19 December 2006

Today Paul asked me what color the number seven is to me. I guess I surprised myself a little, but he was completely unfazed when I answered immediately with “yellow.” But why would he have been? He was expecting me to answer with a color, and I came through.

I love hanging out with that kid – he’s so incredibly smart and genuinely loves learning new things. We have the most fun and random conversations, and he’s completely riveted when I regale him with tales of the Donner Party, or Black Widow Spiders.

He has a continuous stream of questions popping into his head, and, being seven, has absolutely no hesitation in posing each one to me. From what color I think Thursday is (purple), to how many electronics I have in my house in Tacoma (um, a lot, I guess?), to a description of my favorite day ever (the day in kindergarten when I got to go home early because I had tied my shoelaces together during story time, only to find out that my lost American Girl Doll had been found, and that I’d won a Beauty and the Beast coloring contest all in the same day. It’s a warm memory for me).

Check out this pony from the window of BHV – the disturbing part is that it's a real stuffed pony:

These rabbits are no less authentic:

Sometimes the more pressing questions on his mind are what kind of food Wilbur likes best (peanut butter and cheese), or if I know any words in Korean (Kamsahamnida, thanks Dad), to my favorite taste in the world (cilantro), to how I feel about Sundays (I love them), or whether I am in love with anybody right now. No matter what I answer, as long as it’s not an “I don’t know,” he’s satisfied and moves on to other more pressing queries.

I thought these guys were awesome. No ladder? No matter.

I think out of everyone, P is the most like an actual little brother of mine – at least banter-wise. He tells me that my sunglasses are ugly, and I tell him that I’m trying to trick people into thinking I’m a movie star. He wants to know if it’s true. I say of course, and maybe they’ll think he’s famous too, since we’re together. I tell him he’s stinky, and he tries to gross me out by eating boogers.

We are constantly trying to outsmart each other – him trying to escape into the upper reaches of his bunk bed without me confiscating his Gameboy, and me of course, trying to confiscate the Gameboy. We take turns reading Lemony Snickett’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and Tom-Tom et Nana, and compare our thoughts after each chapter. He tries to catch me with unfamiliar French vocabulary, and I outsmart him by knowing the words (he’s seven years old – we have similar vocabulary skills).

Sometimes P tells me about the girls he “loves” at school, and in turn wants to hear about every boy I’ve ever dated. He asks me each day for gossip about my brothers, and always wants follow-ups on the stories I tell him – he’s anxiously waiting to hear whether Ben has bought new earrings yet, and when Noah plans to take his driving test.

I found my neighborhood on the little model Paris in the floor of the Musée D'Orsay:

And my building!

We’re also constantly teaching each other. I taught P how to play Mancala and about the joys of Legoland, and in return, I learned the names and biographies of each character in Spongebob Squarepants. I know how to say “You suck!” (T’es naze!) and that French ados say tu peux me re-phone for “call me back,” and P is finally beginning to understand what I mean by constantly referring to things as “sweet.”

We really just have a lot of fun together – whether we’re singing “Jingle Bells” to Georges to get him to fall asleep or playing one of his practice songs as a duet on the piano. For a seven year old, he has a great sense of humor. He mailed E a brilliant fake letter from their feared and detested Grandmère that he came up with completely on his own.

Chère Ella, je t’écris cette lettre avec amour. Je veux te dire que ma radio ne marche plus, et je ne suis pas du tout contente. ~ Grandmère

Dear Ella, I send you this letter with love. I want to tell you that my radio no longer works, and I am not at all happy. ~ Grandmère

The greatest part of the prank was E’s reaction: “Grandmère has completely lost her head!” She bought the entire thing, and the fact that it was conceived by her seven year old brother tickles me to no end. P is pretty twisted for such a young age.

Is it weird that my favorite person in Paris is still in CE1 (like second grade)?

16 December 2006

Chanukah began yesterday at sundown. I was curious about the holiday in Paris after hearing stories about French Jews unable to broadcast their religion, and the huge amounts of security around all the temples on Yom Kippur.

Chanukah is not actually that big of a holiday, though. I think I was more into doing something celebratory than even Rachael was – we were originally going to make latkes with a few friends, but we postponed until Monday evening in favor of checking out a new bar.

Christina and I met Rachael, Thomas (French) and Ricardo (Spanish) near Saint Germain, where we left to walk to the smallest, most crowded, smokiest basement bar I’ve experienced in Europe.

This place, Chez Georges is wildly popular. We made our way past the bar and down a tiny set of spiral stairs into a brick cellar no larger (and possibly smaller) than my apartment, to find five seats at a wooden table. As we sat down, we congratulated ourselves on finding seats, which, according to Thomas, is a near-impossible feat.

Within five minutes of sitting down and ordering a bottle of wine, in walked three people I know from classes at Sciences Po. Over the course of the evening I probably ran into ten to fifteen people I know, which is a pretty rare event in a city as populated as Paris.

For a while we all sat around the table, just drinking our wine, talking and slowly asphyxiating from the clouds of cigarette smoke. Think about it – a teeny tiny brick basement room with only one exit and no windows – there’s nowhere for the smoke to go but into our lungs.

At about 23h, the place started to pick up. Soon the room was completely packed, with ten people crammed at each little table, and the minimal amount of standing room packed with couples and groups holding their bottles of wine and glasses. Meanwhile, the smoke cloud became denser and denser with each breath we attempted to draw.

After a few hours and many bottles of wine, the crowd was ready to dance – a difficult endeavor in such a small endroit. No matter, dance we did. There were people on tables, benches and chairs, packed in the center of the room and lining the twisting staircase to the rez de chaussée (rdc, or ground floor).

Normally, I wouldn’t expect such a dank and polluted little cellar to have such a powerful draw, but this is Paris – the people (patrons and bartenders) are friendly, the wine is decent and the music is eclectic, which is a sure recipe for success.

The playlist slid from an Elvis medley, to swing music, to thirties slow-dance music, to half an hour of Beatles songs, to Klezmer Music, to Judy Garland and around and back again. There’s something slightly unreal about standing in a packed mob with your arms around Parisian strangers while everyone sways together, belting “Let it be” at the top of their lungs.

It’s even odder when the same group grabs hands and begins to dance in a frantic circle, singing Hava Nagila in a smoky basement on the first night of Chanukah with approximately five people of authentic Jewish faith are present in the circle. It’s so surreal that the only solution is to join in with the singing, embracing complete strangers and pausing between songs to make toasts (being sure to always look into eyes of the person you're cheering – lest be cursed for seven years with a variety of complaints).

Despite the cough I had upon waking up this morning, the red wine drips on my shirt from last night and the horrible bar smell radiating from my coat and scarf, it was definitely a good night. Hava nagila! And happy Chanukah, of course.

14 December 2006

Sitting here in my apartment, with a cup of tea, the heat blasting, some really warm socks, and no homework to work on, I’m finally starting to relax a little. The past two weeks have been ridiculous, work-wise, but now (with only 4 more days of school before break) I can breathe again.

Yes, that's Notre Dame peeking through the tree.

Beginning December 3rd, most of the work of my semester began to pile up – over the past 10 days, I had a presentation and analysis of current events and projects of the European Union, an exposé (basically a speech) on Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Death of Bara, a fiche technique (basically a report), a debate, an essay for my French class and an exposé for my French politics class.

It was a stressful beginning to the month. Today though, I have only five classes (and one final essay) standing between me and Christmas vacation. Of all the work that piled up, my French politics exposé was by far the worst. All of the projects required considerable work, but once I put the work in, I was quite satisfied with the result.

It's Christmas time in the city

This exposé though, Combien de gauches dans la vie politique française aujourd’hui? (Or, how many leftists in French politics today?) really terrorized me. It wasn’t so much the subject (which was pretty awful, I do admit), but the fact that for this particular class, my entire grade for the semester is weighted on this one exposé. That’s a lot of pressure riding on my analysis of the shock of 2002, Lionel Jospin’s political failings and the ultragauche (extreme left) in France. This was the exposé that I devoted my 21st birthday to, that I stayed up until 5am three nights in a row working on, that I’d practiced so many times I had it timed to the minute (exposés may NOT exceed 10 minutes).

Despite my knocking knees, quavery voice and flub of one of the post-exposé questions posed to me, my professor thanked me with a smile and a “Vous avez bienfait.” (You did a good job). Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of my work, as I had to return home after class to complete an essay for my French class Wednesday.

Today is Thursday though, and I am feeling pretty good. Somewhere in the middle of all my researching and note-taking and typing in French of the past couple weeks, I began to notice a few bizarre things about myself. Or, the amount in which I unwittingly conformed to France over the past three and a half months.

In France, we do not double-space our fiches and essais. Everything is force justified rather than aligned-left. Titles of books, movies, institutions, and anything else with a multi-word designation have only the first letter of the first word capitalized – everything that follows is lower-case. Example, Droit constitutionnel et politique by Olivier Duhamel (who happens to be one of my professors). Oh yeah, and everything’s italicized.

Last names are always capitalized to avoid confusion and usually come first, GRIFFIN Halley, but not always Halley GRIFFIN. Sevens and Z’s are always crossed, and ones are never just vertical lines. We underline important points with rulers (although that might just be us nerds at Sciences Po) and we never omit zeros from dates. January 5th, 2006 is always 05/01/06, never 5/1/06.

None of these things are that odd individually, of course – the strange part is how easily and unconsciously I’ve adapted them. They’re all just simple differences in style – and being that I’m across an ocean from the schools where I learned to write papers it makes perfect sense that the styles should be different. It’s just interesting how naturally they’ve integrated themselves into my American style – which isn’t so American anymore, apparently.

I keep imagining next year and wondering how long it’ll take me to shake all the French out of my schoolwork. Christina will have the chance to reintegrate before I do, since she’s flying home for good next Thursday, so I guess I’ll have to hear about it second-hand.

C is staying with me for a few days and we spent the afternoon at a marché de Noël outside the Pompidou center. We were wandering around, casually drinking paper cups filled with cinnamon-y and delicious vin chaude, and we stopped to look at some artwork by a typical, if unusually scruffy-looking street artist. He looked at our cups and asked, “C’est du café?’ (Is that coffee?) When we informed him that it was in fact hot wine, he winked, said, “Yesss, al-co-hol-ic? Moi, je préfère la bière.” He then opened up the pocket of his dirty coat to show us an open bottle of beer for him to surreptitiously swig in between ripping off tourists with overpriced mediocre paintings. That’s Paris.

It hasn't snowed here yet – well, except for the dusting of sparkly plastic that's coating the Champs Elysées.

08 December 2006

Paris was a mess this morning. I woke up at about 7h this morning to the sounds of my building collapsing under the pressure of the wind.

Once I’d actually been awake for a few minutes, I came to the conclusion that my building was not actually being blown over – but it definitely being assaulted from every direction.

My apartment sits under the Northern eave of the building, and my windows are all positioned at a 45 degree angle. When I looked outward, I felt like I was in a carwash – buckets of water being thrown at the glass. I attempted to open one just a crack and one arm was immediately drenched.

I spent most of the morning dreading the moment when I would actually have to bundle up and venture outside to go to class. Most of the time I love the fact that I can get to Sciences Po faster on foot than in the metro, but today I wasn’t feeling particularly thankful.

When it starts raining in Paris, the souvenir stands suddenly all stock these very large blue Paris ponchos.

Unfortunately, I had an exposé to present in my art history class today, so no freak wind and rainstorm was going to be a legitimate excuse for skipping class. I waterproofed (read: Seattled myself) as best as I could, with my North Face, my REI raincoat a waterproof Timbuktu bag and my trusty if already falling apart cheapo umbrella from H&M.

Then I was ready to venture out into the storm. I thought maybe the wind would be a little less intense once I made it down to street level, rather than the top floor of my building. I was wrong.

I felt like a member of the riot police as I joined the ranks of soggy Parisians battling their way down avenue de l’Opéra. We’d position ourselves carefully, looking directly into the wind and pouring rain, force our umbrellas open and begin stalking down the street, umbrellas held out directly in front of us.

This picture (from the pompier protest a few weeks ago) comes from BBC’s week in pictures. Yeah, that was me trying to walk to school today.

After a few blocks, we began to realize that today was not a day for umbrellas.

The face full of December rain proved to be less of a hassle than battling an umbrella through Paris. In the courtyard of the Louvre, I put my umbrella back up – the wind was extra strong in open spaces. It sheltered me for about….half a second, before flipping inside-out.

That’s when I officially gave up on the umbrella and instead walked backward through the courtyard. A few older ladies saw me doing this and chuckled at first, but once they got a face full of the wet wet wind, they were ready to adopt my technique.

My backwards walking technique made much more sense than chasing this around:

Throughout the rest of my walk to school I grinned at fellow soaked Parisians. Each one of us was soaking wet and disheveled with an umbrella tucked under one arm, even as the rain continued to drench us. Everyone wore the same hapless look that said, "I just had to give up on the umbrella."

We all eventually gave up.

For the rest of the morning, the trash cans of Paris continued to fill up with battered and broken umbrellas. Then, around 14h30, the sun broke, and it became a beautiful French day.

The evidence remains, though.

••• In other news, Rachael and I RSVP'd for a talk by Vice Premier of Israel, Shimon Peres at Sciences Po. It's scheduled for Monday morning and should be pretty interesting.

06 December 2006

Sciences Po has been a bit of a hub of chaos lately. Not only has there been an unexpected crackdown on security (we can now only enter the two buildings through one door on rue Saint Guillaume, and not before showing our i.d. cards), but this week is the 75ème birthday of the Association Sportive.

At Sciences Po, there’s the BDE (Bureau des Elèves) which is kind of the technical French equivalent of ASB or ASUW. Aside from orientation though, they really don’t do much. During the regular school year, parties, events and performances are planned instead by the sports association, who are generally pretty good at what they do – at least the party planning aspect.

It’s thanks to our friends at the AS that we’ve had the opportunity to attend at least one party a week (always on Wednesdays). Now that we’re nearing the holidays, they’ve upped the tally to include weekly cocktail parties along with the big blowouts – i.e. tonight’s AS birthday celebration.

Halloween, for example, was an AS party:

As far as planning anything else goes…I’m not so sure that I’m impressed. This week, the 75ème celebration was supposed to be full of events showing off, what else, the sports association. We’ve been getting emails for the past two weeks detailing the events – photo exhibits, parties, sports classes and dance demonstrations. The dance performances were supposed to be salsa, modern, capoeira and l’hip-hop, organized by the teams and their teachers (yes, technically we’re a hip-hop team).

My teacher (Florence “Flo”) decided to do it like an open class – have everyone (who didn’t have a conflicting class) from the two groups come in to Sciences Po this afternoon and take a class with some pieces we’d already prepared. I thought it sounded fun, so I rearranged my nanny schedule a little bit so I could participate. We’d been getting reminder emails all week from the AsSp, and I think everyone (the coordinators, Flo and myself) assumed that at least a few hip-hoppers would show.

We were wrong. I arrived in the Penîche (the room just past the entry hall of Sciences Po, through which everyone who enters the building has to pass) at 14h20 to find Flo setting up speakers with two girls from the AS. I was the first and only student there. We waited and waited, but no one else from either hip-hop group showed up. The sports association girls were in a bit of a panic because there were huge posters everywhere advertising this hip-hop demonstration, and spectators were beginning to hear the hip-hop music and meander through.

At about 14h40 (ten minutes after we were supposed to start), we figured out that no one else was coming. Flo and the AsSp girls were having a harried French conversation about what they should do about the people waiting to see some hip-hop, the fact that I was all alone and they didn’t want to put me on the spot and whether they could quickly recruit some random students to take part. This last bit was clearly desperation speaking – once you know a few Sciences Po students, you know that they’re not going to be jumping over each other to throw off their pea coats and book bags and break it down.

Finally Flo walked up to me with a look on her face that said, “I know you’re going to say no, but…” and asked if I thought we should go ahead and start. What they obviously didn’t know is that I am the kind of person who enjoys being put on the spot. I love performing in front of a crowd, whether or not I was planning on busting out a hip-hop solo show that day. Of course I said yes.

Since the idea of a demonstration class was clearly not going to work, we instead put together a combination to perform over and over. It was so fun. We usually move a lot slower in class because most of the other students don’t have any previous hip-hop experience, but today we were under pressure. The combination was fast-paced and so fun to dance, and we got to throw in some of the break dancing moves we’ve been working on in class.

With just Flo and I working the dance floor – er, great hall of Sciences Po, we didn’t manage to recruit any students to dance with us – but we did draw quite a crowd. There were two boys (one French, one from Michigan) who’d been homeworking in the Penîche and a little old lady from the Secretariat’s office who were our most appreciative audience members. The three of them watched us for the entire hour we performed, even though we were doing the same combination over and over again as people milled through. We shook it up from time to time by entering the room in creative ways, or adding some freestyle break dancing to the end, but it was really repetitive. Even so, those three stayed until the end – when we got a big cheer upon finishing our final poses in our final run-through.

I stuck around to talk to Flo for a while afterwards, and she thanked me for being willing to perform half-solo in front of all of Sciences Po at a moment’s notice. I assured her that I loved every minute of it (I really am just a big fat show-off), and she told me she actually wasn’t surprised that no French students had turned up to take part in the demonstration. The French are so reserved, she told me, they don’t put themselves into situations they’re not in control of – unless it’s a meticulously choreographed spectacle taking place in an actual theatre. The funny thing is, Cassie said the same thing when I told her about the afternoon.

On my way back from the impromptu spectacle d’hip-hop, I found my passage blocked by yet another protest march.

When I first arrived in Paris, I was fascinated by manifestations in the streets. Actually the word manifestation doesn’t really make much sense here in English, but in French, it can describe a protest, march, rally or other demonstration.

My first protest:

I witnessed my first Parisian protest march in August, just a few days after arriving in the city. It was a demonstration against France’s (and Sarkozy’s) immigration policies, and I was pretty enthralled, taking photograph after photograph to document it. I saw my second march barely a week afterwards, and my third a few days after that.

I’ve probably been privy to some kind of protest every 10 days since landing at Charles de Gaulle. If it’s not immigrants and sans-papiers, it’s architecture students, université students, or pompiers (firemen/EMTs). Today it was a performing arts union.

I used to stop and watch each protest for a few minutes – at least long enough to find out what the demonstrators were trying to accomplish. Now I roll my eyes thinking, “yep, I’m in France,” and hurry to the other side of the street before my route home is completely blocked. Strange the things that I accept as day-to-day life here.

••• Paris has book vending machines. Only 3 euro for La Metamorphose or Petits Grains du Bible...

04 December 2006

About halfway through the ballet I leaned over to Amelia to ask, “the swans aren’t usually men, are they?”

No, the swans in the ballet Swan Lake are generally female – that’s the whole point of the story. Prince Siegfried falls in love with Odette, a woman under a sorcerer’s curse – swan by day, woman by night. At least that’s how it went down in the original Bolshoi Ballet version in 1877.

The Swan Lake A and I saw today was no traditional Russian ballet. Tchaikovsky was still the composer, and there were indeed swans, but other than that, it was a completely modern ballet.

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake debuted in 1995 in London and immediately generated rave reviews. In addition to its three Tony Awards, it apparently became the longest-running ballet on London’s Broadway. (And yes, it is the same version of Swan Lake featured at the end of Billy Elliot – furry pants and white-painted bodies included).

Théâtre Mogador

Amelia and I had both really been looking forward to seeing the show, so I made sure to complete enough homework yesterday that we could just have a fun Sunday. The ballet wasn’t until 15h, so we took a walk around the jardin des Tuileries and stopped for a glass of vin chaud in one of the little cafés in the park. On this rainy and windy Sunday, it was a lovely break to drink warm wine with cinnamon with a good friend from home and watch cold and wet people through the windows of the café. From there we headed up rue de la Paix through place Vendôme to the Théâtre Mogador (located behind l’Opéra Garnier).

Rue de la Paix is decked out in white plastic decorations for the holidays:

Being that we are cheap and students, we were only able to bring ourselves to spring for the cheapest of tickets. Our forty euro a piece secured us seats in row XX in the very back corner of the theatre’s balcony. As I completely forgot yesterday to ask Cassie for a pair of opera glasses to borrow, A and I arrived at the theatre hoping to be able some.

When we handed our tickets to the usher, however, we were informed that “le balcon est fermé aujourd’hui.” (The balcony is closed today). We were directed instead to the orchestre, where we found ourselves with seats upgraded by about 65 euro. We were close enough to see the sweat dripping down the backs of the swans (yeah, not sure that was such a bonus). The opera glasses proved to be entirely unnecessary.

The star in the balcony is where our tickets instructed us to sit. The star in the orchestre section is where we actually got to sit.

Despite some initial confusion about the lack of female swans, and the fact that the ballet was set in Britain today (supposed by some to be a kind of satirical commentary on Charles, Prince of Wales and the rest of the current monarchy), A and I were both riveted. Oh, it was so good.

And we had a very good view (except for that one guy's head):

After the show A and I went to diner at my favorite Arrmenian restaurant on rue Mouffetard, then walked back to my apartment via all of the best Christmas lights we could find. It was a good day.

Lights on rue Mouffetard.

02 December 2006

Two days into December, and this city is ready for the holidays. The air is crisp, the Christmas markets have sprung up in streets all over Paris. The vin chaude is hot and delicious in the jardin des Tuileries, and since the first of the month, Christmas lights have been lit up all over the city.

The department store windows are full of stuffed bears and toy trains and Christmas stockings and presents, and the patinoire (ice skating rink) is busily freezing in front of Hôtel de Ville (open for business beginning on Tuesday).

Windows of boulangeries are filled with bûches de Noël, and the entirety of rue de la Paix is lined with fake white Christmas trees on pedestals.

Oh yes, Paris is ready for Christmas. So am I.

Last night R and I went to a really fun bar in the 11ème arondissement, before meeting a group of friends at a jazz club near her apartment. We were tipped off by her brother, who spent the year before last living in Paris, that there exists a bar near metro Ménilmontant where the purchase of a drink guarantees you a table and a free dinner.

Feeling a little skeptical, we decided to check it out. The bar (Tais) is a laid-back and funky café, filled with twenty-somethings eating and drinking to a soundtrack of Toots and the Maytals. We found ourselves a piece of bar to lean on and drink our bières blanches while we waited for a table to open up. After maybe ten minutes of sipping, we were directed to our table where we continued to sip our beers and wonder if R’s brother had been pulling our legs.

To our delight and surprise though, after maybe twenty minutes of chilling at our table, we were given plates, knives and napkins, without having seen a menu or ordering anything. The guy who brought our plates disappeared into the back and returned with a steaming platter of couscous, a meat dish to eat with it and a bowl of stew to pour over the entire meal. Not only was the food delicious, but our bill was only 6 euro – the cost of the two girl beers.

We left Tais feeling satisfied and thrilled with our new favorite bar, but somewhat confused. What kind of business can survive giving everyone free dinner every night? I guess some parts of Paris will always be kind of mysterious and magical. Don’t question it – just enjoy the couscous.

These are going to be an odd few weeks in Europe as my apartment becomes home base for everyone whose program is ending. Anyone who’s not staying the entire year is getting ready to go home sometime in the next two weeks. The UW’s Comparative Literature Paris program ended yesterday and Amelia’s host mother couldn’t keep her for the few extra days until she flies home, so she’ll be bunking with me for a few days, with the possible addition of her cousin for one or two of them.

Next week I’ll host Christina for a night before she heads off to Switzerland, and I’m keeping her luggage for the week until she returns to Paris to fly home out of Charles de Gaulle. People I know in London are packing and getting ready for regular life again, and even my friends back in Seattle are hustling to finish their work before the quarter ends.

I feel like I’m some kind of rock in the middle of all the chaos. Things are changing and ending all around me, and I’m just here. I’m turning 21 in a week, but it’s not of any consequence in Europe – besides, I’ll have such a ridiculous amount of work that I probably won’t even bother celebrating. Two of my best friends are heading back to their normal lives this month, with me as their jumping off point, but nothing’s changing for me. Work as usual – my semester isn’t even over until Valentine’s Day. And it’s about to be 2007, for Pete’s sake. Funny how my home base for all of this has shifted to somewhere in the deuxième arondissement of Paris.

So much chaos, and none of it is mine. I think I’ll just keep living on, listening to my Christmas music, enjoying the lights that decorate the city and eating my free couscous.

Happy December!

•• Amelia and I are going to Swan Lake at the Mogador tomorrow afternoon! I can't wait – my mission for the day is find someone to borrow binoculars from...our seats are in row "XX," no joke.