Monday, September 4, 2017


You don't have to travel far to get the feeling.

This evening we ate pasta on the back deck and then took the canoe out for the second time, at dusk, driving down the peninsula to the bay above which I used to live, where the liveaboards blanket the harbour and the inlet stretches north in a glassy cloth to the islands. The bigger islands. The small island that is Dead Man's and the slightly larger that is Senanus. The moon was rising and the north still orange. We had wine and chocolate and ginger candies and blankets, my love and his daughter, two peas in a red canoe. We stopped at the boat, the gentle wreck, its sides now spotted with barnacle ghosts from its neglected winter. We snacked and talked about sleeping the night out in the cockpit. Then dropped into the canoe again and paddled up the inlet in the dark, taking the west side to hide the moon. First, the moon jellyfish carpeted the bay. And then as we hit the shadows, the phosphorescence. First, faint meteors with each paddle stroke. Then the hand-dipping. The stars splaying out from fingers. Then we nudged the shore and saw that every movement of the water against the barnacles and rocks and mussels and sea weed was producing their stars. The shore a galaxy. The shallows a conference of congenial light. Our hands nebulas. C's daughter the urbane become spellbound with the light of their bodies. When a boat shone its search light in our direction and kept it trained, we all three gave back the finger, in unison, an automatic, gleeful, serious response to this interruption of joy and respite from work. Twenty minutes from home, the sea warm, sea calm, air warmer, the unbroken wave of the hills above us, the stars in all quadrants. Grounded in water, teaching my childhood to another, sending the blade of the paddle through the dark sea and lighting it. Cradling the jellyfish in a palm. Sharing the wine. In two days I start a semester teaching about place and landscapes of the heart. It's coming. There's no way I can stop it now. This night seems the glorious response, the life that feeds the list.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017


I am writing this on a parapet, not of the old wall that used to surround the town of P—, but the walkway that was built to enjoy and have access to the surrounding hills. P— was rebuilt by a pope in the 1400s as the first ideal Renaissance town, using humanist urban planning principles. No wall. Instead, weaving, small streets with 2-3 story buildings facing one another, with strange iron cow figurines set into the buildings’ window grates, a piazza with town hall facing the Church and a b&b for visiting officials. It’s a hill top town, so the views from all edges are extraordinary, but it doesn’t have the same shut in feeling that many hilltop towns have. It wasn’t built as a fortress, but instead as a retreat from Rome, its side streets trailing away to spectacular views over the same territory that the English Patient’s Tuscany Monastery scenes were shot in. Others were shot in this town’s square. The town was copied, over and over, for its Renaissance design, wherever the principles were applied. Now it is festooned in geraniums and other potted flowers, shade from the buildings and wind from the valley.

I took the bus here from my more walled in town, where I’m staying for four nights. I have had a dream of living amongst olive trees and silver gold grasses, swallows, swifts, grape vines and jasmine, a view of blond fields and cypresses, for decades now. The luxury palace I am in has a small room not on the price list, overlooking the valley and across from the kitchen. Romana charges 30 euros a night for it instead of 300. It includes a giant breakfast of jamon, eggs, local peccorino and mango juice. Espresso. Creme-filled croissants. Chats with the cook. A back balcony off the kitchen where I paint. I never thought I would be lucky enough to do this. 

Italy is extraordinary. I think if I weren’t so strongly medicated, I would be in tears over the beauty much of the day. Black cypresses. Pale olive trees. Blond grasses. Poppies. Wildflowers of every kind. All the fruit trees on their way. The apricots ready. Vineyards, siena brick, pink stone, roses. I’ve loved so many places. Right now the bartender where I’ve set up is singing along to The Lumineers and Paco Ibanez. He’s lived in England, Spain, Morocco, Milan. He came back here, found the best location ever, and opened a bar in the caverns of a 15th century building with no cars allowed within blocks. The cicadas start up in the cypresses opposite. People drift by. I tell them with my eyes that this is the best orange, fennel and olive salad I’ve had in my life. 

One of the reasons I’ve never become a travel writer is because I don’t want to let the world know about the best places I’ve been. This blog with its small readership is harmless. But the thought of letting thousands of readers know, not about Tuscany, as it’s been fully discovered, but about some of the smaller places I’ve been, well, it's heart breaking. One of globalization’s particularly winsome traits. And still, despite the parade of tourists walking down the town’s main street, and every street I’ve been to in Florence and Siena, I haven’t met an impatient Italian. People are courteous, relaxed, well-fed. They look like they’re enjoying their lives. Amongst them, the pinch-faced, suspicious Canadians and annoyed Americans stand out like sore thumbs. Like we do almost anywhere except in our home country. What is the secret to being so gently friendly and not looking at every fellow creature as a potential threat or entity to buy? 

Doing the dishes, I think. I help Emma, the cook, in the morning because I’m so grateful for such luxury at such low cost. And not looking at everything as a potential commodity or investment. The Tyee wrote recently that the trouble with Vancouver’s real estate is that properties have been made into a part of the investment market, instead of a basic thing that all people need. When you make a basic need into a commodity, you create a schism between the rich and the poor, and you decimate the middle class. Here, the bartender could still afford to come back to his hometown and open a bar, despite it being in one of the most famous, most loved and most beautiful places on earth. The air itself is perfumed. Name a place on the southwest coast of Canada that gets less than 200 days of rain a year where you could do still that.  

Thursday, June 15, 2017

København Left

My last night in København epitomizes everything I have come to love about this city - a hygge, simple dinner in the basement kitchen of the hostel with Cam. Eggs from Ole’s garden, hot peppers, a glass of wine. Talking through the experience, the students, the marks, the next stops on each of our journeys. Then a 10pm daylight bike ride through Oestebro to Mikkeler, the craft beer shop where we get sours and sit amidst climbing roses and smiling people, watching the light climb the buildings and the wind whirl, then to La Fontaine, a jazz club we find by accident while looking for a spot for an Aquavit nightcap. The club is hopping with a local group playing a beautiful jazz version of Dylan’s “Don’t think twice.” We have two. The band plays one extra; the crowd is warm, relaxed, quick to connect. On our ride home, the streets emptying, the wind died down, the light still in the northwest, I watch the black bikes glide by on the cobbles, the Strøget with its metal angled insertions between the stones, so that when viewed from the side, the street seems to glitter with a trail of stars. The design shops — “we want things to be simple, beautiful, functional, warm” — and the swimmable canals lying  between the streets like deep blue crayons. 

Denmark may be what happens when you take religion out of the equation, leaving people free to create a socialist culture of pleasure and happiness with much less guilt, oppression or competition than is normally present in ‘civilization'. We stop in groups of 2 or 10 at streetlights on our bikes. I am inches away from the person next to me. There’s a calm accord. We are waiting for the light together. No one pushes ahead. I fumble on my bike as it turns yellow, then green, and a woman smiles at me. We sweep along the blue painted lanes. We perform “Copenhagen lefts”, where you cross and swing around to wait for the second light to change rather than cutting across traffic. The bikes are mostly upright and the women look like golden queens. The men all look like Christian, in some way or another. The eye colour. The broad face. The chin cleft. I am beside myself. I sit up straight and pile my hair on top of my head like many of the women. I ride over bridges constructed to mimic the Pont Neuf in France, so as to create places to gather on your way to somewhere. Little eddies that kink the straight line from A to B. Bridges that arc over the harbour and between buildings, bridges built just for bicycles. It’s like flying through the air. 

The Danes are the most contented people on earth, according to the World Happiness Index. “A person with one child gets about $3200 a month here, as a guaranteed income,” Kåre tells me, over wine at an informal bar in Nørbro. He laughs when I tell him I moved back in with my parents this winter to afford school. He can’t imagine anyone doing that here. “If you don’t get a job, you think, oh, well I will take a year to think about what I want to do, and then figure it out.” This isn’t laziness. It’s a belief that people are worth something even when they are not productive in a capitalist system. To contribute to one’s culture, one’s community, to a life, it is not necessary to always be earning. Education is free. Social housing is widespread. And the Danes saved over 90% of the Jews in their country before WWII; they put them on boats to Sweden, took them out of harm’s way. Kåre gets a salary from the government; he is a writer, contributing to the cultural capital of his country. He will get this salary for the rest of his life. Sensibility, sensibleness, but without the relentless efficiency I saw in so much of Germany. And a deadpan humour that sends an undercurrent of relaxed camaraderie through most interactions, and makes interacting with people not a means to an end, but a pleasure to be enjoyed in itself. It is a country with a long, wet, miserable winter. Their solution is to turn to one another, rather than turn against, or turn to solitude or self-recrimination. “It’s a little bit slippery, yes,” says a woman interviewed in a video on biking through Copenhagen’s winter, and then smiles and peddles off down the snowy streets.

Food, socialism, movement, drink. The first night was also lovely. I finally arrived, after two days delay caring for a student in a Hamburg Hospital (she’s fine) and Cam took me to Copenhagen Street Food, a warehouse district on Paper Island slated for redevelopment and currently being used as a pop-up food and drink venue and as office space for various creative industries. There were giant barrels with cordwood fires burning in front of the main food building. Lawn chairs stretched along the concrete wharf, with no barrier interrupting the view of the harbour and the modern and classical buildings that stretched along it. You could get duck fries, herring, bimbambip, Polish potatoes or sushi. There was organic cider and local beer. We sat in the lawn chairs until the evening’s storm arrived, and then careened on our bikes through the downpour, laughing, having not yet learned the Danes’ trick of ducking under a tree or into a bar for the ten minutes it took to pass. We saw them as we rode, in warm interiors, their drinks in hand, watching the weather from the doorway together.  

Monday, June 5, 2017


“Allende Vive” says the graffiti stencil under the Allende Platz street sign on a 1920s building in the middle of the neighbourhood of Grindel, the neo-classical building strewn area where Jews used to live in Hamburg. 

Rosenbaum, Hirsch, Nachims, Cohen, Mandelbaum.

I’m back in the fray of last year's horror, briefly. I won’t stay for long this time, if I can pull myself out again. 

Acker is a German word, though the name comes from Poland. It means field or cultivating place. Put it in front of a variety of other words and it means certain kinds of cultivated herbs or plants. A German I met once joked that my name meant I was fertile - “ploughing the field!” he chortled. 

There’s an inside and an outside to the city and its people. Outside, I walk down tree-lined streets, many of the trees dating from before the war. The buildings are human-sized and gorgeous. Stone sidewalks. Graffiti’d ground floors in St. Pauli. Immaculate paint in Grindel or the downtown walking streets, or in Haffen City. When a rich developer bought the Rota Flora theatre in St. Pauli, and tried to turn it into condos, the neighbourhood banded together and protested for four years, until the government was forced to buy the building back at twice the price. Now it is a punk show venue, a squat and a backyard cafe, covered in graffiti so thick you can measure the history on the edge of the building. Rent control keeps some apartments at or below 8 euros a square metre (about 800 for a 1000 square foot apartment), which means that people have to work less, which means they have time to be in place, to create, to protect their neighbourhoods from gentrification, to band together, to fight neoliberalism and fascism in all its forms. There’s a six storey outdoor climbing wall, fastened onto the side of a WWII bunker, from which Germans shot at Allied planes. The walls are six foot thick concrete. They’ve stopped trying to destroy them, after 140,000 euros of dynamite only blew a living room couch sized hole in a giant bunker that was scheduled for demolition. Now they are techno clubs and hideouts and community gathering places. They break the rules. The rules that seem, as a larger culture, to be so stereotypically obeyed, the stereotype of which leads my thoughts to grim places.

And yet gentrification is also rampant. An article in, “Not in Our Name,” rails against the Dutch and other foreign investors that are driving rent prices up, the “glass teeth” buildings that line the river Elbe, the sustainability projects that only push the poor and artists to the edges of the city and create promenades for the wealthy (Hamburg has the most millionaires of any city in Europe). The process of evicting those who are not welcome, I can't help thinking, continues. 

I walk from the hostel across the bridge that separates the lake from the River Elbe. People sailing without motors, paddling back to their slips with one oar. One boy slaps the ass of another with his oar as he reaches for the piling. Last night, Cam and I went to the gay and Turkish district near the water, on our side of the bridge, just west of the train station. The pee smell stops there. There are many outdoor cafes. We spent a good couple of hours making fun of Germans. The efficiency. The rule-following. The abruptness. The way the south of Europe got the looks and the north got the money. The way they don’t get questions that we ask about sustainability, and respond with a version of “Why would you need to worry about that????” when we ask about stormwater management. In Germany, everything has been thought of. It’s all been done and is obvious, so let’s move on please so we shall not be late. We were awful. And it was satisfying and terrible and the root of the stereotypes irked at me, and a very blond woman sat down with her extremely tall partner in front of us, and they did not smile or touch. 

My love is a Canadian German Dane. This is his home city. He is an affectionate, heart-on-his-sleeve beauty. I sit in this river of love and longing and fear. There is an inside and and outside to the city. Inside: ribaldry, silliness, unending warmth, intelligence, deep emotional capability, sorrow, Stolpersteine. I’ve counted 64 people memorialized on my walk over here, wandering on one side of a street then another. Stopping at the groups of three or one or five brass cobbles, noting the names. They’ve left room for more. Tens of thousands. Question marks at the end of those for whom they don’t know the death location. I walk down the streets and no one smiles at me, but they are mostly good with one another. (The only domestic fight I have seen in public in Europe was a German couple this morning in front of the chocolate museum, while their children endured it.) When I stop at the brass cobbles the people move around me, and no one says anything. And they watch me as I pass the outside bars and cafes, and there’s a guardedness and only the young seem modern. Except that’s all wrong, too. Only the thin, tall, long-haired men seem modern. That’s wrong, too. My face betrays me. My nose. I realize these are ridiculous thoughts. I stop at the cobbles and photograph them, and count. And chastise myself for counting. And keep reading the names. And keep stopping. 

How does a culture even begin to take responsibility? How do they move on? How is it that their efficiency will always remind me of that ultimate efficiency in knowing how best to eliminate? One of my students wrote in her field journal, “Good community is always messy. That’s where the beauty happens.” I am a mess. And the waiter at the cafe, Pony Bar, affectionately shoes his dog inside, away from the tables. A medium-sized black dog with shepherd ears, who sits near the bar when he is behaving, and follows the waiter out to the tables when he is not. 

Cam prefers Belgium, the Netherlands, those smaller countries that have not ever been such world powers (and were disasters when they tried to be) and thus have a humility that is hard to ascribe to the Germans (or the French), such masters of engineering, so sure that the new cities they are constructing are sustainable for all. “Yes, we have a very diverse community moving into Hafen City. There are French, Belgians, Dutch, English. Even some Chinese.” The students caught that irony as well. I tend to agree with Cam. I’ve never met a more amenable group of people, as a whole, than the Dutch. Easy to smile, quick to empathize, eager to help. It’s an experience I wouldn’t have had without this class. But here, the resting expression is one of suspicion or impatience. I react badly to it. I come apart at the seams. 

So I walk, and count, and feel like throwing up, and listen to music my love curated especially for this trip, with such love and abiding affection. And the couch in this cafe is at the cusp of full wall of windows open to the street. Children run by. Beautiful music is playing. And the beautiful apartments hover above us. I smile at a woman in her fifties on my way out. Like pretty much everyone else I have tried in some small way to connect with, she looks at me like I’m a mess better avoided.  

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Rotterdam to Amsterdam

There's a saying in Rotterdam. "Amsterdam has it. Rotterdam doesn't need it." Rotterdam has the biggest shipping port in Europe. 30 million tonnes of food, 30 of oil and 30 of non-perishable goods (read: things we mostly don't need) pass through Rotterdam's ports every year. During a boat tour of the tip of the iceberg of the harbour, the dry docks stretched in all directions like the set for the second season of The Wire. The honey bee colours of the shipping containers, the largest man-made docking area for freighters in the world. Ships with freeboard hundreds of feet high, built for the waves of the north sea and everything in between there and China.

And yet, walking the restaurant=packed street of Witte de Withstraate on my birthday, 20 ducklings in tow, and settling at a Tapas bar before heading to dancing, it felt like a cozy city, international in the languages one could hear on the street, not so much the endless stretches of the Rhine as it took its last stretch to the sea amidst towering piles of hand spinners, tea cups, tupperware and rayon.

Rotterdam is all modernity and coziness, cantilevered buildings designed by the group graduates of some inspiring architecture prof who loved the overhang a skyscraper could be pushed to, perhaps. And trams and open markets and condos with giant markets within their horseshoe shaped building, so that the kitchen windows look in to the market itself, and all you could buy for supper. After the Haussmann conformity of Paris and the medieval charm of Bruges, it was lovely to see where Europe might be headed, instead of mainly where it has been. Space. Light. Ingenuity. And the most elegant and caring serving staff I've ever met.

And now, Amsterdam. I am sitting on a corner in de Pijp, drinking wine and full from a Surinamese meal of coconut beef and noodles with Cam. We've just travelled around all day with Cornelia, a freelance planner who gives tours of the city's transportation infrastructure and sustainability planning initiatives by bike. We braved rush hour on bikes, all 21 of us (one is down with tonsillitis), along with thousands of other bikes. We visited entire streets that have been freed of cars and turned into grass-lined tram tracks and wide bike lanes framed by pedestrian walkways. In the middle of the city. "Sustainability for me is not about the environment," said Cornelia. "It is about liveability." And we need to convince people to be sustainable by appealing to what appeals to them. For the Dutch, she argues, it is economics, convenience. For the Germans in Freiburg, it is the environment. For Americans, it is ingenuity. Unless you know what appeals, you will never convince people to do anything. So what do Victorians want? What appeals to them? What would make them trade their cars for bikes? What would make our government put in light rail and take the train across the bridge and put in a tram to UVic and triple the transit system? What drives us?

These are the things I spend my day thinking about. A far cry from last year's trip. We are alive, and we need to do things better. We need to love things better. It feels good to be among the living again.

Friday, May 26, 2017

DRIFT – Imagining Sustainability in Rotterdam

We walk east along the river with the sun still to our right, past industrial sculptures and cabled bridges, into the wind and past open stretches of bike path, with only the occasional passing car. It is 9:30am and 25 degrees and we are on our way to a full day session on sustainability in the city of Rotterdam, old city walkup buildings next to jigsaw post-modern skyscrapers, the city centre uncertain and spread out around us, while the barges and their shipping containers slide by.

We arrive at Blue City, a former water park and disco with crumbling steps and broken seal windows, which has been repurposed for blue economy entrepreneurs. The space has been rented by DRIFT, a think tank founded by Erasmus University Rotterdam in 2004. DRIFT works to support transitions to greater sustainability, helping industry, government and cities through research, advice, practice and education. It's a bridge between scales, science, community, industry.
DRIFT’s researchers support transition toward sustainability in culture (social norms, values, way of thinking, beliefs) and in structure (infrastructure, regulations and behaviours). They look at the different possible pathways of redevelopment: acceleration, stabilization, lock in, backlash, and system breakage. As an example, Giorgia Silvestri, a researcher with the institute, uses the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Or a social transition from high to low crime in a neighbourhood through transformation into a livable and sustainable place.

A transition arena’s phases include exploration of the challenges, envisioning of a sustainable future through imaging and storytelling and elaboration of transition pathways. No two projects are alike, and the process, as can be imagined, takes a long time, and demands involvement and participation by all stakeholders. It’s interesting to imagine this kind of process happening in BC, where voter participation in the last election was around 57 percent. It's also interesting to see what happens when we participate in a transition exercise ourselves.

After explaining the steps for a transition pathway, Giorgia leads us through an exercise with four areas relevant to the CRD – transportation, food, neighbourhoods and energy. We look at the barriers, voice our vision and think about pathways to achieving that vision. What becomes quickly evident is what Donella Meadows (1994) has pointed out: it’s very easy to list the barriers to a sustainable world, but much more difficult to put into words a real vision, to think on a grand scale, to think in terms of ideals, in terms of what we’d really like to happen were there not constraints from government, industry or an apathetic populace. We prefer to rest in the probable, in a reasonable possibility given our current constraints, rather than voice what we really want the world to look like. In fact, this kind of thinking often leads to resistance and even anger: “That’s just not reasonable. We could never do that. Visions are fantasies.” It’s the result of a culture that Meadows says “constantly, almost automatically, ridicules visionaries.” Visioning is a skill we have as children – to imagine our ideal world where there is lots of fun, food and green space – but which many of us learn are childish, pie-in-the-sky ideas and thus discard as unachievable when we grow up.

In the end, the process of achieving sustainability might be psychological as much as practical. People will work more or less successfully with one another. They will hold one another back or encourage one another. They will allow one another to imagine or they will clamp idealism down. And it is us doing this to one another, not just those who hold the economic or political balance of power.

Eel fishing

When I walked by the fisherman gazing into one of Bruges' green canals at midnight last night, there was only one eel in his translucent, woven basket, which floated just below the waterline. "That's fishing," he told me, two of the only words he knew that sounded like English, aside from "Vacances?" and "estudente?" It was a warm night, like it also is tonight. He smiled gently, as I have seen so many Belgians do, and turned back to his floater and his pole.
With our twenty ducklings, and a hitchhiker brood of bedbugs clinging to Cam's belongings, I arrived to Bruges on Monday and will leave tomorrow for the Netherlands. Rotterdam, then Amsterdam. With a quick second stop in Belgium in Antwerp for the day tomorrow.Bruges rises out of the southern part of the North European Plain before it stops at the sea, in a jumble of gingerbread buildings and cobblestone streets, built during the medieval era and scarcely touched since. It is a monument to riches and poverty, as riches built it, when the city became the major port connection to the Mediterranean, and before the canals silted in, bringing over three hundred years of poverty. No one could afford to change a thing. It was such a minor town, even during the world wars of the 20th century, that no one bothered to bomb it. It crept through the 1900s until suddenly, Europe turned and saw it again for the first time, as a perfectly preserved medieval town, its metal boot-scraping contraptions still wedged into the bottoms of 1400 era buildings, left from when the streets were filled with shit and you wanted to be clean before you entered your friend’s house. The brick buildings have iron reinforcement bands on their outsides and terracotta roofs. The bridges stretch in minor arcs over the narrow canals, and swans glide around everywhere, just daring someone to get close. From Belgian, according to our dry-wit guide, we have the term “shit-faced,” for when you were drunk and walking on the streets at night. Upon hearing the warning signal from someone above, before they threw the contents of their chamber pot out the window, you looked up in drunken surprise, instead of deftly leaping aside. From this undercurrent, its not surprising to see Belgians enjoying their first beer at 10 in the morning, after a leisurely ride to work on their huge bicycles with beautiful panniers. Sustainability doesn’t have a particular project here; it is, instead, a beautiful part of the way most here live. Over 60 percent of the city’s population bikes to work. Beer from one brewery is piped under the city streets to its pub, rather than using trucks. Velux windows light the centuries old beams in the attic room I’m living in, and second hand shops line the street that leads to the city’s main square. Belgians are sometimes joked as lazy, drunk or without ambition by the neighbouring Dutch. A kind of southerner in a northern land. As we creep closer to Germany, of which I am mildly terrified, I appreciate these southern northerners the more. Their easy smiles, their relaxed attitudes, the person after person passing on bike this morning, who, seeing Cam sitting out in the early sun with his coffee, called out, “allo!” or “nice!” They like pleasure. They invite it. Things move slowly and gently, though even with a city that takes only 20 minutes to cross, I am managing to walk 20 kilometres a day, the same as in monumental Paris. They're down there below me now, at midnight again, drinking in the hostel's pub with the travellers, and spilling into the streets. I'm going to go see the fishermen again.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Vivre sa vie

When the art nouveau of the corner’s buildings swarm with their wrought iron balconies and scrolling balustrades, when even the lampposts scroll in waves and leaves and lilies more intricate than Canada's parliament buildings, I suppose it would be hard to grow up feeling an unquestioning sense of pride in one’s heritage. The Sun King’s rethinking of the city in the 1600s; the straightening of medieval organicism into the vista-pleasing curves and straight lines of today’s streets; the stone, moderate level apartments that still allow one to call to the top floor from the street. The creation of the first open air, accessible plazas; the first public lighting of a city and public, intra-city delivery of mail. Paris shaped the mold out of which all modern European cities emerged. It allowed for a nightlife without (usually) fear of being robbed. It mixed the bourgeois with the royalty and the commoners in its parks and public plazas. It is still as I remember it from my previous visit in 2007: one of the great manifestations of European beauty, made material in the scrolls of a door handle, the filigree of a portico, the writing on a chalkboard announcing today’s plat de jour. Livable, that is, aside from the prices. Though, in its defence, salaries are higher, so in a sense, most are better off than those in Victoria or Vancouver.

Across the intersection of Villiers and Rue de Lévis, a stone apartment of six floors, with a black tile cupola serif and slate roof, shines in the late afternoon sun of 7pm, while the prét a porter Parisians drift by like flowers. Mostly the quintessential French faces: olive skinned, slender, impeccably dressed, the top of their baguette bitten off in its bag. Occasionally, an African Parisian, Muslims, others. But the majority, with their inimitable style and their European heritage, prevails. They walk as if they own the city. They walk as if there wasn’t a bomb threat in the local train stations every other day.

Still, there is something integral missing. The stories of Paris heard by the rest of the world are of clashes between cultures; the narrow victory of a conservative moderate over a vitriolic racist. The protests and violence in the neighbourhoods outside the arrondissements. Whole communities that exist on the edge of a city which does not reflect them, despite its continued commitment to liberté, egalité, fraternité. I’m thinking a lot about Syrians while I'm here. I’m thinking of the families I see lying on the street, even as I love the calm, easy, elegance of the French. The story of a successful, identifiable culture is always, to some extent, a story of the victors. I’m looking forward to traveling to La Defense later this week, where African and Middle East immigrants have moved into one of the most modernist developments in the city – a Haussman and Le Corbousier lineage.
I am here caring for 20 duckling university students. Together with the prof, Cam, we will lead them around northern Europe, watching prices climb and climb, and listening to many who will tell us of sustainability projects they are championing – water reclamation, roof-top gardens, architectural restructurings of neighbourhoods to incorporate green and socially pleasing design, recycling, even anarchist football teams (in Hamburg). We will visit Bruges, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Antwerp and Copenhagen. The students are lovely. They are young and hopeful and full of ideas. I mama bear them through the streets while Cam takes the lead.

We are staying in the 17th arrondissement, which has altered in recent years from a residential and plain outlier in the city to a new centre of culture. Pushed out by the tourists, the Parisians have remade this neighbourhood with a plethora of sidewalk cafes and bars, markets, and patisseries. We venture out at 11pm for dinner and find beef bourguignon and wine. It is 20 degrees and hundreds sit sipping beer and wine at outdoor tables.

I didn’t think I would be back here so quickly. And in truth, I miss Eastern Europe, despite the heartbreak of last spring’s trip. Its its sketchy small dangers, the inventiveness of a people who have long looked at the greener grass from the other side, but managed to made a rich life of sorts in the meantime, without having to charge 4 Euros for an espresso. And yet the same monochromatic homogeneity met me there, too.