Les Francais

I haven’t done many exciting things lately due to classes getting under way and my having a cold, but I felt guilty about not posting for so long, so I decided to make a short list:

Things the French do better than Americans:

  1. cheese. Why don’t we eat it at every meal?
  2. architecture. Maybe it’s just because Paris is more to my taste than any city I’ve seen before, but the buildings are so much more beautiful here!
  3. public transportation. There is a metro stop five minutes away from almost anywhere in the city, and buses all over the place.
  4. coffee vending machines. There are vending machines that sell 50-cent coffees all over the place. The cups are small-about half an American-sized small, but that’s as much as I want anyway!
  5. parks. There are tiny little garden/parks in every neighborhood that are great places to eat lunch in.

Things Americans do better than the French:

  1. peanut butter. They don’t have it here, but they should.
  2. tissues. They only have one brand of tissues- “lotus”, and they are not at all soft. This has come to my attention this past week because of my cold.
  3. heating. All of the beautiful old buildings, along with the newer ones, have horrible insulation and when it is cold it is cold inside as well.
  4. hair coloring. None of the older ladies here let their hair go grey, but the dye jobs are this unnatural-looking reddish brown.
  5. street performers. I have seen people in the metro using karaoke machines, or even just singing loudly (and badly) with no accompaniment, and the violins are awful. The only good ones are the accordion players, and even they are not all very good.

In other news, I went to Shakespeare and Company yesterday. It was absolutely wonderful, I could spend days in there. Some people do- homeless writers are allowed to sleep there provided they work in the bookshop.  The books are crammed into every corner and crevice, and the shelves cover every inch of wall-space. I bought a biography of Charles de Gaulle for my history class and a crepe down the street, since apparently it is a French tradition to eat a crepe on Mardi Gras.

At the end of this week I fly to visit my cousins in Austria for winter vacation (I know, vacation already?) so I probably won’t post until I get back from there. Have a lovely week!

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Cinemas and Circuses

This weekend I went to the International Environmental Film Festival.  One of the theaters involved is a ten-minute walk from my apartment, plus it was completely free, so being environmentally-conscious was very convenient for me in this instance.  I went to the children’s short films, which were adorable, a series of shorts, a longer Iranian film that was mostly silent, and an American documentary called Semper Fi: Always Faithful.  Semper Fi was about a Marine Corps base and water contamination.  It was very interesting and moving, but I found it strange that French people would be interested in such an American-specific issue.  During the question-and-answer with the directors at the end (via skype), though, it became clear that a significant portion of the audience was American.  It was so great that the films were all completely free! I love free stuff, and free entertainment is the best.  Today I went to the Cirque d’Hivers, which is a 150-year-old building that houses the Bouglione circus.  My host-mother is landlady to someone who does advertising for them, or something like that, so she got Arthur, me, her visiting godson, and herself free tickets.  The circus was really old-school, with tamed tigers and prancing horses and things like that.  I have an extremely vague memory of going to a circus in a tent when I was really little, and a more lucid memory of seeing Cirque du Soleil when I was in Austria a few years ago, but this was the first time I’ve ever seen trained cats, birds, tigers, goats, pigs, and horses all in one sitting. Cirque Bouglione is also unique because it stays in the Cirque d’Hivers building, as opposed to traveling around.

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inside the Cirque d’Hivers

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Classes and Catacombs

First Sorbonne classes this week! They were… in French. And very large. For most classes here there is the CM (cours magistral) which is the big lecture, and then TD which is in smaller groups, but still larger than than every class I’ve taken at Haverford.  It snowed on Tuesday night and as a result my TD professor’s train was delayed so class was canceled (after I had woken up and made the trek out to the building at the end of the metro line, but whatever), so I still don’t really know what TDs are like.  I managed to find my classrooms alright, but I did accidentally walk into the men’s room. Whoops! A lot of bathrooms here are unisex, or only the stalls are divided… it’s confusing. But I won’t make that mistake again! I bought the books for my musicology class- quite pricey but I was happy to support the adorable little music-specific bookshop that is on my street.  And I found one of my books in English! Yay! Julie H. and I were talking in the hallway, waiting for our class to start and were approached by an Australian study-abroad student. Speaking English in public may not score you many points with the French, but it does attract other random English-speakers. She has been here since the fall, and explained that she was very jealous of the American study-abroad programs and how organized they are.  Her university does not have a study-abroad administrator or anything like that.  I guess before I took it for granted that my college would offer study-abroad. Just another reason why I’m lucky to be an American in Paris! Wednesday my host-mother brought me to her Michelin Society salon again. It was a string trio and piano soloist. Although I could tell that they were still students, they played some extremely challenging pieces.  On Thursday I finally got up the courage to wear my red beret out.  My grammar teacher said that my hat was giving me French-speaking powers when I answered a question correctly. I think overall it was hit! Today Sweet Briar organized a trip to the Catacombs.   It was a very mixed-feelings-filled experience for me.  First was historical curiosity and fascination.  Second was claustrophobia.  I had to keep refocusing so as to not imagine the ceiling caving in and 20 meters of earth burying me alive. Third was creeped-out, but in the good way that you get from watching scary movies or going to haunted houses.  Fourth was horror, because the difference between the catacombs and a haunted house is that the bones are REAL.  Once you realize that you are literally surrounded by more than ten thousand dead people’s remains, you lose a bit of that thrill, and become sad.  Even though all of those remains are not necessarily the result of horrible or unjust deaths, it is still unsettling to have your own mortality shoved in your face like that.  Not helping the matter were the “maxims and reflections on the fragility of human life,” as my visitors’ guide called them.  There were quotes from the Bible, poets, and anonymous sayings carved into stone every few meters.  Some were quite beautiful, whereas others were plain creepy.  One in particular I remembered : “It is horrible, the death of a sinner.”  We were given fair warning however- the entrance has “Stop! This is the empire of death!” carved over it.  The catacombs were interesting, and definitely worth a visit, but I will not be joining any macabre cults soon- I’ve had my fill of skulls and eerie lighting for the moment.

A week in the life

Salut tout le monde! Sorry for neglecting to write this week. Here’s what happened:

Monday

Not a whole lot. I ran in the Jardin de Tuileries which is the public garden overlooked by the Louvre. It is quite grand but not very fun for kids as you are not allowed to walk on the grass.

Tuesday/Wednesday

I spent most of both of these days going to bookstores looking for the books for my theatre class. It was mildly frustrating, because a few of them proved very difficult to find. I needed to get each play in English and French.  There are multiple English-language bookshops in Paris, however both Shakespeare and Co. and The Little Red Wheelbarrow Bookshop were both closed for no particular reason (which apparently is normal here) and I decided to mesh my quest with a walk so I ended up traversing almost six arrondissments in the suddenly freezing weather.  In the end, though, I ended up discovering some great bookshops and walked through Ile St. Louis (the smaller of the two islands on the Seine) which I think may be one of my favorite neighborhoods here.

Thursday

Thursday night I went to the theatre with my class to Jean Genet’s Les Bonnes (The Maids in English).  It was a modern interpretation of the play that started off with a shock (although I guess it wouldn’t be French theatre without a little nudity).  The performances by the actors were very good though, and the theatre that we went to (Théâtre de l’Athenée-Louis Jouvet) was very beautiful. It is in the Italian style (U-shaped house) and we had box-seats, which was extra-special.

Friday

After getting up early to go register for my history class at the University I explored the neighborhood it is in for a few hours.  It is at the very edge of Paris, at the end of the metro line.  The neighborhood is much more American in feel than where I’m living as the buildings are more recent and the people aren’t all wearing fur coats.  I found a thrift shop and got three things for 15 euros (the national sales have been happening since I got here). Not bad!

Saturday

I went to my host-brother Arthur’s student art show.  He goes to the equivalent of a private magnet high school for art, and this weekend was their open house.  I was super-impressed with everything he showed me.  Part of their core-curriculum is furniture-making (!) so he showed a chair he had built, along with his painting and sculpture.  A bit of a different side of art than what I’ve been seeing at the musées, but a fascinating one nonetheless.  That night I went out to eat at Le Refuge des Fondues, which is a fondue restaurant in Montmartre.  Montmartre is primarily touristy now, but it used to be where Picasso and Dali and everyone lived, and it is home to the Moulin Rouge and Le Chat Noir.  We forwent these risqué-er options for cheese and bread (aka the staples of the French diet).  Half the fun of fondue is eating it, with those pointy fork things, but the other half was in the ambiance of the restaurant.  The manager was THE rude Frenchman, making us wait outside in the freezing cold until the rest of our party arrived, then making half of us climb over the table to get in the booth.  Finally, the walls were covered in what was clearly client-provided graffiti and bills (including American USD) with signatures on them.  After dinner we took the lift up the hill to Sacré Cœur and saw the view from the top.  What better way to see the City of Lights than at night from the top of Montmartre!

Sunday

Sunday I went to mass at Notre Dame (full name Notre Dame de Paris- there are other Notre Dame churches).  It was quite beautiful however I did get scolded by an usher for (being unfamiliar with Catholic communion protocol) trying to return to my seat without having eaten my communion wafer.  Embarrassing.  I wanted to go up to see the towers, but they were closed due to cold weather.  Just gives me an excuse to return! It snowed Sunday morning (yeee!) so I took some photos of the Seine in the snow, and ate lunch in an almost completely empty restaurant since apparently Parisians are afraid of snow.  In the afternoon I tried to see The Artist with some friends but the showing was sold out by the time I got there, so I had to go to J. Edgar by myself.  It was in V.O. (version orginale- aka in English with subtitles in French) so I just ignored the subtitles flashing across the bottom of the screen.  It turns out that in France (or Paris, at least) you don’t show up before the movie and immediately enter the theater.  Instead they keep you waiting in the lobby until the exact minute of show time (or after, in my case) and then let you in. Sunday night, as you all know, was the Super Bowl and, as my friend tells me, it’s more important than ever to keep up American traditions now that we’re ex-pats. So, bursting with Patriotism (pun INTENDED) I journey to an international sports bar on the Left Bank where they were staying open to show the game live.  Kick-off was at 12:30am and the game wrapped up around 4.  In Paris the metro stops running at 12:50 on Sunday nights and restarts at 5:30 so instead of walking across the entire city or paying for a taxi, we stayed at the bar until they kicked us out at 5:15.  Late night though it was, the jam-packed (standing room only), commercial-less, multilingual Super Bowl was probably the best one I’ve ever had.

Today I slept until class at 3 (seeing as I went to bed at 6am) so look for an update on adventures tomorrow as I have my first university class (History of Baroque Music 9am)!