Best of December

How are your holidays coming along? Any fun plans for New Year’s Eve? Be sure to check my post on French Holiday Meals, and my 12 Best Food Gifts!

We had such a lovely, quiet Christmas celebration this year. Now that my children are respectively 4 1/2 and almost 2, we are really getting into the magic of it.

In addition to the big-boy bike for Milan (training wheels? who needs them!) and the adorable crochet vegetables and mini dining set for Mika, Maxence and I had a blast hunting for vintage toys from our own childhoods, such as “real” Lego blocks (not the hyper-specialized, imagination-thwarting crap they put out now) and Smurf figurines (I mean Schtroumpfs) with an actual! mushroom! house!.

A Family of Shoes

Currently loving

  1. As part of my Monthly Museum Challenge, I went to the Grand Palais to see the Hergé exhibition all about the creator of Tintin, joining a private guided tour led by the amazing Catherine Rosane of Fred & Kate. I loved the exhibition and Catherine’s insightful take on it, and doodled along gleefully (see below). I am now engrossed in Benoît Peeters’ biography of Hergé, Hergé fils de Tintin.
  2. How to Throw a Dinner Party Like a Parisian, with some of my thoughts thrown in.
  3. In addition to my Monthly Museum Challenge, I’m enriching my life further with a Monthly Poem Challenge: I’ll be choosing a new poem to memorize each month. For years and years I’ve known just two (Mon Rêve familier and Le Dormeur du val), and I’ve just memorized this new one, which jumped up at me in a copy of Les Fleurs du Mal lying around at Aloha Café. I love the idea that by the end of 2017, if all goes well, I’ll know twelve more. Are you in?
  4. Meals at La Mascotte, a wonderful Belle Époque brasserie in Montmartre where the food is excellent and the waiters are genuinely nice.
  5. Our new hand-crafted clay mugs in moss green and yellow, which I found at Amami in Paris. I plan to spend all winter with my hands wrapped around their smooth, soft sides.
My sketch of Hergé's 2CV

My sketch of Hergé’s 2CV

Find my top Paris spots on this map of favorites, and follow me on Instagram to see many more food shots and Paris recommendations throughout the month!

  • Clinton Davidson

    A few longish thoughts on the poetry challenge- these ideas won’t turn you into Julien Sorel, who memorized the entire New Testament in Latin, but they should make memorizing more efficient and more enjoyable.
    One of the approaches of memorizing the lines is just to repeat them over and over again- Repetitio mater studiorum est. While a certain amount of repetition is essential, there are two problems with it. First, it’s like cramming for an exam, so it doesn’t stay in long-term memory, which has led to alternate approaches such as spaced repitition:
    Second, it leads to what could be called the “pledge of allegiance” effect, i.e. your recitation becomes plodding and predictable:
    Bum bum bububum
    Bum bum bum
    Bum bum bubumum bum bum bubububum
    The pianist Artur Rubenstein was aware of this and said:
    “I was born very, very lazy and I don’t always practice very long. but I must say, in my defense, that it is not so good, in a musical way, to overpractice. When you do, the music seems to come out of your pocket. If you play with a feeling of ‘Oh, I know this,’ you play without that little drop of fresh blood that is necessary – and the audience feels it.”
    Instead, I’d say interpreting the text should be done before memorizing the text. You don’t want to be like a peasant in England before the reformation repeating the words of the Latin mass, but not understanding a word of it.It’s all hocus pocus (from hoc est corpus meum, i.e. this is my body). Instead, think of:
    “We sat together at one summer’s end,
    That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
    And you and I, and talked of poetry.
    I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
    Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
    Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.”

    In other words, the poet is helping you, not just through rhyme and meter, but by stitching together various parts of the poem. This not only makes the poem denser (as in the German dicht [dense] Dichter [poet]), but gives the reciter multiple paths to reconstruct the poem.
    For those who want a list, there’s Vendler’s list on close reading poetry.
    Another way to think of stitching is the locus (place) technique of memorization. You take a well-known area, like your home or a walking path, and put things in stations along that path. This way you know the order of stanzas. But the locus technique can also be use with multiple paths. So one path could be used for the stanzas in order, another could be used for changes in tense, person, redefinitions of words, reappearance of images, allusions to other authors, e.g. the Bible, allusions to other works by the same author, etc.
    I should mention that I don’t use the memorization techniques
    of associating the lines with fantastic action images, as encouraged by memorization books when learning a foreign language. The link method, where you make an explicit link with the next item in the list using action or exaggeration, could be used without the action or exaggeration, namely
    to ask yourself “Why is the poem in this order?”, and then to make the links through repeated sounds and images.

    The technique I use after interpretation is recitation. As this also has negative connotations, let’s handle some of the objections. There’s something about the word “recital” that makes me cringe, whether it was from being forced to play piano for relatives as a child, or listening to unhappy children perform them as an adult. A recital should also be something played with understanding of the music and with feeling. In other words, it should be poetic and not mechanical, so don’t try to race through the text when reciting it.

    My technique for reciting is put the poems on Google drive, make them available offline, then recite them while walking- keeping an eye on the path, of course. My paces provide the base meter, and the rhythm of the walk is varied enough that the readings don’t fall into a rut. Walking has the additional advantage
    of helping you to learn breathing- it shouldn’t be a problem to speak two or three iambic pentameter lines in a breath while walking. While walking, keep in mind musical terms that can be applied to poetry: phrase marks; fermata for a long pause; accelerando and ritardo for velocity;
    crescendo and decrescendo for volume; and staccato for punching monosyllables. Don’t read the words like a computer voice, but accentuate the spoken aspects of the poem.
    When Donne says:
    Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
    As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
    That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
    Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
    The battering B’s are not just meant to be read silently, but to burst. The same could occasionally be said for hissing Ss and moaning Os.
    Also consider how and inverted first foot can punch a line, particularly with enjambment:
    “That unmatch’d form and stature of blown youth
    Blasted with ecstasy…”
    Once you get in the habit of reciting, reading silently in your head feels like sight reading a piece of music vs putting your fingers on the keys.

    Don’t feel that you have to recite the text start to finish every time. Like a piano piece, you work on the more difficult passages.
    Another analogy would be cooking scrambled eggs- you stir them around as the parts gel.
    When reading a poem, there’s usually a part that crystallizes immediately, so you can use this as the seed for linking the rest of the parts together. Breathing exercises, like Pranayama, help with the ability to speak multiple lines in one breath. Books on voice for acting, like Voice and the Actor give good advice on
    improving your voice for recitation, including many good poems as exercises.

    After all this is when I use memorization-specific techniques, starting with the first-letter technique.
    The author’s example of the Gettysburg address would start “F s a s y a o f b f o t c…” The idea is that memory improves when there’s a little work involved. This can be varied to use the first and last letter, the first word of a line and the first letter of the rest of the words, etc. If you want to go beyond the author’s textbox and use other variations, it helps to know Python or some other scripting language to transform a poem.
    Writing out the text also helps, and has the additional advantage of puzzling out the larger shape. Once you have the poem in memory, try using a spaced memorization technique like Anki to delay memorization decay.

    Finally, why go through all this trouble?
    “Alas! What boots it with uncessant care
    To tend the homely slighted Shepherds trade,
    And strictly meditate the thankles Muse,
    Were it not better don as others use,
    To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
    Or with the tangles of Neæra’s hair?”

    (The image of shading and disentanglement fits well with the idea of stitching and unstitching.)
    As mentioned above, it’s to enlarge your repertoire and improve your craft.
    “Repertoire” has the unfortunate sense of a staged event. But it doesn’t have to be a paid performance.
    Before radio and tv, people would provide their own entertainment- think of The Dead, where one party would give a speech, another recite a poem, and another pair would sing and play piano together-a tradition well worth reviving.

    A more likely case would be to use it naturally in conversation- the density of poetry makes it equivalent to paragraphs of argument. When Lincoln was asked about his childhood, he just replied
    “The short and simple annals of the poor.”
    Or in Mansfield Park, when Fanny:
    ‘… said in a low voice— “Cut down an avenue! What a pity! Does it not make you think of Cowper? ‘Ye fallen avenues,
    once more I mourn your fate unmerited.’”’
    The point is not that it’s a remarkable passage, but how poetry wove itself into ordinary conversation.

    Poems don’t need to be recited or woven into conversation; they are a great way to entertain yourself when walking or waiting. You don’t even need to stare at your phone.

    People talk about bucket lists, especially with places to travel. Being in another place can be great- it puts you in another atmosphere, and forces you to examine many assumptions that you take for granted. But you don’t have to travel to have imagination:
    I never saw a Moor–
    I never saw the Sea–
    Yet know I how the Heather looks
    And what a Billow be.

    or feeling:
    Afinal, a melhor maneira de viajar é sentir….
    After all, the best way to travel is to feel.
    To feel everything in every way.
    To feel everything excessively
    Because all things are, in truth, excessive
    And all reality is an excess, a violence,
    An extremely vivid hallucination
    That we all live in common with the fury of the souls…

    Instead of (or in addition to) the standard bucket lists which center around consumption, why not have a bucket list of poems to read, and a choice set of poems of poems to memorize? Taking the trouble to memorize them, or at least close-read them and recite them, moves from consumption to active participation. Poetry costs considerably less, and gives you something you can not only share with others, but something you can share with yourself every year of your life.

    • I so enjoyed reading your thoughts. Thank you. I will need to come back to them several times to digest everything, but it’s given me food for thought already. Happy new year!

Get the newsletter

Receive FREE email updates with all the latest recipes, plus exclusive inspiration and Paris tips. You can also choose to be notified when a new post is published.

View the latest edition of the newsletter.