Over a month since Soft Animal came out! Have you bought it? Have you read it? Did you enjoy it? I want to hear allllll your thoughts: the good, the bad, the ugly. Just hit reply on this newsletter and let me have it.
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I was walking down the road yesterday to meet my friend for ice cream. Germans loooove ice cream, even in the dead of winter, there’ll be one vaguely sunny day and everyone’s suddenly standing around eating “eis.” The more old fashioned shops have large cement bins shaped like cones outside. You can buy “spaghetti” ice, which is just ice cream in different shapes in the colours of spag bol. You can buy massive sundaes, there’s vegan ice on every corner, and ice cream shops often have lines snaking outside them filled mostly with parents and kids, but also regular adult people just getting their ice cream on.
[I made the switch to oat milk ages ago, Germany has some very delicious options, and it’s been a long time since I’ve eaten ice cream, but uff, sorry to report that my stomach has now lost any lactose enzymes or whatever it used to have. One small sweet serving and my stomach begins to rumble, and both times I’ve eaten ice cream this summer, I’ve had to *ahem* use the facilities the moment I returned home. It’s very sad and I will keep trying. I’ve always been mildly lactose intolerant, but it was bearable before, just a bit bloated and gassy, but now it’s a little painful. I wonder if that’s an age thing or a eating-much-less dairy thing. I do still eat cheese and yogurt with no ill effects.]
Anyway, the past few days have been beautifully sunny, and I felt full of good will as I walked along. It was the first day in months I was baring my legs—it’s chilly when the sun goes down, so if I’m going to be out for a while, I put on tights—and I had my Birkenstocks on and a little swagger to my step brought about by wearing sandals instead of shoes, because my feet weren’t used to them, and I was wearing a second hand thin corduroy dress I’d bought in Warsaw and hadn’t worn yet, no, life felt nice.
And then standing at the corner, waiting for the light to change as I crossed I suddenly got that roaring deja vu of where am I is this my real life? I’ve travelled so much in the past five years that sometimes I see another city superimposed on the one I am. People sitting at tables on the street will bring back Bangkok, an old carving on a building will be Budapest, the sun will filter through the trees and there’s a particular hot summer smell, and all at once, I’m in Delhi. This time though, my music switched to Lady Marmalade from Moulin Rouge, and I was thinking about Paris as I gitchy-gitchy-ya-ya-ta-ta’d walking past buildings and cobblestoned roads.
That movie was very big the first time I went to Paris. I was nineteen years old and my father had been asked to speak at a conference and took me along. All day, he was conferencing and I was out on my own with a French to English phrasebook and a copy of the Lonely Planet and a map the hotel had given me to get back. I had an iPod then, playing Lady Marmalade on repeat, and once I remembered the chorus was in French when I sang aloud to myself and people stopped and turned around to stare at me.
[Sidebar: once I met a cute French guy in Delhi and he said, “Do you know any French?” and I laughed and said, “Well, I know that one line from that song?” and he was like, “What is it?” and I said, “Well, you know, voulez vous coucher avec moi?” and he said, “Yes.” And who was pulling the line on whom at that point, I wonder, but we both felt very smooth.]
It was February or March when I first went to Paris, cold with little points of spring coming up. The museums were all closed, some strike or another, so mostly to amuse myself I wandered in areas marked off by my guidebook as “extras.” You went to Paris for the museums, my guidebook said, but if you weren’t going to museums, you could do these other things as well. I learned the Metro by myself, and every morning, I stopped at this one Shell station by our hotel where I got a cup of coffee to go. Everyone spoke French and I had laboriously memorised how to say “please” and “thank you” and “good morning” and “yes.” [Funny, I can’t remember the French for “no,” maybe I didn’t learn it at all.] I felt ridiculously sophisticated, I bought a red beret—cringe now at this thought!—and I put it at an angle on my head and felt as Frenchified as it is possible for one nineteen year old Delhiite to be.
One evening, when my father was free, we went to this flea market somewhere or another, and I decided to pierce my bellybutton at one of the stalls. The man used a sort of clamp with prongs to hold the skin up and then just pushed the ring through as easy as you please. I chose a barbell, which later I swapped out with a small ring with a butterfly ornament, that’s the sort of young woman I was, listening to Crazytown, dreaming of someone saying, “You’re my butterfly, sugar, baby.” Imagine being reduced to being someone’s butterfly, but those are the songs we had, and the songs we liked, where we were just images in someone’s thoughts and as images, we had to exist perfectly, as though we were just paper dolls, no thoughts and feelings of our own. So my getting this navel ring wasn’t a symbol of rebellion or anything, it was supposed to be an unexpected bit of sexiness that would be revealed when I chose to. I was a good girl inside, with my beret and my piercing, and my ideas about Paris.
There’s a rap bit in Lady Marmalade that I never paid attention to, I was too busy humming along to the voulez vous etc etc. It goes:
We come through with the money and the garter belts
Let him know we 'bout that cake straight out the gate (uh)
We independent women, some mistake us for whores
I'm sayin', "Why spend mine when I can spend yours?"
Disagree? Well, that's you, and I'm sorry
I'ma keep playing these cats out like Atari
Wear high heel shoes, get love from the dudes
Four badass chicks from the Moulin Rouge
Hey sistas, soul sistas, betta get that dough, sistas
We drink wine with diamonds in the glass
By the case, the meaning of expensive taste
Moulin Rouge is, of course, the story of an expensive sex worker who works at the Moulin Rouge cabaret and an innocent but poor man who is in love with her and wants to rescue her from all of it. I don’t remember much about the film, but I know Nicole Kidman with her pale skin and large eyes plays the lead, and she has consumption, I think, so is forever coughing blood into a white handkerchief. And there’s an evil pimp who refuses to release her from her obligations. Nicole Kidman doesn’t want to be there at the Moulin Rouge, but also she knows that’s she’s too “soiled” for the innocent writer who falls in love with her, so in the end, they don’t run away together. Instead, Nicole Kidman dies, and the innocent writer has to tell their story so she can “live on” or whatever. It was a very successful movie with the message that love conquers all, unless you’re a cabaret girl promised to a loan shark, in which case you have to die so the story can stay true to itself. I thought the song was about liberation, will you go to bed with me tonight and so on, but it’s really about being okay about spending someone else’s money. A man’s.
I ate snails in Paris and did not enjoy the taste. Mostly I liked pizza and the wine they served by the carafe. I wasn’t yet legal drinking age in Delhi, but in Paris I was. At one small restaurant I heard someone ask, “Excuse me, are you from SPV?” and it was someone who had been to school with me a few years prior, and that was a beautiful serendipitous moment.
My final day there, I stopped at the Shell station once more for a last cup of coffee. There was a young man who had been serving me every day. It was raining, and as I left, I heard him call out to me: Mademoiselle, Mademoiselle! I turned, and he released a rapid round of French at me, none of which I could understand. I just stood there, enjoying the moment, the rain and the French and the being alone in Paris with my cup of coffee, just another image of a woman in a movie, without thoughts or words of my own.
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Still on The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch, but I am listening to the audiobook of Ann Patchett’s latest collection of essays which inspired this newsletter as she has a Paris essay in it herself. It’s called These Precious Days and is worth your time. I’ve recently discovered I can borrow audiobooks via my library app, so I load them up for commuting and walking and have a nice story going on even as I have to leave the house. The best of both worlds.
Asparagus season in Germany, which everyone is damn excited about, but it’s only the white asparagus that don’t taste as crunchy. I managed to get some green ones, but I had no idea what to make with them, since asparagus is generally not part of my repertoire. Used this recipe for pasta, but instead of making the sauce on the side, I aglio-olio’d it with garlic, and instead of using just goat’s cheese since I had very little, I added blue cheese as well. Also lime juice instead of lemon rind. It was delicious. Also asparagus does make your pee smell extremely funky, like you’re a very old man and you’ve been drinking your entire life and somehow you also pee in an outhouse, so with an undertone of rotten wood. It’s gross but in an interesting sort of way.
Just a few bookish links this week:
The art of monstrous men, which I enjoyed because I also just rewatched Manhattan recently and got the ick from Woody Allen and his seventeen-year-old girlfriend.
An interview with the founder of Bookshop, an Amazon competitor.
And the late Martin Amis on the genius of Jane Austen (and the badness of rom coms.)
And that’s all I’ve got! Speak very soon.
Who are you? Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, writer of internet words (and other things) author of seven books (support me by buying a book!) and general city-potter-er.
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Forward to your friends if you liked this and to the love songs of your youth which you realise weren’t really love songs at all if you didn’t.
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