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.