The Purposeful Flâneur

Although I don’t normally find dogs that cute, there was something about the large, white one lazing outside a pharmacy on Avenue Ledru-Rollin, leashed to the sidewalk. Maybe it was his glowing fur that drew me to him, or his cat-like disinterest in his surroundings. I knelt down to pet him. His downy softness so surprised me that I spoke to him, cooing in amazement. “You’re such a cute dog! Yes, you are. Yes, you are.”

Suddenly, I became aware that I was not alone. I sensed someone walking a few meters away, and I was embarrassed immediately. I hopped up and sped off, hoping I would never have to face the witness to my shameful condescension of a canine.

For me, it is not easy to flâneur, to wander a city aimlessly, hoping only to encounter some excitement or adventure. This is because we are not aimless people; we do not exist outside of the anxiety of living in this world. This Saturday, I tried to flâneur, but as the cliché goes, life got in the way.

We started at our hotel, le Grand Pigalle, and wandered along the Boulevard de Clichy. We stopped in at one of the many sex shops that mark this street, hoping to find, in true flâneur fashion, nothing in particular. Yet once we entered, purpose found us. Though we had no interest in purchasing any item, we found ourselves pushing around hangers, admiring the merchandise, checking sizes and price tags. I overheard reggaeton playing on the radio and found myself doing interviews for my project. In entering the store, we created a new purposes and brought with us old ones. We could not simply wander; we needed a raison.

We turned uphill, deciding this might bring us into Montmartre, or perhaps to the Sacre Coeur Cathedral. As we turned onto a busy block, the tight grip of consumerism took hold. I suddenly became obsessed with the need to buy gifts. I needed to buy a bottle of wine for my sister – she is turning 25 next week. I buy my mother a pair of earrings on every trip I go on—I couldn’t possibly return without her traditional gift. We entered store after store, and I perused the inventories intensely.

Once I had found what I needed, we decided we must eat lunch, although neither of us was particularly hungry. Suddenly, all we could see was restaurants. In this moment, there was nothing else for us but to decide where to eat. Once we had chosen, calm finally settled upon us. We ate luxuriously and people-watched. Yet I had somewhere to be, so we cut our seated flâneuring short and rushed to the metro station. On our way, some bridesmaids invited us to sing with a bachelorette party, and we found a treasure-ridden flea market – but no, there wasn’t time. I had to go do a final interview for my project.

Perhaps it’s just me. Perhaps others can truly wander, forgetting temporarily the limitations of being a person in the world. But it doesn’t mean that I am immune to serendipity. Purpose brings us places, moves us forward. Unexpected encounters come along the way. I don’t like to take walks, but I still love to walk.

Carmen Mariscal, a Mexican in Paris

When Carmen Mariscal was 22, she was in a serious car accident. Sequestered for months in a hospital in Mexico City, she began to think about the human body. She thought about its vulnerability. She thought about how it can trap us, limiting us in its shortcomings.

Days before she died, Mariscal’s grandmother gave Mariscal her wedding dress. The dress stayed in a cardboard box for nine years until one day, it became the central subject of a series of photographs.

A friend of Mariscal’s once told her that every artist follows one subject throughout their work. For her, it’s three in one: memory, entrapment, and fragility. The wedding dress contains with in it notions of family lineage and the constriction of the body. Even today, she is working on building a wedding dress made entirely of wife and miniature handcuffs.

Mariscal was born in Palo Alto in 1968 while her father was a student at Stanford. “Before everyone knew about Palo Alto,” she said, laughing. Her family soon returned to Mexico City, where she spent the rest of her childhood. At 18, just after graduating from high school, Mariscal spent a year in France studying drawing and art history at la Sorbonne. She returned to Mexico City for her Bachelor’s degree in Art History at the Ibero-American University, then did her Master’s Degree in Fine Art at the Winchester School of Art in the U.K. and Barcelona.

Six years after her wedding, she moved to France permanently to be with her husband. France had been a dream of hers since her childhood, and she finds inspiration in the city even today. It was not difficult to fit in, since she spoke French already. Besides, in her experience, the French love Mexicans.

Yet she has not assimilated fully. “I have an accent and I always will,” she said. She recalled a time when she was standing in line and a man told her to ‘go back to where [she] came from’. “It’s always hard to be a foreigner. Always.” Yet she would like to become French in order to vote and participate politically.

In Paris, she has found inspiration in the communities she has built and in the city itself. She has many Mexican artists as friends, and she meets weekly with a group of female artists who collaborate on different performance art projects.

Though she has found inspiration in her alliance with other female and Mexican artists, Mariscal does not like to be categorized by her identity. “I want to be an artists, period. Nothing more.”

Mariscal has produced solo shows in France, Spain, Mexico, the U.K., the U.S., and Russia. She loves to present her work abroad. “Every audience is different,” she said. “Everyone perceives [the art] differently.” In Kuala Lumpur, people were terrified of a piece in which she suspended wedding dresses mid-air, because they saw ghosts in the hanging white cloth.

Mariscal is a mother of four young children, three girls and a boy. They live all together with her husband, a lawyer, in a tall apartment building minutes away from her studio. She teaches art classes in English to American students at the Paris campus of Trinity College, and she is preparing for three upcoming exhibitions in the next year.

Marie Antoinette’s Flowers

Over the windows of what was once Marie Antoinette’s bedroom hang curtains covered in flowers. They are plain flowers – little bluebells that dot the white background, broken up by lines of leafy roses. The chairs, bed, table, and fire cover all bear the same pattern. Bertrand Rondot, Head Curator of the Château of Versailles, gently lifted the cotton cover off one of the chairs. Beneath the drab sheet lay glowing embroidery, pink and red roses blooming into one another set onto a yellowing golden background.

Nearly every room of this little château, a twenty-minute walk from the main palace of Versailles, is covered in flowers. Yet flowers are historically absent from the rest of the gardens of Versailles. The endless parade of blooms at le Château du Petit Trianon distinguishes this modest castle as the private space of the grandiose figure of Marie Antoinette.

The little palace was originally built for the mistress of Louis XIV, Madame de Pompadour. She died before the end of its construction, so the mistress of Louis XV inaugurated the building. When Louis XV died suddenly, Louis XVI decided the home should go to the queen, a king’s beloved, not his mistress. He gave the château to his young wife, Marie Antoinette.

Marie Antoinette spent a good part of her time in the Château du Petit Trianon. Louis XVI was committed to being available to his subjects, so the main palace became a public place during his reign. The queen would retreat to her private castle to spend time with her children, family, and friends. She even ordered that a hamlet or small village be built so that her children could experience life in the countryside.

The flowers that decorate nearly every inch of the museum today are mostly symbolic recreations, but these patterns intentionally evoke flowers of the original designs. The flowers in the house and in the garden are a constant symbol of the private nature of the château. “Here,” said Rondot, “it was a more private space, so it was not as formal as the main palace.” At le Petit Trianon, the Jardin Français did not have to adhere to the convenance, or convention, of flowerless public gardens.

If you look out the back window, you’ll see real flowers. In the Jardin Français, a long walkway leading up to the summer dining room building, rows of flower pots line long patches of grass. Some bulbs have yet to blossom, (it is not quite spring, after all,) but other rose stalks burst with red and white blooms.

The pots, unfortunately, are plastic. “Ugh! I don’t like it at all,” exclaimed Brondot, as he eyed the offensive containers.

In olden times, when kings lived in castles and queens lived in smaller ones to get a little peace and quiet, these pots were made of terra cotta. They served a special purpose: in the night, while guests of the château slept, servants switched out the pots. In the morning, guests would awake to an entirely new garden filled with new colors.

The whole house is a subtle ode to nature – “a very sophisticated type of nature,” specified Rondot. The French love to control that which otherwise grows freely. Whether it’s the Luxembourg gardens or a flower box on a Parisian terrace, the domination of nature is a French tradition. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the angular gardens of Versailles.

Yet this dominance is an act of love. When the economically and scientifically minded Louis XIV originally planned the small estate, he made sure there were plenty of orchards. The interior design is just a confirmation of this commitment to the cultivation of nature. “The ornaments are to remind visitors that it’s the land of flowers and fruits,” said Rondot.

Though history remembers Marie Antoinette with awe, anger, and humor, the flowers of le Petit Trianon highlight her personal tragedy. She lived in the public eye starting the day of her wedding at age fourteen. Until her death at age 39, le Château du Petit Trianon was her place to bloom in private.


This Latin American House is for the French

A towering wrought iron gate opens on two sides, allowing visitors to enter number 217 on the wide Boulevard Saint-Germaine in Paris’ seventh arrondissement. As they walk up the steps to the building, a man in a well-fitting navy suit leaves the building, speaking quickly into his cell phone as he opens the door to the limo waiting for him. Visitors pass through two sets of doors—the first is wooden, painted turquoise-grey; the second, glass, imprinted with gold-flake designs. The doors are three meters tall.

Once inside, the visitors find themselves beneath a crystal chandelier floating from the high ceilings. White daylight flows into the white rooms, bestowing an air of luxury upon the space. The reception desk greets the visitors in polite French, and the building’s staff talk amongst themselves in their francophone native tongue.

The space of number 217 is old-world France. Its beauty intimidates; it owns its regality. Yet number 217 is a Latin American cultural center.

La Maison de l’Amerique Latine has been around since 1946, when Charles de Gaulle decided to honor the diplomatic ties between France and Latin America in the form of a cultural center. “The house is a symbol of the friendship between France and Latin America,” said Anne Husson, the center’s Cultural Director.

Yet though the name suggests it is a place to organize the Latin American community, it is not quite. “This house was created for the sake of the French people,” explained Husson. Though La Maison is a platform for Latin American writers, artists, and thinkers to share their work, the space exists to spread awareness about Latin America in France. All kinds of French people visit the 2-4 yearly art exhibitions and attend near-daily lectures at La Maison. “And that’s good,” explained Husson. The center’s diverse audience builds curiosity about the region in France.

The Maison is entirely financially independent. They receive no money from the governments of Latin American countries and only minor subsidies from France. They are not funded through private foundations. Instead, they rent the space out to individuals and corporations for private events. Any place, ranging from a law firm to IBM, can rent space at La Maison for conferences or seminar meetings. People even hold their weddings in the spacious garden in the back. They also make money through the restaurant and café located inside the building.

Husson emphasized that the commercial side of La Maison is entirely subordinate to the other branches. It is important that La Maison is not beholden to anyone in their exhibitions. Yet walking through the space, it is clear that renting out the building limits them. Hallways are crowded with conference attendees; company meetings require privacy and quietness.

Husson also explained that La Maison’s independence is important because it means that they do not have to answer to the French government or governments of Latin America. Yet she explained that in general, they follow France’s policy. They will not feature any Cuban or Venezuelan artists unless those artists are already exiled in France. If France were to cut relations with Cuba, she said, they would probably not feature any Cuban artists.

La Maison is currently featuring the work of Elias Crespin, a Venezuelan artist who designs mechanically-controlled mobiles that move slowly in mesmerizing patterns. Though Crespin is a proud Latin American, the exhibit’s introduction and captions to his works are all in French. In the gallery, a number of middle-aged French couples and student-aged women whispered to each other in French.

The café offered selections of Latin American food like quesadillas and “Salade ‘La Jefe’”, which is a mix of foie gras and French-style figs. The wait-staff spoke to each other in French, and pairs of older French ladies easily ordered their espresso coffees.

David del Castillo, receptionist at La Maison, explained that while many patrons of the space are French, he has met many Latin Americans through his job. Just recently, he said, a family of nine Colombians came by to see Crespin’s exhibit. It is a problem, he explained, that the descriptions were all in French, and that English- and Spanish-speakers couldn’t understand. “But that will always be a problem,” he explained. He then turned to greet two new arrivals, instructing them that the conference they were looking for was up the stairs and to the right.

Public and Private, U.S. and France

It was mid-morning in the Luxembourg Gardens, and our class stood among leafless grey trees gaping at a couple kissing on a park bench. Our whispers and shouts announced to each other when the couple contorted themselves into a new, more intimate position. The group distanced itself, but Kat Trout and Bérengère Sim bravely approached the entangled duo. Bérengère explained in French that Kat was investigating the French kiss. “Would it bother you if we asked you a few questions?” she asked. The couple laughed slightly. “Un petit peu,” they replied. “A little bit.”

The delegation of which things are public and which private tends to vary culturally. Though even the French among us seemed surprised at the couple’s daring public intimacy, our collective amazement and horror gave us away as a group of Americans. The country’s puritanical roots have left Americans exceptionally prudish.

Today, French people took advantage of public space in the Luxembourg Gardens. Students sat at chess tables eating and chatting, a man practiced martial arts against a tree, children played with their grandparents and babysitters. Joggers made their way slowly down the straight-line pathways, and one man even filled a sandbag for his gym with grains from a public sandbox.

Later in the day, I left an interview at the Argentinian embassy deeply embarrassed by my outfit. I had entered the office wearing linen pants and a maroon blouse, and I felt shabby immediately when I saw the Argentinian diplomat’s smart suit and spacious office. I realized that I often assume informality—it makes me feel more comfortable in any given situation, both physically and socially.

This is not the norm in France. Bérengère, a young half-French, half-Scottish Parisian, told us she would never go out in sweatpants. Florent Masse, a French theater professor, told us, “You would never put on your sneakers and teach a class. Jamais. Jamais.” (“Never, never.”) He explained that there is a code in France. If you want to wear jeans, you have to balance it with a nice blouse on top. “We’re kind of conservative in this way,” he said, “and Americans tend to be more, much more relaxed.”

Rebecca Graves-Bayazitoglu, Associate Dean of the College at Princeton and Director of the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, explained that in France, “There’s a much greater distinction between private space and public space.” She continued, “When you’re going out into public that affects how you present yourself; it’s not just this kind of continuation of your private space in the same way.”

Dean Graves explained that American informality is linked to a false egalitarian narrative that tries to erase the reality of race and class difference. We all must look alike because we all are equal. Yet in France, who you are is deeply related to where you come from. “There is much more definition of your path from the path of your family,” she said.

Professor Masse agreed. People are very connected to the town they grew up in. This is exacerbated by the fact that children live with their parents through college. There is no assumption that one will move out after age 18, like there is in America. The importance of background in measuring someone’s “French-ness” also contributes to racism and xenophobia against non-white, non-Catholic, immigrant French people.

The distinct ways Americans and French navigate public space comes from different cultural values. Formal public presentation emphasizes heritage and background, whereas informality reinforces egalitarian norms. The French couple’s mad kiss in the park affronted both sensibilities. It was a radical act opposing to the public-private divide.

Black Beauty as a Business in Seine-Saint-Denis

Today, the class toured the Seine-Saint-Denis, one of the four departments that make up the Greater Paris region established in 1968. The area, historically working class,  is home today to a large, diverse immigrant population. As we walked from a large indoor food market to a plaza of clothes vendors, an interesting phenomenon appeared. On a single block between the Rue de la République and the Rue des Boucheries stood two hair-product shops, a barbershop, and a salon all oriented towards clientele of African descent.

Though it was almost 5pm on a Sunday afternoon (a time when most Paris businesses close early,) both the barbershop and salon were full. A greeter outside the barbershop, “Salon de Coiffure Afro-Americain”, was busy saying hello to acquaintances who walked by. He had only enough time to tell us that the store had been open for “awhile”, five years, before his boss called him inside.

Down the street and to the left, similar businesses line a pedestrian avenue. Posters of black women modeling hair extensions or natural hairstyles decorate shop windows. One store has been open for six years; another across the street has been open for nearly ten. Both carry similar products – sprays, deep conditioning creams, beeswax for dreadlocks. Many of these items come from overseas.

An employee of a store called Princesse started working there part-time as a student eight years ago. He is now a full-time employee. He explained that many immigrants from the Antilles islands in the Caribbean come to this area to do their shopping. About four years ago, competition spiked for Princesse as many similar businesses popped up around them.

Though mostly black employees staffed the barbershop and salon, none of the workers at any of the hair-product stores were of African descent. Nor were any of the owners. An employee explained he had gotten the job because the owner was a friend. One shop owner chose to open up a store that markets itself to an “Afro Antilles” clientele because his father had owned a similar business. They emigrated from India as a family in 1985.

Black immigration to Paris spurred a phenomenon of black-oriented businesses. Yet though the market has produced many options for black Parisians seeking beauty products, (albeit in a specific corner of the city,) it has not provided them with employment in or ownership of many of these businesses. Though these stores meet a significant consumer need specific to black Parisians, they do not economically empower the demographic they rely upon to buy their products.

Frexit, Bai Water, Changing Aesthetics of Artisan Businesses

Today, the class made its way down the Rue de Martyrs, the site and subject of Prof. Sciolino’s latest book. But before we reached the lively and historical street, we ate buttery croissants around the corner from our luxurious hotel and across the street from a billboard. The billboard promotes François Asselineau, presidential candidate for the political party he founded, the Popular Republican Union (UPR). “Participate in history,” the billboard demands. “Frexit = Protection of Our Industry.” As we sipped café au lait at a small Parisian boulangerie, the billboard reminded us of the tense political climate in France right now. Asselineau’s proposal to remove France from the EU shows that the charm we find in traditional Paris for many conservative French is something to be protected from outsiders. Along with the sweet charm of historical Paris comes xenophobia and harmful French exceptionalism.

A man in a black hoodie walked by the billboard. The back of his sweatshirt bore a familiar mark: the word “Bai” imprinted in white, with the outline of a small leaf dotting the ‘i’. Bai water is a flavored drink infused with antioxidants. Creators of the drink use the overlooked coffee fruit – the berry that surrounds the coffee bean – to make a drink that is sweet, rich in Vitamin C, and available in flavors that range from Costa Rica Clementine to Ipanema Pomegranate. The company was founded just eight years ago in Princeton, NJ. As a Princeton native, I watched with excitement as the drink spread from the shelves of the local natural foods grocery store to Whole Foods locations in Manhattan. A person in a Bai sweatshirt walking on the Paris streets is testament both to the Princeton company’s quick success and the power of a global economy.

On the Rue des Martyrs, we entered a number of small shops. Each specialized in a single product or family of products: cheese, pasta, fruit, seafood, rotisserie, pastries, books. The exceptional quality of the products showed the power of craft specialization. One person asked, “Why don’t we just do this in the U.S.? It’s clear that this is so much better.” As it turns out, the government has designated this street as artisanal. This means that any time that a shop goes out of business, another artisan business must take its place. The charming arrangement of single-product shops does not just come about naturally. Rather, governmental design and regulation maintains this traditional commercial stretch.

As we entered a newer store specializing in olive oil, Maison Bremond 1830, it became clear that modern aesthetics had invaded the artisanal business model. While some patisseries and poissonneries looked like they came right out of a 1950s photograph, this shop had a modern design. The business owners had developed a brand easy to promote—one of earthy colors, wooden textures, and sans serif typeface. A few storefronts down, a pastry shop sells madeleines, the small, traditional French cake. The pastries are as old and French as the country itself, yet there are only fifteen or so visible through the display case, laid out equidistant from each other. The menu is short, the options displayed in an unassuming black font against a vibrant pastel background. A pair of tourists occupies one of the four tables; the rest are empty.

Though many older artisan shops thrive, these newer stores mark a change. The quaint charm of a fishmonger weighing the scallops for tonight’s dinner may not always be enough. These new shops infuse the traditional business model with modern business principles of branding and minimalist design.