Armchair Travel Blog

Adventures from Paris onwards circa 2012

Month: January, 2012

Alliance Francaise

I should have been in another class.

Today was the first class day and despite my best attempts, it turns out I am un-luckier then I thought.

Aside from spending three hours going over the same “Je m’appelle, je suis…” “Elle s’appelle, elle est…” until I wonder why after an hour and a half some of the people still just don’t get it, I am ready to call it quits.

It probably also doesn’t help that there is a woman from Santo Domingo whispering Spanish in my ear and an American woman on my other side speaking to me in English until I am three ways from speaking French. My attention then is diverted between the two women because I am one of three people in the classroom who actually understands what the Professor is asking us to do. And that I get it the first or second time around furthers my belief that I think I should be moving at a more rapid pace. It’s a full immersion classroom setting, where she mostly refuses to speak to any of us in English, but there is a Portuguese couple, a Chilean, an Indonesian, a Pakistani, and a Chinese to name a few.

There then is the matter of all of the people in my small classroom – 15 people at most – all being at least seven plus years older than I am. Clearly I am the youngest one in the classroom. I’m not sure what I was expecting, really, but I figured that there would have been more kids at or around my age instead of middle-aged people recently moved to France.

Perhaps they are all in the morning sessions or in the higher levels of French. If they’re in the morning 10 o’clock class then I fear myself to really be SOL, for since my arrival to Paris my early morning tendencies have all but flown out the window.

Learning new languages have always come relatively easy to me, and so spending three of my precious nine hours a week going over introductions is a little mind numbing. Since spending some ten odd days in a Parisian suburb where no one speaks English fluently, one quickly learns to become somewhat conversational, as it is a sink or swim situation. At any rate, if they speak slowly I can understand what they are getting at without too much difficulty. So you can imagine my frustration at wanting to move at a faster pace. The full immersion, no English, aspect of this school then scares me because I’m not quite sure what the next level would entail.

Clearly I am not fluent yet but having grown up in a multi-lingual environment and speaking fluent Spanish I feel places on a little sturdier footing for French classes then simply being thrown into the deep end with no floaties on. But maybe I think more highly of my language skills than perhaps I actually have, yet I can confidently tell you that I cannot spend another three hours going over the alphabet, numbers, and more of “Comment ça c’écrit? “Se écrit N-A-T-H-A-L-I-E”

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Don’t Stop Me Now

So taking pictures from roller blades is a *little* harder than I had anticipated, but I did manage to snap a few choice pics of the Notre Dame from across the river while we were stopped at a red light waiting for our police escorts to clear the way from us. 22 kilometers is a lot harder than it sounds especially on roller blades with little to no practice, but I’m proud to say that I was able to complete the entire loop, across the Tour Eiffel and all.

I only manged to fall three times, (hah like *that’s* an accomplishment) and only the last time hurt. Twice when we were stopped before we even began the loop because simply standing in place on blades is a lot harder than moving forward. Maybe even as hard as stopping; to which Phillipe can attest as we went hurtling down a hill my nails digging into his backpack as he braked for both of us. I am learning to be better at stopping and mayhaps by the time I get out of Paris I’ll be able to skate and stop halfway decently. The weather at a frosty 3 degrees Celsius didn’t help matters any though. Yet I kept abreast of most of the pack, so even if rollerblading is nothing resembling riding a bike, I’m pleased that I held my own.

I am happy to report that my shoulder isn’t aching quite as bad as last week. The epee bruises have become a nice shade of yellow, so I’m glad that my body is doing its job well at patching myself up.

A word to the wise though – rollerblading is not exactly easy on the knees as a lot of torque is placed during propulsion, so I would recommend bracing or wrapping them prior to departure to avoid injury if you’ve bad knees as I do. I do know that I will sleep soundly tonight for after a LONG hot bath – even the water got cold and my fingers pruney – and a hearty vegetable soup to round out the day, I am ready for my school adventures to begin.

And now a non sequiteur: I wonder if what the Massai say is true.

That anytime someone snaps a picture – takes a photograph of you – that a piece of your soul is captured within. I bring this up because today, as we were rollerblading all across the city by the hundreds, dozens of slack-jawed tourists were snapping photos of the procession. I wonder how many I am in, in another stranger’s life to show of their trip to Paris. And how many are accrued throughout my lifetime.

How many thousands of pictures of strangers we must be in. In the background – laughing, fighting, blank faced, mid chew, talking on the phone, and even aware of the photograph, maybe even photo-bombing. From here to Timbuktu we must be in thousands of pictures, filled with thousands of memories and emotions.

And conversely how many photos I too have of total strangers, of people of all sorts of backgrounds and stories, as varied as there are colors in a rainbow.

At any rate, I look forward to next weeks rollerblading adventure where perhaps I will only fall once. Ideally not at all, but hey, a girl can dream.

Chinese New Year

Not even grey cloudy days can stop the festivities of the Chinese Year of The Dragon as hundreds of people today gathered to watch the Chinese New Year Parade at Hotel de Ville.

Tomorrow officially is the larger and louder festivities, but we’re hoping instead for good sunny weather so that we may roller blade. I’m pretty excited to bust out the new wheels on the blades Phillipe bought last week, so I hope that today’s drizzle won’t carry over.

Plenty of grey skies and drizzles, but the mood was light and a lot of firecrackers to dispel bad spirits.

Also tell me, is there anything more beautiful in this world than a crepe au cholat?

We’re coming back from a SUPER concert this evening, for right in the library there was a 2 hr free concert of Le Quatuor Equinoxe and Christian Brière of the Parisian Orchestra. Christian is the number one violinist in all of Paris. Both groups played a variety of classical music such as Tango, American Folk, selections from the opera Carmen, and Claude Debussy.

I also apologize for any spelling, grammatical, or mechanical errors in previous posts, as I am typically writing these after a long day and in lieu of good old spoken and written “American” , I’ve been left with Frenglish and strange accents all day, so my tired eyes cannot always catch everything on the first read through. I do go back and correct post-publishing though.

Now as we prepare for the rugby match of the evening – which is quite a game let me tell you and NOTHING like American Football at all –  to blatantly rip off one of my most beloved TV series:

Clear eyes, full hearts. Can’t lose.

I’m Sorry Sir, But You’ll Have To Take A Number

I have been here a week and already I have two amazing stories both of absolute charm and absolute heinous bureaucracy. If there is something that the French here love, it is their paper work and red tape. Consider the following stories:

It has been an total, complete, and utter pain to secure both my France SIM card and NaviGo Pass. (For those that don’t know, a NaviGo is much like a SmartTrip card, but it is pre paid for the entire month when I paid 80 Euros and am now allowed to ride any and all buses, metro, and RER between Zones 1-3).

Now, normally you would think that it would only take one trip both for the NaviGo and SIM card.

Hah! You would be very sorely mistaken.

Instead it has taken 4 trips to both the SFR and RATP office (office where they dispense the NaviGo passes) AND it is a 20 minute commute each way by bus to the RATP.

The first time we went, and after standing entirely too long next to a man who very much needed to become re-acquainted with his shower, it turned we didn’t have the papers; as the woman who clearly did not want to do any work told us – in so many words – to shove off because we needed proof of residence, passport (I don’t know what it is with the French, they are simply obsessed with my passport, for everything), proof of registration at a French school, as well as applying everything all of the above too to Phillipe.

Ok so that was round One.

Rounds Two and Three the office was closed, once because Monday administrative offices are closed, and twice because “due to extraordinary circumstances the office will be closed today and thank you for understanding”.

[[Inhale, count to five, exhale]]

Finally, today we went back to the RATP and after almost being turned around yet again by the RATP greeter, we were told the RATP office was going to make an extraordinary circumstance for my situation. The lady this time was absolutely lovely and after duly waiting another 20 minutes in a stifling office with stale air with our ticket with our number on it, in five minutes we finally had my NaviGo pass, no need for any proof of anything. Phillipe said that he felt that the first time around he knew the woman didn’t want to do work and so she was giving us the run around. I am inclined to agree given how easy it was to get the NaviGo pass in actuality.

Then OK, now for the SIM card.

First: the store wants to charge 10 Euros for the SIM card in the store, but if you order online, it is only 3 Euros. So we turned around and went home, and ordered online where they told us it would be 1-2 business days. In actuality it was 4.

But this is France and we LOVE to wait.

Then finally with the SIM card in hand we go back three more times to the store, and of the first two times, waiting again because there are 20 people in the shop and only 2-3 reps max, the network server for the registration for my activation PIN code was down.

[[Breathe and don’t strangle the sales rep.]]

Ok we’ll be back tomorrow. Today YES MIRACLE OF MIRACLES there were only 2 people in front of us, and WOW the server works. Finally: I am almost a human being here in France, and I didn’t even need to open a bank account – although they wanted me too; and I don’t even want to go near that one – only my passport number again.

Frankly I’m surprised these people don’t want my blood for DNA samples and proof of who I am.

My nerves are not cut out for this I think. I can see why there are stories of people quite on edge ready to explode.

But ok, just as there can be as much hair pulling, steam out of the ears, jumping over the counter and strangling fantasies, there can also be charming people who really do have acts of kindness.

The lady today who gave my NaviGo card was very friendly and did not ask for much identification, and worked quite efficiently. The man who activated my SIM card almost let me walk out of his store today without paying him. Ultimately, it was I who said “Wait, I need to pay you!” Maybe I had just charmed him with my awkwardly standing there and my obnoxiously red Maryland hoodie. Hah. I wish.

But the clear winner here today is the Rueil Fencing Club President. I was given a three-day trial at the club after which I would have to pay for insurance/licence/club dues. The total would amount to a staggering 363 Euros. Yet I do not know what Phillipe said to the woman, or what she saw in me as I was resoundingly getting licked at Epee – see the photo below; Phillipe laughs and says I will be a strumfii – but all that I have to pay now for the next 4 months is a mere 70 Euros. Good deal indeed. Yet I still have to go tomorrow for a doctor’s physical and a paper to say that I am in good health and fit for fencing. There is no way of getting out of red tape here, I fear.

I have been teaching the people there – who are absolutely lovely as we all speak a Frenglish (although the coach Renee speaks a mile a minute; I am working on trying to slow him down) – the art of high 5s. Constantly setting myself up for disappointment, for I get excited about something and throw my hand up and they look at me confusedly before stiffly holding their hand close to their body in reciprocation. My goal here is to have them high-5ing all the time by the time I leave.

As a side note, the Preisdent’s son will be representing France in this year’s Olympics in London for the Men’s French Foil team. This is quite a lifetime achievement; and I had the pleasure of talking to him briefly, although hovering at the 1.9 meter mark, he had to bend a little bit.

Phillipe laughs and says that I will go back to the United States not speaking a sentence of French, but that I will be in bonne form; which is Frenglish for quite athletic and fit. Indeed, I am fencing 2 hrs twice a week, a 1 hr swimming once a week, a 20 km rollerblading around Paris once a week, and walking everywhere. It’s only a pity that once again my toe nail has decided to abdicate its role as a nail, and has fallen off.

Another thing that made me laugh was that here many men wear their pants low on their butts, with their boxers hanging out, for all to enjoy, and I laugh because I am quite certain that if they knew the truth of where this particular fashion came from (ie: prison culture), they would not be so quick to do it. They also wear their flat brimmed hats precariously perched atop their heads and try to be real hood, and a G with street cred, but I laugh because they look like buffoons trying too hard.

And now, I present to you the battle wounds of a sabreist turned reluctant epeeist:

There are also more across my chest and on my shoulder. I cannot wait until my own gear gets in and I am better protected. I might just start weaing an elbow protector in the meantime though, and until I look less like an assault victim. Plus sweating in gear that is not your own is not the best thing ever. These are the marks of a novice, but that does not stop them from being tender. This is also why I love Sabre, typically less bruising.

Photos

Not Your Typical Love Story

Perhaps it’s a little naive, or juvenile, but I think that I have fallen in love with the city. Paris has stolen my heart away, yet I feel at ease for it. Like I have known her my entire life, and we are rediscovering each other again. Or perhaps it is for the first time. Maybe we’re moving into things too fast, rushing it; that Paris and I should slow down because I will be here a long time, and that I’m still euphoric and in the honeymoon stage. It’s a classic hollywood tale of romance. If the city is as wonderful in the spring, as now during the winter, I may never want to go back.

She is absolutely charming, and is a city in the purest sense – the smells, sights, taste, and feel of a city. There is hustle and bustle. One can pick out the tourists from a mile, and every one looks grim. There is such a melting pot of different ethnicities and races, yet there is a uniquely homogeneous “I am a Parisian” feel to the air.

She is at once wholly new and undiscovered yet full of history and half forgotten secrets. Everyone talks of the snow at home; which can be charming for the first day or so – yet I have cobblestone pavements and boulangeries that make anyone’s mouth water. There is so much to do, so much to see, feel, and experience. Take for example, yesterday we went with this group and were able to view much of the city from roller blades. What an experience – imagine 300 people all whizzing by on roller blades of all skating experience as they stop tourists and traffic alike, going all around Paris. There was some mishap, predictably, as one of the wheels fell off, and we had to back track away from the pack to go back to the Roller Blade store where we upgraded the wheels. I of course being terribly out of practice, fell quite spectacularily twice, and thank god for protective padding, otherwise it might’ve been a repeat of what happened to my mother and her broken elbow. I am still feeling it 24 hours later though, and long for a hot tub to work out the aches between my shoulders. I believe next week will prove to be a good physical challenge – for as beautiful as Paris is – 22 km is still 22 km.

The architecture is lavish and fine; Paris puts on all of her best dresses for the tourists. She seduces and winks, beckoning us into her tightly packed winding city roads, and we follow wherever we like, knowing that there is always a metro stop nearby should we collapse on exhausted feet. She is a city of many contradictions, glitzy and glamourous as well as seedy and lived in. Graffiti and gold – I am drinking it in, drunk on the atmosphere that is so unlike D.C.

Yet there is wealth in many places to be seen; evidenced by the amount of cafe’s that have a constant trickle of people despite the hour of the day. There are the classic tourist hot spots: Tour Eiffel, Champs-Élysées, Arc de Triomphe, Luxor Obelisk, La Seine, The Louvre. Then there are the slightly less walked but no less wonderful side roads and cafes to explore, as there is both the splendid tourist Paris, and the lived in world weary Paris, one I find to be equally glamorous.

I have been fortunate enough to walk many of these streets, and I hope that my time here will again allow me to walk these streets and museums until I have become intimately familiar with them. Even the sound of the boiler flickering in and out of existence from time to time, the near constant click for the heating of the radiator has become a welcome noise.

The French language is difficult of course, and the “R” sound that they make is some where between a gutteral grunt and coughing up a hair ball. I will never be able to master this, I know. For now the ‘RER’ is pronounced as ‘err eee errr’. I am quite deft at picking up nouns, however. Yet I cannot fathom how I will ever learn to spell or write, the rules are worse than anything else I’ve ever seen. I did however, have my first crepe au chocolat and a fully belly means a happy heart.

Paris has left her fingerprint upon my heart; I cannot say time will ever erase it.

French Cuisine

The food here is fantastic. And I mean even the bread and the butter. Sometimes it is the simplest things that are the best and most flavorful. You can find just about anything here, as at home. The grocery stores are smaller, and for the most part more ‘modern’ although I use that term loosely. But for the least, the prices are displayed electronically, and the big chain stores have a gray-scale theme to the shelves and overall interior of the store. Bringing your own bags is a must. There is not such a thing as plastic bags. In this way, the French are more frugal. For either the expense of production or cost to the planet – everyone brings their backpacks, caddies, and reusable bags.

Because the stores are all within walking distance for most of Ruel Malmaison, and because there is a bread shop, a butcher shop, a frozen food shop, a vegetable shop, and a general shelved goods shop, the trips to the store are often small. There is no such thing as a Wal-Mart or Costco here.  Crazy, I know. But it also means that almost everything here is always sold fresh. Which means that there are most trips during the week to replenish the food supply. But given the option between Wonder bread – nutrient enriched and bleached – or the crispy warm ‘flute’ baguette one can find on every street corner, the choice is a clear one. Of course they sell such things as our beloved Wonder bread and French’s mustard, but my impression is that they are the sort of food that one has when one goes underground because of an impending nuclear apocalypse.

The portion size is also remarkable. There are no such things as gallons, or super size. Everything is in moderation, and while somethings can be astoundingly priced – indeed 24 euros for 4 200 gram steak filets – other things such as Baguette can be bought for less than a Euro apiece. The best bakeries are almost always queued with people, a constant stream, and so there is a lot of waiting here in France. I do promise though that the bread is often worth it. It is also a good measure of where the best bakeries are, for the best ones are filled with people.

Every meal is a three course meal, starting with a soup or pâte – of which even the cheapest pâte here rivals the most expensive pâtes stateside. Then there is the main dish, usually with meat of some sort, and dessert is most often a cheese and bread. Then to wash everything clean, we eat fruit. Clementines are unlike anything else I’ve ever had; my guess is because Spain is right next door and so they are fresher than when we get them stateside.

Bread here is a staple of life. We never throw the uneaten bread away, choosing to refrigerate it instead. We use it to clean our plates, to dip in soup, and for our dessert cheese. After the cheese and bread it is often followed by a coffee. Aromatic and strong, the Arabic blend Phillipe had rivals – surprise – the luxury ‘organic’ coffee at home. While I am not much one for coffee, when I do drink it, I am quite the coffee snob. (But of all my snobberies, it is mustard in which I will always turn up my nose. This has not happened here.) Needless to say, I have been quite pleased with how nice and tasteful most everything I’ve eaten here has been.

Phillipe laughed when I asked for milk with my coffee, but he said that it was my taste and not his. So I’ve learnt that milk is a strange thing in coffee here.  However, he put honey in his warm milk, so I think we are on even footing. The sugar also is cubed here. Truly it is a matter of “one lump, or two?” It reminds me of my late grandmother, who looked down her nose at anyone who would dare serve her granulate sugar for coffee. I wonder if they even sell granulated sugar here…

What I am looking forward to are the Crepes de Nutella, the ones that one finds from any street vendor; the memory of which has stayed with me since my last trip to Paris. I know France is famous for its wines, and while wine usually puts me to sleep immediately, I promise dear reader that there will be commentary on it.

I am looking into cooking classes here, and while some of them are upwards of 100 EUR for a 2/3 hr class, I did find a class, that costs as little as 15 EUR. The class is taught in french however, but I think that it is a good way to practice my french culinary skill.

What they say about the French attitude has not been the case so far, but it is early yet. Perhaps it is a ticking time bomb, and where and when I will get the red faced french man wagging his finger in my face, I cannot say.

Musings on Rueil Malmaison

Today marks the end of the second complete day in the suburbs of Paris. I would say that the weather is nicer here – but I have also been extremely dehydrated these last couple of days. As such I have been prone to the headaches that come with the gusts of winter wind, and I am glad for my heavy leather winter coat.

Today also marks the first foray into the big city. I will not be able to start my classes until the end of January – don’t ask me why; the French speak at an UNBELIEVABLE speed – so this means that I will have the next 10 days or so to accustom my body to living six hours in the future as well as getting to do the touristy stuff that everyone so looks forward to.

I know that I probably owe you pictures of my new surroundings as well as the few of London that I took. Indeed Rueil Malmaison is a quaint town with just about everything, and even an over abundance of green crossed pharmacies, as many, or perhaps more, as there are Starbucks back home.

The fact is that with every passing hour I feel more at ease and at home as Phillipe is as gracious a host as any one could ask for. We eat every meal together, in an unspoken agreement, and at night as we sit at our respective computers, I can hear him singing in his broken English to whatever album we’ve agreed to listen to. Currently, for those wondering, it is The Beatles – Abbey Road. This is not to say that I do not miss some of the idiosyncracies of home, for my roots have firmly settled in Bethesda, only that the transition has been far smoother than I ever could have imagined. I do miss English though. Trying to communicate through nods and smiles is all well and good, but gestures and shrugged shoulders only get one so far.

Interestingly, Phillip upon hearing of my club fencing during my time spent at the University, took it upon himself to find a club. What makes it better is that it is not five minutes walking from where I am. Today we went and they graciously set me up, and I spent the next 1.5 hrs meeting people as well as getting repeatedly prodded and wailed on. I hope to return soon.

Now if only the Wi-Fi would work here, needing some sort of before unheard of password to work, and then everything would settle well.

Tomorrow we venture out again into the city to buy fresh food that honest to god blows anything we could find at our local food store out. of. the. water.

Pictures to follow.

London

Sleep is for the weak. Or I would be telling myself that if I hadn’t quietly passed out in the corner of a McDonald’s right near the Oxford Circus subway stop for the better part of an hour shortly upon my arrival. Thank goodness for fathers, really, because without mine and his 5 hour energy that he slipped into my palm as I was about to go through security all those hours ago, I’m not sure how or where I would be right now. Instead I managed to sucfessfully spend the better part of the day – future, for you readers at home – awake and on my feet walking about town. Currently waiting so that I may board my train to Paris and whittling away time writing about it.

London is a pot pourri of languages and cultures so much so that one hears Spanish, Arabic, Japanese almost as much as English itself. I am nothing if not pleseantly surprised for it; even as these worldy vendors gouge me for a cup of Starbucks coffee.

Jet lag has never hurt so bad.

Packing

Today is the day of reckoning. The day that cements the fact that yes, I am indeed leaving. This fact is exhilerating and also terrifying. This is the first day of my grand adventure. I hope that from here on out it will be smooth sailing.

I may however, need to bring another suitcase, cumbersome as it may be because I am /not/ leaving without my roller blades.