29 September 2008

Un conte de fées

The beauty of Paris is stunning and the bustle of city life can be such a thrill, but after a month here, la campagne nous manquait [we missed the countryside]. After waking up at 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning to board a bus full of Smithies, we found that countryside, and it was as marvelous as one could imagine.

The two-hour-plus bus ride to the Loire Valley was more like passing through a portal into a fairy-tale land, where castles and villages and beautiful vistas reign. The first glimpses of the countryside reminded me of the Etats-Unis [United States], but as castles and ancient bridges popped up here and there, I knew I was someplace special.

During our well-organized trip, I visited four châteaux (two of which we went inside for guided tours) and their jardins, the “castle” where Leonard Da Vinci lived toward the end of his life and a cave where they produce wine, all of which occurred during perfect autumnal weather.

Each castle was as beautiful as the next, but the magnifique Château de Chenonceau was my favorite. Our visit to the castle was truncated by a slightly late arrival (due to minor navigational errors), but our rushed visit gave us just enough time to take in the beauty of the structural marvel.

After picnicking, visiting Clos Lucé (Da Vinci’s house) and strolling the gardens of the Château de Chaumont, we visited the wine production cave for a wine tasting. The night was topped of with an excellent and exciting fondue dinner, complete with four different fondues, with the whole group – including our assistant director’s charming 9-year-old son François who accompanied us on the trip – packed into the basement of “La Souris Gourmande” [The gluttonous mouse] in Tours, France. I don’t know how I had room after so much excellent cheese, but the dessert was also exquisite: meringué glacé (which I chose over the chocolate tart, a popular selection among the crowd) which was a meringue with some sort of fruit cream.

Day two was a bit less hectic, but equally satisfying. We left the hotel around 9 a.m. for a visit of the Château de Blois, where my history knowledge was greatly enhanced by our American ex-pat tour guide who continually reminded us to vote. After lunch at one of the few open cafés – life shuts down in France on Sunday – in the charming town, we traveled to the Château de Chambord, a visually overwhelming gothic-style masterpiece. There, I elected to rent a vélo [bicycle] to tour the jardins and surrounding fôrets [forests]. The view was amazing and it was an unreal experience to be cruising along on a bicycle with this enormous castle looming over us.

We returned to the bus exhausted but satisfied, begrudgingly ready to return to the real world of Paris.

25 September 2008

Les vrais cours

I’ve successfully completed my first week of classes at a French university. Félicitations à moi! Félicitations might be a bit overkill considering I actually only have two courses this semester at Université Paris VII, and those were the only courses of my four total that started this week, but it seems like a milestone nonetheless.

Monday afternoon, I had my first class. The class is titled “Littérature and Histoire” [Literature and History] and concerns the literature of the Algerian war. I was super-psyched about this course because I’ve already done some coursework in this area and found it to be a troubling but interesting moment in French history. Additionally, I’d already read a couple of the authors on the class’s bibliography and I loved their work. With my expectations high, I entered the classroom, and, somehow, I was not disappointed. The class was not the giant lecture hall that I had been warned against, but an average-sized classroom with rows of tables. And the professor was not the strict, by-the-books menace for which I was prepared. She seems very friendly and open, yet extremely knowledgeable in her field. Although she is presumably not Iranian, she mildly reminds me of actress Shohreh Aghdashloo.

The first class was mostly composed of background and historical foundation for our study of literature in the context of the Algerian war. She also laid out what we would be reading over the semester. Also unlike I’d been told, she plainly stated the three books we will be working on together and even gave us the assignment of reading the first three or four chapters of one of an Assia Djebar novel by next week’s class (a surprisingly easy assignment, which suits my slowness when reading French). She also mentioned a fourth book which we should read because, wait for it, the author, Leïla Sebbar, will be coming to our class! I’ve already read a handful of works by Sebbar and even chose to translate one of her texts for a class last semester. I am so excited – I think I will be star-struck.

At the end of class, after our coffee break (the class is a three hour lecture – upside, it meets only once a week; downside, three hours in one room) and lecturing, she went through all the names of the people in the class to try to begin to get to know us. This is when she realized that nearly half of the class was Anglophone (mostly Americans, but a few Britons). She joked that she might as well be conducting the course in English! It’s somewhat unfortunate that there will be that many Americans in the class – I didn’t come all the way to France to take classes with other Americans – but on the plus side, she will be cognizant of us.

My second class, a course about post-colonial French cinema, was this morning. Starting at 9 a.m., it required me to awake much earlier than the time at which I had been habituating myself to get up. It was worth it though. Again, the subject matter of the course is right up my alley so my hopes for the course were high and were met. This classroom was, as promised, a large amphitheatre, but it was not nearly full. In fact, there were probably around 25 students in the class – the majority, this time, seemed to be French.

This course is a third-year (the final year in France’s three-year university program) course while the other course was a second-year class so I was bit worried about the level. But I feel like my combination of film knowledge, familiarity with French colonial history and experience with post-colonial literature make me an ideal candidate for the course. The professor is very young, and she is prone to speaking much faster than the other. It was a struggle to keep up and take notes, but I enjoyed the challenge as well as her lecture style. For this course, the “assignments” are a little more ambiguous, but I plan to feel things out as I go.

Attending two class sessions over the course of a week didn’t really feel like a true start-of-school experience, but I guess I am in the thick of things now, and glad to be thanks to two amazing classes. The rest of my courses start on Monday, but first, a group trip to the chateaus of the Loire Valley…

24 September 2008

L’Eglise parisienne

I’m not a religious person. I never really have been. I have my only particular breed of beliefs that border between atheism and agnosticism. I quietly decline to believe in God and I’m OK with that. But lately, the magnifique [magnificent, in a visually stunning way] churches that I’ve been seeing are making me wonder if I am missing out. To think that someone – some people – possessed a faith so strong that they constructed these physically massive and overwhelming beautiful structures in honor of their God astounds me. There’s something very moving about a faith that strong, and it is reflected, permanently and stunningly in the columns, the buttresses, the stained glass and the rafters of so many Parisian churches.

Here, the vestiges of this insurmountably strong faith are everywhere. Everyone knows la Cathédrale Notre-Dame, and even most tourists discover la Basilique du Sacré-Cœur and Sainte-Chapelle. All three are marvels, wonders of architecture, art and sheer human ability. But what some don’t realize is that awe-inspiring churches loom around nearly every corner of this historically and symbolically Catholic city.

As part of last weekend’s Journées du Patrimoine [Heritage Days], after visiting the Panthéon, a laïque [non-religious, secular] version of the awe-inspiring French church, I decided to enter for the first time a number of these churches, found scattered about my quartier [neighborhood].

Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Saint-Sulpice and Notre-Dame-des-Champs are all within reasonable walking distance of my house and each one is as breathtaking as the next. I’m not only moved by the sheer size and magnitude of these human creations, but I also find moving the act of entering each church. Passing through those heavy, imposing doors, I shut out the hustle and bruit [noise] of Boulevard du Montparnasse, or whichever bustling Paris street, in favor of a perfect calm and reflective quiet. I almost feel guilty intruding upon this serenity as I thrust my head sky-ward in awe of the intricate ceiling or beautifully colored glass.

It’s overwhelming.

Il fait parfois me demander si jamais je peux avoir autant de foi…en n’importe quoi. [Sometimes it makes me wonder if I could ever have that much faith…in anything.]

19 September 2008

La bureaucratie, c’est la vie.

This week, I had my first real run-in with the hassle that is French bureaucracy and the university system (this is excepting my visa application which, despite multiple tiers, piles of paperwork and a required daytrip to Chicago, wasn’t actually too bad).

The majority of the 23 Smith students on the program are going to be taking classes with the University of Paris IV – Sorbonne, but there are six of us who have been assigned to Paris VII. Although I was initially disappointed that I wouldn’t be going to the historic “Sorbonne,” I’m looking forward to courses at Paris VII. The campus is brand new in a very modern and up-and-coming sector of Paris, and the course offerings are diverse and intriguing. So I have since become content to be taking classes there.

I was not so content, however, regarding the registration process. Originally, our program director had told me I could simple go to the office for the department in which I wanted to take classes and tell them I wanted to register. Done deal. But it was not to be that simple. When I went to register, I was told by the woman at the welcome desk that since I had no paperwork and no carte d’étudiant [student ID card], I would have to go talk to the man in charge of entering international students in the International Studies office. Unfortunately, he wasn’t accepting students at that time. On a different day, a few of my camarades [classmates] tried the same thing and were told they must come back the next day between 9:00 a.m. and noon to talk to the mec [guy].

We were excused from our orientation courses by M. Bloom, our program director. I stayed back, not wanting to miss notes from one class, but some others went ahead early in the morning. They waited for over an hour to talk to the mec, and when they finally got to talk to him, he told them that he couldn’t help them; he was too busy dealing with the 500+ international students at the university. So, we had missed class and traveled 30 minutes on the metro to the university all for naught. And we still had no idea how we would register for classes.

Somehow, however, M. Bloom worked some magic/pushed things along and was able to give us our student numbers the next day. Thursday, after a bit of guilt-filled shopping at “Hache et Em” [H&M], my friend Rachel and I decided to head back to the dreaded Paris VII to see if we could accomplish anything…and, amazingly enough, we just had to go to a couple offices, tell them for which classes we wished to register and registered we were. Facile-y fromage-y [Easy Cheesy].

I am now officially registered for a course concerning literature of the Algerian war and a post-colonial-cinema class. Now the challenge is surviving French university courses.

Today: Amazing walking through Parc de Bercy, which is a real, let-the-trees-actually-grow-wild park near Paris VII and the Bibliotheque Nationale.
Tonight: Indian cuisine in the 10th (Paris is divided into 20 arrondissements [districts] and it’s common to refer to locations by their arrondissement – I live in the 6th).

15 September 2008

3 semaines comme des milles jours

So I’ve been in Paris for less than three weeks, but it already feels like I’ve been here for months, not because my orientation classes are that boring (although I am beginning to tire of them) but because I’ve been able to experience so much so soon. But the thing that I love about this city is that there is still so much more that I want to do. The list of possibilities continues to grow even as I mentally check off the stops completed.

I’ve wandered in many quartiers [neighborhoods], but nowhere near them all. I have yet to return to my beloved Montmartre, and I can’t wait to explore new districts.

I’ve seen the monuments (Arc de Triomphe, La tour Eiffel in day and night, Notre-Dame, Centre Pompidou, L’Opèra, etc.), but there is still a nearly endless list of others that I’ve yet to see. I haven’t even seen the Louvre since I’ve been here, and I certainly haven’t had the chance to visit it or any other museum, for that matter, yet.

We traveled out to Versailles just this weekend, and despite having an amazing time relaxing in the sun, I left another item on my mental to-do list unchecked since the palace itself was too crowded to enter.

At every turn, every moment, I’m experiencing something new and exciting, but meanwhile, I’m beginning to feel like the things left to do are overwhelming…and next week, I start my classes at Paris VII. But all the while, I have time – 9 months (!). I guess I just have to let myself experience Paris a bit by osmosis and trust that eventually I will experience it all.

First French film in France: Jean-Luc Goddard’s A bout de souffle (1960), a classic of nouvelle-vague cinema. I found it fitting.

07 September 2008

Une réflexion sur la langue

A reflection on being (mildly) French-speaking Americans abroad: I continually find it bizarre to be a group of American college students speaking French together on the streets of Paris. There’s something about it that seems backwards, topsy-turvy. These same friends and I would most likely have been speaking English back at Smith except for a few strained situations at the French table or French department events. But here, we are sliding easily into the habit of conversations, text messages and Facebook-wall posts in French.

Sure our French is a little muddled at times and generally spoken at a much slower pace than the sharp, quick jabs of those around us, but it’s French in its own right. I always wonder what those around us think upon hearing our jumbled French. I imagine the Parisians finding it curious since they can easily tell we are American. And I always wonder if – or hope that – some American tourists might mistake us for French upon hearing us speak.

Trying to speak in French at all times has been fun as well as challenging. Sometimes it becomes a game to describe something for which I don’t really have the words or tiptoe around an idea until I’ve captured what I meant to say. But it’s also very exhausting. It sometimes takes twice the words for me to get at a simple idea, and by the end of the day my brain is fatigued.

That’s why it was nice to spend Saturday chatting with my friends and classmates in English. I know we broke the code, but after a week of diligence a day’s slippage isn’t too bad. I hope that as the year progresses though, speaking in French will feel more and more natural even among my American friends.

06 September 2008

Mon anniversaire

I always thought my birthday fell at just the wrong time of the year. The beginning of September is always a time of transition – whether it was starting school, moving into my dorm or, in my present situation, getting acclimated to a new and foreign city. But over the years I’ve managed to have some pretty good birthdays; although, I think this year’s tops the list.

My official start of my birthday here at 12:00 a.m. Paris time was marked by my loyal (and wonderful) boyfriend who made sure to send me a message via Facebook chat. But by morning, I was feeling a bit nostalgique [homesick] especially after seeing a few birthday e-mails and e-cards from home. Sauf pour my host mother joyously telling me “ ’Appy Birthday” (the French always drop their H’s) the morning passed as normal.

It wasn’t until déjeuner [lunch] that my first day to no longer be a teenager truly revealed itself as special. My friend Hannah suggested that we head to this bagel place she had seen earlier for lunch (I would soon learn that, although she undoubtedly loves my company, this was intended as a distraction). We ate our bagels (quite good for bagels being practically unheard of in France) happily, and then Hannah suggested we return to Reid Hall. We returned only to find a horde of smiling Smithies in the salle à manger [dinning room] ready to sing “Joyeux anniversaire!” and present me with chocolate cake and
Tiramisu. It was fabulous to be able to celebrate with everyone.

Later that afternoon, while shopping at a nearby H&M (three stories, mind you), I bought myself a très jolie [very pretty] scarf as a birthday present à moi [to me].

For dinner, Madame had asked me to invite two friends pour fêter [to celebrate] my birthday so Hannah and Jamie gladly joined us for a veritable feast beginning with an aperitif (champagne, of course pour fêter) and ending with a fruit-topped cheesecake. The whole meal was excellent! Parfait [perfect]!

Afterwards, Hannah, Jamie and I went to a cinéma just next to Hannah’s apartment and only a couple blocks from mine. It’s an art-house-type cinéma (meaning no French-dubbed Kung Fu Panda or Zohan) and after surveying the numerous tempting choices we settled on Metropolis, a German Expressionist movie from the 1920s – again, excellent!

In all, I’m happy to be 20, and although I couldn’t share the day with the people with whom I am truly the closest, I had the best birthday imaginable.

04 September 2008

Mes premiers jours

As of tomorrow, I will have been in Paris for exactly a week. Thus, an entry here is more than overdue, but as you can guess, my first few days have been a little hectic and I wanted to get settled before I wrote.

My flight here was fairly uneventful, sauf [except for] an hour delay caused by backups on the runway at the Philadelphia International Airport. There were a number of other Smith students on the same plane, and we met a couple of others at Charles De Gaulle so there was a small army of us traveling together on the bus into Paris. It was reassuring to be surrounded by people I knew, and it made arriving in a new country with a new language (well, not new, but different…and although I’ve studied it for many years, I hadn’t spoken or listened to much French for the entirety of the summer) much less terrifying.

We were put up in a very nice, big, Americanized
hotel in Montparnasse
for the first night. I was understandably exhausted from the travel, but we were able to find a little boulangerie at which to eat lunch – my first real French experience. I also got a chance to walk around the neighborhood a little bit and at each turn I was reminded that I was in Paris: the streets are narrow, the apartments beautiful, and les motos [motorcycles, mopeds, etc.] numerous.

After our first meeting as a group with our program director and assistant director, our host families were to meet us back at the hotel. Unfortunately, my hostess was out of town attending a niece’s wedding so I would not yet get to meet her. I was instead whisked away by my friend Jamie’s host family who were some of the nicest, warmest people I have ever met. Dominique and Catherine and there 10-year-old daughter Elyse welcomed us openly into
their home, and it made for a fabulous first impression of Parisian life and Parisians themselves. Plus, their apartment was beautiful and but a few minutes walk from the Arc de Triomphe, where Jamie and I were able to stroll Sunday morning and again Sunday afternoon when we met a friend at a café near the Champs-Elysées.

Sunday was to be my last day with Dominique, Catherine and Elyse, and my time spent with them ended on a high note. For dinner Sunday night (the other meals had been equally fabulous in their own respects due to Catherine’s superb cooking), Catherine, Elyse, Jamie and I took a bus to the Champs de Mars, the park area in front of the Eiffel Tower, were we had a pique-nique [picnic] of excellent sandwiches prepared by Catherine. Afterwards, we played Frisbee in the park, then bought ice cream by the Seine and strolled for the best view of the Eiffel Tower as it lit up at 9 p.m – in all, an absolutely magnificent night.

Monday morning I woke up full of anticipation and a bit of anxiety, ready to meet my hostess who came to the apartment to pick me up at 8 a.m. before my orientation courses. From my first impression, I could tell that she was sweet and kind and that is, of course, true. She’s very maternal and grandmotherly with me (she has 11 grandchildren of her own) and so far I’ve appreciated the guidance and care that she’s given me. Her apartment is on the small side and is historic (she would just say old), dating from the 1880s, but it is very cozy and located in
extremely central location at the coeur de [heart of] Paris. In fact, it’s only a 2 minute walk from the center Smith has at Reid Hall (where all my orientation classes take place) and just as close in the other direction to the famed Jardin du Luxembourg.

This week has been a blur of classes (ranging from phonetics to French history to how to navigate Paris), pleasant lunches eaten with friends and strolls throughout the city. Unfortunately, the weather has turned a bit sour these past few days and Paris is gris [grey] comme d’habitude [as usual]. Thankfully, the cold and the rain have not dampened my spirits or multiplied my stress, and all is well in the City of Light.

J’y arrive.