30 May 2007

So I finally did it. I bought tanning pills. I realize that this sounds as ridiculous as it does vain, but this is an experiment in the name of science. I have no delusions about them actually working, but I’ve been making fun of the advertisements for so long that I decided it was time for me to finally test them out for myself.

The French have pills for everything. Cellulite issues? They’ve got a pill. Hair loss? They’ve got a pill. PMS-y crankiness? They’ve got a pill. Tanning? You’d better believe they've got a pill. I’d never even dreamed of a bronzer in pill form before arriving in France last summer – maybe there are some ambitious American companies trying to push tanning pills through late night infomercials, but here it’s nothing like that. For one, every pharmacist in the city sells them – for another, French people actually buy them.

Walking home on the rue des Petits Champs today, I felt like I was being bombarded by ads for capsules de bronzage. The windows of Monoprix are filled with pictures of a tanned woman holding a bottle of pills, the windows of every perfumerie and pharmacie host cardboard cut-outs of similar tanned women with their bottles of pills, and even the bio store was boasting a homeopathic alternative to the pills. Actually, the only place that wasn’t advertising these miracle pills was the Parisian equivalent of the As Seen on TV store at the Tacoma Mall.

I wandered into the Pharmacie mainly out of bored curiosity, but as I stared dumbfounded at the shelves upon shelves of options I was approached by the pharmacist. Unable to resist any longer, I asked him what he would recommend. He asked me a series of questions about my skin type and what I’d like to accomplish with my tanning pills – did I just want to prepare my skin for tanning, or was I also concerned about cellulite? If so, there’s the dual-action pill option – the amazing combination of chemicals and vitamins that claims to make you skinny and tan without any more effort than unscrewing the pill bottle each morning.

After about 10 minutes of skeptical (from my end) but earnest (from his end) conversation, we’d settled on the Oenobiol Solaire Intensif booster d’efficacité. This one will do nothing for my figure, but according to the pharmacist if I take it faithfully each day my skin will be more receptive to sunlight and will block harmful UV rays, my tan will be deeper and longer-lasting, and as a bonus, my eyes will be less sensitive to bright sunlight. Apparently.

This all sounds just completely insane to me, but I’m willing to try it – it’s mostly just vitamins anyway, so if nothing else, I might be a little healthier at the end of the two months. The thing that strikes me as odd is the fact that French pharmaceutical companies are able to manufacture and sell in huge quantities these way too-good-to-be-true “drugs,” but I guess it makes sense. Tanning is a real culture here – everybody does it, from the fashion crows to businessmen to stay-at-home moms to university students. The tanning parlors operate in compliance with European standards, which prohibit minors (teenagers under 18) from tanning, and offer coffee and tea, massages and other spa treatments to clients.

As harmful as extra UV exposure may or may not be, the tanners en cabine are much more likely to be satisfied with a nice dark tan than the pill-poppers – unless they’re one and the same. The pills de bronzage were available throughout the fall and winter, but weren’t as heavily advertised until now – the beginning of bikini season. The thing is, if people are taking these pills at the same time that the weather is becoming steadily warmer, the skies are becoming steadily sunnier, and they’re spending more and more time outdoors in the warm spring weather, how can they tell if the pills are having any effect at all? People get tanner in the summer – it’s just one of those facts of life, and while a pill may make you feel a little tanner, I can’t help but be skeptical of its actual properties.

Listed ingredients (translated from French): Rapeseed oil, modified glucides (coating agents), glycerin (reinforcing agent), tomato extract, carrageenan (gelling agent), colloidal silica (thickener), extract of Dunaliella Salina (a kind of pink micro-algae), vitamin E concentrate, extracts of vegetables rich in xanthophyll, rice flour (diluent), brown iron oxide (dye), disodium phosphate (acidity corrector), red iron oxide, yellow iron oxide, titanium dioxide (dye), selenium, microcristalline cellulose (dilutor), traces of lecithin and soy.

28 May 2007

After three months of facebook poking and emailing lists of questions and answers back and forth, R and I finally managed to meet up in person with the four Sciences Po students heading to UW next year.

Our rendez-vous was scheduled for Sunday afternoon, so at 15h I was waiting in rain boots and a trench coat in the pouring rain outside of métro Odéon. I’d been there for less than a minute when Thomas (one of the Seattle four) came strolling out up the métro stairs with two unrelated French boys. One of them had apparently “visited Seattle once,” but other than that, they had nothing to do with Washington and were just along for the café. A few moments later Marie and Gabrielle (two and three of the SciPo in Seattle group) arrived simultaneously from opposite directions and the six of us decided to move on to les Étages, a student-friendly café on rue de Buci, to shelter from the rain and wait for the rest of our party.

It's been raining a lot here lately:

We sat outside on the covered patio, and as we watched the rain pour off the edge of the roof and waited for R and Leila (number four) to show up, Thomas suggested that we might be getting a good preview of life in Seattle. Just then, Rachael and Leila arrived, and R and I settled into our usual pattern of her railing on the Seattle weather (she’s a California girl, what can you do?) and me defending it as forcefully as you can possible argue the virtue of 240 overcast days per year. It’s really not as bad as everyone says, I told them – Seattle weather is actually pretty pareil with Paris weather. I feel like it rains just as much in Paris as it does in Seattle – and the summers here are not nearly as pleasant.

I love Seattle:

Creative Commons Attribution 2.5

We spent an hour answering questions and giving advice, trying to explain the Greek system (Just watch the movie Animal House, it’ll explain better than we ever could…), lauding the joys of the IMA, and telling them that they simply have to get tickets for the Apple Cup, give us their reviews of the French boulangerie in Pike’s Place Market and make sure they live close enough to campus that they’re still immersed in student life.

When we’d exhausted our list of must-dos in Seattle, we transitioned easily into other topics of conversation. We spent a bizarrely long time discussing the political ability of Arnold Schwarzenegger with the fascinated Victor, before moving onto the ever-important question of “Which Ninja Turtle is the coolest?” (Michelangelo, of course). The Frenchies quizzed us with names of small and obscure towns in the middle of France to find out which we’d heard of or visited. I won quite a few points for having been to Collonges-la-Rouge, a tiny, odd and completely red (hence the rouge) town in Limousin.

After we passed our obscure French towns test, it was only fair that we moved on to the Washington state name pronunciation quiz. Marie found a pen in her purse, I dug out an old envelope, and R and I chuckled evilly as we wrote out our list. Not surprisingly, all six Frenchies tripped over Sequim, Puyallup and Oregon, but they did unexpectedly well with Chehalis, Enumclaw and Tukwila. I forgot to grill them on Hoquiam, but I suppose I can save that one for another day, another coffee.

We finally split up after two and a half hours of talking in rapid-fire French (it was excellent practice) about anything and everything. As we headed for the metro, R and I had the feeling that the two of us might be a little more excited to show the SciPoers around Seattle than they actually are to be shown around Seattle, though that’s probably due more to age than anything.

R and I are here for our third year of university – and as all French Sciences Po students are required to spend their entire third year abroad, you’d think the four future Huskies would be just a year behind us. School in France is arranged a little differently than back home – instead of preparing to spend a year abroad at the age of 20, as R and I did, our new French friends are only 18 years old. As excited as they are to spend the year in the U.S., all four seemed kind of terrified underneath their anticipation – which I completely understand. This year has been hard enough, moving to a foreign country with nothing but an acceptance letter to the university and having to find an apartment, figure out school and learn how to build a life in French – and I’m 21. I don’t think I could have done this three years ago – at least not without a lot more crying.

These kids are brave though, and they’ve been learning English since middle school. They knew when they applied to Sciences Po that they’d be spending their third years abroad, and choosing a program that allowed them to travel was a big plus for most of them. As nervous as they are, I think the hour R and I spent trying to pump them up about Seattle actually worked. Not only are they anxiously awaiting a year of concerts, free movies, interesting classes, the resources of a 50,000-person university, outdoor sports, Starbucks and the best Thai, Vietnamese, Indian and Japanese food that I’ve ever experienced, but Rachael and I are now completely psyched about going back. Especially now that we’ll have four Parisian friends to take camping, ply with lattes and Ivar's, invite to authentic American college parties and practice our French with.

27 May 2007

R and I met early-ish this morning to go for a run before retreating back to the Pompidou library to work on final papers all day long. Running the streets of Paris is pretty much unheard of, but it also turns into a huge pain during tourist season. The sidewalks just aren’t wide enough to support both confused people wandering with maps in their hands and runners trying to keep a steady pace, so we’ve learned to keep to the banks of the river when possible.

As we jogged through the jardin des Tuileries on our way to the Seine, a large white tent caught our eyes. Next to the tent was a stage with speakers and in front of it were four or five small tables with chairs. We didn’t think much of it until I noticed that the maybe 20 people milling around were all wearing matching Vittel shirts. Suddenly I remembered pausing to read an advertisement in the window of the tanning salon on my street as I passed by a few days ago, and came to an excited realization.

As part of some massive advertising campaign, called reVittelisez-vous, the Vittel bottled water company is sponsoring free workout classes in the jardin des Tuileries each Sunday until June 24th.

R and I made a beeline for the Vittel tent, and as soon as we were near enough to hear her, the girl behind the counter asked us which sport we wanted to participate in. We chose Bodyjam from 11h-12h, and once we’d written our names and genders on the class roster, we were each handed a reVittelisez-vous tee shirt and a water bottle.

We actually had no idea what Bodyjam might be, but it was the class that began the soonest, so that became our default. At precisely 11h our Jessica Biel-lookalike instructor jogged up onto the stage wearing a microphone headset and dance music began blasting out of the speakers. Apparently Bodyjam is an aerobic dance class, mixing faux hip-hop, salsa and swing into a bizarre but really fun workout. We learned a series of short routines which were amusing to me but somewhat beyond most people’s ability to keep up with. At our first break (during which we were all urged to reVitteliser) a panting French-Vietnamese woman tapped me on the arm and asked if I’d already learned the steps. When I told her no she just gaped at me and said Mais c’est dur, ça! (But it’s hard!). I didn’t really know what to say, but I tried to reassure her by saying that I dance so I’m used to having to learn choreography and being able to perform it back immediately.

The jardin des Tuileries is usually bustling with people, but not so usually filled with people in matching Vittel tee shirts dancing between statues to hip-hop and swing music. As soon as we started dancing we attracted a crowd, and it wasn’t long before our group had doubled. Just as quickly as it grew though, it began to shrink, as people were put off by having to learn complicated steps. I had a great time, but I’m not so sure that R did. That was fun, but I was so lost, was her impression, and I think it mirrored that of most of our co-bodyjammers.

When Bodyjam was over, we rounded off our workout with half an hour on the stairs that connect Quai François Mitterrand to the banks of the Seine and vowed to return each Sunday until the end of June. We have yet to try the Tai Chi, Gym Suédoise (Swedish gym), and Capoeira classes, so you can bet we’ll be back.

We’re clearly buying into this weird advertising campaign, but I don’t mind. Free is a darn good price for a free workout class, a tee shirt and a water bottle – and how many times in my life am I really going to have the opportunity to Bodyjam in front of the Musée du Louvre?

** If you keep a Paris blog and will be in the city on June 9th, come hang out at parc des Buttes Chaumonts.

*** Happy birthday to my Aunt Penny and Uncle Tom!

24 May 2007

There are few things more French than Bensimon. Sounding like a hoity-toity version of the name Ben Simon, the marque encompasses clothing, home furnishings, accessories and stationary, but it’s the Bahhhn seemawhnn tennis shoes that have become a phenomenon by working their way into French wardrobes of every social and economic class.

My first inkling of understanding the popularity of Bensimon hit me last fall, when I happened to walk by a sale of Kaporal 5 brand copycat tennis (say it like “ten-knees” and don’t bother with the chaussure part). Seeing the large Soldes sign in the window of the boutique, I peeked in to see a mob of teenaged girls fighting and scrambling over each other to find their preferred colors and sizes in the cardboard bins full of some of the ugliest shoes I’d ever seen.

The sale was a buy one, get one free, and even at half off their original price of 20 euro a pair, this seemed like a huge rip-off to me. These shoes, which I’d been seeing on the feet of Parisians since moving to France in August, look like shoes to clean the house in. They’re plain canvas with a flat rubber sole and toe bumper, and come in every color imaginable. You have your choice of the slip-on sneaker variety, the lace-up tennis shoes which look like bowling shoes gone wrong, and a few other subtle variations on the original slip-on.

I couldn’t believe the fuss being made over these bins of overpriced ugly shoes, but I was intrigued by the general chicness of the girls who were frantic for this canvas and rubber footwear, so I made my way to the size 39 bin. In addition to my tendency to conform to anything Parisian girls find cool, I was motivated by a challenge put to me by a friend in Seattle. Knowing that I was going home for winter break, she asked be to bring her some article of clothing that was completely French and that couldn’t be found in the U.S. This task would have probably been much easier just 10 years ago, but thanks to globalization you can find just about any French brand somewhere in the U.S. and vice versa. There isn’t much that is exclusively French anymore – unless it is just too weird for Americans to handle. As I elbowed the other girls away from the bin I was digging through, I found my answer. Bensimon is not going to make it to Tacoma any time soon, because there is just no way that any American teenybopper is going to think these look cool – I certainly didn’t.

Being that it was a buy one, get one free kind of deal, I was, um, forced to buy myself a pair as well. For most of the fall they were strictly laundromat shoes. They were just too odd for normal streetwear. When I presented Kelly with her pair (grey slip-on tennis) at Christmas, I felt the need to add a disclaimer. I know these are ugly, but…they’re very French! Since coming back in January though, I think I’ve become desensitized. Or Frenchified. Or crazy. Because all of a sudden, I like them. Like really really like them. They’re so practical and comfortable. They come in an array of dazzling colors and variations! They’re plain and ugly, but somehow chic, and their weirdness makes them oh so cool.

Now that the weather’s warm again, every other boutique on every boulevard in Paris is advertising Ici! La tennis Bensimon!, and these funky canvas shoes are out on the streets in full force. Everyone wears Bensimon, from the banlieue to the centre, whether you wardrobe yourself at Monoprix or Prada. Every kid in France has at least one pair, and most of their parents do too. Technically…I have three pairs, if you count my bogo Kaporal 5s, and I’m a little anxious at the thought of moving home for good with no way to replace them as they wear out – I’m going to need to stock up before I repatriate.

I can’t believe I now find cool what I once thought was oh so wrong. That’s Paris for you – I’m living in a city where black and brown and navy blue go perfectly together, where trench coats aren’t just for flashers – where anything can become chic with time. If it's something weird, like the Bensimon tennis, you just have to wait enough years for it to become classic and boom, everyone will have a pair. I love this city.

22 May 2007

Schoolchildren in France love the month of May. For their teachers and parents, though, it’s a real cauchemar (nightmare). Of the eight holidays that merit school vacations in France, four of them occur during the month of May. Of the five weeks in the month only one of them – this one – spans a full five days.

Known as jours fériés, or days without work, the French calendar of holidays is surprisingly religious, considering its officially laïque (secular) government. Since French schoolchildren get only July and August for summer vacation, the rest of the year is sliced into two-week vacations and long breaks. The first vacation of the school year is in November – the holiday of Toussaint, or All Saint’s Day. Toussaint is a Catholic holiday celebrating, surprise, surprise, all the saints and is not only a religious holiday, but a national one.

Armistice Day on November 11th gives students and workers a nice long (and non-religiously affiliated) weekend, before the two-week Christmas vacation in December. In the U.S., public schools aren’t allowed to slap Christian names onto the school holidays – the Tacoma School District always called it “Winter Vacation” – but on the official Sciences Po année calendrière 2007-2008 calendar, it’s shamelessly labeled as the Vacances de Noël.

Most of January is spent celebrating l’Epiphanie. The holiday, which celebrates the three kings who followed the star of Bethlehem to find Jesus, officially falls on the first Sunday in January. Though kids don’t get a vacation for this holiday, every boulangerie in France sells the galettes des rois throughout the month, and schools have Epiphany parties to determine the day’s official king. The cakes, which are round and dense, are made from a thick almond paste surrounded by a flaky pastry crust. In each cake the boulanger hides a fêve, and whoever is served the piece with the little token – typically something like a golden coin or a ceramic baby Jesus, wins the cardboard crown and is king for the day. (The galettes are delicious – I’m not sure I would have made it through Sciences Po finals week if it hadn’t fallen at the end of January and smack in the middle of the fête des rois).

Kids typically have two weeks off in February which is just a school break – there aren’t any bank holidays in February – and two more off in April for Pâques (Easter). You know you’re living in a historically Catholic country when the translation for Passover is Pâques juifs, or “Jewish Easter.”

May Day is a completely secular holiday – it’s known as the workers’ holiday because no one has to work, and is celebrated by giving sprigs of muguet (lily of the valley) to friends and family. May Day fell on a Tuesday this year, and though most workers only had the one day off, the nanny kids enjoyed a four-day weekend.

The very next Tuesday was May 8th – a celebration of the victory of 1945 and the end of German occupation in France. This holiday is also completely secular and creates a second four-day weekend in a row.

Falling 40 days after Easter is l’Ascension, which celebrates the ascension of Jesus to Heaven. L’Ascension falls each year on a Thursday, and schools break for a five-day weekend – Wednesday through Sunday. Last weekend was the holiday of Ascension, and its end marked our entry into the single five-day school week in the month of May.

This coming weekend, the fête de Pentecôte (Pentecost), is actually a pretty controversial subject in France. Pentecost had been a jour férié since 1886 – until the French government began to get concerned that there were just too many holidays – particularly religious ones – in May. In 2004 the holiday was renamed the Journée de solidarité envers les personnes âgées et handicappés (day of solidarity for the elderly and handicapped) – a much more secular holiday for an officially secular state. The creation of the new holiday was led by the government of former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, following the heat wave of 2003 that resulted in the deaths of fifteen thousand people in France – mostly the homeless and elderly.

What’s supposed to happen on Pentecost is that everyone in France spends the day working, and all the production of that one day should go to the elderly and the prevention of the risks that would come if another heat wave were to hit Europe (like the one that’s being predicted for this summer, perhaps?) The problem with turning a former day off into a day on is that France is not a country of workaholics. The 35-hour work week is a law, shops close at dinnertime (remember the Oprah in Hermés incident?), and the entire country shuts down for the month of August when everyone takes their vacations. Trying to take away a day off of work from people who have enjoyed it for 118 years is not going to go over well. It basically just didn’t work.

France kept the day of solidarity – but with one modification. It’s now up to every individual business and company to decide whether its employees will enjoy a holiday or will work for the elderly. That’s why Sciences Po students had no idea whether or not we’d be having another three-day weekend until last week. My only class that is really affected by the celebration of Pentecost or solidarity is my French class – and last week not even our teacher knew whether or not we’d be counted absent for taking the holiday. She’d even called the Sécretariat to inquire and got only a “we’ll let you know” in response.

We finally received our answer in the form of an email in the middle of last week.

Conformément aux dispositions de la loi du 30 juin 2004 "relative à la solidarité pour l'autonomie des personnes âgées et des personnes handicapées", nous vous informons que Sciences po sera fermé le lundi 28 mai 2007, lundi de Pentecôte.

In conformity with the law of June 30, 2004, “relating to the solidarity for the autonomy of the elderly and handicapped,” we’re informing you that Sciences Po will be closed on Monday May 28, 2007, the Monday of Pentecost.

We’re so not complaining.

20 May 2007

Paris is a great place to go to the movies. With more than 300 screens in 100 different movie theatres, you can see movies from anywhere in the world in their original languages with French subtitles (version originale, VO) or dubbed into French (version française, VF) on any night of the week. Depending on your mood, you can catch the newest Hollywood blockbuster – Pirates des Caraïbes, for example. I’d have expected American movies to have a delayed release in France, but Pirates actually comes out in Paris two full days before the U.S. release – grâce au fait that French theatres switch their movie schedules every Wednesday rather than Friday.

If you’re in the mood for something a little different, there are a few cinemas that show classic movies – like Orsen Welles’ “Touch of Evil” currently playing at the Filmothèque du Quartier Latin, or the Rocky Horror Picture show, which plays every Friday and Saturday near St. Michel. At the Cinémathèque Française members can check out and watch any film from the institute’s film vault in private viewing rooms. There are films from Nepal, China, Latin America, the U.K., Germany, Sweden and South Africa (among many others) playing at theatres all over the city. In Paris, you don’t have to trek down to the Grand Cinemas or art house theatres to find foreign, independent and documentary films. The six-screen chain theatre Gaumont Opéra just two blocks up the street from my apartment is currently playing Jesus Camp, a 2006 indie documentary from the U.S. about an Evangelical Christian summer camp in North Dakota.

Because people don’t really rent movies in France, the movie-watching culture is more of a cinema culture. There are a few pay-by-the-hour rental stores sprinkled throughout Paris, but for the most part, seeing a movie is a going out event. Because of the rare and inefficient rental options, movies play in theatres for much longer to give more people a chance to see them. Woody Allen’s 2005 film “Match Point” is still playing in two theatres in the city. Going to the movies in France is more like going to an actual theatre – the films are scheduled to begin 20 minutes after the advertised movie time to give moviegoers a chance to skip the commercials and previews to sit and have an espresso or sandwich in the movie theatres’ sit-down cafés.

While full-price movie tickets are always a bit steep, it’s easy to get around the prices. Everyone under 26 gets the discounted student ticket, and people with Navigo or Imagin’R métro passes often get discounts as well. Anyone can buy a movie pass, which gets you into as many movies as you have time to watch for a flat monthly rate – usually around 18 euro. The movie passes work for different groups of theatres, like Gaumont and Pathé or UGC, and as long as you make it to at least two movies a month (or upwards of four, like me), they are a fantastic deal. There are constant promotions and two-for-one tickets and during one weekend in March the French association of theatres sponsored the Printemps du Cinéma (Springtime of Cinema), where every showing was a flat 3,50 euro.

Not only is it easy and inexpensive to see movies in Paris, but the cinema culture is very single-friendly. There are always couples and groups, of course, but every screening is filled with a significant number of individuals. When I caught an afternoon matinee of “Marie Antoinette” last fall, the audience consisted of me, one couple and five single old ladies. At a showing of “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” I was surrounded by teary individual middle-aged men. When R and I saw the new Ninja Turtles movie it was us and a whole bunch of single university-aged guys. At a showing of Jesus Camp a few weeks ago I sat two seats down from a single French girl and we spent the whole movie making shocked faces at each other and left the theatre side-by-side shaking our heads in deep disturbance.

The only downside of seeing movies here is that while the biggest blockbusters open simultaneously across the world – Pirates of the Caribbean, Spiderman 3, Casino Royale – there are some movies that you just have to wait for. The movie Zodiac opened in France this past Wednesday – and I’ve been waiting for it since its March 2nd release in the U.S. The movie 28 Weeks Later opened a week ago in the U.S., but won’t make it to France until September 19th. I’ll be back in Seattle in September, but by that point I’ll probably have to wait four more months for the dvd release.

At the movies in Paris the singles bond together, the selection of films is amazing, the prices are reasonable and the French movie popcorn is delicious – but the absolute best thing about French cinema is the French audiences. There is nothing more amusing than seeing an American movie in a room full of Parisians. The audiences are so interactive, and love both American movies and laughing at Americans. When R and I saw Borat, we were almost more entertained by the audience than the movie itself. During the scene at the rodeo everyone was laughing so loudly that we could barely hear the dialogue. Jesus Camp was also an interesting experience, though the reactions were more of the “Tsk tsk America” variety than of amusement.

It’s also funny to watch how the French react to the American culture shown in films that they just can’t relate to. Last night a group of us went to see the hip-hop movie “Stomp the Yard” (oddly re-titled “Steppin’” for French audiences), and it was definitely a cultural experience to watch a movie about black fraternity step teams in a theatre full of Parisians. There was confused laughter through the entire fraternity pledge montage, but the scene that got the loudest laughs was a 10-second clip of a curvy girl walking away from the camera. None of us (a group of two Americans, two Canadians and an Australian) could figure out what the laughter was for. Our best guess was that because behinds just generally aren’t that curvy in France, the Parisians couldn’t understand why her hips would swivel that much as she sashayed across the screen.

• A few days ago I watched an American tourist pose for a picture that featured him licking the giant stone vagina of this statue in the jardin des Tuileries. The next day I walked by and found that the poor old girl had not only been molested, but graffitteed as well.

14 May 2007

Friday night I made dinner with Anna and her friend Chris who is visiting from Ottawa. After five days in Paris experiencing European men, C was relating tale after tale of weird comments men had made to her or strange ways in which she’d been hit on. Once she ran out of her own stories, C turned to me and said, “You’ve been here for a year, I bet you have some good weird men stories!”

At first I couldn’t think of anything. I shrugged my shoulders and begged off with a “I guess I’m just so used to it I don’t pay attention anymore.” Hearing this, A started laughing. “What about the bloody eye patch guy? What about that guy on Pont Neuf?” Oh, yeah.

European men are notorious for both their skilled romancing and their completely obnoxious habit of hitting on anything in a skirt. In Barcelona Christina and I were yelled and whistled at wherever we went. After studying in Greece for a quarter, my friend Kelly had countless stories of Greek and Italian men following the girls in her program, whistling and hissing at them. In Paris, my girl friends and I are approached by men on a daily basis – it happens so often that we just start to tune it out. But maybe we shouldn’t – some of the stories are just so funny that they have to be shared.

First there’s the “bloody eye patch guy.” Late one Saturday night on my way home from Rachael’s apartment in the 11ème arondissement, I was waiting for the last metro to come through the Charonne station. The metros run until 2h-2h30 on Saturdays so I was pretty sleepy and the station was pretty empty. Sitting next to me in the orange plastic RATP chair was a bedraggled older man who was clearly planning to sleep there. He was wearing stained and dirty clothing and over one eye was a white medical eye patch that was completely soaked with blood. My attention was momentarily fixed on the eye patch and trying to figure out what kind of injury could possibly make an eye bleed that much. He saw me looking and leaned back in his chair, puffing out his chest. T’aime la forme? (You like my body?) he asked me, as he ran his hands up and down the sides of his potbelly. What could I possibly say? If I said non, that was just an invitation for confrontation. If I said oui, that was an invitation of another kind entirely. Instead I opted to point at my own chest and say loudly “American.” He shook his head, rose slowly from his orange seat and started peeing on a large wall advertisement for the 15th anniversary of Disneyland Paris. I also rose from my seat – and moved to the opposite end of the platform to wait for the train.

Then there’s “that guy on Pont Neuf.” Pont Neuf (new bridge) is actually the oldest bridge in Paris. It was completed 400 years ago this year by Henri IV, and is supposed to be one of the most romantic bridges in Paris – not that any bridges spanning the Seine River are particularly unromantic. Pont Neuf gets its reputation for romance from the benched alcoves that line the sides – perfect for kissing if you’re half of a couple. During daylight hours the alcoves are usually filled with pushy peddlers of light-up Tour Eiffel figurines and cheap metal key chains and self-proclaimed artists hoping to entice a tourist to sit for a quick portrait. One day I was strolling across the bridge while speaking in English on my French cell phone, when a balding sweaty man who’d been lurking in one of the alcoves leapt out in front of me and shouted, “America! You want me to give it to you?” Obviously I did not want him to “give it to me,” but I couldn’t decide whether I was actually being harassed or if he just didn’t know any English and was trying to communicate something else entirely. I just smiled at him, shook my head and kept walking. The nice thing about these French harassers is that they don’t push it beyond the first no. You don’t want it? That’s fine, I’ll just offer it to the next girl who comes along.

While some of the men who hit on us are just confused and creepy, like the bloody eye patch guy and the Pont Neuf guy, some will approach females just to pay them compliments. At first if can be off-putting, especially to a girl who is becoming more and more used to the balding peeing men, but this second breed of men roam the city for the purpose of letting women know that they genuinely appreciate their bodies. Nothing is expected, except maybe a simple merci. They’re not trying to grope you, or get you into bed – they’re just trying to tell you that they like what they see. For example, the young guy who approached me and my mom while we were walking down boulevard St. Germain des Prés on her first day in Paris. He came up from behind me and interrupted our conversation to say, Excusez-moi mademoiselle, je veux juste vous dire que vous avez un trés beau cul. (Excuse me mademoiselle, I just wanted to tell you that you have a very nice ass.) I must have given him an odd look because he grinned, shrugged and said Quoi? Je l’adore! (What? I love it!) before making his way off down rue des Saints-Pères. I couldn’t do much but yell out a feeble, Uhhh merci! as I blushed bright red. I only turned redder as I had to turn to my mom and translate our brief but embarrassing conversation.

There are still the guys who yell from their cars or mopeds or from across the street – but they’re of a slightly different stock than the ones back in U.S. At home girls experience a lot of “Heeeey sexy!” from guys dangling out of their car windows, but in Paris we get ravissante! (ravishing!), chouette! (cute!), charmante! (charming!) and je t’aime! (I love you!). As outraged as the feminist in me probably should be at being hollered at while I’m walking to school or to the park with Georges, I, uh, kind of don’t mind. But really, what girl doesn’t want to be stopped on the street and told she’s charming? It just wouldn’t have the same effect if that cute guy on the moped were to pull over and tell me I look like a really smart and independent woperson. I’ll take ravishing, thank you very much.

13 May 2007

Though I wouldn’t exactly say that our “Free Parisian Exercise Group” has taken off, we have managed to cobble together a pretty cozy little group.

After six workouts we have a few regulars, a few regular drop-ins, a few people who say they’re coming each week and never show, and our routine down pat. Each Wednesday or Thursday R and I send out a group email for our workout list (our specially-created address is parisworkout@yahoo.fr) detailing the where and when of our next rendezvous.

Our group usually consists of me, Rachael, Taki from Japan, Daniel from Portugal and the occasional addition of Vincent from Sciences Po, Stéphanie from Paris, and Patrick from the U.S. Because we posted fliers all over the city and posted ads on Craig’s List and Expatriates, we've formed quite a diverse group – in nationality, age, occupation and fitness level. Rachael and I are students from Seattle, while Taki is a 30-something Japanese non-profit worker and UN volunteer. Daniel is also a 30-something Portuguese in Paris for work, while Vincent is a French student at Sciences Po. Patrick is a dad-aged American ex-pat. The conversation is the typical foreigners-in-Paris meld of French and English and whatever other language is thrown into the mix, depending on who shows up.

We started out holding meetings at 10h Sunday mornings…but when we kept getting apologetic emails from people telling us they just couldn’t get out of bed we pushed them back to 10h30. We also try to mix up the location, partly so we don’t get bored and partly because we have members who live all over the city. After meeting twice at Parc des Buttes Chaumonts, one at the Jardin des Tuileries, once at Parc Monceau and once in the Bois des Vincennes
we chose the Bois de Boulogne as this Sunday’s workout destination.

We always meet at a sortie du métro with the thought that it’s easier to gather our group before entering a large public park, and as I exited the metro this morning Taki was already waiting at the top, bouncing on the balls of his feet and stretching his arms. Since it had been pouring just half an hour earlier, we figured there would probably be a lot of no-shows. We waited for the usual 15 minutes, then headed into the bois (woods) for a two-man jog.

Since we have such a mix of physical abilities in the group – from a 21-year old girl training for a half-marathon to a business man wanting to “get back into shape,” it was at first a little tricky to figure out a workout that would be at the same time demanding enough and forgiving enough for everyone's fitness level. After a month and a half of this, though, we’re all old pros. We start out with a 20 minute warm-up jog around whichever park we happen to be exercising in – we generally stay in a group for this, since we’re here to get exercise, not necessarily to work on honing our running splits. After jogging for a while we find a field or patch of grass, designate an area – Taki’s backpack to that skinny tree, for example, and take turns choosing exercises.

I usually take charge and jump right in with a set of lunges before Rachael assigns us “high knees” or the “football player jumping through tires exercise.” Daniel might choose grapevine runs before we move on to skipping, squatting, more lunging and kickboxing moves (as the only one who has ever taken a kickboxing class, I’m always in charge of teaching this portion). After maybe 20 minutes of exercises we do another 20-30 minute run. Sometimes we run for shorter intervals and do multiple breaks for exercises, and sometimes we just run. Once in a while we’ll email everyone to bring a few euro to the workout and have a group sandwich picnic after we’re done sweating.

Today Taki and I ran, did our exercises, ran some more, and then went out for lunch. It was just the two of us and I had no money, but as he said “You’re a student, I have a job, I should pay anyway,” so we stopped for some Japanese bento lunches on the way home.

Whether or not we’re actually pushing our bodies to their physical limits with our gratuit group d’exercice, we have a great time doing it. Everyone in the group benefits from meeting a group of people who they have no other connection to – how likely is that I, for example, would meet a 30-something Japanese humanitarian while studying abroad in Paris? There’s also something to be said for having so much fun that you can’t stop laughing – even through your third set of lunges.

And, a picture to remind you all that I'm in France:

07 May 2007

It might seem a bit inane to make the point that Paris is a pretty arty city. From the Mona Lisa, to Picasso, to the pont des Arts, to the Opéras Garnier and Bastille, to the Venus de Milo, the Georges Pompidou Center, David, Ingres, Géricault, the Musée du Louvre, the Musée D’Orsay – yeah, we’re pretty steeped in the finer arts over here. Cool to note though, is the fact that the city’s art-rich personality is not limited to its history.

The current mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë is rather famously a patron of the arts, and has used his term to introduce cultural activities to the city, like Nuit Blanche that keep the city’s art scene vibrant and current. The contemporary art scene isn’t limited to local government-funded events, though. If you can move beyond the dazzling must-sees that fill Paris’s most celebrated museums, you’ll find that the city is up to its teeth in galleries, fashion shows, art installations, film festivals and indie music.

One of the coolest examples of the way Parisians work to cultivate their art scene beyond the old school Goliaths like the Louvre, Orsay and the Pompidou is way up North on Quai de Valmy. Nearly on top of the Canal St. Martin, technically in the 10ème arondissement, but really right on the border of the 19ème is Point Éphémère.

The street-level entrance to the dance studio:

Billed as a Centre de Dynamiques Artistiques, Point Éphémère is housed in a former factory/retail site of construction equipment. The center is one of several founded by Usines Éphémères, a group that converts old industrial spaces into temporary art spaces and artists’ residences. The Point opened in 2004 for a projected period of 4 years, during which its four artists’ lofts, dance studio, five music studios and concert hall would be rented out to artists for the cheapest possible prices for six-month time periods.

The building is two stories tall, the upper one hitting Quai de Valmy at street level, and the lower right at canal height. The lower level features an exposition space, a concert hall and a bar-restaurant dont the profits help keep the center running. The upper level is comprised of the various lofts and studios, and it’s the studio de danse where I head each Sunday for two hours of intense hip-hop dance workshops.

Point Éphémère from across the Canal St. Martin:

Point Éphémère is not a place you just stumble across on your own – it survives instead on word of mouth by a diverse and vibrant community of artists who come from all over the city. I can confidently say that I’d have easily lived out my year in Paris without ever hearing rumors of its existence if it hadn’t been for a dance teacher/ choreographer/ guru called Flo.

Flo is a dancer, teacher and choreographer of undiscernible age, who teaches one of the best hip-hop classes I’ve ever taken. She’s petite but buff, girly but athletic. She wears her long, bleached-blond hair in two high ponytails and her style is so ghetto-fabulous that being in her presence makes me itch to run out and buy myself a pair of baggy G-Unit jeans and a basketball jersey. Flo taught my hip-hop class during fall semester and I loved her so much that I followed her to her drop-in hip-hop workshops.

Due to a series of scheduling conflicts, vacations, visitors and last-minute babysitting, I wasn’t able to make it to a stage (workshop, also means internship) until mid-April. I arrived five minutes early and after being greeted warmly by Flo, sat down on a bench to take in my surroundings and observe my fellow dancers. The studio is a huge brick room, with one wall made completely of windows that look out over the canal. Hanging precariously from a broken rod is an enormous black velvet curtain, that was probably quite impressive at one time, but today is filled with rips and dust. The floor is covered with typical Marley dance floor, and against the wall opposite the windows are balanced four huge mirrors – cracked and chipped and in constant danger of tipping over and shattering against the bricks. As dirty and run-down as it sounds, the atmosphere is amazing – hip-hop is a gritty style of dance, and exposed bricks, cracked mirrors and tattered curtains only help to get you in the zone.

As I watched the other dancers arrive, I started to get a little nervous – I’m used to being one of the best in my classes, but I had no idea what the general ability level might be. As the others filed in, high-fiving each other and laughing, each looking more ghetto-gritty than the next, I began to get really intimidated. I’d felt kind of hip-hoppy when I’d left my apartment in cropped baggy black cargo pants and an old tee shirt, but there’s no escaping the fact that I’m a former ballet-dancing Caucasian girl from Tacoma.

By the time Flo turned on the music to warm-up with, I had completely psyched myself out and took a spot at the very back of the group. But as the dancing heated up, all my anxiety began to melt away as I remembered that I know how to move, I love to dance and most of all, hip-hop is fun. After two hours of dancing, Flo reminded us that it was the Semaine des Arts at Point Éphémère and asked a group of us if we’d mind going downstairs and performing the piece we’d been working on for the patrons of the restaurant. Mind? Ha! I love performing, so I jumped at the chance. The floor space was minimal and sticky, and we were forced to alter our formation to fit around and between tables, but if I may say so, we were awesome. We left to loud cheers and Flo thanked us all for stepping up. We’re performing again next weekend and a few Sundays in June – but instead of performing just for the restaurant-goers, we’ll be moving the show out to the banks of the canal. I can’t wait.

This is one of the things I’m really going to miss about Paris – being part of an impromptu performing hip-hop troop that dances in old factories and along the Seine. Not to mention the never-diminishing entertainment of hearing Flo shout Un, deux, trois et KRUMP!!!

06 May 2007

Sarko, facho, le peuple aura ta peau! Sarko, facho, le people aura ta peau! Sarko, facho, le peuple aura ta peau!

(Sarko, fascist, the people will have your skin!)

Protestors in front of the July column.

On May 17th Nicolas Sarkozy's five-year term as the president of the Republic will begin – and nearly half the population is not at all happy about it. Anarchists have taken over place de la Bastille. People are threatening to leave France. Effigies of Sarkozy are being burned in the streets. The other half though, is quite thrilled. People are dancing and celebrating on the Champs Elysées and at place de la Concorde, wearing UMP shirts and toasting Sarkozy.

According to my vie politique teacher, when there’s a substantial victory for the right-wing the celebration goes down at place (pronounced plah-suh) de la Concorde – which is exactly what’s happening right now. If I didn’t have a dissertation due by 8h tomorrow morning I’d be out there myself taking more pictures. As for the left, celebrations tend to take place at place de la Bastille. In 2002 when the extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen made it onto the second round, people wandered purposelessly to the Bastille – with no plan or idea of what to do except to gather there in protest and solidarity. The place de la Bastille has been a gathering place for manifestations and revolutions since the actual prison was stormed in 1789, so it follows that it would be a hub of leftist political activity.

Although leftist candidate Ségolène Royal had been holding her own throughout the election, Sarkozy has been the favorite from the beginning and Rachael and I have been predicting a UMP victory for weeks. Since the first round of elections two weeks ago there have been rumblings about the possibility of violent protests if Sarkozy were to be elected – especially in the infamous Parisian banlieue Clichy-sous-Bois. Figuring that manifestations would be far more interesting to watch than right-wing celebrations, we decided to hoof it over to Bastille to see the results.

Walking toward Bastille it was impossible not to notice the buses filled with French riot police lining the main roads that radiate out from the circular place and the TV vans and journalists wandering all around – clearly we weren’t the only ones expecting something interesting to go down tonight.

We were momentarily distracted from the riots by the extremely cute French riot police.

At 19h20 we squeezed onto barstools in Kilty’s Irish Pub where rue de la Roquette joins the chaotic traffic circle at Bastille and turned our eyes to the TV in the corner of the bar to watch the countdown. At T-10 minutes the streets started to empty as people squeezed into any bar or restaurant with a TV. The channel in Kilty’s was a little slower than the one on in the bar next door and at 20h we started to hear screaming without any clue who the screaming was for. A few frantic people bolted next door, but after about 30 seconds our TV caught up and we knew that Sarkozy had won.

We could hear screams of anger coming from all directions but for about 20 minutes after the results were announced, nothing happened. People began slowly filing out of the bars and gathering on a patch of sidewalk usually reserved for the Saturday-night break dancers. As the crowd grew a few guys climbed to the top of phone booths and began chanting, Sarko, facho, le people aura ta peau.

The chanting crowd began to walk straight into the swirling traffic and groups of people sat down in the middle of the road, forcing all traffic to a halt. Immediately the riot police were on the job, blocking off all entrance points to Bastille and directing the cars and buses Southeast toward Gare de Lyon. The thing that’s important to remember about France is that manifestations (protests) are a fundamental right. The police are bussed in with shin guards and riot shields and seem to function more as protectors of the protesters than as keepers of the peace. This is perhaps why nobody did anything when protesters began to graffiti the column.

Once the first two men had breached the spiked fence surrounding the monument, things just continued on toward anarchy. A Sarkozy mannequin appeared in the crowd and he was first kicked and beaten on the ground before being burned in effigy and carried on a stick through the crowd. The column was soon covered in anti-Sarko graffiti likening him to Le Pen and Hitler and piles of trash were burning as miniature bonfires throughout the crowds.

That flaming pile of clothing is actually an effigy of Sarko – complete with face and hair.

When I climbed onto the fence surrounding the column in the center to get a few pictures of the flare-wielding group that had made it onto the first level of the monument I came face-to-face with a girl about my age who was a member of an anarchist group. She asked me if I understood what was going on, and I mostly did, but I did need to ask what people were chanting after “Sarko, facho.” She asked who I would have voted for and I assured her that I was forcement against Sarko – though it was kind of a useless question to ask in the middle of a mob screaming about skinning the poor guy alive. Even if I’d been the biggest Sarkozy fan ever to come out of Sciences Po, there is no chance I’d ever admit that to a pro-Ségo anarchist. She told me it was chouette (kind, neat, cool) that I’d come out to manifest with them – and again, it would have been suicidal to admit that I was just there for a little entertainment and a few good pictures.

After observing the scene for a while together from our perch on the fence, I bid her a bonne soirée and made my way toward the metro – I do have homework to finish after all. As I left the fray things were nowhere near winding down – with drum circles, trash-fueled bonfires and no traffic to bother with whatsoever it was starting to look like quite a party.

Nobody stopped these guys from defacing the monument to the République at place de la Bastille with spray paint.

The big question is why protest something you can’t change? And certainly, even anarchists understand that no amount of manifestation can undo the democratic process of electing a new president. They know they can’t change anything, but want Sarkozy to hear their message – that he and his alienating policies are not wanted or welcome by a large chunk of the population. I get that, I totally do – they’re sending a message. But I think it’s a message that could be sent just as easily without clobbering and burning inanimate Sarkozy look-alikes or threatening that people will skin him alive. Even the riot police were chuckling when the protesters started comparing Sarokozy to Adolf Hitler (for one thing, his family is Jewish) – this was manifestation to the point of just looking ridiculous.

04 May 2007

Anecdotes from Paris, partie deux: The generosity of the homeless

The other night I was strolling back from a movie at Les Halles, enjoying the warm evening and snacking on a half-full carton of movie popcorn. R and I are constantly overestimating the amount of popcorn the two of us will be able to consume, but are also unable to admit defeat. The last time we failed to finish our extra-large popcorn, R was charged with toting home the remains and finishing them on their own – this time, it was my turn.

Being that it was 1 am and Paris, it wasn’t long before I was approached by two homeless men with a dog. All they wanted were a few coins, but once you’ve lived in Paris for any significant amount of time you just don’t give money to people on the street. I shook my head, but held out the carton of popcorn with one hand (the other hand was clutching the handful I was about to eat).

The guys were smelly and chemically altered and I could see that they were hungry by the way they stared down into the popcorn I was offering, but they shook their heads and refused. T’auras faim, mademoiselle, il faut que t’as assez à manger (You’ll be hungry, mademoiselle, you need to make sure you get enough to eat). This struck me because I was clean and lucid, wearing a green dress and costume jewelry, iPod headphones dangling around my neck, and clearly not in danger of going hungry. But before they’d accept my leftover movie popcorn they had to be sure that I’d already gotten my fill.

I shook my head and assured them that I’d already had too much – I finished my handful of popcorn and shook the box at them again. Finally the one who’d originally approached me took the carton with a grin and a thank you. They sent me off with a Bonne soirée, petite mademoiselle! and a wave. When I glanced back a block later they were wobbling back down rue du Louvre, tossing popcorn kernels to their scruffy dog in between their own bites.

I was kind of touched that I had guys looking out for me who don’t even have kitchens to cook their own dinner in – I don’t care what anyone says, Paris is a friendly city.

Why I love Sciences Po

The first thing I always do when I get home for the night is check my email, so tonight I was delighted to receive one from Sciences Po. Usually I have an 8h-10h class every Friday morning, which is pretty much torture for a girl who loves to sleep as much as I do. Every Thursday I plan to go to bed earlier, and every Thursday I fail miserably.

I’d come home from nannying expecting to eat a quick dinner, maybe watch a little France2 and go to bed early – until I found out that my Friday 8h is cancelled for this week. Now a class cancellation is no big deal – it happens all the time when professors are sick or want an extra long weekend – unless your maître de conférence works for the Sénat and the Parlement européen and had to cancel class because of a last-minute trip to Brussels.

When else in my life am I going to be taking classes from teachers who have to jet off at a moment’s notice to rendez-vous for various institutions of the European Union?

Al Gore told us so
High temperatures, and even higher anxiety, in Europe

It’s still only April and at 9:30 in the morning we’re already sweating in our second-floor Sciences Po classrooms. With temperatures that have been hovering in the 80s for weeks and front-page newspaper articles about global warming and climate change it’s becoming clear that this summer is going to be a hot one.

For the moment though, everybody’s too busy enjoying the sunny days to worry about the impending “Sahara summer,” as it’s been dubbed in European newspapers. As soon as the temperatures started picking up at the beginning of April the sunbathers began flocking to the banks of the Seine, the Canal St. Martin and public parks all over the city.

The largest demographic of sunbathers is the slim and ûber-tanned Euro men in Speedos who sprawl themselves in prominent locations right on the edges of the riverbank. They usually station themselves alone near bridges, but whether or not they intend to be checked out by the hundreds of pedestrians is debatable.

The next group is made up of the older but also ûber-tanned Parisienne ladies in bikinis. They usually set up camp in groups on a secluded bank of the Canal St. Martin directly below place de la Bastille and spend the afternoon chatting and reading on their towels, readjusting their bikini tops for minimal tan lines and occasionally pausing to lotion up again.

Finally you have the plain-old people, yours truly included, who spend their days off sweating on the riverbank, listening to music and sunbathing in anxious anticipation of the heat of the actual summer. Whatever happened to April showers? I feel like I should not be able to get away with a bikini in the middle of springtime in Paris, but the heat’s been such that you can’t wear much else.

01 May 2007

Jean-Marie Le Pen is a sensitive subject for the French. To most of the population, he’s a dinosaur – a racist xenophobic extremist whose existence on the political scene is a disgrace to the country. But for a shocking 11 percent of the voting population, he’s a revolutionary – a martyr whose destiny is to make France French again.

Le Pen founded the Front National in 1972, a far-right political party that wants to return France to its traditional roots, distance the country from the European Union, reinstate the death penalty and basically deport all immigrants. Le Pen’s daughter Marine is a party executive and the popular pick for the FN’s candidate for the présidentielle once Jean-Marie leaves the scene. Because Jean-Marie is such a polarizing figure, Marine is seen as the hope for the future of the party. According to my vie politique professor, Marine is a much more dangerous figure than Jean-Marie, for just that reason. She’s softer, less extreme and was never convicted of negationism or accused of torturing POWs – and could potentially gain a lot of votes for the party.

Front National supporters parading in Paris:

As a political figure, Le Pen is a frightening extremist – and as a person, he is no less colorful. As a young man he was convicted of assault several times – mostly through membership in a group of law students whose main activity was beating up Communists. He’s been accused of using torture as an intelligence officer in the Algerian War by the newspaper Le Monde, but was unable to be tried because of an amnesty agreement and expired statutes of limitations. He was prosecuted and fined in 1999 for historical revisionism and Holocaust denial for statements about the supposed insignificance of the concentration camps in terms of World War II and for claiming that the Nazi occupation of France wasn’t actually so bad.

Le Pen is the black sheep of the French political family. He’s the butt of every joke, but behind the laughter is real fear – because he continues to gather enough support to be a real political power. The highlight of his political career was the 2002 présidentielle, in which he managed to defeat the Socialist party candidate (Lionel Jospin) who was expected to be a main contender, and go on to the second round of elections against Jacques Chirac. Although Le Pen’s short-lived success was due more in part to divisions among the leftist parties than to his own popularity, the two weeks between the first and second rounds of elections were filled with demonstrations, marches, protests, graffiti and posters against Le Pen. A popular slogan was “Vote for the crook, not the fascist.” Chirac went on to defeat Le Pen by a landslide in the second round, but France learned its lesson in 2002 and voter turn-out for the first round of the 2007 présidentielle was an impressive 85 percent.

May Day in France is both a national holiday and the date of the annual parade and rally of the Front National. Le Pen supporters from all over France were bussed into Paris this morning to participate in the parade, which took two hours to wind its way from St. Augustin in the 8ème to place de l’Opéra where Le Pen was to speak. Anna and I met at place de l’Opéra about half an hour before Le Pen was to appear, mainly out of morbid curiousity – we couldn’t wait to see “what kind of people” support Jean-Marie Le Pen. Based on his political platform, our general expectation was skinheads and rednecks – but the most frightening thing about the rally was just how many completely normal-looking people were present. There were adorable French moms with pearl earrings, YSL shirts and Longchamp purses pushing babies in strollers that had been decorated with FN and Le Pen signs and banners. There were cute old ladies perched on fold-up camping chairs wearing FN baseball caps. There were groups of attractive young guys wearing armbands and French flags as superhero capes. There were fluffy poodles wearing tricolor cocardes (cockades, or rosettes – these were a symbol of the French Revolution) and doggy tee shirts that read “Vite Le Pen, Vite!” The whole atmosphere was rather unsettling – there were hot dogs and balloons and tee shirts for sale, and the scene felt like a fun festival – except that we were all there to celebrate (or observe) a racist Holocaust-denying torturer.

We felt a little awkward standing in the middle of this fascist rally – on the one hand, we did not want anyone to think we’d ever support this lunatic, but on the other hand, we really didn’t want to get beat up by crazed FN supporters. Grateful that neither of us had accidentally dressed in red, white and blue, we opted to wander casually through the crowd taking pictures and gawking at Le Pen as he made his speech from the stage that had been set up for him in front of the Palais Garnier.

For reasons not completely clear to me or Anna, Jeanne d’Arc is a special symbol for Le Pen and the FN – the parade doubles as a celebration of both the FN and the exploits of Joan of Arc. From what we could gather, Le Pen sees himself as a kind of martyr as well, fighting for his beliefs as she did. It may also have something to do with the fact that she was persecuted by the English, and Le Pen, fighting to return France to its Frenchiest roots, is very wary of Anglo-Saxon intervention. In addition to the pro-FN and Le Pen tee shirts for sale all around the place, there was also quite a bit of anti-Sarkozy and anti-U.S. paraphernalia available for purchase. One red tee shirt featured an outline of the U.S. with the words état criminel (criminal state) written inside of it. Another one read simply, “Yankee go home.”

Sprinkled throughout his impassioned tribute to dear Jeanne d’Arc (who, by the way, I really don’t feel would be comfortable being associated with a fascist extremist) were tirades against each of the other presidential candidates. He led the crowd in loud booing of Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal, and started a cheer of Chirac en prison! Chirac en prison! He also spent a significant amount of time bemoaning the 2002 elections before moving on to rail against the results of the présidentielle 2007. After an hour of FN rallying, parading and speeches, Anna and I were ready to escape the chants of “LE PEN – LE PEN – LE PEN.” We snuck off down rue du Quatre Septembre feeling rather ill, but satisfied – curiosity-wise, at least.