29 September 2006

I’ve been having a really hard time figuring out the running culture here. I know there are runners here somewhere – I just have no idea where to find them.

Today was the first day I went for a real street run here – until now, I’ve confined myself to parks and the banks of the Seine while I got more familiar with the city. When I run the Seine, there are always a few other runners – usually older men, and there are sometimes a few in the parks as well.

Yay, running.

There is a huge 10k race from the Jardin des Tuileries next Sunday morning (I had sadly already missed the registration deadline by the time I found out about it), and all the posters have pictures of hundreds and hundreds of runners taking to the streets. Where they might all be training for this run is beyond me.

Parisians are a thin people, despite the incredible richness of French food and the lack of a big “gym culture” like there is in the United States. I just can’t figure out what they all do for exercise – because they apparently do not run in the streets.

When I got up this morning, I charted myself a six-mile street run on Google Maps, down Canal St. Denis, along the Seine, around Hôtel de Ville and back up to Gare de L’Est. In the maybe an hour I was out, I saw all of one other runner – a middle-aged man who was, of course, running along the Seine. I haven’t been able to put my finger on the running etiquette here yet either. At home, you always smile and nod or wave when you pass another runner – when I waved to my fellow Seine jogger, he just stared at me until I passed him.

Running along the canal was a strange experience. It seems like people just don’t run the streets here – in fact, pedestrians were kind of hostile when I ran around them. Nobody would let me pass them on the sidewalks, so I ended up doing most of my run in the bike lane in the street.

Maybe this is just because I haven’t figured out how the running scene works yet, but it seemed like seeing a street runner was such a novelty for these Parisians that they didn’t know how to respond. I felt like everyone I passed gave me a look that said, “Whoa, what on earth are you doing running?” Most of the reactions were weird looks and glares as I darted around people with my iPod, but some people were really weird.

In Seattle or Tacoma, if you’re a girl and you go running, you know you’re going to have guys yelling at you the whole time – it’s inevitable, but while running the catcalls are usually the worst you’ll get. Here though, guys apparently think it’s okay to find a girl casually stretching while waiting for the light to turn at Place de la Bastille, and install themselves two feet behind her, staring and making really uncomfortable comments until she runs away. That’s the kind of thing that happens anywhere – I’m a girl, I’m used to being harassed on the street – but when I go running I want to be left alone!

Once I got to the Seine, I stopped getting weird looks from pedestrians, but I realized it might be time to update the “Songs to Pump you UP” playlist on my iPod. Somehow, songs that seem perfectly normal to listen to while doing crunches at the IMA (Aqua’s “Tarzan and Jane,” for example – old school, I know), seem a little out of place here. Something just seemed a little wrong as I was passing Notre Dame and hearing “Tarzan is handsome, Tarzan is strong, come and listen to the jungle song.”

KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight,” however, seemed perfectly appropriate. This may have been because it came on as I was passing under one of the foot-traffic only bridges over the Seine – it’s always covered with couples, but none of them ever seem to be waiting for tonight to get down.

On my way back up Boulevard de Magenta, I guess I found another half a runner. I happened to be passing a bank right as a man in work clothes with a briefcase was exiting. He saw me running and asked, “Voulez-vous un compagnon?” I just waved and kept running, but he put on his imaginary headphones, grabbed his briefcase and jogged with me for a block and a half. When we got to the second corner he said, “Je vais jusqu’à…ici. Bon courage!” (I’ll leave you here, hang in there!) and turned down the street.

** Here is an ad you would never see in the United States:

28 September 2006

It is ridiculously easy to get medical treatment in France. Today we had inscriptions pedagogiques for the Association Sportive, which is (as you could have figured) when students sign up for sports teams. The cool thing is you get credits for doing your sport, so everyone does one. There's also a really good selection of teams. For two extra credits and a trifling fee, I joined hip hop. In French, it's l'hip-hop or "leep-op."

In order to register, I had to get the French equivalent of a sports physical, which in the U.S. is kind of a pain. I remember having to go to Lakewood to find sketchy walk-in clinics where you pay in cash. Today I just walked into the first doctor's office I passed after leaving Sciences Po. I almost missed the tiny plaque reading "Dr. Madani," because it was just one small nameplate on the side of a typcial Parisian, Hausmannian building. The office itself is in an old old apartment, with dark green rugs, thick green velvet curtains and decorative plaster moldings all over the ceilings. The exam table is next to the fireplace.

Apparently, all you need for a French sports physical is a blood pressure and a pulse, because that's all he took – I told him I had asthma, but his response was "pas de problème, pas de problème," and I was presented with a clean bill of health.

Since I'm officially covered under French social security and all, medical care is also really affordable. Actually, since I have my ssn but not my official card yet, I wasn't covered for the visit – but even without my federal insurance, the whole check-up was only 21 euros. As I was paying, Dr. Madani said, "C'est moins chère que dans votre pays, non?" Oui. It is much less expensive. I have a lot of respect for a system that allows access to medical care for everyone at really reasonable prices, even without insurance. And as it turns out, the 21 euros will be coming right back to me once I mail my reimbursement form to the government.

I didn't get to read the whole article because the doctor called me in before finishing, but apparently there are only 1300 practicing gynocologists in France – and only 20 med students in the whole country chose this as their speciality last year. This is a little disturbing considering that there are approximately 31,181,873 women in the country (CIA World Factbook). That's one doctor for about every 24 thousand women – something about this does not add up.

Every day I have more reasons to think this au pair job is perfect for me. The au pair mom told me when I first met her that the hours were flexible, but I also knew she likes to have help from 17h-20h every night, so I didn't know how flexible they'd actually be. When I found out that I had the chance to get into a hip hop class I was a little worried because it goes until 17h and it's in the 12ème arondissement – at least a 15 minute metro ride from Opéra (the closest station to my new apartment and the au pair family) not counting the walking time. When I emailed the mom though, she told me to go ahead and sign up for it – it was a really good opportunity (I told her a few weeks ago I was on the lookout for a dance studio) and it's no big deal if I come over a little later on the nights I have class. Perfect perfect perfect job for a stressed out student. And, I finally get to move in in two short days. This month has been fun, but I can't wait to have my own place.

Walking back to the 10ème from Sciences Po today, I found unexpected tears in my eyes passing the Louvre – I have no idea why. Sometimes Paris just makes you cry. It's weird though – I wasn't sad then, I'm not sad now, and I'm pretty sure I don't have anything to cry about. Maybe it was just the bizarre combination of Gnarls Barkley on my iPod and the Palais Royal?

•• I'd like to know whose idea this addition was:

••• This has nothing to do with France or Sciences Po or anything that I usually write about, but this is hilarious. Please watch it – it will make your day better times a hundred.

27 September 2006

I had no idea Cristobal Balenciaga was so cool. Before today I could have spotted a Balenciaga bag, but not much else. I spent my first hour after class getting things done, and decided to reward myself with a ticket to the Balenciaga exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. The fashion exhibits are on constant rotation, and this is the first exhibition of Balenciaga designs since the 1970s. It was pretty crowded:

Coco Chanel used to say Balenciaga (1892-1972) was the only true couturier in Paris – the rest were just designers. In the truest sense of the word, she was kind of right. There aren’t many fashion houses whose founders not only design the clothes, but sew couture pieces themselves.

I spent more than an hour skulking around behind a group of fashion students and ended up getting a great tour from their professor, learning more than I ever thought I’d know about Balenciaga’s signature fabrics, lines and cuts. It was really cool. I was so pumped up when I left that I accidentally spent 11 dollars on British Vogue so I could read the Balenciaga article advertised on the cover. I say accidentally because I thought it was American Vogue and read the 3.60 on the cover as euros, not pounds. Well 3.60 in pounds turns into nearly 9 euros, which becomes about 11 dollars. I didn’t realize how much I’d paid until I got my change back.

Before the exhibit I finally succeeded in opening my French bank account. There have been about 5 banks actively soliciting the business of the new Sciences Po students and I had no idea how to choose one. I ended up going for Société Générale because they gave me 80 euro for opening an account and a waiver for the cost of my SciPo sport. That means my 100 euro yoga class will be free free free all semester long!

I felt pretty cool right outside the bank when two Parisian women stopped me and asked for directions to Rue du Bac. I felt even cooler when I realized I knew where it was and successfully pointed them toward the street they wanted.

After setting up my bank account, I headed for the Louvre to buy my “carte des jeunes,” a yearlong membership for only 15 euro – this is also exciting because, ahem, those of you who may be visiting will get big discounts if you go with me. Alas, though the Musée des Arts Décoratifs is technically in the Palace du Louvre, it has its own admission prices. I really don’t mind paying a measly 6 euro to check out couture collections every so often – especially since I get the tariff réduit until I hit the age of 26. Paris is a really accessible city for young people – movie theatres, museums, restaurants, most kinds of businesses offer discounts for everyone under 26 – it’s been a long time since I got a price reduction just for being young.

•• Outside the Louvre I saw the funniest sight of my day – apparently there’s a tour company that leads Americans around Paris on Segway scooters. When I saw this group motoring through the Jardin des Tuileries I could not stop laughing.

••• So a French boy invited me to spend the weekend in Normandy with him to meet his family – I can’t go though, Saturday’s move-in day. Don’t worry dad, I’m still not getting married. If I never come back from France it won’t be because I fell in love with someone – it’ll be because I’m trapped in French jail for strangling a (different – American) boy in my French class. He’s in a fraternity and a notable quote might give a better idea of his personality: “Yeah, let’s get CRUNKED!!! Show them how we do it American-style!!!”
Class was really really hard to be in yesterday. Class itself wasn't hard – it never is, but the 4 hours seemed to stretch for at least 19. By 13h I was so antsy I ended up wandering the city for about 2 hours "on my way home" instead of taking the Metro back to the 10ème.

This is where you buy the best falafel in the world. Apparently Lenny Kravitz agrees, because there are pictures of him with the owners on various visits all over the walls. I couldn't walk by without getting one to walk with myself. The man who made my sandwich told me I was a "nice little girl."

Rue des Rosiers has been a center of the Jewish quarter since the 1800s. Those are the same cobblestones.

This is where I found the closest thing to bagels in Paris. Even though they're more just like round bread with poppyseeds, they're still pretty good. Thank you Sacha.

A movie set I found near Place de la Republique.

This is why driving in Paris is terrifying – bikes, scooters, trucks and cars all occupy the same space. There are no lanes – it pretty much becomes every man for himself.

I just thought this was pretty.

Canal Saint Denis

This guy is a dork – these bubble scooters are pretty much the pansiest way to get around Paris – and yet tons of guys have them. No women though, the women all ride regular scooters.

Tent city on the Canal Saint Denis – a few blocks from our September apartment.

Living space of the September apartment – yes, it's a little cramped!

25 September 2006

Last Thursday the only words I knew in German were “gesundheit” and “auf wiedersehen.” I’ve become so used to being able to comfortably express myself in two languages that I didn’t give a thought to my sad lack of practical communication ability until I arrived at the Munich airport. Luckily the border policeman who stamped my passport recognized my terrified look and switched to English after a few rapid phrases in German. All of a sudden I remembered that I was in a country I’d never traveled to – and I didn’t even know how to say “I don’t speak German!”

Luckily all I had to do by myself was find my way to the airport exit – after that I was rescued by the Jorgensons, who have all picked up an impressive amount in the three months they’ve been in Bavaria. At least, they all sound really German to my ears.

One major difference from France is how orderly everything is in Germany. Quiet hours are from 20h to 8h every night and in the middle of the day from 13h to 15h. These aren’t suggested quiet hours – they’re law. So is the prohibition from opening any kind of business other than a restaurant on a Sunday. It’s not like France, where everybody takes Sundays off because they want the break – in Germany Sundays are taken off because it’s law. Probably due in large part to these restrictions, München is a very clean and nice city. There are bike paths everywhere, the neighborhoods are quiet and well-groomed, and most activities are pretty family-friendly – the beer gardens, for example.

I was pretty surprised when four-year old Jack asked his parents if we could all go to a “biergärten” Friday evening. From my observations in Tacoma, “beer garden” conjured up images of white plastic lawn furniture wrapped in plastic Coors flags and sitting under a grimy tent at the Taste of Tacoma or the Freedom Fair. In Germany and the U.S. a “beer garden” is technically the same thing, but the ideas are very different. The beer gardens we visited this weekend were all clean and grassy, with picnic tables, food and beer vendors, and always with playgrounds – in short, really nice places to go with the family. The idea of a biergärten seems like a really good one to me, but somehow I just don’t think it would work out at home.

Maybe most people already know what a German beer garden is, but I at least was pretty interested to learn.

To complete the picture of my ignorance on the subject of Germany/ München/Bavaria, I had unwittingly purchased my plane tickets for the middle weekend of Oktoberfest – celebrated all over Germany, but no manifestations can compete with that of München, where the first one was held in 1810. I’m not sure if this is because I’m a girl or just because I’m really out of it, but all I really knew about Oktoberfest was that I thought you could drink a lot of beer there. I had kind of imagined pumpkins too, but that’s probably because of the “oktober.”

As it turns out, “you can drink a lot of beer there,” is a pretty accurate summary of the festival. Upon exiting the U-Bahn (public train system) the mass of people in lederhosen, keg hats and heart cookie necklaces sweeps you straight toward the Theresienwiese. There are rides, there are souvenirs, there is a ridiculous amount of food, and yes, there is beer. It kind of reminded me of the Puyallup Fair – except replace all the animals, the shows and the hobby halls with massive beer tents.

The beer tents open at 9am, and by 10am there are drunk Germans and tourists with their arms thrown amicably over each others’ shoulders, singing drinking songs and toasting. Lederhosen (meaning literally, “leather pants”) and dirndls are as common in the streets as jeans and tennis shoes.

Although there are rides and attractions for the whole family (a good thing, since I went with a family of three boys 7 and under), you really can’t leave until you’ve had ein maß (a liter of beer) from one of the beer tents. That was the first time I’ve ever consumed a liter of alcohol in front of a group of kids I used to babysit. That being said, the entire d'Wiesn was filled with parents getting loud and lusty with their children next to them for the ride. It was a hearty good time for everyone – with the exception of the puking tourists.

I didn’t really add a lot to my German vocabulary, but what I did learn is all very useful. In addition to bless you and goodbye, I can now yell for help and order myself a liter-sized mug of beer.

•• There really are pretzels everywhere in Bavaria – I wish I could live in a city that was filled with both crepes and pretzels – I don’t think I could ever choose one over the other.

••• To see more pictures, click here.

21 September 2006

It's not exactly surprising but always kind of jarring to see how deeply U.S. culture has seeped into France. It's impossible to get a table at any McDonald's in the city, they're that popular. When R and I were having to go to McDo to use the free wifi, it would take us at least half an hour to get through the line and buy a coffee to justify our use of a table. R and I were hanging out with a girl named Anne from Marseilles a few days ago, and she told us when she went to New York for the first time she ate at McDonald's because it was something she recognized from home. I'm not sure how I feel about McDonald's being a universal symbol of comfort.

Because the U.S. is such a large country with massive music and movie industries it's hard to escape American pop culture here. It's funny that what I would consider distinctly American culture has infiltrated the rest of the world and fused with it – I mean that French pop culture is not only French music and movies, but a mixture of French and American. It's no problem finding a movie theater playing new releases in the version originale (V.O. as opposed to V.F.) with French subtitles.

R and I were at a club one night when "Pretty Fly for a White Guy" started playing. I turned to the French guy next to me and said (in French), "Hey this song was so popular when I was 13 years old." He gave me a strange look and said, "Yeah, me too." I should have figured, considering that a French ministry of culture was created to protect French music, arts and media. French radio stations are required to play a minimum of 60 percent French music to counteract the heavy American influence.

There are a lot of words in the English language that are French in origin – rendezvous, risqué, imbecile, for example. Likewise, there are a lot of English words that have been adopted by the French – just a bit more recently in history. Today in class, my professor asked a student to forward him an email: "Est-ce que tu peux me forwarder l'email?" In another class, my professor was trying to describe someone mugging for the camera, acting "trés star." In a pub one night I pointed to a French guy's eyebrow piercing and asked what to call it in French. His answer? "Un piercing!" And of course, there's the ever popular, "C'est cool!"

As much English as there is here, sometimes translations just don't work out as they should. In Nantes, Christina and I spotted a boy wearing a mock FBI-logo shirt that said: "FBI: First Bureau Illegal." We stared at him for a while, wondering if he knew that the words on his shirt have no meaning in French or in English...and then we stumbled upon these...stare, squint your eyes, scratch your head – no matter how long you look, they're not going to start making sense :

It's just funny to me, seeing things here that I would normally think of as "so American" taking on French personality. But anywhere you go people are going to try and imitate what is exotic to them. I guess I just need a few more months out of the U.S. under my belt before I can really appreciate the allure of McDo.

** Who else finds this ridiculous?

*** Due to the fact that I'm hopping a plane to Munich tomorrow morning (visiting the Jorgensons of Tacoma!), I'll be out until Monday or so.

An ad from the Metro (sorry for the glare)...I love French publicité, or "la pub" (pronounced like pube), as they affectionately call it:

20 September 2006

If you are ever having a funk day in Paris – or just need a formula for an automatic good one, consult the following list (in this order):

• Wear high heels to class (and prance around the city in them after school gets out) – they're much less foolish-looking in the 7ème arondissement of Paris than on the damp campus of the University of Washington. Plus, all the girls wear fancy shoes to class here. Embrace the aching feet as badges of honor.

• Buy a crépe nutella-banane from the crépe guy outside St. Germain-des-Prés (the oldest cathedral in Paris, which I walk by every day) who is nice but says disturbing things like: "Are you Indian? I know you'll want a lot of pepper on your galette." Even from the possibly racist crépe man, I'm pretty sure there is no more satisfying after school snack in the world.

• Hang out with fun girls! It's a lot harder than I predicted to go 4 weeks in a strange country without my usual girlfriends, so it is seriously healing to go sit with a group at a café and have french girl talk.

• Find a new museum to check out. Today another girl from group Odéon and I decided to explore the Eugène Delacroix museum right near school. It doesn't have a ton of art (since most of his is at the Louvre), but it's in the apartment where he died and has a lot of interesting things. Plus, it's free with the annual Louvre student pass (15 euro for unlimited Louvre entry for the entire year, what!).

• Listen to ridiculous music on your headphones in the metro. There's something oddly pleasing about secretly listening to Christina Aguilera while crushed between a bunch of sweaty French businessman and the greasy subway door. The Cure is also excellent for this purpose.

• Go buy a tradition (The best kind of baguette – it costs 30 centimes more but is so worth it!) from the nicest old lady at the corner boulangerie by your apartment. My particular favorite is the woman who is always so tired and flustered by the time I come around at 18 or 19h that she calls everyone "monsieur." Of course, this insult only flusters her more – especially the days R or I wear skirts and she's still confused.

• Continue to scheme ways of convincing the Fédération Française de la Couture that I am a member of the French press and I definitely need a free press pass for Fashion Week (the first week of October in Paris). If anyone has any bright ideas on how to facilitate this, please let me know.

So Sciences Po sent us another email – apparently registration is now Friday. Interesting, considering that I'm flying to Munich at 7h Friday morning and supposedly the only way to get the classes you want is to sit still and keep refreshing the website all day long. I'm not sure what my plan to get around this will be...right now it's wait and see if they magically change it back to Thursday!

So other than having no way to register for classes, I think I'm doing pretty well at the four-week mark. I have a place to live, people to hang out with, a job and easy access to banana-nutella crépes. Although this is probably the most romantic city on earth, it's also the best place to be to just hang out with yourself. Last night I went to see Le Vent se Lève by myself (going to movies alone is one of my most favorite things to do) and there was not a single group of two or more in the theater. It was me and maybe seven other lone people scattered through the room. It was the same way when I saw Marie Antoinette a few weeks ago, except there was one couple in the middle of the singles.

I think people are a lot more nervous about being on their own at home, but here it's totally normal to go sit and have lunch with yourself at a café, or go to the cinéma or a museum. It's an easy place to start over with no friends. I promise I am not as pitiful as that just sounded – but it's true, Paris is a forgiving place to be on your own. Of course it's always more fun to have your girl group!

** A cultural note: Shower caps are different here. In the U.S., they're voluminus plastic bubbles large enough to protect your hair and probably face, neck and shoulders from any water. In France, they're more like decorative swim caps. I was pretty thrilled to discover that the one I purchased for a euro at Monoprix is randomly trimmed with lace. I think the extra trim makes up for the fact that I can barely fit my head inside of it. Really though, who needs to be lace-trimmed in the shower?

*** This is a favorite outfit of Parisians. Apparently.

19 September 2006

It took Prof. Rouzin a few minutes to goad us into conversation today – none of us were particularly enthusiastic to confess the countries we make fun of to a room full of international students, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“Les Belges, Les Belges sont les objets de toutes nos blagues!” (Belgians are the butt of all our jokes) she repeated, and pointed to Chiana from Spain.

“Les Catalans,” Chiana said sheepishly, but her answer opened the door for the rest of us. “Canadians!” was the energetic response from two University of California students (a Davis and an Irvine), while Yvonne from Singapore apparently makes fun of Malaysians. The British laugh at Scotland, Chileans scorn Peruvians, and people from the Netherlands get no respect from Germany. It sounds like everyone everywhere has the neighbors they like and the neighbors they like to feel superior to.

Each week we have 14 hours of French class (in effect an entire UW quarter crammed into 4 weeks) and 4 hours of “Travaux Pratiques.” My actual French language classes are more of a redundant review of grammar rules, but I really am learning new things every day. For Travaux Pratiques, we spend two hours twice a week listening to Prof. Germanangue lecture about anything he thinks we need to understand about France. He’s the one who works for Ségolène Royal, and as a Sciences Po alum, his are the most interesting four hours of my week.

Today the whole class was nearly absent for registration – luckily we’re apparently all at least semi-intelligent (though maybe not compared to our French counterparts at Sciences Po), because everyone but sick Rachael was in class on time today. Last night at 22h an announcement was added to the registration page moving our scheduled day back to Thursday. It’s a good thing I checked online this morning, because we spent all of M. Germanangue’s class discussing the French press. Needless to say, I was pretty into it.

In France (and most countries) there is the presse régionale and the presse nationale. The national papers are mostly based out of Paris (it’s the largest city and center of the government – it makes sense), and of these, there are five that are the most significant. Ranging in slant from the far left to the far right, these newspapers also happen to range in physical size – the largest paper being the most conservative and the smallest the most liberal (in the U.S. sense of the word*).

While American liberals would be closer to moderates on the French political scale, the farthest left-leaning paper is L'Humanité. Founded in 1904 by the Communist Party of France, the journal (newspaper, if you didn’t already guess) was considered the organe officiel (official mouthpiece) of the CP in France.

After L’Humanité is Libération, journal of the French “BoBo.” This is the term given to the bourgeois-bohème, sometimes known as la gauche caviar. Fairly self-explanatory, these terms are probably closest in meaning to the “limousine liberals” of the U.S. – basically people of comfortable socio-economic standing who sympathize with figures like Che Guevara. Libération apparently sells a lot of copies in the 10ème and 11ème arondissements – the funky middle-class areas.

Right in the middle of the nationales falls Le Monde. This is probably the most generally respected paper in France (though as M. Germanangue said, it depends on your personal politics). Le Monde staff consider themselves the French equivalent of the New York Times, and even M. Germanangue couldn’t assign a definite political sway to this paper. When a student asked where in Paris Le Monde is read, the answer was “Ici.” Right here at Sciences Po. Le Monde is the newspaper of professors and intellectuals, and is the safest bet for objective news writing.

Fourth is La Croix. As can be determined from the title (The Cross), La Croix is a French-Catholic news outlet. This paper’s slant is usually neither specifically politically left or right, but is obviously socially conservative. During the Dreyfus Affair (the temporary exhibit at the museum of Jewish Art and History right now), however, it took a decidedly anti-Dreyfus and anti-Semitic stance.

The largest (in size and circulation) conservative paper in France is Le Figaro. According to M. Germanangue, Le Figaro is read in clubhouses and in wealthy homes of the 16ème arrondissement. It’s funny to me that these papers can be completely shamelessly slanted – but it’s okay because they don’t pretend to be objective. Every French person chooses who to take their news from – with no apologies. Of Monday’s front pages, the centerpiece article in La Croix and Le Figaro featured the pope’s semi-apology. Libération, on the other hand, printed a full-page photo illustration of Ségolène Royal.

Most of the class was rapt for the entire two hours – we were also tickled to walk into our next class and have Prof. Rouzin ask if anyone had seen the article on Ségolène Royal in Libération yesterday. Thanks to our new comprehensive understanding of the journaux quotidiens of France, we were able to quickly deduce her (leftist) political leanings. I don’t know if I can remember the last time I was this interested in school – it’s kind of exciting.

* It’s important to distinguish that in France, “libéral” refers more to liberal economics, or those who support the free market/capitalism. These people are typically more conservative in the U.S.

** I just got an email from Sciences Po saying they understand that the courseload is extremely dense and students barely have time to complete their work, much less relax during fall semester. In light of this, the email detailed the dates of a bunch of extra vacation days for our “travaux personnels,” or days to get things done. Now we get a random week off of classes in the middle of November, and a few extra days in mid-December. Hooray!

18 September 2006

If Sciences Po really is the training ground for the government of France, I can definitely see why it is so hard to get anything done in this country. As great as the actual education is supposedly going to be, the lack of organization is sometimes a little hard for an American girl to take.

Last Monday was the first day of orientation classes for the international program. In every schedule R and I had there was a slot for “Lundi 11 septembre: Début des cours.” We could not for the life of us, however, find any indication of where or when these classes were supposed to be starting. Finally we decided that nothing would be starting before 9h, so if we got to Sciences Po by 8h30 we’d have plenty of time to figure out where we were supposed to be.

Arriving at 8h30 at Sciences Po was another story – we easily located the list that told us our language level and group (R and I are both in “Odéon”), but nowhere could we find a time or a room number. After maybe 20 minutes of confused wandering, we realized we had become part of a group of about ten confused wandering Sciences Po students. We asked at the Sciences Po information desk, but the man working had no idea what we were talking about – he sent us upstairs to find a random French professor who told us we should go to the administrative services building and see what we could find out.

As with everything else administrative in France, we ended up on a 30 minute goose chase, ending finally with a student employee printing out and photocopying our group schedules. I’m not sure what the rest of the international program did. Even after receiving our schedules and discovering that group Odéon didn’t meet for the first time until 1:30 that afternoon, we couldn’t really be annoyed – this is France, we’re used to the run-around.

Another example of the French inability to either plan or communicate a plan is the registration system. During the first week of orientation we were all told that we’d be registering for classes the 21st and 22nd of September and we’d get more information later. R and I somehow ended up not even knowing that the informational registration presentation had occurred without us being present, but we bummed the pertinent information from other Odéon students.

As R is sick with strep throat (I’m pretty sure I have built up some strong immunity to the various illnesses she’s nursed since arriving here, since we sleep in the same bed, and I’ve never shown any symptoms of illness), I set off for SciPo alone today. When I got to class I joined the group of students talking about which classes we were interested in signing up for on Friday – this is when Johanna from England stepped in and informed us that registration would now be occurring online tomorrow at 9h. Did the international program email us? Did our professors know? Were there signs of any kind? Of course not. The only notice was a change in the date on the actual registration web page. I’m not sure what we’d all have done if Johanna hadn’t been trying to get a feel for the website last night!

EDIT: As of an hour ago, there's a new update on the website switching our registration from tomorrow to Thursday – what the heck? I have no idea what I'm supposed to be doing. We'll see tomorrow, I guess!

As frustrating as trying to get things done can be, R and I are getting used to the pain. It helps to feel like I’m actually improving in French with 14 hours of language classes per week. One of the most useful tricks I’ve picked up is to always remember that the French do not like unattractive things. They don’t like the Eiffel Tower, they prefer svelte bodies*, and they don’t like anything that sounds bad. This helps a lot when you’re learning how to speak French – if the sentence you just put together is not particularly pleasing to the ear, it’s probably wrong.

It has also become really exciting everytime a French person asks me what my nationality is – and it’s even more exciting when they assume I’m from another European country. In Nantes with Christina the country we got most was Spain. It’s nice to know my accent doesn’t scream “I’m an American!!” I’m starting to feel like something else falls into place with every day that goes by – whether it’s dealing with French beaurocracy or learning cheater’s French speaking tips.

* The first night Rachael and I went out with Rubens and his friends, the boys were all really excited about “Ohhh two beautiful American girls! Who are not fat! Like the rest of Americans!” I think they were trying to compliment us, but I was kind of offended for my country.

** It always tickles me to watch the fusion of things modern and ancient – living in a country whose ancient history is visible in the streets is a prime opportunity to witness this. Bulldozers clearing out the moat of a castle in Nantes, for example.

14 September 2006

Yesterday may have been my strangest day yet. I got up at 7h, got dressed, checked my email and packed my lunch for the day. Then R and I took the metro down to the 7ème for class.

On the way home we stopped at Monoprix to buy some notebooks and laundry soap, then headed home to wash three enormous loads of laundry – hey, it’s a pain to go to the laundromat! That’s why we tend to let a lot of time lapse in between trips. Over the past three weeks, both R and I have adopted more French-like hygiene habits. (Perfume, for example, is an amazing invention – you’re going to be sweaty by the end of the metro-filled day anyway, so stop trying to be clean all the time and just cover up the body dirt with some good Chanel).

We have also adopted the practice of “airing” our clothes rather than washing them. Okay yes, I realize it sounds disgusting, but we’re in France! Everywhere we go, we end up reeking of cigarette smoke, thus all of our clothes tend to smell pretty funky by the end of the day. Laundry, however, is usually around 4 euro (5 dollars) per washing machine, and 4 to 5 euro to dry clothes – we are way too cheap to wash a 10 euro load every week. Instead, we hang everything out the window for a few days…usually by the second morning our pants smell almost completely normal.

After our enormous laundry haul, R went to meet some family friends for dinner, and I stuck around the apartment to work on my list of “things to do.” After a few hours of dishes, changing bedsheets, going to La Poste, doing homework, cooking dinner and returning emails, I started to feel kind of odd. Everything just suddenly seemed so very normal. Except that I’m in Paris. The dishes:

I’ve spent so many days of my life “getting things done,” but this one was the first that ever took place in another country. This is really when it started to hit me. Up until this point, everything (even the stress and school) felt like a crazy Parisian vacation. Hanging out at the Jardin des Tuileries, stalking tourists at DaVinci Code sites, going to bars and restaurants, meeting people, buying baguettes – none of it felt like real life. But now it is. It’s just happening in a brand new location.

Even classes are bizarre. In some ways, I feel like I’m sitting in a French class at UW – but then I look around at the walls of the Grand Siècle mansion I’m learning in and remember that Mary Gates Hall doesn’t exactly look like this. Today we were discussing different French political parties in my first class, and my professor made an offhand comment about having to leave right away to meet the woman he’s working for. Who’s the woman? None other than Ségolène Royal – a Socialist who could very well end up being the first female president of France after the 2007 elections.
That’s not even a weird “I’m in France” thing – it’s a Toto, we’re at Sciences Po now thing. R and I have unwittingly entered a twisted web of political connections – a world whose inhabitants scoff at a degree from La Sorbonne, and whose administrators take their school so seriously that just 3 absences over the course of a semester will earn you an automatic failing grade.

As jarring as it is to hear casual references to Royal and other powerful political players, it’s all a part of the world I’ve entered. It’s a world with the Eiffel Tower, baguettes, politics and “France’s elite” – but the laundry and dishes are always accruing.

Here's a picture of Rachael and I chilling in a boulangerie on our lunch break today – just living the Parisian life.

** I’m heading down to Nantes for the weekend, so you won’t be hearing from me until at least Monday morning.

13 September 2006

Here are a few pictures of the interior of Sciences Po. I have no words today.

This is at 56 rue des Saints Pères, the building where I'll be spending most of my September. Everything is so old.

This is the courtyard at 56 rue des Saints Pères. Between this building and 27 rue Saint Germain is the grassy and tree-filled courtyard pictured two posts back.

This is a typical classroom. Note the walls.

The same classroom.

You can see part of the foliage of the main courtyard here.

12 September 2006

Parisians like to tell visitors that once you’ve lived in Paris, no other city will ever satisfy you. I would chalk this sentiment up to maybe 50 percent French snobbery and 50 percent pure adoration for this city.

When someone moves to Paris from another part of France, they say that they “monte à Paris.” Even moving from Lille (in the Northern point of the semi-star that is France) to Paris, you are still “going up” to Paris. One of my professors told us today that il a monté à Paris 11 years ago from Marseilles, and now could never imagine living anywhere else.

Paris to Parisians really is the “centre du monde” (center of the world), as tee shirts proclaim from every souvenir shop in the city. To them, everything they could possibly need is right here – and if it isn’t, there’s a ready substitute. Landlocked Paris has no beaches? Not a problem. A stroll along the part of the Seine that passes through the 8ème will demonstrate that city-dwellers are perfectly content to sunbathe right on its concrete banks. Bikini tops are optional for women, while teeny black speedos are the typical male uniform.

Like that bizarre breed of Manhattanites who are rumored never to have left the island, legend has it there are certain people who have never left Paris’s Île de la Cité. On foot it takes barely 15 minutes to walk the length of this tiny island in the Seine, but these Cité-dwellers say they have everything they need. Though my sentiments are not quite as drastic of those who live on Île de la Cité, it’s hard for me to imagine a person who could resist the charms of Paris. Indeed, after three weeks here, I find myself drifting dangerously close to overattached.

Everyone who comes here falls in love – whether it’s a fleeting affair or a long-term commitment, the city is irresistible. Even the Nazi general stationed in Paris during the last fight for its liberation could not set it ablaze as ordered. When his superiors asked him if Paris was burning, some fleeting (or perhaps lasting) love stayed his hand (and arsenal).

Like anything beloved, Paris has its faults. The traffic is terrifying, whether deadlocked or roaring around curves at 100 km/h. Some of its dwellers are liable to become obnoxious or violent when you deny them your extra change. Every day spent in Paris coats the body with that unmistakable layer of city grime that feels so much more disgusting than any other kind of dirt. The metro is dirty and overcrowded – so is the entire city, come to think of it. The cost of living is outrageous. Parisians are “snobs.” The city is completely overrun with tourists and the sidewalks are covered in unscooped dog poop. I could list a hundred more, but Paris’s flaws are not the point I’m trying to make. The point is that as a Parisian, these are the things you learn to accept, because this resigned acceptance is what makes Paris yours.

In Le Petit Prince, the fox says “…si tu m'apprivoises, nous aurons besoin l'un de l'autre. Tu seras pour moi unique au monde. Je serai pour toi unique au monde...” If you tame me, then we shall need one another. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…” This is how those who live in Paris feel about their city.

This pride, this arrogance, this sense of belonging of one to another is what it means to be Parisian. I think the city is taming me.

** And finally, a note from Paris to all of you tourists (I have an address here, I’m allowed to morph into a snooty Parisian for a minute): Wearing a souvenir tee shirt that proclaims your profound love for the city you and your guidebook are currently in is not cool. We all love Paris – give it time and you’ll learn to express your appreciation for the city with all the subtle snobbery of those of us who never want to leave.

*** This is my name, spelled phonetically in French. I don't get it either. By the way, I was only at Starbucks in Paris because Anne (who is French by way of Marseilles) loves it. As she says "It's so American!"