Wednesday, June 3, 2009

All Good Things Must Come to an End

The grass is always greener, goes the expression. My last few weeks in Paris have been amazing and unlike the first four months completely. With the end of school, I finally didn’t have project after paper after exam hanging over my head, and I could just go out and enjoy Paris every night. After all the stress of school and feeling like I might fail, I actually ended up with good grades. This also coincides with the fact that it took me that long to get over my timidity of speaking French. While I still wouldn't say I'm fluent, my French skills definitely improved and when asked directions on the street in French, I've been able to answer correctly every time without pausing. These last weeks I’ve met some really great Parisians and going-out partners. I wouldn’t change the first four months, though, but I’m so happy to end my Paris experience on such a high note.

The amount of tourists in Paris starting a month ago is literally astounding. ASTOUNDING. I had a few visitors stay with me in my last few weeks, including my sister Julie. She’s doing a business program in Italy for the summer, and she along with seven American friends came to Paris for the French Open. Julie and I are total opposites and we historically hadn’t gotten along, but she and I had a great time together, showing her my favorite stuff in Paris and having someone familiar around.

Brother and sister in Paris.

I’m writing this two days being back in Boston. I was really ready to be back in the States last week, back to reality, back to being able to explain my thoughts fully in my own language, back to not apologizing for my bad French every time I met someone. It’s nice not feeling stupid again. There were times in Paris I wanted to grab people and say, “I’m not stupid! I swear!” But there’s already a laundry list in my head of all the things I’ll miss.

I miss the signs at metro and bus stops that let you know how long you’ll have to wait until the next train or bus. It’s so simple but so ingenious and every city should have it. I miss that there is a café or brasserie on every single corner in Paris, and you can only get a coffee or French fries, but you can stay there for as long as you want. There isn’t a waitress coming to bug you every five minutes or people standing in a line waiting for your table. I miss the bread, oh the bread, so good. Since being back in the States, I literally haven’t been able to eat, but I think it’s because I got sick on the plane ride back. I miss bisous-ing. I miss the people watching. I miss looking at attractive people. I miss things being a normal portion. I feel so undersized here, not like a real-sized person. Even using a big tube of toothpaste makes me feel like a little kid.

So as I was so excited to be back in the states, I now miss Paris so much. It’s incredible for me to read back on entries where I didn’t like Paris. But Paris is just a fairy tale, and now I’m back in reality: a college graduate looking for a job in an economic recession. Americans romanticize Paris and France so much, in movies and TV and commercials and literature, and France works hard on propagating that image. They are a very proud people, but they have good reason for it. Living in Paris has let me confront this romantic vision that I’ve had my whole life about the city. I no longer think, “Well, if I lived in Paris, my life would be totally different…” This once in a lifetime experience will probably never happen to me again, but as Hemingway said, "Wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a movable feast."

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Another Year Older, and Un Peu Wiser

How can this be? How can I be 22 already? I actually like getting older, as I feel each year is usually better than the one before it, but I hate not having control over important things in my life, like something as significant as age. My birthday came in the middle of finals week, after one of my hardest semesters of college. It wasn't supposed to be this way, study abroad is supposed to be a breeze, but somehow taking 5 classes so I could graduate a year early in subjects I had no background in turned out to be pretty tough. After an incredibly stressful week--months, really--of papers and more papers and film projects and exams, I finally finished COLLEGE this past Friday. This whole time I've felt like I was going to fail, but as with every semester, I pull through and actually got good grades. It hasn't really sunken in, especially since so many things are changing right now. That Friday, the night of my birthday party, also marked most people's last weekend in Paris (I'm staying an extra two weeks). The night was the culmination of a lot of things--getting older, leaving Paris, the final stress of classes and now the excess energy, being done with school, now trying to figure out the next phase of my life in the midst of a recession--that came to a wonderful, needed drunken explosion. All in all a great way to celebrate the end of one phase of my life and the beginning of another, all in the most glamorous city in the world.

My birthday dinner on Wednesday night with Jess and Soo-Young at Derrière, the Moroccan restaurant from the creators of Andy Wahloo.

Heading to the club, that Friday

Popping my head in with my favorite AUP girls.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ich bin ein Berliner

Checkpoint Charlie

Yes, yes, I know that means I'm a pastry.

This weekend I went by myself to Berlin, but not entirely. It was the first trip that Soo-Young didn't accompany me on--she went to Nice instead. I stayed with a friend-of-a-friend named Lisa who lives in Wedding, a Turkish borough to the northwest of Berlin. Lisa was actually friends with Louise, who you'll remember I visited in Portsmouth a month ago. I had long wanted to go to Berlin, it was at the top of my places to see, but I can't really explain why. It fascinates me that a city can change so quickly, and I wanted to see the conflict of being capitalist today and Communist just a few decades ago. The city has a booming art scene and is actually the cheapest capital in Western Europe. I found Berlin very interesting and modern, but there was a real pervasive sadness. It wasn't a soft, happy, pretty city, like Paris, but I really liked its toughness. WWII was still EVERYWHERE, from monuments to conversation. The first night I got to Berlin, Lisa and I went to a bar that played movies every week, and of course the topic of the Czech film shown was WWII. It's really respectable that Berlin preserves so much of its sordid history where other countries try to sweep it under the rug, like how Spain pretty much pretends Franco never happened.

With Lisa

Blowing bubbles in the park

...and on the U-Bahn.

In all these cities, I try to go on the New Europe Free Tours. They are given by college graduates, usually, who move to these cities and fall in love with them and want to share their love of the cities with you--and they're free! So I of course went in Berlin, and my tour guide happened to be a UGA graduate from Atlanta! He and I bonded over the ATL, and he even recommended a cool club to me that I went to that weekend. In fact, Berlin had a lot of the same qualities as Atlanta, since they are both relatively new cities compared to the Old Europe I've been seeing. While public transportation in Berlin is light-years better than Atlanta, they both are heavily car-using cities with wide streets, and they both have an emphasis on hip-hop streetwear.

Holocaust Memorial

Though definitely an educational trip, Berlin was also so much fun. I essentially did not sleep the entire five days and went out late every night, which I loved. I hate having to rush myself, so it was nice being able to leave at 1 am or 2. And the Germans were of course so nice, saying how excited they were to "practice their English" when talking to me. So far, every German that I've met has been smart, educated, speaks incredibly good English but still tolerant, unpretentious and nice. Lisa was a fantastic host, and it's so nice to be able to make a real friend from a weekend trip.

Behind this overly-ornate church is the East Berlin Radio Tower. The radio tower was supposed to be a sign of East Germany's prosperity, but as you can see in the picture, a cross is reflected everyday in its giant Communist disco ball. Of course Communist Germany did not support religion and many excuses were made at the time for the cross, like it was a giant Communist Plus Sign.

Berlin Wall
Die World! DIE!!!

Lots of graffiti.

Sunday, May 3, 2009


Arc de Triomphe

View of La Defense from Arc de Triomphe

When I go on my trips to other cities, I try to balance seeing many of the sights, monuments and museums with getting the general feel of a place in its cafes and bars too. But in Paris, it’s so easy for me and my friends to be lazy, stick to what we like and to each other. There’s so many typically Parisian tourist things that I’ve yet to see, so this Saturday, Jess, Soo-Young and I decided to go to La Defense.

La Defense is the opposite of Paris, but it’s just right outside of city limits. It’s a futuristic business area with a giant mall, modern arch that is aligned with the Arc de Triomphe, and industrial art. There is really very little to do there, but we had the best time snapping away pictures and reveling that this weird, anti-Paris world could be so close.

From there, Jess and I walked all the way to the Arc de Triomphe, back to normal Paris, and went to the top. From there we could spot our apartments and see all of Paris sprawled out. Paris is by far the prettiest city I’ve been to, but it’s also the most uniform looking city. All the buildings are (by law) the same height, usually a similar color, with typical shops on every street. All in the Hausssman style that’s been preserved today. It’s taken me a while to be able to pick up on the different neighborhoods, because while some are definitely different, on the whole it’s just all so Paris to me.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

All the World's a Stage

When I meet French people and they ask me what university I study at in Paris, they are usually under-whelmed when I tell them the American University of Paris. First of all, they have never heard of it. Secondly, they always ask me, Why did you come to Paris to study in English at an American school? I tell them something along the lines of, That’s the only university my school would take credit for, but in reality I would fail miserably if my classes were taught in another language. Simply going to school at AUP has been a weird enough part of my trip.

AUP is an interesting place. It’s an American school with many American students, some of whom, like me, are studying there for a semester, others who fled the states immediately after high school to go to Paris. Sounds cool, but the small school sometimes feels like High School Version 2.0. I see the same people over and over and over again, in the school’s little bar/café (Amex) and in the three classroom buildings. Many of the American students are younger than me, counting their time there in semesters rather than years (a European thing, apparently). But many of the students come from around the world.

This Saturday was World’s Fair, AUP’s annual drunken festival. Since coming to AUP in January, everyone has been talking and waiting months for this event and I was wondering how World’s Fair could ever live up to the hype. Students represent their home countries—over 100 countries represented—with tables offering authentic food and an alcoholic drink. One of the school classroom buildings is transformed in the middle of a Saturday afternoon into a giant MTV Spring Break Beach House with blasting music and drunken people and hilarious costumes.

One of the rooms at World's Fair

At 5 or 6 PM, the party moved just a few blocks from the school to the Champ de Mars, the Eiffel Tower park if you will. There, AUP just acted a drunk mess some more. My school in Boston would never allow such an event, nonetheless encourage drinking. But every event I’ve gone to through AUP—since the initial clubs fair to poetry readings by esteemed writers—has had the wine flowing. I say, Keep it coming!

Maria (Left. Swedish, though representing England since she went to high school there) and Susanne (Right. German) were my student advisors when I first got to AUP. I think they're also younger than me.
With Jess, one of my best friends here.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


I writing this from the AUP library where I’m having a hard time focusing on my many papers and assignments at hand. Most prominent is a paper for my Impressionism/Post-Impressionism class about whether Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte” is politically charged or not. I’m putting so much pressure on this paper because if I don’t get a good grade on it, I fail the class. It’s so difficult being scientific about something that should be enjoyed, like art. Mainly, I just don’t want to do it. But I need to do all these papers (and make a documentary) right now because I have a friend visiting me this weekend—the week that four papers are due! Everything right now is just magnified by the fact that I’m (hopefully) going to be graduating at the end of this semester, and then having to find a job, and I have no idea what I’m going to do or where I’m going to live. It’s becoming much more of a reality to me that I may have to move back home to save up money, which I understand is normal, especially for this economy, but it just feels like failure. A month from tomorrow is my 22nd birthday. Twenty-two? How could this be? And I think I’m going to fail school! Why did no one tell me how hard AUP is?

And also while we’re at it: Why did no one tell me the sheer amount of ham I’d have to eat here? Someone really should have warned me about that.

But on another note, I love spring in Paris. Simply being outside is a legitimate way to pass your time here, whether it’s with a cheap bottle of wine on Pont Des Arts or what have you. Being able to drink outside is probably my favorite thing about Paris. That, and the excellent people watching. You can drink on the subway—my first week in Paris, I was drinking with my friend on the way to our location, and as we were exiting, policemen were checking people’s ticket stubs. I handed him mine, took a sip, he handed it back without problem and was on my way. I’ll never be able to sing the praises of outdoor drinking enough.

Today I dragged my friend Jess to Montmartre to help me film for my horrible documentary project, and it was beautiful out. Such a weird place, like a little village within Paris, yet can be so overwhelmingly consumed by tourists. I interviewed local artists there and filmed weird stuff I saw around, like a middle-aged man in the middle of the afternoon completely wasted and heckling a really lovely violinist.

All the tourists make me feel better about myself. I don’t know a lot, but I know more than them, and that’s all the satisfaction that I need.

Monday, April 6, 2009


Buckingham Palace with the Queen, y'all!

This weekend Soo-Young and I went to London, and I can report back saying London is a shameless, shameless place, and for that I loved it.

Our school had a really good deal on extra round trip tickets to London because a class trip going there wasn’t full. We snatched them and took the Eurostar. Settling into my seat, I realize that the simultaneous class trip was headed by my Art History teacher—the meanest, hardest teacher I’ve ever had—and I started to get nervous. She walks by my seat to go to the bathroom, looks at me but doesn’t acknowledge me. As I’m starting to dose off, she goes, “Robert,” from her chair rows in front in her nasally voice, asking me if I’m staying in the same hotel as the class (We didn’t). Get me off this train!

A gray morning in Hyde Park.

Soon after we touch down in London, Soo-Young and I catch a bus for Portsmouth. Yes, Portsmouth, the dirty little sailor town in the south of England. My friend Louise, a Parisian girl who lived with me in Boston for a month while she studied abroad at my university, was currently studying in Portsmouth, so I HAD to see her for the night. A few hours later, Soo-Young and I were welcomed by Louise and taken to her neighborhood gay/karaoke bar that her roommate managed.

My struggle with French is well documented in this blog, but it’s truly embarrassing when you can’t understand people who speak the same language as you. However the people in Portsmouth were so incredibly nice and friendly, and, yes, shameless. Soo-Young and I left for London early the next morning, but it was so nice to see Louise and get to know some crazy Brits.

The weekend we were in London coincided with G8 summit, so we were expecting protests, bomb scares and diverted Tube lines, but on the whole, I think we missed the madness just by a day or two. We of course also went to Topman/Topshop, kind of the whole purpose of the trip. We were there until they closed the store. Almost all the museums in London are free, so we went to the National Gallery and the Tate Modern, which I felt was really darkly themed. We went on a Free Tour which was mainly centered around the Royal Family. The Queen kind of freaks me out, she’s this omnipresent Big Brother icon. Everything is the Royal this and Royal that. It’s really no surprise dystopia novels like 1984 came from England. TV cameras monitor the whole city and you're always hearing eerie chimes and repeated announcements on overhead speakers. During the day, everyone is so orderly concerning things like standing on the right side of the escalator, but the night is a whole different story.

Trafalgar Square: The sculptor of these lion statues had never seen the animal before, so the heads is of a lion and the body is of his pet dog.
Fish and chips!

Going out in London is great. For whatever reason, I felt great about myself the whole time. I know that sounds weird, but I think it had to do with the fact that I didn’t have to apologize for speaking English. But back to the shamelessness: You see all the girls dressed so shamelessly slutty when they go out, way more than any other country I’ve seen, and end up taking off their stripper shoes at the end of the night and walking barefoot in the gross city streets. Disgusting. England shamelessly loves celebrity gossip, and they don’t feel the American guilt for loving mindless pop music.

Tate Modern

London is the masculine city to Paris’s femininity. London is industrial, big, heavy with wooded parks and known for menswear and tailoring. Again, I’m just so astounded how different cities and countries in Europe can be when they’re so geographically close.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Half-Way There: YSL, Amsterdam and Nutty Bars

Yesterday was the day my Communicating Fashion class has been waiting for all semester—an opportunity bestowed to students studying fashion design in Paris, though since we’re studying the sociology of fashion, we got to go. Our class visited the YSL Foundation. To begin with, this place is literally a church of Yves Saint Laurent. There are pictures of him everywhere and everyone there is obsessed with him. The workshop is dead quiet and completely sanitary white, giving the utmost care of vacuuming old articles of clothing with a micro vacuum and chiffon in between the vacuum head and the garment. All of a sudden half-way through the tour while we were looking at YSL’s original sketches from the 60s in a plastic protector that they said would last 200 years, one of the girls in my class completely fainted. Out of no where. It was kind of hot in the building, but no one faints just from a little heat. A French couture seamstress (though seamstress is the wrong word, I just can’t think of the French word) gave us a tour of the facility while our teacher translated. At one point the woman gave a bio for Saint Laurent’s life, but she curiously left out my favorite detail and the most important part: that Saint Laurent checked himself into a mental hospital after his time at Dior and after serving a stint in the army before starting his own line and wooing the world. To me, that’s the best part of his story. So later on in the tour, with the help of a French student, I asked her, “Didn’t Saint Laurent spend time in a psychiatric hospital?” To which she looked at me blankly. I pushed it: “I know for a fact he spent time in a hospital before showing his first collection under his name." “Oh,” she hesitated, “he was at the American hospital, but that’s all.” “I know he was in a mental hospital,” I said, still nicely though. Later on in the elevator, out of sight of the workshop, she told me that she couldn’t talk about his time there. I guess it might be sacrilegious in the House of YSL. My friends in the class got mad at me for pushing the question, but I am a journalism student and she left out the most notable part. I had to. Later we went into the temperature controlled, sealed floor where they keep nearly everything that YSL ever designed. It’s unimaginable the amount of clothes they have back there. We mainly looked at his collection from 1988-89, which is a really weird time to look if you ask me since the 80s weren’t exactly the pinnacle of chic-ness. But it was a really cool experience, being in the Church of YSL.

A few weeks ago, toward the beginning of March, I was feeling really depressed. Inexplicably but overwhelmingly depressed. I would find myself going out in huge groups of students (I wouldn’t plan it, I would meet up with a friend and all of a sudden 10 other people would be there), no plans and no where to go, and after all the bars closed, hanging out on a street corner at 5 AM, talking to jerk French guys but everyone else thinking it’s so great because they’re French. That Saturday I just left without saying bye to anyone because I was just so unhappy being there. I just felt like, What am I doing? But the tides started to change when my friend Jess had two old friends visit her for 10 days. They both studied in Paris last year and go to NYU, and we immediately all became obsessed with each other. I would go do touristy stuff with them, and it’s just so much fun to live your life as a tourist, spending a little bit more money on the special things and going out of your way to experience things. Since then, I’ve been really enjoying Paris a lot more, every single day. It’s an active enjoyment, though. I’ll be walking home past beautiful old buildings and I’ll smell bread and I have to stop myself and remind myself, Bobby, not everywhere is like this. This is why Paris is special.

I’ve been enjoying myself a lot more, I feel like I have more friends now in this second half of my time here and the beautiful weather has made everything so much better, but also because I’ve been traveling on the weekends. Last weekend, Soo-Young and I went to Amsterdam on a semi-last minute trip. When we got to Amsterdam, we first noticed literally thousands of Scottish people everywhere. We thought, Is this a popular destination for Scots? Why is everyone in kilts? But, as it turns out, there was a soccer game that weekend between Scotland and Amsterdam. Scots, at least those that go to sports games, are really just like rednecks in skirts. They were drunk from 10 AM and they were everywhere. I would close my eyes, but still all I could see was tartan. I don’t even need to visit Scotland now. One day at 11 AM this completely wasted man, late 40s or 50s, was trying to open a beer bottle with his teeth but couldn’t do it, so he handed it to his 12-year-old-looking nephew who then almost broke a tooth off trying to open it with his mouth. Even the little Scottish boys were walking around with beers, but they were all well behaved compared to their parents.

Amsterdam is a peculiar place, but not in the way you think. Soo-Young and I went on a really good free tour, and learned a lot about the city’s history, but got me thinking about the city today. For example, the Dutch were once really important centuries and centuries ago, more wealthy than England or France, yet it was short lived, they lost it and have nothing to show for it now. A lot of their policies, like those concerning marijuana and prostitution, are very tolerant and open-minded, but I think it’s just because they’ll do anything to make money. We walked by the Anne Frank House, which has become completely Disney-fied with the line to get in going around the block and a gift shop. But it’s true that the people of Amsterdam did strike and protest against the Nazis when no other major European city was. Amsterdam is out there to make money, but they’re nice as they do it. The people were all very friendly, and the city was in fact very cute and definitely grew on us by the second day. It even felt like Boston at times, like my freshman year, in a twisted way, but it didn’t feel like the Dutch retained much of their culture and everyone spoke English. We did eat a really amazing Dutch meal one night though: Dutch green pea soup with sausage, endive stompot with meatball, and baked apple. On our last day we went to a really great exhibit of Richard Avedon’s work. I always loved him, but after watching a documentary shown there about him, he may be new hero status.

This weekend Soo-Young and I are going to London because we got an excellent deal on Eurostar tickets. We’re even staying in Portsmouth for a night with my friend Louise, a Parisian girl who lived with me in Boston for a month. But due to bad planning, we happen to be going to London the same time as the G20 Summit, when all the major protests will be going on. I’m going to try to film some of it for my Making a Documentary class…if I get around to it…

My mom last week sent a care package filled with American junk food like Goldfish, Nutty Bars (a new-found favorite) and Famous Amos cookies. I’m in heaven. Though I love the delicious treats Paris has to offer, I’ve really found myself indulging in American junk food more so than when I was in America. Perhaps it’s a sense of familiarity, but I CRAVE Coca-Cola here in a way that I never did back home. In fact, I never drank Coke after high school, though being from Atlanta, it was pretty much a staple growing up. And I go to McDonalds here almost every week or two. In part because it’s cheap, and McDonalds here are nicer and don’t have the stigma attached like the ones in the States. I get all excited for trying new sandwiches, like the Chicken Mythic. With that said, though, last week I bought running shoes and running shorts. I live near the best park in Paris, and there isn’t a big running culture here so I won’t feel completely stupid and judged for going around the park like an idiot. So, guys, guess how many times I’ve gone jogging so far?

Sunday, March 29, 2009


My attempt at a pantoum, one of the most difficult poem formats, for an assignment on repetition.


Good things happen in bad towns
Under lettered lights in polluted skies,
Dreams can come true for those who believe or those
With nothing left to lose.

Under lettered lights in polluted skies,
The inaudible driver dropped me on the corner
With nothing left to lose,
Just 30 bucks in my pocket.

The inaudible driver dropped me on the corner.
I had no home, I had no friends,
Just 30 bucks in my pocket,
My father’s talents, my mother’s good looks.

I had no home, I had no friends,
Until I met Mr. Pearlstein.
My father’s talent and my mother’s good looks
Caught his attention, which isn’t easy to get.

Until I met Mr. Pearlstein
I didn’t know how to sell myself.
Caught his attention, which isn’t easy to get,
On the sandy shores of Malibu.

I didn’t know how to sell myself.
Sometimes whales beach themselves
On the sandy shores of Malibu
But no one knows why.

Sometimes whales beach themselves,
It’s hard for mammals to understand each other.
But no one knows why
Good things happen in bad towns.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The European Fairy Tale

I, like most Americans, had a very romantic view of Europe. “If only I was in Europe,” I would think, “then my whole life would be different!” We think that Europeans are so much more progressive than Americans, but in a lot of ways, I’ve found the opposite. One of my best friends here is Korean, and it’s become common for people to yell Asian stereotyped remarks at her when we go out on the weekends. These people probably come in from the burbs of Paris, but it was nonetheless SHOCKING. America is always under intense criticism about race relations—usually coming from within—but I think that because of this scrutiny, America is actually one of the best countries concerning race.

Being from the Atlanta but going to school in the Boston, I’ve also found the same phenomena occurred. The South was once a very racist region, but it was legitimately forced to confront its racism and I find it now to be way more tolerant than the North. Going to college in Boston, I overheard far, far more prejudiced things said every day by my peers. Boston may have been less racist that the South fifty years ago, but it was never forced to change, and I feel it’s still probably as racist as it was in the 1960s. The mayor of Atlanta is a black woman and no one thinks anything of it. The Massachusetts governor is black, and everyone wants a big congratulation for being so tolerant.

I also thought that Europe would be more environmentally minded. And of course some countries are and are very progressive in that stance, but certainly not France. No one I’ve talked to has EVER mentioned environmental impact.

I have to remember that European countries like France were founded on Catholic law, and I think nations like France, Spain and Italy still have some conservative leftovers from it.

But France is more open with sex. Way more open. I can turn on my TV one night that gets the basic 6 channels, and I’d be surprised not to see a sex scene in a movie being shown. And on magazine stands across the city right now is a giant, full-frontal ad for a beauty magazine with a picture of a model completely naked. It shocked me at first but I’m not even phased by it anymore because it’s EVERYWHERE.

It’s funny this romantic fairy-tale view of Europe (the whole continent, not just countries) that Americans have, especially because many of our ancestors came to the states running away from Europe. But there can be a magical quality here, of history different from our own, but not TOO different.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

50 Degrees and Sunny

My narrative poem assignment inspired by my time in Madrid.

50 Degrees and Sunny

It was one of those perfect do-nothing days: 50 degrees and sunny, sufficiently warm without sweating. The park looked unnatural with prearranged flora and last night’s sodded grass, but no one was concerned—the city was cheerful for spring. With a friend by my side and a brioche in my hand, we sat on a dewy bench surveying the strolling of older couples. It was, in fact, mainly older couples, hand-in-hand, enjoying prescribed together time outside their TV living rooms. It came as no surprise to me that my partner was plutonic. We watched from a distance another plump pair amble by on the cracked sidewalk. The trees’ shade couldn’t hide the brightness in their faces. Her face, round and wrinkled, suggested a moment forgetting the troubles of the world, the conflicts in her life, the issues of her marriage—it was the face that only a destinationless walk can bring. In that scarce Sunday moment, her next step hit the jutted cement at a right angle and her hand slipped from the man’s. We tried hard to stifle, but laughter is an unavoidable reaction to a face-first tripping. But then we noticed her husband’s worried look as her hand hovered over her mouth. At our distance, I believed her lip was bleeding. What was taking her so long to get up? I wanted to go to her, grab her by the shoulders and look her in the eye and say, “It’s okay, I’ve tripped before too,” but I didn’t know Spanish. As she struggled to get up for the longest five minutes of my do-nothing day, we walked by the couple, pretending that nothing happened, for her.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Sight from my Shared Toliet

"Please Don't Throw Anaything in the Toliets" --French management for my building

My landlady who I rent the apartment from is named Rosa. She lives in the Parisian burbs now but lived in the apartment for 8 years while in school and with her first child (carrying a baby up six flights of steps!) and now rents it out. She is extremely nice and last time I paid rent to her, she asked me what my heritage was. I told her I wasn't really sure aside from Eastern European and that I was just American. She called me a "real authentic American boy." So I talked to my dad and asked him for more specifics. I told her in an email scheduling our next rent payment, to which she replied:
Hi Bobby, Tell your father I'm from the F.B.I. ( French Bob's Investigations ) !

Love her.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Moment of Clarity: A Spring Break Story

In Boston, I had lived for a month with a Parisian girl, Louise, before she decided that the finance program she attended at my school was a waste of her money. She was great and I still keep in touch with her, and she wanted to set me up with a friend of hers in the city that would tell me of the cool places to go and tips and tricks of Paris. So the day before I left for my spring break, I met up with him for lunch. Unfortunately, this guy was every bad stereotype about the French embodied. In his too-tight blazer showing off his fat roll in the middle with shaggy hair covering his perpetually bugged-out eyes, he turned every topic we talked about into an argument of France vs. the United States. I’m in France after all, and I want to expand my horizons and learn new things, but this guy has no intentions of every living outside of his home in Paris or to overcoming his provincial thinking. He was so rude, bringing up randomly about the American girl who thought France was a city in Europe or saying how he didn’t like New Yorkers, and then at the end he paid for my two euro coffee, citing that it was because he was Parisian and polite. I wanted to kill him. I hate hypocrisy, and he was nothing but hypocritical. It was nice of him to meet me for lunch, but I don’t get why he would if he was just going to be a tool the whole time. More so, I thought Louise and him were good friends, but he didn’t even have good things to say about Louise. In the beginning of the lunch, I tried to be polite, but by the end, on the metro, I needed to get my own personal vengeance. As I figured, he being a typical Parisian, it made him really uncomfortable for me to talk to him, loudly, in an American accent no less, about idiotic things on the train. Parisians are very insecure of what others think of them in public spaces, and most people are always silent on the train, and to be talking loudly in English is mortifying. Small victories.

The lunch left me with such a bad taste of the French that I could get rid of for the whole day. The more I thought about it, the angrier I got. Why was I even here? The more I’m here, the more I believe that all the bad things said about the French are true. Of course I had heard all these things, but I wanted to believe that it would be different for me, that I could charm them over despite my lack of French, but Parisians have no interest in talking to anyone not Parisian. I just wanted to be out of France and in Spain.

So, the next day, my friend Soo-Young and I were off to sunny España. She met me at 5 AM in my metro stop because the RER there runs straight to the airport. Of course we both don’t sleep that night and we’re both in a haze, but we make our last correct train. As I walk down the platform to meet her, I see that she’s with someone. Taking the metro on the way to my stop, a Korean girl had stopped Soo-Young, noticing she was Korean too, to ask for directions to the airport. The girl knew no English, and when she found out Soo-Young was going to the airport too, she asked if she was going to Spain too. When she found out Soo-Young was, she held out her ticket, asking if she was on the same flight to Barcelona, saying that she didn’t know where she was staying once she got there. Soo-Young tells me the progression was like a scene in a movie. SY (abbreviation for convenience sake) was born in Korea but moved to California when she was 5, so she is still fluent in both languages, and throughout her whole life, she’s had to be that girl who translates for the new Korean person. She of course always does it because she’s nice, but it’s the story of her life and she absolutely hates having to do everything for these people. Our Korean’s name was Ming-Youn (I don’t know the spelling), and while she could speak French, she knew ZERO English or Spanish, yet she was traveling to Barcelona alone. She was so nice that we wanted to help her, but we soon found out that this clueless Korean girl with no Spanish or English is actually 37 years old. THIRTY-SEVEN YEARS OLD. And yet she was completely incapable, didn’t know how to do anything, and needed SY’s help for everything. So with our new travel companion, we arrived in Barcelona.

It’s hard to believe Spain and France are neighbors. Their views on life are so fundamentally different, all the more apparent to me after my horrible lunch. People are friendly and instead of hating on you for not knowing their language, they try to communicate with you despite the difference, and are still friendly on top of that. Outside of Barcelona is kind of in ruins, but exiting the Barcelona subway, the city itself is beautiful and such a pleasure getting out of grey Paris. The streets were wide and open, you could eat outside, it was sunny, just gorgeous. Barcelona doesn’t really contribute to the modern connected world but acts mainly as a tourist destination. It has a distinctive architectural vibe, and Gaudi served as the main architectural influencer on the city, creating surrealist, trippy buildings, parks and churches. The term “gaudy” is coined after him if that gives you any idea. So we check into our hostel, and of course we get Ming-Youn a bed too because she has nowhere to stay, and they of course place her in our room thinking we’re friends. In fact, the people at the hostel front desk assumed I knew Korean too. The hostels I’ve stayed in so far have been extremely nice, in great locations with clean rooms, free breakfast and computer access, but I’m not really the hostel type. Believe it or not, but I can be friendly and if I’m in the same room as someone, I’ll of course introduce myself and get to know them. But in hostels, everyone wants to know where you’re going, what you’re doing and wants to constantly do stuff with you. Unnecessary. Though some weird people, we met some cool people too. Hostels are just a cesspool for weird people.

One girl we befriended for the better was a 26-year-old Canadian who was backpacking through Europe in between employment. Her and another girl went to the market one day and made the most delicious dinner of mussels and clams and salad that I’ve had my entire trip for the four of us. Another night, the three of us needed to escape the hostel so we went walking down the main drag looking for somewhere to go out. Something in me told me to turn down one side street, so we did. I then felt the need to turn down another side street. From there we passed a hostel bar with cheap drinks, but something in me told me to go to the place a few doors down. As we got in, before I could even say anything, Soo-Young turns back to me and says, “I think it’s a gay bar!” It’s as if I was magnetically drawn without knowing it! As we got farther back in this excellently divey place, we saw that the most low-budget drag show was going on. Ugly drag queens in run-of-the-mill dresses and wigs were performing old Spanish songs we’d never heard of. It was perfect. Then the drag queens left, the cheesiest music came on and everyone sang every word aloud. One good thing for me about living in Paris, though, is that it’s taught me to try to use the country’s language even if I’m not good. Though I took Spanish in high school, it’s been so long that I’ve used it that I’ve forgotten almost all of it, but I tried anyway throughout my whole trip while I noticed many other people visiting didn’t even try.

After visiting the Picasso Museum, strolling down the main La Rambla market, doing an architectural tour of Gaudi, visiting Park Guell and a day-trip to the beautiful beach town of Sitges, it was already Saturday night and time for our 8-hour, 1 AM bus ride to Madrid. I really had a great time in Barcelona and loved the place, but I was excited to see the 24-hour-city of Madrid because every place I go to, I like to imagine myself living there. I could never live in Barcelona, but could I ever live in Madrid? Nearly everyone in Barcelona recommended a buffet place to us on our last night, so we decided to try it out. It was a nice place that locals and tourists equally ate at with good quality, normal food. In front of us in line was an American dad, from Kentucky but now living in Long Island, with his two sons. He turned around to ask us our stories and when he found out I studied journalism, he immediately went off on a random tangent about one thing he read decades ago about journalism. Afterwards, he stopped and said, “I don’t know why I just had to tell you that.” I was like, It’s okay, thinking of my own dad, like probably all American dads, who can’t filter the random thoughts from their brain to their mouths. So we stuffed our faces at the buffet like a good tourist and took the bus.

Worst idea ever. I took two Tylenol-PMs so slept uncomfortably for most of the ride, but Soo-Young puked twice in a plastic bag since there was no bathroom on the bus. Once we finally got to Madrid, I threw up. We were sick our entire first day in Madrid, horrible food poisoning I assume, and just slept the entire day. It was miserable. We were feeling mostly better by the next day. We went to the Prado museum just in time for the opening of a Francis Bacon exhibit, and it was one of the best exhibits I’ve seen in a long time. They put it together in such a good way, putting his work in chronological order of his life with explanations of his themes and own life, and instead of including sketches and stuff from his studio just because the collectors had them, they portrayed them in a way that really made sense with the exhibit. It’s a good feeling leaving an exhibit with a new favorite artist. We also went to the main street and watched the Madrid hookers—doesn’t sound thrilling but so interesting, because there were so many among the normal people and cops there too, and some of them were terrifying, like this huge Elvira looking one, but fun to make up stories about them in my head.

The whole trip SY and all of her friends in Madrid (they were doing an International Business program through Northeastern) talked of all their boring, finance-major friends from Boston with boring New England Irish names like Pat Murphy, or worse, calling them by just their last name, and the whole Madrid trip I sat through them talking about these boring people that I would have never even talked to if I was still in Boston. One of Soo-Young’s friends from Northeastern let us stay with her, which is so nice, but I felt she was kind of passive aggressive to me for no reason. I can’t explain it. I was so excited for Madrid, I thought Madrid was more like the urban offering of Spain, but in fact Madrid was remarkably smaller than Barcelona and I had a remarkably less fun time. I think I want to go back again on my own later on in life. The girl who let us stay with her, though, had a really great boyfriend named Leon who was German but had lived all over the world and knew tons of languages. He was the anti-French guy, because while Parisians like the guy I went to lunch with are the most arrogant yet know the least about the world, the ones who do really know a lot are the most accepting.

While hanging out with SY’s friends in Madrid, I had a moment of clarity: I realized I need to make the most of my time in Paris in these last three months. These people in Madrid had been living there for six months now, and yet they still didn’t know any good restaurants, never went out to eat, and hadn’t visited any of the neighborhoods in this small city, and they were content with that. These were the same majority of people who when we all lived in Boston, only hung out near school and would go to bars around campus. I didn’t want to be like that in Paris because I’ve never been like that anywhere else in my life, not in Boston, not in New York, so why in Paris? Don’t get my wrong, I actually really liked SY’s friends in Madrid, they were friendly, open and eclectic, and opting to go to school and work in a foreign city for a year is a big undertaking that deserves a lot of respect from me. But it just became very clear that I need to be myself in Paris. I realize now that I’m never going to have any Parisian friends here, and that’s fine by me, I need to just have as good as a time as I can. If that means going out to places and spending money, then I need to find a way to get money because there’s no point in staying in my tiny chambre de bonne. I only have a few months left, and I have to make the most of it. Writing this down seems pretty common sense, but it felt monumental in my food poisoning sickness.

After a Madrid metro ride, a RyanAir flight (I swear, the plane driver over the intercom always sounds like he is drunk and I never feel safe riding with RyanAir), an hour and a half bus ride from the Beauvais airport and another metro ride, I was finally home and it felt good. I really liked Spain and was so glad we chose there as our last-minute Spring Break destination, but relying on others and not being able to escape people for a week is hard for me. The bus from the airport was full of Spanish people, and while I had liked the Spanish on my trip, they really changed my mind on the bus ride back. Instead of being silent on transport like the French, Spaniards never shut up. Literally, never. Our Polish tour guide in Barcelona (who I loved) complained to us that they NEVER shut up on buses or trains, and she was right. The entire ride home everyone talked non-stop, and these (drunk?) girls were singing and chanting and clapping in the back. That probably reads as celebratory, but it was in fact really annoying and rude, which they were well aware of. The bus driver even stopped the bus to go back and tell them to shut up in French, but they just snapped back saying in Spanish that they don’t know French and to take them to Paris, and then sang louder in spite. A proper French person would never have done that, and it made me like the Spanish less. And seeing the Eiffel Tower sparkle at night from our bus window, it made me really happy to be home.

Friday, February 27, 2009

La différence fondamentale

The fundamental difference between France and America boils down to which direction they are looking in. Old Europe, as seen through France, already had its glory days. Its empire, an amazing contribution to humanity, the sciences and arts, has already peaked, and because of this, France is always looking backwards, clinging tightly to its history. America, on the other-hand, is forward-looking and thinking of what’s next. This can be a bad thing, of course, since America may not pay enough attention to its past mistakes, not learning from its history and allowing it to repeat itself. But countries like France do not contribute to our modern world the way America does. It simply preserves a slice of a past world.

It’s seen in Paris’s architecture and art: the one skyscraper, Montparnasse, is something polarizing—most Parisians don’t like its presence. Or in anything remotely new or different—the I.M. Pei Louvre Pyramids or when Jean-Claude and Christo wrapped the Pont Neuf Bridge temporarily in fabric—the Parisians have something negative to say about it.

I’m taking a Communicating Fashion course, and this is most apparent in the Haute Couture system. The French fashion system works so hard at controlling Haute Couture, to limit who is allowed to join and use the name’s exclusive cache that’s desirable around the world. But if someone in Malaysia made the exact same ridiculous outfit that John Galliano made one season before, they would look like a complete fool. It’s all about the French stamp of approval. If it’s not under the Haute Couture name, it’s not high fashion. This type of control dates back for centuries, as seen in the art world. The French Academy had strict control over the art being shown and sold, all of it in the Roman tradition and NONE of it dealing with contemporary life (until the Impressionists). France works so hard at maintaining control over its culture.

It’s a fantastic culture, though, and I totally understand why they are so adamant about preserving it. And with the whole world being globalized, it’s nice to know that France, even as a part of the EU, will remain truly French, even if it gets on my nerves some days.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Slow walking

I’ve started to notice myself walking slower in the last week or two. No one here is ever in a rush, and everyone is walking at a saunter at best. It really annoyed me at first because I like to rush to my destination, weave in and out of pedestrians like traffic, and stomp by with my iPod on—though few people here use iPods, most people read on the metro which is definitely a good quality, but how do you avoid eye contact with the creeper sitting across from you on the train without an iPod? Still can’t live without my iPod, and I’m still always rushing on my way to school as I’m of course running late every day. But it’s simply more than Parisians being slower walkers—they are inconsiderate walkers. This is the most evident when boarding the metro. First off, people don’t stand to the side of the doors and let people off before boarding, they just start getting on. Common courtesy if you ask me. Next, when they are getting on, they take their sweet time even though the doors are closing and there are people behind them. It’s just very rude. It's nice to relax, but it still annoys me time to time how slowly people walk here, but maybe it’s just because they need their concentration to avoid all the dog shit on the ground.

Another Parisian habit that still shocks me is when I see parents smoking near their babies. People will not only be pushing strollers but physically holding their baby while smoking. Scandalous.

But one of the best things about Paris is how attractive their service people are. Bus drivers, male and female, are young to middle-aged, attractive and friendly. People that you get sandwiches from are wearing nice turtlenecks and have their hair done. I don’t know how to say this without sounding uppity, but in America, service people are the grossest, most ghetto people you can imagine. It’s a delight to be serviced by these fine Parisians!

Yesterday my friend and I went to the Musee de Luxembourg, right near me in the Jardin de Luxembourg, for the last day of the “De Miro a Warhol” (From Miro to Warhol) exhibit. After interning at Interview Magazine where Warhols are on all the walls, not to mention seeing his and Miro’s work at MOMA and other museums, I figured I’d seen a good chunk of his work. And I was right. The exhibit was a disappointment: in fact, it barely had any Miro or Warhol, and the works did not have any coherent connection between them except they were all owned by this one rich art collector, which is not enough of a theme for me. I did buy a calendar of the exhibit on sale for only two euros though, which is great to keep track of my limited time here. I LOVE art museum gift shops almost more than regular stores. I suppose I’m really disappointed about the exhibit because I am totally cheap here and spending money on disappointing things always has me thinking of how I could have better spent that money, kind of like going out.

The first two weeks I got here, I went out a lot and would regularly stay out until 5 or 6 AM, but I feel like I haven’t gone out in a while. Paris is a huge city with a lot I still have yet to see, but I just feel like Paris is a tease wherever I’ve gone out so far, and as I said, spending money on disappointing things makes you wish you just spent 3.5 euros on a cheap bottle of wine and laid low at home.

But there is still so, so, so much I have to see, but this is my month for traveling. Every week my Impressionism class has been going to the Musee D’Orsay and this week my Communicating Fashion class visited the Musee Gallerie. With Spring Break this week and a one-way ticket to Barcelona, I’m excited to explore more of Europe before all my midterms, final papers and final exams take into effect April and May.

I was never a freak about speaking French—I wanted to be able to get by, and that’s all I was striving for. But since going to Stockholm where everyone spoke perfect English and it was just so easy, I’ve really stopped caring about learning French. I’m not saying this is a good thing at all, just a signal to the world that I’m kind of over trying.

Don’t get the wrong idea, I do like my life here, and for better or for worse I’ve already fallen into a pattern of living. I go to school and eat a cheap baguette sandwich for lunch at the university café for 2 euros, and when class is over at 6:30 on Mondays and Wednesdays (plus Tuesdays because I’m doing stuff around campus), I’m starving, so on my way to the bus stop at Ecole Militaire I pick up a baguette (one euro) which I start to immediately stuff my face with on my way to the bus, on the bus, and on my way home. I make pasta, eat cheese and wine, and have my pasta with the leftover third of baguette. While Paris is an easy city to live in (aside from the difficult language barrier), I will always feel like a visitor here. I will never feel like a habitant of Paris, only a foreigner. And for that I’m anxious to be a foreigner in other countries of Europe.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

I love Slutreas--and Stockholm at Large

This weekend three friends and I visited the hipster haven of Stockholm, Sweden. I'd long wanted to go to Stockholm since many of my favorite brands, like Cheap Monday and Acne, are from there. At first we were planning to go to Venice for Carnivale, but we discovered flights that weekend were expensive, and Ryanair had a cheap deal to Stockholm, everything seemed to fall into place.

Getting to Stockholm was a bit of a pain. After first waking up early and taking the metro to Port Maillot in Paris, we got to the bus station literally seconds before it left. The bus (which cost 13 euros) took an hour and a half to get to the Beauvais airport, then an hour and a half flight outside Stockholm and then another hour and a half bus to the city. That's the problem with budget travel--they take you so far out of the city that you end up having to pay more to get into the city.

Every store in the city had signs for "SLUTREA." Even though I know it means Sale, I couldn't help but laugh every time. As if you need that extra slap when you call someone a slut, the adding of "rea" like an STD really does the trick. I live for slutreas. Shopping in Stockholm is better than Paris, in my opinion, because it's more my style and my budget. I got a pair of green Cheap Mondays and briefs from the Weekday store for only $15!

Changing of the guards in Gamia Stan

Jess, Soo-Young and I in Sodermalm.

Ice-skating on Valentine's Day in Normalm.

The food in Stockholm was also some of my favorite in Europe so far--meatballs, awesome sandwiches, salmon lox, lingonberries and chocolates. Stockholm as a city is just really pretty. It's called the Venice of the North because it's a set of connecting little islands, like Gamia Stan (the Old City) and Sodermalm (the cool, younger area), and it's never been destroyed in any wars--a fact which I referred to this week in my poetry class. Our assignment was to write a descriptive poem about a piece of art, so I wrote about an over-sized gun statue with the barrel twisted into a knot. It made me think of Bjork's "Hunter" when she sings, "I thought I could organize freedom--how Scandinavian of me."

Sculpture in Stockholm that was the basis of my poetry assignment.

Hearts rising from Soo-Young on Valentine's Day weekend.

People in Stockholm were very friendly and all spoke English. The greeting in Sweden is "Hej," pronounced "Hey," which sounds like everyone is just being really informal with you. You answer back in English because you forget that it's actually Swedish. The hostel we stayed in was so accomodating, lively and friendly, but the night life was very strange. Most of the clubs were 23 plus and 25 plus, so we only went to a bar. I think I liked Stockholm the best of everyone I traveled with because it was so relaxing for me to speak English and not struggle with a foreign language. It made me not want to go back to Paris where I'm constantly flustered. On the metro home from the airport, immediately a homeless man sits next to me with a bloody hand mumbling in French. Yup--back in Paris.

A map in the train station. Is this how Scandinavia views the world at large?

Traveling with people can be really hard. I went with four friends, but in groups, you are connected through a mutual friend to someone who you really share no common interests. I'm the decision maker, always, and the one with the loudest opinions, so I usually take charge of traveling, but I feel bad for those who don't get what they want from a trip. Last night Soo-Young and I booked a one-way ticket to Barcelona for Spring Break (which is next week). We don't know where we're staying, what we're doing or how we're leaving, but we know that we'll be enjoying ourselves in Spain!
Pictures taken by Jessica Basil