Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Holiday Spritzer

It’s been drizzling snow all day here…that is to say, snow flurrying (if only my growing incapacity to speak English indicated a perfect fluency in French).  This combined with my sleepless nights of buzzing anticipation for my trip to Egypt, all too reminiscent of the Christmas Eve jitters, has put me in the holiday spirit.  Unfortunately, Paris as a city reeks of holiday blues. 
Whereas I’m doing snow dances for Snow-pocolypse, The Sequel, the French could not look more disgusted with the flurries.  The distilled looks of anger on their faces; their bent postures leaning into the ‘driving’ flakes; the disgruntled mutterings of, “This time last year…ten degrees warmer…” really puts a dent in the Christmas cheer. 
I visited the Netherlands two weekends past and found myself bicycling around (yes, bicycling—making progress on the psychological front [see the previous blog post]) a wonderland of sparkling decorations.  The Dutch evidently celebrate Christmas on December 5, so I caught the townsfolk nearly on the Eve of gift-giving, family receiving and feasting—in other words, at the apex of spirited, convivial anticipation.  Perhaps it was unfair of me to expect as much of Paris, particularly given the Dutch tradition of premature celebrations…  (Yet…in all honesty I am used to a full month of Christmas spirit between Thanksgiving weekend and New Year's Day)  At any rate, my soaring hopes for enticing store displays and quaint twinkling lights have been sourly let down.  I will say I can’t help but appreciate French frankness:

No commercial gimmicks here!  What you see is what you get:
a street for your spending (-and-regretting-come-bill-paying-time) pleasure
...but really…what is Christmas without Santa’s black-face elves, relics of colonial era racism:

This is not a scam: white Dutchman painted as black-servant-elves
circa Maastricht, Netherlands 2010

At any rate, what really sets me on edge, grinds my gears, takes some of the bubbles out of the bubbly, is the way in which the homeless people have flocked to the Paris metro stations since the cold hit.  There are hordes of them.  In some stations you will see four drunk, sleeping men in ratty sleeping bags per side of the tracks.  The gypsy women are dragging their kids to sit at their feet in the frigid entrance of the metros.  Others are posing with their puppies outside beneath awnings.  The people who give money seem all the more humble, all the more generous next to those who ignore the city’s homeless .  Moreover, in light of all of this misery, the rest of the Parisians still have the audacity to wander around with their faces all screwy like, “If only it weren’t snowing they would…”
                Anyway, this is a warning, for those visiting Paris in the next month or so: pack warm clothes, a change purse full of coins, and a song of prayer to send out for the winos in the tunnels.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Les Petits Trucs (The Little Things)

                As my first semester is drawing to an end, I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned, how I’ve changed, my ritual, egoist self-analysis.  Already I view my surrounding much more subjectively (hence the waning blog posts: what used to be interesting under an objective lens has lost its glamour).  There are a few things though that I will never forget, a few things that you ought to know before arriving.
                The first is short and sweet: museums in the city are generally closed on Tuesdays.  I cannot explain the Why of this; but there is nothing more frustrating than getting up early, all geared and ready to get cultured, only to trek across town and discover the museum is closed.  This defeat is almost always followed by a cup of pity-coffee at a neighboring café which is inevitably far over-priced (because the café is situated next to the Centre Pompidou) and which you regret buying immediately upon departure.  Do not go to museums on Tuesdays, sleep in.
                The second great conseil (advice, piece of) which I bestow to you involves public bicycles, Velibs.  This may not affect foreigners as I have been informed only people with French bank cards have access to the Velib stations… I cannot confirm this information for you because I still don’t understand how to work the bikes.  One day, though, after weeks of hassling on the part of my host parents, I decided I would try riding a bike in the Paris streets.  Having inherited some of my father’s phobia of bikes and knowing I couldn’t allow myself to sink deeper into such a ridiculous complex I approached the public bike station at Place de la Bastille with confidence and determination.  After scrutinizing a screen, pressing some buttons, inserting my bank card and pressing some more buttons I thought I was ready to go.  In fact I was, but by the time I found my bike number in the grids of bikes it was too late.  What I didn’t know was that the renter must unhook his/her bike within 60 seconds of unlocking it with their credit card or it will not release from the grid.  Terrified that the Velib headquarters was going to withdraw the €150 security deposit for unreturned bikes for a two-wheeler I never even used, I frantically called the ‘Emergency’ telephone number listed.  The woman excused me for my horrid French, gave me a secret code because I clearly didn’t comprehend which code was the obvious one for unlocking the bike and then I was off.  Still, two weeks later there was €36 deducted from my account by the Velib headquarters.  Again: do not ask me why.
                Finally but most importantly, a lesson on French social etiquette brutally delivered to me by a public bus driver: always, always, always say “bonjour” or some equivalent (“bonsoir”, “salut”, etc.) upon approaching someone in the service sector.  I was out late one night, past the hours of operation for the metro.  I will spare my parent’s fragile nerves the details of the experience, but having caught a bus in the wrong direction I finally retraced my steps so as to end up at my connection bus maybe 10 minutes from my apartment.  When the bus arrived I mounted, overcome by joy to be in a familiar neighborhood and to have survived the night.  I put my coins on the makeshift counter and looked up.  Staring at the bus driver I waited for him to hand me my ticket.  He drove on without the slightest shift in my direction so I assumed his subtle message was that I needn’t pay (my luck was on the up and up!).  I sat down two seats away.  Then, to my most profound horror, I hear the booming words of the chauffeur: “C’est pas graduit.” (It’s not free.)  His voice could not have dripped with more condescension and could not have better filled entirely the bus and the ears of the riders therein.  I re-approached the counter and in typical American defense, demanded why he hadn’t given me a ticket when I tried paying the first time.  He told me: didn’t I know how to greet people?  It was thus that I learned the hard way what everyone had been warning us all along: self-righteousness gets you nowhere, it's politesse the French bitterly await. 

Sunday, November 14, 2010

"I'm Falling Out of Enchantment..."

Allow me to begin this blog with an apology for my month long hiatus.  I was kept really very busy having no job and all of my classes cancelled for weeks due to les grèves (strikes).
France, since the day of its conception
Je rigole (just kidding).  What have I been doing: running around the city searching for my lost passport; running around the city applying for a new one; running around the city throwing money at French bureaucracy like they should be paying me hourly.  This unfortunate series of events, however, is not actually what has been keeping my fingertips away from a WordDoc like oil from water; what’s been deterring me is the knowledge that I should be informing the world about the True Grève Experience—and just not wanting to hear anymore talk about it.
Alas, I came here with an objective to reveal France’s true colors in all their nit and grit.  Thus, on this seventh of rather colorless and drizzly days in Paris I will deliver to you my humble opinion on the strikes, manifestations and general social uproar of the past weeks.
I was reading Le Monde just the other day and the Christian-Polytech-Capitalist-Liberal Claude Bebear was cited for his explanation of the odd relationship the French have with their work: they’re diligent and hard working people but despise their jobs, like to complain about how they're exhausting, and in fact “breathe paid leaves of absence.”  Why is it that the French seem to hate working more than the average person?  My hunch is that none of them are actually working at what they enjoy.  Whereas I am in my third year of university, without much of an inkling of my choice career, assuming I will stumble upon some journalist type job to occupy me for a year or two before going back to school in my mid-twenties, my French counterparts are in the last year of university, preparing to enter a two-years Masters program for a specialization that they’ve been marinating on since the ripe age of 16 when they were obligated to first lay the ground work for a conceivable career (i.e. by choosing certain schooling--vocational versus academic--and choosing certain subjects--literature, history philosophy versus math and science).  If I was mandated to pursue the hopes and dreams of my 16 year old self I would be the next Amy Winehouse right now…  Needless to say, the French want their retrait (retirement) and they want it promptly at age 60. 

A 60 year old beating the drums of war

I’ve heard that raising the retirement age is President Sarkozy’s fiscal strategy for combating recession deficits.  The French general public like to promulgate that he’s acting out of personal/political self-interest: “He just wants more money!  Fewer retirees means more money!”  The long and short of it is that the President is notorious for handing out freebies (positions in government, money, housing) to friends while simultaneously largely disregarding public opinion.  I don’t believe Sarkozy is initiating retirement reform in hopes of creating a pool of national money that he can dive into personally just after his morning baguette, kind of like I don’t believe George W. strat-e-ger-ized the 9/11 attacks – it’s not that they aren’t conniving enough, but I beg of you please: don’t overestimate the intelligence of politicians.  That being said, the French are furious.  They want their retraites and they will slander the President in whatever nonsensical way they can in the battle for retirement homes and diapers.

Why the French don't understand the concept of reducing deficits...
Also why the French don't understand the concept of working...

What really grinds my gears about this whole ordeal is this: if the government’s mind is on national fiscal responsibility and the public’s mind is on the well-being of the old folks, WHY are the French youth so intent to be involved—the debate either a) doesn’t pertain to them or b) confuses them because what kid can explain the intricacies of the current global recession (not me obviously).  Alas, these rambunctious kids, suckling revolutionary milk since birth, the blood of generations of rebels flowing through their veins, are bent upon having at least one vacation day weekly.  It is not uncommon to arrive at my university and find one entrance roped off with caution tape and all the others blockaded by mountains of desks and chairs.  Nothing like a pretense of activist fervor to justify not exercising our brains!
While I’m convinced most French kids just want to party like it’s May 1968, a serious argument for youth involvement is skyrocketing youth unemployment: Retraites pour les vieux; boulots pour les jeunes” (retirement for the old; jobs for the young).  However, the root of the problem of youth unemployment rests in French employment laws.  If a company fires an employee it must continue paying the ex-employee's salary for up to three years or until the ex-employee finds a new job.  Granted, the ex-employee must present him/herself at a bureau every month and prove he/she is searching for work, so it’s not a complete free-for-all.  However, this is a huge incentive for companies to hire well the first time and then not hire at all…for another 30 years.  Hence: youth unemployment.  Then, when gang violence erupts in the banlieue the French government gets "tough on crime" and throws some more minorities in jails.  (See also: The au Harem d’Archimed, a great film about job discrimination against Arabs in France and the resultant delinquencies of poor riff-raff.)

At any rate, I’m fatiguée’d with all of the grève’ing.  I’ll stick to America, where people function on prompt schedules, the only unexpected school holidays are snow days, and while people spend their life earnings to send their kids to school, at least there’s a chance those people enjoyed to some extent working for those life earnings.  Plus, the French just really aren’t as hard core as the American news makes them seem.  It’s really not all fun and burning buildings and smashing cars and stoning school employees—it is more often than anything else simply a hassle.
I did get interviewed by Polish News the one day I participated in the manifestations, though.  Silver lining: 30 seconds of fame.

Just your friendly neighborhood

Left, right, left right left

Sunday, October 17, 2010

It's Greener

I will declare that it is elemental to human nature to strive to possess something other than what you already have or to exist in a state other than your present situation.  Of course there are exceptions to this rule, individuals who are ‘being’ just for the precise moment and uninhibited by social constructs.  However, for the sake of argument, most people are indefinitely seeking a greener grass, a lawn where upon their arrival seems rather brown and not nearly as luscious as that yard several houses further down.  I for one am guilty of this dogged nature, living forever an hour or two down the line, planning how to make the next moment absolutely perfect and inevitably elevating my expectations to an unattainable height. 
I’ve found though, that language can in fact offer an implicit hope—though language does not promise to rain upon a desert land, it can in its own right shed a different kind of light so that at least the barren ground beneath your feet is cool enough to traverse.  I’m thinking of two linguistic examples in particular when I suggest that language provides hope.  Both examples are grounded in the verb avoir (“to have”).  Think for a minute, that which you “have” in the English language: you’ll “have” a coffee; you “have to” go.  It expresses a need or a possession.  In French its usage is much the same but in certain cases, instead of ‘being’ you will use ‘having’.  “J’ai tres faim” means directly translated, “I have hunger.”  Similarly, “J’ai peur” means directly translated, “I have fear.”  Obviously in English these statements make no sense because in English hunger and fear are states of being not items to be possessed.  Why does this grammatical structure shed a shade of hope on a condition?  Because if something is had it can also be lost; it is much more difficult to misplace an abstract concept like what it is ‘to be’.  Hasn’t the question of ‘not being’ been contemplated yet left unanswered since the 1500s (come on Shakespeare fans)?  Loss on the other hand, is associated with tangible objects.  Of course one can ‘experience’ loss—i.e. the loss of a family member—but the experience of the act of losing (the act of losing being the death; the experience being the emotions afterward) is yet separate from the moment of loss.  The loss of a person precipitates certain emotional states which have become defined as loss in the course of linguistic developments.  In fact, subsequent emotions are separate from the moment of loss, at which point a thing or person is passing from our realm of possession, be it through the grates in the sewage drain (as with keys) or the golden gates in the sky (the cat). 
“To be hungry” and “to be afraid” suggests certain durability—that is how you are.  To have these things is not pleasant but at least there is an implication that one day they may be discarded.  The language suggests one has control over his or her own poverty and anxiety, much more so than in the English language.  Of course, I’m not by any stretch of the imagination trying to suggest that an abstract concept like language (the arbitrary construction of symbols that create sound which provoke meaning to be melded into ideas) be the remedy for hunger and fear.  However, I will suggest that language can allow for a certain positive outlook which may encourage one to cultivate his/her own garden instead of running immediately to the neighbor’s only to find the tomatoes have been eaten by the squirrels.

On another note, another thing the French [youth, at least] have a lot of is affinity for the idea that 9/11 was a conspiracy by the US government.  Feel free to deliberate in my comments section.
Feel free also to leave me messages of love.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Easy Like Sunday Morning

What better way to discover the real, unfettered Paris than to befriend squatters, right? 

Squat [skwot]: to settle on or occupy property, esp. otherwise unoccupied property, without any title, right, or payment of rent, as per

I can envision the expressions of my disgruntled parents as I type…but have no fear.  You may imagine a squat to be inhabited by hobos, unfurnished, carcasses of McDonald’s trash strewn about the floor or else crack pipes.  In fact, it was apparent to me quite fast that squatting is not a practice reserved for the riff raff, street rats—at least not at this squat.  This one was filled up with young people, students trying to put themselves through school and needing cheap living in an expensive city or else artists trying to make a living off of mixed media expositions—clearly without much success.  The rooms are surprisingly clean, and I say surprisingly because kids these days so often have little concern for old fashioned values of tidiness.  The common space is well furnished and decorated with various art pieces; the basement is decked out in strobe lights fit for an epileptic fit and space for bands to play or art expositions to be exposed.  The dwellers make a meager living off of entrance fees to art shows and by running open bars at their social events.  Still, these night-life activities are much cheaper than the cost of any ‘legal’ Paris museum or club.  Another friend of mine told me that in other European countries if a building is left vacant for more than 30 days, in fact the people have the legal right to inhabit the space without paying.  Perhaps this is the case in France as well, although my friend’s apartment is getting repossessed…so perhaps not.  Either way, the whole notion of squatting drips of youthfulness and communist fervor—ah Paris!
One night this week, a rainy one begging for the world to hole up in a cozy apartment, I was at the squat with yagirls and our friend Andre was designated DJ for the night.  We listened to everything from Liszt to Damian Marley & Nas to Django Reinhardt.  Sometime in between the classical and gypsy jazz, Andre put on an artist named Georges Brassens.  His sound is akin to Reinhardt but with more folk influence.  His peak was in the 60s from what I’ve heard, but he’s remained an icon in the eyes of the French (in fact, google George Brassens and you find the park in the southern corner of the 15eme arrondissement--that’s my hood!).  I’m not quite expert enough in the French language to understand all that he says, I think a lot of his lyrics are jeu des mots (word play); but he was described to me by one of the squatters as being ‘really hardcore’.
I’ll leave it to you to decide:

To cap off my ultra-French weekend I tried my hand at cooking.  I made a simple and also well-known French dish, ratatouille.  It’s a little on the salty side but why bother pointing that out when the pictures are so pretty!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

What's Hot in the Fashion Capital Du Monde

So, I've been waiting all week for a little rant about Joan of Arc and the colorful tradition of scapegoating to come spilling out onto the page here...
Mais franchement, je trouve que je prefere discuter les possessions materielles (i.e.: frankly, it's time to talk fashion.)
If you're traveling to Paris, the following are wardrobe must-haves--and boys, you better heed this advice as well, because European men feel no shame in putting thought into their appearance. 

oxford wedges!

a military vest!

Then of course, if you can pull off lookin' as hot as Christina or Rihanna, you should be set.
Also, on the Fashion Front, went exploring today withya girl Emma for some vintage--because we've all been hearin' so much about cheap clothings and have been getting a whole lot of nothing cheap.  But we found a few cute places.  Generally speaking, the Marais and Montmartre are the neighborhoods with the most hits.  As we found, if you're in need of a good sex-shop the next vay-cay, Montmartre is also your go-to place for that.
See for yourself:

Coiffeur Vintage
32 rue de Rosiers
75004 Paris

Free ‘P’ Star
8 rue Ste-Croix-de-la-Bretonnerie
75004 Paris

Come On Eileen
16 Rue des Taillandiers
75011 Paris

Magasin MERCI
111 Blvd Beaumarchais
75003 Paris

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"This business of things almost but not quite being the same..."

The title of this week's blog is another excerpt from the honorable Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon.  For those of you who have not been followers of CB Radio since day one, this book is the Bible for Americans in Paris.  There are several other students from American University studying in the City of Love via the MICEFA exchange program; and given that we are all still being sequestered from the real world in our 3 week crash course French classes, we see a good bit of one another.  At any rate, we were grabbing baguettes of salmon at the Café Vert nearby the Sourbonne University after class and one of my friends was talking to another about a book he had been reading.  I was in lala-land for the first bit of the conversation, still in that morning haze or else focusing on not being blinded by the light reflected off the front windows of the shop or else indulging in my chocolate chip “biscuit” (cookie).  When I finally engaged myself in the world around me I was eager to hear what book my friend had on hand, this being the first move I’ve made without carting along a whole library and English books being rather expensive here.  Turns out, though, he was discussing one of two books I do actually own currently—that book being Gopnik’s.  As I said: every American’s Bible.
He is infallibly accurate in his observation though, that things are in fact quite similar here but not quite enough.  He cites “pharmacy[ies] not quite [being] drugstore[s]; brasser[ies] not quite [being] coffee shop[s].”  The metro isn’t quite the subway because you have to press a godforsaken germy button to command the doors to open.  Grocery stores are fairly ordinary except that you have to weigh your veggies and fruits on a scale and be issued a sticker to place on the plastic bag which will subsequently indicate to the cashier at the end of the shopping experience how much money you owe for your produce.  Naturally, every foreigner reaches the cashier, so eager to be free of their shopping chore and the anxiety of having to interact with the employees in an unknown language.  Then, of course to his/her greatest horror the cashier begins gesticulating wildly and speaking very quickly in that unknown language.  The poor foreign shopper becomes overcome, tosses the vegetables out of the cart like he/she might a dead bird from the front stoop, and sprints from the store after finally paying, the anxiety practically dripping down his/her leg.  Henceforth, at least for me, shopping for fruits and vegetables is tinged by the irrational fear that the experience will end in some bumbling confrontation or another.  Alas…the fall air has that brisk tinge but not quite enough of the fire-smoke aroma.  The coffee sure as hell wakes you up, but that’s because it’s actually espresso that costs 2€-3€ more than it should and gets cold within 10 minutes.  Also: the various names for coffee beverages are similar but really very misleading.  For example, if you say, “Café au lait, s’il vous plait,” you’ll get an espresso latte of sorts, with a film of froth on top.  If you say, “Cappucino, s’il vous plait,” you’ll receive a huge frothy mess, atop one shot of espresso, and you will be charged 5€.  School is still school except that the fall semester starts half way through October.
You get the picture…to say the least, I’m a bit out of sorts and feeling homesick for North Carolina falls and my kittens.
My comfort food right now is music:
  • Rory Block Gone Woman Blues
  • Los Angeles Guitar Quartet LAGQ
  • Little Dragon Machine Dreams
  • Chopin the Complete Polonaises
  • India Arie Testimony Vol. 1: Life and Relationships

Send me some pictures or post cards or music recommendations with some love.