Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Paris Vignettes

In the summer of 1999 when I was 20 years old, I went on a study abroad trip to Paris with my cousin Danielle, sponsored by her school, Tulane University. During the month I spent there I learned a lot about Paris, and a lot about myself as well. Here are some excerpts from the journal that I kept.

…and all Paris belongs to me
and I belong
to this notebook and this pencil


Right now I am about to descend from the clouds into a city where no one knows me. After 7 hours of racing against time & space, we have flown into the sun into tomorrow. In a way, planes are time machines. I just hope that the little bit of French I’ve learned will do me some good when we get down there.


Perhaps I’ll make a little more sense now, though the reality of Paris still hasn’t quite sunk in yet. It seems unreal to me, like a movie. And at times I still feel like I’m back in the states. Thankfully, I don’t really feel homesick. I was starting to get so bored with Chicago and my life there that I’m glad to be thousands of miles away. I don’t miss it yet.

But so far, I just feel like I don’t have much in common with the people I’ve met here. Not like I really care.

But I did a lot of things today: hunted for an adapter to work with my computer, rode a Ferris wheel from which I could see the entire city (and cured myself of my fear of heights), saw the outside of the Louvre, and had a picnic on the Seine.

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I had a fabulous day today. I shopped on the Champs-Élysées and got all this great stuff. I used my credit card for the first time. I also got to check my e-mail. I sent out a little message bidding all my friends farewell before I left. I’d hoped I’d be able to have access here on the laptop via a French access #, but of course ne marche pas. So I bought 5 hours of access at Le Jardin de L’Internet, right across from Le Jardin de Luxembourg. Looks like a certain Mr. Somebody messed up big time. He didn’t even write back to me. It’s getting clearer & clearer to me now. And even though he’s on the other side of the world, I don’t even miss him. Perhaps I can just walk away from it all without even shedding a tear.

Enough contemplation. I’m going to dinner now.


I find Parisians to be difficult to figure out. They can be such snobs sometimes, though their snobbery is often easy to forgive because they are such stylish and beautiful people. Their prejudices, too, are also often difficult to determine: are they rude to me & Danielle because we’re Black, or simply because we’re foreigners? Like today at the boulangerie we went to. Why’d it take 15 minutes for us to get any service?

Anyway, here’s a summary of what I did today:

- worked out in my bed (quite a feat, doing butt crunches on a mattress)
- searched for a good boulangerie in the rain
- bought 2 brioches and ½ kilo of cherries
- had lunch and read Hemingway
- searched for a good restaurant in the pouring rain
- went to dinner and had great French fries & yet another awkward experience as a foreigner & felt very stupid
- had a conversation with a bunch of people with whom I have nothing in common
- came back in the pouring rain from dinner only to have another convo with people I can’t relate to
- discussed a 4th of July party at the U.S. Embassy that may have never taken place
- watched Danielle stress over what she’d wear for going out tonight

So what am I doing right now? Chilling. Listening to this mad tight Jamiroquai song that they were blasting at a party across the street. I never noticed it before.

I just wish I didn’t feel so uncomfortable wit people who aren’t on my wavelength. I no longer even look for common ground. I just shut them out of my life. I never let them into my world because I figure they’d make fun of who I really am and I’m sick of having to endure that.

Why should I be laughed at? Why should I be ridiculed? Why not just be alone and be happy? Because that’s exactly what I am right now. And I don’t need to drink, nor do I need anyone’s approval. I’m stubborn, I’m hardheaded, I’m Tiffany. And I don’t wanna change any of that.

So I came here as a student. Not just studying American Expatriates in a program sponsored by Tulane, but as a student of the city of Paris. I came hear to learn whatever life lessons it has to teach me. Paris is an enchanting seductive place. It draws you in and won’t let go.


So here’s what I did today:

- saw Ernest Hemingway’s apartment again (took a picture of it this time)
- had class in the splendor of the Luxembourg Gardens
- was annoyed by a girl named Molly* who asked the prof. to do the cakewalk
- had a chicken sandwich and fries that would have been so much better with BBQ sauce
- was followed by a strange man who was singing & playing acoustic guitar
- checked my e-mail (same old same old)
- went on a wild goose chase to find out if Lauryn Hill will be here (but she won’t)
- sat on the balcony & sketched while listening to Jamiroquai
- had pizza without cheese in the front window of a restaurant and was stared at by a crazy man
- hit on by a French waiter who wanted me & Danielle to play bee-yard (pool) with him at some bar
- drank a cappuccino, which is why I’m still wired at 2:10 A.M. French time

That’s all for now. I’m about to call my mom.


- woke up with 2 cups of strong French coffee
- had class in a café & drank more strong French coffee as Prof. Smith imparted his fascinating wisdom
- came back, read some articles and fell asleep
- found out that Lenny Kravitz was just here last week so we can’t see him in concert
- got a great mozzarella, tomato, and basil Panini from across the street (my only meal today porquoi je suis au régime)
- had a discussion with Danielle and Carubie about how everyone at Tulane is just alike
- saw a KFC on a street corner that reminded me of Harlem
- was harassed by a crazy guy on the Metro on the way back. He actually touched Danielle so I guess now she has to cauterize her face.

7/8/99 (forgive me for skipping a day)

Anyway, you’d think I’d have written in here last night since we went to the Eiffel Tower. It was cool, but not as breath-taking as I expected. Maybe I’m just jaded now. It’s amazing how quickly the “Wow! I’m really in Paris” feeling wears off and the reality of it all sets in that I am an American, a foreigner, unable to communicate with most of the people we meet. Like today, I met these 2 Black guys, Africans I guess. They were fairly nice, but me & Danielle could barely communicate with them. And then at the music store, there were a bunch of fine-looking brothers. After my first disappointment, I pretty much gave up on trying to talk to them. Not that it matters; I’m not even that good at flirting with guys in the States.

Well at least classes are going well. But what’s crazy is that we keep waking up later & later. Today I didn’t even get to finish my coffee at breakfast and them even worse, I forgot 2 of my books.

I really like it here though. I just worry sometimes about the food. How caloric is it, really? When I stop and think about it, it’s not much different from what I usually had at school. I’m going to stop worrying about it on paper because it is so frustrating.

The strangest thing is not feeling homesick in the slightest way. The distance has no meaning for me.

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Yesterday (before I forget)
- went to a great museum of African art
- went to Champs-Élysées & found Zara paradise (now the joy of my world is in Zara)
- A man at the Gap said, “Hello, I love you,” to me. He worked there.

So now for today:
- got up way too early for a trip that’s lasted way too long (I’m on the way back as I write this)
- got a croissant & a Sprite at a French truck stop
- had a really annoying tour guide who talked too much about too little
- saw the quaintest things I’ve ever wanted to take pictures of: fields of sunflowers & haystacks; French country cottages
- saw a castle
- had lunch inside a cave
- saw another castle & was stalked by French madrigal singers in funny masks & capes
- saw Leonardo DaVinci’s brilliant inventions
- saw houses carved out of caves
- had a rendition of a similar meal to lunch inside the cave (quiche & fish again?)

And how could I have forgotten that yesterday I discovered Kinder Eggs, chocolate egg-shaped candies that have plastic toys inside. They’re quite intriguing and now there are is a substantial number of us who are cult followers of this exciting confectionery wonder. They can have the chocolate; I just want the little toys inside. We must be bored, or crazy, or both.

I did take a lot of great pictures. Hopefully they’ll come out well & I can prove that taking photography class wasn’t in vain. Sometimes I still feel bad about that, though it’s hard to say exactly why.


Interesting things I’ve seen:
- French kids playing rock-paper-scissors on the Metro (they said un, deux, trois)
- guys with Spice Girls shoes on
- fireworks over the Seine
- Naughty by Nature encouraging French people to yell “F*** the police!” at their concert
- a French girl who couldn’t rap and got bottles of water thrown at her during the freestyle contest
- a restaurant with American food
- a cook in the restaurant eating a French fry off someone’s plate when he thought no one was looking
- French MTV
- a girl told by Frenchmen (2x in one day) that they could be her destiny


Things I’ve done today:
- sent postcards
- found cool store that sells action figures from Austin Powers and The X-Files
- lunch: cheese, tomato, & avocado on a crêpe with a chocolate shake
- rode out to the French countryside
- saw Barbizon, birthplace of pre-Impressionism
- saw Fontainbleau
- dinner at Le Donjon, an abandoned restaurant in an abandoned town across an abandoned road from an abandoned castle
- visited Vaux le Vicomte, saw it all lit up by candles. Quite possibly the most romantic place on earth. And now I’m inspired to read (and see) The Man in the Iron Mask because it was filmed there. I think that if a man brought me here (and brought a little Neruda to read aloud) I’d be his forever.


- took the Metro to the Louvre
- I was impressed but didn’t sketch because I just wasn’t in the mood for some crazy reason
- saw the Mona Lisa surrounded by swarms of tourists
- rode back on a Metro train that reeked with sweat and was hot enough to make people cuss in many languages.

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There is a certain restless beauty about today. And it’s not because I might now be (or was once) in love and it’s not because the sun is out and it’s summer. It’s because it’s Paris and I’m 20. I came here knowing only 1 other person, making it wonderful. To be in a city where no one knows you, where you never have to worry about meeting up with people from your past… it’s liberating. And somehow it makes me feel beautiful and exotic, more like myself. In the same way, I suppose, that I feel more like myself when I am alone, or at least away from the forced interactions of others.

There is something seductive about this city. And I’m glad I’m here to experience it. Twenty. Alone. Without the interruptions of social obligations. No longer beneath the overly watchful eyes of worried parents. I love Paris so much that I must come here again, and soon.

- had class at Sacre Coeur
- checked out a few shops on St. Michel
- finally got a strapless bra; it cost a small fortune, but it’s French
- had dinner at our Italian place: pizza without cheese; spinach; the best chocolate ice cream ever


- found a real mall!
- met a Frenchman who said, “I am boyfriend for you, yes?”
- found a cute hoodie & some funky pink pants at H&M, where a big sale is going on
- came back here & chilled with Danielle

Now I need to go to sleep so I can be rested for the field trip tomorrow.
(we leave at 7:30!)


Giverny was beautiful. It’s where Monet lived and its gardens were the inspiration for so many of his paintings. The American museum we went to after that made me homesick for the Smart Museum. (I really do want to work there again after we get back.) But the castle we went to after that was totally pointless. It was practically falling apart, was totally irrelevant to everything, and besides on the way up the mountain I thought our bus was going to take a dive over the edge. I’m just thankful to God I survived that harrowing experience. So now I’m back in the room and the bells of Notre Dame are ringing. I don’t feel like today was a total waste of time, although I do wish the trip could have been cut short because I really want to go back to that mall again.


- got up really early to go to Giverny
- saw the gardens, Monet’s house, his blue kitchen, his yellow dining room, and the Black men tending to the flowers and chickens outside; saw a real, live turkey. It communicated with Danielle.
- got my mom prints from the gift shop
- saw the broke-down castle
- threatened in French by a crazy old guy who thought he knew karate & tried to do that lame Karate Kid tsuru dachi kick thing.
- found a French/African restaurant with great food, music, and a little black poodle that hid under our table while we had dinner


How sad that this time next week we’ll be leaving. Sadder still are the credit card bills I’ll have to pay. Oh well, like Granny used to say, there’s a 1st time for everything. Still, I must admit that I am very much excited about all the great finds I have now. I think I’ll make my mother proud (well, if you don’t account for the pink pants & crazy shirt I got) I’m trying to develop a better sense of style.


Today’s events:
- went to the Champs-Élysées, the Elysian Fields of fashion & got some great stuff
- saw a cute clerk at the Gap who asked me out (I turned him down)
- finally went to the “bright color store” as we called it and found that their prices were way too high (but I loved their clothes)

So right now I’m actually about to go out. Can you believe that? Even more stupefying is the fact that our professor is taking us out. I’ll have a whole lot to write about when I get back.

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I had so much fun last night that I wonder if it’s wrong. In my defense, let me first state that all I did was dance & all I drank was Coke. And besides, my professor was there. And odd scenario, wasn’t it? To think an English professor would call us up and find out if we had plans for the evening, and then suggest that he take us out. Actually, both Danielle and I appreciate it because we’re sick and tired of having everything we do ruined by the presence of crazy people. And surprisingly, I found the men at the club last night (well, with the exception of a Senegalese lunatic) surprisingly tame in comparison to the crazy, overly-eager Frenchmen who’ve been trying to get our attention.

The weird thing about the club (which is called Java) is that almost every dance requires a partner. So I was constantly being asked by men who are my dad’s age. The first one was old and ugly and I thought there was no way I’d dance with him. But when I went out on the floor so we could hear the band better, I realized that’s the way things are done there. So I danced with at least 5 guys who completely repulsed me. One of them had hands so sweaty that they felt like he’d just dipped them in water. But each one taught me a little more about salsa dancing. At the end of each song I’d usually trade partners, working my way up to the one really fine guy I saw there who looked like he was about my age.

Anyway, like I said before, I had a lot of fun last night. The music was funky and soulful, I met a guy who was really fun to dance with and learned how to salsa, and I got a little peek at Paris nightlife. Still , I wonder if it’s wrong for a Christian (the bells of Notre Dame are pealing as I write this) to go to clubs, even if for the sole purpose of dancing. Everybody knows C.O.G.I.C. dogma is completely against the very idea of dancing (other than when people are shouting). Is it possible for a Christian to enjoy themselves in a secular setting with impunity?

- got crêpes
- went up to Sacre-Coeur & ate there ( It was soooo crowded)
- met two nice guys who spoke good English (one is a linguistics major)
- had our first almost uneventful Metro trip since we got here

Still thinking about yesterday and hoping what I did wasn’t wrong. I don’t want to worry about this because I worry entirely too much. And I want to be free of the burden of worrying. But I just need to know whether it’s right or wrong because if it’s wrong then it must be terrible for me to want to go there again Thursday night. But if it isn’t wrong than I just need to stop worrying about it and free my mental energy up for the tests I’ll be taking. I wish I wasn’t so stupid about these things.


- went to class
- took a nap
- hung out with Rodney from my figure drawing class last year (he’s here to study French)
- got panini & read a little
- got dressed to go out (broke out with the funky pink pants)
- went on a wild escapade in search of Afro-Brazilian music

So sad to think that this time next week I’ll be back at home again. What will I be doing, anyway? Will I be condemned as a poor lost Jezebel? Will they tell me, “woman, thou art loose” because I danced with a lot of guys? I am anguished.

So we leave next week. It’s so odd to think of that. In some ways it’s like we’ve been here forever, yet at the same time it seems like a day. Somehow the whole experience had been both enduringly eternal and fleetingly temporal. And there are moments when I felt like I’d always lived here and knew nothing else but Paris. There were, of course, other times when it would suddenly hit me, the reality of being a foreigner here. But now I realize I’ll miss it.


- had classes for the last time today, the second one in the Jardin de Luxemboug. Our prof. congratulated us on our fortitude ( as well he should have cuz we’re working 2x as hard as the rest of them)
- got crêpes
- tried to study on the balcony but got distracted by everything
- finally started writing take-home essay answers
- got dinner at the Italian place for the last (?) time
- finished take-home test

Now I plan to study some more then go to bed.

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I’m so restless now that I can’t study anymore. I just want this test to be over with. I feel bound and tied—wanting to get a perfect score on the test, wanting not to care. My ambivalence has got me all tangled up. I’m so scared I’ll blow it. In some ways I’d be happy with an A- or B+; in other ways I wouldn’t be. And I’m just crazy anyway. If I were normal, things would be different. My mind keeps wandering off.

Ever since I went out dancing I haven’t been the same. I want to dance every time I hear a salsa beat. I want to grab the nearest cute guy and dance with him. See, it didn’t take much to send me over the edge. Sometimes I think I am on the border of being borderline. I need to stop writing in here because I came to this café (ostensibly) to study. But I can’t anymore. I am too restless, too distracted, and too confused
It’s funny to sit here & think that I am once again sitting in a windowsill after finals. Only this time I’m in Paris, and it’s a balcony with French doors and wrought iron, not at all like the ledges I’m used to. Finals are emotionally painful for me. All through high school, it just kept getting worse and worse until I finally had that MI-4 final.

I was never really sure how I did on it. I never could be sure with math or science, which is strange considering the fact that in both disciplines right and wrong answers are so strictly delineated. I left the final with a feeling of anguishing uncertainty that grew as I traveled further & further away from IMSA down to Texas and back. I couldn’t enjoy my Christmas break. It was like I already knew.

And then, when I got back home and sat down on the couch beside the Christmas tree, I got my gifts: a leather jumper from Saks and the news that I’d failed. I’d already bargained my life; if I didn’t pass that class I was going to kill myself. But I’d failed and besides I didn’t really mean it.

So now I’m in the windowsill again. Just like when I was 17 and stood in the 2nd floor windowsill and looked out into a bleak, snowy wasteland. Just like when I was 19 and listened to Collective Soul sing about “the world I know” in as 6th floor window that overlooked an alley and the fire escapes that zigzagged the backs of the buildings facing the alley. Now I am in Paris. I am overlooking a bright & mostly cheerful street, save the known derelicts. There are couples and students and little kids and bakeries and fruit stands. And I don’t want to jump. I’m not even contemplating the act. It’s just that I hate finals. I hate their finality and their uncertainty. Every time I take one I feel as though I’ll fail. I’m forever contaminated by the residue of that poisonous experience at IMSA.

For me, finals are an experience of terror, or of life & death. And I know what it’s like to have one take my life. I haven’t been the same since then. The depression went away after 5 months, but every time finals come around I find myself in a windowsill, it seems, then down on my knees crying to God for mercy.

The stakes are always so high. Always, it seems like the fate of the free world has been placed upon my shoulders. And my parents say, “we’re counting on you,” and somehow I accept that accountability though I know I’ll collapse under its staggering weight every time. I can’t blame them; they mean well. But this time I think it’s just the psychological contamination of the terrible experience that has gripped my senses this time. I feel my eyes ready to melt into tears at any second. I feel the need to shove all other people away, to pretend no one else exists or better still erase them from the sketchpad of the world so that I have a nice blank sheet all to myself. I want silence. No birds singing, no Lauryn Hill, no cars. Finals always leave me like this, already bleeding and an easy target for infection. I wish I wasn’t like this. I wish things like this didn’t affect me the way they do. I had a knife pulled on me once. I’ve been accosted by strange men in scary places. I’ve seen & experienced many things that should be much more terrifying. But somehow this seems much more deadly, the idea of failing a final. Why am I like this? What exactly am I afraid of? Not being perfect? The death of my mind? And if I re-read this right now, I will most certainly cry. And I can’t let anyone else see me do that.

What I did today
- went to café & studied
- took the test & felt horrible afterwards
- went to Chatelet for the last time
- went with Danielle to get her nose pierced
- went to Hanes for soul food
- went to some club I forgot the name of that had Afro-Cuban music but not as much dancing as Java, although there were 2 FINE brothers there (and a few cute White boys, too)
- came back here sad ‘cause I realized that I didn’t do as many things as I would have liked

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Now I feel like I have nothing to go back to. The “city that works” can’t even compare to the “city of light.” And what happened last night was the epitome of the experiences that have passed me by . While we were at that club last night, I saw this FINE brother sitting over at the bar. Then he came over to the dance floor where we’d been standing. He was right in front of me, close enough to touch. But of course I was too shy & tongue-tied to speak to him. Soon after that, he was gone and I thought he’d left for good. But no! On our way out, once we’d decided to leave there he was, sitting near the door, smiling at me. That was soooo frustrating. I could have kicked myself.

But that is the story of my life. I’m too afraid to even try sometimes, unless I’m in a rare extroverted mood. And last night I just wasn’t feeling it. I was bored the second I walked into that place because I didn’t hear any music. (But at Java, you can hear the music from down the block.) And I gave Danielle my drink ticked because I knew I wasn’t gonna dance enough t get thirsty. And I kept worrying that maybe just being there was wrong, even though I just came to hear the music.

I wish I could just be free of this madness. Why does their opinion matter so much to me? Why do I even care what they think? I’m 20. What my parents want me to do shouldn’t even matter. Maybe it’s because I doubt my own judgment and despise the lapses I’ve had. (which they are always so quick to point out) I feel like I’m at a crossroads right now. But not between right & wrong. Just between my way & their way, my conformity to what I think they expect of me and my freedom of expression & individuality. Why do I just go along with so much? Why do I let them persuade me so easily?

I just can’t take it anymore. I can’t go on like this, having to do so many things in secret that aren’t wrong anyway. Things have got to change now. I just can’t do this anymore. I’m getting my license, I’m getting a job, and I’m looking for a place to live before I completely go out of my mind. I am no longer content to resign myself to a non-existent realm because I can’t deal with reality. I can actually do something about reality and change it if I try. I guess I never tried before because I never cared that much. I never cared that much because I had never found anything to strive for. But now I do. And when I get back, I’m changing my whole life.

Today (our last day here so we tried to cram as much into it as possible)

- breakfast: brioche fresh out of the oven
- McDonald’s for lunch (don’t even ask why)
- went to African Art museum again
- went to Champs-Élysées for the last time
- back to Sephora to get Dad some cologne; got a free henna tattoo & a henna kit
- went back to Louvre & Tuileries
- got a few souvenirs
- got crêpe mix, Nutella, & Kinder Eggs to take back
- went out to dinner at the African restaurant with Danielle, Carubie, Brooke, Rachel, and Amanda
-went out to Java for the last time

Leaving Paris is going to render me heartbroken & I know it’ll take a long time for me to get over it.

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