12 February 2007

I remember the first time I saw the movie Amélie. It was New Year’s eve before any of us had our driver’s licenses, and my friend Rachel’s dad drove us to the Grand Cinema to see a movie.

I’m not sure why we picked Amélie, but aside from a few moments of discomfort – the kind that stems naturally from being 16 and hearing the word “orgasm” while sitting next to a friend’s father who also happens to be a pastor, we loved it.

I’m not sure I know anyone who has seen the movie and didn’t enjoy it, actually. We loved it because we were 15 and it painted such a magical picture of Paris. Freshman year living in the dorms at UW we had an “Amélie Night” in the third floor lounge to share the movie with those hapless Honors students who had somehow escaped falling in love with Amélie thus far.

It’ll always be one of my favorite movies, but these days the name Amélie Poulain carries a bit more weight for me. Tacomans and Seattlites watched it for Paris and its mystery and romanticism. Parisians watched it because it was their movie. Audrey Tatou is their sweetheart, and being set in the heart of Montmartre – filmed in cafés and markets that really exist, Amélie was born in the heart of Paris.

Café les deux moulins:

In the six years since the world became privy to the Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, Audrey Tatou’s Amélie has become something of a Parisian symbol. C’est la Paris d’Amélie, it’s Amélie’s Paris, has become something of a catch phrase, inducted into life by students, professors, journalists and all other denizens of Paris. The funny thing about this categorization, is its connotation – which depends completely on the context and the person saying it.

Montmartre is rather idyllic:

If you hear someone refer to Amélie’s Paris, it’s just about as likely to be pejorative as it is affectionate. If you’ve seen the movie Amélie, it’s going to be easy to conjure up an imaginative mental picture of Paris – a bright and lively world, where the streets are clean, Parisians know the names of their grocers and waitresses. It's a place where you’re not going to catch a crippling disease sleeping in a metro station, where a goldfish “liberated” into a river is going to survive the pollutants for longer than a few days, where love is waiting to sweep you off on the back of his scooter.

Amélie's Paris:

It’s a nice place to imagine – it really is, and in some ways it does exist. In a way, Amélie’s Paris is the heart of this city – a chic, colorful, comfortable, fascinating, magical endroit. A place where there’s possibility in every day – and, as trite as this expression has become, you never know where the day will lead you. In that sense, the Paris of Amélie Poulain is quintessential Paris, a fabulous girl that holds a special place in the heart of the most cynical of Parisians.

What can’t be forgotten is that while Amélie’s Paris really is that endearing magical place for some people (i.e. bobo (yuppies who don't want to believe they are yuppies) to affluent exchange students here on a ticket from an elite institution of political science), it is the absolute contrary for so many who live here. An article we read about immigration and discrimination in France for one of my classes during the stage d’integration defined Amélie’s Paris as a Paris with ni noir, ni arabe (basically a white Paris without blacks and Arabs). The sole Arab in the film, Lucien is a handicapped employee of the grocer, played by a Moroccan beur actor (a beur is a second-generation North African – the term used to be derogatory, but it’s lost its original meaning in becoming part of mainstream speech) who was born in Paris.

Lucien was an intentional placement by the director as a symbol of the Arab in France, but his solitary presence still adds weight to the implications of Amélie’s Paris. For those who have a lesser affection for the Paris of Amélie Poulain, it is more a symbol of everything that is wrong with the country than everything that is essential to Paris.

Real Paris:

The film shows nothing of the banlieues, the tent cities that line the Canal Saint-Denis, the street protests and the problems facing the countries immigrants and minorities. There are many who feel that the country is run by a stuffy elite, all formed from the same mold who often fall into the trap of thinking that Paris is a true representation of France. There’s a pretty widespread sentiment that that very quintessential Paris inhabited by Amélie represents this stale situation and everything that desperately needs to be changed. To this end, to live in Amélie’s Paris is to be idealistic and naïve, to sweep the country’s problems under the rug – no matter how attractive and whimsical that rug may be.

For me, an outsider just listening and observing, I love living in the marvelous Paris of Amélie Poulain. I love walking through Montmartre in a skirt, buying baguettes at my local boulangerie, going to the open-air Saturday market, making eyes at cute boys on Vespas – all to the soundtrack of old-school Parisian street-corner accordian music that plays in my head.

This is fun and lovely while it lasts, this strolling and thinking how much I love living in this most magical of cities. But then I take a turn up Quai de Valmy, and spend 20 minutes walking by tent after tent after tarp after tent, spray-painted with messages like, Je vis sans toi (I live without any help from you) and a sloppily-scrawled survivant (survivor) across a small red tent close to collapsing under the wind. This is all it takes to jerk me back to that other Parisian reality – the one that exists in a combination of Amélie’s magic and all of the problems that are unceasingly present.

Real Paris:

07 February 2007

I’ve been terrified of my European Union final since the first lecture of the semester. After sitting through one Cours Magistral, I realized that it was completely pointless for me to be in the lecture – not only was the class held for two hours at 8 in the morning, I could not, for the life of me, understand the French of Professor DeWost. Going to my conférence only confirmed my assessment – none of the other international students got anything out of the lectures either. The man just mumbles, and there’s nothing to be done about it, aside from filling out less than favorable course evaluations.

Fortunately, the teacher of my conférence was very knowledgeable and a clear speaker, so I figured I’d get more out of paying good attention during her section classes on Monday afternoons. All was well until we found out that at Sciences Po, completely unlike the system at UW, you receive two separate grades for each course – one full, five-credit note for the conférence and one full, five-credit note for the lecture.

This is when I began to get even more apprehensive – I’d been going on the assumption that even if I blew the final, I’d have my exposés, débats, fiches and participation credits to balance out my lack of familiarity with the French system of oral examination. Apparently not. Instead, the final that I took for L’union européenne et droit communautaire would yield a full grade – and since that grade was based on a mere 20 minutes of assessment, I could very easily fail a five-credit course.

Fears grew even sharper among the international students when we learned the full format of the exam. Apparently we were each to receive an appointment time for an individual exam. Upon arriving at the site, we’d be called into a room to receive our topic and 20 minutes of tense preparation. After that, we’d go into another room to present a 10 minute exposé – yes those oral presentations that I’ve been preparing and giving all semester (but with days and days of prep time).

Everyone in my conférence emailed each other their notes for the entire semester, but still I had no idea what to study. The only advice I’d received was the not very reassuring (and kind of insulting), “Make sure to tell them your American (or from the programme international) so they know to expect less from you.” I read through the European Union’s website to remind myself of the functioning of the Parliament, the Council and the Commission; the ratification dates and objectives of each treaty and the demographics of the EU. I read the BBC’s European news coverage from the past week, but other than that, I didn’t know what to do. So instead of studying efficiently, I sat around and worked on giving myself a hernia.

To add to everyone’s stress about this test, the fact that individual exams had to be scheduled for each of the 300-some students in the lecture meant that for weeks after Sciences Po had posted the final exam schedule online, we were still waiting to find out when our appointments would be. We finally received an email from the sécretariat, with an attachment that would supposedly give us our assigned times. Instead it was an Excel chart with the names and email addresses of all the international students in the course. After many frantic mass emails were sent out, someone from the class finally emailed the sécretariat back, and on Monday we finally received our appointments. Mine was today, February 7th at 14h40.
When I arrived at the ENA building, I found out from the line of classmates waiting in chairs outside of the preparation room that exams were running late. Like everyone else, I pulled out my class notes, but instead of reading them I stared blankly at the opposite wall, feeling my legs and hands twitch rhythmically.

I was finally called into the salle de préparation at about 15h10. I presented my student card to the woman overseeing the preparation time, signed my name on a contract stating that it was really me taking my exam, and she offered me two manila envelopes. From each envelope I was to select a strip of paper with an exposé topic on it, choose the one that interested me and return the other. My two options were l’élargissement et approfondissement de l’union européenne (the enlargement and deepening of the European Union) and le processus juridique entre l’union européenne et les états-membres (the legal processes between the European Union and its members).

I grabbed the slip about l’élargissement and ran to a desk as I was already down three minutes of prep time. Since this was supposed to be a formal presentation, not an interactive examination, I needed some kind of coherent structure, not to mention a problématique and a thesis, so I sketched out a sloppy outline and begin writing down everything I could remember from the week we’d discussed the EU’s enlargement and any other useful information I could come up with.

After twenty minutes of frantic scribbling, I was escorted into the actual examination chamber. I shook hands with the examiner, signed another contract and began to argue my thesis, that enlargement, rather than being a detriment and complication to the EU was a necessary project to not only unify Europe, but inspire a greater confidence in the power of the EU by not only its citizens, but outside countries as well.

While I’m not sure my actual presentation made any sort of sense organizationally, I had a thesis that, if not always being completely logically supported, was strong and I finished with a solid conclusion. I also pulled out some of my old International Studies written exam techniques and threw as many hard facts into the presentation as I possibly could – so that even if my on-the-spot French and exposé were at times shaky, the examiner would at least know that I’d attended class and knew what I was talking about. I hit a rough spot when I stumbled before remembering that the newest additions were Romania and Bulgaria, but hopefully made up for it by discussing the Bolkestein Directive and quoting Jacques Delors and Winston Churchill (when he called for a “United States of Europe”). I even found a way to work in the article I’d read just before my final, about the busting of a child pornography ring in Austria.

My examiner followed up with a few questions about the relationships between the Commission, Council and Parliament, and whether the judicial system of the EU could be compared to that of the U.S., which I answered adequately, if not brilliantly. My final question was something along the lines of “what do I want to be when I grow up,” so we spoke for a few minutes about journalism and whether or not there would be any demand for an American foreign correspondent whose specialty was French politics. We came to the conclusion that, as horrid and convoluted as it is for us non-Europeans to learn, my best bet is to stick with my studies of the European Union.

As I left the exam, my legs were shaking so badly I could barely walk up the stairs, but I managed to tell a German friend from my class that he’d be fine. When my muscles finally began to relax, I treated myself to a pastry from my boulangerie (whichever neighborhood boulangerie you shop at the most automatically becomes “yours” when you’re describing it to anyone else) and couldn’t think anything but “I survived!” Now all I have to do is make it through one more marathon night of studying for my three-hour essay test on contemporary French politics tomorrow morning.

04 February 2007

Something I’ve noticed a lot, living in Europe, is the fact that as a people, we Americans are really quite conservative. After five months in France, I’d like to think that I’m mostly used to the freedom of sexual expression that is so different from the taboos and behavioral expectations back in the United States – but every once in a while I’m still caught off guard.

The first thing you notice in France is the pub, or advertising that is often blatantly sexual and is pretty much everywhere. From naked women on billboards, to a TV spot for instant coffee that borders on soft core pornography to the infamous egg billboard, sex is everywhere you look, with a hand in nearly everything you buy. You can turn on the TV at 16h and see naked people (which you definitely can not in the U.S.), sex in movies is more frequent and less of a deal, and posters advertising porn websites or hotlines fill the windows of most tabacs and presses.

Sex in France isn’t limited to the media – stroll across any bridge crossing the Seine, or wander through any park in the city and you’ll probably see enough action that you can save your money on those adult websites. It isn’t uncommon to see a couple making out horizontally in the grass, or feeling each other up as they lean against the wall of the Pont Neuf or Pont des Arts.

(Like this couple, who seemed close to undressing each other, surrounded by families having picnics in the Champs de mars below the Eiffel Tower).

It’s surprising for me, a girl from a pretty liberal area of the United States, to witness all these public displays of affection, sexy billboards and intense TV ads, but for the French who see them day in and day out, the presence of sex in mainstream society is old hat. Sexuality is so integrated into everyday life here that Printemps, a major department store like Galaries Lafayette, Nordstrom, Sak’s or Macy’s features a plaisir section.

Even for someone who may not be versed in the French vocabulary for lovemaking, plaisir is pretty easy to figure out. Last Wednesday I was wandering through the sous-sol (basement) level of Printemps, checking out the soldes, when my attention was caught by a long counter with a sign reading simply Plaisir. I couldn’t see any of the items on the counter, as it was surrounded by a low wall to keep anything from falling off, so I walked over to check it out.

Apparently, the pleasure section is exactly what you’d imagine. There, sandwiched between the Christian Dior and Christian Lacroix lingerie departments was the sex toy section of Printemps. In addition to dildos, lubes, vibrators and furry handcuffs, the display also contained a book section. The Kama Sutra (in French) a “position playbook” (in English) and a French book about achieving female orgasms were among those featured.

Being an American and completely surprised to find such a section in the middle of a department store in the 9ème arondissement of Paris, my cheeks were burning as I examined the contents of the table. The French women hitting the sales however, were completely unsurprised, and either walked by without a second look, or walked over to the table to unashamedly handle the toys. While I feel like I’ve gotten quite used to the sexed-up culture over here, I was really not expecting to find plaisir during my casual browsing, and couldn’t help but imagine the reaction if Macy’s or JC Penney’s was ever to begin stocking vibrators alongside their make-up, shoes and towels.

The progressive attitude here isn’t limited to the explicitly sexual. For every erotic TV ad, there’ll be another billboard that features nude people but is completely un-erotic. For the French, it’s okay to be a sexual person – but it’s also okay to appreciate the human body for what it is, without a display of nudity having to be overtly sexual. Kids learn about their bodies at an early age, and there is no shame associated with nudity or sexuality – which seems to be the complete opposite of trends in the United States.

Check out this book on the human body for young children, for example. The nanny family owns two copies, one in French and one in English (so the kids learn the appropriate vocabulary in both languages). Notice anything bizarre? In the French version, you actually see the entire body, and learn the real word for each body part – including la sexe. In the version published for U.S. consumers, however, every single child wears a pair of white underpants – even the babies are covered up, and while there are arrows pointing to the stomach, the belly button, and the waist, there’s a big gap in the middle of the body before jumping down to the legs and the knees. Disturbing the difference, isn’t it?

The result of the openness here is that everybody is incredibly comfortable with themselves and sex in general. While everybody may have an inkling about Jacques Chirac’s sexual indiscretions, nobody cares – it’s his decision and his business and his sexuality has nothing to do with his ability (or perhaps lack thereof, based on more recent public opinion) to govern the country. If the U.S. adopted an attitude that was anything similar to that of France, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky would have been the last thing on anyone’s mind – and nobody would even know who Kenneth Starr was. The infamous Janet Jackson boob slip at the Superbowl would have been so insignificant that it would have been forgotten the next day. Looking back at the States with my new French goggles, we seem pretty ridiculous. Who protests a breast? It seems like a joke, but I guess we are the joke.

It’s rather invigorating to be living in a country that is so open about its sexuality. The whole atmosphere just seems so healthy – nobody’s growing up with shame or confusion about their bodies or feelings. It’s so much easier for people (particularly teenagers) to make decisions about their bodies and their sexuality when they have a plethora of information that nobody’s trying to stifle. Twenty years of growing up in a country with institutions like the FCC has apparently rendered me a bit more conservative than I’d like to admit. While I really admire the freedom of sexuality here, I still tend to blush when I find things that surprise me, which embarrasses me to no end. I don’t want to be the American who blushes at sexy commercials! Maybe after a full year of expatriotism, I’ll have trained a slightly cooler response – or at least have figured out how to keep the blushing to a minimum.

•••• This has nothing to do with sex, sexuality, nudity or conservatism, but the idea of a Che Guevara bellybutton ring really cracked me up. What better way to honor a symbol of revolution than to put him on a charm and stick him through your bellybutton?