Thursday, May 5, 2011

un vernissage

As people filtered in off the street, warm chatter rose above our heads like summer clouds. I was standing out of the way. Taking a break from pleasantries, I lost myself in one of the photography collections for a bit, feeling the flow of the carefully aligned pieces.
The place was all dressed down in white and sharp angles—the kind of gallery that makes you see the art and nothing else. True, the room was tightly packed, but from my angle I caught the whole series and it was really something.
“What do you think?” inquired a voice from behind my shoulder. I started a little and turned to find a man leaning against the corner. He had a dark gray coat that matched his dark and graying hair. His eyes were almost the same color, but stormier. I glanced back at the photographs.
“The colors are perfect,” I decided. Across the room, there was a soft chime of shattering crystal and rivulets of wine raced down the wall towards the flood. Silence fell, and then someone threw down a towel and murmur rose again gently.
“They are strong… really raw”, I said in conclusion. He listened, thought, and nodded curtly.
“You should meet the artist, have you met the artist?” He set down his glass and began casting around the crowed room.
“No!” I begged, trying to keep the panic out of my voice, “no, I really don’t need to”. This same situation had already played out several times. I had been dragged to meet one of the artists, who was promptly plucked away from their friends by my good-intentioned tormentor. I was introduced as “une fille avec des questions très interessantes au sujet de ton travail”—‘a girl with very interesting questions about your work’. The satisfied third party would then leave us standing there, two awkward cartoon characters with quivering speech bubbles that wouldn’t seen to fill.
Finally, I would come up with something unintelligent, like “je l’aime bien” or “c’est magnifique”. Someone else would cut in soon enough with probing inquiries about the photographer’s inspiration, the lighting in the works, notable people who attended a previous exposition. I would be free to slip off and recover with a toothpick full of olives tiled between mysteriously strong cheese cubes. I couldn’t bear it again though—French language and abstract thought refused to cozy up in my head tonight.
“No, I have already met them,” I assured him with finality, noticing that a small group of young people had gathered around us. They threw slim, black silhouettes on the walls and hummed with a certain intensity that I recognized but couldn’t place. One of the girls stared at me with unblinking eyes.
“What does she do?” she asked. The question hung in the air and a boy to her left let out a long gush of air. He was a cat-man—black pants, black boots, black fur around his spindly neck.
“She is a Swedish billionaire,” he declared, evaluating me through green cat-eyes, “she is here to buy our art. All of our art”. The others celebrated this idea raucously, chinking glasses and taking long, hearty swigs of champagne as if it were lemonade on a sweltering August day.
“I think she is a wine critic,” argued one of them with the flash of an eyebrow.
“A spy?”
“An orange tree farmer?” I raised my finger for silence and announced that I was all of these things. They signaled their approval with more chinking and dissolved into the crowd as fluidly as they had appeared. A elderly lady had taken their place and was arranging a small pile of peanuts in a triangle on her hand small, weathered hand. The gray man was also still there, quietly contemplating the photographs.
“What is it that you do?” I asked. A deep curiosity about the strange and fascinating lives of these people was welling up—melting the stark white walls and leaving only the morphing throng. The man snapped out of his reverie and looked at me like he was noticing my presence for the first time.
“I make movies”, he said, a look of pride flashing across his stony face.
“What type of movies?”
“Documentaries”. I swirled my champagne in its glass, waiting. It raced around the crystal rim like a golden tidal wave.
“Documentaries about fairies,” he explained after a moment, “it’s all about the supernatural around us. Fairies, elves, you know… invisible beings.” He waved a hand carelessly and I nodded in earnest.
As it turned out, he had traveled to Canada and Iceland to do research on the supernatural. After collecting interviews about first-hand encounters with said invisible beings, he finally compiled an entire full-length movie on the subject. Realizing he was serious about halfway though, I gracefully transformed my giggles into fake hiccups and excused myself to the ladies room after he finished explaining his project. There, I confronted myself in the mirror, ruminating on passions and peanuts and what gives things true meaning. 
That night, I left the gallery with a strange list of things to follow up on. The words were scrawled in varied, lovely penmanship. Spiky, creative words. Artist speak.
There was the name of a studio in Nice, a drawing workshop in the Marais, an up-and-coming documentary on elves and the supernatural. There were the e-mails of several photographers and the websites of several more. As I said my farewells and stepped out into the balmy, breezy evening, every inch of Isle St Louis was ablaze with the last rays of sunlight and gold hung thickly in the air--twenty-four carat smog. A wonderland? Absolutely. A fairyland? It just might have been. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

may day

As I stepped off the plane, a smiling lady sang « Bienvenue!», and pressed a small white lily into my hand. She had a whole basket of them tucked under her arm, and as I passed into the spidery maze of the Charles de Gaulle airport, I noticed that each woman who whisked by was holding her own lily. Perplexed but honored, I tucked the flower into my bag to free my hands, ready to blaze a trail out of the aeronautical maze.

Upon returning home, my host mother told me that the distribution of sprigs of lily of the valley is a May Day tradition in France. In 1561, King Charles received a lily of the valley as a lucky charm. On the May firsts that followed, he offered a sprig to each of the ladies of his court and apparently, it is also tradition that the lady receiving the lily gives a kiss in return. Luckily I was unaware of this earlier—I may have been caught in awkward hesitation between French tradition and personal space boundaries with strangers.

As usual, I am surprised to have made it out of that airport alive. I can see myself wandering the passageways for days, braving the tarmac, or curling up with my flower in a concrete corner to wilt away.

The place is a 1970s interpretation of a space station on Mars; it is composed of three, giant pods crouching amidst a network of roads and runways. Approaching the airport aboard a tram allows for a bizarre vantage point of the barren metropolis before the car lurches forward on its tracks and dives underground into a mess of passages and stairwells. Personally, I find the oddest feature of the airport to be a series of bouncy, moving (moon)walkways that wander up and down between the concourses, wiggling unsettlingly underfoot and drawing nervous giggles from travelers. The control tower in the shape of a giant mushroom, on the other hand, is inarguably a nice touch. 

In theory, Charles de Gaulle is impossible to navigate. It is way too weird. However, I always seem to move through the airport in a flash. According to the official count from 2010, fifty-eight million one hundred sixty-four thousand six hundred and twelve (whew) passengers passed through the terminal pods in just that single year. The only explanation of this efficiency is some sort of sci-fi magic at work.

Yes, this airport is wild. It is also pretty unsightly, but I suppose that first glimpse of the Seine sparkling under the morning sun warrants a layover in space. Break is over, which means that it is officially springtime in Paris.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

the 2e arrondissement—la bouse

The name of the second arrondissement was slightly forboding—La Bouse. The stock exchange. For me, this conjured images of stone facades, of corruption, of steel and glass and stoney-faced men in expensive suits. Perhaps that is why I held off on the exploration #2 for so very, very long.

When I sat down to write my commentary, I had to restrain myself from using a certain word in every one of my sentences. However, this word was not “pretentious”, nor was it “austere” nor “postmodern”. It it was “charming”. Contrary to my expectations, the second arrondissement was overwhelmingly charming. Granted, my experience may have been skewed by my early morning start, the bright blue sky, or my delectable purchase at Regis Colin. Nevertheless, I was completely taken with the neighborhood and many of the sites won venerable positions on the list of places to revisit.

When I emerged from the metro station Etienne Marcel, the early morning air tinged with birdsongs and the sweet smell of baking bread. Mondays are similar to Sundays in Paris; many stores are still closed which leaves the streets quiet and tranquil. Upon reflection, I never really asked myself why this is the case—I have learned to never truly count on stores being open. Businesses seem to be impulsive, entitled, bound to no rules. This makes hours of operation are a very fluid concept.
In any case, the streets were vacant except for a few shopkeepers unlocking doors and a smattering of customers lounging outside cafes, sipping espresso and soaking in the first rays of sunlight. I rounded in the corner and stepped into the first of many passages of the day.

It is important, first, to know a bit about the history of passages in Paris. As we learned in our Paris by Site course, the passages were created beginning at the end of the 1700s and beginning of the 1800s and used to be the mansions of the aristocracy. For one reason or another, these mansions were turned into covered aracades connecting one road to another. Storefronts in theses passages were desirable because there were no taxes, and the covered passage allowed people to step out of the crowds and the dirtiness of the street and enjoy the new, leisurely activity of shopping for pleasure.

The 2nd arrondissement is absolutely teeming with of passages. As I scanned my map of Paris before starting off this morning, I slowly began to realize that the majority of roads I had planned to follow were not, in fact, roads, but covered passages. On foot, this was more of a curiosity than an issue, but if you travel Paris by vehicle, attention aux passages. But honestly, when driving in Paris, I suppose this would be the least of your worries.

The first passage I wandered through was le Passage du Grand Cerf. It was only vaguely interesting, but I couldn't tell if shops were boarded up permanently or due to the case of the M. Perhaps it merits another visit on a busier day. Moving down Rue Tiquetonne, I came upon two fantastic epiceries. The first was called l'Epicerie de Bruno and was at 30 Rue Tiquetonne. It sold a fascinating variety of spices and teas, both of which made me nostalgic for the herb-filled mason jars at Lester House. Its a great place to go for cooking inspiration, or just for enjoying the delicate and exotic smells.
The second store was just a bit farther down the same street and is called G. Detou. It sells wonderful, high quality ingrediants for baking along with a interesting variety of fine foods. Of particlar interest were the enormous bags of Valrona chocolate chips (!!!) of varying intensities, a selection of delicious-looking dried friuts, and bizarre oils such as avocado oil, pistachio oil, and infused white truffle grapeseed oil. Just in case you need them. According to a salesperson, the shop opened in the 60s particularly to sell ingrediants for baking things from scratch. It is a fantastic store. Go check it out. On a side-note, next-door is a cool clothing store called Espace Kiliwatch. It was closed for an inventory day, but it seemed to have a lot of great stuff and crazily patterned scarves

Next, I made my way to a bakery called Regis Colin. Tiny and unassuming, it is squished between two bigger shopfronts and easy to miss. However, it is imperative that this bakery is not missed. I knew beforehand that Regis Colin has won multiple noteworthy prizes for its pastries and that the boulangerie's croissant is considered by many as the best croissant in Paris. Therefore, I went right ahead and ordered a croissant, but not without glancing at the other beautiful pastries first. They all look fantastic, and I was surprised to note that they were pretty fantastically priced as well. After receiving the croissant and a very cheery “bonne journée” from the baker, I settled down on the steps of Notre Dame des Victoires to enjoy. Words fail to do justice to the light, buttery flakiness of this masterpiece. It was way too delicious, and as I slowly pulled off piece after piece, the bells of the chuch burst into song to celebrate the moment. I don't know what else to say about it, but please go try one.

Notre Dame des Victoires is a very different and curious church. It was a stational bascilica along the pilgrimage route to Compostela, which resulted in over 37,000 ex voto offerings to be left behind. These are offerings to a saint or divinity in the form of plaques, silver and gold hearts, or decorations. The countless adornments made the overall effect a bit overwhelming, but that may have also be because of the pastry daze I was still recovering from.

I passed the national library but didn't go inside. It is currently under renovation, but they do currently have an exhibition going on called “Visions of Egypt” that seems to be worth a visit. I also strolled down Rue Montorgueil which is a trendy street open only to pedestrian traffic. It features great specialized food stores like fromageries and olive oil shops.

Finally, I walked up through more passages to the Grands Boulevards area, paused by an interesting bar called Cafe Noir which was full of colorful decorations and hipster students smoking on the terrace, and made my way to the Passage des Panoramas. We visited this passage earlier as it was built in 1799 and was the first real trial of gas lighting. What drew me today, however, was a place called Gocce Cafe which is known for its great Italian espresso. This is where I finished my morning, curled up with a book and a macchiato in the strange covered sidewalk in Paris.

In summary: The second arrondissement equals great food shopping, great clothing shopping, winding streets and passages to explore, and the king of all croissants. It really isn't just the stock exchange, so make sure to pay it a visit!

Bisous, et à bientôt

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

rue des restos

I took a wrong turn at dusk and found myself on an empty street.

As I picked my way over the cobblestones, the restless sounds of crowds moving along the quais of the Seine faded behind me and a soft, gentle stillness sighed down onto the avenue. Quiet. The limestone facades of the buildings crept in towards each other until the iron spirals of third-story terraces seemed to entwine, leaving a crooked sliver of velvet sky splattered with stars. Leafy vines spilled down from these terraces and from one window wandered the long, melancholy notes of a violin. I slowed my pace and let myself slide into the pocket of unexpected peace like one might slip into a steaming bath.

There is a fascinating variability between neighboring roads in Paris. People often chose a route and stick to it—laying trails and following them like streams of ants. I knew for a fact that a few roads over, throngs of tourists were clamoring in and out of kitschy boutiques in search of keychains and crêpes and scarves adorned with patterns of the Eiffel Tower. But here, on this shy and enticing street, it was a whole different city.

Ahead of me, someone in a white jacket popped out of a door, scurried up the street, and ducked into the shadows of an alley. I continued making my way along, starting to realize that despite its tranquility, the street had a certain, humming energy. It was expectant, alert, biding its time. It was waiting for something. The sky darkened steadily, and I paused for a moment outside a softly lit window. There was a small group of people gathered around a table. They were dressed in stark white that melded into the spotless tablecloth, and leaned toward each other genially over glittering wine glasses and carefully-arranged flatware. I noted something tiny, beautiful, and enticing on each of their places. Every so often, someone would take a dainty bite, close their eyes, then engage in an animated conversation with a neighbor.

My eyes fell on a sheet of paper tacked to the door with a hand-written menu of no more than five items. And then it struck me—they were trying out the meal for the night. They were the waiters. The cooks too? Testing what the tiny, intimate restaurant would offer that evening, trying the wine, evaluating the pairings. Getting ready for the night. Thrilled, I kept walking and there was another window with the same scene. And then another, and another. Soon the waiters and cooks were whisking away the dishes and disappearing from the windows. Maître d's stepped out into the street, eying the stars as smoke curled from the glowing ends of their cigarettes.

I broke back out into a bustling boulevard and fell into the flow of people heading towards my arrondissement. Parisians and tourists alike passed gnawing on crêpes and paninis, and this breathed a different kind of life into the street. Not necessarily a better or worse sort of life, but as I approached my apartment I smiled, glad to recall the tiny, quiet street of restaurants. A street where the cook could be an artist who takes pride in his or her own work. Where each night was something to prepare for. A street where dining is an experience, something to be shared.

This city has more amazing food than anyone in the world can imagine. Let's eat, but eat slowly. Eat slowly and savor.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

the 1e arrondissement—le louvre

Disclaimer: This post goes completely against all that is good and relaxed and the laissez-faire method of discovering of Paris. It is the beginning of a 20 post series in which I will try to carry out a methodical exploration of each of the arrondissements. This, my friends, is no flânarie, but hopefully might be helpful to those interested in the more typical attractions of the city.Herreeee we go!

If a single word could sum up the first, it would have to be "wealthy". This quartier is wealthy in every aspect: rich in history, rich in architecture, rich in art, rich in glitzy stores filled with rich customers. For those of you unfamilliar with the layout of Paris, this map shows how the arrondissements begin at the center and sprial outwards like the shell of a giant escargot

And there is the first, smack dab in the center. It's area is less than a square mile, but it is the home to so many fascinating things that it is honestly impossible to see them all in one day. It is even more impossible when said day features torrential rain. However, this is what we did manage to enjoy:

I started the day at St. Chapelle with Lucy and Josh. St. Chapelle is located on the Isle de la Cité and was built my Louis IX in the 13th century to house relics of the Passion. From the outside, it is a gorgeous example of vaulting Gothic architecture, but the real gem lies on the inside in the upper chapel. You enter through the bottom chapel, with a low ceiling adorned with lovely frescoes featuring blue and gold patterns of fleurs de lis. The bottom floor beautiful, but it is nothing compared to what lies just above the fleurs de lis.

Even though I have seen the upper level once before, my jaw still dropped to the intricately tiled floor when I climbed the narrow, spiral staircase to the upper chapel. The upper level is, as Lucy accurately observed, an enormous kaleidoscope. The feeling of immense space and color when you enter the chapel is breath-taking, and the impossibly tall stained-glass windows shoot up to the sky to a vaulted ceiling that seems to gently float above the vast glittering mosaic. Every inch of the chapel is decorated with meticulous care, and I had to take a minute to sit down and absorb it all. The room features 15 huge windows that, in total, depict 1113 scenes from the Old and New Testament. Looking around me, I decided St. Chapelle is like the painting style pointillism, but in reverse. In pointillism, paintings are composed of tiny dots. Up close, it is impossible to see the image but as you move away, you eyes can see the whole picture. In this case however, if you move way back, the individual images blur and you are left with only awe. Do not miss this. Also, once you have gotten your fill the beauty, take a seat and watch people's faces when they emerge from the stairwell—a little comedic relief in the midst of all that splendor. 

Next we wandered up to the western tip of the island, stepping into an interesting art gallery at Place Dauphine, and made our way down to a small grassy park called Square du Vert Galant. It is peaceful, picturesque, and offers charming views of the right and left bank with old, weather-worn boats moored along the quais. Great place for reading, relaxing, or picnicking.

At this point, Lucy left us and Josh and I moved on to a romanesque chuch called St. Germain l'Auxerrois. This church used to be the parish of kings of France, and had additions over the centuries which results in the appearance of several different styles of architecture. I was very taken by a few aspects of this church:
  1. So many arches. They overlap each other again and again and when you move to look from different angles, they delicately frame the gleaming stained-glass windows in countless ways.
  2. The MASSIVE organ. I want to hear it.
  3. A interesting combination of wide-open space accompanied by a cozy, comforting smell that I can describe only as a mixture of candles and old, leather-bound books.
**The Lourve is obviously crucial to the 1st arrondissement (hence the name of the first arrondissement) but due to its overwhelming size, and the fact that we are studying there over several months, I had to sidestep it for now. Sorry Louvre, more on you later**

Next, we wandered through the Jardin des Tuileries. The sky was shifting moodily between foreboding clouds and blissful sunshine as we made our way to the Musée de l'Orangerie. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect with this museum. We started off on the bottom floor which hosts a nice collection of Renoirs and Cézannes, their soft pastel colors and airy brushstrokes standing out sharply against the austere, modern décor. Moving to the top floor, we stepped through a strange hallway into a spacious, oval room. Waterlilies. Waterlilies everywhere. Without really planning on it, we had stumbled upon two rooms specifically built to house eight of the mammoth waterlily murals painted by Monet. The ceilings of the rooms allow diffused, natural light to gleam down on the paintings as Monet had intended them to be displayed. The effect is a lovely, ghostly luminescence reminiscent of late dawn or early dusk. 

Next was the Place Vendôme in the northwestern corner of the 1st. This square is one of the richest squares in the world and was filled with sleek cars and the glittering storefronts of Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Chanel, and the Paris Ritz. Jimmy Choos clicked along the sidewalk and people flickered in and out of the doors with the rustling of golden furs and sleek black umbrellas. Everything about the place whispered for me to keep move along. As rain was now falling in thick, silvery sheets, Josh and I parted ways and I paid quick visits to le Jardin du Palais Royal, St. Eustache, and La Comedie Francaise on the way back towards the Seine. La Comedie Francaise is a celebrated theater in Paris that hosts its own troop of actors and performs only the 'classics'. For those of you in Paris, tickets are free for people under the age of 28 on the first Monday of every month. This month, we have the exciting opportunity of seeing Shakespeare performed in French. Impossible to understand? Perhaps. Worth the 0 euros? Definitely. 

A few final notes on the 1st:
  1. Whatever you do, avoid “Les Halles”. This is a sprawling, mystifying area near la Bourse that is part enormous shopping center, part bizarre sculpture park, part monstrous metro/RER hub, part underground spiderweb of tunnels that is impossible to escape. There are vast crowds, there are signs that lead you in circles, there are strange people that lurk about wearing sunglasses indoors. It is absolutely my worst nightmare, but perhaps I caught it on a bad day. If someone has a positive experience, or finds a path that goes straight through without diving into its mysterious and frighting depths, please pass it on.
  2. Despite the evil that emanated from les Halles, there were some cheap food stands and cafés on the periphery that were wafting very, very good smells.
  3. I can't vouch for this tip personally yet, but please go to Angelina Tea Room and Café on 226 Rue de Rivoli for hot chocolate and a Mont-Blanc. You may have a heart-attack afterward, but I have reason to believe that it may just be worth it. Very worth it.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

horses and panthers

I finally understand the appeal of horse races.

The morning was cool and misty and I stood outside a vast stadium. To my right, guarded by a gilded and elegant fence, an endless line of doors stretched off to the distance. Each door had a bizarre and fanciful name engraved on it in silver—Si Seulement, Ta Lisa du Gite, Quai d'Orsay. The courtyard was silent, but the air buzzed with tension as a crowd began to gather behind the fence. Steam rose from the gravel. The spectators murmured amongst themselves. 

Soon, several young men filed into the courtyard and one by one, the doors were opened to reveal dark, gleaming animals. The horses were led out slowly and a hush fell over the crowd. I myself was shocked by their immensity and grace, the way their muscles rippled beneath their perfect coats and the light in their warm brown eyes.

It was like something out of an old movie where people wear large hats and live in homes with doormen. When I finally tore myself away from the fascinating sight and was back on the trail, my running companion Robert explained to me that today was the Prix de Paris, a horse race held every year in Paris in February. A very big deal.

I had met up with a French running group early in the morning but they had turned out to be long-legged Senegalese marathoners who aim to finish the race in two hours rather than four. Nevertheless, I attempted to hold my ground for a little while, then veered off with a new friend to wheeze and listen to his stories about life in Senegal, the outcome of his first five Paris Marathons, and a baffling amount of detailed information about horseracing. American boys heads are stuffed with files of baseball facts. Is this an analogous cultural phenomenon? I have decided that the most efficient training program will involve trying desperately to keep up with interesting people.

Speaking of effiecieny, I experienced my first glitch in the ever-perfect metro system. It occured on the way back to the center of Paris:

I was discretely enjoying the music of one of the many accordionists that jump from train to train to serenade the travelers and ask for compensation at the first sign of enjoyment. Suddenly, the metro ground to a screeching halt. A soothing voice came on over the speakers, explaining that there would be a slight delay. I watched the faces around me immidiately darken as people calculated the effect these extra two minutes would have on the fluidity of their travels.

Not. Acceptable.

There was a cacophony of rustling and sighs. My eyes turned to the accordionist. To be honest, I was expecting a rather special performance. He now had a captive audience, wasn't this his moment of glory?
But no, oddly enough, he was looking just as irate as the others, and I could have sworn he reached down to check his watch. Did he have somewhere else to be? Was there another metro line that was endlessly superior to line four? Or was it, as I suspected, a mechanical reaction to the frustrating and très inadmissible break down of the system?

In the midst of my reflection, I suddenly had the feeling I myself was being watched, and looked over to see a couple across the car scrutinizing me carefully. They were both draped in enormous fur coats, and the man even had a fluffy cap perched on his head.« Tu ne serais pas aussi froide si tu avais les vêtements d'hiver » the woman told me critically. I was wearing my thin running clothes, and she was explaining to me that I wouldn't be as cold if I was wearing proper winter clothes. I wanted to tell them that they wouldn't be as scary if they didn't look like they had crawled into a pair of panthers. Alas, I didn't know the word for panther, so I smiled genially and admitted that I really should invest in a better jacket. They seemed satisfied.

The car shivered and began to move, the accordionist immediately broke into a rendition of La Vie en Rose, and the commuters let their brows relax... but just a bit.

The semester starts tomorrow. The arrondissement adventure starts Wednesday. The French word for panther is une panthère (obviously). 
Add it to the list of useful words—it could come in handy.


Saturday, February 19, 2011


Today, I got lost in a chateau.

I was running down lovely, narrow, rain-drenched trails in the Bois de Vincennes when suddenly, the forest melted away and there was a drawbridge at my feet. A castle rose of of the mist, walls crumbling slightly in parts and grand turrets reaching towards the sky. The door was open, so I ran right it and wove through a maze of tunnels.

Finally, I broke out into an enormous courtyard. Rain was making little rings of ripples in a fountain near the center and a lone, elderly couple shuffled past, clutching each other tightly under a red checkered umbrella. After circling the courtyard a few times I realized I was a bit disoriented and had to somehow get back to St. Michel in time to meet some friends. A pair of runners suddenly whooshed past, and I immidiately attached to them like a leech. They turned out to be a very friendly father and son who had moved to Paris from Marseille a few months ago. We made our way out of the maze and ran together back through the forest, talking all the while about good spots to run in Paris. When we parted, they invited me to run with them again tomorrow, which could be wonderful if I can only find the meeting spot they described in very rapid French.

I am now back at my apartment, drinking a steaming cup of coffee and watching the rain fall on the city. Yesterday was the last day of my intensive language program and I can hardly believe I have been here a month. I can't, however, decide if I feel like I just got here or if I feel like I have been here my entire life. All I know is that time is passing in a very different way.

During our last class, we all left the school and walked with our professor though the beautiful Luxembourg gardens to the mosque in the Latin quarter. If anyone has seen the film "Paris Je t'aime", it is the same mosque that appears in one of the 10 minute shorts. We had tea in a beautiful, ornate tearoom with an enormous chandelier that was laden with real, tiny sparrows and talked about the best things in all the quartiers of Paris.

At this point, I decided that I must commence a pointed, ordered exploration of each of the 20 arrondissements. This will result in 1) discovery of new and exciting things 2) interesting photo journalism and 3) an outlet for my slighly OCD tendencies by starting with 1 and working all the way through to 20. Hooray!

Installment 1 (Louvre) will be released early next week. Stayyy tuned!


Sunday, February 13, 2011


The Paris metro is a very romantic place on a Friday night.

As trains rush by like clockwork, a rose petal wafts by on the turbulent air currents and lands by my toe. I look up, and there are roses everywhere. Suave, dark-haired men lean casually against the railings holding decadent bouquets. Couples fling similar bouquets aside and drape themselves over benches, whispering in soft French. An elderly women clutches a single flower to her face and breathes, a little smile on her face.

And all the while the trains flicker past, crowded with people off to see what the evening has to offer. That night, the metro efficiently delivered me to the 3ième arrondissement to a wine and cheese party at a friend's apartment.

The apartment was tiny and warm and crowded, filled with a buzz of conversation that spilled out the open windows into the cobblestone streets below. Artists, musicians, and architects from France and Italy and Spain milled about or gathered around the raclette grill, a wonderful machine used for melting cheese into a delicious molten goo.

At one point, I leaned out the window to smell the fresh air and the glowing of a restaurant on the street below caught my eye. A couple leaned toward each other in the candlelight. On the table between them sat an engagement ring and a single red rose.

C'est tout très romantique, and somehow doesn't make me want to gag. I will re-evaluate after Valentine's day, but am feeling optimistic. Perhaps because the chocolate here is so much better.


Today's language achievement: Had my first successful phone conversation in French in which information was exchanged and communication occurred. This is not as easy as it sounds.

Today's language failure: While talking to artists at an open-air market, it somehow became apparent that I am a model for figure-drawing classes and am in the market for studios where I can pose (this is not at all the case). By the time I understood the misunderstanding, it was much too late, and I now have the list of five or six studios looking for models. Oops

Saturday, February 5, 2011

le bois de boulogne

"Phah, personne ne court à Paris". 

I get that a lot as I continue my search for somewhere that is acceptable to train in this city where athletic gear seems as foreign as McDonalds. This morning, however, my efforts were not in vain.

It isn't true that nobody runs in Paris. As it turns out, everyone runs in Paris, but secretly, and in the Bois de Boulogne on breezy Saturday mornings.

The Bois de Boulogne is an enormous wooded area, much larger than Central Park. It used to be a royal hunting reserve and later was the site of the first hot air balloon flight. Now it is a notorious red-light district for transvestite prostitutes by night and a glorious get-away from urban life by day. Runners weave in and out of trees along dirt paths and pelotons of bicycles rush by in every direction. I explored the trails with a new friend named Arnaud. He works for a french version of Greenpeace and spoke endlessly in fast french about the inferiority of skyscrapers to nature. He was preaching to the choir, but I was a bit out of breath and perfectly content to listen to his environmental rants.

Last evening I got my first taste of Parisian nightlife. I went with an Italian aquientence to meet a group of Italian and French students at a pub in the 17ième. It was lively and crowded and it would have been hard to have a conversation in English, let alone the odd combination of French and Italian at our table. As the night progressed, it quieted down a bit and ended up being a lovely time with lovely people. According to several independent critics, I speak with a Belgian accent. However, I have been assured that this is better than an American one so I'll take it.

Tonight, I am curling up with an essay on "La situation en Egypte", a steaming cup of coffee, and a french film.

Bonne soirée mes amis! 



A crêpe frenzy just occured. My family returned around 9:00 PM from a long day of helping  friends move from one apartment to another and crêpes were the only solution to their exhaustion. 

Within moments, the batter was made, the pans were heated, and there were crêpes wizzing through the air as my french brothers tried (and failed) to teach me how to gracefully flip them in the air like pizza dough. 

And then people began arriving. The family friends, the neighbors, the neighbor's cat. And we gathered around the table to spread nutella and pear jam and warm cheese on the thin, sweet pancakes and feast on the staggering array of food. 

Four hours later, we finally are drifting back to our rooms to digest. After some reflection, I have decided that the best one was the most simple:

Paper-thin crepe, light dusting of granulated sugar, freshly squeezed lemon juice

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

les étudiants

We make an interesting group. There are five from Afghanistan, three from Germany, two from Taiwan, one from Japan, one from Canada, one from Russia, and one from the USA. L'Américane, that is me.

Every day, we embark on a six hour dive into the french language, fueled primarily by espresso and curiosity about the strange and extraordinary lives of the other students. At the Institut Catholique, there are various different intensive language programs going on simultaneously. There is an exciting energy in the air as the international students and french students alike pour out of classes on breaks to sip coffee and blow soft rings of cigarette smoke into the ancient, cobblestone streets.

Despite the length of the school days, les français are staunch believers in the importance of lunchtime. This allows us to wander the winding, sun-lit avenues to find a restaurant or cross the lovely Luxembourg Gardens to find cheap food in the Latin Quarter. Why yes, there is sun here. And delicious Tibetan food, but that goes without saying. All food here is delicious.

Other Things I Like So Far:

  1. When you ride an elevator with someone, you are always greeted with a “Bonjour Madame” and left with a “bonne soirée”. It is so very polite, and does not cease to make me smile because I (somehow) never expect it.
  2. Macroons. They are everywhere. There are more macaroons than there are pigeons, which is good news because they taste much better. I am anxiously awaiting my Pierre Hermé macaroon experience, as this store apparently rules the world of pastries.
  3. La Plus Belle la Vie: popular french soap opera that I watch my with my french brothers. I am a little embarrassed to say that is it strangely addicting. I'll keep you updated.


Monday, January 31, 2011

dédié aux cafés de Paris

“Un crème, s'il vous plait”. And just like that, a beautiful, foamy cup of coffee appeared on my stone table. It perched delicately on a saucer beside a miniature spoon and two perfectly white cubes of sugar. It breathed soft aromas into the air. It whispered, “bienvenue”.

Outside, people bustled by, their features softened by the halo of frost on the window. They walked with purpose, but would pause suddenly to stare at a shop front. I couldn't blame them; from each store, something enticing spilled out onto the street such as dozens of red roses, the scent of freshly baked pastries, racks of haggard, leather-bound books.

Meanwhile, people flickered to and from the espresso bar behind me, exchanging pleasantries with the waiters and sipping from tiny, steaming cups. I could tell they were regulars, and was both surprised and delighted by the feeling of community permeating the warmly-lit room as strongly as the smell of espresso.

A strange rustling brought my attention to an elderly woman across the room from me. A newspaper was carefully unfolded in front of her and it draped daintily over the edges of the small round table. She adjusted her magnificent fur coat which cascaded to her heels, and I watched as her red lips pursed with distaste. I could only hope it was not me who had offended her. This was both an very, very French woman and someone I didn't think I wanted to cross.

As the café slowly filled, a distinguished-looking gentlemen joined me at my table with a shy smile. When I pulled the chair out for him, he gave me a surprised look and said what would translate most closely to, "that is quite amiable of you!". He unfolded a newspaper and I cracked open a book and we settled into our respective chairs. This, my friends, est la vie.

Here is to the cafés of Paris.