Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Year In Review

Looking back, I realized that 2009 has been the most volatile year of my life thus far. Since last January, I’ve lived on three continents, studied three languages, made and moved away from friends, graduated one school and started another. On this, the eve of 2010, permit me a moment of corny reflection.

I love being in my “mid” 20s. I’ve never liked the idea that any given period would represent the “best days of my life” (because really, what a bleak outlook on the rest of life), but if I did, this would be a top contender. There’s something really satisfying about being old enough to look back, at least a little bit, and see how much I’ve changed; I see how scraps of a life here and there have culminated into a self. Then, too, there is the realization that this self is at once enduring and fluid—not at all like we imagined it when we were children and spoke of that definitive moment “when I grow up”.

College was amazing, and I will always cherish the memories and friends from my time on the River. But it’s nice to know that there’s a wide world beyond St. Mary’s, and although I can still be wild when I want to, I can also enjoy calmer nights in with friends without the fear that I’m missing out on the party. I’m old enough that I’m finally starting to look my age and be treated with the respect of adulthood after a single glance. When it doesn’t come naturally, I’m confident enough to command it. Professors, bosses, landlords—none are as intimidating as they once were, and all are my peers, more or less. This isn’t to say that we live the same day-to-day experiences but rather that we recognize the points we are each at in our journeys and can share in the pride of the milestones. I can see my parents with all their strengths and weaknesses as real people, with lives apart from mine, and more importantly I see my life as apart from theirs and appreciate them the more for it.

I’m still as passionate as ever about travel. But the more I do it, the less pressing it becomes, and I can already feel the caffeinated, party-hostel-night train energy of my earlier adventures mellowing to a more laid-back momentum. The more I see and the more people I meet, the greater appreciation I have for the world’s rich diversity as well as its subtle, underlying sameness. Both are comforting: there is much more to know than I ever will or want to, but there is a wisdom that can be tapped into everywhere if I can learn to see it. I can also feel my tumbleweed soul starting to send out roots. Who knows where I’ll be when they finally find the earth, but after a few years of living out of suitcases, settling down (for a while) is starting to sound less like “settling”.

There’s a whole lot of world out there, and I'm ready for it. Happy 2010, everyone.

Monday, December 28, 2009

RE-paysée at last

My flight home for Christmas was...long. We were delayed on the runway at CDG for a little over an hour after one of the throwers punctured a line on the luggage lift and got hydraulics fluid everywhere. On the other end, Washington was an absolute shit show—with so many flights re-scheduled after recent weather there were about 15 flights entering the international wing at once, meaning slow customs and an even worse baggage collection process. I zenned out to my iPod for about two hours after landing before I could finally get my bag and rejoin my family. I used that two hours to go through the typical returning-to-America run of emotions—starting with a "yay! I'm among my own people!" when I heard American English conversations right after getting off the aircraft and progressing quickly to an "ugh, I'm so embarrassed to be American" as soon as I started actually listening to the conversations and hearing how intolerant/ignorant they were (one of the other flights was in from Qatar, so use your imagination). Granted I think long flights and customs delays bring out the worst in everyone, but still...

Being home is comfortable. Mom is thrilled to have me back, and I've already told her about as many stories as I have. My sister adds "we should see that when I come visit" to the end of everything I say and hasn't lost her excitement for Christmas presents. She’s a pretty perceptive gift-giver as well: she gave me a great pair of earrings and this scarf she knitted herself. My brother actually hung out to recite song quotes and teach me how to play Rock Band (I rock the bass) for a little while before he retreated to his room to text/call his friends, so I felt honored to have won that much of his attention. My aunt embraced our favorite foods tradition with gusto (and gumbo!) and proved a formidable opponent in word games. (She beat me in Scrabble, then I creamed everyone twice in Quiddler, then I lost by a few points again in Boggle—we did a crossword together and called it a draw). Dad shared wine and plans to come visit me in Paris at the end of the year—the top attraction in his mind? The sewers. Go figure.

Today was an all-day brunch/lunch/cocktail affair to celebrate a friend’s engagement. She’s adorably excited, and I couldn’t be happier for her and her husband-to-be. Still, I can’t help but feel a small wave of oh-my-god-I’m-getting-old, as I'm sure this is only the first in a series of similar announcements and invitations. I have graduated from the college phase of my life and entered into the marriage stage. It feels good, but strange.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Felices Fiestas

For all of those Murphy’s Law moments in life, there are also times when things just seem to work out perfectly. My end-o-semester adventures with winter weather and travelling turned out to be one of those times. Even if it meant getting home with no time to spare for Christmas shopping, delaying my flight back to the USA until after a trip to Madrid turned out to be the best decision I could have made. Everyone with earlier flights to the States had them cancelled (often for days) due to the snow that started on one side of the Atlantic and continued on the other. A friend flying to Madrid the day before me spent a horrendous day and night in Charles de Gaulle, and anyone leaving Madrid a day earlier would have been caught in the freak, late-night snow storm that left warm-weather Spaniards reeling. As it was, we had to taxi about a half hour in the plane to reach a clear runway (at one point alongside a highway—we were starting to wonder if we were actually going to *drive* to Spain), but everything was muy bueno.

Part of the “wisdom” in choosing Madrid for our end-o’-the-semester weekend trip was that, being in the South, it would be warmer. In reality, it was colder. But even if it wasn’t the break from bleak winter weather we expected, Madrid was nonetheless a nice change of pace from life in Paris. Compared to the reserved, homogenous, black-and-grey clad Parisiens I interact with on a daily basis, the Espagnoles were chatty, vibrant, and dressed in brightly colored, goofy holiday clothes. The sudden switch to Spanish had me speaking in caveman sentences and lamenting how much I’ve forgotten, but the longer we were there, the more I began to be proud of how much I ever had to forget. Despite the fact that Madrid is a capital city, there was a surprising lack of English (apparently the Spanish are even worse than the French at learning other languages), so I had a lot of opportunities to brave the thpanish accthent. Stringing together sentences was like a game, and every interaction reminded me of a verb tense or fun phrase I had once known.

We structured our trip around going to art museums and enjoying Spanish cuisine from hole-in-the-wall tapas bars, such as paella (seafood-rich rice from southern Spain), the Spanish “tortilla” (more like a frittata—made of eggs/potatoes), the spicy cured chorizo, Iberian ham and cheese, chocolaté con churros (fried dough sticks dipped into a pudding-thick hot chocolate) patatas bravas (potatoes in a sweet and spicy orange sauce) and choquettas (fried cheese/ham balls). All of it was amazing, although by the time we left I was having serious cravings for salad, juice, or anything with fiber and vitamins. Museum-wise we visited the famous Prado museum for El Greco, and then the Museo Reína Sophía for Picasso’s Guernica and a few other cubists/surrealists.

We also shopped—joining the throngs of happy Christmas bargain hunters lining the streets from Plaza Mayor to Sol. I treated myself to the first clothes I have bought all semester, which is something I should start to do a little more often if I ever want to graduate to an “adult,” European wardrobe. Unfortunately, aside from being intimidating stylish most Parisian stores are discouragingly expensive when you’re paying in US dollars, and fashion has never been a budgeting priority for (priorities: trying new/delicious foods, books, and travel). Madrid was a little more affordable, though, so maybe the key to clothes is to use the extra I put aside from my stipend to fund travel that affords cheap shopping opportunities….Eastern Europe, anyone?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Walkin' in a Winter Wonderland

I woke up this morning to a magical early Christmas present: two inches or so of completely unexpected, perfect snow. As much as I'd been praying to see snow for the sake of my Nikon and the great Parisian monument shots I knew it would afford, on this particular morning the thought of snuggling in bed was a little too delicious to pass up. The result was that I spent most of the morning in the building, basking in the warm cocoon of my over-heated room and enjoying the view out my window.

Once I finally ventured out to run errands I felt like the incarnation of Christmas in my black boots, red wool coat and white scarf. The latest RER strike dissuaded me from venturing too far into the city to see the monuments I'd hoped for, but it was even better just to stroll around my transformed neighborhood. I'm glad that I've never lived anywhere with enough snow to kill the novelty, because I don't want to lose that little thrill I still feel at the sight of the muffling white blanket (not to mention the juvenile urge to scoop up a handful and toss it at a passerby...)

My stroll through the snow brought me to the local grocery store, which turned Christmas overnight (literally, I was there yesterday) and is now selling Christmas chocolates, small live trees and festive ciders. The patisseries have added the traditional "buche de noël" ("yule log") filled roll cakes and the flat "galette des rois" cakes for Epiphany/the festival of kings, which have a bean or small prize hidden inside--the child who finds it in their slice is named "king" for the day.

All-in-all, I'm in a Christmassy mood. The Fondation added a few Christmas trees to our lobby, so every time I enter the building I'm struck with the woodsy scent of pine and the wave of nostalgia that comes with it. Excited to be home with the family in a few days, but until then I'm keeping busy here and getting into the spirit of the season. Headed out now to a Christmas potluck, and I have a copy of Love Actually waiting for when I get home. This Saturday it's off to Madrid to experience Christmas à la Espagnole before I catch my flight back to the other side of the Atlantic...hasta luego mis amigos!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Food for thought

Winter has officially hit Paris. My widget forecast is predicting temperatures near freezing every day this week, and rumor has it that Sunday’s early risers got to see a few lone flocons (snowflakes). Pretty good timing, if you ask me, as I’m currently five days away from being in Madrid (50 degrees) and nine days away from home and my heavier winter coat.

In the meantime, if I’m posting less it’s because I’m enjoying my life here more and more. I’ve been spending a lot of time hanging out with new friends from the building, who come from a variety of backgrounds and nationalities but are generally pretty laid-back and delightfully quirky. Since several of them are on the house’s activities committee I’ve also been attending more of our in-house events, including a catered Thanksgiving dinner, Sunday morning croissant meet-n-greets, and last night mulled wine and carols. Fun fact: the French lyrics to “Jingle Bells” are completely different…the repeated line is “Vive le vent d’hiver!” (loose translation “yeah winter wind!”) and the chorus ends with “Et bonne année grand-mère” (“And happy new year, grandma!”)

I’m also starting to really take advantage of the culinary options a large metropolitan center like Paris has to offer. We four lit students have made it a weekly tradition to go out for a late afternoon pint (or several) at least one day a week, which is a great way to unwind a little and discuss what we’re studying in a more informal setting—not to mention a chaotic metro ride home at rush hour takes on a whole new dimension when you’ve got a slight buzz going. After exhausting the offerings around Passy (the NYU center) and the Bibliothèque Nationale (French university) we’re starting to expand our brasserie horizons, metroing to find newer, cheaper hole-in-the-walls.

Restaurant-wise, I’ve been turned on to the Belleville area and am absolutely in love with its collection of cute bars and (predominantly Asian) restaurants. We did an NYU happy hour at a bar called “Assassin” a few weeks ago, whose burgers are bested only by their 3 euro/pint DELERIUM, which they have on tap! I was back not long after for a Thai dinner with a bunch of friends from Cité (menu: ceviche-like “raw” prawns in a lime and chili marinade and coconut curried duck and bamboo shoots) and then again a week later to a Vietnamese place for authentic pho with all the fixins.

On Saturday night I joined a bunch of friends on a pilgrimage to a Columbian restaurant to celebrate Tom’s birthday. The food was good (chicken and fried plantains in a mango sauce), but more than anything I enjoyed the fun group of people and how invested they all were in making sure Tom had a good time. He received not one but three cakes—including an unpronounceable Greek cake (that tasted kind of like rice pudding with filo pastry) and an unbelievable tiramisu from a Luxembourgish friend. The night also included one of the more amazing “small world” moments I’ve had in my life—one of the Greek girls invited for the ride recognized me as one of her fellow participants on a week-long summer program we did three years ago. The program involved a small, eclectic group of students from all over the world, so the odds of EVER running into each other again, much less through mutual friends, should have been unbelievably low. And yet, there we were, sharing a bottle of wine and arguing with a French guy about the difference between lemons and limes (in French, they’re the same fruit: “lemon” and “green lemon”…silly, really.)

Oh life, how strange and delicious you are.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Alsatian Satiation

Strasbourg was drizzly and surprisingly chilly (relative to Paris) when we stepped off of our two and a half hour high speed train Saturday morning. Fortunately, nothing warms you better than a cup of mulled wine, which was two euros a glass and available about every ten feet from a different vendor. For those unable to stomach alcohol before noon, the wintery smell of cloves and cinnamon and the sight of lamp posts and store windows draped in tinsel and greenery provided ample distraction from the cold, as did the tangible electricity in the crowd: Christmas! Christmas!

Like the other happy hoards of tourists making the pilgrimage from the gare to the town center, we were there (courtesy of extra NYU budget money and a very good suggestion from yours truly) to take in the magic of the famous Christmas markets. We spent our first two hours in town on a leisurely tour lead by a native Strasbourgian. He gave us the history of this Germanic/French, Protestant/Catholic split-identity city using words from both languages as well as a little bit of the native "Alsatian," a dialect somewhere between the two. Strasboug's cobbled streets (still off-limits to cars) radiate outwards from a central Gothic cathedral, constructed of pink local sandstone. Its houses are mostly made from a picturesque black and white timber frame design, especially in the old town district of "petite-France" (so named not because it's a microcosm or anything attractive like that, but rather because it was historically the quartier of prostitution, "the french profession," and its byproduct, syphilis--the "French disease").

After the tour we warmed up with a brasserie lunch of sauerkraut, in-house micro brews and a local flat-bread creation (with a german name I can't remember) before hitting the Christmas markets. I was a little disappointed by the wares at the markets, which were fairly generic, but I was thrilled by the food. By the time we caught our train back to Paris that night I was stuffed with deliciousness. Free samples of cheeses, Christmas cookies, teas and chocolates abounded, and the famous "pain d'epices" (gingerbread, but literally bread, not a cookie), roasted chestnuts, hot chocolate and spiced cider were seasonal treats I couldn't turn down.

My interactions with the locals echoed my earlier weekend in the nearby Lorraine--everyone was warm, friendly, and way more welcoming/approachable than Parisians. In spite of hoards of tourists, Americans speaking French were still a commodity, and it was cool to be appreciated instead of snubbed. I also continue to be amazed at the geographical/cultural diversity in France--you can go two hours in any direction and feel like you're in a different country. Seriously. In a space smaller than the state of Texas, you have grassy wine country, snowy alps, tropical Mediterranean coastline, the rainy Rhine valley, and the somber, England-esque coasts of Brittany. The more I travel, the more I realize there's left for me to see--all the more reason for me to try and stick around next year.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A night at the Opera

Last Wednesday night I had the fortune to embark on yet another trustfundergrad-payed adventure: an evening at the national Opéra Garnier to see Platée. I had never in my life seen an opera before this night, nor did I have a real strong desire to. My entire knowledge of opera was limited to the word "aria"--which I only know because it's one of those words (other examples: oreo, etna) that show up all the time in crossword puzzles. In my head, opéra meant an elitist crowd and a long show in a language I couldn't understand; overly dramatic, always tragic, and preformed in shrill vibrato by women whose chests quivered in bodices and hoop skirts, opposite men in powdered wigs.

Clearly, my vision of opera is outdated by several centuries.

From the moment I stepped into the theater I was in love. The building itself is a jewel, lavish but still somehow still understated. Walking up the central stairs was like waking into another era; the hubbub of the street become a reverent murmur, the electric lights of the outside dimmed to a chandelier glow that you could almost imagine was candlelight. Regular Parisians of all ages shed peacoats to reveal evening gowns and suits, strolling arm in arm to a marble balcony to survey the crowd in the lobby below. Inside the actual theater, boxes of red velvet seats were stacked crescent-style around the orchestra and stage, with a giant classic chandelier offset by a more modern Chagall-painted ceiling. The orchestra began, the crowd leaned forward, and the curtain raised to reveal...

...the audience!

In a beautifully mise-en-abîme beginning (play-within-a-play, or thereabouts), the stage was a mimicry of the seating and a plain-clothes chorus spent the first number being seated by ushers before absurdly climbing and scrambling over and across the very same seats we were in. The story started with a hungover Thespis and some buds of his who decide to put on a play about the Gods. From then on the opera became the play, with the seats splitting further apart and draped by more and more moss in every scene until the stage had completely become the swamp of Platée, and ugly marsh nymph frog queen, played by--get this--a man!

Opera has CROSSDRESSING?!? It was official; I was won over.

Basic plot: in order to teach his wife Juno a lesson about jealousy and Platée a lesson about pride, Jupiter (along with help from henchman Mercury) decides to feign love to Platée and leave her at the alter once an enraged Juno shows up and realizes she's been had. In short: absolutely hilarious, with songs, costumes, dances and slapstick that was just plain fun. The audience was laughing the entire time--shattering my illusion of a stuffy, proper crowd, and costumes included frog suits, umbrella tutus for a rain dance, a dress made of sheet-music, Prince-inspired gear for Mercury, and a Bowie-inspired Jupiter. AND the whole thing was in delightfully modern and comprehensible French, with lyrics projected on an LED screen above the stage to make comprehension that much easier.

If I had done my research beforehand, I would have known that Platée is a "ballet buffon"--a comic opera. I had to experience it to believe it, though--I didn't realize that opera knew how to laugh at itself. I also wasn't prepared for the elegance of the experience: the full orchestra; the dance; the amazingly resonant voices, each unique and expressive. I left the Opéra that night with the same peaceful feeling I get in a museum or a bookstore--that saturation with art that makes me feel proud to be human. We may spend most of our lives fucking up, but every once and again someone manages to glimpse the sublime and channel it to the masses, creating and proliferating beauty.

(And THAT is why I study literature.)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

lessons from the laundry room

I declared today a Depaysée holiday, declining to go to class for the first time all semester. The way I’ve passed my “leisure” time has been a little anticlimactic. First I defrosted my freezer, which was time consuming but oddly satisfying. My fridge has been getting progressively less cold over the last few weeks, so I'm hoping it's not, in fact, broken, and that the ice was just throwing off the temperature sensor. Fingers crossed. In between working and procrastinating on my essays I also did some laundry, which is always an adventure.

Laundry is one of those basic chores that you’d assume would be the same from country to country. It’s not. A surprising (to Americans) percentage of the world doesn’t use—-or even own!-—dryers, and instead relies on clotheslines and drying racks. I have fond memories of riding my bike while mom hung my sister’s cloth diapers on our line in New Zealand (despite the frequent rain where we lived), and it was much the same in England. I don't think dryers even existed in Tunisia, where our washer was in the kitchen and disguised under a decorative cover and a bowl of fruit. French households also tend to use dryers infrequently. Their washers accommodate only very small loads, but for irritatingly long wash cycles at alarmingly hot water temperatures. The only theory I can come up with is to link this phenomenon to the smelly Frenchmen stereotype (lower hygiene standards = less frequent washings, so smaller machines, but a more thorough washing cycle for the dirtier rags) but who knows. At any rate, when I do my laundry here I set my loads on the lowest temperature and they still come out steaming. You’d think colors running/fading would be more of a concern in a country obsessed with black. Although maybe that explains the secondary obsession with gray…

Here's the knob on the washing machine. Note that the numbers are degrees Celsius, and not minutes or anything logical like that:

I'll be the first to admit that Americans are hyper-obsessed with cleanliness and should probably be wearing their clothes longer rather than wasting water with unnecessary loads (and showers, for that matter), just as we should be trying to do more air-drying and cut down on dryer usage. But on the other hand, the French waste energy with unnecessary water heat. And although I can deal with air-dried shirts, crunchy underwear and socks and stiff, stretched-out jeans are a thoroughly unpleasant experience, green living be damned.

Monday, November 30, 2009

How Bizarre

I saw a French woman vacuuming the sidewalk path outside of her house today. It couldn't fathom why one would feel the need to suck up the dirt from the outside, from where it should be. At times like that it's hard for me to tell if I'm missing out on some sort of cultural difference, or if she was just an odd duck. I suppose that there are bizarre members of all nationalities.

In fact, I'm sure I must seem pretty bizarre myself sometimes, by French standards at least. In a city of high-fashion skirts, tights, boots and blouses in grey-scale tones, I often feel like the lone slapstick technicolor character in a black and white movie. I also get looks when a really great song comes up on my iPod shuffle as I'm riding the Metro or speed-walking around town and I can't help but tap a foot, bob my head, or walk in time to the beat. This is much more than my dignified fellow commuters would deign to do, but it's pretty tame compared to what I would be doing if I were home and safe within the soundproof bubble of my car.

Speaking of iPods, it occurred to me today that mp3 players could be hurting the age-old Parisian entrepreneurship of metro accordion-playing. With more and more commuters plugged into their own tunes, I bet fewer of them appreciate, pay or even notice the "musicians". Having a pair of earbuds in eliminates the guilt of not contributing to the collection in the plastic cup when they are done with their one-stop serenade, and it even entitles some grosbourge (uppity folks) to deliver a "how dare you interrupt my music and then ask me to pay you" glare. Maybe this explains the growing trend of stringing up a curtain between two metro poles for a sock puppet show--if you want the pocket change, you've got to be innovative.

In keeping with the theme of weird Parisian things, here's a video of a French...well...I guess you'd call him a comedian. It demonstrates a strange sense of humor and does a good job of covering some familiar Parisian spaces:
Normal.dotm 0 0 1 14 85 NYU 1 1 104 12.0

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Black Friday, White Night

While my fellow Americans spent their Black Friday fighting over video games in Walmart, I slept in, celebrated the beginning of the season with all-day Christmas music and a warming chickpea stew, and then went out for an epic “nuit blanche” (all-nighter) on the town.

Phinn and I met up with Lindsey, Julia and her friend Chris in the 6th. We started our night at “10,” a great little dive bar known for its sangria—18 euros for a large pitcher to share. Decorated in vintage posters and filled with a chill, bohemian crowd that clustered around the jukebox to select Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, 10 felt cozier than most of the other techno-pumping, strobe light, sexed-up bars I’ve been to in the city. After a few hours (and pitchers) we meandered over to the Latin Quarter to the infamous “Latin Corner”. This is a bar staffed entirely by men dressed (and hung) like Rocky from Rocky Horror Picture Show—golden Speedos and all—who dance through artificial smoke to Beyoncé to deliver platters of fruity cocktails to a female and gay clientele. We stayed only long enough to get warm (they keep it really hot for the near-naked servers) and appreciate the scenery before hopping over to the British Long Hop for last call and a pint of Strongbow, a favorite from my Oxford days

By this point we had missed the last metro of the night and our choices were to go through the long process of night buses, track down an expensive taxi, or wait out the morning metro at 5:30.

We opted for the latter.

Still bearing plastic ‘to-go’ cups from Long Hop, we went to go meet up with some friends in a chic bar near Île de la cité. However, after waiting for ten minutes as the bouncers selectively let people in, we opted to head toward the cheaper, more casual area of the Marais. We wandered for a while in search of an elusive bar Lindsey remembered from a previous weekend before the cold and a need for bathrooms finally drove us inside the “Rive Droite”—a friendly bar/restaurant with all-night Karaoke. We ordered a plate of finger foods and a bottle of Chardonnay, cheering on the French covers of 80s love ballads all the while. Lindsey wowed the crowd with her rendition of Brigitte Bardot’s “Harley Davidson” in French, and then we all got up on stage together to sing Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind.”

When Karaoke finally ended it was time to go home. Lindsey and Chris said their goodbyes and turned to trek back, leaving Phinn and I with another half hour to kill before we could retreat from the chilly, pre-dawn wind into the warm underbelly of the metro tunnels. Spotting an open restaurant, we popped in for one of the more bizarre breakfasts of my life—5am soupe à l’oignon gratinée, or in English, the best French onion soup I’ve ever had. An hour later, by 6am, I was in bed. And 12 hours later, at 5pm, I’ve accomplished very little. A waste of a rainy Saturday, perhaps, but 100% worth it.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Turkey on the Tower

The memory of snuggling up with pajama-ed siblings on the couch to watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade tugged lightly at the corner of my mind as I woke up Thursday and finished my reading for class. Luckily, the long-anticipated, unorthodox Thanksgiving-on-the-Eiffel-Tower awaited me after classes were through.

Thanks to ungrateful trustfundergrands there were a handful of extra tickets left unclaimed last minute, allowing me to bring along Julia (a friend from French class at St. Mary's studying in Bordeaux who dropped into town rather last minute) and Virginie (a sweet French girl who lives a few doors down from me). The Eiffel tower began its hourly sparkling right as we walked up, making up for the icy rain. We presented our VIP restaurant tickets and bypassed the tourist line, ascending to the restaurant level via a diagonal elevator in the North leg of the tour. Julia bought me a pint while we waited for our table reservations, and (small world!) ran into a friend, Chris, from her home town, who joined our table for dinner a few minutes later.

The dinner itself was good but "gourmet" (in other words, marked by small portions and extravagant garnishes) so it was a far cry from the heaping plates and humble foods of an American Thanksgiving. We were also missing a few Thanksgiving staples: stuffing, green beans, mashed potatoes...yeah. Basically, the French chef's interpretation of the holiday was to incorporate pumpkin into every course. Our appetizer was a savory pumpkin soup, our main came accompanied by a pat of pumpkin/sweet potato purée with chestnuts, and our dessert was a strange take on pumpkin pie that, although tasty, had no nutmeg or cloves or ginger or whatever it is that usually gives pie its spice. The main course was about half right--a tender slice of turkey in gravy with cranberry sauce (thank God), but also came, rather oddly, with a moroccan pancake and some paté. And the whole meal was paired with a pretty full-bodied Bordeaux. An odd and slightly un-satisfying experience overall.

Nonetheless, I suppose it was appropriate to enjoy a Frenchified Thanksgiving with the people closest to family for me right now. And after all, Thanksgiving is a pretty wacked-out holiday no matter how you look at it--a fact that became very clear in our attempts to explain it to Virginie ("what? It's a celebration of colonial domination? That involves gorging yourselves and then going into a shopping frenzy afterward? And this relates to family how?"). Hope everyone States-side enjoyed their tryptophan daze. Miss you all and excited to see you at Christmas.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

An ode to the Paris Métro

Anyone who has h
eard me talk about Paris knows that I have alongstanding love affair with its Métro, which is an efficient, far-reaching, affordable and animated system of public transit that far surpasses those in other cities I’ve visited. I realized the other day that the “honeymoon” phase of our relationship is finally over, but my initial excitement has given way to a more satisfying savoir-faire. On the lines I use regularly, I position myself strategically on the platform so as to be right in front of the exit when I reach my destination. I navigate transfer tunnels like a pro, and I have my Imagin-R (student metro card—25 euro a month for unlimited travel) swiping procedure down to one swift motion when I pass through the turnstiles. I’m familiar with the stations decorated by art—the long mosaics in the halls of St. Michel, the larger than life literary autograph collection splashed across the ceiling of Luxembourg, or the patriotic murals at the Bastille. In the stations without art, I ponder the wall-size ads that serve as cultural insight and my main link to pop culture. I’ve cultivated an intimacy with the system and an appreciation for the personality of its different lines, which I associate more with their color than their number. What follows is an ode of sorts to those that have a particularly pronounced place in my memory…

The primary, finger-paint colors of the RER lines: the watermelon red A, the ocean blue B line, the sunny yellow C, the grassy green D. Ironically, the ambiance here is anything but childish. Dreary but stoic, these trains shuttle drones into the city en masse in the morning, and then, in the evening, back to the sprawling suburban towns they call home. The wave of humid air that sighs outwards as the doors open towards each platform is the collective exhaled breath of a thousand weary workers. They squeeze into the crowded car, dutifully surrender the single empty seat to the oldest or neediest in their midst, then resign themselves to yet another commute spent standing and sweating. Retreating into an iPod, a novel, or just a blank stare, they rarely notice the rare happy faces that dot the crowd— a family just back from Disney Land on the A, an excited, baggage-burdened traveler off to an exotic flight from Charles de Gaulle on the B, a tourist with eyes still aglow from the gold at Versailles on the C.

The pond scum green 3 line, with its newer, disability-friendly trains that announce the stations aloud and use blinking lights to allow you to visually track your progress, and whose seats are arranged in an asymmetrical, feng shui manner.

The fuchsia 4 line, rickety but reliable, which runs through the grittier neighborhoods of Paris and always has an animated, textured group of riders. If you get on in the south you’ll be in the company of students headed to the Sorbonne, to the malls of Les Halles or to the popular watering holes/restaurants of St. Germain des Pres and the Latin Quarter. Once you get to Gare du Nord the caucasian passengers exit in unison, and so completely that it feels almost like a conspiracy. The line takes you through a few Arab neighborhoods (and bars that offer free couscous to poor students) before you dead-end at the Porte de Clignancourt, the geographical and social fringe of the city that hosts a celebrated weekly Marché des Puces (flea market).

The navy blue 2 line, nearly as rickety as the four, whose screeching breaks can physically felt as they scratch across your eardrums.

The indigo 14 line, formerly known by the appropriate acronym METEOR, which is highly automated. Its stops are few but far apart and it shoots through its protective ribcage of a tunnel at rapid speeds. The plastic tunnel extends to the platform, with doors opening only when the car is perfectly aligned to protect bumbling tourists from the hazards of the tracks (and would-be suicidals from themselves).

The olive oil 9, which spans the city and stops frequently, giving it a varied crowd and a tiresome feel.

The chic, baby blue 13, whose plush velvety seats in rich hues of red and purple attest to the wealth of the districts of Paris it passes through.

The yellow 1 line, which runs along the Seine and stops at all the major tourist attractions. Quite predictably, it’s a Babel of languages and their speakers are too excited, lost o
r unfamiliar with the Metro etiquette to respect the invisible isolation bubbles of the Parisian commuters besides them. This line has the same automatic doors as the 14, I like to imagine this is to save the tourists from having to fumble with the hooked door releases that are standard in the other lines.

And finally, the sea foam 6 line, whose rubber wheels send it rolling above ground on raised platforms that pass over the Seine and afford a beautiful view of the Eiffel tower. Understandably, this is also the line that attracts the accordion players, progressing through cars at each stop to the delight of tourists, who pay for the ambiance in pocket change, and the chagrin of Passy’s rich, elderly residents, who respond to the clink of the coin cup with glares. This is the line that delivers me to class every day. After three months, I roll my eyes and immerse myself in my book whenever the accordion man steps on. But this is just to play the part rather than to embody it, because more than the glimpse of the monument and the cheesy music, it’s the thought that I might pass for a local that really thrills me; the idea that this city that I traverse each day is slowly becoming my own.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Nature is one hot mama

On Friday night I went to Theatre de l’Atelier in Montmartre to see a free (courtesty of the tuition of the trustfundergrads—I’m going to use that beautiful neologism to refer to them from here on out) one-man play by Samuel Beckett, called Premier Amour. It was performed by Samy Frey, who’s apparently a big deal if you’re French, female and over forty. I love theatre in general (and Beckett), but I really wasn’t feeling this show. Although cute, the theater was small and not air-conditioned, and the lack of leg-room and breathable air became a little distracting by the end of the show. The solemn, one-man staging (which translated to no dialogue and very few gestures) was a little tiresome and made the language barrier more pronounced. They also tried to do some edgy things in the staging with a siren and a strobe light that, for me, only detracted from the continuity of the show. This isn’t the first time I’ve been disappointed with the staging of an absurdist play in France (in the version of Cantatrice Chauve/ Bald Soprano that I saw a few years ago in Nice, the director did some strange things with cell phones, sirens and video screens, and at one point the father ripped the maid’s dress open and did coke lines off her chest as he delivered his lines). In my opinion, the beauty of absurd theatre is that the text is already absurd in and of itself. It seems like there’s this urge to “out weird” the script in the staging, but the two should compliment each other, not compete…

We followed up the play with a much more enjoyable nibble and a drink at the nearby Café des Deux Moulins, famous for being the “Amélie café” that she works at in the movie.

When we first arrived I sneered at the way Audrey Tautou’s face and autograph were splashed around everywhere, but after an hour soaking in the ambiance, the reggae band and the 3.90 happy hour cocktails, I couldn’t help but embrace the cliché experience. I particularly enjoyed the way that the bathroom where Georgette’s famous café-shaking sex scene takes place has been transformed into a sort of shrine for the garden gnome (probably as much to discourage would-be copy-cats as to celebrate the movie…heh heh heh). I watched the movie when I got home, reveling in the esoteric glory of recognizing every intimate corner of Paris that showed up on screen.

I woke up to such a beautiful morning that I couldn’t bear to waste the day inside doing work like I had originally planned. Instead, I took advantage of my Ile-de-France weekend train privileges and hopped on a train to Fontainebleau. I spent a half hour or so wandering around the cute, small town (and passed a huge line of teen girls waiting for the Twilight movie…yup, it’s crazy here, too) before I picked a small café to settle down in. I read medieval French literature in between leisurely bites of my artichoke and ham pizza then wandered over to the famous Chateau of Fontainebleau. As an under-26 French resident, I got free admission (this is also the case in most museums now, thanks to a new law—it’s a great time to be young in France). This took the pressure off of making it an educational experience and allowed me to stroll leisurely around the house and gardens, picking out the standard Chateau features (trompe l’oeil, furniture that matches the wall tapestries, short but elaborate four-poster beds, freezing private chapels) and a few new ones (elaborate mantle place clocks in every room, royal initials stamped everywhere, a bed in almost every room [apparently Napoleon II liked to be able to sleep on a whim]). Certain parts of the Chateau were being used to display modern art furniture exhibits, featuring a strange array of artistic and impactical arm chairs, sinks, and light fixtures. The pieces were cool but seemed oddly out of place, much like the jarringly modern light posts I saw in Metz. It's interesting to see how France is trying to hold onto its rich and decadent history even as it modernizes.

My favorite find in the Chateau was a statue representing Nature. It almost seemed to be an afterthought, tucked away as it was in a hallway nook between rooms with no plaque or audio guide entry devoted to it. It portrayed a woman nursing a handful of babies and animals, which seems normal enough until you realize that she has not just two but an entire body of breasts. Delightfully bizarre.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Looking on the sunny side (up)

I’m currently eating what might be the most delicious omelette in the history of Ever (note: every omelette seems this way to me) and pondering the wonder of eggs. It's like God said "here, students, I'll give you a cheap, individually-packaged, single-serving of protein that lasts for weeks with or without refrigeration, is easy to cook and somehow still tastes delicious." In the last month, I’ve used eggs to make fried egg baguette sandwiches with Dijon, fried rice and stir fried noodles with egg, quiche, and savory crepes. Moral of the menu: eggs rule. And right now, so does life. The train strikes are finally finished, so I can once again look forward to a predictable commute. Our heat and hot water are back—Hallelujah! I’m caught up on sleep, for once. The weather is still grey, but it has at least been clear enough to allow for a quick jog the last two days. This afternoon’s Middle Ages class is cancelled to accommodate a field trip to the Bibliothèque Nationale’s King Arthur exhibit. Basically, an all-around "woohoo!"

On the academic front: after a bad midterm and a retake that I didn’t feel went much better, I found out yesterday that I actually did ok the second time around and will therefore not be failing out of grad school (yet). The other lit students and I celebrated with a lovely late afternoon beer and pastry picnic on some stairs near Passy, where we could gaze upon the Eiffel tower without being hassled by tourists and trinket-sellers (although we did get hassled by a few old ladies who mistook us for hooligans, who told us not to litter when we were done…Passy’s a rich, old, and stuck-up neighborhood). Also, after two months of stagnation and seemingly backward progress (as in, at times, I couldn’t even form sentences in English) my spoken French is finally getting noticeably better. As is my written French, particularly from a grammar/stylistics standpoint. I’m getting better at self-correcting when I make mistakes, and at catching errors when I edit my own papers. I still have a long way to go before I’m where I want to be, but it’s encouraging.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

cold weather, colder shower

Paris is dreary in the late fall. I didn't feel as at home in Nice as I do here, but man was the weather better. It's not so much the temperature, although it is getting colder, or even the rain. It's just the constancy of the gray clouds. I feel saturated by the gray, and my moods and energy as subdued as the sky.

Or maybe I'm just lazy.

In case, if it's not already obvious I didn't do much this weekend except catch up on (much-needed) sleep and eat (not-so-needed) starch. On Friday night I made some stir-fry noodles and we hosted an impromptu potluck dinner. Inspired by my Asian noodle success, I went to Chinatown the next day to explore and I bought a whole sack full of various cheap groceries that I'm excited to experiment with. Phinn made a delicious endive salad with Gorgonzola, apples, walnuts and a dijon/lemon juice dressing to go along with out leftovers from the previous night, and we snuggled up in bed to watch Moon (an enjoyable if not predictable low-budget sci-fi flick). Today: jogging, homework, and a really really cold shower. It's been freakishly windy this whole weekend, and yesterday our power, internet and heating went out. The first two came back quickly enough, but the heating and hot water are on the fritz until the work week. As I learned the hard way in Nice, French plumbers don't work weekends.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

In Love with the Lorraine

A week after my return from Nancy and Metz, I’m finally ready to write up a post. For anyone unfamiliar with France, Nancy and Metz are two cities in the Lorraine region in the Northeast. Both are considered “big” cities in the region, albeit still dwarfs in comparison to Paris (both have about a population of about 100,000 people with an extra 400,000 in the surrounding ‘burbs). Relative to Paris, they were colder, more cutesy/rural, wetter (it was gray and rainy all weekend) and far cheaper. I also found them to be friendly and “cozy” in a social sense, which made me decide that if I end up staying in France for another year I need to seek out a smaller town.

Between the train and the bus we took around, we drove through a fair amount of rural countryside. This gave me a chance to enjoy the fall foliage I’ve been missing, which seems to be enhanced the further you get from Paris, although maybe it’s just an illusion created by the concentration of trees. The small provincial downs marked by a lone steeple reminded me of Eastern Germany (which makes sense geographically, I suppose) while the rolling fields under gray skies reminded me more of England.

Our first stop was Metz, where we got a great tour of the town, its canals and its cathedral. The cathedral has the most stained glass of any in Europe, but more impressive than the amount was the particularity of its pieces. After as many cathedrals as I’ve seen at this point in my European wanderings (honestly, it’s easier to find a cathedral than a bathroom here) I’m growing a little weary of Gothic rose windows, so the cubist-inspired windows were a nice change. There were also Chagall windows (supposedly rare, although I always happen to bumble across them) which were as graceful as ever. We grabbed lunch in a cute local café with a cheap “formule” (3 course meal) recommended to us by the tour guide, where we tried a local specialty that I *think* was called “pork balls”—-basically a form of corned beef.

After our tour of Metz we drove out to the countryside, where I learned about the existence of a new kind of fruit called a Mirabelle (that is apparently a big deal in the Lorraine…it’s basically a yellow plum). After hearing about how it’s grown and harvested, I sampled it in a variety of forms and settled on syrup and tea as my purchases. (In case you were wondering, both are delicious.)

The next day we stopped at the Cristallerie in Baccarat to visit their crystal museum and learn about the centuries-old, meticulous family enterprise of crystal artistry. I was pretty skeptical about crystal before I arrived (I kind of turn my nose up at “luxury” products—they seem like a waste of money and a throwback to the excess and decadence of monarchies or despots) but I was surprised at how beautiful some of the pieces were. During the tour, I learned the difference between crystal and glass (they pump lead into crystal to make it harder…which seems bad to me, considering the toxicity of lead and the usual food-serving functions of crystal, but apparently it’s ok). I also learned that crystal is even MORE expensive than I thought it was, and I saw single crystal goblets worth more than my college education (fun anecdote: tsarist Russia used to buy thousands of these goblets for feasts, then throw them over their shoulders to shatter them after they had been used. See what I mean?) Crystal is all hand-blown and engraved, and each piece has to be “perfect,” so about 75% of it has to get chucked at various points during the creation process to uphold the quality (and prestige and price) of the remaining, elite pieces. Hm. Still don’t think I’ll ever be able to afford any of it, but it’s kind of cool how much importance France attaches to its national products and the preservation of traditional modes of production.

Last stop on the trip was Nancy, which was an adorable town with a wide open, gilded central square and a cute tramway. We had a fair amount of free time here, which we used to shop (prices in Nancy are MUCH more affordable than those in Paris), get a great lunch at a brasserie (rabbit in a mustard sauce for me) and sample a local delicacy: macaron cookies. We were then led on a tour of the city and its art-nouveau architecture, which would have been better had it not been raining the whole time. Luckily we had a chance to dry off and warm up at an afternoon tea at the Brasserie Excelsior Art Nouveau de Nancy, where we were treated to a dessert of a cream and meringue tarte with—what else?—mirabelles and maracons before catching our train back to Paris.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Grève grievance

The RER, or the train lines intersecting the metro that I take to get around the city, has been “en grève” (striking) for about a week now. This follows a similar but not as extensive strike that happened two weeks ago. The first time the strike just meant that there were fewer trains running, so you might have to wait ten minutes to catch a train that, during rush hour, was packed to capacity (seriously….you haven’t seen a full train until you’ve seen one here. The entire car sucks in their collective gut so the door can close). Now the strike has evolved to mean that trains only run from the outskirts of the city (the RER’s all service the Parisian suburbs, and are big commuter trains) to the first big hub, which for me is only one stop away. The result is that I’m waiting for a full train for up to 20 minutes, which takes me exactly one stop up to where I can transfer to lines 4 or 6.

Luckily, this is all I need to get to class. But being cut off from the big hubs of Chatelet and Gare du Nord is making it particularly difficult to go just about anywhere else.

However, any frustration I may feel towards this inconvenience disappears when I witness the good-humored shrugs of my fellow passengers. Unlike in the States, where striking is disorderly, disruptive, largely unproductive and potentially volatile, here it is fairly commonplace—expected, even. Striking is a means to an end, the end being social change, and it the French can’t imagine an economy without it. A minimum level of function is ensured during all strikes, so there’s no need to panic. In the meantime, in the French mindset the inconvenience is just that—an inconvenience— that is improving someone else’s wages and life, and there are plenty of buses and metros to take to compensate. When I took a bus home the other day to avoid a rush hour sardine syndrome on the limited trains, I found the bus just as packed with people seeking the same alternative. In America, such crowds usually produce at least a base level of stress and hostility, but everyone joked about the strikes even as the elbows of strangers were digging into their chests, and when a mother needed to board, the entire bus managed to squeeze into itself to accommodate her stroller.

A night at the movies

Last night I went to a special screening of Le Petit Nicolas, a new movie based on a series of well-loved children’s books. I read a few of the stories in high school French class and love lit/films that try for a child’s perspective on the world, so I had already been planning to see the film before I heard about the opportunity. As it turns out, director Laurent Tirard is a NYU film school alum, so all of the NYU students were invited to a free screening of the film followed by a question and answer session in a cute little theater just off the Champs Elysées.

The movie was perfect, using a cast of unknown child actors (including the director’s son) and a few cartoony adults to bring a child’s view of 1950’s Paris to life. The French audience members seemed pleased with the faithfulness to the book, but as someone with only a vague sense of the characters I still fell in love with them (in particular Clotaire, the adorable class dunce, and the 50’s pre-feminist housewife mother). It reminded me a lot of a less-twisted rendition of Roald Dahl’s stories, with the schoolboy antics and their mean headmaster coming straight from Boy and the kind maîtresse a reflection of Ms. Honey in Matilda. The director himself was laid back and down-to-earth, and if it wasn’t for the microphone he would have blended in easy with the casual college crowd. I also appreciated his honesty—when asked how it was to film with children he gave the obligatory “well, children can be inspiring” response but said it was more frequently comparable to the hell of trying to plan a birthday party for a ten year old. Except for six hours at a time. Every day. For five months of filming. (Understandably, he doesn’t foresee a sequel.)

The main thing that I took away from this experience is an appreciation for France’s cinema scene. France is big enough to have a rich cultural/literary/film history to draw on, but small enough that it’s easy for an inspired writer/director to get in contact with the people he needs to realize his dream…in this case, an illustrator from the original books for the opening credits and Renée Goscinny’s family (the writer who wrote Petit Nicolas, as well as Asterix, Lucky Luke and others) for permission, blessing, and advice. France is small enough to produce art for art’s sake, but its budget is big enough (the government helps fund a lot of film projects) to make sure they don’t suck. It’s big enough to produce 800 boys trying out for the role of Nicolas, but small enough that the chosen actors all remain friends post-filming and come over to the director’s house once a month to play video games with his son.

Well except the little girl actor, of course, who's not invited: “I mean, we only have video games at my house, not dolls.”

Cultured but sexist. Oh France.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

fake update

I had a fabulous weekend, but between my trip East and the party I was dragged to immediately after my late return to Paris last night, very little of my work got done. The result is that I don't have time for a full post right now, although I promise details and photos on Wednesday (which is a national holiday of some sort).

If you need me in the meantime I can be found in the study room in the basement of my building, staring blankly at books and contemplating smacking them against my forehead in hopes that their wisdom would then transfer to my brain more efficiently. I just got a laugh when I looked over and saw that the girl next to me was on a webpage called "" or something similar, and then, a minute later on "Why am I so stupid?"

Glad to know I'm not the only one that uses Google to voice random phrases of procrastination frustration (and then procrastinate further by browsing the hits that echo my mindset).

Thursday, November 5, 2009

cloudy days, chevaliers and cowboys

Feeling better about the world today despite the fact that very little has changed. It's a rule of life, or at least of my outlook on it, that a down day is almost always followed by a better one. It's still rainy but my go-to Parisian veteran, Laura, says to get used to it. Apparently this is "winter" à la francais and I can expect it to last until about April. If this is true I'm not sure why wellies haven't caught on here yet. I'm tempted to bring my loud, red polka-dotted pair back with me after Christmas break just to stop the bottom of my jeans from clinging to my legs and to stick it to European fashion. Although I suppose to stick it to fashion I would have to have been fashionable to begin with...*sigh* In reality, I will probably end up buying some fashionable but more hazardous "bottes" (boots, pronounced like "butt"...the third-grader living inside my head still snickers whenever I hear it).

This morning I went on an optional "field trip" with my medieval lit class to the Musée National du Moyen-Age. The museum is housed in the 15th century residence of the abbots of Cluny, and the Gothic/renaissance architecture is a perfect compliment to the works inside that gave me a pang of nostalgia for my Oxford days. Our museum guide was perfect, pointing out tapestries, ivory carved chests, and painted glass panels that illuminated the courtly love stories we've been reading in class. The tapestries were incredible--much more detailed and dynamic than others I've seen. We spent the last half hour or so in the room that holds the collection of the "Lady and the Unicorn" tapestries, and the guide gave us a great rundown of all the different critical interpretations of the story behind the art. At one point she mentioned that an American had written a book about the tapestries but blanked on the author's name, and when I supplied it (Tracy Chevalier--the same woman who wrote the story-turned-movie about Vermeer's "Girl with the Pearl Earring") my professor was really impressed. I had to laugh--it's hardly a scholarly book, but I suppose that with as much as I'm struggling with my grammar I should take all the outside credit I can get.

Non sequitur : I had a hilarious Orangina sighting today. Anyone unfamiliar with this delicious, orange juice-based soda should get their butt to a Trader Joes/Potbelly's/some other yuppie store and try it out. It's ubiquitous here, and up there with wine and nutella in terms of the major perks of being in France. The other great thing about it is its advertising campaigns. The last time I was in France Orangina launched a limited edition mango/tropical flavor (which was delicious!) as well as a truly bizarre sexual ad campaign centered on anthropomorphic animal pin-up girls. This time around they have a cowboy/Indian theme going. The theme itself isn't as culturally anachronistic as one might think--the French have long been obsessed with the idea of "le cowboy" and one of the biggest movies in theaters right now is Lucky Luke, a French Western based on a popular comic strip. No, the more bizarre aspect is the flavors Schwepps chose to assign to these stereotypical characters--grenadine for the Indian, and MINT for the cowboy. Gross. I'm not exactly sure what I imagine cowboy SHOULD taste like (beef jerky? BBQ? whiskey?) but whatever it is, mint is about the furthest from it you could get. Plus, have Schwepps employees never brushed their teeth before they drank some orange juice? It's a gross flavor combination. And at least in those unfortunate cases my orange juice is still orange, not alien green.

And finally, your moment of zen:

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

quarter-life crisis

So I'm feeling kind of down today (and a little sick, too, which doesn't help). If you don't want to read a complaining post I advise you to either scroll (waay) down and read about zombies or wait a few days, because I have a weekend excursion coming up that will hopefully yield some fruitful happy bloggage.

You've been warned. Things are about to get Debbie Downer in here (*womp womp WOMP*).

I've been trying to be positive so far, but to be perfectly honest at this point grad school is a little disappointing. I'm starting to get this nagging feeling that the NYU-in-Paris program isn't taken that seriously by NYU, and that all of us grad students are an afterthought in comparison to the 190 paying undergrads. There's no automatic "in" for me to get into the PhD program next year, which means I would have to be reapplying right now, and my heart just isn't in it. I keep telling myself to see this as a blessing (all of this is free after all, and seeing as how I'm not sure I have the stamina right now to jump right into the PhD, maybe it's a good thing to not be locked in) but really I'm just baffled--if NYU isn't trying to encourage me to stay with them, and if they're definitely not giving me opportunities to publish/go to conferences, what exactly are they getting out of me here that merits giving me this fellowship?

Grad school is also a lot "easier" than I imagined. I put that in quotations because it's not easy, per se. The bulk of my reading is intense, and I have to retake my textual analysis midterm due to grammar mistakes and "clumsy wording," so I know what I have to work on. But after working my butt off on my senior thesis last year, I can't help but wish the depth of our analysis was more developed, or that I was being forced to write more independent papers, do more research, incorporate theory...etc. I've been hearing similar feedback from other SMCM alum, though, so maybe I should see this as a testament to my undergrad education rather than a detriment to the NYU way of things.

More than minor frustration with the academic side, I feel like I've been floundering a little in my morale. As always I turned to Wikipedia for answers, and the page on quarter-life crisis seems to describe me perfectly right now. I feel like this should be passed out at graduation with diplomas, just to warn students of what is to come. Here are some of the particularly relevant symptoms it lists, with my commentary in parentheses:
  • realizing the pursuits of ones peers are useless. (No offense to my incredibly smart friends. It's just been kind of painful vicariously to watch them struggle in the recession job market, then settle for jobs that are great, I suppose, but so much less grand than we all imagined they would be.)
  • insecurity regarding the fact that their actions are meaningless (I started to go through this this summer, when I was surrounded by more motivated Arabic students with more career-oriented, practical skills/goals. Afterward I briefly entertained the idea of moving into nonprofit or government jobs, but then I had an Office Space-esque epiphany and realized that I am too lazy and self-centered to do the sort of desk jobs I'd have to work my way up from. Result: I feel more sure about academia, but now on top of "useless academic" guilt I have a healthy dose of self-loathing. Great.)
  • insecurity concerning ability to love themselves, let alone another person (This is really first on the list for me right now. 'Nuff said.)
  • insecurity regarding present accomplishments (how the hell did I get into grad school? Do I deserve to be here? Do my current teachers wonder the same things? Am I good enough to get a PhD? Do I even want to? Is there anything ELSE I'm even capable of doing?)
  • re-evaluation of close interpersonal relationships (Ok, so this is the one thing on the list I actually feel good about. I'm a big believer in the power of human relationships. I've always been pretty selective with my friends, and even though I'm talking to them pretty infrequently these days I feel a deep sense of love for them and confidence that we're going to stay in touch for a long while yet, and that my life is the better for knowing them. Thanks guys.)
  • financially-rooted stress: overwhelming loans, unanticipatedly high cost of living, etc. (I remember at the beginning of college I had an epiphany along the lines of "wow! I don't need material possessions! I can live in minimal comfort forever as long as I'm happy!" Suffice to say that the honeymoon phase of independence has worn off. This whole dorm living, eating on a budget thing is getting old, and even if I don't envy my working friend's schedules, I do envy their financial stability, etc., and the thought of being a poor student for years to come is a little chilling).
My ray of sunshine for the day: NYU booked out the restaurant on the Eiffel Tower for us to have a Thanksgiving feast. Epic. At least those 190 trust fund undergrads are good for something...

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

'appie 'allouine

Although Halloween has been the highpoint of fall semester since I started college I tried not to set my expectations too high this year. This was surprisingly easy to do given how completely non-existent Halloween is in France. I saw a grand total of one pumpkin in a store window all season, and while grocery stores are already beginning to stock Christmas chocolates and champagnes, there are no funsize bars, fake blood capsules or face paints to be found. With that said, my Halloween weekend ended up being pretty awesome.

Thursday was spent in the company of Aaron French: an aptly-named French student from my undergrad who is currently on break from his university in Bordeaux and needed a floor to crash on for a night. We went out for the buy-a-beer-get-free-couscous deal up at Chateau Rouge, reminisced about St. Mary’s even as we rolled our eyes at its failed presidential search and discussed when I’m going to try and make it down to Bordeaux (answer: right before Christmas). The next night Phinn and I donned our orange and black and joined a few other girls from the program to go out dancing. When you go out in Paris you have two return plans: 1) catch the last metro back at 1:45, or 2) stay out until after 5:30, when the morning metros start to run again. Tired from the night before, I left the others out and opted for the early return, which had me well-rested and ready for the ZOMBIE WALK on Saturday.

As a huge zombie movie buff, Lindsay had been prepping me for the walk ever since our afternoon of thrifting a few weeks earlier. When I arrived at the Marais around 2:30 (I followed a zombie horse from the metro to the meeting place) she was next in-line for make-up and pulled me in behind her. The make-up we got was impressively professional—a waxy facial scar putty covered with liberal quantities of sticky fake blood. Add a little dirt and teased hair and we really looked like we were out for BRAIINNNSSS. The more dedicated zombies came prepared in their own make-up and costumes, many with pieces of flesh or broken glass hanging from their faces or the edges of bones protruding through holes in their clothing. There were counter-culture, Hot Topic-esque zombies with Mohawks and piercings, zombie nuns, zombie brides, zombie babies, escaped insane asylum zombies, and zombies taking after a number of specific movies that went way over my uneducated head. There was also a class of non-zombies marked with yellow arm ties, called victims, who were dressed as members of various military branches and armed with fake guns.

The thirty or so victims assembled around 4pm and were given about a minute's head start before hundreds of zombies were dispatched after them, groaning, growling and limping in true zombie fashion. The participants took their roles very seriously, slowing their reaction times and only grunting responses to questioning observers.When we passed photographers on scaffolding the zombie crowd rushed their perch, arms outstretched and moaning for brains. When we passed cafes, we smashed hungry faces and slapped hands against the window panes, trying to get at the customers inside. This scared a few small children (and angered one ill-tempered shop keeper) but for the most part the reception of the public was great. Tourists and Parisians alike lined the parade route for pictures and offered up their children to appease us, while spectators of all ages leaned out of apartment windows to gawk at the freak show below. The victims, meanwhile, climbed (and were subsequently pulled down from) trees, barricaded themselves in phone booths, and fell screaming and firing beneath a dog-pile of zombies again and again.

I made the decision to keep my zombie make-up on for Laura's Halloween move night, and I discovered that roaming Paris with visible head wounds is a truly interesting experiment in social psychology. Separated from the context of my fellow zombies and in a city that knows little of Halloween, I was the target of countless stares and whispers in the metro tunnels of Chatelet. The effect was enhanced by the fact that I was wearing jeans, a peacoat and a scarf--in short, I looked like a typical Parisian until you looked me in the eye. In the actual car, I found the face paint acted as an icebreaker, allowing me to have French conversations with travelers usually too immersed in their bubble to interact with fellow passengers. I also scared quite a few people--a young girl in the movie store burst into tears, a woman in Montmartre gasped and grabbed my shoulder, readying her cell phone to call an ambulance, and a man who bumped into me in the metro car and turned to apologized jumped half the length of the train in shock.

I spent the evening with a few of Laura's friends, watching The Exorcist for the first time (terrifying--I can't get the stair crawl scene out of my head) followed by the mood-boosting Rocky Horror Picture Show (which, albeit not a full blown RH party, continues my annual tradition). The eerie fog that had settled into the streets by the time I made my way home at 2am provided a perfect ending to my Halloween weekend.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Attack of the mutant ladybugs

The heat in my room doesn't turn off.

I'm not complaining, mind. I can turn it down, at least, and having too much heat is preferable to having none at all (which is a problem I have heard Phinn and other residents complaining about). After all, I'm not paying for my heating bill so although I know I'm contributing to energy waste and global warming every time I open my window at least I can be happy that I'm not wasting my own money.

Except that leaving my window open lately has left me vulnerable to a sudden attack of ladybugs. I'm not sure why, but they're thronging to my room in force. Being fairly superstitious I refuse to kill these good-luck charms, which means that I find myself "freeing" them at odd hours of the night (6 yesterday, three so far today). Handling them has provided the opportunity to examine them up-close and personal, and I noticed something weird: they're backwards! Instead of red with black spots, these are black with rust-colored spots--"coccinelle" in negative. Weird, right?

And then I woke up this morning with a few mysterious bug bites on my arm and a lone ladybug crawling up the wall nearby. The only logical explanation: these aren't just lady bugs, they're a monstrous, man-eating, mutant subspecies.

And yet, I'm still to chicken to squash them.