The Goldfinch and Me

the goldfinch

Last night, sometime during the hour before midnight, I sat propped up in my bed with tears streaming down my face as I finished the last page of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. My eyes had welled up intermittently while reading the last 20 pages or so, but as I faced the absolute end of the book – one of the most beautiful and affecting endings I’ve ever read, I think – there was nothing stopping me from truly crying. I was sad to leave the world that I’d been completely immersed in for the past few days, yet ecstatically happy that I’d been able to be immersed in that world at all.

I’ll need a while to think about this book before I really write about it. However, I didn’t want to let another moment pass before giving it my full endorsement here. I’m only a recent convert to the “cult of Donna Tartt”. Reading her first novel, The Secret History, was one of the most entertaining and intellectually satisfying experiences I had this year. I’ll say the same for reading The Goldfinch, but with much more emphasis. It was one of the most pleasurable reading experiences I’ve had…ever.

This morning, I told a friend that I’d finished the book and he asked if he could borrow it. Yes, I said, of course. But I couldn’t help but acknowledge how sad it would make me to give the book away, to let it be in another person’s possession. To let another person have their own experience with The Goldfinch. Yet, there are so many people who have already read or will read the book. I’ll encounter and engage with their opinions and interpretations of the novel eventually, I’m sure. For a little while longer, though, I just want it to be me and The Goldfinch, alone together.

Notes from the Sidelines of a High School Cross Country Meet

Last weekend, my brother John raced in the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Cross Country Championships.  He was seeded first in the Class C race. (New York State divides its public high schools into classes based on size.) John is a fierce competitor and has worked tirelessly to get to this level in his high school career. As a senior, this was his chance to be the first boy to win a state title in Cross Country from Bronxville High School. And of course, it was his chance to win a state title for himself, which I think is just as important.

I haven’t watched many of John’s races. Those of you who read this blog on a regular basis may have noticed that I don’t discuss sports very often. Or at all, really. I’m just not much of a sports fan except during tennis grand slam tournaments and the Olympics. My family, however, is all about sports. More of my siblings are All-American athletes than are not. And everyone in my family considers themselves a fan of most major American sports and, specifically, New York-based teams. I tried for a long time to be like them. But the fact is, I’d rather spend my time reading books and doing things I like than trying to learn the rules of football, which is just never going to happen. Anyway, I digress. All I meant to say was that honestly, I would have gone to more of John’s races had I genuinely been interested enough in the sport of running to sit through meets that last for hours and hours. But I only really care about him. That’s why I just show up to the important stuff, like State Championships.

The race was early on Saturday morning in Queensbury, NY, which is north of Albany. My brother Jim, my sister Tori and I drove up together after work on Friday. We spent the entire three and a half hour drive having a sing-a-long and also, looking for a McDonald’s. (There are surprisingly few along the New York State Thruway). When we got to our hotel, we settled into our “suite” – which was just a very large room that we were sharing with our parents – and went to sleep. Or, everyone else went to sleep. I was up the entire night due to a combination of the Diet Coke I drank at 9 PM and my dad’s snoring.

In the morning, we got ready and headed over to the local high school’s, where the day’s races were to be held. Jim and I drove together and eventually I joined my mom around the starting line. My dad and my sister were up in the woods, where they were planning on running around to catch John at different points in the race. John had quite a few people cheering for him that day aside from our immediate family. The Bronxville girls’ team was running later in the morning, so there were other parents and coaches around. And my mom’s good friend Barb, her daughter Emily and Emily’s one year-old son came out to support him as well.

When the race started, we saw John for about a ten seconds before he and the other boys ran up into the woods. My mom, as she is during all of my siblings’ races, was very anxious. She just wanted John to win. We all did. After about ten minutes, we found spaces along the straightaway – I think that’s what it’s called – before the finish line and waited for the end of the race. Finally, we could see John from afar. He was easy to spot in his bright blue and white striped uniform. He was in the lead.


john xc


As he entered the final straightaway, he looked strong, but the boy in second place was right on his heels, gaining momentum. They both zoomed past us and I lost sight of them about ten meters before the finish line. That was when John lost the race.

I had no idea what was happening. All I did was hope that he had won, though I had a feeling that he hadn’t. I kept looking toward the finish line but couldn’t figure out what the outcome was based on anyone’s reaction. When I turned around, I saw Barb and Emily. “I think he got second,” one of them said. My mom ran over to us. “Second,” she said, sadly.

I didn’t see John until probably twenty minutes later. By that time, all of us had recounted what we had seen and what we hadn’t, who had told us that he’d gotten second, how strong he looked at every point in the race. “Hey,” everyone said. “Second place is still pretty good.”  And that is, of course, the truth. However, when you’re competitive – like John is, like everyone in my family is – second place is good, but it’s just not good enough.

When he finally came around, each of us hugged John for a really long time. He was clearly disappointed. Not angry. Just bummed.

“Thank you for coming,” he said to me.

“Of course,” I said. And I meant that. Of course I would have been there. It was a big race. I wished that I could have done something for him. That the outcome had been different. But, I will say, I have never been prouder of John. For the rest of the day he was composed, complimentary of others, and very, very gracious.


jim, john, me & tori

jim, john, me & tori


We watched his teammates on the girls’ team win a state title as a team. I saw a few other races from a distance. Mostly, I felt cold and bored. The temperature was in the 30s and I wanted to go home. My family and one of John’s coaches got pizza at a restaurant down the road from the high school. We were all in better spirits by that point, John especially. Afterwards, he, Tori and my parents went to the awards ceremony. Jim and I drove the three and a half hours back to our parents’ house.

Back in Brooklyn that evening, I was hanging out with some friends and told them all about John’s race. Most of them seemed to…not get why I was upset that he had gotten second place. I tried to explain that I was proud of him and that, yes, second place is good. Obviously. It’s one place away from first. It was just hard to see Johnny get second place when I knew that he’d worked so, so hard to get first.

Later on, I was playing a game with a few people. “You’re so competitive,” someone said to me, after I’d lost a point or a round or something.

“Yeah,” I said. “I know.”

“It’s obviously hereditary,” they said. And that is the truth. Even though I don’t care much for sports, I am deeply competitive, like the rest of my family. And also, like the rest of my family, deeply loyal.

Seeing John get second place was heartbreaking not because it felt like it was happening to meIt was because I knew it was happening to him. And I want him to have all of the success and glory and happiness that he deserves. But someone had to get second place, which, when you think about it, is much better than a lot of other places.


john & me

john & me, post-race but pre-pizza


Johnny, you’re a fighter, a leader and, most importantly, a gentleman. I know you’ll continue to do great things in your last year of high school and beyond. And I’m so happy that you’re my brother. I am so proud of you.

Back to Basics: (Re)-learning German

I started a German class last week. It is…gut! (Haha, gut is a German word.) I have missed being in school so, so much. I haven’t taken an actual class since I took a few writing courses at NYU during my first year out of college. Since moving out of my parents’ house, I hadn’t been able to afford any adult education classes. However, now I’m able to be a little bit more self-indulgent with my dollars and I figured that I should start up with German again sooner rather than later.

in front of the brandenburg gate

in front of the brandenburg gate

I took German for fun during my senior year of college. It’s honestly not something I would have imagined myself doing, even though I have been a student of German history as long as I can remember. Seriously, I feel like half of the classes I took in college were either about German history or in the German department. I started taking German because I went to Berlin for a weekend while I was studying abroad in Paris for a semester. Berlin was on the top of my list of places I wanted to visit, but I didn’t know how obsessed I would be until I got there. I’ll probably talk a little bit more about this trip in my next post about Paris, so I won’t say too much now. But I will say that Berlin is one of the few cities I’ve ever visited where I truly felt like I could live there.

I loved the German class I was in during my senior year. It had been so long since I had been a beginner in a language. (I started taking Latin at age 12 and French at age 14). It was fun learning all of the basics. Plus, I was good at it. Before I knew it, though, I was graduating. And there would be no more German for me until after college when I briefly dated someone who was moving to Germany and liked to speak what I felt were complicated sentences in German at me, which made me kind of nervous. I had planned on visiting him in Germany and had wanted to resume my German studies before then, but…our communication ended shortly after he got there. And for a while, I wanted nothing to do with Germany or the German language.

But, eventually, I started to get the itch to learn something again. I knew I wanted to try to learn a new language, but it seemed a shame to start something entirely from the beginning. I shopped around – on the internet – for language classes in the city and settled on taking something with Fluent City. They’re based in Williamburg, not very far from where I live, so it’s the most convenient. (They also offer classes in Manhattan and in other locations around the country.) And frankly, it just seemed like the coolest language school.

I’m now two classes in and I’m still pretty psyched about it. I skipped the beginner level and started with Level 2. I will have to do a lot of review in the next few weeks and studying will be time-consuming. I’ve practiced almost every day for an hour or two, so this will definitely cut into my reading and writing time for sure.  (I really like this website and app called DuoLingo. Check it out!)

But I’m looking forward to being challenged in a way that I haven’t been in a long time. Learning to speak a new language is hard. I’ve always been good at memorization and translation. Speaking, especially when it’s not in a social context and I stand the chance of being embarrassed, has always been hard for me. I’m trying my best this time around to be willing to make mistakes and look stupid for the sake of learning, Hopefully, it will work. And then I can realize my dream of moving to Berlin, where everyone will speak English to me after they figure out that I’m not a native German speaker.

Alone in Paris: Settling

This is the third part in a series about studying abroad in Paris in the fall of 2007. You can read the first part here and the second part here.

Settling in had to happen eventually. Once I accepted that I was in Paris for a semester and that nothing could change that, I began to build a (temporary) life. It was both difficult and not. Everyday things fell into place: friends, regular activities, classes. But I still remained anxious enough that I was always looking forward to what was coming next: outings, visitors, trips to other countries.

I had five professors. Art history was taught by a small, patient woman named Anne-Catherine. The History of Paris was taught by a 70-something year-old man who I think was named Claude. He walked with a cane, had poor health and took the train in from Versailles. I took Architecture of Paris with a frizzy-haired woman whose name I don’t remember, though I called her The Owl because she wore round glasses. French, of course, I took with Sabrina, who I mentioned previously. She was young and her class was not as boring as the others, probably because it required a bit of participation.

The fifth professor was a priest. He was middle-aged guy with tousled hair and prominent teeth. He taught a Buddhism class that I signed up for at the Institut Catholique de Paris. I don’t think I ever paid attention in his class, not that I went very often. At most, I went every other week. Our only requirement for the semester was a paper, due just before we left. I figured I would catch up on all of the reading eventually.

I had originally signed up to take six classes. I dropped the French Cinema class because the professor required us to go to some film library every week to watch a movie. Also, everyone taking it seemed like a huge asshole.

Our program organized outings for us. We had to choose two out of a possible four: Giverny, Versailles, Fontainebleau or Normandy. The Normandy trip was an overnight and required writing an essay, so obviously I didn’t put that on my list. I chose Giverny and Versailles because I wanted to see both of those things anyway. I figured that I’d get to Normandy eventually, though I didn’t care if it happened during this time in Europe or not.



The day we went to Giverny was cold and rainy. I walked around with my friend Lindsay. It was beautiful but, like many things in France, full of tourists. I was one of them. I thought about Linnea in Monet’s Garden, which I had loved when I was a little girl. I took a lot of pictures. Pictures of the pond. Pictures of a little rowboat. Pictures of weeping willows. I was happy when we went back to the gift shop, where it was warmer.

katie, molly & me taking a picture in the reflection of some modern art in the gardens of versailles

katie, molly & me taking a picture in the reflection of some modern art in the gardens of versailles

The day we went to Versailles was warm. We took the tour of the palace in a large group. Again, I took a lot of pictures. This time, they were mostly of chandeliers. I walked around the grounds with Katie and Molly. They were both talking about how much they had loved the film Marie Antoinette. I hadn’t seen it because I had read some bad reviews. It was the first time I really, really felt like I had friends in my program. I remember I was wearing a blue velvet blazer and jeans over my tall brown boots and I was sweating.

I walked to school every morning. I liked waking up every day, making some coffee in the French press and eating cereal, and then setting off for school with my headphones on. In the early days, I think I listened to one song on repeat, which was the RAC remix of “Each Year”.

Then, in October, when I finally had internet, I was able to download some new music. All at once, I had three new albums that I was very into: Jens Lekman’s Night Falls Over the Kortedala, The Fiery Furnaces’ Widow City and Beirut’s The Flying Club Cup. I still think of these albums as my Parisian soundtrack. The French-themed The Flying Club Cup was particularly perfect.

I walked as much as I possibly could. After school, with nothing to do, I would walk from school or the apartment to the center of Montparnasse, up the Rue de Rennes, until I got to the Boulevard Saint-Germain, just where the Cafe de Flore, Brasserie Lipp and Les Deux Magots are located. The route was busy and very commercial. I would stop in stores along the way. Zara was of particular interest, where I would wander through the racks of clothing. Out on the street, I liked feeling lost in the crowds of people, pushing my way through packs of tough teenage girls, walking alongside young mothers, who guided baby carriages with plastic coverings with one hand, smoking with the other. It was easier to be anonymous among so many people I would never know.

I planned to meet up with Katie, Molly and Jill one night at a bar they had discovered in the fifteenth, called Le Cristal. While I was waiting for all of them outside the bar, Jill texted to say she couldn’t make it because of dinner with her host family. Eventually, Katie, who I knew less well than the other two, appeared without Molly, who also wasn’t able to make it for some reason. So, Katie and I proceeded to drink three 11 euro pitchers of 1664 by ourselves. And we have been good friends ever since.

Liz set me up with a babysitting job. Her friend needed someone to take care of her children – a nine year-old boy and a two year-old girl – occasionally in the afternoons. I said yes, even though I was terrified. But, I figured, speaking French with children would probably be good for me. The friend – we’ll call her Marie – was very warm. She wore a black motorcycle jacket and had that kind of artfully messy, thick, dark hair that American women just can’t ever have.

She took me to pick up her daughter, Viviane, at her nursery school. She told the teacher I would be picking her up on the weekdays, which was not something I thought I had agreed to. Anyway, I went with it. We then picked up her son, Pierre, at his grade school. When we got back to their apartment, she showed me around and that was it. I would go back a few days later to watch them after school. The kids were cute and happy. It seemed like it would be easy enough.

Later that week, I stayed with them for about three hours while Marie went out, until her partner returned home from work. Those three hours turned out to be some of the longest in my life. First of all, Viviane was cranky. Pierre, who was as good a little helper as any I’d seen in all of my years of babysitting, helped me take her outside, where we were going to play some games. However, she immediately fell down on the concrete in the courtyard and scraped her knee. She cried for roughly an hour after that. We fixed up her knee and I tried calming her down while Pierre went to do his homework. I put on a video, which apparently was the worst thing to do, because she started crying louder and shouting something unintelligible. I got Pierre from his room and asked him what she was saying. It turned out that she had been waiting for her “Three Little Pigs” video, but she spoke with a lisp, so it sounded like “Les Thwois Pethits Cothons”. I had trouble enough understanding French in general, let alone Baby French.

Pierre put on the video. He asked me if we could practice English, which I was happy to do.

“I like Pierre,” he said.

“Me too,” I said.

He looked confused. “I like Pierre,” he said again, this time pointing to himself.

“Oh,” I said. “No, ‘I am Pierre.'”

He grinned and repeated after me. He had established that I did indeed know English, so then it was time for him to ask me – in French – all of his questions about America, of which there were many. First: “Tu connais Hollywood?” Yes, I was familiar with Hollywood. Oh, man. He loved action movies. Actually, he loved America! He wanted to go there because people liked to surf. He loved surfing! He and his father surfed on France’s western coast, but he wanted to go surfing in California. Also, he wanted to know, were les Converses popular in America? He had two pairs, gray and green. His mom also had two pairs. I told him that I had two pairs, in black and white, and he cheered. Also, was my belt made out of vrai cuir? Yes, it was real leather.

I made them grilled cheese for dinner, which he thought was hilarious. I couldn’t figure out how to work the stove, so Pierre helped me. He also soothed Viviane the whole time, who went between crying and acting silently afraid of me. Basically, Pierre was the babysitter and I was just there to make sure that neither of them died. When their father came home, we talked a bit – he also wanted to practice his English – and paid me. I hadn’t made plans with Marie for the next date.

When she eventually called me, I must have been in class, so she left a message. She wanted me to come on Thursday afternoons. I had just learned that that was when my Buddhism class was happening – the day had changed from Tuesdays – so I could no longer babysit for them. I left her a stuttering message. I never saw them again.

Even though I had become friends with Katie, Molly and Jill, I was still figuring out if I could become friends with anyone else. A group of three girls invited me to go out with them one Friday night and I said yes. They all lived in the student apartments, which were on the periphery of the fourteenth arrondissement. I went to their apartment to drink before we went out. Liz gave me some orange juice to bring with me for a mixer. I walked from her apartment, which took me much longer than I’d expected. The three of them were all very nice, though I liked one girl, who I thought was more sophisticated, the best.

We took the Metro somewhere, I forget where, and ended up at a crowded bar. Then two other crowded bars. Eventually one of the girls, the sophisticated one, saw some people from her college. She left us for them. The two other girls and I went to some crepe place and sat at a table, very drunk, dejectedly eating crepes. We got on the night bus, which people told me to never take home. I got so nervous that I was on the bus that I got off way before I should have. I ended up trying to walk home until I realized that I didn’t actually know where I was. I looked for a cab for a really long time, but eventually I found one. When I woke up in the morning, I was scared thinking about what could have happened. I never went out with those girls again.

My mom and grandma came to visit in the middle of October. My mom had been to Paris before, but only for weekends while she lived in London. My grandmother had never been and was excited to take her first trip to France at the age of 77. She even bought a new raincoat for the occasion. I had been looking forward to their arrival since the day that I got off the plane. I knew they would be my first visitors.

They stayed at a hotel in Saint-Germain. I had reserved the room for them and I was very pleased to see, when I got there, that it was basically the cutest, Frenchest place ever. The interior was decorated beautifully. The staff was actually delightful. It had what I think they call an “old world charm”. Anyway, I wish I could remember the name, but I can’t so my mom and I will have to look back in our records.

They came during the big transportation strike, which meant that we walked everywhere during the four days they were there. One day, I dragged them all the way from the Eiffel Tower to Notre Dame to my apartment in the fifteenth. When we got there, John, Nick and Liz had a lamb dinner waiting for us. “You let your grandmother walk from the Eiffel Tower to here?” John asked. I said that it had taken us all day and that we made plenty of stops along the way, She said she didn’t mind. I’m sure she was a little pissed though. She loves nothing more than taking her time, window-shopping her way along streets. I’m a New Yorker. A rusher. Every time she stopped to look at something, I would walk up alongside her and give her a little nudge, hurrying her along.

My grandmother only had one unusual thing that she wanted to see while she was in Paris. The Shrine of the Miraculous Medal on the Rue du Bac. It took us forever to find it, on the first morning they were there. The shrine was on the interior of this little courtyard. There was Catholic paraphernalia everywhere. Little things for sale. We went into the church and said a prayer. I don’t remember being particularly moved.

I only went to Mass once while I was in France and that was the week that my mom and grandma were there. We went to St-Germain-des-Prés, one of Paris’s oldest churches. It looked, indeed, super old. The Mass was in French. I understood…most of it. My mom and grandma, nothing.

Being in France, away from most of what was familiar to me, that was the first time that I really didn’t feel any guilt about not going to church.

My grandma and mom were on a mission to buy a gift for my cousin’s baby, who was a few months old at the time. I’d say that, in total, we probably went to ten different baby stores with the most beautiful clothing. We went to one store where the shopkeeper didn’t speak English and I had to translate for my mom. Both she and my grandma were very impressed.

Each night they were there, we had a different dinner plan. We ate with Peter and his roommate at a dark bistro, where my grandma was in awe of the little crèmes brûlées in a tall pastry case near our table. We had dinner with Liz, John and Nick after our trek across the city. We had a lovely evening with them and I was happy that they all got along.

On their second to last night, we had dinner with Stephanie at a little pizza restaurant near Odéon. We had a fun time, except I think my mom unintentionally insulted Stephanie when she said that she was surprised that she didn’t have an accent, because Steph’s parents are from Romania. (She was born and raised in LA). Then, after we left the restaurant, we were crossing the street and my grandma fell on her face. My mom and I immediately started hysterically laughing and could barely make it across the street ourselves. I think my mom might have peed her pants a little. My grandma can’t go anywhere without falling. Steph was horrified. My grandma was more worried about whether she had ripped her raincoat than any potential injuries sustained. Both she and the raincoat were fine.

By that point, in the middle of October, I’d exchanged a few emails with my ex-boyfriend. They were fine enough, though I wasn’t telling him much about how I really felt for fear that it would scare him away further. The night of his birthday, I got really drunk. I had debated all day whether or not to wish him a happy birthday. Finally, I dialed his number on my French cell phone. The reception was bad. It rang and rang and finally went to voicemail. I left a message. He never said anything about it.

The first trip that Jill and I planned with our Eurail passes was to Geneva. Neither of us had been to Switzerland before. We were only going for a night,

I was excited for my first European train journey. We settled in our seats, taking out our snacks and our books, chatting away.

“We don’t need our passports, right?” Jill asked.

“Uh, yeah,” I said.

“But we’re traveling within the European Union,” she said.

“Actually,” I said, “Switzerland isn’t part of the European Union. And you need your passport anyway to validate your Eurail pass.”

So, that’s how we ended up freaking out for five hours about what was going to happen once we got to the Swiss border. Jill, who is still one of the smartest, savviest people I have ever met, ended up getting sent back to France by the Swiss border police because she didn’t have her passport. Molly and I couldn’t contact her once we were in Switzerland. We changed our money, checked into our hostel, and set out to walk around the city.

Geneva was beautiful during the day. It was warm and sunny and I took lots of pictures, most of which were terrible.


geneva (i actually had to edit this because it was really, really terrible)

After a long day of sightseeing, we had dinner and looked for a bar where we could have a drink. We found nothing except a bunch of leering men and closed up shops. I guess we just didn’t know where to go. We ended up going back to the hostel. In the morning, I woke up and made my way to the train station alone. (Molly hadn’t been able to get a ticket on that train). I read my book the whole way back and returned to Paris in time to meet my friend Chris in the afternoon.

My friend Chris’s band was playing a show that Saturday I returned from Geneva. I met him in a Metro station. I was super late because I accidentally took the longest route possible and I felt really badly about that. We found a little cafe where we caught up. I told him about how homesick I’d been. He told me about how the tour had been going so far. We parted ways when it was time for him to get ready for the show.

I met up with Molly and Katie and we traveled together to the concert venue – La Maroquinerie – in the twentieth, where I had never been before. Jill met us at the venue and told us her horror story of getting back to Paris the day before while we waited for the band to go on. She’d waited at the first train station inside the border for hours and was in bad shape when she got to Paris, where Katie met her at Le Cristal for drinks.

at la maroquinerie (photo credit: katie)

at la maroquinerie (photo credit: katie)

The show was a lot of fun and the Parisian crowd eventually got into the band, which I was happy to see. Afterward, we all (minus Jill, who wanted to get home before the Metro stopped running) piled in the tour van with the band and this guy who worked for a – depending on what scene you’re in – pretty famous blog based in Paris. This dude was going to take us out around Paris. The band’s British tour manager was driving. Immediately, we got stuck in a bunch of traffic, on our way to wherever we were going. A bottle of Jack and some pizza were being passed around the van. Molly said she felt sick.

“I need to go home,” she said. She opened the door to the van and got out, in the middle of traffic, running into the Metro station across the street.

“Where is she going? Where is Molly?” asked our French tour guide.

Katie and I tried texting her, but she was already out of reach.

“Where is Molly?” became the theme of the night. Everywhere we went, someone would cry out, “Where is Molly?” I got very drunk. Drunker than I expected. We went to some sort of dance party at the bottom of what I thought was a museum. I actually have no idea if it was a museum. It could have been a hotel. Also, it wasn’t really a dance party. It was more like three Swedish-looking DJs and a couple of random people. One of the guys in the band started a dance circle. Everyone took turns dancing in the middle. Well, I didn’t. But that’s because I still am a little bit self-conscious even when I’m drunk.

We ended up at some cafe, where I had another beer that I didn’t need. We said goodbye to Chris across the street from Père Lachaise. Katie and I shared a cab back to her apartment. I slept on the floor with a coat for a blanket. In the morning, I let myself out of Katie and Molly’s room and walked home.