Archive for October, 2009

Les Vacances I: Oxford!

I love having a vacation practically every 7 weeks. True, it would be very nice to have paychecks to finance my vacations, but all the same it is nice to have some time off. I am in England right now visiting Zach at Oxford, before heading back to France for the weekend then on to Venice. Though the channel is not that wide, the differences between Paris and London are immediately obvious when you step off the train. Just driving through London I was struck by the utter order of it all. Sometimes in Paris I wonder if every single house, building and road were assembled regardless of the others than stapled together in a totally haphazard fashion. It is a magical eclectic jumble of beautiful objects. London flew by the bus window in a contrasting delightful blur of ordered streets, brightly painted doors, and well followed traffic signals. While I was waiting in line to buy my ticket to Oxford, a man came up and asked politely if he could cut al of us in the line to buy a ticket and catch a bus about to leave. Of course we let him, though I inwardly smiled as I thought that if we were in France he would probably be respected more for just cutting unnoticed than asking.

Oxford is truly one of the loveliest cities I have ever been in. Paris strikes one as something enchanting and captivating that takes your breath away. Oxford on the other hand is just quietly, but confidently, perfect. Zach has a huge paper due tomorrow, so I have had lots of time to explore on my own over the past couple days. I visited a couple years ago when my friend Bethany was studying abroad, so the first day was spent revisiting fond spots. I strolled around Christ Church Meadows, reveling in being surrounded by the un-manicured expanses of green. I saw some swans, property of the queen of course. If the queen also owns what the swans leave behind than I have officially stolen royal property. Zach and I attended formal dinner at University College with a friend of his and I so enjoyed the tradition and ceremony that exists for no other point (in my opinion) than merely to be there. Oxford is an elite bubble of academic excellence, but while you are there you forget that, and it really does seem natural that everyone can read Latin and can speak 4 languages. Every college has beautiful buildings, and while Zach insists that his is not one of the most attractive ones, I have still included some pictures.

Of course, my visited has been punctuated with many visits to Ben’s Cookies, quite possibly the greatest cookies on earth. I also took the recommendation from a friend and had tea and exquisite scones at The Rose. I sat and read my Oxford purchase of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit. Who could visit Oxford and not purchase a book> Academia is contagious and I have gone on a Victorian literature kick while in Paris. Tonight I made dinner for Zach and a friend, and truly the best part of this visit is spending time with him. We commiserated about common European observations, mainly that Americans have our flaws, but we are efficient. We like deadlines, and problems get addressed and solved quickly. France and England operate in slower, and more paperwork intense, manner. Zach is still not in the possession of a package mailed almost a month ago and in Oxford for the past 3 weeks. Frustrating. Still, it is perhaps this same ideology that fosters vacations ever 8 weeks and long tea times on gray autumn afternoons.
Sr. Cross


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gazebo with wm

1. Not all boulangeries are created equal. I know this now as I have a particular one in my neighborhood that I like best. In fact, I don’t really enjoy bread from other boulangeries now, preferring the perfect crusty loafs from my little shop.
2. I now recognize specific dogs in the Jardin du Luxembourg. There is the full sized poodle who drags along its tiny owner, the old slow golden retriever being dragged by its owner, the several old ladies who all walk their cocker spaniels together, and more Jack Russels then I have ever seen, as they are quite a popular Parisian pooch. Along with the dogs comes of course, the dog droppings. This is unanimously acknowledged as a problem in Paris, but yet no one does anything about it. In fact, the girls even have a children’s book entitled “Wondercrotte” (literally, Super-crap). The heroine id’s dog poop left laying about and shams owners into better habits. The lesson amuses, but apparently falls short of convincing the Parisian dog walkers.
3. I know all the bells that ring from the many churches around my neighborhood. I know which bells coincide with the sparkling of the Eiffel tower, etc.
4. I used to wonder why French families would always have almost empty Nutella jars lying around, as if refusing to believe that none of that precious substance remains. As I scraped out my own jar over and over I realized that hope does indeed spring eternal.
5. The other day I went to my little quiche restaurant to have a slice. The man (he and the Quiche lady run the place) came out to chat with me, showing me which slices he was planning to eat on break, and then right be for I left he said – instead of the customary “Au revoir,” “A la prochain!,” equivalent to “See you next time.” I am in.

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The French love to discuss President Barack Obama. Of course, the French really just like discussion in general and the average French person knows far more about international news than the average American. In almost every single one of my elementary classes I have been asked if I personally know President Obama. What American eight-year old knows of President Sarkozy? Anyway, one question I have been asked repeatedly is why Americans don’t want free healthcare. The French are utterly puzzled at our outrage at government handouts. I tried to explain that it is a complex issue. It is not that we are not appalled at the price of healthcare, but it is that we cringe at everlasting paperwork, higher taxes, fewer options, and frankly, in “basic” healthcare. Americans love diagnosing things, and braces, and probably unnecessary procedures, and speedy treatment, and these are often not included in free “basic” healthcare. We are not a country who truly wants basic everythingg nor do we want to pay for non-basic anything.

The discussions have led me to ponder the differences in our governments, particularly in our heads of state. Please note that I say the French love to discuss President Obama and his policies, but that does not translate into loving him. The culture here is one of eloquence and verbal dexterity, discussion and debate. President Obama is a topic rich in debate possibilities. (And at G20 summits, Obama and Sarkozy are some of the only leaders with younger wives, though supermodel and singer Carla Bruni

Sarkozy does turn more heads than Michelle, despite her adorable girls and Bo, the presidential pooch.) When President Obama won the Nobel peace prize, protestors like the ones in this picture popped up all over Paris. Just today I saw an angry message scrawled across a metro wall attempting to decry his acceptance of the prize. Unfortunately, the message (I suppose meant for Americans) was in such poor English it was almost unintelligible. But an incensed Frenchmen had had his say.

Perhaps it is the passionate nature of the people that lends to French political figures an immunity that American politicians do not have. There personal lives do not dictate their political success. When heads of state have affairs, or messy personal lives, I don’t think the French feel as personally offended as we do when our President errs. This explains why the French President is allowed some emotional outbursts, such as when President Sarkozy in 2007 walked out of an American interview when the interviewer started asking pointed questions about his failed marriage and ensuing divorce.

Of our American President however, we expect different. We are not a country that goes on strike at the drop of a hat (I was late to work one day this week because of a “movement sociale”) or has a history of violent coup d’états and revolutions. We are a country that prides itself on assimilating different people and cultures and being a melting pot of nationalities, ideas, and preferences, Thus we elect a President to incarnate this, and in that aspect, I can venture to say that maybe President Obama is a good symbol. However, I think he has lately and embarrassingly failed to live up to his symbolic potential. I have been following President Obama’s treatment of conservative news figures and I feel disappointed by his actions. I can openly admit that appearing on an unabashedly conservative new program could be uncomfortable, which is probably why the president’s decision to appear on all the major news networks was unprecedented. He chose to make a bold move, and thus should have been prepared to deal with the consequences. I think one of the reasons that American presidents are not often ousted from office, and never driven out by revolutions, is because despite our preferences, we respect the office and the fact that come what come may, the president is truly our president, not just the president of those who voted for him. I do not agree with a lot of President Obama’s policies, but if I was given the chance to meet him, I would be honored to because he is the President of the United States. I would venture to say that even the most conservative commentators would probably saw the same thing. By refusing to appear on a new station directed towards conservatives, President Obama seems to broadcast not only that he has the power to decide what is news, but that he is not interested in being the president of a large percentage of the nation. I believe his reasoning was that on a station like FOX he would not be able to truly speak but would instead spend all his time fighting of provocative questions and attacks. Maybe this is true, but he is the president, who doesn’t always have the luxury to avoid uncomfortable situations. We elect a president to be our voice on the international sphere. How is President Obama to defend American policies against the rest of the world if he shies from defending them against other Americans?

If we were French, FOX would go on strike or the conservatives would organize a nation wide manifestation. But we aren’t French. In their book Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong, Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow observe that “Paris’s streets are not just for transport; are a political forum.” In America, I think the news is one of our largest political forums and I should hate to see that censored.

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I know it is touristy, but I never get tired of watching it sparkle and twinkle, so here are some more Eiffel Tower pictures.Paris Eiffel collage2

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“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”- Earnest Hemmingway, 1950

I have never liked the writings of Earnest Hemmingway. Now, to be fair, I have never before finished something he has written. Some would say that this means I have no right to talk on the subject. However, I have waded my way through Balzac, Stendahl, and Tolstoy, thus I feel the mere fact that I have not been able to have patience with an entire Hemmingway work speaks volumes. Yet here in Paris I felt compelled to read his memoir entitled A Moveable Feast. In them, he discusses life in Paris with the usual totally devoid of emotions or complex adjectives that I often associate with him, only this time I was able sojorn through because Hemmingway and I have had several parallel experiences. I want to pause and note that it also helped that I am currently reading a Villette by Charlotte Bronte, and she more than amply supplies for any deficiet in Hemmingway’s emotional sidenotes. Hemmingway himself admits to “distrusting adjectives.” Once I read it from his own pen, it made the ugly truth easier to swallow. During his early years in Paris, Hemmingway, his wife and son lived on the rue Cardinal Lemoine, only a five minute walk from my apartment. He does take care to flood his memoirs with specific street and café names, and as I read, I could trace his walks in my head, imagine his days. Thus, my unlikely affection for him emerged.

Hemmingway devotes an entire section of his book to the concept of being hungry in Paris, the city renowned for its cuisine. Now of course, he stops on practically every page to have a wonderful meal and drink and brood, but he still fancies himself rather poor and hungry and has several insightful things to say on the subject:
“You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris because all the bakery shops had such  good things in the windows and people ate outside at tables on the sidewalk so that you saw and  smelled the food. . . . All the paintings [ in the museums] were sharpened and clearer and more  beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry. I learned to understand Cézanne much better and to   see truly how he made landscapes when I was hungry.”
Now I personally feel that people who can be that eloquent about being hungry, are not truly famished. Yet Hemmingway and I alike experience the joys of tight budgets in France. Mine will hopefully end with the processing of my paperwork so I can get paychecks, but until then I am living on simple meals, and avoiding the siren songs of boulangeries and such. And Hemmingway is right, you do get very hungry when you are constantly surrounded by delicious beautiful food. I am not so sure about the Cézanne thing. I think when I am ravenous and in a museum I just get grouchy.


In the past week I have spent approximately 10 hours at Shakespeare and Company. It is the type of bookstore that invites you to sit for hours on end and read. I originally bought several books, but have taken to reading entire works there in several sittings as the paperwork drags. What I really want to read is Dostoyevsky’s. Intending to read it since my freshmen year when my beloved roommate raved about how good it is, this is the first I have had the time to devote to such an undertaking. Shakespeare and Company has all of his other works, except for that one, so I am holding out to get it stateside over Christmas. I felt a flicker of kinship with Hemmingway when he spoke of reading Dostoyevsky in Shakespeare and Company saying:
“In Dostoyevsky there were things to be believed and not to be believed, but some so true they   changed you as you read them; frailty and madness, wickedness and saintliness.”

Even once I have my copy, I may take it back to Shakespeare and Company to disappear behind a crowded shelf and read for hours. Despite his lack of adjectives, I feel like Hemmingway said it best when he explained that: “To have come on all this new world of writing, with time to read in a city like Paris where there was a way of living well and working, no matter how poor you were, was like having a great treasure given to you.” I think he perhaps romanticizes the poverty, as only those who aren’t poor can, but I cannot dispute his awareness of such a treasure as the reading of a good book in a perfect spot.

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Le Metro


Though it is by far the least glamorous part of every day, I do spend a lot of time on the metro. I teach in a suburb outside of the city. The commute is about 30 minutes, but I usually don’t mind the time as I read, or stress out about lesson plans, playing silly English games in my head before I do them with my kids. The metros are interesting places, where the cultural differences between Americans and French really show through. You shove your way in backward if necessary, as personal space does not exist. One time during a strike that eliminated about half the trains, I saw a train unable to leave due to one man’s stomach which prohibited the doors from shutting. Rather than step of, or apologize he just stared straight ahead and continued trying to shove back, while he ignored his own role in the problem.

This picture is of course a much calmer moment as my friend Emma and I waited across the tracks from each one evening.

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My Rue


Voici Chez moi! Many have asked for pictures of my little apartment, so here they are. Please note I had to lean out the window to even get a shot. I would like to highlight my lovely basil plant, which is usually on the verge of death because of my poor gardening skills. She lends her few tiny leaves to my yummy meals, created in the “kitchen” tucked beside the shower. One of the many domestic pleasures of my Parisian chic studette.plant

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L’Education Nationale

My interactions with the French education system are replete with cultural lessons. This first month in Paris has been lots of free time but now I am staring to teach elementary English in a suburb east of the city. I have decided that I am against socialism. I know this might seem obvious because I am an American, but let me explain. Even though I realize that I might have philosophical problems with it, but a part of me has always wondered if maybe all the free stuff was maybe worth it. However, after only one week of working in the very centralized public education system, I have decided that I am against it for a much more practical reason, and that is its sheer inefficiency. Every person in the system must slowly telephone their way up the chain of command to answer every question. This week I have heard more than anything else “Franchement, je ne sais pas “ (“Frankly, I have no clue”). For instance, at orientation, we learned that same of the paperwork we were given to fill out is no longer applicable, as the organization it was for was dissolved . . . last year, it just took this long for the information to work its way through the system. We were told our health care is active now, but we may not get our reimbursements and cards till May, one month before we leave. I have spent much of this past week showing up to meetings at schools . . . that had no clue I was coming.

The French love paperwork. LOVE it. The thrive on demanding 30 documents for something. Photocopies delight them, ID photos thrill them. Yet I think it kind of makes sense. The straightforward American method doesn’t suit the French people, who are an intriguing blend of utter disrespect for authority, and an affinity to an obese government involved in every aspect of life. The solution, allow them in, but hinder every step through bureaucratic red tape.

And, I have to admit, there is something slightly comforting to me about carrying a giant folder of photocopies of all my important documents to every meeting. In America, everything is online. You send in things with a click of a button, never having the satisfaction of turning over a thick manila envelope. My documents may sit for months on one after another French desk before finding the hands that will receive them, but they will not simply dissolve into unfeeling cyberspace.

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