Archive for July, 2010

Le 14 juillet, other than being the fête nationale, also marked my last day in Paris, the last day I was able to spend in the dream like world that has been my past year.  Despite the rain that marred the first half of the day,  I was able to sit on my roof with dear friends and bid adieu to France under a perfect sunset, similar to the one that greeted me almost a year ago.  Following our rooftop celebration of good food, champagne, fireworks, music, and laughter, I prolonged this final soirée by walking some friends to the Hôtel de Ville metro stop. After the inevitable goodbyes, I turned for my last beloved walk home.  Through the empty plaza in front of the Hôtel de Ville, across the bridge where I have so often stopped to think, cry, or sit and listen to the sweet music that encapsulates my time in Paris.    After the bridge I crossed in front of Notre Dame, walking over the center point of Paris.  They say that if you stand on this spot it ensures a return to Paris.  Over two years ago I stood there and said goodbye to Paris after finishing my semester at the Sorbonne.  Hopefully it will work again.

Once leaving behind the late night gaiety of the area around Notre Dame, I climbed rue  Saint-Jacques and passing the Panthéon, I found myself home.   I know that home can be a fluid concept.  Most often, home is when we find ourselves with the people we love, the ones who understand us and know us. But home can also be a place that you love so intensely and completely that it assumes an undue familiarity and comfort.  My little room, high above rue Saint-Jacques is home.   From its windows I have watched in awe as storms roll across this city, cloaking the Eiffel Tower in grey sheets of rain.  I have been blessed with sunsets and sunrises that remind me of the fresh promise that each day holds.  I have spent Sunday afternoons listening to the bands in the Luxembourg gardens and knowing that sometimes watching the clouds float across the sky is not a waste of time.  I have shed lonely tears, happy tears, and all the tears in between.  I have seen new tenants move in, old tenants move out, heard new babies cry, and listened to the changing sounds of each season of the year and of life.  From my vantage point  I have watched the city of Paris grow another year older with the quiet beauty and dignity that only she can assume.

The Saturday before I left I dropped by to say goodbye to the girls I took care of.  Those three girls – once very much the bane of my existence – have since become dear little friends, faces, hugs, and sticky hands to which I look forward.  The family gave me a parting gift, a lovely anthology of French poetry.  They had marked a poem that they said made them think of me. Here is an excerpt that I loved:

Mon enfant, ma soeur, My child, my sister,

Songe à la douceur Think of the contentment

D’aller là-bas vivre ensemble! Of living together there!

Aimer à loisir, Of loving at will,

Aimer à mourir Of loving till death,

Au pays qui te ressemble! In the land that is like you!

[…]Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté, […] There, all is order and beauty,

Luxe, calme et volupté. Luxury, peace, and pleasure

-Invitation au Voyage, Baudelaire

I don’t know if I am like this land that I have come to love, this place that feels like home. I know that in many ways I long to be, and in other ways I never can be.  But I can assert that this year has been about learning to live a life ordered around the peace, luxury, and pleasure that define Paris.  A year spent finding that perfect measure of beauty that for me, will always be Paris.


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A while ago one of the teachers I worked with asked me how you translate the phrase “fête national.”  We came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a precise translation, at least not in my American English. You could translate it as the national holiday, but the connotations don’t translate into American English.  We celebrate July 4th because it is the birthday of our nation.  It is a day devoted to patriotism, but even more so to beginnings.  No matter how far we have strayed from our founders, every July we shake out the dusty remnants of what our nation was founded on.  We remember the brave men who penned a document that changed everything, who signed their names to a paper that was both high treason, and a fresh beginning.  Our nation celebrates a collective birthday.

But in France, like in many Old World countries, there isn’t a day where the nation began.  Thus they choose a day from history, a day significant for the way that it encapsulates beliefs they still hold dear, a day that calls to memory patriotism and celebration. Bastille day, as we call it in America, commemorates the storming of the Bastille Prison, an event which symbolically began the original French Revolution.    Since this initial uprising, there have been more revolutions and governments than I can count, including a brief return to the monarchy.  But still, this date has become the fête national.  It is not the birthday of a nation, but it is a moment where things changed, where the old order started to topple and make way for the liberté, egalité, fraternité that would become the national motto.  It is a moment where the French people realized their own power.

Thus even though this date comes after half of France’s history as a powerful nation, I find it fitting.  Their fête national commemorates revolution, a sentiment that I find deeply ingrained in the French psyche.  For all the turmoil that their political uprisings have caused, I appreciate this passionate volatile people that is ready to take go on strike and take to the barricades at a moment’s notice.

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All semester, my friend Emma and I have been performing a very thorough research on Salons de Thé, Tea Rooms, in Paris. This basically means that we spend long hours drinking tea and munching scones all over Paris.  We then evaluate them on a very rigorous scale grading based on tea quality, scone quality, atmosphere, price, and “extra factors.”   We visited many tea rooms, ignoring the biggest ones like Ladurée and Angelina’s, and trying to find ones further off the beaten path.  Also, our criterion for serious consideration was the presence of scones, without which we found it hard to like an establishment. Only two are on our list that do not have scones, and they had other extraordinary factors.

The Top Three . . .

Les Nuits des Thés, 22 rue de Beaune, 75007: Tucked behind the Musée D’Orsay, Les Nuits des Thés is run by a mother daughter team and reflects this feminine control, from the floral decor to the soft lighting and china teacups.  We didn’t particularly like the teapots, but other than that, the scones were good, prices reasonable, and we loved the cute atmosphere and witty name.

Mamie Gâteaux, 66 rue Cherche-Midi, 75006: While the simple white walls, wood floors, and sparse decoration might seem to austere in winter, but in when we visited in spring we found it airy and refreshing.  The scones were delicious, the tea good, and we loved the colorful bowls that hang around the top of the room.

Bread and Roses, 7 rue de Fleurus, 75006: Even though we know we were paying too much for our tea and scones, even though we knew that we didn’t really belong with the casually chic moms of the 6th arrondissement out for a brunch break from their strenuous lives, we still loved this warm yet modern tea room just around the corner from the Luxembourg gardens.

Honorable Mention . . .

Mariage Frères, 32 rue de Bourg-Tibourg, 75004:  Despite being one of the bigger names in the Paris tea scene, we still decided that the plantation like atmosphere, extensive tea menu, huge scones, and perfect style of the tea room at the Mariage Frères Boutique deserved a visit.

A Priori Thé, 35-37 Galerie Vivienne, 75002: Delicious scones with a slight citrus taste, and a cozy inner room or you can have a cup of tea in the sun-roofed gallery.

The Tea Caddy, 14 rue Saint-Julien le Pauvre, 75005: Probably the coziest of all the tea rooms we visited, but we were a little bothered that the scones came already done up with cream and jam, thus denying us spreading rights. Probably the most British of all the ones on Paris.

And two that didn’t have scones but were still so delightful . . .

Verlet, 256 rue St-Honoré, 75001:  No scones, but delicious cakes, and a wonderful atmosphere with a calm sitting room upstairs. They specialize in coffee so you are surrounded by the delicious perfume of fragrant coffee beans.

Musée de La Vie Romantique, 16 rue Chaptal, 75009:  Only open during the warmer months,  the Musée de la Vie Romantique serves tea and cakes in the lovely garden surrounded by rosebushes and shady trees.

And if you decide you want to go all out . . .

The Ritz Hotel, 15 Place Vendôme, 75001:  True, this isn’t exactly were you (or at least where we) just stop in for a cup of tea and chat with a friend, but if you want to make an afternoon out of tea time, then high tea at the Ritz is truly stunning.  We split one high tea for two, and still had enough miniature sandwiches, perfect teacakes, and perfectly flavored Jasmine tea to go around.

In the children’s book The Wind in the Willows, a character issues the invitation to “Come inside . . .We’ll see if tea and buns can make the world a better place.”  I doubt they actually change the course or state of the universe, but I have found these past months that taking a pause every other week  to enjoy a cup of tea and a scone with a dear friend have ameliorated my own little world indeed.

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“I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles.” – Cole Porter

These past weeks of summer have been hot, so hot.  In America it gets hot yes, but we strongly believe in air conditioning that chills you to the bone the second you step inside.  During this, my first Parisian summer, I am becoming convinced that the French have a quiet strength which enables them to endure impossible discomfort. That is the only real explanation for the fact that there is rarely AC.  Even when I visited someone in the hospital last week I found it AC free. Thus, I have given up the chic Parisian appearance I was hoping to adapt and simply try not to melt.

“It was one of those breathless summer days that God reserves for poets and Paris.” –  Larry Collins, Dominique Lapierre, Is Paris Burning?

But then there are days like today, “breathless summer days” that seem a gift, that remind you why you spend all winter dreaming of summer, longing for long days of warm sun.  Today the heat abeited, and the sky that has hung hazy and hot for days cleared into a perfect blue canvas with bold fluffy clouds that veiled a glowing sun.  I walked from Place de la Concorde through the Tuileries, the Louvre, along the Seine, then up past Notre Dame to home.  And along the way I couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty that surrounded me. As I crossed the Pont d’Arcole, I stopped to listen to one of my favorite street musicians.  He is on that bridge frequently, playing the type of acoustic, sweetly melancholic songs that enhance evenings in Paris. I sat and listened for at least 45 minutes, enjoying the breeze, the music, the evening.  He only has about 10 songs, and I have heard them all before, but I never tire of them.  They invite me to sit and enjoy the evening, to push aside all I ought to do and instead do what I want most.  His music is the poetry of twilight and warm breezes, of sunsets and breathless summer days in Paris.

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To fully embrace the blessed pause that is summer vacation, some friends decided to go spend an afternoon doing a high ropes course, or l’acrobranche.  When I think of fun things to do in Paris, they usually involve museums, artistic enrichment, cute clothes, and fancy foods.  But for my French friends, fun outings mean seeing a different side of fun in Paris.  This is the second year that they have come to enjoy the high ropes course in the Parc Saint Cloud, to the west of the city.

Now, I have done high ropes courses before, so I know the drill.  What I did not know is that medium risk sporting activities prove a fantastic opportunity for cultural lessons about life in France.  We showed up, forked over the fee, quickly got in our harnesses, then went through a safety talk and demo that lasted approximately 5 minutes. And then we were off, allowed to fly through trees and across obstacles at will.  It wasn’t until I was hanging somewhere high in a tree that occurred to me that I hadn’t signed any sort of waiver clearing the company of liability if I fell. Nor did I have a helmet. Nor did these carabineers close in the typical safe method where you roll something over the clasp after it clicks shut.  Nor was there any sort of person – official or otherwise – monitoring from below.  I mentioned this to a friend in front of me and he reminded me that before starting we had been told that we were “on our own and responsible for ourselves.”  In France, he explained, others are not responsible for your stupidity, and the concept of suing over an injury that you could have avoided by choosing not to participate or making better decisions doesn’t exist.   For a country like France with such a far-reaching government, they do emphasize some level of personal responsibility that I find lacking in the States.   This is the same mindset I see when kids fall in the park and start to cry and no-nonsense nannies and moms never even get off the bench, just calling out “Leve- toi!” (“Get up!”).  Could it be that in such a large government, so many things fall through the cracks or that you ultimately take more personal responsibility?  Or is it that a larger government only possible because of  this individual initiative?

On a macro level, I am not sure what it means.  But on the smaller scale of us and our afternoon of acrobranche, it basically meant that we were a bunch of young adults acting like kids in the trees.  And we still made it out alive.  Despite having more people than allowed on each station, despite inventing new methods of doing each obstacle, and even despite that fact that in the middle of crossing one rope obstacle, we realized it was broken and unraveling. Despite it all, when you know that all you would get out of falling is a broken leg and not a far reaching settlement, you are more careful.  And quite frankly, France understands inherently risky activities  are always more enjoyable with the  legal burden of corporate responsibility removed.

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Up to Oxford

After the weekend in London, I took the familiar bus to visit Zach in Oxford.  Nothing is as perfect as a visit to Oxford.  Zach always feels that he should find some outing to entertain me, and I always turn it down, explaining that I love nothing more than just wandering the perfect city of dreaming spires.  I like to punctuate walks around the winding streets with Ben’s cookies, and I recently discovered a new favorite Oxford location in the form of the Dutch Still Lives room in the Ashmolean Museum.  I enjoyed cooking with Zach and his friends and eating dinner with the Wadham professors as Zach is a sub dean this year (when you have a great brother, you have to brag a little). Intellectual pressure is so great in Oxford that I found myself having no problem formulating a very academic sounding Plan For My Life to offer to anyone who asked.  While surrounded by castle like colleges and bustling students it is impossible to imagine a fulfilling future that doesn’t involve late nights in the library and crisp graduation robes.  I also spent several hours wandering Blackwells, inevitably buying a book because I can’t seem to visit Oxford without doing so. The magic of bookstores mimics the magic of Oxford.  In bookstores you forget the constraints of time, imagining that you can read everything your fingers touch, stepping beyond your world to the world of Hardy, Hemmingway, Dickens, and Camus. I want them all, even the ones I know I will never get to reading, because their mere existence is hope, promise, and escape all in one.

Last time I visited Zach we had planned on eating at The Trout but weather and time prohibited us, so this visit we were determined to go.  The Trout is a riverside pub reached by crossing Port Meadow, a free-range meadow given to the people of Oxford for their service in fighting the Vikings long ago.  My friend Jenny was in Oxford on business, so we snagged her from an afternoon of work and headed out across the meadow.  It was a big sky day, a puffy cloud day, my favorite kind of day. My family frequently spends our vacations in Colorado, and we love the moment when you become aware of the huge western sky, which seems an endless blue dome under which you are safely and pleasantly insignificant. Yesterday was one of these big blue sky sort of days.  I know that the fields of Oxford are nothing compared to the prairies of the American West, but after months in a city, I had forgotten the thrill of wandering amongst wildflowers beneath a wide sapphire sky.

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Towards the end of the school year (which just ended last week!)  I came across a photocopy in the teacher’s lounge.  One of the French teachers had copied it for her classes as they study English and it was a simply worded paper detailing some of the differences in British culture.  The title was aptly, “The British Are Different!”  It then proceeded to offer some of these differences including my personal favorite, “The British are funny! They tell great jokes and do tricks.”  The British are different. What a simplistic way to summarize the hundreds of years of dissent, war, misunderstandings, feuds, stereotypes, and affectionate mocking that exist between the two nations.

Last weekend I went to London with my friend Jessie and I did indeed find that the British are different. I had been to Oxford twice, but had never spent any time in London and as I soon return stateside, I decided it was now or never.  To begin with, the entire feel of London is different than Paris, which I didn’t expect.  In my American mind they are both Old European Centers of Culture and History, and I have a set look that I imagine with that title.  But I forget that London has burnt to the ground, endured air raids, been re-built and modernized in a way that Paris hasn’t.  Sometimes I joke that Paris is still primitive in many ways, but London has eagerly lurched into the modern business world with the Tower of London and Big Ben poking up obstinately to remind us of what was.  It wasn’t until we wandered into the Kensington area that I found the London that years of movies had drilled into my head.

One of the best things about London was staying with a Hillsdale friend Brittany!

But beyond being the surface differences, the British themselves are different.  My Tube train stopped for a while coming headed to King’s Cross Station.  Now, as this happens almost once a day in Paris, I knew that once they could move, they would. Until then, we just squish together in an annoyed, but not surprised bunch. Often in Paris, no one ever comes on to even tell you that those driving have noted the delay. Helpful information rarely arrives in excess in Paris.  Yet in the 10 minutes we waited at the Victoria Station platform, the conductor came on about 8 times telling us why we were stopped, when we would be starting, and not to worry.  Each time, his words were met with Londoners sighs of content.  The formal, sometimes ridiculous rules of protocol that seem to govern even simple elements of social interaction in France don’t seem to exist here, or at least, not in the way I know them.  While this might sound like freedom, it actually meant that I was at a loss. Do I greet the shopkeeper or ignore her because she is ignoring me? Do I go for a handshake, cheek kiss, or hug, as I have gotten all three from someone or another? What do you do when no one acknowledges you in a pub despite the fact that you have tried both the stand awkwardly at the bar and sit at the table route?

Yet there is one thing that is not so different about the British, or more specifically, about London.  And that is the beauty that washes over me in cities that have a history older and richer than anything I have grown up with.  I watched the Changing of the Guard in front of Buckingham palace and was thrilled by the precision and order that remains, not by necessity, but because it is tradition and that makes it worthy.   I walked round the tower where Anne Boleyn was killed thinking of the repercussions that monarch’s personal lives have on our own, even today.  And I sat in Evensong in Westminster Abbey, listening to sweet voices rise towards the vaulted ceiling in songs to an ageless God.  Beneath the ornate canopy that has seen the coronations, weddings, and funerals of many of England’s rulers, perfect voices rang out,

Rise Royal Sion! Rise and sing

Thy soul’s Shepherd, thy heart’s King.

Stretch all thy powers; call if you can

Harps of heaven to hands of man.

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Five years ago, my friend Jessie and I created a tradition.  Starting a tradition is a powerful thing, for you have it in your power to totally and arbitrarily create a series of rituals and rules for no particular purpose.  We christened our tradition the “Red Dress/ Red Meat Date” and the event was one where anyone who was willing to wear a red dress was invited to go eat steak.  Throughout my college years the group grew, often including people that I didn’t really even know, but who nevertheless had a red dress and a desire for an evening out.

When Jessie decided to come to Paris for a visit, we decided to host the 5th Annual Red Dress Dinner in Paris, the Soirée Robes Rouges.  Admittedly, we stood out a little on the metro, as Parisians are not given to ostentatious shows of flamboyantly attired groups of girls, but the evening was worthwhile.  A sunset on my roof in red dresses followed by a perfect steak dinner at Le Boeuf Couronné in northern Paris means that our casually started tradition has now taken on international proportions.

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Summer in Paris

Summer in Paris means Amorino ice cream cones with roses of gelato that drips on your hands, endless evenings that melt into perfect sunsets, impossibly hot metro rides that make you thankful for the air outside, long shadows in the Luxembourg gardens, les vacances, sticking your feet in fountains, les soldes, the need for sunglasses (enfin!),  long rambles with no goal because there is no need, music in the streets,  light upon the Seine,  flowers.  Summer in Paris is the brightest of sight and sound and taste and touch.

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