Monday, September 29, 2008

French meetings

I've decided I rather like French meetings. I guess I should say that I liked the three that I've been to in the past month. It's not that the content of the meetings themselves is particularly interesting or that it's always well-presented. No, no. It's knowing that at the end of the meeting, there will be drinks and snacks. And that the person in charge of it all seems to be rushing through his information in order to get to the drinks and snacks in a timely manner.

At the beginning of September, a meeting for all the Anglophone lecturers at Nanterre was followed by red wine and little savory snacks. After this, we were treated to a simple yet delicious lunch of enormous baguette sandwiches. And then to coffee. So nice.

Last week, I went to an obligatory departmental meeting that I was absolutely dreading because I knew I wouldn't know anybody and I wouldn't know what anybody was talking about. To make matters worse, the room we were to meet in was designed to hold 30 people, but over twice as many would be attending. Ugh.

The meeting was indeed crowded, long and full of repetitions, but all this was smoothed over by drinks and food at the end. There was a nice little selection of red and rosé wines, a brut hard cider and various fruit juices. And then there were all sorts of little crackers that would be incredibly well-received in the U.S. if only they were available there! Some of my favorites were shaped like tiny pizzas. And tasted like them too. Another one looked like a normal Ritz cracker, but lo and behold, on the inside of it, there was BACON. Heavenly.

And this was only the beginning. After our departmental meeting, we had to go to another one that was for all the language departments. I believe this one wasn't meant to be a real meeting at all, but rather, an excuse to eat. The speaker made a few introductions and then we were invited to help ourselves to a large spread the departments had provided. Quiche, chips and dips, more crackers and nuts, trays and trays of lovely miniature tarts, cream puffs and other French pastries that I'm not familiar with, and of course a variety of red and white wine, soda and juice. Fabulous.

And so, for me, it turnedout that the most difficult part of the meetings was trying not to look too piggy around all the food. Considering I walked out with a big guacamole stain on my white blouse, I don't think I succeeded.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Life is a Bowl of Cherries (or grapes...or melon)

Ha ! soutenez-moi, je me pâme !
Ce morceau me chatouille l’âme.
--Saint-Amant "Le Melon"

Mmmm...I love fruit, and here in France, I can hardly get enough of it. The melon in the picture has not been photo-shopped. It's really that orange and so sweet, it's almost guilt-inducing. As I'm used to having melon readily available for breakfast and snacking, I bought one the other day to feel a little more chez moi. The melons here are small, not much bigger than a softball, but boy are they packed with flavor. When I bit into a slice of it this afternoon, I had to remind myself that I was eating a healthful fruit and not a sugary piece of candy.

Almost daily, I pass a man selling fruits and vegetables at a little stand in the Achères train station. He arranges them so beautifully with some fruits cut in half to show how deliciously ripe they are. And every time, I have to will myself to keep walking without buying something. Not that it would be bad to buy fruit of all things, but I'm not sure I'd be able to eat it all and then it would go to waste. Not to mention my budget. So, for now I'm planning to get my little favorites one at a time. After payday, when I'll be earning real euros and not the sadly weak dollars (sigh), it's quite possible that I'll go nuts (or bananas?) and buy all the fruit I want. :P

Saturday, September 20, 2008

La Visite Medicale or Being a Good French Citizen

All people not belonging to the E.U. must undergo a short medical visit at immigration services. It's not invasive and not a big deal. They check vision, height, weight and take x-rays to check for tuberculosis, just in case we are unknowingly dying of consumption. I've done this all before and knew what to expect. Or at least I thought I did.

When I arrived at the immigration services building, I noticed that the name had changed from OMI to ANAEM. I can't remember what these letters stand for, but the change should have clued me in that things would be different this time.

Upon arrival, the other foreigners and I were herded into a small conference room and seated around a large table. Big windows overlooked the street and a small table with fresh hot coffee and tea stood in a corner. Nice. On the wall to my right, the official portrait of Nicolas Sarkozy looked down on us, a little group of étrangers. Not so nice. Next to his picture hung a screen with a projected notice that our medical visit would last for a half-day. What? A half-day? We all groaned. A few minutes later, a woman came in and explained to us in French that we would have our medical visit and that then we would have to sign a contract with the state saying that we would all make an effort to live like good French citizens. A contract. Weird.

So, what does it mean to be a good French citizen? Well, first and foremost, I guess it means speaking French because anyone who doesn't speak French well enough is required by the government to take French classes. My French was good enough, and they gave me a special certificate to prove it.

Being a good citizen also means accepting the way of life in France. As an introduction to this, they had us watch a short film that explained that everyone in France is equal:

Vivre ensemble en France

The film showed many beautiful pictures of France but focused mainly on the French slogan: Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Sure, it all sounds good, let's be frank. Is it true? I can think of more than a few examples that contradict this famous motto (just as I could in my own country), but this post would be way too long. Another time.

Let's just say that it was with a jaded view that I watched this little piece, shook my head, and wondered what sort of propaganda I would see during my obligatory formation civique.

Friday, September 19, 2008

La Mode

As a girl from the Midwest, I'll be the first to admit that I'm not really into avant-garde fashion. Or even just fashion, period. Sure, I watch "Project Runway" when I can. I take note of Stacy and Clinton's clothing advice for short girls in "What not to Wear." But more often than not, I'm a plain old tee-shirt and jeans kind of gal.

Now that I'm in Paris, one of the fashion capitals of the world, I see some unusual and often beautiful clothing that I would be curious to wear or at least try on. I could go on forever about the shoes alone. And I would love all of these items even more if they were somewhat affordable...sigh....

On the other hand, in such a city of high fashion, I am exposed to some very...well, let's not beat around the bush...UGLY, UGLY styles. Here, the the 1980s are once again in full swing. Everywhere I see the skinny jeans (aka tapered jeans) that are unflattering on everyone but the thinnest girls. Fine. I can deal with that. I can even think that the brightly colored stockings, leggings, tunics worn off the shoulder, big chunky belts and jewelry, and unlaced hightop basketball shoes are fun. Amazingly, the Euro-mullets no longer faze me.

What has really thrown me for a loop are the Hammer pants. Yes, as in MC Hammer. My, my, my, my. I can hardly count the number of men and women I've seen wearing these billowing pants, often buttoned at the ankles, the crotch hanging down to their knees. I even saw a girl wearing acid-washed denim Hammer capris. I stared at her shamelessly while silently cursing myself for not having my camera. This is the closest image I could find:

Why, dear French people?? WHY ?

Perhaps the worst thing about this new trend is that I very likely will see it reproduced in the Midwest within the next few years. And quite possibly paired with Uggs. Sigh.

Arrival at CDG-Terminal 1

The very first time I came to France was ten years ago in June of 1998. A French major who was too shy to study abroad for a year, I had decided to do the short summer program in Paris. I was with a group of about 30 American students, it was the first time I'd been to Europe, and the French were hosting the World Cup that year. Other students who had already been to France had shared their stories with me, filling my head with grand images of the beautiful country and its culture. And so it was with high expectations of French glamor and romanticism that I stepped off the plane into the Charles de Gaulle Airport. Terminal One. The old part.

Instead of my highly-anticipated picture of fashion, beauty, class, and art (yes even at the airport), I was greeted by a thick cloud of cigarette smoke and a terminal that resembled my parents' unfinished basement. My disappointment turned to horrified awe as I watched several agents of the Police Nationale walk by carrying big automatic weapons. Whoa. Had I really just arrived in France?? The last remnants of my naive vision were swept away by the customs agent who yelled at me in English for not having my customs card filled out correctly. Yes, the first time I came in France, I found myself defiantly holding back tears at the baggage claim and wondering if I hadn't made a mistake by choosing to study abroad.

How different from my arrival at Charles de Gaulle ten years later! An experienced traveler who's returned to France many times since my first trip (which did turn out lovely despite the rocky start), I breezed through Terminal One. Well, okay, after waiting in line at the bathroom (only 3 stalls at the very busy CDG!!), I breezed right through. Terminal One still looks like a basement but no cigarette smoke clouded my way. No one yelled at me, I didn't cry and I thankfully did not see the Police Nationale. Instead, Gaby was waiting for me at the gate with open arms and kisses. His mom greeted me with the two bises and a very welcome pastry. From McDonald's. Okay, it's not really French but so delicious all the same and unavailable in American McDonalds, so that makes it special, right? Through the hugs and kisses and then later during the drive to the suburbs just to the west of Paris, I was acutely aware of how incredibly familiar everything was. How pleasant to find that France seemed less a mysterious foreign country and more like a comfortable (and very charming) second home. Was it the American fast food? My dear Gaby and his mom waiting to welcome me? Or is it just that I have become so accustomed to this place? I suppose it's most likely a combination of the three. That said, I'm sure France still holds plenty of surprises, both good and bad, and I'll be waiting to discover them.