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Fact: I have never been somewhere warm for New Year’s Eve. Because I am a traveler of budget means, I did one of two things: For a number of New Year’s, I went to Scotland, with an ex-boyfriend, which was amazing, even if it did get dark at three o’clock in the afternoon. (We mostly stayed at his parents’ house and watched TV. I’m making it sound boring, but it was awesome.) Otherwise, I often went somewhere with my friend Katie — and bargain prices for flying on New Year’s Eve always meant that we’d come back on the 31st. This is usually cheaper, but also sadder, and I am not sure I recommend it. (I do not.)
This year, we were able to get cheapish tickets to Puerto Rico — no doubt because many visitors are scared about the condition of the island, post-Hurricane Maria. For sure, what has happened (and is happening) here is a national disgrace. (Fact: Puerto Ricans are Puerto Rican and American, something you might not think would be a challenging concept for grumbling people who are, say, both from a state and a country.) It could/would/should make us weep. But after weeping, we should visit San Juan, which — while for sure showing signs of the Category 5 that only months ago barreled through here — is beautiful, friendly, and most certainly open for business. Look how pretty all the colors of Old San Juan are! Why are there $113 one-way tickets on JetBlue available for the month of January? There should not be any left!
If you are the kind of person who likes to take pictures of doors … this is the place for you.
Out in the countryside, people need help. In San Juan, from our very small sample size, it seems that people are happy to have visitors — who buy local, shop local, eat local, and patronize local establishments. (Save the Olive Garden for later. I say this as someone who loves the Olive Garden.) This was something we (and … Wesley Snipes?) were very worried about. Everyone we’ve talked to said they are happy to welcome visitors. We’ll see. There are for sure signs of damage — down power lamps, random wires, vegetation and debris. And a lot of sounds of construction, which must be a good thing, since it means people are rebuilding.
We’re happy to be here. I hope everybody comes. The people who live here deserve our support. Obviously the support of our government. But short of that, the support of their fellow Americans .
2017 was a year I would quite happily burn into the ground. If it was a town I had invaded, I would plow salt into its fields and then burn the fields, and if they wouldn’t burn, I would wait until they had grown back a bit, and then burn them down again. So. There’s that.
If 2017 was terrible, and it was, in all kinds of big and planet-destabilizing ways, I also found that it was terrible in small ways as well. (HA not that I’m literally just complaining.) One of them means quite a lot to me: the books that I read.
I read six books this year. That’s one book every two months. I really want people to read, not least because I am writing a book. Apparently I am not taking my own advice.
The good news was that what I did read was really good, beginning with….
Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada The main reason I only read six books this year was because what I did read was long and, in this case, exceptionally dense: It took me two months to read the first half of this book, about a married couple in World War II Germany who take up pens against Hitler after their son is killed in battle. (It’s a remarkable story based on real-life Germans.) It’s a psychological study that turns into a page-turner toward the end — I finished the second half in a hot tub in about six hours. Do not watch the movie version, which is terrible.
The World of Tomorrowby Stefan Zweig Again I carried this book around for three months before really getting into it — but it’s an affecting portrait of Europe between, during, and before the two world wars that reshaped its borders, and culture. It gave me new insight into the perils of nationalism — and also provided a new angle of appreciation on The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is inspired by the spirit of the book. I loved this book, though I was extremely less excited about Zweig’s fiction (I made it about halfway through Journey into the Past before giving up) and was more interested by but also eventually sleeping through Summer Before the Dark, another non-fiction account of Zweig and other refugee writers in a Belgium resort town in 1936.
Some Girls, Some Hats, and Hitlerby Trudi Kanter I loved this memoir, written decades after World War II, by an Austrian milliner whose determination saved her family from the Holocaust.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker I’m embarrassed it took me so long to read this proper American classic. One of precisely five books to make me cry (the others include Les Miserables, The Grapes of Wrath, and two others I’m forgetting, though I’m pretty sure How to Get Rich in Filthy Asia (and the passage linked-to above) might be among them.
When I first came to France, I brought yoga tights and Wheat Thins plus as much Diet Coke as I could carry. When I flew home, I brought cheese, macarons, morning-bought bread, rose jam.
That list has changed over the past three years.
Now I bring toothpaste and deodorant. (Ours are better.)
And when I come home, I bring prescription drugs and contact lenses: the things that help my body survive from one day to the next.
* * *
Something you might never guess about me is that I have always had health insurance. I have private American insurance and comprehensive expat insurance. I also live in a country where a doctor’s visit costs about $25.
People are often surprised when I say this: There is something slightly witchy about a single woman over 30, and a disinterest in health insurance seems, I think, to be one of those things we might avoid, we witches, like compromise and caregiving. No, I say. I like having the bed to myself. I do not like millions of dollars in medical bills because some teenager couldn’t wait for a stoplight to text his girlfriend back.
* * *
I have lived in two countries with nationalized healthcare and while neither is perfect, I lived in those countries knowing that if I fell ill and was taken to a hospital, I would not leave in an hour a day or a week’s time with medical bills that might consume me for the rest of my life.
I once went to an NHS clinic in London, where I helpfully explained to a nurse that I had sneezed so loud that I had broken my eardrum. (This was not scientifically valid.) I left with a prescription for an antibiotic, which cost $10.
This morning, I realized I had left my Synthroid at home. I walked into a pharmacy, explained my situation, and paid about $3 for a 30-day supply: no prescription, no insurance card, no questions.
Back at home, I finally realize that I am paying more buying my medication through my insurance company than I would if I showed up at CVS with a copy of my prescription and nothing else.
How is this legal? How is this moral? How can we defend a system like this?
* * *
I owe my college education to the pharmaceutical industry, and I understand that there are complicated reasons why sick Americans cover the medication bill for the rest of the world.
That said: As the avatar goes, I am a pre-existing condition. I will require expensive medication for the rest of my life, or I will undergo equally expensive surgery. Maybe both!
I read, with tremendous disgust, about the death of a 24-year-old man with diabetes who was trying to ration his insulin. And yet even as I think so, I ration my own medicine, stretching a six-week supply into eight.
I take one injection every six weeks that retails for over $5,000. When I was first prescribed it, I called my insurer, Aetna, to ensure it was covered. They said it was. I asked very, very specific questions — this is a hideous quality of mine; I will ask the same question nine different ways to be certain I have the right answer. Lo and behold, when I went to process the payment, I was told that this drug was covered as a medical expense, not a drug, and so I would need to cover half the cost until I reached my annual deductible — a difference of thousands and thousands of dollars.
How is this legal? How is this moral? How can we defend a system like this?
* * *
I know what people say: that they don’t want to pay a tax. The last time I was on COBRA, my “contribution,” in the parlance of our times, was $890 a month.
How is this any different from a tax? And why on Earth would I rather pay it to a corporation that exists to maximize profit, when that profit is extracted by providing not the best care but the cheapest?
* * *
I have a South African ex-boyfriend, with whom I traveled around the world: I met him at a bar in Prague, kissed him for the first time either in Russia or China, and saw him for the last time at an airport terminal in Malaysia.
Wherever we went, with his green South African passport and my blue American one, I taunted him. I travel with the strength of America behind me.
This ignores many things (including the fact that he had a second, European, passport, thanks to a Belgian grandparent): Only one of us could call the American embassy, or the Marines.
If it really came down to it, I would say, taking his hand, I’d do what I could to make sure there was a space on the helicopter for him.
Now, I may one day have to decide between living in America with irreconcilable medical debt or living in Europe. I would pay more in tax. Or maybe I wouldn’t, if you factor in those $890 monthly COBRA bills.
* * *
I am not a European. I believe in fidelity, hot dogs, and county fairs. But I am staggered by the degree to which we have let ourselves be led astray by hucksters, billionaire liars, and Australian media magnates spewing propaganda.
I am convinced we are better than this. I am convinced we are the America of F.D.R., Rosa Parks, Amelia Earhart, Steve Jobs, and the 442nd infantry: American soldiers of Japanese descent who fought, with valor and distinction, across the European theater of World War II. (Most of the men who served in it were awarded Purple Hearts.)
We will win.
But I wonder how many of us will die, how many of us will be financially ruined, how many of us will get sicker than we should have been, until we do. And I wonder if I will be among them.
Destination:Minéral Expo Paris, which I have come to understand is the very popular exposition of minerals, gems, fossils and rocks, as well as a billion crystals shaped like (a) hearts, (b) angels and (c) magic wands.
Spot: Espace Charenton, at Porte de Charenton, which might be the least attractive place I’ve ever been in Paris.
Report: This was an amazing outing. As I have recently discussed, I am a fan of crystals. Generally, I am happy to go to Minerales do Brasil, which is a very weird, very amazing store in the 8th. This, of course, was a once-a-year opportunity to view thousands of crystals at once. I wondered if I would see enough new stuff to warrant the weird trip to this extremely weird place, and I am happy to say that I absolutely did. (See pictures below.)
One of the things I liked most about this trip was that it was so extremely un-Parisian. It’s in a room that looks like it’s the basement conference space at the most middling hotel in the most middling city, and it was jam-packed with French people looking at rocks. If “looking at rocks” is not your default image of French people doing things on a Saturday afternoon — well, I’d like to say that it isn’t mine, either. Can I see hundreds of Americans jockeying for position at a rock and mineral expo? Oh yes I absolutely can. I love events like this, when people just seem like people, and we’re all the same jeans-wearing, rock-loving, uncool organisms.
I ended up spending €30 on rocks, which, frankly, was about €29 more than I expected. They were almost all pink. 🙂 Sometimes, you just can’t help what you are.
In France, we have style but the problem is that this style could be so boring. This is the same for every woman: In the upper class in Paris, you have a slim jean, you have ballerinas [flats], you have a simple tee shirt, you have a gray coat, and then your hair is with no artifacts [accessories]. This is a typical French woman.
Honestly, if you find this subject remotely interesting (and I find it fascinating), you need to read the entire thing. It is full of legitimately interesting ideas.
One of the crucial texts of my experience in France was a Vogue essay by a writer who moved from Paris to Tokyo because, as a native New Yorker, she couldn’t shake the idea that fashion should be an opportunity for personal expression. (I can’t find that piece, but it was great.) Here, it’s different — it’s an opportunity for artistry, sure, but in finding variations on a theme. And no brand — not Maje, not Sandro, not The Kooples, not even St. James — does the theme better than Sézane, newly arrived in SoHo, and recently visited by me in its two Parisian incarnations: at Le Bon Marché in the 7th and at its own, extremely busy shop in the 2nd.
Of the two stores, for sure the Sézane shop in the 2nd is better — it has everything. But I have never seen a store so packed with people outside of the twice-annual sales — it was heaving. And I was glad I had first gone to the Bon Marché concession, so I went into the shop knowing my sizes and roughly what I liked and didn’t like.
What makes Sézane great is, obviously, the style: I think of it as a more feminine, less boxy A.P.C. And the price point — the price point is a differentiating factor. Relative to its U.S. competition — Madewell, J. Crew, etc. — it’s a little on the high side. (You’d want to guess a random blouse is $100.) But relative to its French competition, listed above, it’s a bargain. To do better than Sézane prices here, you have to step way down — to H&M, Forever 21, etc. It’s not that much more expensive than Zara, for goodness sake, and the vibe is way more consistent. Sézane > Zara is the easiest math I’ve done in memory.
The Sézane store in the 2nd is like a PARISIAN STYLE Pinterest board come to life, with a big shoe area, a bunch of changing rooms, basically all the clothing, and a ton of lifestyle pieces. (See below.) This store was incredibly busy — I would definitely hit it first thing in the morning, or during a snowstorm.
I bought this blouse, and this one, and they were both smart purchases for the money. I mentioned this in the newsletter (and I sure hope you subscribe!) but the first one is the one that I was wearing when someone asked me where I got it — and then someone else asked me where I got it while I was still answering the first person. It is a dynamite shirt.
There were 19 people ahead of me on line, which I personally think is a lot. The staff were friendly and helpful, which was, of course, disconcerting.
In short: I’m going to buy as much Sézane as I can afford. Which is a small-to-medium amount. Which is perfect.
Minerales do Brasil may be my favorite store in Paris.
There aren’t a lot of perks freelancing, and it’s equally hard to come by a finish line. When you finish a big project — congrats! Now you get to go look for more work! YAY!
To deal with this, I started doing this thing where I would set myself a certain number of tasks, and then based on the difficulty of that task, I would reward myself WITH A SPARKLY ROCK when I finished.
My collection, all purchased at Minerales do Brasil, currently looks like this:
There’s a rock for when I finished a chapter of my book, a rock for when I finished a short story I was working on. You get the idea.
This is a weird, random store, at the back of the second courtyard in a building in the 8th (it’s a 5/10 minute walk from the Miromesnil metro stop). I love it because — well, obviously, I love rocks (and minerals and crystals and the rest). But also because it’s so un-French and fluorescent and un-chic. Sometimes it’s just nice to get a break from all the stylishness.
There’s no other reason to be in this neighborhood — except to visit the Musée Jacquemart-André, which is, in fact, terrific, if they have a good show on. (Here’s a picture of the staircase, which is as beautiful as the rest of the mansion.) And if you are going, I recommend A la Chataigne for lunch — Corsican and delicious.
This week’s free maps are actually three free maps: Sonoma, Napa, and Santa Rosa, three of the cities in Wine Country.
I went to art school in S.F. a few years after 9/11 but close enough to remember what it felt like when it seemed like the place where you lived might one day not be there. Maybe it’s ironic that the Bay Area felt to me so permanent and substantial (see: earthquakes). What I do know is that when I was there, I felt safe. And also that it was very possibly the most beautiful place ever.
If you like these three maps, all you need to do is download them (here’s Napa, Santa Rosa, and Sonoma) and print them on nice paper, and they’re frame-worthy, if I do say so.
(If you’re coming here without having subscribed, you can still do so! A free map every week! Plus some cool other things going on in the world:
And then. I usually sell these for $5 (the downloads), which gives these a value, all told, of about $15. If you like them, why not give some money to Rebuild Wine Country, which is working in partnership with Habitat for Humanity to help people rebuild their homes?
I’m just going to mention here that these maps in WINE Country just happen to be in WINE colors (rosé, chardonnay (ish), and merlot (ish)).
So the thing I have noticed about salads in France is that they are not so much salads as ham with a side of lettuce. I clearly remember my first salad in Paris, which was at a cafe called Le Sully near the Ile St Louis. It had potatoes and goat cheese on toast, plus a lot of ham. It was not this, but it looked a lot like it. WTF is that? For the record: I like potatoes, goat cheese, and toast. In fact, I strongly prefer them to vegetables. But this is the point: I eat salad to balance out the times when I eat potatoes, goat cheese, and toast. If the salad is actually potatoes, goat cheese, and toast … that is not a very good system.
This is all to say that today I went to Charonne to explore — Sunday afternoons being made for exploring, of course, since nothing else is open. My destination: Cafe Moca.
This week’s free map! It is of lovely Bangor, Maine — known as the inspiration of Stephen King’s Derry, the setting of many of his most popular books, including It. I don’t know about you, but I watched the entirety of that movie from behind my hands, because I actually thought it was super scary.
Maybe you’re thinking: Wait. That’s not the scariest town in America. I was going to do Salem, Massachusetts. Witches! Very seasonally appropriate! But — TBH — I know it was like 400 years ago but I just couldn’t get into the idea that women getting hanged was suitable fodder for a Halloween marketing promotion. You know? We should, or I should, not make light of such injustices, even those that are a long time ago, now.
I swear to goodness that this map looks terrific if you print it out. I did that, above, on my little Pixma, and it came out great. Download it here!