Thursday, September 18, 2003

As far back as I can remember I have always loved the library. I love everything about it. It is the smell of books old and new. Sometimes there is the pleasure of cracking a new binding. It is the quiet within its' walls. Then there is the Dewey Decimal System which is so simply brilliant that I wish I had come up with it. Even if being well-organized ranks low on your list you have to appreciate how much of a nightmare our libraries would be without it.

My library initiation began at the Calder branch in Edmonton. My dad used to drive my siblings and me to the library while he passed the time at Beaver Lumber. We would meet him there when we were finished or he would return to pick us up especially in winter. I remember only being able to take out ten books at a time. Although this was a lot I never felt it was enough because it often meant leaving books for another week. Sometimes I ran out of books to read in two weeks but mostly I was just over-zealous. This is sometimes known as being a book horde but then there are a lot worse things in life one could be called.

Once I reached university I probably spent as much time napping in my study carrel as I did studying. It was my experiment in learning by osmosis. I had a couple of favourite spots where I conducted this experiment but all I found after six years were saliva-stained textbooks. My friend Murray and I used to study side-by-side at Cameron library after Professor Rahim's Calculus class where I couldn't sleep because Rahim knew me by name. As I got on at school I eventually found Rutherford more to my liking. It had an expansive book collection better suited to my studies, but equally important, it was connected by passageway to most of my classes in the dead of winter and had access to the HUB food kiosks. Not to mention it was better for napping.

Once I moved to Toronto I discovered the Metro Reference library and would pass a Saturday or Sunday as part of a weekend ritual reading newspapers and periodicals, later browsing in at what used to be the Albert Britnell book shop which at the time was one of the oldest in Toronto. Sadly, it is now gone, but even sadder still is that a Starbucks has taken its' place.

This past spring I spent a lot of time at both the Harold Washington and Evanston public libraries in Chicago and area. Being in the Evanston library was a bit like having my own personal periodicals collection. People magazine seemed to be the publication most in demand. I say this because I found myself being asked three times one day if I had the latest issue. People is something to read while waiting to get your haircut when you have forgotten your book or when you are so desperate to pass time at the doctor's office that a 12 month old copy will even do.

In Paris I've spent time in the library at the George Pompidou centre. It is perfectly suited to studying. Lots of natural light. A generous allotment of individual study space. Lots of peace and quiet with a minumum of cell phones going off as it should be in a library. This week one of my classmates told me that she preferred studying at Sainte-Genevieve so I thought I would try it seeing as it was a lot closer to walk to after class. It took me two days to register for a library card. On my first attempt I had forgotten to bring a photo so I returned to the apartment to fetch one. Then while waiting in the registration line, the security guard announced at 530 PM that although he was sorry, the rest of us would have to come back the next day as they were not processing any more registrations (even though registration is supposed to end at 6 PM I wasn't about to try explaining that to him).

There are libraries and then there is Sainte-Genevieve. It is a building that was designed by Henri Lambrouste, a young architect at the time. Built in 1842-50 and noted for its' modernist elements and extensive use of decorative iron work it does not even merit a mention in Michelin's Green Guide. It is especially striking once you enter the building. In the vestibule I immediately felt I was in a privileged and rarefied environment. It is the kind of place where you are certain greatness has entered before you. As a backdrop to the vestibule, the stairs of honour lend a majestic and noble air to the space. It is a symbol of the ongoing pursuit of higher learning and knowledge, and secondly, it functions to lead the daily stream of students and researchers to Lambrouste study hall on the first floor (referred to as the second floor to those of us used to calling the ground floor first). The study hall's spendid iron work on the ceiling and the 42 arched windows provide ample reasons for gazing when a study break is needed. The over 700 study spaces are perfectly aligned row after row in double columns of dark-stained oak tables. It is a bit overwhelming at first especially when trying to find the seat number on the reservation slip only to be told by the young woman sitting in "my seat" that nobody in the study hall actually abides by the printed seat numbers. I have learned very quickly how things really work here so that I can seemingly make my way through the corridors of Sainte-Genevieve as if I have been studying here all along.

It must have been fate that put me at an apartment one street away from Pierre Herme, reputed to have some of the best macaroons anywhere. Pierre Herme was still on my list having already sampled ones from Gerard Mulot and Dallayou. I usually buy one or maybe two small macaroons at a time unless I am planning on sharing them with someone. Once I ate four while walking back from Musee Rodin but that was most unusual. Even though each is only about the size of a Canadian loonie and the thickness of two pancakes one is enough for me.

I walked into Pierre Herme today on my way to the library Sainte-Genevieve. At first none of the flavours really excited me until I saw "caramel a la fleur de sel" I had to have one. Just one. When I ordered the latex-gloved clerk gave me a look which I interpreted as, "are you seriously wasting my time for one macaroon?" All I would respond to that is I am free to do so unless I want one too many Louis Vuitton wallets in which case a socialist override kicks in.* The clerk's stare seemed paticularly piercing probably because she was Asian as was I. I don't know why it is but Asians don't ever act as if they like one another. But I'm not like that; I like anyone who is going to give me my macaroon. The shocker was that it cost 1 euro 50 which was a 50 percent premium over those of Gerard Mulot or Dallayou. One euro a macaroon was a bit of a shock from which I got over; one fifty requires the jaws of life.

But as am pondering the premium at Pierre Herme on macaroons I wonder, how do they manage it? Gerard Mulot is literally minutes away but charges significantly less for what is at the same time a pretty decent macaroon. Maybe the premium is for prettier packaging or that sixteen page booklet I just picked up. If it was packaging I should have suggested the clerk pop the macaroon straight into my mouth. But I think the premium is really the price of attitude. Have you ever made that connection? The more attitude the more the product or service. It is a little like the space between the hangers on a clothes rack and the price of the clothes.

Then I thought, even though I haven't been exactly keeping track, I may have spent enough on macaroons, gelato, and croissants in Paris to feed half a dozen starving children somewhere. Put in this way all those macaroons seem rather over-indulgent and maybe I should give them up. I'll let you know.
*see post of 2 Sep 2003

Sunday, September 14, 2003

Despite what was a rude awakening by garbage truck sirens in the early hours of morning, on a Saturday no less, I turned over and went back to sleep for another three or so hours. I hadn't had great sleep the past two nights in the new apartment which I've not been too happy about. Without going into details, I think Roger summed up best the day I moved over about how I am feeling- "sister, you've come down a notch." But all is good when in Paris.

I had no idea what time the library in the Georges Pompidou Centre opened but I had aimed for 9-930. After a yogurt I got ready and out the door in relatively short order. It was a beautiful morning which made me think what a shame to spend it indoors. Perhaps if I made good progress early on I'd consider spending the afternoon studying in the park. After lugging my 10 kilo sack of books to the library I discovered that it didn't open until 11AM. What kind of library was this? All last month I'd either been studying in the park or in the other apartment equipped with a desk, but there was no such set-up in the current apartment.

My next thought was to find a nearby cafe for 1-1/2 hours. I stopped at a small cafe bar and ordered a grand cafe creme. Apart from the coffee, I probably inhaled enough cigarette smoke to line the inside of my lungs. This is something I accept in Paris but probably no place else. As far as the morning coffee, I was making better ones at 4 rue Princesse. I had yet to find a good coffee in Paris but there was still time.

I finished my coffee and decided to move across the street to the square Tour de la St. Jacques. It was the oddest feeling as I passed through the small gated entrance. All of sudden I wanted to turn back around but I resisted the urge to do so. Some of the city's homeless had made their bed on one of the benches. Apart from two men engaged in lively conversation, the rest were single souls seated on benches staring vacuously into space or at their feet. Their sense of of loneliness and isolation gripped me. Maybe there were just as many lonely souls in the other gardens and parks I've frequented but the presence of other strangers engaged in all kinds of social activity had drowned out anyone's silent cries. Here there were no such strangers to serve as distractions.

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