Saturday, January 31, 2009

Versailles and Montmartre in Pictures

Versailles looking as picturesque as ever.

There I am!
My friend Soo-Young and Danielle with me by the solid-gold gates. They're both from Northeastern and even my age though we didn't know each other before.

Soo-Young being kawaii with our audio-tour headset in the palace.

Our tarnished reflection in the hall of mirrors.

Hall of Mirrors: So fancy.
Marie Antoinette 's bed, where she publicly gave birth in front of all of the French aristocracy.

It's interesting to remember that during the time of Marie Antoinette in Versailles was also the birth of America. France had a great deal to do with the American Revolution, including this man, whom Lafayette St. in New York was named after. Then he brought back many of the ideas from the American Rev. to France. Many American institutions, like the Rockefellers, fund the Versailles Palace today, and there is a definite connection between the two countries.

The expansive gardens.

Cue the Marie Antoinette soundtrack.

Checking out Montmartre later that weekend.

Cathedral at Montmartre
And finally a riverboat tour of the Seine

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The trap of the restaurant conversation

Last Sunday I had completely gone through the food at my apartment, which was pretty sparse to begin with. Almost all stores in Paris are closed on Sunday, so I was planning to go grocery shopping the next day after classes. After getting out of class at 6:15, I ended up using the computers on campus for the next four hours, chatting and catching up on sites. I probably could have stayed longer but the building personnel told me to wrap it up. By the time I left to go home, I was starving, but since this is Paris, all the stores close early, 10 at the very latest. Even my little convenience store Proxi was closed (probably taking a long weekend). I walked up and down my block on both sides of the street looking for food until I get to Delice Tokyo, a sushi restaurant. A guy on a motorcycle went in, so I followed.

The host said something to me in French, and I, puppy-dog-eyed, responded, “A emporter, s’il vous plait,” meaning, “take out please.” He looked at the other hostess, and then in English said, “Okay sit down.” I realize now he probably was telling me the restaurant was closing, and I realize now that the guy on the motorcycle was a delivery person, but I was hungry! I ordered three normal rolls, the kind you could get cheap at any decent grocery store in America, and yet it was 13.80 euros—that’s about $18. For crap sushi. But I was just grateful to be fed.

This restaurant conversation is a frequent trap I fall into. I can order at bars or cafes in French, and be understood, and I feel so proud and accomplished. But then they’ll respond back in French and I have no idea what they are saying. No clue. It’s even harder when they’re speaking French through an Asian accent, but luckily names for maki rolls seem to be the same internationally, except probably for Japan.

Because I was in the neighborhood on Tuesday, I finally went grocery shopping at Monoprix. Monoprix is kind of like a really nice Target with groceries, but all really nice. I bought peanut butter there, which is such a find in Paris, and it was the most expensive thing I bought. But then after stocking up on groceries, I seemed to think the Monoprix was closer to my apartment than it really was—it was essentially three RER stops away! Still, I walked the straight shot home. My arm was about to fall off by the time I came to my building, especially after dragging the groceries up 6 flights of stairs. Now, I’m eating this really excellent cheese I got from there after dinner—it’s delicious—but I ran out of wine last night and am drinking it with water—a big Frenchie no-no!

The Metro workers, and possibly the public sector as a whole, are supposed to strike tomorrow. My Impressionism/Post-Impressionism class is supposed to go to the Musee D’Orsay tomorrow, but since we’re going nearly every Thursday, it’s not a great loss, but it will make it a pain getting around if I have to walk to and from school. Impressionism is my hardest class for sure—it’s a 300 level art history class, and the last time I took an art history class was high school. I never liked Impressionism and always thought it was a very suburban mom genre, perhaps because my mom likes it, but it is such a Paris-centric period in art and really teaching me so much about the city. The teacher is tough though—she means business.

I’m also taking Creative Writing Poetry, which is really nice to get my creative juices going after four years of formulaic journalism writing; Film Noir, which is watching and discussing movies; Making a Documentary, where we watch documentaries and create one by the end of the semester; and Communicating Fashion, where we talk about the positive and negative but always powerful role fashion has played throughout history and today. I think it's my favorite class. I’m taking five classes so this can be my last semester of college. Graduation a full year early—go out with a bang, I say!

For my Poetry class, our first assignment was to write a lyric poem about one specific thing. Mine, below, is about my apartment:

Hidden at the top of the forbidden tower
Up ceaseless flights of shallow steps,
And past the vacant marble tribute to
A life kept separate from those below,

Through the locked entryway
And the coded door of secret numbers,
Like an alligator-filled moat protecting a rotting kingdom,
Combinations thought up by an unknown genius,

Lies a fifteen-square-meter cell.
Expensive but free to leave as you please,
Compartments in a honeycomb.
Bees with no Queen.

The RER moves under me, and my foundation shakes.
Cigarette smoke permeates from the sides or below
But not from my window. Voices echo down the halls,
Reminding me of how alien I am.

They say after years of prison life,
It becomes all the prisoner knows.
Toy car ambulances scramble by,
But who is hurt?

My legs burn--
But in a good way.
The dead bolt clanks to the right,
And I dismantle today’s attempt at armor.

After sidewalk pretense and miscommunication,
Seven-dollar baguettes and wet socks,
A warm glow comes on and familiar sounds set in,
And I forget where I am.

Going to school at AUP, aside from being in Paris, is a very different type of school than I’m used to. It’s very small, and though it’s in a big city, social life seems to revolve around the school. It has three main buildings in the 7th arrondisment and a small student body, comprised heavily by visiting students. That means the full-time students really stick together and everyone knows everyone. There is a bar/cafĂ© in the school that people go to all the time—even I go since they have a good, cheap lunch—and there are weekly events that everyone goes to. I’m usually very anti, but since this is essentially my last semester of college, I’ve let my judgment down and given the campus life a chance, for now... Full-time AUP students, on the other hand, are a whole nother story.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Difference with Paris Style and Why I'm Proud to be an American

I never knew why Paris was called the City of Lights, given the number of fluorescent signs in other cities like New York or Tokyo or even Las Vegas, but I finally realize Parisians love to put cute, sparkly lights on just about everything. Every night the Eiffel Tower is totally sparkly, as is the Hotel de Ville across the Seine. The Eiffel Tower even shines like a lighthouse (borderline cheesy) across the city. The sparkly lights aren’t glaring and seizure-inducing like other urban centers—it’s just cute.

Paris should rename itself from the City of Lights to the City of Scarves. Scarves are truly an integral part of living here that I have fully embraced. My roommate Marie in Boston while helping me pack for Paris (i.e. watching me freak out while I put everything I own into boxes) would only let me bring one scarf. She said, What is Paris if not a place to buy scarves? I’ve yet to buy more, but I desperately need to. Scarves here aren’t just something you wear outside to protect from the cold—you never take them off. Not in a restaurant while eating or in classes or in a bar, your scarf is a crucial part of your outfit that’s both stylish and totally cozy. I’ve been wearing my same one every single day.

All the stereotypes about Paris are true. Everyone eats baguettes that they pick up on their way from work, no one smiles in public places like the metro yet you’re expected to be very polite when dealing with strangers, and everyone is really, really chic. Not so much fashionable as they are chic. Parisians really do have that “je ne sais quoi” that even when they look totally blah, they just look so COOL! I can’t explain it, but I’m jealous. I see 6-year-old boys all the time that are dressed so much cooler than I ever will.

But everything in Paris is so expensive. It’s no mystery why everyone looks so chic when there literally is no option to buy cheap clothes. It’s just not even an option here. I wanted just some cheap Hanes undershirts, but I really think I’d have to go far out to the burbs to get them. Maybe that’s the way it should be, though, to take away the option of looking disgusting. The world would be a much better place.

New York and Paris have such different styles. There really isn’t much diversity in fashion here, it’s all about dark colors, clean lines and looking chic. Everyone looks pretty much the same here. New York has so many different styles, a lot more streetwear, and a general rebelliousness not found here. In New York, you always know that wherever you go, there WILL be someone weirder than you, so you can go as crazy as you want in dressing and it won’t even be shocking. Trends exist much more in NY, where there’s more of an emphasis on what’s in style right now. I think in NY, there’s kind of a survival mode and people dress much tougher to project that image, while with the quaintness and grandeur of Paris, people here are much more simple and chic. Sometimes Parisians even wear the same outfit a few days in a row.

But this is a very exciting time to be an American in Paris. This Tuesday, I, along with the rest of the world, celebrated Obama’s inauguration into the White House. My family all warned me before going to Paris that the French did not like Americans, but this event marks a real change for how the French view us in almost a decade, and it’s pretty special to feel proud to be an American while living here. I first went with some friends to a New York-style bar here that was celebrating the occasion with Obama-themed shots, but it was so crowded that they weren’t letting people in. My friend who did get in, though, actually made it to the CNN website (Image 7) of celebrations around the world. Instead we went over to another friend’s apartment, who is half American and half French, and it really got me thinking how anyone of any background can connect to Obama’s status as an outsider. It bothered me at first that he’s half-black/half-white, and everyone was referring to him as the first black president. But in retrospect, his not belonging completely to either group makes him that much more of an underdog, and any person around the world who has ever felt like an outsider (which I can safely assume is the majority) can relate to him. It’s a very exciting time.

Being at AUP, there are people studying here from around the world, and they often ask where I’m from. They’ll be Swedish, Polish, Saudi Arabian, and it’s a very strange sensation for me to identify as an American. I know I am one, but whenever I’m asked where I’m from, I’ve always answered Atlanta, Georgia. Or, that I go to school in Boston. But never, I’m from America.

So far, in my almost two weeks here, I’ve found that it’s really easy to live an American life in Paris. That’s definitely not my goal in my time living here, but it’s easy to surround yourself with other Americans, use English in stores and go to English-speaking bars. Often in shops, I start to use my poor French and they immediately break in with English just to end the awkward conversation. That’s not the case for my grocery store, though, where everyone--both employees and customers--definitely think I’m retarded. I fumble with French every day, but I finally bought a French-English dictionary and it’s given me a new lease on life. Now, next time I need to go to the post office, I’ll stay up all the night before memorizing the simple words I need to use by heart before going to buy stamps (which France does not use stamps anymore! Hello! Was anyone going to tell me??)

I haven’t really felt the recession here the way it was so all pervasive in America. No one really talks about it and it’s not really brought up on the French news like it was nightly in the States. Paris is a really cute city, but I can’t help but compare it to New York. I’m enjoying my time here, but it’s really validating my love for New York.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Gimme Shelter

A little over one full week in Paris, and so much has happened. If this pace keeps up, it will be a jam-packed five months for me in France. It all began last Saturday after a draining flight from Boston and a layover in London. For the first half of the week, I (along with the other visiting students to the American University of Paris) had been staying at the FIAP. I was desperate to get out of there and the American student bubble that surrounded it and finally find my own place. Of course that was easier said than done.

I opted to live in a “chambre de bonne,” or a former maid’s quarters converted into a tiny single studio apartment at the top floor of most Parisian buildings. Since I had turned in all my housing forms early (for once), my AUP housing meeting was scheduled at a prime time and I was sure I was going to get an excellent place. Monday morning I went to talk with the advisors, and, after telling her my reasonable budget and expressing my easy-going nature, she sent me to what I lovingly refer to as the apartment from Le Hell. In retrospect, I think my easy-going nature was my first mistake. I like to think I’m a fairly low-maintenance person, comparably, and while I may be fussy about somethings, that’s only to the people that I’m close with--not a housing advisor. And while bitchy, demanding girls from New Jersey (I’m assuming) got placed in amazing apartments, I think my advisor thought I was on a tighter budget than I really was and sent me off to a chambre de bonne off a side street off a side street near an elementary school.

It was horrific. First, this room, including a shower and kitchenette, not including a shared toilet down the hall, measured to be nine square meters. That’s roughly 27 square feet. I’ve lived in a smallish apartment before in New York with a tiny bathroom—my NY bathroom was literally the size of one you’d find on a train—but this shower was a plastic tube smack dab in the middle of the room. To the left of it was a dingy kitchenette and the right a bed with two shelves above it and nothing else.

Everyone was telling me to be realistic about my living situation, which I thought I was, and that my room would no doubt be small, but THIS small? This was the first apartment I’d seen in Paris, so I had nothing to compare it to, and we were encouraged to take the first apartment on the spot or risk moving to the end of the waiting list and getting the reject apartments if there were any. This made me think, would rejecting this place subject me to apartments even worse than this? Could that even be possible? I didn’t want to be difficult, but I could not happily live there. So to the bottom of the list I went.

I waited around the housing office for the rest of the day but my next meeting would be the next day. Apartments were on the tips of everyone at AUP’s tongues, and the constant questions about the apartment I had seen was stressing me out. At the end of Tuesday, the main housing coordinator came out to inform me that there were very little housing options left, and that my best bet may be to stay with a host family.

Chills went down my spine. The last family I lived with was my own, and even that didn’t go so well. I love my family and all, but our relationship on both ends is infinitely better since I moved away for college. But I felt desperate for somewhere to live, to make Paris my own and to finally escape the FIAP, so I gave the home stay a chance. A student advisor and I went to the fifth arrondisment and entered a beautiful old building with a classic looking elevator. As we got out on the fifth floor, a tiny old woman, at least into her 70s, with white hair greeted us at the door. Immediately entering the apartment, the place smelled like old woman. We checked out my potential room, which was roomy with a connecting bathroom, but the apartment felt like a museum of Parisian collectables. It was beautiful but I would be afraid to touch anything. The woman spoke no English, which was fine because it would help me enhance my elementary French skills, but she presumptuously kept calling me Robert (“Rah-berrh”). Name is a huge part of your identity, and just because I was in a different country did not mean I was going to change who I was. The whole living situation seemed so intrusive to me—if I saw this little old lady sitting alone in her parlor, am I supposed to ignore her? What about if I get home late at night, do I have to tiptoe around like I’m in trouble with my parents? Again, I could not happily live here for five months, so I had to turn it down.

I had no internet access, no cell phone, and no apartment. I felt ungrounded in a foreign city with seemingly no housing options left. What was I to do? I was one of the last ones still not housed. I considered myself to be an agreeable person, what was wrong with me? After a frantic, and expensive, phone call to my parents, in which my mom blatantly told me to get a grip, I decided to keep up the housing search. It was now day three, and I had talked to all the housing advisors available. Finally, though, one had an idea. A student visiting from George Washington University had been unfairly holding on to more than one housing option, against the rules, and it could FINALLY be the right apartment for me. I took a look at it, and it was. At 15 square meters, or about 45 square feet, it was in the 5th arrondisment right below the Jardin du Luxembourg, like Paris’s answer to Union Square, or so my friend Swati tells me. It’s in the Latin Quarter, home to some of history’s most notable intellectuals, and it’s near a lot of nightlife on Boulevard Saint-Germain. I have a TV with 6 French channels, which I am loving watching French commercials, and a park outside my door. I don’t have Internet, as France is pretty slow on the technology bandwagon, and when I need to use the bathroom, I try to hold it because I dread going to the shared bathroom and potentially running into someone down the hall, but other than that I love it.

Agrandir le plan

It’s a bit of a trek from school, but with everyone else living close to campus, I’m excited to explore a part of the city that will be my own and separate from AUP. And while everything here is so expensive, I ‘ve taken to eating street food, the effects of which are starting to catch up with me, but the best panini’s I’ve found are down the street from my house. Got a French phone. Got a French apartment. Now I just need to find some French friends.