29 November 2006

Paris, sometimes you scare me a little.

There isn't a lot to update – since I've been sick, I wake up, go to class, do my homework and go to sleep. Today though, I happened to walk home a different way and found something a little disturbing.

Yes, those are actual stuffed rats. Hanging from traps. In the window of a business on rue des Halles. Right next to a popular boulangerie.

The rats kind of make sense, because it's the office of an exterminator/pest control business...but still. The sign translates to: Destruction of Harmful Animals

Here's a closer view of the dead rats. The sign in the middle explains that these were all sewer rats that were actually trapped and killed by this business around the Forum des Halles in and around the year 1929. Apparently they had them stuffed...and kept them.

27 November 2006

Of the three months and three days that I’ve been living in Paris, I’ve been without my camera for more than half of it. Today, seven and a half weeks after I dropped it off, I finally got to pick up my fixed camera from the Vilma Canon specialists in the 20ème arondissement.

No matter that the projected time in which it would be repaired was only three weeks. The fact that I actually expected it to be ready by the estimated date is a testament to the fact that I really haven’t been living here that long – I should have known better.

This is France, after all. I suppose I’ve only lived in five cities in my life, but out of the five, Paris is by far the most filled with red tape. My experience trying to have a simple repair done on my little camera is an apt example of how ridiculously difficult it is to get anything done in this country.

Even if it's annoying...Paris is pretty for Christmas:

The saga began in October – on the fourth of the month, I dropped my Canon. I’ve dropped it before, but I either dropped it from higher than ever before or it had simply had enough abuse. As soon as I picked it up from the floor, I knew something was wrong.

When I pressed the power button, the lens sputtered, zoomed halfway out, then a quarter of the way back in and the error message “E18” flashed in white on the black screen of the camera. At this point I’d only been living in my new apartment for a few days, and I didn’t have Internet access yet.

To try and figure out what was wrong with my camera, I wandered around my neighborhood with my laptop open, trying to pick up an unsecured wireless network. I finally found one in a small park a few blocks away from my building, and settled down on a bench to peruse the Canon website.

From their site I learned that the E18 message meant that something was blocking the zoom lens (and from Wikipedia, I learned that maybe I got off easy with my free repair). And that there happened to be one authorized Canon repair shop in the entire Île de France region.

I wasted no time in bringing my camera to Vilma, which I remained quite optimistic about, even throughout the 40 minute, three metro transfer trip it took me to get out to their office in the 20ème.

I had a really interesting time trying to communicate to the woman checking the repairs in what exactly was wrong with my camera – the vocabulary to describe the functions of a zoom lens wasn’t covered in any of my French books in school. Finally I gave up and resorted to gesturing at the camera saying “E18, E18.”

The Vilma employee understood immediately, and checked the camera in – I didn’t have my warranty with me, but she assured me that they’d begin work on my camera and I just needed to drop off my garantie as soon as I could locate it. I explained to her that it would half to be mailed to me from the States, but that was fine, she said. The work on the camera would take three to four weeks to complete.

I was a little surprised at how long she thought it would take, but figured they’d overestimate the time a little and I could expect my camera back before the end of October. No such luck.

My mom dug the warranty out of my bedroom at home and mailed it to me the very next day. When I brought it to Vilma about a week after I’d dropped off my camera, a different employee was working the desk. This one spoke English and he explained to me that they had not been able to commence work on the camera without the garantie. They’d need three to four more weeks to work on my Canon, and would email me when it was ready. At this point I was really frustrated – especially since Christina and I had been planning our trip to Barcelona and I was no longer sure I’d have my camera back in my possession by then (as it turned out, I didn’t).

A few days after dropping off the warranty, I received an electronic bill, estimating the work on the camera at around 200 euro and asking if I was in accord with paying it. Knowing my camera was under international warranty, I ignored the email, figuring it was a mistake.

Maybe a month later (a week or so into November) I received the same electronic bill, this time with a note demanding a “oui” or “non” if I was going to comply with the work agreement. This time I responded to the email, saying that my camera was under warranty and was not supposed to cost me money.

The email I got back told me not to worry about it, they had my warranty and I wouldn’t be charged anything. Reassured, but still agitated without my camera, I continued on with my day-to-day business.

This brings us up to last week. At the beginning of the week, I received the bill yet again. I responded this time saying that I agreed to the work, but not to paying, since my camera was under warranty. This time I received my reply via telephone.

The woman who called informed me that I still needed to drop off my garantie at Vilma. This time I was really confused. I explained to her that I’d already given them a copy of my warranty, that the guy I’d given it to had assured me that the repair would cost nothing and that I’d been waiting for my camera for well over a month. The employee told me she’d speak with her coworker and hung up abruptly.

About ten minutes later I received another email that said nothing but “votre appareil sera reparer” (your camera will be repairing – yeah, it’s not even sensical French). This was really driving me nuts, so I sent them an email back saying something along the lines of “Okay, it will be repaired, but when? I’ve been waiting for more than a month.” No response.

Friday night I spent a good portion of R and my Beaujolais walk griping about the incredibly frustrating game I was playing with the employees of Vilma. We came to the mutual conclusion that the most productive thing I could do would be to show up there on Monday (today) in person and ask them what on earth was going on.

This was my plan until I checked my mail Saturday, and found a letter telling me that my camera was finally ready. I was thrilled, but still annoyed. For one thing, the letter was postmarked November 22nd – a day before I’d received the phone call and emails from Vilma. For another, they’d told me I’d receive notification by email – if they had emailed me when it was ready, I’d have had my camera four days ago.

These are my feelings on the whole annoying ordeal:

I was so sick of dealing with this place and so excited to have my camera back that I skipped my vie politique lecture this afternoon to pick it up. I feel like I’m put back together again – it felt like a piece of my arm was missing, to not be able to document everything funny, interesting, bizarre that I saw throughout my days. I feel like I lost two months – two months in which I saw a lot of people wearing red pants and white shirts.

It doesn’t matter anymore though – I have my Canon back in my own hands, and I have another life lesson about the joys of dealing with anything in France under my belt. Vive la bureaucratie!

* Those jerks also changed my camera language into French. Good thing I can already speak it.

26 November 2006

Sometimes the nights when nothing goes according to plan end up being the best nights out. Sometimes they end up stinking, like the night we couldn’t get into Le Queen because of the shoes Rachael was wearing (who knew the bouncers would have such hatred for orange flats?).

Sometimes though, you come home at the end of the night knowing that the adventure you had was way more fun than whatever you’d originally intended to do.

Last night, for example. R and I had both had long, obnoxious weeks and both ended up having had too much homework to do anything for Thanksgiving, so we were looking forward to doing something fun Friday night.

I headed over to her apartment around 22h with a bottle of the Beaujolais Nouveau where the plan was to make dinner then head out to a bar or club to unwind with a lot of dancing.

When I got to her building, however, R didn’t answer her doorbell. When I got through to her cell phone, I found out that she was indeed inside the building, but was locked out of her apartment. This is bizarre because she had a key – it just wouldn’t work in the lock.

I should probably mention that this was a replacement key. I’m not sure how she managed this, but a few weeks ago, R somehow flushed her apartment and building keys down the toilet. She was too embarrassed to confess what really happened to her landlord and when she told him they were lost, was informed that a replacement set costs 200 euro. This seemed like a ridiculous price, but having keys to your apartment are kind of a necessity, so she paid for new ones. Without a key she was having to leave her door unlocked when she left for the day, and when she got home used a chair to barricade it (many French doors can only be locked from the inside with a key).

In the week that she’s had the replacement keys, R managed never to actually have to use them (i.e., her roommate was always home too) until last night. Apparently the landlord copied the wrong set.

So there we were, in the hallway of R’s building, with a bottle of wine, a giant Nine West bag (mine) and a bulging backpack (hers), and nowhere to go. We left a message for her roommate, for another guy in the same building and for a guy from the Sorbonne who’d invited us to a party.

This is a pretty typical evening – note the crêpe and the bottle of wine.

With nothing to do but wait, we went to a kebab restaurant around the corner from R’s apartment. Our food was delicious (the owner made fresh frites for us), and we stalled for as long as we could, since we hadn’t had any phone calls yet, but eventually we had to stand up and pay.

By that time, we were the only customers left in the restaurant. Besides us, it was the owner and two of his friends – three dad-aged men. One was Turkish, but I’m not sure about the other two.

As we were paying, we chatted casually with the men, who were nice (if difficult to understand), and they ended up inviting us to stay and let them buy us glasses of wine. We didn’t have anywhere else to go, and they didn’t seem to be hitting on us, so we said okay and sat back down.

One of the friends bought the first round, but after that the owner got excited about playing the host and brought us plates of appetizers and wine refills for the hour we lingered. As random as it was, it ended up being really fun – we spent the entire time talking about politics: The immigration issues in France, the image of the United States abroad and how none of us felt the Monica Lewinsky incident was at all relevant to Bill Clinton’s ability as a leader.

At midnight we decided it was time to check if Vita had returned, so we thanked the men and were invited back anytime for free kebabs or drinks.

Vita hadn’t returned (or called) yet, so we borrowed a bottle opener from one of Rachael’s neighbors and settled down with the Beaujolais in a corner of the hallway to watch a few episodes of the Girls Next Door.

At 12:40 (ten minutes after the final metro) we finally got a call from Vita – who informed us that she wasn’t actually planning on coming home at all. She had multiple parties to attend and it was easier for her to crash at a friend’s apartment. Our only real option was to head back to my apartment – else R would have nowhere to sleep. There’s a noctilien bus that leaves Bastille at 10 past every hour and runs along Rivoli, so we decided to just pack it up and hoof it with our bottle of wine.

Well we ended up deciding not to take the bus. Instead we stopped at a little epicerie for some snacks (chocolate cookies and two chocolate bars, ha!) and had a great time wandering through Paris with our wine and chocolate. We stopped at Bastille for a while to watch the breakdancing guys who bring a boombox out every weekend and dance all night for donations.

Holllllla for 2am crêpes!

These guys have the potential to be a lot more than street performers – they are really really good. I love watching people dance who really know how to move – it kind of inspires me. Watching the guys last night I had a hard time keeping myself from running up and busting a move along with them. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t, because though I probably could have pulled out some hip-hop moves, I would kill myself trying to do crazy poses on wet ground while supporting myself with one hand.

The whole walk was just really fun – drinking Beaujolais and checking out the tacky (and some not so tacky) Christmas decorations that have sprung up all over Paris. (To balance out the Christmas, R sung me some Hanukkah carols and I did my interpretation of a Hanukkah carol dance along the sidewalk beside her). I’m really going to miss living in a country where you can drink wine straight from the bottle walking down the street and not get arrested. We eventually did make it back to my apartment and to bed, but with fond memories of the evening and plans to eat free kebabs at our next possible convenience.

•• Apparently French kids have their own shortcut online language. Instead of “I’m hungry 4 a hamburger,” they’ll say “Je n’aime pas 7 chose.” The number 4 for “for” in English, the number 7 for “cette” (this) in French. I thought it was funny – Ella taught me.

••• Aussi, I'm finally sick for the first time since I arrived in Paris. Cassie warned me that I'd probably get really sick this year because I don't have the right antibodies to fight French germs...and I rightfully should have gotten sick since I was living with Rachael the walking disease for a month and a half, but I never did. Until now. Why could my body fight off the germs radiating at me from sleeping in the same bed as Rachael for a month and not the germs from little Georges? Actually, the cause is probably the fact that Rachael was never so proud of her boogers that she felt she needed to gift me with them. Georges, on the other hand...

23 November 2006

So not only is it Thanksgiving, but it’s the three-month mark of when I left Tacoma. It’s surprisingly anticlimactic so far.

When I walked out of my building to run a few errands this morning, I could have sworn I smelled a turkey roasting – but it couldn’t have been. Today is just a regular day in Paris – plus they don’t really eat turkey here. It’s all about the ham on this side of the Atlantic.

I thought I’d feel sadder, but I’m not really. I’m far enough away that it’s not bothering me so much. The more pressing thought on my mind is concerned with the exposé I have to present on Monday. When my group was assigned to the topic “Pourquoi peut-on dire que l’Union européenne est ‘un objet politique non identifié?” (Why could you say that the European Union is an unidentified political object?) Our professor started chuckling and told us we’d need her help for this one.

An OVNI is a French UFO, so the question refers to a play-on-words made by former president of the European Commission Jacques Delors – we’ve figured out that much, but this subject is still a doozy. I’m meeting with Alex from Germany at 14h to get some more work done.

Since my mind is completely stuffed with the Council of Ministers, federalism, OVNIs, the three pillars of the EU and other really confusing facts (to a girl who didn’t grow up as a citizen of the European Union), I haven’t had much time to think about Thanksgiving, or the fact that I’ve been living in France for a quarter of a year.

I guess that means it’s time for my three-month check-up. I’ve got to admit though, I don’t have a lot to report. September was pretty busy, what with arriving in France, apartment hunting, beginning orientation at UW, going to Munich, finding an apartment to sublet for the month and interviewing to become an au pair. October was pretty crazy too, with moving into my new apartment, Rachael finally finding a Russian roommate and a new apartment, beginning real classes at Sciences Po, making more friends and experiencing French Halloween.

This picture is a pretty accurate representation of Thanksgiving with my family. Actually, every holiday.

November though, where did it go? I feel like I was reflecting on my first two months just a few days ago. I guess it started off in Barcelona, then after a weeklong vacation from classes and a few horribly awkward boy situations all my real work started – and now a month has gone by without me realizing it.

You’d think the time would slow down once I got into a steady routine – classes, nannying, running, hip-hop, homework, grocery shopping and taking care of an apartment – but instead it seems to zip by even faster. I don’t mind though – fast or slow, I’ll take the routine.

I love traveling around and having crazy European things happen to me, collecting wild stories to tell – but I’m also loving the day-to-day Parisian life. Now it’ll be December in a week and all I have to report are boring everyday life things. I need a haircut and I’d really like some chocolate right now. I’m almost done with my Christmas shopping (don’t bother being impressed – you’d do it early too if you had to deal with international shipping). I’m finally going to see James Bond this weekend and I’m almost out of milk. Just life – not really grandes choses.

Later today, after I work on homework for a while, grimace at my scraggly hair, buy some milk and locate some chocolate, I’ll eat some pumpkin pie with the nanny kids. There are a few things going on for Americans in Paris today, but I’m not sure I want to bother with them. A student potluck could be fun…but it’s not my Thanksgiving. Instead I think it’ll end up being Rachael and I with a bottle of wine and a corny movie. Maybe we’ll get around to talking about what we’re thankful for, if we feel like it.

In case we don’t get around to it tonight, here are mine: I’m thankful for Paris – thankful that I decided to really do this for a year, and thankful for the way it’s all worked out. I’m most thankful for the family I’ve found here – I’m still technically the hired help, but I’m starting to feel more like the fun American cousin. I’m thankful for my apartment (and the fact that I don’t pay the bills so I can turn up the heat as high as I want!! R’s thankful for that too, because she and Vita try to avoid high heating bills by keeping theirs turned down low).

I’m thankful for everyone I’ve met in France and for the fact that Christina and Amelia are living in the same country as me for a few more weeks. I’m thankful that my aunt is coming to Paris in three weeks and that she’ll be staying in a hotel about five walking minutes from my apartment.

Mostly though, I’m just thankful for my friends and family. Isn’t that what everyone’s thankful for on Thanksgiving? It’s really a holiday to appreciate the people you love – although they deserve to be appreciated every day of the year. If you’re thankful for your family and friends, show them – don’t wait to appreciate them on holidays or whenever it’s particularly convenient for you. If I had a way to see everyone I loved right now, I’d do it in a second.

Happy Thanksgiving!


••• I’m also thankful for nutella banana crêpes. That is all.

22 November 2006

Every so often I find myself missing the most random parts of the Northwest. I miss running in at Point Defiance when I need to work out, I miss cheap ethnic food when I need to satisfy a craving, I miss affordable Starbucks coffee when I’m feeling stingy but needing a caffeine buzz, and I miss my family and friends whenever I think about them. Those things aren’t random though, and they certainly weren’t unexpected.

You can bet that Americanos don't cost three whole euro at this Starbucks...

No, the weird moments are when I catch myself daydreaming in class and stop to consider the bizarre subject of the fantasy. I’m not ignoring my teacher to fantasize hot dates with sexy French men – I’m picturing myself driving up South 38th Street (T-Town).

I actually have a lot of these daydreams, but it wasn’t until a few days ago that I took the time to think and figure out why. Of course I miss Proctor (T), but Paris is filled with cute streets with coffee shops, Italian restaurants and toy stores. I miss the U District (Sea-Town) too, but there are college students and homeless people all over Paris. I miss Ruston Way (T), but the quais of the Seine are perfectly acceptable substitutes.


What I really miss (and really never expected to) are the things that are impossible to find substitutes for in Paris. South 38th Street, for example. It’s ugly, it’s trafficky, it’s strip mall-y – and there’s nothing like it in all of Europe.

One of the first things you start to learn living in Paris (and never really stop learning) is where and how to satisfy your material needs. One-stop shopping doesn’t really exist here (the closest exception being the Monoprix), and different districts have sprung up around the city as different types of businesses cluster near each other to rob each other of as much business as possible.

Rue Saint-Honoré is great if I need to stock up on expensive labels and do come celebrity stalking. The Champs Elysées is perfect if it’s a Sunday and it’s one of the three sole areas open for business in Paris. Any street is good for a boulangerie (bakery), boucherie (butcher shop), fromagerie (cheese shop) or cave aux vins (wine shop). Rue du Faubourg Poissonnière is where to buy furs of any kind, rue des Rosiers is falafel central, and rue Condorcet is where to get hooked up with a professional camera (or corresponding equipment).

Any street in Paris can be useful depending on what I’m looking for – unless what I happen to be looking for is a place to drive through a car wash, donate some clothes to Goodwill, eat lunch at Arby’s, stock up on discount sporting equipment (Big 5), get a tattoo (Tsunami Tattoo) and buy oversized boxes of Cheerios and a year’s supply of paper towels (Costco) in one fell swoop.

I know this isn't S. 38th, but I didn't happen to have a picture of the ugliness.

I mean, I don’t generally ever have a need to do all of those things at once – even when I’m in Tacoma with a car and access to them, but it’s nice to know that I could if I wanted to.

And what if I need to get my nails done, overeat at a pizza buffet, trespass in Tacoma's speculated mafia hang-out (El Toro, you know it), get my tires changed and buy really scary Chinese food for one dollar? What will I do? There’s no equivalent of Pearl Street (T) – and definitely nothing here that scares me quite as much as the “Wok on in” sign at Sars Marketplace.

I also realize that this isn't Pearl...but I have limited access to pictures of Tacoma over here!

Plus, sometimes a girl just really needs to see those weird light-up blue plastic sculptures on the Glass Bridge (T) to feel properly at home. Sure I can gaze at the glass pyramides of the Louvre – but sometimes the only pointed structure I want to see is the hideous metal (yet somehow quilted-looking) hot shop of the Glass Museum (T).

If I had made a list of things I was positive I wouldn’t miss before I left home – most of the ones I miss the most now would have been on it. I’m sure it’ll be the same for Paris when I leave – everything I hate now but that makes Paris what it is: The horribly-planned streets and resulting horrible traffic, the ridiculous amount of red tape required to accomplish anything, the irresistible and always regrettable temptation to buy (absolutely disgusting) euro-a-bottle wine.

There are only two things that I can say with certainty that I won’t miss about this city: The pee smell that pervades every sidewalk of the city and the dog poop that coats them. Although, I never expected to miss the Tacoma Aroma before they cleaned up the tideflats either. It's not that I really miss smelling it, of course – it’s just…Tacoma).

I think Tacoma is beautiful.

•• P.S. I really miss driving a CAARRRRRR!!!

••• I love hearing authentic French-speakers pronounce rue Sainte Anne. It's one street over from my building and it sounds like poetry. Ohh I can't get over how much I love it! It sounds like no two other words could ever go together as well as these two. When I was here in high school my host mother Bernadette told me of a previous exchange student they'd met who had loved the word for stars. Les étoiles. It's my Sainte Anne.

19 November 2006

Whenever I pause to think about it, I’m always surprised at how easy it is to switch back and forth between French and English. Before living here, I’d expected it to be a lot more difficult keeping my languages straight. When I stayed with a French family in Royan during a summer in high school I spoke French the entire time. I remember speaking to my parents on the phone and answering them with “ouais, ouais” without realizing what I was saying.

It’s a little bit funny to me that living alone in Paris I end up speaking as much English as I speak French. It’s always English with my au pair kids, although I switch to French sometimes with Georges because he gets confused about which language he’s supposed to be speaking, and I speak French with Irma the housekeeper.

It’s always French at Sciences Po, except for certain times working in groups with other international students. For the most part students from other parts of the world learned English before they learned French, and we accomplish a lot more work speaking in English.

In stores, restaurants and museums it’s always French – when I first got here I felt like I was really obviously an American, and people would answer me in English when I tried to speak to them in French. Since August though, I’ve become much more comfortable speaking casually and familiarly (rather than with the perfect grammar and high tenses we practice in school), and I think I’ve started to blend in enough that while people know I’m foreign, they can’t immediately place me. I mostly get mistaken for being Spanish or Italian (i.e., the Franprix guy from yesterday) – though once someone assumed me for Irish.

With friends, it just depends. I always speak French with Sonia (French) from my hip-hop class, but with Ana (Portugese) it’s always English. I speak French with Alex (German) and Anna (Polish), my partners in my European Union class, but I always speak English with Rubens (French). There was no specific decision involved in any of these cases, it’s just whichever language we happened to start speaking the first time we met, I guess.

A French-Moroccan, a French-Algerian and an American:

My art history class is taught in English and my professor is from NYU, so we speak to her in English and do anything official for class in English. Because the majority of the class is French though, we speak in French to each other (even during class), and any emails to the class mailing list are always in French.

I obviously speak to Rachael in English, except when we’re hanging out with her roommate Vita – Vita is Russian and doesn’t speak any English, so it’s French only when she’s around. Last night Rachael and Vita had a party (kind of a late housewarming) and all night conversations were switching between Russian, English, French and Spanish. There were people who spoke French and English only, people who spoke Russian and English only, people who spoke Russian and French only, and an infinite number of other combinations, so you had to feel out every new person who joined a conversation.

But disco dancing is the universal language (moves provided by my dad):

I walked home with a boy who is Franco-Español, but who speaks excellent English. During the forty-minute walk we spoke the whole time in French-English-French-English, and the conversation was surprisingly fluid. As long as you’re comfortable in both the languages you’re speaking in, it’s pretty easy to get by like that. For the most part, the party was an odd mélange of French and English, French being a common language because we’re all living in France, and English because it’s a language that everyone educated over here feels that they have to learn.

An incredibly unattractive picture of an American girl and a Franco-Español boy:

If you are European and you’re interested in politics, business, teaching, anything that involves speaking to people, you have to be able to speak English to secure a good job. It’s one of the first things you’ll be asked in a job interview, and you have a very slim chance of going far in the business world if you can’t speak at least some English.

It’s fun hanging out at Rachael and Vita’s apartment because Vita lived here all last year, and she has a big group of Franco-Russian friends. Rachael has been kind of passively tapped into the Russians-in-Paris community, and goes with Vita to Russian film festivals, to hear Russian music and to hang out with other Russians living here.

Two Brits, two Frenchies and a boy from Lebanon:

I, on the other hand, have been tapped into the mixed (Franco-American) family community. My au pair family has a social circle of half-and-half families, many of whom employ American nannies, and I’ve been rotating through the American-nannies-in-Paris circuit. Ella takes dance classes at l’Académie Américaine de Danse de Paris, and as I do homework in the lobby every Monday evening while she’s dancing, I’ve been getting to know even more Franco-American nannies, moms and dance teachers. At the Académie, I speak French with half the nannies/parents I meet, and English with the other half.

I answer my phone with “Oui, hello?” because I never know who might be calling me. Even with all the switching back and forth between languages, I haven’t found myself getting confused. I think it makes it easier on my mind that I always know where I’ll be speaking English and where I’ll be speaking French. My au pair kids have the same system. Growing up in a bilingual family is confusing, so to make it as simple as possible, they always know exactly with who and where they’ll be speaking each language. They speak English at home except to their father and Irma. It’s French at school, and for Paul and Zoë it’s French with their piano and guitar teachers. Ella speaks English with her flute teacher and at the Académie, but her dance teacher speaks a crazy mix of French and English to accommodate the different students.

“One two, trois quatre, cinq six, seven eight!”

I really do love speaking in French. It really is fun to speak in a language that's not your own – I feel like I'm figuring out a puzzle everytime I have a conversation with someone.

••• The third Thursday of November is a special night every year in France, because it's the official release of the Beaujolais Nouveau for the year. There were parties in the street all night with people drinking the new wine. Every year there's a different taste to it, and this year it's supposed to be "gout de banane." Yeah, banana-wine. We had a bottle last night to try it out and it was actually really good – and actually kind of banana-y.

18 November 2006

There are some times that a girl just really does not want to be hit on. During a work-out, for example, or by the 16 year-old boys working at the University Place Trader Joe’s. Anywhere her father (or brother) is also present, and anytime she feels particularly unattractive. Doing her Saturday morning grocery shopping with no make-up on and dirty hair, for example, is one of these times.

You know, I normally do my grocery shopping at the Monoprix on Avenue de l’Opéra. Yes, it’s more expensive than a Marché U or an Ed, but it’s so convenient. It’s like the Target of France, and the closest I’ve found to one-stop shopping in Paris. Imagine Target, but with a boulangerie and a wine department, and you’ve got the Monoprix. Plus it’s open late! Well, it’s open until 22h on weekdays, which is a good two hours later than any other grocery store in the area. Oh, how I miss 24-hour grocery shopping.

It is kind of pricey though, which is why I decided to be smart today and go to the Franprix around the corner from me in the opposite direction. Usually I do my shopping after nannying in the evenings (when most stores are closed), so Monoprix is the default, but since I was out and about during normal store hours, I figured I’d be thrifty with my milk and green beans (and coconut yogurt, which I discovered in the fridge downstairs while I was babysitting last night and fell instantly in love with).

It took me about…two minutes in the Franprix to remember why I like to buy more expensive groceries – the employees in the chi-chi stores don’t hit on you (we had to stop shopping at the Ed near our September apartment because there was an employee who would not leave Rachael alone). I was casually checking out the prices of paper towels when a young employee (who turned out to be the manager) walked up to me, asking if I needed help picking out a good bottle of wine or anything else. I thanked him, but I was just interested in regular groceries today and I started to walk toward the cereal.

This employee, whose name is apparently Christophe, continued to follow me around the store asking me questions for the entire time I was shopping.

“Aha, vous venez d’Italie, non?” (Aha, you’re from Italy, right?). When I told him I was actually American, I was met with the typical response: “Ah! George Bush.” I nodded and smiled and kept on my way, but Christophe had apparently decided that we’d been small-talking for long enough, and started asking me out.

He wanted to go out to a bar tonight, or to brunch tomorrow, or dinner if I couldn’t make it to brunch, and if not that, we could go out one evening next week. I told him I was really busy this weekend with homework, and that I didn’t own a telephone (a pretty obvious lie, but I thought it would deter him a little), so he informed me that I would have to call him to make this date.

He told me to follow him back into the manager’s office where he gave me a business card and instructed me to call him tonight. “On verra…” (we’ll see) I told him, pocketed the card, quickly paid for my groceries and escaped.

It’s really annoying actually, to be trying to quickly accomplish something to I can go home, take a quick shower and get started on this scary éxposé I have to present on Monday, and not be able to because some grocery store employee would rather parade me around to his employee friends saying, “Elle est belle c’est demoiselle, non?” (She’s pretty, this girl, isn’t she?). It’s not flattering, it’s just obnoxious.

It wasn’t until I got home and began unloading my groceries that I pulled Christophe’s card out of my pocket. I’d been expecting some kind of Franprix manager card, but no. Apparently this guy is a customer harassing grocer by day, and DJ Scoop by night! “Ambiance 100 percent guaranteed.” I don’t know what he expected, but I am not going to be calling him unless I need music for a party.

At the least, I’ve got another card to add to my tally – I didn’t even have to work for it though, so it’s not as special. For the guys reading this: The tally is kind of a running score all girls keep. There’s never a winner declared, it’s more of a personal victory thing. The number of business cards you manage to collect is like a measure of your skills – and you never throw them away (you may lose them, but never purposely trash one). It’s like notches on a belt…except to keep track of all the obnoxious guys who hit on us. Guys here kind of throw them at you though – I’ve acquired a small pile from guys I pass on the street and chat with just long enough to tell them I’m on my way somewhere else and can’t talk to them.

Anyway, now that I’m properly irritated and apparently can’t shop at the Franprix anymore, it’s back to old Monoprix for me. It’s my own fault really, my loyalty should have never been in question.

*** Apple Cup today (errrr, tonight/early morning here, since the kick-off is 12:45 Paris time). GO Huskies!!!
I timed myself walking today – it takes me between six and seven minutes to make it from my apartment door to the security checkpoint at the entrance of the grande pyramide du Louvre. The deciding minute hinges on how long I have to wait to cross Rivoli, and whether I’m listening to my work-out mix or my mellow playlist on my iPod as I walk.

This was one of the odd-weeks when my art history class meets at the Louvre, rather than our typical classroom in the ENA building on rue de l’Université, so that was my occasion to time myself. I love being part of one of the art classes that spend hours in the Louvre, far from la Joconde (the Mona Lisa) and the Venus de Milo, analyzing paintings that are visited by those who really care about them, not just by tourists on the Louvre light tour (you know, the Mona Lisa, the Winged Victory, Venus de Milo – the celebrities of the museum).

I had a group presentation to prepare for today, and although I was a bit under-prepared, it was fun analyzing Jean-Siméon Chardin works for my class. It was odd though – because it’s an elective taught in English and mostly taken by French students, I had to consciously slow down my speaking and eliminate any colloquialism or particularly long words. It reminded me of speaking to the Ladybugs (preschoolers) at work this summer – you have speak very clearly to get your point across. Actually I find myself doing that a lot here – anytime any non-Anglophone wants to practice their English on me, so it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.

Having to prepare a real presentation for the first time was a little shocking – so far I’ve been sliding through this semester doing absolutely nothing. It’s mostly because of the way my exposés and débats are distributed through the semester, but also because I've turned into kind of a slacker this year. It's just – who wants to sit inside and read books about the 5ème Republique when they could be roaming around Montmartre, or relaxing in the jardin des Tuileries?

Although I’m going to have to start cranking out the real work soon (this weekend, in fact), I definitely slid right through my presentation on French genre painters. I’m starting to get the feeling that my professor is a little nuts. Most of my classmates live in fear of her, never knowing when she’ll be in a sadistic mood or a delightful one. She raged at and belittled a girl in the class who’d missed a day because she’d misread the syllabus (and didn’t know where to meet us), but when I told her I was skipping a day of class to go to Barcelona, she said bon voyage and she’d see me the week after.

Today during our presentation, she glared at and shushed a group of Japanese tourists who were discussing the paintings near us “too loudly” while she was trying to listen. Fifteen minutes later the discussion of Jean-Baptiste Greuze was halted while a middle-aged man in a backpack and the loudest sneakers any of us had ever heard squeaked his way through the room, and she just laughed and said something about how much she loves being a teacher.

There are a few (maybe three or four) of us who don’t have to live in fear – for some reason, Professor S.C. tends to give us smiles over evil eyes. I don’t know how I became one of the special few, but she seems to like me and keeps cutting me special breaks. We had papers due the week I was in Barcelona, so I left a copy in her box that she apparently never received. It’s now more than two weeks late, and she said I could turn it in again with no penalty. Another girl who missed class and had a friend turn it in for her (only a few days late), though, got a lecture about responsibility, and her grade on the paper is unsure. It’s unfair and completely nuts – but it plays well into my “I have better things to do in Paris than homework” attitude.

Unfortunately, that attitude’s day has come. Starting with my art presentation today the onslaught of actual work has begun. I have at least two important projects (éxposés, débats, essais, etc.) due each week from now until the vacances de Noël, and these really can’t be coasted through. Actually, I’m kind of looking forward to it – see, I really do come off as a big nerd.

•• I found much cheaper Swan Lake ballet tickets at Fnac, and I think Amelia is going to go with me!

••• I saw the movie Babel last night – it was really really good. It struck me as pretty ironic that I was watching it with all the subtitles (for Japanese, sign language, Spanish, etc.) in French.

14 November 2006

Today walking down the street with Ella, she mentioned that during the day's sports class her teacher had pointed out “someone famous” to the students.

“I think he works at Dior? You know, that fashion place? John something. Gallani?” John Galliano. My 10-year old charge had seen John Galliano working out in the jardin des Tuileries while she was there to run with her sports class.

Being 10, she was pretty thrilled to have seen a star of any kind, whether or not she’d have been able to recognize him on her own or given him a second thought before school today. I was maybe even more excited than she was.

“Galliano?! You saw John Galliano? In the Tuileries?!” I think it tickled her even more that my own reaction was so pronounced, and she was proud to be able to offer up a few more tidbits. He’d been there with his personal gym teacher and was doing “some kind of weird arm exercises.” That was good enough for me. Actually, just knowing that I live in the same city and work out in the same park as John Galliano was good enough for me.

Actually, I’m not surprised that Galliano works out in the neighborhood right around my building. Apparently in the Paris version of Monopoly, rue de la Paix is Boardwalk. Yep, I’m living in the blue corner of the Monopoly board – and I somehow got out of paying rent or owing luxury tax. So far anyway.

Even living in one of the poshest neighborhoods of Paris, I still have no evidence to prove the conception that Parisians are aloof, rude or stuck-up. Maybe I just haven’t met any of the mean ones yet – people are just nice to me here. Yes, Parisians tend to be reserved – but reserved doesn’t automatically translate into stuck-up. Everyday I meet more people to disprove the stereotypes.

This morning on my way to class, I was waiting to cross Quai Voltaire through the typical wild French traffic. The pedestrian light was green and beckoning me across the street, but the onrush of speeding vehicles was making both me and an older man waiting to cross from the other side hesitate. After a minute, he stepped into the street holding his arms out to the cars and smiling and nodding at each stopped driver as he went passed.

I smiled at him when he passed each other in the middle of the street, and he smiled back saying, “Avec un sourire, on peut reussir à tout.” (With a smile, one can succeed at anything). As nearly corny as the moment was, I felt that an inspirational message from a stranger was an excellent way to start my day, and I continued on to Sciences Po.

Sitting in my French politics class, I realized I have a mad crush on a classmate. He’s in a few of my classes, and I’ve technically never spoken to him. I think he’s actually from Washington, D.C., but he looks like such a Seattle boy that I want to run up and hug him whenever he walks into the room. Actually, he looks like an ex-cross country-running Seattle boy – which calls to me on two levels. He’s got the scraggly jeans, the hooded sweatshirts and baggy sweaters, the running shoes and the weird long cross-country boy hair with man headbands to pull it back. He’s just so comforting to look at – though once I’m actually back in Seattle, I’ll probably be desperate for a boy in tight pants and a man purse who’ll remind me of Paris.

My total beret tally for today was only two – but speaking of fashion trends, my T-Town sweatshirt has been quite a hit here. All these French boys who have clearly never seen the West Coast Choppers logo and have never heard of Tacoma, have fallen in love with my black sweatshirt. I lent it to one of them on Saturday (he was thrilled) and I have a list of orders to fill for them through my contacts (i.e. my mom) in Tacoma. The funny part is that they all want theirs to be the same size as mine – which I think looks goofily small on them. Just more proof that French boys like much tighter clothing than boys in the U.S.

•• This is a really interesting article.

In 1898, when the impressionist painter Camille Pissarro completed his haunting cityscapes of the Avenue de l'Opera in sun and rain, the street life he captured was a world of gracious boulevards, outdoor cafes with ranks of sidewalk tables and above all a sense of space. Urban, yes, but never crowded. There was plenty of room for ladies with parasols and men in top hats to wend their way across the avenues traversed by horse-drawn carriages and even more room to promenade on the broad sidewalks.

The Avenue de l'Opera today still has a gracious air, but it is crowded with cars that overwhelm the lungs with exhaust fumes and the ear with the sound of horns and the roar of engines. Motorcycles careen between cars and pedestrians, making crossing the street hazardous. The trees that once lined many of the avenues are gone, either killed off by pollution or removed as the streets were broadened to accommodate more cars, Leclerc said.

That's my neighborhood, and it's the same story throughout Paris. The streets are so crowded that people drive their motorcycles on the sidewalks to get around it. This in turn forces pedestrians into the actual streets (also due in part to the fact that Parisian sidewalks are old, and although wide and spacious in some parts of the city, they can be as narrow as two feet across in other areas), which halts traffic and just keeps the cycle moving along.

13 November 2006

After a week and a half of no classes, I’m breathing a sigh of relief to be back on a normal schedule. Maybe it was the lack of structure in my life that was making everything go so nuts – this weekend in particular.

I’m not quite sure how this happened, but between two French guys I ended up with five dates in four days. First was Thomas – he’s a masters student at Sciences Po, 23, really smart and cute and nice. He’s the one I went out with on Wednesday and Thursday and the one who triggered a panicked freak-out by kissing me.

I had to babysit late Friday night, and I was supposed to be hanging out with Rubens on Saturday night, so we couldn’t hang out again until Sunday, when he wanted to make me dinner. This left me two days to figure out how to communicate tactfully in French that I do not, in fact, want to date him.

Before dinner yesterday, we met in front of the grande pyramide du Louvre to take a walk. He wanted to meet at 19h30, which is probably a good two hours before normal French people eat, so I figured that would be the perfect time to tell him – a quick and awkward conversation and then I could escape and go hang out with Rachael instead. No such luck, unfortunately.

After explaining to T that I was sorry but I’d realized that I just did not want to be dating anyone right now (I was pretty proud at how well I pulled out the kind-of-break-up speech in French), I felt like kind of a terrible person. What could I do, though? It was a million times better to just tell him up front than to pretend that I was into dating him as long as I could keep up the illusion.

T, understandably, did not take it that well, and I was treated to a half hour lecture in French about how I had led him on. He asked how many guys I’d done this to before him, and I was getting kind of mad at his bitterness. I felt like I deserved it though, because I really should have told him on Thursday, so I let him work out his frustrations. Then he informed me that he had a three-course dinner prepared and waiting for us, and I’d be making an idiot out of him if I didn’t come over and eat it still.

The last thing I wanted to do was go have a ruined-romantic dinner with this guy, but I was still feeling like kind of a mean person so I went along with it. Unsurprisingly, it was the most awkward hour and a half I’ve spent here. He was kind of irritated still, and started drinking wine which was cool with me because it put him in a much better mood – until he started rambling about how I was a “bourreau du coeur” which I did not understand at all. It was even more awkward to listen to him trying to explain the meaning (which is apparently “heartbreaker,” or literally, “executioner of the heart”), and all I wanted was to escape as fast as I could.

I’d considered telling him that I just couldn’t date anyone seriously right now, but I don’t think that would have worked out. T is only 23, but I think he’s too old for me – he’s happiest spending a quiet night at home with a special girl and a glass of wine. That sounds nice and everything, but I’m only 20 years old and I’m in Paris for less than a year. I don’t want to spend my nights drinking wine, listening to jazz and gazing into someone’s eyes – that “romantic” stuff makes me restless and claustrophic.

Rubens, on the other hand, turned out perfectly. On Saturday night we went to see the Black Dahlia with Rachael – not highly recommended. This was a movie with a lot of unrealized potential (plus there was a really scary clown picture that was central to the plot that gave Rachael and I nightmares). Rubens and I also had lunch on Sunday (sans Rachael), and in preparation for Thomas later, I gave it to him straight. I told him I did not want a boyfriend, which was cool, because he doesn’t want a girlfriend – just “a cool girl to hang out with.”

We both love movies, so I think we’re just going to be chill movie buddies – which is exactly what I need. Just because I’m at Sciences Po and I know what I want to do with my life does not mean that I want to skip being twenty years old. I don’t want to stay in drinking wine and watching dubbed Stanley Kubrick movies every night – I want to go see the new Casino Royale with another twenty year-old who loves James Bond as much as I do and who is not going to try and romance me with a fancy dinner. (T, as nice as he was, claimed to love James Bond, but I’m a little suspicious of the fact that he’s never seen Dr. No and had absolutely no clue that the new 007 was coming out next Wednesday). I want to hang out with a guy who is not going to be jealous or offended if I ditch him to go dancing with the girls instead. All I want is chill – plus we alternate between French and English, so it’ll still be good for my speaking skills.

Anyway, after all the loose boy ends were wrapped up last night, I was kind of hopped up on adrenaline and went straight over to Rachael’s apartment. We went out for drinks and crépes and then returned to her apartment for wine and Sex and the City. I really think good girl time is the only thing that can fully heal awkward boy time, and we ended up having a really good night – mainly because we accidentally found the best crêpes of my life…hallelujah for nutella-banane.

I left her place at 2h to try and catch the Noctilien (the all-night bus), and ended up making it just in time – but only because I sprinted straight across Place de la Bastille (I wasn’t drunk, just filled with fear of missing the bus). This was a terrible idea, and I would probably have been safer braving walking alone than dashing through the Parisian traffic, but I’m alive now so it’s all good.

I still had to walk a couple of blocks back from the bus stop and there is nothing that puts me in a better mood than walking around Paris listening to my iPod. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of crossing the Seine listening to the least appropriate music I can come up with. It just really tickles me to look around at these reserved Parisians who have no clue that they’re stepping in time to “Buttons” by the Pussycat Dolls, or “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” by the Darkness.

Anyway, I’m technically in class right now, listening to a Duhamel lecture on French politics, and I am completely neglecting my actual notes, but that was the complete gossip update for those of you who have been requesting it.

For my dad: I am still not in love with any Frenchmen, and I am still not planning on expatriation. Don’t worry – as romantic as these French boys are supposed to be…the grand gestures apparently do not work on me. Au contraire, they kind of make me want to run away – right back to chill Seattle.

* I finally added some Halloween pictures here. As you can see, we were in a very small majority in our costumes.

** Because so many people smoke here, it’s quite common to be stopped on the street and asked for a light. Last night as Rachael and I were walking toward rue Oberkampf, a slightly seedy-looking couple stopped us for a light. We apologized and told them we didn’t have one and started walking again, until the woman called out, “Comment est-ce que c’est possible que vous n’avez pas du feu?” (How is it possible that you don’t have a light?) We answered that we didn’t smoke and her response was, “Il faut fumer! C’est 2006! Il faut commencer tout suite!” (You must smoke! This is 2006! You must start immediately). We had no clue what to say, so we just thanked her and continued on our way, laughing for about three more blocks.

*** So the movie Step Up that came out in the U.S. over the summer is just about to hit theatres here. Because of this, all the buses and metro stations are plastered with posters advertising the movie. The funny part is that the French title of the movie is not “Step Up,” but “Sexy Dance.” The first time I saw a bus with “Sexy Dance” scrawled across its side I started laughing on rue des Saints Pères and got quite a few weird looks.

11 November 2006

So there have been no classes at Sciences Po all week long. We didn’t originally have a break scheduled for this week. Most students had a week and a half break around Toussaint (we only had November 1st off), but because we started school midway through October, it didn’t make sense to have two weeks off after three weeks of school.

As it is, I feel like I’ve done nothing so far in school this year. I’ve had three sessions of every class and what feels like more breaks than actual work. I have some work to do, but I sometimes feel like I’m just sitting around in France doing nothing. There’s no such thing as a midterm here, and we are never assigned papers to write. Instead I have about five days spread over the semester when I actually have things due, and between those days I have a lot of nothing.

There are things I could be doing with my time off, like preparing this week for future work, but instead I’ve done nothing. Well nothing school-related anyway. I spent a couple of days just getting chores done, like cleaning, grocery shopping, doing laundry, etc. I spent a couple days doing nothing but lazing around and watching movies. On Wednesday I went to buy my Pompidou Centre pass, which for 22 euro for a year is a really good deal.

The Pompidou Centre is a center for modern art in the city (which happens to have a surprisingly amazing view from its top floor), so in addition to the modern art museum, they have tons of movie screenings, dance performances and other things going on there. With the pass, I get in free to most things, and if not free, at a severely discounted price. If only they were somehow connected to the Théatre Mogador, so I could afford a ticket to see Swan Lake…all I need is one – I’m not even going to bother trying to convince someone else to fork out 60 euro for a ticket to the ballet.

After buying my pass I went upstairs to check out the Yves Klein exhibit (yeah, that guy). I still think the whole “developed a new color” thing is baloney, but after seeing the whole exhibit, I have a new respect for the guy. He’s pretty much nuts, but at the same time really cool. All of the paintings in the exhibit were completely monochromatic and either International Klein Blue (IKB), rose or gold – like with actual gold leaf. There are all these crazy quotes from him written on the walls, like (paraphrased due to poor memory) “Monochrome is the only way to paint truth,” and other such decrees.

This week I also had a date with a French boy – he’s from Sciences Po and smart and nice and perfect. The date was kind of perfect too – we walked along the Seine for two hours and waited in front of the Eiffel Tower at 23h to see it sparkling, and he gave me a rose and we spoke in French the whole time. After we parted ways though, and I was walking back across the river, I started crying. I just realized that I really miss home – especially the people at home, and I am in no way ready to start dating French boys.

Luckily, I didn’t feel homesick for long – as I was crossing rue Saint-Honoré, I inexplicably bumped into two middle-aged men in costume. One was dressed as an elf, in green tights, elfin boots and a hat. The other was a polar bear. They weren’t talking to each other or laughing or anything – just silently, seriously strolling up Pyramides in front of me. Needless to say, that put me in a much better mood.

Now I just need to figure out a way to communicate (in French) that I need to take a few steps back from both the boy who’s supposed to be coming over later tonight with a bottle of wine, and the other boy who wants to cook me a romantic French dinner tomorrow night. Maybe I’ll just tell them that I already have a man in my life – his name is Georges, he loves me, and he’d totally fight them if I needed him to. He’s a little outmatched for height, but he can deliver a mean bite to the thigh.

08 November 2006

Today I woke up with a need for a pain au chocolat that could not be satisfied by any old boulangerie. This was a craving so strong that I apparently felt it was necessary to trek all the way up to Pigalle to the boulangerie that has the best pain au chocolat I’ve found so far in this city. (I walked to cancel out the pastry).

When I got there, however, I was distressed to see an empty tray sitting behind the sign that read “pain au chocolat – 90¢.” Luckily I made it there in time to purchase the last grand pain au chocolat left in the shop. It was massive – probably three times the size of a regular one, but I’d walked all the way to Pigalle for it and was not about to leave empty-handed.

With my monster pastry safely hanging from my arm in a plastic bag, I stepped into a corner of the tiny shop to wait for my sandwich (cheese, chicken and veggies on a 6-grain whole-wheat baguette. Yum…this boulangerie is awesome in so many ways). While I was waiting, I watched probably seven disappointed people come for a pain au chocolat and leave forlornly with nothing.

Apparently I’m not the only one to have discovered this tasty endroit. I was glad to find out that my sense of taste is still leading me true, and I haven’t been swept up in some kind of puppy love with French pastries. After about a week of living here, you discover the startling difference between a boulangerie and a good boulangerie, so I was happy to note that my favorite is also the favorite of quite a few legitimately French people.

When I exited with my sandwich at about 15h, I left a crowd of three young guys who’d ridden up on mopeds and sworn to wait (still in their helmets) until 16h for the new batch of pastries to come out of the ovens.

I think maybe 70 percent of my affection for this place comes from the quality of their truly superior baked goods, and the rest is from just how darn homey this place is. They actually decorated cookies and treats for Halloween, and now the windows are filled with fall-colored leaves and autumn squashes. It helps that the mom-aged woman who runs it is always sporting glasses and an apron tied over a pastel-colored polar fleece jacket. I walk through the door and feel like I’m coming home from school for my afternoon snack. I want to give her a hug when I leave.

Instead I eat my sandwich as I walk, and save my treat to eat with tea back in the kitchen of my apartment. My original intent was to unwrap the pastry and cut it in three parts, to save and enjoy later. I got as far as cutting it into three…but I definitely ate the whole thing. It was so worth the stomach ache.

Add five more berets to the official tally. White seems to be the most popular color, but in the 11 that I’ve counted in the past two days, I’ve observed a wide range of colors. Once I get my camera back, I’ll do some serious beret-stalking.

Picture credit to Luc Viatour.

06 November 2006

Living alone is a way different experience from any living arrangement I’ve had before. I love it, but every once in a while I have an odd moment when I realize that living alone really is living toute seule.

Today, for example, I realized that it is not at all difficult to go a day without speaking to anyone. This morning I woke up and went for a run, then after a shower and bundling up into some warm clothes (it’s hovering around freezing here in the mornings and at night) I walked down to Sciences Po to print out a paper and take care of a few errands. Then I went grocery shopping, and it was paying for my groceries at Monoprix that I realized I hadn’t spoken a word all day.

I smiled at the checker when she greeted me, but I didn’t actually speak a word out loud until I went to nanny at 17h. I was surrounded by people all day long, in the streets, at Sciences Po, at the grocery store, and I managed to not have spoken to any of them.

In my silence I was able to observe that Parisians actually do wear berets. I was quite shocked to spot my first one (forest green) on a middle-aged woman today. Until now, I’d only seen them on men in army gear holding automatic weapons. Now that it’s cold though, with frost on the street in the mornings and an icy smell to the air, I guess it’s beret weather. I was honestly really surprised – the image of a French person in a beret seemed so incredibly clichéd that I couldn’t imagine that they’d actually make an appearance in Paris.

I saw five people in berets on my walk to and from Sciences Po – three on women mom-aged and older, one on a chic dark-haired girl about my age, and one on an older man. I’ve started a mental tally. Who knows, maybe I will end up coming home with a pile of flat wool hats after all. They probably won’t say “Paris” in rhinestones, though, like most of the styles available in the souvenir shops lining rue de Rivoli.

It feels like I left for Barcelona when it was fall in Paris, and now that I’m back it’s very suddenly winter. The temperature took a sudden plunge last Wednesday – when I left for the airport on Thursday morning it was – 4 degrees Celsius, and it hasn’t gotten much warmer. I turned on the heater in my apartment for the first time last week and accidentally blew out the power in my apartment, but Amelia (who was over for dinner) and I found the fuse box relatively quickly and got the lights back on after a few minutes.

Since I left Paris the day after Toussaint, I also returned to find the city dressed up for the Christmas holidays. I found this kind of odd until Christina realized that with no Thanksgiving to celebrate, Christmas is the next big holiday after Toussaint. Still it feels odd to be seeing Christmas lights and Christmas tree ornaments already covering the city. I guess it’s probably the same in the U.S. It always seems like Costco has decorations for sale beginning midway through September, and I’m sure stores like Target and K-Mart are gearing up for this long commercial season.

The nanny kids were so tickled by this picture – they thought it was so cool that we can go cut down our own Christmas tree every year.

I still can’t believe it’s November already. I’m trying to forget about Thanksgiving – I think I’ll feel more homesick with some kind of sad French imposter holiday than if I don’t pay it any attention at all. I kind of felt that way about Halloween – it was fun to get dressed up, but it was so different from Halloween at home that celebrating it Paris-style just felt kind of sad. Even without Thanksgiving, I’ll be 21 in a little over a month. A week after my birthday my aunt Penny will be in Paris, and a few days later Christina will be staying with me again while she prepares to fly home out of Charles de Gaulle. I’m not completely sure what happened to 2006.

Shout-out to Thanksgiving!

Right now I’m sitting in the lobby of the Académie Américaine de Danse de Paris waiting for Ella to finish with her jazz class. Her mom thought it would be a big pain for us to have to take a bus or metro in the cold and dark at 19h, so we take a taxi to the 6ème every Monday. I am not complaining – it’s cold out there!

Anyway, my inadvertent vow of silence only did end up lasting until I went downstairs to nanny. I think I might be a little lonely living all alone in a strange city if I didn’t have a pseudo-family to welcome me home, to worry if I’m not around, to say goodnight to before I go to bed.

I’m used to coming home from trips to be greeted at the airport by someone from my family – it was weird landing at Beauvais with Christina and finding our own solitary way home before collapsing into bed.

Today though, I went downstairs and got the longest knee-hug of my life from Georges before being swarmed by Ella, Zoë and Paul, all clamoring to tell me all the news of their week. Paul tried a new flavor of Hubba Bubba yesterday (lemon), Zoë wants to get a pet gerbil, and Ella can’t wait for the February break when the whole family is jetting down to the Seychelle Islands to escape the frigid Paris winter.

Even Cassie had to compete with the chattering kids to tell me that she almost had a heart attack when she read Georges the book Chicka Chicka ABC and he started pointing to letters saying “G – Georges!” “H – Ollllie!” “Z – ZahZah” (Zoë). I started teaching him the letters in the book the week before break, and C (who didn’t know about it) was pretty shocked and excited that he’d remembered what I taught him. A told B and B told C…Meet me at the top of the coconut tree! Chicka chicka boom boom, will there be enough room?

It made me feel a lot more at home in my single-girl apartment to be welcomed back by people who missed me.

05 November 2006

As little of the Spanish language that I know and can understand, I can follow even less Catalan. Before heading to Barcelona Thursday morning, I thought Catalan was just a slightly different dialect of Spanish.

Barcelona has palm trees!

I had no clue that it was officially its own language. I wasn’t worried about the language barrier at all before heading to Spain (or at least, I was a lot less apprehensive about it than when I went to Munich) because so many words are so similar to the French language. There are a lot of Spanish-speakers at Sciences Po and living in France (and the U.S., of course), and I’ve heard enough Spanish in my life that I can usually figure out what’s going on when people are speaking to me, even if I can’t communicate much.

Last Monday I stopped by Bretano’s Franco-Anglophone bookstore (just across l’avenue de l’Opera from me) to buy a little Barcelona guidebook so I’d have a few maps, some key phrases and an idea of what Christina and I should do while there. I was browsing the guidebooks looking at English versions, but I somehow ended up buying one in French. The funny thing is that I didn’t even realize anything was amiss until halfway through the page on the Sagrada Familia – I guess I’m so used to having to read French that it didn’t seem weird to me to be reading about Barcelona in French.

Sagrada Familia

I didn’t bother to exchange it because I understood it just fine, and it actually wasn’t at all confusing going from English to French to Catalan in the phrasebook section. At Sciences Po you have the option of taking a second language instead of an elective (my art history class), and while I’d considered starting Spanish, I opted against it because I thought it would be too confusing going through French as an intermediary language. After this weekend though, I really don’t think it would have been that bad, so I think I’m going to start taking Spanish during spring semester.

Anyway, once in Spain, I turned out to have a lot more Spanish saved up in my mind than I’d thought – I was formulating some simple and terribly constructed (but apparently comprehensible) sentences and remembered all the basics like please, thank-you, good bye, where are the bathrooms, etc. I’d expected to be able to understand okay, but not know how to say anything. It turned out to be completely opposite. Even if Catalan is a different language, most people from Catalonia understand regular Spanish too – for someone who’s only ever heard the Spanish that has crept up the West Coast from Mexico, though, Catalan was like nothing I’d ever heard.

All the menus, street signs, directions and brochures had everything written in both Catalan and Spanish, and it was eye-opening comparing the two. Christina and I spent most of Saturday afternoon at the Museu Picasso, and all of the cards next to the paintings (with the year, template, who donated, etc.) were in both languages. I mostly understood the Spanish half – I mean, niño is pretty easy to remember – but in Catalan, it turns into nen. Kind of similar, but to someone who has never actually studied either language, it was really confusing. Instead of “por favor” for please, it was “si us plau.” Christina and I realized pretty quickly that we were going to have no idea what was going on, so we figured out a few key phrases – “I don’t speak Spanish,” and “Do you speak English or French?” in particular.

Most people we asked for help in our butchered Cata-Spanish assumed we were French which kind of tickled us – until we remembered that France borders Catalonia, and it was probably just because a huge number of foreigners in Barcelona are from France. Also because of the proximity, more people spoke and understood French than English, so we ended up just telling a lot of people that we were French and going from there.

When we found someone who didn’t speak French or English, we used our limited Spanish vocabulary and some really wild charades. Outside the Museu Picasso we were trying to find an atm so we pulled out bank cards and cash and were pretending to get money out of an invisible machine. Pointing and grimacing works well too.

Since my flight to Barcelona left from Paris Beauvais airport an hour and a half outside of Paris on Thursday morning, and with transportation to the bus station I would have had to wake up at 4am anyway, I ended up staying up all night Wednesday. This wasn’t my original intention, but I had an art history paper to complete and ran out of time for sleeping. I met Christina at the Barcelona airport, where we took a bus and a metro to our hostel. Thanks to this website, we ended up with a really big clean hostel right in the center of the Barri Gotic.

The hostel was part of a group of 4 hostels throughout Barcelona, and because there was such a large staff and they have so many people staying there, there were organized activities and outings every day. That’s how we ended up on an English walking tour of the architecture of the city, which was really cool. We also spent quite a lot of time wandering the city on our own, which I always think is the best way to see a place. It was cool to have Christina as a travel buddy because our styles are really similar and we were both happy to walk for hours and see everything we could, even on no sleep and sore feet.

A few angles of Gaudí (First Casa Batlló, then La Perdrera):

Apparently Barcelona was the port of entry for the first chocolate that ever came to Europe, so there’s a big chocolate museum attached to this cooking school for patisseries and bombons (nope, that’s not spelled wrong, it’s Catalan for bon-bon). Needless to say, we consumed a lot of chocolate in Catalonia! We also had our share of sangria, tapas and paella, which are all specialties of the region. We had a disturbing encounter with some anchovy-stuffed olives, but other than that, everything we tried was delicious.

On Saturday we walked past a reasonably-priced Mexican restaurant, and it sounded so good that we went back for dinner. We felt a little ridiculous being Americans eating in a Mexican restaurant in Spain – we were afraid people would think we were confused and thought Spain and Mexico were one and the same. We got over our feelings of awkwardness when our food arrived – it was delicious. We ate at a Parisian Mexican restaurant with Amelia for her birthday last weekend, which was okay, but nothing compared to this. Oh it was so delicious – Europeans generally do not enjoy spicy foods, and it’s really hard to find anything spicy here. At the chocolate museum there’s a whole display about how chocolate had to be modified from the spicy energy drink of the Aztecs to a sweet and perfumed beverage for Europeans, who couldn’t handle the spice in the original version.

We also checked out the Museu Picasso which came highly recommended, and we were not disappointed. Pablo Picasso actually lived in Barcelona for quite a few years, so most of the art in the museum was personally donated by him and his widow. There was an entire room full of erotic sketches drawn by Picasso when he was in his early twenties. Christina and I were very surprised to stumble into this room as these are generally not the things you think of when you picture the art of Pablo Ruiz Picasso. The museum was just really really cool because it charted all the different stages of his art through all the stages of his life – it was really informative in addition to having cool art to look at.

Sunday morning we had to catch a bus back to the Girona Barcelona airport at 4am, so we decided to just stay up the entire night again. We decided to be economical (trashy) and bought litros of boxed wine (for 1,5 each!) at a convenience store, and drank them while walking down to the waterfront. It was actually kind of a scary experience, because for some reason strange people on the street are very attracted to girls holding boxes of wine.

We were nearly attacked by a blistery-lipped old woman who was following us crying “Vino! Vino!” She really wanted a drink, and we really did not want to share, and we ended up having to run into a restaurant to hide from her. After her we had not one but two more guys stop us and ask for a drink! As Christina said, “If they had their own cups, I would be happy to share, but I didn’t come to Barcelona to get foreign diseases!”

Once at the waterfront, we walked out along this dock to a really large and fancy shopping mall. It’s a typical mall, except that the roof is covered with an assortment of bars and discotheques that are closed during the day. We walked up to the second floor of the deserted mall and to the foot of the staircase leading to the roof where security guards were taking a single cover charge for all the clubs on the roof (we’re girls though, we didn’t have to pay). Once on the roof, you have probably nine different bars and clubs to choose from, and as fun as it was, we couldn’t forget that we were in a mall.

We left the club at 2:30, walked back to our hostel to check out, and began the hike to the bus station still in our heels and going out make-up. After many long hours of bus-airplane-bus-metro, we made it back to my apartment in freezing cold Paris. After hot showers and warm soup, we pretty much just passed out for the rest of the day.

Barcelona was a drastic culture change from Paris – it’s a lot more like the West Coast of the U.S. – it’s warm and on the Mediterranean and the people are warm, friendly, relaxed and are the most granola of any I’ve encountered so far in Europe. It was like Seattle – or Berkeley, maybe. I felt at home among the dreadlocks, hemp and clouds of pot smoke in the parks.

All in all, Barcelona was awesome – the whole time though, I just kept thinking “enjoy this now.” This was the kind of traveling that is really only for the young and extremely energetic – going on a few hours of sleep for an entire weekend, sleeping in a 14-bed dormitory in a youth hostel, drinking wine from boxes, walking all day long for three days in a row, being afraid to touch any surfaces in the bathroom – it was exhausting. It’s only been four days but it kind of felt like we were returning from war when we stumbled through the door of my studio. It’s thrilling no doubt, but I’m pretty sure this is the only time in my life when my body is still spry enough to forgive me for what I’ve been putting it through.

•• By the way, Ryan Air has the worst security I've ever been checked by. I made it onto the airplane with my pepper spray (it was an accident, I forgot to take it out of my purse) and no questions asked.

01 November 2006

Halloween in Paris was a truly odd experience. For weeks I’ve been told that Halloween is out of style here, that nobody dresses up, that it’s really an American holiday. At the same time though, store windows were filling up with pumpkins and witches, and all the ads for EuroDisney have featured kids in skeleton costumes riding roller coasters. I was getting two conflicting impressions and even now, after seeing EuroHalloween with my own eyes, I’m not quite sure how to classify it.

Trick-or-treating doesn’t exist here, so Cassie stages a candy hunt for her kids every year. They dress up in costumes and search through the garden of their “house in the South” while she bakes a pumpkin pie and they attempt to recreate American Halloween. C hates it though – all through dinner yesterday she was telling me how much she hates Halloween here. “Halloween is not French,” she kept repeating. She thinks the spirit of the holiday is what can’t be exported, so the sad attempts to achieve it are entirely commercial.

That explains the store windows. The Disney Store on the Champs Elysées has been decorated for weeks, and is the only place I ever saw selling anything like a costume – though I somehow couldn’t bring myself to attempt to squeeze into an overpriced, pre-made “Halloween Stitch” outfit. I haven’t missed dressing up for Halloween in…well ever, and I wasn’t about to break the tradition this year just because I’m not in the U.S.

I have very limited costume-assembling supplies here though, and the only thing I could come up with was a pirate costume again (a repeat from freshman year) – pirates are easy, you just need a scarf, fluffy layers and a lot of weird jewelry. All I wanted to buy was an eyepatch, but it proved to be impossible to find. I finally thought I’d be clever and go to a pharmacy – where I managed to secure one. Sadly, when I opened up the package to put it on, I discovered a massive clear plastic cup with holes and an adjustable white band that covered nearly half my face. Not pirate-y.

Luckily I had my sparkly scull scarf, because otherwise I would have just looked like a hobo. At home you can’t go anywhere at anytime on Halloween without seeing a dozen costumed people – the whole day is festive. Here, it was just another day.

I at least expected to see a few costumes at night because come one, who doesn’t love a themed party or club night? I had to babysit until 23h, so once I was off I threw together my pirate ensemble and ran down to La Scala, the site of the Sciences Po Halloween party. There were quite a few people in the street on the way there, but in completely normal clothes – I got a lot of weird looks sprinting down Pyramides dressed as a pirate. Handily for me, La Scala is a 5 minute walk from my apartment. Straight down Pyramides and left at Rivoli, then bam, there it was.

There was a huge line waiting to get into the party, and out of the maybe 70 people in it, there were about 15 of us in costume. When I say “in costume” though, I’m being generous – most of the costumes were regular clothes with a pair of bunny ears or devil horns. The four of us, a pirate, a 20s girl, a yoga teacher and a jazzercise teacher were some of the most dressed up people. My 10-minute costume was the most elaborate I saw all night.

It's like Where's Waldo...but with Where's the Halloween Spirit?

The whole thing was just really odd. The club was decorated because it was a themed party, and people in costume got a free drink at the bar – I would have thought a free cocktail would have been enough to motivate people to do something festive, but no. Anyone in anything beyond an antennae headband was clearly American, and we stuck out like crazy people.

Aha! There's ONE!

It was still crazy fun, and I always love to dress up, but the night made me really miss Halloween at home! I love holidays and this October 31st just didn’t really satisfy my cravings for festivity.

A sea of people...and none in costume!

Anyway, now it’s November in Paris, and the entire city is celebrating Toussaint. Well not celebrating – observing. Yep, All Saint’s Day is a national holiday here (France is still very influenced by its Catholic upbringing), and Paris is dead quiet. This day of rest would seem a little more apt if Halloween had been wild in the slightest. Oh well. I got to wear a costume, eat some pumpkin pie and watch the Halloween episode of Spongebob Squarepants with Paul, so I got to do a little celebrating at least.

This is how Halloween should be:

I’m flying to Barcelona early tomorrow morning to meet Christina, so I’ll be nonexistent until at least Sunday. Happy Toussaint.