dimanche, novembre 27, 2005

Melancholy at the Grand Palais

I've been taking advantage recently of the cultural things Paris has to offer. (Eastern European rock installations not included).

I have been to two different exhibits at the Grand Palais, attended an artist's expo in a chic but rundown apartment not far away in the exclusive 8th arrondissement, and went to a party at an artist's loft in the outskirts of the city, where this weekend they are having an open house with an artists' collective.

The first expo at the Grand Palais, entitled "Melancolie", was, well, how can I put it? Interesting, very extensive, and a little exhausting. The idea was to show how important of a theme "melancholia" has historically been in the arts, be it painting, music, philosophy, theology, sculpture, etc. The exhibit was huge, and spanned the ages. How much time they must have put into deciding what pieces to include, I can only imagine. But I sort of liked trying to picture the board of people involved, sitting around a conference room table, discussing what works to use.

"I absolutely cannot understand why you refuse to see my point about the Dührer, Charlotte!"

"Jean-Charles, please don't slam your fist like that. I think you'll find the Otto Dix supports the exact same idea, plus it's available on loan for the time we need it!"

Yes, these are the things that swirl around in my head at 7:30 at night at an art expo. Consider yourself warned.

The first thing I saw upon entering was a Grecian urn depicting Penelope at her loom, appropriately melancholic, waiting for Ulysses' return with her son Telemachus at her side.

Off to a nice start, I thought.

I found it interesting how the stance of melancholy one takes, the head tilted to the side and resting on the hand, hasn't changed at all since ancient times. But then again, why would it have? In any case, it was fascinating to see the pose repeated so consistently throughout.

I was impressed with the variety of the works chosen. There were the predictable Dührers and Goyas and Van Goghs, but I thought Edward Hopper was a nice addition. And I was a little surprised not to see a whole bunch of Schiele. But then again, he was being displayed next door, at the "1900's in Vienna" exhibit, alongside Kokoschka, Moser and Klimt.

There were of course an enormous amount of things that went completely over my head. Each part was organized into sections, and there were long cerebral explanations of the view of such and such aspect of melancholia seen through the spectrum of such and such an age, or such and such philosophy. There was a huge panel that discussed the theological ruminations of "black bile", as melancholy was sometimes translated, and how during the Middle Ages is was considered a sin. Yawn.

The absolute best part, though, was how many people were jotting things down into little notebooks or handheld computers, even into their fancy cell phones. I can assure you not all of them were art students, either. You gotta love a country that is so much into culture, philosophy and knowledge in general that they not only line up in the cold for hours to see an art exhibit after work, but that they actually take notes.

It's just so cute.

mercredi, novembre 16, 2005

The Rules

I had a date tonight. With a friend of a friend, who was rather good looking, and danced like a pro. We had met at a Caribbean party, where he and I danced danced the zouk for quite a while. It's very up close, with the woman's legs on either side of the man's like the lambada. Things got a little hot and heavy, but the party was ending, and it was far away. In parting, I gave him my card with my email addresses. After almost a year, I still haven't memorized my cell phone number.

About a week later, he sent me an email, giving me his cell phone number. I replied giving him mine, but letting him know that I had two friends staying with me for a few weeks, and that if he wanted to see me for a tete-a-tete, it would have to wait. I didn't hear back for about a week and a half, so I sent him another email, reiterating that he was welcome to call and we could do something all together, but that if he would prefer just me, I was looking forward to hearing from him after my friends left.

Total radio silence.

Ironically, I saw the friend who introduced us this weekend and he asked if I had heard from the guy. I said I had sent two emails and gotten no reply. He gave me a perfect throwaway line - which I am really sick of hearing - that maybe the guy in question didn't feel up to par.

I don't know if the two of them talked, but the day before yesterday, the guy called. I told him I wasn't sure he was interested since I hadn't heard from him. He said something about being really busy and not wanting to contact me until he really had time to get together. Then he asked me out to dinner. Tonight. We set the time and the place, and on my way there, I called to make sure it was still on. He replied he was getting ready and would be on his way.

I found the place (miraculously in less than 15 minutes) and arrived a good ten minutes ahead of time.

I sat at the bar to wait. I am a polite person, so I waited to order a drink until he got there.

Forty minutes later, (giving him the benefit of the doubt since I was early), I called his cell phone. Straight to voice mail. In a tight voice, I said that I was already there and had been waiting half an hour, and that he would find me at the bar.

I watched table after table come in, have drinks, talk and leave. The owner of the place kept stealing glances at me, no doubt trying to come up with theories as to why someone would stand me up.

I gave in and ordered a drink.

I checked my cell phone. No voice mail message; no text message.

An hour and five minutes after the appointed time, I called again. Straight to voice mail.

"Alain," I said, my voice tense, "this is Penelope. I have been waiting for over an hour now. I am giving you ten minutes, and if you're not here, I'm going home."

By this time, the owner had already eaten his own dinner. He came around from behind the bar.

"Well," he said, shaking his head, "Monsieur is trying to make himself desirable, is he?"

I shrugged.

"It's appalling. Really. He should be ashamed of himself."

In reply, I asked how much I owed him for the drink.

I paid, put on my scarf, gloves and coat, and threw my cell phone in my purse. Try and call me now, I silently dared him. As I was zipping up my purse, a Bangladeshi flower seller came in. I turned to go.

"Mademoiselle!" called the owner from behind the bar, "Here." He handed me a red rose.

"Awww!" said the waitress. I swallowed hard so my eyes wouldn't tear up.

"Thank you," I said.

You wanna know the rules?

Make me wait half an hour without calling : inconsiderate, but you might have a good excuse.

Make me wait an hour and fifteen minutes for your sorry ass : Fuck you.

My red rose is in a pretty vase on my dining room table to remind me of the shallowness of men who think their shit doesn't stink.

And of the kindness of strangers.

The Picture of Your Name

I read this on another blog a while back, and I just had to try it. It's definitely for one of those bored-at-work or waiting-for-boy-to-call moments of killing time. (I'm not saying which moment I am having right now - so there.)

Here is what you do:

Go to Google and do an image search on the following things:

Your first name

The town you were born in

The title of your favorite song (don't fret over this, no one will know)

Your grandmother's first name

Kinda cool, huh? Anybody but me notice a theme here?

mardi, novembre 15, 2005

Talking Rocks

Paris is not burning.

But there is a strange little installation of talking Latvian rocks set up in the square in front of the Louvre. Nine large rocks of different sizes, each with a different face projected onto it, tell the story of Latvia, its history and folklore.

There was something disquieting about it. But it was still very, very cool. Especially when I just stumbled onto it on my way to have a drink with a friend.

That's the thing about Paris. You never know what you'll find. So it's a good idea to make sure you always have these three things handy:

1. A camera (in case you stumble onto a Latvian rock installation, for example)

2. A notebook to jot down overheard conversations, bad English translations of menu items, or words you want to look up later.

3. An umbrella (need I explain?)

dimanche, novembre 06, 2005

A Chance Encounter

Pastel colors on the canal

I went to Saint Petersburg to work a conference of financial directors. The first few days were full of tasks like putting together gift bags and checking last minute details. The administrative staff was camped out in the conference room with nametags, maps, computers, fax machines and dedicated phone lines.

On the first day, I was still in awe of the hotel, and trying to take in the surroundings and figure out how to address people I ran across. It's still kind of odd for me to speak English when I'm abroad, so in the elevator on my way back up to the fifth floor conference room, I would simply nod my head and smile if anyone got on.

Perhaps for this reason, when a man got on at the second floor, he asked if I worked at the hotel. Maybe I looked like an employee, or had some determined expression on my face as if I had somewhere important to be.

"Oh, I thought you were Russian," he said when I answered in American English that I did not, in fact, work at the hotel.

It turned out he was from Texas but had been living in Saint Petersburg for six years.

"It must be fascinating. Is it?" I asked.

"It's a hard life," he said, "It's difficult here. But it makes it better when you're in an elevator with a beautiful woman."

I smiled. The elevator reached my floor, much to my relief.

"Well, I hope you won't need to call me - because of what I do - but if you ever need anything while you're here, don't hesitate to contact me," he said, handing me a business card. I turned it over to the English side. He worked for an emergency clinic.

"Oh, goodness," I said laughing, "I hope I don't need your help."

"We were rated the best private clinic in the country by the American Embassy," he said proudly, as the elevator started to make sounds of protest at him holding open the door.

"I'll keep that in mind," I said.

Later at dinner, one of the financial directors came up to me to say he might need to leave early, showing me a spider bite he had gotten a week earlier that had swelled up. He now also had a rash on his arm.

"I might have just what you need," I said, pulling out the card and showing it to him. "They were rated the best private clinic in Russia by the American Embassy." I offered to call them and set up an appointment.

He thanked me, and made a joke about assistants and their resourcefulness. I decided not to tell him it had more to do with being picked up in a hotel elevator than being a good assistant.

"Frank?" I said loudly into the phone from the ladies room. It was the first place I could find that was quiet. "I'm sorry to call you this late, but it seems I do need your services after all."

I explained the situation, and he told me what information they would need to set up an appointment.

"I'll check with the person in question to see if he would prefer to come in the morning or during the lunch break, and I'll call you tomorrow morning to let you know." My American voice bounced off the polished marble walls, and I wondered who could hear me.

The next morning, I made an appointment to come at noon. I reserved a car with the hotel, a sleek black luxury car with tinted windows, and I felt ridiculously like a drug lord gliding through the streets. Frank had told me to call him when we were on our way, so he could meet us personally. He offered to give me a private tour of the facility while the financial director saw the doctor. This made me a bit uneasy, but I didn't know how to politely get out of it, considering what a favor he was doing me.

The building was non-descript from the outside, but once inside, it was apparent why it was so well thought of by the American Embassy. The waiting room was a sleek, bright and luxurious atrium, with a coffee stand, uniformed hostesses and overstuffed leather couches. A very elegant middle aged woman walked in wearing a sable colored wool cape edged in identical colored fur. She sat down on one of the couches, crossed her long sleek legs, and opened a fashion magazine. I could tell it was not her first visit.

The paperwork was filled in, and the director went off to see the doctor.

Frank turned to me and put his hand on my arm, "It's good to see you again, even in the circumstances," he purred.

"Thank you for your help," I said, smiling tersely and taking a step away from him.

"Let me show you around," he said, moving his arm behind me as if to grab me by the waist and pointing ahead to show me the way. I moved quickly to the doors leading inside the clinic.

He showed me the dentistry wing, the dermatology wing, and the sports therapy wing, complete with mud bath and whirlpool facilities, all the while reciting facts and figures as if reading from a pamphlet. In the stairwell on the way to see an example of a patient room, he turned to me and tried to compose his face into a look of genuine interest.

"How much do you think it costs to have hip replacement surgery in the US, Penelope?"

"I really have no idea, Frank," I said, a little annoyed and wondering whether he had been a member of Toastmasters back in Texas.

"Well, in the US, it can cost up to $60,000, and here we do everything for $13,000. We're a state of the art facility, but our prices are very reasonable. We have a lot of tourist business."

I raised an eyebrow. "Tourist business?"

"You know, elderly tourists who fall and break something, they all come here. We have a good relationship with the hotels."

"Ah," I said. Thank you, Frank, for making me now actually think about where I would go if I needed emergency health care abroad. These are not things I think about.

As he was showing me the MRI equipment, apparently one of two or three in the whole country, I remembered the woman in the lobby and the frankly beautiful patient rooms.

"So tell me, Frank, I'll bet you do a lot of plastic surgery here, don't you?"

He didn't seem to expect the question. "Well, a lot of the Russian stars and the well- to-do come here for that, but they also come for the medical facilities. I would say plastic surgery makes up only about 30% of our revenue."

"Hmm," I replied.

Bored with talk of the clinic, I asked him about living in Saint Petersburg.

"It's very hard. It's really violent. I've been assaulted six times. Electricity goes off periodically with no warning, sometimes in the middle of winter. Real estate is a nightmare. Even this clinic - we rent the space, and totally renovated it, but despite an official lease, the owner could simply raise the rent astronomically or take back the building whenever he wanted. People urinate and defecate in the hallways of apartment buildings. 80% of pharmaceuticals in public pharmacies are placebos. It's a jungle. All the Americans I have ever met who got transferred over here only made it six months."

I had a newfound respect for good old Frank from Texas. I wouldn't be able to handle those conditions, either.

It was time to collect the director. I found him in the lobby calling his doctor in France on his cell phone.

"What did they say?" I asked. It really was the scariest looking angry red welt on his arm, the size of a big walnut.

"They wanted to cut it open and drain it and give me some more antibiotics. My doctor prefers I fly back tonight to Paris."

We had a brief discussion with Frank about price and antibiotics, until the director finally thanked him and assured him it had nothing to do with doubting the quality of the facility, but that he preferred to follow his doctor's advice.

I got on my cell phone and changed his ticket, called the hotel to have the car pick us up, and said my goodbyes to Frank.

"Thank you very much for everything you did for us. It was very kind to take so much of your time for us," I said, sticking out my hand for him to shake.

"If you should have some free time, I would love to take you dinner," he said in reply.

"I'm afraid that won't be possible," I said, "but thank you again for everything." I was grateful he made me look like a highly competent assistant, but not that grateful.

The black luxury car was waiting for us on the street outside, humming and beckoning us with its warmth. It was beginning to get cold.

As I watched the buildings file past as we drove back to hotel, I wondered who lived there and if they had heat.

Nyevsky Prospekt