Friday, February 29, 2008

Dollar vs. Euro, Round One

Like most Americans planning a trip to Europe these days, I spent a good portion of pre-departure time obsessively checking the dollar/euro exchange rate. The news was not good. Record highs for the euro, record declines for the dollar - wasn't it just a few short years ago that our money was worth something? To make matters worse, everyone who knows that you are going to Europe feels the need to tell you how expensive it's going to be. Thanks, but, I'm already on my third monetary nervous breakdown, I don't need your help getting to the fourth.

Well, I'm here to tell you that it's not as bad as you imagine, and not nearly as bad as what everyone tells you. For example, I went to a movie the other day. The ticket cost 7.50 euro, which is roughly 11 dollars and some change. Now, for someone living in certain parts of the US (Minnesota, for example), 11 dollars might seem a bit high. But I live in DC now, where I pay 10 dollars to see a flick at the nothing special Ballston Commons Theater. New Yorkers pay even more, as, I'm sure, do movie goers in other areas. I'm in Paris. Paying one dollar more than usual doesn't seem like such a bad deal. The same is true for other items I've purchased -the prices didn't shock me one bit.

Of course, a nice dinner out might run you a bit high, and you can certainly find expensive items here, but that's really true of anywhere. If you're creative, look for deals like happy hours (they do exist in Paris!), reasonably priced prix fixe dinners, search for good prices at clothing stores, and buy picnic lunches at one of the many Parisian markets, the dollar doesn't seem so pathetic. Maybe I'm living in a fantasy world. After all, I don't have to rent a hotel or take every meal out like most tourists will have to do; those are expensive propositions. I guess I just feel that with a little effort - kind of like the one made by college students all over the world - you can live well without breaking the bank in Paris.

Then again, I just heard that the euro reached another high against the dollar...

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Car Envy

This little blue car has been parked out in front of my apartment for about a week now. He has a for sale sign on his back window, and it makes me think about how fun it would be to own such a vehicle. Paris is great for people watching, but it's also not a bad place to do some car watching. For example, I regularly see old Mini Coopers like the one driven by Jason Bourne through the streets of Paris in the Bourne Identity. They're adorable. You can also see old Citroëns, classic Volkswagens, and of course, plenty of teeny tiny Smart Cars.

What you don't see are big cars. The biggest I've seen have been the occasional minivan, and even that is quite rare. But it is unbelievably refreshing to not have to look at a single enormous pickup truck, Escalade, or, heaven forbid, a Hummer. I wonder though: would French people buy such monstrosities if it gas were cheaper, the roadways were wider, and ample parking space was easier to come by? Maybe. In the meantime, small cars will continue to rule the streets of Paris, and I will continue to admire them.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Clichés Can Be Fun

I left my apartment Monday night and headed for the bridge that takes me to the Pont de Sèvres metro stop. As I turned out of the stairs that connect Rue Brancas with Grande Rue, I thought I caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, all lit up, and looking as awe-inspiring as the first time I saw it nearly six and half years ago. At first, I didn't believe my eyes. I had already taken that route more than a dozen times since arriving in Paris and I had never seen the Eiffel Tower peeking out from behind the buildings like that. As I neared the bridge, I kept trying to see it again, and finally, I did. This time, there was no mistaking it.

I know it's a bit of a cliché, and I've already seen it multiple times before, but I still had to struggle to suppress the urge to scream and jump up and down out of excitement! I mean, it's the Eiffel Tower! It conjures up so many thoughts of romance, adventure, and beauty, especially at night when glows a kind of orange-yellow color and shines it's rotating searchlight over Paris. It gives the whole city a kind of magical feeling.

Later that night, I got to see it at the top of the hour, which is when the tour sheds its regular lighting in favor of hundreds of bright white lights that sparkle like diamonds. This time, I didn't hold back my delight.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Stating the Obvious

A little background: Sèvres is a calm, prosperous suburb southwest of Paris, just across the Seine. Compared to it's world-famous neighbor, it's a rather small town with a blink-and-you'll-miss-it city center, a beautiful park, an active citizenry, a ceramics museum, and a handful of cute shops. It also has one main street that takes drivers from the bridge to the city center...which is where today's post comes in.

This particular street is called "Grande Rue." Seriously. For those not familiar with French, Grande Rue literally means "Big Street." I love that the big street is actually called Big Street. It's succinct, unpretentious, and rather descriptive. I wondered if this was a common occurrence in France. Were other street names as obvious as this one? Is there a "Petitie Rue" out there somewhere? As it turns out, the French are just as baffled by this choice in street name as I am. While giving me a ride home from central Paris, a French friend did a double take as I was giving directions to my apartment. "Grande Rue? Can you be more specific?" No, actually, I can't!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Au Marché

This morning I decided to check out the Sèvres market, which takes place everyday of the week except Monday and Thursday. I didn't quite know what to expect, and thought it might be just a couple of outdoor stands selling fruit, vegetables, and cheese. I also wasn't entirely sure where it was located. After following a trail of men and women with their rolling carts loaded up with wares presumably purchased at the market, I found what I was looking for, and boy, was I in for a surprise. The market was fantastic...and big! It even had it's own enclosed area - a permanent spot reserved for the merchants and buyers who frequent Sèvres. There were multiple stands selling flowers, vegetables, cheese, fish, meat, bread, and a host of other products (can't wait to go back for some delicious-looking olives). I took a couple of spins around the place, admiring all that there was to see, hear, and smell. Many of the sellers gave me a nice "Bonjour, Mademoiselle!" as I passed. At first I thought they might have been fooled into thinking I was French, but I'm pretty sure I gave myself away by whipping out a camera and taking pictures of lettuce.

Saturday, February 23, 2008


While getting ready to go out Thursday night with my roommate, her boyfriend, and their French/Brazilian/Moroccan entourage, I had a moment of sheer panic when I pictured myself in a small, crowded Parisian bar attempting in vain to enjoy a glass of vin rouge amid a haze of Gauloises smoke. I worried that my hair and clothes were now going to reek, and without easy access to a washer and dryer like back home, and with only a suitcase's worth of clean clothes to choose from once these ones were ruined...well, this was just going to be a disaster. But just as quickly as the panic arrived, it left. I suddenly remembered that earlier this year France joined other forward-thinking countries and states (Italy, Ireland, New York, California, my own Minnesota) by banning smoking in all public places, including bars and restaurants. Vive la France!

There was no such ban during my first trip to France in the fall of 2001. Bars were smoky, cafés were worse, and I even watched in disbelief as clients brought cigarettes into such public places as shopping malls. Of course, I was a bit younger then and better able to tolerate such unpleasantries as a second-hand smoker's cough. Age and the simple fact of living in non-smoking environments (DC went smoke-free too!) have made me terribly conscious of cigarette smoke. Needless to say, France's smoking ban came just in the knick of time.

As for my Thursday night out, the sangria was delicious, the company was delightful, and I left with nary a wisp of smoke in my freshly-washed hair.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Parisian Smell

It's official: I'm in Paris. How do I know? I can smell it. Paris exudes a scent that has a certain, je ne sais quoi. In fact, most French cities I've visited produce the very same smell, making this a country-wide rather than city-specific phenomenon. If you've never experienced it yourself, it's a bit difficult to explain in words, but if you've ever been here, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. It's sort of a sewer smell, but not entirely disgusting like the wafts coming off the water treatment plant in Alexandria, Virginia. Actually, it's not a revolting smell at all. But don't get me wrong - it's not like the aroma of freshed-baked bread and croissants either. It's the sickly sweet smell of not-so-fresh water that most certainly makes its way above ground from the city's drainage system. Oddly enough, it's rather comforting. Every morning as I make my way to the Pont de Sevres metro stop, I know that I woke up in the exact same place I went to sleep. Try it when you come deep breath is all it takes, and there's no mistaking it: you're in Paris.

Thursday, February 21, 2008


Today, while exploring my little town of Sèvres, I stumbled upon the most fabulous grocery store I have ever seen in France, and yes, it's called Shopi. Clean, well-organized, good prices, decently sized, all of my favorite French products...I think I'm in love. I wanted to buy everything! Of course I didn't, living on a budget and all, but I did treat myself to a lime-flavored Perrier and will be returning in the near future for a package of Kiri cheese and a large bottle of Orangina.

In between admiring the picture-perfect produce, seemingly endless chocolate aisle, and many-bottles-less-than-four-euros wine collection, I did something that, for most Americans, is slightly horrifying: I bought a room-temperature bottle of milk off the shelf. It was not in a cooler, not behind a door in a refrigerator, it was on the shelf in the same way that the cereal and the pasta are on the shelf. In the States, milk is always kept cold, unless it's condensed milk, but that is only for baking and would never be poured over cereal or used as a refreshing beverage. We're trained to associate warm milk with spoiled milk. I've never understood why the milk can be kept on the shelf here without going bad, but I did notice on the bottle that it is supposed to be refrigerated after opening. I for one will be making absolutely sure that the milk is fully chilled before enjoying a glass with my gateau au chocolat.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Le Charme

Why is everything in Paris so charming? I know what you're thinking: " 'everything' is a pretty strong word, and I've seen some not so charming things in Paris myself," and you're right. Dog poo on the sidewalks, for example, is certainly not charming, and unfortunately, it's also pretty widespread in this city that loves it's dogs but doesn't love being responsible for their actions. But isn't it easy to forget about wayward droppings and other unfortunate occurrences when there are so many well-kept jardins, quaint storefronts, narrow streets, and adorable houses to look at? Even the little old man who took pity on this lost American student struggling with a ridiculously large map of Paris by offering to point her in the right direction was filled with charm today. If you are still not convinced, just take a look at the stairway that leads to my street. What could be more charming than that?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

First Day

Ok, so it's not technically my first day in Paris. I officially arrived yesterday, but shuttling oneself from Charles de Gaulle Airport, to the Air France bus, to the Gare de Montparnasse, and finally to an apartment in the Parisian suburbs, only to sleep for 12 hours out of sheer travel exhaustion, is not what I would call a true first day in Paris. What's more, I'm writing this post a little after midnight on the day after my artificially created first day, which means that this blog is getting off to a highly time-challenged start. Luckily, dates and times are just details. This blog is about experiencing Paris - the physical, emotional, exiting, maddening, wonderful things that can happen at any given time on any given day in the City of Lights.

As a graduate student on exchange for one semester, I have but four months to take in all that Paris has to offer. Luckily, this city provides a virtually endless supply of sensory delights as well as bureaucratic hurdles. My time here will most certainly be filled with a variety of mishaps, triumphs, and reflections ripe for the sharing. If you've ever been to France, live here now, or simply dream of visiting, I hope you will enjoy reading Parisian Spring.