29 January 2007

As I often lament, for all my obsessive printing out of entire fashion week schedules, “casual” walk-bys of the Ritz, the Georges V hotel, and strolls up and down the rue Saint Honoré (a celebrity-sighting hotspot for all the high-end shopping), I am really not very good at celebrity stalking.

Every fashion week, I study and print out the fashion week schedules, and wander around the outside of the École des beaux arts near Sciences Po or the Grand Hôtel near place de la Madeleine, hoping to spot, if not celebrities, than some really tall chic models. R and I compulsively check Pink is the New Blog to find out which celebrities might currently be wandering around Paris, and lurk around the nicest hotels and most expensive designer boutiques.

Last weekend it was Beyoncé, Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy, here for the French premiere of the movie Dreamgirls. Last week it was Victoria Beckham, Katie Holmes and Anna Wintour, here for the haute couture shows.

For an International Studies major and admitted nerd, I am hyper-aware of Fashion Week. Errr, make that fashion. I refuse to buy Diet Coke in Paris because it’s too expensive (1 euro 30 for a bottle!), but I’ll gladly shell out eight euro for an imported last month’s American Vogue – and then buy the British and French issues as well.

My favorite thing to do on a Sunday evening is walk along the rue Saint Honoré, from the avenue de l’Opéra to the beginning of the embassies, not exactly window shopping (when am I ever going to be able to afford a John Galliano slip dress?), but window gazing. I hit up Chanel, Miu Miu, John Galliano, Dior and everything in between to soak up the window displays. During Fashion Week, I make the same rounds, but instead of checking out the mannequins, I’m peering beyond them to see if there’s anyone famous in the store.

During Fashion Week, instead of walking straight down avenue de l’Opéra and through the courtyard of the Louvre, I walk down rue de la Paix and through place Vendôme, home of the Ritz hotel – to absolutely fruitless results. So far, my celebrity log includes one moderately well-known French tv actress I’d never heard of, a random footballer from FC Barcelona, who I’d never heard of, and a mad paparazzi rush to stalk some American actress (I couldn’t see who) in Le Voltaire, a restaurant across the Seine from the Louvre.

Yesterday I finally began to understand where I was going wrong. Apparently my stalking efforts were entirely misplaced, because the first thing Zoé said when she got home last night was “I saw that guy with the big nose again.”

I was doing the kids’ dinner dishes and kind of laughed and asked what she was talking about, thinking something along the lines of “Haha, 12-year olds…”

“You know, that actor with the big nose – he’s French, he’s in a lot of movies?” This is where I finally paused in my dishes to look at her. “You mean Gérard Depardieu?”

Yes, she meant Gérard Depardieu – one of the few French actors who has mostly made the crossover to mainstream American pop culture. His one disadvantage is not being a gorgeous woman – if he happened to resemble Audrey Tatou or Juliette Binoche, he might be even more familiar.

Apparently, Gérard owns the restaurant right around the corner from my building, Le Petit Gaillon. Apparently he’s always wandering around right in my neighborhood, checking on his restaurant – the restaurant that is directly across from the boulangerie where I buy my bread every few days. Apparently, I am a terribly inobservant person. How many times might I have passed by him already, too focused on the taste of my still-warm baguette to look around me?

This is kind of ridiculously embarrassing. I really am the world’s most inefficient stalker, wasting my time patrolling rue Saint Honoré, place Vendôme and rue Georges V. Not to mention the fact that a Gérard Depardieu sighting would be a much grander coup than a sighting of Posh Spice or the like.

••• Pictures of Le Petit Gaillon to come, check back!

27 January 2007

Getting dressed this morning, I chose my outfit carefully. I don’t have huge plans for the day – just babysitting, doing a little apartment cleaning and then meeting some people at a bar in the 11ème for drinks and couscous. While the bar is chill and nobody really dresses up to go there (well any more than French people usually dress up just to live their lives), it is still a Parisian bar – which means you’re likely to be sitting in a cloud of stale smoke for upwards of an hour or two, which in turn means choosing your clothing wisely.

Even when the temperatures are measuring below freezing, I won’t put on a sweater – sweaters are a pain to wash and the wool sucks up the smoke like a vacuum. Some places aren’t so bad – clubs, for example, are still smoky but most have fairly high ceilings so it’s not a big problem. Chez Georges is one of the worst places for smoke – you won’t stop reeking until you’ve showered at least twice and you probably won’t stop coughing for at least 24 hours. It’s also one of the most happening bars for students, so sometimes you just have to suck it up, make sure your inhaler’s in your purse and be prepared to wash all your clothing the next day.

Tonight though, we’re going to Tais. Tais isn’t so bad – I’ll need to hang up everything I’m wearing and let it air out for about a day, but it’s pretty inoffensive as far as smoky bars go.

That’s just Paris though. Everywhere you go you expect to be surrounded in a cloud of smoke – or at least you did five years ago. As difficult as it is for a girl from the clean air of Seattle and its notorious but appreciated smoking ban, even I have to admit that the second-hand smoke problem is far better than it was either of the two previous times I’d been to France.

Smoking kills. Also a common warning label is the Smokers die prematurely.

Just in the past few years a small number of non-smoking restaurants have begun to crop up around the city – this is a huge deal for Paris. Some restaurants have been offering non-smoking sections for longer, but a French non-smoking section is usually just a few tables without ashtrays.

I still inhale quite a number of exhaled carcinogens, but the Paris of today is a far cry from the old thought that “all French people smoke.” When I was staying near Bordeaux in 2002, 16-year old friends of my host sister would stroll into Isabelle’s house, roll up a quick cigarette from their bags of tobacco, grab one of the parents’ ashtrays and start puffing away.

A few weeks ago though, I went out with a boy to celebrate the fact that after being a smoker since he was 16 (he’s 20), he hadn’t had a cigarette in a month, and was really excited about quitting.

Some of the other tenants in my building are pretty obnoxious smokers – sitting on the steps in the courtyard so everyone else is forced to walk through their clouds of smoke to get in and out of the building, or even smoking in the elevator. Given the size of the average elevator in Paris, this is just disgusting, but it’s a long ways from walking down the street and feeling like I need to keep my inhaler out and at the ready.

One particularly interesting development in the smoking culture of the French came in the form of a weekly Sciences Po e-newsletter. Beginning February 1st, all buildings and courtyards of the campus will become completely smoke-free. This is kind of a huge deal – most of the lycées (high schools) have student smoking areas, and of Sciences Po’s two cafeterias on the main campus, one is the “smoking cafeteria.” On any given day, even the sub-zero temperature ones the courtyard between the two main buildings is filled with students grabbing a smoke.

At the beginning of the year, there were actually a few times I thought it might be easier to meet people if I started smoking – it’s very social at Sciences Po. The thoughts only lasted for a few moments – then my asthma brought me back to reality.

I feel like the climate of France is in the process of changing – one of the oldest and truest stereotypes about the French is that “everybody smokes.” But not for long – the times are changing. Maybe in a few years I could even wear a sweater to go out for drinks…errrr, or a few years after that.

20 January 2007

Today I watched a girl climb out of the metro at Étienne Marcel to the soundtrack of the Clash (album: London Calling). She was in my subway car, and I noticed her first for her extremely chic and Parisian coat before I ended up following her out through the turnstile and out of the station.

I was listening to music on my headphones, and thinking only of what I’d make for dinner later as I exited the metro, not paying a great deal of attention to my surroundings. But as this girl reached the top of the staircase, she broke into a huge grin as she spied what she’d been looking for and flew into the arms of her waiting boyfriend.

Surprisingly (to me, anyway), their reunion did not erupt into that infamous spontaneous Parisian make-out session. Instead my girl from the metro recieved an enormous hug that engulfed her, lifted her chic French feet right off the ground and said “I am so glad to see you. The sweetness of the scene put me into quite a good mood. It was kind of like the beginning of the movie Love Actually, with the arrivals gate at Heathrow airport – though this analogy apparently makes me Hugh Grant, which I’m not completely sure I’m comfortable with.

In the city of love and the extreme public display of affection I find it rather funny that instead of the joyful embrace on rue de Turbigo near les Halles, I get the awkward encounters with the boys I really don’t want to be encountering as I make my way through the 7ème arondissement.

I mean honestly. I really feel that Paris is a large enough city, and I am still enough of a foreigner that I really shouldn’t be running into anyone I know, much less three boys I’d either dated or had some sort of history with in the five short months I've been living here. I’ve only been back from the U.S. for two weeks, and while the first was pretty uneventful, I’ve managed to encounter all three of these rather awkward boys in various parts of the city since last Sunday.

First there was the run-in at the Centre Pompidou. Sunday afternoon Rachael and I, thinking we’d accomplish more in a library than in either of our apartments, packed our school bags and waited in a two hour line just to enter the library. (Yes, I know this is ridiculous – but not only is the Pompidou’s library catalogue the most comprehensive in the city, it is also really the only place to do work on a Sunday.) Approximately 10 minutes after finally making into the library, I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to behold the boy I’d been off and on dating since October – and still hadn’t had the French version of the “I can’t date you anymore” talk with (partly due to my laziness, but mostly because I've been too busy with school to see him, and can't bring myself to do the deed through a French text message).

The second boy I’d only been on one date with before deciding I’d rather just not return his phone calls. Luckily, I spotted him coming from down the street and was able to behave like an immature fool and run in the opposite direction down a little side street. A little disturbing to me, being that I'm 21 and living on my own in France – shouldn't I be beyond the eighth-grade reactions by now?

The third, though, was Thomas. Yes, the one who upon hearing the “I don’t want to date you anymore” speech lectured me for being a “heartbreaker” and told me that he doesn’t just kiss any random girl. This was the first time I’d even seen him since the most awkward evening of my 21-year life, and it was just as uncomfortable as the last time I’d seen him. Luckily I was standing with a group of French friends in the St-Germain Monoprix, so I just blushed and grimaced at him (I promise I tried to smile – it just didn’t work out).

It’s true that everyone has the awkward encounter with an ex stories, but I really feel that three of them in less than a week (in Paris, of all places), is quite excessive. The Thomas encounter unfortunately happened right after the reunion at Étienne Marcel, so as determinedly as I tried to think of the smiles of the metro girl and her boyfriend while climbing the stairs of my building, it was impossible. Instead, I just blushed and cringed, enjoyed the smell of burned out candles from my neighbors’ dinner party, and felt that three awkward moments were surely a fair trade for at least another month of French boy drama-free days.

19 January 2007

Yes, it's been rather windy in Paris the past few days. Though I just thought I was hearing particularly loud gusts because I live at the very top of my building.

16 January 2007

So it’s two weeks before finals start at Sciences Po – and nobody has any idea what’s going on. For the past several weeks we’ve been asking our conférence teachers to explain our finals to us, but after half an hour of explanation today by one of them, none of us (in the programme international) is any closer to understanding.

This is what we’ve got: each Sciences Po class is apparently worth 10 credits rather than the five any U.S. university would assign to a course that consisted of a lecture and a conférence (similar to a quiz section). The scary part is that rather than have a grade that’s an average of the work each student has done over the semester and their grade on the final exam, each grade sheet will reflect two separate grades – one for the conférence, where notes are cushioned by exposés, dissertations and class participation done throughout the past five months. One grade, however is based entirely on the final exam. That’s right, five entire credits are dolled out or withheld based on each student’s performance on a 10-minute exposé during finals week.

That’s the other scary part – the actual format of the finals. A group of us from the programme international were talking in class today (the conférence for La vie politique française d’aujourd’hui) about how in the U.S., you know on day one of the semester when your final will be, what it will cover (be it comprehensive or midterm to final) and what the format will be. At Sciences Po the information is just beginning to trickle down to us, the foreigners.

This has nothing to do with finals, but I rather liked this truck (found in the 19ème arondissement):

Though we’d speculated before on the degree of difficulty of finals at France’s elite school of political science, we hadn’t given a lot of thought to the format – how different could a final on the continent be from what we’re all used to? The answer is quite. We do have a “finals week” at Sciences Po, but at the moment the only finals scheduled are for the masters students. The rest of us are waiting to find out when and where our exams will take place. How will we find out? We have no idea. All we got out of our maître de conférence was that we would, at some point before we’re supposed to show up for it, be assigned an individual exam time for each of our classes.

When we receive our exam assignment, there’s nothing to do but prepare as much as we can – which for my European Union class means that we will all be doing everything we possible can to finally understand this freak political entity, but will most likely not succeed at this. I think the main thing I’ve gleaned from this course is the fact that the EU really is an objet politique non-identifiée, a play on the acronym OVNI, the French version of UFO. Think “Unidentified Political Object.”

When exam day arrives, each of us will arrive at our appointed examination room at our appointed hour, and receive two questions or theses. We then have an hour to prepare a 10-minute exposé on one of those topics, using no resources but the knowledge we’ve acquired over the semester. When the hour is up, we must argue our thesis for 10 coherent minutes in front of anywhere from one to several examiners. After 10 more minutes of exposé-related questions from the examiners, the final is over – and we are left to chew our fingernails to their quicks until grades come out and we find out just how terrible a grade for five credits of lecture can possibly be.

At the moment though, everything is still completely up in the air. We don’t know when our finals are, we don’t know what they’ll cover, we don’t know how to prepare and we have no idea what kind of grades to expect (er well, aside from the fact that we’re expecting low ones). All I have to go on is the fact that my maître de conférence of my EU class doesn’t think that any of us are likely to completely fail the five credits. That assurance really does nothing for my mental state right now.

10 January 2007

On my way to the 11ème this morning, I had the wild idea in my head that I might just walk away from my visite médicale with my carte de séjour in hand. Had I not spent the past two weeks in the United States, I might have remembered that France isn’t exactly a country in which it’s easy to get things done. Assertiveness, sharp negotiation skills and even outright pushiness will get you nowhere here. Efficiency is not a trait I would attribute to any institution in France – be it Sciences Po, the government or the RATP (the organization of the metro, buses and trains within Île de France).

The carte de séjour is a residency permit you are obligated to apply for if you will be living in France for longer than three months. You can be eligible for residency for a number of reasons – marrying a citizen, being recruited for work by a French country, going to work as an au pair for a pre-arranged family, or studying at a school in France. You can’t just up and move to France to find a job or whatnot – you have to have a plan and designated entry and exit dates.

The difficulty in getting a carte de séjour is that you have to apply for it once you’re actually in France. You can apply for a long-term visa (three months, maximum) from the U.S., but it’s supposedly only good for one entry into the country (although I never had a problem returning from trips), and you have to apply for your carte de séjour immediately upon arrival.

The problem with France is that to get anything important done, you usually need to deal with about three different people in three different locations – and they don’t usually have any idea what their counterparts are doing or saying. For example, the Préfecture de police provided Sciences Po with a list of required documents for the carte de séjour, which they then mailed out to us. An officially translated birth certificate, for example, which was not only expensive, but also turned out to be quite an adventure to obtain.

When R and I went to the Préfecture de Police, they informed us that the site had moved and sent us to an address in the 15ème arondissement. When we arrived there, however, we found that we could not apply until we had permanent addresses and bill receipts – our letters and receipts from our hotel were not valid (although we had been told that they would be). When we returned a second time, we found out that Sciences Po has a special office for processing the cartes de séjour, and we were supposed to turn everything in there.

The woman at Sciences Po was incredibly helpful and got everything sent off for us – at which point there was nothing to deal with until we received our dates for our visites médicales.

January 10th at 10h30 was both Rachael and my appointed time, so we arrived early at the Délégation with shot records, medical histories, our birth certificates and stamps (yes, like postage stamps) that served as proof that we’d paid our 55 euro residency taxes.

After checking in, we were ushered to a full waiting room, where we were called one at a time to go wait in another waiting room. From there, we were called one by one into a third room, where we were weighed, measured and had to read eye charts. We were then asked if we were pregnant, and if not, formed a line into a hallway with four doors. One led back out to the waiting room and the remaining three were dressing rooms. We entered the dressing rooms individually, stripped to the waist and were called into an x-ray room that connected to the other end of the changing rooms.

We were then x-rayed (chests only) by a male and female doctor and sent back out to the waiting room. There we waited again, this time to be called on by individual doctors. Mine was more interested in my iPod and practicing his English on me than in doing any kind of actual exam – he ended up just taking my blood pressure, asking about any medications I’m on, giving me my lung x-ray (“It’s a present, for Christmas!”) and sending me on my way.

R and I were then sent to an office of the Préfecture de Police housed in the same building, where we found out that we should be able to get our cartes, but surprise surprise, the machine is broken. We have to return on February 16th to finally obtain our residency permits (just six months after arriving in France), which is a good thing because my visa expired in mid-November – I guess I’m an illegal resident.

I’m not going to get my hopes up though – if you expect to be able to accomplish things, you’ll only be disappointed.
It’s the second Tuesday of 2007, and I’m back in my little apartment in Paris from a two week vacation. Christmas is officially over.

Rather than vacationing in the South with the nanny family, which was alluded to several times, and blatantly lied about several other times, I flew home to Tacoma for a surprise visit. Well, it wasn’t a complete surprise – my family obviously knew that I was coming home – it was my parents who paid for the round-trip ticket (to Paris in August, back to SeaTac in December) after all.

I managed to pack quite a few friends into the short two weeks I got to spend at home, but there were still quite a few people I’d intended to call and just didn’t have a chance to. I only had 15 days – I had to budget my time very carefully, to eat the maximum amount of pho and Mexican food, bake as many chocolate chip cookies as I could fit into the family supply of Tupperware, drive a car for the first time in four months, and hang out with the family as much as possible.

Though I’d expected to feel weird about being back in Tacoma for such a short time, it felt completely natural – especially since the vacation was packed full of the things I always do in Seattle. I went to PNB’s The Nutcracker with my grandparents, cheered at a Stadium swim meet, helped out in the Seabury School library, got dinner on the Ave and hung out with both Tacoma and Seattle friends.

Like I said, it was totally natural to be home. The weird thing is being back in Paris. I think part of the strangeness is the fact that this Christmas was particularly eventful. Wilbur (the family dog) was hit by a car and killed two days before Christmas, which definitely shook things up. Ben is waiting to hear back from a few schools he’s already applied to and is in the midst of the rest of his college applications. My dad is trying to write and publish a book. We threw a party (we’re not generally a party-throwing family). I decided to forsake all of my overly-amorous French boys and try a (really really) long-distance thing for the rest of the year (though I still need to have a talk with one of the boys I’d been kind of casually dating since October – I’m getting really good at giving the “I don’t want to date you” speech in French by now). It was a busy vacation.

Sunday though, I packed up my bags again (this time laden with peanut butter, contact solution and American candy for the nanny kids), and after two planes, a six-hour layover in Amsterdam, two pieces of lost luggage, a train and metro ride, I was back home. This is the really weird part – I feel like I just stopped in to visit Seattle life for a while, but now that I’m back in Paris, I’m back in my real life – everything else that happened in the past few weeks seems like it belongs to someone else’s memory.

Unpacking, yet again:

The truth is that I don’t live in Tacoma or in Seattle – I live in the 2ème arondissement of Paris, France, and I feel completely at home here. I’m back in my apartment, on my street (although I was disturbed to see that a new restaurant has appeared across the street from me – Paris wasn’t supposed to have changed in only two weeks!), and after sleeping for 14 straight hours in my bed, I went shopping at my local Franprix, to restock my kitchen.

I’m back to the life where I walk through the courtyard of the Louvre everyday to get to school, where I have a year-long membership to the Pompidou Center, where we go out for a drink at 23h on a Tuesday night. I’m back to the life where I buy my bread, produce and groceries in three separate locations, and have to dress up before I leave my apartment to go shopping for them.

I feel like I don’t know where I live anymore – do I live in Tacoma, Paris or Seattle? It feels so weird to “visit” my house in Tacoma – but at the same time it’s so normal that it’s weird to feel as settled as I do, living alone in Europe at the age of 21. I don’t know if that’s something I’ll ever figure out though. I guess the plan is just to enjoy where I am while I’m there and not worry so much about everywhere else. It’s 2007, after all – and I’m in Paris!