Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Tourisister, day trois

The sister duo got off to a late start this morning (...okay, fine...afternoon) after a late dinner with the Cité Universitaire community last night. When we finally did get going, we took a lovely stroll through the Luxembourg gardens and the St. Michel area as weather permitted. The forecast for this whole week is pretty bipolar, meaning it can be a beautiful, blue sky-ed day when you go into a shop or a metro station, and a windy, torrential downpour when you emerge ten minutes later. (Luckily the rain is as brief as the sunshine, so as long as you plan your outdoor time around the fickle spring Parisian showers, it all turns out well.)

Next we admired the rose windows and gargoyles of Notre Dame and sampled France's favorite fastfood item: the Kebab. We then headed over to one of my my all time Parisian favorites: the Musée D'Orsay--a train station-turned art museum that houses the best of France's impressionist and post-impressionist work. For dinner we met up with some friends to visit one of my favorite French restaurants: the crowded Chez Gladine's, where the hearty Basque food was worth the rather chilly wait for a table. Always the adventurous eater, Nicole tried escargot, duck and a French dessert called "île flottante" (literally a "floating island" of meringue in a sea of vanilla custard). Her verdict? Delicious.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Bumming around Brittany

A trip to Bretagne (or Brittany, for you anglophones) has been at the top of my French "to visit" list for several years now, and thanks to trustfundergrad tuition I was finally able to make my pilgrimage to the land of crêpes, cider and cobblestones. Our first stop was Didan, a picturesque but otherwise unremarkable town known for its crêpes. I had a savory sausage and potato crêpe, followed by marzipan and salted caramel à la mode crêpes for dessert.

The next stop was St. Malo, a tidal beach town encircled by a medieval wall. A popular tourist destination during the summer (especially for British tourists, who can take a ferry across the English Channel), it's apparently not so balmy in March, giving us a chance to experience Bretagne's infamous and incessant wind and incessant rain. We shivered as we followed our great local tour guide aro und the rocky coastline, envying her outfit that wouldn't stand up to Parisian fashion standards but was definitely more practical: a windbreaker, a warm winter hat and rain boots.

The coolest thing about St. Malo is the fact that its waters are extremely tidal, meaning that huge stretches of beach and even a salt-water pool magically appear at low tide (the pool's diving board is still visible above the waves at high tide, to rather comical effect). Low tide also reveals a "path" (sandy ridge) leading to the tomb of writer Chateaubriand, who was a town native and fought for the right to be buried on a small island just offshore. Although I'm not a huge fan of Chateaubriand's work it was cool to once again witness the appreciation the French have for their literary legacies, which was also evident at the Hôtel Chateaubriand that we stayed at, located right next to the shrine-like site marking the writer's former house.

We also found a cute, childhood-themed bar, whose walls were adorned with dolls and old games and whose barflies sat not on stools but on swings! I was in love with the ambiance and the non-Parisian prices, although I was a little sad that we couldn't stay late enough to find out what happens when drunkenness and swings come together.

The next day put us just over the provincial border into Normandy for a hayride-esque romp through the tidal swamps with a few local fisherman. A tidal trap and seining net allowed us to examine some of the local sealife (see the skate pictured here), and the fresh sea air satiated my recent nostalgic longing for the Chesapeake Bay. Accompanied by a bunch of land-lubber NY-ers, I also realized how much practical aquatic knowledge I acquired as a result of my years camping with my family and studying at St. Mary's. I quickly found myself explaining how crabs breathe and how to pop off a shrimp's head and tail and the difference between flounders and dorade to a bunch of clueless underclassmen.

Our last stop on the tour was Mont St. Michel--a beautiful fortified island topped by an impressive abbey and cathedrale. This also gave me a chance to witness the Brittany/Normandy rivalry (ownership of the Mont has been and still is contested) as well as their fierce regional pride...natives of both places referred to their provinces and France as if the two were separate entities, as in fact they were in fairly recent history. (Both, however, are united in their scorn for the British, who were historically the reason for such intense stone fortification.) The Mont was pretty amazing, although more touristed than I had expected--apparently it's the top tourist destination in France after Paris. We wandered through steep and narrow shop-lined streets, enjoyed a shellfishy lunch, and toured the religious sites at the top, leaving in time to reach the mainland before the meter per second tide came rolling back in to cover the road and once again cut off the island.

Tourisister, day deux

After sleeping off jet-lag and a late night of fondue, the sister duo got sandwiches for lunch and headed out to the Louvre. My original plan was to leave Nicole to wander around the museum while I went to class--alas, I had forgotten that the museum is closed Tuesdays. Instead she ended up with the cultural experience of sitting in on a French university class, meaning she was initiated to cheap espresso machines, crappy facilities, and a lecture-based course taught by a belligerently brilliant French professor. Ah, France. She hid in the back row, using an ingenious earbuds-threaded-through-the-sleeve method to listen to her iPod unnoticed as she leaned on her hand. High school boredom busting tactics seem to have evolved a lot since my youth--she also told me about something called a "mosquito" ringtone that takes advantage of the fact that youth can hear higher frequencies than adults to have a stealthy social life. Wow. Mom, dad, if Nicole's grades start slipping you know why.

After class we headed back to the Louvre area and beat the rain with a legendary, melted-chocolate-bar cup of hot chocolate at a place called Angelina. We then proceeded on to Passy, where I introduced Nicole to the furs, high heels and small dogs of the snobby 16th arrondissement ("Paris looks exactly like I expected it to") and NYU-in-Paris' cute house and garden before we headed onwards to the iconic tourist Mecca--the Eiffel tower.

Nicole, being 15 and largely too cool for school, wanted me to make it very clear that the "Eiffel Tower pose" she's striking in this photo was my idea. So there it is. I doubled the public humiliation by forcing her to order her lemon-sugar crêpe by herself, en français--fuel for the long stair climb up one of the Eiffel Tower's legs to the observation deck. I was surprised to discover that I actually had an easier time with the stairs than she did--I guess city walking has kept me in pretty good shape (even if that "shape" is considerably rounder than it was, thanks to rich French food).

Monday, March 29, 2010


Today was my first chance to really play host since arriving in Paris. In her debut trip not only to the city of lights but also to Europe, my little sister Nicole is spending her spring break here with me. Much to my dismay, I was unable to meet her at the airport due to my morning class. Luckily, Tom was able to give her a proper English welcome in my stead, complete with a handmade sign (that she promptly insulted believing it to be my artwork...).

Despite being jet-lagged and sleep deprived, Nicole was full of energy and excited to dive into Parisian cuisine. We took advantage of the sunny afternoon to enjoy a crêpe 'formule'--a chevre and lardon lunch crêpe followed by a rich chocolatey galette, which Nicole managed to mostly get in her mouth (with only a little in her hair, around her face and on her shirt). We then metro-ed up to Invalides for a Napolenic encounter. Here we are, striking our best Napoleon poses in front of the man himself.Then we crept around Napoleon's comically over-sized tomb:

Afterward, we came back to my place for a nap before heading back out for a long, French fondue dinner: three cheese and white wine sauce with potatoes, bread and smoked ham, and a fiery bananas flambé for dessert.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Esoteric Intellectualism

The class taught by aging Algerian writer Assia Djebar that I had last semester has been replaced this semester with a course by another writer/professor, X. X is more on the ball than Djebar was, although I've had an unusually hard time getting a feel for X as a teacher, much less as a person.

Like one of my other professors, X is a graduate of École Normale Supérieure (ENS), one of the "Grandes Écoles", which is about the closest France comes to having "Ivy League" schools. However, there is a definite difference between the two. While financial/educational resources or a lack thereof definitely keep the Ivies pretty WASPy, there's a general understanding that if a student has competitive enough test scores, GPA and drive, she can get accepted at an Ivy. This is particularly true for graduate school when undergraduate performance and full fellowships tend to even the playing field a bit. In France, however, you're groomed to go to a Grande École from a young age and generally only if your social status fits the mold. Another difference is public perception of the degree. In the States, a degree from Harvard Law or Yale is somewhat of a prerequisite for the rich and powerful--you need the degree to give you a credible base upon which to build the platform of opinions and experience that will earn you respect. In France, the degree itself commands respect and IS the power/wealth--it represents an instant "in" for pretty much any career. Case in point: the French are fairly blasé about the fact that I'm dating an English physicist until they hear that he's a student at the prestigious "École Polytechnique": "ooooh! C'est pas mal, ça." Similarly, each time one of us students questions the pedagogy of one of our ENS professors our concerns are immediately dismissed by the French NYU administrators: "well, he DID study and work at ENS...he must, of course, be right." To an Américaine it seems to be a small detail, but it's one that completely changes the direction of the conversation.

X's apparent genius as an ENS professor is enhanced by X's literary career, which I have to admit is pretty impressive (it includes several collections of poetry and a handful of novels, one of which won the prix Goncourt for first novel). I've now been to two extra-curricular presentations of X's newest novel which have been enlightening in terms of the mix of well-educated attendees and the panel of intellectuals (poets, artists, writers) that served as discussion leaders/moderators. It's cool to see that the novel-as-art is still valued in an age of cheap pulp fictions, and also that the centuries-old insular community of French intellectuals surrounding it is still intact.

And then there's X as a teacher. I'll give X this: X is a smart cookie. X speaks several languages, lapsing easily into English to find the idiom that better fits the situation (albeit in smug sort of way). X also, like me, is prone to make connections between our French texts and other works, especially English literature and old black-and-white movies (although I can rarely relate to the esoteric allusions X makes). With a paper due every week to be read aloud and picked apart in front of the class, the class pushes me to read more critically and write well, even as it terrifies me. And as was the case with Djebar, it's interesting to see how X's role as a writer influences X's author-centric approach to a text: X focuses on small passages to highlight style, word choice, voice, etc. and has us do the same in our "commentaire composée" assignments, making X's class seem almost like a creative writing workshop at times.

However, like Professor Slughorn from Harry Potter, there's something slightly guarded about X, and X's almost bipolar--swinging from an energetic high one week to a vengeful, scornful low the next in a pattern that I'm beginning to think correlates with the success X had (or didn't have) writing that morning. Like Slughorn, X's also interested in the "high flyer" students and creating X's own manner of elite slugclub. During the first few weeks of class X would hold us back two at a time to grill us about our ambition while obviously sizing us up, determining if we were worth interest. Those who aren't are overlooked during class, while those who might be have their essays picked apart more viciously.

I was running in Parc Montsouris a few weeks ago when I saw X, positioned in front of a forested backdrop and looking poetically into the distance as a camera crew went to work. I stopped, of course, and waited for the camera to stop rolling to approach. Out of context it took X a minute to place me, and once X did X was completely disinterested. "What are you doing here?" X demanded, as if I had followed. "Running," I replied, thinking "duh" as I indicated my clothes, my iPod, my red face. "I live right there." Eyes still angry, X suddenly broke into a wide smile, telling the camera crew that I was one of X's students and explaining that the arts channel was doing a special. "Well, see you next week!" X said.

I can tell when I'm not wanted. I put my ear buds back in, waved, then proceeded to take another route for the remainder of my run. I can't deny that I'm benefiting academically from X's genius, but I'll limit my X quality time to class time. I'm hard enough on myself without being made to feel like a Weasley.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Being a legal alien, OR how France literally took my breath away

Good news: I don't have tuberculosis. Oh, and I am FINALLY a legal resident. Yes, after many months of waiting and a convocation letter that arrived a week after the appointment had already come and gone, they finally managed to schedule me in to get officially frogged. Bascially, this means that I'm now eligible for socialized health care and financial housing aid. It is also now that much easier for me to extend my stay--an option I'm considering more and more as time goes on.

Ironically, this act of acceptance from my adopted country came on the eve of a surge in American pride: in the last month, we have taken a stand against Israel's abuse of our protection, legalized gay marriage and are considering legalizing medical marijuana (both in Washington DC), and now, passed the health reform bill. Although this still means that my level of health care will drop drastically when I return to the States, it does afford me the right to stay on my parents' insurance plan a little longer (which, considering the current lack of jobs with benefits for college graduates, is nothing to sneeze at).

Anyway. The whole residency process was painfully French, which is to say needlessly inefficient and bureaucratic. After receiving my letter with a non-negotiable appointment time (right after my last midterm, as it turned out) I was instructed to go out and buy a stamp. Not just any stamp, mind you, but a 55 euro "civic stamp". And no, of course you can't buy the stamp at a post office, but only at Tabacs (tobacco stores), and even then only at certain ones. The idea is that the appointment itself should cost 55 euro, but why they can't just eliminate the needless middleman of the stamp and just take a credit card (or at least make the damn stamp available for purchase at the actual appointment) is beyond me.

Once I arrived at the office I began the long chain of steps that went something like this: wait in line to submit paperwork. Sit and wait. Be called up to get more paperwork. Sit and wait. Be called to be lead to a different waiting room. Sit and wait. Hear your name, get some paperwork collected, have an eye exam and a height/weight check. Sit and wait. Read leaflets about diabetes help for Arabs and pregnancy advice. Get called up to wait in line. Be given free condoms and dental dams (does anyone use those things?). Enter a closet with a door on either side and lock the door behind you. Strip down to the waist, then stand for ten minutes clutching your breasts in semi-darkness, debating which is a more real-seeming fantasy: that the door in front of you will open onto Narnia, onto the waiting room a naked David Sedaris described in "When I am Engulfed in Flames" or onto the glass panel of a stripper booth. Suddenly the door opens and two fully-clothed doctors direct half-clothed you to shove your bare breasts against a cold metal plate. Breathe in. The whir of an x-ray. Breathe out, go put your clothes back on. Sit and wait. Get called to admire your x-ray with a doctor, who asks you some questions about smoking/asthma before informing you that you do not, in fact, have tuberculosis. Sit and wait. Get called to a desk, only to be lead back to the original waiting room. Sit and wait. Finally, a full two hours after you first arrived, get called up to get your shiny new carte de sejour (a French greencard) stamped above your visa. It looks a bit like a post-it note, held down with some of that holographic paper you used to cover your books with in elementary school, except applied much more carelessly, without your exact ruler lines and exacto-knife cuts. Congratuations. You passed the French bureaucracy endurance test, you proved that you're not poor or homeless and you don't have tuberculosis: you're allowed to stay.

I celebrated my new-found legality with a late lunch in the company of my fellow immigrants at Tin-Tin, my favorite Vietnamese restaurant up at Belleville. I realized that this is the first time I've ever eaten a meal by myself in a legitimate sit-down restaurant, and I was pleased to find that the experience didn't make me feel self-conscious at all; to the contrary, it game me some much needed space to think. As I scarfed pho and nem I pondered what it is to be an alien vs a citizen and considered the arbitrary nature of what qualifies one for either status. Those lusting after American citizenship have to take a knowledge test to earn the right; I still remember placing my chubby child's hand over my heart to pledge allegiance to the Queen to earn my New Zealand passport. If it were up to me, a French citizenship test would require you to be able to do the following: identify at least five unmarked pastries in a boulangerie by name, use your elbows and your bag to carve out a niche in an already-full metro car (elderly ladies be damned!), direct a waiter how to cook your steak to order then chase him down for the check, perfect your ability to ignore metro musicians, beggars and tourists, know to weigh and price your fruit before you get to the register in a grocery store, and most importantly, be able to laugh at yourself when you're done. That last step is probably the least French thing you could do, but the longer I'm here, the more I realize that I will never be French. If you can't join 'em, at least learn how to enjoy them.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Goin to the salon to get my tastebuds did

At one point last semester, my grammar teacher launched into an unprovoked rant about how Americans are too out of touch with the means of food production and don't have enough respect for their farmers and other small family businesses. In contrast, she held that (and my commentary is in parentheses) the French are much more aware and appreciative of their farmers (in a distant, idyllically reverent way that no longer quite reflects the growing industrialization of the market...they're turning more and more to frozen and processed foods) and their animals and produce (less pesticides, more markets, fresher and more organic products, yes--but they still do quite a bit of international produce importing and you can't tell me that force feeding a duck to make foie gras out of its liver is much kinder than cooping up chickens). She also said that the French have a greater appreciation for regional products, even if they might be more expensive than the big box brand. This last one, at least, is very true. As is evidenced by the "appellation d'origine contrôlée" seal (which is the reason why America produces sparkling white wine instead of Champagne and blue cheese instead of Roquefort) the French are very cognizant and fiercely protective of their regional products. Our teacher's proof for her claims was the French love of the annual "Salon d'Agriculture", which is essentially a classier version of a state fair that's been drawing huge hoards of Parisians (and an obligatory appearance from the President) for the last fifty years.

That was several months ago. Now it's "salon" time, so a few other curious students from that class and I got up early (at our professor's gets crowded) to check out what France's agricultural realm had to offer. Like an American fair there was a livestock area and a produce area, where prize specimens were displayed, urban children had their first petting-zoo style contact with the natural world, and demonstrations were given. However, I popped my head in these pavilions only long enough to rediscover the clothes-satiating smell of rotting hay and animal sweat before I headed on over to the gastronomie pavilion. And Oh. My. God. I was in foodie heaven.

The massive, two-floored pavilion reminded me of Disney's Epcot, except that instead of representing different countries' cuisines, this represented different regions of France (and, limitedly, its overseas "departments"). Having paid our 6 euro entry, we wandered from booth to booth for endless tastings: ciders, apple liquors and soft cheeses from Normandy; red wines from Côtes de Rhone and Bordeaux; lavenders, perfumes, honeys and rosé from Provence (which made me super nostalgic for Nice); dry whites and sharper cheeses from the Loire; sweet whites, cured meats and champagne jelly from Alsace; apples and mushrooms from Île-de-France; mustard and melted cheese creations from Bourgogne; and bread and foie-gras from, well, pretty much everywhere. There was a really heavy emphasis on region, with booths grouped together geographically and many sporting maps with highlighted areas that were always indicated by the salespeople. The best part was talking to these salespeople, who were genuinely proud of their products and could describe the production process and subtleties in the taste in great detail. They were also, for the most part, very willing to educate and feed you even if you didn't seem interested in buying--meaning I got the chance to try some expensive wines and foie-gras that I wouldn't have otherwise.

I left around 2pm, just as it was starting to transition into weekend crowds (my professor wasn't kidding: the French love this place). My wallet was significantly lighter, but my bags were rich with treasure: aged chevre, a bottle of pear cider, some gourmet chocolate, groseilles (red current) jam, a saucisson sec (salami, sort of) and a Corsican sausage sandwich. Miam miam! (yum yum!)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Here comes the sun...

Little darling, I feel that ice is slowly melting
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been clear...

Yes, folks, the sun has returned to Paris. It has been just a little under 50 degrees F (6 degrees C) for the last few days, and the clouds are finally clearing. My skin is soaking up the vitamin D like that's its job (oh wait...)

The weather was so nice that I couldn't resist the opportunity to get a late afternoon coffee in in a street-side terrasse after class. I met up with Clare at a little cafe in Alèsia for an impromptu café crème and some macarons, a traditional French cookie. I got a rich burgundy mûre (blackberry) and a gold-dusted tiramisu, and Clare got violette and cherry-pistachio. Delicious.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Putting the "femme" in feminist

I got my first dose of French sexism during my semester in Nice in 2008. Our grammar teacher, a spry, elfish old man for whom I had a lot of respect, had a habit of asking questions that required a very specific answer. If we couldn't produce the exact answer he was seeking, he would often refuse to move on in the lesson until we did. There was one instance of this, when, after several minutes of our tentative guesses and mounting frustration, my friend Matthew (the only boy in the class) finally happened upon the right answer.

"YES! Finally. It's a good thing we have a man in the class to help out all of these empty-headed girls!"

The remark, accompanied by an eye-roll towards us and an esoteric wink of fraternity to Matthew, was delivered without a second thought. Even when I shot him a laser glare of feminist rage, he didn't pick up on the fact that what he had said was at all inappropriate. Because it wasn't, by France's standards. Although it's not always so overt, I've been encountering the same phenomenon this semester. My nineteenth century professor, who seemed to like the four of us women last semester, now acts differently with a guy in the class; there was an instant "chumminess" between them, and he continues to hold a sort of teacher's pet position in class discussion. In the section of my class at Paris III that is taught by a man, the French girls tend to adopt a Minnie Mouse voice, bow their heads and bat their eyelashes when speaking during class, as if they have been culturally conditioned to be coy when interacting with men.

Subtle opportunities for sexism continue beyond education. French CVs demand a photograph and often a relationship status, and after speaking with a few French women it seems to be generally understood that while not required, wearing a sexy skirt and boots will never hurt you in a job interview (regardless of the position). The scary thing is that, while they are quick to accuse African/Arab immigrants of being inherently sexist, the French are slow to recognize its signs within their own culture. My Paris III teacher brought up "la condition feminine" in reference to 18th century literature, only to conclude that "mais evidement, ce n'est pas notre querelle" ("but clearly, this has nothing to do with us"). Similarly, my female literary tutor challenged the idea of studying "the figure of the woman" as unnecessary and reverse-sexist in a modern-day context (although she was eventually won over when we pointed out how dominant studies of male characters are, it's just not as obvious because they're rich and dynamic and not reduced to a spokesperson for their gender).

All of this seems to stem from the fact that the French shun the American notion of the politically correct. While I'll be the first to admit that Americans can get a little too sensitive at times, the upshot to being easily bristled is that we have methods of recourse built into the system--we have noticeable attempts at the primary school level to educate children about tolerance, and clearly defined standards and processes to deal with things like sexual harassment. France, on the other hand, tends to operate under a "meh, don't take things so seriously, ladies!" method of operation, and then end up with anti-tobacco ads like the ones below, that make light of sexual abuse through suggestive imagery and the caption: "to smoke is to be Tobacco's slave"

I get it. Eye-catching. But seriously?

As it turns out, domestic violence and sexual abuse are HUGE problems in France right now, at least when compared to other Western nations. 160 French women are killed every year by violent boyfriends or husbands, accounting for more than half of the female homicide cases nationally. Due partially to the activism of NGOs like SOS Femmes and Ni Putes, Ni Soumises ("neither whores, nor submissive"), the notoriety of the statistics has gotten to the point where the government has finally had to start paying attention. However, while tracking bracelets and attention to the psychological toll of abuse are steps in the right direction, there's a cultural mindset that needs changing, and a generation of French women that need to put their fashionably-booted and heeled feet down. After all, it was largely French feminist activists/writers that inspired American feminism, so there has to be some woman power left lurking here somewhere...

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


After the literary appreciation part of my cemetery tour was over, I moved on to the more entertaining making-light-of-the-graveyard part of the day. First off was the über-creepy wall outside of the cemetery, which featured what appeared to be a banshee holding back the dead in a mossy wall (many of the bricks have howling faces carved into them). Oh, and one of those "why do they have this?" signs, reminding people that "chillaxing and exaggerated dog-walking" (Tom's words) are not appropriate cemetery pastimes.

Next on the list: graves of people with funny names. First up, the B.J. Family (it's the third from the left, with the black door) and the Hickey Family:

Followed by the Big[g]ot and Prud'homme (Prude man) families:

Then, of course, came the zombie virgin Mary eating Jesus. (On the topic of zombies, there were quite a few graves that had sort of collapsed, revealing an empty hole beneath them that was, France-style, closed off from curious children only by a single plastic caution rope. Paris: PANIC. We may have zombies. If I start to write posts solely about brains please send someone after me with a sawed-off shotgun). It's hard to tell from the picture, but Mary really did have a hungry/blank expression, and Jesus looks terrified. She's holding Jesus up to her mouth pretty awkwardly, and as you can see, she's already been to work on his wrists and knee:
Another zombie-like entry. Yes, I understand that some people find it romantic when an undead couple continues to hold hands after burial, but when I die please leave dismembered limbs off of my tombstone:

Then there were some awesome, Addams' Family-esque classics:

And the oh-so-badass spiky, rusty chain approach:
And then there was just inspiration for dos and do-nots when it comes to desigining graves. For the record, Life-size statues of in a saucy playboy pose holding an artist's palette? Hot. (This is romantic painter Théodore Géricault, if you're curious):

Semi-3D portrait etching, however: NOT hot. To me this looks like Jacob Marley coming out of Scrooge's front door (though perhaps there's more of gravy than the grave about him...):And last but not least, the most epic tombstone I saw. Awesome.
(It also, chillingly, sums up my life right now...a crushing granite novel. All it needs is one of my fuzzy sock-clad feet sticking out of the corner, Wicked Witch of the West style.)

Paying homage

I took advantage of the break in stormy weather last weekend to stroll around Père Lachaise cemetery. It wasn't quite sunny (of course), but the gloomy, overcast lighting (and the creepy cawing crows in the skeletal trees) really helped to set an appropriate mood.

Let me start off by saying that I don't have a newfound obsession with death, or anything of the sort--no, Paris hasn't made me emo. A visit to this cemetery has been on my to-do list ever since my arrival, and I've been reminded of this by the fact that it features fairly prominently (*cough Balzac cough*) in the the 19th century literature I've been reading recently. Established by Napoleon in 1804 outside of Paris as an alternative to other, already over-crowded Parisian cemeteries, it was shunned by the French until the remains of beloved writers and intellectuals La Fontaine and Molière were un-earthed and reburied within its grounds. Since then, anybody who is anybody has scrambled to have their loved ones interred alongside these heros. Today the once peripheral cemetery has been engulfed by the Belleville neighborhood (you can just see the distant spike of the Eiffel tower behind the Gothic spire in the photo to the left), and the French and tourists alike pilgrimage to visit its World War I memorials and tombs of countless notable Frenchmen (and women).

I came to visit the tombs of Oscar Wilde, Colette, and Balzac. I'm sure you all know of Oscar Wilde, but here's a brief history of Colette: married to a man who took credit for her first novels. Divorced him to become a burlesque actress and a fairly hi-profile bisexual, eventually remarrying only to have an affair with her teenage step son. Wrote very sensual books with theatrical tendencies and strong female leads. Overall, a kind of wild and scandalous character, and her grave was surprisingly understated, considering. It was better kept and had more tributes than any others I saw, though, which warmed my heart. The classy granite also gave it a much more modern look than the rest of the cemetery.

Oscar Wilde's grave was appropriately campy. An art deco creation with a sphinx-head, it has been adorned with the kisses and love notes of a thousand adoring groupies, whose oily lipstick and "je t'aime, Oscar!"s permanently stain the stone. They've added a plaque imploring visitors not to "deface" the grave, although I have to admit that if I were Oscar I know I'd appreciate the postmortem loving--especially considering that some of those kisses would be from gorgeous men.

Balzac's grave was pretty predictable: respectable but boring. The author of approximately a billion super-long novels (actually just a few under 100, but still pretty insane), Balzac is France's go-to literary hero. His grave featured a copper bust of his rather chubby, boyish face, but then a rather stylish book and plume at the base.

And to finish up, here are a few assorted shots I took: