Posts Tagged ‘Coffee’

Italy is a silly place.

For readers with whom I have kept in close contact during these five weeks of travel — and the preceding five months of study in Paris — the description of a place as “silly” is not new. I use “silly” to mean a variety of things, be it dysfunctional, surprising, aggravating, foreign.

But I’ll say it again: Italy is a silly place, for all the above reasons and then some.

I explained it to a friend the other day during a Skype call: it almost feels like Italy only recently decided that it wanted to be a developed nation. Granted, Italy IS a developed nation, with a very high and lovely standard of living. Their food, culture and absolutely delicious and inexpensive coffee products treated me very well during my recent week here.

And yet, somehow it still has this very casual, off-kilter approach to daily life in this Western world — any one reading any foreign coverage of the Italian political system and my main man Silvio Berlusconi knows as much.

I think my visit to Italy, the only part of my trip where I am truly traveling and lodging completely alone, came at the wrong end of my trip. I’ve been on the road for more than a month now, battling missed trains and crazy connections and changing food prices and sometimes bad operas and the like, and I’m mostly just ready to go home.

Instead of that, I got a week alone. In a country where I don’t speak the language and have really nothing to do. Which was kind of a bother.

But I still had a mostly lovely week in Milano, the second-biggest and wealthiest city in Italy, home to culture, fashion and money markets. And, of course, the world-famous Teatro alla Scala, arguably the best known opera house in the world.

After my crazy train trip here from Bavaria — see the earlier blog post for the unfortunate but still true details — I was not really into the idea of city exploration. What I wanted to and actually did do was sleep.

Upon waking, I discovered that Milano is an elegant and leafy city, with tree lined streets and (mostly) beautiful people. It should be said that, even though Milan is a major fashion capital, this isn’t always evident when walking amongst its people. For every expertly coifed young lady in a gorgeous floral print or a suave older businessman in a perfectly picked and colorful suit, there are seven less-than classy others walking by.

The architecture and layout and parks are all delicately northern Italian — an Italian friend in Paris adamantly informed me that ‘Milan is NOT Italy’ — and the coffee, as mentioned above, is TO DIE FOR. Cheap and plentiful and elevated to an art form of the quotidian and the ordinary, coffee in Italy is probably of my new most favorite things and would have made this portion of my trip worth it even if the opera wasn’t wonderful ( which it was.)

No matter where you order it — and you order and pay for it first, and then wait at the bar for your beverage — coffee of any kind is rich and exact and basically perfect; I’ve been told its because the Italians know how to roast their beans just so. And it so good. More than once, I ordered  multiple cups at a single café, mostly because it was so cheap, but also because I got the impression that Italian cafés aren’t as casual about the whole “sit here until forever” thing as their Parisian counterparts. It also made me remember how BAD the coffee is in most places in Paris.

I arrived in Milan on a Tuesday for a Thursday opera, meaning I had a few days to kill. I spent most of my time in cafés and the small but perfectly adequate central park (Parco Sempione), sitting, sunning, reading and just being generally lazy. I managed to finish Camus’ “Le Mythe de Sisysphe” in French and worked my way through some fascinating French journalism in a recent issue of my favorite French daily, Le Libération.

I also wandered around the city, seeing the beautiful Central Train station, an elegant iron-glass-and-stone shopping galleria that is considered one of the world’s first shopping malls, the famous shopping streets and many quirky and absolutely delightful miscellaneous buildings and avenues.  It was cool to see the street cars, too, a copy of which I just happened to ride last summer in San Francisco along Market Street.

I spent a few hours in the shop at La Scala, where I bought a cheap and mostly acceptable version of “Macbeth” at the New York Met from 1959, went on a run one hot and ill-advised afternoon, and got ready for my last big opera night of the summer.

First off, La Scala is probably the most beautiful theatre I have ever been inside of in my entire life. For all the ugliness and functionality of the Bastille Opera in Paris, La Scala is subtle, elegant and absolutely gorgeous. Lush, red curtains, intricately detailed wall-decor and a gigantic chandelier share a perfectly preserved opera hall as a home. It never gets old seeing the composers memorialized in European opera houses — it’s a mix of the famous and obvious with the nationalist heroes that today are not known at all.

Furthermore, La Scala recognizes its status as a tourist destination but doesn’t let that cheapen the experience for anyone. It is still one of the most serious opera houses in the world, and it seems to keep that vision at the forefront of its mission.

(Side note: La Scala has seen a series of strikes and union protests in recent months, as the Berlusconi government explores ways of trimming back the house’s admittedly generous cultural subsidy. As such, many performances this summer have been cancelled or delayed, and the director of “The Barber of Seville” unexpectedly walked out of the production in early July during the first week of the staging, calling for a sudden substitution.)

I had first level box seats to the left of the stage, and I had what was probably the best view a stage as I’ve had this whole summer. I shared my box with a Milanese couple and a couple visiting from Singapore, and I think this is the kind of audience that comes to La Scala, making it a perfect house for my project. With an audience built on popular legacy, the theatre both encourages and excites this audience by expertly staging classic works.

And the staging I saw of “The Barber of Seville” was really something. It was almost casually perfect, as if the brilliant main cast just happened to find themselves onstage together that night and decided that, since they really weren’t doing anything else, they might like to sing the hell out of an early 19th century Italian opera about barbers and young lovers and the like, especially considering the skill level of the there-assembled full size orchestra.

The entire cast was fantastic. The soprano lead was breathtaking, the bel canto tenor was excellent, the famed Barber was charming and roguish and every single cast member sang well and seemed to be having a great time. In true opera buffa fashion, the opera is short on plot — a disguised Spanish count woos a young girl held captive by her only slightly creepy guardian, and with the help of the cunning and lovable local barber, everything works to everyone’s best interests — but big on musical familiarity. This means that a lesser cast could have just let the work rest and sang the roles with a boring exactness.

Instead, they were positively delightful, making the whole evening fun, funny and musically superb. It wasn’t a controversial new staging like some of the other operas I’ve seen this summer, but it was pretty perfect in its classical, traditional way. It was a great ending to a madcap summer of opera, music, trains and adventure.

I’ll probably post at least one more time before my flight home from London on Tuesday morning, but know this, dear readers: it has been a pleasure to share my summer — and earlier Parisian spring — adventures with you, and I hope that you have enjoyed reading this half as much as I have enjoyed writing it.

Tomorrow, it’s Paris, with London on Monday and Detroit on Tuesday. Detroit might seem like the lesser of three cities in that travel narrative, but to me its the biggest and best of all: it’s home.

I can’t wait.

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Sometimes people knock on our door.

Sometimes I open it.

Sometimes I reveal my friends. Sometimes I reveal the friends of my roommates. Sometimes I reveal my landlord or his daughter or both, come to deliver misdirected mail or play with their cat — who lives with us here, as you may remember.

This evening, it was a random stranger — whose name I couldn’t quite grasp — who, as I gathered slowly but surely, had arrived to look at another apartment owned by my landlord.

I invited him in, made him some coffee, and we chatted for the better part of an hour while he waited for our landlord to arrive. We’re the same age, about the same year at University, and he’s about to start an internship here in Paris with the department of commerce. He’s from the south of France, I think, and we talked about living in Paris, things to do, etc.

He left, hopeful that we might become neighbors, and I was left feeling really happy. I had had a random, significant conversation with a French stranger, and maybe even made a new friend, and it was kind of nice. My verbal and comprehension skills weren’t always perfect — as I said, I can’t remember his name — but it was a real interaction. And it was in French. And I felt, therefore, French.

Little things like this keep happening. And they keep making me happy.

Being able to interact with strangers is a sign of fluency, right? I’d like to think so.

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I love urban Mass Transit. I really do. I lovingly composed a lengthy essay on American mass transit policy for my post-World War II American history class last term. I often complain about my own Detroit’s lack of reasonable transit alternatives for a city its size. I love trains. I once wrote a poem about subways.

But I do not love the Paris Métro. True, it is a lovely system, with extensive coverage of the Île-de-France metropolitan region, reasonably affordable rates and other such perks. When you meet someone in Paris, you figure out where they live first by arrondissement and second by metro stop. The metro is truly a fundamental part of Parisian life.

And as such, it creates problems sometimes. Like the times between 1:30 and 5:30 on weekends or 12:30-5:30 on the other days when it stops running. Paris is a big city. It is very walkable, but when you are tired and cold and it is late, walking home is not the first thing you would like to do when there is a large, sleeping network of trains and tracks just waiting there below your feet.

To make up for this rather sizable gap in service hours, the French have developed a variety of coping mechanisms. These include making friends close by your home, leaving parties and other social gatherings early enough to catch the last train — which is never a guaranteed thing — using taxis or making social functions last until 5:30, so everyone can take the metro when it opens again.

None of these options were available to me last night. But I suppose I knew that going into the evening.

My day was overall quite lovely. I got enough sleep, went for a good run, had some delicious croissants for lunch and made a great pasta-veggie-cheese dish for dinner. Knowing how to work our coffee machine has also been a source of daily joy.

Cleaning up after dinner, I prepared to attend the 80s-themed birthday party at the apartment of one my French friends. I got there early to set up, and we had a lovely time making the apartment shiny and tacky. It would appear that, at least according to this friend, the 80s were a time of flashy, sparkly excess. Which I suppose is correct. However, some of the decorations we hung up didn’t really have a decade time stamp — they were just gaudy and covered in ribbons.

No matter. As the party got underway, I was pleased in part by my ability to mostly understand things people said to me, in part by my successful efforts to make awkward party small talk in French and above all by the fact that the French idea of the 80s virtually mirrors that of the United States. It was the same music, for the most part — Michael Jackson, Madonna and more, with some French hits thrown in there — the same idea of fashion — tacky tacky kitsch — and the same ridiculous concept of decade themed parties that I know so well at Chapel Hill.

It really was a lovely party, and I met a lot of really great people. But I ran into trouble when I decided to leave. I had begun my evening thinking that I would leave before 1:30, taking the last metro home and sleeping by 2. However, at 3:30, I was still engulfed in the 80s-tastic excesses of the party. Which posed a problem.

Deciding to suck it up and pay for my choice to stay past the metro closing time, I put on my coat and braved the chilly Parisian night. Surprisingly, there were a lot of other people out there doing the exact same thing I was doing, and even more surprisingly, I knew my way home. I followed the river to a main area of town, and suddenly found myself tracing a familiar path back to the 10th and my neighborhood. It felt really great to know that I could wander out into the early morning, tired and desperate to be home, and still know enough about the city to find my way home.

Today, grocery shopping, running and maybe dinner with friends. Apparently we are planning to watch “Muppet Treasure Island” in French, which will be of course an excellent decision made by all.

But I don’t like the Metro. Granted, I shouldn’t be saying that as I desperately try to figure out how to get a monthly metro pass tomorrow, for fear that the Metro will lash back at my disdain for it and make my quest more difficult, but I feel comfortable enough to say it again.

The metro and I? Not such good friends.

But Paris and I? We’re getting there.

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So, I really am a student of la belle France. For this semester, I have dutifully paid my fees, bought my carte d’etudiant and filled out all the requisite visa forms in triplicate — exactly like they asked me to do, even if when presented with said forms, the consul office in Atlanta seemed not to care about my hours of work.

That means, of course, that I am un vrai etudiant français — and as such, thus subject to all the perks and benefits, including FREE ADMISSION at the vast majority of the vast collection of vast museums here in Paris.

I had kind of suspected this — the websites for some of the bigger museums kind of indicate if you try hard enough, even as a foreign exchange student you get the same thing — but I wasn’t sure until I went to the Musée D’Orsay with Jean-Baptiste, a French friend.

But, as you might well know, two of the things I love most in this world include things which are free and things which are French. Et, voila, I am there. So, to start, today was a pretty good day.

I ran early in the cold — I wasn’t going to get up and do it, as the rain on my skylight over my shower/plant nursery/bathroom/general living space indicated the ugly weather outside — but I’m really glad I did. It felt really refreshing and made me wake up. Runs do that sometime.

I then made the not so long trek — do I really need a metro pass? (YES) — down to Sciences Po to purchase my course pack — with enough money today! HOORAY! — and then spent the rest of the day there, reading in various buildings and pretending to be studious until the time to meet Jean-Baptiste arrived. Classes start Monday, by the way. They do. I’m sure of it.

Then it was off to the Musée d’Orsay, for a lovely afternoon of impressionism, art nouveau and other such wonderful things. It was a lot of fun to walk around the museum with a French friend, speaking in French and talking about art. When I spend time with the French gang I’ve randomly assembled, my French improves a lot, but it still hard to fully express myself. It’s a process, I know, but I really love to talk — you are reading my blog, after all, so you know this — and not being able to fully use all the right words is incredibly frustrating.

Additionally, I tried to explain a complicated argument presented in a recent article in “The Believer” that concerned the democratization of art museums and the ensuing commodification of high culture into easily digested, smaller culture pieces. This was not a good idea, and not easily explained in a foreign language in which I am not yet completely fluent. At times, we all make poor choices.

We got coffee, talked a little more, and then I left for home to meet Victoria, my American friend from high school, for dinner and a movie.

We have agreed to only speak French with each other, which is a fun time for all, including the passersby. Tonight, a man at a grocery store looked at us very strangely. We know we aren’t French. We know our accent is not great. But we are trying. And that’s enough.

We made some yummy omelettes — I need to start cooking other things soon, I think — and then walked down to a big movie house nearby to catch “La Princesse et la Grenouille” — “The Princess and the Frog”, which I’ve already seen in America, but Victoria has not — thinking it would be doubled in French. I’ve seen the bandes annonces — trailers — and they are clearly in French.

Unfortunately, we must have found the wrong theatre, because was the same sassy and sweet movie I saw at the venerable Milford Cinema One Screen in Milford, Michigan last month with my parents, only with silly French subtitles below. Really. Victoria and I laughed at some of the malapropisms displayed there more than we did at actually intended humor in the movie.

We decided the next movie or cultural outing we take will be a truly French one.

But it was a truly lovely day, and tomorrow I have more to read and run and a French party to go to — NOT in the suburbs, thanks be to the Metro — and more fun things to do. Life is improving, peu en peu.

And I’m slowly starting to love Paris.

But don’t tell Paris. I think it’s seeing other people right now.

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So, if you’ve been following this blog lately, you’ve probably noticed an unsettling downtrend spiral in my life. It’s subtle, of course, but I know you smart cookies out there reading this, so you’ve probably been a little upset by the posts where my grand daily victories included such difficult tasks as ‘buying bread’, ‘making dinner,’ and ‘going for a run.’

While, dear readers, NOT TODAY. Today was the beginning of everything else. Or at least, I think it was.

Today, the journalism program I am enrolled in at Sciences Po finally had its opening meeting — small cookies, soda, juice and awkward mingling in a large and echoing room — which, for all its lack of grandiosity, was still something to do. And as such, this day was just full of minor, but varied, victories of a sort.

I left the house before noon — victory! — walked across the city to school — victory! — spent a few hours in Shakespeare & Company — victory! — didn’t have enough money to buy course packs for my classes — not a victory! — and drank a lot of cheap campus coffee — many small victories in a row! In all, by the time four o’clock rolled around, I was really pretty victorious and accomplished.

The gathering, while awkward, was nice, and the other students are a pretty varied bunch. Graham and I, from UNC, four kids from Missouri-Columbia, a girl from China, a French-Irish girl, a Canadian, an Australian and apparently a Russian, an Israeli and a Thai who were yet to arrive in Paris. We made small talk, got a small tour of l’Ecole de Journalisme, and were encouraged to find questions to ask the officials in charge.  None of us had any, of course, but it was still nice to know that someone cared about our complete and total lack of information regarding our program here.

A quick overview of the course work — sounds interesting and challenging — and then we were let free to wander. A couple of us went out for dinner at a little café in the neighborhood — under 10 Euro for a sandwich, salad and coffee! Victory! — and then I walked home in the semi-rain.

Now, I might read a little and prepare for the equally victorious and purpose-driven day that awaits me tomorrow. A visit back to school to buy course packs! A trip to the Musée d’Orsay with a French friend! An evening with Victoria, cooking dinner and seeing a movie! — La Princesse et la Grenouille? Un film français? Qui sait? — Running! Eating! Sleeping! So many victories!

I guess, the real message of this snarky post is that, yes, things are starting to happen more in my life. I am figuring out how much money I can spend each day, if any, and how to stock my cupboard, and where things are, and CLASSES ARE ABOUT TO START!, so hopefully I will have more fun and exciting days of work ahead.

I have never wanted something to start so urgently as I want these classes to start.

Stay tuned for more victories! Art museums? Dinner? French birthday parties? All in good time, dear readers, all in good time…

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So, yesterday was pretty much a big win for me, in terms of things accomplished. I bought groceries, picked up a letter at the post office, went for a nice run and hosted a lovely and quasi-elegant dinner party for three friends. I even did the whole stereotypical French thing and had an afternoon, post-lunch coffee in a café just down the street.

It was a good cup of coffee; tiny, strong and perfect. I had my notebook on hand and was writing in French, trying to feel the whole atmosphere of the place, the French people, the moment, when I noticed the music chiming in overhead. It was an Alanis Morisette song.

I was in France, in Paris, in a café, drinking a cup of strong, black coffee, writing my musings in French, as the angry 90s rock-pop queen told me about all the things she was thankful for in that strained, emotional voice that made her famous.

It was a strange moment. A weird juxtaposition. I already knew from past experiences that Europe really loves American popular music, especially bad American popular music — witness my road trip in Bavaria in the summer of 2008 to a soundtrack of 80s-tastic music selections on the local German radio — but it was strange to find myself in such an iconic French moment and yet still have it feel familiar. I mean, Starbucks doesn’t even play Alanis.

It’s times like this, or the poster in the metro advertising “Pas Si Simple” (It’s Complicated), or the jazz radio station eagerly playing selections from the upcoming release of “La Princesse et la grenouille” (The Princess and the Frog, which I WILL be seeing in French); all these things show how connected this foreign place is with the home I have left.

And as I edge nearer to actual purpose here in Paris — meaning attending actual classes and having actual things to do — I’m finding certain little things more familiar and other certain things stranger than I thought I would. The French language has really permeated my consciousness quicker than I had imagined, but at other times it feels and sounds stranger than ever before.

Food here, which has mostly been things I prepared in my lovely kitchen with the help of my landlord’s cat, Flocon (Snowflake), also feels familiar, although I had quite the trip yesterday to try and assemble the ingredients for my fatoush. It is also hard to buy groceries when most of the stores CLOSE for a two hour lunch break, as mandated by the government. True story.

Given actual responsibilities and a dictated schedule, things might fall into place more smoothly. But right now, I’m in a weird, inbetween place, wandering around doing things without any end goal in sight.

I’d like to start doing something else soon, please.

“I want you to try to help yourself,” Sad Brad Smith, “Help Yourself”.

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To be able to cook is a most valuable skill. It can make you friends. It can make you dinner. It can make you happy.

And yesterday, for me, it made me feel just the slightest bit French, for maybe the first time.

It was, again, a long and weird day. I discovered that I could take Metro Ligne 5 completely from the station at Gare de l’Est to the station at St. Germain-de-Près, which is right next to Sciences Po. No transfers, short walks and a speedy metro means a very quick morning commute. I left my house at around 8:30 for a 9:00 session and got there with 10 minutes to spare. Good to know I can run late and still be on time — not that I’m planning on that at all for this coming term.

Methodology was once again a little frightening, but it is very interesting, and I think I’ll be decently prepared for the expectations of my professors here, which are markedly different and much more driven on a personal, subjective level than in the States.

Afterwards, I discovered the joy of LaVazza vending machine coffee. Really, it’s that good. You put 50 centimes in — that’s right only one half of a Euro — and pick the type of coffee drink and the level of sugar you want. Push the button, down a cup drops and in goes the fresh and tasty coffee — black for me, but if you get sugar the cup includes a tiny stirrer — and then it’s yours to drink. Needless to say, I had probably 4 throughout the day, finding the machines everywhere on campus.

I paid 200 Euros for my Carte d’Etudiant — a glorified UNCOne Card — and made some account corrections at my new French bank,  then meandered down to the Ecole de Journalisme, where we were supposed to have a meeting, I thought. I thought wrong. It was NEXT Thursday, so I waited around there in the basement writing my first DTH column — coming out Monday, folks! Check it out! dailytarheel.com — and then soon discovered my error. Je fais beaucoup de petits erreurs ici en France, bien sûr.

On the way home, I discovered a large indoor farmers’ market just down the street from my house. The food is good and plenty cheap, so I know where I’m going to get my veggies and cheese and such from now on, or at least until the markets outside open for the spring.

But now, the Frenchiness sets in. I had arranged to meet up with Yousef, a graduate student at Sciences Po who is friends with one of my friends’ friend at Yale — I know its confusing. I have a friend who goes to Yale, and his friend at Yale has a lot of French friends, Yousef among them, so he gave me his contact info for guidance and friendship and housing search help and all that fun kind of stuff — to have some coffee or something.

We decidedly went with the something else.

We met at the Place de Bastille, a crowded place full of smoking teenagers and confused tourists, and walked to a student center so he could print some stuff for a local queer youth group he is involved in at Sciences Po. Then, we met up with one of his friends to go to a French Feminist Meeting in a public meeting hall on the other side of the city. It was crazy and radical and wonderful and I could understand most of the meeting, although it made me really tired.

As we were leaving, a very vocal woman grabbed my arm firmly and thanked me for being a brave and noble man in a world that is hard for women.

You know me. I try.

Then, we met up with some more people to discuss a conference Yousef was planning at Sciences Po around the topic of being openly gay in the French workplace — or “outée” — with some businessmen in a café. Throughout all of this, I listened attentively, barely speaking and holding on to the stock phrases I heard to keep my head above the flow of conversation.

But the best part was that I could understand it all, or most of it, to be honest. I was lost a little sometimes, and couldn’t take part in the debates and discussions, but I could follow, which was the most exciting part.

Then, we went back to Yousef’s apartment and I made Yousef and his roommate and a friend omelettes, with roasted apples and hazelnuts and feta cheese. Apparently, they don’t cook, so I got to wow everyone with my imaginary and supposedly creative cooking abilities.

As I cooked, I slowly found myself joking around with everyone, talking about general conversationy things — things that I could and would say in English, normally, with my old friends — and I got this huge boost of confidence. They all complimented me on my French and understood everything I said, and I was pretty much the same for them. It was great.

They all told me that I was a fantastic cook and that I had to return “tout de suite” or I’d be in trouble. Which was nice, because many people have told me it’s hard to make French friends while here studying for the term.

I took the last metro home, and on the way back, I couldn’t help but keep a publicly indecent smile on my face. I was so happy to have French friends, with whom I could speak French. I know I’ll see them all again, and maybe when I do, I’ll feel even more French.

Mais oui, c’est très genial, ça. Bien sûr.

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