« ... j'ai cru qu'on pouvait définir l'aventure : un événement qui sort de l'ordinaire, sans être forcément extraordinaire. On parle de la magie des aventures […] Pour que l'événement le plus banal devienne une aventure, il faut et il suffit qu'on se mette à le raconter…»

- Jean-Paul Sartre, 1938

Saturday, June 4, 2011

In Retrospect

I've been back from France for about two full weeks now, which has given me enough time to not only get over the jet lag, but also to re-get used to some of the cultural differences between France and the US. I think, for starters, that I definitely did experience some reverse culture shock upon my return to the States!

Back in the US: the land of huge cars, starbucks, fast food, and endless parking lots!
A lot of the cultural differences that were behind this reverse cultural shock are the fairly obvious ones, the ones pretty well summed up by this picture I took during my 5-over layover in Chicago, which documents the first sights I saw upon my return: fast food places, malls with giant parking lots, starbucks, etc. So it's fitting that I celebrated my return with a vanilla frappuccino! I was primarily shocked by how big everything seemed: the cars in particular, the wide roads, the buildings themselves, and well, the people.

But like I said, now that I've been back for longer and have gotten past those first impressions, the more obvious ones you'd expect, I did notice some unexpected cultural differences, ones I hadn't necessarily consciously noticed myself.  One of these differences is the pace of life, which is best illustrated by two examples. The Parisian lifestyle tends to be really fast-paced.  Everyone is constantly moving, on their feet, going from one place to the next.  I notice this particularity the most when observing how people walk. Here, (well maybe not everywhere in the US but this is the case at least in my small college town, with its tree-lined cobblestone walkways and where cars stop for pedestrians and pedestrians wave politely at these drivers) people walk more slowly, taking in their surroundings. But in Paris, it's always a rush from one place to the next, looking straight ahead. You can always pick out a tourist by where they're looking: Parisians will walk right by the Eiffel Tower at sunset, looking straight ahead and barely noticing the beautiful sight unfolding before them; but tourists will turn their head and soak in this beautiful sight every time.  I for one considered myself to have fully adopted that typical Parisian fast-paced stride while I was there, looking straight ahead without trace of a smile, but even after passing the sight of the Eiffel Tower at sunset every day for 12 weeks, I'd turn my head to look every time, never failing to be taken back a bit by the sight of it. I'd cross the street with my coworkers on the way to lunch every day, and every day I'd think to myself what a narrator would say if I had one to narrate my life: "Oh look, a truck is approaching rapidly! Perfect time to step into the middle of the road and walk calmly across the street, never once losing that perfect Parisian model-walk." 

My next example is actually one I'd thought about while in London, because it applies more to a difference between the French and British than to Americans.  While my friends and I were in London for the weekend, every time we'd take the tube, we'd already be lined up at the doors waiting for them to open as it was rolling to a stop. And every time, the tube would come to a full and complete stop, and then there'd be a short pause, just for about one second, before the doors would open. But that one-second pause would surprise us every time. Every time, during that one second, I'd wonder if the doors were broken, and why weren't they opening immediately?! But the doors would always open, after the train had fully stopped.  And it wasn't until returning to Paris after that weekend that it hit me: maybe the British are bit less impatient than the French in this respect! Maybe they actually wait until the train comes to a full and complete stop before safely minding the gap as they step onto the platform, as opposed to how we'd been trained to act by picking up on the Parisians' behavioral cues: impatiently lining up at the door and pushing the button to open the metro doors before the train had even stopped moving, and then stepping out onto the platform while the train was still not at a full stop.  So what we learned is that there really IS some sense to that phrase "keep calm and carry on". 

This next point, of course, may seem contradictory to what I just described above, but it's a pretty important difference. The French really tend to take the time to eat. I was once again in Starbucks today and it occurred to me that all the people would stand at the counter waiting for their drink to be made, and then as soon as it was handed to them, then all did the same thing: they all take the drink from the employee, thank her, and then put the straw right to their lips and start sipping away, instantly! They'd sip and sip, chatting to their friends, while walking across the room to find a table! Or, some wouldn't even go sit down: many would just walk right out, still sipping their caramel-mocha-frappé topped with whipped cream! That is something that the French would NEVER do. Every time my coworkers and I went out for coffee, it was always handled in a much more formal manner. We'd order, wait until everyone was served, and then carry all of the little espressos to our table on a tray, where we'd sit and drink slowly in a very civilized way. I do really miss that...the way it was treated as such a special thing. The way we not only took the time to really respect the drink itself by sitting down and sipping it slowly, but also the way that, by all sitting around a table, we could have a really good, intellectual conversation. It's a very different culture from the American "on the go" culture that Starbucks so perfectly caters to.

As for me, I think I'd be wise to try to take some of the best of both worlds: 
  • The French's genuine respect for food, which leads them to sit down and really enjoy their food and drinks
  • The European skepticism with regards to adopting new technologies, which leads them to evaluate whether these new tools actually change our lives for the better and make them easier before adopting them blindly 
  • The British's politeness and good manners and seeming calmness
  • The American fearlessness of trying new things
Well, folks, I think that's all for now! I'll leave you with a picture of a neat quote, taken on one of my very last metro rides:
My best attempt at a translation:
"I have often dreamed of writing a book on Paris that would be like taking a long walk without a destination and where we find nothing that we were searching for but many things we weren't looking for at all."
So in regard to this quotation, maybe my adventure in Paris didn't turn out to be exactly what I was searching for from the start, but I certainly found 'bien des choses' (plenty of things) that I wasn't looking for in the first place and that turned out to be even better than I was what I was hoping for! 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Les derniers jours à Paris...cette fois!

The last week at my internship was very bittersweet. It all sort of happened in a whirl, as I was rushing to finish up translation assignments and that research I was doing for my boss so as not to leave unfinished work behind after my departure. And of course, I had to allot an appropriate amount of time for something the French seem to do really, really well: goodbye parties. Clélia, my supervisor, was so kind as to organize a goodbye lunch on Thursday at a crêperie in the neighborhood.  The waiter kept refilling my glass with Cidre, a traditional French sparkling cider, so despite it being only about 5 % alcohol, after a couple glasses of it there was little hope of having a productive afternoon after my party!
My co-workers at the Centre! Sitting to my left is my boss, and on my right is Sylvie, who shared my office.
In addition to my goodbye party, the director of the Centre, Monsieur Mourier, sent these beautiful white flowers to my office to thank me for all the great work I'd done, which he said was really helpful to the Centre and of good quality! Definitely a pretty good compliment to receive. Saying goodbye was harder than I thought it would be. I didn't realize until the very end, when it came time to leave, just how much I was going to miss my co-workers.
I kept thinking about how it was a day of many lasts : my last morning commute on the Paris métro, my last day at my stage, my last day getting a sandwich for lunch with my coworkers, my last day hearing the church bells ringing outside, the organ playing, or the accordion in the métro.  I'll miss the sounds of Paris...

There was also a goodbye party at IFE, my program center, where I got to see all my classmates in the program one last time. It felt weird, knowing this would be the last time we'd all be gathered there together as a group. Here are some of my best friends from IFE:
Me, Lia, Dan, Sydney, Yutian
On our last weekend together, Dan and Sydney and I went out for a walk Saturday night along the Seine to soak up some last sights and sounds of the city.  

My last morning in Paris, I was on my way to the métro when a French lady stopped me to ask a question:
Her: "Vous habitez dans le quartier?" ("Do you live in the neighborhood?")
Me: "Oui!" ("yes!")
What I wanted to say, there, was "Oui, jusqu'à demain..." ("yes, until tomorrow..."). Instead, the conversation continued something like this:
Her: "Connaissez-vous une coiffeuse ouverte le dimanche?" ("Do you know a hairdresser open Sundays?")
Me: "Oui, si vous continuez sur cette rue pour 2 minutes, c'est à la gauche..." ("Sure! If you continue on this road for about 2 minutes, there will be one on your left.")
The fact that this lady just came up to me as I was walking and the first thing she asked was if were I local made me pretty proud.  In a city where non-locals can consider it a huge accomplishment to be even spoken to in French by a shopkeeper, being assumed to be a local and asked for advice in this way, woman-to-woman (and furthermore, having a response!) was, for me, really rewarding.

And finally, on my last night in Paris, I did something I'd sort of been wanting to do since first arriving there: I climbed up to the top of Tour Montparnasse, a skyscraper with 56 floors...

...which gives you stunning, 360-degree views of all of Paris. Every Parisian I'd asked said sunset was the best time of day to go, so taking their advice, I'd say I timed my visit nearly perfectly! 

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Keep Calm & Carry On

Hey everyone! So, I realized I never made a post about my weekend trip to London. Although I'm a bit short on time at the moment because I'm working on my 30-page mémoire de stage (due in a week!), I do want to at least share some photos with you:

Here's the link to my facebook album, which I've made public so everyone can see it.
Me, Abby, Sydney, and Dan: our attempt at the classic Abbey  Road picture!
 In London I invested in some nice dress shirts, of which I'm very proud! Classy!
In other exciting news, this past week, on Tuesday, Dan, who is currently interning with US Commercial Service invited me to visit and take a tour of the residence of the U.S. Ambassador to France and Monaco, Charles H. Rivkin. We were only permitted to take pictures inside the house (and the one just below, which was taken from the back garden)...it's just the front entryway which cannot be photographed, from my understanding. So, I'm only posting a couple pictures from the visit, but they gave everyone who visited a book with pictures of all the rooms and gardens and the artwork inside the house, which I'd be happy to show to anyone who's interested.

Back of the ambassador's residence.

They have a gorgeous garden, where they also grow organic vegetables!
Tonight, I'm seeing a production of Sweeney Todd at the The Théâtre du Châtelet!

Well, that's all for now, folks. Though for those of you not keeping track, I'm coming home in 8 1/2 days on Monday, May 23rd! I have mixed feelings about it, as is probably to be expected. I'm excited to see my family and friends again, but sad to leave this city...

I'm happy to say that while I've had mixed feelings about the degree to which I love Paris, I don't think I've ever taken it for granted.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


When you're living in a city with some 2, 233, 818 other people, it's easy to feel a little lost in the crowd sometimes.

Before coming to Paris in January, I remember watching a French film, called simply "Paris", which centers around the theme of a main character who watches other people's lives go by from the balcony of his apartment.  Looking out my own window, I feel a bit of a connection to the main character in that film.  

Coffee and Paris
Scene from "Paris"

 My friend Dan's window looks out on an incredible view of the Eiffel Tower on the far left, the Arche de Triomphe, la Défense and Sacré-Cœur. It's a view I've looked at almost every day for the past 16 weeks and 4 days since I arrived here, and yet I don't think I could ever get tired of it.

But, looking closer, I'm also captivated by the other details. After the view, the first thing you notice is the quietness. Most nights, you hear nothing but the sound of the gentle breeze, occasionally even a few birds chirping. But in comparison to my window, which faces the street, from this side there's no traffic noise...it's calm. And then your thoughts will inevitably be interrupted by the sound of laughter or chatter from the balcony of a nearby apartment. In connection to the film I mentioned, I, too, find myself surprised by how much I can observe of other people's lives. Little details -- like that, from my window, I often see the same little old lady walking down the street, carrying her groceries, taking her sweet time. Or that the family in the apartment across from me has a cute black & white cat who loves to nap on the windowsill.

Paris sunset -- view from Dan's window
In a world where we feel connected to friends and family 24/7, making the adjustment to city life can be a bit overwhelming at times. A couple weeks ago, feeling the need for a break from work, I decided to take a short walk, leaving behind my phone. It hit me that for the duration of that 20-minute walk, no one in the world was able to contact me or knew my precise whereabouts. I was somewhere in the 7e arrondissement of Paris, no phone, most of my friends and family across the Atlantic Ocean. I couldn't have possibly been more anonymous than I was for those short moments. It was a bit liberating.

Paris is a city in which it's easy to maintain a certain degree of anonymity. On the métro, we have short encounters with people. We make eye contact, sometimes give each other an understanding glance or a smile, or offer our seats to those who look laden with heavy grocery bags or weary after a rough day at work. But after this fleeting instant of connection with a stranger, we leave, knowing it's improbable we'll ever see each other again. Only in a huge city like Paris would that type of interaction be possible. 

And yet, despite this anonymity, oddly enough, I feel a part of a sort of community. By understanding a sort of unspoken pattern of social norms and behaviours that identify me as a local, I feel oddly connected in some ways to those around me. Interactions with tourists are what make me realize that my behaviour has indeed been adapted to my surroundings, because I realize I've adopted the typical parisian norms and social 'rules' for behaviour  that distinguish me from the tourists who don't behave in that way. From norms such as speaking in a low voice in public places to biding by the rules of "métro étiquette" (especially important during rush hour), my behaviours are something I now share in common with all of those 2.2 million other habitants of Paris. It's pretty remarkable.

Monday, May 9, 2011


Today, I stumbled across this inspiring perspective on education in an article I was reading:

« Apprendre, c’est savoir être humble.  L’apprentissage est une démarche qui n’est pas orgueilleuse, mais n’en reste pas moins audacieuse. Celui qui s’y engage prend des risques, évolue le plus souvent en terrain inconnu. »
“Learning is knowing how to be humble. While learning is a process that cannot be approached with arrogance, it nonetheless requires boldness.  Those who engage in learning take risks, developing most often in uncharted territory.”

I like this quote because it signifies to me that learning isn’t necessarily about knowing everything, but about knowing what you DON’T know.

I’ve been making progress on my ‘Mémoire de Stage’, my 30-page dissertation on the role of French and American think tanks in the process of decision making with regard to international climate change negotiations; it requires me to use resources made available to me by my internship at the Centre d’analyse stratégique, among others.

Addressing the broad and difficult question of climate change is a bit challenging, especially when I’m learning about an unfamiliar subject in another language! But I’m trying to keep in mind that, as this quotation suggests, I can’t expect to know everything!

From the the cap of a strawberry-banana smoothie at an all-organic café in London: "Best when chilled (as indeed we all are)". Love it!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Photos : Best of

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. So with 5 weeks left of my semester in Paris, I've decided to select 20 of the best photos I've taken this semester...which, going by my math, is the equivalent of 20 000 words, or about the same thing as if I wrote up an 80-page novel about my time so far! These pictures bring back some of my favorite memories so far, so enjoy!
(By the way, you can click on these pictures to view them larger.)

1 - Paris Opera
2 - Cimetière du Père-Lachaise

3 - The chocolate shop we passed every day on the way back from IFE, 11e arr.
4 - Fontainebleau market
5 - Class at the Louvre
6 - Pont des Arts
7 - Tour Eiffel, view from Princess Diana Memorial
7 - Alright, this was a tie for #7. I had to include them both.
8 - Barcelona. Pretty self explanatory.
9 - Chocolate Museum. Our album cover.
10 - Café in Barcelona. View of the harbor.

11 - Barcelona Harbor.

12 - Plaça Reial, Barcelona
13 - Centre Pompidou
14 - Dawn. First day of my stage.
15 - Stairs at Montmartre.
16 - Sacré Cœur
17 - Thinking with The Thinker.  Musée Rodin.
18 - Booksellers in Lille.
19 - Printemps.
20 - Soaking up sun along the Seine in spring.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Breakfast at Oscar's

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being."

--- Oscar Wilde, Irish dramatist, novelist, & poet (1854 - 1900)

It wasn't until I came to Paris that I ever bothered to appreciate the wisdom, frankness, and humor of Oscar Wilde's take on things.  Last week my friends and I re-watched the film "Paris, je t'aime," which has short films telling love stories set in various parts of Paris. For those of you who haven't seen it, the 5-minute film set in Père Lachaise cemetary, which talks about Oscar Wilde, can be viewed here (although I'd highly recommend watching the whole film if you haven't).  After watching it, I was inspired to take a closer look at some of what Oscar had to say, and was surprised I'd so thoroughly overlooked him until now.  To think that someone who lived over a century ago could describe so accurately my own thoughts and feelings is pretty amazing...and really worth reflecting on.

Everything he said is still so relevant! One of his famous quotations, for example, describes perfectly the theme of the classic film When Harry Met Sally: "Between men and women there is no friendship possible. There is passion, enmity, worship, love, but no friendship."  Even in instances when I do disagree with him, I can definitely still see where he's coming from.

In admiration of Oscar Wilde, Sydney and I decided to take a leaf out of Breakfast at Tiffany's, the famous quotation that gives the movie it's name: "Well, when I get it [that feeling] the only thing that does any good is to jump in a cab and go to Tiffany's. Calms me down right away. The quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there. If I could find a real-life place that'd make me feel like Tiffany's, then - then I'd buy some furniture and give the cat a name!"

Saturday morning, we woke up early and bought churros (a type of Spanish donut we'd been introduced to in Barcelona), and headed to Père Lachaise cemetary, which is within easy walking distance from our foyer. We strolled through the cemetary, soaking up the serene atmposhere, and holding our churros, which wafted a sweet, sugary scent that brought back fond memories of Barcelona, until we came to Oscar Wilde's grave.  There, we took a seat just behind it, and ate our churros while pondering various Oscar Wilde quotes, telling stories and catching up from the week, listening to birds announcing spring's arrival, and enjoying a rare moment of quiet that's hard to find in Paris. It was the most peaceful breakfast I'd had in months.
That afternoon, on what ended up being the perfect Saturday, Sydney and Dan and I all went for a picnic by the Eiffel Tower. Sunny, in the 70s, great friends, baguette, wine and cheese...what more could you ask for?