Updated: May 30, 2013 5:27PM
Every moment, the Internet dangles the entire world — or an electronic simulacrum of the entire world — under our noses. But, as with the actual world, we do not want the whole thing — who has the time? We just want a bit, a morsel now and then.
But how to find those tidbits?
Like many folks, I check my Twitter feed and my Facebook to see what my online sorta-friends are worked up about now. Being a newspaperman, I skim the news sites — the Sun-Times, of course, and the Tribune, the New York Times and the Washington Post.
But you can only take so much news. You need fun too. Where to go for amusement that is reliably interesting, that pops visually and has real intelligence behind it?
My go-to blog of late is Messy Nessy Chic — “Blogging on the off-beat, the unique and the chic.” What does that mean? An affection for the odd — a French artist who transforms cast-off statues of the Virgin Mary into, well, lots of guises. A taste for the abandoned — ghost towns, decaying swimming pools, forgotten villas, time capsule subway stations. For old photos — cowgirls of the 1940s — and ornate envelopes. And of course Paris, its shops, bistros, ironwork.
After a sufficient number of months looking at the site, I began to wonder about the mind behind it. Who is tying this together?
The “Nessy” is short for Vanessa — Vanessa Grall, a 28-year-old Briton.
“I was never one of those people who dreamed of the Parisian life,” she told me. She was 25, living in London, but it was expensive and — this isn’t quite the Hemingway ideal, but it’s true — her parents moved to Paris and had a room all ready for her.
“I love the idea of Hemingway’s Paris, an ex-pat,” she said, over the telephone. “It gets kind of cliche. But I wanted to find more of what he wasn’t telling us.”
So she plunged into the City of Light. Ninety years ago she would have jotted her thoughts in a notebook. But times changed.
“I wanted to get back to writing articles and curating something of my own,” said Grall, who worked in publishing in London. “So the logical step was to start a blog.”
That was 2010. For the first year, it was, by her own admission, “amateur.” But no Paris tale is complete without a love story, and Grall met Alex, a handsome, bearded Parisian engineering student who had already set up his own blog, an illegal gambling site.
“An English girl took me to a party,” she said. “He was there. His English was perfect; he seemed pretty interested in this blog I had going. I was quite surprised he found it impressive. We’ve been together three years.”
He was also helpful bringing in advertising — American Apparel among other big names.
“We’re talking not much more than $1,500 a month, barely enough to pay for my servers,” she said. “Nevertheless, more deals with better click-through rates are coming in, and the bigger I get, the better the deals will be.”
How did she develop her eye?
“I was always interested in history and stories from the past,” she said, noting Paris is ideal for that. “They don’t like to change here — I think it’s the best city in the world at preserving its history. Paris may be the city of romance and great food, but it’s also a city of debauchery, sex and scandal. I think it’s fun to shock people, probably because I like to be shocked myself. I like beautiful things just as much as I like ugly, gritty stuff. But for both, you really have to look.”
Thus, she explores the city on her mobilette — a bicycle with a little engine — and attempts to sniff out odd corners of the web.
“I’m currently trying to explore all the back alleys of the Internet,” she said. “I also use the American Library in Paris, where I could spend a whole day in their basement, alone, looking for weird stories that you can’t find on the Internet.” She also looks inward.
“A lot of the time is evaluating myself — I just happen to be sharing it with a lot of people,” she said. “I never really liked school. I felt we were skimming over the really interesting stuff, the stuff I wanted to know about. I feel like I’m creating my own curriculum, as a reader, as a writer. I also feel a responsibility to inform myself.”
Where is this blog heading?
“My goal is maybe, in two years, make a shop — that’s what a lot of blogs are doing. I could also do products, things that you could buy, just at my store. Unique things, but in a certain niche. Not fashion as we know it.”
Being in the finding-interesting-stuff business myself, I wondered how she copes with the pressure of hunting up new material.
“Some days it really is hard,” she said. “I am always looking for something really special, that instantly gets my heart going.”
The blog has matured -- has she? “The first articles didn’t have the same person behind them,” she said. “I think I’ve grown up a lot since I’ve come to Paris. It’s humbled me. Paris has taught me to be poor and happy.”
This business will do that.