My Paris, my dad’s Paris, and Hemingway’s Paris

My dad left more than a week ago, but between schoolwork and Paris work I’ve been really busy and haven’t had the time to write sooner. I should have, though, because this is all such an interesting and unique story.

I was luckier than most of the kids in my program in that my dad used to live in Paris and I had visited him a couple of times while he lived abroad. Even though that was a couple years ago, it really did shape my visit because not only did I get the touristy things out of the way, but I did them while also having the local experience of going to a market every day and buying all of your bread and cheese and vegetables and wine fresh. And I had a heads up on everyone, because I had a working (but still a little rusty) knowledge of at least three different neighborhoods in Paris because of my dad.

And I am used to staying in apartments or actual lodgings in Paris, rather than a hotel. It’s weird to think of it like that. There was the hostel for like a week in the beginning of the program, but I’m not counting that because I never want to think of that crappy hostel ever again.

That’s one thing I have up against my dad—in case you haven’t noticed, I like being very competitive about Paris when it comes to him. He’s stayed in hotels in Paris before he lived here; as he joked, “The first time I was in Paris I stayed at the Hotel de Crillion and it’s been downhill ever since.” No kidding: the fancy smanchy hotel has the prime location of being between the Champs-Élysées and Place de la Concorde, and has had everyone from Louis XV to Madonna visit (you could say Louis XVI visited too, since he was beheaded right outside of the building).

Last time I was in Paris with my dad (and my sister). I'm still the only normal one.

Last time I was in Paris with my dad (and my sister). I’m still the only normal one.

So not only have I had a different Paris experience by myself, but I’ve also had a different Paris experience with my dad. And of course, he’s had his own Paris experience that I don’t even know about. But I got a little insight when he visited when he kept pointing out things that were different and things that were the same.

I can’t wait until I come back to Paris and am able to do that.

The biggest thing, for him, was Starbucks. Or, Starboooooooks, as the French say.

There were no Starbucks in Paris when he lived here like four or five years ago. As my French teachers love to tell me when I don’t know a translation and just pronounce the English word in question with a French accent, “Ça n’existe pas,” or it doesn’t exist. He was really taken aback by how many Starbucks he would pass on his morning runs or daily walks—especially with the one that popped up in his own neighborhood.

But like the French people before him (and the American people before them), he adapted pretty quickly. There are two Starbucks on opposite sides of the street that my school is on, and twice I met him at one of them after classes. Or, after classes I would meet up with him and ask what he did, only to be told that he went to Starbucks and worked on his computer.

That leads us to another big change: wifi. Although, to be fair, I guess wifi wasn’t that big of a deal five years ago? Or maybe it was? Or maybe it was in America? I’ll say that we’re much more addicted to it now than we were back then, because surely that’s right? It was hell when there was no wifi in Charles de Gaulle, and then everyone freaked out at our hostel because you could only get wifi sitting in the lobby and even then it was really low strength even without the thirty other kids trying to get on it. The French had wifi in McDonalds before Americans did (I love that fact) but you have to look for restaurants, bars, or cafes to advertise with a sign in the window that they have wifi, and even then it’s not always free. Maybe that’s why Starbucks is so big in France; it’s certainly why my dad visited Starbucks when he was here.

We talked during our cafe stops, despite the presence of Apple products in our hands.

We talked during our cafe stops, despite the presence of Apple products in our hands.

But we still did the whole “sit under a heater on a wicker-back chair on the sidewalk and sip espresso while watching the world walk by” thing when my dad was here. We walked all around Paris and would only stop to drink at a café—always outside when it was available. That was how I found out that there are a lot more runners and joggers on the streets than there were when my dad lived here. Which is funny, because my dad said he forgot how thin everyone was here.

My dad, mostly because of my stepmom, is a big runner. They ran their old running paths while they were here, and I guess they weren’t used to sharing sidewalk space. Even during non-prime running time, like very late morning or early afternoon, there were runners in the big populous areas. But you could always tell who the French runners were. They were the ones wearing head-to-toe spandex. They were the ones carrying Walkmens while they ran. And, most of all, they were the one wearing scarves while they ran.

Seriously. Wearing a scarf while exercising. I love it. That’s so French.

And, according to my dad, there weren’t more dogwalkers, but there was less dog poop. That isn’t to say that the sidewalks are completely clean—because they really aren’t and it’s disgusting how much poop you might step into if you or your friend isn’t looking down. But one time my dad saw someone picking up dog poop and that was literally the first thing he said to me when I met up with him that day. It was that big of a deal.

That was a “Oh … cool, dad” moment for me (sorry, but it was). But one of the biggest moments for me was showing my dad the lock bridge behind Notre Dame. It was something I noticed during my first weekend in Paris, during the standard Seine boat tour, and I was pleased to have something to teach my dad.

On the Pont de l’Archevêché, and other bridges and areas I don’t know the names of, you’ll see both sides of a bridge absolutely covered in locks (even bike locks in some hilarious cases). I’m not sure where this custom comes from, but apparently lovers write their initials on the locks, hook it to the bridge, and then throw the key into the Seine so their love is eternal. You can bring your own lock or even buy ones at the stands along the riverbank. I’m not sure when the custom started either, but apparently it was after my dad left.

Something else I’m proud of was that I took my dad to the Christmas Village on the Champs-Élysées. I wrote a blog post about it, so I won’t go into too much detail, but I went at night and during the day with my dad so turns out he likes being a little touristy sometimes as well.

We went on two tours when my dad was here. The first was to the Père Lachaise cemetery right down the street from me, because it’s so expansive and cluttered and disorganized that you’d get lost trying to do more than find Jim Morrison’s grave. It was his first time there, and my stepmom’s second, so I felt like I was able to contribute to the experience even though I wasn’t the one giving the tour. The cemetery—and my house, by virtue of location—are kind of on the outskirts of Paris, two Metro stops away from the suburbs, so I wasn’t surprised that my dad had never made the trip to the cemetery.

At Père Lachaise.

At Père Lachaise.

The other tour was the Hemingway tour, which I thought I could have done self-guided jut because of Google and A Moveable Feast, but I was completely surprised when we ended up at Hemingway’s first Parisian apartment that is literally a two-minute walk away from my friend’s apartment and apparently I’ve walked by it a couple of times and completely missed the little plaque announcing that Hemingway lived there. The apartment, as well as his writing apartment, is right off of Rue Mouffetard, which is where Lily lives and where I’ve gone to drink late at night and shop during the day.

Egg on my literary face. I couldn’t believe my blog name comes from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and I didn’t realize that I was making my own Paris memories in the same spot where he had made his, and also written about his.

And it turned out my dad had been on Rue Mouffetard too and didn’t know it—way back when on his first day in Paris where he got an egg and cheese crepe with lettuce and tomatoes (and was never able to find it or the meal again until that day).

Another time I thought I mapped out a piece of Paris my dad didn’t know about was when I took him to Rue Montergeuil, a busy little street in a piéton, or pedestrian-only, cobblestone neighborhood that’s right by my school.  There are a lot of little fromageries, patisseries, boulangeries, and butcher shops on the street and my friends and I have gone here for French, Thai, Indian, and Chinese.  When my dad visited my school, I made sure he also came to this street so he’d get the full “Alissa at school” experience.

Like father, like daughter, like Bourdain (at Robert et Louise).

Like father, like daughter, like Bourdain (at Robert et Louise).

Which he did have, but it became the “Alissa at school/that bakery tour we did ages ago” experience when I took him to La Maison Stohrer, one of the oldest bakeries in Paris where the Rhum Baba was invented. Then he remembered the street and I pouted a little.

But I couldn’t get mad. How could I, when my dad showed me the bar he used to go to because they had happy hour until 10 p.m.? And the Scottish bar where he watched rugby every Sunday and eat cans of peanuts bought out of a vending machine?

We were sharing both of our own Paris experiences with each other, to create a Parisian experience together.

I will say, however, that I was jealous when we went to a restaurant and the manager/owner recognized my dad and my step-mom from the last time they were there five years ago. The restaurant, Robert et Louise, and its’ proprietor François (Robert et Louise’s son-in-law) were featured in the first episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, and my dad is recognized in there. What the hell!

I really, really, reeeeaaaaalllllyyyyy hope that happens to me.

I think the baristas at Starbucks, this one bartender at an Irish bar by Châtelet, a big creepy bouncer at a dive bar near Hôtel de Ville, and the cashiers at the Monoprix by my house all recognize me now, but will they do that in five years? Probably not.

And none of them have ever met Bourdain and presumably remember him as well.

Absinthe-minded

I was eating peanut butter sandwiches everyday at my middle school cafeteria when Anthony Bourdain started making a name for himself, but I still had the same initial reactions to him when I became interested in food writing and watching as the foodie world did about five or six years later than the initial Bourdain breakout. When I watched the pilot episode of No Reservations on Netflix, I ended up more impressed with Bourdain than the food he tried. He seemed like the most badass of chefs, with the ever-present cigarette dangling from his lips and the small silver hoop dangling from his earlobe.

In the world of Emerils and Mario Batalis, he was the food world’s Keith Richards and I was the little girl falling in love all the way at the very back of the concert hall.

When I started planning my Parisian 4-month vacation, I rewatched that episode again. I knew that I might not be able to afford to visit all of the bars and restos and patisseries and boulangeries that Bourdain did, but I definitely had to go to that absinthe bar.

And two months in, when I watched it again, I felt like such an insider that I scoffed at Bourdain’s recommendation that taxis are an easy way to get around Paris and could pick out neighborhoods and streets that he passed by. But then I deflated when I realized that no, I hadn’t actually gone to that absinthe bar yet and only had a month or so left to do it.

As I wrote in a previous post, suddenly it was  Thanksgiving—aka, Thursday, in Paris. I had gotten a little taste of the holiday and its tradition the Wednesday before at a little potluck dinner thrown at my school, but I still wanted to do something. And I thought, if I can’t have all of my Thanksgiving traditions, then I’m going to do something so outrageously un-Thanksgiving like that there’s no way I’ll be able to get homesick.

The outside. You can already tell it's pretty badass.

The outside. You can already tell it’s pretty badass.

Using that brilliant logic, I ended up suggesting the absinthe bar to my friends.

I sent over the Youtube clip of the bar scene—and my friends actually took the time to watch it, which usually doesn’t happen (to be fair, I do love sending Youtube videos).

“We’re not actually going to hallucinate like that, right?” one friend asked.

“Nah, of course not,” I said. “We don’t have the special camera effects Bourdain did.”

We also didn’t have the illegal, pre-prohibition absinthe that he did, either.

The bar looked pretty kitchsy in the video—low lighting, skeleton decorations, cartoon pornography featuring hot naked demon ladies. The website was equally bizarre. The “philosophy” of the bar is to be exactly what a “rock ‘n’ roll” bar should be like—but also being “punk rock” and “metal” at the same time.

IMG_9639

I made sure I wore my leather jacket—but it’s a jean-colored fake leather jacket cut in the style of a jeans jacket, so I was nowhere near the leather daddy/witch goddess fashion of all of the bar patrons.

And this was something I picked up as soon as I walked through the door—although that could have been because a woman with piles of dark hair messily held on the top of her head laughed and said, “Come on, kids” in French as we walked by her.

Yeah, not exactly the kind of welcoming I wanted.

Later, my friend confessed, “As soon as I walked through the door, I wanted to bolt out of there.”

But we soldiered on, trying not to stare at the demon porn or all of the leather. It’s funny, because there are a lot of bars in Paris that try to capitalize on the coolness of rock or Anglophilia and call themselves “bar du rock” or a “bar du punk.” But La Cantada II really was a metal bar, sure, but the people here were older, in their thirties and forties. The Oberkampf/Parmentier neighborhood the bar is in is really known for being the cool hangout place for the young hipsters and “bobos,” and we quickly decided that we were at the bar these people went to when they got too old or too creepy.

If you want to see the cabaret in the basement, you have to make sure you're cleared by the bouncer.

If you want to see the cabaret in the basement, you have to make sure you’re cleared by the bouncer.

I felt like I was back working at the record store I worked at in high school—once again, I was the only natural blonde there with no piercings, no tattoos, and no way of ever intimidating anyone ever. Except now, my friends were with me and there’s always strength in numbers, I guess.

We timidly approached the bar, and I was thrown once again when I didn’t see a menu for absinthe. Sure, I saw the absinthe bottles and the antiquated “Absinthe” sign, but I didn’t see prices or names for absinthes, only for beers, mixed drinks, and wines. I started internally freaking out—I brought my friends here, I was the one pushing for the bar, and then there wasn’t any absinthe?

The bartender approached us, and I was so busy being surprised at how he looked exactly like Harris from Freaks and Geeks would look as a thirtysomething bartender at an absinthe bar that I fumbled and just said, in French, “Good evening, it’s our first time here and …”

He immediately interrupted me and said, in English, “You came for absinthe,” as he grabbed a laminated absinthe menu from behind the bar.

It was that obvious. We were one of those American tourists who wandered in because of Anthony Bourdain. But really, how many twenty-year-old girl American tourists can say that?

No, you're not hallucinating, there's a coffin in the corner.

No, you’re not hallucinating, there’s a coffin in the corner.

The names of the absinthes meant nothing to us, as did the country of origin listed in parentheses. What did interest us were the prices (less than 5 euros for most of the glasses—a better bargain than most alcoholic drinks at bars here) and the alcohol content (around 60 to 70 %). But when the bartender came back a couple minutes later, we still had no clue what we were doing.

“What’s the best drink for our first time?” we asked, since giving us the menu really didn’t help us out.

He pointed to the “Mata Ari,” which was 4,80 euros so we felt confident that he wasn’t trying to rip us off.

I’d Google the drink later, and apparently it’s a bohemian absinthe without the pedigree of a French or Swiss absinthe, which means it’s more like a wormwood bitter than the proper anise absinthe. But to my newborn absinthe palette, it was a pretty good starting off drink.

Who am I kidding—anything would have been a pretty good starting off drink. I started giggling as soon as the bartender pulled out the old-time water drippers. Everything about this bar and this drink was becoming an experience in itself.

Ooh la la!

Ooh la la!

He poured a little bit of absinthe—not even a full shot—into a fancy glass, and then took out a triangular log with holes in it to lay across the rim of the glass. A small sugar cube was then placed on top of that, and then the water from the water dripper slowly dissolved the sugar into the absinthe.

The resulting color of the drink was a pale mint—not the bright green I was expecting. It tasted a lot of black licorice, but in a way that I could easily drink (I always give the black licorice anything to my mom, can’t stand the stuff). And this is something that is not something that should be easily drank in large quantities. I went home after one drink, not even wanting to try another because I just felt heavy and thick.

Maybe it’s because of all the pancakes I like to eat on brunch excursions, but has anyone ever described food as “sitting on your stomach?” Well, because absinthe definitely sits on your liver. I think people would have to be crazy just to drink large amounts of absinthe. I’m glad I went to an absinthe bar, and I would definitely drink absinthe again, but it’s a one-time-only per occasion kind of drink for me.

But I still like absinthe. Like many people before me, I only knew about absinthe because of its scandalous reputation, not because of its taste. It was only a friend of a friend, with those “friends” being Anthony Bourdain and Oscar Wilde as the people I most associated with absinthe. But now I’d say that absinthe and me are acquaintances, and it’s always nice making friends at bars.

Election Night in Paris: American? You’re on the V.I.P list!

When I registered for my absentee ballot in the summer, I didn’t really think about what it would be like to vote outside of the United States or be outside of the country on Election Night.

I applied for it when I was in the middle of filling out a bunch of other paperwork for studying abroad and then scanning it and sending a copy to each parent. At that moment, and in that state of mind, it was just another piece of paper requiring my social security number—nothing more, nothing less.

This apathy righted itself as soon as I came over to Paris. But even then I didn’t become swept into the upcoming election by choice or desire; it was the French pushing me into caring about it, or at least carrying on a conversation about it.

One of the first things my host father asked me at our first dinner the day I moved in was whether I would be voting for “Rom-i-ney or O-bahm-a.” Later, my host mother would ask if I did everything I needed to in order to get my ballot. And when I did email in my ballot (thanks, always-forward-thinking Massachusetts), I knew I would have to tell her and I did—twice, since she wanted me to explain it to her husband at dinner that night after I had already described it to her when I came home from school.

My very liberal, very politically minded parents—my host mom went to a protest once, even though she’s in her ‘60s … and she judged me so hard when she asked me about Occupy Wall Street and I had to confess that I never actually participated it. So in the beginning, at least, I thought that maybe it was just them. At that time, it was only a couple weeks into the program and I hadn’t had any conversations with French people who weren’t required to talk to me because of their job (i.e. my professors and people behind the counter, whether the counter was in a restaurant or a clothing boutique).

But then I learned that I was being silly. French people liked talking to be about Obama and the election, and I’m assuming that it’s simply because I was American. Even if people didn’t know enough English to carry on a conversation with me, they knew enough to say “OBAMA!!!!!” and shake their fists in the air like they were Rocky in the city where the Declaration of Independence was signed.  And the ones that did know English felt more than comfortable in their language skills to start a political conversation with me—and even the ones who didn’t speak English knew enough to try and start a political conversation in French with me, those poor, unsuspecting people.

No matter who I was talking to or where it was taking place, I always felt guilty, because I never felt as impassioned as my conversational partner did.

Most of the time, they would just talk about how great Obama is or how terrible Romney is. No one ever mentioned Dubya, for all of the stuff he did to make the French hate him. In these occasions, I would just shake my head and say “Oui, je suis d’accord avec toi”—which in my translation means “Yes, I agree with you, so there’s no need to keep talking about this!!”

But then there would be someone who knew facts and percentages and could quote from the debates and knew where the candidates were speaking that day. Those would be my oh shit moments. Oftentimes, they’d know more about the election or the candidates’ talking points before I did.

My host mom would stay up late to listen to coverage about the debate on the radio, and I would have nothing to contribute when she would ask me about it the next day. Sure, I’d watch the video the next day, but I wouldn’t stay up late to stream it live or wake up early the next day to watch it before school. And every time I had to explain this to her, I felt like she was disappointed in me.

I never encouraged these conversations. Even in America, I would never start a political debate or mention politics. I never liked debating in the political science class I took in high school that took place in Massachusetts after Ted Kennedy died and before Scott Brown was elected as senator.

But because I’m American, it’s not only assumed that I would want to talk about Obama, or that I would be capable of having something to say about Obama. I found this to be truer the closer it got to November 6, 2012.

And then once it did get to Election Day—or night, in my case—then I got the biggest idea of what is expected of me as an American abroad.

It was my Irish professor that first told me about Harry’s New York Bar, the American bar famous mostly for three things:

1.) It was one of the many hangout bars of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. But a lot of bars can claim that in Paris. So …

2.) It is the birthplace of the bloody Mary and was the first place in Paris to sell hot dogs. But I don’t like tomato juice and I always publically say that I don’t like hot dogs. So that leaves us with …

3.) Since the Hemingway/Fitzgerald times, it has conducted these straw polls for presidential elections that only Americans could vote in. During the whole 80-something year history the results have only been wrong twice, in 1976 and 2004.

When I googled this point, I read on blogs that it’s usually pretty hard to get into Harry’s New York Bar on election night, since the actual bar itself is reserved for V.I.Ps and media types. But I also read that the whole street is closed off and there are giant screens that play CNN all night, so I thought it’d be fun to check it out with a couple of friends.

The outside of the bar. Note the bouncer/boxed-off section.

When we got there, we saw that the boxed-off smoking section outside the bar had a bouncer in front of it, and the makeshift entrance had two people with clipboards standing in front of it. I didn’t even now what to call a V.I.P in French to try and worm my way inside, and I didn’t have my “News Editor” press badge from The Triangle, not that I thought it would work. But it wasn’t too cold out and we were waiting for some friends to arrive, so we just stood outside the bar and talked about how we weren’t hearing any English from the people loitering in the streets.

We probably would have done that all night, except then this woman came up to us and said, in stilted French English, that she did PR for the bar and they needed to fill their American quota and we were American, right? Yes? Well, then, would we like to go inside and maybe talk to the media? There will be free champagne!

Obviously, we said “Oui.”

All in all, there were nine of us American girls, and when I brushed past the people waiting in line to get to the bar I reflected on the irony that we were being brought inside not because of our looks, but because we would be good interview subjects.

How many other girls can say that, am I right?????

He doesn’t look too happy about giving away all of that free champagne.

I’d say that media types cornered us as soon as we walked in the door … but for me, there was a guy with a camera tapping my shoulder as I waited in line to get through the door.

“American?” he asked.

I nodded. Le Duh.

And he continued to ask, all in French, if he could talk to me. Okay, I said. And then he started asking all of these questions.

Who did I vote for? Where was I from? Who did I think was going to win? Was I stressed about the election? What was I doing later that night (in terms of the election)? What was it like being abroad on Election Night? How long had I been in Paris? What was I doing over here?

“You speak very good French,” he told me after I stumbled through those answers, which would be hard for me to answer in my own language. “Can I record you now?”

“Um … I have friends inside. I’ll see if they want to talk too. You can ask all of us,” I said, hoping then the spotlight would be taken off me and some of my more politically-minded friends could take over for me.

He grinned. “Parfait!” he said, and followed me the two steps I could make into the door. And I did find two friends—two out of the nine who weren’t already talking to reporters—to cover for me. But after we all said our names (for me, this was the first time the guy even asked my name) and they realized this interview would be in French, they pretty much ran away, leaving me with this guy and the camera he was holding about six inches away from my face. Thanks, guys.

So he asked me the same questions he did outside and I gave my same answers.

The famous straw poll box.

I voted for Obama, and I thought he was going to win. I was from Massachusetts—the state where Boston is. I was nervous about the election, but not enough to stay up all night and watch the results because I had class the next day, because I am a student studying French in Paris. This was the first presidential election I ever voted in and it was a little sad that I wasn’t in my country the night of the election but I was glad to be in a country that cared about the election as much as France.

Then he said okay, and I asked what this was for. Le Parisien online, he said—aka, one of the major French newspapers. It should be up tomorrow, he said. And then he thanked me and ducked out of the bar.

When I met up with my friends, they were watching the bartender pour us free glasses of champagne. And as we sipped the drink, we talked about how weird it was that we all had to give interviews—and then, how unfair it was that most people’s interviews were in English! Some people spoke to Reuters, others spoke to a French radio channel. I was the only one with the newspaper.

I understand why we were singled out. A tour around the bar would reveal that it was still mostly French media types, and the little bit of English we heard were coming from old people. In this campaign, as young girls, we were the perfect people to give sound bites. But it felt really weird to be twenty years old and considered an expert on American politics, especially just because I am American!

I didn’t get to fill out the straw poll for the bar. And I didn’t want to, after I saw my friends and other American girls who came in later do it and get swarmed by French people, media or not, recording the moment with video cameras and regular cameras and even iPhones.

The bar was tiny and crowded and hot, and no one talked to us for the hour we spent there. Once we were recorded, we were no one. We sipped the last of our free champagne knowing that we wouldn’t be able to go to the bar and get a refill now that the PR lady was standing next to a new group of American girls. It was awkward, but I was glad because it meant I didn’t have to talk about Obama for a while.

They had all of the state flags in the bar. Including Massachusetts!

And since CNN wasn’t even talking about the election since there was still almost two hours until the first polling station closed, there really was no reason to be there anymore. When someone suggested we go, I went.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a good night. I got into a bar I didn’t think I would be able to get into. I got a free drink. And not only was I interviewed by a major newspaper, but the whole thing was conducted in French and I was able to keep up and sound reasonably competent. It was a personal success and I hoped the good luck would transfer over to Obama.

I woke up at 6 a.m. to check the results—Obama won!—and then went back to sleep at 6:03. I’m gonna need to know everything about the election for breakfast tomorrow, I thought to myself.

And it was “OBAMA!” as soon as I walked up the stairs. And I had to explain that I won because a Democratic state senator was elected in Massachusetts. And I had to try and explain what the electoral college system was like and how technically there are people who vote for us.

When I searched Le Parisien the next morning, I didn’t see a video of me—or anything from Harry’s New York Bar—on the homepage, or in the search results.

Oh well. You win some, you lose some.

P.S. One of the girls in my program got interviewed and literally this is all the article says:

Champagne toasts accompanied by cheers of “Four more years!” broke out in Paris at 5:20 a.m. local time, when President Barack Obama’s re-election was announced at a results-watching party in a chic nightclub just off the Champs Elysees.

Gabriela Reno, 20, applauded with a group of other American exchange students who’d spent the entire night watching returns come in at an event sponsored by the Democrats and Republicans Abroad.

Reno and her friends didn’t spend a lot of time celebrating, though.

“We’ve got class at 11 a.m.,” Reno said, as the partygoers filed out into the dark pre-dawn Paris streets.

See? All you need to do is find an American girl, and baby, you’ve got an election-night article going.

Being a Virgin at Virgin Megastore

So today I went to the Louvre and the Tuileries Gardens just to walk around after class, but this post isn’t going to be about that (I only took one photo of the Louvre—trying not to be too, too touristy).

This post is going to be about the awesomeness of the Virgin Megastore located a couple blocks away from my school.

I knew that the Virgin Megastore was one of the last big record store giants in the United States before they died a couple years ago, but I didn’t know that they were still alive and kickin’ in Europe. Thankfully, they are.

But they don’t look like a typical record store. In fact, when I first walked on the street (Boulevard de Bonne Nouvelle) that it’s on, I didn’t even know it was a Virgin Megastore. It’s changed that much—but I guess it had to, to adapt and still be around.

The big difference, especially for this one, is that the first thing you see when you walk through the door (or, for me, walk past the door) is a bunch of schoolbooks, notebooks, and backpacks. It’s back-to-school time here too so they have all of the usual supplies, but there were moms and kids in the store when I went in who were checking things off of the lists they were carrying in their hands.

Actually, the whole reason why I came to this store was because I remembered seeing notebooks in the front and I needed to buy some for classes. It wasn’t until I looked up and saw the sign that I noticed it was a Virgin Megastore. And then I got very confused because in the file folder of my mind I had stashed away the idea that Virgin Megastore was a record store.

Which it is, it totally is. It reminded me a lot about Newbury Comics, just because of the sheer amount of CDs and DVDs (and miscellaneous stuff like pins, stickers, posters, and music-themed bags, random stuff, etc.) it held. But that was all on the basement floor of this three-story building.

The ground level looked like a Staples in the front, with all of the school supplies. There was even a whole row just dedicated to pens. But, towards the back, it started to resemble a Barnes & Nobles with all of the books—on that level, there were sections for books on travel, cooking, fashion, art, music, and movies. The upstairs level looked even more like a Barnes & Noble, since that was where all of the other book genres were housed.

Except, except, there wasn’t a section for books translated into English. I did see little sections for books translated into Italian and Portuguese, but not English. Maybe I just got a little too excited or flustered, I don’t know. However, I do know I’ll have plenty of opportunities in the future to do more reconnaissance.

There was a foreign books section, which is what I found what I’ve been looking for in all of the (two) French bookstores I’ve been in so far (which has only been 5 days, so that’s a lot of looking for me): a French version of The Great Gatsby, my favorite book.

I gotta tell ya, I was kind of disappointed. I didn’t even buy it. It was a paperback, but instead of having the iconic cover art (the woman’s face painted over a Ferris wheel at night) it was just a blank white cover with the title—Gatsby—printed on it. There was a blue (keeping in with the original blue and white book art of the American versions, which I like) kind of paper sash around the whole book that was crinkled and the book looked very grungy already, with some gray around the edges and some wear and tear. I’m not saying I need a book in pristine condition, but it was very blah and basic and, I don’t know, my Gatsby needs more.

I was trying to figure out how to translate the “great” part of the title, since according to my French dictionary there are different translations of “great” based on what you want the word to mean: large, like a great mountain; intense, like in great pain; eminent, which just translates to “grand,” which can mean the same as “large”; or fantastic, which would be “genial” or “formidable.” And while “genial” or “grand” would keep the alliteration going, they don’t exactly have the right connotation of the word “great” since “genial” can mean “brilliant” or “of genius” and “grand” can also mean fat (AND GATSBY IS NOT FAT, HE IS GREAT).

So I’m glad to finally have found out what the name was, and also that it can be found in France. It was also good to know that F. Scott Fitzgerald is Frances Scott Fitzgerald here.

The Great Gatsby is one of two English books I brought over—the other was Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast because, as the name of this blog might have showed you, I am basically the female version of Owen Wilson’s character in A Midnight in Paris except I’m not successful. I want to find a French version of that book as well, which I also thought would be easy because, a.) he’s an American author with very strong ties to France, especially a specific French era and b.) that book is all about France in the twenties. And even though I’ve been able to find more Hemingway books that Fitzgerald books in all of the bookstores I’ve looked at, I haven’t yet been able to find a French version of that book.

Maybe that’s a sign that I’ve got to start reading it again and visiting all of Hemingway’s old haunts (if they’re still around) and then I’ll end up finding one. Or, you know, I can be like Owen Wilson’s character in A Midnight in Paris and just go to Shakespeare & Company, which I hope to do sometime this week (you can totally expect a blog post about that because that’s the thing I’m most interested in checking off my France list).

And just like I judge bookstores by what books and authors they carry, I also judge record stores by what bands and artists they carry. Don’t worry, I did that for Virgin Megastore as well.

They had better international sections than I’m used to seeing, not just because of the enormity of the French section but also because there was a large section dedicated to African music and the zuko, which was something I’ve only ever seen or heard in French class (it’s a French Caribbean style of music and dance). I looked up my favorite French musician, Serge Gainsbourg, and was pleased to see that not only did they have a lot of his albums, but they had a lot of copies of my favorite album (Ballade de Melody Nelson, in case you’re interested). I usually don’t even bother going to the foreign section of American music stores because they usually don’t hold a lot, but I couldn’t not go to a French record store and not check out their Serge Gainsbourgs.

The main staple I always use for criteria, David Bowie, was also very promising. They even had a French artists tribute album of David Bowie songs (featuring one by Carla Bruni!) but I didn’t buy it because I’m not entirely sure my computer could play a French CD with the whole DVD zoning thing. There was more Bowie than Springsteen and Pixies—more Black Keys than Springsteen or Pixies, even. That was disappointing.

But their indie section was great. They had Father John Misty (whose album only came out!) and a lot of American alternative bands, like Milagres, MGMT, Two Door Cinema Club, and smaller groups with only one or two albums. I was impressed.

The vinyl section was very small and seemed full of American imports. The Black Keys’ El Camino and Brothers vinyl albums had stickers in English, as were the promotional stickers on the Madonna vinyl albums (and boy, there were a lot of them).

I promised myself I would stop writing uber long blog posts, but I had to for this one. This shopping trip was easily the highlight of my day and I will probably end up going back sometime this week just to search for an English section (or another copy of Gatsby). Maybe I’ll go crazy and visit Shakespeare & Company AND Virgin Megastore. Like, woah.