29 October 2008

Le Bord de la mer

I apologize for the tardiness of this weekend update, but despite vacations and frolicking, I am still a student and I had an essay to write. But now that I’ve caught up with my school work, I’ll take a moment to recount the week-end magnifique that was our excursion to Normandie.

Just like last time: I got up early on a Saturday morning to board the same charter bus with the same conducteur [driver] in order to escape the monotony of Paris in favor of the vast expanses of the French countryside. After a bit of a debacle featuring a late bus and late Smithies – one of whom had a hectic morning, in which she somehow missed her alarm to wake up at 8:15 a.m., 45 minutes after a bus was to leave, and, eventually, took a train to meet up with us later – we were on our way.

Our first stop was Arromanches, a cute little town on the Normandie shore. There, we watched a film which was a composite of journalistic footage of the disembarquement [D-Day landing at Normandy] and modern-day images of the beach and town. The footage was impressive, but the 360-degree format of the “cinéma circulaire” was unnecessarily dizzying.

Afterward, we lunched on the beach which was à la fois [both] beautiful and eerie. The beach featured the vestiges of un pont artificial [temporary bridge] used during the disembarquement as an ever-present reminder of the not-so-eloigned history of the seaside town.

I found the same mixture of unsettling remembrance and seaside revelry at Omaha Beach. The Cimetière américain [American Cemetery] with its vast expanse of over 9,000 white crosses (and Stars of David) marking those American soldiers who died during the invasion of Normandie was impressionnant [impressive, marking] and émouvant [moving]. Even as it made me hate war, it made me proud for the Etats-Unis.

But in the transition of mere moments, the sun was out and the beach called us. We walked down to where the grass met the sand and reveled at the immensity of the ocean, the softness of the sand and our contentedness to be at the beach.

After regretfully leaving the beach, we shifted historical time periods to visit the medieval Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings.

Then, another two-hour bus trip brought us to our hotel where we ate dinner. A mere 15 minutes from Mont-Saint-Michel, the anticipation of the next day gripped us all.

And the abbey on the mount was no let-down. Driving up to it, each glimpse of the immense stone monument rising from the bay was awe-inspiring. As we descended from the bus and started our climb through the village up to the abbey, I was overcome with the surreality of the moment, and the vistas from the top were even more breathtaking. Snapping countless photos that could not possibly capture the beauty of the structure or its views, we took a two-hour tour of the abbey with an amusing – and, as a group of Smith girls would note, attractive – guide. Unfortunately, I don’t think I retained much of what was learned as I was too struck by every architectural detail or glimpse of the sea.

I guess I shouldn’t have been, but I was surprised by how much of a tourist trap the whole village has become. Gift shops selling everything from postcards and overpriced trinkets to Mont-Saint-Michel cookies and cider lined the tiny, middle-age streets, and tourists of all nationalities filled the narrow walkways. But I understand the flock because Mont-Saint-Michel is an experience not to be missed.

Another two-hour bus ride passed quickly thanks to sleep, not doing homework and our re-enactments of Titanic and the Little Mermaid.

Our last glimpse of the sea before returning to the City of Light greeted us in Honfleur, an adorable and bustling town located just where the Seine meets la Manche [the English Channel]. Unfortunately, it started raining as we walked the town’s delightful streets. We also didn’t get to go to the art museum that I wanted to visit because it was near closing. We did, however, explore a beautiful church, all in wood, and enjoy a goûter [snack] of dessert crêpes and hot cidre – on Smith! – in an adorable restaurant called La Cidrerie. The restaurant’s Halloween decorations – a rarity in France where Halloween is little celebrated – were a welcoming touch.

With a last glimpse at the lit-up, little town and the sea, we boarded the bus back to Paris, where cold weather and dreary days have greeted us so far this week. At least I have Halloween to look forward to Friday and my Mont-Saint-Michel “Entre Terre et Ciel” poster hanging over my bed to remind me of it all.

24 October 2008

Un jour dans la vie

Thursdays are, at best, hectic and, at worst, hell. I have three different classes at three different locations, spread out across Paris. To make matters worse, my school day stretches from 9 a.m., when my first class begins, until 7 p.m., when my last class ends.

Today was no exception and was, in fact, busier than most.

I woke up at 7 a.m. when the first of my two alarms sounded (I’m paranoid after the debacle of two weeks ago, plus my professor now refuses to admit tardy students…which is amusing enough, as long as I’m not the tardy one). I woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head, etc., all before the sun came out. At a quarter after eight, I left the apartment to brave the cold – for the first time this season, I could see my breath – the dark and the Metro.

Perhaps because I was a few minutes later than usual or maybe because of the cold, my train was a bit crowded. It wasn’t too bad, however, and the now-routine ride from Raspail to Bercy, where I transfer lines, and Bercy to my stop went by quickly. As often is the case, the escalator was en panne [out of order] so I had to walk the 106 stairs (yes, I’ve counted) from the station to the street.

A bit tired, I arrived to my cinema class with time to spare and upon noting my enormous thirst and the stifling hot temperature in the normally frigid room, I bought myself an Orangina. Class went by as normal, but by the end of the three hours, the combination of the heat in the room and the rapidity with which the professor was talking made it difficult to pay attention. Subsequently, my notes suffered and sleep sounded oh-so tempting. At the end of class, I learned the pleasant surprise that next week is apparently vacation for Paris VII so I don’t have class.

Now that I’ve finally mastered the restaurant universitaire [university restaurant], I maneuvered through the cafeteria like an expert, choosing a cheese pizza (which despite questionably including goat cheese is quite good), apple yogurt, vanilla pudding and bread – all for 2,85 euro, which I love.

Part of the *appeal* of my Thursdays is the awkward amounts of time between my classes. It’s too much time to head straight to the next class, but too little to actually buckle down to do work (or maybe that’s my lack of gumption). So I killed some time in the gigantic Paris VII library until I decided it was time to hop on the Metro to the Centre Madeleine where I have my France-Africa class.

The Madeleine Metro stop is conveniently located on the same line as the campus of Paris VII, which means no transferring necessary. De plus, the line in question is line 14. The newest line in the Metro system, it is currently celebrating its 10th anniversary. This novelty translated to more spacious trains, speedier travel and nifty, space-aged glass blockades, which make the tracks suicide-proof. It’s a short 15 minute ride. In fact, it often takes me more time to walk to the building where my class is than it takes to traverse Paris in the Metro because I must cross five different roadways with lights that are never synched for pietons [pedestrians].

France-Afrique passed as usual, with our excitably passionate professor struggling desperately to contain himself as he lectured and us, the students, struggling desperately to decipher his handwriting.

Another awkward break comes between France-Afrique and my final course for the day, Translation. Today, the gap was pleasantly filled with a Smith-style tea. An alumna from ’75, who studied on the Paris JYA program during her day and has since set up an amazing fund which reimburses us for “cultural activities” while on the program, came to chat and share tea and cookies with us. It was just what I needed on a cold and stressful day.

Finally it was time for Translation. We got our first quiz back, and I was pleasantly surprised with my grade. As usual, we went over the translations that we had prepared for class. We also attempted to have a discussion about how one translates the verb “could” into French, but the whole discussion became very muddled as we attempted to complete an exercise without context…and our English-grammar stickler-ness kicked in.

After class I rushed to the Metro to head back to the 13th where I had started my day to see a movie for my service learning course. The movie, Coluche, l’histoire d’un mec, was very interesting, although I am not quite positive that I see the link to community service. I did enjoy the great late 70s/early 80s (when the real-life events of the movie took place) music included in the film: Iggy Pop’s “Lust of Life” (screw you, Royal Caribbean for trying to kill this song) and The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” among others.

I got back to Boulevard Montparnasse around 10:30 p.m. when I stopped at a crêpe stand for my dinner: a delicious egg and cheese galette. I topped my day off by Skyping with ma mere [my mom] and now I am feeling quite ready for some sleep.

Tomorrow, I must write a paper, but I am keeping my spirits high for our excursion this weekend to Mont-Saint-Michel.

21 October 2008


I spent way more time than I should have watching bad French TV this weekend so I feel that it is just to report my findings.


1) The French have hardly any of their own feuilletons [TV series]. The popular feuilletons are Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy, Cold Case and all varieties of CSI (or, Les Experts) – all dubbed in French, of course. Other than those and other American series, primetime (which is later seeing that the French don’t usually start dinner until around 8 p.m.) is often occupied by movies, which are often American and often of questionable quality.

2) Which brings be to observation no. 2: American téléfilms [made-for-TV-movies]. Saturday, I wasted away over an hour of my life watching Le tueur du vol 816, the French-dubbed version of a laughably horrible American téléfilm from 2003 starring the guy from JAG. I really wonder where they dig this stuff up. Why did they decide it needed to be dubbed in French? Who exactly does it appeal to? Likewise, I stumbled across a short-lived TV series called Runaway (staring New Kids on the Block bad boy and my Boomtown homey Donnie Wahlberg) airing Sunday afternoon. I had never even heard of this series so how do the French know about it?

3) The Nanny. Yes, with Fran Drescher. It airs nightly on M6 at about 8 p.m., just around dinnertime. Again, why? Granted, the French voice actress is slightly more tolerable.

4) We do not have cable. Thus, we have eight channels of basic French TV. Of these eight channels, one shows exclusively MTV reality shows, dubbed in français: Mon incroyable anniversaire [My Sweet Sixteen], Ma life [True Life], Mariés avant l’age [Underaged and Engaged], etc. And I mean exclusively shitty reality shows. No music videos, no Laguna Beach or The Hills or whatever wealthy California neighborhood they are on to now. Only the worst-of-the-worst reality merdre. It makes my wonder … and watch in horror.

5) French Lingo. Enough said.

6) The French version of PBS takes the cake. First, I must note that all channels are owned by the state, so in one sense, they are all “public.” But “arte” is the one that most closely approximates public television in the states. Arte is a joint Franco-allemand [France-German] effort which, in addition to showing movies (often good ones) and the nightly news, broadcasts original, and often interesting, programming. One night they aired a live broadcast of La Traviata, which was being performed in a Zurich train station. Yeah, they are that badass. Another night, I watch an hour-long emission [program] on “color.” Seriously, what beats that for randomness?

En bref, you really never do know what you will get comme on zappe through the channels [as one zaps through the channels…yes, “zapper” has, evidently, become a French verb

Ultimately, all I can say is “Bizarre, bizarre.”

15 October 2008


Up until this point, every entry here has been overwhelmingly positive – which is great because that’s a true reflection of how I feel. So, j’hésite [I hesitate] to add any thoughts of negativity. Not because I want to look at this experience completely through rose-colored glasses and forget the bad or stressful moments, but because I don’t want to misrepresent things. Overall, everything continues to be wonderful, but there are moments when I am down and now is one of them.

The problem? I’m discouraged. I’m disappointed. I’m déçue. All because I am beginning to realize that I cannot speak French. Yes, it appears that I can carry on conversations in the language with my American-student friends and my host mother – in fact, I am happy to report that I am beginning to feel more at ease in these exchanges – but, apparently, the rest of the world speaks a different French that I do not understand.

The minute someone other than my host mom, a friend or a professor asks me something, I freeze. It always sounds all jumbled and not-like-French to me. My immediate response of “Pardon” and the deer-in-the-headlights look on my face surely makes me seem as if I’m another stupid American who can’t speak a lick of French. But how can this be? I can grasp Proust, but I can’t understand the boulanger?

My most recent episode ended up invoking a tearful ride home on the Metro after I horribly botched a conversation with a representative of Greenpeace France at a meeting for interested volunteers.

Each time this happens I feel stupider and stupider. I’ve been here for over a month; shouldn’t I be seeing some progress? And my confidence is beginning to dwindle. Maybe I should just start speaking in English; all the French respond to me in it anyway.

Just today, I ventured to the Bibliothèque du film, where I had to subscribe to watch the films for my cinema class. After struggling through the application for the card with the surprisingly patient secretary and successfully employing the nifty coatroom lockers, I headed to the vidéothèque [the library of films]. I observed intently as the girl in front of me checked the film she wanted to watch in the catalogue and then told the librarian, who gave her the film. It looked simple enough. But as I tried to utter, “Je cherche Indochine de Régis Wargnier,” she gave me a blank stare. “You couldn’t find it in the catalogue?,” she answers back in English. We continue to play this game where I stumble along in French and she responds in perfect English as she explains where I have to click in the catalogue and the number I need to give her. This woman was actually amazingly helpful and very friendly, but it’s unfortunate that my French is so horrible to her ears that she’d prefer English.

I again embarrassed myself when I returned the DVD of the 1921 colonial film L’Atlantide – I didn’t actually get to watch Indochine yet because someone had it out – to the desk after I had finished. This time, the patient women from reception was waiting and as I walked up with a friendly “Bonjour,” she replied “Comment?” [What?] as if I was speaking gibberish. She then asked me something I didn’t understand. Finally, we worked out that I was finished with the DVD and wanted to give it back (which I thought was apparent enough), and then she asked me if I was finished for the day or if I had other things to watch.

I knew this was a trap. French people like to do this; they ask you a question as if you have the choice between two options when really you do not. There were clearly people waiting, so I had figured I would have to forfeit my place. But since she asked, I thought I might as well try so I responded that yes, in fact, I do have something else to watch. Snap! That’s me falling right into her trap. She very condescendingly informs me that there are actually people waiting so I can’t hog the terminal and I must patienter [wait].

Thanks for the life lesson, Madame. At least that whole conversation took place in French.

13 October 2008

Le temps file

Another week of schoolwork and classes quickly passes by and with it another weekend to enjoy. After ending my week on a sour note of a stressful Thursday on which I incorrectly set my alarm and nearly missed my 9 a.m. class at Paris VII – my host mom woke me at 8:30, wondering if I had class, at which point I rushed out the door to catch the metro and ended up only 15 minutes late – and became discouraged by my translation course, the weekend was a welcome escape.

And escape I did, mostly from the French language. I hardly spoke it this weekend, and barely even heard it around me, which would seem difficult considering I am living in the preeminent French-speaking country in the world.

I spent Saturday strolling the designer-store-lined streets around the Champs-Elysées and near the U.S. embassy, where tourists abound, especially on a Saturday. Later, I braved the crowded Champs-Elysées shops with friends. There, we encountered all nationalities, including an adorable German child who applauded Alix’s lip-synched rendition of the Chris Brown song blaring over the United Colors of Beneton sound system and an American tourist, who happened to be a professor at Grand Valley State (small world), with his family. Very minimal amounts of French were spoken and even less was heard.

Sunday was no different as Rachel, Rebecca and I visited Montmartre for a street festival. All nationalities were again represented, including the older British man, who during a particularly log-jammed moment in the crowd remarked rather loudly, “The bloke behind me has a large belly!” The knowing look of the man behind him, who clearly also spoke English, was priceless.

My host mom was even in la campagne for the weekend so I lacked Francophone interactions with her. When you add on my time Skyping to those back home (brother, boyfriend, mom, dad) and my guilty-pleasure screenings of Project Runway and Freaks and Greeks, my “plus-français-que-les-Français [more-French-than-the-French]” program director would be appalled.

Not to say that my weekend was a bust. I had a fabulous time swimming amongst the crowds, profiting from the fantastic and unseasonably warm weather and catching up on American pop culture.

Plus, I tried a new pastry. What could be more French than that?

07 October 2008

La Rentrée à Paris

Back in Paris, tout va bien [all is well].

I’ve started all of my classes and I’m being to remember that I’m in college and not on an elaborate field trip. I love all my classes and I don’t yet have that much work to do so it’s not too bad. The only problem is, it’s impossible to concentrate on homework when one’s in Paris. And the Parisian bibliothèques [libraries] don’t make it any easier. Like a foolish American, I decided that after my traduction [translation] class Monday morning I would head over to Paris VII to get some reading done in the library. Silly me: the university library doesn’t open until noon on Mondays. Luckily, the Bibliothèque Nationale is right next door; so I trekked on over, only to find out that the salles de lecture [reading rooms] are closed Monday. Apparently Parisians don’t study on Mondays.

Regardless of this minor inconvenience, I love my classes overall. Last week, I started my Smith course in which we will be translating texts from English to French in order to refine our French writing and work through some of the more tricky and idiomatic points of French grammar and vocabulary. The task is much harder than it initially seemed, but translation m’intéresse beaucoup [interests me a great deal] so I think I will enjoy the class de toute façon [anyway].

I also began my consortium class (the consortium consists of Middlebury, Hamilton and Smith Colleges which all have study-abroad programs in Paris) last week. The course concerns the politics and history of France-African relations since colonization. The professor – Boniface Mongo-Mboussa, what a name! – is incredibly dynamic and passionate; I know I will love this course.

But of course, the life outside of classes is the most exciting part of la vie parisienne. Saturday night was no exception. From 7 p.m. Saturday to 7 a.m. Sunday, Paris celebrated la Nuit Blanche [white night] with expositions, instillations, performances and more taking place throughout the city from dusk until dawn. For my part, I met up with some friends in the 4th at l’Hôtel de Ville, and we strolled about the Marais taking in the excitement and animation on the streets. Searching an inexpensive and warm – although the night was very pleasant, it was a bit chilly – place to eat, we discovered an adorable resto [restaurant] where we will soon be regulars. The space is tiny, but the atmosphere was lively and the menu is diverse and affordable. My friends Rachel and Rebecca ordered mussels and fries and mussels and salad, respectively, for just 7,50 euro. I settled for a galette [wheat crêpe] and fries, seeing as they were out of croques.

After browsing the brochure of events for the night, we decided the majority of the installations were a bit too out-there for us. We opted to visit the Centre Pompidou which was free and open until 1 a.m. for the night. We briefly browsed some of the modern art, but preferred to linger on the sixth floor which grants an astounding view of Paris through its tubular glass walls. It was incredibly pleasing to view the nightlife of the city on this bustling evening, and as always, the monuments at night were beautiful. We sat around the Centre Pompidou chatting for the rest of the evening and decided to call it a night a little after 1 a.m., but a successful and exciting night it had been.