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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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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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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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Hey friends!

Just a quick note to say that I safely made it to the lovely, warm, Mediterranean coastal town of Valencia, Spain, where I will be spending an absolutely heavenly week by the sea, eating seafood, sunning on the beach and having little to no responsbilities.

Such is the life.

I´ll have more details when I get home on Thursday, but for know, please imagine me as I likely am: on a white sand beach, in the sun, with the crystal blue Mediterranean stretched out in front of me and the colorful city of Valencia behind me.

Bisous,

Nick

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So, I have this thing — some might rightly call it a complex — about being a tourist.

While I do enjoy traveling to some extent, and while I continue to preserve every young writer’s romantic fantasy of hitting the highway à la Kerouac’s “On the Road”, I just don’t like the feeling of being obviously out of place that tourism engenders.

I wrote extensively on my feelings on the tourist side of Paris in an earlier posting, but my thoughts are essentially this: Paris is a museum city, a dead city remembering the lively excitement and creative spark that so animated it in the late 19th century, the early 20th century and the middle of the 1950s and 60s.

So, with the arrival of my parents for a week long tour of the city, I had the opportunity to try and figure out how to play tourist in a city in which I had no desire to do so.

Seeing my parents was absolutely wonderful. Even though we endured roughly the same amount of time between parent-child reunions last spring, I was only a 12 hour drive and a quick phone call away that time, making the distance seem ever so much slighter than the ocean and continent and time zones that separate us now.

Together, we had a lovely week, exploring the city that I have come to know fairly well. We went on long walks, ate delicious meals and drank good wine every night.

Saturday, after some difficulties in locating them in the massive Place de l’Opèra, we dined in the tiny and tasty Chez Prune, a café on the Canal St. Martin. We then split for a while, reuniting for a light dinner of bread, cheese, strawberries and wine at my house. My parents got to meet both of my roommates, our cat, and my landlord, which was very strange, considering that weeks often go by without me seeing any of these people.

Unfortunately, my landlord took both my month’s rent and my dear friend Flocon with him when he left Saturday evening, saying that the spunky cat had another job to do in a neighboring apartment. I really miss him, and I think this separation will do us both good. I never realized how nice it is to have a cat waiting for me when I come home until he left.

Sunday was Easter, and we had a small lunch together in L’Atmosphère, another café on the Canal, followed later by my award-winning Easter Dinner. The menu was as follows:

  • Savory tart with pears, caramelized onions, bleu cheese and rosemary
  • Balsamic and honey-glazed salmon served over whole grain rice
  • Baguettes
  • Pecan-Carrot Cake with Marscapone-Cinnamon Frosting
  • Various Wines
  • Coffee

Except for the salmon, I had never prepared these foods before, so making them for Easter Dinner was a big risk on my part. And it paid off handsomely, if I do say so myself.

Monday was Easter Monday, a strange holiday that seems to be the French version of Good Friday, so we wandered around the city, visiting the Jardin des Plantes, picnicking in the Jardin de Luxembourg and having a delicious dinner in the Café de la Petite Bourgette, just around the corner from my apartment.

Tuesday, the parents took a long and epic walk through the Jardin de Tuileries and the Champs-Elysées, ending up at the Arc de Triomphe. I was in class, so I could only hear their reactions afterwards. They were impressed by the grandiosity of the city and its monuments.

“There are a lot of statues,” my mother said. She’s right.

We had a picnic dinner in my favorite place in Paris, the Parc de Buttes Chaumont, and retired to my apartment for coffee and carrot cake.

Wednesday was more walking for the parents — this time, around the islands of the Seine — and more class for me, followed by a visit to a famous café in Montparnasse — Le Select, home to Picasso, Hemingway, and others — and then on to a dinner party with friends and friends’ respective parents.

As a group, we poor ex-pat students decided it would be nice to show our visiting parents how we spent a lot of our evenings here in Paris. Also, it was nice to show them that we actually had real friends here.

Thursday, we headed over to the Eiffel Tower for pictures with our local hometown weekly, The Milford Times, and then returned to the neighborhood for an elegant and absolutely superb closing dinner at the Hôtel du Nord, a little café-restaurant on the Canal. It was fantastic, and we agreed that I should probably find the money to go there again at least once while I am here in Paris.

Saying goodbye to my parents, it was hard to believe that the week was over. As strange as it was to have them here in Paris, it was also a real delight.

They brought three of my favorite things with them: Peanut butter, good food, and unconditional love.

As spring continues to blossom here in Paris, those are three things I could certainly get used to having.

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Paris is a funny kind of city. Weird things happen here all the time, and I often wish I lived with someone so I could tell them about the unusual things I’ve seen.

In that light, I thought I would write a short post, detailing some of the odd things I have seen while here in Paris.

I have seen:

  • Many people, of all ages, rollerblading or rollerskating, all without any trace of irony. I’ve even seen kids rollerblading while doing little chores on my street.
  • A child of about 5 or 6 walking the street sucking on a pacifier.
  • A man in an Egyptian Pharaoh outfit wandering around the Place de l’Opèra, looking for spare change.
  • A girl with a large butcher knife cutting colored paper and making crafts on the metro at 1 in the morning
  • A man with a Christmas tie, in late March, on the metro.
  • A puppet show in the metro.
  • Signs advertising some kind of Easter special at the boulangerie, with a flying egg named (translated) “Super Egg Man”
  • A child in a hat that read, “PhreshTunes”
  • A woman encouraging her young daughter to pee next to a dumpster on a busy street.
  • Many, many, many men peeing in a corner by a job placement office in my neighborhood, at all hours of the day.
  • Numerous people on otherwise athletic jogs through the park wearing elegantly tied scarves.

Come to think of it, it seemed like I had more interesting things to say. Maybe I’ll add more to this post as I remember/see them.

BUT

the most unusual, odd and wonderfully delightful sight in Paris came this afternoon, when I found two wandering and lost American tourists in the Place de l’Opèra: my parents, fresh off a bus and two planes from Detroit!

That’s right, folks, my parents are here in Paris to visit me for a whole week. What will we do? What kinds of fun adventures will we get into? Where we go? What will we eat?

Stay tuned to find out!

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So, break has started. I know, because I have been sleeping a lot, eating well, reading much and watching a lot of “Monk” on my computer. All of these are good things, but they will not last forever — meaning today and tomorrow and beyond I must start doing more homework and other such things.

And know this, dear readers, I HAVE finished my narrowly defined reading work today, meaning that all I have left is the more tenuous and vague essay research and feature story writing, which is difficult. But that’s for the rest of the week.

Friday saw me getting break started off right, with a journey to the famous Opèra Comique, the building where Bizet’s “Carmen” first premiered more than a century ago. Along with a random assortment of American/Canadian/Egyptian friends, I went to see Hector Berlioz’s “Béatrice et Bénédict,” an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

It was a really lovely production, albeit a little strange and too fixated on the staging decision to use a “puppet show” theme for everything. Basically, there was this little English tramp man  — who also apparently wrote this adaptation, who knew? — who read things out loud in English form the original Shakespeare script, and who would then hit his cane on the stage and move about the singers, making them carry out the parts of the story that he could not. It worked, on the whole, but the decision to use the puppet theme resulted in some rather unfortunate — read, heavy thick and ugly — makeup decisions.

But the singers were superb, the story was cute — just the story of the embittered and embattled lovers and their subplot, not the complicated shaming of Hero bit — and I could understand the vast majority of the spoken French dialogue and sung French text, which was nice.

We followed up our opèra adventure with some late night café conversation, which was lovely.

Saturday was more winning all around, starting off with some reading, running and “Monk” watching and ending with some random wanderings around the Jardin des Tuileries and Montmarte and a french-toast and egg and madeleine and butterscotch dinner party, complete with much delicious wine and intelligent conversation. By the end of the night, the apartment we had chosen to dine in was full of people, and we all felt very adult and very French and very full.

Sunday was a lazy day, with me exhausting my food supplies once and for all, watching more “Monk,” meeting a friend for drinks and catching up with the Amero-Canadian bunch at a funky bar in the 5th to watch the final Olympic hockey match between the US and Canada.

The bar was overwhelmingly pro-Canada, which wasn’t surprising, but it was fun to watch the game and cheer awkwardly and proudly when the US scored. There were several large groups of slightly inebriated French people who eyed us suspiciously when we started chanting, “USA! USA! USA!” towards the end of regulation game time when Team America pulled out one final goal to force the game into overtime. That same group was quick to tell us, in French, “Tough shit!” when Canada won a couple of minutes in overtime.

But no matter. It was a winning weekend, and I spent very little money on food and entertainment, and still managed to have a lovely and all-around great time.

On the metro home last night, I discussed my feelings on the month of February with a friend. We both agreed that this past February was perhaps the fastest and least awful February we could remember, which was surprising.

Does this mean I’m actually, without question, becoming happy here? Just when things get frustrating and too too much — I owe money, the bank calls me to try but not actually succeed at explaining why they haven’t given me my account yet, I spend too much money on weekend food outings, I miss my family, etc — I realize that February was a good month, and I can only imagine that March, April and May are going to be even better, considering that SPRING is coming! And is here! And friends are coming to visit! And my parents will be here in less than a month!

Joy, joy, infinite joy.

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