Aug 012014


There is a sandwich shop on the first floor of the building where I live, and I am obsessed with it. My own sandwiches tend to be horrible, and these are exemplary, and I eat them at least five times a week, sometimes also for dinner. The last time I made a sandwich, I used that weird Finnish bread, but it was old, and crumbly, and fell apart, and then I decided I had made not a sandwich but a sort of “hash,” with Finnish bread and avocado and salmon, and it was disgusting.

I could talk for a very, very long time about the man who makes the sandwiches because every day, I try, in my kindergartner’s French (and I know I am kindergarten level because of my enjoyment of a series of books called “La Cabane Magique” that are specifically marked as appropriate for “7 ans”; currently we are dealing with a monstre under les mers) to charm him. Either I am too old for this, or he is uncharmable, even when I got my shirt caught on the door going out of the building, like a fish on a hook, and he stood there for a minute while considering whether or not to help free me, until he did. He did not smile. He shook his head. I am writing this as someone who typically has such friendly relations with her neighborhood retailers that (a) I have a standing invitation to Pakistan and (b) I had to stop going to a particular magazine store because every time I went in the dude in charge wanted to hug.

This, however, is not about that man. Yesterday, when I was going to get my sandwich, there was a baby carriage just chilling outside the door. I was going to push it out of the way when I realized there was an actual living baby inside. My initial reaction was to take a picture of it for Twitter, like I’d just seen a dog behind the wheel of a car, because seeing a baby alone in a baby carriage on the sidewalk is not something I have ever seen in New York. I laughed loudly enough that the mother, waiting for her own sandwich inside the shop, came out, and gently pushed the baby out of my way, further along the sidewalk, so I could get in.

I find this behavior fascinating and strange. A couple weeks ago, my friend S. and I were having a drink outside, and a young mother sat beside us. She was with her two kids, and after a certain point, she shooed them away. They went off to play, in the street. Literally, in the street. A small street, yeah, but a street nonetheless. S., who has lived in France much longer than I have, took in the scene alongside me, and we talked about how much easier it seemed to be, having a kid in France, than it seemed to be at home, in 2014.

I grew up playing in the street, and in sewage drains. My chief occupation as a fifth-grader was privately digging up a particular rock with a series of sticks, believing that with time and fortitude, I could at least reach lava. The last time I went home, the story about the woman arrested for leaving her kid in a (not-hot) car while she ran an errand was circulating, and my sister and I both asked our parents what they thought. They were equivocal. “Oh, I don’t know about that,” my dad said. But as my sister correctly recalled, we grew up waiting for them in the backseat of the car, while they were in the grocery store or the pharmacy or the bank. We lived in a neighborhood of kids, with a pool up the hill and swings down the road. Growing up in the suburbs reminded me of Lyra’s Oxford in The Golden Compass: We were not rabid, but we may have been feral. The story about the mom being arrested made me depressed, and anxious, and angry, not least because of the evident gap between what I remembered of childhood and what it had become. The fact that these two things were separated by time but not geography was unsettling.

It is easier when massive cultural shifts are really just about the geography. I’m not sure I expect to age into a different culture in the same, physical place where I grew up, but I understand that in coming to a different country, I’m assuming an entirely different set of mores. For example, one in which it is not a felony to leave a baby in a carriage on the sidewalk.

In many ways, it is much easier being in a country other than your own. I mean, I miss my dentist, terribly. Friends and family, obviously. But so much of what happens here is either a strange, new delight—fireworks on July 14! five weeks of vacation! babies just hanging out on street corners, doing their own thing!—or not my problem. When the public square five minutes’ walk is tear-gassed during an demonstration: not my country, not my politics, not my problem, except for how the tear gas is between me and the Habitat store, and I desperately need to replace my subletter’s duvet cover.

As S. watched and I marveled over the physical fact of two young children playing in the street—the way I surely would have, if it were my mom and my sister and my childhood—we talked about the difference between being an expat and an immigrant. This is her distinction, her idea: She lives here, speaks the language, raised her children here, carries the passport; she’s an immigrant, she says. Immigrants are staying; expats look homeward, in all things. I wouldn’t even call myself an expat, though I’ve lived here for over a year now: I go home too often, for one thing, and for another, there’s something dashing about expats I just don’t have. Expats don’t eat pistachios off the floor, which is not something I do often, but is something I just did. I’m in transit.

I’m not sure in transit is a tenable situation. Really what it is is a quasi-mindful decision to not make a choice, to have the cake while eating it. I know people complain about that expression, but to me it is the underlying principle, and problem, with a life spent in transit: that these days spent cherry-picking the best of two hugely different, often contradictory cultures feel like they’re being spent on credit. But they’re not: They are paid out of an ever-dwindling account. On a bad day, I ask myself what my best friend’s mom asks every time I see her: When am I going to settle down? On a good day—and I think, paradoxically, because the answer to the previous question is “Not today,” there are more good days than bad—being in transit—when I’m not sure what tomorrow, or next week, or next month will bring—requires you to put a tremendous amount of stock into today, and to say: “Am I doing what I want to be doing today?” The answer so far is yes, or near enough. I remember not being in transit, and looking so forward to tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. I think “settling down” gets too much credit. A life in transit—a life of more or less continuous change—can in some weird, magical way, make us incredibly invested in the present. It is an easy life to screw up—I’ve done that already—because it can be about “no day” as easily as it is about “today”—which is to say, it’s the sort of lifestyle that makes forgetting to pay your student loans very, very easy. I hope I won’t do it too long; I hope I won’t do it after the weird, unexpected magic has dissipated. It hasn’t yet. When am I settling down? Not today. Maybe tomorrow. But not today.

Jun 032014

Last night I had to find an email about a writing program I’m attending later this summer—so I searched by the sender’s name. When I did, I found the email I was looking for, along with the other two times I’d heard from her—in 2008 and 2012, both times letting me know that I’d been wait-listed. Only this last email was an acceptance.

I’m trying to get better at dealing with rejection. Freelancers are rejected all the time—mostly by just being ignored, which is simultaneously the best (“Maybe they never got my email”) and worst (“I spent like nine hours pitching them and … pfft”) way of being rejected. I made it my mission to be as rejected as many times as possible this year, and develop that thicker skin that everybody’s talking about.

Something hit me when I saw those three emails, the two wait-lists and the acceptance. The first time I applied to a graduate art program, I was wait-listed. I was beyond freaked out, and I said as much to my favorite art school teacher. “People only remember that Brooke Shields went to Princeton,” she said. “Nobody remembers that she had to apply three times to get in.” And I thought: What other things have I given up on that might have gone in a better way—if I’d only kept at it? I literally felt slightly ill just thinking about it—and I realized that nothing feels quite as bad as giving up.

This is embarrassing: I’ve applied to be on The Amazing Race with basically every BFF I have, plus my uncle, plus my sister. I mean: 20 times, I’ve applied, and I think what happens is that some intern sees my video, is like, “Oh, that idiot again,” and laughs. But as long as that show exists, I am going to pester them. And I think I am going to do my best to make “pester” my mantra. The older I get, the more I realize that the world responds surprisingly well to being pestered. There is no glory in giving up, but I am just besotted with the honor of an honest effort.

I put that video up there because every day I think about giving up on something—a new map, my book, making dinner like an adult instead of having toast and half a chocolate bar. There is literally no thematic relationship between that and the goat, except to say that something you just need to see something lovely.

Jun 022014


Here’s a story: I was in Argentina when I noticed that all the women around me had this gorgeous, caramel brown hair—like a bronde, but richer, and amazing, and unlike anything I’d ever seen back home. So my BFF and I decided I’d go and get my hair dyed: The stylist spoke no English, and I no Spanish, but my friend translated, we brought lots of pictures, and all, we figured, would be well. Until it wasn’t: Even though my hair would seem to be the weakest, most pliable shade of mouse-brown, it held on like a motherfucker. But you know: once more unto the breach! So we kept going and going. We left when I had hair like Strawberry Shortcake. My friend left halfway through the next day’s session, off to get her flight home, and the stylist and I communicated in expressions of mutual, increasing distress. By the time we were done, I had hair the color of a nectarine, and it was so bad that my other BFF, not incidentally a heterosexual male who I was about to spend 60 days in southern Africa with, paid for it to be dyed back to my good friend, mouse brown.

All’s well that ends well, for the most part, but that experience—and a poorly advised experiment with highlighting last summer—have given my hair below my ears the consistency of very, very thin twigs. It’s gotten to the point where the cruel French hair stylists here basically roll their eyes when I walk through the door: “Eet ees … transparent,” one told me last summer. It is the only time I’ve left a hair salon with a prescription—in that case, for 500 micrograms of biotin a day. Anyway: I’m now on the hunt for a lifestyle that ensures my hair (along with the rest of me) is, you know, the best that it can be. This is a situation that is complicated, for me anyway (along with a lot of other people), by my own personal barrage of thyroid medications (let’s just say I take a sufficient number that the pharmacist always has to be, like, “Are you sure this all goes together?”) A lot of things can fuck up your hair—smoking, stress, genetics, medication. I’m betting most people deal with at least one of them.

In addition to the biotin—which I’m TK about at this point, but I’m only a month into it, so we’ll see—I’ve changed up my diet so that it depends less on Pringles and more on vegetable-centric smoothies, which I love, and which I would declare my only food if I could get around the hassle of constantly cleaning out the blades of my hand blender. (I say that just having eaten a handful of Pringles.) I’m also trying to scientific-methodly add and subtract hair treatments to my routine. And I am very, very happy with my Phyto Phytokeratine.

I don’t like the fact that you have to sit around for five minutes while it does whatever it’s doing, because there are few things I hate more than getting out of the shower, and with this, you have to do it twice. (Er, I know that is not a real problem.) Today I played 2048. Next week, who knows. All I do know is that the first time I used this was also the first time I could let my hair air dry without wrapping it into a bun (which, I know, isn’t great for breakage, but: frizz). Generally when I air dry it, I literally have to do this in a car, with the windows open, so that the breeze is sort of like a cool-air hair dryer. This is the only way to prevent a head full of frizz.

I don’t know why I trusted Phyto, but I went out with my hair wet and just pulled back. And I let it dry. And it was perfect—or at least, just the way I like it, sort of beach wavy. And then, even more miraculously, when I brushed it out, pre-shower—usually it’s just one big ball of frizz. This time—well, you wouldn’t call it sleek, but it was fine. A little bit of oil and I could have gone outside. I cannot stress what a change this is.

Disclaimer: I’ve only used it a few times at this point, so the results may be illusory, and the low-to-middling reviews on Sephora focused on build-up—I haven’t gotten there yet. I’m willing to give it an A, though, just for that one perfect afternoon of frizz-free hair.

Bottom-lining it:
Product: Phyto Phytokeratine hair treatment, $39
Grade: A

Above: the Phytokeratine mask. See that stray hair in the lower-lefthand corner? Normally I would have taken another picture because—gross, stray hairs. But it seemed appropriate here.

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