October 28, 2009

Une Semaine Très Chargée

After a couple months of fun, laughter, discovery, traveling, photo-taking, and Paris, I had to focus more on the "study" part of "study abroad." Yes, it may come as a shock, but I have been attending classes and doing assignments in between all of my European adventures and Parisian discoveries.

Last week is what a typical university student would call "midterms." Quel dommage, I actually had to spend my week studying and taking exams. Pauvre moi. Throughout study time, I had a few experiences that really brought smiles to my face. Most people would say I was just procrastinating. However, after some research, I found that there is no direct translation for the verb "to procrastinate" in the French language, thus it's impossible for me to truly procrastinate in France! This is my theory, at least.

Chocolate Chip Cookies
This past weekend, I spent the majority of my time either sleeping or trying to absorb information from class notes, books, and powerpoint presentations. On Sunday, I decided to take a break from my studies and use the chocolate chips that I single-handedly imported to France. I love to bake, and I tend to bake when I want to take a break from my responsibilities. Thus, I had the perfect opportunity to bake on Sunday afternoon! It was a unique baking experience as I used Madame's old-fashioned scale (in grams, nonetheless) in order to measure out the flour, sugar, etc. Also, I couldn't help but chuckle at her reaction of just how much butter and sugar go into a batch of chocolate chip cookies. After a bit of language-barrier-enhanced recipe interpretation, and ingredient substitution (who knew brown sugar wasn't a staple in French homes), I successfully made a delicious batch of chocolate chip cookies! The whole family enjoyed them, and all 36 of them were polished off within two days. A little taste of America was savored by everyone, including yours truly.

French Story Time
This week, Madame and Monsieur have been hosting their adult children and grandchildren. I must say, it's felt a lot more like one of my own family gatherings with little kids running around everywhere. The children, ages 7, 4, and 1, are very well-behaved, and seem like my own nieces and nephews. I have gotten a full dose of French-little-kid-cuteness this week as Timothé, the little 1 year old grandson, has taken quite a liking to me. He runs up to me with a big smile on his face, arms outstretched, ready for a hug. It's irresistable! It also makes me miss my own 1 year old nephew, who I will get to see upon my return to the homeland. Dinners have been spiced up with childish banter, babies crying and laughing, and parents just trying to get through it all peacefully. The other night, instead of studying for my exams, I complied with the children's request to read them a story. This turned out to be one of my favorite familial experiences thus far, for a couple reasons. First of all, it was a great way for me to practice my French pronunciation and vocabulary. I had the help of 7 year old Lucile, who would correct my pronunciation and define words that I didn't know. Lucile commented that she liked hearing "my funny accent." Secondly, it gave me a real insight to a key in learning a new language. One must truly put aside pride and embarrassment in order to learn a foreign language successfully. I realized this after humbly taking advice from a 7 year old about pronunciation when reading a simple children's story.

My Little Café Around the Corner
At the beginning of my semester, on one of my neighborhood walks, I stumbled upon a little café right across from the Pont Neuf Bridge. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the Pont Neuf is the oldest bridge in Paris, and just happens to be about 50 yards from my front door. Across from this monumental bridge is a very subtle café, just on the edge of a little neighborhood park in Place Dauphine. It's a quieter corner of a busy area, which may be what keeps bringing me back to this little place. I've been three times now, and each time I am more satisfied about my experience. On my first visit, I simply ordered an espresso. I was let alone to sit and tend to my studies and sip my café for a solid two hours, uninterrupted. Ah, the joy of French café culture: you can sit somewhere and be left alone! The second time I went to this little café, I had the Tomato and Mozzarella Salad... which is the exact reason I returned a third time. This salad is life-changing. Huge chunks of the freshest buffalo mozzarella are alternated with ripe and juicy red tomato slices, both which encircle a small bed (but more like a love-seat) of fresh greens drizzled with the most genius combination of olive oil and sweetened balsamic vinegar. After I had this salad the first time, I thought about it for a solid week and a half. It comes accompanied with the obligatory basket of fresh baguette slices, perfect for soaking up every last bit of olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
After my third time of sitting in this quiet café around the corner, fully engaged in the heavenly plate in front of me, while writing in my journal and reading schoolbooks, something happened. Instead of the standard "au revoir" that is exchanged upon departure from a restaurant, I got an "à bientôt." This change in salutations is huge, because I went from the "goodbye" customer to the "see you soon" customer. That's right, I did it. I became a regular! As one of my good friends once noted, studying abroad is a succession of miniature triumphs and failures. This was definitely on of the triumphs.

The Eiffel Tower in the midst of its famous Light Show - with the Pont Neuf bridge in the foreground. One of the best things about my living situation by far.

October 24, 2009

Standing Up

Being away from my homeland has taught me many things, but the one specific thing I want to write about now is how being an American has impacted my life abroad.

The other night, I was sitting in a brasserie with a mixture of Americans and Parisians, and we started a conversation about patriotism. Patriotism in the United States makes me think of flying the flag, voting, celebrating the 4th of July, supporting our troops, and practicing and protecting our freedom.

Well, my Parisian conversational counterpart described the fact that, in her opinion, patriotism in France does not really exist. She had not felt patriotic in years until the other day when she participated in a grève, what we call a strike. Most people know strikes to be a preferred pastime, if not a national sport, in France. She also noted that flags only fly at City Hall and other government buildings, not out the windows of her French neighbors.

This made me think a little bit... that maybe citizens of different countries simply have a different idea of patriotism and different ways to express it. I have learned so much about how much French people love Frenchness - more specifically: French wine, French food, the French language, French art, French fashion, French cheese, etc. So who's to say that loving the cultural things of one's country does not show patriotism? Aha! I found my argument. I proposed this idea to her, and I was surprised when I got her response. She said (and pardon my French), "We don't really give a shit about those things. You see people here going to McDonald's all the time here, and no one goes and visits the museums." GULP. What?! Call me crazy, but I'm pretty sure that French people have an appreciation for French culture. I didn't know what to say at this point, but I still stand by my argument that the French appreciate their own culture.

Furthermore, Miss Parisienne explained how the movies and media portray an American idea that we all think that America is going to save the world. We think that everyone needs the "Americans" to help them, because American is the best and only way to be. Pardon moi? She continued to explain how we should just look after our own selves and not worry about everyone else. I saw a problem in her logic, so I begged further explanation by asking, "What's wrong with wanting to help other people who don't necessarily live in one's own country?" She was a bit stifled by this question, luckily. I continued to explain how her idea may be skewed because yes, many Americans want to help other people, but that doesn't mean wanting everyone to be American. I myself am a firm believer in philanthropy, whether you're helping an American or not. I don't think we should see borderlines as barriers when it comes to reaching out. I'm an American, but I don't think wanting to help people in the world means that I want everyone to abide by the rules of American democracy or even adapt an American way of life. This was the idea that she had. I was disappointed, to say the least, that Miss Parisienne had this view of my country. Luckily I was given the opportunity to offer my perspective, and have a real exchange about cultural differences and perceptions.

One thing I've learned while living abroad is how to stick up for what I think. The people of this world are so quick to challenge my foundation, my country, my faith, my personality, and my general way of life. I'm okay with this, because not only does it make for interesting conversation, but it also breaks down stereotypes and the barriers that stand between me and someone different.

I've come to notice that citizens from all over the world are misunderstood. What it takes is a true exchange with an individual in order to find out who they really are. Forget the guidebooks, the textbooks, the journals, the media, and especially the political representatives - the only way to really find out about a place is to get to know its people through true face-to-face interactions.

October 19, 2009

Amis, Connaissances, Rencontres

Friends, acquaintances, and encounters. My time in Paris has become defined by a number of things, the most prominent of which are culture, language, food, the city life, sites, and most of all, people.

Before I left to go on my overnight train ride to Barcelona this past weekend, I was chatting with Madame about feeling anxious for the travels ahead. I had never taken an overnight train - much less by myself. I told her that I was hoping to make some friends, amis, throughout the ride to make it more interesting, and she immediately corrected my vocabulary and insisted I use the word connaissances instead of amis. Connaissances translates to acquaintances. The French are very particular of the difference between friends and acquaintances, as it takes much more time to enter in to the category of a "friend" for them than it does for the typical American. Thus, there was no possible way in her mind that I would be able to make any amis throughout my 13 hour train ride, because that simply wasn't enough time to develop a friendship.
This exchange stayed in my mind throughout my weekend, and I meditated on how my amis, connaissances, and rencontres have shaped my time in Paris. I came to Paris not knowing a single soul here, so I had plenty of room to let others in. I have been amazed, surprised, comforted, challenged, and educated by the people I have come in contact with so far.

I have been blessed with a roommate who not only cheerfully asks how my day was every time she sees me, but even sends me text messages asking if I need to throw in any laundry with hers on a random Tuesday night. She also has accompanied me on social excursions in which I'm not quite confident enough to go alone. This is what I call une amie.
I have spent time curled over in laughter in the presence of the two most opposite personalities, who somehow get along perfectly, as they have shared with me a bit of their time studying abroad. Who knew that eating a sandwich in the shade could be such grounds for good times? Rencontres, Connaissances, Amis.
I have turned around while waiting in the line for the elevator of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona to make pleasant French conversation with a group of ladies from Lyon. I always love finding French people when I travel to different countries, because then I can practice my language while being away from Paris. Rencontre.
A waiter in a cafe has made my afternoon by offering me their free wifi, all while leaving me to my business for a solid 2 hours, uninterrupted. Rencontre.
An English couple at a train station has entertained me during an hour and a half long layover after missing my connected train. They just so happened to know everything about the little town of Portbou in which we were waiting, and I learned that the man was a freelance composer. Connaissances.
The friends from my study abroad program have become my travel companions, lunch buddies, weekend going-out girls, and confidants. I can't be thankful enough to have good friends. Amies.
A few fellow study abroaders from another program in Paris made my 26 hours of time on a train to and from Barcelona worth every minute, just by being nice. Not to mention interesting, hilariously awkward, and full of refreshing conversations. Rencontres, Connaissances, Amis.

I started off scared, then I was surprised, and now I'm overcome with curiosity and gratitude. I am thankful for every single person who has made an impression on me, and my mission is to make it as hard to leave this place as possible. So far, so good.