“When good Americans die, they go to Paris.” -Oscar Wilde

Paris is truly an obsession.  You, dear reader, certainly love Paris.  Maybe you’ve lived here, or you’ve been here once as a child and you ate a croissant and went to the Eiffel tower, or in fact you’ve never been here at all, but in any case you are a moth drawn to the flame of Paris.  I’ve never met an American who frankly told me that he did not like Paris (though liking the French is a different story.  You probably are stifling some joke about their lack of hygiene or military prowess).  For many people Paris is more of an idea than a place.  It’s a desire.  It’s iron-wrought balconies and strolls along the Seine and Notre Dame and Montmartre and sidewalk cafes and the slow but steady intake of cheap wine.  Well, I was sure that this vision of paradise must be a projection over something more real.  I would peel back the thin film and expose the real Paris and report back to you that you have been living in a dream, my friend, and the time has come to wake up.

Part of this attempt to destroy your naive dreams was a brief venture into a quartier populaire, a lower-class neighborhood, to take artsy photos with a hilarious and eccentric French photographer.  Here are the shots I took at this photo activity organized by my program:

This one is my favorite. It's the photographer, Philip Vermes, against a background of graffiti.

The photographer taking a shot of his friend who we ran into on the street.

 

A cafe. The graffiti on the wall opposite it is reflected on the glass.

Two random guys on the street. Yep, that's Moe from the Simpsons on the wall.

 

This is outside the meeting place of the Association of Tunisian Immigrants or something like that.

Potato vendor at the outdoor market. While he posed for this picture his friend repeatedly threw parsley at him, which is what the blurry green stuff is.

Oranges at the market.

 

"How can anyone govern a nation that has 246 different kinds of cheese?" -Charles De Gaulle

 

While these are not the usual touristy photos, you can see that even the lower-class neighborhoods are pretty and fairly pleasant.  I’ve now had several weeks to dispel the mythical city and unearth reality and, unfortunately, I must give it up and report back that the myths are true!  Every bit of it is true!  I am convinced that even the air is different, and the stones.  The view from my bedroom window is completely taken up by a stone wall, but I am comforted by the fact that it is a Parisian wall.  It’s entirely different from an American wall.  There is, though, one aspect of paradise (oops, I mean Paris!) that may not be quite what you imagined.  To know what something is really like, you should go to the heart of the matter.  And the metro is at the heart of Paris, sprawling underneath the monuments and squares and cafes.

Don’t get me wrong–I love the Paris metro.  Despite its various odors (each line has its own, shall we say, parfum.  And I don’t mean Chanel) I take it every day as it’s immensely convenient.  No one ever waits longer than 6 minutes for a train and there are 384 metro stops (thank you Wikipedia).  Transferring lines is incredibly easy EXCEPT at the dreaded Chatelet stop, where six metro lines meet in a vast, grimy underground city of damp hallways, stairwells, passages, and even those conveyor belts you walk on at the airport to go long distances.  I am thoroughly convinced that some strange natural phenomenon has led to the formation of black holes throughout the Chatelet station, which suck up the passengers foolish enough to go there and spit them out right back where they started so that they wander endlessly back and forth until they die of hunger.

The metro is also the place where one is most bluntly faced with extreme poverty.  The many, many homeless people sleeping there are almost enough to make you doubt that Paris is paradise.  Overall, riding the metro is a very “proletarian” experience.  You become part of the masses in the grimy station pushing to get crammed like sardines into the train cars.  If you want to get up close and personal with French people, the metro is the place to do it.  This strikes me as a sharp contrast to the preferred mode of transportation in America, the car, which keeps you in your own private bubble of space that is controlled by you and arranged just how you like it.  Many Americans would probably feel that their personal space was violated on the Paris metro, but the French don’t really have a concept of “personal space”, or if they do it’s far less important to them.  Maybe that’s why they prefer to live in the heart of the city where they have tiny apartments, rather than in the suburbs where they would have the vast private space that Americans relish.

In Paris and especially on the metro, you feel the life of the city and the people.  If the train stops and you’re annoyed by the delay, at least you feel like you’re all in it together (credit to Quincy, who said this to me!).  There’s a sort of solidarity that develops.  The metro has really failed me only once, when an entire line was down and a man on the PA system announced that we had to evacuate the train and the station, which forced me to take another line and transfer at Chatelet (the horror!).  As we were evacuating, there was a general air of discontent in the crowd.  We were outraged that we had been cheated by the metro’s promises of efficiency.  An older woman next to me kept making faces and grumbling.  It seemed like she wanted me to agree, to join in denouncing the system, but I couldn’t recall any expressions of discontent in French and so decided not to open my mouth but I made sure to look extremely displeased.  At least, though, I felt like I was part of something during that exodus from the station.  And I could see how easy it must have been to spark the French Revolution.

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“But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.” -Ernest Hemingway

It feels strange to be young in an old city.  I never noticed it in Philadelphia, even among the colonial houses by Penn’s Landing, but the thread of history is so short there (no offense Ben Franklin, Betsy Ross, and co) compared to Paris, which is mythically, fantastically old.  Sometimes walking among these buildings can make you feel more alive.  Other times you feel like you’re inside a memorial, a museum.  Dostoevsky said that Europe was a graveyard and maybe it is.  But you always feel like the city knows something that you don’t know, that there have been so many people here walking these streets that somehow all that experience must have accumulated into wisdom and maybe even one stone in an old building in Paris knows more about the human race than you do.  I’m glad that you, Hemingway (can I call you Hem?), share my sentiments.  You know and I know that youth sometimes leads us to believe that life is simple, but in Paris everything is complicated.  We’re always just walking on the surface of something deeper.  Almost everything in Paris used to be something else.  Take Place de la Concorde, for instance.  It was first built as Place Louis XV and there was a statue of the king riding a horse in the center.  This symbol of the monarchy was then renamed Place de la Revolution and the guillotine took the place of the statue, along with a different statue, this time of Liberty, and when Madame Roland was executed there she looked up at it and said “O Liberty, how many crimes are committed in thy name.”  Later, out of distaste for the memory of the Revolution, the name was changed to Place de la Concorde, the place of harmony, which everyone knows is only an image projected over the surface of its bloody history.

This is a perfect place to insert a photo of Place de la Concorde.  Unfortunately, I don’t have one.  But I do have pictures of this other stuff:

Inside the Reims Cathedral, where nearly all the French kings were crowned. Yes, that's right, all these photos are going to be unrelated to this post.

Outside the Reims Cathedral.

In Saint Remi, also in Reims

Me in front of a giant wine barrel at Madame Pommery's Champagne cave, in Reims

We went down into the underground caves where they let the champagne age, aka the Chamber of Secrets.

Arts et Metiers, the coolest metro station in Paris!

At metro stop Arts et Metiers along the walls they have these portholes with cool artifacts, replicas, and pictures.

Ile St Louis in Paris, close to Notre Dame

A boat by Notre Dame

Notre Dame as seen through some tree branches.

A model of Notre Dame, inside Notre Dame.

Purple boat on the Seine.

This is for all the Russians out there. It's right across the street from my school.

Obligatory Eiffel Tower shot.

Anyway…back to what I was saying.  Maybe the fact that Paris is so old and complicated and has changed so much contributes to the way Parisians see life.  They seem to appreciate that there is more than what’s on the surface, that there can be more than one “truth.”  My French grammar professor instructed us to write essays in which we  do not argue a point, or even state our own opinion, but instead just “reflect upon” both sides of an issue.  We are supposed to “create a debate within ourselves.”  Basically, it’s good to be indecisive and to weigh both sides without declaring a winner.  Now this is good news for me, as a person who takes an hour to decide what to eat for dinner.  However, it’s very different from the usual American college essay-writing style, in which you argue a point to the bitter end.  You’re trying to prove that what you’re saying is right, that you have found the “truth” or the solution to whatever issue is at stake.  Perhaps this is because Americans like to get things done, to go from point A to point B, to solve problems.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  But I like just reflecting on something for its own sake, without solving anything.  Perhaps their lack of a need for solutions is what makes the French so interested in politics (I kid), which is a huge part of everyday life and frequently the subject of debate.  As evidence I present to you the following dinner-table conversation:

“I prefer Barack Obama to Sarkozy.”

“Why?”

“Sarkozy says he will lower taxes but he raises them.  If Obama says he will lower taxes, he lowers taxes.  Also, Obama is nicer.”          -Anthony, Parisian child, age 7

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“In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.” -Mark Twain

Mark Twain, buddy, I know exactly where you’re coming from. What is it about the French that makes them either unable or unwilling to comprehend Franglais, the study abroad student’s mix of classroom French, English words pronounced with a French accent, and pointing? Today at the bank, when I informed the teller that I wanted to “deposer mon argent”, he shook his head to indicate that it was just too much of a hassle to try and understand what I was saying, and then spoke to me in perfect English. I’ve spent years studying French grammar.  Don’t these people appreciate that I know the subjunctive?!

The real fun, though, begins when I’ve managed to get the correct combination of French words out of my mouth and then I have to make sense out of the reply. Somehow the words manage to fly by, eluding my grasp, but making a nice whooshing sound as they leave me behind. I like to think that at least I speak perfect French in the metro, where only two words are necessary: “merci”, if someone holds a door for you (which does happen occasionally!), and “pardon” as you shoulder people out of the way to get on and off the train.  I make sure to say “pardon”, like the French do, rather than “excusez-moi”, which is what American tourists say when they think they’re blending in perfectly.

Outside of the metro, though, comprehension is a lofty goal always just out of reach. Sometimes this can cause aggravation on the part of the poor French people who are put through the misery of listening to Franglais. For instance, last weekend in a cafe called Paul, the waitress became openly annoyed when my friends and I asked her to explain three times whether we could order sandwiches even though they were not on the menu. This was such a problem for her that she sent over another, more patient, waitress to deal with us. I was faced with a similar reaction later that same day when I asked a server at a chain cafe called Pomme de Pain to explain what was in the soupe du jour. When I didn’t understand his reply, he just glared at me.

In general, waiters and shop clerks in Paris are more likely to show the fact that they are annoyed at the customer than their American counterparts are. While part of this is impatience with Franglais, another important factor is that they just don’t live and work by the motto “the customer is always right.” They are not eager to smile at you incessantly, to apologize for taking too long, or to wait on you hand and foot. It just isn’t going to happen. I think this may be because it’s very hard to fire someone in France. According to my host-mom, a person who is to be fired must have two months advance notice as well as an interview explaining the reason for firing, which can be challenged in court. After being fired, they are guaranteed two months of full pay from their employer followed by two years of almost-full pay from the government. In a system where being fired is very unlikely, people are motivated less by profit or the need to impress their employers and more by the desire to avoid hard work as much as possible.

Let’s interrupt this rant with some unrelated sightseeing photos:

La Duree, home of word-famous macaroons. This is for you, Nicole!

Me on the Champs Elysees in front of the Arc de Triomphe (sporting an awesome leather jacket)!

Outside the Louvre--where I got in for free because my ID says I'm a student of art history!

Outside the Louvre again. This came out a bit dark because it was overcast that day. It always seems like it's about to rain in Paris but it rarely does.

Inside the Louvre

Inside the Louvre. This looks sort of futuristic to me for some reason.

The Mona Lisa. I fought hard to get this photo, as the crowd around it is ridiculous and there's a certain zoo-like atmosphere.

Super-cool upside-down pyramid inside the Louvre.

A street by the Opera.

Place Vendome, where there's a column that Napoleon had built. A revolutionary writer had it toppled but it was later rebuilt and they sent him the bill.

Decorations at Place Vendome.

As I was saying, the customer is not always right in Paris because the worker’s primary motivation is not to serve you but rather to avoid work. Everyone is far less profit-minded. Thus, when someone in my program told me that she went to a Orange, a big international cell phone store chain, and they told her they were out of SIM cards that day, I wasn’t too surprised. It reminded me of an anecdote in a book about Paris that I read before coming here, in which the author went to the bank and was told that they were out of cash that day. While stores could certainly make more money by selling more of their products, or by being open on Sundays or after 7 pm, they would rather not because it just doesn’t matter as much to them. The French value their leisure time far more than Americans do and working on Sundays is inconceivable to them. My host-mom told me that she was considering getting a job in Canada until she found out that workers get only two weeks of vacation. She said, “Two weeks?! I am French! I would go crazy!” It’s a different way of thinking about life.

America is very Darwinian. It’s all about competition, making as much money as possible and working whatever hours are necessary to do that. We think that money makes the world go around; it drives us onward. The strong survive, while the weak are let go with no warning and no health insurance. If we have followed Darwin’s principles so faithfully, have we simply evolved past the French? Have we left them behind? I don’t think so. So in a way, the fact that the French care more about leisure than work or the customer is a good thing for society as a whole. I’ll try to think about that the next time a waiter in a cafe is annoyed at me.

 

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First week in Paris!

Bonjour Madames et Messieurs, et bienvenue a mon blog!

My first week has been awesome so far!  I’m living with a host family, a couple with two boys ages 7 and 8, in the thirteenth arrondissement.  It’s a residential area with very few tourists, but it’s easy to get to touristy areas within a few minutes on the metro.  It’s a 25-minute walk away from Reid Hall, Columbia’s “campus” in Paris, where the headquarters of my program and most of my classes are.

My room

My room in my host family's apartment in the 13th arrondissement

I’m very happy with my room and my location!  The apartment complex has an interior garden for residents only, which is very rare in Paris.

Apartment garden

This is what the apartment garden looks like when you first enter.

Apartment garden

The center of the apartment garden

garden

More of the garden

garden

Last garden shot, I promise.

I haven’t done very much sightseeing so far.  The closest thing I’ve done to sightseeing is a tour of the Jewish Quarter with Reid Hall.  We saw Jewish shops, restaurants, libraries, and the Jewish history museum.  Unrelated to the Jews, we also saw some mini-palaces, or “hotels”, where French aristocrats lived before the Revolution.

Saint-Paul

Place Saint-Paul in the Jewish Quarter. It used to be called Place Des Juifs, before the Dreyfus Affair made that name awkward so they chose the ironically Catholic name of Saint Paul.

One of the aristocratic "hotels"

Quartier Juif

Quartier Juif

Menorah in the Jewish Quarter

This is the courtyard of the Jewish History Museum.  The statue represents Alfred Dreyfus and his sword is cut in half to represent him being stripped of his rank during the Affair.

Jewish History Museum

The National Archives of France

Hotel de Sully, chief minister of Henry IV

That’s pretty much the extent of the sightseeing I’ve done so far.  Otherwise, I’ve been spending my time by having awkward cultural encounters…For instance, today I got a slice of pizza and only after I had devoured half of it did I notice that the French people around me were all eating their pizza with a knife and fork.  While I was certain I had just revealed myself to be an American slob, I decided to wolf down the rest anyway without the knife and fork and then I made a quick escape.  It wasn’t a high-class place–the silverware was plastic, so I used that as my excuse for committing a social faux pas.

Probably the thing that makes such situations so awkward is that they sneak up on you when you least expect them.  The other day I went to a pharmacy on my way home to pick up tissues and hair mousse.  As it turns out, French pharmacies bear little resemblance to their American counterparts.  No CVS or Rite Aid here.  They don’t sell tissues, makeup, toothpaste.  Forget about all that.  They have medicine and a few hair products.  But the awkward aspect is that a small shop in France, even a pharmacy, is not considered part if the public domain.  That is to say, entering a small shop is socially the same as entering someone’s house.  Failing to greet a salesperson in his shop is considered irredeemably rude.  And you don’t show up and just browse.  You come in and immediately tell the salesperson why you are there.  I made the mistake of not saying Bonjour to the saleswoman because she was helping someone else and I didn’t want to interrupt.  This resulted in her staring me down and muttering.  To make up for my rudeness and because it’s much harder to say you won’t buy anything after the salesperson has gone to the trouble of helping you, I ended up buying mousse for the fairly ridiculous price of 11 euros.  Though that’s probably the norm in Paris, where as a general rule everything is small and expensive.  C’est la vie.

Here are some cool chocolate sculptures I saw today in a shop

A chocolate wine bottle and glass, a chocolate globe, and a chocolate jaguar!

A chocolate shoe, chocolate frog, and chocolate cat.

 

 

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