Paris Je t’aime

Where else can you finish your first “night” at 6:30 am, and your second at 8:00 am after you’ve watched the sun rise and the commuters come out? They say that New York is the city that never sleeps, but Paris definitely gives New York a run for its money. And Paris by night truly is enchanting.

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This past weekend I went for a short visit to see my friend Luke from Boston. After an exhausting day struggling with a computer virus, checked out students and no-show classes, I was happy to make my way to Paris sans train complications. After navigating to our host’s house, happily reuniting with Luke and filling up on delicious wine, cheese and baguette, it was time for the match de foot! As soon as we exited the metro, you could feel the energy shift in the streets. Crowds of fans donning blue attire and chicken? hats swarmed into the stadium equipped with flags, whistles and horns. I was beside myself as we took our amazing seats and stood for the French anthem. The excitement that I felt as a 12 year old, rooting alongside the dedicated French fans in bars as we screamed at the television, flooded back as I stood there in person screaming at the actual players, “allez les bleus!” I laughed in disbelief and amusement as the French booed their own players for missed goals or actions not up to par. Only the French would feel so offended by anything other than perfection. As the flags flew, the horns blazed and the roar of the wave that made the Red Sox stadium sound like a mere trickle passed through the crowd, I couldn’t help but think “Is this real life??” Georgia gave France a difficult beginning, but the game finished with a satisfying 3-1.

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The stade!

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The dedicated fan section

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The group!

The night continued with rejoicing in the streets, late night “burritos” (panini pressed and filled with thai rice- but at least they had black beans!!), a house party, followed by a random dive bar with only men and a bizarre selection of 90s music, another surprise dance bar with gummy bear drinks and wonderful west african music, and ending at the Notre Dame where a crowd of teenagers excitedly interrogated us on and impressed us with their knowledge of american culture. Had I not spent the past 6 months working with teenagers, I think I might have been intimidated or annoyed by these kids. However their enthusiasm amused me and my heart went out to one in particular- a Syrian immigrant who came to France for the Army even though he wanted to do graphic design. His face lit up when I told him I taught art in the states and as we left I couldn’t help but tell him not to give up on his artistic passion.

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Notre Dame at night

Day two got off to a late start, but we made our way to the Château de Vincennes originally constructed as a hunting lodge for Louis VII in the 12th century. It was bizarre to see a château in the middle of apartments and shops and to witness an actual prison tower (the kind you would imagine Rapunzel in).

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This is older than Versailles!

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Love the Gothic style

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Ginger Reunion!

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The tower looks much more impressive up close

After enjoying the warm weather at an outdoor cafe, we returned home for aperos and received a special treat- Paris by car. We were lucky enough not only to stay with our French friend in Paris, but to stay with one who happily offered us a personal tour of Paris by night. As we passed the famous monuments and places- Louvre, Bastille, Oblisque, Orsay- I couldn’t help but feel mesmerized by Paris. The glow of the lights, the old buildings, the winding streets, the history encompassing all- it really was enchanting. My favorite moment came as we drove down the Champs-Élysées toward the Arc de Triomphe. I have walked to, around, on top of and under the Arc, but it was amazing to see it from a perfectly centered view as it grew ever closer along the strip of lights.

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Night Tour

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Picture doesn’t quite do it justice

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Illuminated Arc

Our next stop took us to another house party. Unfortunately we were not in the loop, and had no idea that is was not only a birthday, but also a themed party. Apparently the French love to do theme parties starting with letters. Since Charlotte was the birthday girl, everyone dressed in C related attire. It made for great conversation starters to meet people and call out across the room “Chat!”, “Cleopatra”, “Cowboy”, “Charlie” (The French Waldo- weird, I know.) Our night continued with more bar hoping, champagne on the subway, and eventually the Centre Pompidou- at 5 in the morning. It was the last weekend of the Dali exhibit and as a result it was open for 24 hours. 

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Late night/early morning excursion

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We got in!

Convinced we would be the only ones there, we were quite surprised to discover the contrary- a gallery full of people. What a surreal experience- to be in Paris, in an exhibit at 5 am wandering among all types of people and having time to take in Dali’s actual work. I relished the time and intimately stared at and studied Dali’s brush strokes, his choice of color, and bizarre subject matter. It was all the more surreal to exit as the sky shifted from a deep blue to a rosy purple.

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Loved the colors in this one

Wait for it...

Wait for it…

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Too cool!

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The shift

Our final destination brought us to the Eiffle tower as the sun came up. Unfortunately the Paris weather prevented the viewing of an actual sunrise, but the experience was no less impressive. We stood under the massive tower as it penetrated the morning mist, listening to the birds waking up and watching Paris come alive. I felt rejuvenated and overwhelmed. What an amazing adventure. What a treat to remember why I love France, to embrace new experiences, to feel the romantic night of Paris, to take in these famous sites at off hours. It is so rare to have a personal moment with monuments without the hassle of crowds, the noise of tourism, and the rush of “gotta see this quickly!”

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Time for intimacy

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Good Morning

As we walked away, delirious and tired, I couldn’t help but smile and think about what Luke said earlier in an outburst of delight (though he will tell you otherwise), “Everything I’ve ever wanted has happened!”

How lucky were are to have these moments.

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French don’t give a #@*! about being polite

We all know the stereotype- the French are haughty, pretentious and downright rude. Except that each time I’d traveled to France, I experienced nothing but kindness. Sure they might laugh at your ridiculous accent, but I found that if you sincerely tried (a.k.a. don’t barge in with the “I’m from America and we’re gonna speak my language and do it my way” approach) then they were quite nice…in their own French way.

Until I lived here. In comparison to other countries, at times I’ve felt brazen and outspoken and rude as an American with my American ways. I don’t say Ma’am and Sir (although I’m sure many Americans do) and I can be quite loud and sometimes invade people’s personal space with my weird touchy laugh habit (thanks mom). But the French make Americans look like rule bound, guilt obsessed, polite pampered Brits. Sorry British but you guys do apologize for everything. 

They don’t give a crap about your personal space, your personal problems, standard politeness or welcoming manners. Now, don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of French people who have been warm and receptive and helpful. But living here has introduced me to a distinct cultural difference of social standards. Like the girl who blatantly mocked me while sitting next to me on the train and then proceeded to completely invade my personal space even though she had TWO empty chairs next to her. Or the students who talk or text regardless of whether it’s me or the teacher talking. Or the people who cut in front of me at the grocery store or use babies to skip lines at the prefecture. Or the girl who literally sat on me because my SINGLE seat had the smallest bit of room apparently open for stranger seating. No asking, no eye contact, just big ass on my seat. I felt like a crazy person as I searched for someone to share eye contact in a “is this really happening right now?” moment but being polite is so n’importe quoi.

When I first arrived in France, my friend warned me with a story of how she was invited to three dinners before the french even talked to her. I have now sat through two gatherings where hardly two words were spoken to me. I sat as the silent, awkward foreigner, thinking about how if we were in America, I’d have a drink in my hand, know everyone’s name and be involved in some sort of conversation. It seemed unfathomable to me- it’s just common hosting sense, it’s just good manners, it’s just politeness, human decency- how rude! But apparently it’s not rude, it’s just French.

And it’s not just me. Even Paris’s transport authority acknowledged the rudeness with an ad campaign to improve social awareness.

http://www.heraldsun.com.au/travel/news/sacre-bleu-campaign-to-put-an-end-to-rudeness-in-france/story-fn32891l-1226436549175

But it’s not all that bad. I’ve heard that the French are hard to crack, but once you break through, they’re there for life. And I will say that rudeness aside, the blunt way of communicating can be quite refreshing at times. But a big ass on my seat will never be refreshing- it can go find its own!

Is this really happening??

The Visa. This has been the bane of my existence and a source of stress for far too long. After many trials, much waiting and feats of patience and perseverance, I finally got a foot in the door! If all goes according to plan, I will have a long stay visa in a month! The papers have been accepted!

But let me tell you about the wonderful world of French bureaucracy; it is long, it is difficult, it is inconsistent, it doesn’t care about being polite, and it is designed to turn you away at any given opportunity. The entire process felt like training for a military course- be the fastest- get there first! Be the most cunning- cover your ass with legal documents. Be stubborn and strong- endure the painfully numbing cold and hold your place in line. Use connections to get to the top, use determination to get back up when they push you down, be resilient, be persistent. And if you’re especially lucky- have a kick ass French boyfriend.

I got my first taste of the inconsistency that is French bureaucracy when I first arrived in France. I was about half way through the TAPIF program before I even officially received my health insurance. But it wasn’t until I noticed that my working visa expired 10 days before my work contract, that I became aware of the bitter reality of bureaucracy. Though a pain in the ass to deal with the Boston consulate’s mistake, I figured, “Good. I can extend this visa and bide more time time for the next visa. Easy peasy.” Except it wasn’t. And I never say easy peasy. Even with the little knowledge I had about the system, I knew one thing- come prepared with a native speaker. So with ma responsable at my side I headed to the Montbeliard préfecture- confident and naïve. They took one look at my visa and the fact that it was only a 10 day gap (which in their eyes was comically small), pushed my passport back though the window with a reply, “You vill juste ave to fenesh avant.”

To make a long story short and provide a concise overview of the French administrative system, it went a little something like this: get reject by préfecture. Contact head of program. Use information to contact American Consulate in Strasburg. Get sent to French Consulate in Boston, where I am told to contact the very préfecture who originallyrejected me. Contact head of program again- told there is nothing they can do. Bienvenue en France.

So instead of easy peasy, I now had a fire under my ass with time ticking away. I was left  not with an extension, but a deadline- get pacsed, and get a visa FAST. All things considered PACSing went relatively well. But the success was temporarily blinding as I thought it would be easy enough to wake up early and stand in line outside all just to ask for papers to begin the visa process. Silly Anna. That was a test and you failed. Antoine and I left the Grenoble préfecture confused and angry. Why did they give us the wrong papers? Why didn’t they just listen to us?? Simple- because they don’t have to.

But this time we came prepared. Antoine returned with legal paperwork in hand and obtained the proper documents. We then spent the next week and a lonngggg night meticulously preparing the folder with originals and copies and “just in case” papers. We showed up before it opened in the bitter cold, ready for round 2. We waited and watched as people used babies to cut lines (But really what are you gonna do? Create a scene? Make the baby wait in the cold like the rest of us?) until finally, we made it to the window. We gleefully opened our folder and presented it to this woman of fate. “Do you have the originals and copies?” “Yes, yes we do!” This was it, the moment of truth! “Ok. Here’s your ticket.” “Our whaa?”

So yes, we waited in line for the préfecture to open, only to freeze and wait in another line to get a ticket, only to wait in yet another line. I clutched my ticket- C407 and stared at the monitor. It was gonna be a while. It was fascinating to watch as people from all over filtered in and a variety of languages filled the space. We all shared in a communal desire, feeling both frustrated and nervous as our eyes darted back and fourth from the screen.

I don’t know if it was my imagination, but as time drew closer the volume and excitement of the room seemed to increase…as did my heart rate. It felt like back when I did theatre in highschool- nerves and excitement welling into nausea right before the opening show. How would this performance be received?

Except this wasn’t a show. This was real life. And fortunately sometimes real life can go your way. Antoine and I made it to the window, presented our folder, showed the legal document to prevent being turned away and actually left with success! True, had we not been extra prepared, we might have been rejected (blog post with required documents to come). But we learned from our past experience and knew that we had a small window of all or nothing.

So for anyone ever battling the hell that is the visa process, know that it is one rife with landmines and designed to trap or scare you, but with perseverance, the right documents, and amazingly helpful people, it can be done.

Antoine and I left the prefecture in shock. I couldn’t help but think, “Is this really happening? Did we actually do it?!” We exited the building and crossed the street for coffees at a cafe. As we sat down, I looked at my war buddy and with a sigh of relief, we smiled. It was over.

…at least for now

Learning a Language is Hard

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I might be stating the obvious here, but I haven’t really talked about the cold, hard, truth that learning a new language (especially as you get older) is quite frankly hard. Once you have a general understanding of the language it gets increasingly more complicated. Direct translation no longer works. Slang and regional speak rearrange everything you learn (Ex: Je ne sais pas = Chai pa). Studying and learning in the classroom environment always worked fairly well for me. But as I have repeatedly discovered during my time here, comprehension and speaking (ESPECIALLY speaking) are a whole different ball game.

At first it was exciting- like a game or puzzle. “Oh! I understand that! That word plus that word equals that sentence! I know this fits here! Yay me! I understand!” My entrance into France was a quick swim or drown scenario as I was plunged into paperwork, adult tasks and navigating a new area, and as a result my French rapidly increased.

But then it plateaued. True, I was speaking less French on a daily basis as I teach English classes, have friends who all speak English and don’t have many (or really any) opportunities in Montbeliard to meet French people my age. But I also reached a level where learning was becoming increasingly more difficult. I no longer had the excuse of speaking like a two year old, I had upgraded to elementary school…possibly even middle school and it felt difficult. I had to push myself to advance, which I rebelled against by becoming slightly lazy. I entered a plateau funk where I felt lazy and disheartened- frustrated at my lack of improvement but stubbornly resistant to making difficult efforts to change…until New Years rolled around. I used resolutions as a springboard to kick my language learning into gear. I bought a French magazine, listened to the top French songs (which actually wasn’t too helpful as the vast majority of them are American), reviewed French lessons online, revised my vocabulary notebook, watched movies in French with the other assistants and forced Diego (he’s a French professor in Mexico) to give me lessons. And it helped. I was amazed at my ability to watch a movie in French with French subtitles and understand.

But unfortunately life’s not quite like the movies- there are no subtitles, no previous plot to provide context and accents aren’t always articulated. I was confronted with this as I visited Antoine for February vacation where I was fully immersed in listening and speaking to French. And while ultimately it was amazing for learning and the best thing for my improvement, I’ll be honest- it freaked my shit out. I realized that my time in Montbeliard has been cushioned. I speak French with my professors and the other assistants, but I can always fall back on English. And unfortunately, most of the time, I do.

Similar to the start of my time in France, I treated the opportunities for conversation with Antoine’s friends like a game. But this time the game had changed. I was with people my age, people speaking fast and in slang. As I stood outside of a bar with Antoine and his friends, I got lost in a sea of French. The surrounding French seeped into my ears and I actively had to try hard to regain focus on the conversation at hand. “Ok. What are they talkin- Singapore! I know that word. Easy. Yay! I understand! But wait. Why are they talking about Singapore? What they hell are they saying about Singapore? They’re not even talking about Singapore anymore, are they?!” Luckily I had Antoine there to help with translations and his friends were nice enough to slow down or say a few words in English. But needless to say, it was difficult.

When I met Antoine’s family, it was all French all the time. I was pleased to comprehend the lengthy family discussions but apparently I spent too much time on self congratulation to speak. As they shared stories on childhood memories, I not only ignited with internal excitement on my comprehension, but also in the formulation of my own story! At last! I could partake in my own conversation! I crafted the beginning of my memory, adding details and humorous remarks to this story that I would engage them in. But as I prepared to regale them with my tale, the French filtered back in and I realized that the time for that tale had long since passed. And here I was, lost in translation again. Dommage.

I can only imagine how immigrants to a new country felt or feel. Immersing yourself in a new language is challenging and alienating at times. To not have your voice, to feel lost and tongue tied and unable to express things that were once so simple can be disheartening. I at least have had cushions, a translating boyfriend and a prior basis of the language. 

I have realized that I am not the most patient of people. I don’t like not getting things. I don’t like being unable to communicate. And I don’t like feeling lost or stupid. But who does? These are the things that test us, that help us evolve. Learning something completely new and foreign is not easy. But growing is so rewarding.

So here’s a little learning language advice:

1. Start with the essential basics. Learn what can get you by- hello, goodbye, excuse me, I don’t understand, and food.

2. Immerse yourself as much as possible- listen to music, read, watch movies, write

3. SPEAK. To yourself if you have to, but practice speaking. Practice is the only was this will happen

4. Have patience. Be kind to yourself. Celebrate the growth and accomplishments rather than the roadblocks. As the French keep telling me “Ca viendra”. It will come.