“LOVE GROWS HERE”: THE FLÂNEUR IN PRENZLAUER BERG
Four inches of snow covered everything, like a layer of sugar dusting. It was wonderful, light and frothy, not wet, unpleasant and uncomfortable, like everyone said it’d be. At least it wasn’t yet. The street was still, and impossibly silent with just a hint of movement at the peripheries of my vision: a car door closing, a cyclist in the distance, a dog barking; the only consistent movement was the still gently falling snow. Certainly not a hint of the masses the city has been a home to for centuries. It was hard to imagine that the busy metro was just a short walk away.
This part of Berlin, Prenzlauer Berg, didn’t feel like a city. Here, you can stand on the center of the street without having to worry about traffic, though the traffic lights, irritatingly, work exactly as they did in other parts of the city. The buildings seemed old and alike, painted with the same color palette, running from ochre to cream and branching out into other pastels, the same sort of wrought iron balconies, long, regular rows of windows, and ornate doors.
In another part of Prenzlauer Berg, life passed by in droves; the streets sometimes busy and sometimes almost empty. Scooters, bikes, sleds and other modest forms of transport prevailed. Groups of children passed by, wrapped up like burritos in brightly colored parkas. One straggled behind the rest of her large family, diligently transporting an armload of snow that was beginning to crumble, leaving a trail of broken off chunks behind her. Adults strolled by with quicker steps and soberer wardrobes. Dogs were abundant, all pure-bred, well groomed, and on long leashes, creating the occasional stain on the otherwise pristine snow. Breath was visible, eddying in the air.
Berlin is a city of eccentrics and artists. Prenzlauer Berg had its share of both. Indeed, I later found out it was known as one of the city’s Bohemian Quarters. There was, for instance, a balcony encrusted with eerie garden gnomes and other kitsch porcelain figures, all ensconced in a bed of ivy. There was also a bare tree, labeled ‘Love Grows Here’ in English, adorned with wind chimes, many of those strips of colored plastic that spiral in the wind, and strings of seashells, a dreamlike sight when surrounded by snow. The graffiti, of course, was everywhere, neon and pastel, splattered across ornate antique doorways, the seal of the present marked on evocations of the past.
Birds clustered around a bush, piercing the silence with their high-pitched babble. As I came closer to investigate I realized that the bush was hung with bird feeders on a bird table. Sensing my approach they rose in a flurry of wings to the higher window sills of a building. I felt somewhat guilty for disturbing their meal.
Berlin the metropolis, was evident in Prenzlauer Berg, in its many cafes and restaurants catering to many different international tastes; from the ever-popular hummus and shawarma of the Middle East to Mexican, Vietnamese and, of course, German cuisine. The interiors of the small restaurants, where people could unwrap a few layers of insulation, were cozy and warm. The smell of and consumption of food enhances this feeling, making going back outside a harsh surprise, as it seems colder than it did before. The idea of a long sip of a mug of steaming coffee, held between cold fingers, seems enticing. Watched through a café window, the snow could be enjoyed without its unwelcome chill.
I was sad to leave, though the darkness was beginning to fall, prematurely from my perspective, and my cold fingertips and tired feet screamed at me that it was time to go. As I was being shaken around by the movement of the train I wondered when and if I would see snow that beautiful again and how long it would be before the day’s snowfall became filthy and unpleasant, as it inevitably would.
(Photos by Shenuka Corea)
My friend looked on, aghast, as oil spilled down my shirt.
One second earlier, I had bitten down into, quite simply, the greasiest sandwich I have ever eaten, purchased for the equivalent of 12 US dollars from an operation calling itself The Cheese Truck. The oil poured from a molten block of English cheddar the size of a day planner, mingled with butter from the griddle. And then there was the truffle oil, literal puddles of it, which I had ordered on a whim for an additional ten dirhams. I was eating a fat sandwich, fried in fat, with more fat injected into its belly. But I once heard truffle oil is actually a “good fat,” and anyway, you can’t not order the truffle oil when you’re at the Love Food Festival.
Described on its website as “a celebration of extraordinary food,” the Love Food Festival could be construed as a more refined and self-conscious version of a county fair. Over the course of a mid-February weekend, a plot of turf in pristine Mushrif Park is filled with tents, kiosks, bandstands, demo stages, and “15 of the best street food traders from the streets of London,” trucks and all.
Yes, they literally transported 15 food trucks from London to the UAE. It’s fun to imagine that the trucks drove here through the Balkans, or that they floated lazily through the Suez Canal. Perhaps they went around the Cape of Good Hope. But why would you ship 15 food trucks 3500 miles in order to park them, immobile, in an open field?
The festival is put on by a company that has organized similar events across the UK since 2008, though the Abu Dhabi arm is in its second year. 38,000 people visited the inaugural round of UAE festivals and, if I were to guess, I would say there were 38,000 people there the day I visited this year. I was excited to check it out – in my 18th month of living in Abu Dhabi, I was in a bit of a food rut. I had recently (re)discovered a love for cooking and eating, a realization quite in opposition to my growing feeling that all food in Abu Dhabi tasted the same. The prospect of food trucks (“From London! They have a real food scene there!”) appealed to the vaguely elitist, bougie, West-Coast-USA part of me that was succumbing to food ennui. I chose to see this festival not as a one-off “cultural event,” the type of which come and go in Abu Dhabi all the time, but rather as a harbinger of good things to come. An indication that the people of Abu Dhabi – all 38,000 of them – were hungry for an enjoyable eating experience, an innovative culinary scene, and more creative, varied options for reasonably priced food.
The Fruit and Vegetable Souk at Mina Port (photograph by the author)
In some ways, the restaurant options in Abu Dhabi run parallel to the city’s demographics. There is no lack of good food here, of course. And most of it you can purchase for less than 20 dirhams. South Asian, Levant, Khaleeji, and East African food is plentiful and almost universally delicious – or, at least, well worth the very modest price. Swing the pendulum to the other extreme, and you get the bedazzled and boozy “fine dining” establishments in the beach resorts and high-rise hotels frequented by wealthy tourists. Almost none of these spectacles can offer particularly great food or ambiance (minimalism is not a strong suit in Abu Dhabi restaurant design), and even those that do serve skillful haute cuisine are not worth the money (the exception being Zuma, which is the best restaurant in the city). Of course, most cities have their fair share of not-worth-the-money fancy restaurants – these suspicions are occasionally, gloriously confirmed by scathing NYT reviews such as the recent Per Se debacle – but their foodie reputations don’t rest on tasting menus and wine pairings. Cities stretch their culinary legs smack in the middle of the $-$$ section of Yelp, Zomato, and Tripadvisor.
As I wander around the food festival, peanut oil mist beginning to hang in the air like airport-closing fog, I reflect on the many personal biases that play into my attitude about food in this city. I have tastes that are totally dictated by my background, my hometown, even my parents (who basically thought meat was frivolous, a deprivation that I have been making up for with a lot of steak every since I moved out of the house). I have some small amount of disposable income that I can devote to eating for pleasure and intellectual curiosity, rather than just needing to fill my stomach. And when I talk about food, about cuisine, I’m thinking on a more conceptual or categorical level than just “things we eat.” I’ve never been an artist, but food is like art for me. I can look at and swish around and prod at and slurp on a plate of food the way that some people interact with a painting or a performance. And I suppose cuisine, in the way I’m envisioning it, is a performance. Someone creates something new, exciting, and thought-provoking…and then it’s gone, and won’t happen quite the same way again. But whoever saw it happen might be inspired by it, try to replicate it, and make something new themselves.
Some things are constant, comforting. I go to a place like Foodlands because it offers stability – the man at the counter will reliably give you a couple falafel while you wait, and your shawarma will be spicy and creamy every time. I don’t expect them to do a “deconstructed shawarma with uni and gold leaf,” and I don’t want that – that sounds lame. But for a person who thinks about food as a stimulating, literally and metaphorically nourishing part of life, even shawarma stops being inspiring if you eat it every day. It’s a sad place to be in your life when you start to get sick of shawarma, but I’m only human. And the so-called “fine dining” in Abu Dhabi simply doesn’t offer a better alternative.
Abu Dhabi is putting a lot of effort into defining itself as a cultural hub, a place where the local and global interact to produce expressive, international, boundary-blurring innovation. Whether or not that is happening is food for another essay. But to me, it seems that developing “food culture” should be an obvious part of this type of “development” and “redefining” and “global positioning.” To say Abu Dhabi has no food culture is, of course, absurd. Tell that to the naan guy with the tandoor behind the dry cleaners! So how do I define the gap I’m identifying without using my Western upbringing as the backbone of my argument? What does it mean that I saw a glimmer of hope in a festival modeled on others from Britain, of all places? The best I can say is that Abu Dhabi has a lot of room for thoughtful, intentional, accessible, reasonably-priced food. And, judging by this year’s Love Food Festival, there is a lot of demand.
And, judging by this year’s Love Food Festival, it seems to be a rule that food trucks must incorporate wordplay into their names. Bangwok. Crabbie Shack. Hip Pops. I suppose they are trying to lure us to the window, where the man in the cycling cap will be reliably sardonic and grumpily flirtatious. The “funny names” trend sets a very grim tone, however, when you have purchased a sad and overpriced meal that has been cooked in a bright yellow motor vehicle emblazoned with the words Fried Egg, I’m in Love. (I only use this food truck as an example because of the striking ridiculousness of their pun – this Portland staple actually has excellent food and I endorse them wholeheartedly).
Questionable marketing practices aside, as you walk around the festival grounds you see people truly enjoying themselves. For every British hipster food truck, there’s a local restaurant getting in on the fun. The whole enclosure is filled with a muffled buzz of “ooh”s, “oh!”s, and near-explicit “unngggh”s. Emiratis, expats, tourists, pre-teens, and families line up for Moti Roti. A pair of local mothers, their children playing with the nanny, watch intently as a Food Network Arabia star shows them how to use up their wilting spinach in a coconut noodle sauce. And the food is pretty good! A sushi burrito, a bagel burger, a bread bowl of biryani. Amongst the overwhelming crowds, between the hastily-erected pavilions, under the piles of soiled paper plates, through the muffled dubstep emanating from the halfhearted DJ’s laptop, I see the hint of an emerging culture of food that values unique, whole, thoughtful, reasonably priced foods of all kinds.
So, I get on board and buy the grilled cheese sandwich. The oil drips onto my shirt. Yes, it’s indulgent in a particularly Abu Dhabi way. But it’s playful. It’s make-able at home, though maybe a bit better for being slung from a truck by a man with full sleeve tattoos.
Of course, there are a lot of lingering questions. How does this type of food become a more reliable part of Abu Dhabi’s urban fabric? Is it so easy for a city to simply change its thinking around cooking and eating? Is there a way to do that responsibly? Moreover, who am I to impose my values on this adopted city of mine? How are we defining “creativity” and “good cuisine”? Is this simply a matter of adding more food trucks, or is there something deeper at play? Is this even important? Who would actually benefit from all this?
I don’t know the answers. The more I think about it, the more questions I have. And yet, I see Abu Dhabi (whatever and whoever that means – and probably only some of it, the part that I can see) becoming more interested in the things that create a culture of culinary experimentation. Perhaps people are thinking less about consuming, and more about producing, embracing, savoring, innovating, and making food local. And we are creating spaces for eating that are built around community, inquiry, and pride in the people who love their food and the flavors they bring to the table. And, because it’s Abu Dhabi, we pay 40AED just to get in the door of the food festival. If there is a shift in the food scene, and it’s not just my imagination, that will come with all the pitfalls and tensions of any other scene that purports to refine and enhance a place’s culture. But, judging from the Love Food Festival, it’s happening — and it’s oily, and messy, and delicious.
January Term Sketches from
One day, I would like to call myself an artist. Here are some of my sketches from my January term, which I spent in New York this year.
It was a great experience, because New York has that strange, neo-romantic spirit of a post-modern megalopolis, which gets mixed with the still-alive spirit of twentieth-century USA, echoing jazz, hipsters, beatniks, hippies and a gazillion of other great and poetic (in its inner nature) things. This place represents the idea of diversity, though New York’s cosmopolitanism is different from the diversity I was exposed to back home (Russia).
I enjoyed every second I spent in this busy, technologically upgraded, story-filled city. This January marked my first time visiting the United States. I had some expectations of New York before going there, formed by pieces of popular media. Among them were: Carrie Bradshaw’s Manhattan, Friends’ New York, MoMA, Metropolitan, and Broadway. I tried to sketch everywhere, even while walking on the streets. Because I did not have a camera and this was my way to create nice memories.
We got kicked out of Grey Dog Coffee at rush hour; we hung out in Vapiano, with its fabulous interior and surprisingly affordable prices; we visited Rockefeller Center; I sketched magical creatures inspired by rats in the subway; beautiful strangers, my classmates, places of interest, reflections, dialogues, yellow cabs, dogs, the gorgeous Strand Bookstore (where we spent a fortune) – everything is on the pages of my New York’s sketchbook.
Here is my first set of New York sketches. It features Rockefeller Center, where we saw the huge Christmas Tree and listened to the soundtrack from Home Alone, as well as some people I sketched in the subway and three versions of my roommate Helina.
All graphics by Anastasiia Zubareva.
Here are my classmates, a cartoon we watched while waiting to go to a museum, and my humbling-real-student-saving-money-for-Broadway-and-museums lunch (plain yoghurt and 150g veggies) grabbed from the grocery shop near by, recommended by our professor, Eliot Borenstein.
More subway sketches and the colorful portrait of smiling Ankita. That day we visited MoMA and I was melting from happiness, inspired and excited.
Midnight “breakfast” at IHOP with Ifadha and Ankita. I had my “Never Empty Coffee Pot.”
18 miles of books – Strand Books. The best place to go after Broadway and the museums. The $1 books were awesome! I struggled a lot at the end of J-term, though, because I had at least 7 kg of them.
I am in love with with this place. Want to live there… The Metropolitan Museum of Art! Modigliani’sWoman’s Head and one of the halls of the museum with the garden of sculptures.
Grand Central Terminal’s hall: Ifadha and I witnessed the sweetest moment of proposal there.
Here we are killing time before a performance of “Wicked” on Broadway that evening.
Grey Dog Coffee was a super cool and cosy, but since it was a rush hour they “politely” kicked us out. As the comment describes the waitress: “She was sad [to kick us out] but also impatient.”
Vapiano is an Italian restaurant with awesome food and interior design. Surprisingly, it was reasonably priced even for college students. New York dogs are super cute, as are cats. Their owners were pretty friendly. The weird creature in the right lower corner was inspired by huge and funny New York rats (especially those in the subway). And, yes, hold your bag tight unless you want to donate it to the stranger.
Anastasiia Zubareva is a member of the NYUAD Class of 2019.
Qasr al Hosn is in tension with itself. The professor sitting next to me put it this way: “I love the indigenous postmodernism of it all.” The student behind us, a junior from Canada, noted that many of the purported Emiratis doing handicrafts at the Qasr al Hosn Festival are in fact Omani or Saudi Bedouins who take part in the festival to earn a neat wad of cash that can see them through for a couple of months.
Every February, the Qasr al Hosn Festival showcases Emirati cultural traditions and heritage in a ten-day spectacle that lures out almost as many suburb dwellers as do the National Day celebrations on December 2. Many professors at NYU Abu Dhabi schedule outings to the festival with their classes: Some classes go because the festival touches on issues central to their course, others because the professor simply wants her students to leave the Saadiyat bubble behind and see the host culture first-hand. This particular tour was not part of a class trip, though, but rather an open-to-all event sponsored by NYUAD’s Office of Student Life for students who either had not seen the festival yet or who wanted to visit it again.
The festival grounds take up an entire city block many times the size of its New York City equivalent, but it lies empty and unused 355 days of the year. When the festival is not blocking Abu Dhabi’s main traffic arteries, it takes twenty to twenty-five minutes to reach Qasr al Hosn from NYU Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island campus. Abu Dhabi is no stranger to Thursday night traffic congestion, but since this particular Thursday is the busiest day of the festival, we sit in anxiety-inducing traffic for seventy minutes before finally reaching the festival.
As our driver tries to dislodge us from the chasm he got us stuck in, we use the extra time on our hands to observe the endless flow of pedestrians on the sidewalk circling the festival grounds. People from what seems like every country in the world saunter around Qasr al Hosn. Everyone wears attire that complies with Sharia’s prescribed modesty, of course – the festival is run according to Sharia principles, and men and women pay the ten dirhams it costs to enter the festival grounds in separate booths – but the diversity of this crowd rivals any public space I have seen.
To those critics who insist that the UAE does not have any culture of its own, the fort and the festival it houses each year provides strong counterevidence. As I try to hear my own thoughts over the sound of a nearby razafat dance (known to most people as ‘that Emirati men’s dance with sticks’), it seems clear that the UAE does have culture, and that its citizens are proud of that culture. If only my native Denmark made so concerted an effort to showcase our culture every year and have a festival that unifies the country, as this one does. Qasr al Hosn Festival’s unifying effect is not just figurative: a man I know commutes from Fujairah to Abu Dhabi and back – a two-and-a-half-hour drive each way – to take part in the festival.
A more sophisticated way to phrase one objection many critics raise about the UAE is that the UAE’s culture today is not the culture of the pre-oil Trucial States. True, but why should it be? Such an objection reminds me of a passage in Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book Cosmopolitanism (2013) that takes on these cultural purists, viewing cultural contamination not as a juggernaut that erases cultures but as an inevitable fact of human society which we should try to harness and make the most of: “We do not need, have never needed, a settled community, a homogeneous system of values, in order to have a home. Cultural purity is an oxymoron. The odds are that, culturally speaking, you already live a cosmopolitan life, enriched by literature, art, and film that come from many places, and that contains influences from many more” (113).
Other scholars have made the case against cultural contamination just as forcefully as Appiah makes the argument for it. They suggest that cultural mixing erodes the bedrock of a country’s practices, customs, and most importantly its language. In the UAE, those scholars have found a prime example of a country whose age-old language, Khaleej Arabic, is dying even as you read these English lines, and perhaps because you read these English lines. The push in Emirati schools towards strengthening its Arabic language program reflects the old culture’s efforts to ward off the new, invading culture, argue those who are skeptical about globalization. We Danes feel the thrust of that argument: Danish teenagers are losing touch with their mother tongues just as fast as their Emirati peers are. Absent a festival that can compare to the UAE’s Qasr al Hosn Festival, the cultural practices that make Denmark unique and set it apart from, say, Sweden or Norway, are dying out. We must not ignore the warnings of the globalization skeptics, but as I stand in this line, waiting for my legeimat, I find the thought that there is something wrong with this degree of conversation across cultures a hard one to accept.
These thoughts lead me back to the words my professor said a couple of hours earlier: “I love the indigenous postmodernism of it all.” I glossed over his words when I first heard them, dismissing them as too grandiose and intangible for me to process on a weekend night. Upon reflection, though, I realize that his words were not just a sarcastic comment. The reason we come here, the reason the Qasr al Hosn Festival engages us, has to do with the nature of the festival and its stance towards modernity. Qasr al Hosn features dhow builders and basket weavers, blacksmiths and subsistence fishermen, but it sets those anachronisms against the visually dominating Abu Dhabi skyline so that every visitor, no matter how entranced he is by the dexterity of the seventy-something-year-old fletcher, need only look up and see the towering Burj Mohamed bin Rashid attached to the World Trade Center Mall and Souk to be reminded that the UAE is neither stuck reminiscing about the past nor busy demolishing its history in the name of progress. The Qasr al Hosn Festival showcases nothing short of the spirit of the Emirates: a syncretic historical-postmodern state of mind that sees no issue in hosting a heritage festival in the heart of a bustling metropolis.
*Both photos: John Carges, used by permission
[soliloquy id=”4474″]A bedouin coffee party. An old man playing a rababa, its body sparkling and inlaid with mother-of-pearl and blue stones. A tourist kneeling in the middle of the bedouin coffee party, pointing at the beautiful rababa inlaid with mother-of-pearl and blue stones, his face very close to the singing old man, smiling for a little too long while his partner takes a picture with her phone.
A window washer hangs from the taller World Trade Center tower, perched over the scene watching the swarms of visitors as the sun begins to set. Why is he still up there?
A fisherman casts a wide net into a body of water in which there are no fish. The salty smell of fish in a fishless, man-made sea.
The crowd ebbs and flows: hundreds of abayas, thousands of kanduras, a sea of rubber flip flops and wriggling toes with chipped polish.
Three teachers get henna in the traditional Emirati style. Their hands look like lumpy spiders. A preteen boy with three cameras around his neck bumps into one of them, smearing her henna on her sleeve. Another teacher pours water from a Masafi bottle as she tries to scrape it off, but all she does is rub it into the denim as the muddy water drips onto the sand and between her toes. The smell of the dye lingers as they depart for the saluki park.
Helvetica signs that say HERITAGE. Bad typesetting spells dwindledtothepointhweremanyspeciesarenowendangered. The seas are over-exploited. The sign implies that should probably not eat hammour if you want to be sustainable.
Old shipbuilders with a rusty awl, their dhow perpetually under construction.Palm fronds on the ground and chanting that sounds like it’s emanating from the earth, but is actually blasting from a speaker muffled with a burlap sack.
Fun fact: qasr has the same root as castle. “Wait, you studied abroad in Spain, right? Is alcázar…whoa! That’s so cool.”
A British man expertly explains the burqa to his wife, referring to it as a “face mask.” A man with a belt made of bullets, holding a gold-plated gun, stands in front of a police station. The line of his rifle barrel points to a sand pit full of children in orange vests, digging.
A poster explains the growth cycle of date palm fruit. Can you eat them when they’re green? No, you cannot. But when they’re just slightly unripe you might be able to make juice out of them.
A sand bag with a fax number on it. An LED billboard across the street, advertising the QASR AL HOSN FESTIVAL. A festival celebrating a fort that you are never allowed to enter.
A man with an iPad, eyes wide. “Would you mind taking a quick survey about your experience tonight?”
A wedding celebration.
An antique gramophone.
A prayer rug on the sand.
A tree with fat beanpods, hanging.
A man swinging an axe at a date palm.
A minaret perfectly aligned between two glassy buildings.
A small boy holds a large falcon.
A smile with missing teeth.
A toddler in a tiny kandura is placed on a pony against his will. La, ‘ami, la!
An anchor stuck in a gleaming fishing basket.
A fur-lined abaya.
A woman in a burqa atop a camel.
A man sitting on a pile of crates, wearing a tartan skirt and taking a swig from a clay jug.
Wheelchair hubcaps painted with the UAE flag, black slowly fading to red, to green, to white as the owner wheels up a ramp onto a boat.
Children with gold tangled in their hair.
You can go to the Emirati Salad stand to learn about the edible plants of the region. The first bush looks familiar. “I think I’ve eaten that one! Do you pickle it?” He asks where, eyebrow raised. “…Georgia?” Well – it is a desert plant, he explains. He doesn’t think you ate it in Georgia. He chuckles and gives you a bite of a succulent-type thing that tastes like a sour cucumber.
A family of five eats legaimat on the ground, leaning against a dune in the corner behind the houbara enclosure. Cardamom fog lingers in the air, and you can hear the syrupy rosewater dripping back into the paper bowl, or at least you think you can.
Spotlights shooting from the turret of the fortress, hazy in the night sky and stretching upwards to converge in a many-pointed star. The effect is such that, when you first notice them, you think the rays are coming down from between the clouds, illuminating the tower with heavenly light.
Photo by John Carges, used by permission
Photo Credit: Xinyi Wei
As I buzz myself out of my Parisian apartment and light a cigarette, I wave at my Algerian neighbor through the window of his Arabic bookstore Librairie du Monde Arabe. Counting my steps to the tune of Edith Piaf’s Dans ma rue, “On My Street,” recently popularized by raspy-voiced Zaz, I swiftly stroll along my street. Russian, Ethiopian, Lebanese, and Chinese restaurants, a Greek fast food joint, a traditional French brasserie, a pub appropriately named after a saint — I consider how everything in this microcosm looks so well put-together and the mental snapshots sink in my memory as tableaux vivants I wish would never fade away.
Even outside the restaurants, I devour exquisite cuisine: the cuisine of the Parisian urban landscape. I think of my leisurely strolling as flânerie, a trope from French literary and cultural history that Honoré de Balzac, one of the founders of French realism, described as “gastronomy of the eye.” I dare to imagine myself in the worn-out shoes of the central flâneur, Charles Baudelaire, and venture to find myself in his words: “To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define.” Worn-down though his shoes were, Baudelaire’s words remain forever spirited.
There is a word in Arabic that comes to mind: ghurba. My Arabic textbook Al-Kitaab translates the word as “longing for one’s native land, feeling of being a stranger” but its semantic field is much larger, ranging from detachment and homesickness to alienation and exile. Ever since I have first crammed my whole life into a standard checked-bag allowance and left my home of twenty years, I have felt ghurba in varying degrees. Drifting between my family house in Ljubljana, the NYUAD residence halls in Abu Dhabi, and my very first, very own apartment in the Parisian Latin Quarter, this uprootedness—albeit voluntary—only intensified as the idea of home started fading away. When the office of the administrative unit in my hometown handed me a document characterizing my legal status as “emigrant,” it foreshadowed my mental state of “homeless,” and the Slovenian words (zdomec and brezdomec, respectively) aptly indicate the blurred line between the two. But “home” only ever transforms: I have found mine in words, languages, poetry. Not unlike Baudelaire in his dialectic, I feel myself everywhere at least partly at home.
In fact, the “passionate spectator’s” sentiment gains in purity when I remind myself how many of the refurbished (read: gentrified) quaint dwellings throughout the Latin Quarter used to house this great French poet. Baudelaire lived his poetry and poetized his life in much the same way and I pass by many of his over forty accounted-for “homes” during my voracious strolls throughout the quartier. Few know that the small Île Saint-Louis, one of the two remaining natural islands in the Seine—the other supports the lavish Gothic cathedral Notre-Dame—used to provide an abode for Baudelaire and his Club des Hachichins. In the 1840s, the “Club of the Hashish-eaters” included some of the great French literary figures, including Gérard de Nerval, Gustave Flaubert, Alexandre Dumas, and Honoré de Balzac.
Some paddle strokes further along the river, a plaque commemorates a former home to a couple of French intellectual giants, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and I wonder if this address is where they seduced their students into ménages à trois. Decades before them, a band of fin de siècle Symbolists owned the quarter: the poètes maudits, cursed poets. In Paris, the times change, but the company does not. Before the tourist industry, the left bank of the Seine used to be The Left Bank, la Rive Gauche, the Paris of writers, philosophers, and artists. Beneath all the hustle and bustle of souvenir shops advertising “1 for 3€, 4 for 10€,” intellectual fireworks are inscribed on the historical memory. I can see the enchanting Luxembourg garden close by and almost feel the ambiance of Gertrude Stein’s salon, which hosted the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Apollinaire, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound … On the other side of the jardin, young Jacques Prévert was growing up at the same time—perhaps my café crème used to be his Breakfast. I am mesmerized by the spaces marked with indelible intellectual history and a false sense of self-importance overcomes me.
As I approach my street, I reflect on my share in that history. I wonder what traces of ink I might leave on the palimpsest of the rue de l’école polytechnique, which harbors me so generously. The tiles I stride on overlay the fertile soil on which vineyards once stretched. There used to be an abbey here, frequented in the 5th century by Sainte Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris, who lent her name to the hill into which my little street was carved. Not much later, church schools sprung up, joined in the 11th century by one of the first universities in Europe, la Sorbonne. Students and academics settled on this soil, echoed by generations that followed. This very soil then welcomed bookstores and printing houses and it cried when it was made to carry public gallows for the executions of sinners and unruly publishers …
Photo Credit: Xinyi Wei
And today? People from all walks of life pass their days on this little street that bears witness to layers upon layers of knowledge. The headquarters of L’Harmattan, one of the largest French publishers, stares back at me through my window and I bow down to everything the scraped green façade stands for. In my third-floor apartment, I live on top of a deep history of education.
Ali, the owner of the Lebanese restaurant opposite my house, wraps me a shawarma for dinner while we reminisce about Beirut we both last saw a year ago. He complements my Modern Standard Arabic with phrases in shami (the Levantine dialect) and I teach him how to wish bon appétit in Slovenian. Zaz’s voice slowly stretches out into the night: Dans ma rue il y a des anges qui m’emmènent, pour toujours mon cauchemar est fini. There are angels on my street that take me away, my nightmare is over forever.