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.