Monday, March 22, 2010

Frozen Time

The weather was off-and-on rain, but for a few hours at the end of the weekend, I found myself enjoying the brief moment of sunshine. Spring officially started on Saturday--signs were in the metro and on the info boards, wishing travelers a joyeux printemps--and the weekend certainly seemed to follow suite. Rain came in short spurts, but never let up enough for me to put my umbrella away for good. And so, in one of the few sunny moments late Sunday afternoon--my favorite day of the week in Paris--I ran across a brocante in my old stomping grounds, near la Tour Montparnasse (Montparnasse Tower). I haven't lived there for a few years, but it still very much feels like chez moi. Every corner, metro stop, and movie theatre brings back a memory. I'm vividly reminded of my time here before, when I had much more free time, and subsequently, much less money. To make up for being incredibly poor, I walked everywhere. I remember walking the streets with my iPod, often just walking for walking, enjoying the scenery along the way. Certain songs still bring very particular images to my mind; I sometimes hear a song and am immediately at a certain place in the 14th or 6th [arrondisement]. This was one of the hardest parts of coming back a few years ago--it took me months to be able to listen to half the songs I have in my music library. Too many memories tied to songs. I don't live particularly far from Montparnasse now--I could walk there in 25 minutes--but with my schedule, I'm in "my" neighborhood less and less.

The usual suspects were at the brocante--the man who sells mini-drawings carefully crafted on metro tickets, the hippie woman trying to sell her acid-induced paintings, the DVD "pirates," always looking around to make sure the cops aren't close by to ruin the 5€ movies that are still in theatres. Along with this were the piles of rubbish--frames, vases, coins, lamps, books, tins, baskets, armoires, and any other random item you could think of. I perused through the goods--flipping through books and magazines, running my fingers over embroidered tea towels, and holding up knock-off designer bags to my arm, hoping to pull of that fashionista look the French women seem to be so good at. (Fake bag or not, I still fail.)

And then I came upon a stand on the corner, photos strewn across several tables. Boxes, crates, and huge piles of photos, to be exact. Some were new(er)--B-list French celebrities and recent politicans; others were older, from the late 19th century to the 60's.

These type of photo stands are fairly common in Paris. Old, canceled postcards and abandoned photos seem to pop up pretty often, especially on the banks of the Seine River. I'd never actually stopped to go through any for longer than 30 seconds, but since I had a few minutes, I decided to go through some of the piles, for fun.

Twenty minutes later, I had a handful of photos in one hand, unable to put them down. I kept looking through the masses of pictures--for what, I don't know--but for whatever reason, I couldn't stop. Were the pictures extraordinary? No, not particularly. Take this one. An old man and (presumably) his wife. It's simple, and they don't even look that happy. But it's so..ordinary. Real. I couldn't put it down. What were they thinking when they got this taken? Was the camera new? Were they annoyed? Was the man a farmer? Or butcher? And did his moustache naturally curl like that? So many questions.

The wedding photo was one of the first I found. I don't know what drew me to it, exactly. First of all, I love black and white photos, especially with lots of contrast. But I think what I liked most was the man's smile and slight dimple, the way his head tilts towards his new bride. For a moment, at least, he looks genuinely happy. Check out the unique photo studio design on the corner. Impressive in what seems to be early 20th-century wedding photography.

Funny thing about this one is that I immediately recognized where it was before flipping the photo over. I was in Fontainebleau the day before. It's a castle in the suburbs of Paris. I had a friend visiting and we went to see it on Saturday afternoon. I'm sometimes creeped out by how much my life overlaps.

These babies are probably at least 70-years-old, if they're even still alive. I love this photo.

Was this a vacation home? What does it look like now? And how many memories happened there?

This is my favorite find of the day. Look how happy they look. Especially the girl on the left. I like to create my own stories--the girl was goofing around and something funny, which made everyone laugh. Maybe she's crazy Aunt Mildred. I love how 1940's/50's the dresses are. They're in the country, maybe at a family reunion? Or maybe it's just a Sunday in France..the possibilities are endless. Just looking at it makes me feel, for a moment, like I'm there with them.

Thirty minutes after starting, I walked up to the man holding down the stand.
"Where do all of these come from?" I asked, shuffling through the photos, trying to understand them more with each viewing.

"Mostly estates," he said. "I buy them in bulk. They're the leftovers; no one wanted them." These are people's families. There are stories behind each of these photos.

"It's kind of sad, don't you think?" I looked down at the faces in the photos. I didn't know any of these people and probably never would. But I felt this connection to these unnamed people, stuck in the past forever on these little silver-emulsion photos.

He seemed to understand. I couldn't be the first person that had asked him.
"That's why I buy them. So they're not gone forever. People buy them for nostalgia, but at least they're not in a box somewhere, or worse, in the trash."
I handed him my money and smiled.
"I'll take good care of them."

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Bonjour mon petit bureau de change

I've seen this video at least 10 times, and it still cracks me up. French mocking at its best!

Sunday, March 14, 2010


So, Germany. It was beautiful. I was in Bavaria this time, and for you weak-in-geography types (I recently found out that Italy touches Slovenia. Hmm. College degree and all..), Bavaria is a state in the southeast corner of the country. It's actually a huge state; maybe the biggest in the country. A large part of it is rural, but it still has some big metropolises, namely Munich and Nuremberg.

I was in Bamberg, up towards the top. I befriended two German exchange students at MWSU last year, and lo and behold, they decided to move in together once coming back to Germany. Two birds friends with one stone visit.

Angie and Steffi graciously let me stay at their house, where they had an extra bedroom. Originally, the plan was to speak only in German, so I could soak up as much as possible, conjugate my verbs with perfection, leave after 5 days with a much better comprehension..

In theory, it sounded great. But the truth is that the Germans are f-ing awesome with languages, especially the far-inferior English. So most of our exchanges were a mishmash of English and German, heavy on the English. I helped them erase the classic foreigner mistake of pronouncing iron "eye-run," and they helped me pronounce German tongue twisters, like this: Zehn zahme Ziegen zogen zehn Zentner Zucker zum Zoo! (Ten tamed goats carried ten tons of sugar to the zoo!)

Bamberg is, excuse me, but SO GERMAN. I don't know if you could find a more German city. Its population is around 70,000 and it's got a university with about 10,000 students. Lots of bikes, lots of ped ways, lots of little shops. But, it has an H&M, so you know that it's not too small. This is my constant gauge for how hip a city is in Europe. Oh, you have dozens of cathedrals and ancient ruins? That's great, but do you have a popular Swedish chain department store? No? Hmm, sorry. Not a real city.

The city largely avoided the bombings of World War II, so most of the beautiful architecture is still standing. Lots of baroque, gothic, and other styles that I won't pretend to short, very pretty. Very colorful and a surprising number of baby Jesuses hiding all over. Bavaria is one of the Catholic hold-outs in a country of Lutherans and Protestants, so I'm convinced they go double-time with their religious relics to make up for it.

Most of the week was pretty tranquille. Angie was busy studying for her last final (of college!); Steffi was working on her thesis. I spent a few mornings with multiple hot mugs of coffee while studying some German and periodically looking out the window to admire the beautiful landscape. We still had lots of time to go to cafés, take pictures, get our hair done (I missed the blonde), stop at a tea salon, take some more pictures, browse was very "go-with-the-flow." I spent some afternoons on my own while the girls were doing their own thing, and that was fine. I kind of like exploring alone, anyway. All I need is my iPod, camera and a free afternoon. I didn't expect them to go out of their way to accommodate me--but they were very helpful and adopted me as the third roommie for a week.

We went out for dinner one night at a very typical Bavarian restaurant. Mmmmm sehr lecker! I'd like to tell you what I had, but I can't remember the 70-letter words for it. I therefore have made up my own translations: Potato balls and meat with meatsauce. Voila.

At the restaurant, I was the only (native) English speaker of the group , but they all were speaking English to each other, which I found strange. They were doing it to be polite, which was really nice of them, but unnecessary. I told them to speak in German because I was the only one out of five that didn't understand German, so I was by far the minority. They proceeded to speak in German, and even though I didn't understand much, I enjoyed listening to them speaking it. I recognize where I am on my so-called language ladder. I understand lots of words, and I can pretty faithfully do conjugations if I think about it for a minute. German has its ridiculous declension system, so listening carefully, I can tell you that hey! They're saying something and it's in the dative case! Or hey, we're going ins Kino because it involves movement! But if we're sitting in the cinema and there's no movement, we're im Kino. A few years back, when I first came to France, I was at this same level. I'd often have this kind of comprehension:
Today, I went to the supermarket and I bought XXXX and it was so XXXX but XXXX and then I XXXXX lady XXXX asked if XXXXXX but noXXXXXXX and then I came home and XXXX so do you want XXXXXXX we go to dinner?

Nonsense. Clips of phrases and verbs. I'm missing lots of language stuffing. But I'm getting there. I have a few more rungs, so to say, before I'll be to a level where I can have a conversation that doesn't involve "What's the word for that again?" Even though the week was largely in English, I still picked up a lot of words. It's so much easier when you learn it right there, on the spot, and you can use it immediately. Learning from afar with books only gets you so far, and the memorization (for me) takes much longer than if an actual native says, hey, this is the word. Use it here. And now, lets have a conversation and I'm going to use this word five more times and you will remember it forever!

I ended up extending my visit an extra two days because I liked it so much. I originally intended on having a four-day "staycation" in Paris before school started again, but the more I thought about it, I figured that I might as well spend my sitting around and doing nothing time in Bamberg, with friends, than at home, alone. So I stayed, ate my bodyweight in bread and wine, watched horrible/wonderful German TV, took pictures, tried to read a book in German (failed), read a book in English (succeeded), had a photoshoot with the world's next official problem solver (enterprise to follow; I've been promised the job of media coordinator), laughed with friends, had fun. It was great.

I'm officially in love with Germany.
More pictures here.