at the MoMA.

The best experience I had, though, was a thirty-minute jaunt through the Louvre on a Friday evening with my friend Hilary. Admission was free for those under 26 on Friday evenings, and we’d meant to get there earlier but had dallied. This also happened to be a night where musicians were scattered around the vast palaces. Hilary and I raced past a jazz trio playing in front of an Egyptian pyramid, a violinist in the Great Hall, a brass quartet by the Venus de Milo. It was this beautiful phantasmagoria of color and sound made more exciting by the fact that we were actually, literally, running through the Louvre to take it all in.

What I can’t fathom is how incredible it would be to work in these buildings, to patrol the corridors where incredible art hangs, to have meetings down the hall from John Singer Sargent or El Greco or Caravaggio. Does a curator become complacent about the scenery? It seems doubtful. I imagine that being in that setting day after day would be like a perpetual dream…flamenco guitar or not.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey

The best bookstores in the world

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I posted about the world’s most beautiful libraries back in July, but there are just as many cool bookstores in the world. Books, being so full of art and history themselves, often find homes in buildings full of history and glamor.

Take the Livraria Lello, a bookstore in Porto, Portugal (the link brings you through to 360 degree views of the interior). Though it looks more suited to a grand ballroom in a gothic revivalist mansion, the Livraria–complete with wood paneling and stained glass skylight windows–was built in 1881 specifically for the purpose of selling books. It’s not hard to remember that books were once considered treasures in such a gorgeous setting:

Portugal's Livraria Lello

Or take Holland’s Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen, a bookstore housed in an 800 year-old church. After the Dominican congregation left the Maastrich church, a team of architects repurposed the space to sell books. After admiring 14th century paintings, take a break at the cafe–conveniently located where the alter once stood:

The Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen in Maastrich, Holland

The beautiful Ateneo bookstore in Buenos Aires is located in a former theater, red velvet curtain and balconies still intact:

El Ateneo in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Other bookstores survive not so much on physical grandeur but on historio-literary cachet, such as City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Shakespeare and Company, an English-language staple in Paris. The original Shakespeare and Co, founded in 1919 by Sylvia Beach, was popular with the Lost Generation expatriates, such as Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce. Beach was, in fact, the first publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses. The store closed in 1941 during the German occupation of Paris, and never reopened. Ten years later, the second store bearing the name was opened in homage to the first and drew the Beat Generation, including Allen Ginsburg, Gregory Corso, and William S. Burroughs. The store itself is tiny and packed full with books–none of the wasted space of that lofty cathedral nonsense:

The volume-crowded interior of Paris's Shakespeare and Company

Several directors have also paid tribute to Shakespeare and Company by filming scenes at the iconic bookstore. Woody Allen featured it in 2011’s Midnight in Paris, and here it is in one of my favorite movies, Before Sunrise:

Artisanal cheeses

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Yummmmmmmm

Let’s play a game. I’ll give you the adjective, you tell me the first noun that pops into your head: unrequited; scarlet; artisanal. You are correct if you answered: love; letter; cheese. (Yes, there are correct answers in this game and yes, this post will be my love letter to cheese).

The author, at left, in a Wisconsin cheese hat (much to the chagrin of her Minnesota Vikings brethren)

I’ve had meals the world over consisting of not much more than cheese. I flew to meet a friend in Milwaukee, where we found an incredible beer-and-cheese restaurant. Wisconsin specializes in dairy products and beer (I could make fun of the fact that they’ve also topped the nation’s obesity list, but now that I’m dating a Wisconsinite I’ll refrain…oops, too late) so we delighted over our Milwaukee microbrews and local cheddars. It was a perfect dinner.

While visiting a friend in Paris, we dined at many fine French restaurants before deciding that all we really needed was cheese and wine. We bought a baguette, a bottle of red, and several packages of cheese so fine they’re illegal to import into the US. We took our picnic to a pedestrian bridge right by the Louvre that is inhabited every night by Parisian hipsters, all with their own 40s and guitars and dreadlocks and roller skates.

Eating cheese on a Parisian bridge like a true hipster

And, when spending a week with a British family in London, I was thrilled to find that dessert every night was a board of select cheeses and bowls of fruit sprinkled liberally with sugar. (Picture an elderly British gentleman sitting back in his chair and exclaiming, “Well, dear, shall we bring out the cheese board, then?”)

There is an art to cheese making, which you know if you’ve ever read any of Brian Jacque’s Redwall series, and which I had the unexpected pleasure of learning just before college graduation. I was sitting on my front porch on a beautiful Saturday when a friend emerged from our house and asked me to bike to Dartmouth’s organic farm with her. The fact that I had never been there in my four years was a source of shame to me, so I immediately agreed (and then begged around the house to borrow a bike).

We chose an excellent time to arrive, as student workers were just about to start a mozzarella demonstration. We were given milk, rennet, citric acid, and a pot to heat it all up. After letting it set, we cut the curds up, strained out the whey with a cheesecloth, and added salt. We were all amazed at how tiny a ball of mozzarella emerged from two gallons of milk. I was also amazed at how good our cheese tasted. We ate our cheese that afternoon with bread baked fresh at the farm and water from our Nalgenes. And you know what? It was perfect.

Excuse me for a minute, I’m going to go refill my wine glass and slice some cheese…