October 2012


Highs and Lows

Posted on Tuesday, October 23, 2012

On Sunday, the sun appeared again and the weather was warm and perfect.  I could hardly believe it when I looked out my window in the morning, and determined to make the most of the nice weather, I set out from my apartment on foot and headed North.  Crossing the Seine and making my way across Île de la Cité, I stumbled upon the Bird and Flower market; it was full of life and chirping and colorful little birds and beautiful flowers.  It was such an awesome sight - here in Paris, you're lucky to encounter any bird that's not a giant arrogant pigeon trying to steal your baguette - and I was charmed by the market's pretty layout and exotic contents.

Moving on from the market, I continued to walk North through the city centre.  I wasn't headed anywhere in particular, but stopped on park benches and at a café and soaked in the beautiful weather and the simple joys of life in Paris.  I found a beautiful bookshop on two levels, where I was thrilled to spy my old friend W.B. Yeats sitting on a dusty shelf.  Though I was tempted to buy the collection of his work in French, out of curiosity and nerdy interest, the book was too big so I had to leave it behind.  It's always nice to see familiar faces, though. Meeting up with Jackie near the Georges Pompidou Center, we rented bikes and headed further north, deciding to end our bike ride at the Buttes Chaumont park, which has one of the best views of Paris as it's elevated and quite far north.  The bike ride was beautiful, though we made the mistake of trying to ride through the pedestrian-heavy Marais,  and we saw several things that made us laugh out loud (A man dressed in giraffe print doing a one-man-band thing à la Mary Poppins....).  I don't think I'll ever forget the sight of a shirtless man in-line skate-dancing at an intersection - he wore baggy khakis that had been slit up to his thights to allow for ease of movement when he kicked his leg up to his ear... No description will really ever be accurate enough, but rest assured it was equal parts hilarious, impressive, and frightening.

We passed through the Canal St Martin, where much of the film Amélie was filmed, and where I lived when I was a student.  The area is so vibrant and full of people, particularly on a Sunday afternoon, with families and groups of friends picnicking and eating lazy lunches in roadside bistrots.  Though the sun began to disappear a bit, Jackie and I finally made it up to the Buttes Chaumont (after an obligatory bakery break for chouquettes).  The park was full of people, too, and we climbed all the way to the top of the biggest hill to see the view.  At first, we were unimpressed, and didn't understand why so many people are so enamored of the view.  Finally, we turned around with the intent of leaving only to realize that we had a perfect view of the Eiffel Tower from where we stood, and with the sun beginning to set just behind it, it really was breathtaking.  Lots of people don't like the Eiffel Tower, or become jaded after seeing it every day, but I continue to be seduced by its delicate architecture and quiet elegance.
Back on our bikes, Jackie and I bought a rôtisserie chicken for dinner and feasted in her little studio in the 10th.  Newly carnivorous and still unsure how to prepare/cut/serve meat, I let Jackie do most (all) of the carving, but the chicken was so very tasty and with a glass of wine and some potatoes was the perfect ending to the most delicious lazy Sunday of my life.

Awesome view of the Eif.
Though Sunday was picturesque and perfect, living in Paris is no fairytale.  I've been struck lately by the number of homeless people I've noticed, in particular along the Boulevard St Germain, near my apartment.  It's impossible not to be affected by it; on one side you pass five benches occupied by homeless people in a row, while on the other tourists feast on 5 course lunches at the Armani Café or shop at Sonia Rykiel.  My heart gets so heavy sometimes, walking home, because there's so little I can do.  Offering some spare change or a bit of food might alleviate the weight sometimes, but ultimately being faced with this destitution is a reality of living in a city like Paris, where the richest of the rich step on the poorest of the poor without looking down.  I don't want to make this blog post too serious or to make you, readers, walk away feeling depressed or heavy-hearted, but I've been so struck by the problem in the past week that I felt I needed to record it somewhere, to remind myself that la vie en rose isn't always so rosy.  Here I am, living my dream in Paris, while on the next street corner there's a mother with her infant asking for pocket change.  It's something I try to stay conscious of, and staying grounded has never been more important for me than here in Paris.
All that being said, I continue to feel grateful for everything I've got here.  Sure, the WiFi signal might be spotty at best, and the customer service can be frustrating, and the contact lens solution expensive, but ultimately almost everything I've ever wanted for myself is here, now.  I've started riding my bike home from work sometimes.  It's quite far, since my school is outside Paris in the North, but it's a beautiful ride and goes through at least ten different neighborhoods.  They're never signposted, but the shift from the ethnic colorful neighborhoods in the north to the to the up-and-coming and gentrified 10th is striking every time.   The city is so accessible, and so very alive, that an hourlong bike ride feels like a few minutes as I'm so fascinated by everything I see.  Anyone who knows my sense of direction might be alarmed that I'm let loose in Paris, but fortunately Paris is one of the few places where I can generally keep my bearings and end up in the right place.  There's no confidence  booster like bike riding from Porte de Clignancourt to Sèvres-Babylone without consulting my map once!
My language skills have reached a bit of a lull which is severely frustrating.  I can understand everything, but some days I'm so tired or frustrated that I feel like I can't even communicate.  I never had a lull like this when I was abroad and it's driving me nuts - the words are in my mind but I'm having trouble speaking with confidence like I'm used to.  I'm hoping this phase will pass, but for now it makes for amusing stories (Such as asking "Do you have coffee which is cold??" at a café...).

Package from home featuring Halloween goodies for my students - and cold meds for me!
After this week, the kids have a full two-week vacation from school.  Luckily for me, my contract here includes six weeks of paid vacation time, the two weeks next week included.  I look forward to after these holidays are over, though, to really knuckle down with my students and start to make some progress.  There's only so much Hangman a class can take, I think, and so I'm beginning to invent some lesson plan ideas in my mind to help them as much as I can.   Teaching continues to be rewarding.  Even if waking up when it's pitch black (PITCH. BLACK.) at 7 in the morning can be a drag, I always leave my schools in the afternoon feeling happy.  I might walk into the courtyard feeling grumpy and unmotivated, but hearing "'ALLO MADAME!", "'HALLO MISS NIAMH!", "'ALLO MISS 'OW ARE YOU?" always lifts my spirits and makes me ready to start teaching.  From this moment in the morning with my students, to the moment I'm in the home stretch of my bike ride home, where the air is thick with the scent of Nutella crêpes and four cheese paninis, every day here makes my smile to myself.  How did I get so lucky?  


October Eleventh

Posted on Thursday, October 11, 2012

There's something about Paris in the rain.  Though it's been raining so frequently lately that I'm surprised I can't pinpoint that "something" more precisely...

Full moon at Notre Dame
Still impressive, even on the gloomiest of days.

The weather's getting colder and more miserable; the infamous Parisian winter grayness is setting in and I'm not too pleased.  When I left for work this morning at 7:45, the street was still half-dark and sleepy (but not as sleepy as I was).  Things continue to go well, despite the dampening weather and the whisper of winter misery in the air.  Though it's been harder and harder to wake up in the morning, with the pitch black that greets me at my alarm's insistence, my days at the schools promise to be rewarding and worthwhile.  The children are cute, and to see the earnest enthusiasm with which some of them make efforts in English is motivation enough to get out of bed and start my days.
The questions I've been asked, too, confirm that I'll enjoy my time as assistant.  I've encountered everything from the disconcertingly vague "What do you not like?" to the completely random "Have you met the Queen of England?".  Each time, I'm struck by how little these kids in the North of Paris have really learned about the Anglophone world - the idea that they genuinely believe that I, a 22 year-old American girl, might've really and truly met Kim Kardashian in the street is evidence that their notions of everyday American life are jumbled to say the least.  But it's these little things that make me smile, and remind me that I'm here both as a language resource AND a cultural resource.  I hope that by the time I'm finished with them at the end of April, they'll understand that you don't meet celebrities at every street corner of New York, and that no, most people have not shaken President Obama's hand.

This photo is poor quality because I zoomed in.  But, still.
With the weather being as awful as it has been, it's been a bit more challenging to make the most of my Vélib bike pass.  There's nothing less pleasant than getting stuck in a Parisian misty rainstorm on a clunky bike, while trying not to get killed by a bus or scooter or an especially stout pedestrian.  The other night, on my way to a friend's apartment, I first failed to find an available bike, and then got caught out in the rain on my way.  I was in the middle of uttering a long stream of French and English curse words under my breath when I rounded a corner and beheld the Eiffel Tower, sparkling as it does on every hour.  It was a well-timed reminder that most of my complaints these days are trivial, and when I frame them more appropriately in the grand scheme of my life they fall away, completely insignificant.
I continue to be appalled at the price of Paris.  Sure, baguettes and wine are cheap, but there's only so many pounds a person can gain in Paris before one must realize this is not a vacation and is, in fact, real life.  (If anyone's got a good lentil recipe, please do let me know.  Lentils are so cheap, I plan to subsist mainly on them for the foreseeable future.)  I'm hoping to find some other work somehow to support myself, as my salary just about covers my rent with very little left over at the end of the month.

Almond croissant on a sunny day at the Tuileries.
This weekend a few friends and I are heading to the Stade de France to see a rugby match.   With my father's encouragement, we'll be seeing Munster vs. Racing Métro 92... and yes, that is the true-life name of a French team.  I couldn't even make that up if I tried.  It'll take me a few more viewings of "RUGBY 101" on YouTube before I feel properly ready, but even if most of the action is lost on my non-sporty mind, I can still appreciate an event with lots of shouting and camaraderie.  I'm really looking forward to it, as I've never been to the Stade de France.  It should be memorable.

Wide open spaces in the Loire Valley.
The sun's just come out now, so I'll leave this post a bit shorter than originally planned in favor of moving and getting outside.  Look forward to my reactions on my second ever rugby game... If I make it out alive - rugby fans are notoriously spirited!  Here's to hoping I'll be back soon.


Blue Skies

Posted on Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Look, I exist! Promise.
I'm still here, very much alive and well!  The truth is, when I sit down to update my blog it's generally sunny and bright outside, and I think "Well I should get outside while it's nice..." and then I'm off!  With my newly-minted year long Vélib pass, I've been roaming all around Paris on bike (while trying to avoid cobblestones at all costs) which is one of the best ways to see the city for sure.

Catching sundown over Notre Dame from my bike.
Last week, my parents were generous enough to invite my friend Jackie and me down to their house in the Loire Valley for a few days.  After a whirlwind first few weeks in Paris, it was nice to breathe some country air and catch up on sleep - not to mention being wined and dined extensively!  With our poor girls' budgets, we've been mostly subsisting on powdered soup from the super market and baguette, so it was with wide eyes and grumbling stomachs that we greeted the bounty of fruits and veggies my mother had in store for us.  Perhaps the most notable part of our trip was a short visit to the Chateau de Beaulieu in Saumur.  My parents' friends operate the chateau as an intimate little B&B on the banks of the Loire (See their website here!).  We were invited to dinner and Jackie and I couldn't believe our luck! While just days before we'd been chowing down on baguette on the windy steps of Sacré Coeur, here we were enjoying a three course meal in a 17th century chateau thanks to the incredible generosity of Conor and Mary, the chateau owners.  (If anyone's looking for a fantastic B&B in French wine country, I can't recommend this place highly enough!)

Home sweet country home.
Check out the site here if you're interested!
A day spent at the Chateau de Brissac
Our days in the Loire were so relaxing, and I think we might've seen more cows than people!  Roadside wine tastings, cheese after every meal, and so many hours of sleep... It really was nice to recharge even though it had only been a few weeks of madness here in Paris.  I'm more city girl than country girl, though, and so it was nice to pull back into the Gare Montparnasse last Thursday evening and see the Eiffel Tower twinkling in the distance, welcoming us home.  I'm really starting to feel at home in my little shoebox room apartment.  It's just so small, but so perfect too in its own way.  Now that I've got a table and a little chair, I can sit by my window and use my computer or eat my dinner while looking out over the rooftops of the 7th arrondissement   Not bad, my friends, not bad at all.  My neighborhood is wonderful and well-situated, and I continue to be grateful for the friends I've met thus far (and those with whom I've reunited!) that make me feel so at home here.  I can't believe that this week marks the one-month mark of my stay!  On one hand, I can't believe it's only been a month - I feel like I've stuck back into my Parisian routine so quickly that it's like I never left. On the other, though, with a seven-month work contract beginning this week it's frightening to think how quickly one month has gone by already.

Room with a view.
I begin working at school on Friday.  I'll be teaching at two schools located just north of Paris, in the infamous Seine St-Denis area.  It's a far cry from the 7th arondissement where I live (on my block alone there's a Céline, Yves Saint-Laurent, Christian Louboutin...) and has, in the past, been the center of riots and violent protests, but I visited my schools yesterday and felt completely safe and ready to start work.  I'll be doing 6 hours in each school per week, helping the English teachers with kids aged 11-14, and after meeting a few of the classes yesterday I'm really looking forward to getting to know the students and helping them progress with English as much as I can.  I report back on Friday morning to present myself to my classes and to get to know them.  Some friends who've already met more students have been met with such entertaining questions as "Do you do brunch?" and "Have you heard of Jay-Z?" so I'm really excited to see what kinds of things I'm asked by my students.  I think the experience will be fulfilling if challenging, and I'm curious to see if it encourages me to persue teaching as an actual career.

Aside from all that, Paris is still as beautiful as ever.  The food (Oh là là... The food.), the people, Sometimes I still need to pinch myself to see if it's all real - the most mundane activities make me feel so unreasonably happy that I'm not sure I can take all the good things that are coming my way.  I successfully opened my bank account and got my debit card, so I'm well on my way to feeling "real" in this new life.  I also received my absentee ballot in the mail the other day, and in a fairly rare moment of patriotism I cast my vote and sent it back to Bucks county.  I'm proud that the US makes it fairly easy for its ex-patriates to continue to be involved in the policital process, and I look forward to watching the political process unfold from way over here.  Here's to hoping my Parisian vote helps a favorable outcome in November!  

Beautiful autumn morning at Invalides.
I'd rather have this than money.  Is that wrong?
If it is, I don't want to be right.
Watching my money disappear so rapidly is tough, but I'm hoping to find a side job shortly that will afford me a bit more flexibility in spending - though my dwindling bank account doesn't seem to stop me from buying a falafel every week in the Marais, or splurging on a stinkier cheese... Oh well, being broke is half the fun of it (right??).  Even if, after a soirée at my neighbors' apartment, I come home reeking of cigarette smoke and full to the brim with quiche and cheese, it's these minor discomforts that remind me how lucky I am to actually be here.  The weather is turning colder in Paris, but rather than the usual gloomy gray of Parisian fall, it's been bright and sunny and clear.  The city comes alive in this sunlight, more than in the hazy heat of the summer, and there's no greater joy than walking across a bridge that's older than the United States and finding myself in a new or unexplored neighborhood.  While I'll be busier once work starts in full, I'll try my hardest to never forget that these little pleasures are what makes life here worthwhile. I'll leave you now with a French rap song written about the area in which I'll be teaching - it might give you an idea of the kind of scene I'll be a part of...  xo