Saturday, November 26, 2011

Ahppy Ssanksgeeveeng (Happy Thanksgiving)

I had not been this excited for Thanksgiving in years and years.  Mostly I think the holiday is silly, but I think the distance allowed me to appreciate it a little better.  Also, the conversations about it were hilarious.

in class: "Isn't today some day of yours?" 

at dinner: "So, what exactly are we thanking?"

from my british friend: "Isn't it really about killing all the native americans to make space for you?"
"Uh, yes, yes that happened...But that's my hometown!!!"

at dessert: "It's a pumpkin? It's a pumpkin in the pie? Oh non non non!"

Some friends of mine also overheard a rather disturbing conversation between some french kids and a canadian about what 'black Friday' is, including the phrase, "What is Kohls?"

On Wednesday evening, Smith hosted a potluck dinner at Reid Hall, which was delicious and amazing.  I spent the morning shopping for and baking three loaves of cranberry-nut bread.  It was a trip, I had to go to two Picards (the chic frozen food store) to find airelles (the french version of cranberries, then to a store called "Thanksgiving" for baking soda, then to the Monoprix for the rest of the ingredients.  It was only when I got back home and began to bake that I realized there were no measuring tools in my kitchen.  I felt kind of like the person in the family who insists on having Thanksgiving at their house and then forgets to buy the turkey until the day of.  Thankfully, miraculously, it came out well and apparently got some rave reviews from my friends host family who took some back to her host family. 

Then on real Thanksgiving my friend Clarissa invited me and my host mom to a dinner that she prepared  chez elle for her housemates, host mom, and friends.   The table was complete with the vegetarian versions of the Thanksgiving essentials and silver art nouveau candelabras with chubby cherubs.  The host moms and french housemates ate their first pumpkin pie. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Ahoy Praha!

In the realm of European cities, Paris and Prague could not be more different.  I am not even sure what about each city makes it unique, and maybe it’s thanks to my art history class, but the best way to describe the difference is through architecture.

on the way from the hostel to the center of town

Parisian architecture is pretty standard: Haussmann apartments, boulevards lined with trees, and the occasional landmark with a style completely different, Notre Dame, le Panthéon, etc. And while it’s beautiful, it’s also consistent.  But in Prague, it's a mélange of styles all on top of one another, pastel colored apartments, gothic towers, and soviet blocs with statues on top.  Since the architecture was something completely new to me, it put me a bit mal à l’aise, but it also fantastically represents Prague, a city of old and new, weird and traditional, classic and communist and capitalist all in one. 

this is the view from a giant metronome on top of a hill,
crumbling tiles, graffiti, bridges and misty hills

My Smith in Paris friend met me in Prague and we walked the city and saw all the (admittedly) touristy sights to see, the Charles Bridge, the Jewish quarter, Prague castle, the John Lennon wall, the Astronomical clock, theaters, and towers, and churches.  The day before she came, however, I was on my own and decided to take a trip to see a bone church about an hour outside of Prague in a town called Kutna Hora.  It's a church I have been dying to see since I learned of its existence and I was frankly pretty proud of myself for figuring out how to get there, buying a ticket and getting on the right bus. 

here is the Sedlec Ossuary, over 40,000 corpses fill the church

Malheureusement, I never made it to Kutna Hora because I missed my stop, had to switch buses in a random Czech town to backtrack, but by the time I was back I had lost my moral and the sun had started to set.  I guess the bone church will remain a dream... I did learn some valuable lessons about what being a true foreigner (not knowing a word of Czech besides 'ahoy') and relying on the kindness of strangers to get me back to the hostel safely, so a day not wasted in the end.

Other highlights: I was woken up Friday morning at 8:30am to three Czech policie in my hostel room (which I shared with 14 other people) searching an older gentleman's bags as he had been accused of stealing another guests wallet.
We were stopped and the metro by several enormous ex-Soviet thugs who not-so-politely informed us that even though we had tickets, we had not validated them and must pay a 800 czech crown fine, because, as they said "we have a very good metro" and they won't stand for any abusers. 
We made some really great friends in the hostel, one of whom teaches english in a town near Prague and showed us around the 'lesser town' all day Friday, feeding us random and awesome information about the city.
I saw the Bearded Lady Saint at Loreta Church.  She apparently asked god to make her repulsive so she wouldn't have to get married so he gave her a beard.  He pagan father then had her crucified out of spite. There is still some occasional confusion as to who is Jesus and who is the Bearded Lady, because other than the ornate pink dress she wears, they look the same.

Prague is a really cool city.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


One of the best parts of living in Europe is the proximity of some truly amazing places.  Prague has been on my list for a while and thanks to fall break I was able to go for a few days this week! I was pretty anxious about the traveling bit, I knew a couple of people who would be in Prague and a friend from Paris joined my a couple of days later, but the actual 'getting there' and first days were on my own.

When I got off the RER train at the airport it was a bit confusing as to where I was supposed to go but I realized I was going in the right direction when I noticed that, like me, everyone was young and carrying all their luggage on their backs.  While walking through an tunnel to the terminal, one man started whistling the song from the 'Breakfast Club' (the one they whistle together to let you know they're going to end up friends) and people started whistling along!

Upon arriving to the terminal, I saw why my host mom called it the 'zoo'.  There were people everywhere and kids running around and very little signage. But, regardless, it was maybe the happiest group of travelers I've ever seen.

This feeling of camaraderie with the fellow travelers continued in Prague (maybe accentuated by the Soviet architecture surrounding the city) and I made some friends at the hostel to spend the first night with.

Monday, October 24, 2011

books, books, books

The Abbey Bookshop and Shakespeare and Co., both Parisian anglophile bookshops, have a notorious rivalry. And while I love the Shakes, I decided to bring my business to the Abbey today and give it a fair shot for my loyalty.

The Abbey Bookshop is only a block or so from Shakespeare and Co., but takes a little bit more determination to find as it does not appear on Google Maps as a go-to tourist destination.  It's a good thing too because the Abbey is only big enough for about one small person to squeeze though the precariously stacked mountains of books at a time, not the appropriate place for a tour group. But because of its small capacity, the Abbey allows for some quality one-on-one customer service, including a cup of filter coffee "on the house."

Maybe because it lacks the pressure of being Shakespeare and Co., the Abbey is refreshingly less pretentious; Stephanie Meyer sits unassumingly between H. Melville and H. Miller. The philosophy seems to be "no book is a pleasure to be ashamed of", or maybe "different strokes for different folks."

By the end of my visit, I'd settled on "The Sons" by Franz Kafka.  Kafka because he was born in Prague, which is where I am going tomorrow.  Since arriving in Paris I have become a firm believer in reading stories somehow related to the place I am in. I know that one of the best parts about literature is that it takes you off to new and imaginary places, but something about reading Toni Morrison in Paris is just not the same as reading her in Texas. Also, I needed something in addition to Anaïs Nin, who is amazing but "Les Petits Oiseaux" is definitely more "erotic" than it is "novel."

Saturday, October 22, 2011

My rendez-vous with the french immigration office

Anything that has to do with government papers, travel, citizenship, or bureaucracy in general is a headache. But like so many other things the french take it to an art form.  At 8:30 this past Friday morning, some of my fellow Smith students and I found ourselves in a chaotic line of prospective immigrants outside the french immigration office near the Bastille, and thankfully only a 15 minute walk from chez moi. 

Once let into the building we went through the first sorting process, those with appointments and those without.  After proving that we did indeed belong there at that specific time, we eventually were told to "installez-vous" in the medical waiting room, a place that looked like a cross between a doctors office and a police station.  after a wait we had our eyes checked and our heights and weights recorded (useful because until then I no idea what my measurements were in the metric system). We then had to halfway de-robe and get pulmonary x-rays to check for tuberculosis (best part is I got to keep the x-ray).  Then came individual doctor meetings, where my doctor stressed that I should be eating more five or six times, not appreciated.

Finally, a meeting with an immigration officer, where we showed proof of residence and got a fancy sticker put in our passports.

All in all, maybe the most complicated yet most efficient bureaucratic experience of this whole study-abroad process, and an interesting insight into the immigration process. 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Les Cours

 Only about a month later than everyone else in the rest of the world all of my classes have finally started, mais ça va. I am enrolled in two american university classes, a langue et composition class with Smith, and a class called "France-Afrique" hosted by the Middlebury-Hamilton consortium.  My other two classes are at La Sorbonne.

The first of these is a staple for french students the art history department, it is on archeology and art history of ancient least I think so, comprehension is a little tricky au moment. French university classes could not possibly be any more different from Smith classes.  First, there are well over one hundred students in this art history class. We sit at long, thin tables crammed up against each other in a high-ceilinged lecture hall with enormous windows. The professors (the course is composed of three separate classes taught by three different professors) sit at the front of the hall on a raised platform, behind a desk, with a microphone into which they list facts about whatever map they happen to be showing us at the time. Most notably, when the professor who specializes on Alexandria (the Egyptian city) got to the city's significance in contemporary culture, she showed a slide of this little 1970s gem:

Then when class is over we all congregate outside the art history building for a cigarette.

My second class is a master's level course taught in english, supposedly.  It's called "Le reve américain" (the american dream).  I am, unsurprisingly, not the only american.  I am also, surprisingly, not the only eleanor (although her name is spelled éléonore because she is french). 
Les séances so far have been on how to conduct research and write a solid memoire (thesis) on american culture, since part of the master's program is to turn in a research paper in september, well for everyone except me! 

Now, off to write my first 'fiche de lecture' on a book called "Discours sur le colonialisme" par Aimé Césaire!

Thursday, September 15, 2011


At the beginning of this program we all signed a pledge to speak french, and only french, for the rest of the year.  I suppose even by writing this I'm breaking that pledge, but it's not the first time! It is utterly exhausting (crevant) to live in another language. I once heard that not being fluent in a language is like taking ten years off your age, so in effect I'm a ten year old trying to operate in a world of people twice my age...that feels about right.  Even in Paris, where the cultural differences are not that drastic, it is necessary to find places where you can be truly comfortable and let the thinking stop.

While I don't want to spend much time in anglophile places, the ones that i've found (besides the american food store called "Thanksgiving") have felt like godsends.  "Shakespeare and Company" is, yes, a tourist attraction, but it has managed to retain its coziness. The downstairs is full-on a bookstore with anglophile literature crammed into every corner, some books only accessible by wooden ladders (which you can use if you want).  The upstairs, however, is my favorite part.  There is a kids books section, a reading room/ library of all the classics, couches, and a tiny type-writer you are encouraged to use to type up your letters. "Shakespeare and Company" is also a venue with readings and shows a few times a month.  I love it.

A second new favorite is a tiny cake and coffee shop in the Latin Quarter called "Sugarplum." Unlike the other cafés of Paris, this one has an atmosphere that welcomes lingering, reading, and working.  It even has a huge wooden table for just that. The coffee is not "espresso-based," but actual drip coffee in real-sized mugs, oh, and free refills.  Ice is another rarity in Paris, but here the unsweetened iced tea and lemonade are perfect. Croissants really are the best ever, but so is cake, and "Sugarplum" has lots of it.  After our first visit, one of us figured out that the man (american) we bought our drinks and desserts from was part of Ace of Cakes! This well bien sur become a regular hangout place.