Thursday, December 26, 2013

l'artiste refoulé

(the repressed artist)

Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.

‒ Cesar Cruz

The quote above is just lovely.  I found myself on a high after discovering it on Simon Sinek's twitter page a year ago.  I also felt vindicated.  I had always viewed myself has as an artist, as a tortured soul who was then exposing intimate ideas and feelings in order to relieve the pain that he was experiencing.  Such acts of exposure were far from comfortable and, more often than not, what was expressed did not make sense to people, to those I knew and to those that I did not.  At the end of the day though, once the deed was done ‒ if the deed was done ‒ I would often experience a rare, deep peace.  On the other hand, if the deed was not done, the torture would only amplify.  As such, the only logical thing to do next was continue.

It is often said that adolescence is marked by rebellion, that individuals start coming into their own during their teenage years.  We are talking about people who are half my age.  I actually don't know if this is true, but it seems to be what is accepted, particularly in Western countries.  The thing is, I don't remember having gone through such a phase.  My teenage years were spent meeting external expectations and doing so brilliantly, helped by a long streak of good grades and a strict adherence to the rulebook at school.  Outside of school, life was not much different.  I played the role of a boy who abided by the judgment of his elders, avoided risk and uncertainty, and analyzed situations before deciding what to do or what to say.  In fact, since entering adulthood, I have been on this right path without questioning it.  It is a path that is known, appreciated, and followed by many other people as well.  It also appears comfortable.

But the glitch in this state of comfort is that I see myself as an artist.  I have for a long time and I do not see that changing anytime soon.  Over the years, I have successfully found ways to explore the artistic side of myself.  Yet these explorations, albeit passionate, have remained small in relation to the right path that has always directed them.  More aware of this conflict than ever before, I can no longer afford to add value to a life of socially correct behavior while subjecting to it the longtime vision of myself as an artist, or better yet, as a free spirit.  That would only bring about torture, and I already have enough of it for company.  It follows that some sort of rebellion will be necessary.  A rebellion against the rightness that gets in the way, to be more precise.  Besides, I missed out on the chance to go through that during my adolescence, didn't I?  Well great, I have a new opportunity now as an adult.  Granted, individual rebellion is not usually synonymous with adulthood.  The adult is expected to be serious, careful, reasonable and humble, to care for others, and to contribute to society.  Anything contrary to that is best reserved for younger generations.  Fine.  All that tells me is to choose adult ways of carrying out a rebellion.  All that tells me is to be a rebel with a cause.  After all, it's either that or running the risk of alienating oneself from other adults.  And the latter is another source of torture that I prefer to do without.

So folks, it's time to rebel.

One of the keys to expressing yourself in your art is to try to break through self-restraint, to see if you can get past that socialized part of your mind, the superego or whatever you call it. […] Art, hopefully, is one place where you can get away with that, breaking away from those things and revealing something deeper. I know from my own work I have to let that stuff out, it can't stay inside of me: all the craziness, the sexual stuff, the hostility toward women, the anger toward authority.

‒ Robert Crumb

Saturday, December 7, 2013

why i love paris (2)

These photos were taken on a Sunday afternoon in September 2008.  My friend Stephanie was visiting Paris at the time and we had just returned from a exciting trip to Western France that began in Rennes and ended in Blois.  This Sunday was Stephanie's last day of vacation and, after taking a stroll on Rue Mouffetard, we decided to hit up Montmartre.  Upon our arrival, we naturally waded through the crowd loitering outside the Sacré-Cœur Basilica before joining those shuffling inside, we admired the bright yellow colors worn by the young girl playing the accordion nearby, and then, far off in the distance, we caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower.  Twice.

Good times.

Monday, December 2, 2013

investors in paris

Invest in Paris.

Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it?

Well, it just might to some dwellers in Paris, notably French citizens or citizens of former French colonies.  Virtually any Parisian would agree that is not uncommon to come across people who deplore Paris or reiterate their wish to flee to more attractive pastures, which in general refers to English-speaking countries like England or the United States.  Maybe it is the attitude, the expense, the bureaucracy, the aged mentalities, the systems that either seem backwards or simply do not work, or the absence of joyful people in the metro.  I wonder if I have heard it all.  In any case, I doubt that I can help to reduce the woes of these Parisians, given that I am an adult foreigner in Paris whose mother tongue is English.  Having moved to Paris only a couple of years ago, I cannot fully relate.

I do however relate with foreigners who seek to leave Paris because they are, as they might describe, fed up.  I have known a few in recent years and I cannot help but feel sad hearing their wishes to depart.  After all, many people move to the French capital excited about a new adventure, only to end up wanting to leave after a short period because "it is not working out" (whatever that means).  Aside from factors not related to Paris, I'm supposing that a good deal of these ideas of flight have to do with the people in Paris.  Granted, Parisians do not tend to welcome newcomers with open arms.  And while they may not offend you, they may just not recognize that you are there.  The widespread opinion that there is a lot of beauty and culture in Paris is great for someone relocating here, but, at some point, a frequent need for human connection takes over.  Foreigners might as well find this human connection within social groups that cater to them, thereby giving up on the French locals, who will naturally look to themselves when looking to fulfill the same need.  Given the obvious abundance of French people in Paris, the need is easily fulfilled and the sense of comfort is quickly restored.  After all, Paris remains a place built by the French for the French.  For the adult foreigner attached to a different way of life, this kind of situation can instill a pressure to conform or spark an identity crisis.  Or even nurture thoughts of leaving the city.

Yet there is great opportunity in Paris for the foreign resident to engage with the French-speaking local.  The city offers a rich culture and it is more often than not through its residents that one best discovers this culture.  Beyond Paris is France and many Parisians revel at the opportunity of presenting many things French to foreigners who may not have a clue.  Call it French pride if you will.  If you are open to learning new things, you can count on the French to enlighten you that regard.  Indeed, some Parisians come off as disagreeable and others have their quirks that rub people the wrong way.  If we accept that this is a part of life since we are all different (right?), then we can be more understanding.  Besides, an unpleasant behavior is only one side of the story; another side may include brighter things.  Also, there may be something interesting in the way Parisians express themselves (non-violently of course) when angry or annoying.  Sometimes, it's like theater that some of us may be incapable of either producing or producing as well.  We may not like it, but we will talk about it.

That said, the bulk of the opportunity to thrive in the Paris rests more in our hands than in those of the people with whom we share the city.  Each of us has something to offer, something that could enrich the lives of our fellow Parisians.  Yes, our numbers are much smaller when compared to those of the French-speaking locals.  But these low numbers makes us the rarity, the exception.  In other words, our difference makes us special.  We do not even have to strive to be special; we are so just by being in Paris.  And I think that we should embrace that.  Even better, if we can embrace that in beneficial ways that French-speaking Parisians can potentially identify with, then they can value us.  It's not a matter of trying to change French culture or of abiding by French culture.  It's rather about finding some middle ground, where we express our difference in favor of the people among whom we feel different.

It's like the popular saying "Leave a place better than you found it."  It's like the most famous words of former U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."  So what can you do for Paris and its residents?  What is it that your foreign eyes see since you have been in Paris?  What do your foreign eyes see lacking in Paris that, if provided, could  benefit Parisians, as well as yourself?  Indeed, it's not only about Paris; you are just as important.  It's about your own experience in Paris, not just that of the foreigner (or that of the local for that matter).  It's about the time that you invest in Paris.  Is the investment paying off for you right now?  Are you confident that it will yield a high return in the future, even in a life after Paris?

I believe that it is by this mutual consideration for Paris and for oneself that a foreigner can thrive in the city.  It's like a marriage where both sides must maintain a balance.  If the foreigner gives too much to Paris, he risks losing his sense of self.  If he gives too much to himself, he risks feeling isolated.

Some years ago, when I was having a passionate love affair with the French language in the United States, I decided to take a month off work — practically more than my annual leave allowance — to live in Paris.  One afternoon during my stay, I met Colette, a wonderful lady and French teacher that a Francophile friend had put me in contact with.  Between picnicking and strolling together in the park in the center of Place des Vosges, Colette sensed my enchantment with many things Parisian and French.  Consequently, she gathered that I was wondering about a future life in Paris that lasted longer than a month.  She promptly warned me: "Paris, c'est un mythe."  I got a similar reaction after returning to the States as some people pointed out to me the difficulties of living in Paris, perhaps owing to an impression of Parisians as unfriendly people.  In both cases, I thought to myself somewhat naively, "Oh, I'll charm them anyway."

Eight years after that stay in Paris, I finally feel that I am realizing the opportunity to do just that.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

in the absence of the mentor

A few months ago, I had a written exchange with my friend Keith on the subject of mentors.  He presented to me the benefits of having a mentor.  Someone to push you when you are feeling weak.  Someone to guide you through the uncertainties in life.  Someone who has been there before and can show you a way out.  And so on.

I agreed with pretty much all that Keith said.  Really, mentors are great.  But I do not have any at the moment.  Maybe I have not invested enough time and effort in finding one.  Maybe someone that I know has been trying to serve as a mentor to me, but I have not acknowledged him as such.  Anyhow, as far as I am concerned, I do not have one.  So, considering the big dreams that I want to realize, what's the next best thing?

Do things yourself.

The truth remains that not everyone who is skilled in a mentoring role can be a suitable mentor for you.  Even the mentors that seem suitable for you are not always available.  Even after finding a mentor that seems both suitable and available, you cannot just expect them to do wonders in your life.  You have to have something to show.  Be it some clarity about what you want, a willingness to get things done, an experience of accomplishing great things, or even just an intense emotion (that is not necessarily positive) about something in particular.  Or even something else.  I think that the best mentors are inclined to help if you have something to show.  It reminds me of a lovely quote that I learned in French a few years ago: "Aide-toi et le ciel t'aidera" (which literally translates to "Help yourself and the sky will help you" though some take it to mean "God helps those who help themselves").  So, how do you go about having something to show?

Do things yourself.

Until you find a mentor that is good enough and available for you, you are better off getting the ball rolling on your own.  That means no lying idle, no occupying your time with easier and less important matters.  If you are taking action on something meaningful to you, even if slow or questionable, you are cultivating a sense of commitment that can potentially be attractive to a mentor, and he may become inspired to help you.  If you are lying idle or occupying your time with trivial matters, well, you are only developing a habit of doing just that, which makes it more difficult to break the habit after crossing paths with someone who you think could be a great mentor to you.

So do things yourself, when you do not have the luxury of a good mentor.  Besides, at the end of the day, it's all about you doing the work.  Having a mentor does not mean he is going to do the work for you.  A mentor is primarily a means to an end; an end that you define, directly or indirectly.  A mentor is there to make the process faster, easier, and more efficient in general.  And things are arguably more fun with a mentor than without one.  Yet, even in these preferred conditions, the fact remains that there is work to be done and that you will have to do much of it, if not all.

Adapting yourself to work without a mentor while remaining open to the eventuality of finding one requires embracing the approach of trial and error.  It's a process that can be quite enlightening, even if lengthy.  Without a mentor, we can equip ourselves with information from literature of all kinds, from people that we know, from current events ‒ really, the sources of inspiration are endless and within reach.  For my part, I see myself as having "virtual mentors" like Simon Sinek and Paul Arden in the absence of a real one, and they have been helping me for a long time.  Regarding the practice of trying new things, we must keep a open mind, questioning things that we always considered set in stone, imagining different possibilities.  Afterwards, we must allow ourselves to realize some of these possibilities.  Does it work?  Does it not work?  How do I feel about that?  What can I do better?  Where can I find other opportunities?  These are only a few of the numerous questions that you may discover and rediscover during the process.  Questions that excite, questions that motivate, questions that inspire, questions that lead us to develop purpose in our lives.

As I see it, this kind of process is what being a free spirit is all about.  While a mentor is valuable, free spirits do not depend on one, technically speaking.  Free spirits enjoy venturing into unknown territory and figuring out things on their own, even if they choose people to help them do that.  A mentor can be a great resource for a free spirit, but I think that too much mentoring can interfere with free spiriting.  Ideally, the best mentor would be one that enables the free spirit in a person to bloom, so that the person can lead a life of his choice in the absence of the mentor.

If you believe that you can be a good mentor to me and you are available, let me know how I can reach you by leaving a comment below.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

five strolls through the 11th

Guess who's back?

Operation 50 First States!

I should perhaps rename it to "5 x 10 First States" or something similar.  Long story.

Anyways, after several letdowns and restarts, my feet finally traveled through the 11th arrondissement of Paris, passing various notable places along the way.  It took five strolls, where each one continued from where the previous had ended on a previous day.

In addition to approaching only people surrounded by other people in order to end up in a crowd, which was necessary for this stage of the operation, I decided to formalize a "comeback" reply for each stroll if the person approached asked why I was doing what I was doing.  While the reason given in the comeback had to be either unusual or amusing given the context of meeting strangers on the street, it had to be also genuine.

The five comebacks:
  • I am just bored
  • I am just trying to be creative
  • I am trying to change the world
  • I am trying to overcome my shyness (new)
  • I am trying to stop caring about what people think about me (new)

Lastly, I wanted the comebacks to mention things that people could relate to.  They may not know or care for Cheyenne, Wyoming, for example, but shyness?  That, they are familiar with.
Below is a record of the discoveries made and some of the experiences created during the five strolls.

1. Place de la Nation
Place de la Nation is a square on the border of the 11th and 12th arrondissements.  Formerly named the Place du Trône to commemorate the solemn entry into Paris of Louis XIV and Maria Theresa of Spain, it used to be a vast grassy space of vines and market gardens within the Mur des fermiers généraux, one of the former city wall of Paris.  In its center lies Le Triomphe de la République, a bronze monument commissioned in 1879 to mark the centenary of the French Revolution.  This monument showcases a statue personifying the Republic surrounded by various symbolic figures and facing the Place de la Bastille, thereby creating a Republican axis frequently used for public demonstrations.

Columns of the former barrière du Trône

2. Rue de Charonne
Rue de Charonne is a long street that runs through the arrondissement, beginning in the 12th near the Bastille neighborhood and ending in the 20th near the Père-Lachaise Cemetery.  Along the way, one can find many shops, art galleries, and restaurants ranging in ambience from casual to trendy.  The street is also home to several sites, including courtyards Cour Saint-Joseph and Cour Jacques-Viguès, as well as Palais de la Femme, a large residence belonging to the Salvation Army that houses women that are single or with children.

After entering Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine from Rue to Charonne, I approached a middle-aged woman waiting at a bus stop and asked her if she was from Tallahassee, Florida.  With an air of friendliness, she replied : "I have never been to Florida.  I don't have any feeling for that kind of society."  Which prompted me to ask: "What kind of society do you think is there?"  Regrettably, I didn't give her a chance to come up with an answer, as I butted in by saying "Beach society?  Yeah, I don't like the beach that much either."  She smiled.

Right after this encounter, I spotted a middle-aged man standing on the sidewalk in front of a restaurant terrace. He had a somewhat punk look and was enjoying a cigarette.  I went over and asked him if he was from Atlanta, Georgia.  He stopped me using a hand gesture to signal that he did not want to be disturbed, adding "Don't speak French."  Hmmn.

3. Rue de Lappe
Rue de Lappe is a street near the Bastille neighborhood.  It was home in the early 19th century to boutiques specializing in the distribution of metals such as zinc, copper, and iron.  By the turn of the century, however, the street had ceded to more festive activities, with the arrival of cabarets, cafes, and bars where patrons sang and danced bal-musette and bourrée, styles of music popular at the time.  Today, the street is renowned for its nightlife.

4. Place de la Bastille
Place de la Bastille is a large square at the intersection of the 4th, 11th, and 12th arrondissements. The square and its surrounding areas are often simply referred to as Bastille. It was the site of the former Bastille prison, which was stormed on July 14, 1789 at the onset of the French Revolution. At the center of the square lies the colonne de juillet, a column erected to commemorate the three days of the July Revolution of 1830 known as "Les Trois Glorieuses." Today, the square is popular among locals and tourists alike and serves as a frequent host to political and cultural demonstrations.

Undaunted cyclistes

Génie de la Liberté

On the sunny side of things

On the square, I ran into a tall man who appeared to speak English well.  After revealing that he did not come from Annapolis, Maryland, he asked : "Why did you ask that?"  I told him that I was just trying to be creative.  He smiled and then left, without saying a word.

5. Boulevard Richard-Lenoir
Boulevard Richard-Lenoir is a wide tree-lined boulevard that runs northward from Place de la Bastille. It is named after textile industrialists François Richard and Joseph Lenoir-Dufresne, who brought prosperity to the cotton industry in France at the turn of the 19th century. The boulevard is noteworthy for its median strip, which, in addition to covering a part of Canal Saint-Martin, is home to several small gardens, a weekly art market (Marché de la création), and a bi-weekly fruit and vegetable market that is one of the largest in Paris (Marché Bastille).

A Sunday morning at Marché Bastille

One of several gardens on Promenade Richard-Lenoir

Making my way through the busy market, I caught a woman standing among other people in front of a stand.  I went over to find out if she was from Jefferson City, Missouri.  In an English comparable to that of an American, she replied no, adding "Do I look like someone you know?"  It was my turn to reply : "No.  Do I look like someone you know?"  In the end, she must have gotten the point that the dialogue was not meant to be taking (too) seriously.

6. Cirque d'hiver
Cirque d'hiver ("Winter Circus") has been a prominent venue for circuses, equestrian exhibitions, musical concerts, and even fashion shows. Designed by the architect Jacques-Ignace Hittorff and inaugurated by Emperor Napoleon III on 11 December 1852 as Cirque Napoléon, the circus is a polygon of 20 sides having 40 windows, with a diameter of 41 meters and Corinthian columns at the angles.

Woman with baguette

Tigers in Paris!

7. Rue Oberkampf
Rue Oberkampf is a street that runs through the arrondissement, from the 3rd arrondissement on the west to the 20th arrondissement on the east.  Formed by a progressive urbanization beginning at the end of the 18th century, this street is sometimes considered as a "rue-faubourg", because it is a busy street that travels from the center of Paris towards its outskirts and that is lined with various kinds of shops.  In the 1990s, Rue Oberkampf became a trendy place with a rich offering of bars, cafés, restaurants, nightclubs and concert venues, particularly in the neighborhood around its eastern end, near Ménilmontant.

I bumped into a man on Rue Oberkampf and inquired if he was from Albany, New York.  He asked what I was looking for.  I replied that I was trying to overcome my shyness.  He indicated that he did not understand the word.  So I said "timidity" and he understood.  He said "Good luck" and left.

After having walked east on Rue Oberkampf all the way to Boulevard de Ménilmontant, I made a U-turn to walk in the other direction, but on the other sidewalk.  Soon after crossing the street to start going back, I ran into an middle-aged man with a pretty, young Indian-looking girl by his arm.  As it was time to approach a man, so I went up to him.  "Hi.  Are you from Bismarck, North Dakota?", I asked.  He did not say much, and it was the girl who translated for him, in crystal clear English.  She told me that he was French and that he could only speak French.  So she asked if I spoke French.  To which I replied : "yes but not today".  This seemed to have clarified things, as the guy then went, "Bonjour" and I replied "Bonjour" in return.  "Ca va ?", he asked.  "Ca va", I replied, in a good French accent.  At this point, it appeared that my admission of being able to speak French had been ignored.  In any case, the dialogue carries on between me and girl, in English.  She asks politely for the motivation of my actions.  I replied that I was trying to overcome my shyness.  Then she starts giving me pointers on where to meet English speakers in Paris, citing Saint-Michel and Rue Mouffetard, as if I was a tourist or someone who had just moved to the city.  She admitted that she went to Rue Mouffetard after moving to Paris 5 years before and met English-speaking people everywhere there.  I was touched by the whole thing.  Eventually, we went our separate ways, ending one of the most pleasant interactions in the history of the operation.

8. Bataclan
Bataclan is an auditorium designed by the architect Charles Duval in 1864.  Then named "Le Grand Café Chinois-Théâtre Bataclan", it takes its name from Offenbach's operetta.  With a facade representing a Chinese pagoda, the Bataclan was originally a music hall that presented ballets and acrobatic shows.  In 1926, the auditorium was resold and transformed into a cinema; it will remain one until 1969.  One of the most prestigious performance venues in Paris today, the Bataclan hosts the biggest names in music and stage, catering to shows, theater, nightclubbing, but above all to concerts.

HIM happens to be a Finnish rock band ...

There was a mass of people that camped out right beside the Bataclan entrance.  Virtually all of them were dressed for a Gothic rock concert.  Not exactly seeking to disturb the peace, I approached a middle-aged woman standing at a corner open to passers-by and asked her if she was from Providence, Rhode Island.  She said no.  When I asked her what was happening, she told me that there was a Finnish band playing.  In her explanation, she kept acting as if I did not know what Finnish meant, even though I kept repeating Helsinki.  It was an amusing piece of miscommunication.

I stopped a guy near the Bataclan to ask if he was from Columbia.  He happily replied "No."  South Carolina?  "No."  He then asked what I was doing.  I said that I was trying to overcome my shyness.  He told me that I was doing a good job and started walking away afterwards.  I could do nothing but shout "Thanks for the encouragement!" as he was getting further away.

9. Eglise Saint-Ambroise
Eglise Saint-Ambroise ("Saint-Ambroise Church") is a church that shares its name with the administrative district in which it is located. It was constructed from 1863 to 1868, according to the plans and under the direction of the architect Théodore Ballu, shortly after the inauguration of Boulevard du Prince-Eugène (former name of Boulevard Voltaire). It replaced a church called Notre-Dame de la Procession that was located slightly in front, approximately at the location of the garden in front of the current church. Its style is a mix of neo-Gothic, neo-Roman and neo-Byzantine elements that were in fashion at the time, notably in Paris.

In the vicinity of the church, when a woman told me that she was not from Pierre, South Dakota, it was the big moment to usher in a brand new comeback: "I am trying to stop caring about what people think about me."  I no longer remember her reaction.  But I did it!  Ecstatic about having made real for the first time what I imagined as different from social conventions, I felt my nerves tingling for a while.

10. Place Léon Blum
Place Léon Blum is a square inaugurated in 1857 under the name of Place du Prince-Eugène, in homage to the uncle of Napoléon III, and later renamed in 1870 to Place Voltaire, owing to the proximity of the boulevard bearing the same name.  Since 1957, it has taken its name from the politician Léon Blum (1872-1950), whose statue is visible in front of the city hall of the arrondissement.

Mairie de l'arrondissement

Statue of Léon Blum

I met a man near the McDonald's on the square between Rue de la Roquette and Boulevard Voltaire.  With difficulty, I confirmed that he was not from Richmond, Virginia.  He was curious about my intentions, so I gave him the comeback reply.  He did not understand and asked if I spoke French.  I said, "Yes, but not today."  Yet he really wanted to understand what I had said.  It was very endearing; I had never met a person as curious and kind during previous runs of this operation before.  He did not appear satisfied when I told him that I was only carrying out a mental exercise.  I ended up deciding to break character (sorry Charlie Todd) and told him that I had never done it and would do it only once.  So I delivered comeback reply number 5 in French, clumsily: "J'essaie d'arrêter de penser à ce que les autres pensent de moi."  The translation was a struggle.  Back to speaking in English.  The man did not seem to care much for what I had just said after all.  He conceded that he had seen my board (on it I had fixed a map of the arrondissement et a sheet of paper listing the 50 states and their capitals) and had thought that I wanted his signature.  He joked that I was not as old as he was even with all my grey hair.  He got that right.  He introduced himself as Michel, and said he was 54.  In return, I told him my age and maybe my name as well.  We shook hands on two occasions.  The interaction was that special.

I met a group of four (one woman, three guys) standing at corner of an intersection along Rue de la Roquette.  I went up to the woman and asked if she was from Olympia, Washington.  She got to smiling while saying "No."  I caught the others smiling too.  She asked what I was up to.  I took my time to provide comeback reply number 5.  Then she went, "Well, I don't know you."  I shot back quickly with "I didn't know you either."  We exchanged one more round of smiles and then good day wishes as we parted ways.

As a bonus, some interesting things seen during the strolls:

It's the second edition of the "Sex in the City" exhibition!

Rene Miller entertains shoppers at Marché Bastille

Game Heaven, a.k.a. the place where I can get back my Nintendo, my Sega Genesis, and my Playstation

African Nigerian restaurant on Rue Saint-Maur

Preferred testing grounds pour Operation Bar Games

The highest ranked (and possibly the best) Thai restaurant in Paris