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.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Burning off the nutella and camembert

I never realized how much I grew to love going to the ARC (St. Mary’s gym) last year until I had it taken away from me. Throwing on some sweats, grabbing my iPod and claiming an elliptical for 40 minutes was a great way to burn through SMP and break-up stress as well as calories. A psychologist once told me that exercise for half an hour three times a week is the body’s chemical equivalent to an anti-depressant, and I believe it—I definitely feel fitter, happier and more productive (thanks, Radiohead) for a period of several hours after I work out.

Unfortunately France doesn’t seem to believe in gyms, or at least not the American version. The university equivalents consist of empty rooms for a weird variety of highly sought-after “physical” activities from fencing and body building to clown training and massage (?!?). Sadly, no cardio machines are available and even things like aerobics or yoga classes are hard to come by. I also tried, with little success, to find a private gym I could join. The ones that do exist fall into one of two categories: 1) super-intense-hardcore gyms, whose websites are bursting with headache-inducing flashing images and popouts of Arnold-looking men and which charge an exorbitant amount in annual fees, and 2) women’s “gyms”, which, judging by the pictures, have a few yoga mats and a stretching station to compliment their sauna and a massage table—so more like day spas, really. Curves is starting to exist here, but I think I’m a little too young for a mom gym like that. And so, begrudgingly, I am turning to the one form of cardio left: jogging.

Considering how embarrassingly red I get when I work out and how tricky it can be balance the whole asthmatic thing in an uncontrolled, outdoor environment, jogging takes a certain amount of both physical and moral stamina. I’m not sure if that stamina will endure when the weather turns chillier again, but having an inspiring track helps a lot. Luckily for me I live right across the street from Parc Montsouris, which offers hilly terrain, a pond (with geese!), sculptures and even spigots for a mid-jog drink. At the moment it’s also sporting some pretty fall foliage and that deliciously earthy smell of rotting leaves that makes me want to carve a pumpkin and make spiced cider. It takes me a little less than ten minutes to do a full lap of running down hill and run/walking back up hill, and despite the exhaustion it’s fairly enjoyable.

Paris is dotted with parks. In general, the French envision parks as a series of carefully planned pathways that intersect meticulously manicured collections of flowers, rows of aligned, identically pruned trees and triangles of perfect, off-limits grass (I’m serious…there are bars and signs to remind you that the pelouse is permanently en repose). The nicer ones may also have fountain or two. The result is a space that offers a nice respite from urban architecture for a lunch break, a dog walk or the odd cultural event, such as Sunday music in the park (or the Nuit Blanche installations I described earlier). The people you meet in these parks are, like the parks themselves, stylish, well-groomed, reserved. Being in a residential district, my park is a little more casual, and I love it for that. Along the path I pass playground equipment crawling with children, a woman taking a beaming, elderly grandmother out for a walk her wheelchair, a man giving free fall pony rides to preschoolers, a family feeding geese. Near the back there’s a cute café rumored to have great crepes that is usually populated by a retired crowd. There are also, much to my surprise, many other joggers (the last time I was in France, it was only the ‘undignified’ Americans that went out jogging…I’m not sure if it just took a while to catch on here or if that was more of a reflection of Nice culture). Many of them are other Cité students, but some are Parisians. The Parisians are easy to spot because they jog in style—if they’re just off work they’re still sporting their peacoats and scarves, and if not, they have very official-looking athletic spandex. Even if I’m not dressed quite as nicely, I’m happy to be part of their club, and I enjoy the flicker of recognition or the head nod when we pass. I have this new fantasy that I’ll meet my soulmate jogging—because really, if someone could find me attractive red and smelly than they are probably meant for me. Or just really desperate. Hm, better rethink that theory.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I'm too young to start having senior moments

I lost track of time today while making lunch and ended up leaving a little later than I usually do for my medieval lit class. By the time I got to the metro station I had about 7 minutes left to make the usually 20-minute walk. I ran, giving myself a pretty bad blister on my heel from the newish flats I was wearing (I swear, anything but athletic shoes make my feet bleed in half an hour tops…all this time I thought I was just resisting fashion because I was lazy and feminist, but maybe it’s because they do serious damage!)

When I arrived at my classroom door almost ten minutes late, I paused to listen for the teacher’s voice. I didn’t hear anything. Oh no! I panicked; today must be an in-class writing day, and I’ve already missed a third of it! Preparing an apology in French, I opened the door to—

An empty room.

Because, oh yeah, it’s Toussaint (French fall break). Clearly after four weeks of classes you need a whole week off—it’s the French way. Most of my classes are through NYU and aren’t affected, but I forgot about about this one, meaning that I inflicted pain and an hour and a half round trip on myself…for nothing. Well, okay, for a smoothie from the chic hippie fruit bar, because I have found that the best way to make a bad day good is to buy myself a treat.

In order to further validate my presence and to take advantage of the nice day, I decided to snap a few pics of the "campus." Being in the 13th, Paris VII (all the Parisian universities are numbered) is far removed from the Haussmannian world of six story, iron-balconied apartments that you picture when you think of Paris. There are a lot of modern high-rises and big companies, and the wide sidewalks and streets give the area a more “American” feel. The university itself is fairly institutional, as all Parisian public unis are, but in general it’s a much nicer facility than I was expecting after my experiences at the rundown, grafittied, toilet-paper deficient Fac in Nice. It also has much nicer public spaces: one with benches, trees and a sidewalk typically dominated by skateboarders (who you can hear throughout our class...) and a separate park area, spanned by a foot bridge. Here are pics of both, as well as a tough local scooter gang.

A laugh for lundi

Humorous moment of my day:

My file of notes that I'm making to keep track of books and literary movements, etc. during this year (it's probably going to be a book in and of itself by the time I'm done) is titled "French literature journal." When I try to open it from recent documents, the title reads "French lite..."

Oh irony.

That's about it for the day. In case voyeurism is more your style than word nerd humor, here is a photo of a French streetwalker whose fashion merited capturing on film (note the small dog, which completes the ensemble). Unfortunately I'm a chicken of a Papparazzi, so in my attempted stealth it came out a little blurry.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Catch up

I’m starting to slip into the same guilt trip I fell victim to in Tunisia, namely that every time I sit down to write an entry I feel guilty “wasting” time that could otherwise be invested in working. However, what that usually means is that I just poke around on the Internet, or fall asleep reading, or do something generally less productive than blogging. Whoops. Here’s a “catch up” post to make up for my absence as of late.

Last week I was visited by Andrea (from my study abroad in Nice) and her boyfriend, Brett, who wisely decided to avoid the recession and looming adulthood in the states by bumming around Europe for a few months. They were only to be in Paris for a day or do, but we found the time to go out for a delicious Greek dinner in the Latin quarter that came with free kir apperatifs, live music and rather less desirable free dancing lessons. We had planned to spend the next day playing tourist, but unfortunately our time ended up being consumed by a quest for antibiotics for Andrea’s UTI. We started out trying to use places that would be reimbursed by her American insurance, but after being turned down by a medical center and put off by the prices of the ER and the difficulty of communicating with the US company she decided to bite the bullet and just pay out of pocket for a French doctor. After a few calls I was able to track down a doctor that took walk-ins for 22 euro a session. The doctor didn’t have the equipment for an in-office pee test, so she tried to convince Andrea to go across the city to give a sample before beginning to take antibiotics. When Andrea explained that she was leaving the next day for a bus back to Germany followed by a flight home and didn’t have time for the 24hr test, the doctor recommended that she save a cup of pee un-tainted by antibiotics to submit for testing upon her return to the US. This got us joking about the potential difficulties of trying to get a 3 oz sample of infected pee through customs in a zip lock baggie, and also made me question the sanity of the doctor. At any rate, we got the prescription (20 euros) without too much more difficulty or expense. Huzzah, another victory for socialized healthcare.

I also went to a party last Friday at Pascal’s apartment. The party was a combined birthday/goodbye affair, as Pascal will be leaving in a few weeks for an internship in Romania. That’s him lying across everyone’s legs in the photo. Good food, chill people, and most importantly, a lot of good French conversation practice. I met a Tunisienne that I hope to meet up with again to practice some Arabic—the amount I’ve forgotten is appalling.

On the academic front: I'm being challenged by the in-class writing assignments in my medieval lit class. On the first one I sacrificed grammar for content, and on the second I made a real effort to get good grammar only to not quite finish in the time limit. I spoke with the prof after class who assured me that she’s just grading me as hard as my French peers and that I shouldn’t worry, which made me feel a little better. I’ve had two more big exposés and one paper in the last week. One of the exposées was the highlight of my time here—a chance for me to combine knowledge from the medieval program in Oxford, time at St. Mary’s and new research to present on feudalism, courtly love, and chivalry and how they all affect Chretien de Troyes’ “Yvain.” It was great practice in speaking and confidence, and for one of the first times in my life I thought to myself: “yeah, maybe I *could* be a professor.”

Except that would mean I need to start reapplying to PhD programs. Le sigh.

Fondue Friday

Yesterday was a perfect Parisian day and delightfully sunnier and warmer than it has been—about 65 degrees. My weekends start on Friday, so I took advantage of a grasse matinee (“fat morning”—or, sleeping-in) before heading to the NYU center to take advantage of for a free graduate lunch—a catered couscous affair with all the appropriate accoutrements (harissa, veggies and broth, lamb, meatballs, chicken, chickpeas, sweet dried raisins). Dessert was my first ever taste of the famous macaron cookies. Verdict: good, but 99% sugar; I’ll stick to my tarts and pastries. It was a fun chance to see a few of the students from other tracks that I rarely see, as well as an opportunity to talk a bit with our women-powered administrative team about how things are going and possible graduate excursions to use up our limited budget. We decided on a performance of a Beckett play (absurd theatre…yes!) in November.

Lindsay and I followed lunch with an impromptu tour of the Marais, a cute little area known for its gay and Jewish populations, and, apparently, “fripperies” (thrift shops).
Thrifting here is more like thrifting in the UK than in the US meaning that stores tend to carry nicer, “vintage” items of a higher quality and price than what you’d find at a salvation army. I didn’t end up buying anything (almost got a tan newsies hat until a rude salesman put me off) but I had a lot of fun trying stuff on and mingling with Paris hipsters rooting through bins and racks in search of their next great find. My favorite of the day was this 59 euro ridiculous/fabulous pink dress that I love to death and would totally wear to prom if I had to do high school over again (God forbid). I couldn’t decide if it made me more like Marla from Fight Club or just like one of those Barbie cakes that were all the rage in the early 90s, but I loved it either way.

I met up with Phinn in Montparnasse afterwards to search for an authentic Breton crêperie. Our mission ended in failure but we did get a good walking tour of the area, at least, (and I bought some gloves and a pair of black skinny jeans from Mango) before we became too hungry to delay dinner any longer. We treated ourselves to a nice fondue dinner on rue Mouffetard in the 5th, enjoyed with a pitcher of house white and a delicious mousse-custard dessert over several hours à la française. The huge amount of melted cheese I consumed not only cancelled out all of the walking I did earlier in the day but also threatened my ability to wear my new skinny jeans. And you know what? Totally worth it.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Books: my anti-YouTube

This has been a bad week for YouTube videos. As most of you know, YouTube is my procrastination Mecca of choice. Although there’s a lot of drivel, it’s worth sifting through to find the clever, creative gems that come courtesy of the people who have even less of a life than me. However, the videos I’ve been getting forwarded from friends this week are utterly sickening…a Japanese candid camera show that fakes a sniper attack, then laughs at the utter terror on the face of the poor shmuck getting punk’d… a mother who stuffed clothes in an xbox 360 box, gave it to her son as a Christmas present, then just laughed, mocking and taping his tears (“what did you think it was? You know we can’t afford no xbox 360)…a kid absolutely freaking out after his mom canceled his Warcraft account (the unquantifiable social impact of gaming culture scares the hell out of me, although admittedly, the fact that it's a prankster big brother taping makes it 1% funny)…and then last but not least, the whole “balloon boy” scandal that had me (and everyone) inexplicably upset and glued to the news, only to find out via the CNN interview that it was likely a publicity stunt his parents forced on the clueless 6-yr old. (I should have seen that coming, what more can you expect from parents who named their kid “Falcon”).

What is wrong with you people? And worse yet, why do I feel so compelled to rubberneck and play spectator to your sickness? I’m officially cutting myself off from YouTube for a week or so, to give it some time to think about what it’s done. And to give me some time for an Internet detox.

All-in-all, this has left me feeling a bit like Alceste in Moliere’s “Misanthrope,” which was one of the five books we covered this week. Good thing I have literature to help me out of my misanthropy. There’s nothing like art to make my heart swell with pride for the goodness and value of humanity, be it art in a museum, music, or literature. Last night I spent an hour in the used book section of Gibert Jeune (a multi-store, multi-floor book heaven, much like Oxford’s Blackwells…does the US have some equivalent I don’t know about?) browsing for items on my reading list. Although I felt my wallet draining (I’ve finally given in and realized that I have no choice but to buy the majority of the books I need to read…there are just too many and I need to be able to mark them) I felt my spirit being replenished by the familiar and unfamiliar masterpieces all around me and the reverence of those beside me, browsing them.

I also had a great “oh yeah, I’m a grad student!” moment in a discussion class earlier this week, for which all four of us bookworms prepared a 20 minute “exposé” about the book we’ve been reading (“La Femme de Job”). I was proud of my own analysis and blown away by the depth and scope of the commentary from my peers, and it sparked some brilliant discussion. I need to start stockpiling these “oh wait—I DO love literature after all” moments. It’s going to be a long, book-filled year.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

I got my cheveux cut today...

...and here is the result. I had a late-night crisis about giving up on my growing-it-out efforts but a few minutes of Photoshopping cleared that right up. I look terrible with long hair (and also with no hair...glad I didn't do the "baldies for boobies" campaign with the hippies last spring). And now that it's cut, it feels SO much better. I think that front part is too short to sit well once it gets wet and recurls--we'll see tomorrow--so might have to invest in a cheap blow-dryer.

Doing the whole training center thing was an experience. The salon consisted of a big room full of female coiffeuses in training dressed all in white who were getting systematically flirted with/criticized by a handful of gay male stylists in black. (Seriously, not one of the "expert" stylists was a woman, or straight-seeming. I guess hair is the one industry where gay men get to be privileged...oh wait, yeah, and French studies...). My coiffeuse was cute, although her hyper-speed French was very hard to understand over the blow-dryers. I've been having this problem lately with French women between 25 and 35 who, after hearing that I speak the language pretty well, speak to me in "valley girl" French. I guess I should be flattered but it's really frustrating to follow and embarrassing to keep asking them to repeat what they've said. Luckily, once we got through with the introductions and discussions of what I wanted I became nothing more than a mute practice head to be combed, dried, straightened, turned, sheared (Jean Louis David cuts exclusively with electric clippers) by a handful of people. I spent half an hour with straightened hair and decided that with the right cut that could actually look kind of cute, except that I will probably never care enough about hair to devote the time to straightening it.

Other than that, not much news. Been feeling migrainey for the past few days and worse today...waiting for the other shoe to drop. (So yes, I'm just tired in the above picture. Not emo.) It's always the weird symptoms that bother me more than the pain...the inability to filter out sounds (I kept getting distracted by the traffic noise during class, and the Metro was a nightmare) the sensitivity to light and movement and especially the way it seems to interrupt my communication skills. Stringing together sentences in English gets harder, it's like I have a chronic problem trying to think of the right word. French is even worse. Unfortunate timing, because we had an in-class essay today that I probably bombed, and I have a 20-minute oral "exposé" tomorrow morning...

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Feux d'artifice

This weekend has been the Festival de Vendages (grape harvest festival) up around Paris' only in-city vinyard in Montmartre. Last night was the peak of the festivities, so Phinn and I went up to the Basilique du Sacré Coeur to snag a good view of the fireworks. With its great panorama of Paris and its proximity to the narrow, bohemian-turned-tourist streets of Montmartre, the Basilica is already somewhat of a tourist mecca. Last night it was crazy busy, with tents and booths set up everywhere offering pricey wine/cognac tastings and even pricier bottles, and--only in France--little platters of escargot to go with the wine.

Luckily, like most of the French attendees we had come prepared with our own wine, and after borrowing a tire-bouchon (corkscrew) we joined the picknicking masses with glasses and bottles spread out on the grass of the butte (with Rufus Wainwright's 'Complainte de la Butte' in my head the whole time, of course). The crowds, good spirits and children on their father's shoulders anxiously awaiting the show made for a 4th of July atmosphere (except instead of independence we were celebrating alcohol DEpendence...har har har).

Afterward we went to our friend Laura's nearby apartment to hang out with her and her boyfriend Remy for an hour or so before all heading over to a bar in the 11th, where we met up with Thibaut and a few other Americans. We left the bar just in time to miss the last metro home, giving Stephanie and I the chance to try out the Noctilien night bus system for the first time. Bursting with a ragtag, jolly crowd, the bus was definitely an experience, although it took us two separate buses to get us to Porte D'Orleans, leaving us still a good 15 minutes' walk away from home. The whole process took a little less than two hours, which is a good argument to either make the effort to make the metro next time, or to familiarize ourselves with the city's Velib' free bike system.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


German writer Herta Müller beat Assia Djebar to the nobel. Tant pis. In other literary news, my reading load for this year has hit in full force. I have six novels to read this week, and a paper due Monday. Ah, grad school.

As of today, I have officially been in Paris a month. Here's to many more inspiring months to come.

Yesterday was one of those days that just feels wonderful for no particular reason. It was the first sunny day after a few dreary days of rain, and it ended in an epic thunderstorm that I turned my lights off to enjoy. I spent an unsuccessful two hours in the cell phone store trying to get a plan, but talked a lot of French and treated myself to an ice cream afterwards. Walking down rue Passy alongside commuters bearing dinner baguettes, I was struck, albeit briefly, with that elusive sense of "home." To capitalize on it I bought myself some smelly cheese that came highly recommended by the woman at the cheese store, which I am eating now. It smells vaguely like metro hobo, but tastes delicious.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Haircut for me, a Nobel for Djebar?

Some of you may know that I came to Paris with the goal of growing out my hair. It has now gotten to that "oh-my-god-give-me-a-freaking-razor-already" point of annoying. Here is a 100% real picture of how I (feel I) look. I have also realized that if I'm going to grow out my hair, I'm going to have to know...DO things to it. Like brush and blow dry and mousse. I'm a fan of my comb, handful of gel, air-dry and go! routine. Also, I have decided that I look even younger with longer hair, which makes my already existing problem of being assumed to be a teenager worse. I now have an appointment for a 7 euro cut at Jean Louis David's training studio next week (a stylish chain that gave me the best haircut of my life for free the last time I was in France...ask me for the story, it's a great example of me being stupid and having things work out great regardless).

Exciting news: Assia Djebar has been nominated for this year's Nobel Prize in literature. We find out Thursday if she "wins" or not...fingers crossed, but I just checked the nomination list and she's up against some pretty steep competition.

In other news: I visited Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte last Friday with the (snotty, trust-fund, intimidatingly fashionable) undergrads. I don't have a whole lot to say about the actual Chateau...if you've seen one before you'll understand, they're beautiful but all pretty similar. Apparently this is the Chateau that inspired good ol' Louis to build Versailles out of a desire to out-do it (he succeeded, of course, but it's impressive nonetheless). It's also where Moliere and Jean de la Fontaine hung out all the time, where Man in the Iron Mask and Marie Antoinette and many more French movies were filmed, and also where Tony Parker and Eva Longoria were recently married. Whoever they are. Seriously, I had no idea (to the disdain of aforementioned undergrads), but if you do then feel free to be jealous.

Basic summary: beautiful, meticulously manicured gardens. Many lavish rooms, each with a theme pattern or color (meaning that the fabric on the couch matches the walls, which always reminds me of that scene in Garden State where he's wearing the shirt made out of the wallpaper fabric). Trompe l'oeil ceilings, adorned with classical paintings. The occasional "exotic" artwork imported from a colony--in this case, a pretty inaccurate painting of Istanbul and a few wall-mounted candle sconces painted to look like African arms bearing a light (creepy).

Being the foodie that I am (I love that they've created a word for sounds so much more distinguished than "pig") my favorite part of the visit was our gourmet lunch. Quiche and salad to start, duck for a main and chocolate fondant for dessert, with wine and home-baked bread throughout, of course. We had to take a walk around the grounds before getting back off the bus to work off that Thanksgiving-esque sense of food lethargy. Delicious.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Art Insomia

Saturday night was an annual event in Paris called “Nuit Blanche.” In French, to have this “white night” is to pull an all-nighter, and the idea of the event is to utilize public space to celebrate modern art (read: film and light installations) from 9pm until 7am the next morning. Across the city, parks, universities, religious buildings and even pools opened their doors to a crazy band of glowstick-adorned art-lovers, insomniacs, street musicians and more.

I met up with Pascal and Thibaut (the French guys from the bar last week) and a few other random friends (Antoine, from Toulouse, Daniel, and American film student, and a girl from Greece) at Luxembourg. The streets were packed with a cheerful, chattering young crowd and dotted with equally jovial policemen who had pretty much given up on trying to clear a path for cars. It was really surreal to have so many people out and about at midnight, and there was a real sense of life and electricity in the air. The line to actually enter the Luxembourg gardens wrapped all the way around the block, although you didn’t have to be inside it to see the main attraction: a huge disco ball, suspended from a crane. Strategically placed searchlights refracted off of the ball’s many faces onto the eerie purple clouds and full moon, giving the impression that tonight, Paris itself was our nightclub.

With Pascal as our guide, we trekked around Paris to see what we could see, speaking French all the while. My favorite destination was the Grande Mosquée, whose central garden hosted an x-ray video installation (one of the only ones I enjoyed…I really need someone with some film background to teach me how to appreciate those because right now I just think most of them are stupid) and a laser installation piece that combined the visuals of the moving lasers with audio voiceovers of the history of the earth and a strong scent of roses. (More art should be scented. It’s like that adult version of those scented markers that were really cool in the early 90s…fun!). The exhibits were cool, the locale was beautiful, and the calm reverence of the crowd in response to our surroundings presented a strange contrast to the delightful chaos around Luxembourg.

Around 4am, my blisters from the previous night’s boat adventures were starting to hurt and my fatigue was beginning to interfere with my French. The boys and I walked up to Chatelet to catch the night buses home…only to find that French bureaucracy, in its infinite wisdom, had decided to suspend almost all of the night bus lines on the one night that they were really needed, opting instead to keep the 11 and 14 lines running (which both lead away from where I live). The result was that I took the metro and then a bus to Pascal’s apartment in Levallois (a cute, upscale Parisian suburb), where we stayed up for another hour or so discussing Sarah Palin (did anyone else know she got punk'd by a a couple of Quebecois radio DJs?), Ségolène Royale and South Park before I gratefully crashed on an air mattress.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Adventures of Frizzhead and German Girl

I don’t feel like I’ve found “my” people yet in Paris, or maybe it’s just that my idea of friends hasn’t quite caught up to the new reality of my life. The close-knit community at St. Mary’s is a far cry from the dynamics of adult city life—it’s funny how being isolated as a school made us much less isolated as individuals. At any rate, I am learning to enjoy my alone time without being lonely. Usually. But then there are nights like Tuesday night, when I decided after an hour of moping that I should leave my room, hop a metro stop up and treat myself to a McFlurry (I know, I know, cliché, but pastry shops close early and I swear MacDo is actually better here). Except that, as soon as I got on the train, who should I run into in my metro car than the German girl from two doors down, Dorothee (the same one I dragged to couscous a few weeks ago).

Dorothee was as chic as all European girls and clearly dressed to go out, and I felt a little dumb in comparison in my sweatshirt and tennis shoes with my lack of itinerary. She asked me where I was headed. “Out to find a crepe,” I said, excusing the white lie with the desire to not further encourage the American stereotype as obese hamburger-lovers. “I have a craving for something sweet.”

“All alone?”

I shrugged.

“It’s not a crepe, but I have some sweet white wine, and I’m going to go meet up with some girlfriends at the Eiffel Tower to pregame before we go to the club. Do you want to come?”

And that was how I ended up unexpectedly staying out until 2am the night before Assia Djebar’s class at Place de Trocadero. Between Dorothee, her friends (another German named Kersten and a Belgian girl) and me, we finished three bottles of wine, watched a break-dancing group go through their routine twice, waved off countless souvenir-sellers hawking their usual jingling rings of Eiffel tower key chains and various glowing night items, staying just long enough to see the tower sparkle a final time before stumbling back to the metro, laughing, to part ways. That night was also the closest I have ever come to pissing my pants—when the 6 line stopped for ten minutes, I laughed, crossing me legs, but once I got to my change at the RER platform only to find the one bathroom “hors service” and the next train ten minutes away, it wasn’t funny any more. I imagined myself standing forlornly in a puddle, encircled by sneering French spectators—can you get arrested for peeing yourself in public? As if taunting me, a nearby drunk man unzipped and pissed on the track. When the train finally pulled up to my stop I burst out, bolted up the escalator and across the street, punched in my keycode, and had my card out and unready to unlock the first-floor bathroom. My plan hit a slight hitch when I realized I let myself into the shower room instead, but—merci Dieu!—the final stall was a toilet.

Although I had planned to have a night-in after yesterday’s tiring Chateau visit, last night ended up being another adventure with Dorothee. Antsy for something to do, she accepted a texted invitation to attend an Erasmus party on a boat on the Seine and, on a whim, I decided to go along for the ride. We finished a bottle of wine together as we primped then ran to catch the metro to get there in time for the before-midnight free entry. We only just made it. We headed downstairs immediately where the dance floor was still relatively empty, with most students crowded around the bar and into booths along the walls. By the time I left the dance floor two hours later to ask the bartender for some water (I never understand why I’m the only one that does this…dancing makes me work up a sweat!) and find the bathroom, I had to squeeze through hoards of people to get there.

However, it turns out that going to the bathroom on a dark, crowded dance boat is a bad idea if you plan on ever rejoining your group. I spent the next hour trying (unsuccessfully) to track down Dorothee downstairs, above deck and outside (we had agreed to leave at 2/3 am and split a taxi). I sat down in a booth to survey the crowded dance floor, but overwhelmed and starting to get tired, I closed my eyes. Mistake number two. I immediately had the handsy attention of several skeezy guys who incorrectly assumed I was wasted (and I guess easy?). I shook them off easily enough but decided that was my cue to make an exit and hope that Dorothee could find her own way home.

I got off the boat and walked up to the main road, shivering in my club attire in the nippy 3am air (Dorothee had my sweater in her purse) and nursing feet that had been rubbed raw from my heels (never again! Flats forever!). After 25 minutes or so I was getting numb and hadn’t succeeded in hailing a single cab, although more than a hundred occupied ones had seemed to pass by. Rather than brave the club boat again with its burly bouncers and crowd of listless boys smoking cigarettes out front, trying to weasel their way on, I went up to the pay-booth in the parking lot and asked the attendant what I was doing wrong about cabs. The man, a Tunisian, welcomed me into the booth through the back door and turned on the heat for me. I sat with him for half an hour (he said that taxis would often pass through later in the night for boat clients), trying Arabic off-an-on between his transactions with clubbers driving home. In the end, he saw I was getting tired and asked a young couple at the window if they wouldn’t mind driving me up somewhere where I might have more success in hailing a cab (I can hear mom wincing as she reads this…I’m fine!). The couple graciously let me into their car, and we talked in a mix of English-Spanish-French (she was Venezuelan, he was French) while they drove me to Champs Elysee and right up to an empty cab. Even the cab ride home was a bit crazy, as the driver was a greasy-haired, blackmetal-head that drove with a guitar in the front seat. I spent the entire drive discussing metal and dissing Marylin Manson and Eminem in a delightfully slangy French, pretending like I knew what I was talking about.

I caught up with Dorothee again this morning. Her face was puffy from crying and a lack of sleep, and she apparently had a nightmare of a night after we lost each other. Her purse was snatched from a booth, putting me out a sweater (darn, I really liked that one) but her out 50 euro, three credit cards, her student/resident cards, her passport and two cell phones (one German, one French). She spent the rest of the night on the phone with some pissed off parents and at the police station filing a formal report. When she finally made it back here around 9 this morning she had to be let into her room by security and then pay to have the lock changed.

And so, faithful readers, the morals of the story: forgo the purse and stick with shoving the essentials into cleavage/undergarments. Heels are evil. Pee before getting on the metro, and not at all on a boat. And speaking of pee, know that Marylin Manson upped the ante from his usual peeing on the crowd technique to trying to infect them with swine flu, because it’ll get you a long way with a crazy cab driver. Whew.

Friday, October 2, 2009

last boring post for a while, I promise

Good news on the bureaucracy front: I have a French bank account with 150 euros in at, and a beautiful, beautiful debit card with the European “puce” (chip). All of my CAF forms, my residency card crap and my student metro pass forms are officially in and connected to said bank account, so it’s only a matter of time before the rent refund comes rolling in (…only to roll back out again to fund my transportation, of course, but c’est la vie.)

I had my last official class today (I will also have tutorials and participate in themed colloquiums, but those aren’t graded). It was a textual analysis class with the Oxford-esque professor Gengembre from orientation, whom I now love even more. He is absolutely brilliant: one of those people that seems to know at least a little bit about everything but somehow still treats us like educational peers. I realized today that I must be developing some sort of unconscious sense of the tu/vous divide, because when Gengembre's response to me having a question was "je vous écoute," (I'm listening to you, formal) I felt inexplicably flattered.

What I have learned about myself this week: 1) I’m too old to be afraid of teachers any more (in awe of the great ones, always, but even those were where I am now at some point) 2) I’m too smart to be intimidated by other smart students—it’s a blessing to have classmates you can actually talk to and that contribute to class. 3) My French ia not as good as I want it to be, but it will get better (and in all honesty it will probably never be as perfect as I’d like) and in the meantime I have a good command of the language and a decent accent in spite of the occasional misconjugation or mangled “R”. 4) This is my life, my degree, completely my choice to be here. Undergrad never felt this liberated and self-directed. My actual time spent in class isn’t that much, and this year is really dependent on me investing myself as I see fit reading/experiencing Paris to develop a decent “big picture” of the history of French literature. Wow.

That may all seem obvious, but it wasn’t to me a few weeks ago.

Tomorrow: free day trip/lunch with the undergrads to Vaux-le-Vicomte, a Chateau. Next post should hopefully include pictures of that, as well as more info on the “fun” things I’ve been doing (since I realize not everyone defines French lit as “fun.” Your loss, really).

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Classes and meeting an idol at long last...

Monday is my “Stylistics and Semantics of Written French” course taught by a very down-to-business French woman who has that rare gift of really, truly loving grammar. At the orientation she seemed a little intimidating (when the question came up of addressing our tutors with the formal “vous” or the more casual “tu” she was the only one who insisted on the formality) but she knows her stuff (she actually wrote the workbooks we’re using) and her obvious passion for it actually makes it—well, not quite interesting, but close. I was happy to find out that the class is going to focus more on stylistic things, like phrasing and vocabulary, because I’m always interested in improving my writing (though as much as I dislike the grammar, I do need it…).

Tuesday is my course at the Université de Paris VII: Love in the Middle Ages. The professor is great, and the reading list that made the French students groan (they’re accustomed to spending a semester doing a close textual analysis of one or two major works) seems normal by American standards. The class is about 30 people (including a guy pushing 60) and crammed into a small, hot room for three hours, but thus is school in France. Everything she said evoked memories of courses, books and scholars from my semester in Oxford—including an apparently not-dead idea for a novel I have set in medieval France. In short, this course will be intellectually orgasmic.

Today was the one I’ve been waiting for: Assia Djebar’s class on Francophone lit. For anyone I haven’t told, Assia Djebar is a female Algerian writer whose works played a leading role in my senior thesis. Her works are generally recognized as some of the first and best examples of postcolonial North African literature, especially from a Women Studies point of view. She was also appointed to the Academie Française (an exclusive club around to regulate the French language…yeah, so it’s stupid and powerless but still a great honor) a few years back, making her the first francophone member and one of the first women. In short, she’s a big deal. From the impression I got from her novels and her accomplishments, she seemed a force to be reckoned with. The impression I got from other people after getting her was that she might be a little conceded and…well…difficult, as a teacher. The truth: my longtime literary idol has...well...been around for a long time. Assia Djebar is old.

Granted, I knew that jacket photo I had in my head must be outdated, but when I entered the class I had to squint to see the resemblance. Dressed in costume jewelry, a dress low cut enough to reveal a protruding bra underwire, a gaudy turquoise jacket,
tennis shoes and with the typically French old lady orange-red tinted hair, she looked more like a bewildered Parisian I might help out on the Métro than the defiant, sharp-tongued expat I had expected. She also wasn’t really on top of things, mentally. Although she asked for our names several times (there are only 5 of us) she couldn’t retain them, and pretty much settled on using “Laura” to address us all. Valérie, our program leader, sat-in on the class as a sort of personal secretary, reminding her several times of the attendance sheet and syllabus in front of, keeping time, keeping her on topic, and helping her find her point when she couldn’t find her way back after her frequent autobiographical tangents.

It was a little heart-breaking to watch, but I still have as much respect as ever for her accomplishments and her writing, and I can hardly hold her age against her. Also, while Djebar is getting a little senile and succumbing to the old lady tendency to blurt out observations best left as inner monologue, once she got past introductions and started talking about literature it was like her eyes lit up, her wit switched on and she was…well…brilliant. The effect of her position as an author is evident in her approach to a text, which really privileges the author and revels in specific vocabulary and the beauty of language. Plus, Djebar knows a lot of these authors, and has more or less lived these stories, and everything she says is supported with a childhood anecdote or real-life struggle. It was especially cool for me, having researched her so extensively last year, to have her in front of me, telling me things in person about her childhood and her relationship with French and Arabic that I had only read before.

After class, Valérie met up with us to touch base, saying essentially (and with an obvious, touching sense of sadness) that “we know Djebar is starting to lose her marbles, but there’s still a lot to be learned from her.” To make sure that we benefit fully from the course, Djebar will only teach every other week, and always aided by Valérie, and in the off weeks we’ll have guest lectures and discussions lead by other leading Francophone scholars in the Parisian area (including Christelle Taraud, an expert on women in the Maghreb, whose articles I read last year). All-in-all, I think it will be an intriguing, unforgettable experience, and it’s an honor to know that I will probably be among the last of NYU's students to study alongside the literary legacy that is Assia Djebar.