Monday, October 12, 2009

action de grâces

French people don't do Thanksgiving, which is one reason I could never stay here forever, no matter how much I'm going to miss the eclairs. It would be hard to imagine a more perfect holiday than Thanksgiving: beautiful weather, wool sweaters, cranberry sauce, cousins and none of the ridiculous Christmas hoopla. My family makes a dry turkey and capture the flag afterward feel positively sacramental, and I missed them this weekend.

But. Even in this country which is so uncivilized as not to know about pumpkin pie, I'm thankful for:

  • nuns on bicycles
  • my orange scarf and the brother who wove it for me
  • rainy days, herbal tea and essay collections
  • companionable silences
  • this view from my window:

Monday, September 7, 2009

Before I stepped off the plane in April, I'd spent a lifetime total of about 21 hours in Paris. I flew in and out of Charles de Gaulle for that silly little walk I went on last summer, which meant a few confused hours trying to get a train to St. Jean Pied de Port on one end, and an exhausted night in a hotel room before flying out on the other.

I'd had big plans for that last night in Paris - figured I'd cram as many Parisian adventures into one afternoon and evening as I could. But I was wiped, my feet still hurt, and I already missed the Camino. Not even the pleasures of Paris could compete, so I went for a short walk that wound me up in Pigalle, ate a quick dinner, bought some candy at a convenience store next to my hotel and went to bed. It was a terrible hotel, everything painted turquoise and yellow, strange smells and unnerving scratches all around the lock on my door. I could have touched all four walls of my room at the same time if I'd wanted to, but I was too tired to care.

The next morning, on my way to the airport I looked into the shop windows and tried to imagine life in Paris. It was a Sunday so everything was closed, and I didn't have much time anyway, but I wondered idly, "if I were Parisian, would I shop there? Do Parisians wear hats like that, buy those throw pillows? Would I read at that cafe there, or buy my croissants at that boulangerie?"

It wasn't until about six months after I'd gotten home from that trip that it even occurred to me to come back to Paris, and since I've been here I've often wondered where it was that I stayed; where it was that I tried to imagine life in Paris, with only a nap and an accidental stumbling upon the red-light district to go on.

But back in June when my father came to visit, I was walking to his (much nicer) hotel one morning to pick him up, and noticed a small, sad-looking hotel with a familiar paint job.

It's three blocks from my apartment.

Turns out I don't buy the throw pillows, but I do read at that very same cafe sometimes, as well as the dozens of others on the same street. And best of all, that convenience store I bought cola gummies and Orangina at last summer is open late. I didn't appreciate at the time how lucky I was to be able to buy something in Paris after 9pm, but with a few months here under my belt I sure do.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Parisiens are the new New Yorkers

Last weekend I had brunch with the Frenchest Frenchman I've ever met. Well-dressed, slightly greasy, can't help himself from winking every time he makes eye contact with a woman. Winks that make you feel like you're the only woman in the whole world, even though there are three other girls at the table, all getting the same treatment. He's basically the personification of a beret and a baguette.

But probably the Frenchest thing about him was this: "I went to Canada once. Why is everybody so nice there? They were so nice, for the first three days I thought they were making fun of me"

Saturday, August 15, 2009

At home, I never give much thought to being Canadian. I don't drink Molson, I think bashing the US is pretty played out, and I always have to think for a minute about who's Prime Minister. (And even after I think about it, I might still say "Jean Chretien.")

But something about travelling gets me all revved up about the True North, strong and free. I get excited about meeting other Canadians in Paris, even if I don't have much in common with a perfect stranger who grew up in Medicine Hat. I know at least they'll be able to spell "toque," and if I bump into them I'll get an apology.

Even when other Canadians are in short supply, though, people here love talking about Canada. I mention -30 days in the winter, and their eyes pop. I explain poutine, and their mouths water. And everyone's got an opinion. Like English Charlie, who approves wholeheartedly of Canadians on account of our "proper money with the Queen on it." According to Charlie, Canada is "one of the most right-on countries in the world. Probably only Sweden is more right-on," and we all "stand at the border holding hands, shouting 'give peace a chance, America!'"

And while I know it's lame to take pride in something as sheer-random-chance as being Canadian, I do like talking about Canada, and even get a little smug explaining things like, "of course our healthcare is paid for in Canada," "no, Canadians don't own handguns," and - most importantly - "in Canada, convenience stores are open past 10pm."

I'm prepared to own up to that national pride. A country where you can buy a magazine, a bottle of water and chapstick all at the same store is a glorious place, France.

But as to that girl in the Latin Quarter last night whose arms went over her head when the video for "Man, I Feel Like a Woman" came on the TV? The girl who crowed, "Shania Twain! She's Canadian!" Brunette, about 5'8, glasses?

...never seen her before in my life.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Just when I thought I was getting the hang of this place

Me: I was trying to write you a cheque for the rent, but can you help me? These French cheques are different from the ones we have at home.
Roommate: That's because it's not a cheque.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Places I tried to buy stamps today, with no success

In chronological order, which also happens to be the order of mounting absurdity:

1. A papeterie that sold magazines and cards and envelopes and paper and seemed like a good bet.

2. A tabac, which the woman in the papeterie told me was the only place that sold stamps.

3. The post office.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Heart of Worship

Annie Dillard wrote a beautiful essay called "An Expedition to the Pole" that you should go read right this very second if you've ever been to a mainline church, scoffed or prayed for the mainline church, or just if you like to read things that are beautiful and true. I don't have the essay with me, and I won't try to quote it from memory, but she does make a reference to having gone to a Catholic church to try to escape "Protestant guitars."

("Protestant guitars." As if that doesn't just sum it all up.)

So my big rebellion against a Protestant upbringing has been to seek out the most inaccessible ways of doing church I can find. I started small, with the Book of Common Prayer. Then I started going to mass in Latin. Then I crossed the Pyrenees and walked 800km to go to church in a(nother) language I can't speak.

Sometimes I still try to do normal church. Back in May I went to an English-language church on the Left Bank. But it was too "ladies' tea this afternoon" and "our missions team in Portugual." And oh, the Protestant guitars.

So I poked around a bit and tried to find something more like home. Some sort of emergent or unchurch where the minister might swear sometimes by accident, or where there wouldn't be a minister at all. A church I could knit at and we could grow organic vegetables to eat together and restore antique bicycles, talk about identity politics and read Dorothy Day and Henri Nouwen. But I came up blank and so did my hobbit-like bandanna-sporting go-to on all things unchurch. It seems the English-speaking community in Paris hasn't read The Irresistable Revolution yet.

A few weeks ago, though, I found the solution. I've been attending Gregorian mass at Notre Dame. Not a single Protestant guitar in sight. No clapping. No Sunday School picnic. No one's comparing God to a three-legged milking stool. Just chanting. Chanting in Latin. Chanting the same words that have been sung in that space for nearly a thousand years. Take that, Matt Redman.