05 July, 2008

I researched and found out about the Quartier Saint Germain, a neighborhood with a lot of art galleries. Ever since my painting Professor at Princeton, Julia Jacquette, took us to see galleries in Chelsea in New York, I love looking at contemporary art in small display spaces. I can really do justice to the artwork, and I can relate to it better because it’s very current. In large museums you rush from gallery to gallery and it all becomes a blur. So today it’s either those galleries, or the Musée du Louvre, a safer tourist destination (but still extremely important).

Suddenly seventeen days seems too short a time to be in this city. I am traveling around and am working on photographs, drawings, and paintings at the same time. That makes it challenging to allocate time, but it also makes it more interesting, because it gives me an opportunity to pause, reflect, and explore in depth the subject I wish to tackle. Yesterday, therefore, was supposed to be a studio day. I converted my room into an art space by moving all furniture to the sides, clearing up a large wall and leaving empty a big central space on the wooden floor. I also went for more groceries and lunch, and by the time I got back I was psyched. I worked all afternoon and have started a few works, but again nothing that I want to put up here just yet.

I wanted to get out and see more of the city, so in the evening I took a walk from the Saint-Germain-des-Près Metro station (a potential destination for today), down the Rue Bonaparte, along the Seine river, over the most festive bridge I’ve ever seen, and then on toward Rue de Rivoli. There I got ice cream and walked back because soon the Metro would shut down for the day. Along the way I took pictures, but I didn’t have a tripod stand so I had to use the side railing of the river as support. I think it would be a hassle to carry around a tripod stand – maybe I should next time…

Paris is a very merry city. It is not shadowed by skyscrapers, and though life seems fast-paced in the Metro, as people rush in and out, outside, especially where I walked yesterday, everything is calm and indulgent. There is a lot for one to do and see and the city seems to welcome you warmly. My one advice would be to not go to Paris alone! I was rescued by my artwork yesterday, and the fact that I have an endless list of things to do, but I definitely think that coming here with a friend or two would be a blast (though I suppose not as productive if you're painting too!).

Today I might meet up with Stèphanie, who I worked with in New York a year ago. She wants to go to a jazz bar with her friends and take me along. I am interested to see what that is like! I don’t know if the logistics will work out because I don’t have a phone and she is busy with work, but I have my fingers crossed.

Andy, here's a picture I took of the subway two days ago. I don't really want to photograph people because I think that might be rude. Plus, I would look like a tourist, which I so am not!

I just found out that the Louvre is free on the first Sunday of the month - tomorrow. So today I'm off... somewhere else, probably the boat ride or the art galleries.

04 July, 2008

Yesterday was phenomenal. In 1889 the Tour Eiffel was constructed as part of the great World's Fair, a symbol of the greatness of the 3rd French Republic. A very modern structure was erected in an ancient cultural center, and it was received very badly by the traditional critics, but loved by the people. It was a great innovation in structural engineering, as Professor Billington would tell you, but it had immense social implications, because it allowed the common people to rise up and see the world as they had never seen it before. Read more about all that here.

In the morning I successfully found the epicerie (grocery store) I have been looking for, for a long time. I bought milk and orange juice and a mug and other things I needed such as a baguette and cheese (The cheese stinks and I think it will go in the trash!). I also found the BNP Paribas Bank and solved my debit card problem. My pin code, which is 7 digits, would not work in the ATM machines here, which only seemed to accept 6 digits. When I had struggled through that explanation with the lady at the bank (and I assure you I had tried 3 ATMs in different parts of the city) she asked me to try again, and it worked that time! It seems like I’ll have to go to that same branch when I need money next.

I took the METRO to the Tour Eiffel. I am falling more and more in love with the metro, as I continue to master it. I love to see people in the metro, I love reading in the metro, I love how it gets me places, I love how I can blend in and not seem like a tourist at all, I love standing among people when there’s no space and listening to my iPod, I love rushing to get a transfer when I am getting late – it reminds me a little of New York. I guess it has just got to do with my love for a big city with a lot of people.

I got to the much-revered tower and it was as breathtaking as it had been described – I could see that it was old, and had stood there for very long, and that made it seem grander. There were a lot of people and the line was endless. By the time I got to the front the top floor had been closed because of overcrowding. I should have bought a ticket beforehand to avoid waiting for that long, but how could I have done that, there was such a visa problem. I didn’t even know until the day I left that I would be coming here for sure!

I’ll let the photographs speak, but as the elevator rose, curving its way up along the side of the tower, I felt elated, joyful, ecstatic, and I clicked on my camera.

The view of course was spectacular. But I especially appreciated the structure of the tower – the nuts and bolts that hold it together, the stairways, the terraces, the transparency of the steel structure that makes it a “park within a structure,” each turn presenting another aspect of the city below, framed in interesting metallic shapes.

It became really windy which I liked because it felt as if I was flying. In fact the weather was great. It would rain for a few minutes and then the one cloud would clear and let through strong, clear sunlight. It was also interesting to note that even though the view from higher up was generally considered more impressive, Paris is a flat city (compared to New York for example) and therefore, the view from the first level was more interesting because it let the city retain its dimensionality. I definitely want to go there again to see what the light does to the city at sunset, and to go to the top floor also, because there I imagine the city is turned almost into a map or an abstract painting. I climbed down the stairs.

Later in the afternoon (the sun sets here at 10:30pm or 11pm) I sat in the shadow of the Eiffel tower and made some sketches that I will complete in the next few days.

What I love also about Paris is a perfect balance that seems to hold everything in place – a balance between the old and the new (for example historicism and modernism in architecture), the fast- and the slow-paced life (metros and bicycles), the humble little cafes and the grand structures and museums – it’s difficult to explain. Everything exists in harmony here, not a constrained harmony imposed by laws necessarily. I will try to understand it better in the next few days.

Everyone I have come across has been very friendly, whether they speak French or not. I try not to massacre their language by first asking, in my exquisite French accent if they speak English. Then, if they take up the challenge, it’s they who begin to seem dumb, uneducated, silly, and not me! It doesn’t always work though.

At 11pm I wanted to get on the subway again. I met this young photographer/filmmaker who was interested in my work, and we went to walk on the Arc de Triomphe near the Champs Elysees. And thought it was spectacular, with lights and high-end shops (now closed but the windows still lit) and young people walking along the street, the whole thing was a little rushed because the Metro closes at 1am. I had to come back on my own, and got a little lost on the way!

I have been “lost” in this city a few times now, and every time it happens I recall the MasterCard advertisement at the airport – “Getting Lost in Paris. Priceless” – and it’s NOT true at the time, especially if you’re legs are so tired they’re about to give way, and especially if it’s late at night. But in retrospect I guess it is truly priceless.

03 July, 2008

Paris intimidated me at first. I didn’t know many people here, and I didn’t know how to get around the city or even buy food to eat or store in my little fridge. It was a little like the first day of the pre-orientation at Princeton, except I didn’t speak French very well, and that made things more challenging.

Yesterday I learned to treat French as a language as opposed to a code that you scientifically put together. It was unnerving to hear real people greet me in those sing-song voices (“Bonjour Monsieur!”) that you hear in CD players in French class – the whole thing was either very ludicrous or very magical. And while I got by at first in a few places with a “Parlez-vous anglais?” I realized that a surprisingly significant percentage of people here answer that with a no; maybe it has to do with me not being in a very touristy place yet. But it really gives me a chance to experiment with my language skills. And although I would disappoint my French teacher at Princeton because my grammar in spoken French is bad, it is highly gratifying to get my message across.

It is hilarious when you try to explain something to someone in bad French (supplemented with broken English) and they respond with a “Do you speak English?” Nevertheless I have decided to just use French from now on.

So I walked down the streets and a main boulevard close to where I live, and sat in a small café and ordered pizza. It was like looking out of a train window, as a saw a whole city, buzzing and shining with life, pass by outside. I was listening to music and eating my pizza, watching little Citroen cars (I like to call them Le Corbusier’s cars), irritated shopkeepers, families with children, old people with grocery bags, young people sporting crazy clothing styles.

Later at night, I took the subway to the very center of Paris, and walked around. I wanted to be ready for today. There were bars and merry people, but I didn’t stop. As the subway was going to shut down soon, I came back. The subway shot through the night and people around me spoke rapid French. I felt like an outsider and so I listened to my iPod and that cheered me up.

Earlier I had discovered the library at this place and was happy to find it has wireless internet. I am going there now to plan today’s trip – a visit to the Eiffel Tower.

02 July, 2008

Martin A. Dale '53 Award. Princeton University.

Do you have an idea for a summer project to explore a new area of interest, live out a dream, or develop your creativity or leadership skills?

If so, you should apply for the Martin A. Dale '53 Summer Awards.

This award gives Princeton sophomores a $4,000* stipend to fund special summer projects. Past projects have included:

  • Special programs or projects in the creative arts
  • Community service projects
  • Programs of study that DON'T satisfy academic requirements at Princeton or independent study projects
  • International travel and exploration designed to fulfill a goal

Proposals for participation in formal “structured” programs generally receive less consideration.

Waiting for several hours at Abu Dhabi airport seemed like a turning point in life. It reminded me of the time when, after missing a flight at JFK, I spent a night at the New York airport to catch the flight next morning. It was like being between two worlds, which are distinct and yet hard to categorize and define because they span physical, emotional, cultural and other spheres. After nostalgic goodbyes in Karachi, I had set off. I was excited to see that something I had looked forward to for months (or a lifetime, perhaps?) was turning into reality. Thinking of its immensity had made it all seem absurd.

The flight was good. There were several babies that kept crying, and though I didn’t mind much, the Canadian engineer next to me kept complaining. He was a fun and friendly guy though, and we talked about how Canadian government policies (health, education etc) are different from those of the United States.

At the Paris airport, contrary to my apprehension, I was met with smiles and friendly faces, and the customs and all consisted of only one officer stamping my visa, and that was it. This was a big change from the visa process.

I had initially planned to buy a ticket for a shuttle that would drop me at the Deutsche de la Meurthe dorm at the Cité Universitaire in Paris, where I had already booked a room. This was actually a great find – the rooms are especially subsidized for students from recognized colleges, doing research or independent work, or taking classes in Paris. It’s a great fit, because I get personal space to work in, and a college environment inside Paris. In fact, on my very first night I made some friends, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

It turned out that taking the RER train from the airport was cheaper and more convenient. After a relatively easy money-changing and ticket purchasing process, I got on the train. As it moved closer to my stop, and further into the city, the train started to become really full, until a point came when most people were standing, with very little space. It felt a little like being in a New York subway, where you can sample the city’s “life” and its people. The sun was setting and the train moved at a very high speed. When I got to my station, it took me a five minute walk to get to the place. Like Princeton, not many buildings are marked, and there was no map, so it took me a long time to find the exact office (something like Public Safety at PU) that would let me in.
The three times I’ve walked in the office, I’ve really felt challenged because they speak no English. I struggle and realize that three semesters of French at Princeton really did prepare me a little. I used to say I can’t speak French to save my life. Yesterday I did.

The second time I was there late at night (it must have been 11:30pm, I had lost all sense of time). I had gone to ask where I could get something to eat. I was starving. Then four students from a college in California came in and tried to explain to the guard on duty (with much difficulty) that they had misplaced a key. I had to talk to them – their American accent drew me because it reminded me of Princeton, and the world seemed easy to comprehend once again. Turned out they needed to look for a place to eat also, so we decided to go together. Everything seemed closed. Then we found a group of French teenagers who were celebrating their high-school admissions. When we approached them for guidance, they were extremely helpful. They led us through neat, narrow streets lined with bicycles, trees, little cars, and motorcycles. We came to Domino’s pizza but it was closed. Eventually we got a place where there was a bar – people sat on little tables outdoors, and there was light and life. Right next to the bar we found the familiar yellow M of McDonald’s. We were hungry and it tasted great. None of us had a watch, and after our first night’s exploits (it was the Americans’ first night here too) – which involved getting completely lost – we got home at what seemed like 3am.

I have had no internet or phone since yesterday. I set an arbitrary alarm and went to the office for paperwork and with questions about logistics an hour ago, but they said come at 9am. I was embarrassed to ask the time (but how could I not, I knew that question really very well), and shocked to find out it was 7am. Now I am going back to see if they can help me.

As soon as I get internet, I’ll post this and start finalizing my plans for the next few weeks.


I have to admit even I don't fully know what this project is all about. I suppose it will only be exactly apparent when it’s over, but maybe I can repeat what I’ve told others: “This summer I am going to live in Paris and Delhi for an independent painting project funded by the Martin Dale award at Princeton.”

I guess the nature of the award itself is peculiar. It’s meant to fund a summer activity that is not academic in nature, and that helps a Princeton sophomore explore a personal interest. I forget the precise words and will have to look them up as soon as I get internet (I better!).

So as it is July 2nd already, and I’m writing this after I’ve finished writing the next entry about my arrival, I’ll copy my project proposal here. I must warn you that since the writing of that proposal, I have made some changes. The main reason was financial – a hefty tax on the grant and ever-shifting exchange rates meant I could spend less than one month in each city. Maybe it may work out even better this way. I will still be working for eight weeks, but I can use the last days for finishing the artwork I’ve started during my traveling. Also, instead of the structured painting workshops, where an instructor leads a group of people, I have decided to make the project truly independent. One reason for this is that those workshops focus on beginners and limit freedom. The project as a whole seems to be evolving into something very urban. I’ll still visit the locations where these classes are held, but I will be working on my own.

With those disclaimers out of the way, here is my project proposal:

My proposed project is a Painting and Photography Travel Portfolio. I am looking to travel first to France, and then to India, and spend my time sketching in pencil, chalk, and oil pastel, and painting in watercolors, and acrylcs. I want to experience Paris and western art, and then synthesize it with the experience of the Subcontinent. The project is an attempt to demonstrate that art can serve to show people their commonality.

I have identified a program in France, which offers professional studios at the Chateaux of Amboise located in the heart of the Loire valley, 140 miles from Paris. The countryside location will be a great source of inspiration for art, especially in the free-flowing medium of watercolor. This program offers lodging, outdoor painting excursions and structured workshops. It will last a week, after which I will travel to Paris. There I will live for another three weeks in housing acquired through the American University of Paris, and continue to work independently and record my experiences and my artwork in a photo-journal online. After this immersion in Paris, I will travel to Delhi, India.

I have visited Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, and Lucknow and I cannot wait to visit India again. Being surrounded by artwork by prominent Indian artists will be a great inspiration to create art. Also, in Delhi I have friends who have offered to take me around the city. Here too I will continue to add to my portfolio and prepare it for a subsequent exhibition.

I come from a traditional middle-class family in Karachi, Pakistan. My parents chose to give up “luxuries” such as cable TV to send me and my four siblings to private school. I have always wanted to be a visual artist, but I also know that I need to be able to earn for and support my family. Princeton’s liberal arts education has given me the ultimate opportunity to reconcile my passion for art while getting a professional education in Architecture. This summer project will be a chance for me to indulge my love for painting, and to find and develop through a rigorous immersion in it, a personal style and direction. I know that even artists make a lot of money in Pakistan, if they are good.

The project is meaningful to me also because I am a peace activist. Coming from a country torn by political strife, engulfed in a nuclear arms race and struggling to sustain democracy, I appreciate the need for building bridges between different cultures, religions and nationalities. In 2004, in my capacity as the Regional Coordinator for Youth Initiative for Peace, a global movement, I organized with my friends in six cities of India and Pakistan, a traveling art exhibition. We worked together to invite art students and prominent artists to submit artwork on the theme of Changing Mindsets. In the opening ceremony we screened a documentary and that, along with the six hundred pieces of artwork, spoke directly to the people on the other side of the border, in the universal language that is art.

The objective of this project is to create a substantial portfolio of artwork in various mediums that may be exhibited along with a journal consisting of photographs, and personal observations and reflections. Because the goal is to reach as many people as possible, my work will also be available on an online photo-journal.

I hope you will decide to fund my project.