An American (Researcher) in Paris

I love Paris. Maybe it’s cliché, maybe I’d sound cooler if this post began “I love Kuala Lumpur” (and who knows – I probably would love Kuala Lumpur), but my love for Paris is more than a superficial infatuation with the Louvre Pyramid on a dark night when the Eiffel Tower sparkles in the background. My love for Paris is a love of the city’s soul. What is the city’s soul, you ask? Ask a hundred people and you’ll get a hundred answers, but my answer is: ideas.

I finished my work in Sardinia in a blur (as you can tell by my lack of blog posts), and I arrived in Paris a week ago today. Getting set up to continue my research at the Museúm national d’Histoire naturelle is an ongoing process. I have to get an access badge, register my computer with the museum’s network, have a preliminary meeting with my postdoc advisor, retrieve my materials, organize my work for the month, make appointments to use imaging equipment, buy civil insurance… If only all I had to do in order to do my research was the research!

But I’m impervious to the complications of re-finding my place here because I’m so darn happy to be back. Paris is one of the homes I’ve chosen. Few places I’ve traveled have felt so immediately comfortable, and I attribute that comfort to being surrounded by ideas. Ideas make me happy. I rarely feel more myself than when I’m mulling over some new discovery or work of art, and these things are everywhere in Paris. Posters for independent films hang beside the usual blockbusters. Flyers invite you to watch comedians dissect everything from family relations to global politics. Newsstands display Beaux Arts and Science&Vie with more fanfare than the French equivalents of Cosmopolitan and GQ.

And those are just the mainstream ideas. Get to know a Parisian, and you’ll find yourself drawn into subcultures of ideas that lead to more ideas that lead to who knows where. I wasn’t in Paris a week before one of my new flat mates invited me to her concert at La Java, where Edith Piaf once sang, as part of a celebration of À Nous la Nuit, a French movement similar to Take Back the Night. Before the evening was over, I had been invited to feminist film festivals and shibari demonstrations, and I can only guess where attending those might lead. Sadly, they’re taking place after I return to the States, but just knowing they’re out there adds to my sense of being a happy rabbit dropped into a twisting warren of thoughts.

Ideas make Paris the perfect place to be a researcher. Even if most of what I encounter isn’t directly related to my work, the constant flow of ideas makes me feel curious, sharp, and creative. The atmosphere is inspiring, and it’s everywhere. Even on my morning metro commute, everyone is reading.


Coming Home

I once went to a psychologist whose website listed “family of origin” issues as among her specializations.

“What’s a family of origin?” I asked at our first meeting.

“You know, the family you’re born into rather than the family you choose.”

She said it like it was obvious, but it was new to me and the idea stuck. Some things we’re born into, and some things we choose, and both have deep emotional reality, the chosen no less than the ones we happen into at birth.

This thought occurs to me every time someone asks me where I’m from. “Where are you from” means different things to different people. When an academic asks me, it means what university I teach at or where I got my PhD. When a stranger asks me, it means the last place I lived long enough to hold a job and put down roots. But that’s a northern stranger, to be sure. A southerner once asked me while we were waiting at US customs after returning from abroad.

“I never know how to answer that question,” I waffled. “I move around a lot. I was teaching in Buffalo last year, but I also work in Sardinia…”

“Where were you born, honey?”

“I was born in Ohio.”

“Then you’ll always be from Ohio.”

Okay, yes, I guess that’s true: Ohio is my home of origin. But the other homes I get to choose.

Yesterday, I came home to Sardinia. Stepping off the airplane felt like putting on a good pair of running shoes or a favorite dress that still looks hot: simultaneously comfortable and ready for action. I picked up my rental car, slipped into the muscle memory of driving a manual transmission (which I never do in the states), and took off for the town of Siddi where I’ve been doing archaeology for the past eight years. There are hiccups, to be sure – my Italian isn’t as fluent as it will be after a few weeks of speaking – but it comes back quickly, enough so that the waiter serving my lunch started out in English but joined me in Italian after a few short exchanges.

I’m at Caffè Libarium Nostrum on the castello of Cagliari, high up in the center of the old city. Libarium Nostrum is a longtime favorite. The food is good, but what draws me here is the view: the tiled domes and elaborate facades of Cagliari’s many churches, the Torre dell’Elefante to my left, the Via Santa Croce winding away to my right with its panorama over the city’s medieval walls. In among the elegant structures are the clotheslines and crumbling brick of a very living city. An Italian colleague from the mainland once claimed that Cagliari is ugly. Given that I think Cagliari is one of the most charming cities I know, I can only imagine he meant that – unlike Venice or Florence or Rome – Cagliari doesn’t look like a museum. And it doesn’t. Cagliari’s historic corners are full of modern grit. But that’s what I love about it. I love finding some of my favorite street art across the piazza from the cathedral. I love drinking cocktails in an underground room that was once a medieval cistern. I love that there’s a windfarm in the middle distance between the port and the mountains. Cagliari isn’t trying to be anything particular – it just is.

And that’s how it feels to be back in Sardinia. Here, I don’t try to be anything. I just am what I am: a slightly crazy American girl who keeps coming back to do archaeology in one of the coolest places she’s ever been. I’m weird, but still welcome. Foreign, but a member of the community. I leave a friend’s house in Siddi where I’m staying while I do my research, and people on the street welcome me back and ask me how long I’ll be around. I order a cappuccino in the piazza bar, where I’ve returned every summer since 2008, and another friend insists on paying. He asks me where my students are; I explain that this year I’ve come alone. We talk about the difficulty of finding funding for cultural projects and the importance of video in bringing archaeological results to a broader audience. I promise to do more, not only in English but also in Italian, and he says he’ll introduce me to his brother, a film editor.

I have until October 16 to complete my zooarchaeological study and get sufficient footage for a couple of videos. But right now, I’m coming off an intense five weeks doing the project in Akko. I’m giving myself until Friday just to enjoy being home.

Cagliari’s gritty charm


The cathedral on the castello
The castello’s narrow streets