Monday, July 5, 2010

I know that JYA has technically ended, but Rob asked me to share one of my Parisian adventures. i.e. the laying of the ceremonial plastic lobster on the tomb of Gerard de Nerval. Gerard de Nerval is one of my favorite Romantic poets. He translated Goethe's Faust when he was twenty and was one of the main figures of the Romantic movement, as well as a direct inspiration for the surrealist movement. He is most famous, however, for having a pet lobster, Thibault, which he walked around Paris. As he explained to his best friend, Gautier, "En quoi un homard est-il plus ridicule qu’un chien, qu’un chat, qu’une gazelle, qu’un lion ou toute autre bête dont on se fait suivre ? J’ai le goût des homards, qui sont tranquilles, sérieux, savent les secrets de la mer, n’aboient pas...."


"Why would a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog, or a cat, or a gazelle or a lion, or any other animal one chooses to take for a walk? I have a liking for lobsters, they are tranquil, serious creatures who know the secrets of the deep and don't bark....."

In honor of this, I bought a plastic lobster and put it, and the quote, on his grave and then hung around to see what would happen. What happened was that a tour guide stopped in the middle of his explanation of who Balzac was (Balzac's grave is just across from de Nerval's) to exclaim, "Oh la, il y a un homard!" He returned to his Balzac presentation, but after that, he deviated from his program to explain why there was a lobster on de Nerval's grave:

I feel quite pleased with myself; I've given something truly original to a city that allowed me to love the works of such an original poet.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


At this point in the year, I feel as though we can all officially call ourselves “bilingual.” We switch easily between French and English, not giving much thought to which language we’re using when we’re in the company of fellow bilinguals, but expressing ourselves effectively in both. Speaking English with fellow Smithies no longer feels like a huge relief, it just feels different from speaking French. Speaking French no longer feels like a chore, it’s now an excuse to try out that new expression that Fanny taught me or that new vocab word I just picked up.

Still, beings equally “à l’aise” in both French and English has provided for some interesting points of comparison between the two, especially in terms of words and phrases that exist in one language but lack a direct translation in the other. For example…


When I speak French, I sorely miss the following words:

* excited. We’ve all learned by now that “je suis excitée” does NOT equal “I am excited”… outside of the bedroom, that is. Still, the French do not have an equivalent. Sure, you can say “j’ai hâte de faire quelque chose” ... but the length of the phrase takes the punch and, well, the excitement out of it. And it doesn’t properly communicate the energy, enthusiasm, and pure jubilation that the word “excited” connotes. It’s just not the same.

* awkward. Does this word not exist in French because the French never feel “awkward” in social situations? I find this impossible to believe, especially considering the innumerable—and extremely subtle—unwritten rules of conduct, from who you can ‘tutoie’ to how many ‘bisous’ to give (or if you should just go for a handshake) … it just seems too easy to accidentally miss a cue and land yourself in a supremely awkward situation with someone. And I’m sorry, but “mal à l’aise” and “unconfortable” just don’t do the trick. They are NOT the same as “awkward.”

* snack. It’s pretty clear why this word doesn’t exist in French: The French don’t snack. But Americans do! I physically cannot go from lunch at 13h to dinner at 21h without eating at least ONE snack within that 8-hour period! Still, there’s nothing more difficult than trying to explain to my host mom in French what happened to the last “petit gateau,” which I munched on at around 17h. In English, it’s easy: “I ate it for snack.” Okay, fine. In French, not only do I have to explain that I ate it as a snack, but I have to spit out a lengthy explanation about what a snack is, and why it was even necessary in the first place.

[Another word that I miss, but not quite as much: lap. The French just say “genoux,” but that just doesn’t seem as warm and welcoming as “lap.” We actually have a special word set aside for where you can perch yourself on someone else, and the French should, too!]

Still, there are also plenty of French words that I miss when I speak in English. It’s more expressions, really…


* par gourmandise: I love this expression. And use it daily. It has no direct English translation, but as we know, you use this phrase when you are at a meal, you are stuffed to the brim, but you decide to take an extra helping of something simply because it is so delicious that you can’t resist. The fact that this expression exists in French means that the French themselves completely accept, and even promote, the practice of eating for the pure pleasure and joy of it, not just for the practical purpose of nourishment. I love it!

[Actually, just the word “gourmandise” in general, which translates to “a weakness for sweet things,” is pretty awesome, and needs to have an English equivalent.]

* Bon courage! Another expression I use on a regular basis. It has absolutely no English translation, but it’s something that you’d say right before someone heads off to take a tough test, or even just spend an afternoon exerting effort, like sitting through a 3-hour lecture on “melancholy in French literature” at the Sorbonne. It’s so much more than just “Good luck!” … it’s a vote of confidence, a wish for success, and an acknowledgement that the act about to be performed deserves some sort of recognition, even if it is something as mundane as going to class.

* Ennui. In English we have “boredom” and we have “angst,” but we don’t have a word that communicates the mental state of “ennui,” the pure anguish that comes from tedium. I definitely don’t need to use this word in everyday life, but when I’m reading French literature, the single word “ennui” contains so much, tells me so much about a given character, I feel bad for English-speaking authors because they are deprived of such a simple yet powerful noun and idea.

[In addition, when I speak in English, I miss saying “Tu m’étonnes!” a much more sincere, empathetic, and succinct version of “I hear ya” or “Yeah, I get where you’re coming from.” Also, “Bon appétit” is a great expression. But this one doesn’t really count because we just steal the French expression and use it as if it were English. And finally, I can’t help but miss using “on” as a gender-neutral third-person pronoun in French. In English everyone just incorrectly uses “they” or snobbishly uses “one.”]

Basically, we should all just speak “franglais” and use the best words and expressions from the two languages. Think of how effectively we could express ourselves!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Halfway point...

When Rob most recently asked us to write a blog entry because it was an “interesting” time in the year, I started to wonder what was so interesting about now as compared to two months ago, or the beginning of the year. This is what I came up with. Here we are, basically halfway through our time in Paris. We’ve got the city down – we all got through (more or less) a semester in the French University system, we survived the holidays with or without our families but we still have all of this coming semester before us, not to mention the summer, before we have to be back at Smith.

So, I’m no longer noticing things like how tight French men’s jeans are and how small the kitchen appliances are – they’ve become norma

l and, as such, unremarkable. Being here for five months provides a different point of view on the city and its inhabitants. When one of my professors asked a room of us Consortium students – Smith, Middlebury and Hamilton – what we didn’t like about Paris, I talked about things like the heteronormative relationship between men and women I see in some of the host families, the lack of queer culture (that I’ve found), and the French tendency to make everything into a “polemic” and staunchly debate one side or the other.

One aspect of living here that I’ve been most disappointed by is my lack of contact with French people – Parisians, especially. Sure, I have a close relationship with my host family; I have French friends in Maguy and Martin and I have a few international student friends. But, I suddenly realized the other day, given the importance of female friends in my life, it’s kind of strange not to have a single close female French friend that’s around my age. And I began to wonder: does having come with a group of 20 some Smithies mean that I haven’t been looking or needing to cultivate close female friendships?

In the traveling I’ve done since I got here, when I would go to new cities alone without really knowing anybody, making friends became a necessity, and I had to make it happen all on my own, just like feeding myself at each meal. When you don’t know anybody, and want to talk to someone, you make new friends. There’s just not a choice. That said, I’ve also really come to appreciate how the French view the friendship-making process as just that, a process. It takes time, it takes effort, and it means some awkward initial interactions. There’s often that moment of wondering what the heck you’re doing with that person, and then a few months later, it’s become a real friendship. So, I’m wondering if the combination of being here as a group, plus the legendary disinterest of Parisians means that I’m not going to make many French female friends.

But that’s where the time in the year where we’re at is interesting, once again. There’s still somewhere between 4 and 5 months left here – enough time to do something, to change something about what I don’t like. So…who knows. Maybe this soccer team will mean a whole group of French friends. Maybe the next trip I take I’ll end up sitting next to, and hitting it off with, a young Parisian woman. In any case, it’s fun to think that there’s still time de profiter de Paris!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Meet Enjolras Bebe!

Enjolras Bebe is the nickname I have given my blond-haired, blue-eyed 2-year-old host brother, as he has displayed socialist tendencies well above his age-level, much like Victor Hugo's golden-haired, blue-eyed student rebel/incarnation of the logic of the French Revolution in Les Miserables. Though I don't think Enjolras Bebe will be building a barricade and leading a failed Saint-Simonist/Neo-Jacobin/Democratic-Bonapartist student uprising against an abusive, autocratic constitutional monarchy, he has proven his social awareness multiple times:


Me: So we will play with the cars?
Enjolras Bebe: No, no, the trains. Play with the trains.
Me: Why not the cars?
Enjolras Bebe: No, no, it's bourgeois! *sends toy car flying across the room*


Enjolras Bebe: *playing with the toy car my parents got him for Christmas* Bourgeois, bourgeois, bourgeois....
Housekeeper: Enjolras Bebe! Move the car, it's time for dinner. *puts down salad bowl*
Enjolras Bebe: Ah, that is good! *throws away car, begins eating cucumbers from the salad bowl*
Housekeeper:Enjolras Bebe! That is not for you!
Enjolras Bebe: No?
Housekeeper: No.
Enjolras Bebe: *after a moment of intense thought* It is for all of us. *dumps a handful of masticated cucumber onto my plate*


Me: Enjolras Bebe, where did you get that mop?
Enjolras Bebe: The closet. *pushes mop around the floor of my room* It's dirty. *raises up mop* The light is dirty.
Me: No, the light is clean.
Friend: *having heard the bourgeois story from me* Are you being a proletariat?
Enjolras Bebe: *blank look*
Me: Are you bourgeois?
Enjolras Bebe: No, I have to work. *mops the mirror*


Me: Enjolras Bebe, what are you doing?
Enjolras Bebe: *unrolling a roll of paper towels across the floor* Making a train.
Me: Out of napkins?
Enjolras Bebe: Yes.
Me: You cannot make a train out of napkins.
Enjolras Bebe: *indignant* Can! Napkins are bourgeois! Trains are for everyone!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

why I like the rue Michelet...

often, I find myself on the rue Michelet, despite the fact that I take no classes there. it is, however, one of my favorite streets in paris for many a reason. these are a few of them:

1. the christmas tree graveyard-- in the corner of one of the jardins de l'observatoires is, piled about the same height as me, old christmas trees. their pine needles are practically across the street, and I'm always seeing people jumping in the pile. something beyond my comprehension, but whatever.

2. the hordes of angsty french youngsters. all sporting their shades of black and smoking in between classes.

3. the fact that, at night, you can see groups of teens sneak into the gardens and wreak havoc...

4. and finally, my favorite person in paris. the clapping lady as I have now just named her. there is a little old woman, who at night, goes around the entire gardens. but she doesn't do this in any old normal fashion, she does it backwards and all whilst clapping. she claps twice, takes two steps back, repeat. and not once does she look behind her. she is, in a word, my hero.

Monday, January 11, 2010

oh, to be an american in paris, and watch an american in paris

an american in paris
is not the best of movie musicals. it is weighed down by:
  1. really, really cheesy stereotypes of frenchness. and strange little dough pucks being passed off as croissants.
  2. equally cheesy painter tropes. jerry mulligan, the main character, played by gene kelly, is an artist and he lives in a garret, borrows money from his friends, and sells his paintings on a montmartre corner. were i to catalogue said paintings, i would have to mention a shocking number of pictures of the opera garnier and the seine.
  3. people forever saying things like "ah! paris..." or "paris has ways of making you forget" or, in response to an expressed need for wine and women, "that shouldn't be hard--we are in paris after all."
  4. tiny humorous moments of 50s studio blindness, like a love scene by the seine in which the lovers voices sound almost exactly as if they were on a metro-goldwyn-mayer set...
but in spite of all this, one american girl in paris with long-standing crushes on both gene kelly and leslie caron found seeing an american in paris in an actual cinema (la filmothèque du quartier latin, highly recommended, which has two rooms, one decorated in blue with a picture of audrey hepburn, the other in red with a picture of marilyn monroe, which is certainly one way to sum up movies, women, and life) to be quite the pleasantest way possible to spend a grey afternoon.

for further, more eloquent, explanation of this feeling, readers are referred to david sedaris's essay "the city of light in the dark" in his me talk pretty one day. do not seek elucidation in a summary of the essay, however. anyone who has ever read david sedaris will understand why this little abstract, here...

Going to cinemas in Paris, France, can be as culturally enriching as visiting Parisian landmarks such as Notre Dame or the Picasso Museum. A discussion of the wide variety and good quality of films is presented. Some 250 pictures per week are shown, a third of which are in English.


...entirely misses the mark.

but i must fly--i'm off to see brigadoon!

*it should be noted that an american in paris won a best picture oscar. i suppose the enjoyability bit won them over, but there's no accounting for standards.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Paris 7 and les Benoist-Lucy

Well, hello, there!

Here are some pictures from a typical Monday in Paris, including what seem to be the first host family pictures on this blog (they don't all wear berets and striped shirts!)

A little bit of Paris 7 Didérot, my Parisian university. Well, some things inside the library that were interesting. I was supposedly studying this afternoon (shhhhh!).

These stairs are SO bizarre. I can't figure out what their deal is! There are like two intertwined, but they both seem to go to all the floors... I don't understand.

Here's another picture, for clarification. (If it's possible). Maybe it has something to do with it being a converted flour factory?

I don't know where they come up with this ad campaign, but it is SO WEIRD to see in France! I mean, do they really understand the iconography of this image? Or is it just cool and trendy because it's American/English?

And a few pictures of my host family, that my REAL family has been after me for months to take and email around. We had mussels tonight, with potato chips! Actually tasty and kinda classy, not trashy. The chips absorb the crème very nicely.

Philippe and Agathe!

Me on the left, Guilhem in the middle, and Philippe again.

Oh, Guilhem.

 All done!

Dessert. France is classy like that.

This was his reaction after his mother said he had three girlfriends at once, and his sister said that since his 26-year-old brother Aurelien's married (and his wife is pregnant), he's going to be the next one.

And finally, Rimbaud!

Hope this gave y'all a bit of insight into what dinner with a host family (and fake studying) is like!

À bientôt,