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.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Virginia is NOT for lovers when Paris is the alternative

I was forewarned and thus expecting a certain degree of culture shock upon moving to Paris, but never did I think I’d be so shocked and appalled.  In America, public displays of affection are frowned upon unless they occur during a wedding ceremony; sexual education classes devote one course—if that—to instructing kids on methods of birth control; and one must be at least 17 years of age to see a sexually charged film in theaters unaccompanied.  In France, pornos are on display at every street vendor, usually at eye level next to the Pariscope event guide and if one doesn’t feel like paying the euro to buy the magazine, one merely needs to turn on the television and wait for a commercial break.  I may exaggerate slightly—but only very slightly.  Of course, I’m not appalled at these cultural differences the way, for example, my grandmother was when I showed up for Thanksgiving dinner with an eyebrow piercing.  However, I have noticed a difference in the way that intimacy and affection are conveyed in the public domain between the Motherland (America) and the City of Romance (Paris).
me creepin hard core on the creepy lovers
Along the same vein, in my French class last week, we were discussing the stereotypes implicit in a scene from the movie Paris, Je T’aime—a film composed of 18 shorts, each set in a different arrondissement (area of the city, larger than a neighborhood but smaller than, say, a borough of NYC).   As we debated whether it’s fair to assume all Americans are fat and wear cowboy boots and that all Frenchies wear berets and are in love, the conversation evolved into one addressing the difference between America and France in manifestation of sexuality.
In fact, there are certain seemingly banal habits in France which allow for the mood within a social sphere to be more accepting of overt displays of affection.  For example, to greet someone in France—anyone, really, even strangers—one leans in and gives a peck of a kiss on both cheeks.  This is the equivalent of the American handshake.  There should be a button or bumper sticker: You had me [confused] at hello.  Many of my fellow boggled American peers also feel as though it is commonplace here to lean in very close when one is having a conversation with someone else.  What is normal behavior here would be considered a serious invasion of one’s personal bubble in America.  I shouldn’t be so surprised really, I did move to the city where the mom in the grocery store makes conversation over green-beans, the university tech support crew talk your ear of in the elevator, and the metro is designed with pairs of chairs facing one another, as if begging for their own dialogue.  It is simply French tradition to pop a squat and have a quick talk, be it with a colleague, a student, a friend or the neighborhood bird feeder.  If anonymity or privacy with strangers is impossible, conceive of how forward someone might be if he/she actually had feelings—other than those of nationalist fraternité—for me!
So, if and when you all come to Paris for a visit, refrain from packing any residual pre-teen animosity towards love-birds.  Instead, bring your sweetheart or your teddy bear; and if all else fails, grab a bottle of wine upon touchdown and go to bed with the Eiffel Tower.

nappin by the Tour Eiffel

Friday, September 10, 2010

Idioms & Idiots

I knew flying over an ocean to land--voila!--in my new destination was a mistake.  One really must dive into these things--I should've swam.  As it is, I am here and have hop, skip and jumped a whole ocean of language--verbs, adjectives, sentence construction & most importantly idioms.  What I have learned so far:

1)  When one is at the dinner table with one's family, and Maman tries to pass the veggies for the third time but one really and truly is just as stuffed as one could possibly be, one NEVER says "I'm full (je suis pleine)."  This is rude.  Judging by everyone's figures here, I can see that being full, or really being anything other than heroine-chic'ly thin is un grand faux pas.  To let Maman know that you are just fine with the two portions of veggies you've already eaten, you say "Je finis" (I'm done).  To me this sounds abrupt--but alas I guess when it comes to food us westerners are never quite finished.

2)  I'm very excited to announce that tomorrow night I am going to my first apartment party (I don't even know whether these are quite Parisienne, but I'm excited either way).  It should be a time, a good mixture of Americans and Frenchies not to mention Parisienne homosexuals, woo woo.  In describing this 'tefe' (party) to my Maman, I asked her what the word for housewarming is en francais.  She told me the word is 'pendaison de cremaillere', while doing a hanging motion about her neck.  It's quite a mouthful of a phrase to begin with, much more so if one's saying it while choking to death.  I didn't quite make the connection between such a morbid image and such a splendid night of fun.  But I later learned that it was once fashionable to hang...a piece of rope (?) from the hearth of the fire place when one moved into a new place; thus, when the first dinner party was thrown, there was this hanging...thing--so there was a connection, albeit far removed.

3)  And for the real kee-ck'er.  Today in French class the professor was asking each of us what we planned to do with our weekends.  For me, among other things--le tefe, un club du jazz, de vin--I want to check out a museum in my area.  When I told the professor this, she asked me which one but I didn't know the name because it had been recommended to me by my Maman.  So I told her, "Je ne sais pas; c'est le musee prefere de ma Maman."  And she stopped me.  What did I mean, my 'Maman'...did I mean, the lady who housed me?  Because in that case I should probably try saying ...  She continued on for two minutes, correcting mon erreur grave, telling me that saying 'ma Maman' suggested that I had been recommended the museum by a prostitute in a whore house.  I could say instead, ma copine or ma femme (my girlfriend or my woman), but that in this case I meant, la femme qui m'heberge (the woman who houses me).  So, in one fatal moment, I suggested to my professor that I either frequent whorehouses, or more likely am a lesbian.
Of course, during class I didn't fully understand her explanation of my linguistic mistake, so I laughed it off congenially.
One can only hope all the other students in the class were also busy drowning in the sea.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Sunny Sunday

My host mother is a darling woman, short and spry and young at heart, so I felt a little sheepish, waking up at noon on Sunday, just in time for her to feed me a delicious lunch. I certainly didn’t intend to so drowsily stumble upon her luncheon, in fact I didn’t expect any prepared meals for another 36 hours (oh woe.) Thus, when the smells of chicken roast burst in on my nasal passages, some southern corner of my subconscious drew the conclusion that it was that Sunday meal preceeded by a Sunday service of some sorts. Now, I know you're never supposed to discuss politics, religion, and what's the other...finances? with new friends—but in a moment of awkward silence I felt it was my obligation to provide a new subject and with my limited vocabulary I figured I could at least spew a few words related to religion (l’eglise [the church], la croix [the cross], le Dimanche [the Sunday]). So I asked if she and her husband attend church. To which she responded with gusto, “Mais oui! Nous sommes Catholique.” (woe woe woe). When I told her I am a spiritual person, quickly running out of vocabulary to explain my vague and relatively lazy religiosity, she asked: Yes, but do you believe. (crickets)

At any rate, the way that Paris shuts down on Sundays you’d think the Christians were expecting the Second Coming at their lunch table (not the miserable wretch of an unbelieving American girl). In fact, though Catholicism is the national religion, almost 1/3 of inhabitants are Atheist. Furthermore, in 1905 a law was passed to promote an entirely secular state and public sphere, separate from any religious ideology. This has manifested itself as a rationale for denying Muslim women the right to wear religious garments in public; yet…on Sundays all good shopping is closed. Jesus Christ, 1; all others, 0.

So, after my Sunday lunch I traipsed over to meet Becca and Emma in the Jewish/homosexual quarter (le Marais, troisieme arrondissement)—which is actually very lovely and does not remotely resemble a ghetto. The streets were flooded. Fashion-istas galore were ravaging the vintage shops. In the hunt for sorbet, we stumbled upon not one, but two tiny art exhibits. The first was an African and Caribbean exhibition, housed in an old stone building with a courtyard inside. If you appreciate clay boobies, this was the place for you (open until the 25th of September, you can find it at
               24 rue des Archives
               75004 Paris
or check it at http://www.lagalerieafricaine.com/). The second was tucked between a lingerie shop and a café. It was simply the first floor of a rather narrow building, with whitewashed walls showcasing contemporary art. What was cooler, though, was that there were crude wooden racks, with stacks of canvases of all various kinds of mixed media pieces, priced fairly affordably (see zem here: http://www.artgeneration.fr/) . If I ever again have access to money (a word to future travelers, warn your bank you’ll be abroad before leaving the States or they gon’ block yo ax-sass) I may very well go back and purchase something with which to decorate my new home.

the vertical garden across the street from the secret art museum

In further pursuit of la glace, we discovered that the French fancy themselves basketball players (which is almost as funny as the Iranians doing the same)...

cool stadium, huh?

France will never fuck up as bad as BP in the Gulf because their gas pumps are as small as Becca (midget size'd)...

and it is quite a majestic experience to do yoga in the Luxembourg Gardens, where your yoga mat is the grass and cigarette butts beneath your feet.