Monday, August 11, 2014

Bridges, Surfaces, and Eggs

In our attempts to acculturate ourselves to Parisian life, we are doing as the Parisians do: leaving Paris! We leave early tomorrow morning for Brittany to reunite with our beloved family friend and breathe the Breton air and all its possibilities. In the meantime, the latest, posted from your friendly neighborhood corner café.

August 8 - Urbanism/Cosmopolitanism/Japonism
That the sushi place down the street is Halal certified is telling – whether of our neighborhood, of Paris, of France itself, I’m not sure; but it’s certainly its own kind of wonderful and it helped us make our final point about Japonisme at the end of our Impressionism/ Urbanism explorations.  We spent most of our time at the Musée d’Orsay in front of the two paintings of the Japanese bridge in Monet’s garden. Inexplicably (and I should dig harder to find out the story), the swimming pool in our town in Indiana has a tori at the front door, and the “clean line” look of it made sense to the kids in relation to that smooth arc of Monet’s bridge. Mac said that Monet himself had it built, and then we mused on why: the opening of Japan to the West, as the phrase goes; the market created for all things Japanese; the fascination the Impressionists had with the flatness of Japanese woodblock prints (perspective must die! art is in what is directly seen! flatness is the aesthetic of the immediate!); the aesthetic of a pristine exotic and all its accompanying assumptions about how European culture might be rejuvenated through its appropriations of other cultures (one way of putting colonialism). That’s a lot for two long arcs of paint – but Mac pointed out the Japanese irises in the next painting, and it all started to connect (the fabrics, the fans, the flowers, this vision). Both Oliver and Iris chose Giverny paintings to discuss; Eleanor chose a winter, urban Caillebotte scene (snow on rooftops, steely grey everything) – she liked the thick paint; and so Mac scared all of us by talking about how hard white is to make and how they added lead to it in the 19th century. Art fright!

link to the exhibition
 One of my sabbatical projects is to work on a politics of the museum course (to be titled “Politics of the Museum: history, ethnicity, nation” or “History of the Museum: politics, ethnicity, nation” – haven’t decided how far back I’m going to go: “politics” would focus more on contemporary displays; “history” would have us thinking through the Wunderkammers). I had thought about studying the Quai Branly museum very closely and seeking out its various theses, but boy, has it ever reached out instead. All over Paris are ads for its big show “Tiki Pop” about how those crazy Americans appropriated Polynesian culture into their drinking culture, fashion, and goodness knows what else. What I can’t tell from the posters (and this is telling) is whether or not there’s a critique there or just this weird reveling. I remember being stunned a few years ago as I slowly realized that a show devoted to Victor Hugo’s Les Orientales was actually quite nostalgic about French colonialism and its exotic mysteries, perpetuating both. You don’t. need. a. hookah. for a show about Victor Hugo’s poetry. But there it was, with a little rug and stool. And many paintings of sleepy unclad women and young boys from Tunisia and Algeria. One of the points of the course will be to develop a critical stance about the twist that post-colonialism has taken towards a neo-colonialism (basically, other means of exploitation than direct colonialism). And also to study those earlier moments of appropriation (do I go to the Crusades? to the Roman empire?). Today made me think a great deal about the exportation of the natural world, of flowers and trees transplanted, giraffes in exile in Paris zoos. And about the tipping points/the intersecting lines of colonialism, appropriation, cosmopolitanism, and an urban internationalism that pushes at Europe itself. At some point, sushi came to Courbevoie, and at another, it was Halal certified. In the meantime, I keep going back to what Iris said as we pulled away from the Japanese bridge paintings: “There’s this idea that nature is calm, because it’s not rushed like the city; but actually it’s full of stuff happening – like Japan in France.”

August 9 - Surfaces
 To write a love letter to Jacques Tati is to write a love letter to Paris, and there are plenty (beautiful examples) of those already around. Seeing the digitally re-mastered version of Playtime in Paris itself, though, makes me want to, yes, play with at least one of his big ideas from the film. Surfaces: transparencies and reflections abound in the movie, constantly pivoting virtual and real communication – the kids were a little dizzied by it, loving the movie almost as a ride; Mac noticed a new connection (the winner of the boxing match on the television everyone’s watching at night is announced on a newspaper front page the next morning); and I let myself get a little dizzy thinking about the surface moves from celluloid to digital. That’s the tenderness of the film for me: its caress of surfaces – sleek, modern ones (gleaming, smooth, and long); rough, traditional ones (textured, disruptive, and unpredictable); even aural ones: insistent electronics, precise human footsteps, muffled human voices, hip jazz and traditional Parisian street song. Old Paris (old humanity?) is directly beneath the surface of New Paris (we moderns), just waiting to bubble up and make everything human again. We noticed this time that the gesture that brings the whole modern restaurant crashing down around itself is Monsieur Hulot reaching up into the decorations for an apple (!) that a lady desired (!!). I could over-interpret everything and talk about how human desires will bring any pristine Eden down, but I wouldn’t want to do that. Living near La Défense (18th-century military garrison (thus the name) turned, as of the 1970s, into a constant experiment (with mixed results) of the city of the future) proves instructive here. Daily, we move from our brick houses and café neighborhood to the unrelenting expanses of steel and glass and back into an entire city that insists upon the human scale. Paris has sequestered its modernist architecture to an emblem on its fringe. In the center (and everywhere else) modern life prevails in its pace and ambitions, in its practicalities and conveniences, but not in steel and height.

 And so the other surfaces of the day become layers of experience. The cheeses at the market, pungent and legendary (when did France begin its epic climb towards its 450+ kinds of cheese that DeGaulle presented as the most logical way to explain the unruliness of the country he was trying to restore to order?); the meats and fish and produce all presented and talked over every Wednesday and Saturday in our neighborhood – these days, the market a mere pantomime of what it will be once Parisian get back from their August vacations. It was with these that we began our day, and with these that we ended them (dinner of baguette, cheeses, terrine de lapin, and tomatoes) – ancient textures, messy.

Marie de Medici started this little garden on what were then (1616) the marshy banks of the Seine. It was kept up in various ways and then finished in “Haussmanian” style – rough-hewn steps (of poured concrete carved to look like wood - !!) that you see here, a waterfall, a pond (filled with carp to Iris’s delight) and a bridge made of thick branches (of poured concrete carved to look like thick branches – I never get over that: it’s all over the Buttes Chaumont, too). It’s at the end of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s street, right before the Cours de Reine and now known as the Garden of Nouvelle France: Jacques Cartier (who left from Saint-Mâlo (the Breton connection!) to claim what is today Canada for France) looks sternly out onto the Seine from his bust atop a column, seeing a New France in a Modern World, while hankering for cheese.

August 10 – Not for the Faint of Heart
 Those of you who know me and my love of aspic will want to shudder and turn away. For I have found my hero! My joy! My egg in aspic!!! Poached, mind you, then lovingly wrapped in a slice of ham, garnished with a delicate tomato, and suspended in delicious aspic. The Swiss love to top little finger sandwiches in aspic (so that the little garnishes are held in place just so), but this poached egg in aspic was a stratospheric other level. Purchased yesterday at the market, eaten at lunch, and then reminisced about at today’s lunch.  So, it’s lovely enough to look at. But then look what happens when you cut into it.

 Wondrous! The egg is so perfectly poached that the yolk still runs richly when cut. A healthy chunk of baguette can rise to the occasion of sopping things up, and you have one happy Anne. I may have lost all but one or two readers at this point, but if you’re with me, isn’t this marvelous? The care and craft of suspending a poached egg in aspic is not lost on me. It is revered and admired, its brilliance and delight proclaimed.


  1. I was with you - I really was - unit we came to the aspic. A poached egg is wondrous, I agree, but why oh why would one ever want to encase it in such gelatinous horridness?

  2. Alas! I fear that I will always be alone in my love and admiration of aspic - a voice in the wilderness of gelatinous wonder (although granted, sound probably doesn't carry far in aspic). Le sigh. I really do love the stuff. :-)