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.