mardi 27 novembre 2007

Hugs And Misses

The past few weeks have found me no longer in my hour of enchantment; rather, I've passed through some quite different phases that approach disillusionment and often result in discouragement. Of course, this is all to be expected. There is nothing that I describe here that hasn't already been researched and documented in a study or a guide somewhere; I'm ultimately just another statistic. Everyone hates everything sometimes when living in a foreign country. I'd be a fool not to.

Supplementary to my teaching job, I am now au pair. Despite its French etymology, the term au pair also exists for us in English. I speculate that its usage originates from the old French circa 1100 when the Normans were beating up the English and changing their language in the North, at which time au pair most likely denoted an Anglophone who took shit from French people for a living. Some odd centuries later, I am a live-in childcare provider who is thrust to the brink of sanity by unruly French children who recognize me as their au pair. Coincidence, I think not.

In short, these children drive me nuts. I'm simply not cut out for a life of cooking and cleaning and taking responsibility for small, needy people 5 plus days a week. My experience as a babysitter, teacher, and daycare employee in the States has evidently failed to prepare me for the love of au pairship. Lord knows I need the money, but my sanity has not gone unscathed.

On the other hand, thanks to the au pair job, I'm now speaking French better than ever. Of course, this assertion means next to nothing, considering that last evening's linguistic proceedings alone resulted in public embarrassment and the subsequent loss of respect that inevitably accompanies such spectacles of social inelegance. In my English-loving mind, a kindly waiter's recommendation to flick a light switch on the wall behind me translated into an invitation to wipe my soggy hands on a stack of clean white placemats hung up outside a restaurant bathroom. Upon the realization that this hand towel was strangely nonabsorbent and coated with plastic, I sensed the weight of my error in the server's polite but irrepressible laughter and the sight of Jessi concealing her face in shame at our table a couple of feet away. If they wanted to, Jessi and the waiter could have bonded together and fashioned a friendship founded on the entertainment that I unwillingly provided. The waiter could have then proposed that they take their friendship elsewhere and escorted Jessi out the front door as she soundlessly mouthed her apologies before treading into the night. There I would sit, hungry and alone, possessing neither friends nor curried lentils in this vacant Indian restaurant in this unsympathetic foreign country. Here was strike 1 million in my quest to live a normal embarrassment-free life in France. Well, it's natural that Parisians would laugh at me. The way I see it, this has nothing to do with me and everything to do with their inability to handle the level of cultural diversity that I bring to the table. I don't need them because I never really had them. Excommunication from Paris's North American element, however, could prove fatal.

The lightswitch/placemat fiasco aside, I do talk prettier now, even if my expanded vocabulary is antagonistic in nature and revolves around things you might have to threaten to tell someone's mother.

Aurèle, Jules, and Octave, ages 2, 6, and 8 respectively. They only appear harmless.

In other news, today marks the beginning of the return to normalcy in Paris's metropolitan transit network after almost 3 weeks of striking. During the strike, on the days where I even made it to work at all, 1 post-school day commute equaled 2 local buses, 1 regional commuter train, and 2 metro lines. Then and only then would I arrive back home where I was free to watch after and prepare dinner for 3 children. Unlike when I reprimand Aurèle at the dinner table for eating with his fingers, I didn't even feign concern over the kids' excessive TV watching; that would require too much energy. As long as they're drooling over cartoons and not porn, I have no objections. I'm only here for a month, so I prefer to leave it to the next au pair to instill good, healthy habits that don't entail hours of inactivity and irreparable optical injury .

So in the end, the syndicalists are back to work, Nicolas Sarkozy is still an asshole, and I no longer have to allot 3 hours to my morning commute. Sarkozy, right-wing president extraordinaire, still has a few enemies across this nation, among them transit, postal, and energy workers, teachers, students, etc. His government's approach to reducing fiscal spending includes pension changes, salary cuts, and plans to open up French universities to more private funding. As a native of the land of capitalism and private property, I see and fear where this may end. Therefore, my sympathies go to the syndicalists and young people who reject the American model in favor of something, anything not so merciless. Afterall, I reject it too.

Typical chaotic Paris metro scene during the strike, this one at Gare du Nord, taken from BBC News.

In closing,

I miss:

-having clothes to wear
-vegetarian food à la Kingdom of Vegetarians
-second-hand stores
-people who get why I would shop at second-hand stores
-numbered streets
-forming coherent sentences
-Whole Foods
-cheap stuff
-sunshine and shortpants
-the Italian Market
-house parties (minus the cops)

I have:

-new everything



-new buddies

-visits from old buddies


-new apartment

-French language

-French keyboard

-pain au chocolat

-Pop In


-Les Deux Mondes

and a newfound appreciation for all the things that I miss.

samedi 3 novembre 2007

The First Five Weeks

In celebration of the 5 week anniversary of my life in Paris, I propose a blog.

At this very moment, a young hopeful on Channel 1's Star Academy (properly pronounced with a thick French accent) is performing a song entitled "Goodbye, Philadelphia" to an audience full of starry-eyed Avril Lavigne-loving adolescents. What could this French boy complete with fashion haircut and chin piercing possibly know about the supposed city of Sisterly and Brotherly Love that I call home? I'm guessing, just as much as he knows about the crosses broadcast across his white fashionista T-shirt.

More importantly, France is sort of home now and has been for the past 5 weeks. That statement is of course deceiving, considering that I've spent this time living out of travel bags and alternating between hostels and private homes while permanent housing continues to elude me. About 2 weeks ago and hundreds of euros in, I bid adieu to Absolute Paris Hostel and entered into a phase of relative stability living rentlessly in a friend's spacious suburban apartment an hour outside of Paris. Many thanks to Sarah Yoho without whom I am poor and homeless.

The town is Nemours, population 18,000, accessible by Transilien train to and from Paris 76 kilometers to the northwest. Recommended for fans of Far Out France, Small Town Suburb, and Nowhere To Go, the most recent installation in the acclaimed Nothing To Do series. Time moves a little slower here.

On October 1, I officially took up my post as an English language teaching assistant at Lycée Marie Laurencin in the commune of Mennecy. By October 26, I had already assumed the role of French vacationer with enough vacation time at hand to lead me to believe that Jesus had called to pronounce an early Christmas and November the start of a new year. But as it turns out, Jesus doesn't even have a phone, and November 1st is La Toussaint (All Saint's Day). For teachers, appropriate observation requires approximately 2 weeks off from work. Hell yea!

So I spent this past Tuesday and Wednesday night at Danielle's place in Paris. We went out for fancy dessert on rue de la Pompe, caught a movie at a cinema on the swanky Champs-Elysées, and dined on makeshift vegetarian sandwiches on the floor of her au pair room, sitting Indian-style, using tubberware lids as plates, and slicing tomatoes with silverware stolen from the Rutgers dining hall as though it had been christened long ago in a high-powered cafeteria dishwasher for just such a moment as this.

But Nemours was beckoning my return with the promise of a much-needed shower and a big blue futon with my name on it (spelled out in Jessi's nosebleed blood). After exploiting the free wireless Internet at Gare de Lyon and being accosted by an 18-year-old Romanian kid with a penchant for bisous, I heeded the call and took the 16:47 train into Nemours. In accordance with the holiday, there were no buses running. I was thence faced with the dreaded yet all too familiar 2 mile promenade from the station to Sarah's apartment. Seeing as how most boulangeries were closed or "fresh" out of baguettes, I stepped into a little grocer downtown to pick one up for dinner. The man seated behind the counter and I exchanged a customary "Bon soir." He snatched a hunk of bread from the basket to his left with his money-dealing hands to deposit it on the dirty counter between us. All of these health violations were perceived on my part with nothing more than mild fascination with the foreignness of it all. I collected the baguette into my equally dirty Metro hands and was out with a "Merci, au revoir." My enormous plaid totebag, this 2 foot long piece of bread, and a little Caramaieu bag carrying edible souvenirs lifted from a rich Parisian home proved even more problematic to manage when joined by the Milka bar that I nibbled at in an attempt to offset the brisk evening air with a little milk chocolate bliss.

I continued up the cobblestone sidewalk, scrambling to recuperate a fallen Milka wrapper before stepping down into the street. As I neared the local church, bells sounded from above. Although the resultant echo captured only a brief moment's worth of night sky, my brain was struck with a persistent signal encrypted with the message: "Hey, you're in France!" Medieval church, cobblestone streets, baguette bread, all made sense.

I rounded the corner that leads to the east side of the river. On the opposite bank behind the church stands an old château gleaming with the combination of artificial ground light and feudal history. This modestly sized castle features 12th century origins and all of the period architecture to show for it. It now serves as a museum and one of the most obvious Nemourian relics of the former medieval city. Travel back to 1100 something or another and the château would be there just as it is today. My mind melts into glue at mere contemplation.

So it's real. I'm in France.

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The castle in Nemours.