En avril, ne te découvre pas d’un fil ; en mai, fais ce qu’il te plaît

My host shared this French proverb with me sometime in mid April when those of us in Paris experienced two or three days of 70+ degree weather. The expression, which communicates the distrust towards the capricious weather in April, warns against changing into a summer wardrobe and packing away your winter clothes. 

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If this is something most Parisians hold to be true, it would explain the lack of weather-appropriate clothing on those very warm days. It’s as if no one except for myself and some other foreigners looked at the weather forecast: while I was dressed in a bright yellow skirt, sandals and a tank top (perfectly appropriate for a 76 degree day anywhere else in the world) I was made to feel like an outcast amongst all the Parisians clad in leather jackets, black turtlenecks, [Ugg] boots, winter coats with fur trim hoods… Paris fashion is synonymous with black on black , but you’d think they’d spring for the chance to feel the sunshine on their forearm after 7 months of winter!

 

A book I read for a class this semester ‘L’Autre Rive’ compares French and American culture. Unlike many other books published before it on the same subject, the author focuses on the more psychological reasoning behind these differences and doesn’t just merely recite his observations but has done research to support his claims. 

 

One of the differences between the American individual and French individu is that the Français is more likely to avoid commitments and abide the terms put worth in a signed contract. From my personal although limited experience I feel like I definitely agree with this. Compared to American and anglophone acquaintances, I have had a harder time establishing a date and time to meet up with French acquaintance. Even if we managed to set a time, I would without fail never receive a confirmation message or they would cancel on me.

 

What does this have to do with wearing weather-inappropriate black leather pants on a hot day you may ask? Well, I have a theory that the reason Parisians love black clothing (and have a hard time giving it up) is because it greatly complements their psychological/behavioral tendencies  For a fashion conscious Parisian who has no idea what she or he is doing that day, when she/he is doing it, where she/he is doing it, who she/he is doing it with, a black ensemble will fit all these requirements! If a night at the cinema and some dancing with a date changes to a picnic on the quai with a friend and a midnight cat funeral, a black outfit will do the trick for any and all of these occasions. 

Fortunately for everyone who recoils at the mere idea of a strong sunshine that is powerful enough to upheave the ominous Parisian clouds, Paris is back to being gray and cold with sporadic rain showers during this first week of May.

 

As for me, I’ll be leaving Paris behind tomorrow and heading down to the south of France where I hope to see some sun and locals who are ‘dressing however they please’.

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London vs Paris

Last week I left Paris and spent the last hours of Thanksgiving and the rest of the weekend in London. With only 4 days in the city and a budget to follow, I don’t think I covered nearly as much as the city as I would have wished. Nevertheless,  I still think I got to see enough of the city to be able to have a distinct impression of it and to make a comparison between Paris and London (and New York City).

London is much larger than Paris but without an underground/tube system to match, which consequently makes it much more difficult to get around. In Paris it’s so easy to walk around aimlessly; within 5 minutes you can find yourself in a new neighborhood where there is something “worthy” to see, whether it’s a view of the river, a monument, a museum, a pictoresque street, or a window full of delicious-looking pastries. Walking around in London is daunting because you never know when the next time you will come across a tube stop; in Paris, I can never get loss because either I can walk 5 minutes in any direction and find a neighborhood I’m more familiar with or I can easily find a metro to bring me back to an arrondissement I know.

Another downside to London is how expensive it is. I was warned about this but thought I wouldn’t be affected as someone who wasn’t renting a hotel room, expecting fine dining or make any large purchases. But unfortunately I must agree.

Because you need to take the tube to get from one place to the next, especially since I was staying in a neighborhood far from the center, I had to pay 2#s each ride ( thats $3.20 whereas a subway ride in NYC cost $2.25 and you get free transfers from train to bus in NYC). There was also the fact that the conversion rate was working against me in both dollars and euros. Additionally, there were little hints that made London seem much more “money hungry” than Paris: you had to pay to get a map of the museum or to store your umbrella in a locker, which a sign deemed “mandatory” to do.

Despite all of that, I feel like I much prefer the city of London to Paris. Paris is definitely more student friendly and tourist friendly; if your looking to spend less than a week in a city and you want to see a lot and do a lot I would suggest Paris due to how convienient getting around is. But London.. there’s just something about London that I adore. I think it’s because London satisfied a lot of the things I was hoping to see and feel in Paris.

To me, Paris is a city of extremes. You either have tiny, cobbled streets that, while charming, are impossible to enjoy walking down because you have to be constantly on your guard not to walk into people or walk into dog crap. Alternatively, Paris has her famous grands boulevards that are lively and noisy but somehow offer me none of the energy that I get from walking down a crowded street in NYC, like 5th avenue during December. London however had small, quiet, walkable streets where one could find a cute, pink cupcake spot by chance, or a cluster of designer boutiques on a street that reminded me a lot of Madison Avenue. In London I felt like there was enough space to retreat from the masses of people while in Paris it’s difficult to find sidewalks that aren’t crowded with people during the daytime.

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I have mainly been exploring Paris by mouth. That is to say, most of my days are planned according to where I will have lunch. Everyday I try to pick a new place (but I’m not always successful. I’ve learned that, in Paris, you always need a backup plan because shops here tend to have “fermetures exceptionelles” (unexpected closure) or I just don’t like the menu or can’t find the place). Point being that food has been an integral part of my Paris-experience and that would have been the case in London had I had taken the chance to research and plan everything out. Instead, my friends and I just ate at places we happened and agreed upon, so I wound up eating at places that might not have been on any “Best of” lists but that I really enjoyed. The food I ate at pubs were mediocre (I opted for “traditional” pub food and ate a chicken pie and another time some fish and chips) but I loved the experience of coming in from the rainy cold and sitting in a Christmas-decorated pub that was full of people. Speaking of Christmas decorations, while both cities are decorated in lights,  Paris usually decorates according to a “winter” theme with lights of white and blue (probably due to France’s position as being laique) while you’re more likely to see images of Santa, Christmas trees and lights of red and green in London.)

Maybe it was due to being comfortable in speaking the language and hearing exactly what was happening around me, but people in London seemed much more willing to strike up conversations with strangers, whether with me or with other people. Whether we were on on the eurostar, on the tube, in a pub or on the street, someone would inevitably make a comment or strike up a conversation with me or one of my friends. But then again, maybe this perception has nothing to do with how friendly people are in on city compared to the other but my experience as a native English speaker. In Paris, I have had brief encounters that dispel any desire to buy into the stereotype that French people are rude: from a stranger who took 20 minutes to help my friend find her lost earring on the sidewalk (with no success), to being saved by strangers who “swiped” me into the metro after a malfunction with my PasseNavigo. But this is different from the sort of  sociability I noticed in London.

IMG_1589(A cafe in London near King’s Cross)

I definitely want to visit London again sometime soon so that I can explore more of the city and eat at restaurants and cafes that made it onto some blogger’s best of list. As for being in Paris, I definitely returned with a renewed sense of tourism- I want to use my last 20 days in Paris (before I leave for Christmas break and return in January) to explore parts of the city I’ve never been to and eat in new restaurants. I also have a new appreciation for my PasseNavigo which, after paying the reduced for-students price, gives me unlimited access to Paris so that I don’t have to think twice about taking a train to and from a cafe to buy a croissant that cost half the price of a one way tube ride in London.

Bonjour mes amis

The one topic I believe that I ignored thus far but deserves it’s very own post is of course the one in which I finally talk about my experience with language. After 2 months of living in Paris and speaking French on a regular basis, I suppose I finally have something to say. I also can’t wait to reread this in the spring of 2013 and celebrate all the progress I made.

It’s necessary to confess that I don’t speak French in 100% of my conversations. I always speak French when I’m at school, at home or doing an activity as a part of my program. I don’t however speak French all the time with my friends. I’m not really ashamed to admit it, even though at first I felt very guilty speaking English, because I firmly believe that it’s healthy. I can only speak for myself but when you’re restricted to only speaking French you can only express 60% of your true feelings and thoughts. Additionally, what ends up being expressed, in this language that is not your own, is a watered down version of your real ideas and feelings. I know that the only way to get comfortable in French and reach the point where I can fully express myself is to force myself to speak French in every situation, but I honestly don’t believe it’s healthy. Speaking English became a sort of therapy. When I finally “broke down” and spoke English with my friends for the first time I realized that it had been weeks since i had laughed. In French, none of us are really funny. I wound up laughing so hard I was crying while telling a story, that wasn’t even that funny, just because my sense of humor had been suppressed for weeks. The same is true with your negative emotions that get remain unexpressed all because you can’t find the precise words to use.

So that is my little confession. But after I spend a little bit of time speaking English with my friends, we usually go back to speaking French by choice. Firstly because it’s fun and secondly because I recognize that it’s important if I ever want to advance.

After about a month in Paris I noticed that my fluidity and speed had increased, but I was still convinced that i was speaking incoherently. It was quite an “AH-HAA” moment when my friend told me over crepes that she saw an immense (or maybe I’m exaggerating now) difference in my oral communication and that I was in fact speaking in grammatically correct sentences for the most part. It will probably be one of those moments i won’t forget because until then I had thought I sort of plateaued after gaining a little bit of “speed and accuracy” during my first month. Right now, I feel like my level of communication is just an actualization of what I always knew I was capable of / what was going on inside my head. I really hope my progress continues. At least now I know, due to my phonetiques class, what my “trouble areas” are and how I can improve.

For example, I have to pay attention to how I pronounce [u] [ø] and strangely enough [a]

[u] as in pour, cours, et bonjour & [ø] as in bol, porte, homme. The reason why I have trouble with these sounds is because you have to make your voice quite deep to achieve the sounds. Not only are the sounds unnatural to me but I sort of resist having to hear my voice sound sort of.. masculine ?

[a] as in amie, ananas, américain etc. This sound I was surprised to find was an issue for me. Instinctively I try to pronounce it as “uh” like “uh-mie” and “uh-mericain”. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the result of the 2 years spent during college trying to water down my New York accent, the one that would have made me pronounce it  AHH-ksent instead of the more neutral pronunciation of aks-ENT. (I hope this was logical)

And while it’s still a challenge to speak in French  because I don’t have a complete vocabulary and I still have to stop myself to make sure i’m using the right very tense (I believe there are 17 verb tenses in French and 12 in English), I see small clues that I’m definitely advancing. Sometimes I shock myself after i realize how quickly I can spit out a response or how when I write or speak in English, like when writing this post for example, I can only think of the French version of what I want to say and cannot find the proper English equivalent of what I want to say.

I hope it isn’t too long until I can write an update on this subject and let you all know how I can finally yell at people in French (my personal measure of what it means to be truly fluent in a language.)

xx,

S

Lucky Rabbit Hat

I don’t know what I did in September to earn such bad karma but October definitely wasn’t my month. In addition to being hit by a complete stranger, which I won’t go over as I think I covered it extensively in my last post, I don’t think I passed 3 consecutive days in October without finding myself in an embarrassing situation. I’m not complaining because when recounting the stories they merited many laughs. Such stories include:

-the time I uknowingly and stupidly used my host’s decorative teapot to boil water on the stove for my tea.

-the evening I came back to the apartment to find out the roast I had been responsible for cooking was partially burnt and portions had to be thrown out

-the numerous occasions where lamb was served and I couldn’t bear the taste. I am going to figure out a graceful way to make sure i never have to taste lamb meat ever again.

-Leaving my house and walking for at least 20 minutes before I realized I was wearing my sweater inside out. Ace.

-Buying groceries and thinking how cunningly I had eschewed the need to pay for or ask for a grocery bag by simply using a leftover plastic bag at the end of the register. A few steps after leaving the super market I then realized I was proudly swinging around a garbage bag. I should have realized sooner after seeing that the bag didn’t even have handles.

I optimistically decided that my luck would change come November. (*Note: I feel that due to the events that transpired from the storm on the East Coast I must clarify that I don’t seriously think I had it all that bad. If anything my “month of bad luck” is really gold in terms of comical material.)

On October 31st around 7pm I was nearly inside the train when I passed a young guy who was coming off the train. As soon as I passed him he slipped and fell on the floor of the subway platform. I like to believe that was the precise moment that all of my bad luck left me and attached itself onto him. (The guy was completely fine so I get to write about this and profit from his humiliation).

Of course, I won’t be completely free of embarrassing moments. Not until I stop breathing. But I really do think my luck has turned around. For example:

-The night of October 31st I baked a cake and it came out delicious. I also offered a portion to my host and think that dissipated any leftover negative feelings she had toward me for burning her roast.

-Yesterday, November 1st I found an amazing patisserie and ate an extraordinary and large pain au chocolat aux amandes et à la pistache that’s only 1/3 the cost of your fancy Starbuck’s latte in Paris.

-Today, November 2nd I found a rabbit fur hat. I don’t know if i will actually wear it and it’s not really my style but I’d like to see it as a good omen. Also, today I had caught the woman who tried to short change me (accidentally or on purpose, I have no idea) and I also had another noteworthy gastronomic experience.. (I really don’t know if i’m ready to share my good finds here yet but trust me, it was splendid.)

I keep getting calls from an unknown French number that I refuse to pick up because i have no idea who it is. But from the ways things are going, maybe it’s an unsolicited job offer or a case of mistaken identity that ends with me receiving a cash for life prize. Or maybe somehow that young guy from the metro tracked me down and is trying to return the bad voodoo.

à bientot,

S.

Breakfast at Le Bon Marché

Saturday morning I went out in search of an almond croissant. I had a specific patisserie in mind where  I had read some of the best almond croissants are sold. However, after that first bakery in my neighborhood was either sold out or stopped carrying all almond croissants, I then made a long journey to three other bakeries to realize les croissants aux amandes are maybe less popular than I expected. (Traditionally almond croissants were a way of salvaging “old” croissants that weren’t sold the day before. Is there an inverse relation between the inventory of almond croissants and the quality and popularity of that bakery’s croissants?)

But after crossing a few neighborhoods I finally gave up and settled on a pain au chocolat at the fourth patisserie. At least it was one of the patisseries that’s on my list of Parisian cafes, patisseries and restaurants, so it wasn’t a total waste of time. After paying for my pastry and exiting the bakery, I ran into a problem that often arises in Paris during lunch time, at least for me anyway,: I’ve bought my pastry à emporter (to-go), now where do I go to eat it?

Usually I choose to sit in a garden, on the steps of a museum or return to my apartment. There really isn’t any other option. But today I was too far from my apartment and it was raining. I thought about standing under the covered outdoor entrance at Le Bon Marche (think Barney’s NYC) but knew I would get stared down for devouring a croissant while standing and in public. Or worse, be told that I’m in the way (a.k.a. spoiling the facade of the building and ruining it’s elegance).The second best option was just to take cover under the store’s awning that stretched along all four sides of the building.

I began to walk slowly down the sidewalk, tearing pieces of of my pain au chocolat and admiring les vitrines (the store windows) where on display were some of the store’s products: black leather gloves, Chanel bags and shoes, jewelery, etc. It took me about a minute to realize that I had accidentally, (serendipitously) stumbled into a reenactment of the opening scene of Breakfast At Tiffany’s. All I needed to complete the scene was a black dress, black gloves and a pearl necklace.

I do however need to figure out a way to sort out this “lunch dilema”. The most economic and time efficient lunches are those in which you can just pick something up (whether it’s a sandwich, something from the grocery store or, as I often do, choosing a pastry from one of the best patisseries in town) and eat it “at the office”. Except i have no office and my lunch hours usually falls in between when I have classes. If eating in museums were normal I would probably do that. But alas, I think that would not only warrant a few stares but would probably also solicite one or two quick blows from the guard’s whistle, as I’ve often witness happen when some tourist is violating an establishment’s rules.

Spotted: In the 75008, Stacey La getting scolded by une petite vieille dame

Paraphrasing what a little old Parisian woman said to me today:

“It’s really a shame that your skirt is so short. If it were longer it would be much better. You have to be careful going around with a skirt like that. If you go to certain neighborhoods you could get raped. (Did she really just say that? Yes, I think she did) You’re so cute but it would be best if you wore longer skirt. Goodbye. Have a good day.”

Yes it was windy, yes my flared skirt was short and appeared shorter with heels but I was wearing opaque, black tights and holding my skirt down gracefully! Not to mention she’s sharing her belief that a woman’s outfit causes her be harassed and raped, but that’s another problem for another day.

I’m not really bothered but I thought it was funny and very frank of her, a complete stranger. This is something that has never happened to me and I don’t think would ever happen to me in New York.

Le Regard

Well this hurts. I had written a long and lovely post but one way or another it got erased. I will try my best to recreate it:

Before arriving in Paris I had collected an arsenal of cautions, tips and addresses from American, expat bloggers and from my friends who had recently returned from their year in Paris. Some of the advice was what seemed to me like common sense (don’t stare at someone unless you are hoping to give them the green light to start a conversation with you) and some of it was unexpected and pretty helpful (careful where you step, Parisians are notorious for not picking up after their dogs. The metro in Paris does not run 24/7. Do not order a café au lait in a café; that’s only a drink you have at home in the morning), but all was shared with the intention of helping me adapt to Paris as an American student who has a conversational grasp of the language (at best.)

And so now I cannot tell if it is due to this year and a half long period of preparing myself and familiarizing myself with the cultural and social habits of Parisians or the fact that the Parisian culture is not unlike that of New York City, but I am disappointed to say I have had very few issues adapting myself to the Parisian lifestyle. Compared to my classmates who have spoken about their issues acclimating to Paris and the anxiety they feel over the unfamiliarity of it all, I have yet to feel severely overwhelmed. Which is definitely a good thing but I also have to admit that I am a bit disappointed that there isn’t a great and remarkable contrast between the Parisian and New York culture. After I had spent two years in the safe, comfortable and charming community and town of my college, where the worst thing that could happen to me would be finding out that the dining hall had run out of the plain yogurt that I ate every morning, and I was hoping I would be awakened and bouleversée by all the social oddities of Paris.

There was one thing I was anticipating and had prepared myself for but hasn’t been an issue: I had been told that Parisians love to stare. This is, for me, very untrue. Not only on comparably so, but also in absolute terms.

I want to avoid sounding narcissistic but the fact is that in New York City there is not a single day that I can leave my house and walk outside without being catcalled, whether it’s just a hello, psst psst or another verbal comment, or the silence that goes along with being stared at. Every time I pass by a group of young guys, construction workers or people hanging outside a bar, I instictively brace myself for their comments or their stares. It’s not pleasant but it is something that I have come to expect and accept, since it’s generally harmless, because the effort I would have to put in to stop it isn’t worth it.

However, in Paris, where I had been warned about those “randy French men” and how Parisians love to stare, this hasn’t been an issue. And it’s not that I miss being yelled at by strangers, it’s actually a relief, but it is unfamiliar. At first I spent a brief period thinking I was just too ugly for Paris. But even if that’s true, I have come up with some other theories:

1. The city is full of attractive and well dressed women so you have to be a perfect 10 to be garner attention.

2. The well dressed and perfectly coiffed men are playing the same game I am. After all, they didn’t spend all that time getting dressed in the morning not to be noticed and they’re definitely not going to look at you first. Whoever is the first to look at the other person is not only admitting their interest but their inferiority as well.

3. On a normal day there are 100 high school girls in a 5 block radius that are dressed better than I am.

4. With a pace that is a near jog and New York-trained poker face, I come off frigid and unapproachable.

5. Parisians are, in effect, less rude than Americans/New Yorkers

There is one demographic that loves to stare at me: French women. I don’t know if it’s because they are checking out my outfit or trying to figure out where I hail from ( on certain days I am evidently UN Parisienne since I fail to adhere to the uniform that is strictly black, gray and/or dark purple during months that have an R in the name).

But for all that my New York roots has blessed me with, it has also rendered me insensitive to vowel sounds and that is something that will keep be very much StaceyL’Americaine. That is, until my Phonetique class knocks it out fo me.

À bientot,

S