The Pleasure Of... Second Homes

Figuratively speaking, folks, I'm a freelance writer. Also cartoons, Nirvana, and HGTV.

I had lunch with my new editor this week, and we talked a lot about Paris, and learning French. French classes are one of the things I promised myself when I sold the book; the other was a new desk chair, which is a significant upgrade aesthetically and lumbar-support-ily from the old IKEA one I’d been managing with before. But it’s French (and this place for learning it) that I’m excited about.

    I started going to France, and learning French, very young, and it’s always felt like a second home, an alternate reality where I am a different—not better, but refreshingly unfamiliar—version of myself. When I was 14 or 15, I went to France for two weeks with school, with girls I mostly didn’t like (I didn’t like most of them.) My parents came along as chaperones, to get a free trip to France, which they realized was a terrible deal before we’d even left London, stuck on a coach with a horde of feral girls. 

My exchange partner, Pauline, was shy and kind and awkward. Her best friend was this strange, fascinating girl, an only child named Antonine, some kind of child genius who lived in a huge house nearby and insisted on being called Mina, after Winona Ryder in Francis Ford Coppola’s gloriously absurd Dracula. Mina played Nirvana songs on guitar while I tried to bluff my way through explaining the lyrics to In Utero. (“Rape Me”: “Irony??”) We fell into an odd and intense friendship, along with Pauline’s older brother Guillaume, who adored Mina and fascinated me—his bedroom was a work of art, wallpapered all over with images of supermodels and a huge poster of La Reine Margot, which I valiantly tried to follow without subtitles. (The next year it was a pristine, cream-and-red library: he’d made faux Gallimard covers to wrap around all his books. He’s an art historian and curator now.)

When the two weeks were up, the family invited me to come on holiday with them and Mina to the coast. We sat on the beach with cassette Walkmans (more Nirvana), ate the local version of saltwater taffy, and I learned the French version of the daisy-petal game—not just “he loves me, he loves me not,” but “il m’aime… un peu, beaucoup, à la folie, passionnément, pas du tout.” That there could be these stages of love and being loved, that it could escalate like that and then shut down so abruptly, enthralled me. The odds were so much better, the stages so much more exciting—even if at that point we were still playing it with the actors from 90210.

My school friends couldn’t believe I’d volunteered for two more weeks among these profoundly uncool French teenagers. But that was the appeal, I think. In French I had no idea who or what was cool. That summer was probably the closest to fluent I’ve ever been, talking and thinking in a different language all day, and I loved it. I was different in French. My words didn’t come with strings attached, nuances to entangle me, the stifling knowledge of all the implications of everything I said. I didn’t know if I was clever or naive. I didn’t know who I was in French, and now I want to find out.

Small Pleasures: Spidermen/women/pigs!.

On Sunday, we went to a matinee showing of Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse in 3D, at the Museum of the Moving Image. You don’t need me to tell you it is both eye-meltingly visually dazzling and charming as hell—everybody else got there first. But as always, I advocate culture at your own pace, and it’s a joyful way to spend two hours.

Good Thing in a Bad World:

I am intrigued to see how the Times’s extraordinary-sounding 1619 Project on the long history of slavery is going to look digitally, since we gave up our paper subscription. They have been doing very creative stuff on mobile—I loved this guide to hikes in the five boroughs—and I trust this will get good treatment that lets the writers shine. Here’s hoping it kicks off a much-needed rethink of how the history of slavery in this country gets understood and taught, and if you aren’t following Nikole Hannah-Jones everywhere (she spearheaded the project), well, get on that.

My New Stuff:*

Speaking of great design, I always love writing for Curbed, and I was delighted with the final version of a big piece I wrote for them earlier this summer, about classic television and its impact on interior design, from I Love Lucy to Frasier via Dynasty and tons more. It’s part of a great package on design and TV, including lots of HGTV content which I’m always here for, so enjoy.

*Still working on my snappy subheads. Happy Friday.