Saturday, September 18, 2010

Paris observations

Since I haven’t written for a while, here’s to a double post! My friend Eric was asking for some Paris observations and this comes right out of my answer to him. I have been making some more observations since then and included them randomly (they are probably the lighter-hearted ones, when I was writing to Eric I was in a pretty bad humor) so sit back and pretend to be in Paris!

1. Parisians are obsessed with baguettes. I mentioned it before, in my Belleville post, but I thought it was only on Saturday/market days that they walk around with baguettes. Ohh no. On their way to work, from work, to see friends, in their lunch break, from the grocery store where they got a jar of Nutella – they carry a baguette everywhere. I can understand that the quality here of baguette is really hard to resist, and I have not yet gotten enough of them, but you would think that after a lifetime living here you’d kind of become accustomed to white bread, wouldn’t you? Maybe it’s addictive and gets worse as time goes by? In that case I will have to be very, very careful…

2. In that vein – okay, you know the whole spiel of “why do French people stay so thin with all the good food they have" and the answer is some weird red-wine-plus-mediterranean-food explanation? Forget about it. They stay thin because they don’t eat. I mean, yes, they have baguette, the occasional cheese and chocolate exuberance and all – but from what I have seen here, the Parisian at least eats very sparingly, has little time to cook, and prefers just to sit for a very long time with a bottle of red wine and a couple of grapes and corners of cheese to nibble on. As a foodie, I feel extremely awkward when it comes to the question “tu as faim?” – are you hungry?, because of course, I am always hungry. But that is not Parisian. At. All.

3. It's funny how Parisian nightlife is influenced by public transport systems. Since taxis are soo expensive, most people rely on the metro and/or buses to get home. Though there are night buses (occasionally) and the infamous Velib (the original BIXI), most people decide that since the metro only opens at 5h30, you'll just stay out and party until 5h30. I personally have gone the sporty way and taken the Velib plenty of times up the steep Rue de Belleville, but heard of loads of my friends just coming home around 6am or 6.30. The rest of the day is then of course lost, at least until the next evening where the same thing starts all over... Interesting concept.
4. Parisian traffic is friggin insane, especially (inexplicably) around 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Wait, not inexplicably. That's Parisian rush hour for you. I really think so, cuz last time I tried to bike back, I nearly got hit by cars/buses/bikes/vespas like 5 times and it took me soo much time just because of all the red lights and detours. The really ironic thing is that in order to alleviate traffic in the city, the Mayor's office decided to make nearly all streets one-way to deter people from even taking their car. Just, although many streets are theoretically free in both directions for bikes, once they are really small and there are cars parked on the side too, biking up the wrong way is pretty much a kamikaze action. But at least you get your daily kick of adrenalin totally free and with a healthy inhalation of car fumes! No, kidding, biking around the city is normally a hell of a lot of fun just because you get to see so much history in front of your eyes! just the pedestrians get annoying. especially all the tourists. *parisian sigh*
5. The best music you will get to hear for free is often going to be in the metro. Until now, I've discovered this 10-head-Russian big band (they all sing, and play the guitar, clarinet, and a bunch of other instruments that I can't remember) that sings traditional Russian and Kletzmer music,

GEDC2171 then there is the string orchestra, the flamenco guitarist, the piano player that set up his concert piano in front of the St. Germain metro exit, the Jamaican drummers, and last but not least the 20-head Spanish band that sang and played guitar and serenaded me two days ago (it was too funny, I just walked down to the metro with them when one of them offered me a seat, talked to me in Spanish and made his companions sing a song for me. Cuute!). There are also the more...amateur people that come into your metro train, sing a phrase or two from Edith Piaf and then walk around your already pretty stuffed wagon asking for tips. But at least they have guts.
6. Apparently the weather is going to be pretty grey-cloudy during the fall and winter months. Good for cookie baking (and galette baking. Nectarine-raspberry galette. Hmmm:

GEDC2169  Not good for jogging. As I discovered today. I'll go tomorrow. Most probably.
7. Parisians can be really nice, but can also be as snotty as their reputation. Especially Parisian bank clerks. Seriously, my bank has screwed up more times than I could even count. I've been trying to get back at them by boycotting giving them the stupid unnecessary documents which I always assume that they will forget, but they never do, leaving me in a Catch 22 situation which I can't resolve without giving in to the bank clerk I’m having a duel to death with. What a dilemma.

Juxtaposed Versailles

After a slightly difficult week with first classes, illnesses of myself and everybody around me, confusion, frustration and occasional spouts of loneliness, this Saturday was the perfect opportunity to shake it all off and just… enjoy life in Paris. But first things first – first classes.

I knew that the French lecturing style would be different and was apprehensive about what would expect me when I walked through that door the first day. Well, the French lecture course as well as the English one were just fine, except for the language barrier for economic vocabulary (ALENA = NAFTA??) and the fact that on Tuesday I concentrated more on not throwing up over my course notes than on completing them. But then came the conference courses, and they left me baffled. In a … good way. I guess. Because different isn’t automatically bad. But – it’s most definitely different. First of all, the class sizes are tiny. My largest class (the cours magistrale) are 45 students, the smaller ones are between 19 and 22 students with a real professor to talk to! It’s like taking all master-level seminars at McGill! Awesome.

Then, the evaluation methods are … interesting. In three of my five classes, I don’t seem to be having finals. In one, I need to make a presentation and a hand-out, in another one write a paper and participate in class, and in the third one, I need to do a presentation, and hand in 2 to 3 other written assignments. Oh – that is all? O—kaay…

Finally, in my steady search of “where is the work? where is the work?", let me confide you a secret: there are no mandatory readings in French conference classes. Our professors did say that readings would be important to contribute better to the class, and gave us reading lists of 10 to 20 books, but none is mandatory. Apparently, they want you to be able to express an informed opinion on the topic we are discussing and to defend that opinion in front of your peers. But whether you do that through improvisation, reading like crazy, nights in the library or leisurely Sunday mornings reading the weekly press is apparently your choice. This absence of structure brings me on edge. Couldn’t you just tell me which book to buy? Which chapter to read? It’s bad enough to be researching for one topic relying on good luck and chance to actually find the important readings and quotes, but having to constantly work like that? Don’t the teachers just want to spare themselves the effort of making a course pack? On closer reflection, I guess the fact that not all students will have prepared exactly the same way will make for way more fascinating discussions – provided everybody has enough self-discipline to actually prepare at all…

So, enough of Sciences Po rant and more to Paris. With my friends John, Haruho and Cecile, I went to Versailles today on a glorious beginning-of-fall day (the air is starting to get crisp, leaves are curling up on their branches and boots are definitely replacing the ballerinas on the feet of trendy Parisians). We didn’t know it yet, but we picked a great weekend to go, since only last week the exhibition of the oeuvres of Murakami in the rooms of Versailles opened up. Imagine crazy, colorful, fantastic, imaginative, funky sculptures sharing the limelight of fleur-de-lys tapestries, golden moldings and mahagoni cabinets. Don’t think it works? Let me prove you otherwise:



I loved it. Having seen Versailles before, obviously I was impressed by the grandeur, but I had already thought the first time that it was a little too much gold, a little too stuffy, and too many portraits of men and women I didn’t know. This exhibition brought exactly the right drop of fun and ridiculousness into the whole that I would say was desperately needed. Though we heard a lot of French muttering about “comment c’est moche”, there were also loads of people enjoying themselves immensely, especially the Japanese tourists and children obviously. In our hearts, we are all just children, aren’t we?

After the exhibition, we wandered around the gardens, came back to my place and made carrot-yam stew and home-made bread. What a perfect, perfect Saturday.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Le belle Belleville

Tomorrow is the first day of class for me, but the following couple of days are my last days of freedom to walk around and explore Paris to my heart’s delight. Already this weekend was a great introduction to my neighborhood, Belleville. I simply love it here and can’t believe my luck to be able to experience such a different, but equally fascinating Paris compared to intellectual and uppedy-nose St.-Germain-des-Pres. Firstly Place des Fetes – it’s a tiny little park on a rather large square, surrounded by not all too aesthetically pleasing high-rise buildings. But there is a market three times a week – Tuesday, Friday and Sunday mornings – and then you can feel the real Parisian spirit waft through the air together with the delicious smell of fresh baguette. It still makes me excited to see how excited Parisians are about food. Walking up Rue de Belleville yesterday noon, you could tell the best butchers, bakers and fishmongers by the lines that were building on the sidewalk in front of their shop. Little children are taken along to the Sunday morning achats and wait patiently for their parents turn in line, maybe watching the roasting chickens turn on their shashlik. At the cheese makers, the women serving you will ask when you want to eat your camembert – tonight, tomorrow or within the week? – and poke her finger into the different cheeses on display until she finds the right one. At the market, again, the freshest and tastiest veggies – not necessarily the cheapest ones though – are well-marked by the line that forms quickly at their stand, but standing in line (trusting the locals is always a good idea) just gives you enough time to decide whether this week will be zucchini-, eggplant- or pumpkin-week, whether the tomatoes and the basil both look good enough to make insalata caprese, and whether you can afford to get fresh figs this week as well or rather try the fresh dates. Also, wearing a skirt at the market is always a good idea if you want to have free samples of apricots, melon and pineapple, though you might have to deal with a kiss on the cheek from some of the merchants and endless calls of “Mademoiselle! Mademoiselle! Bonjour!”. Finally, I counted yesterday rigorously and seriously, every second person I saw on the street was carrying a baguette. Or flowers. It makes me happy to think about all the happy wives cooking at home when their husband comes from the market with kids crunching fresh carrots and a huge bouquet of wild flowers in his hand.

But Belleville has so much more to offer than the market and typically French stores. Down the street are one after the other a tiny Indian place, two Vietnamese “Pho”-soup places, a Chinese ravioli restaurant, an Arab grocery store that stocks evverything in the tiniest amount of space possible, one or two Thai places (though unfortunately with little vegetarian plates, maybe one should inquire whether they make any), and then at the very bottom you get to one of Paris’ largest China towns where all the shops have labels in Chinese and French, and I explored a huge supermarket with very intriguing products (many of which were not labelled in English, and looked… interesting). To top it all off, East of Rue Belleville there is a beautiful park that overlooks the town and where the city offers free wifi.

Yes. free wifi. In a park with view on the Eiffel tower.

Welcome to my corner of Paris.