Monday, May 12, 2008

You Can't Go Home

I woke up this morning to a grey Paris sky and weak droplets tapping intermittently against the window panes- an apropos beginning to my last day in Paris. I wish that I could stay in bed for a while and relish the melancholy just a bit, but my to-do list is long and time is short and so I can only take a moment to reflect on the past 8 months. My last days have been good, savoring the pleasures of french life: eating ice cream on the banks of the Seine, sitting at a sidewalk café with a friend and chatting for a couple of hours, fruit tartes, nutella crepes in the Latin quarter, shopping, wandering, the rumble of the metro, warm sunshine and chilled rain, poodles, street musicians, delicious food, and of course, good friends. I have been terribly remis in not keeping up with my blog the last couple of months, but in my defense I haven’t been sitting still for long enough to write one. So to sum up briefly what’s been going on since I wrote at the end of February: Portugal with Bethany and Andrea, then on to Spain with Andrea, back to Paris for a few days of cleaning and life before my mom flew in at which point we planned a two week journey through Austria, Czech Republic, Germany , and Switzerland, came back to Paris for a few hectic days and then went to Ireland for the better part of a week, back to Paris for a couple more, and then she flew home and I started packing yet again, this time for the week-long Habitat for Humanity trip to Romania. We got back late Saturday night, leaving me just 3 full days in Paris before my flight home.

In some ways it seems so long ago, the day I arrived alone here and spent the first evening eating peanut butter crackers and picking out words on the french news in a tiny hotel room in the 13th. But really the months have flown by. To try to capture the essence of 8 months in Paris, to sum it up in a few sentences, aside from being nearly impossible, really wouldn’t be fair to this place. But in preparation for the dreaded question I know I will be asked 8 thousand times in the next month, I will attempt to formulate a concise answer to “How was Paris?” and “What was the best part?”.

Paris is, was....well, Paris. Which is what I’ve told Parisians this past week when they’ve asked if I’ve enjoyed my stay. “But of course, it’s Paris.” Because that’s all the explanation you really need to give when someone knows this place. I am sitting here trying to put into words what I want to say about Paris, about this experience, but I keep deleting everything I write because it doesn’t convey what I want it to. It may take time and a bit of distance before I can write concisely, before I can find the words. I understand now why the term je ne sais quoi came into usage. Paris is, quite simply, life done well. It’s monuments, history, architecture, food, culture, music, shopping, and of course, love, mixed in with the trappings of everyday life, with the grocery store and laundromat and post office and infurriating french ministries of bureaucracy. It is continuously changing and always the same. It’s a place where you have to leave an hour early for your 8am class because there is a transit strike and you have to walk across the entire city through the frigid drizzle in the dark, but where, on said journey you get a view of every major monument in Paris glowing golden in the darkness, and smell the fresh bread and pastries on every corner, and when you walk through the courtyard of the Louvre, it is silent and empty (the tourists are still in their beds) and you hear the tapping of your boots against the stones until you emerge on the otherside, and while crossing a bridge over the Seine, the sun begins to dye the eastern sky pink and orange behind the towers of Notre Dame. It’s where cat’s ride the metro wide-eyed in carriers, and dogs are pushed through the grocery store in a shopping cart, and a man walks his ferret on the grass by the Eiffel Tower, and each bum has an animal of some sort: rolly-polly puppies or a cat with a more extensive wardrobe than my own (and where the pets are treated better and recieve more sympathy than the indigent person). Where the woman cleaning the apartment building smiles and apologizes for being in your way and rescues your keys when you leave them in the lock of your mailbox, and the man from the fourth floor always says a formally polite “Bonsoir Mademoiselle” when he passes you on the staircase, and people invite everyone in the building to stop by for a drink when they throw a party even if they don’t know you. I’ve certainly seen the legendary Parisian rudeness for which the people are notorious, but for me, having lived there, beyond the tourist sites, the number of times I’ve seen people help a stranger carry a stroller or suitcase down a flight of stairs without being asked, or stop and pull out their Paris Practique map (everyone carries one even if you’ve lived in the city for years) in order to help someone who is lost, or place a lost glove on a ledge for the owner to find, well to me, those random acts of kindness at least balance, if not counteract the occassional snootiness of some. In any case, I could go on and on about Paris for ages, but the last day is waiting to be enjoyed, authentic Paris drizzle and all.

Tomorrow I will no longer live in Paris. It is a weird feeling, but I guess moving, if that’s what you can call this, is always strange, one day you live in a certain place with a certain life and a certain routine, and the next you don’t. At least in this case I’m not moving off to something unfamiliar. I’m going back home. In a sense anyway. Because even as I write that, I am reminded of the saying which I think I will probably find quite true- you can’t go home again. You can return to the place, to the family and friends, but it will not be the same as when you left. I’ve tried to prepare myself for the changes that I know have occurred- friends have gotten married, have moved away, people have changed jobs, and life has generally continued in my absence. But even beyond those changes I can prepare myself for there will be a thousand little ones: new buildings, old stores closing, roads under construction, and things you think could never change will have done just that. I remember coming home the last time and getting in my car only to discover that 2 of my 6 preset radio stations had gone off the air. I don’t love change, but I guess it stands to reason that home cannot be the same as when you left because you are not the same as when you left. Even if time has stood still, you would find the place different. Because going away, travelling, learning a different way of life, it changes your perspective if ever so slightly. It’s like Audrey Hepburn says in Sabrina, “Paris isn’t for changing planes, it’s for changing your outlook! It’s for throwing open a window and letting in la vie en rose.” And so I am going home, maybe not to the same home I left, but home none-the-less. A concept that, fittingly enough, cannot be accurately explained in French because they don’t have a word for it. But that is tomorrow, and for today at least, I am still a Parisian, so bring on la vie en last time.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Leaps and Bounds

Happy Leap Day! Don’t ask me how to say that in french cause I’m not sure what they call it. Today marks a bit of an anniversary because I was originally supposed to be on a plane headed back to sunny Daytona on this very day. I was going to make the “leap” back to the US, so to speak. :-) But I have to say, although I love all my friends and family at home, I’m quite glad that the Delta flight is somewhere over the Atlantic without me aboard. If I had to leave today I wouldn’t be ready. So I am thankful for this reprieve, and for the traveling it allows me to do. Tomorrow I head for a couple days in Portugal and then on to Spain for a brief visit. I’m quite excited and ready for the near 70 temps this weekend!

After being sprung from the centuries-old stone buildings of ScPo two weeks ago I’m sure you’d all like to hear how I’ve been running around Europe and spending all day sitting in cafes. Instead I’ve spent a lot of time in my apartment trying to plan trips and researching jobs and and other much less glamorous daily activities, cooking, dishes, laundry, cleaning, etc. Living in an exciting destination for an extended period of time means that life goes on as normal, despite the gilded monuments and the troves of artistic treasures in your backyard. Back in the fall I was chatting with someone online and he asked me what I was doing that night, if I was going to go eat some wine and cheese under the Eiffel Tower. I told him the truth which was that I was going to be putting on my PJs, cooking some dinner, and reading several chapters about France’s diplomatic relations with Germany. He acted shocked that I wasn’t out living it up in the city every night. I reminded him that I wasn’t here on vacation. I had homework and classes to go to and the mundane aspects of life to tend to. I don’t think I ever discussed this so here’s a look at what my days were like.

My normal day during the semester went something like this:
6:30- wake up in the pitch black cold, stumble over to turn the lights and heater on, put water on stove to boil, check e-mail and facebook
6:45- put on the news via or and listen to the top stories while putting on my layers of winter clothing and fixing myself up, make occasional disgruntled comments to the computer when something particularly ridiculous is being reported, or argue with an “expert” who doesn’t seem to understand basic logic, prepare hot beverage (tea, coffee, or hot chocolate depending on time of my first class, the amount of sleep had, and the temperature outside) in my extremely American travel mug that keeps things hot (or cold) for 3 hours. It’s amazing, I don’t care how un-French it is.
7:25- Put on external layers, ie. scarf, heavy coat, and on particularly bitter days- gloves and a hat, shove travel mug into school bag, grab keys, iPod, and metro pass.
7:30- descend 6 flights of narrow winding stairs quickly without losing my footing and skiing down the carpet runner, exit into still pitch-black and freezing-cold Paris morning, walk 3 blocks to the line 12 metro, descend into the underbelly of the city and wait 0-4 minutes for a train, find seat, flop down and zone out while listening to something on the iPod, frequently country, or try to write legibly while finishing French homework and avoiding the temptation to ask the native French speaker next to me to do it for me.
7:50- exit at Sevres-Babylon and walk 5 blocks to ScPo (still in pitch-black cold), arrive at 27 and enter with the other bleary-eyed students with 8am classes, grab a copy of Le Figaro, Le Monde, or the European Wall Street Journal off the table of free press in the entryway and ascend the stairs to an overheated classroom.
8:00- take out caffeinated beverage and read the front page while trying to make my brain switch to another language and waiting for the teacher to arrive, wonder at the ScPo students who show up for an 8am class in very chic outfits and slightly yearn for UF where you can roll out of bed and go to class in your pajamas without causing a single raised eyebrow, try to focus on someone lecturing in French for two hours who has a tendency to tell vaguely related stories with no point, and/or listen to one or several student oral presentations given by A) a french student speaking rapidly and mumbling their words or B) an international student with an incomprehensible accent reading from their paper
10:00- Class is over and it’s finally light outside, proceed to next class, or hang around ScPo or go to the library if there is an assignment or reading to work on, otherwise head back home.
Sometime in the afternoon- return home and then a varying combination of- cook lunch, run errands, read for class, watch some TV while cleaning, write a blog, upload pictures, go to climbing class, or Bible study, or meet a friend for coffee, cook dinner, etc. etc. you get the picture

This was the basic schedule but it varied from day to day depending on what time my classes started and which class it was, etc. I will say I had it easier than my other ScPo friends because I did not have to take a full course load since I only needed 8 credits to graduate. And of course, while I say that life in Paris is just everyday life, that’s not entirely true. There were plenty of days when I would get done with class and then decide to walk over to the Latin Quarter to get some lunch, or to go stroll along the Seine and sit in a park for a bit, or head over to rue de Rennes and do a little shopping.

I’ve heard some friends say that Paris is no longer a romantic city for them because they’ve lived here. They’ve said they’ll have to find a new city to be their exciting romantic city. Maybe I would feel the same way if I had lived here for years and years, but at this point, having spent almost a year of my life living here, I can say that Paris has not lost its charm. Yes it’s not exactly new to me, and certain aspects of it have become commonplace, but living here has not dimmed the City of Light’s glow. It amazes me how places I have been a hundred times can still be thrilling. I guess to me it is like the beach. I’ve lived in Daytona for about 17 years and the beach is a familiar friend, and yet, there is still a feeling of excitement and a moment of wonder when I stand there watching the waves of the Atlantic race up on the sand. It’s maybe because with the ocean you feel like it can never be fully known. As much time as you spend there and as much as you learn about it, it retains its mystery. That’s what Paris is like for me. As much as I study about French history, as many guidebooks as I read, and as much wandering as I do, I don’t think I can ever uncover all of her secrets. There is an excitement in discovery and a soft, but persistent call to continue searching. I understand now why men like a mysterious woman. I normally don’t subscribe to the practice of all inanimate objects- cars, boats, planes, cities- being referred to as “she” (which is why my Ford Focus is named Gerald), but if any city is a woman, it’s Paris.

So since I’ve been free I have been enjoying the relatively stress-freeness of my life. It’s been a tad boring because most of my friends are gone on their semester break trips, have gone home, or have to work during the week. I got to make some new friends recently though. My housing agent/friend Mr. Dressner gave my contact info to a girl from Missouri who had just arrived for the second semester at ScPo, and she emailed me and asked if I wanted to get together sometime. We met for coffee at Les Deux Magots and I had a lot of fun passing on my acquired wisdom regarding life at ScPo and living in Paris. Celeste had only been in town a few days and hadn’t met anyone yet so was still a little lost and isolated, but I’m sure once she does the integration program she’ll have plenty of friends and really enjoy being here. I’m always impressed by people who are willing to come here not knowing a soul and without a command of the language. We met again several days later for dinner at my favorite greek sandwich place near St. Michel. I also had fun hanging out a few times with Zach who had been staying with my pastor and his wife for two months. Denise, the pastor’s wife, used to babysit Zach when he was little and so their families have been friends for years. It was nice to have another southerner around for a while, even if he was a Tennessee fan.

Oh! And one of the best “snobby Parisian” stories comes from having coffee with Zach. We were at Les Deux Magots (it sounds like I go there a lot but really it was only like the third time in 6 months), sitting on the enclosed terrace watching evening fall on the St. Germain-des-Pres church, and at the table next to us was this older proper Parisian woman. Now the background is that Les Deux Magots is one of, if not the, most famous cafés in Paris (Hemingway, Sartre, and others used to frequent it back in the day) and it’s in an upscale part of town. Well we’re sitting there and you can tell by the way they greet others and the wait staff that many of the people there are regulars and come by everyday. We had been there for a while and Zach is pretty tall and he had his leg crossed and because, like all Parisian establishments, tables are crammed together and there is very little space, his foot is touching an empty chair at the next table. Mind you it wasn’t like he had his feet propped up on the chair, or that he was jiggling his leg, or really doing anything that could possibly bother someone, his foot was just barely touching the seat of the chair. Apparently, and this was news to me, that is some horrible behavior by French standards. The little lady at the table turned to him and gestured towards his foot and starts off in a reprimanding tone and poor Zach, who doesn’t speak French, was just staring at her trying to figure out what she wanted until I explained what she was saying. “Sir, you should take your foot off the chair! People sit there and it is not proper to put your foot there. It is very bad manners!” etc. etc. I was chuckling slightly because I had never seen a Parisian openly chastise someone for their “bad manners” although I had heard stories. Zach moved his foot and we sat for a while longer and all was well, until....Zach stretched out his legs. Oh the horror! Long-legged Zach’s feet didn’t extend past the table and chairs but apparently they were too close to the aisle according to the self-appointed safety and propriety police. The tiny woman reached over and touched his leg and in a tone of utter distaste informed him that “You musn’t put your feet in the walkway! You will trip someone, that is dangerous and very impolite!” Zach looked at me and said he thought it was time to go and I quickly agreed because I was having a hard time controlling my laughter. So a word of caution if you find yourself at les Deux Magots- better be on your best behavior or a stern Parisian woman will give you a good talking-to, even if you don’t speak French.

My other “new” friend, isn’t really new at all. I had several French penpals a few years ago, and the one I got to know best was François from Toulon. This was back in 2004 sometime, and we wrote pretty consistently for a while. We kept in touch when I came to Paris last time but since he lived in the south we never met. After that we didn’t keep in contact very much, just a couple emails over the last years. Well back in December François joined facebook and found me on there. It just so happened that I was in Paris and now François is here for school at Paris X in Nanterre. We caught up a bit and discussed meeting up for coffee but it was during the holidays and Della was arriving for a visit and then I was swamped with school work and exams as was he, so it kept getting postponed. Well this week, after about 4 years, we finally met.

We got coffee at Starbucks (yes, my suggestion, I know I am ridiculously American). It was strange, the slight awkwardness of the first conversation with someone you already know fairly well. My French is slightly better than his English so the conversation was mostly French until I told him he should practice, and from then on it was back and forth without any rhyme or reason. I was impressed with how easily, for the most part, we could communicate since often with young people I have a hard time with their slang and mumbled words. I have to say “for the most part” because there were definitely a few times where one of us was trying to explain something in both languages and the other one would just be sitting there with a perplexed look on their face. Certain words with an unfamiliar accent are just impossible to understand, like me trying to say Mitterand the way the French do, and François trying to say Ronald Reagan, but he was very sympathetic and didn’t make fun of my French mistakes, for which I am grateful. All in all it was really pleasant to finally meet him face-to-face and we made tentative plans to get together again sometime before I leave.

Well I need to get to sleep so I can be coherent when I try to pretend like I speak Portuguese tomorrow. A bientôt mes amis!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Free at last, free at last...

Greetings one and all. On Wednesday 13th February 2008, just before 11am, I exited a Sciences Po classroom and made my way down several flights of stairs. I sat on the bench in the peniche and waited for Cassie, who I knew would be following me shortly. I had just finished my exam for “Grande Nation: Modern and Contemporary French Foreign Policy”. It was a two hour essay exam with a choice of 2 topics. I chose the topic about the importance of rupture and continuity in french foreign policy since 1870. I don’t honestly know how I did because I’m never entirely confident that I understand what the ScPo professors want, but I thought I did fairly well. I wrote about how France’s perception of itself as a “Grande Nation” has underlied it’s foreign policy for the last 140 years, despite the fact that France’s glory-days are largely behind them. I won’t bore you with the details, but I didn’t think I did half bad. I was feeling relieved to have it over with, as I saw Cassie coming down the stairs. She grinned and walked over to me and before I could ask how it went said, “You just finished college!” It caught me off-guard and I paused a moment and said that strange sentence again- I just finished college? The reality of it washed over me and I stood there in the middle of the peniche smiling like a crazy person. Over the previous few weeks people at home and here had often asked me if I was excited about being almost done with school. I said “sure”, but I hadn’t really thought about it. I had been trying to focus on passing my exams and not on reveling in excitement of finishing college. I honestly didn’t think that it would be anything very thrilling. I really think at first Cassie was more excited about it than I was, but Cassie’s boundless enthusiasm (one of my favorite aspects of her personality) was contagious. The combination of sleep deprivation, caffeine, and the jittery relief of being finished with exams led to an animated conversation and goofy goodbyes as various friends passed through the atrium on their way to and from other exams. Each time Cassie informed someone that “Lyndsey just took her last exam EVER,” my smile got a little bigger.

I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that I’m probably the only person at Sciences Po that just finished college. People don’t typical pick their last semester of college as the time to go abroad. Because of that I’ve spent this semester in limbo with basically nobody else my age around. In the undergrad program at school my friends are all a year or two younger, while my friends at church are mostly finished with college and thus a year or two (or more) older. It’s alright, I’ve never been very good at “normal”, why start now?

Anyway, the group in the peniche dispersed towards more exams or to begin their semester break travels and I walked out onto rue Saint Guillaume and into the cool February sunshine. I was exhausted and giddy all at once. Three back-to-back nights of cramming for finals meant I needed rest, but I was too pumped to be able to sleep. I walked the long way to the metro, enjoying the fresh air and my first sip of freedom. I put an energetic song on my iPod and fought a losing battle with the corners of my mouth that jerked involuntarily upwards every few minutes when the thought “no more school!” crossed my mind again. When I made it to the apartment I was going to do the Rocky run up to my door, but I live up 6 flights of narrow winding stairs and I had a collective 8 hours of sleep over the previous 3 nights, so I only made it up about 2 flights in that manner, and then resigned myself to a more leisurely climb to the top. After I recovered though, i did dance around my apartment for a while.

That evening was a going-away dinner for my friend Abe who has been here working for 6 months. Several of us met at a cramped chinese restaurant over by Espace St. Martin and passed a pleasant evening eating weird food and conversing. It, like all oriental food in Paris, made me miss American-chinese food. I know it bears no resemblance to authentic chinese food, but I don’t care. Some of the real stuff is good but I’d trade it for some food-court Chinese. Oddly enough “chinese” food was my last American meal. During my layover in the Atlanta airport I sat at a counter eating Panda Express’s orange chicken and some beef and broccoli with steamed rice while discussing Macs and the ridiculousness of Charles-de-Gaulle airport with a pilot. Hard to believe that was about 6 months ago. It was late by the time we finished and parted company in the street and my tired was finally catching up with me. I said goodbye to Abe as he got off the metro with a hug and a semiserious “have a nice life.” Hopefully someday down the road our paths will randomly cross again, but unfortunately that may not be the case with Abe or most of the friends I’ve made these months.

Paris is superb because because it attracts individuals from every horizon and forges an inordinate bond between people who in other circumstances would likely never have become friends. No matter our backgrounds, we are united in the common experience of separation and our status as outsiders. The unifying factor of “foreignness” is enough to override a myriad of differences. But for most of us our time in Paris is a fleeting period, and in the end we return to whence we came or move on to other adventures. If we are lucky there will be moments in the future where we find ourselves in the same city at the same time as an old Paris pal, and we may keep in contact with our closest expat friends over the years, but in large we will move on with only memories of “our “ Paris and a soft spot in our hearts for those who stood beside us in the cobblestone trenches fighting the battle to make sense out of a beautifully bizarre world.