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The new new normal
Particular weirdnesses of now
I hope you’ve had a good week.
Though it’s still warmer than it ought to be here in Paris, it is now starting to feel distinctly wintry. The nights are drawing in earlier and there’s just that general year-end feeling around. A few friends have reported feeling a bit off-kilter, blue or kind of floaty this week.
Today was crisply cold, with blue skies and sun, the perfect conditions for a hot chocolate en terrasse. I had one with friends after a visit to one of my absolute favourite places in Paris: Square Nadar, the dog park at the top of Montmartre, next to the Sacré-Coeur. When I’m there, I always think of that scene at the start of 101 Dalmatians (the original animated version) where you see different pairs of matching owners and dogs— a tall, thin woman with specs with her Afghan hound, a round, stout woman with her nose in the air accompanied by her pug, a fussily groomed woman with her fussily groomed poodle. There’s always a dog and owner of basically every kind there, from the young, cool chef with his pedigree Australian Shepherd puppy, to an octogenarian Montmartroise and her two ankle-high dogs dogs, one of whom wears at all times a Palestinian flag as a scarf. (In Paris, even the dogs are political).
I am glad I will still be within easy walking distance from this park, one of my most reliable happy places, when I move flat at the end of the month. Where I’m going is only about a ten-minute walk from where I am now. But Paris is made up of a patchwork of not just its arrondissements but so many quartiers, and even sort of micro-quartiers or villages, so that even moving less than 1km away will mean discovering a whole new area.
Today we went to the dog park with my French neighbour and her dog. She said that this idea of hyper-local life, or vie de quartier is one of her favourite things about Paris, which I agree with. We also discussed French directness vs. British politeness /passive aggression. She described the French as “plus frontal” (literally ‘more head-on’), which I also agree with, and have come to appreciate!
I was delighted recently to be get a commission from the excellent Suitcase Magazine to write about my own favourite quartiers of the 18th arrondissement: “the eccentric local community redefining this hilltop Parisian quarter”. It features some of my favourite places, people and things to do.
The other day I was on the Métro when I saw an advert whose main image featured a close-up photo of a glamorous woman. Her eyes were closed and she was kissing a live snail. Layered on top of the picture were the following words:
FR: “Hélicithérapie—Tous les bienfaits de la bave d'escargot pour votre peau.”
EN: “Snail therapy—all the benefits of snail slime for your skin”
The ad was of course meant to be eye-catching and provocative, but it was an advert for an actual real luxury beauty product (I checked) made from snail secretions, which did seem strange to me.
This made me think of a bar I saw in New York on a trip earlier this year, which was proudly offering patrons the chance to sit and have an IV drip put into their bloodstream to rehydrate and replenish them with vitamins.
This struck me as pretty grim. I love the energy and pace of New York, but it’s no secret that its residents are very proud of being constantly busy and on the point of burn-out. I did think it was quite perverse to have a culture that makes would-be healthy people so tired and run-down that they feel inclined to pay to have an IV drip put into their arm. The subtext of the snail ad is not quite the same, but still, it was one of those that makes you think: ‘hmm, something is not coherent in the way that we’re living here’.
I think even for locals, these two particular examples, the snail-slime lotions and the elective drips, are pretty extreme, they’re on the edge of social acceptability. But it’s true that we can find ourselves coming to accept/not question so many kinds of practices if they are dressed in the clothing of our particular historical moment.
For example, is the snail serum so different from Tudors being treated for fever with live leeches? Or what about that trend a few years ago to pay for a ‘pedicure’ from flesh-eating fish—how weird was that?!
What about how widespread tattoos are now? Or bikini waxing? Very normal, everyday practices where we barter money (the fruit of our labour) for someone to inflict pain on us. And then we say ‘thank you’ afterwards!
I recently joined my local gym, and sometimes I’ll have a moment of this kind of realisation when I’m pedalling on the stationary bike, while looking at a screen showing me moving scenery in Marin County California, or along some country roads in Italy. ‘This is odd’, I think.
I might look up and see a class going on behind a glass partition: hot, sweaty, bedraggled people flailing around and throwing their bodies about in unison, under the direction of a leader at the front of the class who shouts at them while they move. ‘What are we all actually doing there?! Why are we paying to move our bodies? What kind of obscure group rituals are we partaking in?’, I sometimes think.
I suppose again it’s all about how things are dressed up in the outfit of our time. It seems to me we humans have always acted in odd and often illogical ways. We’ve always been weird and we just keep being weird.
On a darker note, I think we can see this in world events too: the odd, illogical and inhuman being framed in such a familiar way that it becomes normal, acceptable. I’ll expand a bit in the book club selection below.
A baby sardine
Saw her first submarine:
She was scared and watched through a peephole.
“Oh come, come, come,”
Said the sardine’s mum.
“It’s only a tin full of people.”
A baby sardine, Spike Milligan
Thirty-second book club
Ever since I finished the never-ending Zola novel, I have been practically FLYING through other books in comparison. (No shade to Zola—I really enjoy his work).
A few weeks ago I wrote about American intellectual and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates speaking at the Festival America event. I am now reading his first novel, The Water Dancer. It is written from the perspective of Hiram, a young enslaved man in pre- Civil War Virginia and blends a brutal faithfulness to the real violent history of America with poetic and fantastical elements.
I have not finished the book yet, but Coates really uses light, shade and and his deft writing style to sketch a very clear picture of the sheer injustice and gross inhumanity of existing as someone who is enslaved or “tasked”, in the book’s own parlance.
From the distance of the future, the suffocating situation described by Coates/Hiram seems to be indisputably wrong. I was reading this book first thing when I woke up this morning. When I went out, I bought a newspaper and read the cover story on the Ocean Viking cruise liner. This is the makeshift rescue ship carrying 230 people from different parts of Africa seeking asylum in Europe, which for the last few weeks has been the very hefty spud in game of hot potato between France and Italy. Italy’s new far-right leader Giorgia Meloni refused to allow the boat to dock in her country. After weeks of limbo, the French Minister of the Interior Gérald Darmanin agreed to “exceptionally” allow the boat’s passengers, including over 50 children, to dock in a military port in Toulon in the south of France. Since, Macron’s government has taken the curious approach of allowing the boat to dock, but then distancing themselves from the decision as much as possible: they didn’t allow any press to be there when the boat arrived, they have made other European countries promise to take more than half of those processed, and they are sending all the 230 people to a detention centre, where they will be assessed and told whether they can, after all that, stay in Europe at all, or if they’ll be sent back to the country they came from in the first place.
If you afford any one of these passengers even a bit of the first-person subjectivity that Coates bestows on his character Hiram, then it’s easy to imagine the feeling of fear, injustice, entrapment. And yet because this event is framed in the structure of our times, where figures like Marine Le Pen and Suella Braverman have ever more freedom to dehumanise other people less powerful with their words and deeds, it doesn’t seem so strange. Like gym memberships, or leeches and snail serum.
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Have a good week! And don’t forget to look out for things that are so normal that we’ve forgotten they’re weird.
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