20 September 2010

How To Get Your iPhone Stolen & Other Parisian Tales

Hello, chers amis. This week has been a strange one, full of ups and downs and highs and lows.

Unfortunately, the week began on a tremendously low point last Sunday. Having gathered all my books for my homework and my laptop only to discover that every café near my apartment was packed to capacity, I found myself in a quiet corner of McDonald's last Sunday afternoon, doing some work for class. (Note: though it is still inherently distasteful to be in a McDonald's in Paris, it has to be said that fast food, like most things in France, is much better here.) As I did homework, chatting away to some friends from home while I half-heartedly highlighted some facts about French politics, I had one of those gut-wrenching, stomach-twisting, heart-pounding realization moments: my iPhone had been stolen. Sitting next to my laptop on the table not ten minutes before, my dear iPhone had been taken by two very tricky beggar girls who had been bothering me a while before. By the time I realized, it was ten minutes too late. After frantically searching every fold of my clothing and re-arranging every item in my bag, it was confirmed. I went back to my apartment, tears streaming down my face the whole way, and regrouped. It was my fault, it has to be said. Over the past three (!!!) weeks I've gotten pretty good at becoming street smart; I never make eye contact with anyone on the street or metro, I zip my bag tightly shut and hold it close to my chest... It took only a single moment of lapsed judgment to learn the hard way. Leaving an iPhone on a table at a McDo in the middle of Paris in broad daylight is asking for it to be stolen, truly.

After many many tears, a desperate phone call to McDonald's, and general moping about for a few days, I had a brief epiphany and took a shot in the dark by asking a close friend of my family if she might have kept her older model iPhone when she upgraded to the newest model recently. To my immense relief and joy, she had indeed kept her old model lying around and was more than willing to support my cause. It is times like this that it pays to sleeplessly and obsessively mull things over all through the night.
The iPhone incident really shook me, though it is now resolved, and I found myself in a pretty definitive funk at the beginning of the week. I didn't want to be in Paris anymore, though there were so many good things to enjoy, because this one bad thing had happened to me and I had let the Big Bad City get me. I wanted to be in the Connelly Center at Villanova, where I can leave my purse and laptop unattended for ten minutes without stress that they will be snatched up. More than that, however, I wanted to be back in my home with my family, where my sisters would help me laugh my tears away while my parents would implore us, “Would you PLEASE go to bed?!” It was the first time that I felt really homesick, and I had some trouble shaking it. I'm happy to report that the natural ebb and flow of homesickness has worked its magic, and since then I've had some of the happiest days I've had since arriving in Paris.

The woman at my local boulangerie recognizes me now, which is a monumental step in assimilating into French society, I think. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I set my alarm 20 minutes earlier than need be so I have time to stop into the bakery and enjoy a pain au chocolat and steaming expresso while I review my notes for class. When I've finished, I call au revoir, merci! and head to the metro, where I read the latest copy of L'Express on my way to class. This is a routine I could get used to.

My breakfast at the bakery.  These notes are hastily scribbled, so if you happen
to be checking for errors I'm sure there are many...

Additionally, my friends from the BU program and I have found ourselves a few really nice young French people to hang out with. We've seen them a few times this week, and they've been great each time. It is so nice to feel accepted by people our own age here in Paris. The French are not known for their openness and receptiveness to new things and new people, but I've found that though it can be hard to initially get an “in,” once you get in it's well worthwhile. Perhaps the most challenging part about making friends in France is deciding what language to speak! Frequently, French people are just as keen to practice their English as I am to practice my French, so conversation often takes place in two languages, where I speak in halting French and they in accented English. It's funny, and a little awkward, but speaking in English to French friends seems a little counterproductive, n'est-ce pas?
I'm getting the hang of my courses now, the two and a half hour sessions are becoming bearable. I'm thankful most of all for the espresso machine just outside the classrooms, as when the inevitable pause comes about halfway through classes, I join the rest of my classmates in a mad rush for .50 cent espresso. It's not bad, either! I admit to being a bit of a coffee snob, and completely blame my Dad's purist genes, but the coffee is really quite drinkable... for .50 cents, at least.

I had a trip to the Musée d'Orsay on Wednesday afternoon for one of my classes, and I was a bit underwhelmed-- only because the museum is very badly organized at the minute, as they are doing renovations on some areas and so much of the most impressive art (Monet, Manet, Cézanne, etc.) is all hurled pell-mell into one room, with about 3 million tourists all trying to snap a photo. I definitely want to go back when I can, because obviously it's an incredible collection housed in a gorgeous building, but the trip on Wednesday was sort of too much to see with too little time among too many people... A bit too stressful to enjoy.

Model village of Paris at the Orsay which made me feel like a giant!!

On Friday afternoon, I joined about 20 other students in my program for a trip to the Wine Museum of Paris. To be honest, the museum itself is nothing at all to write home about-- a few creepy wax figures pretending to make wine in obscure corners of a dimly lit corridor, et cetera. After a brief tour of the museum, however, we were invited to a dégustation, a wine tasting. More than a tasting, it was a course in how to DO a wine tasting, which was really awesome because as much as I'm partial these days to cheap wine for financial reasons, I desperately want to know what I'm talking about when I talk about wine. We tasted five wines, and perhaps because we are uncultured Americans we all got just a bit giggly, much to the distaste of the staff at the musée. Disapproving Parisians aside, it was a great experience, the best part being that it's completely included in my program and in fact mandatory for class. That's right, to pass my classes I HAVE to go to a free wine tasting. I really have a difficult life, non?

After the wine museum trip, I hopped on a train to visit my aunt and uncle in Montpellier, which is in the south of France, on the Mediterranean sea. They've bought a holiday home there, which they've completely renovated and now rent out to whomever is interested. (If you are, click here!) My grandmother is there with them for about six weeks, so it was a really nice weekend as I got to feel like I was back at home, almost. Unfortunately I felt a bit under the weather over the weekend, and still do, but nonetheless I was able to enjoy markets, another wine tasting, lots of seafood, delicious home-cooked meals, and some good family time. Again, my life is very difficult, I know.  A note about seafood and oysters in particular:  Hemingway famously wrote in his Parisian memoir A Moveable Feast, "As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to feel happy, and to make plans."  Let it be known that this is a really awesome description of how great it is to eat oysters and drink white wine.  No, really.  Very satisfying and VERY delicious.

This was a starter.  Yikes!

My aunt, nana, and me down by the Med.
It's funny how immediately you miss something. I wasn't even on the train towards Montpellier for an hour when I began to miss Paris! It's only been three weeks, but during this time I've truly become attached to the city, even to its people. Though it's not as loud and roaring as New York can be, there's a quiet and pleasant buzz to the place that just can't be found elsewhere. Leaving that vibrancy behind was a strange feeling, because I never realized how tuned into it I was. Nevertheless, my weekend in Montpellier was glorious, and I can't wait til the next time I'm lucky enough to be there.

My dad is coming to Paris for a brief stop-over on Friday night. I'm so fortunate; he travels to Europe frequently for business and so he's just doing a quick stop in Paris for lunch, dinner, and maybe even breakfast if I'm lucky. Can you tell my family loves food? I absolutely cannot wait to see him! He's even bringing me a duffel bag full of things I forgot, thanks to the endless patience of my mother who packed it over the past week according to my numerous e-mail requests.

And so, one more week gone, I can't believe it.   Until next time! xo

15 September 2010

To Warm Your Hearts

My sister has been spending her year in South Africa, working with the Augustian Volunteers and doing her part to make the world a brighter place.  She posted this video on her blog tonight, and I want to share it with you all.  These are her fourth grade students (she teaches oral English), and she is the redhead playing the guitar à la Maria from the Sound of Music.  I hope this warms your hearts as much as it warmed mine!  Can you imagine American fourth graders singing The Itsy Bitsy Spider this enthusiastically!?

St Leo - Grade 4 learns "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" from Sinead Cloughley on Vimeo.

A real update is coming your way (including the thrilling non-fiction story entitled How to Get Your iPhone Stolen Within Ten Days of Arriving in Paris!!!), but until then mes cheris, take care of yourselves.  xo

10 September 2010

Petit Par Petit

A new French phrase that I've picked up in the past week makes the title of this entry, and the best part for you is that the English translation is wonderfully direct.  Petit par petit-- little by little.
Little by little, I'm finding my niche here, in my cozy apartment on my little street in Paris.  I'm beginning to find routine, something that I value intensely as I am a person of habit.  I like the same things, over and over again (I am the type of person that is content to eat an identical breakfast each morning... Two eggs, over easy, on multigrain toast.  Thanks.)
I've figured out that when I stop by my local boulangerie most days, I prefer to ask for une tradition rather than asking for une baguette.  Even better than that, I have learned that I can even ask for une demi-tradition!  That way, I only eat half a baguette every day rather than the entire thing.  I'm not ashamed ... I'll chalk it up to cultural immersion and return to my eggs and multigrain toast immediately upon re-entering the states.  Incidentally, bread is one of the simple joys of French existence.
It is incredible that I've been in Paris for almost two weeks now, a full twelve days!  It's true, what they say, about how time flies when you spend a semester abroad.  With almost two weeks under my belt, there remain only fourteen more.  It is depressing to talk too much about it, but I can't believe how quickly my time is slipping from me already.
Last Sunday, with my reusable shopping bag in tow, I headed to the marché at the Place de la Bastille.  As I left the gloomy Metro passageways behind me and re-surfaced at the site where, hundreds of years before, the French people had stormed the Bastille as part of their revolution, I totally geeked out.  I really love history; I considered a history major in college and in particular went through a phase of intense appreciation for French history.  After I pinched myself, remembered that this was real, that I was actually living in Paris, I headed towards the market.  (And by that I mean I typically went the complete wrong direction, and spent ten minutes attempting to find the largest outdoor market in Paris.  Some things, my dear friends, never change.)
If my experience arriving at Bastille was a history freak-out, my arrival at the market itself brought on a freak-out of another kind entirely.  FOOD FREAK-OUT.  Oh, my God.  Rotisserie chicken, the smell of which could ellicit a watering mouth from even the staunchest vegetarians.  Fresh cheese, fruit, vegetables, exotic olives and spices whose names I didn't even recognize.  I'm almost weak at the knees even now at the memory of it, the smells of a hundred different vendors selling a thousand different things and the sounds!  Ugh, the sounds!  Vendors calling out their produce, hoping to entice anyone from the sneaker-wearing guidebook-toting American tourists to the quick-paced and focused Parisian regulars.  

No, but seriously.  How good does this all look?

How can I not geek out?

I won't give in yet, I won't eat the chicken... But those
potatoes at the bottom are seducing me, petit par petit.
The market was incredible, more awesome than I know how to convey through a silly blog post.  For a wannabe foodie, like myself, it is heaven.  I was a little unsure of how much produce to get, because I wasn't sure of the measurements and how much time I'd have to cook etc., but for future reference:  ordering 1 kilo of green beans is an atrocious overestimate for one person.  I asked the vendor to put half of them back, and I still have green beans coming out of my ears, six days later.  I can't complain though.  The food is fresh, and most importantly it's cheap.  French supermarkets can be really expensive (read: I paid two Euros for a single apple the other day), so it was a pleasant change of pace to get market quality veggies at an awesome price.  The Most Valuable Player award goes to the goat cheese I picked up.  I asked for the cheapest at the fromagerie stand, but ... Ooooh, la la.  It is the most fantastic thing.  It's more accurate to say it WAS the MVP, I should say, since I polished off the last of it tonight with some delicious five Euro (from the market!) Bordeaux.

All of this for less than 25 Euros.  I will talk about Parisian markets forever.
Aside from the triumph that was the market on Sunday morning, this past week has been just a little stressful.  I started my classes on Monday, and the workload seems to be pretty intense.  For each of my three classes I have a ten minute oral presentation to make, a three page paper to write, and a final test.  Not to mention small written assignments due at each class session, mandatory trips to museums and other landmarks, and two 2.5 hour sessions a week!  It's all en francais, but to be honest the language hasn't been a problem for me.  I'm so grateful now that I worked hard at learning French, because to keep up with this heavy workload while trying to decipher half of what my teachers are saying would be almost impossible.  Even with my language comprehension, the next seven weeks are going to be challenging for sure.  I'm attempting to find balance now between spending time with friends at night and getting my work done.  A challenge in itself, but unfortunately for me this study abroad experience is not "party abroad," or whatever other people's experiences might have been.  I'm glad for it, because I'm a total nerd, but I'm anxious as well.
One of my assignments for my language class was a découvert du quartier, a discovery of a neighborhood.  A classmate and I set out to explore the St Germain des Prés area, and had quite a pleasant surprise.  We came across the most fantastic tea-room, situated neatly on the left bank.  Check out this picture, how cool is this?  Shelves upon shelves of tea, and the smell in this place was also incredible.

If I had but world (read: money) enough and time, I
would have spent hours here.
Once more, during my time exploring the St Germain neighborhood, I had to perform a quick reality check.  When I turned around and saw THIS:

Typically Parisian and beautiful.
Speaking of typically Parisian, or perhaps more accurately typically French, there was a strike on Tuesday.  If there is one thing the French universally love, it is not wine.  It is not even cheese.  It is going on strike.  As a result of the strike, which was over the national retirement age, the metro service on Tuesday was not as frequent as it usually is.  I was so glad that my iPhone chose Tuesday to turn off in the middle of the night!  It was really awesome that I therefore had no alarm on Tuesday morning, and therefore did not wake up the planned two hours earlier than usual to avoid metro troubles.  Thankfully, I woke up early enough that I made it on time to class on Tuesday morning.  I've never been more glad that the walls in this apartment are paper thin; it was my housemate's alarm clock that woke me.  The metro was so hot and crowded, like very sweaty and ticked off sardines crammed in a can.

This picture hardly captures the chaos,
but I was sweaty and eager to get out of the Metro.

After five hours of class on Tuesday, I went for a very tiring bike ride on the left bank, foolishly forgetting the strike and thinking I could easily head home on the metro.  That was, needless to say, false.  After waiting about 30 minutes for a train that was packed with disgruntled Parisians (a nightmare), I got out as close to my stop as I could.  I walked closer and closer to Place de la République, where I live, and heard a curious and unrecognizable din.  Oh!  Silly me!  Une manifestation.  Not only do French people love to strike, they love to PROTEST!  Actively!  Loudly!  In massive crowds!  And, apparently, right in my neighborhood.  After my long and stressful day, I wasn't in much of a mood to throw elbows at Parisians on strike, but alors I had no choice.  I did make it home, and I had a delicious meal (quelle surprise!) to comfort myself.

Not the most soothing of situations for the stressed American soul.
Today, after a meeting about internship placement at the BU Center this morning, two girls from my program and I headed to the Marais for falafel!  Spontaneously dubbed FALAFEL FRIDAY!, it is a habit I could certainly get used to with ease.

Yes, there is hot sauce on there.
Yes, I came dangerously close to passing out in joy.

Tonight I've passed a quiet evening in the coziness of my room, eating soup and enjoying the calm that is a weekend night spend in.  The weekend is supposed to be beautiful, and I plan on taking full advantage of the good weather while it lasts!  I look forward to a new market tomorrow morning, near the Champ du Mars, and some good times with good friends for the rest of the weekend. This week I have survived my classes successfully, braved my first experience with Parisian strikes, and eaten the most delicious and wonderful food.  I can't wait to see what I learn next week, every day in Paris teaches me something I didn't know before.  This post was long, too, but even if no one is still reading I look forward to looking back to this blog some day and letting my mouth water a little over what I experienced when I was twenty years old in Paris.  Until next time, mes chers amis. xo

P.S.!  Oh no!  In re-reading what I've written, it is long and almost entirely food-centered, and I suspect that makes for dull reading for you all.  I'll try to chill out with the food theme... but I can't help it!  My life here is food-centered!  Just be thankful you're not my parents, who receive about 4-5 pictures per day of my every meal ...

04 September 2010

First Impressions

Salut!  Rest assured, I have arrived in Paris sans probleme and I've decided that I love Paris more than I even thought I did.

My flight over went smoothly enough, I chatted with a Canadian man who resembled a Degrassi character and I slept most of the way.  The only issue I had with regards to my arrival was carting around my massive case!  I still have calluses on my palms from heaving and pulling and coaxing that stupid huge red thing into submission.  Mais alors!  It is done now (with the help of a tramp at the RER station, admittedly...)  and here I am!

My host parents are wonderful! When I arrived on Sunday they ate their usual Sunday meal of roast chicken and potatoes, but Catherine my host mother took the time to make fish for me separately, because she knows I don't eat meat.  Last Tuesday night she made ratatouille for my housemate and me, completing the meal with a cheese course and dessert.  Pilou, the family's cat, is adorable, but very shy.  Little by little though, I am making progress.  He even let me pet his back yesterday, and I'm just about certain that I heard him purr.  I will get in his good graces, I'm determined!!

Pilou is gray, just like my cats!
The apartment is in the 11th arrondissement, which is a super location.  There is a metro stop right nearby which has FIVE train lines going through it, so it is easy to get around.  The Boston University center, where orientation took place all this week and where classes begin on Monday, is about a 25 minute commute from the house.   Kim and I traveled together this past week, but we somehow went a different way each time and have not yet figured out the fastest way to get there.  The BU Center is in the fifteenth, which is also the location of the Eiffel Tower.  It is surreal, still, to be walking to school and suddenly see the top of the tower peeking over a building or around a corner.  It is surprising and wonderful, but I almost have to pinch myself sometimes because this still doesn't feel real to me!  Too good to be true, as they say.

Orientation was a long week, but the staff are so wonderfully helpful and friendly that their efforts to make us feel comfortable and at home were truly succesful.  My favorite part of the week, it has to be said, was Wednesday afternoon.  The staff treated us to a dégustation de la gastronomie française, a little taste of French gastronomy.  We traveled among four rooms, where a staff member in each room allowed us to taste a wine, cheese, meat, and dessert from one of four regions of France.  The food was delicious (I can only assume the meat was as delicious as the cheese), and it was nice to taste decent wine that we can't quite afford!  We were encouraged to visit the cheese shop, the bakery, the butcher, etc. rather than stopping by the supermarket, and promised that in many cases it's valuable to pay a bit more and enjoy the better quality products.  We'll see if I can swing that, but at the very least I am itching to go to a market next week and buy some veggies and cheese!

The Aquitane region, whose offerings included
a delicious Bordeaux we would never be able to afford...

Sampling the cuisine of the Franche-Compte region, near the Swiss border

After the dégustation, we headed towards the Champ du Mars to see a puppet show beneath the Eiffel Tower.  It was adorable, to see how excited the French kids got over the show.  Though I did well with understanding the show itself, I was embarrassed to find I often didn't know what the kids were responding.  It's difficult, this language thing.  It's just so strange to admit that as a twenty year old college student, I'm not always able to understand what four- and five-year olds are saying here in France.  Instead of getting depressed, though, it just fills me with greater resolve to improve!  Watch this video, if you like, and see if you can tell what they're saying!

Spectacle de Guignol! from Niamh Cloughley on Vimeo.

I know it's toursity and cliche, but isn't
it just so beautiful?
The nightlife in Paris is incredible.  Generally, we like to share a few bottles of wine on the banks of the Seine or perhaps beneath the sparkling Eiffel Tower and then head to the Latin Quarter, the student section of Paris.  Fairly decent wine, suitable for students at least, is incredibly cheap but nightlife in general is expensive.  It's a lesson in itself, learning how to juggle finances appropriately.   A few friends and I sat beneath the glowing Notre Dame the other night, when suddenly we stopped our conversation and had another moment of "Is this real!?"  We already are dreading our return to the monotony of college dorms and bars, and feel quite certain we could get used to sipping wine  beneath a beautiful cathedral in Paris.  I almost burst with pride on Thursday night when not one, but TWO Parisians told me that my French was very good!  Parisians, as a rule, are not friendly... Particularly when it comes to foreigners butchering their language.  Their kind words boosted my confidence incredibly, and I really do feel quite comfortable with the language already.  I can't wait to improve, though.  It is one of my main goals for these four months, I really want to be completely at ease in French conversation... Hopefully I'll get there!

A poor étudiante's humble meal

Notre Dame at night.
Can you see why we love to bask in its glory?
It is the little things about Paris that make me the most happy: coming across an eight-person ensemble that played the most fantastic music in the Metro, treating myself to a warm crepe oozing Nutella on my way home from school, seeing a line out the door at my local bakery, and even taking bike rides now and then along the Seine.  With all the walking and bike riding I've been doing, I can hardly worry about how the rich French diet might affect me.  Plus, my student budget really only allows for some couscous and tuna for dinner, with the occasional baguette or pain au chocolat thrown in for good measure.

Riding my bike along the Right Bank, towards Place de la Concorde

A cute cafe that does a two Euro coffee and croissant deal

Lunch just around the corner from the BU Center.
In other, less happy news, I'm currently battling a really awful case of strep throat.  It began on Thursday night, a little sore throat that I was willing to brush aside as a result of my plane trip.  By Friday afternoon, however, it became clear that I was yet again coming down with a case of strep.  Strep throat is old news to me, I get it about four or five times a year so I'm pretty good at knowing when it's on its way.  Alors, I got the number of an English-speaking doctor in Paris and headed across town last night to hear his opinion.  I left the pharmacie last night with no fewer than five medications in tow, but alas this morning I actually felt worse.  I'm hoping by tonight I'll feel improved, as classes start Monday morning and I really can't imagine attending them in this state.  I've already ducked out of a class trip to Versailles today, about which I was really excited but had to choose to rest and attempt to get better rather than go and potentially get worse.  Terrible timing, I can only assume I picked it up on the plane!

I'm looking forward to classes next week, though I am a bit nervous as I've heard from all sides that the work load is heavy and the courses are difficult enough.  I have class until the 23rd of October, and then I begin a full-time internship on November 2nd.  I'm not sure yet what my internship is, I am supposed to be contacted about an interview somewhere at some point this week.  In some ways, I'm jealous of friends who are studying abroad without much studying... But I guess it's better this way, since I won't struggle too much come January to get back into the flow of things at Villanova.

My bed is calling to me now, I want to rest while I can so that I'm in top shape for class on Monday!  Congratulations if you have made it to here... This was long and probably a bit rambly.  I will improve at writing, I promise!  I will leave you with this video of the ensemble I came across the other day.  I hope it brightens your day as much as it brightened mine!

A bientot, chers amis xo