Yes yes yes it’s been a while, dearest blog. I truly thought I would be able to write you more, but believe it or not, since we last spoke, our schedule has been absolutely jam packed. Judy Goldstein, the program’s director, wasn’t lying when she said this fellowship would be an “intellectually exhausting” experience. Since leaving Denmark and arriving in Paris, we have endured a bombardment of readjustments, lectures, and interactions.
The second part of our fellowship ended last week in Tisvilde, Denmark. I posted some photographs in the previous entry J. Humanity in Action threw us a big party in the middle of the woods, complete with a camp fire and a 3-drink open bar. Add 50 European and 50 American students to the mix and you get quite the trans-atlantic bash. The strength of Thor pulsated within us. It was the land of the Nordic gods. Playing music, dancing to European techno music, and swimming in the Baltic at 4am.
For the third phase of our fellowship, arguably the longest and most important one, we split up into our country groups. Some went to Poland, some to Germany, others to the Netherlands, some stayed in Denmark, and we flew to France.
France has a very different vibe from Denmark. Denmark is rather homogenous – lots and lots of Danes (although the Arab and Turkish populations are increasing as in many countries, but they are still very much the minority in Denmark). In France, the multiculturalism permeates every level of society. Sarkozy is the descendent of a Hungarian Jew. Zidane is of Berber origin. Multiculturalism is a fundamental component to French society, a reality often eclipsed by romantic visions of baguettes and the Tour Effel.
Our first day we assembled at the cozy Humanity in Action office near the Bastille in Paris. From there, we received our modest stipends and were each sent off to meet our host families. My destination was an area beyond the city limits called Chatillon. In fact, I am living at 57 rue de Roissis, so if you happen to be near you should stop by to meet our dogs.
That’s right. We’ve got dogs. Big dogs. Two of them. One is a German Sheppard named Molly who is absolutely hilarious. She likes to wave a toy in her mouth but refuses to let go, and she has the strongest motherly instincts towards the kitten of the house, a 3 week old black-with-silver-streaks kitty named Deeky. Deeky spends most of her time upstairs while Molly and Ulehan (the other dog - I know, what the hell kind of name is Ullahan for a dog?) stay downstairs. I would estimate that Molly spends about 70% of her time sitting at the bottom of the steps looking up, just waiting for Deeky to come down and play. When Deeky does come down, an incredible display of acrobatics and tomfoolery ensues. Today, Deeky climbed all the way up a curtain while escaping Molly. Molly began to whine out of concern. Anyways I could talk about these dogs for hours. Just to be quick, Ulahan loves to bark and jump, which startled me at first since I used to be scared of dogs. Thankfully, I got over my fear during high school, thanks in large part to Dutchess, the dog of my high school band’s bass player, Brian. So I’m over the fear, but there is always still a part of me that can be a little edgy around dogs. This unease resurfaced with Ulahan’s barks and jumps, and it took me some time to get used to it, but everything is fine now and I hope to pack these dogs in a suitcase somehow and take them with me.
As for the family, I live with Gerrard and Martin Pumoyel. Their daughter, Severine, is 22, studying to be a vet, and lives in the room right next to me. The family is very warm, very loving, and very French (according to our program coordinator, I am living with the most “French” family – apparently something about me indicates that I can handle it.) Both Gerrard and Martin are Buddhists, and Gerrard practices regularly. The house is scattered with Tibetan Buddhist symbols, prayers, and maps. In the backyard we have a tree that has a multi-colored assortment of flags tied to it. The flags each have a prayer written in Tibetan. They have another son, Sebastienne, 20, who lives at a Buddhist monastery in upstate New York (Greenvile, NY to be precise, which is ironic since this is the place where I was a camp counselor in the summer of 2005 at St. Vartan Camp) and wants to become a monk. My other host brother, Carter, spends about half the week at home and half the week at his apartment near his school. He has a lot of friends that come over to the house, and I've had many opportunities to hang out with them. Both Gerrard and Martin work in microbiology, and Martin also does veterinary work. She is also an artist, and today after dinner she showed me her fantastic art work, and then let me fix up the old bike in the basement which I now use to commute into the city! It's a 30 minute commute approximately, which is fine by me. Paris is fine for cycling, although the only helmet we had in the house was one for horse back riding, so aside from looking ridiculous, I get to keep cycling!
The work we’ve done thus far has been extremely diverse, intellectually strenuous (per the warning), and often fascinating. Let me give you a run down of a sample day so you can get a sense of what’s going on with this fellowship. Yesterday, we heard a lecture in the morning from a journalist who writes about mistreatment of French minorities in the banllieurs (“suburbs”). For the record, every session (lecture, group discussion) lasts an hour and a half. After the journalist, we heard from two young activists who work on reforming the prison system to improve the standard of living for prisoners. France’s jails are notorious for their inadequate amenities and prisoner neglect, and learning about the facts and figures in this lecture was very eye opening. After the activists, we listened to a writer who leads creative writing workshops with inmates. Together they developed a play, and once our talk ended, we went by a metro to a different part of the city (a communist enclave to be exact – take note that communist in Paris has a unique meaning and fits into Parisian society) to watch the actual play. The performance was essentially French slam poetry performed by prison inmates to fresh, smooth jazz-fusion/afro-beat music. It was an awesome experience.
When the play ended it was already 9 pm and we had essentially been going non-stop all day. When the play ended I couldn’t wait to go home, but as we stepped outside, we heard loud music from the down street. We traced the source of the sound to find a huge open air cultural festival covering 5 blocks of the city. A Berber band performed their cultural music on a huge stage with gleeful spectators waving Algerian flags in the air. So much for going home. We soaked in the atmosphere for a few hours before calling it a night. Today has been our first day off since the program started June 3rd, and next week will prove to be equally dense and intense.
One thing I love about this program is that I feel like I’m grasping the real Paris. No city, no matter how glitzy (and Paris epitomizes such glitz), has its problems. We face those problems every single day, all day, in all parts of the city. I’m glad I’m not sitting on top of a bus snapping photos of buildings and streets that I’m told are supposed to be important because they are more beautiful, older, or more architecturally impressive than other parts of the city. The ritz is nice, but the grit is real, and I want my understanding of the world to be rooted in reality, no matter how ugly or disturbing. The photograph I posted above demonstrates this. It shows Paris' ultimate symbol of glamor towering over an unpaved playground doused in spray paint - a point of expression for contemporary artists frustrated by Paris' overwhelmig conservatism.
Also, I’ve already made contact with the Armenians of Paris! I got together with my Bulgarian-Armenian friend Hripsime who now lives in Paris. We met in Armenia the summer of 2007, and went to cite universitae to a residence called the The Armenian House (Mezon du Armeniennes). This section of the city holds over 40 different housing units divided by nation. Residents in each are typically of that house’s origin, but it’s not a requirement or entirely true rule. For example, Japanese students live in the Dutch house, or Arengtinian students live in the Armenian house.
Me and Hrips went to the Armenian house to hear a lecture about the Armenian complex of constantly seeing themselves as victims. The program was in French, so I did not understand about 80% of it, but I did manage to map out a book in my journal about a theory I have (and I’m sure others have it to and there probably is a book out there on it which I simply am not aware of) that nationalism did not begin with the French Revolution as most scholars argue. I look at the nationalism produced out of the French Revolution as belonging to a progression of nationalism which stretches far back into human history. There are very important aspects of social psychology in this subject, and incredible insights to be gained from studying group behaviors of humans. Anyways, the meeting was great, and I had a blast talking to the many different Armenians from all over the world. Today I was wearing my Armenian alphabet shirt and was looking for a place to eat, and shop owner came out into the street and pulled me into his store. He recognize the letters on my chest and invited me to eat at his restaurant. He was an Armenian from Istanbul named Hagop, and I had a kebobesque sandwich called the “Adana” sandwich, which is ironic because Adana is the name of the hometown of my grandfather from my dad’s side. Unfortunately Adana was greasy, but still went down good.