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.