10. Open topic
Being here, you can understand why peole think of it as the city of love. The presence of human attachment, the desire to share what you experience with another person, is palpable nearly everywhere you go. But so is the absence of the fulfillment of that desire, and so I say that Paris is the best place I can imagine to be depressed in.
New York, by contrast, is the best place I've ever lived (admittedly a somewhat short list) to be enraged. Like Paris, New York is perfect for lovers, but New York, I think, is too high energy to allow for depression in the face of domestic bliss. Anytime I find myself depressed in New York for more than a day, the hard edge of the city creeps into my apartment and finds me, and soon I'm having one of those days where I'm just walking around, waiting for someone to do something that justifies me telling them to fuck off (and luckily, being New York, I don't have to wait very long.) In the absence of positiv human connection, New York facilitates a negative one, and just walking down the street you can see those people who aren't getting any and as a result have become ticking time bombs just waiting to explode.
But Paris, the birthplace of ennui, raises loneliness and depression to an art form, even a religion: a communal, ever-present, transcendant state. While spending a Saturday night drinking by yourself in Nw York makes you a loser, in Paris every night of the week you can see at any bar a couple guys, of a variety of ages, often good-looking and well-dressed, sitting by themselves and knocking one back, looking for all the world like this drink is all that's keeping them from offing themselves. On even the most popular streets in the trendiest quartiers, you can always spot that woman in her bathrobe, standing on the balcony of her second story apartment, smoking a cigarette and watching the happy drunken children stumble home, cat-calling and scream-laughing into the night as the take leave of the friends. The look on her face, the woman, envy and self-preserving disgust, it's a familiar feeling to anyone who's spent enough time here and no one would hold it against here. You are never alone in your loneliness; in fact, you are reenacting a tradition as Parisian as cheese plates and hating the Eiffel Tower. Compounded with the loneliness of being an American, the one who can understand the language but doesn't get the jokes, the weight of it can be staggering, crushing, unlike anything I've ever experienced in New York. This feels almost ancient, more primal - like grieving for something you weren't alive to remember.
During bouts of home internet access, the soundtrack to my homework has been video after youtube video of bitter anti-love songs which best fit my mood - I will forever associate writing in French with Carly Simon. As a result of these elaborate searches, my sad sond reportoire has expanded tremendously. So quick shout-out to my latest fave: anyone else know Josh Rouse? If you don't, next time you feel homesick, listen to "michigan." And have a box of tissues handy.
For better or for worse, America has always had some difficulty defining itself. Let no one argue that we don’t try: John Steinbeck, an American icon, dedicated a year-long trip—and the resulting novel—to the search for an American identity. But despite such intellectual quests (which may, themselves, be part of the American way!), it’s easy to grow up in the US with the impression that nations just don’t have identities. For me, growing older and seeing more and more the range of nationalities, religions, races, and regional attitudes that our country holds, I came to think of people pertaining to much smaller spheres than a nation. I see myself as resembling and sharing common ideals with my immediate community— my family and friends, New York City, Gallatin, etc.—but there are regions of my country that I’m no more connected to than I am to mainland China.
My fractured concept of national identities was shaken up by my recent trips to London, Liverpool, and Munich. Though travel was a big part of my upbringing, the place in which I had spent the most time was South Africa, my father’s home country. Talk about a struggle for national cohesion… besides its colonial past, South Africa’s notion of self was stretched to the absolute limits by the years of apartheid rule. Far more so than the United States, South Africa is a mix of seemingly irreconcilable differences of belief, race, culture, and language. For me, raised in a sense in these two environments, a salient national identity seemed truly impossible.
Perhaps it is because I am already in keen observation mode, being abroad this semester, but the particular cultures of England and Munich positively jumped out at me when I traveled there. While I could write a 20-page paper exploring the nuances and contradictions inherent to the American or South African identity, I felt I could capture the British spirit or the Bavarian spirit in a sentence or two. The Brits were strikingly diverse (compared to Parisians, that is) and appeared comfortable with themselves, edgy at times but also playful, somewhat plump and/or out of shape, and were often colorfully dressed. The Bavarians all seemed to have the same glowy, almost ruddy complexion, sparkly eyes, somewhat bland style, and spoke OUTSTOUNDINGLY good English. Knowing people in both cities gave me access to more personal social interaction, and even in these settings my overall observations held true. Needless to say, I was amazed. And what a peculiar sense of satisfaction, that such definable cultures exist somewhere, after all!
Of course, the cynic in me wonders, particularly as I put all of this into words, whether the apparently tidy definitions were really so. It may well be that the window of a 3-4 day trip creates a neat frame around the local culture that would quickly fall apart with more time spent there. I do think, however, that the longer a national culture has existed without great interruption, the more possible it is for a shared identity to form and solidify. In France, England, and Germany, major world powers and—more importantly—colonial ones, there have been centuries in which certain values, traits, even gene pools, could perpetuate themselves. In former colonies, by contrast (like South Africa or the US), the flux of immigrants, emigrants, external conflict, and internal conflict mean that identity is always reconstructing itself. The hodge-podge of backgrounds and perspectives, in fact, may be the most enduring American trait—and it is thanks to that fact that so many people have adopted the United States as their home. But I have to admit: illusion or not, there was something refreshing to the more obvious national personas I witnessed in my travels.
At the end of my spring break, I spent two days in San Juan Argentina. It is a small town two hours north of Mendoza. We found on the Internet that a flight school there offered tandem skydiving for $165 U.S dollars. An incredible price for skydiving. Therefore, my two friends and I decided to pounce on the opportunity. We arrived at the bus station at ten in the morning. We called the people taking us skydiving, and they said they would pick us up in fifteen minutes. After fifteen minutes, we noticed two people walking towards us, one girl one guy, and they just made a “b” line for us and kissed us on the cheek (A typical Argentinian greeting). We were just like um... are you the skydiving people. It of course turned out they were. They then proceeded to take us to their club. I was the first to go. They spent ten minutes explaining to us what to do when we get in the plane. It sounds like not a lot of time, but there is not a lot of explaining to be done. As I was in the plane getting ready to take off, the instructor who I was going to jump with noticed a problem with the plane. The plane had to be repaired and it took about three hours to do so. Then came my turn to actually jump. We climbed to 10,000 feet and I had a great view of the whole city and even the Andes Mountains. Then you get strapped into the instructor. Sit on the edge. Afuera, Aldentro, Afuero the count goes. You sail out of the plane like a ride in Disney World you forget where you are and just feel the wind hit your face. You flip and spin and close your eyes and pray. Then, all of a sudden you feel a pull and you notice that your parachute is up and the hard part is over. You then have five minutes to sail tranquilly down to the ground. I had kind of a tough landing. When I hit the ground, I couldn't stick the landing, and I fell backwards onto the instructor. I thought I might have hurt him, but it turned out to be fine. The people on the ground rushed to our rescue, picked us up and detached the parachute. It was the craziest thing I have ever done.
This weekend was the first time I had visitors in Prague. My friends studying in the London program are on their fall break and since we visited them for ours, they’re here for theirs. Becoming the tour guide in Prague has been an interesting experience in many ways. Each time I take my friends somewhere, I experience the memory of seeing it for the first time myself, and my attitude towards it now.
For instance, this afternoon, I took my friends around Josefov, the Jewish Quarter of Old Town. There are a number of old and famous synagogues in the area, and when I first arrived in Prague I took an extensive tour of these sites of worship courtesy of NYU. They are mere blocks from the place that we go to school here, and they are indeed beautiful and interesting places. This afternoon, however, I couldn’t remember how to get around to each of them as I led my friends. We found them eventually, but each time, it was a rediscovery of the sort only accessed by a blank in one’s memory. As I led, I tried to take on the demeanor and knowledge of the elderly Jewish woman who led us back in the verdant green warmth of September. I found myself giving double explanations, both of what the buildings were and their historical significance, and also my own impressions of them, then and now. Prague’s ethos is most suited to the gray and damp that permeates November here, but I remember these synagogues in the warmth and the light. As I told the story of the golem myth, in which Reb Levy, a famous Cabbalist rabbi from Prague, creates a giant man out of mud and blood and sets it the duty of guarding the Jews of Prague, I began to remember the magic of Prague.
My friends have continually exclaimed over the beauty of Prague, a fact that is easy to forget as we inevitably translate even the most foreign places into the blurry background of our everyday lives. Seeing and hearing them this weekend has made me remember exactly why we called this place “The Magic Kingdom For Adults” for the first few weeks. It’s beautiful, steeped in lore and history, and this is a phenomenon worth remembering. The Golem, as I told my friends, was said to have climbed into an attic in the Old-New Synagogue, the oldest synagogue still holding services in Europe, to sleep until the Jews of Prague needed its protection again. It’s a wonderful story, a wonderful example of the magical, mystical character of Prague that so many have remarked upon over the centuries. Magic is foreign, however, and in the attempt to normalize this experience, to make it feel like home, where everything is familiar, the magic of Prague has begun to wear, and I am not alone in beginning to think, “I kinda wish I was at home.” But having new people here to show around and to revel in the experience with has made me remember why I love travel, and why I love magic. It’s not home, it’s new.
Grisaille means greyness. It came up today in an article I was reading in Le Monde, I think the article by Slavoj Zizek about communism 20 years after the fall of the Berlin wall. I recall that in the article, grisaille referred to the sort of mental or atmospheric state of communism itself. The word, in that context, surprised me at first.
Today Paris oozes grisaille. Outside the two big French doors in my apartment, there’s the big grey static sky, my grey balcony, the greyish-beige apartment building across the street. I am making my second cup of tea this afternoon, because my apartment, no matter how high I turn the heat up and no matter how many sweatshirts I wear, doesn’t seem to want to get warm. I think a lot of people find it depressing when the weather is grisaille, but it’s relaxing to me. Or at least it would be if I wasn’t so cold.
This morning I went out to do some food shopping. It’s Sunday morning; my entire neighborhood was out doing the same thing. I bought a Kouign Amann, a Breton pastry, at the bakery, and a newspaper from the man at the news table just outside. I went to the little supermarket for cereal, rice, and apples. And next door at the produce market, I bought a head of lettuce, a zucchini, and a big group of tomatoes, all still connected by their green vine. It’s not the most convenient way of food shopping (admittedly, I could have bought my tomatoes in the supermarket, but they looked bruised and unhappy), but it’s a nice way to spend a grey Sunday morning. And it’s a habit I think I’ll miss when I go back to New York: there aren’t really any simple produce markets, and buying fruits and vegetables at a greenmarket is usually expensive. There’s also the feeling in the U.S. that buying produce at greenmarkets is pretentious; in France, it’s a popular (in the sense of the general public) activity, almost a given—I think most people know, or assume, that market produce is often better, and fresher, than at the supermarket. And so I wait on line to pay for my groceries with little old French ladies toting around their purchases in cloth bags on wheels.
If there’s one thing that I just absolutely love about Argentina, it’s the meat culture. Basically, they just go hard here. Firstly, there are countless “parrillas” (i.e. barbeque restaurants) in this city and country. When I say barbeque, I literally mean that there’s a “asador” (griller) tending coals and manning a grill, inside a restaurant. They’re literally barbequing right in front of you. It’s awesome.
I recently traveled around this lovely country for my spring break, and somehow ended up in San Juan, Argentina, hanging out with a bunch of awesome people at a skydiving club (VERY long story for another post), and they kindly invited myself and my two friends I was traveling with to join them for an “asado” (i.e. barbeque). We went with our new friend Mauricio to the “carniceria” (meat store) to shop for our feast. They do not mess around in San Juan. They no joke had an entire side of a cow hanging in the fridge, and proceeded to cut parts straight off the cow for us. Then, when Mauri asked for some ribs, the guy cut them with a table saw. That’s right, the carniceria has a table saw. After it was all said and done, we walked out of that joint with a whopping 9 kilos of meat (and that’s not even including the 13 chorizo sausages). For those not on the metric system, that’s about 20 pounds.
We took a quick trip back to Mauricio’s house, where he picked up his tools (every asador has got to have his own knife and sharpener) and then we headed back to the skydiving club (where the asado was being held) and got ready to cook. As we were informed by Mauricio, the people in Buenos Aires use “carbon” (charcoal) while the folks out in San Juan, they use nothing but the best: “leña” (wood). They love their meat so much that they don’t dare jeopardize the flavor by using charcoal (our friends out in San Juan would be appalled by the concept of a “gas grill”). As far as preparation of the meat: salt. Argentines don’t care much for sauces or marinades because they don’t want to take away from the true flavor of the meat. With three different cuts of beef, two types of ribs, and sausage, coupled with some cold brew, made for without a doubt the best and most complete asado I’ve had in Argentina.
I am taking a French film and culture course in which I have to view 3 French films currently in theaters over the course of the semester. I have several issues with this aspect of the course, but overall I believe it is worthwhile. However, everyone in the class must vote to select the film, so there is a good chance I will end up seeing films that I have no interest in. Such was the case this week, when I had to see Lucky Luke, a film so awful it made my head want to explode.
Jean is a young boy living outside of Daisy Town, Utah in the mid-1800s. His mother is a stereotypical Native American and his father is a stereotypical farmer, straw hat and all. Long story short, one day, and a group of cowboys show up to their home and kill Jean’s parents as he watches through a small hole in his bedroom door. He proceeds to escape the house and ride off into the distance with his horse. Several years later, we learn that Jean has assumed the identity of Lucky Luke. He is a cowboy, but has sworn to never kill anyone. One day, President Wilson asks him to bring peace to Daisy Town, which is now run by the corrupt Pat Poker. After a series of unfortunate events, Lucky Luke has a crisis of identity and his friends Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and Calamity Jane must help him to find himself so he can once again save the day.
Adopted from the comic book of the same name, Lucky Luke is one of the most terrible and horribly offensive films I have ever watched. While in Paris, I have never encountered an anti-American sentiment, until I saw this film. Painting Americans as simple, stupid, and accidentally successful, the film comes across like poorly veiled indoctrination video for the youth of France. Furthermore, it shows little responsibility in portraying violence by not only portraying it as funny, but also with out consequence. No one in the film dies, despite several gunshots to the chest and a frayed red handkerchief represents bleeding.
To see this film was utterly shocking. I have a large amount of respect for French cinema, but Lucky Luke seriously offended me. I am not some one who is fiercely patriotic, but I truly took this film as a slap in the face to American history. While other films have mocked this period of history intelligently (i.e. Blazing Saddles), Lucky Luke was all camp without the intelligence or fun.
It was a real disappointment to have such a bad experience with this film. However, it did display that France has a taste for tasteless films, just as America does. I hate to sound like Debbie Downer, but it’s disheartening to see your culture and history projected so negatively in a foreign country and I can only hope that it is not a trend in French film, but an isolated experience.
Over fall break, I discovered something very important about my relationship with Paris. It struck me suddenly as I was boarding the questionable EasyJet airplane. I realized that I really, truly love Paris, and that I couldn’t wait to get myself out of the airport and onto the streets filled with French conversations and cigarette smoke. I spent the majority of my 3 days in Paris with a good friend from high school. Together, we roamed the winding streets of Montmartre and munched on the best falafel in the world on Rue de Rosier (not kidding; I really think it is the best I’ve ever had). To quote one of my former roommates: “New York is my home. I would marry New York and live here forever… but Paris is my secret dirty affair. I LOVE Paris, but I’m IN love with New York.” This still accurately sums up how I felt while I was there. I was tickled by being home felt simply scandalous. I had left my dear home of New York City for the mysteriously cool Berlin, and then left BOTH of them for Paris. I speak mostly English in Berlin because my German is extremely basic. This is perhaps a bit of a low blow to Berlin and gives New York more reason to remain hopeful that I have not deserted it for some far-off European land. Then, with little warning, I was swept back off my feet by the alluringly beautiful Paris and found myself happily speaking French and left both New York and Berlin behind for a few whirlwind days. During the Paris leg of my vacation, I found out that I had a mad itch that is purely unreachable. I have been to Paris multiple times and thought that after my last trip, this bug was crushed out of me. It did just the opposite - I came to terms with the fact that Paris was no longer a vacation destination for me, but a familiar city where I could be comfortable. On a separate but related note: If Paris is my sneaky affair to whom I always sneak out, Copenhagen was the peculiar man you meet on the train. He is well-dressed and clean-cut, but simply too lofty and harsh to talk to. At the end of a painfully drawn-out conversation, you realize that he would have struck you as incredibly handsome under better circumstances. On top of my revelations about Paris, I discovered something else rather important: the end of autumn is not the time to visit Copenhagen. In short, it was my first trip to Scandinavia and I absolutely recommend it… in July. It was too cold and windy to explore much. By the end of my second day with Copenhagen, I was ready to return to my tried-and-true love, Berlin.
I am writing this staring at the date on my computer. It is November 2nd. NOVEMBER 2nd!!!! As in, my time here is over halfway done. And so is yours! Where the hell did October go?! That was probably the fastest month of my life, as is this semester. These past two months have been down right amazing. I honestly think that studying abroad is such an important experience of life, and I would advocate for everyone to do it. It is such a refreshing break from reality. My friends and I just returned from Spring Break in Brazil. On the plane ride home, we were complaining about going back to school and the real world. Then we laughed at ourselves for how ridiculous we were being. Life in Buenos Aires is nothing close to the real world. It has been nothing but the most magical moments of our lives, a permanent four-month vacation.
For the past month, most of my program has been traveling around every weekend leading up to a week long break. In the midst of all my travels, I realized how little I have seen of my own city. Even though we aren’t technically traveling while home in Buenos Aires, it still seems like a vacation. We are surrounded by lots of new people, a new culture, all kinds of new foods, a new language, and a HUGE new city. I feel like I have barely conquered Buenos Aires. In a sense, everyday feels like spring break. My parents are coming in three weeks, and I am stressing because I feel that I don’t know enough about my own city to share with them. But yet I do know enough. I know my favorite empanada place, my favorite bar, my favorite restaurant, and all the places that I now call home. Just like in New York City, I get absorbed in a little bubble of my familiarities and locations that are in my daily life. I too, now have a bubble in Buenos Aires, and I find this really special. It is more unique than visiting a city and having visited the top 10 tourist sites. It is yours based on your experiences.
Studying abroad teaches you so many things on all different levels. Not only does it teach you the history of a new city and country, but it also teaches you so much about yourself. I have learned how to detach myself from technology. I have learned that I don’t need everything that I think I do. I have learned to live simply. I have also learned about what I need out of other people, and what I can do on my own. Even in the times of darkness, you learn. This is a lesson I learned four years ago when I studied abroad for one year in Italy when I was 16. I had a lot of difficulties, but I came out with a strong head on my shoulders. I learned how to throw myself out of my comfort zone in the most awkward situations and to just be. A lot of my old lessons have come in handy while living here. And I only hope that what everyone else is learning will do the same for them for the rest of their lives.
While in Brazil, I had the chance to meet up with a friend that I met in Italy. He is Brazilian and studied abroad in Sicily too. We had not seen each other since we left Italy. We discussed the importance of studying abroad, the lessons that we learned, the experiences that we had, etc. We both realized how we had this wonderful connection that will never break due to the fact that we shared such an important time of our lives together. I hadn’t seen him in for years, but it felt like just yesterday. I know that the friends that I have made while living in Buenos Aires will always have an impact on my life, having been there for such an amazing time. That one year will live on forever in me, just as this semester. I cannot believe that I only have six weeks left. Yet, I must look at it optimistically that I still do have six weeks left to do whatever I want! I look forward to the experiences yet to come and the lessons that I will learn from them. Cheers to everyone for putting themselves out there and taking a plunge.
My travels in Argentina have taken me from waterfalls to vineyards to mountainsides to metropolitan sprawls and back again, but until this week I had never made to the far south, the land of Patagonia. My Dad was coming to visit me so I wanted to take a trip that enabled us to see a unique part of the World while simultaneously escaping the hustle and bustle of Buenos Aires. Of course like any family adventure the trip began on a stressful screamed filled morning. We woke up late because my dad doesn´t know how to set an alarm on his brand new iphone, advanced technology just isn't meant for some folks. Everything would have been fine but unfortunately in my hazy morning mind frame I told the taxi driver to take us to the wrong airport, an unfortunate mistake that cost us hours in the airport, fees for a flight change and an ear full from my dad. As I waited in the airport trying to ignore criticisms from my father I forgot just how wonderful family vacations can be. No one can stress you out worse than your parents and I was beginning to learn that lesson all over again.
Finally we made it to El Calafate, a charming mountain like town on lake Argentina with beautiful Hotels, interesting artisan shops and all around relaxed vibe. We checked into our hotel, which had a wonderful view of the lake and mountainside and bar that we would come to know well in the following days. But the real adventure began on our second day when we traveled to the Perito Moreno glacier about 65km outside of the city. Our insanely risky driver whisked us towards the glacier at alarming speeds sending our guide falling into random European tourists and spilling more than one Gourd full of mate. Finally we entered the parque nacional los glacieres and hopped outside the death Mobile into a World of soaring mountain Peaks, crystal clear Waters and humongous condors. We stopped and took a couple Pictures while I made fun of my pops for not having a digital camera. He replied that he would have bought one if it weren't for my NYU tuition. Dad 1, Matt 0. Than we hopped back in the coche and raced towards the main attraction, the Perito Moreno Glacier. Let me begin by saying that I was in absolute awe of the glacier. It´s bigger than Buenos Aires and stands 60 meters above the water where it hurls giant chunks of ice that crash with a thunderous sound into the depths below. My dad and I stood their for hours ignoring the guide, sipping some vino and just basking in the wondrous place that we were lucky enough to have come to. In coming generations as the World becomes hotter and more polluted places like perito moreno will cease to exist. The melting of glaciers will cause the Waters to rise and places like NYC, Amsterdam and San Francisco will be inundated by water. Yet lucky for me these Worldwide catastrophes haven´t occurred, they are only in the process of coming to fruition. As I sat in front of the glacier my mind filled with thoughts of the future of our natural environment I Couldn't help but think about what was to come next. Sure I was there seeing the glacier but would my kids orgrand kids be able to? Trying to escape my labyrinth of negativity and chatted it up with my Dad, talking about where he was when he was 21 and how I Could finagle myself into getting a polish passport because he was born there. My mind quickly floated away from feelings of cultural anxiety to feelings of joy, I had finally come to enjoy my family vacation.