04 August 2007

I’ve only been home for a week and I’m already up to my ears in two questions. How was Paris? and Is it weird to be back? For the record, France was good and it’s weird but nice to be back in the states.

These aren’t bad questions – on the contrary. It’s just that they’re, well, very large questions. Paris was friendlier than I’d expected it to be, Paris smelled like urine, Paris’s air was dirty, but its parks and sidewalks were clean. Paris was exhilarating. Paris was hard and scary and amazing. Yeah, Paris was good. What else is there to say?

As for being home, It’s been surprisingly easy to fit back into my Tacoma routine – hanging out with my mom during the day, running with the dog and driving to Seattle to meet friends in the evening. I’ve lived here all my life, so being home is just like being home. The only oddnesses arise when my mind tries to superimpose Parisian life on Tacoman.

Driving through a parking lot in Gig Harbor a few days ago, I was positive I’d seen a young guy wearing a Front National tee shirt. The Front National, for those who already find Paris slipping away from them, is the right-wing extremist party in France, the one whose chef has been called everything from racist to xenophobic to anti-Semitic.

Mom, that guy’s wearing a National Front shirt, go back, go back! After a furtive circle back through the parking lot, with me hanging out the window with my camera, we determined that he was actually wearing a Sherwin-Williams paint shirt. On second glance, it looked nothing like the FN logo, my mind was just compensating for what I’d expected to see.

Then there was the day I realized I’d bought a shirt in the wrong size – the only problem was that I’d bought it on clearance on a second mark-down. I was ready to just throw it away and go buy a new shirt, but my mom stopped me. What are you talking about, of course you can exchange that. I could hardly believe it. In France, I’d thrown away purses and given away a replacement part of a coffee pot that I couldn’t exchange without receipts or because I’d waited too long to do it. In the U.S., you can take anything back, anytime. I remember once in middle school I’d bought a pair of new white Jack Purcell sneakers from Nordstrom, and worn them for two months before they started to disintegrate. My mom sent me back to the store to complain about the fact that they’d only lasted two months, and I walked out with a brand new pair of shoes. I suppose I’ve gotten used to stricter policies.

A few days later, my mom and I took the dog (Scout) for a walk. After winding our way down by Stadium High School, around Wright Park and down 6th Avenue, we stopped at the Corina Cake Bakery for some pie. Scout is a very small dog, and quite enjoys being carried, so without thinking, I bent to scoop him up, asking It’s fine to bring him in if I hold him, right? Judging by the incredulous look on my mom’s face, it apparently wasn’t. They serve food here. Instead I tied him up outside, but right next to the door so he could peek in at us while we snacked. After about five minutes, an employee went outside to move him farther from the door. The no dogs in restaurants rule should be so obvious – I don’t want to eat next to someone else’s pet, but a year of an anything goes attitude on the pet front has conditioned me otherwise.

Aside from these brief moments of confusion, I haven’t yet felt a real explosion of culture shock. The fact that everyone speaks English here seems totally normal, as did the fact that SeaTac airport customs was crowded with high school students in cut-off miniskirts trying to sneak their duty-free alcohol back into the U.S.

It’s more the little things that, while they don’t exactly shock me, definitely remind me that I’m not in Paris anymore. The fact that I’m now carded everywhere I go, but that bars are required to be smoke-free. That chocolate chips go for two dollars a bag, rather than seven euro, and I no longer have to spend half an hour chopping up Nestlé chocolate bars before I can bake cookies. That it’s okay to venture outside in sweatpants – heck, I could even go out to dinner in sweatpants if I was so inclined. Having a real-life boyfriend, and a car to drive. Not being referred to as Anglo-Saxon five times a day.

Rather than a clash of cultures, it’s hundreds of these little things every day that remind me where I am and where I am not, and make it impossible to decide if I’m happy, sad or “weird” to be back.

••• I'm having a bout of indeciciveness, so if you've got the time, check out these new title options and tell me which you like best!

27 July 2007

Anecdotes from Paris: Dernière partie

Airport fiascos

As smoothly as our trip to Israel always seemed to go, Rachael and my flight home was another story altogether. Tuesday morning we left Tel Aviv with more than three hours to spare before our flight left – but a Hebrew/English miscommunication at the train station sent us nearly an hour in the wrong direction. By the time we figured it out (a security guard kicking us off the train at the last stop on the line) and made it back to Ben Gurion International, we had just 50 minutes to spare before our flight was scheduled to leave.

At Seatac Airport this would have been stressful but not a huge problem. The intense degrees of security in all of Israel, however, ensured that there was no possible way we could get through the numerous security checkpoints, have our bags searched, be patted down for weapons and be interrogated about our reasons for traveling to Israel, and still make our 14h30 flight. After being yelled at by airport security for arriving so late, we were informed that there was no possible way we could get on the plane and were sent to the ticketing offices of Malev Hungarian Airlines to try and change our flights home.

Malev was absolutely no help – the earliest flight they could book us wasn’t until Saturday, a full day after R and I were both supposed to be flying home to the U.S. Unable to take that flight, our only option was to buy completely new tickets, so we headed downstairs to the last-minute flight deals counter. There we found an extremely helpful young guy who informed us of what no one else had – that there was an Israeli airport (among other things) strike planned to begin the following morning. If we didn’t make it out of Tel Aviv by midnight Tuesday, we’d be stuck in Israel indefinitely.

With the help of a colleague, our last-minute flight guy found us a last-minute flight. So last minute that we only had a half hour before check-in was scheduled to close. At $450, it was a pricey unexpected expenditure, but far cheaper than any other ticket options (most running upwards of $800). The only problem remaining being that I didn’t have the money – with only 3 days left of my year in Paris I was down to the last centimes of my budget for the year, and definitely hadn’t factored in an emergency plane ticket fund. I ran upstairs to collect-call my parents for a money transfer while R got our names and passport information into the computer.

Once I’d hung up the phone, I raced back downstairs and our last-minute ticket guy finished processing my ticket. Then he took R’s card to swipe and we got some disturbing news – she didn’t have any money either, but with only 10 minutes left before check-in was to close, had no time to rouse her parents at 4h asking for a money transfer that would (because of her bank) take 5 days to process anyway. She ran back upstairs to call and get the number of her dad’s credit card as I ran to check in and tell the Lufthansa people that a second late traveler might be arriving.

By the time I made it to the gate though, having been rushed through back passages by a kind security guard, it was clear that no second traveler was arriving. What could I do? I had to board my flight, and spent the next 12 hours thinking Oh crap, I’ve left Rachael in Israel. What on earth am I going to do? on repeat. Thank goodness for wine on airplanes, eh?

I made it back to Paris at midnight and crashed immediately. R finally appeared around 4pm with wild stories of her own to tell. With no way to get money for a ticket, she’d called the only person she could think of – the Israeli film actor we’d met during our first few days in Tel Aviv. Let me just say that he is one amazing guy. After knowing R for only a few days, he forked over $450 to buy her a plane ticket to Paris (with promises of Western Union payback transfers, of course). She had another stroke of luck when the start of the strike was pushed back to 6h, to allow all travelers time to get out of the airport – her flight left at 5h45.

Bum pizza

R and I had a lot of errands to run today, it being our last day in Paris and all. Some errands were imperative, like closing our bank accounts and canceling our Internet services, while some were of the more frivolous variety (buying the latest Harry Potter book to read on the flight home). We had a lot to accomplish, but they were all handily located in the Saint Germain/ Saint Michel area, so we were able to get a lot done in a limited amount of time.

After picking up our final grades and diplomas from Sciences Po, and before picking up a Western Union money order for Rachael at La Poste, we stopped near église Saint Germain for a pizza lunch. Since it was already nearing 15h, the dining area of our favorite student-y pizza place was closed, so we took our pizzas à emporter and found a bench to eat them on.

What we didn’t notice when we sat down was that we’d chosen a dining seat directly across from three hungry-looking homeless men drinking beers. I was about halfway into my first slice when I glanced up and saw them eyeing us. We couldn’t have picked a more awkward spot to eat. Not only were we weirded out being stared at while we enjoyed our lunches, but we felt like jerks flaunting our delicious pizzas in front of three guys who had probably gone a while since having a good meal.

We ate half of our pizzas, then carefully consolidated the rest into one box and balanced it carefully on the top of a trash can as we left. We’d considered walking over and offering it to them, but decided it might come off as somewhat insulting and demeaning – after all, they hadn’t asked us for any food or money. As we walked away, I glanced back once and saw the men already diving into our pizza.

Saying goodbye…or not

So this is it for me and Paris – my airport shuttle arrives in just under seven hours, and from that moment on, I’ll forsake all my claims on this city. I spent the day wandering around the city and the evening relaxing in R’s apartment. For whatever reason, we didn’t feel any pressure to go out and have a real “last night” in Paris, or do anything in particular “for the last time.” Over the course of a year we’ve had the chance to do most of the things we wanted to do as many times as we wanted to do them. We felt no need to do it up big, and said our goodbyes to Paris by watching Friends and eating ice cream in R’s living room. It wasn’t the most spectacular of evenings, but it was pleasant all the same.

It doesn’t matter anyway: We’ll be back.

25 July 2007

Pictures Pending: Until blogger lets me upload them, check them out here.

Sitting cross-legged on a bed in a kibbutz in northern Israel last Saturday night, squinting and sewing a missing button back onto an Israeli army uniform was definitely one of the more dramatic how did I get here moments of my year. Come to think of it, I’ve had a lot of those moments over the past two weeks.

From spending the night at a free hostel in Jerusalem’s Old City run by Orthodox Jews who kept us up half the night debating Torah; to sitting on the couch next to an Israeli boy whose name I still can’t quite pronounce as he casually flips through TV channels, pausing to say, Oh, that’s my show!; to being cheered at bars for the simple fact of having come to Israel to “hang out” rather than find my heritage: It was a strange and enlightening vacation.

Rachael and I arrived in Tel Aviv on a Thursday and spent our first few days there, hanging out by the beach, exploring Jaffa and going to the Shuk (market) by day and spending our nights with an old friend of R’s who was living in Israel for a few months. He’s apparently friends with a big group of Israeli movie stars, stage actors and musicians, because every time we saw him, whether it was hanging out at the apartment of an actor our age, whose latest movie just went to the Cannes Film Festival, watching the Brazil-Argentina football match or going to the theatre, we were recognizing (with help) people from movies and previews we’d seen back in Paris (and elsewhere).

Through R’s friend, we met an actor named Yoav, who invited us to go see him act in Plonter, a play (in Hebrew with English and Arabic subtitles) about the occupation – so controversial that a couple sitting behind me stood up and stormed out in the middle of a scene of an Israeli soldier harassing a Palestinian boy.

From Tel Aviv, we moved onto Jerusalem, where we spent one night in the clean (though slightly creepy) and free hostel before moving onto the floor of an apartment on the campus of Hebrew University. We spent a day exploring the Old City, another at Yad Vashem. We spent our third day floating in the Dead Sea, and a night seeing an Israeli band (who we’d met at a party in Tel Aviv) perform at a Jerusalem club.

After Jerusalem, we took a bus to Afula to meet another of R’s friends near his kibbutz. We stayed there for a weekend, hanging out with a group of young Israeli-born Americans who had returned to serve their time in the army (their rooms at the kibbutz are paid for by the Israeli army). It was an interesting experience for sure, but I think I might just be too used to my role in capitalist America to appreciate a place where everyone’s incomes go into a shared pot, and each family has a golf cart to drive around to the shared pool and dining hall.

We left the kibbutz Sunday morning to spend a day in Haifa and old Akko before heading back to Tel Aviv for two more nights out and one more glorious day at the beach.

Israel is probably the most westernized of any country in the Middle East – it has an Ace Hardware, for pete’s sake, but even so it’s like a different world. When R and I stopped to ask directions anywhere, the first question we’d get back was are you okay with buses? We weren’t particularly more concerned about being on buses than being anywhere else in Israel – yes they have, in the past, been targets for bombs, but so have coffee shops, restaurants and night clubs. The Tel Aviv beach is swept every night by a huge Zamboni-like machine that sifts through the sand checking for bombs. Still, most people are the wariest of buses – a guy we met in Tel Aviv told us that when he was in middle school he and his friends would insult each other by saying Go take the number five bus. Once on the buses, though, there are constant patrols by security guards, who hop on at one stop, sweep through the bus and disembark at the next stop to sweep the next bus that comes along. There was never a moment when I was seriously concerned about being blown up on a bus.

Something else that really struck me was the presence of religion – I mean obviously, Israel was created to be a Jewish state, and Jerusalem alone contains the holiest sites for three different religions. I knew the question of religion was a predominant one, I just wasn’t quite prepared for the question of my religion to become so important. At first it was just puzzled people trying to understand what I was doing in Israel. Do you speak any Hebrew? Wait, you’re not Jewish? Why are you traveling to Israel? Do you have friends there? Family? You’re not Jewish? These questions made perfect sense to me. I mean why was I in Israel? The honest truth sounded weird every time I heard it coming out of my mouth. Just hanging out, going to the beach… is definitely not an answer passport control at Ben Gurion International hears often.

Are you Jewish? was obviously the first question posed to me at Heritage House (the free hostel), but once they’d confirmed that I wasn’t, the question never came up again. This was where I’d expected to be the most rigorously interrogated, but the people I seemed to puzzle the most were actually the secular Israelis. Fascinated by the fact that I wasn’t, in fact, Jewish, they became obsessed with trying to figure out what I was. So you’re Christian, then, they’d state confidently, Ehhh, not exactly. I mean I have a Christmas tree every year…but I’m just not really anything. This is where they got really confused. I’m not Jewish, not Christian, obviously not Muslim – so what was I? Okay, so you’re agnostic? I tried my best to explain to each new questioner that while I don’t associate myself with any particular religion, I’m not atheist and not really agnostic.

The honest truth is that I’m just not anything. The best way to classify me would probably be something like apathetic – I just don’t care. Most conversations ended with me saying something along the lines of religion is not a factor in my life, and I think at that point people just got bored, so I was let off the hook. I had imagined my visit to Israel as more of an outsider looking in, but once my plane had landed, my spirituality became fair game. It didn’t bother me at all – I had a lot of interesting discussions, but it was kind of exhausting. I think I probably discussed my “religious background” more in the past two weeks than in the whole of my life so far.

After determining my religion (or lack thereof), the next question was invariably pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. Actually, this was never even a question – hanging out with Israelis, I was assumed to be pro-Israel and was thus included in disturbing conversations about things like the “unsanitary” nature of Arab restaurants. There were a lot of times I wanted to speak up and say no, I don’t agree with this, but as a Westerner just passing through the country I became a pansy in the face of the pro-Israel furor. The way this conflict has boiled down to the people who live in it has become almost a question of Jews vs. Arabs. Obviously it’s more complicated than that, but it’s an easy distinction to make – we were warned not to go near the Arab quarters after dark, people make jokes like, Well if you’re worried, you can take one of the Arab buses… and we were confronted with people like the man staying in our hostel who came right out and said I hate the Arabs, but he also told us he hates Shiksa (non-Jewish women – i.e., me), so he was just bigoted in every direction.

Racial profiling is a disturbing but prevalent reality. R, whose ethnicity is not easily discernable (and could potentially be Arab) was stopped at every security checkpoint and quizzed about her origins, while I breezed right through. I guess these are the disturbing realities of living in a conflict zone.

Overall, the trip was fun, relaxing, and at times disturbing – partially because of conflict-related issues and partially because of the Crocs invasion. Seriously, I’ve never seen so many Crocs at once in my life. One notable quote heard on the street was This is Israel – of course everybody has Crocs!

20 July 2007

Hey all, still alive. Been traipsing through Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Afula, etc. hanging out with Israeli movie stars and stage actors...haha, no really. Now we're visiting a friend of R's on a kibbutz before heading back to Tel Aviv on Sunday for two nights and flying back to Paris. Updates to come: I'm alive.

13 July 2007

After 9 painful hours of sitting cramped in an airport in Budapest, I found a small shout-out to home when I was finally called to (crankily) board my flight to Tel Aviv. Above the cabin door was a metal stamp tagged with the words "Boeing, Co., Seattle, WA, U.S.A." Yeah! This airplane and I, we were both Seattle gals, both a long way from home, but both keeping on keeping on.

After 11 more hours waiting for Rachael to land at Ben Gurion International, we finally stepped through the automatic doors and into the sun and heat of Tel Aviv - a welcome change from the rainstormy July that Paris has been enjoying.

We spent Thursday finding our hostel, exploring the beach and eating falafel with our new friend Jonathon, a Dutchman. At night we went out with one of Rachael's friends (who's been living here for the past few months)to an outdoor bar, complete with pillows to sit on as you perch in the trees and a rope swing to play on...or sit, I suppose, and demurely sip your glass of wine.

Today we explored Jaffa, relaxed on the beach and tonight are going to a party at the home of an Israeli movie star (he just returned from the Cannes film festival, where his new movie was premiering).

Tomorrow is beach bum day, and tomorrow night, who knows. What I do know is that Tel Aviv fashion is a far cry from what we left in Paris. I've never seen so many pairs of spandex pants, tube tops, platform sandals and Crocs (!!!) in one small space in my life. It's very...uh...beachy.

Everywhere we go, Jonathon and I are being toasted by Israeli Jews, for the simple fact of being here and not being Jewish. This seemed weird at first, but as R and her friend explained it to us, there aren't a lot of people who come to Israel just to hang out and vacation. Most people passing through are on religious pilgrimages or on birthright trips to see the homeland. When people meet J and I, two non-Jewish tourists, just here to see the sights and hang out, they get really proud that we came to see their home with no ulterior motives.

That's all I've got tonight - we're in Tel Aviv until Monday morning when we're catching a train to Jerusalem, so shalom for now.

10 July 2007

My life in Paris is coming to a close faster than I have the ability to keep up with. I’m writing this from Rachael’s futon in the 11ème arrondissement, where I now live, or am at least crashing until I quitte la belle France in two and a half weeks.

Last Thursday I said goodbye to the nanny family at Gare de Lyon, an experience that was somewhat odd and definitely less emotional (at least on my end) than I’d imagined it would be. This is a family I’ve logged more than 600 hours with since moving into their studio apartment last October. It’s a family whose children I’ve spent six days a week with, playing, reading, giving baths, cooking dinner and watching movies. A huge part of my life in Paris was wrapped up in this family and these kids, and my unexpected detachment when hugging them goodbye is probably rooted in the fact that I haven’t fully come to terms with the fact that Paris is basically done for me.

We were all careful to avoid saying our adieus (literally, at God, or, a very final goodbye) at the train station, opting instead for Make sure you drop by the next time you’re in Paris, and If you guys ever want to see the Pacific Northwest… I left them 10 minutes before their train’s departure and headed home to a very bare apartment. I’d gone, in three days, from a girl in a very settled in Parisian apartment with her boyfriend, her brother and her brother’s best gal friend and a nanny family to a girl in a half-empty apartment completely and utterly alone. I spent the afternoon reorganizing the kitchen cabinets and finishing up packing.

Monday afternoon, I moved out of my little French apartment in the 2ème to crash with Rachael and her russe roommate for a few days (a useful development, as R’s building has a free laundry room). I scrubbed every inch of my apartment, left four U.S.-import Shrek Pez dispensers in the kitchen for the kids to find later on this summer and deposited my keys in the mailbox of the nanny family. That was it – I’m still a girl from Tacoma and I’m still in Paris, but most of my friends have left the city for their families’ homes or vacation, I’m no longer an étudiante at Sciences Po, no longer an au pair and no longer have an address. Weird.

I’m not officially repatriating until July 27th, but tomorrow R and I are boarding a plane to Israel for two weeks (hence the sporadic posting you’ll be seeing for a while) and returning with just two days left to spend in Paris – hopefully at Paris Plage, though this is totally dependant on the notion that the weather is going to improve while we’re gone. We spent yesterday moving me out of my apartment and packing up Rachael’s, and today doing final Paris errands (like stocking up on scarves and Bensimon tennis and paying a visit to the free Fragonard Musée de la Perfumerie).

Vacation has officially begun, but it definitely hasn’t hit me yet. It doesn’t feel like I’m done nannying, like I don’t live in my apartment anymore, like I only have two days left to spend in Paris. Paris feels like it always does, and so do I – but now I’m surrounded by packed overweight suitcases and last-minute souvenirs instead of French books on the crises facing Europe and the odd bits of puzzles and various glow-in-the-dark stars that have somehow found their way into my pockets from P and G's room.

And anyway, tomorrow I’m off to be surrounded by sand and machine guns (and probably some falafel and stars of David too). I won’t be posting much between now and June 24th, except for the random I’m still alive message, so don’t get worried, just check back in two weeks.


*** For those of you who have been asking, I am going to keep writing through the summer and next year – I’ll just go back to regular old Tacoma girl in Tacoma (and then Seattle), and my observations will go from the effortless chicness of Parisian women to something along the lines of Wow, I never realized just how much polar fleece there is in Seattle.

09 July 2007

Anecdotes from Paris: Partie trois

In Europe I get a lot of people asking me where I’m from or trying to guess on their own. I’ve gotten Spanish, Italian and a lot of America? Bush!, but yesterday I was not only pegged for a different nationality, but a different ethnicity as well.

After the race yesterday, I was sitting on a bench in the Arênes de Montmartre next to a French African. Trying to make conversation he asked where I was from, but before I could even open my mouth he continued for me. Algérie? he asked, avec un peu des îles Seychelles? This guy apparently thought I was a beur, a second-generation North African immigrant. The term used to be somewhat pejorative, but it’s made its way into mainstream French and lost the offense in the process.

Non, I said slowly, Je viens des Etats-unis. Apparently unwilling to admit that his conjectures had been wrong, he pressed on. Mais vos parents, ils sont pas Africains? Once I’d finally convinced him that I was not any part African his next question was Do you speak good English, then? This is where I realized that he was just seriously confused – I am as white as they get, and yes, English is my native language.

08 July 2007

Every June since my freshman year of high school I’ve run the Tacoma Sound to Narrows. It’s a 12-kilometer road race through Tacoma’s Ruston neighborhood and Point Defiance Park and this would have been my seventh year in a row. Along with Thanksgiving and my little brother’s high school graduation, the Sound to Narrows was one of the things I was pretty bummed about missing this year, so I decided to find myself a replacement on this side of the pond.

Searching through websites like Active Europe and Courir en France, I was able to find a race in Paris scheduled for the same weekend as the Sound to Narrows back home. La Francilienne was only 10 kilometers long, but with a course that wound through the hills of Montmartre, I had a feeling this race would be able to challenge the S2N’s reputation as having one of the hilliest courses around. I paid and registered through Active Europe and excitedly circled June 10th on my calendar, but on June 9th I began to realize that if this race was indeed going to be my Sound to Narrows, it was going to be the horribly disorganized, very French version.

Looking up directions the night before the run, I found a notice on the sponsor’s website – because of the first round of legislative elections (to take place June 10th as well), the race would be postponed until June 24th. That’s odd, I thought, Isn’t the second round of elections happening on June 24th? Sure enough a few days later a new notice appeared on the website – La Francilienne would in fact not be taking place until July 8th – this morning.

Since my goals for the S2N are usually along the lines of Don’t die and don’t walk, I didn’t do a whole lot of preparation for my French fun run. Rachael and I got home late last night from visiting a Science Po friend at his home near Lyon and had a dinner of sandwiches on the TGV in lieu of the optimal pre-race carb load. I woke up at 8h30 this morning, got dressed in my yoga pants and a tee shirt and grabbed a Balance Bar (mailed from home) to eat on the metro ride up to Porte de la Chappelle.

I had no idea where to go when I exited the metro, so I found a sporty-looking man and followed him to a tiny parking lot next to the Stade des Fillettes. This was apparently the place, though I could hardly believe it. In Tacoma, the S2N is an event. Roads are shut down for the runners, sponsors set up huge tents of giveaways near the start line in Vassault park and upwards of 10,000 people run it every year. In this tiny parking lot were maybe 10 runners milling around two tables. At the first were two women (who seemed to be the only organizers) checking people in for the race and passing out tee shirts. At the other table were neon curly shoelaces on sale for 10 euro a pair (I don’t know why).

In Tacoma all you need to register for the S2N is a check for 25 dollars – in France, you can’t participate in any physical activity without a note from your doctor certifying that you are physically able. Luckily I knew about this rule from taking hip-hop classes at different studios all year, so I was ready to exchange my certificat médical for a race number when asked for it. With the help of four safety pins, I became number 85, though if there were actually 85 runners there, I’ll eat my running shoes.

As the runners who were already there began stretching in anticipation of the 11h départ of the race, more and more extremely fit people in spandex jogged into the parking lot and pinned on their race numbers. There I was in my scrubbiest work-out clothes in the middle of about 30 people wearing various marathons de Paris tee shirts and one apparently homeless man who ran in a trench coat, frantically changing my race goals from Don’t die to Don’t lose, don’t lose, don’t lose.

In a race of thousands (or of any number in the U.S.) I’d generally fit in at the middle of the pack, but as I was surrounded by more and more spandex it hit me once again that this was France. It’s hard enough to find people who like to run here, let alone sign up for races. It made perfect sense that the only people who would even consider running a road race would be the fittest of the fittest Parisians. In the middle of my process of completely psyching myself out, a sweaty man jogged into the parking lot and sat down for a drink of water. He was apparently the winner of the 5k, but for his efforts there was no finish line, no cheers, no nothing. All he had to do was jog back into the parking lot and pick up his trophy (and change race numbers, as he was also scheduled to run the 10k).

Once the rest of the 5k finishers had arrived, we moved out to the sidewalk to wait for our départ. (Keep in mind that this was a group of 40 people at the absolute maximum.) At ten past 11h the third organizer wandered into our midst and asked what time it was. Oh! Il est parti! Allez-y. (Oh, it’s started! Okay you can go). With no arrows to guide us, we started off following a teenager on a bicycle.

I shouldn’t have been so worried about my speed – even in a race of the fittest French people in Paris, I still found myself smack in the middle of the pack with a nice group of evenly-paced people to run with. Once I got over my fear of completely losing the race, I realized we had something else to worry about – the fact that there was nothing anywhere telling us where to run except for three teenagers on bicycles riding back and forth along the line of runners. For the first few kilometers we were fine – everyone was still close enough together that we always had someone to follow, but as the fastest runners began to fade into the distance and the slowest runners began to peel off behind us, we found ourselves with nothing to lead us.

Somewhere around Gare de l’Est, my racing goal changed yet again. Don’t get lost. Once we lost sight of the last runner ahead of us and the nearest cyclist, my group’s new strategy became Ask people sitting in cafés which way the runners had gone at every large intersection. It worked fine because we were all running for fun – if any of us had time goals in mind this might have been a problem, but we had one couple with a pedometer telling us how far we’d gone and plenty of Parisians willing to guide us.

We spent the last few kilometers of the race running up and down various hills and staircases around Sacre Coeur. At one point we stopped to ask a group of bicyclists if they’d seen any number-wearing runners go by – arms raised immediately to point in about three different directions, so we just chose the least hilly and kept on. At the 9-kilometer mark (provided for us by the pedometer) we spied a group of racers standing halfway up a set of stairs. Il est parti où? (Which direction?) we shouted up to them. After giving us a rather confused look, one of the women pointed up to the top of the stairs. C’est l’arrivée là (That’s the finish line). We stared skeptically up at the lone man with a camera, but jogged up and were greeted with quick congratulations before being sent around the corner to a park for drinks and the race results. I’m not quite sure how we cut an entire kilometer out of our race, but we weren’t fast enough to place anyway so I suppose our inadvertent cheat doesn’t really matter.

In true French fashion, the S2N’s typical fare of orange slices, sliced bread and water from Costco and Roman Meal was replaced by a snack of San Pellegrino sparkling water, apricots, madeleines and brioches. The winners received their trophies, we each received a pile of goodies and all 40 of us headed back down the buttes Montmartres. Being the only American, I was the only one who seemed to notice the total lack of organization, but even I wasn’t really surprised. This is France after all, and what would my experience here be if not baffling and disorganized?

My loot – for a 10 euro entrance fee we each scored two tee shirts, a keychain and a one-strapped backpack. Not bad, eh?

04 July 2007

Every time I’m called upon to make the hour-long trek out to the airport, I become more and more disgusted with Charles de Gaulle International. I honestly think it’s the worst airport I’ve ever been in – it’s dirty, crowded and horribly disorganized. Why couldn’t Paris have something more like the shiny and clean Schipol airport in Amsterdam, where I once spent five hours on a layover from Seattle relaxing in a near-empty lounge, perusing the Dutch art museum (yes, in the airport) and checking my email at the wifi bar?

I was forced to pay a visit to my least favorite spot in Paris yesterday morning, when I brought my brother Ben, his best gal friend Ali and two extra suitcases full of my clothes (yikes, I’m starting to move out) out to Roissy. At a quarter to nine we were wheeling our four bags out to Place de l’Opéra to catch the RoissyBus – a fantastic transportation option that takes you directly from Opéra to your terminal at CDG for the same price as the smelly RER train. Unfortunately, this is where our misadventures began.

We arrived at the bus stop and joined the rain-soaked queue to pay for our tickets and get on our way. After 10 or so minutes, I climbed aboard with my two bags, paid my eight euro fifty and the driver promptly slammed the door. Uhhh monsieur? I asked him, what about the rest of the people in line? This one was already 20 minutes late, apparently, so they’d just have to wait for the next one. I tried to reason with him, telling him that my little brother and sister were in line and we couldn’t be separated, but he held firm. Vingt minutes de retard, mademoiselle, was his answer to everything. After a bit more pleading in my accented French he sighed and opened the door so B could board – but then shut it again before A could get near the bus. Ma soeur, s’il vous plaît. Elle ne parle pas français… (But my sister please. She doesn’t speak French). He sighed again, as if I was inconveniencing him more than I could ever imagine, and let A board the bus.

Once we’d finally made it to the British Airways check-in counter at Charles de Gaulle, we were informed by multi-lingual signs that anyone flying through or to London Heathrow had to check-in using the automated machines. In fact, there weren’t even any agents staffing the counters – everything was supposed to happen by computer. Unfortunately for both British Airways and all its passengers, the computers weren’t working. When A attempted to check-in, the computer informed her that there was no ticket available for her. When B logged in and tried to check them both in, the computer claimed that the two of them were already checked-in, and simply needed to take their printed boarding passes through passport control and board their plane.

The only problem with this was that there were no paper tickets to be found – anywhere. What there were were crowds of confused British travelers, all totally baffled by the automatic check-in machines and all waiting for help from the, wait for it, two British Airways agents who were milling around. We finally got half of B and A’s tickets, and were told they would receive the other half on the other side of passport control when they checked their baggage. Since I’d forgotten my passport and had no boarding pass anyway, this is where I left them – and where their real adventures began.

While I was sneaking onto the RER train to ride back into Paris center, cleaning my apartment, going out to lunch on Boulevard Saint Germain and nannying, B and A were landing at London Heathrow and finding out that all flights had been cancelled. With the entire United Kingdom on a level “Critical” terror alert (which has since been lowered to “severe”), 108 flights out of Heathrow cancelled, and every hotel in any kind of proximity to the airport booked solid, B and A were completely stranded.

Cute, aren't they?

Being only 18 years old and having just spent two weeks away from their families, B and A’s travel delays became the source of much stress on both sides of the Atlantic. With both sets of frantic parents trying to take care of their freshly-graduated teenagers from 4780 miles away, there was bound to be some miscommunication. Should B and A take a cab into London to the only open hotel room that could be found on Expedia, or should they camp out in the airport with the other hundreds of people all trying to get new flights out of Heathrow? Should somebody drive to SeaTac airport and try to find help at the British Airways counter there? What could they eat? Should they be pushy and play up their young ages, or wait in line to be helped?

Finally B and A found a cab to take them to a hotel in London, found by A’s dad, while my mom drove up to SeaTac airport to see what she could do. The British Airways agents actually found them a flight, London-to-Vancouver-to-SeaTac, but in order to be able to board it, B and A had to battle the chaos in London to obtain an FIM (flight interruption manifesto) from the BA ticket agents that would enable them to get their tickets. They made it back to Heathrow early this morning to begin the battle, but weren’t able to find anyone to help them until less than an hour before their flight was scheduled to take off. The FIM situation was aided by the fact that their London-to-Vancouver flight was delayed. Their expected hour-long layover in Vancouver, however, has possibly been obliterated.

Now four harried parents in Tacoma are most likely going to be spending their Fourth of July on a road trip to Canada instead of eating hot dogs and watching fireworks. At least the border crossing should be a piece of cake – I doubt many Americans will be trying to leave the country on Independence Day. Happy Fourth of July everybody – and may all of your airport experiences be smoother than this one.

03 July 2007

On Saturday I got another glimpse into the more extravagant side of Paris life. Living around the corner from the Opéra Garnier and up the street from the Parisian equivalent of Boardwalk on the Monopoly board I get my fair share of exposure to decadence. Picking the nanny kids up from school each Thursday is like watching a fashion show of enfants wearing Bonpoint next to their Gucci-clad mothers or North African nannies.

As a Vogue-addict and serial stalker of fashion week, I have nothing against the big labels – if you can afford Chanel by all means go for it. There’s just something that disturbs me a little about Baby Dior. Babies grow so quickly that their clothing sizes are measured by monthly increments – not to mention the spitting up, the drooling and the lack of toilet training. I just can’t understand paying 130 euro for a pair of 18 month old Armani jeans that are going to be spilled on, peed in and grown out of in a matter of months.

Saturday though, I was wandering along the rue St. Honoré and up the rue Chevalier de Saint George killing some time before I had to nanny when the windows of Tom Tit caught my eye. Sales are regulated by the French government, and although various stores have markdowns year-round there are only two legal and official sale periods in France – winter and summer. Last Wednesday marked the official kick-off of the month-long summer soldes and since then the number of shopping bags has been threatening to overturn the number of people in the city.

I took B, A and C out shopping on Wednesday to experience day one of the madness – the lines winding around the stores, the burly security guards who looked like they’d been lifted from their duties bouncing doors at night clubs and the hostile crowds of frantic shoppers. Between the four of us we managed to buy… two pairs of pants. After that success we just didn’t have the energy to fight through anymore 50% off racks.

By Saturday things had…not really calmed down at all, but as I passed Tom Tit, a luxury children’s boutique, I was enticed by the lack of people inside. Excepting the two salespeople, there was no one. Baby Burberry isn’t really my bag, but I did need to find a new baby present for one of my favorite families in Seattle who are expecting in July. Might as well just look, right?

I strolled through the door wearing my nannying-for-the-day uniform of jeans, a tee-shirt, a cardigan and a scarf to be greeted by two extremely chic salespeople, one a young male, the other a middle-aged female. Feeling rather schlumpy standing in the midst of all the sparkling baby clothing, each article probably costing more than my entire outfit, I was too embarrassed to head straight for the sale racks. Instead I threw my head back and explained to the saleswoman that I was shopping for a baby present – unsure of the translation of newborn, I went for pas encore né (not born yet), and tried to convey an attitude of careless extravagance. Yes, I have enough expendable income to purchase Dolce & Gabbana onsies for a child I’m not even related to.

Apparently my act didn’t convey anything other than “student, lured in by promises of moins 50% sales," because she nodded and smiled and led me directly to the discount racks. I pawed awkwardly through the racks of D&G, Armani, Dior and Burberry, debating whether I could make a quick escape or if I had to just bite it and buy a rhinestoned embroidered sun hat.

After a bit of plotting, I beckoned the saleswoman back over. En fait, I explained, les parents ne veulent pas savoir la sexe du bébé, donc, uhhh… (Actually, the parents don’t want to know the baby’s sex, so, uhhh). I thought this would be my quick escape – I don’t know whether I’m shopping for pink or blue, so I’ll be back after the baby’s born. Not so much – instead I was a fun challenge, providing something for the saleswoman to do. She beamed at me and dove into the racks next to me, pulling out item after item of soit fille, soit garçon (either girl or boy). I searched halfheartedly alongside her, every once in a while stopping to peer at a price tag. Thirty percent off of 170 euro – even on sale and in size 0-3 months I can’t afford Dolce & Gabbana.

While I was sweating and panicking, my French counterpart hit the jackpot. Voila! she said, pulling out a pastel blue 6 mo. sweatshirt. With snaps up the back, a Baby Dior teddy bear on the front and a half-off 62 euro price tag (apparently already marked down, because the same one sells for 105 dollars in the U.S.), this one was actually kind of in my budget. The saleswoman was beaming at me, and though I’m not totally sure I’d dress my own child in Baby Dior if it was gifted to me, I couldn’t resist. I grinned back, wiped my hands on my jeans and somewhat sheepishly handed over my credit card.

29 June 2007

It seems pretty fitting to me that my last experience with Sciences Po was confusing, horribly planned and exasperating. Monday afternoon I had my last final of my junior year of university and my year abroad at Sciences Po– Grands débats de l’Europe en crise.

The European Union by itself is a daunting subject for non-European students – even the exchange students with EU citizenship in my classes are often confused and frustrated. In my EU class fall semester nearly half of the students were Americans – something that amused our German, Dutch and Polish counterparts to no end. But why are you taking this class, they wanted to know – and after a few weeks of class we were asking ourselves the same question.

After studying the European Union for a while, you begin to notice a pattern. Even if you have no idea what to study for a three-hour written final on Europe in crisis, you can bet it’ll come back to one of a few things. As long as you make sure to read a few choice articles about l’élargissement et approfondissement (enlargement and deepening) of the EU, something about the institutional crisis stemming from the rejection of the proposed European constitution and formulate an opinion about the European identity crisis, you’ve got your bases covered.

My final was Monday afternoon, and though our two midterms for the class had been open note I had no idea about the final. A few hours before the test I went to my and Anna’s usual study spot of La Croissanterie on Saint Germain to buy sandwiches and pastries from the waitress who looks like she’s suffering from a severe case of leprosy – as in, weird sores all over her body. By 13h30, the time I needed to leave for my exam, I still had no idea whether we’d be allowed to use notes, so I was carrying all of mine around with me in my giant Nine West bag.

I also had no clue where my final was being held, so the first order of business in the Sciences Po penîche was to consult the bulletin board. All international students were in amphi Emile Boutmy, where at least a hundred students were milling around trying to find their assigned seats. Everyone else seemed to think this was an open-note test, so once seats had been found everyone began stacking piles of notebooks, loose leaf paper and French-langue maternelle dictionaries on their desks.

A few minutes before 14h one of the test proctors took the stage to inform us that the test would, in fact, be closed note. This announcement was met with a wave of groans and protests from students who had based their studying (or non-studying) on the idea that there would be notes to consult for precise dates and figures. One particularly upset girl from Sweden who was in my conférence raised such a stink that one of the proctors went to the Sécretariat to phone the professor. Five minutes after 14h, she was back to announce that we could use our notes, and since we were now five minutes behind, we’d get an additional three minutes at the end of the exam (nobody quite understood how that was supposed to add up).

The next big flurry came around as we each received our exam subjects and began to read. According to this piece of paper, we had three hours to write four essays about four big crises facing Europe. In addition to the expected élargissement and institutional crisis questions, there was one about the budget (a subject I know nothing about) and another about the Franco-German relationship. Realizing that left us about 45 minutes for each essay, the room was again filled with groans and the flustered test proctor ran outside to phone the professor for the second time.

The time was quickly ticking away, so with the exception of the one loud Swede, we all started scribbling frantic outlines for four essays.

Okay, did the past two enlargements toward central and oriental Europe through the EU into crisis? Ummm, no, but the speed of the enlargements did. Talk about the history, the Schuman declaration, the aims of enlargement, then the problems facing the EU today – TURKEY!!!

Next, is the Franco-German couple outdated? Yes, but it’s still important. Talk about the history of the couple’s importance in European construction and integration, don’t forget to mention the specific partnerships between Giscard-d’Estaing and Schmidt and Mitterrand and Kohl.

Right then, the budget. Uhhh, I’ll come back to this one.

Okay can the current crisis facing Europe be resolved solely by reforming its institutions? Ha! This one’s like a trick question – the institutional crisis is just a symptom of much deeper problems. The real crisis comes down to the question of European identity and the future of the EU, not resulting problems with its institutions.

Okay now back to the budget. Uhhhh….

At that moment the proctor returned to inform us that there was a typo on the subject paper – we were actually supposed to treat just three of the four subjects. Phew, there goes the budget. This was again met with groans all around – one fewer essay to write is great, but not if you’ve just wasted half an hour outlining four essays and planning the next two and a half hours around them. Again the Swede was up in arms, but by this time the proctors had had enough. It was time for us to settle down and write our exams, and they’d appease us with ten extra minutes at the end.

I finished my test with three minutes to spare and no time to correct my hasty French, but I’m not complaining. As long as I pass I’m happy – and besides, now I’m officially on summer vacation.

24 June 2007

For weeks I’ve been hearing about the nanny kids’ upcoming fête de l’école (or, school party). At l’école Notre Dame de S.R, and other primary schools throughout France, it’s traditional to throw an end-of-the-year party for the students, parents and neighborhood. What a fête is traditionally comprised of is unclear, but at S.R the kids put on an annual show for their parents and neighbors before everyone sits down together to eat, drink wine and champagne (of course) and celebrate the coming of summer.

Though I’ve been hearing about this spectacle for weeks, my understanding of it was pieced together from the little bits of information sporadically offered to me by P and E. Last year was so much better, E would complain. I was a dame de la cour. (A lady of the court). This year, P was proud to be a grand prêtre, whatever on earth that was, and E was devastated with her teacher’s choice to dress the entire class as people-sized mushrooms.

As far as I could gather, it was going to be something straight out of The Worst Best Christmas Pageant Ever – a motley assortment of boys in weird feathery hats and like dresses, but for men (P’s description of his own costume), animals and fungi prancing around through the streets of the 1er arrondissement.

On Wednesday there was a meltdown because the mushrooms were all supposed to wear white shoes, and E was going to ruin the show in her palest green Bensimons. There was stomping, door-slamming and coercing of a friend’s mother to call and convince the nanny mom of the necessity of a new pair of white Bensimons, but in the end, green it was.

On Thursday, I was completely befuddled as P sashayed around the kitchen island, giving me a sneak preview of his part in the spectacle. It’s going to be so weird Halley, he told me, swaying back and forth with his face and arms raised toward the ceiling. I’m the grand prêtre, well okay, actually there are two of us, and WE come down the steps first next to Tintin. Then we do this. And he twirled once more around the island, waving his hands spastically above his head.

On Friday I finally looked up grand prêtre, and didn’t become any less confused. A high priest? P is a high priest dancing with Tintin, and E is a mushroom – what on earth kind of show was this going to be? It all became clear later that evening when E finally chanced to mention that the entire spectacle was dedicated to Tintin. Georges Remi, or Hergé, as he was popularly known, was born at the end of May in 1907 – the spectacle wasn’t at all the wildly disorganized grab bag I’d imagined it to be. It was a celebration of the creator of Tintin’s would-be 100th birthday. All of a sudden everything made sense.

On Saturday, P asked me to please come see him dance down the steps of the église as a grand prêtre. Also on Saturday, E asked me to please avoid the neighborhood at all costs – apparently dancing as a giant paper-mâché mushroom is not exactly a ten-year old girl’s dream role. Unfortunately for poor E, I’d been hearing about this spectacle for so long that I couldn’t resist. Rachael and I carefully scheduled our workout group around my date with the schoolchildren of S.R.

Bright and early this morning, C and I found ourselves leaning against a police barrier on the rue St. Honoré, awaiting the end of messe in the church and the beginning of the spectacle. Leaning against the railing next to me was an elderly Parisian lady with a large SLR camera. She gave me a big smile when I arrived and asked, Vous aussi, vous venez chaque année? Vous semblez trop jeune d’avoir un enfant dans le spectacle. (Do you come every year too? You look too young to have a child in the pageant). I explained that no, I’ve only been living here for a year but that I babysit for children in the show. She was delighted with my explanation and assured me that we wouldn’t be disappointed.

By 11h30 the street was packed with parents, priests and neighbors as we all anxiously awaited the appearance of the children. Class after class danced down the church steps, dressed as space explorers, alligators, senioritas, forties ladies, mushrooms, Tintins (there was at least one Tintin for each class) and yes, grand prêtres, before they left to parade through the neighborhood. Turns out P was an Incan priest, in a feathered headdress, a shiny golden robe and piles of bracelets and necklaces. E was indeed a giant dancing mushroom, and green Bensimons or no, I’m quite sure that no one was focused on her feet.

22 June 2007

So on Tuesday, the other boy I’ve been waiting on for five months arrived at Charles de Gaulle – my newly graduated brother Ben, who arrived with his notgirlfriend Ali. My apartment is filled to the brim with four people occupying a living room, kitchen and mezzanine and I’m starting to get an idea of what a task it would be to provide for a family of four.

I never knew how much milk four people will go through in a day, or how many boxes of cereal. I wake up in the morning and along with planning our touristy activities for the day, I have to decide what we’ll be having for dinner and when I’ll be stopping at the grocery store to pick up the extra groceries. It’s not only meals that are constantly occupying my thoughts – I’m so used to my alone in Paris schedule that it’s kind of a shock to suddenly have three people relying on me to entertain them, organize them, show them around, take them out and make sure they’re having a good time.

I love switching into tour guide mode and I love having visitors. I also love when friends have visitors – since I’m always willing to show people around or go play tourist, I end up hanging out with a lot other peoples’ friends. As fun as it is, being a tourist is exhausting – going going going all day long, trying to squeeze in every last Parisian thing, not wanting to miss one single art museum or pain au chocolat. Leading people around I turn into a tourist by default, and after only three days I feel like I need a vacation.

The whole thing is made more complicated by the fact that I’m in the middle of finals at Sciences Po and I still nanny every day. Tuesday afternoon was my four-hour written final for Comportments, attitudes et forces politiques en France et en Europe, so Conner had to haul himself out to the airport to meet B and A. Wednesday morning we got up and headed due North toward Montmartre, with the requisite detour for my favorite pain au chocolate on rue des Martyrs. We met Anna at place du Tertre and spent the day wandering around the 18ème, posing for cancan pictures in front of the Moulin Rouge, exploring the little streets around Sacre Coeur, and finally climbing to the top of the basilique for a dramatic welcome-to-France view of the city. Then I had to babysit, so I left B and A to hang out with Conner and Anna for four hours. After work, I met everyone back at my apartment to make them dinner and get dressed up to go dancing at Favela Chic.

Thursday was more of the same – we left the 2ème arrondissement in the morning for my “posh” tour of Paris, down the rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré, past the Élysée Palace, down the Champs Élysées for a few blocks, then along the swank V of avenue Montaïgne and avenue Georges V. By the time we reached the Palais de Chaillot to check out what I believe is the best view of the Eiffel Tower, it was time for me to leave to babysit, and we split up once again. As it was Fête de la Musique, after I finished babysitting Anna and I took our visitors to the steps of the Institut de France and fed them a picnic of baguettes, salmon spread, saucisson sec, four kinds of cheeses, pears, Orangina, Nutella and rosé wine. We spent the night wandering through the Latin Quarter dancing listening to bands play everything from swing music to Nirvana to the Rolling Stones.

Today I’ve been nannying since 8h – so I had to leave a list of suggestions for B, C and A. I sent them to the Catacombs this morning, the Louvre is free for jeunes under 26 every Friday evening and we’re meeting back up tonight to cook dinner and make plans for tomorrow. We’re hoping to get spots at a cabaret for tomorrow night, Sunday we’re going to check out the Paris jazz festival, Monday I have my last final, and maybe sometime soon I’ll get to take a nap. Visitors are great – but so is sleep.

19 June 2007

Another day, another drama in my building. The last big shocker was the late-night graffiti vandal who surprised us all Friday morning. The latest comes in the form of a series of neighbor-to-neighbor notes left posted in the middle of our mailboxes.

Most university students in Paris right now are finishing up their examens finals and celebrating like there’s no tomorrow. In the spirit of completing their first-year exams, two roommates who live in the poor half of my building decided to throw a little party for their friends and classmates last Saturday night. As is typical in an apartment building, the girls wrote a note to all the neighbors explaining that they’d be having a party that evening, inviting anyone who was interested and apologizing in advance for the noise and bother.

As parties often tend to, this one grew and grew, spilling out of the roommates’ first-floor apartment and into the building’s courtyard and out onto rue Monsigny. Rachael, Conner, Anna and I had spent the night dancing to Hava Nagila at Chez Georges, so C and I were smoky, sweaty and exhausted by the time we’d dragged ourselves back to my building’s front door.

Just as I lifted my hand to punch in the code, the door flew open and three girls ran out, laughing and waving cigarettes. As we entered the courtyard we found maybe 20 young people milling around, smoking, drinking and generally quite enjoying themselves. C and I were waved over to join the group, but we were aching for a place to lay down, so we just waved back and went upstairs to sleep. My apartment’s windows face the courtyard on the other side of the building, so that was the last we heard of the party – until we went to do laundry Sunday morning.

Apparently not everyone in the building was quite so unconcerned by the party as C and I were, because taped to the front of the mailboxes on top of the original note was a page-long letter addressed Chères P et G. The note started out being fairly cordial, but quickly turned a bit sour.

Translated from French:
Chères P et G, congratulations for passing your exams.

This merits a party a
bit long and rambunctious, but on the other hand, for your future times of rejoicing if you would stay in your own apartment to vomit, break glass, throw out your cigarette butts, perform realistic imitations of a pig having its throat slit open, and pass out on the ground, we would be much obliged.

If this night had actually been the intimate gathering of friends you told us it would be, perhaps you would have had the courtesy to clean the common areas, at least to show some bit of respect for our building and cleaning man.

We hope you understand that we were shocked to be forced to write this letter, but we will stand firm.

F and A

I did find it rather inconsiderate that the fêtards chose to party in the courtyard, considering that ours is a building of wealthy families who like to keep a serene environment, and many apartments’ windows open onto the courtyard, but the note was a little over the top. The couple who posted it knew exactly whose party it had been, and it would have been just as easy for them to leave the note in the girls’ mailbox, rather than show it off to the entire building, but I think I’m the only one who felt that way.

The rest of the neighbors, in our building’s rather dramatic way, were quite pleased with the note. I passed more than one person nodding and tsking while reading the note, and the few I talked to were all satisfied. They kept me awake until 3h with their screaming! and As a woman alone, I was scared to ask them to keep it down – who knows what they would have done. Now really, two scholarly girls and their university-going friends are not going to harm a neighbor who asks them to quiet down – but no one in this building ever passes up an opportunity to stir up more drama.

17 June 2007

So it’s Father’s Day (anybody ever wonder about that apostrophe placement choice?), in France and in the United States. I was a little confused because of the two-week difference in Mother’s Days between here and the U.S., so when Paul was asking me all week about what color tie I thought his Papa would like, I didn’t realize I should have been thinking about my own father’s neckwear as well.

I guess I don’t usually give much thought to Father’s and Mother’s Days – they just seem like more of those endless days of appreciation. Secretary’s Day, Teacher Appreciation Day, America’s Kid’s Day, and Grandparents Day all fall on the list of days that force us to mindlessly appreciate. Mom and dad, thanks for not leaving me out with the wolves. Grandma and Grandpa, thanks for not leaving my mom out with the wolves. Secretaries, thanks for not leaving those important faxes out with the wolves. Every year the days come around, and every year we take our moms out to brunch or make books of coupons for our dads, promising batches of cookies and foot massages.

It wasn’t until this year that I found myself really thinking about what it means to celebrate my own father (and mother, but this is a Father’s Day tribute). I mean, he’s this guy whose jokes make my brothers and I groan, whose “unconscious” slips into an “Irish” accent make us cringe and whose Black Bean Cassoulet and Carrot-Orange Soup are famed throughout North Tacoma. We love him, of course, and we are grateful not to have ended up as wolf bait – but he’s always been 100 percent there for us. A good thing, of course, but we’ve been conditioned to expect it, and somewhere along the way totally forgot to thank him for making us crêpes, coming to our school band concerts and bragging to all his coworkers about his amazing children.

It happens to everyone, I think, but not everyone has the chance to find herself half a world away and realize how much she has come to rely on that constant presence in her life. I’m 21 years old, living completely on my own in Paris, in an apartment that I earn through nannying – in theory, totally independent from my parents. Except that I’m not, and I’m not sure I ever will or want to be. As long as it takes most kids to admit it, parents are smart – as old and weird as they seem to us growing up, they’ve been around the block and actually have the experience to back up all that advice we hate to receive.

When I return to Seattle at the end of this summer, it will be to start my senior year at the University of Washington. I’m going home to work for a month, look for an apartment and start planning my real life. I’ve started applying for internships for next year and the summer after that will hopefully lead me to the career I’m aiming for (journalism), and I’m at the point where I guess I’ve “left the nest.” The farther away from home I get though, the more I realize that my dad is just dang useful. He helped me through a crisis with the family that employs me, he’s corrected my blog entries, he helped me brainstorm arguments for exposés that I gave at Sciences Po and he helped me update my résumé.

(And loft my bed in my college dorm room)

Last Monday I sent him a frantic email at work saying, Dad, help me!! I don’t know how to write a cover letter!! While I was waiting on his response, I looked up sample cover letters – which is probably what I should have done in the first place, and I did find a very useful website, but I still sat by my computer waiting for an email from my dad before I started writing anything.

I try to picture myself in 10 years, working as a journalist, supporting myself and my own family and giving advice to my own kids (okay, maybe 20 years), but I still can’t picture the day when I’m going to stop wanting advice from my own dad. That’s what he’s there for though – and actually having a dad who is always there, ready and (sometimes far too) willing to give advice is a rarer and much more valuable resource than I ever realized.

So Happy Father's Day to all the fathers out there – but especially my own. Thank you. I do appreciate you – though the wolves you deprived of their dinner might not feel quite so fondly.

*** And Grandpa, I appreciate you too!

16 June 2007

Le jardin a été massacré!

Sometime Thursday night between 1h and 7h, a vandal got into my building’s courtyard and tagged all the walls. C and I had to stop and do a double, and then triple-take when we left the building yesterday morning to meet one of my maîtres de conférence for a guided tour of the Sénat. In hot pink and silver spray paint the mailboxes, front doors and walls were covered with graffiti.

Nike ta mere (F*** your mother), Tu va mourir (You’re going to die) and the tag VHR were among the less-than-friendly messages left for our building’s inhabitants. Apparently the earliest-risers also found broken beer bottles scattered around, but they’d been long gone by the time C and I first arrived on the scene.

The vandalism was the talk of rue Monsigny all day long. Neighbors I’ve never met before were stopping me in the courtyard and waiting for the ascenseur to get my take. At first the neighbors were enjoying the drama and pointing fingers at each other. The ex-Nazi in the poor half of the building must have let someone in unknowingly. Or, the business on the third floor has a constant stream of random people going in and out. Even the wife of the third-floor business owner was whispered about, though not out of suspicion. That woman tries to act so cool, like she doesn’t even mind graffiti in our courtyard! What an idiot… Eventually though, everyone came to the same conclusion, the favorite central Paris scapegoat – some jerk from the banlieue must have done it.

The first time I heard someone use gen de la banlieue as a slur I was a bit disturbed. Yeah, some of the banlieues are typically poorer, they have more crime and they were the setting for the 2005 riots, but encouraging the division between the inhabitants of central Paris and the inhabitants of the banlieues seems so unproductive and like it will just increase resentment. When I picked up P(8) and E(10) from school on Thursday, E was in tears. The boys in her class had been teasing her all day, lead by one who’d had an unreciprocated crush on her. He’s just mad, she said, because he knows I’d never like him. He’s just a stupid idiot from the banlieue. I think it’s pretty telling that deuxième arrondissement kids 10 years old are already using de la banlieue as a slur.

It was obvious to all of us that nobody from the banlieue spent 40 minutes on the RER to drink and vandalize a private courtyard in the 2ème arrondissement, but I think it calmed all the neighbors to have someone to blame outside of the building. They’d spent the first half of the day pointing fingers at each other over who were the irresponsible ones who’d not checked to make sure the front door had closed properly, and squabbling over the fact that the nanny mom was the only person in the entire building who had called the propriétaire to tell him what had happened.

On top of the rich half/poor half building division, there’s also some serious tension between the owners and the renters – mainly that the owners resent the renters, so anyone lacking a property deed experienced their share of gossip. There are a lot of irresponsible renters in this building, or when speculating who could have let the vandal in, there is that renter on the third floor…

The building finally began to calm down around dinnertime, mainly because the gay interior designing couple on the first floor were having a dinner party last night and decided to take cleaning matters into their own hands. Clearly residents of the rich half, the couple employs two full time menservants who were sent down mid-afternoon to scrub the walls. They managed to rid us of the VHR tags and the Tu vas mourir, but faint traces of Nike ta mère remain, as does the graffiti covering our mailboxes and the wall next to them.

The graffiti remnants are really barely noticeable – the nanny parents had guests for dinner who had no idea what they were talking about when they apologized for the graffiti. It seems to have been just a random act of vandalism, but it managed to stir up some pretty entertaining drama in an otherwise sleepy courtyard in Paris centre.

••• I had a real Mary Poppins moment today babysitting Georges. We were playing in the TV room when he pulled out a six-note xylophone, deposited in my lap and demanded, Ollie, play Au clair de la lune! I kind of looked and him and laughed, and said, Sorry pal, I don't know that one. He did not appreciate that answer and started to get feisty in that way that only two and three year olds know how. Finally I said, Okay, okay, sing it for me. So he did. It was a pretty nice rendition, and he sang most of the words correctly. I shrugged, picked up the mallet, and – are you ready? Played Au clair de la lune. Yeah, I'm pretty much French Mary Poppins. Errrr, well I was proud, anyway.

14 June 2007

On Tuesday morning the boy I’ve been missing for five months finally made it to Gare du Nord. I’ve been looking forward to his arrival since I returned to Paris in January, and I’ve been counting down the days since there were more than 150 left to go.

Somewhere around the middle of last week, though, I started to get really scared. Five months is a long time to go without seeing, kicking or hugging the person you’re supposedly in a relationship with. A lot can change in five months. What if I didn’t even like this guy anymore once I saw him? What if the three weeks drag on and on and I end up starting a countdown to his departure?

In addition to the fears, there was a bit of wistfulness. Yes I was excited to once again have a real-life boyfriend instead of some pretend one I only talk to over Skype, but Tuesday was bringing with it the end of an era. No more am I virtually single in Paris, free to go out when I want, come home (or not) when I want, dance with whomever I want and still come home to talk to someone who really likes me. As hard as long distance is, we had a pretty good rhythm going.

Not only is my entire faux single gal routine completely down the toilet, but so is my I’m a nanny, frolicking around Paris, buying baguettes and studying political science thing. Conner arrived Tuesday. Classes at Sciences Po ended Wednesday. My brother and a friend arrive next Tuesday. Finals end the following Friday. I say goodbye to the nanny family two days after my brother leaves and then I’m on vacation. Goodbye Parisian routine.

As apprehensive as I was about the reunion, I still woke up two hours early on Tuesday and couldn’t get back to sleep or eat breakfast. I brought my iPod to chill me out on the way to the train station and as I waited for his train to arrive from Ashford (there was something complicated about his ticket, and he ended up flying in and out of Gatwick Airport in England) I felt like I’d just graduated from the I miss my boyfriend club to the I’m about to finally see my boyfriend club.

Leaning against the railing next to me was another girl my age, also of medium-length brown hair and wearing a black Zara cardigan that matched my grey one. She was also holding a twin iPod to mine, right down to the black skin. Curious, I peeked over to see what she was listening to, and by some bizarre coincidence we were both listening to “Fidelity” by Regina Spektor. Apparently cardigans and a soundtrack of Regina Spektor are the standard for girls meeting their long lost boyfriends at Parisian train stations.

When the train finally arrived and my twin en attente and I had both leapt into our respective boyfriends’ arms, everything was finally okay. I wasn’t suddenly repulsed by this tall boy from Seattle, and the thrill of actual physical contact was enough to banish any nostalgia for my pseudo-single life in Paris. Plus, he brought me the new Vogue américaine, and though my initial response was Did my mom send this with you? he gets all the points.

With a living, breathing boyfriend and the latest Vogue, my life should have been complete – except for the itty bitty fact of the inevitable cosmic collision that is bound to happen when one’s French exes and current copain are all flung into the same not-quite-big-enough city centre. I’ve lived blissfully free of awkward ex encounters for months, but apparently having your current boyfriend visit is just a magnet for all the old ones to start reappearing.

Last night was Ladies night at Le Queen, so Rachael, Anna, Marie and I got ourselves completely swanked out to avoid any trouble with the bouncers for arriving with a guy. We dressed C all in black, styled his hair into a euro fauxhawk and gave him cigarettes to smoke in line. We figured euro-ed out and clad in hot pants and high heels, slinky silver dresses, leather pants and satin blouses we’d have no trouble getting in as a group.

The bouncers were unusually friendly and we hurried to check our bags and make a high-heeled dash for the dance floor. The five of us were happily dancing in the fog and flashing lights to Britney Spears’ “Hit me baby one more time,” when somebody grabbed me from behind. Anyone remember Rubens? I can honestly say that I haven’t had many more awkward moments than being spun around during a Britney dance session and kissed by a guy I used to date in front of the one I’m currently dating. Rachael was alarmed, Conner was disturbed and I was beet red. I left poor C to dance with the girls and went to settle things with Ru. Apparently he’d been a bit more invested in “us” than I had, and was carrying around a bitter tirade for the day we saw each other again. I no longer have your number. I deleted you from my mobile. It was all I could do to keep from rolling my eyes – seriously? This is not the kind of conversation I expect to have with anyone past the age of thirteen. I guess that’s what I get for fraternizing with boys who wear tighter jeans than I do – how thankful am I to be back on the arm of my baggy-panted Seattle boyfriend.

10 June 2007

Yesterday for the first time I started to feel a few shreds of panic about leaving Paris. As of today I have exactly one month left in the city before R and I head to Israel. We’ll be back in Paris the 24th of July to spend two days doing laundry and eating a few last pain au chocolats before officially repatriating. Suddenly a year seems so short, and the idea of coming back here to work after graduating from the University of Washington is sounding more and more appealing.

I first started to feel the time slipping away from me yesterday at the Paris Bloggers’ Picnic in the parc des Buttes Chaumont. I have to admit I was feeling a little apprehensive about participating. I always feel a bit uncomfortable with the tag of “blogger,” as I alternate between feeling like a huge dork and completely self-obsessed when I mention it to people for the first time. All week I had this nervous energy building as I imagined meeting a group of self-important writers suffering from I’m a blohhhhgger complexes.

Nevertheless, I asked nanny mom for Saturday afternoon off, made a special trip to the bar à tee shirt on boulevard Poissonnière to pick up my Tacoma Girl tee shirt, slept with my fingers crossed for no rain, and woke up early Saturday morning to bake chocolate chip cookies – I mean seriously, what else would a girl from Tacoma contribute to a picnic in Paris?

I shouldn’t have worried. I’m not sure where I got my notion of bloggers as total jerks (particularly odd since I guess I am one), but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Everybody was fun and tipsy and down-to-earth and fully appreciated my cookies (or at least pretended to) and it was just an all-around great afternoon – with the only exception being the part when I had to brave the free toilets. It’s not for nothing that friends call me “Soccer Mom,” so I was at least prepared with a bag of baby wipes that I gladly shared around once we’d escaped the smelly urine den.

Everything was great until I left the picnic – and immediately started to feel completely panicked. There’s nothing better than meeting a new group of fantastic people – unless you only have a month left on the same continent as them. I’ll do my best to squeeze in as much as I can in these next few weeks (Ladies Night at Le Queen this Wednesday for anyone who’ll be around!), but the fact remains that I’m not going to be in Paris for the next blog picnic.

I returned to my apartment with email addresses, blogs to read and plans to go out this Wednesday, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I don’t have enough time left in Paris. The weird lump in my chest only grew bigger after going to my hip-hop stage this afternoon. The second stress bomb of the weekend hit me when Flo announced she was forming a performing hip-hop company for next year and would like to invite certain of us whose dancing she knew well to join without an audition. The company would do a lot of what we’ve been doing this year – dancing at clubs, bars and artists’ spaces but with more performances in more venues. It sounds amazing – and how cool would I feel being part of a gritty hip-hop troupe? What can I do, though – there’s no way to change the fact that I’m not going to live in Paris anymore, beginning at the end of July.

All year I’ve felt like I’m missing life in the Puget Sound. I’ve never met my best friend’s boyfriend of five months, my little brother just graduated from high school without me and my family has a new dog who I’ve never petted or taken for a walk. I can’t wait to get home to meet Scout and Peter (guess which one is the dog) and inspect Ben’s diploma, but for the first time I’m starting to get a real glimpse of the life that’s going to keep on going without me here in Paris – and I’m not feeling ready to leave it.

06 June 2007

It’s June 6th, the sun is shining, the metros are oppressively hot and the city is crawling with tourists. Staging romantic kisses in the middle of the Pont Alexandre III, posing for pictures with the sculptures in the jardin des Tuileries and boosting the French economy buying anything that sparkles with an Eiffel Tower on it. Since tourist season is pretty much year-round most Parisians have learned to co-exist with the constant influx of tour busses and Eiffel Tower print ponchos – either by avoiding the most popular destinations or ignoring the people visiting them. Anyone who actually gets annoyed by the constant stream of tourists is probably relatively new to the city himself.

It’s what follows the tourists that is the problem. Panhandlers and Gypsies from Eastern Europe know non-francophones to be easy marks, and using roughly the same tourist-spotting criteria as I do, their numbers tend to increase proportionally to the number of tourists in the city. During most of the year I know who and what to avoid. The Sénègalese immigrants who lurk around the steps up to Sacre Coeur can have matching string bracelets tied onto the wrists of an unsuspecting tourist couple before they even realize what’s happening. Once the bracelet is on, payment is demanded. These guys are not afraid to get in people’s faces, so it’s generally a better idea to keep an eye on your wrists than to try to refuse them their few euros.

If you’re ever approached by any scruffy or desperate-looking woman asking Speak English?, give a firm NO and head in the opposite direction. Most of these ladies lurk around major tourist destinations, beneath the Tour Eiffel, up and down the Champs Elysées and around the Arc de Triomphe. When some hapless American answers yes, the woman shoves a piece of paper into their hands, usually detailing a sad story about the person’s family back in Eastern Europe or a sick child without access to proper medical care. Once you’re holding the paper, there’s no escaping – at least not without a severe moral beating. R was approached by one of these women a few days after we arrived last August. When she apologized to the woman for having no cash on her, invoked quite the lecture. If I had known you were not a good person, I would not have shared my family’s story with you. I do know there is no place for you in Heaven. Being Jewish, I don’t think she was too concerned, but it was a pretty obnoxious way to treat someone you’re attempting to extract pity from.

There’s a never-ending supply of buskers on the metro, but the worst are found on the RER train lines heading North – especially heading toward Charles de Gaulle airport. When I rode the RER B to the airport to fly home for Christmas, there was a father and son Eastern European busking team. The dad played Christmas music on his fiddle while the son climbed over suitcases and between legs in a sleeves-too-short jacket and a limp and dirty Santa Claus hat collecting coins. The boy was probably 8 or 9 and it was a Friday morning – smack in the middle of the school day. I think most of the travelers were torn between not wanting to support a guy who would take his son out school to demean himself in a Santa hat and wanting to help the kid get a winter coat that fit. I didn’t give money. I had the feeling that even with everyone in the car’s donation the boy wouldn’t have gotten a new jacket – the heartstring-plucking aspect of his forearms poking too far out of the sleeves was just too valuable to give up.

Of all the bizarre scam-money-from-tourists schemes I’ve only really fallen for one. By now I’ve seen this one so many times that I cringe when I see some unsuspecting person about to get suckered. One morning in February I was walking to Sciences Po, listening to music on my iPod and completely in my own world when an older man grabbed my elbow. When I turned toward him, he was brandishing a massive golden ring, so I pulled off my headphones to hear what he had to say. C’est à vous, mademoiselle? (Is this yours?) I shook my head but he pressed on. You didn’t drop it? I just found it on the sidewalk here, it must be yours. I shook my head again but this time he grabbed my right hand and slid the ring onto my finger. For you, mademoiselle, he told me. At this point I still had no clue that I was being played and just gave him a confused look.

Then he asked me for 15 euro. Just to eat, mademoiselle, s’il vous plait. I told him to sell the ring, but he refused to take it back and just got more persistent. I finally managed to shove the ring back into his hand and told him I had no cash (I always have cash, I just don’t hand it out to people who accost me on the street). He was pretty irritated by this so I offered him a pack of Lu cookies I hadn’t opened yet. At this he just shook his head and stomped away, muttering about euros.

I didn’t realize how easily I’d fallen into the trap until I saw the same ploy used again by another panhandler in another part of the city. Always the same clunky golden ring that some impoverished person just happens to find laying at the feet of a well-to-do non-Parisian. Just this afternoon on my way to Sciences Po I saw it twice – once in the jardin des Tuileries and once on the Pont Royal. I didn’t really pay any attention the first time – just kind of chuckled and continued on my way. The second time though, a young woman pulled the trick a middle-aged American couple that looked absolutely lost. The husband was clutching his camera and a guidebook and the wife was poring over a map with a passport pouch dangling around her neck.

When I saw her approach them, I almost went over to intervene. It’s not theirs! They don’t want it!, I envisioned myself yelling. But as touristy as they looked, I wanted to give them a little more credit. The husband will figure it out, I reasoned, so I kept on my way. Once across the street, though, I turned back to look at them and saw the wife holding the ring back toward the woman as the husband fumbled around in his traveler’s money wallet. Oh well, I’m sure I’ll have plenty of tourist-saving opportunities in the next two months.

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