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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!