Friday, January 30, 2009

Moment of Reflection in Metro Station

I am switching metros at the biggest station in Paris, where five metros and three suburban trains converge and where you can get lost just looking for a way to get out. Châtelet spans two arrondissements, and is always busy, no matter what time of day. Unfortunately, rush hour is just starting.

It's a traffic jam of people going all different directions. There seem to be an unreasonable number of people lugging suitcases, babies, and big packages. This slows down things even more. To top it all off, one of the major escalators is closed for renovation. So all up-down traffic is condensed to a staircase that is usually only reserved for down traffic. It's bottle-necking at its worst.

Finally I spill out at the top of the staircase and mentally prepare myself. I will need to fight my way to the moving sidewalk. But something stops me.

It's not the music, because metro musicians are nothing new. The real show stopper is all the newspaper. I don't know how and I don't know why, but for some reason the free nightly papers are scattered all over the ground, maybe hundreds of them. Then there is music, which is definitely part of it. An older man playing the double bass, singing blues. Then there are the people, hurrying and scurrying every which way.

The scene is totally bizarre, and I am the only one who realizes it. I pull off to the side and stand against the wall to observe. Thirty seconds ago, the only question of my mind was : "why is everyone walking so effing slowly?!" Now I have bigger questions of my mind. I wonder where all these people are going? I wonder how all these newspapers got here? I wonder where he learned to play the bass? And why he's here and all that. I stand for a couple minutes and think about these things.

I've never given a metro musician money, but this time I do. Maybe I'm paying him for being part of this peaceful moment I had while everyone else was wrapped up in chaos.

Merci beaucoup, bonne soirée he sings to me as I hop on the moving walkway. I flash him a thumbs up sign and get lost in the crowd.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

$.25 Poorer

Today one of the students stole one of my quarters, and I cried.

I didn't let them see my cry. When I first realized I was missing a few, I very sternly demanded all 29 of my state quarters back, threatened that no one would leave for lunch until I had every last one. I got 28. For the next 15 minutes, the kids dumped out their pencil cases, turned their pockets inside out, and crawled under desks in search of the missing quarter. More time passed, and it became evident that the it would not materialize. I had no choice. I had to let them go to lunch. I can't starve children.

So they left, and I cried. Not because I miss my quarter. Because I work hard for them, and this class just doesn't care. Because I thought of them before I even knew them, because I lugged a coin purse full of quarters in my suitcase. Because I know money is cool to kids, and wanted each to be able to hold his or her own coin. Because the thief went to lunch with everyone else, knowing that he or she got away with it. Mostly, I cried because I still thought these kids were innocent and respected me. Because I was wrong.

The other teachers reminded me how difficult this group has been since they were in preschool. They are the terror of every teacher who has to teach them. And it's true that 28 out of 29 students returned the coins. But that doesn't change the fact that from now on, whenever I teach this class, I will always remember that one of them is a thief.

I tried to not let the quarter thief ruin my other classes, but nothing could be done. I was grumpy and upset. I didn't give everyone the energy I usually do. My last class was the worst. I was so mean to the poor kids, who were a little rowdy, but not too much. At the end of class, I told them they were bratty the whole time and I don't think they learned anything.

But we did! They said.

Oh yeah? What did you learn.

We learned all about quarters! And George Washington is on the front, and a P means it was made in Philadelphia, and a D means it was made in Denver, and every state has their own quarter and there is a picture on the back that represents that state, and the date on the top is the date when the state became part of the United Sates and the date on the bottom is when it was made!!

I can't be certain, but I think this class does respect me, at least a little bit. At least they were excited to learn new things. At least they didn't steal my quarters. I am sorry I was mean to them. I will try harder next time not to be mean to kids that are good.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Trains, trains and trains

I always arrive three to four minutes early to catch my train to work. Either the train is sitting on the track, ready for an exceptionally punctual departure. Or, the train is not sitting on the track. ::big sigh:: It will probably be five minutes late. Or ten. Or twenty. Or more.

I arrive to the station today to see no train. Everyone is standing around looking like they don't care. About five minutes after the train was supposed to have left, there is an announcement. The train departing from track 35 towards Valmondois will depart in 20 minutes. Everyone still looks like they don't care. Don't these people have places to be at on time? I am annoyed and call the school's director to tell her I will be late for class.

"It's always the same story with the train," I tell her. Because I was late on Friday for the exact same reason. "You've got the worst luck," she tells me. "See you soon."

I don't consider trains being on time a matter of luck. Later, when I apologize again to the director and the teacher whose class got cut short, they tell me not to worry about it. "I know this line, it always has problems," says the director knowlingly. "C'est la France," shrugs the teacher.

I try to explain to them that this excuse would never fly in the states. This is how it works: work starts at XX:XX time. Be to work at XX:XX time. Late train once? Okay. Late train twice? Yeah right.

The school doesn't seem to care about the late train situation, but I can't help that I do. I feel like it reflects on my own punctuality, my own reliability. I vow to take the 30-minutes-earlier train. If it is late, then I will be on time for work.

I still feel bad about being late when I leave school. I arrive to the station to take the train home when I realize the next three trains to Paris are supprimé (canceled). Oh come on. Are you serious? No explanation really, just a bunch of people standing around. Unlike this morning, these people look disgruntled. Three canceled trains is a little ridiculous, even for France.

I am about to get really pissed when an surprise train towards Paris comes from nowhere. No anouncement or anything. I assume it is going to Paris because trains to Paris go that way. Fortunately, I am correct. All right then. I forgive you, train. You have kind of redeemed yourself.

As I am leaving the train station to catch the metro home, I receive a handbill explaining that there were electrical problems today. I am kind of happy to have an explanation, even though it doesn't matter anymore. And honestly I don't feel that bad about being late for work anymore. Just because, well c'est la France.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Extremely French Things I Did This Week

- Wandered around the Louvre
- Had a wine and cheese lunch with my coworkers
- Caught myself wearing almost all black
- Ate a crêpe
- Visted a castle

Monday, January 19, 2009

Dimanche Parisien

On Sunday, everything in France is closed. Your Sunday entertainment options are limited to sitting at a café, going for a walk, or doing some open-air market shopping. My roommate and I headed to the market. Our fridge was empty, we were expecting a dinner guest, and the grocery stores were closed.

Every market I've been to in France feels the same. It's way more cramped and hectic than a farmer's market. Not only can you buy fresh produce, but also underwear, mousetraps, and freshly slaughtered meat, among other things.

As we were walking there, my roommate spotted the most stereotypical French couple either of us have ever seen. They were wearing only black and looked like models. Very trendy market shoppers. As if it were more a matter of being seen looking good rather than a matter of buying some meat, underwear and mousetraps. I, on the other hand, had just taken a shower, and went out with wet hair. I think this is considered blasphemous to the French. They always look good in their trendy black garb, their makeup and their hair parfait.

As my roommate and I decided what to cook, it started pouring. This is seriously so Parisian. It flipping always rains here. Paris has nothing better to do than to dumb grey icky rainy weather on people all the time. Neither of us had an umbrella, so we were in trouble. The market was almost closing, so we pushed on. Meanwhile, we saw the chic French couple from before, but in a panic. The woman had lifted her shawl-coat-trendy-thing over her head to protect her hair.

We got some veggies and waited in line to buy some meat. An old French dude selling wine tried to convince us to buy some to add to the soup we were making. We told him we aren't making soup, we are making Chinese tonight. He got offended. The French are really serious about their cuisine. He rambled a bit about that, then invited us to come to his château (castle) to work the welcome desk. We can live there, he says. A bit creepy, but harmless. The meat counter where we were waiting was already closed, so we tried to find another.

We finally did find someone still selling chicken. The meat woman hated us. She was mad that we were buying so little chicken. She wanted us to buy the whole tray, which was probably 10 or 15 pounds. At first we say we'll take two pieces, but realize that is too much, so ask for just one. She was pissed. She dramatically grabbed one piece of chicken with her bare hand and whipped it back into the case. Customer service nonexistant. So French.

The whole Sunday was French. The market, the blackly dressed couple, the rain, the old rambling man, the mean meat lady. I felt like I got a really good culture day in.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Quelle Chance!

I arrived to my new apartment, my third place of residence in three months in France, feeling kinda glum. There wasn't a bed. There were two crummy mattresses on the floor that looked about 100 years old. It was depressing.

But France is teaching me to go with the flow. I made a big shopping trip to Ikea, where I bought nifty protective coverings and crisp new sheets. I covered up the old mattresses and felt better. I didn't care that they were old anymore.

I didn't care until yesterday. Yesterday, when I became certain the mattresses have bedbugs. I itch everywhere. I know a lot about bedbugs, thanks to a heartbreaking This American Life episode about a family who couldn't shake them. I know you pretty much have to throw away the mattress to be certainly sure the bedbugs are gone.

My landlord is a bit weird, and I'm not sure he'll buy me a new mattress. He didn't even give me a bed. If I were here longer, I would buy my own. But a mattress isn't a practical investment right now. And I live on the 7th floor, no elevator, so I would have to deal with getting the new mattress up here.

I am falling into one of my I HATE FRANCE!!!!! moods, which happens semi-frequently. Why do I have to have bedbugs? Why me? I hate you France, I hate you. I hate you and your stupid French bedbugs. You are ruining my life.

When our neighbor is over for tea tonight, we talk about the bedbugs. Coincidentally, she just bought a new futon. The delivery guys are coming Saturday. They were going to take the old one. But do I want to just take it?

Saturday the bedbugs will be gone. Even though I have to sleep with them for a couple more days, I don't even care. Because I think I really like France now. It's not so bad. In fact, it's great. It's nice to have a little bit of luck.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Brushing up on my French Traditions

French people love to have me try their food. I love it, too. It really boosts my French culture points, and (usually) it's delicious. The funny part is when they don't necessary realize that other French people may have already introduced me to it.

Take "Galette des Rois," which is King Cake. It's eaten throughout the month of January. To divvy up the slices, the youngest person has to go under the table and call out who gets which piece. It's to be fair. There's a little charm hidden inside, and whoever has it is the queen or king. That person gets a crown, then has to crown someone else. Then those two have to cross arms and drink. **tangent: Meanwhile, everyone has ditched their spoons and has started eating the cake with their hands. I'm not sure why we are eating this cake with spoons in the first place, it's flakey and quite difficult to cut with the edge of a spoon. An old roommmate told me it's because French people don't like to use the same silverware twice in one meal, so forks aren't really an option. Whatever.**

I might have gotten all this information wrong. But I've eaten I think five Galette des Rois since I've been here. And this is how it all generally goes down. What's the date today? Oh yes, it's the 10th. And I have already tried this delicious French dessert five times. I'm not complaining. It's good. I even had a kosher one, which I think was the best. It's just The dessert right now, especially when a non-French person is at the table. I think I might be gaining a few pounds from all this cake. Ooops, I'm in France. I mean kilos.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Letter to my Mother

Dear Mom,

I did something very bad. I'm not even sure you want to know, but I feel like I have to tell you. I must preface this by saying I know this isn't how I was raised. It's not your fault.

I bought a pair of boots. And they weren't on sale. Not even close. I paid full price, and that price was a lot.

I'm sorry. I know the whole point of buying something is getting a deal. To be able to say: "I bought this for $10, but it was originally $80!!" (Although you never would have spent $80 on that in the first place). I know a pair of shoes or egg-shaped egg beater is exponentially cuter if you have paid less than 60 percent of the original price. I know you aren't even supposed to look at the normal-priced things in a store.

But mom, these boots were just different. I have wanted a nice pair of leather boots for sometime. And I tried to be a good daughter by waiting until the big sales started. And I went to the big sales and found these perfect boots. The only problem was that they were in the "non sale" section.

There were also some boots I kinda sorta liked for half the price. But I wanted boots that I really liked. So I thought hard and made the decision. I bought the expensive ones.

Thanks to your motherly influence, this was not easy. Then I thought about all the money I must have saved from a life of shopping the sales. And I figured just this once, it would be okay to pay a lot.

You may not agree that I made the right decision. That's okay. Regardless, we will always be mother and daughter. And don't worry, it will probably be many years before I buy something not on sale again.


Sunday, January 04, 2009


I think I got culture shook last night. A couple Americans and I stumbled upon a protest to the Israeli attacks on Gaza. At first we saw a pillar of fire and a crowd of people. Someone said something about a car being on fire. Surely not, I thought. You hear about people lighting cars on fire, but come on, does that really happen in this civilized city?

Turns out that I know very little about violence. After we watched the fire fighters douse the first burning car, we wandered down the street. It was complete mayhem. More burning cars, even more flipped over. Store and restaurant windows, phone booths, bus stops were shattered. People were pillaging a cell phone store. Pieces of mannequins scattered amongst signs reading "Israel Assassin."

It was very clear that what started out a protest became a game of smash and burn. In a safe area of Paris, a place where you might go shopping or grab a coffee. Transformed into havoc, while bystanders like me wandered around, snapping photos with their camera phones.

I don't think I've digested it yet. I don't understand how destroying someone's car or enterprise makes a point. I don't understand why they weren't stopped. Hundreds of police stood on the perimeter. And stood and stood and stood. I can't get over that.

I constantly force myself not to compare this country to America. But I couldn't help it last night, thinking to myself "this would never happen in America, things would never get this far, these people would have been stopped before they destroyed so much." But I guess there's nothing to say it couldn't happen. The real point is that I've never witnessed it at home.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Chicken Nuggets: Two Not-Really Reflections

1. Usually I get sweet & sour sauce with my American McDonald's Chicken Nuggets. At Paris McDo, I asked the cashier to list their sauces. I didn't hear anything slightly resembling my usual preference, didn't want bbq or mustard, so went for the myserious "Chinese Sauce." For some reason, I figured it would be some sort of soy sauce. Am I crazy for thinking that? Because surprise, surprise, it was really sweet & sour!! Miam miam. Really lucked out with that one. Also French McDo is effing expensive, but it's supposed to be better quality stuff. My McNugget meal was €6.20, and Yahoo's currency calculator tells me that is about $8.62. Thankfully all my income is in euros, not dollars.

2. Back when I was studying in Lyon about two years ago, I was standing in line at the dining hall. The French people in front of me were debating whether they should get the chicken nuggets or the other option. They decided on chicken nuggets for whatever reason. I remember standing there, thinking it was the first French conversation I understood in its entirety. Then, reflecting on how long I had studied French, and how hard I had worked to make progress. All to understand some boring conversation about chicken nuggets. It was a bit of an "ah yes! But… oh" moment.