Posts Tagged ‘Juxtapositions’

Today was the big day.

I finally got my PasseNavigo, the easy-to-use and affordable metro monthly user’s card that allows me to freely travel on the extensive Paris Metro without troublesome and expensive paper tickets!

Well, actually, today was also the official start of my classes here at SciencesPo and the real beginning of my term here in Paris, but the Metro pass thing was pretty exciting too. I even rode the metro rather unnecessarily back from a place not too far from the 10th just to use it and try it out — it works.

But the main excitement of my day was that this day, the first of February, was my  first day of class.

The way my schedule here at Sciences Po works is very different from my schedule at UNC. Most classes only meet once a week, for two hours at a time, so well I have at least one class every day and two classes on Tuesdays, I only actually total up to 12 hours of UNC-type class time.

Monday features an early-afternoon lecture on “Media In Transition” by Peter Gumel, the director of my journalism program here and a pretty accomplished journalist in his own right. Today was mostly an introductory lecture, talking about the general scope and themes of the course, his expectations of us and the general plight of the media — read “newspaper” — industry.

We were also introduced to our course Facebook page — rather than Blackboard, we are using Facebook to post assignments — which began the slow descent into eerie familiarity that continued for the rest of the course. Even though I was on the top floor of the main building of one of France’s most renowned and unique  institutions of higher educations, it felt like many other college courses I’ve already taken.

It might have been partly due to the fact that the course was taught in English — Peter is from the UK — but that was only part of it. The structure, the student participation — or lack thereof; it seems that few students bothered to read the four posted articles for the first class, or rather, they didn’t want to make it known that they had done so — and the overall mood of the class felt distinctly like home.

But even in this home-like setting, there were a few noticeable differences. To start with, the international makeup of the class far surpassed the makeup of most UNC classes. Students from France — mais oui — the States, Australia, Canada, Ireland, China, Hong Kong and more lined the large classroom. That, too, was different: the “amphitheater” was like a big classroom where the lecturer just talked at us — despite his own wishes otherwise — making it a weird mix between UNC’s small, personal classrooms and big, impersonal lecture halls. It was too big to be intimate and too small to be anonymous, which had a decidedly unsettling effect.

On another, semi-UNC related note, they too have student elections here in France. And just like at UNC, loud election supporters line main campus buildings and meeting spaces, encouraging passerby to vote for their particular student federation or proposal or initiative. However, it is worth noting that the elections here hinge more on issues like “Listen to us or we’ll strike” and “French and English aren’t the only languages spoken here” rather than on things like, “Don’t Build That Bridge” or “Let’s Get Involved on Campus and Volunteer and Stuff!”

Granted, tomorrow will be different. I have a French language course and another lecture on media — this one on media and politics — a smattering of reporting labs on Wednesday and Thursday and a real, live French-language sociology lecture Friday night, meaning that my term here will probably be a mix of several kinds of pedagogical styles.

Unfortunately, my courses don’t really seem to take up the time commitment that I want them too. I don’t feel obligated to walk across the city to save metro costs anymore, thereby cutting down on time necessary for a visit to campus, but two hours a day isn’t enough. Maybe I’ll have a lot of homework. Maybe I’ll start exploring more. Maybe — and this one is not a maybe, it is a must and a will and I am already planning on doing it this weekend — I’ll start exploring food markets and buying interesting and fresh ingredients and making hearty, tasty meals like last summer.

But one thing is certain. Whatever I do now, I have my Navigo. So I’ll be taking the metro. Which is a good thing.

“You must take the A train
To go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem

If you miss the A train
You’ll find you missed the quickest way to Harlem

Hurry, get on, now it’s coming
Listen to those rails a-humming

All aboard, get on the A train
Soon you will be on Sugar Hill in Harlem” — Duke Ellington, “Take the A-Train”

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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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Just a quick evening update from my end.

Karl came back, and we exchanged some more awkward words. He also showed me where the local McDonald’s is (I told him I wasn’t so much a fan) and showed me the lovely view.

The whole front of this apartment looks onto a typical, multi-road Parisian square, but over the rooftops of the buildings just across, a surprise peeks up.

It’s the Eiffel Tower, the unofficial yet ubiquitous symbol of Paris. It is twinkling now in the early evening dark.

I’m not going to live here all term — if only I could — but it was kind of magical to see that elegant iron tower waving at me above the rooftops of the city.

It said, “Bonjour, étranger.”

I said, “Bonjour, ami.”

And so it begins.

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So, I am here. In Paris. Finally.

I am really rather tired, and I must apologize if this post seems a little tangential and ever-so-slightly off. I couldn’t really sleep on the plane — the very French, very prepared man seated next me built a little sleeping fort out of his coat and made it rather hard to find a comfortable position on my aisle side — and once I landed, I had to do some quick navigating to find my way to the apartment of the UNC alum with whom I am currently staying.

And I must say, it is rather comforting — and confusing — to look out the window of this room, covered in UNC basketball posters and memorabilia, and see the graceful 19th century architecture of Baron Haussmann. It’s a collision of two very different worlds, all within my frame of vision.

My voyage here was fine, despite the lack of sleep. A quick hop from Detroit to Philadelphia, and then a delayed but rather empty flight from Philadelphia to Paris-Charles DeGualle, a bus ride on the “Car AirFrance”, a walk of several blocks with my luggage and an awkward conversation in French with the landlord of this building convincing him to let me in — apparently my hosts neglected to tell him I was coming — ended with me here, typing away as Karl, the French-speaking housekeeper, does whatever it is he is doing in the next room over.

I had to apologize to Karl. While my responses to his questions and helpful suggestions may only be simple affirmatives like “yes,” “thank you” and “perfect”, I really can understand everything he is saying. I told him this in my fractured French, and he smiled. It’s interesting how we automatically assume that lack of verbal ability means lack of understanding. I hope both of these skills improve while I am here — kind of the reason for me being here, after all. I could have stayed at Carroll if I wanted to just learn about journalism. What I want is to be fluent in French. A little journalism is also fine. But mostly French.

If the two combine, I have no complaints.

The most startling thing about being in another country, I’m realizing, is discovering all the simple little changes that differentiate that country from yours. Sure, there are big changes — language, architecture, cultural attitudes, etc. — but there are subtle changes, too.

The way people carry themselves on the street. The way the children’s play area is designed in the airport lobby. The way signs are written, and public announcements explained. Even the symbol to cross the street   — which, as a warning note, is tricky here in Paris. There isn’t a warning countdown, or blinking red hand. The symbol switches from boldly striding green man to cautious and immobile red man in a matter of seconds. The cars soon follow. You have been warned — all these things are slightly off from what I am used to. It’s truly a symbol of how far away from home I am.

But I’ve noticed other odd things about France. As I walked down Rue de la Pompe (yes, that is the name of the street), I composed a short list of things that the French, or rather, Parisians, seem to really care about, as well as an accompanying list of things about which they don’t really give a shit.

(A note: this is based on one exhausted-American’s walk from Porte Maillot to Place Victor Hugo in Paris in January. It is not meant as a universal description; rather, it is a list of things noticed.)

Parisians Like:


2. Boots

3. A combination of the above that results in looking remarkably, painfully stylish.

Parisians Don’t Really Seem to Like:

1. Immigration Formalities (I spent a month on my visa application, but that didn’t matter to the stamp-happy customs guy)

2. Customs (I have a bag full of insulin and tiny little needles. No one seems to be concerned about this)

3. Wide traffic lanes (The bus ride here was rather scary)

The lists might get longer.

I might even have a post towards the end of the term made of solely of the likes and dislikes of modern Parisians, based on my keen observations. Get hyped.

For now, I am going to probably eat a little something and then take a much-needed nap. It’s 1:30 — or rather, 13:30 — here, and not 7:00 am, so I should be asleep anyway, according to my internal clock.

I might go running later. Or I might sleep. Or eat. Or wander around the city. I just have so many options.

I think sleeping, with its lovely friend eating, is winning out.

But I’m here.

Et tout va bien.

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