Meilleure année!

champagne

Midnight strikes on December 31. Within seconds cell phones begin beeping with incoming text messages. “Bonne année!” flashes across mini-screens everywhere. A string of well wishes follows. Then, throughout the month of January, people greet each other with the same. Not adhering to this protocol constitutes a social gaffe.

After years of practice, I usually remember such codes. But occasionally I lapse and forget the correct ritual. It happened last week. A friend’s parents had returned from their winter home in the South of France to Paris and I had not seen them since before the holidays. Instead of the appropriate New Year’s salutation, I launched headlong into the “how was your stay/trip” greeting. I didn’t realize my faux pas until the question hung for several seconds languishing in conversational dead space.

The usual response in Paris when someone doesn’t follow convention is a retort with what the person should have said. A chastising look generally accompanies the correction. But Madame C didn’t follow custom. Instead she countered, “Meilleure année, Mayanne!”

Oh dear. The error must have been greater than I thought. But what could I do? I couldn’t rewind and start over. I forced myself to make eye contact and willed the muscles in my face back to neutral, then pleasant. It must have worked for she continued, “Well, 2015 was a rotten year for everybody, right? So, I think we ought to wish people a “better year”. It’s more appropriate.”

Madame C looked at me in earnest. I eventually smiled, and then agreed. I too wished her a better year. The moment passed. She then went on to describe how it had rained and rained and rained in the South of France, how she and her husband might as well have never left Paris. The gesture was kind and my error forgiven.

2015 did bring clouds of hardship and storms to many. Friends lost parents and spouses. They lost innocence, security, identity, and sometimes hope. Therefore, in accordance with French custom which dictates that we have until January 31 to express our meilleurs voeux (best wishes), I wish all of those who have lost so much and you, dear reader, a Meilleure année!

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La rue Dénoyez, shrine to graffiti or garbage heap?

Street culture enthusiasts call the rue Dénoyez a shrine to graffiti; critics deem it the worst sort of defacement. A couple of weekends ago, the last two days of a glorious Indian Summer, I ventured off to Belleville on the edge of 20th arrondissement determined to form an opinion myself.

Belleville is where Edith Piaf, France’s immortal and beloved diva, grew up. Coming out of the metro, I wondered what she would make of her old neighborhood. An eleven-story apartment building occupied the corner of rue and boulevard de Belleville, its ground floor sheltering a French bank and an Asian grocery. A little further along, shiny roasted ducks strung up by their headless necks hung in the picture window of a Chinese eatery. Across the street, a florist, deli, and two more restaurants promised in French with Mandarin subtitles both pleasure and delight. The starting point of my meander, the rue Dénoyez, would be up ahead on the left.

Rue Dénoyez, although not at all related to the French verb noyer, which means “to drown,” seemed a curious name to me. Circumventing the discarded blue, orange, and white plastic grocery sacks, empty beer cans, and cigarette stubs littering the pavement, I eventually found the entrance to a cobblestone street. I didn’t need to check the blue street sign. Graffiti, collages, shadow boxes, paper cutouts, and stencils filled the walls, doorways, roofs, and even the street posts.

A whirlwind of hot pinks and lime greens, neon yellows and blues, blood reds, and somber black and white creatures engulfed me. The sickly sweet odor of hashish permeated the air. I cast my eyes to the right. A shadow box with a photocopy of an Edith Piaf head shot, a straw hat, and bamboo pipe captured my attention first. Closed wooden shutters trapped in multi-color letters and a couple of pigeons perched above. Across the street, an androgynous child with black cannon balls balanced on either side of her head sat crying, a dead fawn draped over his/her lap. I clutched for my camera, brought the viewfinder to my eye.

Behind the safety of the lens, I observed and clicked. The child and its deer. A tornado of swirling plumes around a closed eye. A mosaic of pottery and shells. Stick figures. Tags. Manga gone wild. Trash. Color. Movement.

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IMG_8437The sun climbed in the sky. I took more time to compose each photo, assessing the image before looking through the lens. Lunchtime approached. One pedestrian after another walked into the frame, forcing me to break. “Don’t you want to take a picture of me?” joked a middle-aged man with wire-rimmed glasses and a broad smile. I laughed and held the camera cupped in my hand. “Your loss!” he shouted over his shoulder and went on his way.

I continued in the opposite direction. When I reached the end, I turned around one last time to take it all in. Then I turned the corner and spied one last shot. Beside a café, hanging from an airborne heart, sailed a boat shaped like a blue whale and captained by a beheaded bird. A tagger had spray-painted the phrase ivre de vie (drunk on life), above it.

“Interesting, isn’t it?”

A rabbi with a long gray beard and a tall black hat stood next to me, smiling. I hesitated, then spoke. “C’est magnifique.”

“Isn’t it.” He nodded and bid me good day.

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The Supermoon, September 28, 2015

Moon_September 28 2015Three a.m. read the screen on my cell phone. I moaned into the pillow, pulled the duvet up over my head, and waited for sleep to return. It didn’t. Then I remembered. The lunar eclipse! I flung off the covers, shimmied into a pair of jeans, and pulled on a fleece jacket. I grabbed my cell phone and the good camera, then headed out into the brisk night.

When I reached the courtyard, I looked up. No sign of the moon. I hurried into the opposite side of the building. I skipped down the marble stairs and out the heavy iron door, easing it shut behind me so it wouldn’t wake the neighbors. I looked up and there it was: a gigantic full moon with a little chip missing in its upper-left quadrant. I settled onto the stoop. No one was about. Not a single sound ruffled the air. It was just me and the moon.

Yet I knew other people were watching. My friend Christina and her husband Lars in Switzerland had set the alarm to watch from their garden. Lars would be setting up his fancy new camera to get the perfect shot. Roland in Germany was probably doing the same. I tried to capture the moon with both my cell phone and digital SLR, but it defied my efforts. I posted my failure on Facebook. Within an instant, friends in Texas and Pennsylvania responded. I checked the feed. People from all over the world were watching.

Later I read a horoscope that claimed this eclipse would have a profound impact on those born under the sign of Libra. It would cause them to let go of old patterns and build new relationships. I am a Libra, but am not entirely convinced. What I do know is that I felt an astonishing sense of community with people around the world, all of us united in celebrating the natural marvels of the universe in which we live.

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A New Architectural Icon for Paris: the Fondation Luis Vuitton

IMG_6930The Fondation Louis Vuitton rises up out of a verdant sea like a futuristic pirate ship at full sail. Glass and steel billow through the sky. Geometric shapes summersault over each other.  Bold curves and quirky angles captivate my attention and cause my spirits to soar. The trials of a most difficult week evaporate in the face of such unbridled beauty and optimism. I gaze upward at Frank Gehry’s 2.5-story, 126,000 square foot architectural wonder until I become aware that the trio of Vigipirate soldiers patrolling the museum entrance have stopped and seem to be staring at me. I flash them a smile and hurry toward the end of the ticket line. It appears rather short for a Saturday, then a sign with the entry fee comes into sight: 14 euros. The sum would surpass the budget of many, especially if visiting en famille, and is higher than what it costs to visit most of Paris’s museums.

IMG_6888Built to one side of the Jardin d’Acclimation, a children’s amusement park on the west side of town where Marcel Proust once played, the Fondation Louis Vuitton is a contemporary art and culture center established by the LVMH (Louis Vuitton-Moët Hennessy) luxury-goods conglomerate. I purchase my ticket at a booth sitting just below a prominent silver sculpture of the company’s brand label. I then pass through a revolving door and metal detector into a vast open space. A bookstore and the entrance to the museum’s 11 galleries flank me to the left, a restaurant with white fish flying over diners lies to the front of me, signs indicating an auditorium beckon to the right. Which way to turn? In truth, I’ve come to see the building, not the rest.

I opt for the auditorium first. I enter it from above and Ellsworth Kelly’s Spectrum VIII, a curtain of 12 colors showing a spectrum of colors, dominates the theatrical space. I take the stairs down to get a closer look, but the colors cannot compete with the building’s undulating glass windows and doors. They draw me to the exterior structure once more. I exit the auditorium onto a patio that leads to a reflecting pool that wraps around the building and a terraced waterfall. At any moment now, I expect to feel the swells of the ocean beneath my feet.

IMG_6910I then wander left to “the grotto” where I walk straight into Inside the Horizon (2014) by Olafur Eliasson, a contemporary Danish artist known for his monumental works. Within seconds, I find myself darting in and out of the 43 triangular columns curved along a colonnade opposite the museum building. Two sides of the columns consist of mirrors while the third is made of yellow glass and illuminated from within. I plunge into a narcissistic frenzy, taking multiple self-portraits in the mirrors. I gaze at myself with the curiosity of a child who has suddenly discovered her own reflection. IMG_6901I snap photos of the parade of columns from every which angle, with people and without. My fascination could easily turn to addiction. But other visitors are doing the same, and our eyes meet in mutual reflection. Later I discover, that this is the artist’s intention. In this work, he wished to “question the horizon that separates perception and knowledge, imagination and expectations, the known and unknown, in each and everyone of us.” Bravo, Olafur! Mission accomplished.

Drunk on imagination and the possible, I wander back into the “Iceberg”, the name given to the inner part of the building (Gehry calls the outer structure “La Verrière,” which roughly translates to “glass window or roof”). I float through the voluminous spaces of the other galleries, trying to focus on what I am actually seeing and experiencing. I fail. My heart belongs to the external structure of the museum. I run from one window to the next to study each nook and cranny. Finally, I realize that I have seen all I can from the inside. Time to venture out again. The exit lies opposite the entrance and leads into the Jardin d’Acclimation where I can get a full view of my new love. Inner child-fairy skipping from one end of the pirate ship to the other, I snap photographs, marvel at magnificence.IMG_6889

Then my camera battery dies. I notice my fingers have turned numb and decide to sit for a while in the sun, catch my breath, reorganize. I am heart-bursting happy. Beauty has that effect on me. One minute, I can be exhausted from stress, tension and conflict, ready to jump into the Seine and die, then I catch sight of something beautiful. I engage. I translate the experience into words and/or images. And then, suddenly, I feel fully alive, craving the next adventure, bursting with all-consuming joy. So, it was today. Thank you, Frank Gehry, for your genius and sharing it with us. Thank you—and I am trying not to say this grudgingly—Bernard Arnault, for spending some of your billions on art and culture. Thank you, Paris, for providing me a proper home.
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Frank Gehry, considered perhaps the greatest architect of our times, has created an architectural language all his own. Words rarely do justice to his works. Please click on the following link for a visual and descriptive overview of some of his better known works: http://www.architecturaldigest.com/architecture/2014-10/best-of-frank-gehry-slideshow_slideshow_item0_1

To learn more about Frank Gehry, the man and artist, watch these TED talks:

https://www.ted.com/talks/frank_gehry_asks_then_what

https://www.ted.com/talks/frank_gehry_as_a_young_rebel

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Bernard Arnault has been the chairman and CEO of LVMH, a luxury-goods empire of some 60 brands that include Dom Perignon, Kenzo, Sephora, De Beers, Givenchy, Guerlain, Moët et Chandon, Fendi, and Bulgari, since 1989. According to Forbes, he is the 13th richest man in the world, he and his family’s net worth coming in at some $36.6 billion. Mr. Arnault considers myself an ambassador of French culture and heritage (Forbes) and feels that the Gehry-designed museum is symbolic of who the people at LVMH are and what they do (Architectural Digest).

 Sources other than the foundation website, those linked in the article, and my own experience:

http://www.lvmh.com

http://www.olafureliasson.net/

http://www.forbes.com/profile/bernard-arnault/

©2015, Mayanne Wright. All rights reserved.

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Celebrating the Written Word and Life of the Mind

“Is this seat taken?” I ask the burly man with glasses and a salt-‘n-pepper mane. “No, go ahead,” he answers. “Great!” I smile and try to make eye contact, but he’s already turned away. I shrug off my coat, hang it over the polished wooden chair, then thread my way back toward a table sporting refreshments.

American Library in Paris

American Library in Paris

I collect a wee plastic cup with sauvignon blanc and return to my seat. The American Library in Paris’s weekly “Evening with an author” is about to begin. Renowned journalist Dana Thomas will read from her book Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. The library’s main reading room, lined with bookshelves and normally filled with study tables and chairs, has been transformed into a mini-auditorium. Members of the French and American press mingle with the city’s English-speaking expat community. I look around and recognize no one except the library director, Charles Trueheart. We had lunch together once with my library book group at Taillevent, but that was a couple of years ago. Now I am just a familiar face in the crowd.

I take another sip of wine and sit back to people watch and eavesdrop. The couple behind me discusses the literati they’ve met in Paris. Across the room, three women in colorful, baggy clothing and comfortable shoes greet one another. One insists on la bise, but is unsure about which cheek to air-kiss first and how many kisses to deliver. I like them and their exuberance. My eyes then drift to the lone woman in front of me. She knits, oblivious to the chatter. I glance at the clock on the wall. Five more minutes. Suddenly, Mr. Burly scoots his chair even further away from me, clearly aligning himself with the two women to his right. I wonder if I did something to offend him.

Just then, the Programs Manager, taps on the microphone calling the room to order. I forget that I have become an island in a sea of chairs. Charles Trueheart, a former journalist himself, comes to the mic to introduce Ms. Thomas. All backs in the room straighten to attention. Mine too. I sense that I am about to learn something important.

Trueheart cedes the floor to Ms. Thomas and I quickly fall under her spell. I become swept up in the stories of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, two brilliant designers that revolutionized modern fashion. As slides of their outrageously sexy creations flash across the library’s portable screen, I hear how the fashion Business, with a capital “B”, seduced these fragile spirits, put them on a treadmill-like production cycle, then sped it up, forcing them to create and create, faster and faster, until they could no more. McQueen, head designer of Givenchy fashion and of his own line, committed suicide in 2010. A short time later, Galliano, head designer at Christian Dior, sank into the hells of addiction  and publicly disgraced himself, resulting in his dismissal. McQueen will never make a comeback. Galliano maybe. But only time will tell.

What really struck me about this tale, however, were the similarities between the evolutions in the fashion industry and in my own world of educational publishing. A couple of decades ago, a variety of smallish, often family-run, companies dominated fashion, producing high-quality luxury goods for a a niche-market. Today, few of these companies remain (Hermès is one). Most have been bought up and become part of giant conglomerates focused on mass-producing products (usually at the expense of quality) to be sold at high cost to a global market. I watched something similar occur in educational publishing. When I started out writing and editing foreign language textbooks, some dozen companies existed. Now there are three to four major players. It used to take up to four years to produce a new textbook, from idea to published product. Now it takes a year. The primary objective of both the fashion and publishing industries these days is making as much money as possible, and as quickly as possible, for those at the top of the pyramid with little thought for the quality of the product or the well-being of those producing it. In fact, as I listened to Ms. Thomas over the course of an hour, I realized why so many of us who work in a creative field struggle so hard these days.

The reading sadly comes to an end. I applaud absentmindedly. The people around me rise and head to the front of the library where Ms. Thomas signs books. I stay seated ruminating over what I have just learned. When almost everyone has left, I stand and put on my coat, thinking that the library does indeed live up to its vision: to celebrate “the written word and the life of the mind”.

©2015, Mayanne Wright. All rights reserved.

To find more about the American Library in Paris, please visit their website: http://www.americanlibraryinparis.org/.

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The Vigipirate Plan

Little red triangles, labeled VIGIPIRATE with ALERTE ATTENTAT written underneath, have popped up all over Paris. The first time I noticed one was at my local post office. Immediately, swashbuckling pirates began brandishing their swords across my imagination. When the last buccaneer finally vanished, I looked at the word vigipirate again. What did it mean? Vigi probably stood for “vigilance.” But pirate? I thought about all the French people who download American television series and movies illegally. No, that couldn’t be it. Okay. Pirates steal and commit acts of violence. So, vigilance against violent criminals? Maybe. (I don’t think I had even registered the words alerte attentat at that time.) I let it go and mailed my letter. IMG_6769

A few days later, my friend Chloé and I went to pick up her daughter from school. Rain poured from the sky threatening to turn to sleet. Instead of parking in front of the school as was our habit, we had to find a spot fairly far up the hill. I asked why, especially given the weather and all the empty parking spaces in front of the school. She explained that we couldn’t park there because of Vigipirate. Then I remembered. All extracurricular trips at my niece’s school had been cancelled. Concrete and metal barriers now block easy access to all government buildings and Paris’s iconic monuments. Metal detectors have sprouted up everywhere. Security guards check your bags upon entering any large department store or mall. Vigipirate is France’s counter terrorism plan and the threat level is at its highest: alerte attentat, or threat of imminent attack.

How does this affect the average Parisian in the street? Not much really. The plan in force is very discrete, a characteristic highly valued by the French. Other than the small inconveniences described above, one hardly notices any difference. Sure, law enforcement presence is greater. Public transportation security “control,” or check, passenger tickets more often. Houses of worship and other entities considered sensitive have soldiers guarding their premises. Larger groups of soldiers patrol the train stations, airports, city monuments, and government buildings. But, they have been doing so for years. Only their numbers have multiplied. Paris has a tradition of boiling over into protest, sometimes leading to violence, so a police presence has long been a part of the city landscape. A few extra soldiers and policemen, therefore, go virtually unnoticed.

In fact, le plan VIGIPIRATE dates back to 1978 when a wave of terrorism hit Europe. The government launched its first official Vigipirate plan in 1981, long before the United States instituted its Department of Homeland Security. I remember that year, which marked the first time I came to France. Trashcan bombs exploded in train stations, molotov cocktails were thrown at synagogues, car bombs went off on the city’s streets. Parisians lived on edge. But the government took measures, measures that have been in place ever since. One such example are the clear green, plastic trash bags one finds instead of trashcans in public places.

So when my American friends ask me about how life has changed since the tragic events of last January, I tell them that the changes are subtle. We have greater awareness. We realize that we are part of a global community and world politics concerns us all. We endeavor to look for and find solutions. But our train-train (daily life) continues as before. Caution, not fear, guides us. And we are thankful for the vigilant authorities that aim to protect the city and us from pirates.

 

To learn more about the plan VIGIPIRATE and recent counter terrorism measures in France, please see:

http://www.risques.gouv.fr/menaces-terroristes/le-plan-vigipirate

http://www.ambafrance-us.org/spip.php?article6445

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Four Days in Paris

 

January 7, 2015

Images of violence smashed across the television screen behind me. I took a sip of cognac grog, pretending not to hear, denying the painfully obvious. That didn’t happen here, did it?

“So, how was your vacation?” I asked my friend, still not ready to face the truth. He launched into a narration of his holidays, then stopped, the sentence absorbed by the air. He looked into my eyes, took my hands in his. I held back the tears. It was time.

We didn’t talk about the two gunmen that had blasted their way into Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper, that afternoon. NorIMG_6624 did we speak of the 12 individuals now dead, the shootout with the police in Paris’s streets, or the possible involvement of al-Qaeda. No, we discussed what would happen now, how the country would react. Already, countless individuals had changed their profile picture to “Je suis Charlie” and were decrying the assault against free speech and freedom of the press. We expressed our concern for France’s future. Most of all, we reassured ourselves that our lives would go on as before. Yes, we would have to take more precautions in the future, but damn it, we would not let those bastards get to us!

We downed the grogs, willing the alcohol to rush our heads. Then we went off to eat couscous and tajine at a Moroccan restaurant near my home. Fitting somehow, I thought.

 

January 8, 2015

Sirens pierced the morning stillness not far from where I live. A female police officer had been shot in Montrouge, the suburb next to mine. Friends on Facebook were afraid to leave their houses. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, declared a day of mourning. I attempted to work. I read the same page of text over and over again, not able to make sense of its squiggles. Eventually, I gave up and turned to Facebook.IMG_6632

My friends posted news reports in multiple languages and copies of drawings by the martyred cartoonists. Over half my French friends had changed their profile picture or posted thoughts in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo and what the newspaper had come to represent: freedom. Shock, fear, sorrow, anger, indignation soared. Posts multiplied by the second. I received message after message from friends around the world asking if I was okay, wanting to know what was really happening on the ground, expressing their support for Paris. I quickly understood the power of social networks in fomenting revolution. Yet, I could say nothing. I couldn’t find the right words. I sympathized with these heartfelt outpourings, but I could not join the crowd.

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January 9, 2015

No resolution. Posts continued to flood Facebook. I remembered the aftermath of 9/11, how massive solidarity sometimes led to intolerance. I felt compelled to speak out. I wrote:

“There is much cruelty, pain, grief, and suffering in this world. It often leads to horrid acts of violence. But let us not forget that there is also great kindness and love as evidenced by the outpouring of support the French people have extended to one another and many people in the world have given France. Symbols, ideals, and values are important. They sustain and unite us–for good or for evil. But let us not forget the individual, for it is each person who is victim or hero, who hates or loves, who suffers or benefits, who makes his or her own choices.”

That afternoon, the city held its breath. The Charlie Hebdo shooters held hostages 15 minutes away from where my friend Ali lives. He could not leave his house to pick-up his young daughters from school. Hostages were taken at a kosher grocery store at the Porte de Vincennes in the eastern part of Paris, a place where I used to buy pickles. The police asked the shops, mostly Jewish businesses, in the rue des Rosiers to close. This was my former neighborhood. The police closed the périphérique, the beltway around Paris, near where I live now. Several segments of the Paris metro came to a standstill.

I glued myself to the Internet to watch the latest news and message friends in the U.S. Then it came: hostage takers all killed. “Thank. God!” texted the friend with whom I’d been messaging. I had to agree in spite of my convictions.

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January 10, 2015

Camera to my eye, I documented the outpouring of love and solidarity at the place de la République. Few people gathered around the monument that morning, especially when compared to the thousands who’d assembled there earlier in the week. In fact, the streets and metro lines seemed oddly deserted for a Saturday. A sadness clung to the faces of those I did see and everyone made an effort to be polite. I wondered if this emptiness extended across the city. So, I walked to the place de la Bastille. All calm here. I walked along Saint-Antoine and rue de Rivoli. Shoppers hadn’t hit the winter sales yet. I crossed in front of the Hôtel de Ville and paused to photograph it in mourning. The holiday ice rink still stood out front, but only a handful of skaters glided around. I made my way to Notre Dame, and felt reassured by the line of tourists backed up nearly to the Préfecture de Police waiting to get inside. As I meandered through the Left Bank, the crowds grew denser. Stores bustled with bargain hunters. Tourists and locals filled the cafés. I breathed it all in. Clouds hung over the city, but it still felt like home.

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