31 August 2006

R and I had a rough morning. We've been told since arriving here that the *only* way to get an apartment in Paris is to wake up at the crack of dawn on Thursday mornings when the new edition of Particulier à Particullier hits the newsstands. Every person we've asked has told us not to worry about annoying people – that you have to call them at 6 a.m. or you will never get an apartment.

Today we set the alarm for 5:30 and were waiting at the newsstand as it opened. When we requested the P à P, the papers hadn't even been unwrapped from their protective plastic yet. I held our place in a phone booth, télécarte at the ready, while Rachael flipped through the P à P to find promising ads.

The first two numbers we called went straight to machine.

At the third, a cranky woman informed me that 6 a.m. was too early for phone calls, and the apartment had already been rented. Now there's no way the apartment could have been taken (the newsstands were barely open!), so she must have just been upset to have been called so early.

We also reached two more machines, and a somewhat friendlier man told us to call him back at 9 a.m., not at six. Now we were just kind of upset, having woken up before the sun to follow the advice of about eight native Parisians and had nothing to show for it. So far if we have wanted to accomplish anything in this city, the first two contradicting sets of directions we receive are generally incorrect. We are learning everything by trial and error – so far mostly error, but we're begininning to figure out what needs to be done.

The best thing to do in times of stress is to relax, so that's what R and I have been doing. Getting nowhere in our apartment search? Take a break and walk along the Seine to the jardin des Tuileries. I took this picture on our walk yesterday.

*By the way, if you click on the pictures you can see them in extremely large format.

30 August 2006

Today we stopped by Sciences Po (where we discovered we can use the Internet for free!) to complete our applications for our "cartes d'ètudiantes," and with an action as simple as registering for school, I am now completely protected by the government of France - I have a social security number specific to France and everything.

As difficult as it can be to get anything done in this country - we still don't have our cartes de séjour, despite trekking to the 15éme (4 metro transfers from where we began!) to apply at the centre d'étudiant and find out that we can't apply until Sept. 12th - every person legitimately in the country is automatically protected by social security. The group that is falling through the cracks is young African immigrants. Hundreds (maybe thousands) of students and workers from North and French-speaking Africa are being threatened with deportation because the government (Sarkozy) has decided it no longer wants them, and will no longer issue student visas or work permits. For all my good feelings toward the government upon issue of my French social security number, it's worth remembering that I am a 20 year old caucasian girl from the United States - of course the government is going to be kind to a white student from what could be considered the world's only near-hegemonic power.

Racial tensions are high all over Paris, as R and I continue to witness. In addition to the man who tried to instruct the protesters of last Saturday to return to Algeria, there was a huge fight in McDonald's between a customer and a Sénègalese employee. Well, less of a fight than a youngish guy who was really upset about something involving ketchup, and in addition to berating the employee about that was trying to tell him to "stay in Sénègal." R and I were a little nervous to be there - it looked like something that could have escalated violently. Luckily another employee took the object of the anger into a back room to hide him, and someone else was able to convince the customer to leave the restaurant.

Every aspect of French culture today is still dictated by post-Revolutionary ideals. The country is ripe for an upheaval.

Change is coming.

29 August 2006

Today R and I finally discovered the trick to luck in our daily escapades – acquiring lots and lots of good karma. Today, day six of our quest for a Parisian apartment, our luck finally took a turn for the better. We now not only have two promising options to check out later in the week, but we rid ourselves of the ridiculous immoblier service we were stupid enough to pay for and at 7pm, the sun is finally shining.

The first thing we did this morning was take our computers over to McDonald’s again to check our apartment hunting websites, and while we were checking email, we gave a few coins each to a woman begging at each table (it’s funny here, that restaurant owners let beggars/venders come inside and approach customers, but kind of nice – for the people begging/selling). Soon after giving up the change, R found a few phone numbers to call for apartments matching most of our criteria. We went straight back to the hotel to call them and made two appointments to check out apartments, one for this afternoon and one for Friday.

Next, we headed back out to the 10ème to complain at “Ancéa-Immoblier,” an apartment-hunting service we naively purchased for 220 euro (I know, I know, stupid). The girls working at the agency on Saturday had us convinced that they could find us an apartment. After a few frustrating days of no apartments and long periods on hold, we went back today to offer an ultimatum – 15 useful phone numbers, or our money back. On the way into the metro, a woman juggling piles of belongings asked me if she could buy a metro ticket from me rather than walking across the place to the automated machines. I gave her the ticket and told her not to worry about it (she was very surprised), and we continued on our way. At Ancéa, they gave us one phone number (of an apartment that turned out to have already been rented), so we demanded our money back. We have to go to the main offices tomorrow, but we *can* get our money back. Phew.

The free metro ticket must have been extra good luck, because when I called M. Billel to see if my translation was ready he offered to meet me in the 11ème, rather than us going to him in the banlieue again.

We hopped on the metro again, and I gave my seat to an older gentleman who told me I was “très gentil.” This helped us out at our first apartment appointment, because the locutaire (person renting the apartment) never showed. If that doesn’t sound like good karma, check out this picture of the apartment:

The area was scary, the building was falling apart, and the only tenant we saw was a very large man whose hairy stomach was hanging out from below his tiny black tee shirt. Good karma!

On the way back, we stopped to check out the apartment we’re checking out on Friday, and it is kind of perfect. Two bedrooms, 1045 euro/month, awesome location…it’s the window right above the fruit stand in the picture. I called the locutaire back to make sure we were the first ones looking at the apartment – we are, but there are four others after us, so we have to be very very attractive on Friday. We’ll just spend tomorrow and Thursday doing nothing but good deeds!

Once comfortably settled in the McDonalds off the Place d’Italie, with our laptops whirring and our free wifi humming, R and I begin adding up the number of euros we’ve dropped in des cybercafes over the past few days.

“That was stupid,” I said.

“We’ve made a lot of dumb mistakes,” was her answer.

We came to the conclusion that it’s okay to be stupid – that’s how we learn, right? At least isn’t that what my dad’s always saying? But for Pete’s sake, we’ve been in France only 4 nights – how many dumb things do we have to do before we get this living in Paris thing right?

Today for example, we were completely, utterly defeated by French red tape. The plan for the day was get up early, make a few phone calls regarding housing, stop by Sciences Po to drop off our registration materials, head over to the Prefecture de Police to apply for our cartes de séjour, and then go to a movie or do something fun to relax. Ha. It’s 11:30 at night and we’re finally (kind of) relaxing in McDonald’s, of all places.

At Sciences Po we were shuttled around to three different offices before being told we couldn’t even turn in our materials today without first having our cartes de séjour. At the Prefecture de Police we wandered two long hallways on the first floor (translation: in France, the first floor is the first floor above street level) before being sent back down to the information desk and learning that we needed to be across town in the 15ème. Since everything we’d read in our SciPo orientation materials, or heard from our study abroad programs at UW had instructed us to go to the Pref. de Police for our cartes and to have our birth certificates officially translated into French (a necessity in order to apply for the cartes), we’d made our way from Sciences Po in the 7ème to the Prefecture, next to Notre Dame on Ile de la Cité. The 15ème is all the way down in the southwest corner of Paris, way beyond the Tour Eiffel.

Not only could we not apply for our cartes de séjour, the Prefecture aided us only by providing a list of approved translators from each arondissement, not by providing the translators themselves. Knowing it was useless to head across town without a translated birth certificate (for me only, Rachael was lucky to hail from San Francisco, where she had hers translated at the French consulate before coming to Paris), we wrote down phone numbers of translators in arondissements we were likely to pass through today and holed up in a phone booth with our list. Of the six translators, one was sick, three didn’t answer, and two were out of the office. At one of the numbers, however, a woman gave me the cell phone number of Monsieur Billel the translator supposedly of the 11ème, who wasn’t working in the office today, but would be answering his mobile.

M. Billel was friendly and seemed to understand me on the phone, so we made an appointment for 7:30 earlier this evening. I had the address of his offices from the list at the Prefecture, and he told me which metro stop we needed (Gallieni, on the 3ème line), so at 6:45, R and I hopped on the Metro to find him.

When we surfaced at Gallieni, optimistic about accomplishing at least one thing today, our confidence took a quick dive. With one look around, it became clear that we were no longer in Paris – surrounded by low-income housing and freeways, we realized that we’d taken line 3 straight into the banlieue. We were east of the 20ème, in an area known as Bagnolet. R and I gave eachother nervous glances and thought about how our parents (and grandparents) would kill us if they knew where we were, but we were determined to finish at least one thing we’d started.

We called M. Billel from a pay phone and got directions to his home – he also chose this moment to mention that he only works in his office in the city one day a week – the rest of the time he works from home. We walked up a winding street, past high-rise after high-rise, a graffiti-covered grocery store and a group of street soccer-playing boys to find our translator. Peering through the slats in his front gate while we rang the bell, we saw a tricycle, and a teeny girl followed him out to answer the door, which we took as signals that it was safe to proceed. We walked into his yard, and he went back inside, telling us to go up the stairs and meet him at the top.

R and I tiptoed up the flight of rickety spiraling stairs (that looked like they’d been hastily installed by M. Billel himself) to an office, where he took my 60 euro and a copy of my birth certificate and after some pressing, promised to have the translation done by the next afternoon (faster than any other translation bureau would have offered). The only catch? Since he spends only one day a week in his office in the 11ème, we have to return to jolie Bagnolet tomorrow afternoon. Tomorrow though, we’re bringing the pepper spray.

Hey, at least we accomplished something, right?

27 August 2006

A brief word of caution:

Think before you speak, especially in another language.

Our waitress at Chez Vernaise last night (a restaurant in the 5ème, housed in a building once inhabited by Ernest Hemingway) was highly amused when I tried to order a "box of water" instead of a bottle. Whoops...it's hard to think on your feet sometimes!

26 August 2006

EDIT: The protest was on the France 2 news channel when we got back to our hotel after dinner tonight. You can check out the footage at: jt en video (make sure you choose the 20h edition of samedi, 26 aug.

Update: Day 2 of the quest for an apartment in Paris.

Today we were actually able to set up an appointement to see a 2p/2ch (3 pièce/2 chambres, meaning 3 rooms, 2 bedrooms plus a kitchen and bathroom) near the gare du nord. Our appointment is for Monday, so we trekked up to the 10e arondissement to scope out the area first – and were a little bit disappointed. The several blocks surrounding the train station are nothing but hotels and "sexy shops," and as you move away from the station, the only businesses for blocks around are Indian restaurants. We'd probably be close to some delicious curry living there, but the area felt really touristy and not that safe, and the building itself didn't look that nice.

Here's a picture of a block from our potential apartment – we were literally on the other side of the tracks.

After deciding that we are definitely not interested in paying $1300 euro/ month for this apartment, we decided to head down toward la republique by way of the Boulevard de magenta. About a block in, we found ourselves in the middle of a huge immigration protest. A thick line of marchers wound all the way down the boulevard, drumming chanting and waving signs. One young guy darted in and out of traffic handing out fliers that read "Déclaration sur la conjoncture aprés la sinistre opération policiére contre les <1000 de cachan>." Rachael and I braved the cars and the mob to grab one of the fliers, and sat in a bus stop to read it out of the rain. Les cachans are people who live in the Cachan area of the banlieue, SouthWest of Paris.

This protest was just one part of a country-wide response to Sarkozy's attempts to reform immigration law in France. Basically, France will no longer recognize the rights of immigrants "san papiers" in school, etc as a response to the violence of last October. "Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the conservative presidential frontrunner, responded to that violence with a crackdown on illegal immigration and a controversial new law to enable France to select the foreigners it wanted to welcome."

Here are some more pictures of the protest. It was hard to get really close because of traffic, police, and crazy people on the sidewalks. We actually heard a rather dirty, grizzled-looking man yell "Faites revenir en algerie!" Or, "Go back to Algeria!" Yuck.

After passing the protest, we stopped in at an Ancéa Immobilier agency to get some help with our apartment search. We had to pay a fee, but we are crossing our fingers that it will be fruitful.
As it turns out, it is not actually that simple to arrive in Paris with all your possessions and find an apartment. The general techniques seem to translate from the U.S. to France, like checking apartment listings in the daily papers, scanning Craig's List, even walking through neighborhoods looking for signs.

In practice though, apartment hunting in central Paris is just that – a brutal hunt. By the time Rachael and I had scoped out the day’s promising ads, bought a phone card and installed ourselves in a clear phone booth, every apartment we were interested in had already been rented. Apparently, if you want an apartment, you leap out of bed before dawn each Thursday to pick up the new edition of Particulier à Particulier and begin calling and calling and calling. You can’t worry about irritating people by calling them at 5:30 in the morning because you can bet that dozens of others will be calling at 5 and will get the apartment before you do.

The problem with Craig’s List is that it’s full of apartments outside of Paris for reasonable prices, or within Paris for up to $3000 Euro a month in rent (that’s 3836.70 in U.S. dollars). After searching through pages of useless listings, you may finally discover a perfect apartment – affordable, good location, with great pictures included in the post, only to discover that the post is 3 weeks old and completely defunct. As useless as hunting online may feel, it can be quite entertaining at times: Check out this guy.

After frantically searching through newspapers and online listings, a final option is to stroll through promising neighborhoods looking for “à louer” signs. Wandering streets can give you a leg up, because far less people are going to be sign-hunting on foot than searching through listings. At the same time, though, you are wandering side streets of Paris for sometimes hours at a time and coming up with maybe five phone numbers. Of those five, two will be overpriced studios, two will already be taken, and one will be a wrong number.

And of course, some are extremely sketchy:

After every “il est deja loué,” Rachael and I try to remind ourselves that we’ve only been here for a day and a half, that we will find something, we just have to put some effort into it. On the other hand, though, we’re halfway around the world from every comfort we know, and we are living out of suitcases in the world’s tiniest hotel room – it’s a little hard to stay stressfree during the hunt. If worst comes to worst, we can always call the shirtless guy from Craig’s List.

This is our ridiculous hotel:

But for now, after an exhausting and completely unfruitful day of wandering Paris, it’s time to sleep. I’m waking up at 5:30 to check the new online listings.

(By the way, when recuperating after a long and frustrating day of walking with a good dinner, make sure you know how to order a steak – otherwise, suffer the consequences and eat it raw.)

24 August 2006

It is Thursday, August 24 at approximately 9:30 a.m. Paris time. Yes, I am in Paris…uh well, almost in Paris. As I have been sitting at the baggage claim between the arrival gate and customs for the past two and a half hours, I’m not sure that I’m technically in a country right now.

In my not-so-comfortable red chair next to baggage claim 6 of Terminal 1 of Charles de Gaulle airport, I must be near my comrade without a country, Sir Alfred Mehran. Although, since I remain in limbo only until my travel partner arrives at 11am, I’m not sure there’s a legitimate comparison between the two of us. Especially considering he’s been here since 1988…and I’ve been here slightly under 3 hours. Okay okay, on review, there is no comparison, except for the fact that we’re probably sitting in the same terminal right now.

Earlier this week, when Rachael and I were planning our rendez-vous in Paris, it seemed perfectly reasonable to have me wait for her at the international baggage claim. After a few hours of reasonable though, I’m tired, hungry and a little confused about where I am. Most of my fellow fliers of US Airways flight 026 from Philadelphia disembarked, greeted the border police, gathered their suitcases and continued on through customs, a little jet-lagged but generally thrilled to have arrived in France.

I was one of these happy travelers, right up to the point when a friendly American guy stepped in to help me heave my overweight suitcase (requiring an extra $80 at the check-in counter back in Seattle) from the revolving belt. Then he left me to sit here while he went on to enter the European Union. When I first stepped off the plane and started seeing Mastercard advertisements in French all I could think was, “I’m in Paris, I’m in Paris!” Now I’m not so sure. I haven’t actually spoken any French yet – okay, well I did say “merci” to the guy who lifted my suitcase before realizing he was really from North Carolina, but I don’t think that quite counts.

The baggage claim, at first so crowded I was knocking over children with my unwieldy suitcase, is now deserted. A concerned-looking security guard has rolled past me 4 times on his motorized scooter, each time shooting a glare toward my laptop. I guess I could be arming a bomb or something. We 20 year-old American girls are a pretty shifty-looking lot, I know, but when the two websites open on my screen are www.blogger.com and www.thefacebook.com, I think it’s pretty clear I’m up to no ill.

There’s the guard again. As my 10 euro worth of wifi dwindles, I’d better stow my computer before the border police bomb squad arrives to detonate it. À bientot.
My father is terrified of a skinny-mustached, baguette-clutching beret-wearing man named Pierre. Well Pierre…or Jacques…and Henri, and maybe even a Guillaume too. Does he know any of these suave-sounding gentlemen? No, and neither do I – yet. Here’s the problem: I am an only daughter, and my dad being, well, a dad, suffers many nightmares. The specific fears vary, but at the root of all is one thing: Men. More specifically, men coming to take his daughter away.

These fears have only been compounded since I applied to study at the Paris Institute of Political Science (l’Institute d’études politiques de Paris, or more affectionately, Sciences Po) for all of next year. Men are indeed scary, but French men? Even scarier. As my departure date approaches at the end of August, he will increasingly often get a faux distressed look on his face and say,

“Please don’t get married next year! I want to meet my grandchildren!” He jokes about Pierre and Jacques to mask the fact that, being a dad, he really is terrified about the possibility. Sorry dad, after knowing you my whole entire life, I’m on to your tricks. And I would like to remind you that I am only 20 years old. I am definitely not in the market for a husband, no matter how beau Henri turns out to be.

In addition to the paternal pleas, there has been a befuddling deluge of advice since I received my Sciences Po acceptance letter. A friend of mine from school, convinced that all Europeans hate Americans, told me I’d be better off just sewing a Canadian flag to my backpack and introducing myself as “Halley de Vancouver, B.C.” After watching news footage of students rioting in France, my mom said she’d prefer that I avoid being killed in an angry mob. My grandparents told me to “stay out of the dangerous areas.” Kay, the mother of a boy I babysit, kind of agrees with my dad.

“Forget French men!” She reminds me every time I come over to babysit, “What you need is a fling with an Italian!” According to her, they’re more attractive, richer, and could probably buy me a Vespa. A moped would be cool…but I’m pretty sure my dad would have a heart attack.

Not content with merely sharing their generally unsolicited advice, family and friends have also been taking their own measures to “prepare” me for my year abroad through the medium of film. Kay had me sit down a few weekends ago for a marathon of classic French movies. Around the same time, a (male) friend made me watch the (highly disturbing) movie Hostel to prepare me for living in one when I first arrive. Watching Gerard Depardieu movies, I appreciated – but watching Americans be slaughtered in a hostel in Europe? Not so much. From the renter of Hostel did come one good movie – “Breathless,” about a young American girl who falls in love with a French criminal while studying in Paris. I am pretty sure I will not be showing that one to my dad.