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Archive for June, 2010

So, let me start off by saying this: I’m so happy to be Europe during the World Cup. Even though I won’t be in a country where the home team is playing a match again until Thursday and my arrival in Berlin, it has been a real wild ride, especially watching our American boys win — and subsequently lose — down there on the pitches in South Africa.

Even better was reading the French newspaper headlines when Les Bleus lost to World Cup host South Africa in the last match of group play. Every paper — even Le Libé, the French socialist/leftist daily — had such lovely post-loss headlines as “Les bleus: L’honte” (“The Boys in Blue: The shame”) and “Pourquoi la France est le pire au Cap” (“Why the French were the worst in Cape Town”). The federal government even ordered a controversial review of the French Football Federation.  It was truly a wonderful moment in French history — VIVE LA FRANCE!

But of course, the best thing about watching the World Cup in France was watching the America v. Algeria game in a bar that just HAPPENED to be an Algerian bar. As in, the bar owners and frequent clientele were all Algerian — Algerian flags, jerseys and cheers. Chris, Char and I — and the awkward American family sitting on the terrace in front of the café — kept our cheering to a minimum, until the American boys scored that great stoppage time goal that sent them on to the next round…only to lose to the Ghana Black Stars, again.

Still, it was a great time, and even though Belgium — where I currently find myself — didn’t qualify for Le Mondial, it still has plenty of vuvuzela-blowing, horn-honking fans of such great remaining teams as Brazil, Portugal and the Netherlands, meaning that night time here is hardly the right time for sleeping. I understand the lingering media fascination with the vuvuzela — it is an obnoxious, grating and all too exciting instrument of fandom, and you can’t help but notice when you hear it, and suddenly you feel like you are taking a direct role in the game, even though it is taking place far, far away.

HOWEVER…

…I am not in Europe to observe the lingering effects of World Cup Football Fandom, as fun as that may be — GEHT DEUTSCHLAND — rather, I am in Europe to see opera and write about it, which is just what I am continuing to do.

Besides visiting such old Parisian favorites as L’As du Falafel, the Caféotheque and my old friend, the Canal St. Martin, as well as spontaneously deciding to march in the Paris Gay Pride Parade,  I also saw Leoš Janáček’s delightful little opera, “The Cunning Little Vixen,” at the Opéra-Bastille.

The Opéra-Bastille is one of those unfortunate buildings that makes you realize anew that no one should have been allowed to build anything between the years 1968 and 1980. Almost any building constructed during that hellish period — please see the UNC-Chapel Hill Pit area and the always disgusting, riot-proof Hamilton Hall — is pretty much ugly and soulless as a rule. It was in one of those buildings that the opera was staged last Friday night.

Fortunately, the whimsical opera was full of life, making the dead space surrounding it lively and joyous. The opera, with a libretto written by the composer himself, is based on a beloved Czech folk comic about, what else, but a witty little fox. The way I’ve explained it to people is that the opera is akin to an operatic adaptation of, say, the American “Garfield” or “Peanuts” comics.

There really isn’t a plot — it’s just a series of colorful sketches featuring the fox, her woodland creature friends, and the hunter who chases her around — but that was okay at the Bastille, because a large chunk of the audience was probably under 13, meaning the usual elaborate operatic type plot lines would have been wasted, anyway. But the set was beautiful — Sunflowers! Train tracks! Oppressive Soviet-Era Chicken Farming Collectives! — and the costumes were really nifty. My favorite were the mosquitos — dressed like macabre milk men with giant syringes and milk bottles full of red liquid. The bourgeois chickens were pretty cool, too, as was the titular Vixen herself — who sang her role quite well.

The youthful nature of the audience was great for my research project; it seemed the Opéra-National de Paris was trying out creative, child-friendly operas presented in cute, inventive ways as a method to launch the opera going careers of younger people. Plus, the ads for the opera were everywhere, complete with a picture of the happily triumphant Vixen and all her cunning animal friends celebrating their takeover of the grumpy old Badger’s house. It looks like a true picture of summer fun, full of zest and wine and vigor. Personally, I’d want to see that opera if I hadn’t already, so I suppose the ad campaign is working.

With my remaining time in Paris, I also got to explore the beautiful Viaduct des Arts, a renovated train viaduct now used as a beautiful  rose-line and trellis-filled park. It was a wonderful discovery on my last day in Paris — until I return in late July, of course — and I’m glad my friends and I decided to explore another side of the city I thought I knew so well. I suppose that’s how Paris works — you think you know it well, and then it surprises you with a new park, a hidden side street or an artfully tucked away public monument to a bygone artist or political leader or scientist.

For now, I’m in Brussels, Belgium, where I’ll be taking in Verdi’s “Macbeth” tonight at La Monnaie de Bruxelles. Brussels is a funny city — but more on that in my next post. Until then, aideu!

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(Almost) Everyone knows that old Josephine Baker song — that’s been covered by Madeleine Peyroux and many other similarly francophile type ladies and gents — about her ongoing love affair with Paris and the States.

J’ai deux amours…mon pays et Paris

And what’s absolutely wonderful is that absolutely lovely song perfectly captures my feelings at the current moment. Readers of this blog will know that, towards the end of my term in La Belle Paris, all I really wanted to do was go home to America again. But now that I’m back in Paris, I realize how much I truly love the city, and how it feels kind of like home, and how perhaps that while I love other cites in America a little bit more than Paris, and I truly love my country, I’ll always hold a special little place in my heart for Paris.

The feeling of coming home, of coming back to Paris after only two weeks away was indescribable, or at least in English. Je suis ici, encore, et tout mais tout va bien.

The parcs, the people, the metro, the language,  the BREAD, the wine, the twisty, tiny streets; everything was here, just as I left it, and it felt so wonderful to see it again so soon.

But I didn’t come back to Paris just to gush about being ‘home’ and get rid of the artificial sense of homesickness that I thought I felt — which I actually did, so no artifice there.

I’m here to see opera, goddammit, and opera I have seen. And maybe some friends and falafel and all night music festivals, too.

I arrived Saturday morning to a chilly and cloudy day in Paris. I wound my way through the all-too familiar city and out to my friend Victoria’s adorable 8éme apartment, where on a fait la bise (cheek kissed) and caught up on all the things in our lives. Victoria is in the city for the summer after a year abroad, working on her senior thesis in art history. Her apartment, and her roommate, are positively lovely, and together we cooked up tasty meals and laughed a lot and had dessert adventures and pleasant late night wanderings and an epic Falafel Off, where we compared different types of delicious falafel in the Marais.

But my stay with Victoria was not to last, as she had other guests to host and a lot of work to do before she leaves the city next weekend. So yet again, I trucked across the to the apartment of a fellow Tar Heel here in the city, where I found a welcome couch to surf and a new friend to show all I know about the hidden side of Paris.

Monday night was the first day of summer, and apparently in France that means La Fête de la Musique: a country-wide, all-night celebration of summer and music and the outdoors. There were concerts and performances and crazy goings-on all over the city, and the metro stayed open all night, which was the most surprising thing of all. We tried to go to one such event, a techno party by the Eiffel Tower, but it turned out to be like a whole bunch of teenaged Euro-trashy kids dancing awkwardly to bad 90s techno music — we’re talking “A Night at the Roxbury” type bad. So, we wandered off into the night, looking for open bars and better music crowds.

We found the former, not the latter, and sat around in the Marais on a cozy little side street full of cafés called Rue de Tresor, talking politics and journalism and absurdity and laughing until we burst and the clocks struck 3 (in the morning, that is). Recognizing that music or not, we had had quite a fête ourselves, we called it a night.

Tuesday was the day for my first of two Parisian opera experiences, this one at the Opéra-Comique, a storied hall of French music legends where such great works as “Carmen” and “Pélleas et Mélisande” (the work I just happened to be seeing) premiered in the past. The Opéra-Comique was mounting a big festival surrounding “Pélleas,” celebrating the 108th anniversary of its first performance. There were talks and discussions and other such things, but the only thing I got to see was the opera itself.

“Pélleas et Mélisande” was Claude Debussy’s only opera, and it isn’t hard to see why. It’s a moody, melodramatic work, and not exactly full of the most tuneful of musical tidbits. In fact, it isn’t a traditional opera in the sense that one would normally think — there really aren’t any arias or duets or chorus pieces or anything. Rather, it is a dark, impressionistic piece full of angst and anger and simmering passion. Staged well, I’m told it can be quite unsettling and moving.

It’s the story of Golaud, Prince of the fictional kingdom of Allemand, and his marriage to the waif-like, mysterious Mélisande, a girl whom he finds crying half-naked by a fountain. She’s crazy then, and she never really gets less crazy, but Golaud is old enough to think to himself that he should just marry her and take her home with him, since his old wife died and he doesn’t expect to do much better than a half-crazed naked girl whom he found crying in the woods.

Careful readers will note, however, that the opera is not called “Golaud et Mélisande,” so of course Mélisande falls quietly in love with Pélleas, Golaud’s beloved — and far more attractive — half-brother. The two conduct a long and drawn out love affair, with lots of lust and angst and unrequited loving very little actual affair — they really only kiss in Act IV, and Golaud makes them do so just before he stabs Pélleas — but Pélleas does have a brief, erm, ‘personal’ moment tangled up in Mélisande’s insanely-long hair as it dangles from her tower window. Mélisande then has Golaud’s bound-to-be unfortunate daughter and dies, crazier than is her usual habit and without forgiving Golaud for killing the only man she ever loved.

Fortunately, the current über-modern production, a new one, was rather stirring, with a pretty great cast and an unusual but effective set of tilted surfaces and a labored lighthouse motif. Not all the cast was good — guy who sang King Arkel, I’m talking about you — but Pélleas in particular was stellar, and Mélisande was annoying and distant enough to make her a completely unsympathetic character, which I think is kind of the point; she doesn’t want to be touched in the first scene or ever, she’s crazy, she never talks about her feelings, so the tragedy that she brings is really everybody else’s fault for taking her from the woods and putting her amongst a kingdom of normally perfectly happy people.

My seats were good, and cheap (!) — 6 euros, really — so I bought a lovely program. This, coupled with the nice program I received for free at Covent Garden, might force me to buy all the programs from my trip. If anything, they will make a nice bookshelf collection that narrates my summer travels.

Next up for me is “The Cunning Little Vixen,” an odd Czech opera opening Friday. I’m seeing the first performance of this production, so here’s hoping it turns out to be a good one.

Until then, you can probably fine me at la Caféotheque, or perhaps Le Select, drinking coffee, reading Le Libé and loving on some midsummer Parisian vibes.

À bientôt!

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Hello loyal blog readers! I know that many of you have been coming here in the last few weeks, expecting glowing, exciting reports from the summer opera trail.

Well, up until last Monday, the only thing you would have read would be my impressions of my brief and chaotic return to the States (lovely, quick and overwhelming) and reports of my incessant jet lag out of my decision to make said return home (probably one of the worst travel decisions I have ever made in my life — this is why I don’t like / don’t know how to travel).

BUT

Now all that changes. Here I am, on the floor of my friend Victoria’s lovely apartment in the 8éme arrondissement of Paris, getting ready for another week of opera exploration and viewing.

Monday night, I bid goodbye to my parents after a whirlwind weekend in Metro Detroit — MOTOWN AND THE 313 GET IT —  and got on what I am going to call the smallest plane I have ever been a passenger on and travelled to not scenic and not lovely Newark, New Jersey, where I awaited my flight to Heathrow Airport in London, England.

Flying into Newark, one cannot help but feel bad for New Jersey. Not only is it a state that everyone loves to hate, it also is right next door to New York, a state and city that is breathtakingly magnificent — it is the Empire State, after all — making the lousiness that is New Jersey all the more apparent. Newark’s airport? Passable. Newark’s skyline? — especially when compared to the staggering skyline that is downtown Manhattan Island — Pathetic.

But I was on to bigger and more European things. I landed in London early Tuesday morning, and groggily wandered through British customs — incredibly Hellish, by the way. I do not recommend flying into England unless you absolutely have to — and took the famous London Tube to meet John, my roommate from my first two years at Carolina. He is staying the city studying British approaches to Imperialism, so he generously offered to let me stay with him during my brief sejour in London — by offered, I mean, I begged him and kind of forced him to accept my request.

Even though I was completely exhausted and felt the need to take an unforeseen four hour nap, I managed to force myself to go for a jog through London, running by Kensington Palace and through Hyde Park. I have to say that, after fiveish months in Paris, I was not prepared for the casual, comfortable sprawl of British parks. French parks are carefully coifed, delicately maintained and full of fierce and furious gardiens, who make sure that visitors don’t use the park in an incorrect way — i.e. walk on the grass or touch a flower or something that disturbs the natural beauty of le beau parc parisien. London? Pish posh. You want to walk on the grass? Go ahead! You want to touch a flower? Hell, pick the damn thing. It’s a park! Admittedly, as a result London parks did seem a little less polished than those in Paris. But it was a wonderful and a good thing to do after flying all day and night.

We then went to a Thai pub — literally a traditional British pub that served Thai food in the back under an awning of fake flowers — with John’s British and Australian roommates and some Carolina friends in town for the summer, and wandered around expensive neighborhoods in Kensington.

Wednesday was my big opera day, so naturally I slept most of the morning. Hooray jet lag! I woke up in the early afternoon, dressed in my very best, and prepared to walk all the way to Covent Garden, taking time to wander though a beautiful and eerie cemetery — albeit one where people were LITERALLY SUNBATHING SHIRTLESS AMONG THE GRAVESTONES — and along the surprisingly tidal Thames River.

It was a great walk, and I got to see both Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, which were at the moment hosting the wonderful weekly Prime Minister’s Questions Session, but it turned out to be a little too far for my 5:00 meeting with the communications director of the Royal Opera House, so I hopped on the tube and rode the last couple of stops to Covent Garden.

Unlike Paris, the London Opera House is tucked away in a weird little alleyway. Granted, it’s big and impressive and beautiful and all that jazz, but it’s hiding in the corner when the Paris opera houses are huge central gathering places — one even has a major metro stop named after it.

The communications director was wonderful, and he gave me a fantastic start for my project. We talked for over an hour, and he gave me some great reading material about the Royal Opera House’s annual budgets and projects and audience outreach efforts. I ran out for a quick dinner alone — in a French restaurant, of all places — and returned for the 7:00 curtain of Bizet’s great “Carmen.”

The opera was pretty wonderful. They did so many things right — the fast-moving Act III, the brilliant Michaela, the quietly serious Carmen — but also did a lot of unnecessary things, too — a live donkey and live black stallion, a not so brilliant Don José, weird rock climbers in the mountains in Act III. It was a great time, and “Carmen” is perhaps the work I know the best out of the 6 that I will see this summer, so I was very happy to get a chance to see it live in such a historic and beautiful setting.

After two more days of London wandering, including trips to the fabulous Tate Modern Museum and the exquisite Kew Gardens in Greater London, I boarded the Eurostar to Paris and returned to that place that I thought I was ready to leave: Paris, France, my home for the last five months.

It’s great to be back here, but I’ll save that for the next post. Until then, my dear readers, know that I am safe, happy and living a life full of beautiful music. This is what summer is meant to be.

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(Cue the sappy travel music and slide show of pictures that my friends took instead of me, because I don’t have a camera)

I love Paris in the springtime.

And I do, I really do. It took me forever to learn how to love it, but now, at the end, I finally love the City of Lights.

I love Paris in the fall.

Okay, I wasn’t here in the fall, but I’m sure it was a pretty time here. I think we can take this particular line to mean that sometimes during the term, things didn’t always work out for the best — my difficulties in finding an apartment, the eternal and incessant cultural issues, monetary concerns, academic ennui, etc. — but in looking back on all of them now, I’m proud of myself for having endured and pushed through and done it. I’m glad to be here,  on the other side of five weird and wonderful months.

I love Paris in the winter, when it drizzles

I think this particular bit is a little upsetting, because this refers to the time of the term when everything was upsetting and I was depressed and not really feeling the whole “France” thing. But when I think about it from here on this squishy, lumpy couch in June, I have to admit that the city began to slowly grow on me during those difficult, rain-soaked weeks when the chilly mist just crept through the edges of your coat and sweater and you felt just terrible. It was hard not to love a city where you could round almost any indiscreet corner and find yourself face to face with a staggeringly beautiful forced perspective of a church or monument or elegant civic structure. It is truly a beautiful city that can look good in the month of February — which, now that we mention it, was perhaps the best February I have ever had. I remember being on the metro with my dear friend Dana and saying to each other, ‘You know what? February is the worst month ever. And this February was the least worst February we have ever had. Life is on the up and up.’

I love Paris in the summer, when it sizzles

Wellsir, I definitely have seen this part of Paris. It has been pretty sticky here during the last couple of days. It isn’t helped by the fact that there were five of us living in a tiny apartment not even really large enough for the three people who actually live here — or rather, I should say lived here; Chris and Claire left for Carolina this morning bright and early out of Charles de Gaulle. And yet, Paris in these last few sizzling, simmering weeks has been positively magical. True, there have been tourists left and right and up and down and everywhere, and true, the metro has been more crowded than ever, but now that I truly know where to go and what to do in this city, none of that seems to matter. Like last night: I met my friend Char for dinner at our apartment, and then we took the metro up to Café Prune on the Canal St. Martin, where I had eaten once with my parents. It was bursting with people, as were the quais of the canal, and we waited a short while until a table became available, shoved between a large group of Americans, a French couple on a date and a meeting of young neighborhood mothers getting drinks while their infant children looked on from their laps. Apparently, Café Prune doesn’t serve food-type full meals during the week, so we ordered two glasses of Chardonnay and a delicious cheese plate, and then walked over to the Marais to L’As du Falafel, where we commandeered two portions of the best falafel in Paris. This was followed up by a walk to Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, where we ate said falafel, wandering over later to Place St. Michel to stop by the small Turkish café there called “Welcome to Istanbul,” where Char used her formidable Turkish skills to order us killer Turkish coffee and desserts. She told my fortune in the grains — hard times ahead, but luck sprinkled here and there to balance it out — and then we strolled on home. It was a scrumptious Parisian dinner adventure quest, and the weather was pleasant and so was the city.  I’ve worked hard to be able to have casual, enjoyable evenings like this here, and it feels ever so good to have them.

I love Paris every moment…every moment of the year

Okay, this one is a lie. I haven’t seen Paris every moment of the year, and I definitely didn’t like it here in the early part of spring when things were grey and gross and life was upsetting. But I’m coming back in a few short weeks, so my nascent love affair with the city can renew itself.

I love Paris, why, oh why do I love Paris?

The thing is, I don’t know why. I don’t even know if I really do, despite the entirety of this post and most of this blog saying otherwise. Cities are weird places. Some love you right away, whether or not you love them back, and especially if you do — I’m looking at you, San Francisco. Some love you until winter hits, and then they hate you with a blustery, unbearably snowy passion — Chicago, that’s you. Some want you to love them, even though nobody seems to except out of an obligatory hometown pride — Detroit, I love you, we’ve talked about this already. But Paris…Paris just keeps on going, knowing that it is the City of Love and the City of Lights without doing much about it anymore. Life in Paris is full of problems and quirks and annoying odd jobs and unusual cultural interactions and social procedures. Paris has so many visitors, she doesn’t notice the real temporary residents. If you aren’t from Paris originally, she will never really be yours, and if you are from Paris, she will never be what you want her to be. If Paris is the City of Love, it has that moniker because it mimics so much of the intricate details of a real romantic relationship: dazzling first impressions, swooning first quarter, annoying habits in the midway point and always a constant refusal to change for you (I didn’t say it was necessarily a successful romantic relationship).

I don’t think I’ll ever really figure out Paris, and I think I’ll be okay with that. I also will never figure out what I can take away from this term. People go abroad for different reasons — to run away from something, to come home, to grow up and prove that they can be independent and culturally educated individuals in the globalizing world. You usually don’t find you were looking for when you get there, and you never seem to find it no matter how long you stay there, because the things you left behind keep calling you back, wanting you to fly home right away and resume your daily duties and responsibilities and routines, because they miss you so much. Through it all, you grow up and learn about all the things you didn’t think you would miss, and about how life is really just a series of strangely connected circumstances in random order, the kind of random circumstances that a big transition to somewhere different can really upset.

You remember all the things that happened — the meeting of the angry French feminists in the workers’ hall basement, the palm tree in the shower, the never-ending dinner parties, the bottles of wine by the canal and by the river and on the steps of the church on top of of the biggest hill in the city, the museums, the bread, the homeless men, the runs, the parks, the life.

And you come home, and maybe come back again, but look forward to the end.

Which, of course, is now.

FIN

(Stay tuned for my return Stateside, my transition between the spring term and the summer opera adventure, and my continued adventures in Europe starting next Monday.)

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To begin with, I’m now, at this very moment, done with my term abroad at l’Institut d’Études Politiques, or SciencesPo. Yes, I am still in Paris and yes, I have not yet come home, but let’s be frank: the academic work of this semester is over. I took my last final and walked out of 27 Rue Saint Guillaume for the last time.

I am now allowing myself a small moment of celebration.

But as the term comes to close, and I find myself currently living in another part of Paris in an place not entirely my own, I must look back at the place that I called home for more than five lovely and unusual months: the apartment in the back of the first floor of the last building at the dead end of  Cité d’Hauteville in the 10éme Arrondissement of the Right Bank of Paris, France.

It was an unusual apartment, found in an unusual way. Craigslist isn’t always the  most reliable of classified sources, especially aboard — Bay Area, I’m looking at you, you lucky city with your reliance on successful and legitimate Craiglisting — but when I looked at the apartment back in January, I knew : this was an apartment that would inspire many a humorous and witty story. As a fan of storytelling, I dove in and signed the lease.

My apartment, with its huge kitchen, oddly placed skylights and peculiar layout, was home to many a dinner party and stray international guest. It was where I learned to love Paris, where I hid when it was cold and nasty outside and from where I planned my day trips and morning runs and summer opera adventure.

It is where I made my parents a delicious Easter dinner, toasting each other over a bottle of light French wine and eating a superb pear-gorgonzola tart with caramelized onions.

It is where I dealt with the antics of a silly but lovable cat, Flocon, feeding him, petting him and making sure he didn’t flee the apartment at the sign of an open door.

It was a magical, wonderful place to live. From now on, whenever I think of Paris, I’ll think of Cité d’Hauteville, and Flocon, and Gregoire the Palm Tree and my life in Paris.

And I’ll smile.

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