One of the biggest things that happened to me this year is something you might have noticed in my Instagram photos, if you’ve been paying close attention to the backgrounds. After 10 years in my little Paris apartment, I have moved!
I’d been wanting to move for a while already, because while I loved my neighborhood, and my building, and my neighbors, and my apartment was very cute and charming, it was really small. It supposedly measured 27 sq. meters (290 sq. feet) in total, but as a former deux-pièces (one-bedroom apartment with a living room) converted in some decade past into a studio, it was composed of a main room (the former bedroom) of about 13 sq. meters (140 sq. feet), plus a kitchen, bathroom, toilet room and hallway. The original living room had become part of the apartment across the hall and a wall was put up in an inconvenient spot at the end of my hall. Due to the way things were laid out and the actual usable space, it was really more like a 13 sq. meter apartment with some extra little rooms and spaces, all of them too small to spend time in, tacked onto it.
I liked being there in general as it was quiet and my one window looked out over a calm inner courtyard (so, no street noise), but with all my worldly possessions crammed into it, it’d become so cramped that I’d given up years earlier on inviting people over for dinner, and setting up food photos was a big challenge. It was also badly insulated, and only half of the place had any heating, so winters there were very cold. I wasn’t actively looking for a new place, however, since housing is so very expensive in Paris, and the longer I stayed in that apartment, the better deal I was getting since my landlord was allowed to raise my rent by only a small percentage every year. So before I knew it, I’d been there nearly 10 years, which is longer than I’d ever lived at a single address before, even during childhood since my family moved four times while I was growing up.
After the pandemic set in, I’d actually begun to think about moving back to the US to be closer to my family, although the trouble and expense of moving my stuff back was a discouraging factor. Then one fine day a friend called to say he knew of a place that might be perfect for me… to buy! I hadn’t even been thinking about buying anything, for the financial reasons alluded to above, but as it turned out this new place was in a suburb of Paris, far enough away from the city that it was actually affordable for me with my meager freelance translator’s income. It was 47 sq. meters (506 sq. feet), had a bedroom and separate living room and got lots of natural light (compared to the rather dungeony darkness of my old place), which is great for taking food photos and also not being depressed! Furthermore, as someone who worked from home, I would often go several days in a row without setting foot outside, especially in the winter, so why pay so much to live in Paris? From the new place, Paris would be just a 10-minute train ride away.
Long story short, I ended up buying it and, after an extraordinary amount of paperwork, administrative hassle and interminable waiting that I won’t even try to go into, I moved in at the beginning of this month.
One of the things I like most about the new place is the view from the kitchen window. From it I can actually see greenthings, like trees and bushes, and also the sky! While in my old place I could see only the brick and windows of the building across the courtyard from mine, and never knew who might be looking at me (of course, that’s what curtains are for, but still…). There’s even some ivy growing past the window, and I love it. The new kitchen is super spacious, with lots of cupboards, counter space and even room for a table! Being able to work or read at a table with a window that looks out onto some type of nature has already changed my life for the better these past several weeks.
Moving day was still tough for me emotionally. I had so many memories in that old place, and I’d been there so long it was hard to believe it didn’t actually belong to me. Above left, you can see my main room with the boxes and things halfway moved out, and then all of my stuff grouped together on the ground floor of my old building, waiting to be loaded into the moving truck.
My new living room upon arrival… sooo much space waiting to be lived in and decorated!
Above: the main room and kitchen of my old apartment. I’ll really miss that marble fireplace! Although I never used it (it was in working condition but I would’ve had to pay to have it professionally swept before and after), I loved having it there, and the mirror above it was another beautiful feature. The kitchen in this place was small and cramped by the standards of most other cities, but for Paris it was actually really big. I was very lucky with this when I moved in, back in 2011, as this was the same time that I was starting to really get into cooking and food photography. Before leaving I had to remove and dispose of the (very old and rickety) cupboards, as they did not belong to the apartment but were considered part of the furniture. I had purchased them from the previous tenant. I negotiated with the owner to leave the custom-built countertop and shelves above the sink that the previous tenant’s dad had made for her, as it would have been a shame for the next tenant not to have them.
My last glimpse of my beloved old place, right after the final inspection with a representative of the owner to see if I would get my security deposit back (I did!). I still do miss it, and have fantasies of winning the lottery so I can go back and buy it to have a pied à terre in Paris.
Although I’m still mostly living out of boxes, and have a lot of furniture to buy, having the extra space has been really nice, and mentally liberating. After so many years in a tiny space with those physical constrictions, I’d begun to feel a bit constricted in my mind too, viewing life from a perspective of limitations and lack, sometimes making poor choices in consequence. So now I’m experiencing an unfurling of new possibilities and freedom that I’d almost forgotten could exist.
Once things are furnished and decorated, I’ll be sharing more photos of the new place.
I recently had the pleasure of visiting a very unique spot in Paris – a place I hadn’t even known existed. A friend had announced he was going to take me to an interesting surprise location, and since at that time museums, cinemas, restaurants and cafés were still closed, I knew it would be someplace outdoors. So I made sure to wear some walking shoes and embarked upon this mysterious adventure with enthusiasm.
Our destination turned out to be just outside the city limits, in the suburb Asnières-sur-Seine to the north of Paris. We took metro line 13, exited at the Gabriel Péri station, and walked for a bit until my friend stopped and pointed to a large gate topped by an elegant Art Nouveau stone arch with the words “Cimetière des chiens” carved into it. A dog cemetery!
I was delighted by my friend’s choice, as he knew I would be. The current full name of this cemetery is “Cimetière des chiens et autres animaux domestiques” – a cemetery for dogs and other pets. In reality there are (reportedly) now more cats than dogs buried here, as well as a few other species including a horse, a lion, a turtle, a monkey, a rabbit or two, some birds and even a bee.
It was founded in 1899 by feminist journalist and stage actress Marguerite Durand together with author Georges Harmois. It’s claimed to be the world’s first pet cemetery of the modern age. If you understand French, I recommend this little documentary on YouTube about the site from the 1990s. It’s a bit dated and the quality isn’t always super great, but it provides an interesting look into the site’s history and also shows a funeral home for animals as well as details of other options including cremation and even taxidermy.
For me, this cemetery was a touching testament to the love that can exist between humans and other animals. I was very moved by the efforts people have made to honor the memory of their beloved companion animals in a world where, on the whole, animals are seen merely as expendable commodities. Of course, here as in the rest of society, a clear distinction can be seen between “pet” animals (the cute and cuddly ones) and “food” animals (mainly absent from this cemetery), but with the importance it places on animals of any kind, the site still contains the germ of something that could spark deeper thought in humans, leading us to question why a place of this kind is an exception rather than the rule.
On a personal level, as I myself have lost two very dear companion cats (Kitty and Camilla, in 1994 and 2012), strolling among the diminutive graves of this cemetery stirred up some emotions. My departed loves are buried in unmarked spots behind the houses where my parents were living at the time and I couldn’t help thinking how nice it would be to have them someplace I could still visit, with small headstones in their memory. I was also just very touched by how loved the animals in this cemetery clearly were and may have shed a tear or two as I read their headstones.
Below is a selection of the graves that caught my eye, with translations of some of the inscriptions. Click on any photo to enlarge it for a closer look.
This gravestone, installed near the front gate by the cemetery’s management, reads “On May 15th, 1958, a stray dog died at the entrance of this cemetery. It was the 40,000th animal to find its final resting place in the Asnières Dog Cemetery.”
Center: “Time heals wounds but doesn’t erase memories.” Right: a large number of the gravestones have a photo of the animal on them. When they didn’t, I could sometimes guess at the animal’s species based on its name.
“In memoriam. Thank you for your love.”
Center: this cat’s guardian described her habit of dunking her paw into her water bowl and licking it to drink, and also transferring her dry food from the bag into her dish before eating it. Right: an old grave belonging to a Pekinese.
“In doggie heaven”
This very elaborate monument testifies to the great love someone had for this cat who lived to the grand old age of 20. The rather poetic inscription reads “Xixi dear, I am thinking of you! The world exists only for a cat. I try in vain to learn how you fare. You see me. I don’t see you. An image of me is reflected in your eyes. Life. Death. For me… no more mystery. My eyes follow a beam of light through the darkness. I guide you towards eternity. How my heart longs for you! Alone but ready to protect you, to give you happiness, peace and wisdom. Your mother who loves you.”
“You had beauty without vanity. Strength without insolence. Courage without ferocity. Intelligence without arrogance. And all the virtues of humans without their depravities.”
The cemetery is also the final resting place of some “foreign” animals (or, like my own Sésame and Mochi, French animals with a foreign human?).
Many of the graves had an adorable little statue of the animal or something representing its species (cat or dog).
This mini-mausoleum, modeled after the human ones you see at Paris cemeteries such as Père Lachaise or the Montmartre cemetery, is one of the cutest things at this site. Left: person for scale. Center: just as dusty and cobwebby as their counterparts in human cemeteries, the inside of this mausoleum features a photo of the deceased tabby. Right: the cat’s name – Plume (Feather) – and birth and death dates.
Some of the graves included not only photos of the departed animal but also of the animal’s human guardian.
Left: a collection of what must have been the dog’s favorite toys. Right: many cats’ graves had these heart-melting feline headstones.
Top, left and right: more sculptures identifying the graves’ inhabitants.
I love this doghouse-shaped headstone.
Left: one of the oldest headstones I saw, hard to read but dated October 1925. Right: old headstones converted into steps, presumably after the guardian’s family stopped paying for gravesite upkeep.
Left: the grave of a monkey (“Sleep, my darling. You were the joy of my life”). Right: the very smallest grave, belonging to a bee that is apparently the mascot for a movement to save the bees. Its headstone reads “Perished from pesticides while trying to save its species.”
The cemetery is in a very peaceful location overlooking the Seine. If I were a kitty or a dog, I would be happy to rest in peace in this spot.
Admission to the cemetery was €3.50 per person on the day that we visited. For more information about opening hours, visit this site (link to English version at the bottom right of the homepage).
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little bit of armchair travel, especially if pandemic restrictions continue to keep you from visiting France. You may also wish to add it to your list of things to see when you do come to Paris!
One of the things I admire about France is that every employee, regardless of the company they work for and their own seniority, gets a mandatory five weeks of paid vacation time per year. Even though this doesn’t include me as a freelancer, I’m happy to see others getting the time they deserve to relax and enjoy their families. I already knew that my native US was far behind other countries in this respect, but this color-coded map on Wikipedia makes the contrast even more embarrassingly clear.
Anyway, as you might expect, the most popular time to take one’s time off is the summer, and the month of August has long been a time of exodus for Parisians. Everyone seems to leave all at the same time for various destinations, be they in France or farther afield. One side effect of this is that lots of small businesses all close simultaneously. A stroll around a non-touristy neighborhood will take you past a series of shuttered storefronts and notice signs such as the ones below (click any photo to switch to slide show mode) informing customers of their re-opening dates.
I always get a bit of an eerie feeling, walking around the empty streets of my mainly residential neighborhood in August. I also often forget that things are closed and make a detour to get a coffee from Dose, for example, only to find the place deserted and to curse my poor memory.
So while it’s a good thing for people working in France, this annual departure can be a bummer for tourists who come to Paris in part to try our vegan restaurants (usually small businesses that close all of August).
If your chosen destination restaurant (or clothes shop, etc.) has a sign in their window, you can try looking for the following key phrases to decipher it and see how long it will be closed:
fermé – closed
ouvert – open
fermeture estivale – summer closing
congés d’été – summer vacation
vacances annuelles – annual vacation
horaires d’été – (shorter) summer hours
réouverture – reopening (date)
en vacances – on vacation
bel été – have a good summer (= without us) 😉
But to help make planning easier, I’ve prepared a short list of some places where you can still find vegan food the rest of this August. Note that this list is not exhaustive and that it’s a good idea to double-check their current hours on their social media pages or call ahead. Don’t rely on what Google or even their own websites say, because those won’t necessarily be updated to reflect any special summer conditions.
Vegan places that are open
Every year, a handful of vegan restaurants in Paris do stay open all summer. Here are some that I personally recommend (plus one brand-new one I’ve heard good things about). Note however that Thursday, August 15th is a national holiday and some of these places might be closed that day.
Aujourd’hui Demain 42 rue du Chemin Vert, 75011 Paris (metro Richard Lenoir) Restaurant/café and grocery store. A good place to hang out with a coffee and catch up on your email or work. If you’re in the mood for a sweet indulgence, don’t miss their Freak Shake.
Cantine Le Myrha 70 rue Myrha, 75018 Paris (metro Château Rouge)
Spacious and well-lit, excellent place for a buffet brunch with friends on a Sunday. You may make the acquaintance of Rainette, the restaurant’s sweet tabby cat, who sometimes wanders among the customers to be petted.
Cloud Cakes 6 rue Mandar, 75002 Paris (metro Sentier)
As their name suggests, they have some heavenly cakes! Savory lunch items available too until the mid-afternoon. Limited seating at busy times, but well worth a visit.
Le Faitout 23 avenue Simon Bolivar, 75019 Paris (metro Pyrénées)
All the ambiance of a traditional French brasserie, none of the usual animal products. Live music on Thursday nights. Don’t miss their platter of housemade vegan cheeses!
Hank Burger 55 rue des Archives, 75003 Paris (metro Rambuteau) 8 rue de Rochechouart, 75009 Paris (metro Cadet)
Really nice burgers, with a choice between their standard patty and a Beyond Beef one. I also love their potato wedges with a cheese topping and their chocolate chip cookies!
Hank Pizza 18 rue des Gravilliers, 75003 Paris (metro Arts et Métiers)
Vegan pizza with a range of preset toppings, including a couple of gluten-free ones each day. They have a particularly spacious upstairs dining room. If you come here, be sure to stop by the vegan grocery store Mon Epicerie Paris on the same street (see below for a description).
Les Petites Pâtisseries Raw & Vegan 44 rue du Chemin Vert, 75011 Paris (metro Richard Lenoir)
So many creative and delightful raw desserts! I especially like their little fruit tarts and matcha opéra cakes. Rumor has it you can now also find blue mermaid nice cream bowls there! On the same block as Aujourd’hui Demain (see above).
Le Potager du Marais 24 rue Rambuteau, 75003 Paris (metro Rambuteau)
Traditional French dishes in vegan versions. I often recommend this place to visitors since it’s a way to try classic dishes without the animal products. I love their seitan bourgignon, onion soup and crème brûlée.
Sunday’s Coffee Paris 171 boulevard Voltaire, 75011 Paris (metro Charonne) This place is so new, I haven’t had a chance to go there yet. People on Instagram seem to like it though, so take a look if you’re nearby!
Wild & the Moon Various locations throughout Paris Another chain place with generous hours. Try one of their superfood elixir drinks or one of their dishes of the day (often a rice and curry bowl). I love their raw desserts, especially the lemon tart. Their location near Opéra is especially nice as it gets less traffic.
Certain other places are fairly reliably sources of vegan eats.
L’As du Fallafel 32-34 rue des Rosiers, 75004 Paris (metro Saint Paul) Home of the best falafel sandwich in Paris! Prepare yourself for a line at the door. Closed Friday evenings and Saturdays all year round.
Ethiopian restaurants Various locations throughout Paris Due to a cultural tradition of abstaining from all animal products on certain days of the week and at certain times of year, Ethiopian restaurants generally always have a vegan option (sometimes labeled “vegetarian” on the menu). Be sure to specify that you don’t want fish. Google “restaurant Ethiopien Paris” plus the number of your arrondissement to find one. My personal favorite is Le Ménélik in the 17th.
Lebanese restaurants Various locations throughout Paris The chances of finding falafel (an accidentally vegan food) are high at just about every Lebanese restaurant. Look for places with the country’s very cute cedar tree flag.
Maison Landemaine Various locations throughout Paris Try their croissant ordinaire (regular croissant), which is always vegan, but be sure to specify ordinaire so they don’t give you a non-vegan butter croissant. They also have a vegan chausson aux pommes (apple turnover) and usually at least one vegan fancy dessert/pastry. Check the labels in the display case for the “VEGAN” in very small green text, or ask if unsure. They also sometimes have a vegan tofu, avocado and sun-dried tomato sandwich. Their baguettes, like all baguettes in France, are vegan by default.
Prêt à Manger Various locations throughout Paris This chain store is from the UK, which means it’s quite vegan-friendly. In France, they offer one vegan sandwich (avocado, sun-dried tomato and black olive spread on baguette type bread) as well as some vegan soups, chia pudding and sometimes a muesli bowl. They make coffee and matcha drinks with plant milk at no extra charge!
Vegan grocery stores
Vegan items can increasingly be found at mainstream grocery stores (check the bio (organic) aisle in particular), but with the stores below there’s no need to scrutinize labels since everything at them is fully vegan. This can be a good source for groceries for your AirBnB, or for things to pick up and put in a baguette for a DIY sandwich-on-the-go.
Aujourd’hui Demain 42 rue du Chemin Vert, 75011 Paris (metro Richard Lenoir) Combination grocery store and restaurant/café. Also sells clothing, shoes, purses and personal care products. They offer an extensive range of vegan cheeses and certain hard-to-find items such as vegan honey and liquid smoke. Beyond Meat products are available here.
Naturalia Vegan 4 locations in Paris and the near suburbs Part of the Naturalia organic grocery chain, these stores have a much wider selection of vegan cheeses, yogurts and plant-based imitation meats than other Naturalias. Unlike the other vegan grocery stores listed here, Naturalia Vegan locations also offer fresh produce.
Mon Epicerie Paris 31 rue des Gravilliers, 75003 Paris (metro Arts et Métiers) This little grocery has a surprisingly wide selection of products, including Beyond Meat and some others that are found nowhere else in Paris as far as I know (for example Linda McCartney frozen items). Carries more Asian products than the other ones.
Un Monde Vegan 64 rue Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth, 75003 Paris (metro Strasbourg-Saint Denis)
The first all-vegan food shop to open in Paris, Un Monde Vegan is still a popular source of interesting grocery products and books.
With that, I wish you a pleasant stay (or staycation) in Paris. Bon appétit!
In the fall of 2017, this introvert did something bold and adventurous.
I’d been living in France for eight years and things were somewhat stagnant. Everything felt like the same old same old… I’d been in the same city longer than any other since childhood, living in the same apartment for years, and my work was fairly routine and predictable too. I’d been speaking French for decades and had apparently already reached my personal ceiling in it. A new challenge seemed called for, so I took a long-held albeit vague ambition down from the shelf and registered for a year-long Japanese class in the continuing education program offered by the City of Paris.
Vague, because I wasn’t at all certain I would actually be able to learn the language. It seemed so very complex and bewildering, and I’d already heard that it’s considered the most difficult language for English native speakers to learn, meriting a category of its own (one level up from the “super-hard languages”) in the Foreign Service Institute’s ranking of commonly taught languages. So rather than setting out confidently to conquer this new language, I planned to just dip a toe into Japanese for a closer look at how it worked. I figured I’d learn at least a few words and maybe some basic grammar if I made it through the year. I didn’t expect much more than that, but also didn’t dismiss the possibility (wild hope?) that I would turn out to have some natural knack for the language.
So while I wasn’t stressed about Japanese itself, I was a bit nervous about jumping into a class full of French people. I felt I would somehow be at a disadvantage and worried that I might not make friends. I would be a double gaijin (foreigner) of sorts. But I plunged ahead nonetheless – this is where the “bold and adventurous” part came in!
Fast-forward to the present. Last week, I finished my second year of Japanese in the program and got decent grades. I’ll probably register for the third year this fall. So how did it go? Just how tough was it, and how did I manage to get this far? How did the other students react to the strange American in their midst?
I’ll get to that in a bit. But first…
Maybe it’s the look of the language that attracted me – the beautiful loopy hiragana, the slanty futuristic katakana and the forbidding kanji, which look like little houses and dense thornbushes. It seemed like an enigma waiting to be unraveled. But my interest in the country and culture was probably piqued in childhood.
My earliest brush with Japan was at age six when my dad’s company sent him on a business trip to Tokyo. The situation was explained to me, but I could barely wrap my head around the idea of him flying such a long distance away. When I looked at Japan on a globe, it seemed just as remote as the moon.
I believe I was somewhat in awe of him when he returned, bearing all manner of strange and wonderful gifts for my mom, my little brother and me. Among them, I clearly remember a large spiral-bound booklet of flexible chalkboard pages made of rough green material and printed with mysterious roundish characters that you were supposed to trace and copy in chalk. It came with a thick yellow foam eraser of a kind I’d never seen before. My dad explained that the booklet was designed for Japanese children to practice writing their letters in. I can still recall the character あ (hiragana for the sound “a”) being one of them.
He also brought my mom some women’s fashion magazines that I would page through time and again, captivated by the inscrutable writing and above all the fact that they were read from “back” to “front”. And there was a Japanese baby doll for me – she had very white skin, was dressed in a red kimono and there was a pink satin cushion for her to sit on.
My dad had his photos developed into slides and we sat in the living room watching them on the projector screen, listening to his stories as we saw him standing in various squares in front of temples or near Mt. Fuji, surrounded by Japanese business partners and pigeons (see some of his photos below). He told us about eating octopus tentacles and being served a luxurious dish of strawberries with cream. He’d brought home some miniature tubes of toothpaste from his hotel room and these delighted me because the caps were really tiny too, unlike the mini toothpaste tubes in the US. They soon became accessories for my dolls.
These early experiences must have planted a seed of some kind. Later, at university, I had a series of Korean and Japanese roommates and friends. I absorbed a few expressions in those languages without really trying to and began reading some Japanese literature in translation (Banana Yoshimoto was a favorite). In those days, I was interested in foreign languages of all kinds and took a few semesters of Arabic (that’s a story for another day) while continuing on with French, eventually earning my Bachelor’s in linguistics.
In the years after that, I continued to meet Japanese people and be exposed to more and more Japanese literature and culture. I followed the misadventures of An Englishman in Osaka. I acquired Elizabeth Andoh’s excellent cookbook Kansha and tried my hand at many of her shōjin ryōri (Buddhist “temple cooking” or vegan) recipes. Every dorayaki I made, every Haruki Murakami novel I read and every Ozu film I saw was like another knock at the door, another invitation to try learning the language.
A surprising shift in my attitude to learning the language happened in 2016 when I discovered Rachel and Jun on YouTube. Somehow, seeing Rachel – also American, also female – speaking Japanese made me feel that if she could do it, I surely could too. Or that I at least had a reasonable hope. It may seem strange, but prior to that, most of the people I’d known who had learned Japanese were men, and I realized that on some subconscious although illogical level I’d felt that it wasn’t open to me. I would have to look at statistics on this, if they exist, but I have a sense that in the US it is indeed a language more men try to learn than women. In my classes in France, there have been equal numbers of women and men.
So although Japanese was daunting on many levels, and I had a hard time imagining myself understanding and speaking it, I just had to try!
Learning Japanese in French
Since these courses take place in Paris, they are of course taught in French. Trying to learn Japanese in another foreign language may seem like asking for trouble – I myself wondered if that would complicate things – but now after two years I can say that it hasn’t really made much difference.
My French is solid enough that the instructors’ explanations have always been clear to me. The main effect of my being a foreigner is probably that I’m more reluctant to ask a question in class… but then I’m an introvert already.
Something kind of interesting does happen when I take notes in class. As the instructor speaks (in French), my page becomes a mishmash of French and English. In some cases, I write exactly what’s being said in French while at other moments, sometimes in the same sentence, my brain sends the signal down to my hand directly in English without any special intention on my part. This reflex may also be due to my being a professional translator, but I wasn’t the only one doing it – another foreign student who sat near me (and was not a translator) confessed that she also wrote her notes partly in French and partly in her language. The jumble of languages doesn’t pose any particular problem except when I realize I’m doing it and hesitate for a moment.
Occasionally, when I speak Japanese in class and then revert “back” to add something I can’t yet say in that language, I accidentally jump into English and have to start over again in French. This never happens when I’m speaking just French, so I assume the switch out of Japanese triggers a “reset” function of some kind and my system automatically reboots in English.
Apart from these small details, when it came to my potential compared to that of the French students, the playing field was leveled by the fact that this was a new and difficult language for all of us. I may even have had an advantage in a few respects: 1. the most common rōmaji (Romanized Japanese) transliteration system is based on English sound/spelling correspondences and is incorrect if pronounced according to French rules, 2. a good number of “Japanese” words are English borrowings which, while sometimes hard to recognize, can be traced back to their origin more easily by English native speakers than others (sutoraiki/strike, aisu/ice cream) and 3. I could already pronounce the “h” sound, which is usually troublesome for French native speakers. But this hasn’t put me at the head of the class or anything. Some of my classmates have worked at it harder than me and/or have lived in Japan or have a Japanese partner and get to practice all the time.
Is Japanese really that hard?
It sure is – the Foreign Service Institute was right. Or rather, let’s say it has many complex features. The grammar is quite different than what we’re used to, so that takes time become familiar with, and then there are unusual things such as special “counter” words that come after numbers when expressing a number of people or objects depending on their shape, size and other details. One counter word is used for pieces of paper (“flat thing” category), another for umbrellas (“long and thin thing” category) and still another for housecats (“small animal” category).
The writing system of course presents a host of additional challenges. You need to learn two syllabaries, the aforementioned hiragana and katakana, each of which has 46 base characters and 20+ variations. Those aren’t so bad once you’ve had enough practice with them, but they still act as a barrier, significantly slowing down the reading process for beginners compared to a language with a familiar writing system. Then there are the 2,000 kanji or Chinese characters you must eventually learn to be decently literate in Japanese (more than that exist for the ambitious). At this stage, having done two years, I’ve become familiar with a handful of the kanji just by being passively exposed to them in the textbook although I focus more on the small kana that are written above them as training wheels for foreign learners.
On the plus side, the pronunciation is a breeze and you have no gender or articles to worry about. It’s a very concise language, so a lot can often be conveyed with a just a single short expression. Sōdesuka!
But the complexities mean you do need to invest a significant amount of time between classes to studying. This, more than anything else, has been my particular challenge. I was accustomed to language-learning being easier (because I was learning easier languages, apart from Arabic that is), and sometimes didn’t put in the time I needed to, especially at times when work occupied most of my waking time. My solution was to keep going to all the classes, bumble through them (not ideal) and then catch up later. It worked, but please avoid going down this path!
Did I turn out to have a natural knack for Japanese? Definitely not! Luckily hard work is a good replacement.
Learning how to learn
It had been a while since I’d attempted a foreign language and I’d forgotten some of the tips and tricks for learning, practicing and memorizing things. And because Japanese is different in many ways from the other languages I had experience with, I had to figure out how to go about learning it.
Our textbook, Dekiru Nihongo, is full of what we need to know but at the same time maddeningly user unfriendly. It’s written only in Japanese so it can be used anywhere in the world, but this means it can’t provide any grammatical explanations for beginners. We therefore depend on what the instructor tells us to make sense of the example sentences and exercises in the book. As a result, you cannot afford to ever miss a class and supplementary materials can be very useful. I bought Everett F. Bleiler’s Basic Japanese Grammar as well as some French-language vocabulary books to help me figure things out a bit faster.
I’m also thankful that this is now the Internet age. When I began learning French back in middle school, there was no such thing, and no way to even hear French spoken by a native speaker except by going to see good ol’ Gérard Depardieu at the movies (he was in ALL the French movies in those days). Now, learning Japanese, I have a multitude of resources available to me at all times on both my computer and my phone. I quickly found the very useful online dictionary jisho.org as well as conjugation sites and YouTubers specialized in helping Japanese learners. An unexpected resource is Instagram… I activated the Japanese keyboard to be able to add hashtags like #ヴィーガン (vegan) and #猫 (cat) to my photos and discovered that when you type words in romaji or kana, the autocorrect feature suggests kanji. But then you have to make sure you’re picking the right kanji as so many words have the same sound. And to check your pronunciation, you can open up “notes” on your phone and activate the dictation feature (the little microphone next to the space bar). Say a few words and see if the right characters appear. This is also a major confidence-booster!
I’m happy to report that in spite of my foreignness (which didn’t bother anyone, it turned out), I did make friends in my classes. What’s more, I wasn’t the only non-French student. There were three or four of us in each of my classes (from South Korea, Madagascar, Venezuela and Spain, plus another American), so I didn’t even stand out as much as I expected. Occasionally when something related to the US or the English language would come up in the class conversation, everyone would turn to me for my pronouncement on the topic (“What’s the English for sac à dos?” when we were trying to determine the origin of the loanword meaning “backpack”). But the people in my classes were generally friendly and kind. We still sometimes meet up to attend Japanese-related events.
And I’d say this community of fellow learners has been one of the biggest things keeping me going at times when the classes got tough. There have been many points when I was afraid I would have to give up due to falling behind, but the desire to go on to the next year along with everyone else motivated me to keep attending the classes and make time to catch up.
This is a language that would probably be hard to make consistent progress in without an exterior motivation such as a formal class. It gets painful at times, so I know if I were just trying to do it on my own I would have given up long ago.
Meeting the challenge
So the answer to my question of the beginning (Can I really learn this language?) is at this point a somewhat confident maybe! I’m only two years in and don’t know what the future may hold. But for the time being, I’m very happy to have made it as far as I have. We’ll see this fall how the next chapter in my story goes.
If all the world’s a stage, it may as well be a canvas too.
As you visit Paris, scurrying perhaps between one art museum and another, keep your eyes peeled for the many works of art on display right out on the street: sprayed or stenciled on a wall, pasted to a pillar, affixed to a street corner or integrated into a road sign.
The streets are probably the best place to view the very latest, freshest contemporary art. Some of the works you see may have been added in the wee hours of the previous night. Often ephemeral, always changing, it turns a city’s public spaces into an open-air museum for all to enjoy. No entrance fee necessary.
In Paris, street art (or art de rue in French) as we know it today began to appear in the late 1960s. One of the first major works was the 1971 installation Les Gisants de la Commune de Paris by Ernest Pignon-Ernest, who is still active today. Paying homage to the Paris Commune revolt 100 years earlier, it consisted of silk-screened images of fallen men unfurled down the steps leading to the Sacré-Cœur Basilica in the Montmartre district.
“Places are my essential materials,” the artist told biographer André Velter in a 2014 interview. “I try to understand, to grasp everything that can be seen there—space, light, colors—and at the same time everything that cannot or can no longer be seen: history, buried memories.”
For more about the history of street art in France, I recommend this Widewalls article. Also check out the highly entertaining Banksy documentary Exit Through the Gift Shopfor an insider’s view of installing art around the city in the dead of night (Paris features prominently).
One of my favorite street artists is Invader, who in 1998 began his ongoing project Space Invaders. As of this writing, there are now 3,564 of his tile-mosaic creatures in 74 cities around the globe. See him at work here.
In homage to the 1980s video game that inspired his characters, the artist created a game, Flash Invaders, in which players compete to scan as many mosaics as they can with their mobile phones. Each piece has its own number of points depending on size and elaborateness, and when you scan Invaders in new cities you get bonus points. Since the artist is French, Paris is the city with the largest number of these creations (1,305 as of today), and finding new ones as I go about my daily life is always a little thrill.
Street art is something you will inevitably notice as you stroll around Paris, but the works are often enigmatic. Why do Kashink‘s faces always have four eyes and a mustache? What does it mean when a little crown is spray-painted above a head by another artist?
Whether you live here or will be passing through, a fun way to learn more about street art in Paris is to join one of the English-language street art walking tours offered by Kasia Klon, who is an artist herself. During each three-hour tour, she focuses on a specific district of Paris (La Butte-aux-Cailles, Belleville, Montmartre and others) and also offers tours in a few of the near suburbs. Kasia takes you straight to the most interesting works, often pointing out pieces that you wouldn’t have noticed on your own, explaining their significance, back stories and how they fit in with the history of Paris. When a series of pieces by different artists appear together on a single wall, she highlights the subtle common themes between them, showing how the artists have responded to and built upon each other’s work. As she knows many of the street artists in Paris personally, she can offer insights that you wouldn’t have access to otherwise.
Kasia’s tours are now listed above all other street art walking tours on Tripadvisor and were named Second-Best Tour of Paris in 2016 and 2017 (for all tour categories combined) by Expatriates Magazine as well as Local Experience of the year 2018 for Paris by Travel & Hospitality Awards. She is also the only official guide for the Street Art 13 mural project launched by Galerie Itinerrance.
The following are some noteworthy pieces I photographed in Paris and the suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine, either on my own or during one of Kasia’s tours.
Robert Dalban from Les Tontons Flingueurs, revisited with nicer weapons by Jaeraymie.
A Space Invader eyes the road construction with some trepidation, while a calmer person with ruffly clothes takes it in their stride (Invader and Kam & Laurène).
Muhammed Ali and Ryu from Street Fighter face off in the Butte-aux-Cailles district (Combo).
A portrait of late singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg and (not late!) partner Jane Birkin on the façade of their rue de Verneuil residence, which keeps getting covered by more layers of new street art paying tribute to them (Jo Di Bona).
A few of Kashink‘s four-eyed characters, this time in a special project called Kashink Kids, in which local children are invited to fill in the faces.
A crow’s nest in the Batignolles district (artist unknown).
Heartcraft‘s stickers spread kisses and love all over the city.
A collaboration in Vitry-sur-Seine (artists unknown).
I’m not usually one for holidays. Halloween? Eh. Fourth of July? Don’t really feel it. New Year’s Eve? I guess. I just don’t really get worked up over many of them. But Christmas is another story. Not for the consumerism aspect—in fact, a few years ago, my family and I agreed not to exchange Christmas gifts anymore unless we see each other in person—but for the decorations, the carols, the old movies and the joyousness of it all. Maybe it’s also because everything instantly takes a vintagey turn once this holiday comes around.
Anyway, when I’m in Paris in the holiday season, one of my favorite things to do is to check out the window displays of the beautiful old department stores on boulevard Haussmann. Every year, Printempsand Galeries Lafayette unveil elaborate holiday-themed dioramas, complete with animatronic dolls, highlighting the apparel, shoes, confectionery and other high-end wares on offer. At Printemps, they spend three months creating the props for the displays, which are designed a year in advance. An estimated 10 million people come to see them annually, and they’re naturally a hit with children, who love climbing up on the wooden platforms to get a closer look.
The best display I’ve seen so far, a few years back, showed a swarm of little Karl Lagerfelds preparing to direct a fashion shoot on the streets of a monochromatic Paris as catwalk music played.
So, the other day, I happened to be in the area and decided to check out this year’s windows. This year, the showcases tell the story of Jules and Violette, two children with old-timey names who wake up in the store in the middle of the night and amuse themselves in the various departments, meeting strange characters along the way. Some 70 dolls and marionettes were created over a three-month period for these dreamscapes, and the installation took two weeks. Below is a selection of my photos, but don’t miss this interesting five-minute documentary showing everything in motion.
Inside Galeries Lafayette there’s always a Christmas tree set up under the stained-glass cupola. The beautiful 1912 Art Nouveau structure alone is worth the detour, with its graceful undulating balconies decorated with floral motifs and gold paint. As you ascend the levels, you get an increasingly interesting view of the tree, animatronic decorations (polar bears in aerial cable cars, this year) and the bustling perfume and cosmetics department on the ground floor below. Altogether, it looks like some kind of futuristic, self-sufficient Edwardian city enclosed under a weatherproof dome, which strikes me as a pretty cool place to live.
While there, I stopped in at Lafayette Gourmet across the street from the main building with the cupola. Offering high-end deli foods and grocery items of every description, it reminds me a bit of Harrods in London. But this is something that really deserves a post of its own, so more on that another time.
To my delight, another new arrival on boulevard Haussmann is a Prêt à Manger! People reading these lines from England may despair of me, as this chain (which, despite the name, is English) is tuppence-a-dozen over there, and you can hardly go two blocks without passing one. But I actually really like Prêt, or at least the concept of it—we have a similar (Belgian-owned) chain in Paris called Exki—fast food that isn’t so unhealthy. Anyway, I wandered into this Prêt mainly out of curiosity, to see if they had any veggie things. Although there’s usually a vegan option at the ones in London, in Paris I wasn’t expecting all that much. But what did I find? A vegan Mediterranean sandwich with avocado, Kalamata olives, pinenuts, arugula, basil and sundried tomatoes—and only one of them, sitting there as if waiting just for me. I could not resist. What’s more, they also have soy milk for hot beverages (another rarity in France). A yummy sandwich AND a cappuccino? That was the cherry on top of an already nice afternoon.
So if you ever find yourself in Paris in December, these are a few things you can do to soak up the holiday ambiance. Free of charge, unless of course if you opt for a sandwich and hot beverage!
Some years ago, I lived in San Francisco—still one of my favorite cities. One of the things I loved about it was its neighborhoods populated by minority ethnic groups, including Chinatown, North Beach (Italian), the Mission (Latin American), Japantown and even a tiny French area (a few restaurants, a French church and the French consulate between Union Square and Chinatown). I loved the cultural and linguistic plurality these areas brought to the city, in the form of distinct architecture, street signs and advertisements in languages other than English, restaurants and grocery stores selling foods from other lands. In some of these districts, especially Chinatown and the Mission, I sometimes felt as though I had stumbled through a portal to another land.
Like any self-respecting major city, Paris has its minority ethnic neighborhoods too. My favorite one is the area roughly between and around La Chapelle, Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est, home to large numbers of people whose families hail from Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan as well as countries farther afield such as Madagascar and Mauritius. There isn’t really an official name for this neighborhood, although I very often hear it referred to as the quartier sri lankais. For the sake of full inclusion I will refer to it here as Little South Asia.
All along rue du Faubourg Saint Denis and the various side streets are shops selling colorful saris and jewelry, sweets and Bollywood DVDs, as well as restaurants and cash & carry stores. Garlands and fluttering mobiles can sometimes be seen decorating the streets for various holidays.
The most festive time of year in this neighborhood is definitely La Fête de Ganesh in late August or early September, when an elaborate and spectacular parade honoring the elephant god winds through the streets from the Temple Sri Manika Vinayakar Alayam (17 rue Pajol) around the La Chapelle area and back again. The participants include women wearing pots of burning camphor on their heads, shirtless men pulling the Ganesh statue down the street with ropes, flutists and drummers, mustachioed dancers with papier-mâché horses and larger-than-life ambulant statues. The festivities are accompanied by energetic smashing of coconuts on the streets and free distribution of cold drinks.
The rest of the year, this neighborhood’s main draw for me is VT Cash & Carry(11-15 rue Cail), a wonderland of spices, lentils, nuts, teas and exotic fruits and vegetables hidden behind a nondescript storefront on a side street. When you enter, the shop at first appears to be fairly small and cramped, as many of the cash & carrys (carries?) in the neighborhood are. But as you proceed further through the coats at the back of the wardrobe, it opens up, revealing a much larger space full of aisles packed to the ceiling with wares and edibles of all kinds.
It is of course a great place for spices, both common and rare, at better prices than at mainstream grocery stores. And it’s also where you can stock up on staples like lentils, rice, flours and grains.
Lentils of every description and color!
If you’ve got the muscles to carry it, and room at home to store it, a 20 kg (44 lb.) bag of rice is really your best buy. Or, of course, if you run a restaurant…
Every time I go here, I plan to get a can of ramboutans to see what they taste like, but then I invariably end up with too many other heavy things and decide to leave it for the next trip.
Some interesting jams and chutneys (ginger, chow chow, candied citrus peel, pineapple, lime, ambarella, passionfruit, tamarind, soursop, baobab and more) and a mysterious English thing called golden syrup that I have not tried yet. My favorite jam ever, which I discovered here, is made with physalis fruit, also known as aguaymanto in Peru and pok-pok in Madagascar, where this particular brand comes from. It is simply heavenly, with a tanginess reminiscent of kiwi and a sweeter side that brings to mind raisins or dried cherries.
These metal bowls, usually seen only at restaurants, are an elegant way to serve dal or curries at home.
Here, you can get many imported European items that are hard to find elsewhere, such as Marmite (if you enjoy it, or like me are trying to acquire a taste for it), psyllium powder (good for thickening raw desserts), date syrup, the aforementioned golden syrup and (not shown) Heinz baked beans, cream crackers, Scottish and Irish oatmeals and baking ingredients. VT Cash & Carry is also the place to head when you’re looking for your favorite brands of English tea.
Other often-tricky-to-find items include fonio, an African semolina, and peanut butter. Yep, in France peanut butter is a somewhat exotic item. You can still usually find it at regular grocery stores, but at really high prices. My favorite place to get PB is actually at Franprix, in their growing organic & fair-trade section, both because of these characteristics and because the taste is just nice.
Some ready-made sauces in foil packets that you immerse in hot water to heat up. Some of them are vegan (just check the ingredients carefully).
The produce section always contains a few items I’m unfamiliar with, so I sometimes buy things to find out for myself what they are and how they taste (trying to remember to note down the name before leaving the store!). Here, among other things I was already able to identify, we have fresh and dried turmeric root.
I did once buy a wood apple in spite of an Indian fellow shopper’s warning that they aren’t very good. Turns out she was right!
Also available toward the front of the store is sugarcane, young coconut (good for raw dishes) and fresh aloe leaves.
If after your lengthy shopping experience you need to rest a bit before facing the crush of people on the metro ride home, pop into one of the three Krishna Bhavan restaurants on the same street (at 15, 21 or 24 rue Cail) for a tasty bite. At the one shown above you can also get take-out veggie samosas at the front counter for €1 a piece.
Every fall, an event is held in my neighborhood that I look forward to with much the same excitement I used to feel when I was little and Christmas was approaching: the vide-grenier. Literally “attic-emptying”, it’s what we in the States call a rummage sale.
Paris is also home to the largest antiques market in Europe, Le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen just north of the city limit. It’s like a gigantic partially outdoor museum of beautiful furnishings and art, and I love to visit it, but it can be a source of frustration in that the prices are often prohibitive. This is where rummage sales become an attractive alternative. But they’re also an excellent way to renew your wardrobe or book collection at low cost while helping maximize the longevity of consumer goods and protesting planned obsolescence. Plus, pretty much everything you find is unique.
For a small sum, neighborhood residents can sell unneeded items from a space on a street bordering the park or an adjoining street a block away. Like at rummage sales all over in the world, you can find dishes, clothes, books, jigsaw puzzles and Scrabble games.
Everything 60s at this table. I adored the color of the deep turquoise ashtray, but couldn’t talk myself into buying an ashtray.
Pre-loved mystery novels with yellowing vanilla-scented pages. I love the typeface and simple illustration.
I quite liked this large oil painting, but don’t have enough wall space at my place. But it would be perfectly at home in a cobbler’s shop (of which there are still many in Paris).
Like Proust and his madeleines, one look at an album like this whisks me back in time to my grandparents’ house.
This table was run by a man and his pre-teen son, who seemed to be liquidating his toy-car collection in preparation for adulthood. I bought the Paris bus (more on that later) but soon noticed that one of the wheels was missing. The boy briefly rummaged around for it at the bottom of a box to no avail, and then, regaining control of the situation, puffed out his chest and instructed his father to refund me 50 cents.
What seems like a reasonable thing to buy while on vacation often ends up at a rummage sale. Souvenir plates from various European destinations are a mainstay of Parisian sales. Andorra is a common one, for some reason.
Another item you always find at French rummage sales is ceramic fèves from inside the galette des rois (king cake), which is traditionally eaten in January. Whoever gets the piece with the fève hidden inside is the king or queen of the evening, and gets to wear the paper crown supplied with the cake. Some people become serious collectors of fèves, which are often figurines of people in medieval dress but can take other forms. The word fève means bean, as a dry bean was originally the thing hidden inside these cakes when it first came into being some 300 years ago. I picked up two of these for 50 cents each.
An ingenious telephone-lamp, from the 60s and made in the 60s, as the stand-keeper explained. Both parts work! Somehow I can’t help thinking of Jemaine’s camera-phoneon Flight of the Conchords.
So what did I end up taking home?
One of my best finds this year! A recipe book whose title could be translated Cooking with the Mafia—now that’s something you just can’t refuse. The lady at the stand, recognizing my accent, told me in very good English that her mother was American. She threw in this little cookbook for free. What is American cuisine? Even I am not sure.
A set of presses for making beautifully shaped turnovers and ravioli. May just come in handy for the Mafia book!
A set of old metal canisters for tea, coffee and sugar.
My personal collection of fèves, with a 50 euro-cent piece (similar in size to a US quarter) for scale. The pink lady and purple guy in the back row are the new acquisitions.
The bus! I think this is my favorite among all the things I found. I love that it’s a replica of the real buses of Paris (even bearing the RATP logo), and I find it so charming that a vehicle as decidedly unglamorous as an articulated city bus was manufactured in miniature for children who, one imagines, would normally be more interested in racecars. I also couldn’t resist getting this mini Paris garbage truck for my three-year-old nephew, who has a burning passion for anything on wheels. I often take photos for him of the real thing—much to the amusement of the garbage-truck men, when they catch me—and send them to his mom via Telegram. Actually, I have a feeling he’ll end up with the bus too.
All aboard for Porte d’Italie!
My neighborhood has its big vide-grenier only once a year, but there are other ones in different parts of the city most weekends. Sometimes they’re devoted to higher-priced antiques, art or stamps, in which case it might be referred to as a brocante. Whether you live here or will just be passing through, you can check out this dedicated site to find upcoming vide-greniers all over France.