May 14, 2009

Tales of Tulips

I took a weekend trip to the Netherlands and now I am quite certain I would like to live there someday. I've been meaning to write about it for several days now, but life in Paris is so busy. Without time to say much else, I thought I would compile a list of a few things I learned while in Holland.

20 Things I Learned in The Netherlands
1) It's actually not "Holland." We Americans use that term, but people in the know say The Netherlands. The French say Pays-Bas.
2) I want to learn Dutch.
3) All the Dutch I know is that spoor = platform
4) The Dutch never check on buses or trains that you actually have a ticket, or what they call a strippenkart (I guess I know two Dutch words, actually).
5) A little kindness can go a long way. Everyone there speaks English. They love American tourists and they always want to help. Sweetest. People. On. Earth.
6) American music is everywhere. At the youth hostel where we stayed, there was a wedding reception. I heard "Love is in the Air (Everywhere I Look Around)" playing over the loudspeakers. The next morning, two old Dutch ladies were trying to sing "Footloose."
7) Burger King is also everywhere.
8) ... and Fanta, which has multiple flavors in Europe including "cassis" which is a black currant flavor.
9) Looking at beautiful flowers can be efficacious. If there is one thing you can see in Europe, go to the gardens at Keukenhof. It is the most photographed place in the world and now I know why.
10) Looking at beautiful paintings can be efficacious. I went to the Van Gogh museum and saw an exhibit called "Colors of the Night." It was magnificent. I was especially excited to see "Starry Night," which has always been one of my favorite paintings.
11) Asking for help never hurts.
12) You can never have enough pictures, but sometimes it's important to enjoy the moment outside the camera lens.
13) Good friends make all the difference.
14) Trips are always more fun if you can create a musical along the way.
15) The Dutch are obsessed with bicycles.
16) Underwear can be a good place to hide money. Just make sure you know you put it there.
17) The Dutch eat chocolate sprinkles with their breakfast. This is a good idea. A very good idea.
18) Watch where you walk in Amsterdam. You could be hit by the Tram at any minute.
19) The North Sea is cold. And beautiful.
20) "All right... it's okay." This is what Dutch people would say in place of "You're welcome." I sort of felt like it should be my mantra for life.

All right... it's okay.

May 2, 2009

part of the motion

This is only my fifth day in Paris, but I think I already have a "favorite spot": le Jardin du Luxembourg. It's a beautiful park in Montparnasse where I took my first "promenade" for my Paris Walks class on Thursday. The book gave us a little checklist of things to find on our stroll through the park:
  • Beehives
  • Old men playing petanque (This is a game that reminds me of horseshoes, except it's played with balls.)
  • Park security men keeping people off the grass
  • A mini Statue of Liberty (Unfortunately, the statue had been moved to another display, so I missed it.)
  • Children riding donkeys (It's true! Not sure why that happens, but it does...)
  • People practicing martial arts
  • A couple kissing on a bench (Here, I thought he just meant "a kiss," but actually the Parisians are completely okay with making out in pulic.)
  • People jogging (The professor said this was a rare sight in Paris, but there were a lot of joggers; another American we ran into told us that jogging has come into fashion since the French President Sarkozy jogs.)
  • Chess players (Bobby Fisher, anyone?)
As for the chess players, they were intense. I think it would be interesting to join them one day, but I don't think I have enough talent or strategy to be taken seriously. Not to mention, those timers they use always make me nervous. Near the chess pavilion, we saw a woman in a short, shiny blue dress and high heels, modeling in the park for a bunch of photographers. I wonder if she was a celebrity, or France's Next Top Model. I definitely want to return to the Jardin du Luxembourg for another afternoon of reading, relaxation, and people-watching. That's actually one of my favorite things to do here in Paris. It's extremely interesting to me just to watch how different people dress, act, speak, and what they are doing. In some ways, it's extremely different from the "American way" of doing things and in other instances, it's quite similar. For example, the fashion here can be quite different. Black is extremely "in" and everyone looks like they've been shopping at Salvation Army. Most of the clothes look old, worn-in, and trendy. Even the old men are fashionable. They wear dark-wash jeans, black shirts, cool jackets, and soccer-style sneakers. They definitely put our old men to shame. In general, French fashion just doesn't seem as forced as American fashion. One of the biggest differences is that, in spite of all the walking you do in Pars, none of the locals wear white sneakers or running shoes. Doing that will brand you as an American faster than anything else.

As for how they are the same, one big thing around here is iPods and American music. When we first rode into Paris in the BluVan, the driver told us that the French love American music. He was listening to jazz the whole trip. At the hotel, we heard a lot of songs that are (or have been) popular in the United States. In spite of the fact that the French have appropriated a lot of American pop culture into their own, our professor asked us to "cut our American strings," referring to things like The Office, McDonalds (which they call "Mac-Do" here), Oreos, English, and stupid tourist habits. After some convincing, he said we could use Facebook sparingly. I can see why he brought it up though; it'd be so easy to be here and miss what is actually Parisian about it while we're so absorbed in our technology and our American ways. Still, it's hard to go anywhere without seeing Oreos, Fanta, Subway, or Beyonce Knowles (who is currently on most of the huge posters in the Metro).

One huge manifestation of American-culture-meets-French-culture was La Foire de Trome. It's a fair that they had yesterday for le premier mai (the first day of May, which is a holiday here). Our group decided to go and, let me tell you, I felt like I was back in Coldwater, Michigan in no time. Other than the fact that everyone spoke French and they served crepes at the food stands, there was almost no difference between that French fair and the ones we have for 4-H. It was kind of uncanny, actually. We didn't do much at the fair besides order some crepes and Nutella. The place was seeming with people who were "louche" (creepy or sketchy), to say nothing of all the pickpockets and smokers. Even elementary school kids smoke around here. I kept thinking "I would never bring my child here," but there were a lot of children. In general, it seems like the Parisian kids are like little adults. They just walk around by themselves, ride the Metro, smoke, talk on cell phones, and generally function like a teenager or a young adult. It's a little strange, to say the least. I think most of them feel like more of an adult than I do.

On the way to the fair, my friend Maren and I witnessed a most interesting scene. We were waiting to cross the street. The pedestrian light was red, but many Parisians pay no attention to things like that. A little old lady began crossing the street at the same time that a car was making a right turn and nearly hit her. The old lady didn't seem angry... maybe just a little crazy. She hit the back of the car with her purse and was about to go on her merry way. UNTIL. The car screeched to a halt and a young woman in a leopard print jump suit came out for the confrontation. Leopard Suit Woman pushed Crazy Old Lady and the two began hashing it out in French. I didn't understand most of what was going on, probably because they were speaking fast and using a lot of swear words that I haven't learned. Even when the pedestrian light turned red, Maren and I were afraid to traverse the street and into the cross-fire. We waited for about three minutes until Leopard Lady looked like she was getting ready to hop back into her car. The old lady motioned to us and said something; I think she was expecting us to vouch for her right to cross the street, or say that she had done nothing wrong. The Leopard Driver said something like "On connait la verite" (We all know the truth). As Maren and I were making our way back onto the sidewalk, we heard a man approach and ask another woman, "Qu'est-ce qui se passe?" The woman answered, "Il y avait une lutte entre la fille et la grand-mere!" (There was a battle between a girl and a grandmother.)

Maren and I laughed all day about "la lutte entre la fille et la grand-mere." All day.

Bonjour from Paris

Are you ready for this?

No, really ready?

I'm in France. And the best part? It's not even a dream. That's what I kept wondering as I sat at the Salt Lake City airport, passport in hand, waiting at the gate departing to Charles de Gaulle on Monday afternoon. I looked around at my fellow passengers and wondered what their reasons for going to Paris could be. I wondered if they wondered about my reason for going to Paris. No reason seemed quite as cool as "I'm studying French language, culture, and civilization in the heart of Paris." Maybe they thought I was one of those twenty somethings headed off to Europe to "find myself."Even though that's not explicitly why I'm here, I can't help but wonder if it will happen.

The flight was long. Extremely long. Two sub-par meals, three episodes of crying baby, three or four restless hours of sleep, one finger burn from the reading lamp, two hours of iPod, three movies, and five thousand miles later... we finally arrived at the Charles de Gaulle airport. There were four of us from the BYU program who had arrived on the same flight, so we made our way through customs and tried to figure out how we were going to call our private shuttle to get to the hotel. Everyone was speaking in French (except for the American tourists, who stuck out like sore thumbs) and I realized just how limited my capabilities are. What we read in our preparation class is absolutely true: The French don't like to give more information than is necessary. If we asked someone "Do you know the number for the BluVan shuttle?", they would simply say "No" and move on with their lives. No "Oh, but I could find you a phone book" or "Maybe you should try asking that lady over there..." None of that. Nothing. It's not rude, it's just the French way.

We finally got a hold of the shuttle. We were told that the driver would probably be Pakistani and able to speak English. The driver was actually French and, we soon learned, unable to communicate very well in English. It ended up being to our advantage to try our skills on someone who was so kind and patient. He told us that, even if you don't speak French well, just making the effort is good enough to open a lot of doors. The French are actually very patient and hospitable when foreigners try to show respect.

Our first day in Paris was spent doing somewhat cliche things like visiting the Eiffel Tower. Mostly, we were trying to stay awake and get over our jet-lag. Professor Hurlbut took us out to dinner (aka our program fees covered a dinner) at a nice little place. Wish I could say what or where it was, but I was so disoriented and just ready to dig into some delicious French cuisine. I ended up ordering French soup, a steak, and some chocolate mousse. Much to my surprise, the steak came with French fries (who knew?) and the meat was pretty much raw. "Just don't think about it," my professor kept saying. "Just don't think about it."

My first night was spent at the Etap Hotel, which was very small. Our room looked like it had jumped right out of the 80's with teal and magenta colored geometric shapes all over everything. I bought a phone card at a little Tabac (they are little French stores that pretty much function like the stores at American gas stations). I was having some difficulty getting the card to work on the pay phone at the hotel, so I asked one of the concierges for some help. Even though I asked my question in French, he answered in English. That's happened to me several times throughout the trip. I've learned that it's not an insult to your ability to speak French, but most American tourists only know about two or three phrases (if that) in French, so the people around here have grown accustomed to switching over to English pretty fast.

Our first morning here, we had a petit dejeuner a la francais at the hotel: bread, chocolate, fruit, jam, hot drinks, and cereal. We went to our first day of class, which was pretty informal and mostly a quick crash course in how to survive around here. Mostly, I was excited to meet my host family. My rooommate, Amy, and I took a taxi to the La Brosse's apartment. Immediately, I could tell that the family is warm and accommodating. The only ones living here are Madame et Monsieur, although they have three children who are grown up and living away from home. They are also hosting another American student named Cami. She's only fifteen and she's from Maryland. Madame de La Brosse told us "On ne parle que le francais ici," meaning that we would only speak French in the apartment. Amy and I are allowed to speak English in our shared bedroom, but we made a pact to stick to French as much as possible. The La Brosse's are very patient with us, and they think our French is magnificent (or at least they act like it). I can tell I will learn a lot from them.

I get the feeling that this city will change me. There is something so magical about exchanging "bonjour"s with the locals and listening to a random guy playing guitar in the Metro and walking down a narrow alley surrounded by apartments and shops and realizing that this city is both extremely historic and extremely vibrant and living. It's a city of motion. And in spite of my aching limbs and my broken French, I want to be part of the motion.