jeudi 30 juillet 2009

The French Awards

Well, my time in Paris is swiftly coming to a close… Il ne reste que deux jours! It’s difficult to believe that the sun is finally setting on my adventures in France…and, as sort of an homage to all things Parisian, I thought it might be appropriate to write a sort of “Best of…” blog entry—a tribute to the things I’ve discovered that were either wonderful…or wonderfully horrifying. (Yes, the fact that I promised you more “French life lessons” is still lingering over my head, I know…and, perhaps if I stopped mentioning it in each of my subsequent entries, you might forget about it all together…but, alas, you will not be receiving them today, either… My sincerest apologies.)

Now, without further ado, I present to you, mesdames et messieurs…the French awards!

Best French Pastry: La Pralusienne
Well, clearly, this wasn’t an easy decision. On nearly every street corner, there is some kind of boulangerie/patisserie with enough amazing baked goods to induce instant cardiac arrest. Despite some tough competition, the Pralusienne stood out from the crowd as one of the most unique pastries I’ve encountered in Paris. Essentially, it’s a “cake” of brioche with almond flavoring and little, pink hazelnuts (I assume they’re artificially colored!) baked into the dough. As if that weren’t tantalizing enough, the cake is filled with some kind of wonderful pastry cream… My description of said pastry cream might be a bit vague, but that’s only because, when we asked the woman at the counter what it was, she had trouble describing it herself…and she eventually concluded, “Je ne sais pas exactement… Mais c’est excellent! And we soon discovered that this description was MORE than adequate. So, next time you’re in Paris, head on over to the store “Pralus” on Rue Rambuteau in the Marais. Acquiring a freshly baked Pralusienne is worth enduring about 1,000 sweat-soaked rides on the RER…and THAT’S saying something.

Honorable mention: Raspberry/Pistachio Millefeuille from Angelina’s

Best Metro Line: Line 14 (Dark Purple)
It was difficult to even consider HAVING a “BEST metro line” category…given the nature of the subject matter…but, when I thought about posting a “WORST metro line” category instead, I decided that that would truly be impossible…because the answer would obviously be “just about all of them.” So, with a great deal of deliberation, I’ve decided that Line 14—from Saint-Lazare to Olympiades—is head and shoulders above the rest. One of the newest metro lines in Paris, Line 14 is the only metro line—to my knowledge at least—to feature “anti-suicide doors,” which prevent people from hurling themselves in front of the approaching trains. Pretty fancy, eh? Also, Line 14 makes use of a VERY novel feature that seems to be absent from nearly all of the other lines: VENTILATION. When you’re riding on Line 14, you can actually feel some sort of breeze inside the cars…and you don’t feel quite as much like you’re going to pass out when the doors swing shut. Essentially, that feature alone won this esteemed award for Line 14.
Honorable mention: N/A

Favorite Thing to Photograph: La Tour Eiffel
I don’t think we need too much of a description here. I have taken more pictures of the Eiffel Tower than I would like to admit…but…I AM in Paris, after all, right?Honorable mention: Notre Dame

Scariest Person in the Entire City of Paris: Old Man on the Metro
I realize that “Old Man on the Metro” isn’t exactly a specific title…but that is why I am about to provide you with a short anecdote to allow you to share in my horror. One evening, I was taking Line 4 to Châtelet to connect to the RER. In a strange turn of events, there weren’t very many other people on the metro with me, and I was sitting near the end of the car, right by the window that looks into the adjoining car (although it isn’t possible to walk BETWEEN cars while the metro is in motion—a fact for which I am ETERNALLY grateful…and you will see why in a second). Anyway, I was listening to my iPod and staring off into space, when, suddenly, I glanced up at the window that looks into the adjoining car, and I found myself staring straight into the wild eyes of an elderly gentleman, who was pressed up against the glass. Now, as I said, he was in the next car, and there was no way for him to enter my car, but he proceeded to mash his face up against the window, rolling his eyes around in his head and contorting his mouth into what can only be described as silent howls of murderous glee (yes, that is, in fact, the ONLY way they can be described). This little “show” continued for the next three or four stops…and, every time the metro slowed to a halt, I prayed fervently that he wouldn’t decide to come galloping across the platform into my car. Miraculously, he never did…and, needless to say, when we finally pulled into Châtelet, I didn’t waste any time in sprinting to the nearest staircase to leave my ghoulish companion behind me. Also—needless to say—I will never sit that close to the window between metro cars ever again.
Honorable mention: When my family was visiting, we encountered a crazed, raspy-voiced gentleman who stalked around our metro car, creeping up behind people and whispering “Bon soir” into their ears. It was disturbing.

Most Horrible Conversation with a French Person: (see anecdote below)
I guess I need to stop making these categories so abstract…because I am making it horrendously difficult for myself to actually create titles for the “winners” of these categories. Oh well. Another anecdote will suffice. Anyway, fortunately, I haven’t had TOO many horribly embarrassing encounters in Paris in which I’ve found myself unable to follow a conversation…but, UNfortunately, there was one very distinct conversation in which I may as well have just plugged my ears and started shouting random French words…because I probably would have fared better that way. Let me set up the scene here. It was my first night living in the Fondation des Etats-Unis, and, all of a sudden, the power went out in all the rooms on my hallway. So, after a few moments of confusion, I went to the front desk and informed the desk attendant—who doesn’t speak a word of English—that we had lost power. So far, so good. He told me to go wait in my room while he checked out the problem. Well, since my room was pitch black, I decided to wait in the hallway, instead. After a few moments, the desk attendant approached me and rattled off the fastest, most incomprehensible French phrases I have ever heard. So, the first part of our conversation went a little something like this:
Desk attendant: Jaiverifieavecmonsieurledirecteureitiaglaiglianlanas—ELECTRICITÉ—etilnyaurapasieriealifnasaufalfneedd—DEMAIN. (the two words in all caps represent the only words I actually picked up from his lightning-fast sentence)
Me: Ah…bon. D’accord.
Now, what I THOUGHT he said was that the power might not be fixed until the next day…but, after I said “Okay,” he gave me the most horribly condescending stare I’ve ever received and asked, “Vous n’avez pas compris?” (You didn’t understand?) Assuming then that he MUST have asked me some sort of important question (based on his expectant staring), I responded, “Euh…je ne pense pas…” (I don’t think so). So, as a means of appealing to my apparent stupidity, the kind monsieur spoke even FASTER the next time (and with sloppier articulation…to aid my comprehension, I assume), adding more unnecessary details and flailing his arms around wildly with every few words he spit out. Once again, I nodded and said, “Okay”…and I was greeted with a disappointed glare and a “Vous n’avez pas ENCORE compris?” when he finished. We played this little game for about five more minutes…until, FINALLY, I decided to ask for a bit of clarification.
“So, you just want to tell me that the power is still off…and that you can’t fix it until tomorrow?” I asked (but…in French, though).

So, as it turned out, I had understood him from the beginning…but he simply refused to take my “d’accord” at full value. And, as a result, we got to have that little gem of a conversation. Quelle horreur.
Honorable mention: I’m sure there are numerous other horribly uncomfortable situations…but I won’t bother recounting them right now.

Most Difficult Door to Unlock: Hotel Room Door in Aix-en-Provence
You may remember that I wrote at length in one of my previous entries about the difficulty of opening French doors…and, if so, you probably realize that this is a VERY prestigious award, indeed. The hotel room doors in Aix-en-Provence win, hands down, though…simply because I probably spent about 10 minutes every morning, trying desperately to (un)lock our door with the 10-pound key (it was actually a large metal key, attached to—essentially—a brass CLUB…so that residents wouldn’t lose the key) that the hotel provided. To successfully unlock the door, you had to insert the key HALFWAY into the lock, turn it slightly to the left, then push the key further into the lock…turn it to the right, pull it OUT of the lock halfway…and, finally, turn it all the way to the left again. We were given a brief tutorial by one of the staff members, but it didn’t seem to matter…because I swear that the little “puzzle” changed every time we left the room. Very enjoyable, indeed!
Honorable mention: One of the inner doors of the API office requires you to flip a switch on the wall and, then, practically tackle the 1,000-pound door to enter. Not actually very difficult to figure out…but exhausting each time.

Most Commonly Performed Song in the Metro: Pachabel’s Canon
Although I’ve encountered dozens and dozens of musicians in the metro stations and on the metro cars themselves, it seems that Pachabel’s Canon is a favorite for the performers. I’ve heard it at least 10 different times in the Châtelet station alone (I even have it on video!), as well as a handful of times at Palais Royal-Musée du Louvre. It’s very pleasant to stand and listen to the music—as, usually, the musicians are fairly talented—but, unfortunately, if you look TOO interested, you will be accosted by the musicians’ “spokesperson,” who will demand that you provide a donation for your enjoyment. To avoid this little dilemma, I’ve discovered that it works well to APPEAR uninterested (just stand and study a map, for example)…but remain within earshot of the performers. That way, you can enjoy the music without being badgered for the remaining 20 euros in your pocket.
Honorable mention: Just about any cheesy, French-sounding accordion music you can imagine.

Well, I think perhaps that will suffice for the awards…for now at least! Perhaps I’ll be back to add a few more in the future… On verra! I’ve learned my lesson about promising such things…because…apparently, I’m not so good at keeping said promises…!

Anyway, it’s time for me to head out and enjoy one of my last evenings in Paris. I’m off to bid a fond farewell to the Eiffel Tower at Trocadero Square (where I will, inevitably, photograph it, I’m sure).

Bonne soirée!

lundi 20 juillet 2009


Well, I realize that I did promise you more “lessons” that I’ve learned about living in Paris…but I felt like a change of pace was in order…so, we’ll just have to put those future lessons on hold for the time being. If you could somehow manage to contain your vast disappointment, I would greatly appreciate it. (Ha.)

Anyway, moving on… I know I’ve mentioned in the past that living in Paris for several months is incredibly different from simply visiting for a week or two. You become accustomed to all of the sights and sounds of the city, and the numerous tourist attractions just seem like everyday fare to you. So, essentially, with this entry, I wanted to share an account of one of my daily experiences in the city. It might not be the most thrilling thing you’ve ever read, but I figured it would be good for me to write it out, even if it’s not QUITE as good for you to read it. Hope that’s okay!

My mornings usually begin at about 5:45 a.m. I really don’t need to wake up this early, but I’ve always been one to enjoy my quiet time in the mornings…and I hate rushing around to get ready for the day. So, come 5:45 (just as the noise of the previous night’s parties is starting to dissipate), I get out of bed and head to the shower room. As a quick side note, I have never—in all of my time in Paris—encountered another living soul in the shower room…or the W.C. (i.e. bathroom). How is this even possible? I’ve concluded that there must be some secret, incredibly luxurious shower/bathroom area that, apparently, is a secret only to me… Anyway, let’s fast forward a bit, shall we? Around 7:45, I need to leave for class, which begins at 8:30. Now, on a good day, it only takes about 15 minutes to get to class via the RER; however, on a BAD day, the RER trip can take upwards of 40 minutes…so, I don’t like to take any chances. (And, on a NIGHTMARISH day, there is a little sign posted on the door to the RER station that says “FERMÉ JUSQU’À MIDI” [CLOSED UNTIL NOON]. Gotta love that French public transportation!)

Anyway, the reward of leaving for class so early, I’ve discovered, comes in the form of some quality time spent with Notre Dame. You see, as I may have mentioned in the past, my classroom is less than a block away from the cathedral itself…and, when I climb the stairs out of the metro station in the morning, I climb right into Notre Dame’s central courtyard. And, fortunately, unlike in the afternoon, Notre Dame is incredibly peaceful in the morning, and there are very few people around at all. This morning, in particular, the sun was still partially obscured by some hazy, pre-dawn clouds, and the entire cathedral was bathed in a surreal, almost yellowy, glow. I sat on a bench in the gardens by the Seine, right beneath the vaulting towers of Notre Dame, and watched the sun rise. So…yeah. My walk to class from the RER station isn’t too bad at all. :)

My class—mon cours pratique, niveau supérieur—is two hours long…but, fortunately, my professor, Monsieur Carlier, keeps the time moving pretty quickly by constantly joking with us in French—even if we don’t always understand his sense of humor. Admittedly, two hours is a BIT long—for me, at least—to be absorbing endless amounts of obscure French grammar rules…but, each day, at the end of the class, I always think, “Oh… That wasn’t so bad!”

Today was my first day without a phonetics course (which concluded last Friday and usually took place from 11 – 12 after my “cours pratique”), so I had the whole morning free. First stop? A local café-tabac that serves café crème “à emporter” (to-go), bien sûr. As I was paying at the cash register, I noticed an American couple standing at the bar, literally SCREAMING at the waitress, “CRESCENTS! DO YOU HAVE ANY CRESCENTS?!?!” I’m nearly 100% sure that the waitress knew full well that they wanted “croissants,” but I think she was having fun pretending to be oblivious. Eventually, they were rewarded with their pastries—and I with my coffee—so, I made a quick exit.

Wandering down the side streets near Notre Dame is always a unique experience. First, I pass the same little yellow café on the corner, where the same mustachioed waiter emerges each and every day and beckons me to sit down for “petit-déjeuner.” Non, merci, is my daily response, although the steaming cups of coffee—surrounded by croissants, baguettes, pain au chocolat, and various types of jam—DO look rather appealing. Further down the street is the Greek area of town, where numerous store owners are preparing ENORMOUS “hanging towers of meat” (the best phrase I can think of to describe these things) for their little gyro shops. It’s still early enough at this point that the street is pleasantly quiet, although I know that, in a mere hour or so, it will be bustling with tourists.

About 10 minutes later, I arrive at le Jardin du Luxembourg, which is hardly just a “garden”…but more of an immense park with palm trees, fountains, tennis courts, and several ponds. It’s incredibly beautiful. Once again, thanks to the time of day, it’s not crowded at all, and I’m able to sit and just enjoy the view while writing for a bit in my journal.

Lunch typically isn’t a grand affair for me during the week (and usually consists of scrounging up a few pieces of bread with peanut butter in my dorm room), but, today, I thought I would treat myself to something much more interesting: some ice cream at Amorino’s, the authentic Italian gelato shop near Notre Dame. When I arrived, the store hadn’t opened its doors yet, and a blonde American woman was banging on the glass with her fist. She looked back at me incredulously and hissed, “I don’t understand why they aren’t open!” When I proposed the fact that the French concept of time is just different, she dismissed me with a “Well, I just don’t get it” and continued her assault on the doors. About 15 minutes later, I left the establishment with a bowl of pistachio (with whole pistachios mixed in), crema al crocquante (described as “Italian pastry” flavor), and almond (with little almond biscuits mixed in) gelato. It was heavenly.

The rest of my afternoon was spent strolling along the Seine, wandering past countless artists who had set up booths with their paintings for sale. It’s all unbelievably charming, as long as you avoid the horribly touristy areas of town. As I’m sure you’ve gathered up to this point, Paris is a pretty amazing city. Je l’aime. :)

I suppose I could continue recounting my daily experiences, but I don’t want to drone on for TOO much longer. Besides, the rest of my afternoon wasn’t overly eventful, anyway (aside from a 15-minute wait on the RER, a brief stop at my local grocery store, and a frightening meal at the increasingly hellish student cafeteria—Bullier).

So, in conclusion, I’ve decided that my favorite time of day in Paris is early in the morning. And my favorite place in Paris is Notre Dame (but…only early in the morning…). I wish I could paint a more vivid picture of these things for you…because I feel like words just don’t do them justice. If you’re up for a visit, feel free to swing by Cité Universitaire, room 29. I’ll be more than happy to give you a tour! :)

Well, I’ve detained you for long enough! That’s all for now. A bientôt!

lundi 13 juillet 2009

A Work in Progress

It has been quite a while since my last blog entry, hasn't it? (Okay, in reality, I guess it has been a little over a week...but still...) I suppose it has become increasingly difficult for me to even translate my experiences in Paris into words...or, moreover, to write enthralling blog entries about them.

With that said, I've decided that it might be wise for me to describe some of the lessons I've learned ( many cases, am still in the progress of learning) throughout my time in Paris. It has been a big adjustment for me, and I think the city has thrust a great deal of knowledge upon me in the weeks that I've been here. Let's see... Where shall we begin?

Lesson #1: Smile less than you think you should.
I am VERY bad at this particular lesson (although there has been gradual improvement, I think, since the beginning of my journey). Parisians (and...many Europeans, in general, as far as I know) simply do not smile as much as Americans do. If you're walking down the street or sitting on the metro and you happen to meet someone's gaze, you shouldn't smile. Trust me. It will only lead to a strange look or, depending on the recepient, an endless verbal assault of "J'ai faim! Donnez-moi de la monnaie! S'il vous plait!" Smiles should be reserved for people you know. In fact, the less happy you look as you walk down the street, the less likely it will be that deranged beggers will attack you. For this very reason, I've changed my day-to-day facial expression from "neutral" to "slightly perturbed" (i.e. I've finally taken the "I'M AMERICAN. COME BOTHER ME!" sign off my forehead). So, if I return to the United States and I seem a little upset at first,
it's probably just because I haven't readjusted to the whole smiling thing... Don't worry!

Lesson #2: On the metro, there are good days and bad days.
It's worth noting that I'm not referring to "bad metro days" in the general sense (meaning that there are certain days when the metro does not function properly...which is also true)...but in a very personal sense. YOU will have bad experiences on the metro, and, as a rule, they will tend to be all lumped together into one horrible day. And, if you sense that it is one of these BAD days, you should limit your metro usage that day as much as possible. Allow me to illustrate. Just last week, I foolishly overlooked that I was clearly having a BAD metro day. During each and every one of my transfers, I arrived on the platform JUST in time to see the metro pulling away. Next arrival? 12 minutes. Still, I persisted and persisted...and, eventually, I thought it might be wise to use the tram near my dorm. Well, as it was a BAD metro day, the tram was unbelievably crowded, and, just as the doors were starting to close, a man with an ENORMOUS pizza box leapt onboard. Rather unfortunately, he decided to press the pizza box up against my arm for the duration of the metro ride...and, even MORE unfortunately, said pizza box was coated in nightmarishly hot grease. Wonderful. My attempts to back away were thwarted by the terrible congestion on the tram, and, when I attempted to alert le gentil Monsieur to our little problem (with a variety of phrases, such as, "Pardon!" "Excusez-moi, s'il vous plait!"...which ACTUALLY meant, "Vous me brulez le bras, Monsieur!!!"), he failed to notice the problem...until I eventually stumbled out of the tram at the next stop and decided, wisely, to walk the rest of the way home. So, as I said before, be vigilant, mesdames et messieurs! If you start to notice a series of escalating problems on the metro, I would advise you to cut your losses and walk home.

Lesson #3: Be careful when dealing with tap water.
And this is not because DRINKING tap water is at all unsafe in France. No, no. It is because water out of any faucet that I have encountered comes in exactly four different temperatures: cool-ish (with the dial on the faucet set all the way to the right), HOT (halfway between the middle and the far right), SCALDING (exactly in the middle), and FLAMES (anywhere from the middle to the far left [and, yes, I realize that "FLAMES," even in all caps, is not an adjective]). Seriously, though. Sinks in France do not produce extremely cold water, nor are they capable of producing anything that even remotely resembles WARM water. There is exactly one setting on my faucet that will release water that is kind of cold (hence, "cool-ish"), and every other setting will result in the burning of my skin (ranging from first- to third-degree burns, depending on where I set the dial on the faucet). Quite honestly, if I turn the dial all the way to the left (FLAMES), the water is too hot to use for even coffee or tea. And, basically, anything past (and, sometimes, including) the HOT setting will be terribly unpleasant to touch. Aside from motorized scooters, sinks are probably the most dangerous inventions in France nowadays. You have been warned.

Lesson #4: When it comes to the weather, you can't win...but you CAN make a valiant attempt.
To say that the weather in Paris is unpredictable would be an understatement of VAST proportions. Thus far, I have checked the weather forecast online nearly every morning...and it has been correct only a handful of times. And, more importantly, the weather can change at an obscenely rapid pace, leaving you feeling incredibly unprepared. Another illustration, perhaps? Yes, I think so. Just the other day, the forecast predicted a high of 71 degrees with overcast skies. So, as I headed off to class that day, I wore a polo shirt, jeans, and a light jacket. Well, as it turned out, when the forecast said "71 degrees and cloudy," it ACTUALLY meant "90 degrees with NO clouds whatsoever." Lovely. After suffocating for most of the day out in the heat, I trudged back to my dorm and changed into shorts and a t-shirt. Moments later, once I was halfway across town, I watched in horror as the sky turned black, the wind swept away the previously oppressive heat, and the clouds poured forth an endless stream of rain. Foiled again... So, in short, prepare for every possible weather situation by carrying an umbrella...and about four different changes of clothing. :)

Lesson #5: If it looks like mud and smells like's probably some kind of excrement.
While touring around the City of Lights, you will undoubtedly want to gaze up at all of the remarkable buildings around you--as you should! But it also might not hurt to cast one or two glances order to dodge the little clumps of animal droppings that so frequently pepper the sidewalk. Dogs are about as numerous as people in Paris (okay, SLIGHT exaggeration), and they go just about everywhere with their owners (just yesterday, an enormous German shepherd drooled on me for the entire RER ride from Châtelet-Les Halles to Cité Universitaire). Suffice to say, certain sidewalks can easily become...inundated...with "evidence" of the bountiful canine population in Paris. So, watch your step...

Well, that list of lessons hardly seems sufficient...and it also makes life in Paris seem a bit bleak (which, I assure you, it isn't). Unfortunately, I don't have time to amend or add to the list at the moment...but I imagine a more extensive list of Parisian lessons will be in order in the near future. So, for now, study hard with the list I've given you...and your next lesson will be arriving soon...!

A bientôt!

jeudi 2 juillet 2009

Mind the Gap

Before I begin this blog entry, I think it might be appropriate for me to rant briefly about the horrors of heat waves in Europe. For the majority of my time here, the temperature has topped off at about 77 degrees…on a HOT day. And with the ancient architecture and absolute lack of air conditioning in Parisian buildings, 77 degrees is nothing to laugh about. It’s hot.

Now, let’s raise that up to 90 degrees…with 70+ percent humidity…and you’re bordering on absurdity. Heat radiates off the buildings here, and the sun seems to zip around on the horizon to ensure that—no matter where you try to hide—there is absolutely NO shade.

Yes, this seems terrible…but let’s delve into the issue a bit further…and examine said effects on the Parisian metro system. To illustrate this point, I’ve whipped up a highly advanced mathematical equation (yes, impressive, I know) to calculate the exact temperature on the metro during insanely hot days in Paris:

[(Current temperature outside) x 2] – any sort of breeze or ventilation + the unrelenting stench of sweet, pustulant rot = Your daily metro experience

The term “hell hole” has never been more accurately employed, I assure you.

But, anyway, I digress. There’s really nothing you can do about the heat on the metro except close your eyes and pretend like you’re somewhere else—until the person next to you sneezes directly in your face and jolts you back to reality. Trust me. This happens.

Whew…anyway, the fires of hell aside, Paris has still been—and, I’m certain, will continue to be—an absolute joy. What’s strange, however, is the lingering sense of surrealism that I’ve felt since I arrived over a month ago. (Note: The term “surrealism” doesn’t quite seem to fit here…as it reminds me of some sort of artistic movement [e.g. impressionism]; however, since “surreality” isn’t exactly a word…”surrealism” is the closest

term I can conjure up to describe what I mean. Thank you for understanding.) It’s not that I don’t feel at ease in Paris now… I do. It’s more the feeling of, “Wow… This is amazing…but it could never be home to me.”

Before I go any further, I don’t want to give you the impression that this is any sort of negative commentary about Paris…or France…or Europe in general. I LOVE being here…but there’s just something different, something intangible about life in Europe that never seems to dissipate. It’s both unsettling and wonderful at the same time.

For a while, I had concluded that the whole “big city” factor was creating this sensation for me (and, to a certain extent, I think it is). At home, I live in a quiet suburb on a dead-end street—not overly far from the city of Pittsburgh, but far enough to be removed from the vigorous pace of life in the city. In Paris, you are hard-pressed to find a truly peaceful section of town—somewhere quiet, somewhere empty. I certainly don’t live right in the “heart” of the city, but I am often awoken in the mornings by screeches from party-goers who are just returning home at 5:30 A.M. (the time that the metro reopens in the morning). That’s city life for me here.

The sensation I am so clumsily attempting to describe, however, extends beyond that sentiment. Just yesterday, I ventured out to the Valley of Chevreuse—a peaceful, little hamlet about 30 minutes outside of the city—with my family, and the feeling still remained. Chevreuse could not have created a more striking contrast to life in Paris; the entire town seemed to be silent, save for the ever-present singing of a family of blackbirds. Golden wheat fields—occasionally splattered with shocking, red poppies—swept past the sun-baked cottages of Chevreuse, vanishing into a cloudless horizon. My mind fluttered with a variety of thoughts: This is wonderful. I am speechless.

But this could never be home.

It’s difficult for me to conclude this blog entry in a way that provides any sort of resolution. In fact—and I’m sure this has been painfully evident throughout my writing—I’m not even entirely certain what I’m trying to express. I love France, and I love the idea of living in Europe—the idea of owning one of those cottages in Chevreuse and just staring at the beauty of my surroundings for hours at a time. But there’s still a very large part of me that can’t wait to be home. I know a lot of that feeling stems from the people that I miss (perhaps in conjunction with some of the conveniences of life in America), but I can’t help but feel that there’s more to it than that.

Maybe the best way for me to sum up this journal entry is to provide a quote from an American friend who has lived in France for over seven years now.

“It’s wonderful. I love it here, and I feel like I have adapted extremely well. France is my home…but I’ll never be French. Even after years of living here, there are still daily reminders that I’m just a little step behind everyone else. It’s a constant challenge, but, for me, it’s the greatest place in the world.”

So, I’m not sure if you’re going to take anything meaningful away from this entry. I’m not sure you’re supposed to. This has just been a way for me to elaborate on a tiny part of my experience here that has, thus far, been undeveloped.

And what is there left for me to say? France is magnificent, and there are so many things that I will miss about living here. But, at the same time, I know I will be very happy at the end of my journey to be returning to the United States. Home.

mardi 23 juin 2009

La Porte de l'Enfer

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting…

Although Edgar Allen Poe may have been describing the darkness at his “chamber door” in his poem, he also could easily have been describing the entrance to any of the countless metro stations in Paris…(not in reference to absolute darkness, per se, but the feeling of despair is pretty accurate).

Anyway, my travel blog of Paris simply wouldn’t be complete without SOME sort of survival guide for the metro system.

Basically, if you attempt to drive yourself anywhere in Paris, you will die a horrible death, so you’ll be relying pretty heavily on the system of public transportation if you visit the City of Lights. And, oh, what an exciting system it is!

Though I had felt fairly confident in my ability to employ most means of public transportation, I simply could not have prepared in any way for my experiences with the Paris metro and RER systems. Everyone, especially those who don’t have a death wish (see the above note about driving), uses the metro…and the whole system is governed by a different set of rules than those that exist on the surface streets. So, I’m dedicating this blog entry to a few helpful tips I’ve noted during my experiences.

  • Say goodbye to any concept of “personal space” you might have had. At some point, regardless of what how often you frequent the metro, you will be squished. Mercilessly. There will be faces and hands and elbows pressed up against you from all sides, and you will be forced to endure this unique form of claustrophobia until you decide to dive toward the exit when your stop finally arrives. Recently, I was so firmly entrenched in a cluster of human bodies that I simply COULD NOT free myself when it was time to disembark. It was horrifying. Consider yourself warned!
  • People usually will NOT move out of your way on their own accord as you attempt to enter/exit the metro. A simple “Pardon!” at least alerts them to the fact that you will be barreling through them, and, if you find yourself facing an insurmountable wall of human beings, a more forceful “Excusez-moi, s’il vous plait!” will usually do the trick—and, if you say it with the correct tone of voice, it can work wonders! If all else fails, you may have to resort to gently pushing people aside (accompanied by the aforementioned phrases, of course). Knocking people to the ground should only be used as a last resort. :)
  • Only dive for doors if you are CERTAIN you will succeed. The metro doors are NOT the special “safety” kind of doors that will refrain from compacting you should you stand in the threshold while they are closing…so, when you hear the alarm sounding (an alarm that warns you that the doors are about to close), you should NOT still be running for the doors. Often, near the doors, there is a little warning sign showing a cartoon rabbit getting his hand pinched in the door. If the sign were entirely accurate (and…infinitely more grotesque, I suppose), it would show the rabbit being dragged alongside the speeding metro car with his whole arm trapped in between the metal doors. I have seen this happen (almost). A man once got his hand stuck in the door and had to begin running alongside the metro…until he finally freed himself…and was left behind, anyway. So, trust me. Avoiding a two-minute wait for the next metro car is NOT worth losing a limb.
  • It pays off to verify that you are going in the right direction. This may seem like a pretty elementary guideline…but…sometimes, when you’re in a hurry, you may have accidentally boarded the metro on the wrong platform. Not that I know this from personal experience or anything…
  • Be aware. When you do inevitably find yourself plastered in between foreigners, try to keep tabs on all of your belongings. Basically, if there is a hand in your pocket that ISN’T yours, you should be alarmed…and your wallet is probably now missing.
  • Try to remain calm, even if things are looking dire. I was once riding the metro at night, and the train suddenly came grinding to a halt in the middle of the tunnel…and all of the lights went out. Much to my delight, this phenomenon lasted for upwards of five minutes. As much as I led myself to believe that we were doomed, I noticed that everyone else on the train had scarcely moved at all, and no one seemed even remotely concerned. Sure enough, a few moments later, the metro was given life anew, and we arrived at the station shortly thereafter. A good rule of thumb is to avoid panicking unless EVERYONE is panicking. :)
  • Be prepared to climb/crawl your way through the station. Sometimes, no matter how careful you are, the turnstile (or automatic door) will malfunction at the entrance to the station, leaving you no other choice but to improvise (because your card will not allow you to rescan it immediately after your first attempt). So, if this happens, you will need to make a very important decision: should you climb over the turnstile or crawl under it? I’ve realized that both methods are equally embarrassing…but no one will really give it a second glance…because it happens to everyone now and then. Even if you are in full view of the RATP workers, you shouldn’t have any problems.
  • Finally, by far, my most important tip: if there is a puddle of something on the floor, it’s PROBABLY due to the fact that something disgusting is dripping from the ceiling. Avoid it. Otherwise, you will be sorry. I guarantee it.

Well, I’m sure there are a number of other important things I could warn you about…and I could probably continue this list for another hour or so, but the best way to grow comfortable with the metro system is to simply USE the metro system. And, once you get used to it—despite my foreboding Poe quote at the beginning of this blog entry—it’s really not that bad. Soon, you’ll stop noticing the crazy, singing men roaming the stairwells and the pools of what can ONLY be blood coating the floor of the platforms. Soon, you will learn to ENJOY these things. (Alright, maybe that’s going a bit far…but you get the idea.)

Happy travels!

mercredi 17 juin 2009

Et patati et patata

Recently, someone asked me what I like most about living in Paris. At the time, I think I provided some jumbled answer that involved the Eiffel Tower, camembert cheese, the French language, Notre Dame, mini-macaroons, the entire region of Montmartre, and…bread…along with about 50 other things. And, of course, this conversation was IN French, so…I’m sure my answer seemed even less coherent than how I’ve described it here. In retrospect, though, I’ve been trying to reflect on the question a bit more… What IS my favorite thing about living in Paris?

After giving it a decent amount of thought (as in…the 45 seconds it took me to type that last paragraph…), I’ve decided that (one of) my favorite thing(s) about living in Paris is the fact that EVERY activity—for me, at least—is an adventure. Clearly, not all of my time is spent climbing the 1,789 steps to the top of the Eiffel Tower (although I DID do that the other day…and it is…even more exhausting than it sounds, especially due to the fact that we were experiencing one of our first days of 80-degree weather) or roaming the catacombs beneath the city (which I have NOT done yet…but am planning on doing in the near future)…but, in the meantime, day-to-day activities provide a constant thrill for me. (Yes, I am easily amused.) Allow me to provide a few anecdotes to illustrate this point…

Going to the supermarket: For most of my trips to the supermarket, I take the tram (which, conveniently, stops right outside the entrance to my dorm building) down to Porte d’Orléans—a lively part of the city (well, lively for the 14th arrondissement, anyway) with lots of fresh fruit markets and larger grocery stores. Of course, staring out the window of the tram will, in and of itself, provide a decent amount of entertainment; just the other day, I witnessed a petite, old woman scurrying across the street with a shopping cart OVERFLOWING with full-sized baguettes—enough to last a lifetime, no doubt.

Anyway, once I am safely inside the grocery store (“Franprix” is currently my supermarché of choice), the REAL adventure begins. There are entire aisles packed with every kind of pastry you can imagine. There are about sixty different kinds of jelly. And there is always, ALWAYS an entire section of the store reserved for wine (and you can get it for as cheap as 1 euro…that is, if you’re searching for wine that tastes like paint thinner […as I’m sure you are…]). Just the other day, I spent what felt like a lifetime trying to purchase sugar (to make the instant coffee in my room almost drinkable), which is, apparently, a much harder task than one might think. There are many different kinds of sugar, and it took me a LEAST 10 minutes to deduce that “sucré en poudre” is actually what Americans call granulated sugar and NOT powdered sugar. Whoops. I also once made the mistake of purchasing little sugar pellets…but I’m convinced that they were actually little granules of rat poison (because the so-called “sugar” tasted exactly like a substance that one might use to clean one’s floor…or to simply induce vomiting)—a clever trick to knock off some foolish American tourists, I would think.

Anyway, once it’s time to purchase my groceries, I hand the cashier my money and prepare myself for the fact that they will—almost always—demand that I give them exact change (though I can rarely comply)…and, then, I do my best to stuff my groceries in my backpack…because they usually do not give you bags at the check-out in Paris. Then, I tend to choose to walk back to the dorm (in lieu of taking the tram again), and I’m often rewarded with a near-death experience involving an old man and some kind of motorized scooter.

Receiving a dinner invitation: Now, keep in mind, the dinner invitation I received last night was from my study abroad director, so it wasn’t quite as formal as a normal French dinner would be (i.e. we weren’t expected to bring flowers and chocolates for our hostess, and we weren’t expected to arrive 10-15 minutes late out of politeness…although we WERE about 20 minutes late, anyway, because the RER randomly shut down on our way to dinner…). Anyway, since the dinner was not quite as formal, I wasn’t necessarily expecting a full-blown French dinner experience. But…let’s just say…I’ve never seen—nor been expected to eat—so much food all in one meal.

We started off with drinks and hors-d’oeuvres. There were about seven different bottles of Perrier sparkling water (which is very common with French meals) and four or five different types of juice: apple juice, pineapple juice, apple raspberry litchi juice… You get the idea. And…there were about 50 different types of hors-d’oeuvres on three ENORMOUS platters. Basically, we were already full after this point. But the meal had yet to begin!

The first “course” consisted of chicken and white rice, peanut butter noodles, and a side salad (not customary French cuisine because it was cooked by one of the other American students). Anyway, after the “plat principale” (the aforementioned dishes), it was time for bread and cheese. LOTS of cheese—seven different types, to be exact. Roquefort, camembert, fromage du chevre, and…four other kinds whose names escape me. But, mind you, it was not quite as simple as simply grabbing a piece of cheese and putting it on your plate. There are RULES to this part of the meal. The cheeses must be consumed in a specific order (milder cheeses first and stronger cheeses last). They also must be sliced in a very precise manner; one must know the particular method of slicing each type of cheese, lest the host(ess) be insulted (our hostess said she could not stress this enough)! Additionally, guests are not supposed to sample more than three different types of cheese (and it is STRICTLY forbidden to take more than one slice of the same cheese) because, otherwise, it means that the main course was unfulfilling (however, we were informed that we could violate the three-cheese limit…for the sole purpose of trying all the different types).

And, FINALLY, when we felt as though we COULD NOT consume any more food, dessert arrived! Dessert for us included four different types of macaroons, coconut and pear sorbet, and baked apples, which were stuffed with raspberries, whipped cream, and dried fruit. All in all, it was AMAZING…and we were barely able to walk home afterwards. :)

Okay, well…I hadn’t intended to be QUITE this longwinded…so, I’ll wrap up the entry with one more anecdote!

Opening doors: I have yet to encounter a door in Paris that is EASY to open. Let’s see… If I come into my dormitory, I must enter a code to open the main door. Then, in the vestibule, I must enter the same code to be granted access to the lobby. From the lobby, I must—yes, you guessed it—type in that SAME code to enter the actual hall of dorm rooms. The door to my dorm room, however, is a bit trickier. It requires a key card…but said key card is actually just a plastic square with lots of holes in it. There is a slot on the door, and one MIGHT assume that you need to swipe the key card in the slot (i.e. I assumed this repeatedly when I first arrived…and could NOT understand why my room remained locked), but actually, you must leave the key card IN the door to enable the door to unlock. Only once you are safely inside can you remove the key card.

Trying to exit buildings in Paris can also prove to be a challenge. When I leave my study abroad office, I must solve various puzzles in order to exit each door (of which there are three). The first door has a latch that must be pushed to the left, and then the door (which weighs about three tons) must be pulled inward. The second door has a button AND a handle; one must depress the button and pull the handle at the same time to pass this test. And…to this day, I have no idea how to exit the third and final door. I have never accomplished this task myself; I have always relied on one of the other students to do so. One time, I was faced with the challenge alone…and I’m fairly certain that the only real solution is to scream for help until someone from outside decides to open the door and enter the building, thus freeing you from your captivity. (And that’s exactly what happened…minus the screaming.) So…yeah. Opening doors in Paris is an adventure.

Well, I’m sure I could ramble on and on about these things for another solid hour or so, but, for your sanity (and mine), I think I’ll bid you farewell for now. I’m off to make some disgusting instant coffee (with my non-rat poison sugar, mind you) and finish up my homework—two things that, unfortunately, do not involve adventures of any kind.

Au révoir!

jeudi 11 juin 2009

Trop de choses à faire

I was out walking a few minutes ago, enjoying the sunshine (yes, at 9:30 PM…because, in Paris, the sun doesn’t set until about 10…although most stores close long before that), and I found myself pondering the “list of goals” that my study abroad program asked me to create at the very beginning of our orientation week. At the time, I wrote spectacularly broad things, like “Improve my ability to speak and understand French” and “Learn more about French culture.” It was kind of a deer-in-the-headlights moment for me (they gave us about two minutes to write down our goals and pass them forward), so none of my responses were overly creative. As I walked this evening—and was nearly run down by an oncoming bicyclist (a daily experience for me)—I thought about some slightly more interesting, specific goals that I hope to fulfill before the end of my journey. And, now that I’m back in my dorm room, I figure…why not publish them in my blog for the entire world to see?

So, before I leave the City of Lights, I will…

…go at least a week without needing to consult my “Paris Pratique” map. So far, I’m not sure I’ve managed even a day.

…have the ability to get off the metro without stumbling around in bewilderment, searching for the appropriate “SORTIE” (exit) sign. It’s more confusing than you might think. I promise.

…never again board the metro without first verifying that it is, in fact, the correct line. This has already happened to me twice, and I can scarcely describe the sense of disappointment you feel when you realize that you are now twice as far away from home as you were before boarding the metro in the first place.

…learn that I CANNOT transfer to line 3 at the République station. How many times must I see the large red “X” on the map before this sinks into my brain?!

…enter the “W.C.” (bathroom) in my dorm JUST ONCE without tripping over the tiny step in the doorway. Honestly. Who thought that was a good idea?!

…understand why the little, purple bakery near Raspail refuses to sell me a café crème unless I also purchase a pastry…even though they price them individually on the menu.

…sample escargots.

…remember that, for whatever reason, European pop cans—unlike their American counterparts—are weighted on the bottom…so they make you think you still have a sip or two left…when, actually, the can is empty. Next time, I will not be fooled!

…answer “oui” to the question, “Avez-vous une carte Franprix?” (“Do you have a Franprix card?”) when I’m at the check-out in my local grocery store. In reality, this goal will never be realized…but I like to dream big.

…figure out why, on certain days, there is no hot water in the morning…and, on other days, the water from the faucet is hot enough to brew tea.

…decipher at least one word that the man at the front desk says to me, despite the fact that I’m not even entirely convinced that he speaks French. Just ONE word. That’s all I want.

…no longer fear the automatic doors in the metro stations, even though I’ve seen them mercilessly crush several people for no reason. I’m getting a bit better at quelling this fear, but there’s always that lingering thought: Will I be the next victim? Seriously. These doors are probably the scariest things I’ve encountered in Paris thus far (aside from, perhaps, the string-wielding fiends in Montmartre).

…splurge on an expensive pastry from either Laduree or Angelina’s and not feel bad about the fact that it cost me the same amount as about five meals in the local cafeteria.

And…the list could go on forever, I think. Of course, these are just my practical, day-to-day goals (excluding visiting all of the wonderful sights I intend to see). You’ll be pleased to know that I did meet one of my previous goals this morning: “…decide which metro station is the most disgusting.” The winner, you ask? Chatelet - Les Halles. It was a very tough decision…but, when I passed a man shamelessly urinating on the central flight of steps into the station, I knew I had made the right choice. Most disgusting metro station…without a doubt.

Well, I suppose that’s all for now. Better get going on that list of goals!

Oh, and here are a few more photo albums, as well:

Until next time…!