Letters and pretty pictures
I hope you had a good week! Here it is cold and, much worse, very grey. Winter is hard work in Paris. This city is at its best when the sun is out and the terraces are full; in the winter it feels like the city itself is frowning. Mais, bon! I’m trying to get out and stay busy all the same.
Now, if you have been reading since my very first Pen Friend letter, thank you very much! I really appreciate your loyalty. However I did realise that there are quite a few people now who would not have received the first letter, and so I am taking this opportunity to reissue my introduction and lay out what these missives are all about.
I’m Hannah Meltzer, a journalist and writer from London, who’s been living in Paris for the last almost six years.
When I was at school, I had a French pen friend named Eloise. We wrote each other two-line notes that consisted mostly of illustrations—stars drawn in shiny gold gel pens, stick-figures depicting our friends, things like that.
When we finally met on a school trip to Picardy, our ability to communicate was minimal, but I do recall being delighted at the dolphin-themed alarm clock she gave me. Rightly so: it must have been a from a top-drawer novelty-alarm-clock shop because almost 25 years later, it lives on, in perfect working order, on a bookshelf at my mother’s house.
My love for France started that day, and, like the clock, it has kept ticking. I learned French and now live and work in Paris, where I write articles for newspapers and magazines and write and produce content for non-newspapers and magazines.
This letter is for:
Anyone who loves, dreams of or has any kind of strong feelings about Paris and French culture;
and/or anyone likes the idea of having a pen friend.
These missives will provide you with updates, cultural insights, anecdotes and recommendations for Paris—exhibitions, interesting people, beautiful places, that kind of thing.
And/but I also want to go a bit deeper than macarons and the Eiffel Tower. I hope to avoid clichés, or unpack them, and to help explain the societal, structural, dare I say it, philosophical, reasons why French culture is how it is.
We’re still going to keep things fun, so while I want to go deeper than Emily in Paris, we’ll go less deep than, say, Michel Foucault. Expect somewhere in between those two.
To continue tradition, I also illustrate my letters with my own drawings.
I am honoured that you agreed to be my pen friend. And of course, you can write back. Even better, you can gift me a dolphin alarm clock.
Thirty-second book club
I have already written in our letters about the work of Mona Chollet, a renowned journalist and thinker, known here in France as the editor of intellectual periodical Le Monde diplomatique and the author of some best-selling non-fiction books on various sociological themes (witches, domestic space, relationships). Chollet’s latest book is called D’Images et d’eau fraiche (Images and Fresh water), a riff on the phrase ‘Vivre d’amour et d’eau fraîche’ (To live on love and fresh water alone), which connotes a care-free, footloose existence. The glossy book, which is punctuated with beautiful images, is a departure from Chollet’s denser texts. It’s an exploration of a very specific form of pleasure and joy that comes from collecting beautiful images, in particular online and in particular on the network Pinterest.
As soon as I picked up the book and read the back, I immediately related! I have been making boards on Pinterest for the last decade and, at different moments in my life, they have helped me to dream of and imagine the next stage of my life, including my move to Paris. Chollet suggests that there is something quite innocent and joyful about Pinterest, as compared to other networks. There are some limitations to this, I think, because Pinterest still does try to sell us things, but overall I share her soft spot for this network in particular. Early in the book she writes:
FR: “La grande mise en concurrence des existences orchestrée par Instagram est un passeport pour l’insatisfaction…Elle ne peut que rendre tout le monde malheureux. Je n’ai pas non plus envie de toujours me soucier d’être photogénique, ni de me montrer en permanence ; je veux pouvoir oublier mon apparence pendant de longs moments. Je trouve beaucoup plus intéressante la relation qui s’instaure quand, au lieu de puiser dans son matériau biographique direct, chacun propose des images qui lui plaisent, qui parle de son monde intérieur, de ses rêves, de sa sensibilité.”
EN: “The great competition of existence put in place and orchestrated by Instagram is a passport for discontentment. It can only make everyone unhappy. I also don’t have any desire to always worry about being photogenic, or to be putting myself on display all the time; I want to be able to forget my appearance for long stretches of time. I find much more interesting the relationship that emerges when, instead of drawing on direct biographical material, each person shares images that they like, that speak to their internal world, their dreams, their sensibility.”
I think that the contrast she draws is well expressed and largely fair. Pinterest for me is by far the most benign social network that I use. It’s the most abundant and the cosiest network and I, too, feel a great joy looking back over my image collections from the last years.
Thank you very much for reading. I hope you enjoyed this letter. Thanks very much to Peter N for sharing the letter on his social media, I have sent him a special appreciation in the post!
Please share Pen Friend if you’re enjoying it. I’ll write next Sunday. Have a good week until then!
Hi Hannah, just to to say I always enjoy reading these each week. Still fairly new to substack, but your weekly letters and the writing notes of Hattie Crisell are great and keep my inbox happy, especially on Mondays when I'm sitting in the office wondering what I'm doing with myself. I am intending to start my own musings in a substack, but I haven't quite gotten to that yet...
I've only ever been to Paris in the summer when it is bustling and bursting with life and you can sit and eat and drink outdoors late into the evening warmth. Pretty magical. So, yeah, the grey sky and cold would make it feel quite different and bleak. If it's any consolation, down here in Melbourne it's much the same -- the joy of blue skies in summer, beers in the warm evenings, so much good food (having said that, today and this week are decidedly average and overcast!) but in winter I find it depressing. It doesn't help that no-one understands how to insulate houses here. Double glazing is still some futuristic technology that hasn't ever properly caught on. Baffling. Memories of cosy days by a fireplace back in England carry a special charm.
Pinterest absolutely does seem the most benign of the social media platforms. It's a great space to just search for things and see so much inspiring art/photography.
In my own personal book club, I just started reading (correction: devouring) Bret Easton Ellis' new book, The Shards. I'm writing that because I want to tell everyone about the book, to talk about how I'm all-consumed by Bret's supposed coming-of-age story in the early 80s of LA, how I'm seemingly there *with* Bret and experiencing that vacuous and numb teenage life of privileged upper class teens in the midst of a lot of crazy things. It's as messed up, uncomfortable and dark as his other works, but it's an entrancing read and I just want to talk to anyone about it who'll listen! (So, sorry, forced you and anyone else who's read this to listen just then, apologies.)
Lovely to read your introduction, as I’m relatively new here and to Substack after setting up my own newsletter.
I’d love to hear of any recommendations as we land in Paris for a week at the end of February.
We were married at the church near Jules Joffrin metro some 20+ years ago and spend lots of time in and around the city (my husband is French). Like you, we’re always looking for something just below the skin of Paris.
Looking forward to your future newsletters :)