Saturday, March 29, 2008


Mother Nature must read my blog. Not one hour after I had posted yesterday's entry about there never being any sunshine in Paris, the most amazing rainbow appeared right outside my apartment window. I think it was her way of telling me not to lose hope; Paris would not be gloomy forever.

As predicted by the rainbow, this morning's sky was brilliantly blue and perfectly clear.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Here Comes the Sun?

For ten glorious minutes I thought it was here to stay. When the clouds finally parted over Paris yesterday this sun-starved traveler took full advantage by propping herself up against a building and tilting her face up towards that glorious glowing object in the sky. Unfortunately, within a few short minutes the sunny sky turned back to a mix of sun and clouds with an emphasis on clouds.

Is it just me, or has it been cloudy in Paris since, well, forever? Cloudiness is great for sleeping in on weekends, but it's a motivational killer that makes leaving for class even more difficult than usual. I remember a two-week plus stretch in Washington, DC last fall when there was nothing but brilliant sunshine and 80 degree temperatures all day long. I also remember thinking "this is getting really tiresome, couldn't it just be cloudy for one single day?" Be careful what you wish for.

Luckily, this city makes full use of outdoor warmers so that Parisians can still enjoy an espresso on a terrace and have the illusion of a warm sun beating down on their shoulders. I'm always impressed at how widespread these heaters are, and bewildered about the lack of them in American cities. I know a lot of Minnesotans who would love to sit on such an artificially heated terrace, especially as winter lingers on into spring. As for Paris, the cloudy/sunny mix lasted until mid-afternoon. At about 4:00pm local time, the clouds finally which time it promptly started to hail.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

8-Letter Word

It's not an easy thing to admit. When it happens we - those of us who move overseas - try to put on our happy faces and maintain our innocence in the matter. No, we're fine, having a great time, thanks! But the truth is, no matter how much you enjoy your new life abroad, there are moments of doubt, of sadness, of feeling isolated; moments when you want nothing more than to jump on the next flight out of town. It can happen the most seasoned of travelers, and even though we'd rather everyone back home think our fun never ends and our lives are constantly filled with adventure and excitement, sometimes it's not like that at all. Sometimes we get homesick.

That's where I'm at today. Actually, I think this feeling has been building up for a couple of days, but today is the first time I've admitted it to myself, let alone put in out in cyberspace for everyone to see. I've compiled a list of things I miss (not including the obvious: family and friends) in the hopes that putting it out in the open will speed my recovery.

I miss:
1. Having a car
2. Target
3. Happy Hour
4. The Clarendon branch of Washington Sports Club and its 30-odd treadmills
5. Five Guys burgers (Washingtonians, you know what I'm talking about)
6. Caribou Coffee
7. 24-hour anything
8. The Daily Show
9. Chicken wild rice soup
10. The American University library

When you're homesick, it's also important to remember why you came to wherever you are in the first place. It's in this spirit that I present a list of things I don't miss about home.

I absolutely do not miss:
1. My inhumane work/school schedule
2. A subway system that doesn't go everywhere in the city
3. Paying $8 for a wheel of Brie
4. Paying $7 for a ball of fresh mozzarella
5. Television commercials every five minutes during my favorite shows (hardly any here!)
6. Writing 25-page research papers for each one of my classes
7. Getting carded
8. Crappy wanna-be baguettes
9. Waiting 20 minutes for a metro train on Sundays
10. Nightly news shows that start with homicides

Whew! Better days are surely just around the corner, and even when it feels like they will never come again, there's one thing that keeps us ex-pats going: the knowledge that no matter how many sad days or embarrassments or mishaps we experience, in the end, it's all worth it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Hidden Paris

Some of the best sights in Paris can't be found by looking through a traveler's guidebook. Take courtyards for example. They're the garden-like spaces that are hidden behind apartment building doors and you have to know people who live here in order to find them. They're simple, and some visitors might not even give them a second thought, but I think they're incredibly charming and certainly worth a trip off the beaten path.

A lot of residences in Paris are connected by courtyards. You enter the area through one main door, pass through a little hallway into the open space, and from there you find access to a variety of buildings. There are often trees, plants, or flowers in the courtyards. Sometimes you can find a bench to relax on. They're a calm, welcoming retreat from the bustling city outside. I haven't met a courtyard I didn't like, and I'm thoroughly in love with this concept of interior hideaways; a concept that isn't highly publicized or accessible to the outside world. Maybe it's for the best. A city that knows how to keep its secrets is that much more fun to discover.

Monday, March 24, 2008

National Holiday

It's Easter Monday in France which means no work, no school, and no baguette unless you can make it to the boulangerie during their limited holiday hours. I thought I'd use my quiet day in Paris to share what I've learned about the local Easter customs and to compare them with what American believers and non-believers alike do to fête the springtime occasion.

For starters, France's national holiday is the day after Easter, while the US begins its long weekend on Good Friday. There is no religious significance attached to this work-free Monday, but as one Parisian put it, "we've celebrated all day on Sunday, we need Monday to rest." Religious purists might scoff at their indifference to the sanctity of Easter Friday, but I think the French might be onto something here. National holiday: good. National holiday that takes into consideration the mental and physical well-being of its citizens: even better.

Central to the celebration of Easter in the US is the dying of eggs by children (and young at heart twenty-somethings) followed by the hiding of said eggs by the lovable Easter Bunny. I'm happy to report that French children also partake in this enjoyable activity, but it is interesting to note that their eggs are not hidden by the same imaginary creature. In France, it's not a bunny that creates an Easter treasure hunt but Les Cloches. Cloches are bells...yes, bells. When questioning the believability of an object without arms or legs that can hide eggs around the yard, a French friend asked how a tiny furry mammal without hands manages to do the same. Touché.

One undeniable similarity between Easter in the US and Easter in France is the consumption of mass quantities of chocolate. Chocolate eggs, chocolate bunnies, chocolate chickens - they're all here, just like at home. Trying to buy chocolates on Saturday at Maison du Chocolat was not an easy proposition. The line ran out the door as Parisians hurried to buy their Easter goodies. The difference here might lie in the quality of the chocolates consumed. Even this die-hard Hershey's fan was delighted by the taste of the large chocolate bunny she ate on Sunday. Maybe a little too delighted, as I nearly ate the entire thing. But it's ok, I have all day today to recover.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


We've been experiencing some very strange weather in Paris as of late. The kind of weather that is impossible to plan or dress for: rainy in the morning, sunny in the afternoon, a bit of hail thrown in at dinnertime for good measure. It's confusing at first, but once you learn never to leave home without your umbrella you're fine. Oh, and bring your sunglasses too...and a hat just in case.

All of this meteorology madness has made me rethink my relocation choices. I always seem to end up in cities with less than desirable weather patterns. Minneapolis is fabulous in the summer, but the winter can be long and depressing. Not to mention bone-chillingly cold. Washington was definitely an improvement, but it's by no means a paradise. August is perfectly miserable, and on the rare occasion it does snow, the whole place goes crazy. Paris is ok, but I'm beginning to understand why so many Frenchwomen wear boots - it rains nearly everyday! Maybe for just a couple of minutes, but you have to be ready for it. Why oh why have I not moved to Miami?

Paris awoke to brilliant sunshine today, which seemed to bode well for tonight's plans. Touring the Seine river by boat is much more agreeable when there is a lack of precipitation. Unfortunately, I'm not sure it will last as they're predicting plenty of cold and sleet for this evening. Lucky for me, I never leave home without my umbrella.

Friday, March 21, 2008

I Heart Franglais

English speakers in France have the enjoyable task of picking up new English-turned-French words and adding them to their vocabulary repertoire. It seems that "our" language is being mixed with "their" language at an ever-increasing speed. Not surprisingly, a lot of these words are connected to the new technologies that are created in the U.S. Internet, email, and even the verb surfer meaning to surf the web have all long since appeared in the daily lexicon. Others are more of a surprise, like rock star and best of, and they tend to pop up in the most surprising places.

I heard a good one in my early class today. It's a miracle I was even awake enough to catch it, but it was so unusual that it managed to pull me out of a serious bout of daydreaming. As the student was giving his presentation on government media outlets in Europe (you try staying awake for that at 8:00 am) he whipped out Ils se benchmarkent - pronounced eels suh benchmark - when talking about how...well I don't know what he was talking about, actually. But there it was, the verb se benchmarker. It was definitely a new one for me, and shows just how many English words are making the trip across the pond (and channel).

Now, some purists decry such an incursion. It's ruining the French language they say. But if that's true, then the French language only has itself to blame. I mean, which would you rather use, email or courrier électronique? Exactly. And besides, it's not like they're they only ones adopting foreign language elements into their own speech. English is chock-full of French words. Words like chic, à la carte, crème de la crème, and nouveau riche, just to name a few. Sharing is good, and it's only natural that as a population changes and adapts to the world around it, so too will the language. What's more, English words sound prettier when pronounced in the French style. Adding English words to the French language? C'est fun!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Sign of the Times

You may have heard that France's last WWI veteran recently died at the age of 110. He received a state funeral here in Paris, and, at his request, the event honored his fellow veterans as well. The historical significance of his death is enormous; truly the passing of a generation.

I was reminded of this fact when, among all the royal pomp and circumstance, I found a simple engraving at Chenonceau dedicated to the memory of WWI. Incredibly, the castle's long, river-spanning hallway was used as a temporary hospital where, according to the plaque, 2,254 injured soldiers were treated from 1914-1918. It was a simple reminder that this war touched everyone and was fought in every corner of the country. Evidence of the conflict was truly everywhere. Even this 16th century castle was not left untouched by the gruesome and tragic events of the time.

After talking to a friend who was planning a trip to see WWI battlefields, I remarked that WWI doesn't get talked about with the same frequency that WWII does. Maybe it's that WWII is closer in our collective memories, or maybe, as he suggested, the larger scope of WWII makes it more interesting. Whatever the reasons, for this past week at least, here in France, The Great War was back in our thoughts.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Sugar-Coated Country

If you have a sweet tooth, France is the place to be. Sure, you can get sugary goods anywhere in the world, but just look at this picture I took at a salon du thé/chocolatier/ pâtisserie in Amboise. Clearly, French people have making desserts down to an art. What's more, these kind of stores are everywhere, and they're simply filled to the brim with all kinds of treats that will tempt even those on the strictest of no-carb diets.

Though a more traditional option, pâtisseries aren't the only places that will help you get your sugar fix. In fact, French Supermarchés are loaded with goodies of all kinds. Their cookie and candy aisles are an indecisive sweet tooth's worst nightmare. You've never seen so many different interpretations of the simple butter cookie in your entire life. And don't even think about trying to decide on a chocolate bar as there's pretty much a different one for each day of the year. I generally prefer salty snacks, but I must admit that even I have been known to linger in such aisles, trying in vain to decide on just one new yummy treat to bring home.

Despite their name, Supermarchés are often small compared to their American counterparts. Nevertheless, our cookie and candy aisles have nothing on theirs. Despite the vast array of less-than-healthy snacks, we all know that most Frenchmen and Frenchwomen have managed to maintain their famously thin figures. It might have something to do with the size of the sweets that are available to them. Though I have seen rich chocolate tarts, coconut flavored cookies, and sticky caramel candies, I have yet to see anything carrying the label "King-Size."

Monday, March 17, 2008

An Italian in France

One of the best things about traveling is that it affords you the opportunity to find amazing treasures you weren't even looking for. For example, while on this past weekend's trip to the Loire Valley, I expected to find breathtaking châteaux, green countryside, and large groups of Japanese tourists. What I didn't expect to find was the grave site of Leonardo da Vinci in the chapel of the Amboise castle.

Now, I consider myself to be your average Leonardo da Vinci fan. I've seen the Mona Lisa, read the da Vinci code, and can easily visualize his famous drawing, The Vitruvian Man. But I had absolutely no knowledge of his final resting place, nor, frankly, had I ever wondered where it was. He's such a large, mythical figure that imagining him in a regular burial plot the same as mere mortals doesn't exactly come naturally. Nevertheless, he was indeed buried, and visitors to the Loire Valley should not miss the opportunity to see his eternal home.

According to the castle's brochure, da Vinci spent the last years of his life living and working on the grounds of Amboise. After his death in 1519 he was buried in the chapel of Saint-Hubert - a small, unassuming house of worship that, despite its charm, seems almost ill-equipped for the task of housing the great man that lies within it. From the lack of visitors in the chapel, one can easily assume that his grave receives far fewer admirers than his most famous work, Mona Lisa. That smaller-than-you-think painting is nearly impossible to get close to as The Louvre is filled with tourists trying to catch a glimpse of it. I, however, found this somewhat macabre da Vinci sighting to be far more enjoyable. Maybe it was because of the idyllic setting, or the crowd-free chapel. Or maybe because it was just so unexpected.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Royal Weekend

I apologize to my regular readers (that's you, mom) for having neglected to post anything this weekend, but I assure you that I have a very good excuse for not doing so: I couldn't pass up the chance to spend two days in the Loire Valley exploring French castles, tasting local wines, and profiting from a bit of fresh air. My computer doesn't travel well, so I left it at home. Visiting the Châteaux of the Loire Valley has been high on my list of must-dos in France for a long time and after all the anticipation I had for such a visit, I'm happy to report that the experience didn't disappoint.

One of the things that struck me the most was the contrast I felt between two of the weekend's visited castles, Chambord and Chenonceau. Visitors to Chambord are immediately impressed by its enormity. There is nothing subtle about this royal creation; its countless spires and expansive interior demand respect. Chenonceau, on the other hand, is much more reserved. As you walk up the tree-lined path, most of the castle is hidden from view. You can see the entryway, but the bulk of the residence stretches behind the façade as it crosses the river. Its flowing arches and smooth exterior are incredibly enchanting. It makes sense, then, that Chambord was built by François I, while much of the construction of Chenonceau was overseen by Catherine de Médicis. The masculinity of one and the femininity of the other are strikingly visible.

Of course, in the end, Chambord and Chenonceau have one unbelievable similarity. While some châteaux were built to defend cities, territories, and kingdoms, these two awe-inspiring castles were created simply for pleasure. François needed a hunting lodge and Catherine a place to throw parties and design her gardens. That's the problem with the 21st century: they just don't make summer homes like they used to.

Friday, March 14, 2008

My Kingdom for a Coffee

I had my early class again this morning and I just can't understand what on earth made me think that 8:00 am on Friday was an acceptable time to learn. Despite getting a good night's sleep, I was feeling slightly less than bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as I headed out the door and made my way to campus. As a result, I suddenly found myself desperately craving that shining example of American ingenuity: take-out coffee.

I adore Caribou Coffee, have taken a liking to Starbucks, and when feeling desperate will settle for Dunkin Donuts. Of these three, Starbucks alone has made its entry into the Parisian landscape. While not nearly as prolific as they are in large American cities, that little green circle is no longer an unusual site here. Unfortunately for me, there are no to-go coffee houses on my route to Sciences Po. There isn't even a campus coffee shop that offers such a service. Oh how I longed for the Davenport Coffee Lounge, a great student-run shop in the School of International Service building at AU. Grabbing one of their 75 cent hot teas (yes, you read that price correctly) had become a pre-class ritual. Alas, with no Davenport in sight, I was left to endure the avoidable tragedy of un-medicated drowsiness.

I know what you're thinking: "Why would you crave take-out, suger-infused American coffee when there are so many great cafés to enjoy in Paris?" Well, you're right. There are countless great cafés in Paris and I assure you that I do enjoy them. I enjoy many of the specialties that are unique to France and have hardly craved specialties from home at all. There's not much time left for missing cheeseburgers when there are endless varieties of pastry to be had. Nevertheless, I couldn't deny that on this particular morning, I would have given anything for an American coffee shop. Culinary delights of Paris notwithstanding, sometimes a girl just needs a skinny, no-foam, double-shot, mocha latté, on the fly, and with a side of blueberry muffin.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Language Lessons

Lucky for me, but maybe not so lucky for the majority of my Thursday morning classmates, our professor has an affinity for assigning weekly readings in English. Of the five articles we've had to read so far, only two have been in French. In fact, on the first day of class he made it perfectly clear that in addition to working with English texts, we should feel free to express opinions, join in on discussions, and even conduct our required presentation in English.

I have to admit that I was more than a little surprised at this turn of events. In the 18 years of my life that have been spent in school, I have never had to do homework in a foreign language except, of course, for French class. However, these French students (and other non-native English speaking foreigners) are flat-out expected to be able to complete graduate level work in English. I can tell you right now that there is not one single foreign language that my colleagues at AU and myself would be able to all work in together. Our second languages of choice run the gamut. But, as the professor said, "English is the language of international politics."

Now, I'm not going to complain about coming all the way to France just to do homework en anglais. On the contrary, it makes my life a whole lot easier, and I still have two other classes that are all French, all the time. My intent is merely to highlight the ever-expanding reach of the English language and the surprising ways in which Americans (as well as other Anglophones) abroad discover the pervasiveness of their native tongue.

Oh, and just in case you're wondering, I'm still going to give my presentation in French. After 18 years of giving them in English, I think it might be nice to try something new.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Vandalism as Art

I usually don't condone defacing statues that represent the cultural heritage of France, or any kind of public property for that matter, but after seeing this bit of graffiti I was willing to make an exception. I mean, it's just plain cute!

There is a lot of graffiti in Paris, especially in the metro. Most of it is either offensive, childish, or completely nonsensical. It's an eyesore to be sure, but just as you do with the people who play musical instruments in the trains during the morning commute, you tend to tune it out after awhile. Nevertheless, I couldn't help but be struck by the writing on the little statue of Auguste Rodin that is located at the entrance of a park in Sèvres. Who could this message be for? Did one of Rodin's more devoted fans chose this way to pay homage to him? Did a man (or woman) decide to write a very public message to his beloved? Or was it simply intended to put a smile on the faces of passers-by? The possibilities are endless.

Whatever the reason, graffiti artists take note: if you must impose your work on the rest of us, could you at least be sure that your messages include gratuitous flattery?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

My Happy Place

I have found Nirvana in France. After trying (and failing) to visit the Sciences Po language department, playing email tag with various administration officials, taking a written language test, and patiently awiting the results of said test, I managed to get myself registered for a French language class, level moyen/fort. After just one two-hour session of French grammar, pronunciation, and the finer points of accent placement, I am utterly convinced that Tuesday afternoons will become one of my favorite times of the week.

The first thing you should know is that the class is incredibly diverse. We're a regular United Nations, actually: Americans, Italians, Chinese, Germans, Brazilians, Swedish, all here for the simple reason of not wanting to sound like complete idiots next to our French colleagues. In fact, the professor alluded to that desire by casually mentioning that her goal is to help us avoid the wrath of critical teachers and impatient French students. I wasn't sure if I should have been scared or relieved by this classroom objective, but I'm going to take it as a positive step in the right direction towards language fluency.

French class is quite possibly the only place in France where I don't feel like an outsider. We all have accents and willingly make fools of ourselves on a regular basis. We are all away from home and trying everyday to fit into a society that is known for its exclusiveness. We all wish we could speak better French. We all make mistakes. Knowing that no one can judge our language abilites lest theirs be judged in return makes us more eager to participiate in the discussions. Besides, it's so much easier to speak up in class when the topic is "what I did last weekend," and not "what I think about the legacy of the Maastricht Treaty."

Monday, March 10, 2008

Rainy Day

After being welcomed to Paris by sunshine and above-average temperatures, I am now doing battle with weather that has settled comfortably into a pattern of cold, wind, and rain. As a result, I myself have decided to settle into a pattern that is all too well-known amongst Minnesotans: hibernation.

This decision stems from my firm belief that there is no need to go outside when horizontal precipitation is present. Umbrellas become useless, it hurts to keep your eyes open, and you have to endure the pity of those riding by in the warm comfort of their cars. Just walking from the bus to my apartment is unpleasant in such conditions. Luckily, saying inside on a rainy day is one of life's simple pleasures. Who doesn't like cozying up with a hot beverage and a good book? Or a movie you've been meaning to see? Or some household chores that have long been neglected? Such days can give us an excuse to tune out the outside world and enjoy some much needed "me" time.

While this current state of nesting is in no way facilitating my desire to explore Paris on foot, it is doing wonders for my scholarly commitments. Without the distractions of wandering through parks, shopping leisurely in commercial neighborhoods, or sitting on café terraces, I am free to pursue homework, research, and other activities more befitting a grad student...all the while anxiously awaiting the next sunny day.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Lessons from an Uncomfortable Taxi Ride

How do you know your French is improving? When you're finally able to put rude people in their place with your words.

After a dinner of homemade Moroccan food and a visit to a basement Karaoke bar in the Saint-Germain de Près neighborhood, I hailed a cab for myself, my roommate, and her colleague. It was nearly two in the morning and we were more than ready to just sit back and enjoy the ride. Unfortunately, our taxi driver had other plans.

It all started with him referring to me as "La Blonde," and proceeding to deduce that since I had light hair, I must be an American. Aggravating my dislike of being referred to as a hair color is not the way to get on my good side, but I'm tired of having to explain to people that I am not, in fact, blond, so I let it go. However, when he started to mock the supposed misfortunes of the American people, I didn't just smile and give a polite "oui." He seemed especially pleased to declare that, among other things, the dollar to euro exchange rate must make life terrible for us and that the rising gas prices were unbearable. It felt good to be able retort with a dry and matter-of-fact "Seeing as how I'm used to living in an expensive American city I don't find the exchange rate to be a difficulty at all and gas might be rising in the US but prices still remain less than half of what you have to pay in Europe," thank you very much.

Unfortunately, it's not easy to be clever in a second language. You simply have to develop a thick skin and become accustomed to swallowing your pride when insulted. While I would rather not find myself in such situations, I was proud that I could at least stand my ground and verbally indicate to the driver that his comments were not appreciated. The cab ride seemed to drag on forever, and we thought that our friend in the front seat would never stop talking about the failings of American society. Eventually, we got him to be quiet by switching into our own language and changing the topic to the night's events. For all his knowledge about life in the United Sates he blessedly didn't speak a word of English.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Early Bird

I've always been a morning person. The kind that wakes up before the alarm sounds and isn't at all upset about starting the day at dawn. In fact, I prefer to get up early, get stuff done, and have the afternoon/evening to relax, go to the gym, or meet friends for happy hour. This routine worked really well in DC, which is very much an early-to-rise, early-to-bed kind of town. Except, I suppose, for the occasional behind the scenes dealings that take place at various Capitol Hill haunts, running the government isn't exactly a late-night affair.

Fast forward to Paris. For nearly three weeks I have no work, no school, and subsequently fall into a routine more befitting a Night Owl: sleeping in, running errands in the afternoon, going out for late dinners rather than early happy hours. It's a nice change of pace that caught up with me in a bad way this morning. After not going to bed until 2:30am, I had to get to class by 8:00am. When the alarm went off at 6:30, I was not a happy camper.

Paris is definitely a late-night town. For one, the city is even more beautiful and romantic by moonlight, and the old buildings look amazing when all aglow. Also, French people eat late, much later than Americans, which means that countless bars and restaurants are open until the wee hours of the morning. What's more, they go to work late (by DC standards at least) and stay late. Needless to say, as I made my way across the bridge on the way to the metro at 7:00am, the place felt deserted. Nothing but newspaper deliverers, garbage trucks, and one very sleepy student.

Despite being overly tired, I did take time to enjoy morning in Paris. Part of the reason why I love starting the day early is for the simple fact of enjoying a city before it becomes nothing but crowds, noise, and stress. In the morning, everything is quiet, you feel like you have the place to yourself, and there is a great sense of potential for the day to come. It's just easier to appreciate that potential when you've had a good night's sleep.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Back in the Saddle Again

The professors will all be mean and strict, the students unwelcoming and aloof, and the facilities less than substandard. These are just some of the preconceived notions I held, and dire warnings I was given, before my first class at Sciences Po. Needless to say, there were more than a few butterflies in my stomach as I left home this morning and made my way to campus. But much to my relief, these gloomy predictions failed to carry any weight.

From the start, I could tell that the professor would be great. He was very friendly, open to questions and suggestions, and didn't even assign the 25-page research paper I've grown accustomed to at American University, which makes him my new best friend. The only complaint I have is that he's a mumbler and a fast-talker all at the same time. A bit difficult for this foreigner to understand, but maybe it will ultimately help me improve my French. As for the students, when I asked the girl sitting next to me where I could go to print out copies of our readings, she actually walked me all the way to a computer lab and proceeded to provide invaluable advice about student life at Sciences Po. Quel service!

The facilities are less impressive, but I'll get over it. Hopefully I won't have to use the library too much, which, according to my fellow student, is miniscule and not much help. The classroom was a bit worn down, but it certainly wasn't any worse than those in the horrifically unappealing building that houses the School of International Service at American University. And while the computer lab might have been smaller than what I'm used to, because of its location at the top of seemingly endless flights of stairs, I didn't have to fight for a spot as is usually the case back home. Apparently, French students aren't interested in a side of cardio with their homework.

With my worst fears allayed, and despite the reduction of free time and the resurgence of assignments, I can honestly say that it feels good to be back in school. Now, if only I hadn't scheduled myself for an 8:00 am class on Fridays...

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Subway Art

Maybe it's the American in me, but every time I see this symbol I think of McDonald's and its internationally recognizable golden arches. In reality, this yellow "M" has nothing to do with food, fast or otherwise. It simply denotes the entrance to one of Paris' numerous metro stations.

There are 298 such stations to be exact, but not all of them have the same look. Many use the neon "M," but some employ a more descriptive red "métro" sign. Others are marked by the classic "métropolitain" plaque that spans the entrance. Even if you've never been to Paris, you've probably seen this design on postcards or posters. It's as much as part of the imagery of the city as the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Louvre (for an example, please see the March 2nd post). Even those that appear similar will sometimes include special embellishes that help them stand out from their peers. Maybe I'm just easily amused, but I always enjoy descending into or emerging out of a new station. What a treat it is to continually discover unique artistic takes on the otherwise banal urban necessity that is the subway entrance.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Open for Business...Sometimes

The concept of "normal business hours" doesn't exist in France. I'm talking about the usual 9am to 5pm time period in the United States when you can safely go just about anywhere (banks, the post office, stores) and expect that they will be open. In France, each business/organization/government office chooses it's own set of operating hours. Some are closed Monday mornings, and some are closed Friday afternoons. Many are closed everyday for lunch, but you can't even use that as a general guide because each place has a different lunch schedule. Forget about weekends; almost everything is closed on Sunday, and Saturday is a wild card. The purpose of all this time confusion is simple: to make foreigners feel like bumbling idiots.

I learned the hard way that even separate offices within singular organizations don't always have the same hours. Numerous trips to the Sciences Po campus have been cut short by the discovery of an unexpected closure. First, it was the student ID card office. I foolishly made the rookie mistake of trying to get something done at 1pm. They were at lunch. Then there was the carte de séjour office, which helps students acquire the documentation they need to be in the country legally. They are only open Monday mornings and Thursday afternoons. The biggest disappointment was the language department. I was so excited to sign up for a French class, but when I got there, the office was closed. The worst part was realizing that there were actually people working behind that big door. I could hear them! But the office doesn't take visitors on Monday mornings. I felt like a bumbling idiot.

The only comfort in all of this is the knowledge that you're not alone. Nearly all foreign visitors to France can tell you about their frustration with schedules. Just yesterday a dear friend of mine who is currently in Paris doing research for his thesis told me about his attempt to visit the Bibliothèque Nationale de France early in the morning. He got up, got ready, and made the trip to the library only to discover that on Mondays, they don't open until 2:30pm. That night, we commiserated together over dinner. Thankfully, there are no inconveniences in France that can't be made better by good company, good food, and a big glass of wine.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Weight-Loss, French Style

I know why French women don't get fat. Actually, I know why French people in general don't get fat. We've heard it all before: they eat slowly, they eat small portions, they don't snack, they chain-smoke. Well, forget about all that. The real reason French people maintain svelte figures despite eating diets rich in white bread, cream sauces, and chocolate mousse, is the simple fact that they are constantly lugging their belongings from one end of town to the other.

For example, it's not uncommon for Parisians to have to use a laundromat. While doing my laundry at one of Sèvres washing facilities, I wasn't surrounded by college students or single urbanites. There were people of all ages and all walks of life in there. But we had one thing in common. We had all walked to the laundromat carrying heavy bags of laundry, and we would all do the same to get our clean items back home.

Grocery shopping is another example. A lot of people walk to the grocery store or the market. When they leave, they have to carry everything they bought all the way back home. The same is true for any kind of shopping, really. I had to buy household items for the apartment last week; a trip that involved walking to the metro, walking from the metro to the store, and repeating the trip in reverse order while carrying a bag filled with as many items as I could pack into my Whole Foods reusable bag. I could feel the pounds melting off, and by the looks of it, so could my fellow shoppers.

Carrying while walking is more than just walking - it's walking with weights and resistance bands strapped to your extremities, which is a fairly high intensity workout. Try that a couple of times a day and you'll understand why finding an overweight person on the streets of Paris is nearly impossible.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, and the Paris Metro

Some people find riding public transportation to be a tedious exercise in human mobility. They dislike the crowds, hate waiting for a train or bus, and are easily bored by long trips. I, however, have found that my time on the Parisian subway system affords me a number of luxuries, including the opportunity to read, daydream, and study French society first-hand. Recently I got to thinking about how the ideals of the république play out on this underground stage. More specifically, do liberté, égalité, and fraternité exist on the Paris Metro?

Liberté was easy to find; people can do anything on the metro. They eat, drink, sing, give lectures, and play accordions. I've even seen four-piece bands pile into a train and begin a between-stops performance. It's an attempt to entertain that mostly draws rolling eyes from travelers who are trying to talk on their cell phones. You can also bring pets onto the trains, and while, in theory, this is supposed to be reserved for small companion animals, the large golden retriever who felt the need to nuzzle my feet on line 9 last night proves that, even on the metro, Parisians take their claim to liberty seriously.

Fraternité is also well-represented in Paris' underground world. Elderly men and women, mothers with strollers, and tourists who have lost their way are often helped by the fellow riders. I once saw and old, hunched-over woman helped off the train by a man who had noticed she was moving too slow and was at risk of getting herself and her rolling cart stuck in the slamming doors. This kind of brotherhood is sometimes rare in a fast-paced city like Paris, but it is alive and well on the metro.

Egalité has proved more difficult to locate. There are numerous discrepancies in the usability afforded to riders. One sad example of this is the complete lack of handicap accessibility. There are no elevators in the system, and very few escalators. Persons in wheelchairs, and even those who have difficulty with stairs, are completely unable to access the trains. What's more, while some lines use modern trains which are equipped with automatic doors, more spacious interiors, and voices that announce the station names (helpful for the visually-impaired and distracted readers alike), other lines are stuck with antiquated trains offering little in the way of 21st century convenience, or equal opportunity.

There is a commercial currently playing on French television that aims to promote the rights of the handicapped in France. It profiles Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and demonstrates that, despite his needing a wheelchair, FDR pulled his country out of the Great Depression and helped save the world from the terrors of Nazism. One of the metro stations in Paris is even named after this former president. What a shame that he would have never be able to access it.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Spring Has Sprung

There are two beautiful trees in bloom right outside my bedroom window. I've been watching them grow for nearly two weeks now, and today with the sun shining, the shutters thrown open, and a light breeze wafting in, they look absolutely amazing. As someone who was born and raised in northern climes, any sign of life in early March is exciting - flowering vegetation is a miracle.

The weather has been unusually mild in Paris recently, which might explain the fact that everything is in bloom and it feels like we're already enjoying the spring season. Sure, we've had some rain and fog, but the temperatures have stayed near 50 degrees Fahrenheit, making getting around town on foot perfectly enjoyable and comfortable. I only hope it stays this way, and that an early spring doesn't mean a late-arriving summer, or worse, winter's unexpected return. In the US, Puxatauney Phil saw his shadow, thereby predicting six more weeks of winter. These photos show that, clearly, the logic of Groundhog's Day doesn't translate into French.