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

Sunday, February 15, 2009