An American in Paris

Dear Voice of CWAC,

Today I went to the National Archives. I got a card to get to a room to get a card but before that I had to work an obligatory locker for my affairs whose lock mechanism broke my tiny typists’ hands. A rusty finger trap isn’t going to keep me from the archive, from the 150-year-old baking paper I fetishize! No sir!  So I started up the stairs in the big glass CARAN center (French archives have many acronyms, vaguely illustrative ones, like pharmaceutical names: Wellbutrin! Contentenol! Here, catalogues and collections are all GALLICA and OPALE: deeply associative of both precision and class, machinic serviceability and cultural warmth, a capable she-robot with convincing human breasts.) Suddenly a lady on the ground floor yelled up at me as I was halfway across the magic glass stairway to the 2nd-flor reading room. She said, pointing at me, bodily, “LA HOUSSE.  LA HOUSSE.” I went through my mental dictionary.  False cognates were skimmed and dismissed (THE HUSSY! THE HUSSY!)  La Housse? That means “comforter cover”! She pointed up at me and barked again.  I was wearing a skirt. “MADAME, LA HOUSSE.”  Guards looked up at me from the ground,  teens skulking in a second floor mediatheque glanced down.  I thought I might have my skirt tucked into my tights, like I did from 1983-1987. I smoothed my hands down my backside. “LA HOUUUSSE,” it came again. No tuckage.  I was wearing a kind of dumpy top, was she saying I looked like I was wearing a duvet cover? Was she just RAZZING ME? I have a rant about how Paris, the city of fashion and self-display, has subtly pressured me into wearing tights and dresses and heels on a daily basis, whereas Chicago respected me all the more if I wore men’s Carharts, a college sweatshirt, two flannels and the taped-on beard of a not-young goat. But not here, no, here women are feminine, and you feel either stared at or invisible if you don’t play ball. And now—it’s too much!—the finger of the State is pointing at me, calling me a hussy—no, a sleeping bag—something having to do with the stupid lady-outfit it MADE ME WEAR.  All these Gavarnis, these Verniers I’m skimming over in Le Charivari from the 1850s and 60s: the grisette or the lorette is in her dressing room getting beautiful, the man in the top hat waiting outside, but always her vanity is the center of the joke.  Hundreds of these caricatures and I still didn’t manage to outsmart the mirrored café wall and its call to be a reflection-worthy woman, that’s what I was thinking, standing there in my skirt between two floors of stares, the meat in a gaze panini that I didn’t order.

Housse means computer case. You can’t enter the reading room with your computer in its cover. So you don’t steal Baudelaire’s shopping list.  The dossier I needed was shipped off somewhere, sketchily, to be digitized, and would be gone “for months.”  I left and got a falafel sandwich in the Marais.  Success.

Sometimes I have real successes, too, ones that aren’t in sandwich form. But today is my one-year anniversary in Paris.  I thought it was nice to be reminded that an archive can still spook the confit out of you, even when you think you’re a pro.

And because this blog is supposed to be informative: If you have massive amounts of digital imagery– let’s say, thousands of photos from archives– and it’s too much information to back up on something like DropBox or another online cloud-thing, become a pro member of flickr and batch-upload photos that way.  (This is in addition to your e-drive backup.)  Thanks to Moacir at the Paris Chicago Center for the tip.


Julia Langbein

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