Monday, September 28, 2009

Last Night's Disturbing Dream

I had the strangest, most terrifying dream last night. In my dream, I was someone else, in another, pioneer sort of time period—I want to say late 1800s. I still had curly hair, but I was wearing petticoats, boots and a gingham work dress. In the past I had left home for some reason having to do with work and money, and gone to live and work in a little town in the middle of a grassy plains, with mountains on the horizon on either side. I had been there for some time and I loved my neighbors, many of whom happened to be gay and in couples and had sort of formed a small inclusive community unnoticed by the outside world. Until the day when a macho guy from my childhood showed up unexpectedly (I think he had some intention of checking up on me to eventually marry me), realized the Truth about my community and angrily rode off before I could do anything about it. When he showed up again at dusk it was with a lynch mob, and I watched in horror from the sidelines as they ransacked the town and tortured its inhabitants. Suddenly, it was if I had a time-turner, and the dream sped backwards to right before the attack. This time I threw myself at the macho leader guy, telling him detailed stories of the humanity of the townspeople (not all of whom were gay, but those who weren’t seemed to get punished even more for permitting this “sinful” life style) in a futile attempt at mercy. He flung me aside. I ran up to him from behind, throwing myself at him and punching. In real life, I punched the wall by my bed and woke up crying.

The dream was truly eerie for several reasons. Never can I remember ever having a dream in which I wasn’t playing myself—sure, I’ve had dreams where my version of self is slightly off from reality, but this was different. I’ve never had a historical dream. I’ve also never had a dream this grounded in detail. When I looked at the people in my community, I saw years of memories with each one of them, and when I looked at the man, I guiltily remembered his lonely childhood and the specific incidence of teasing in the schoolyard that had driven him into a bitter adulthood. Finally, unlike most dreams, this one hasn’t evaporated immediately after I awoke. Roll your eyes if you want, but it all makes me feel as though I tapped into something weird.

And on that odd beginning note, off to my first day...

Sunday, September 27, 2009

T'was the night before grad school...

Since last I wrote I have gotten closer to my bankcard, the federal aid from the CAF and figuring out my class schedule, but thanks to the snail’s pace of French bureaucracy I have few concrete accomplishments on all fronts. Life in France is a lesson in patience. I DID manage, with relative ease and little expense, to get a doctor’s appointment and fill prescriptions for meds I’ve wanted to be on for some time that were “tier one” and inaccessible to me in the States even with insurance—here they cost pocket change without any insurance. France could stand to learn from America’s work ethic, efficiency and customer service, but we need to take note of their health care. I wish Obama Godspeed with his reform plans.

This week, I: attended an interview session with Russian/French author Andreï Makine at the National library (seen below). Held my own at the Sorbonne (seen above) trying (unsuccessfully, so far) to force my way into an Arabic class. Got an impromptu afternoon beer with a French Canadian named Philipe. Ate out at a cute café in the Latin Quarter (seen below) with Phinn and her visiting friend Kara, who is on her way to a language assistantship in Pau near the Spanish border (someone to visit later, maybe?). Went out to a bar in the 20th with a group of mostly strangers and spoke French most of the time, taking the last metro of the night to get home. I have also been researching reading nooks for when my work kicks in. My favorite locales so far are the cosy, crooked reading rooms upstairs in the Blackwells-esque Shakespeare and Co. bookstore and pretty much any park as long as the weather holds out. I still need to find a café with cheap coffee and a calm atmosphere to claim as my own, but my search is an organic process and can’t be rushed.

I have an intimate relationship with music and I often have this feeling that the music that will speak to me at a particular point in my life always seems to find me. I can’t figure out if that is due to some sort of providence, or if the spiritual side of me just molds itself to the music I happen to be listening to anyway to create this impression. At any rate, it turns out that Indigo Girls and Rufus, who were my two go-to groups last year, don’t fit city life so well (although I must admit that I never noticed the “Paris was such a lonely town” line in IG’s “Heartbreak for Everyone”) until it seemed prophetic), and as I stroll briskly along the boulevards and jog up metro stairs I’m instead listening The Smiths, St. Vincent, Radiohead, Fleet Foxes, Phoenix and Rilo Kiley. St Vincent in particular is rather amazing—a female vocalist with some very edgy arrangements. Highly recommended.

In fact, St. Vincent was my soundtrack as I used my sunny Sunday to make my first
venture into the really touristy heart of Paris, taking the 1 line up to Place de la Concorde to stroll through the Jardin Tuileries and browse the Musée de l’Orangérie, where all of the Monets that were lacking at Giverney last weekend are apparently kept. Thanks to a new Parisian policy that makes all national museums free for residents under 25 (woohoo! I’m a bonafide resident!), my gaping at the three rooms of wall-length water lily pieces plus a good number of Cezannes, Renoirs and Matisses from Monet’s private collection came free of charge. They had a little model of Monet’s salon set up to show how saturated it was with the work of his contemporaries, all of which are now invaluable museum items. I love knowing that the impressionists (and really all waves of French artists/intellectuals…Sartre and de Beauvoir…Cixous and Derrida…) were all buds, exchanging ideas and paintings over digestifs and cigars. It gives me hope for what now seems like my lonely future with my head in the clouds; hopefully I’ll find some kindred spirits somewhere along the way to float up there with me.

I’m thankful to have had these few weeks of cushion to adjust to city rhythm and recharge after a stressful last semester and a draining summer. I’ve found that weird creative parts of my brain that I thought had died out are starting to glow again—I’m getting back in the pondering state of mind that leads to painting or writing, but I probably won’t have time to do to much of either. Classes start in full force tomorrow. I’m grateful but still a little mystified as to why I was awarded the fellowship that made this all possible, and I can’t help but feel like something grand is expected of me. I’m not sure I’m up to the challenge, but I’m ready to give it my all. Allons-y…

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Riding the wave of paperwork

As many of you have no doubt seen from Facebook photo albums (ahhh, the information age…allowing us to stalk our friends in such a multitude of ways) this past weekend marked by graduate orientation at Giverny—a small country village about an hour and a half west of Paris famous for being where Monet lived and painted. After taking a look around it was easy to see why; with lush greens and beautiful flowers everywhere you looked I felt inspired to grab a brush and canvas and try my hand at impressionism.

Alas, our orientation schedule left little time for artsy frivolities. It did, however, provide us with some really nice furnished houses to sleep in, each with our own rooms and as much bread, nutella, jam, cheese and coffee as a Francophile could ask for. We also had classy three-course French meals the entire weekend, which had the disadvantage of being attended by all the profs (meaning we had to speak in French and sound intelligent at the same time) but the advantage of good espresso and wine to accompany them. We had a guided tour of the Joan Mitchell exhibit at the local art museum (ironically, there are almost no Monets in the area, as they are all in the collections of famous art museums the world over) and got the opportunity to bike around the area a little bit in between workshops and meetings. Even the “boring” parts weren’t so bad…we had a really interesting lecture on the history of the French language from an old, very Oxford-esque (awkward vest, portly figure, nose hair and all!) French professor who I will soon have for textual analysis. We also had two very fun “gymnastics of phonetics” workshops with a phonetics expert that incorporated motion into pronunciation and made me realize how many subtleties of French I’ve been glossing over. In between lectures, I popped outside to pick a fresh apple in the apple orchard (I brought home a HUGE bag of them, too) or gave some attention to the aggressively cuddly resident cat, who would often curl up on my lap during lectures.

Before we left on Sunday we had the opportunity to explore Monet’s gardens, including the famous lily pad pond with its Japanese bridges, as well as his house (which was crowded and not so great: the garden was much more interesting). I took a deep breath as I got back on the bus, inhaling all the green that I could and stockpiling a dose of nature that will hopefully last me through the winter.

Since being back, I have been tackling French bureaucracy. On Monday, it only took me an hour waiting and about 50 signatures to open a BNP account, which means by next Monday I will finally have a debit card with the chip that is required by all machines here (next hurdle: transferring money into said account). I also applied for my student metro “ImaginR” pass (after exchanging my services as a computer techie for paper to print documents on with my new German friend down the hall), made a doctor’s appointment to get French prescriptions, bought a drying rack from a girl from Latvia (and FINALLY did laundry), and am in the process of applying for the CAF (state aid that most students are eligible for…supposedly it could knock 100 euro off of my rent! Yay France and socialism). Yesterday was an absolutely beautiful day here with temperatures close to 80 by the afternoon. I met up with Brittany from the Tunisia program for a picnic in the Luxembourg Gardens before heading over to the Université de Paris IV for my first lit class…only to have the teacher not show. Not entirely surprising--more on the French education system to come later. After waiting around for a while, Laura and I opted to go find a sunny, street side brasserie near Les Halles for a demi (half pint) and a pastry, which I believe was ultimately a much better use of our time.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Introductions and a free dinner

Today was day one of graduate orientation—in other words, a short session in which we were introduced to all of the staff members that really mattered, had a lot of papers thrust at us, and were forced to (nervously, in my case) talk about ourselves for a few minutes in French in front of our future classmates and profs, etc. I also had the opportunity to get a concrete sense of how much reading I’m going to be doing this year. The picture is the “library” of books that the lit students are expected to know and be tested on (there are a few multiple copies in there, but not many). Merde.

I will be taking two courses through NYU—Assia Djebar’s francophone lit class and a grammar/semantics course, and then two through the French University system. I’m going to investigate whether or not I can somehow squeeze an Arabic class in there, too, because my Arabic is disappearing at an alarming rate. I feel pretty good about the group of graduate students—it’s certainly an accomplished, well-travelled group, most of whom are older than me, but everyone seems friendly and my French falls somewhere in the middle. After the session I got a café with one of the other lit students, a girl named Laura, who I’m in total awe of. She has been living in France for the last four years (since she graduated) with the French boyfriend she made on her undergraduate study abroad, and in the meantime has worked a little and earned a Women’s Studies MA. She’s now picking up a second MA on her way to a PhD through NYU. She wrote her thesis on Hèlène Cixous (a French feminist that I cited in my SMP) and is overall a very down-to-earth, unassuming feminist bookworm intellectual. Both she and the program director have made me a little wary of meeting Assia Djebar (the Algerian writer that featured prominently in my SMP who I will now have as a teacher)—she’s apparently very stubborn and particular, to put it nicely. I have to admit, I found it a little odd that she wasn’t at our session today. On the other hand, she’s an accomplished writer, a sort of a feminist refugee and an old lady…I suppose she’s entitled to be a bit persnickety. Here’s hoping that even if we don’t get along her bitchiness doesn’t ruin her books for me.

Dragged two girls from the program and a random German girl who lives two doors down from me to the opposite side of the city tonight for dinner. We ended up in a rather colorful Arab neighborhood not far from Gare du Nord, but we each scored a free platter of authentic North African couscous for the price of a Stella Artois (2 euro!). The deal definitely warranted the travel time, and apparently this place is only one of several that does a similar couscous promotion once a week. I sense a pilgrimage in the making.

Off to Giverny tomorrow morning for a weekend orientation retreat! Back on Sunday evening with photos, information, and hopefully some new friends...

How to make a full course dinner out of a baguette...

The secret to cheap student eating in France:

Buy a fresh-baked baguette on your way home--preferably a nice wheat one with a little more nutritional value. Split into thirds.

*Appetizer: 1st third of the baguette with Boursin and liberal amounts of fresh cucumber (or tomato, if you have it). Mmm mmm mmm.

*Main meal: 2nd third of the baguette with Camembert and saucisson sec (=salami) or ham, OR a can of Tuna provencale (ready-to-eat, single-serving tuna in a tomato sauce with olives and vegetables)

*Dessert: final third of the baguette with Bon Maman raspberry jam and Nutella (or, alternatively, their cheaper, Monoprix-brand equivalents).

Best if enjoyed with a 3-euro bottle of wine.

And there you have it! All major food groups (starch, veggie, dairy, protein...FAT) covered, no cooking or prep time required, and once you've invested in the refrigerated cheeses/spreads, very affordable. The best part: if you can't make it through the whole baguette in one sitting (wuss) then say hello to breakfast!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Paris, je t'aime

By the time you read this I will have officially been here a week. And what a week it has been. I still don’t feel like I will ever be rich, stylish or elegant enough to quite fit in here, but I love it nonetheless. There’s always something to see, always a market, a festival, a concert, or just interesting people to watch on the metro. I spent most of this weekend out and around with no company but my iPod, and as I browsed the antiques market, the used bookstore, the camera store (currently on my 4th lens cap for this Nikon), the transportation festival (weird, I know, but I saw some Seussian bicycles and the world’s first hydrogen-powered plane) I had that wonderful “all is right with the world” feeling. And now, grab-bag tidbits…

*Dorm life is still going pretty well. My only complaint continues to be the lack of soundproofing; I would be sleeping now if my neighbor weren’t watching TV. The showers aren’t bad but remind me of camping (push button, and no control over temperature, although it’s the perfect level of warmth anyway). I’ve seen a few other people’s rooms now and there’s a surprising amount of variation in size and furnishings—I have even more appreciation for my new, huge desk and shelves.

*I hear the Canadian house has en-suite bathrooms in the bedrooms and a gym. By my previous logic, this would mean France loves Canada more than anyone.

*I attended a director’s “screening” of an independent Zombie movie called “Zombies of Eureka,” composed entirely of no-budget music videos strung together from the local music scene of Eurka, CA. Strange but oddly amazing—you can find the full length thing on imdb if you’re curious. Why did I go? It was the first of many student activities in the “rectangle”—a room with a ping pong table, couches and a flatscreen in the basement, which apparently hosts weekly movie nights, open mics, and bar nights. Yummy. Can’t wait for the French semester to start and everyone to move in.

*I caught a glimpse of my mysterious musician neighbor in action in one of the basement practice rooms. Apparently he’s a she, and it’s a clarinet, not a bassoon.

*I used the kitchens for the first time this past weekend to make dinner with some GA Tech undergrads. They contributed most of the food, I brought the wine and cheese (because when I had to limit myself at the grocery store, those were, naturally, my priority items).

*One of the other grad students, Stephine (pronounced Stephanie, but she goes by Phinn) also lives here, about a floor below me. She showed up at my door this morning at the ungodly hour of 11am, beaming enthusiasm as I struggled to shrug off grogginess enough to be social. Morning people sicken me.

*I’m “auditing” the undergraduate preliminary language course (although still fully participating, oddly). The course itself is pretty useless, but I’m learning about the center and meeting a few people. Everyone has had as much trouble with housing as me, and we’re all equally frustrated with the lack of communication/organization, and impatient for formal introductions when orientation starts this Thursday.

*There are approx 200 students at the (adorable) NYU center, in the heart of the chic 16th arrondissement. 150 are (really impressive) undergrads doing a study abroad semester. 30 are Freshman in this intensive international liberal arts program they have going, of which many seem to be from diplomatic families. 18 are in the graduate program—4 in my literature track, 4 in the language and civ track, and 10 in the education track. 2 are boys. It remains to be seen if either of them are straight, but if the undergrads are any judge, signs point to No. I think the idea of France must be threatening to American masculinity somehow (not that I have any objection to the happy mélange of strong women and queers that my field seems to consist of).

*I love my iPod, and listen to it on the metro and sometimes while I walk. I have songs from the Amélie soundtrack on every playlist now, and when they come up on shuffle as I’m strolling across cobblestones my heart flutters a little (and I feel like a total dork, and am glad none of the French know what I’m listening to).

*Yesterday I met up with a friend from the Tunisia program, Brittany, for dinner in the Latin Quarter (9 euro three-course menu!) and today I went out for a Kir aperitif with a few girls from the program. Ahhh, living in a city.

*It takes me 40 minutes to get from my door to the NYU center, including walking and metro time. Not bad. The route, line 6, takes me across the bridge for the best possible view of the Eiffel know, just in case I need a reminder of how awesome my life is on the way to school.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Dorm Inform

So first off, I’ve added a picture to my last post of me with all of my crap in front of the super classy sign of the Super Hotel that I stayed in for two nights. The photo comes courtesy of my friend the Super front desk man, and doesn’t really do justice to my huge backpack, which you can hardly see. It doesn’t really do justice to my face, come to think of it. I was going for a tough woman look and it came off more like pissed off chipmunk. Alas. It’s a good thing it’s my brother who’s the actor and not me.

Housing update: I am now a resident of the Fondation des Etas-Unis at Cité Universitaire at the south end of the 14è arrondissement, for those who know their Parisian geography. My address, school land line and new swanky French cell phone are all now listed on my Facebook page should anyone feel the need to send me some lovin’ (ie drunk text message…yes, you can still text me, although I have no idea if that’s covered under Verizon unlimited). Since my last post, I actually had a last minute opportunity to move into my choice of two apartments in the upscale 15th/16th arrondissments; however, due to price relative to size and merits and some really positive feedback about Cité’s dorms from a former grad student, I opted to schlep on over here.

The deal I have here is really a bargain. For 425 euros/month, I have a pretty big room to myself with a big closet, a bed, a desk and chair, a sink (!), some lamps, and more shelves than I will probably be able to fill (says the literature student who hasn’t even started buying anything from her five page long reading list yet). Shared toilets, showers and a kitchen are right down the hall. I’m up on the 4th floor, which in France actually means 5th (they start at zero) so I have a fair amount of stairs to climb (there is an elevator, it’s just slow and French) but luckily they’re pretty spiral stairs. Being this high means that I have sun in my room for almost all of the afternoon/evening, so I can enjoy my garden and ivy-wall view, as well as a nice amount of wind. After answering ads on bulletin boards right after I got here, I have already managed to score a used, medium-sized fridge for 70 euros, which was hand-delivered to me by the Benin(ese?) man who used to own it after I finally found his apartment, as well as a big red section of carpet (from a departing student) for 6 euros. I still need a few more things, like a shower caddy, floor lamps, posters, etc (admittedly, it’s a little bizarre to be repeating my pre-freshman year shopping trips) but so far I’m pretty happy. More good news: I can receive guests here willing to share my small space if I declare them in advance—4 euros a night if you want to crash on my carpet, and 8 euros if you want to use one of their loaner fold-a-beds. Pretty sweet, right?

The campus is designed as an affordable community for (about 60%) international students to live. There are houses representing each country, varying in size and quality by what seems to me to be based on how much France likes that particular country. The US, German, Spanish and British houses are all pretty nice, while Morocco is shunted to the very edge and housed in a decrepit, institutional building, Tunisia is shut indefinitely for renovations (it needs it) and Algeria…well…doesn’t exist (while other more obscure countries with less of a “history” are represented, Armenia, Cambodia, Liban). (I actually stayed on this campus for a week during a heat wave four years ago and I was housed in the French engineering house, which was utterly miserable. Logical conclusion: Moroccans > engineers > Algerians). The campus is pretty, with a lot of grassy quad areas and trees, and a big campus center with a bank, a café, a cafeteria, a theater and a pool. (The cafeteria is no Great Room, but dinner is only 2.90, so I guess I can’t complain). It’s not real centrally-located, although it’s pretty well connected—there are bus, tramway and RER (part of the métro system) stops within a five minute walk from my building.

The building itself is pretty old and cool, with black-and-white spiral staircases, a computer labstudy rooms, lounges and a lecture hall that remind me of my dorm in Oxford. My only real complaint is the thinness of the walls. My neighbor seems to be a party-er, so fingers crossed it doesn’t continue too long into the semester. I’ve only met a few people so far (the Parisian semester doesn’t start until late Sept/early Oct, so we’re still fairly empty), but most people seem pretty cool. There’s an intentional 50/50 split of American and “other” to encourage comfort and exchange. Most of us are grad students, although there are a few undergrads as well as a few adult professionals, who are here on a short-term basis as researchers and living in the fully furnished suites with their families. The floor above mine is the artist’s floor, which houses musicians on the main hallway and visual artists in the four loft-style “studios” in the wings. I love the idea, although coupled with the lack of sound-proofing it can be a little annoying—I’ve already discovered that there’s a pretty prolific bassoonist/pianist in the room above mine (on the bright side, he’s really good! I recognized Gershwin today…).

Spent today enjoying random French conversations with strangers around campus and buying as much as I could comfortably carry home in reusable bags at Monoprix (in other words, not much). I think I need to get me one of them old man wheeley grocery stroller things.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Paris, part I: The Apartment Odyssey

Well, I’m here. Wrestling my luggage through the Parisian metro was not fun (I sweated through a shirt even though it was only about 70 degrees at 7am…gross) but it was actually a little more doable than I had feared. For anyone that has seen Auberge Espagnol, I really looked like Xavier…I was wearing a backpacking pack with a little neck pillow bungeed to it on my back, and sling-style laptop briefcase on my thigh balanced by a large purse on the other side—or, sometimes, around my neck, when I needed two hands to carry my baby whale-sized rolling duffel up or down stairs. For those of you who prefer more classic allusions, I felt rather like Jacob Marley, suffering under the weight of my wanderlust. Getting from the airport to the RER is happily elevator-friendly, but as I realized when I took Sam to Paris, the metro itself is stairs stairs stairs. I had to transfer lines twice, and each time meant several ups and downs, which either meant that I had to grunt and use my iron woman skills or rely on the kindness of a stranger to grab the other handle on the duffel and help me carry (which seemed to happen un-requested, happily). I got stuck only once, for a moment or two (one hundred cool points if you get THAT reference) when I managed to get myself and the duffel wedged in a turnstile together for a full minute. I honestly thought I wasn’t going to be able to get out without taking out clothes to make it more mashable (meanwhile I’m holding up rush-hour traffic) but somehow me and the whale both sucked in our guts and muscled through. Haha.

After wandering the wrong way on the street for a while, I arrived at my little two-star hotel panting and frizzy, where I had to wait to be able to check in to avoid abandoning my luggage. Once checked in, I enjoyed a shower and a nap before I started hardcore apartment research. I’ve never done the whole apartment thing before, but it’s a harrowing and bizarre process. Overall I think I’ve sent a total of more than 50 emails, made about 30 phone calls (and gone through entirely too much cell phone credit). I’ve learned that in this market, my buying power isn’t really a commodity and I don’t matter even remotely. The demand for affordable student housing is so high that you have to respond pretty immediately to an ad to get attention, and even then, my lack of perfect French seems too much of a hassle for already exasperated landlords. When I do get a response, it is often to say that the room will be unavailable until (insert future month here, ranging from October to June 2010?!?) or that to be considered I must produce a stack of different French legal documents which, of course, I don’t have. One woman letting a room refused to tell me where her house was located because she wanted to “take her time” to see if she liked me. Lady, I’m living in a hotel—I ain’t got time.

My best hit so far was with a girl who has an apt in the 15th. We met for coffee, then, after I passed her roommate test, went to visit the apartment. I loved the girl, but much to my dismay (and to the contradiction of her ad!) the apt was a one-bedroom, and I was expected to sleep in the mezzanine above the living room. I feel like I can compromise on a lot in terms of housing, but I at least need a little bit of my own space.

Somehow I feel kind of shy and naïve walking around, I think more from inexperience with city life than with French culture. Although I’ve been here before, it’s always been as a tourist, and just the knowledge that I am a) alone, and b) in for the long haul give the whole experience a different vibe. St. Mary’s made me comfortable in small communities with a eclectic sort of routine (if that’s possible) and few variables, and city life is the opposite. It’s definitely stimulating, though. On my relatively brief wanderings so far, the highlights have some of the space invaders mosaic graffiti that my French professor at St. Mary’s has been tracking, a romantic couple composed of a huge, muscled Arab man and an Asian midget, (Word is telling me those races need to be capitalized—as if that makes the observation any more pc…) and an eerily gorgeous black woman with a hot pink fro. The food is also (of course) amazing—as far as grab & go items go, I’ll take a baguette sandwich and pastry over pretty much anything.

Today my shoulder muscles ached from the pack and my hands are red and sore (from pulling the whale handle with sweaty hands) in a way that gave me an odd-sense of déjà-vu, until I realized what it was reminding me of—monkey bar “injuries” as a kid. I will be incurring more of those tomorrow, I fear. Unless I hear something back about short-term housing by 9am, I’m going to be checking out of here and trooping on over to the international dorms at Cité Universitaire. Yes, I thought I was done with the dorm part of my life, but dorms in Paris > living at home, right? Wish me bonne chance…