When people talk about culture shock, usually it has something to do with local customs/ways of doing things that are unfamiliar to us – styles of dress, dining habits, what exactly counts as personal space, to name a few. But something that many travelers/immigrants (maybe at some point I’ll talk about why I’m trying to move away from the term ‘expat’) don’t get to experience is the cultural interactions and confrontations that arise in the classroom, specifically when it comes to styles of testing.
In France, the big exam is the baccalauréat, which is probably most akin to the AP test(s) in that students are asked to prove competence primarily through written essays – although, if I remember correctly, there were some multiple choice questions in my AP English and French exams. Consequently – and I say this from my little bit of experience teaching at a high school three years ago – the students are taught in ways that emphasize the importance of written arguments and succinct analysis. What they are not taught is how to tackle a seemingly endless scantron sheet, which poses a problem for those who want to go to the US for university. Back in California, we were basically ‘training’ for the SAT for ten years, what with STAR testing, and although the SAT still has its stresses and demons that must be conquered, sitting down to take it does not feel particularly strange or unfamiliar.
I had the first meeting with the SAT students today, and of course because I enjoy being evil – apparently – I had them hit the ground running with a diagnostic test. 40 minutes, 24 questions. Some of them finished, others skipped a few, but the most popular reaction in the end was one of shock and disbelief. Shock at the unexpected density of the thing, disbelief at how fast the time ticked by. Of course, there’s the added pressure that comes with taking a test that’s not in your first language, but the majority of them seemed determined to stick it out, even after I had just run them through the gauntlet (realizing that French could help them with some of the tougher vocabulary in the reading texts helped as well, I think). It’s crazy to look at their faces and think about how that was me ten(!!) years ago, nervously waiting to confront what I thought then was the most important test of my life. Thank goodness these kids know very little/nothing about the GRE, MCAT, GMAT, LSAT…
After the class finished and I had answered more questions about Harvard than I ever have in one sitting, I jettisoned over to Le Comptoire de la Gastronomie to meet with a friend, her mother, and friends of my friend for dinner. The food is still excellent, but they have redone the space since I was last there three years ago and I’m not sure what to think about the new design. A bit too modern, perhaps? I think keeping the red fabrics that once covered the chair cushions instead of the turquoise ones that cover them now could have helped in offsetting that.
Then again, when you have a beautiful steak tartare staring you in the face, you sort of forget about interior decorating (as well as remember that, as far as culture shock goes, food never really presented that problem for you).
You know what’s awful? Getting good news, and then the minute you think about who you’re going to tell first, the thought slams into you that that person is not there anymore, that the position they formerly occupied is now vacant.
And then you recover from getting the wind knocked out of you – again – and you wonder if that blip of excitement, the one that comes only when you have something good, small or big, you just have to share with someone, will come back and stay a little longer.
So I’m just going to tell you lovely people. All…5 or so of you.
One of the things I did when I first moved back was reach out to the school I where used to teach English/run a theatre club to see if I could start the latter up again (I had it on good authority that there would be interest among the students). What they offered me was the opportunity to teach an SAT prep class, as well as run a theatre club. The catch was that for the club to happen, at least five students had to register.
And because the universe likes me just a little bit…I got exactly five. Hooray for me!
So I’ve been a bit MIA lately (so much for the daily posting…), but in my defense, I think I have a good excuse.
I’ve been eating. (Prepare yourselves for some rapid-fire restaurant commentating)
I figured that since we had already gotten the museums and sites and whatnot out of the way, I’d devote my mom’s last few days here to taking her to as many different restaurants as possible (so…three), ticking off the boxes in terms of Parisian/French ‘must-tries’ that she had not yet experienced – and would quite frankly be hard-pressed to find back in the states.
One of these things were Breton-style crêpes, and in particular the savory buckwheat galettes served with a pitcher of crisp, dry (my personal preference) cider. Normally, I would have taken her down to Josselin near Montparnasse for this, but as I didn’t want to chance a wait (the rain was being finicky that day), I opted instead to take her to Breizh Café in the Marais, a place that I had been keen on trying for a while but had yet to make it to. As far as crêpes go, the menu offered the traditional ‘completes’ of ham, cheese, and egg, as well as some more interesting combinations like the one I chose, which came with prosciutto, camembert and a salad. Overall, I think I still prefer Josselin to this place – crêpes are more filling, and the prices are a tad friendlier, though even in the Marais, crêpes have not gotten too exorbitantly priced – but for the ease that came with being able to reserve a table (highly recommended), I would gladly come here again.
And really, it was a good thing we did not overstuff ourselves because Thursday’s dinner was a trip to what is still my absolute favorite place to go out to eat in this city : Chez Gladines
Now, Gladines has a few locations around the city, but the original restaurant in the Buttes aux Cailles neighborhood in the 13th arrondissement is still the best of the bunch. The fact that its a bit tucked away from the main tourist areas of the city means that it still retains a lot of the lively spirit and soul of the immediate area – which, coincidentally, happens to be frequented in large part by students living at the Cité Universitaire, my old graduate residence, and only a short tram/metro ride away. As the photo above suggests, portions are incredibly generous, but prices are definitely reflective of the budgets of most of the clientele. And yes, the fact that the dinner crowd – especially later in the evening – is comprised primarily of 20/early 30-somethings means that it can get rather…jovial…in there after a certain hour, but this energy becomes rather infectious, especially when it is evident that the staff is having just as much fun as the patrons. The fact that the food is also delicious – those potatoes are still some of the most beautiful, garlicky, fried things I have ever consumed, and the salad still makes me laugh with its attempt to add a bit of ‘health’ to this atomic calorie bomb – and wines by the glass start at around 3/3.50euros, almost makes you never want to leave.
Finally came Friday, my mom’s last night in Paris, and thus a night for some more…’typical’…parisian dining.
Le Temps des Cerises is a bistro located in the 4th arrondissement, off a side street just down the road from the Place de la Bastille. The bistro itself has been around for a while – I think the building, which looks like a little house, may have conservation status – but it hasn’t fallen into the trap of resting on its years to the detriment of the food, as some other historical eateries have. There’s a small dining room downstairs, and when we arrived, I feared that we’d be waiting a while, even though we had made a reservation, as all the tables were full. Fortunately, we were ushered up the stairs to another small room on the upper floor, this one a bit quieter than the bar/dining area downstairs. And maybe you can glean this from the photo, but there was an unmistakable warmth and coziness that enveloped the room and almost made me want to curl up in my chair and fall asleep, perhaps with a large mug of tea. Thankfully, I had had my afternoon espresso earlier that day, so I was able to stay wide awake for my meal.
We split an order of escargot to start, followed by chicken and fried potatoes for my mom, ray, mashed potatoes, and micro greens for me, and then finished with a tarte tatin for dessert, all of it washed down with a lovely carafe of white wine (and I didn’t note which one we chose, but I believe it was a Languedoc…). A stereotypical bistro meal, I guess you could say, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to add this place to my rotation of eateries I take people to when they visit me.
And then Saturday (yesterday) morning, I dropped my mom off at Charles de Gaulle, leaving her with one last treat for the long trip back to San Francisco : chocolates from Jacques Genin.
Last night also included a visit to the Experimental Cocktail Club, another place I have been meaning to try since I was last living here, as well as marked another personal first : going to a bar alone. Okay, this one might not count because the reason I was there alone was that I was waiting for my friends to arrive, but saddling up to the bar, ordering my cocktail – as the name suggests, their menu changes frequently with new creations, so the fact that I had something called an Old Cuban last night will probably make no difference should I, or any of you reading this, choose to visit this bar in the future – and people watching for a bit was not as awkward or uncomfortable as I originally thought it might be. There’s a part of me that would maybe consider doing something like this again, but perhaps next time I’ll do it on a weekday…oh and bring a book.
All this brings us to today which consisted of going to a drop-in acting class, seeing the French entry for this years foreign language Oscar race (120 Battements par minute / 120 Beats Per Minute, a film centered around the Paris chapter of Act Up and the French government’s (non) response to the AIDs crisis in the 1990s), and then heading to La Fontaine de Belleville to do some reading. Tomorrow it’s back at the BNF where I will continue with the super fun task of continually convincing myself that my project is a good idea (that is, assuming I get a better handle on the thing). Dissertations are a bitch.
Behold its imposing towers that give the impression of an upturned table. Marvel at the amazing amount of knowledge contained within its walls. Be amazed at how such a modern building found its way into the Paris of Haussmannean architecture.
Scratch your head in confusion as you wonder how the hell it is possible that this place has the worst coffee in the city by far.
In a city where the coffee scene has been steadily – actually, even astronomically – improving over the past 5-6 years, it is a wonder that there are some stand-bys – in this case, BNF coffee – that stubbornly trudge along, assured in their less-than mediocrity. Perhaps I should not complain so much. After all, I do generally need a coffee fix when I’m studying there, especially after lunch, and the coffee machines and/or the café in the research library are the only options for that. But really, must it taste like burnt wood? Does the game you debate with yourself over whether to overload it with sugar to try and mask the taste – which, as I learned when I first started researching here in 2012, doesn’t really work – or just wait for it to cool down just enough for you to down the thing in one gulp make the resulting energy gained worth it? I sometimes struggle to answer this question.
At least at the BNF I can get all the materials I’ve requested within 30 minutes, unlike some other large libraries (ahem: Widener). So, there’s that.
I’m going to slightly gloss over yesterday because the primary highlight was going to a South Indian festival (Onam) that a friend of mine invited me to – and indulging in some excellent food while there – and instead skip to this evening because I did something I never actually thought I’d do.
I went to a Meetup event.
To backtrack a bit, while I was in Greece, there was a point where I started getting into an anxious semi-panic about feeling lonely and isolated (which, given that I do have a pretty solid network here, was probably a bit dramatic), so inspired in part by that, as well as by an itch to try and break into the theatre community here a bit, I started feverishly browsing Meetup. Before I knew it, I had signed up for an acting class. Their first meetup was at a pub this evening – a sort of introductory, say hello type thing. And honestly, up until I walked through the door and headed to the table where the rest of the group was seated, I was fighting an urge to turn around and head home because the thought of these kinds of events and how awkward they can be – I really, really hate small talk – usually puts me off. Thankfully, this one wasn’t awkward (also, I had already paid the registration fee for the class I signed up for so I figured I was more or less tied into this thing). Except for an exercise in which we split into small groups to analyze story structure/character motivation in a film (a sort of introduction to text analysis for actors, if you will), the majority of the evening consisted of everyone sitting around a table listening to the man who’s going to be running the workshops talk.
Also, as a wonderful surprise, I ended up running into an old acquaintance there (though it took us a minute to recognize one another). Funny how small the theatre community can feel sometimes.
And yeah, there’s a question in the back of my head of whether or not I would have been motivated to sign up for this were I still in a relationship, but I’d like to think it wouldn’t have made a difference (hell, I took pottery on my own when I was still in Boston/with the ex). Anyway, I could always just be cliché and say this is part of my whole ‘renewal’/’reinventing’ process, even though I’m essentially just doing an activity I’ve always loved doing and always sought out.
Guys. I’m going to get very, very basic for a minute here, but, today I discovered – to my surprise – that my local marché has…kale.
This discovery came as a surprise to me because three years ago when I first lived in this neighborhood, there was no kale. As someone who grew up eating hearty, leafy greens on a regular basis – greens, or horta, are actually a very big part of the Greek diet – including kale, not being able to find it (or comparable greens, aside from maybe chard) easily was a bit of a downer. Hell, it’s why I used to trek out all the way to the marché in Bastille because at least there I’d have a chance of finding it. Maybe.
And really I am quite surprised I did not come to this marché more often when I lived here last because it’s actually rather good. The photo above is the only one I took during this visit, but you can just imagine an entire street lined with produce stands similar to this one, displaying seasonal fruit and veg (including another Paris rarity, corn! Spot it on the left side of the photo), butchers lining their stands with terrines, sausages, and cured meats, cheesemongers proudly showing off giant wheels of comté and huge hunks of butter, and fishmongers scooping mussels into paper bags.*
Indeed, this morning’s trek was a bit of a shift from how last night ended.
I joined a friend at the Gaumont theatre on the Champs-Elysées for the French premier of It last night, and while I won’t say it was the most frightening thing I’ve seen, the kids’ performances – as pretty much every critic has said – really sold the film for me. And because it was a premier night, several members of the theatre staff were dressed up as Pennywise, though the creep factor didn’t really set in until, before the film started, they told us to reach under our chairs to see if we found a red balloon (those who did would be able to claim a prize afterwords). Not gonna lie, I genuinely thought for a minute that when I reached down, one of the roving Pennywises would end up grabbing my hand from under the seat.
I think what hit me most though was the whole 1980s setting in general. This is a period that I think – for now anyway – I’m going to almost always associate with him. The classic movies of the period that It – and to a greater extent, Stranger Things – were ones we spent evenings watching together, particularly as they recalled a time he grew up in, and that I only caught traces of what carried over into the 90s. At the same time, going to the movies was one of the first things I did alone after the breakup. Maybe I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ve found that ‘taking back’ some of the pop culture things we consumed collectively and ‘rebranding’ them for myself has been one of the more effective ways I’ve found to process everything. Feeling like shit after heartbreak is like trying to lift an impossibly heavy rock off your chest, but, at least for me, not allowing yourself to enjoy things, even the things that you used to do ‘together’, only makes that rock heavier. This film – and others set to come out in the very near future – was one we were ‘supposed’ to see together, that we had talked about when it was still in production. But there’s no hard rule that says that these ephemeral things that once belonged to the ‘us’ need to be divided out, crumbling assets of a once stable life.
Anyway, all that is to say that even though this time, I spent the evening at the theatre in the company of a good friend, going to the movies by yourself is actually really nice (and in a way, very self-affirming).
*One thing I learned when I last lived here was that shellfish, and in particular oysters, have a ‘season’, which starts to kick in at around this time of year. It’s not uncommon, therefore, to see stands at markets selling oysters by the case (as well as individually), but my lack of confidence in my ability to not stab my hand right through when I shuck one has, for now, kept me from buying them.
Opinion time! The gardens at Versailles are far more interesting and worth spending time in than the palace itself.
It’s a shame really that the gardens don’t get as much publicity as the palace (which yes does offer a rather obscene display of wealth) because a good portion of them are actually free to visit (excepting on certain days when they organize some musical events that are somehow coordinated with the fountains. Honestly, I’ve never been when one of those was on, so that’s the best description I could come up with). The exception to this are Marie Antoinette’s gardens and private hamlet near the Petit Trianon, but the 12eu entry fee – which also grants entrance to both the Petit and the Grand Trianon chateaus – just so you can experience one of the most fascinating displays of out of touch wealth set in a strikingly peaceful English-style garden.
I am talking of course, about Marie Antoinette’s little farm.
The inspiration behind this little farm getaway was drawn from the writings of certain Enlightenment thinkers – notably Rousseau – who advocated a return to nature, a simpler way of living, as the key to a happy pleasant, life. This in turn lead the aristocracy – who likely rarely interacted with peasants, if at all (hell, they did not, by law, eat the same bread) – to take a liking to the pastoral, hence things like this : a Disney-fication of an otherwise rather difficult life. On this farm, Marie Antoinette kept a house for herself as well as her companions (don’t be fooled by the humble exteriors, the insides of these buildings were decorated rather expensively, though perhaps without as much…obvious display of wealth), along with chickens, sheep, goats, and even a small working dairy. Really, what more could one ask for for a farm that would allow you to live the ideal peasant life without any of the hardships (or awful grain harvests)?
Nowadays, the farm is still a working farm, and actually supplies much of the vegetables for some of the restaurants in/near the Chateau (I believe Alain Ducasse’s place located in the Chateau itself, Ore, sources from there, though I could be wrong). You can also find their jams in any of the several gift shops.
And I mean, it is hard to deny how absolutely breathtaking the garden itself is, even while keeping in mind the absolute absurdity behind the creation of a large part of it.
I have a feeling my routine is going to start getting a bit more boring after this, now that I have my library card and whatnot. Perhaps I’ll just start posting daily pictures of the BNF.
For now, though, here is what I think might be one of the most amusing, if not my favorite, paintings in Versailles (this one located in the Galerie des Batailles) : tiny Napoleon holding a tiny spyglass.
One of the things that always nagged at me while I was in Boston was the thought that – although it was the right decision – I would throw myself off the momentum I had gathered during my M.A. and my M2. This may or may not have contributed to my bouts of imposter syndrome (which I’ll probably bring up again at some point), but needless to say, a lot of my mental energy was spent trying to snap myself out of whatever rut I was stuck in.
Thankfully, what with the number of meetings I was running to and from yesterday and today, I think I might be starting to get back into ‘research mode’. Student card : check. Health insurance : check (with a side of confusion trying to explain to the really nice girl at the uni helping me that yes, I have EU citizenship. No, I do not have an EU health card because my primary residence was in the US. No, even though I also have US citizenship, I do not have a visa/titre de séjour because of the aforementioned EU citizenship, etc). Library card : check.
This last one was the one I was worried about most, since the hoops I had to jump through to get my original card to access the research library – as opposed to just the public section of the library – back in 2012 were prime examples of gatekeeping at its finest (to give an idea: part of it involved proving that access to the BNF – The Bibliothèque Nationale de France – was indispensable for my work as a mere first year master student by providing a list of works we needed to consult that could only be found in the research centers. On the advice of my thesis director, I…embellished my list a bit). Thankfully, renewing my card did not involve as much nonsense as the initial inscription (and honestly, being a doctoral student helps a lot). It remains to be seen how long it takes me to fully get back into the swing of things, but at least now that the majority of the administrative work I had to take care of is done, I’ll have one less thing weighing on me.
Sometimes I do things that others might deem irrational.
Today for instance, after a meeting, I stopped by Ten Belles for some lunch as well as to pick up some coffee beans, as this morning I realized I would only barely have enough for tomorrow. Unfortunately for me, they were not selling any beans that day, as they were not expecting new stock from Belleville Brûlerie until Friday. I was, somehow, fine with this, until I remembered that contrary to what my brain was telling me, no it was not Thursday today but Monday, and thus I voluntarily placed myself in a dilemma. Or set myself a challenge, if you will, by knowingly skewing my priorities for the day.
Now, a normal person would have just chalked this up to bad timing and simply picked something else up from the Franprix that was literally two minutes away, but I apparently have a certain affinity for taking on ridiculous side-quests. And so I began trekking around the Marais, handbag heavy with SAT prep books for a course I’m teaching (speaking of : they really haven’t found a way to make these things not weigh 500 pounds, considering how much paper is wasted on these things that always become ‘obsolete’ within the year?), wondering why the hell every shop (all 5 of them) I stopped at that I knew stocked the coffee brand I was looking for was closed on a Monday. Granted, I did finally find what I was looking for, but upon finding it, I couldn’t help but think to myself that maybe this was all a bit too much nonsense.
Then again, maybe this is another manifestation of me trying to get full control back over my life after things got somewhat upended. It would make sense, wouldn’t it, to try and give even a small f**k you to the universe?
A bit of background : when I got back from Greece, one of the first things I did was go to a sporting goods store to see if I could pick up a few pairs of hand weights (because, really, there is no way I’m paying for a gym membership when youtube workout videos can give me the same thing for free). Unfortunately, the GoSport I went to near République only carried weights up to 4kg (just over 8lbs), and as I was hoping to get some heavier ones that would meet my workout needs, I decided to order them off Amazon instead.
(Also, the price labeling made it very unclear as to whether the weights cost 14eu a pair or 14eu per dumbbell, and I wasn’t exactly in the mood to find out which one was right).
Something to keep in mind about Paris apartment buildings is that how your packages get delivered to you can depend on whether or not your building has a guardien (something like a doorman, but who is usually stationed in a small office in the building’s instead of by the front door). When I last lived here, I was fortunate enough to have a building with a guardien, who would ring up if/when a package got delivered and keep it in his office for me to collect later if I wasn’t in. Unfortunately, my current building does not have a guardien, so package delivery takes on a rather potent air of suspense, not unlike one of those choose your own adventure novels where you don’t know if the next page turn will see you successfully completing your journey, or trekking out to the Chronopost office in the middle of nowhere to stand in line with about 5 other equally annoyed people as you wait for a disinterested employee to fetch your tiny package, all while wondering what you did to deserve this in the first place (coincidentally, this very thing happened to me in spring 2013).
Fortunately, I was home when the mailman rang up on Friday morning to tell me my package(s) had arrived, but then came the second problem : my building’s lack of elevator. And I am on the top floor (6th French, 7th American). I of course ran downstairs to help carry at least one of the packages, but the guy insisted on carrying them himself (because sexism). And I don’t know if I can say for sure, but I am pretty certain he regretted that decision once I told him that yes, I am on the top floor (the doubt comes from the fact that I offered again to take one of the packages, but he again said no because…sexism).
He unfortunately also had to make the trek back up again after dropping the boxes off because he forgot to scan the packages and have me sign for them. And it wasn’t until he left that I realized that there was one set of weights (the heaviest pair at 8kg each) that had yet to be delivered. Thankfully, that pair came yesterday.
I did promise him though that this would be the last pair, which I think he was more than happy to hear. *
Last night saw a reunion with an old friend at a crêperie in the 15th, and this morning saw yet another reunion with some of the Lucien Paye gang at our old stomping grounds of Cité U (where you can still get a crazy affordable breakfast formule at the café – open from 9h30 on weekends. And yes, I know that non-students can also still eat at the resto-u for lunch/dinner at an insanely affordable price, but I’m….okay with skipping that). Meeting right when the café opened meant we pretty much had the place – and the grounds in general – to ourselves, other than a few jogging groups and some ultimate frisbee players. I honestly can’t remember the last time I visited Cité. I vaguely recall stopping by there one or two times after I moved out to the 20th, but it feels like it’s been ages. And yet, nothing much has changed. We even popped in to Lucien Paye to say hello to the security guard there, who remembered some of us (I think he was still trying to place who I was after we left, but I distinctly remember him as the man who found my phone after it fell out of my purse and into the snow), and was more that happy to let us look around the entrance hall a bit. Nostalgia is a funny thing. It both makes you want to linger in a place to try and recapture some of the moments you once experienced there, and yet nags at you a bit to move along. Because really, there is no use in trying to fully recapture the ephemeral.
The rest of the afternoon was spent walking through Montparnasse and up to the Blend location near Les Halles for some burgers (I didn’t get a picture of my Came burger which was smothered in absolutely beautifully gooey camembert cheese, but after not having had a burger for like…a year…because ‘eating healthy’ is I thing I apparently started doing, I devoured that thing like it was nothing).
* A final note : is there ever really an appropriate time for a mailman to propose getting a coffee with a resident? No? Yeah, I figured.