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Archive for May, 2010

Yes, the weather was lousy this weekend. Yes, this was my last weekend in my apartment in the 10th. Yes, I had my first final on Thursday.

But despite all of this, the weekend was a fantastic one, because my Berlin-based friend, Tim, came back for a second action-packed weekend of Parisian adventures.

Wednesday night, I took the RER — regional express train, kind of like the metro but not as nice and kind of weird and sketchy at times — out to the Charles DeGaulle International Airport, where Tim was waiting on the train quai. We got right back on that train — it’s a really expensive ticket, but if I stayed in the train system I didn’t have to pay, hat tip to my friend Claire for that helpful hint that would have been really useful for retrieving my parents back in April — and took it to Gare du Nord and my neighborhood, where we celebrated our reunion with an expresso and a delicious plate of gorgonzola and pear.

Thursday, we traipsed on over to the Musée d’Orsay for some art watching — finding time to run into somebody I know from UNC who is in town for a summer project on ballet, waiting in line outside the museum, crazy tiny world that this is — and I went off to take my first of two finals.

It wasn’t terrible — multiple choice and an 11-page essay on media models in transition, in English — and it feels good to be that much closer to being finished with school.

We spent our Friday picnicking in the Jardin de Plantes, drinking coffee at La Caféotheque and avoiding hordes of tourists in the Louvre — it helps when both you and your guest can get into museums for free, yay European youth benefits! — finishing up with a victorious second attempt at the strawberry-asparagus tart — more butter, almond powder and creme fraiche this time — and a movie outing at the Action Écoles Cinema to see Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.”

Saturday, more coffee wanderings, coupled with a marvelous and lively rendition of Manhunt on Ile-Saint-Louis. More epic chase sequences, more distracted and angry tourists and more sweating international young adults meant a fantastic game. Plus, at one point I avoided being tagged by rounding a street corner and ducking between rows of school children on a field trip, using their adorable small size and charming tendency to hold hands to create a tiny human barrier between me and my huntress. It was quite, quite epic.

We ended the day with some delicious asparagus risotto chez moi and a happening party at the uber-posh apartment of one of my journalism program friends who lives right next door to the Eiffel Tower. The party was a lot of fun, and Tim actually found a girl from his hometown of Dusseldorf — a girl who had been in my French language class here — with whom he shared a lot of mutual friends.

Capping off our weekend of adventuring with a delicious Sunday brunch at Breakfast in America in the Latin Quarter — so much American drip coffee and a big pile of raspberry-coconut-white chocolate chip pancakes YUM — we again rode the RER to the airport, saying goodbye only until July 1, when I will be staying with Tim in Berlin as part of my European Opera Adventure.

This week will see me:

1) Moving out of my apartment

2) Taking the LAST final of the year

3) Going to see “Rear Window” at Action Écoles

4) Running along the Seine

Stay tuned, dear readers — la fin va arriver!

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Today is yet another religious holiday here in France —meaning closed shops, empty avenues and general public bliss. Granted, I no longer have school in the first place, so holidays here don’t really affect me any more beyond their frustrating tendency to close grocery stores on days in which I desperately need food items (like today), but I will give the French a break. It’s a beautiful day, and it was a beautiful weekend and everyone loves a holiday.

My weekend was a kind of holiday itself, as my dear friend Allison arrived on a train at the Gare du Nord from London, where she is taking part in a UNC Maymester summer program, studying theatre and education and generally being British. I haven’t seen Allison since December, and this was the first time we have spent time together outside of Chapel Hill, so it was absolutely fantastic to have another visitor with whom to enjoy the flawless spring weather here in Paris.

Our weekend was lazy and lovely and full of fun excursions. On her arrival Thursday night, we shared a delicious and très français dinner of ratatouille, citrus salad, baguette, wine and a fantastic strawberry-asparagus tart with our fellow Carolina scholar, Char. The food was great and we all enjoyed ourselves immensely.

Friday, I had to finish up my third day of opera research at the Médiatheque Mahler, so I deposited Allison in Parc Monceau, where she caught up on some assigned reading and enjoyed French people watching. We then headed off to the Champs-Élysées, where we took pictures of the Arch de Triomphe and wandered in and out of fancy-looking stores. Dinner was a picnic with friends in the Jardin de Luxembourg, followed by a trip to the Tour Eiffel for photos and gawking. So, it was pretty much a perfect, touristy day.

We decided to visit the Musée de Louvre on Saturday, heading there in the early afternoon and wandering around the rooms in the less-popular wing before braving the sweaty hordes in the Italian art wing. We then prepared for our epic picnic date in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont — something I owe Allison from a botched date attempt at a school banquet last fall — which was tasty and elegant and a true delight. Later, we met up with some of my friends for wine and conversation on the quais of the Seine, just underneath the shadowy and towering Notre Dame.

Allison informed me before she came to Paris that she had a few things she needed to see: the Tour, the Louvre, a baguette and Versailles. While I had seen and done and eaten most of those things, I had never been to Versailles, the epic and monumental palace of the former Kings of France, located just outside of Paris proper. So naturally, it seemed that now was the time to go. With Char and an elaborate picnic lunch we purchased from a market by the Tour — including a ridiculously delicious apple tart — we boarded the train and headed out to Versailles.

The lines were very, very long and the people very, very sweaty and high in number. Part of this comes from the weather — it was a legitimate 80-something degrees Fahrenheit yesterday in Paris — but part of it just stemmed from the palace. Inside was beautiful — the Hall of Mirrors, the galleries, the chapel, the fantastically elaborate meeting rooms and salons — but our favorite part was the park and gardens that stretched out behind the chauteau for miles upon miles of boundless, perfect green.

Hedge mazes, lagoons, canals, fountains, guest houses, statues and more tumble outward from the back of the palace, arranged in perfect geometrical shapes and patterns. We spent a few hours in the park, stopping in hidden cafés in hedge mazes, walking along narrow paths and marveling at the endless green that encircled us everywhere we looked. It was a magical end to a magical weekend.

With a hearty hug and a happy smile, I sent Allison back to England this morning, with both of us looking forward to August in Chapel Hill.

But I’m still here, and my time in Paris is not yet over. True, my rent is up in seven short days, and I only have two finals and three weeks separating me from my summer opera adventure, but I plan to use this stretch of flawless spring weather to truly enjoy the end of the chapter in my life called Paris.

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Whew.

It’s been quite a week. I must apologize for my long absence from this blog. What, with classes at SciencesPo finally ending, my summer planning getting into high gear and the arrival of my high school chum Charlotte for a weekend in Paris, I’ve been out and about and moving around and hardly had any time to keep you, my dear readers and friends, updated on the goings-on in my life.

And as I’ve said above, it’s been a wonderful week. True, the weather was iffy, and true, when it wasn’t rainy the tourists came out in droves, but I had many wonderful adventures and now will do my best to relay some of them to you.

Classes ended last Wednesday — or at least our journalism program ended; I still had a class on Friday — so the director of our program took everybody, and I mean everybody — all the students, many of the professors and even our guest speaker for the day in French reporting, British author Stephen Clarke — out for drinks at a lovely little bar close to the journalism school. We all had a fantastic time getting to know our professors in a more informal setting, and afterwards all the students went to Rue Mouffetard, a student area in the Latin Quarter, to continue the evening.

It was weird to think that our program was over, and here we all were, in a bar in Paris, realizing for perhaps the first time that we really did enjoy one another’s company. We parted ways Wednesday, agreeing to meet up again for dinner parties and such before we all fly off to our respective home countries in June.

Thursday was a lazy day, as I waited for my old Cranbrook  friend Charlotte to arrive from Ireland for our madcap weekend in the city. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a fantastic afternoon playing a game of extreme urban hide and go seek tag on Île Saint-Louis — because I did.

The game, called ‘Manhunt,’ was brought to us from Montreal by our friend Alain, an exchange student from Concordia University there. Essentially, the game is this: players assemble in a public square and count off in an ‘eeny-meeny-miny-moe’ type fashion until all players have been counted out. Upon getting counted out, the player takes off running as fast as they can, and the last person standing is ‘it.’ The person who is ‘it’ must then tag all the other players, with each subsequently tagged player also becoming ‘it’. Finally, there is one player left, who must avoid all other players until the round’s time limit is reached and all players return to the starting point.

All players must wear some kind of identifiable arm band — we chose plastic bags of various colors — to make it easy to see the player in a crowd of people. Players must stay outside, in public places, within a defined playing area. We chose the Île Saint-Louis, one of the two main islands in the Seine. The island is mostly residential, with no metro stops, few access points and lots of tiny, twisty streets. Along with the Île de la Cité — the island on which the famous Notre Dame resides — Île Saint-Louis is often cited as the place where the city of Paris began hundreds of years ago.

And for us, the Île Saint-Louis was the birthplace of one of our new favorite games.

We ran around the islands for a few hours — half of the island on the second round, seeing as the whole island was far too big for the small amount of players — dodging tourists, hiding behind cars and sprinting away from our plastic-bag wearing antagonists. At the end, we all agreed to play it again, and soon.

That came later, but first I had to pick up Charlotte from the Porte Maillot bus stop. Charlotte, one of my good friends from high school, was visiting Paris and staying with me at the tail end of her end of term European tour. She spent her spring term in Bologna, Italy, but realized she couldn’t leave the continent before visiting Paris.

We had a fantastic weekend, visiting parks, having picnics, exploring the Musée d’Orsay on the once-a-year free museum night — La nuit de musées — and most importantly, playing Manhunt on Île Saint-Louis. This time however, there were many more players — and with the warmer weather, the island was covered in tourists.

By the time we finished playing in the early afternoon, it was clear to us that the tourists on the island were sick of the crazy kids yelling and screaming and hiding behind cars. I must add, however, that there was a small coterie of island-goers who got into the game, yelling encouraging thoughts and discreetly warning us when another player was close by.

Sure, I could talk more about our weekend adventures — the tasty croque monsieurs at Le Select, the most delicious croissants in Paris near Place de la Bastille, the delightful picnic in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, the Sunday night showing of “It Happened One Night” at the Cinéma Action Christine, the spectacular frittata we cooked for dinner one evening — but just know that we had a fantastic time.

Now, it’s just me and Paris for a few days — most of my friends in the city are off having continental adventures of their own, and my Carolina friend Alison doesn’t arrive until Thursday night — but that’s alright. I’m looking forward to researching opera at the Mediathéque Mahler, running around the canal and cooking tasty meals for one, among the other things that have come to define my time in Paris.

I have just under a month left in this chapter of my life, and I’m going to make the most of it. If you happen to come to Paris in the next few weeks and seek to find me, go to the Île Saint-Louis. I’ll probably be there, with a plastic bag on my arm, hiding behind a car.

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Not much has really happened since my last post. Finished the school week, had a weekend, bought some opera tickets for my summer research project, took a nap I didn’t want to take — you know, lived the life in Paris.

Mostly, I just wanted to have a post with the French title you see above. (Run it through your translator if you don’t read French) The title refers to the strange Act 3 of “La Calisto,” a Baroque Italian opera about the Roman myth behind the creation of the Ursa Major and Minor constellations. I could dissect the plot, or explain some of the strange sets and costumes and the like, but mostly, I think it’s important to know that the titular character gets transformed into a bear at the beginning of the third act. And in this production, at the beautiful Art Deco Theatre des Champs-Elyssées, the bear is huge, fuzzy and astonishingly pink.

The production was better than any of us expected — I went with a small section of my French music and politics class as a make-up session — and we all enjoyed ourselves immensely. If anything, it made me excited about my coming summer research project.

The rest of the weekend was fairly straightforward. Saturday, I visited my friend Elizabeth out in the suburbs, where she and I made chocolate chip cookies and had tea with her absolutely adorable French host family. I was pleasantly surprised with how much of a normal conversation in French I was able to have with her parents — including the father, who is an alum of SciencesPo — and we both enjoyed how much the family loved our cookies, which they called “très Americain,” in a good way.

Saturday night was simple — went to a friend’s house, shared dinner and watched obscure Yugoslavian short films from the latest film issue of my favorite magazine, “The Believer.”

Sunday was student brunch day with a random group of French, Canadian and American friends —  a fact which I initially forgot and thus ate breakfast in the morning before the brunch — but my friend Claire and I rented some nifty Velib public bikes and biked along the Jardin de Luxembourg to get to the brunch cafeteria. I even got to bike back, which was a lot of fun. In fact, I might bike later this evening.

This post is kind of random, I realize, and I haven’t really explained anything at all about my weekend, but tant pis. It was a good weekend, and there was a big pink bear involved. So, all is good.

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Well, it’s finally here. The final — almost — week of classes at SciencesPo for the term has started, and although I have a few makeup sessions next week, I am virtually done with class in France, with only two finals — one on May 27 and the other on June 3 — standing in the way of me and my European opera adventure this summer.

Research papers written, classes attended and grades distributed, it’s hard to believe that the term is over so soon — not thinking, of course, of my friends back in Chapel Hill, who are already moving out this week as they take the last of their spring term finals.

But just because the academic side of my term abroad is winding down, doesn’t mean I’m running out of things to do. In fact, this past weekend was one of the most exciting and interesting I’ve had yet in France.

It started out on Friday, when my friend Dana and I had a lazy Friday evening in which we moved her things from one room to another — her landlady is moving in with her — and ate a a delicious batch of eggs and hash browns. We ended the night by watching old Nickelodeon shows and realizing how they are much funnier in memory then in repeat reality, and then decided to meet the next day at Place de la Republique for the Fête du Travail.

The Fête du Travail — known in the States as May Day — is a big party for the left-wing/labor forces in France, Europe and most of the world except America. In Paris, the celebration involves big parades of workers’ syndicates, left-wing parties and anarchists marching between Place de la Republique and Place de La Bastille, demanding retirement rights, higher wages and similar such things.

Mostly, though, it’s just a big, old fashioned protest-party. Whole families come out to dance with Turkish and Kurdistan Communist groups, as  anarchist radicals rub shoulders with leaders of the main French left-wing political organization, the Parti Socialiste. Food vendors sell delicious sandwiches and the cafés were full to bursting.

Dana and I decided that it was really neat that the left wing factions in France are strong enough to have a day just to themselves for celebration and peaceful demonstration. We also noted the relatively low police presence, and realized that the United States simply doesn’t know how to have demonstrations that are just for demonstrating’s sake.

Soon, we grew tired of the craziness, and decided to head over to somewhere a bit quieter — the Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Père Lachaise, a world famous cemetery in which such luminaries as Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison and some random clown from the early 20th century are buried, was on both of our Paris Bucket Lists — or, the series of things we feel we must do here before the term is over, now the end is in sight and we both have fallen in love with the city.

Together with Dana’s friend Charles, we wandered around for a few hours, relishing in the silence and quirky charm of the place. Narrow, named avenues wind past stately oaks and through rows of stoic gravestones and family mausoleums, ending sometimes in epic monuments to former Russian countesses or maybe the French writer who penned Aesop’s fables. It was a lovely antidote to the chaos of the fête du travail, and Dana and I finished our Saturday eating cereal for dinner and watching “The Jungle Book” in my apartment.

Sunday was sunny, so I went for a great run along the canal, and when I came back, I got to meet my new roommate, the current inhabitant of Djelloul’s old room. Her name is Elissa, and she is a young architect from Barcelona, Spain. Already, I feel that we are great friends.

It’s funny — in the few short days that Elissa has lived in our apartment, I already know more about her and have talked to her more frequently than either of the two guys with whom I have lived for almost four months. She’s funny, and gracious, and interesting, and has a really fascinating job with an architecture firm currently competing for a contract with the French Defense Ministry to build a super-secret, underground computer terminal in the countryside outside of Paris.

Best of all, she isn’t a native French speaker, so even though we only speak in French to each other — she insisted her English was laughable at best, and I wouldn’t want to speak in English, anyway — the conversations are animated and enjoyable, because neither one of us has to worry about our little grammatical errors. We both make a lot, but we both understand each other just fine, and I realize that having someone to talk to at home besides Flocon the Cat has made me a much happier person.

Back to school was back to school, so not much to say there, although today I did go to a fantastic coffee shop written up by the New York Times with a friend — I say coffee shop and not café because it really felt like a San Francisco hang out and not a French café — where we shared great conversation and what I am going to call the best cup of coffee in Paris. I will definitely go back again, and soon, and often.

Plus, this evening Dana was nice enough to invite me to a fascinating conference/lecture at SciencesPo given by former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Boutros-Ghali, an Egyptian who served as the Secretary-General from 1992-1996 until the United States forced him out for his inaction during the humanitarian crises that so characterized the mid-1990s, spoke mainly on the subject of Africa in the 21st century. He didn’t really have too many new things to say, but he was really interesting, and I enjoyed that the whole conference was in French and I listened and understood everything like it wasn’t even a big deal. Cause it wasn’t, of course.

More updates on my continuing adventures to come in the following action-packed and soon to be school-free days, but know this, dear readers: j’aime Paris, et finalement, je pense que Paris m’aime, aussi.

Look up that last part, if you really need to. If anything, I hope my blog has taught some of you out there a little bit of French know-how and vocab.

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So, you might say that I’m not the world’s most traditional spring breaker.

For the last two years, I’ve gone to Chicago with various groups of friends in the early frigid part of March, and the year before that, I visited Montreal with my father to check out McGill University. Rather than sun and stereotypical beach lounging, I go to large, northern cities and wonder around in the snow.

But not this year. Even with the evil Icelandic volcano threatening our flights, my friends Chris, Isabella, Katie and I miraculously found ourselves in sunny Valencia, Spain, where we spent a carefree and positively wonderful week being poor, happy university students.

Chris and I left Thursday morning, taking a bus to the small, strange and distant Beauvais airport — literally an hour from the center of Paris — where we were to catch our RyanAir flight to Alicante, Spain. You might know RyanAir as the super-cheap, low cost Irish airline. You might wonder how they manage to make their rates so cheap.

Then you get onboard a RyanAir flight. It is pretty much a bus with wings — not an AirBus, with glamour and comfort — but rather a bus from a poor metropolitan area that takes everyone to somewhere they don’t really want to go, but is somewhat close to where you want to go. Isabella said as much: “RyanAir takes you to places kind of close to desirable destinations, without actually being there.”

But cheap or small or cramped or willing to charge its passengers up to 3 Euros for a bottle of water, RyanAir still did as it advertised and flew us to Alicante, a large regional airport in the south of Spain. Despite the week of cancelled European flights, we flew without trouble, although Chris and I were pretty sure we saw some suspicious looking, smoky ash clouds as we took off from Paris.

From Alicante, Chris and took a regional train to the main Valencia train station, a lovely, Texas-looking, early modernist structure. Valencia is a strange city — a mix between an ancient, walled Iberian town and a bustling, modern metropolis, now the third largest city in Spain. It’s sprawling and expansive; yet it feels as if it isn’t much bigger than a small regional capital. It has a metro, but it’s slow and clean and on time, rather than the faster and dirtier metros of northern Europe.

I suppose Valencia was a good introduction to the general atmosphere of southern Europe. Even though roughly 1 in 4 people in Spain are unemployed, no one seems to mind. Everyone seemed happy and loose, and nobody minded that Isabella and Katie were wearing skirts in public — it was a warm springtime week, after all. Prices were low, food was cheap and the people were pleasant, even though I don’t speak a word of Spanish. All those years of pretending like I could kind of understand and read Spanish turned out to be true make-believe — although in my defense, I must say that the Valencia region speaks a strange, eastern dialect of Spanish that is close to Catalan, so my Spanish skills might still be better than it seems.

Our hostel, named Indigo, was a lovely place, with a big kitchen, clean bathrooms and rooms full of young people from all over the world. For my first hostel experience, it was fantastic. Isabella joined us late Thursday night, and Katie, a friend of Isabella from California, met up with us Friday morning.

From then on, our days were pretty simple: wake up, eat breakfast, buy picnic supplies and head to the beach. After lunch on the beach, we would sun and swim, occasionally pausing for ice cream or coffee breaks in the many beachside cafés and food stands. Evenings were either a cooked meal in the hostel or, on two wonderful nights, traditional Spanish tapas at a little bar in the old quarter of the city.

The tapas deserves its own paragraph. As a coastal town, it was assured that Valencia would have good sea food — a fact which we proved in a delicious lunchtime paella meal one afternoon. But the surprisingly inexpensive tapas place, or small plates bar, served some the simplest, most delicious food I have ever tasted, including a plate of what will probably prove to be the finest mussels I will ever eat. Cheese, lightly smoked ham, squid, octopus, spring eggs, tuna steaks and even surprisingly delicious almond cake greeted us each night. I think it’s a testament to the quality of the tapas at this place that we went there twice, rather than risk missing out on the wonderful quality of the food by seeking out another, less tasty restaurant in the city.

When not sunning or swimming or stuffing our faces, we managed to find time to visit La Ciudad de Las Artes y Las Ciencias, a stunning, modernist museum complex on the edge of the old city. We bought a two day pass, spending a cloudy Sunday at the hands-on sciences museum and massive IMAX theatre and the morning of a sunny beach day at the fantastic aquarium, where we saw many a fish and dolphin.

Mostly, we just relaxed. I realized, while sipping on Sangria on the beach one afternoon, how long it had been since I had had so few responsibilities in my life. Granted, I still had a huge research paper waiting for me in Paris, my summer itinerary to construct and finals to study for, but while in Spain, all I had to do was wake up when I wanted and make sure to apply enough sun screen.

When we flew back Thursday afternoon to Paris — in time to see She & Him, one of my favorite groups, in concert — I’ll admit I was glad to be back in a country where I could read and speak and understand the things cashiers and bus drivers told me, but I definitely felt recharged. I needed to get out of the city  — and my skin was glad for the boost in Vitamin D — but coming back made the whole thing that much sweeter.

Maybe this post is kind of off topic and general, but there aren’t really too many specifics to go into for our trip. It was a simple week, with a simple goal: to relax.

And that’s just what we did.

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