Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Victor Hugo's Paris

For the past two months I have been in Paris, and for the past two months I have been reading Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. It's been a literary history lesson, and one that twice has required murder mystery breaks. But aside from my brain-breaks it's been an interesting way to learn about and experience Paris in a different way. I mean, there's very little chance I would have read 58 pages on the battle of Waterloo if they weren't pages 301 to 359.

Also, since Victor Hugo lived in Paris for much of his life (1802-1885) I have visited many places that were part of his life. For instance: Notre Dame. In and of itself, the behemoth church is worth visiting. I mean, Napoleon's coronation was held there, and it's over 800 years old. But! It's also the setting for Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a novel that called attention to the church and spurred a time of restoration. Go Victor! I visited a museum dedicated specifically to the author and located in an apartment where he lived. Nice digs, great location. I walked by the church where he was married many times.

Not only that, I visited places that appear in Les Miserables. The Jardin du Luxemborg has a recurring role in the novel and is also one of my favorite places in Paris. Funnily enough, my guide books says it's a perfect place to imagine how wealthy Parisian in the 1800's spent their leisure time. And so, I spent a few hours, book in hand, reclining by the reflecting pool. The novel also mentions specific streets and bridges that I have walked.

The cemetery Pere Lachaise is also mentioned in his book. A mother bemoans how, being poor, her son will be buried at the bottom of the hill where he will never see light again, and therefore the oppression by the rich continues even in death. Pere Lachaise is a very famous cemetery, possibly the most famous in the world, and naturally it was on my custom-made "to see" list. I visited, and indeed the cemetery covers a large hill. Of course, I feel pretty certain that, at this point, the cemetery is so exclusive that any burial plot acquired would be considered a good one. However, if it were 1833, Jim Morrison would be poor and Oscar Wilde quite nicely off given their burial positions.

On the other hand, ol' Vicor himself made out pretty well. His final resting place is the crypt at the Pantheon, which is reserved for the elite of the elite French. Score!

Hugo also stands the test of time when he writes, "Suddenly she knew the whole science of the hat, the dress, the cloak, the boot, the cuff, the material that hangs well, the becoming color, the science that makes the Parisian woman something so charming, so deep, and so dangerous. The phrase "alluring woman" was invented for her." Man, he hit the nail on the head with that one. Over 150 years later, Parisian woman are still stylish and possess a confidence in their style unseen elsewhere.

In the 980 pages I have read thus far (leaving me just under 500 to go) I have found a few lines I particularly enjoy, and since I'm a giving person I wanted to share. They are:

"Satan must have squatted for a moment in some corner of the hole Thenardier lived and studied this hideous masterpiece."

"As he was witty twice over -- first with his own wit, then with the wit that was attributed to him--"

With that, I bid adieu to Paris and bury my nose into page 981.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Oh Yeah, You Blend

In 2009 I have traveled to places where I knew I didn't blend in and would never blend in (even if I spoke the language perfectly), and other places where I blended until I opened my mouth. I thought Paris was the later of those two options. I can blend as long as I stay silent.

Apparently I was wrong. You know, like Vinny thought he could blend in, "My Cousin Vinny." Luckily he has Marisa Tomei to set him straight; I found my Marisa too. I was standing in line the other day (to visit a touristy site; just to be clear: at this point I knew I wasn't looking Parisian) and struck up a conversation with a couple. At one point the woman was talking about a friend of theirs and said, "well, she's never going to blend in here; she's blond with blue eyes." The comment slowly worked its way into my brain, and I realized that there really aren't too many blonds with blue eyes strolling the streets of Paris (at least if you're not hanging out at La Louvre, the Tour Eiffel, or other such places where tourists congregate).

I have noticed a few blue eyes staring back at me, but maybe they're just like my eyes. Those blue eyes are darting around trying to see if there are french thoughts being held in by tightly clasped lips, or if the lips are holding back another language.

There's another give-away to my lack of Parisian status: I smile.

The french are renowned for their politeness -- each of the many guide books I've read has clearly stated that using phrases like "bon jour" "merci" "au reviour" "pardon" and titles like "madame" and "monsieur" are necessary. And it's true that I hear people say, "merci monsieur, au reviour" upon leaving most stores. However, the phrase is not uttered with a smile on the lips. In fact, few phrases that are uttered for courtesy are accompanied with a smile. A french woman the other day commented to me about how friendly americans are. And she was talking about New Yorkers, who, if we're being honest are not renowened for their friendliness in the USofA. It seems like the french make a clear distinction between polite and friendly, and only one of the two is required. So everytime I say "merci" and flash a big old smile I'm giving away my un-Parisian self in two ways -- accent and grin.

C'est la vie!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Tres Chic

Paris + Style = Duh.

This week is fashion week here in Paris, I know this because today on my run I happened upon a large crowd of people dressed in black (some with heavy duty cameras), lots of mercedes (apparently the car of choice), and a sign that read "Givenchy Backstage" (this was the kicker). And so, in honor of the to-do that it constitutes fashion week I thought I would talk a bit about style here in Paris.

Let me first say a little something about this Givenchy show. When I got back from my run I was curious about this whole week-of-fashion thing that's going on in Paris now. So to satisfy my curiosity I took to the internet. And there I found that the week runs from the 30th of Sept to the 8th of Oct (which means I still have time to try and crash a show in my Havianas). I found the locations listed along side shows' respective locations (Carousel de Louvre, Musee del Homme, etc) and times (10am to 9pm). However, for the Givenchy shows it says "see invitation" for the location. I'm not sure if that's to make it more exclusive (entirely possible) or because it was held in...a school. Yes, a high school in the 17e. And while the school seems to be a nice building, and the 17e is a nice neighborhood in the inner ring of Paris, a school doesn't make the same impression as, say, Jardin de Tuileries.

Now, onto a topic I'm more familiar with than Haute Couture: kids. There are kids everywhere in Paris, in strollers, on park benches, on those razr scooters, and climbing all over the many playgrounds. And most of them have this fact in common: they are immaculately dressed. Even playing in a sand box, dirt seems to fall off their clothing and leave them pristine. It's hard to see a 6 year old that's better dressed than myself, but it's something I'm trying to get used to here in Paris.

On a more personal note, I have been trying my best to find where all the chic Parisian shops are, and then shop at them. Sadly, I haven't been very successful. I have checked numerous forms of media -- traditional guide books, magazines, internet sites, blogs -- and I've been trying to visit as many of these places as I can to hunt down some classy clothes. I've found that first hand clothing probably isn't a go for me (220 euros for a sweater?!), so I decided that classy Parisian cast offs were a good option. Well, it turns out that I was wrong on that accout. 90 euros for a used skirt? And that was on the cheap side. I found a purse that I liked in one of these cast-off purses and so I checked the price. Can you guess what it was? 960 euros.for.a.used.purse. Let me break this down for you in terms of the places I've been this year. In the US that would be $1402; in Australia that would be $1603; in China that would be Y9577; and in Tanzania that clocks in at TZS 1,834,613. Since I can't seem to shop for clothes here in Paris, I've decided to go for the second best: chocolate. Much more affordable, not as long lasting.

Two things I've noticed that contradict these observations on Parisian fashion: one the proliferation of Abercrombie and Fitch clothing. I've seen shirts proudly declaring their loyalty to the brand all around the city. And really, it may be the only brand Parisians wear that so boldy declares itself. The other thing is "I <3 NY" tee shirts. They are everywhere. Apparently they're the new hip thing to be sporting. I should probably get one; I feel like I should be able to afford that at least.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

House Call

This weekend was an unfortunate weekend in terms of health -- I, along with 2 other people in my house, got sick. In fact, on Friday night around 12:1oam one of us was so sick that we had to call a doctor. And do you know what happened? If you guessed emergency room, try again. Instead, within 15 minutes of calling the doctor, he showed up at our front door. Let me reiterate: it's 12:10AM on a FRIDAY NIGHT and we've got a doctor making house calls. What?!

He came, he gave a medication (that he brought with him), and within 20 minutes, he left, without any money changing hands. And he left the house a bit more peaceful than he'd found it. Compare that with the nightmare that would have been an ER visit at 12:10am on a Friday night. Ugh. I hear that France's healthcare system was recently ranked the best in the world (by the WHO), and after Friday night, it's looking pretty good to me.

*****I recently learned that I was wrong about the house call costing nothing. It turns out that due to a lack of health insurance (gasp!) the house call cost...90 EUROS!! That's about $120. Without insurance. My co-pays back in the states (when I was insured) were often more than that. On the other hand, when I told a Swedish friend that it cost 90 Euros, she was appalled and said that nothing should cost that much. I guess it's all about where you're coming from.*****

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Un Cafe, S'il Vous Plait

Coffee. It's so prevalent in so many places around the world -- premium beans were grown in Tanzania, China was acquiring a taste for the stuff (although it's not in a tight race for preferred with tea quite yet), Australia had coffee here there and everywhere, and here in France, morning noon night and in between people are in cafes sipping the stuff.

However, there's a key difference I have noted between coffee drinking here and and elsewhere around the world -- I have yet to see a person with a to-go cuppa Joe. In 3.5 weeks, not a single paper cup carrying coffee adict on the streets, in the metro, in the parks. I first became aware of this anomoly when I woke up early to go toursit on the city of Paris one day, and on that day I thought to myself, "man, a cup of coffee would be nice before I get on the metro would be great." In my mind, I'd pick up the coffee, keep walking to the metro and be done before I set foot on the amazingly efficient metro train. But no. Take away, to go, etc are not a part of the cafe culture here. If you want a cup of coffee, you put your butt down in a seat at a cafe, a tabac, a boulangerie, wherever coffee is served, a waiter comes up and asks you what you like (and from what I can tell the choices don't include a twice blended caramel mocha frappucino), brings it to you, and you drink it at the table. What?! No busy business men on their way to work, walking aggressively and holding there ever-present cup of coffee in one hand and a brief case in one hand? Not as far as I can tell. I'm sure there are many people who are just as dependent and dedicated to coffee as people are elsewhere, but it does seem like they put more time into their commitment.

The whole no-to-go thing also appears to extend to food. Places that have food "to-go" advertise the fact, and they're mostly sandwich type places. It's pretty rare to see someone eating as the walk down the street. Although I have seen people taking bits off a freshly baked and newly purchased baguette while walking (presumably) home. But to see someone eating a full on burrito (okay, I haven't seen a burrito place anywhere, but it's an example) or quiche (there, that's french-er) walking down the street is a rarity.

I'm pretty sure that the you-sit-down to eat mentality is a huge difference between french and us culture. In fact, I've heard that eating on the run is considered "anglo-saxon" and that's not seen as a good thing. Heha. So it looks like if I need a coffee I'm going to be sitting down in what will probably be a wicker chair outside on the sidewalk, facing the street (all the better for people watching), and slowly sipping my cafe au'lait and avidly people watching. 'Cause not only is coffee not drank on the go, cafes aren't full of big fluffy chairs and low lying coffee tables; instead there are small tables and wicker chairs spaced with mere inches between them for cafe patrons. I miss the comfy chairs, but I can do the sit down thing.

Also, on a side note, in my world Starbucks tally, the only ones I've seen in Paris are in the very downtown area. While I live in the inner circle, there are none in my neighborhood. They two I've encountered were in the really large shopping areas, you know, the ones where I passed people on the the street speaking languages other than french (such as english). And just like in China, it seems wrong to go into a Starbucks here in Paris when there's that lovely art-deco cafe right next door. I have yet to come across any Peet's or Coffee Bean & Tea Leafs yet, but I'll let you know if I do.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Grocery Run

I made a salad last night and I really wanted some little cherry tomatoes to put on the top of it. Sadly, after searching the fridge and produce bowl at home I found zero tomatoes, of any variety. What’s a girl to do? Well, in most cases I would have to choose between going without (sigh) or jumping in the car and making a run to the grocery store. But what does this situation mean here in Paris? Here it means walking to the street corner about 100 feet away to a produce stand. Ten minutes after discovering the lack of tomatoes in-house, I was back in the kitchen adding delicious cherry tomatoes to my salad.

This brings me to a quick tally of the food stores (not including cafes/brassieres/restaurants) around where I live in Paris.
Let’s count together!
1 (un) butcher
1 (un) grog shop
2 (duex) cheese shops
2 (duex) pharmacies
3 (trois) produce stands
3 (trois) bakeries (yummy!)
4 (quatre) chocolate shops (double yummy!)

I have no idea how it worked out that there are more chocolate shops than anything else within two blocks of the apartment, but that’s the way it is. And far be it from me to complain. There is also one “supermarket” in the same radius, and while it has a comprehensive assortment of goods (cereal, yogurt, milk, frozen goods, a bit of produce) it’s teensy by US standards. But! When you can’t find lentils anywhere else (another true story), the supermarket has them! It appears to be a wonderful symbiotic relationship (and hopefully that's not just an appearance, but a reality) between these small, specialized stores, and the general grocery. Turns out, if each store is on the small side, there’s room for a lot more.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Picnic in the Park

Ah, the famous city of light -- Paris. There are so many things that come to mind -- the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Seine, Arc de Triomphe, Champs Elysee, and on and on. However, in my short time in Paris thus far, I've noticed something less touted but very impressive all the same. There are public parks everywhere. And not only are there parks, but they are laid out with playgrounds for children of all ages, from toddlers to teens to adults. And in all of the play areas I've seen thus far I have yet to see a swing. Instead there are kid sized climbing walls, twirling seats, digging machines, rope swings, HALF PIPES! and more. These are some of the most creative parks I've come across.

And since the parks are so well laid out, people take advantage of that; the parks are always packed! I don't think I've ever seen a park in the US with so many people. Actually, I'm not sure I've seen this many babies in strollers, kids on razr scooters (really, I think every child over the age of 5 must have one, adults too), and children in general in a place that wasn't a school! There are kids on roller blades, building castles in the sand, climbing, sliding, rollerblading on the half pipe -- it's amazing. It's great to see people taking advantage of such wonderful public space. It's a community and regional development major's dream!