Archive for February, 2010

Nice is nice

As Paris  continually surrenders spring up to more cold weather, I decided to head south for the first chunk of my vacation. My friend Kelly, with whom I went to Venice last fall, teaches English in Nice, on the Côte d’Azur, and so I spent the past several days with her.  It is strange to me that even though France is smaller than Texas, the regions retain very distinct identities, and Nice appears an altogether different country than Paris.  I took the TGV and would doze in and out, falling asleep to farms, then waking up to snow capped mountains, then drifting off again and waking up to find vineyard dotted cliffs dipping sharply into the emerald sea.

One thing I have learned in Paris is that the French are never on time. I don’t just mean individually, as in I now know never to show up on time for parties or I will be awkwardly early, but also the citizenry as a whole. Paper work arrives late, meals start and run late, everything meanders along at a pace designed to never stress.  The exception: the TGV trains.  I arrived 2 minutes late to my train, only to be refused entry and then watch it start up and head out.  Luckily, another train was leaving a half an hour later, yet unlike my original train, it was indirect, putting me in Nice a little over an hour later.  I still wasn’t arriving late, but Nice’s public transport is provençale, as a lady at the train station explained.  I stood waiting for a bus for about an hour, until informed that the busses were done for the evening, and the night buses wouldn’t start for another hour.  Herein I noticed a difference between Nice and her northern sister Paris.  I have seen people wait for buses that will probably never come in Paris. You wait forever, you speak never.  At this late night bus stop, everyone was talking, rehashing how long they had been there, how this wasn’t normal, how someone should write Sarkozy to complain, etc.  Finally, when everyone else gave up and wandered off, one sweet older lady noticed my distressed look and actually drove me outside of town to where Kelly lived.   I realize that it isn’t usually a good idea to go off in the cars of strangers, but in the hour we had stood there, I had learned much about her talkative self from where she had been on vacation, to her family, to the fact that she constantly carries candies in her purse to suck on as they diffuse stress.  Then in my short car ride, courtesy of her friend, I heard the tale of the death of a darling family pet.

In my heart of hearts I was hoping for a mid-winter tan and dip in the ocean while in Nice, but sadly winter comes even there.  A milder winter, but it was still a little cold and overcast the first day.  Nice is not Paris, it doesn’t render me speechless with its beauty or enthrall me with its history. But the ocean is stunning.  The Mediterranean Sea shimmers blue, even on the dullest of days and in the darkest of winters.   We stopped in the Matisse museum, and he writes of his love for Nice because it has a special light that enthralls him. On the beach, I can understand that.  The beach is rocky and narrow, merely a discontinuous fringe of smooth rocks in between striking cliffs and lush valleys.  The sound is, as Kelly put it, like a gigantic rain-stick, steadily trickling rocks up and down the shore.   On the second day we tock advantage of the sun to hike up the cliffs to the village of Eze, a maze of cobblestone streets and stucco roofs built on a precarious slope.  The hike was much harder than anticipated, but even when we fell out of sight of the beaches below, we could hear the gravelly waves.

One time I asked someone in Paris if they liked the southern accent of those from Nice or Marseilles.  They said that the southern coast is an area of eternal sun and when people from there speak, you can hear the sun in their voices. I am happy to return to Paris, but I thoroughly enjoyed my trip down south.  Even if it wasn’t sunny the whole time, and I didn’t get a tan, the impression it leaves on me is one of this intrinsic sun, imparted through warmth, tranquil vistas, and shining waters.


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N’Importe Quoi!

I am on vacation for the next two weeks (bless the French and their frequent vacations!) and it is a much-needed break from children.  Not that I don’t sincerely enjoy children, but sometimes I get weary of interactions based on songs, art projects, worksheets, and an endless stream of sticky Nutella hands.  Children, despite the fact they are supposedly subordinate to us, the adults, often impact us just as much.  For instance, the youngest girl I nanny has been having speech therapy to correct a lisp.  Unfortunately, as my French is impressionable to those around me, I have now developed an occasional lisp.  What is cute at 5 is not at 22.

This week my students were understandably rowdy.  After 7 weeks back in classes  — minus Wednesdays, as primary school is just 4 days a week – their little selves can’t take anymore.  The French “need” for vacation is imparted from a young age.  This week I aggravated the situation by given an exam.   In one of my classes the kids were so talkative that I finally yelled at them like I have seen many French teachers do.  The result was immediate terror and fear as they gaped open-mouthed at Miss Hannah, who never yells.  The door to the adjoining classroom flew open and one of the teachers whose class I have another day stood there looking worried.  “I heard you yell – you ok?” she asked.  “Oh yes, “ I said.  “They were just refusing to be quiet.”  She looked at me and then at the terrified students and nodded approvingly.  “Très bien fait!” she said.

In case any of you would like to know how to yell at a class like a scary French teacher, here are some of my favorite cries, with their literal and actual meaning.  Note, before each phrase, give an aggressive sound something like an aborted bark.

Ça suffit! Lit: That’s enough!  This is a good thing to cry at anyone who is anoying you through repeating something.  You bark it quickly, emphasizing the final “fit” (feee).

Tu te calme! Lit: Settle down!  This is usually directed at a child who has exhibited some great display of movement or wildness, such as leaning over to pick up a pencil. Often it comes in rapid succession after ça suffit.

C’est pas possible! Lit: Not possible!  This phrase is peculiar.  Basically, any time a group of students does something the teacher doesn’t like, they shake their heads and look at the group or any other adult in the room and utter this tragic phrase.  It thus means something closer to this: “It is incomprehensible to me that I could be stuck with such a group of misbehaving and apparently unintelligent students!”   Sometimes though, the teachers just say it for no reason, as if saying it will jumpstart the class to feats of academic and behavioral excellence.

N’importe quoi! Lit: Whatever.  There is no real equivalent in English for this phrase.  It is often used the same way we would use the phrase “whatever” but not always. Kids will use it to tattle on each other, as in “So and so is doing n’importe quoi” which could mean anything from eating his pen nubs, to kicking someone else’s chair, to drawing endless rings with his compass (the favorite pastime of French school children).  Often however, I hear French teachers use this phrase as a sort of magical all-encompasing, “You are making me mad, and you don’t even know why but you better shape up!”  When the teacher looks out at the class and says (emphasizing each syllable) “N’importe quoi!” you know that whatever you were doing, it is wrong. Doesn’t matter what it was, it is wrong.  She has had enough, you didn’t calm yourself, and c’est pas possible that you persist in doing n’importe quoi!

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Les Orchidées

Why do girls like flowers?  I am not saying that man can’t appreciate flora and fauna, but I know of very few women who honestly dislike flowers.  And not just flowers that are growing—no, we like to have them, to pick them, to stick them behind our ears, and wear daisy crowns.  Yes, this is no longer socially acceptable past the age of 10, but we still love it.    I think the value of flowers, as is true with the value of many things, lies in their temporality, in their fleeting moments of beauty.  Our fascination with the beauty of flowers derives directly from a sweet sadness of how quickly they disappear.

On that note, I love the quote by Keats (either cliché or classic, you may decide) about beauty:

“A thing of a beauty is a joy forever,

Its loveliness increases,

It will never pass into nothingness,

But it will still keep,

A bower quiet for us and a sleep,

Full of sweet dreams.”

Last week there was a special orchid exhibit in the Luxembourg Gardens.  After intending to go for two weeks, I finally made it on the last day, Valentine’s day.  The wait was over an hour (Confession: I ate a McDonald’s cheeseburger while in line, my first in Paris), but then, Paris thrives on lines and long waits. Sometimes I think that Parisians just get in line without really knowing what they are waiting for.  Then they cut in said line to find out.

Orchids are interesting flowers, not lovely and classic like roses, or elegant like lilies.  I always think of them as a slightly savage flower, not suitable for bouquets, but rather one that stands proudly out.   Slightly gangly, and often reminiscent of some odd insect, they are nevertheless striking.   I love the little details of the various species of orchids, the speckled insides, and the varied patterns.   How could you look at the complex beauty of an orchid and not believe in an intelligent and divine design for our world?

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Notre Dame

There is such a joy in finding yourself alone in a place where there are usually masses of tourists.   I frequently walk the last part of my way home at night because I love that sensation as I cross in front of Notre Dame.   And I like to eat a pastry a day, so walking part of the way serves as my penance.

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I am sure many of you are tired of reading posts about shopping for shoes, but yesterday I had yet another shoe shopping adventure, and experienced another perfect micro chasm of French culture.  Once again, the customer is never right, and is often delusional, so it seems.   Yesterday my friend Marilyne and I decided to catch the end of the sales in hopes of finding some boots.  (Note:  As I am blissfully happy with my long sought and much fought for brown boots, I was merely going to look, not buy. It almost worked).  Paris is once again frosted in snow, spring has vanished and winter returned for another round.  Thus, it looks like boot season is not over.   We first went to a chain store and Marilyne found a gorgeous pair of healed boots, yet as we were walking up Rue Mouffetard, we made that fateful decision to stop in another store after already being content with our earlier purchase.  The experience was as follows:

Over Zealous Clerk:  Bonjour, the sales ended yesterday but we are extending them, exceptionnellement (what the French say to make you feel that you are the one exception to something – usually you are not, but they like you to feel privileged that you are allowed to have whatever you are about to buy).

Marilyne: Oh, we are just looking, I just bought boots.

Over Zealous Clerk:  Madame, why not just try some?

Suddenly Marilyne and I have our feet in boots that we had no intention of buying.  At least I felt better that Marilyne, a Paris native, is still pressured by the Parisian Over Zealous Clerks.

Hannah:  I actually wanted to try on those boots (pointing to others).

Over Zealous Clerk 2:  Yes, but these are the same brand, we are just verifying your size.

Hannah: Ok, it works, may I try the others?

Over Zealous Clerk 2:  Why don’t you like these?

Hannah: Well, I just don’t really like the color.

Over Zealous Clerk 2:  Oh Madame – the color will change!

Meanwhile . . .

Marilyne (now trying on flats):  I think these might be too small.

Over Zealous Clerk:  Madame – they will expand and fit perfectly!

I made it out of the store with just a pair of flats, not a pair of magical expanding color changing boots.  Marilyne however was retained and talked into a second pair of boots.  They are wonderful, and a style altogether different than her first pair, but I think the ultimate selling point was the fact that the Over Zealous Clerk kept on dropping the price, whispering it furtively at her, lest the other Overly Zealous Clerk hear and offer a similar price drop to another customer. Of course, her bargain was exceptionnellement.

Marilyne and me, pre-boot adventure, up on my roof.

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Seeing History

Paris is old.  Really old, and its age fascinates me.   As an American, I come from a country who is young, a mere baby to its European forefathers.  As Turner discussed,  American history is defined by space, by the west, by land.  Thus, much of our history is absorbed by the very land that inspired it.  I have stood on many former battle fields,  walked in the tracks of the Oregon trail,  and toured endless old west ghost towns.  I am not disputing their beauty, or undercutting their importance, I am merely saying that ours is a history that often returns to nature.  We know what was there, but grassy fields, eroding wood, and wild flowers disguise what happened many years before.

Yet in Paris, history remains all around us, with each colorful ruler of this city having added his mark.  Palaces add their towers to the numerous gothic spires that dot the horizon, and even many of the residential buildings boast construction dates several hundred years past.  I am constantly reminded of the history of this city, as so much of it still remains concretely in front of you. (I do want to pause and mention that if it wasn’t for the fact that Parisians had not seemed inclined to burn down or deface a major building every time there was a revolution, their would be even more historical sights to take in.)   Some of the history is grand, incarnations of la gloire, “that illusive commodity so precious to French hearts” (Horne), and some is somber.  Every day when I pick up the little girls I babysit from school, I am taken back by the plaque on the wall that commemorates the Jewish children removed from that school on a specific day during World War II.  Then we stroll from a reminder of the Holocaust to play in the gardens built by the Queen Marie Médicis in the early 1600s.

My current metro book is Alistair Horne’s Seven Ages of Paris (which is wonderful, by the way) and I love how it helps me notice how every street sign, metro stop, and building have a story to tell.  I can’t imagine how you could live in Paris, or even pass through without being sensible to the rich history that fills every inch of the city.  I also don’t know how you can look at an aged city like Paris without feeling humbled.  We like to think that we are the modern age, utterly more capable than all those who came before us.  But when I look at something like Notre Dame, or the Louvre, I know that we’re wrong.  There was a capability, a work ethic that existed before that we can’t match because we lack the inspiration.  Yes, I realize that maybe that is idealistic, as much of gothic and monarchical Europe was built on the backs of those who didn’t have much of a choice, but the fact remains that people of power, people of imagination, and certainly people of faith left a history more striking and beautiful than any that our generation will leave. And they left it without making use of any of the luxuries or special equipment that we can’t seem to live without.*  But then maybe the buildings and monuments we leave speak volumes about who we are and what we valued. Today our buildings are efficient, modern, and choose functionality over beauty.

Perhaps some of you readers don’t have favorite architectural, but the Art History student in me has always loved vaulted ceilings, and thus I am continually content here in Paris. Here are some of my favorite ceilings, in Sainte-Chapelle and next door in La Conciergerie, which I finally remembered to visit on one of the first Sunday’s of the month, as they are then free.

*Says the girl who whines that she doesn’t get wifi in her Parisian apartment with the great view.

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Spring is trying to come. How do I know this? I smelled it. Yes, I am totally serious. I know it will be another month or more before I see the first timid buds push through broken bark and moldy soil. It will be another month or so before I can definitively leave my mittens at home and forego the ever-present scarf and hat. But yesterday, for the first time, I smelled spring in the air. It was a sunny day, and as I made the 45 minute trek on foot between two of my schools, I actually grew uncomfortably warm – what a delicious feeling! Cresting a hill, a warm breeze struck me and I caught a whiff of spring, that light, delicate scent of thaw, crocuses, fresh dirt and sprouts (why sprouts? No clue, that is just what I associate it with).

I know I must not place too much faith in spring, it is far to early for that. Four years of Michigan winters taught me that a false spring lulls you into moving your winter clothes home at spring break, only to return to a white Easter. Hemmingway writes of Paris’ torturous false springs saying:
“You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold wintry light. But you knew there would always be spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person had died for no reason. In those days, though, spring always came finally, but it was frightening that it nearly failed.”
I am bracing myself for these murderous rains, but today it was easy to forget they would come back.

For me, as for most females, spring equals flowers. I love flowers – any and all. When I was studying abroad in Paris, I developed the habit of buying flowers and doing sketches of them until they died. When you study something enough to sketch it, you understand it in a whole new way. That is the singular joy of artists, to see everything around them in exquisite detail. I remember thinking this when I went to the Picasso museum. There is virtually no semblance between his still-lives and say, Dutch baroque still-lives. But at the heart, they both return to the same subjects over and over in an almost obsessive attempt to understand the soul or essence of something inanimate.

Sadly, I never got around to buying flowers last semester. The other day, intoxicated by my anticipation of spring, I finally bought a long sprig of snap-dragons. Despite all of its beauty, my favorite florist is not in Paris, but in Aulnay-Sous-Bois where I teach. I often stop just to soak in the beautiful flowers. The proprietor used to constantly try to assist me, but now she is accustomed to the tall, frazzled looking redhead (I stop in between classes on my busiest days of teaching, so frazzled I usually am) who just likes to wander among the flowers.

My flowers sat in a pitcher on my windowsill all week, bringing spring into my little room. They have slowly wilted, and I keep cutting the stalk shorter and shorter. Now they rest in a cup. May you all (especially my dear Hillsdale friends who are most likely freezing under at least a half foot of snow) go buy flowers, bring spring inside, breathe deeply, and make a sketch or two.

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1. Sunday afternoon I was walking back to my apartment. I had taken a long slow rambling walk home, and as I was cresting the hill near my building, a person on roller blades whizzed past me. This is not altogether unusual, as you see everyone from business men with briefcases, to police with night sticks on skates in Paris, but he was soon followed by another, than another, then I was suddenly overtaken by several hundred roller skaters. I exaggerate not, literally hundreds of people – of all ages, mind you — skated into my street. I stepped aside to let the pastime-ing Parisians past me by, when I noted that there where “staff” members on hand supervising the Roller Brigade. That is correct: in Paris there are people actually employed to organize the Sunday promenade à roller for adults, children, and elderly alike.
2. The other morning I was taking my jog around the Jardin du Luxembourg when I saw a peculiar sight. There was an adult peddling his scooter around. Once again, not unusual, but he had set up traffic cones and was actually running scooter drills. Scooter drills. And what is more, there were seven identical scooters leaned against the fence near him, which means, he would soon be giving scooter lessons. Yes, scooter lessons.
3. I was riding the train to work when I saw something truly tragic: a business man near me pulled out some sort of pop tart to eat breakfast on his way to work. This goes against everything I live about the French approach to dining, and everything the French like to think about themselves and their high standards for consumption. This man’s pop-tart marked a rupture in the sacrament that is French dining protocol. Just as American’s put medical warnings on cigarettes, the French plaster notices on ads for everything from chocolates, to pasta, to fast food, that say “For your health, avoid eating too much sugar, salt, or grease,” and “Avoid snacking between meals,” and” Exercise daily.” Maybe it is a dying battle they are fighting. No matter how many scooter drills they do in the gardens, no matter how many hills the roller blade, if the culture becomes one where breakfast means a pop-tart on the morning commute, it is a lost cause. I can say that as someone who comes from a country where we work out, then reward ourselves with a Starbucks double mocha with a shot of vanilla and a muffin – but skim milk in the mocha, of course.

But then again, if anything could cause the French to fight back, it would be an assault on the sanctity of cuisine.

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