September 30, 2009

Mon Anniversaire à Paris

For my 21st birthday, I got Paris. I could not have asked for anything more, as it was an amazing weekend spent with friends and with Paris. I got so many gifts, and I'm so so grateful! I will recap for you some of my favorite birthday gifts:

My girlfriends from school in Paris planned out an awesome way to ring in my birthday - sitting under the Eiffel Tower eating macarons ( a Parisian specialty), chocolate, and drinking champagne. As you can see, they even bought me a crown! It was the coolest feeling to see the lightshow start at the moment my birthday began - at midnight. We had a great time, and they really made it a great way to start of my birthday!

Another one of my favorite birthday presents was the arrival of my friend Mary! After my last weekend in Lyon, she visited me this weekend for the big day. It was her first time in Paris, so that gave us all the more reason to get out and explore the city. We walked all the way from the Louvre, through the Tuileries, up the Champs-Elysées, and up the Arc the Triomphe. We got out workout for the day, so we spent lunch time in the Luxembourg Gardens. Mary just kept saying, "I can't believe you live here!" Well, I guess I can't either. On Saturday, we spent time touring the vintage shops of Le Marais and la Place des Vosges. It was so fun to have a friend stay with my host family and see my life here. I can't wait to have more guests!

For my birthday, I got quite possibly the most gorgeous day in Paris. The weather was absolutely perfect, the sun was shining, and everything just seemed to be swell. It was a day when I kept having to pinch myself, and realize that this really was real life. I don't know if my amazement and wonder of Paris will ever cease. There's something new to discover every day, and my birthday was one of the best days to do it. Thanks, Paris!

One of the most fun things we did on my birthday was a spontaneous stop into the Shakespeare and Company bookstore. It's the largest compilation of English books outside of an English-speaking country, and the character seeps through every nook and cranny of the place. There are books covering every inch of the store; you can use an old-fashioned typewriter to post messages (see wall behind us in the photo); you can play their vintage piano, or you can just lounge in hidden chairs throughout the store and read for hours. We had a great time taking photos and looking around. I'm definitely going to have to go back.

Above: Drew (my American housemate), Toupie (the dog), Docteur, Madame, and moi
I am so fortunate to have an entirely generous host family during my time in Paris. They cooked me a delicious birthday feast, and even surprised me with a necklace for a gift (the one I'm wearing in the picture)! We ate a delicious dinner, and Madame even made me a cake - I got to blow out the candles and everything. It was really great because I felt like I was at home, and they really made my night special.

After dinner, the girls and I hit the town for a typical 21st birthday night out! Here we are at a bar called Footsies. It's a stock market bar - which means that every 200 seconds, the prices of the drinks change depending on what is in highest demand. It's so fun! The earlier you go, the cheaper the drinks are. I had my fair share of red wine, because it was the cheapest, bien sur. Afterwards we went out and danced the night away at a very European Techno club. It was such a fun night, and I am so glad I had so many people with me to make it wonderful!

For a great birthday I have to thank my family, my great friends, my host family, and of course, Paris.

September 21, 2009

A Weekend à Lyon

I spent this past weekend in Lyon visiting my friend Mary, and it was an excellent time! We filled the time walking all over the city, eating delicious regional food, and having quality girl friend time. After being in Paris for about 3 weeks, it was a good time to go explore a new place with a familiar friend.

I took the TGV (Train à Grand Vitèsse - really fast train) to Lyon, leaving Paris at the ripe hour of 6:30am. When I was out the door headed to the train station, it was still dark out. However, just in case you were wondering, Paris is still bustling away at 5:30am on a Friday morning. It really never stops.
The train was a superb form of transportation - it was easy, fast, clean (a novel concept in Paris), and I got to look out the window at the French countryside on my way. I definitely want to take it again on my next trip in France. I arrived quickly to the train station in Lyon, where Mary met me with open arms.
We spent the whole day touring around Lyon, going to the Fourvière Cathedral, walking around Vieux Lyon, and discovering the artsy areas as well. Lyon has such a different feel to it than Paris! The architecture is more colorful, the streets have tons of graffiti on them, there are TWO rivers instead of one, and it's quite a bit more relaxed. Lyon has a lot of character, and I had so much fun walking all around the city. It's almost like comparing a big city in Northern US (like NY) to a big city in Southern US (like Atlanta).
By the end of Friday, Mary and I's feet were really tired! We had dinner with her host family, which was excellent as well! She has two French little sisters, and they couldn't be cuter. They take English classes in school, and were very eager to practice speaking. It was really nice of Mary's family to have me for dinner, as well as let me stay in their darling bohemian artsy home. Seriously, the house is like an art gallery. Mary's room is also at least 2 times as big as mine, and overlooks a very lively street of bars and restaurants.
Saturday was a great and relaxing day. We slept in, and went out for a delicious breakfast of Pain au Chocolat (one of my French favorites) and a café. We hit up the town market, and got to see almost a mile's worth of food vendors. I really love outdoor markets, and this one was up to my standards! There was everything from stinky cheese, to perfumed flowers. This worked up our appetites, so we headed to a Lyonnais cafe. We had huge lunches, and headed home for a post-lunch rest. We made dinner at home, as her family was out of town for the night. Afterwards, we went and saw a movie. It was a great girls' night, and some much-needed friend time.
I headed home on Sunday, and again decided that the TGV is the best thing ever. America needs one. Overall, it was a great weekend! I loved Lyon, and can't wait to show Mary around Paris this coming weekend when she comes.

A few of my pictures from Lyon:
Cathedral Fourvière and the Basilica at night

Mary and I making faces on the way up to Fourvière

Beautiful inside!

Me, standing by a graffiti display

Mary and I in front of the fountain by Hotel de Ville (French city hall)

Saturday after our grand lunch - note the imitation Eiffel Tower of Lyon behind me

Dinner on Saturday night

Lyon at night over the River!

September 17, 2009

Au Restaurant

Tonight I had the pleasure of joining my best friend Lilia's dad, Yvon, for dinner! Lilia and I have been best friends since we were about 8 months old, thus I've known her Dad for just as long. Yvon was in Paris only for the night, so we got together for a traditional French Dinner.

By traditional, I mean everything from the food, to the length, to the number of courses, to the waiter.

We had appetizers (in French, they call this the Entrée) of thin slices of salmon and beef with olive oil and parmesan for the beef, and Creme Fraîche for the Salmon. Mine (the beef) was delicious, and the salmon for Yvon looked great as well!

We each had a Plat (what Americans know as the Entrée.. I know, confusing) of duck and spiced potatoes. I had to choose the duck because I'm in France and had yet to have canard! It was delicious, and surprisingly well-portioned. We paired our dishes with a great glass of red wine, and the French surely know how to pair their wine with food. It's truly an art here.

We shared a dessert of traditional Creme Brulée - best I've ever had! It was so so delicious. By this time I was extremely satisfied and absolutely spoiled with a delicious dinner.

Now, I mentioned earlier that part of the whole French dining experience was the waiter. Well, to give you an idea of what French service is like, take this episode as an example -

My friend Lilia asked that Yvon and I take a picture while we're together, as proof that we actually met up. So Yvon (the French-speaking Canadian) asked the waiter (in French) if he could take our picture. I figured this was customary and wouldn't be a problem, but no.. the waiter responded with "Sure I will... once I find the time," and he scurried off about his business. I was a bit surprised, but sure enough, he came around about 20 minutes later and took our picture.
Then, as he was serving our dessert, he asked where we were from. Yvon said Canada, and I said "I'm from the United States." The waiter looked at me with a very French smirk and responded with, "Well, I guess not all of us can be perfect!" And we broke up into laughter and he again scurried off.

It was just so French! The food was absolutely divine, and we were left alone at our table for about 2 hours. In the states, the waiters would have been tapping their toes and hurrying us in order to bring in the next customer. Not in France. It is customary to take at least 2 hours for a dinner out, if not more. Also, it's never just one course. I think I could get used to the French way of dining, as long as I keep my sense of humor about being American.

All in all, it was a great evening and I was really happy to see a familiar face. Thanks Yvon, for such a great dinner and company!

September 15, 2009

Locks, Charades, Fromage, and Staring at My Feet

Bonjour mes amis! It's been almost 2 weeks since my arrival in Paris, and what a two weeks it has been! I've moved out of the "oh my gosh everything is SO exciting and AWESOME!" phase and into the "Wow I'm really living here... it's not just a sweet vacation" phase. I've loved every minute so far, but a few moments have indeed been frustrating, sad, confused, and altogether lost. It's all part of the process, or so I've been told. I'm writing this post to insert a dose of reality and feet-on-the-ground-ness into my blogging for the semester. That said, I'd like to share a few daily occurrences that have made my time here, well, French.

One day, I returned home to find myself unable to unlock my door. This happened at a very frustrated moment of my day, as I had just gotten finished with a 6 hour French class/field trip. It was a good class, but after 6 hours of hearing my cute little French professor speak her very fast French, I was done. I can only listen to French for so long until I start zoning out completely and getting frustrated with everything. So yes, after class I came home and my door wouldn't open. Conveniently, no one was home, and no one was answering their phones. I was trapped outside my door and all I wanted to do was go hide inside my room. It was officially a bad day. My first bad day in Paris! It ended up being fine, because I just went for a walk and when I returned, Monsieur was in the apartment to let me in. So, not really a bad day.

I've gotten quite good at charades, because everything I say to my family is said not only in French but also with hand motions. Like, "Does my key work to open the door now?" is said as I motion holding a key and opening a door. Also, my roommate and I have fun at dinner using hand motions whenever we don't know a certain word. Tonight, I had to "stir" the sauce before dinner. I didn't know the word, but I knew the motion. I now know the word, because Madame told me. So yes, I'm learning French and Charades. It works well... until I have to make a phone call in French. That's the real listening and speaking test. It's quite intimidating, but I've done it a few times and been successful. However, my cell phone is expensive and I simply can't make too many phone calls.
I've been thinking about ways to improve my French, and I think I need to take up TV watching. Supposedly there are gameshows like Wheel-Of-Fortune, and those kinds of things could really help with my vocabulary. My family and friends know that I don't watch much tv, but maybe I'll have to change my ways while in France for the sake of learning.

As I said before, we have a cheese course every night at dinner in between the main dish and dessert. I'm taking quite fondly to this habit. Tonight, Madame and Monsieur had their daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren here for dinner. Not only were their two little children (1.5 and 4 years old) absolutely adorable, but the couple was quite nice as well. The father spoke Italian to his children, because he wants them to learn it. Thus, it was a trilingual dinner! Drew (my roommate) and I occasionally will say something in English to the other in order to more completely understand. Together, we can usually figure out what's going on at the dinner table and make pleasant conversation.
It's always funny being introduced to new French people by Madame and Monsieur, because they find Drew and I to be unusual Americans. Madame is shocked that I actually eat dinner with my family at home every night; apparently I'm the first of her American students to practice this tradition. Also, I like the French cheese. I try new cheeses every night, and they are shocked! The son-in-law tonight said that we weren't true Americans, because we actually like French cheese. I'm glad that I'm impressing them with my family traditions and my ability to embrace the French culture.

Staring at My Feet
I take the metro every day, and it's the best form of transportation ever! It can get me anywhere in Paris in about 30 minutes, and it's very simple to figure out. The lines are color coded, numbered, and named. Also, each metro stop has a different vibe and there are interesting French advertisements everywhere. However, with the good always comes the bad. My hands constantly feel disgusting after holding on to the poles in the metro, I get scared when going places by myself, it's creepy at night, and someone always smells bad. Also, I've learned that it's a French art to avoid eye contact. I've found that staring at my feet works best. Every day, I take inventory of people's shoes on the metro. Also it's a great place to scope out the latest handbags - anything to avoid meeting the eyes of someone else. Anyways, in the US I'm accustomed to making pleasant conversation with strangers from time to time. Here, you don't talk to someone unless you're saying "Pardon" while getting off the metro. I miss being able to be jolly and say nice things to people I don't know.

Tomorrow I start my first official classes! I've been doing French intensive sessions for the past week, but now I'm getting into the real stuff. Tomorrow I have "History of Paris Art and Architecture" and "Global Marketing." Both sound very interesting! My Tues/Thurs class are: International and Intercultural Management, International Political Economy, and Advanced French. It should be a good semester, and I'm ready to learn. I'm also ready to settle down into a routine. France is lovely, and I'm learning so much every day. I've experienced frustration, which is kind of like French growing pains. So as long as I'm growing, I'm good. I just hope I can absorb as much as possible!

Au revoir!

September 7, 2009

Sephora and 12-25

So I got to class this morning at 9:30am, which is the time I thought I needed to get there. Well, it turns out I didn't have anything at school until 2pm. So instead of going home or taking the metro somewhere, I just walked around the 14th arrondissement where my school is. This turned out to be very dangerous, as there is a Zara, Petit Bateau, and Sephora all on the street nearby. Not to mention there are countless other shops, I just can't remember their names now.

Sephora was a great experience because while I was upstairs sampling perfumes and eyeshadows, an older woman was being helped my a clerk. The elder lady turned to me and asked in French, "Excusez-moi madamoiselle, but I need your opinion on something. Is this color too much for an elder lady like me?" She was so cute, and I couldn't help but feel proud for being taken for a true Parisienne! I told her it looked lovely, and she thanked me when she left. I might just have to go shop there again. Oh darn.

Also, while on my temps libre (free time) excursion around the 14th, I decided to go to the SNCF store and buy my student discount card for the TGV, or carte 12-25. It's great because after you buy it, you're guaranteed at least a 25% discount off all train tickets, and up to a 60% discount. So it pays for itself after using it 1 or 2 times. The man who helped me was very nice, but he could definitely tell I wasn't French. He was patient however and made sure to speak clearly for me. I was just happy he didn't switch to English like many workers do for Americans. Alas, I bought my 12-25 as well as a train ticket to Lyon. I'll be heading there for the weekend of September 18, and I can't wait! My good friend Mary is studying there, and I'm looking forward to spending a weekend with her in Lyon.

This week, I'm spending my time in French sessions at school in preparation for classes, and then this weekend we're off for a trip to Strasbourg! More on that to come. For now, I'm still loving the post-entrée cheese courses at my homestay and getting to know the City of Light.

September 6, 2009

Chez Moi - A Bit About My Homestay and Life in Paris

Le Premier Arrondissement de Paris is home to yours truly for the next few months, and as you can see, it's directly in the center of Paris!
The first arrondissement (or neighborhood) is in the middle of Paris. From there, 19 other arrondissements snail outwards in a spiral. I must say I really lucked out on my location! I can't say enough good things about my host family and my living quarters.

My family is an older couple (I'm guessing in their 60s) who have three children who are married and in their 30s. They no longer live at home, however their 16 year old son and the dog, Toupie, do live here. So the apartment is fairly empty, thus plenty of room for students.

I have my own bedroom which is semi-detached from the apartment. I live upstairs along with another student and we have a separate entry/exit. This is known as a chambre de bonne (maid's quarters), however many people use this space to host students like me. It's great because I can enter and exit freely without disturbing the family; however, I know I'm always welcome to go downstairs and socialize, watch tv, play piano, or read in the salon (living room). I also have a magnificent view from my room - I look directly out onto the Seine, where tour boats are constantly passing by. I also can see Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, the Palais de Justice, and many other wonderful Parisian establishments. I am constantly astonished when I look out my window, especially at night!

View from my window, looking right

So here are a few bits about my life in Paris:

- Dinner is the best time I get with my family, because we sit down for at least an hour every night and eat meals together. Madame cooks delicious foods, and I'm always hungry by dinnertime (the French don't snack, which is a difficult adjustment for moi). We always have a main course, a cheese course, and then dessert. We have an appetizer when it is a weekend dinner or when there are guests. Dessert has been either yogurt, pudding, or the chocolate cake that she made last night. The cheese course is wonderful because I get to try new cheeses every night. She actually is keeping a list of the cheeses I try so that I can take it home with me and have it as a guide. She's also recommended that I go visit her favorite fromagerie (cheese shop). Dinner is altogether a great time to really feel like part of the family. We talk about various things from food, to stories, to our days, to Paris, and most of about our cultures.

- Speaking French has been one of my favorite things about living in a homestay. Dinner is the time when I get to practice a lot of French, because they always engage in conversation so that we can improve. Madame is a teacher, so she's very good at correcting our grammar and phrasing. This is great, because it helps me learn better. The other night at dinner, my housemate and I were having trouble understanding a phrase, so Monsieur actually got up and wrote it out for us on their kitchen chalkboard. They sometimes will use a dictionary to help me learn vocabulary as well. It was a great decision to live with a host family, because it has helped my French more than anything so far. I haven't heard them speak any English, so it's truly an immersion at home.
I have come to realize how rewarding it is to be able to converse in another language. The first accomplishment occurs when I actually get my point across, and I give myself a bonus point if I can do it with either humor, sarcasm, or any bit of extra personality. Things like making my family laugh are very rewarding, because it's beyond the bare necessities of language. It's that extra something that makes me feel that much closer to fluency.

- French lifestyle is something I'd like to become quite familiar with while living here. The French have a much richer way of living. I'm not speaking monetarily, but rather tastefully. They sit for hours over lunch or a coffee; they buy fresh foods in small quantities to prepare the freshest of dishes; and their cheese smells just as strong as their coffee tastes. Also, they always look fabulous. French people are good looking, and well dressed. I have a great time every day trying to accomplish what most girls are doing - looking Parisian. There is something so simply put together about everyone on the streets of Paris.

- The apartment where I'm staying in is fabulous. I'm living in the most aged of places, with all of the character from the years forming the foundation. Their apartment speaks. Yes, that's right. When I walk down the stairs, they creak. When I walk down the hall, it squeaks. When I shut the entrance door, it slams. I love this because it represents the hundreds of years that this apartment has existed. It was Madame's great grandfather's apartment, and it's been in her family ever since. I think this is truly amazing. It's in the dead center of the city, which literally couldn't be a better location. I can walk five minutes down the street and see the Mona Lisa, a Monet, or a Van Gogh. I also live right by City Hall of Paris, which holds years and years of history within. I have so much to explore, but I already can sense the years of history, art, cuisine, and that certain je ne sais quoi that exists in the city around me.

September 2, 2009

Initial Impressions

Well, I’ve arrived! I had a seamless flight from Toronto to Paris, and my plane landed at 5:10am local time. Unfortunately I got little to no sleep on the plane. It was even still dark out when we landed. I got through customs just fine, and I passed the time in line trying to pick out who was French and who was not.

After passing through customs, I walked out to baggage claim and both of my bags were on the carousel right as I got there! It was perfect timing. Waiting for bags is always the most stressful part of my trips, but this time it wasn’t the waiting, it was the pulling. Before I left in Toronto I made the remark to my mom that I felt like a mule carrying all of my luggage. I had a giant travel backpack, a giant suitcase, a very heavy carry-on suitcase, and a messenger bag. All of them were filled to capacity, and they did not make for a very light load. In fact, it was about 100lbs. Ok, back to the Paris arrival. I got my bags, strapped them on, and wandered to the RER (aka suburban metro that goes in to Paris). I was basically guessing everything from where to go, which ticket to buy, and what train to get on. I got very lucky and bought my ticket, got on the train, and… AH! My luggage got stuck as I was trying to heave it from the platform to the train (the train was about 2 feet above the platform). I was already sweating so much from pulling my luggage, and I was so out of sorts. Luckily, a friendly guy on the train came to my rescue and helped push my bags onto the train. I don’t know if I could have done it without him! I said "Merci."

Then, during my 30 minute train ride into Paris, the sun rose. It was a lovely greeting, and definitely made me smile. On my departure from the train, I was having a bit more difficulty with my cumbersome baggage, and the girl who sat across from me came to my aid and helped me get my stuff from my seat to near the exit. I was so surprised as to how helpful everyone was being. I must have looked really scared or pitiful. Either way, it worked. I got of at the Chatelet-les Halles stop and maneuvered my way through the station to the Rue de Rivoli exit. It was like a maze trying to find my way out! Luckily, they had escalators the whole way. The worst part of it all was trying to get out of the platform. There are gate-like structures that open for a second and close after you assumedly go through to get out. The French, being so thin, have very skinny doorways. They were about 2 feet wide… and my giant suitcase is about 2.5 feet wide. So I got stuck in the doorway. Yup, it closed on me. I had no idea what to do or how to get out. I was wearing a giant backpack, carrying huge suitcases, and I was stuck in an automatic doorway that had shut on me. My life was ending before my eyes. Then, when a young French man entered his ticket to exit, the doors opened! He then proceded to push my luggage really hard so that it would get through, and I was very thankful. Finally I got to the last upturn towards the street, and after so many escalators… they were stairs! It was not going to be an easy task carrying all 100 pounds of my luggage up those stairs. Literally, I had 100 pounds. A semi-sketchy man was walking near me at the time, and no one else was around. He was looking at me funny, and saying a few things that I couldn’t understand. Finally, when I got to the stairs, he reached out his hand as if offering his help. Did I really want to put my luggage in the hands of a random sketchy-looking person whom I don’t know? Probably not, but I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and let him help me. I kept a close eye, but he kind of chuckled when we got to the top of the stairs and handed me my luggage. He said something else I couldn’t understand, and I said Merci. The French have so far been overwhelmingly helpful!

Getting out of that metro station was like being born into Paris. I walked outside, after getting very hot and sweaty while pulling my luggage, and the fresh air welcomed me quite nicely. My host family gave me perfect directions, and I walked straight to my door. Sidenote - I walked past two pet shops on the way, both of which had very cute puppies. I might just have to go play with them. So I get to the door, buzz the intercom up to my host family’s apartment, and my host mom let me in. I wandered to find the elevator, and let me just say that it’s the smallest elevator I’ve ever seen. I would say it’s 3x3. Yeah.. so me and all of my luggage crammed in to the elevator, and I had to maneuver about 3 times before the door would even shut. I really don’t think more than one person can fit in this elevator. Much less one person with 4 bags. It would have been a nightmare for anyone with claustrophobia.

My host mom greeted me at the door, and we kissed on both cheeks. She is very friendly, and immediately helped me with my bags and gave me a tour of the apartment. She showed me my room, which is complete with a bed, a desk, a dresser, a whole wall of corkboard (for me to “make it my own” said my host mom) and a view of the Eiffel Tower!!! My window looks right down to the Seine and just to the right I see the Eiffel Tower. It’s amazing, and I think I can get used to this.

I can’t believe I’m really here. I can’t believe I have a corkboard wall. I can’t believe that I got volunteer help from at least 4 Parisians. I can’t believe I can look at the Eiffel Tower whenever I want.

Right now it’s about 4am in my brain, but it’s 10am in Paris. That means it’s naptime.

A bientot!