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.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


I spent last week teaching English at a camp an hour outside of Paris.

Remember how grade school French teachers always seemed so mean? I get it now. Trying to discipline a group of French eight year olds using only English is hard. It was exhausting and frustrating right up until the last day when I realized that in between hitting each other with rulers and staring at me blankly they'd actually learned a lot of English. And when they were on their best behaviour because their parents were picking them up, I realized I'd actually kind of miss them.

Then after all the kids were gone, it was time to drive back to Paris. I remember when I used to work at camp all those summers during high school, we would talk about how strange it was to go back to the real world in September. I figured we were mostly just freaked out by all of the secular music and tank tops, but even after a week at this camp it felt odd to drive through the gates and back onto real streets with cars and shops and grown-ups.

When I was a kid and we would go on long car trips, I knew we were almost home when I could see the mall clock tower from the backseat. It would come into view just as we pulled off the highway, and it meant we were almost there. Saturday afternoon, driving through the outskirts of the city (which look perfectly North American: warehouses, IKEA, car dealerships) suddenly all of the big buildings got out of the way and I could see the Eiffel Tower and Sacre Coeur. Same feeling.

Almost home.

Friday, July 3, 2009

I've probably already mentioned that I live in a foodlover's paradise. Not just because I'm in France, although I know that this whole country is a mecca for butter enthusiasts, but my quartier in particular seems to be made up entirely of butchers, charcuteries, fruit stands, cheese shops and bakeries every third storefront. I was in the 7th yesterday afternoon, looking for a sandwich to take to the Champs de Mars with my new library books and was shocked that I had to walk three blocks to find a decent bakery. This is what living in my neighbourhood has done to me.

I love being around food like this. I love going to three shops to pick up bread and cheese and jambon with my dad. I love the bright colours outside the greengrocers'. I love the window displays at the fancy patisseries. I love sitting in the cafe downstairs and watching the butcher unload whole cows off of the truck. (As a side note: last week I was walking down the street to pick my dad up from his hotel and the butcher called out, "Bonjour madame!" to me from behind the counter. Like I was Belle in Beauty & the Beast. I pretty much moved to France for that one moment, and now that it's actually happened I can go home happy, even if I never speak French or find a job or learn how to wear scarves.)

When my father was here, he couldn't believe how many people were walking around with baguettes in their hands - he said he thought that was just a picture from storybooks. But there are three boulangeries between my apartment and the subway station, so the baguettes are everywhere. Right now there's a kid who looks about seven years old standing on the corner underneath my window holding one that's almost as big as he is, and it's pretty cute. Around this time at night there are lineups in all the bakeries as people stop on their way home from work to pick up bread for dinner. And lately my very favourite thing about Paris is that on every corner there is a grown man in a suit looking around furtively before breaking off the end of a warm loaf of bread and cramming it in his mouth.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A chip off the old block

Travelling with my father is fun for the same reason that it's terrifying: it gives a pretty crystal-clear picture of who I'm going to be in forty years. We're doing most of the stuff you're supposed to do (the Louvre, Notre Dame, Concorde, the Arc, that silly tower) but that's all just an excuse to get to the next cafe. And even the cafes are just an excuse to speak the secret shorthand of inside jokes and well-worn stories that families tell themselves over and over while I stare headlong into my future.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

deep like a rose/tall like a rose*

I should be in Canada today, celebrating Father's Day the only way my family knows how to celebrate anything - by eating lots and lots of meat. (Seriously. It's definitely more meat than you can imagine.)

Before you ask, no that handsome young man in the photo isn't one of my brothers - he's my dad, and he's great. Look at him bravely smiling in the airport as though his daughter isn't about to move across the ocean.

My dad is generous and brilliant and funny and in a culture that doesn't make much time for family he dotes on his kids and speaks about his wife with absolute reverence. And he's coming to see me for my birthday on Tuesday so we can paint Paris red.

Happy Father's Day, dad.

*As for the title, it comes from this e.e. cummings poem that I read for the first time last night, and then also for the nineteenth time last night.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

I know I already put this on Facebook, but I would also tattoo it on my heart if I could.

It's not me. I stole this picture from The Kitchn. But I'm going to carry around a picture of this in my wallet so that when people ask what I'm doing in Paris I can say "oh you know, pretty much this."

And a handsome reward to anyone who makes me a dress that doubles as a picnic blanket, AND has lobsters on the front. For real. It's almost my birthday, y'all.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A couple of weeks ago I had my first eclair that wasn't a) from Tim Horton's, b) frozen in a box from Costco. So in other words, I had my first eclair. And it changed my life. They come in chocolate or coffee flavour, and it says a lot about the fairy tale quality of living in Paris that making that decision is sometimes the hardest thing about my day. (Fortunately you can't really make a wrong decision.)

No more.

This morning I discovered the divorcée. It's a chocolate eclair stuck to a coffee eclair. There's extra icing. There's a cheeky name. THERE ARE TWO ECLAIRS IN ONE.

I was a little intimidated at first. It seemed like a pretty big dessert. And then the solution came to me: don't eat the divorcée for dessert. Just eat it for lunch.

Dear Paris: I love you.

Friday morning in the empire of the dead

Friday was a perfect Paris morning. Sunny and warm with a bit of a breeze. So Dan and I decided to spend a few hours underground looking at bones. This is quite possibly the first time anyone has ever warned me, "careful, you're brushing up against some dead people," and meant it.

Hands down the creepiest thing I've ever done on a sunny Friday morning.

Toward the end of the 18th century, the government decided to evacuate the Cemetery of the Innocent, which had been used for nearly a thousand years and was causing infection and disease for those living in the area. So the graves were exhumed and the bones carried - only at night - to the quarries of Tombe Issoire while priests led the procession singing the burial service. You couldn't make up a spookier image.

Now for €4 you can walk through the catacombs and take vacation snapshots of people's bones.

The piles of bones are surreal; they look like stacks of firewood, with rows of skulls evenly spaced throughout. There's a stone altar down there, for celebrating what I can only assume is the world's eeriest mass. (Although what better place to eat flesh and drink blood than in an ossuary?)

And as if the heaps of skulls aren't memento mori enough, there are quotations posted everywhere: "think in the morning you might not live until evening, and in the evening that you might not live until morning." Dan continued to demonstrate his knack for the obvious-yet-apt when he read one of the inscriptions and declared, "that's morbid."

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Things I did this afternoon

1. Ordered a new computer online.
2. Came home, made one last attempt at turning on my old computer. Find that it has somehow magically repaired itself.
3. Cursed.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


My computer died this morning. I turned it on to look up directions for the government office I had to go to, and it turned itself on and has been lifeless ever since. I've sort of seen this coming: it went on the fritz a bit this winter, and has been making funny noises and smells for the last few weeks. (Bad smells coming from your laptop seem like a pretty obvious sign something is wrong.)

Fortunately one of the most practical going away presents I got before I left Kingston was a tiny little external hard drive that's compact and shiny and I kind of love it. And last week I finally got around to backing up all my pictures and music, so there's no Weeping Tile or "pictures of me and Meg at the Toucan" crisis. I've still got all my draft copies of my terrible first year essays.

What I don't have is easy access to emails about such inconsequential things as upcoming job interviews, silly government hoops I have to jump through or Google Maps. I thought I'd solved all my problems with the brilliant idea of googling "internet cafe +montmartre." Oh. Right.

This morning, to find out where I was going, I actually had to look something up in a book. Indexes (indices?) are Google Unplugged.

On the other hand, things that don't suck:
  1. When I finally did find the government office I needed (without Google, even) I was the only person in line, so I got in and out and I'm proud to report I am now in France legally. I've been putting this off for ages because I hate doing official stuff in France, and everytime I've tried, I get sent to a different building across town. Today I finally found the right one and had all the right papers, and even managed to show up during the 2 hour window when it's open. (Seriously. 2 hours a day.)
  2. A friend from Queen's is in town for a few days, and he told me last night that Paris feels like a cooler Montreal. Which killed me with it's obviousness/aptness. Also he speaks English and has good Pat stories, so it's an even better slice of Kingston than the book of second wave mid '80s Bronwen Wallace essays I've been carrying around.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

In my French class, we worked through a unit on vocabulary about shopping, make-up, and how to look seductive. (The curriculum could not possibly be any more French.) But when we came to a discussion question that asked us to tell a story about being judged by appearances, the conversation finally got a lot less banal. My class is very international, with students from Algeria, Eritrea, Mexico, Japan, Korea and a smattering of European countries, and every single person of colour in the class told a story about being openly insulted or harassed, not feeling safe on the subway or walking around at night in Paris. We talked about how France isn't exactly known for it's love of cultural pluralism. (Not that things are much better at, say, Queen's University.)

One of the frustrating things about language classes is how unimportant everything we learn seems to be - "Pierre is taller than Luc," "I would like to go to the movies with you." Simple, straightforward sentences about dull and meaningless topics so we can practice conjugating basic verbs. This felt a lot more relevant, and it was a nice antidote to all of the gender/sex/racial assumptions that our textbook makes. Finally - Paulo Friere breaks into L'Institut de Langue Francaise.

And then the woman who sits beside me finished a story about being harassed for wearing the hijab by pointing to the Korean and Japanese women across the room and saying, "but all Asians look the same to me. I can never tell your faces apart."

Baby steps, I guess.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The only travel tip you need

It seems that strangers (friends I haven't met yet?) have been finding my blog with the search string "cheese course +how to eat." It goes without saying that this fills me with immense sense of pride.

I call them friends I haven't met yet because people who google cheese courses in their spare time are absolutely my kind of people. On the other hand. "how to eat"? Really?

So. A cheese course primer.

After dinner, before dessert, your host will bring out a plate full of cheese. Maybe just one big wheel of gooey raw milk Camembert, but probably a few different kinds. Your French companions will take really silly miniscule "French women don't get fat" portions.

Then it's your turn.

Start eating and don't stop until there's no cheese left on the plate. You're full? Suck it up. You can't get this cheese in Canada. It's against the law there, for real. Once there's no cheese left on the plate, check to make sure that there aren't any little pieces, gooey crumbs stuck to the plate. Possibly lick your fingers.

Your gluttony will tell everyone that you're North American, confirming French suspicions that all Americans are fat. It doesn't matter - you're wearing running shoes. They already know. They already think you're a slob. Step into this role and revel in it.

I got a lot of advice before I left for France. "Be careful, the French can be snobby," "take your striped shirt," "get a French boyfriend, it's the easiest way to learn a language." By far the best advice, and what I'm passing onto you now came from Kingston's favourite Shirley Temple-sipping DJ:

"Eat everything you see."

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Things that don't happen in Kingston

I've been in Paris a little over a month now. From Kingston, it seemed quite obvious that after a month in Paris my French would be perfect, I'd know my way around the city blindfolded, and I'd have found a dream job that still left plenty of time to ride an antique bicycle around Paris with a baguette sticking out of the panier.

I still don't speak French. I don't have a job. And while I tried to rent a velib' last week, the machine wouldn't read my credit card so I haven't even touched a bike since I got here. (Baguettes are another story. I have eaten my weight in baguettes.)

Anyway, I spent most of Thursday moping about how silly it was to come to Paris, how I'll never find a job here or learn French, and I should have just come on a vacation for two weeks like a normal person, then gone home to live in a city where I don't have to take out a bank loan to buy a coke.

And then.

After I'd just about overdosed on self-pity, I decided it was time to rejoin the human race and met up with some friends. That turned into an invitation to a vernissage, which turned into the most perfectly ridiculous night of my life. We somehow managed to wind up at the private reception afterward, and since dinner was free and dinner was steak, that would have just about made my night regardless of what came next. But I spent the night surrounded by hands-down the richest and most absurd group of people I've ever met. Across the table from me was a man from New Zealand who'd met the artist on vacation in Malta and had come to Paris just for the opening - "Any excuse to go to Paris, right?" Sure, right. And this guy who flies all over Europe and the world to see artists he's never heard of was the least interesting person at the table.

On my right was a tattoo artist who was telling stories about his stint running an illegal diamond mine in Brazil in the 1980s. ("How does one get into illegal diamond mining?" "Well, I'd been running an illegal gold mine, but all the chemicals we had to use were so toxic I had to get out of that business while I still had my health." Which is sort of an answer, but not really.) And on my left, a man who raved about the bear chops he used to eat at the 21 Club in New York in the 1960s where he had his own private table and used to entertain Marilyn Monroe. His friend jabbed a finger across the table and crowed, "this man once shaved Marilyn Monroe."

I didn't ask, and he didn't elaborate. All I know is that's not the kind of night I used to have in Kingston.

But nights like that aren't the reason I love Paris. The real reason I love Paris? I've just moved into a new apartment, and on my block there are 3 boulangeries/patissieres, a charcutier, a butcher and a fromagerie. I am going to come back from France weighing 300 pounds and I am going to love every single bite.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Not-so-critical pedagogy

I've got a job tutoring English to two little kids after school. They're pretty cute, and it's easy stuff: "hello, how are you?" "what is your name?" etc.

The woman I work for met with me last week to give me a huge pile of resources - colouring books, songs, etc. But by far the best part is a DVD from the BBC meant to teach English. These kids are just learning their very first words of English, and the BBC wants to introduce them to the King, Queen, Princess, Gardener and Servant. Which is practical, because every six year old needs to know how to address the gardener.

In the first 5 minute clip, we learn that the King is strong, the servant clever, the gardener brave. Meanwhile the Queen is fat and the Princess is brave.

Great. Thanks, BBC.

I wonder if my employer would mind too much if I changed the curriculum a bit. Made it a little more hookesian:

The King could point to himself and say "white supremacist capitalist patriarchy."
The Queen could explain health at every size.
The gardener could organize a union.
(The teacher could get fired.)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Breakfast at Cartier

Today was just my favourite kind of day in Paris: slept late, then headed out around noon for a long walk followed by a few hours parked in a cafe. It's a good thing that this is my favourite way to spend the day, because it happens to be how I spend just about every day.

I can't get those little yellow arrows out of my mind, so I decided to follow them for awhile just to see where they'd take me through the city. As it turns out, they took me to the window of Cartier and then I have no idea where they went after that because I got distracted by a bunch of pretty shiny things. After staring at a €16,000 bracelet for an embarrassing amount of time, trying to come up with a single person in my life who could buy it for me, I was still drawing a blank. Either I need to cultivate richer friends or simpler tastes.

My trip to Cartier: the anti-Camino.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Cimetière du Montparnasse

If that doesn't just break your heart in all the right places, we could probably never be friends.

Monday, May 18, 2009

"If I had my way, I would introduce everyone in the whole world to each other."

For thirty years, Jim Haynes has been throwing dinner parties in his Paris apartment/sculpture studio. Every Sunday night, 50-100 people crowd into his home, overflowing into the garden in nice weather to eat a homecooked meal and meet interesting people. Some guests are old friends of Jim's, but lots (like me) are perfect strangers who have heard about his dinner parties and called him up to invite themselves over to dinner.

Every week the first 50 or 60 people who get in touch with Jim get an invitation to the salon, and all of his guests are treated like friends. When I showed up nearly an hour late after yet another metro catastrophe, he put a plate of food in my hand, pointed me to the bar and found me a seat next to a woman who has been going to his parties since they began in the 1960s. "This is Rachel, everybody. She's just moved here from Canada. Be nice to her." And then he was off to do the same for someone else. He didn't find it at all strange that a 23 year old Canadian he'd never met had invited herself to dinner - it happens every week. And he's trying to spread his brand of hospitality - he has published a series of travel books about Eastern Europe, that don't include hotels or maps or monuments; just biographies of people he's met who are willing to welcome travellers.

While there seemed to be a group of regular guests, there were also dozens of people like me, who'd heard about Jim's dinners from a friend, or on NPR or some other bit of press he'd done and wanted to check one out. And everyone's got a story.

I met a woman named Gerri, in her late sixties how, who had moved to Paris when she was 20 years old to open the first American nightclub. "I was a Gaslight Girl," she explained, pulling out old black and white photographs of herself dancing in seamed stockings and a scandalously short skirt. She and six other girls from Chicago had been flown to Paris to sing and dance for American soldiers in the Gaslight Club. She even broke into song at one point, and I have never felt so much like I was living in the middle of a New Yorker feature.

(NPR piece on Jim here, and Guardian article here for those of you who are interested in that kind of hospitality, and you know who you are. Your bandanas give you away.)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Cheese course afterglow

Three nights a week I eat dinner with my hostess. It's a good chance to practice my French, and I always learn something like which European countries have the most beautiful women, or how much prettier I would be if I wore makeup. But as with most things for me, it really comes down to the food. She cooks me duck confit. She taught me how to eat an artichoke. And most gloriously of all...she never skips the cheese course.

Cheese. Course.

It's a whole course, just for cheese. You get to eat dinner, and then before dessert a plate of cheese comes out.

That up there is the camembert we had last week that was so pretty I just had to take a picture. If you've ever been a victim of my baked brie, you know I tend to forget it's in the oven and it comes out a little more liquid and oozy than I'd intended. That cheese up there? Hasn't been baked a bit. It's just that liquid and oozy and perfect right when you cut into it. That cheese up there? Is illegal in Canada. For real. And that's why I'm never coming home.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Along the Camino last summer I met a handful of pilgrims who'd started their pilgrimmages in Paris (or even further back, in Holland.) When I first started walking and everything hurt and 800km seemed impossibly far, I thought they were crazy. But once I started to run out of road, I realized that maybe they'd had the right idea.

That walk started as a dare to myself; something I was never really sure I'd be able to finish. After all, I don't really like things that are hard, being outdoors, walking, or St. James. But it called to me. I knew it would be a challenge, an achievement, something I'd remember for the rest of my life. And dreams of sunny Spain got me through what was by all accounts a miserable winter. But I don't think I ever realized how important it would be to me.

Which is why when I saw this familiar yellow arrow while I was out for a walk on the weekend, my feet got a little itchy. There are a few on my way to school, and every morning, at least for a second, I considering cutting class to walk to the end of the world again.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I found an apartment!

About a week ago my friend Canadian Jen cringed when I told her I only had a month to find an apartment. Her exact words (over and over again) were "oh no. I can't believe I have to be the one to tell you about finding an apartment in Paris."

Which is to say that it's not easy. Or cheap. If you're afraid of speaking French on the phone and don't have a French bank account or a job, it gets even more interesting.

This is pretty much what's being advertised in my price range:
  • An American man looking for a French woman to share a studio apartment
  • The guy looking for a roommate who wouldn't let me see the apartment unless I sent him a picture first
  • The person who wouldn't give me a name or any information about the apartment or him/herself until I showed up at the apartment in person (I didn't go.)
  • The bonne chambre with no shower anywhere in the building. (She suggested I shower at the pool down the street.)
  • The 12 square-meter studio apartment (that includes the bathroom and kitchenette) with no fridge
And so when I showed up at a 3 bedroom flat in Montmartre this afternoon and the girl was an artist and seemed sane and there was a bathtub and a washing machine and room to turn around and the price was reasonable (for Paris) and she didn't try to scare me with stories about 94 people were coming to see the place that afternoon, but just said that she liked me and I could have it if I wanted it, I didn't really believe it could be true. (She didn't speak any English, so since the deal was conducted entirely in French, it might not actually be true. I'm never sure exactly what's going on.)

You guys, there's even a boulangerie downstairs.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

I become more like my father every day

I just caught myself talking to the cat. In French.

I guess the French lessons are finally paying off.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

This is the view from my front door. Every time I leave the house, I look up at what I'm fairly certain is the Eiffel Tower, and swallow a laugh because I can't believe that I'm in Paris. That I get to live in Paris.

If it weren't such a cliche, I'd write that I'm falling in love with this city. (I think I might just be falling in love with this city anyway.) It seems like everywhere I turn there's another building that takes my breath away, an immaculate garden or a bakery window to stop and drool over. My father wrote me an email last week saying that whenever he mentions Paris, people sigh and get a faraway look in their eyes.

I get to live in that faraway look.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

My international education

Three nights a week I eat dinner with my hostess. She's a wonderful cook, and it's a great chance to practice my French. She's very patient about speaking slowly and explaining things to me, and I learn a lot from her. She travels a lot and is interested in history and loves to talk about French culture.

Like last night, when she explained that French women "font beaucoup d'attention" to their appearance. Which is obvious. (This is a woman who just turned sixty and whom I've never seen without her high heels. Even around the house on Saturday mornings - 3-inch heels, always.) It's no secret that French women dress well. So what I learned the most from was when she then gave me a hierarchy of how much the women of other countries "font attention."

For the record: Spanish and Italian women know what they're doing, Greek women try but they're not very attractive because their bodies are too compact and English women don't bother but it doesn't matter because they're not very good looking anyway.

I'm learning so much living in France.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Tonight I had dinner with my hostess and her daughter.

While we were in the salon before dinner, Typhaine lifted her jeans to show me the brace on her sprained ankle. Which wouldn't be that impressive, except that she's also wearing four inch heels. When I said that I wouldn't be able to walk in those shoes with a hurt ankle (or at all, let's be honest) she sighed, took a drag on her cigarette and told me, "I don't wear flats."

I will never, ever be a Parisienne.

Faking It

I started my French lessons today. The school I'm going to divides its students into four levels, and this morning I had to take a placement test to determine which level I'd fit into.

The girl who had jostled her way in front of me on the steps on my way in was in the second class, so I was determined that I'd make it into the third, even if I had no idea what was going on. So I sat down with the placement test, pretty confident (in spite of my disastrous coffee date last week) that I'd fly through it.

The first page was for Level 1, and I only had to guess on about half of them.

Ah, zut.

So I went into the Level 1 classroom where the teacher was explaining the difference between "ami" and "amie." Zut alors.

I apologized for being late and explained that it was my first day and I'd been busy registering, at which point she pulled me out into the hall and explained that her class was too elementary for me. I showed her my test and told her that I didn't know any of the verb tenses tested you need for the second level, at which point she cut me off saying, "they're easy; you'll learn them," wrenched the test paper out of my hand and circled all the right answers, then marched me to the classroom for Level 3.

I want to bring her with me when I take all of my French tests.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Pauvre Philippe

Last night I got over my hatred of live music and went to an organ recital at Notre Dame. It was everything you'd expect an organ recital in Notre Dame to be...which is to say that I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would eat afterward, and how I wished I'd brought an umbrella, but I also managed to focus a bit on the music, and how magnificent the church is, especially when it isn't crawling with tourists and their cameraphones.

After the concert, a man who I'd been commiserating earlier with about the rain invited me out for coffee. My first indication that this would not go well should have been when he asked me in French. His first indication that it would not go well should have been when I had to squack "Quoi?" the first few times he asked.

But I've been spending all of my time with travellers and expats since I got here, and have barely spoken a word of French, so I thought it would be a great chance to put all those years of French Immersion into practice. Plus my pretentious sixteen year old self would have died if I'd passed up the opportunity to say things like, "Oh, we met after an organ recital at Notre Dame. Because we're really, really cultured."

Pauvre Philippe.

The problem is that I stopped taking French in the middle of grade three. And the stories I learned about Luc and Fido don't do me much good in Paris. And if Philippe had wanted to name shapes or colours, or asked me to tell the time, even, we would have had a great time. Instead he seemed to want to talk about organ music, which I wouldn't even be able to do in English. I think I said something like, "The organ is nice. Notre Dame is very cute."

Then we did that thing travellers do where you flip between languages and no one really says anything and you repeat stereotypes about your own countries. "I'm from Canada. Canada is big. It is cold. You're from Switzerland? Are you good at skiing? At keeping secrets? I like chocolate." And just to make sure that he could understand my broken French, I made sure to yell it all. (I find most foreign language problems can be resolved by repeating things just a little louder.)

It's a sign of how disastrous the evening was that I'm now thinking - "cheese! I totally forgot to say, "I like Swiss cheese"! That would have given us another 30 second of conversation! Especially since Swiss cheese is just about the only kind of cheese that I don't even like.

Pauvre, pauvre Philippe. Maybe I should stick to the expats.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Today I decided it would be more fun to play tourist than to keep being the sad, lost, English girl. So I made a couple of religious pilgrimmages.

The first, and most important was Shakespeare & Co. There's not much to say about that other than that I've now seen a glimpse of heaven on earth and it's tiny and crowded with books up to the ceiling and one day when Walter closes Wayfarer to travel the world as my companion, he and I will spend many happy hours there.

The other was Notre Dame, across the street (I guess most people would say that the bookstore is across the street from Notre Dame, but their priorities are all wrong.) My first thought on walking into Notre Dame was, "now this is a megachurch." My second thought was, "How embarrassing that I even thought of something so, 'whose-birthday-is-it-anyway,' I guess that no matter how far I walk across Europe I will always be a Protestant."

Monday, April 27, 2009

A fitting start

So I'm here. Day two in Paris is wrapping up and I still feel a little lost/tired/shaky/oh-my-god-I-don't-speak-French-what-am-I-doing, but the hey-this-is-actually-going-to-be-great is starting to outweigh that feeling.

When this plan was just formulating, I told a grad student in Kingston that I was thinking of moving to Paris, mostly so I could ride an antique bicycle around old streets with a baguette sticking out of the basket. I was being self-deprecating, because it's not a fantasy that calls for a lot of imagination, and recent-graduate-in-Europe has kind of been done. But this guy still believes in Paris, and he told me to go for it, genuinely enthused by the antique bicycle idea. Then he told me seriously that I would never forget my first ten minutes with the Eiffel Tower. Which takes the phallic imagery a little far, I think.

But I was prepared for a little big of magic. I'm 23 and I just moved to Paris and it's springtime, and even though I thought his take on the romance of the city was un peu trop, I expected the Eiffel Tower to have some aura. So I got out of the metro this morning, heading to the American Cathedral. And when I looked up there was a familiar silhouette in the sky. And I leaned on a hydro pole for a minute trying to take in the magic of my first few minutes with the Eiffel Tower...

...except it had some green netting around the top,a nd I couldnt see the bottom of it, and I wasn't entirely sure that it even was the Eiffel Tower, so instead I went into a shop and bought some cheese.

And now that it's a few hours later and I've eaten and had a nap and am no longer quite so frightened of Paris and everyone/everything in it, it occurs to me that of course it was the Eiffel Tower, and that the city isn't full of small-scale near-replicas of its most famous landmark, and I'm an idiot. But isn't that just the most typically Rachel way to kick off a year in Paris?