Parents in Paris

My parents were in town this past weekend, and they managed to sail through jet lag and put up with being dragged all about town with good humour. Here we are, yes, at Sacre Coeur again. It was actually quite nice at night, with someone singing in English to all the tourists.

My mom and I tried shopping Saturday, trailed by my father, who got to sit outside a wide range of Paris boutiques and read his book. It’s a tour he’s had of many cities around the world. Alas, the euro was too strong, and we ended the day empty-handed.

We then took about 74 pictures at dinner, and this out-of-focus one was the only one in which we both looked semi-normal.

They also got to experience the joys of the Paris metro. My mom quickly became an expert at barking “pardon” to get off a crammed car, and my dad is generally happy as long as he’s on some kind of moving machine. Here he is next to some boy carrying flowers.

Sunday, we tried to see Sainte Chapelle, a church that my dad remembers from when he and my mom were last in Paris, 30 years ago. Unfortunately, it was closed during patrimony days due to terrorism threats, or something. So we went to Notre Dame instead, which was actually really incredible. It was nice to see things with the eyes of a tourist again, after a month here, I’m actually starting to get inured to all the beauty around me.

We listened to an organ recital, which led me to several conclusions. First, whenever I hear an organ played, I’m going to think of Phantom of the Opera. Secondly, I have two organ-listening states. I’ll either be jumping and edgy because it sounds like the person is just pounding on the keys willy-nilly, or I’ll be thinking “Oh, that’s pretty,” before immediately falling asleep. I must have dozed off five times during the hour-long concert. It’s like some kind of drug. Even the loud, jarring stuff made me sleepy after the original shock.

Once the parents headed off to Holland, I discovered something important. I brought only one suitcase for my two months here and as a result have been doing a lot of laundry. But when setting the washing machine yesterday, I noticed that the bottle of soap I’ve been using was labelled “adoucissant.” Yes, I’ve been using fabric softener and nothing else for the past three and a half weeks. That means none of my clothes have been clean for approximately the last two weeks.

When going out to buy some replacement soap, I managed to almost buy some kind of tab that you run through your washer to remove calcium deposits. Also not soap.

So, now, my apartment is empty yet again, but the drying rack is finally, finally piled high with clean clothes. Definitely a step up …


Talking in French about the American election in the corner of Shakespeare & Co.

I had a lovely evening at Shakespeare & Co., but alas, my camera died as I arrived. So I will have to wait until next week’s meeting to provide photographic proof.

It was great to get out and actually talk to people. I found this club on Craigslist, and the idea is that a bunch of people get together every week and discuss a different topic. There’s a reading in both French and English and an hour devoted to talking about each.

This week, the topic was the weather. This because the organizer said people kept joking about only talking about the weather and she thought — fine. We’ll make it official.

But there’s only so much to say about the weather, and after a young American research chemist arrived, the talk switched quickly over to the election. I learned how to say “weapons” in French. And the trend of everyone in the world thinking Sarah Palin is an idiot seems to continue.

It was great to just chatter away in French and not worry about what people thought, or to have to stop for grammatical pointers. The organizers are very welcoming, and they’re French, so it’s kind of fun to be able to translate some words for them, or teach them how to pronounce them.

Also, the bookstore is very cool. I was a little reluctant to go, because I have such a great picture in my mind of the place after reading “Time Was Soft There,” and my guidebook says it has since become an expensive tourist trap. While that may be true, it was pretty great to see the sloping shelves teeming with books that seem about to topple over, and the “lending library” on the second floor where you’re welcome to browse and to stay, but not to buy.

I’m excited to go back next week, and I’m totally going early to check out exactly what books I need to read in this lending library before I head back home.

And to end, a little Paris vignette. Before heading to the French club, I hopped what turned out to be an incredibly busy metro line. With the wisdom of just a few weeks here, I managed to fold myself into the corner of one of the cars. It’s the best place for the ride, since you can brace yourself with your body against two solid walls, and the crush of people isn’t quite as overwhelming as it could be.

I ended up nestled in the crook of the arm of a Parisian businessman who spent most of the trip either proofing emails on his Blackberry, or talking on it. (Sample quote, in French, “Frankly, I think it’s just odious that he’s doing that.”) We were smushed together about as closely as possible, but managed to do that big-city thing where we pretend the other people are trees, and we’re just in a happy crowded forest rather than crammed three-deep into each others’ personal space.

Anyway, eventually it came to my stop, and the car was so densely packed I couldn’t move. At first, the man looked down at me and said good-bye as I feebly started trying to push my way through, saying “Pardon, pardon,” in my loudest voice. That in itself was pretty interesting, since people don’t usually bid farewell strangers, but I guess it only makes sense since I’d spent the last 20 minutes cradled in his arm.

Then, he noticed the fact I wasn’t so much advancing as walking on spot. He reached out, nudged a few people aside, and bellowed “PARDON” in this voice that rang through the car.
Everyone moved. I walked out of that car without having to touch a soul.

So, that’s my day of great Parisian conversation and a little Parisian kindness.

A rosé by any other name

My latest food-based obsession here isn’t actually related to chocolate, amazingly enough. Visiting my aunt in Holland, I was reintroduced to the rosé wine. For me, the term has usually referred to those gross, fruity concoctions that are closer to cooler than wine product. But it’s possible to get lovely, delicate and dry rosés here. The lesson I’ve learned, with help from the Dutch relations, is that it’s all a matter of shade.

Take, for example, the bargain rosé (2 euros) on the left. It’s an extremely dark colour and, also, very gross (yes, that’s a term often employed by sommeliers). The wine on the right is extremely light and tasty, but it was crushingly expensive (3 euros, 20 cents).

Okay, that’s more than I would ever have expected to write about wine in my life. Moving along. I bought tomatoes yesterday, and once I got them home realized they were “pigeon heart” tomatoes. Very gross name, very tasty fruit/vegetable.

And finally, there was a request for more Paris pictures. I ended up on the top of Montmartre yesterday (part of the bad part of using a compass to navigate is that it doesn’t recognize obstacles on its path to home, such as a big hill to climb). The sun was setting and it was really quite pretty.

Still no people, though. That’s something I hope to change tomorrow, I’m stopping by a meeting of the “Big Ben Club,” a social group that meets once a week at the bookstore Shakespeare and Company and chats for an hour in English and an hour in French. I’ll try to come back with a full report.

Leaving on a jet train

I hopped the Thalys high-speed train to visit my aunt in Holland this weekend. It took three hours to get from Paris to Rotterdam, with a quick view of Brussels along the way. I leaned against the window, straining to see until the sun set, thinking “land of chocolate, land of chocolate.” I was later informed by my French teacher that Switzerland is considered the land of chocolate, and Belgium would only take over if a tragic chocolate-based accident were to wipe out the entire industry. Who knew?

I’m always shocked by the transportation system in Europe. The train was absolutely packed. I don’t doubt that a good number of the businessmen on my train, many of whom jumped out for two-minute smoke breaks at every stop, commute back and forth between major European capitals every week. They looked exhausted, and it seemed they were happy to hit the bar car or doze as opposed to lining up along the freeways.

Once in Holland, I was reminded of yet again of how Europe has it right and North American has it wrong when my aunt, uncle and I took a four-hour bike ride Sunday.

There are bike trails everywhere. And it’s not unusual to see someone whizzing past in full suit and tie, or an elderly couple out for a gentle pedal on a weekend afternoon. School groups travel in bikes en masse. A shiny-haired teenage girl sped past me, music blaring from her front bicycle basket, texting on her phone with an eye on the road.

In Holland, if a car hits a bicycle, it’s the car’s fault, no matter what happened.

But despite all the options available to them, and the fact that gas is jaw-droppingly expensive, the skinny highways seem almost always completely backed up. I very close to missed my train back because it took my aunt and I almost an hour and fifteen minutes to drive a distance that should have taken half an hour.

Whenever I finally manage to run my own country, it’s going to have trains and bicycles and brightly-coloured scooters galore. No cars.

I also got to meet up with my aunt’s husband’s daughters, which was lovely. They’re both sweet, gorgeous Dutch girls and it was nice to catch up with the family I’ve inherited on the other side of the globe. It also created the opportunity for photographic evidence that I am indeed in Europe, and not ghostwriting this from somewhere in Canada:

Finally, and kind of randomly, in Holland they create these weird jungle gym-style contraptions to allow goats to climb up and sit off the grass. We saw them perched up high as we biked along the countryside:

Now that’s something I probably wouldn’t have noticed from a car …

Children, compasses and changing rooms

I can’t help but look at French children as some kind of preternaturally gifted beings. I’ll be standing somewhere, trying to make myself understood in broken fragments of speech, and a mother will walk by with a little blond-haired, impeccably dressed girl. This small person will open her mouth and in an Elmo-like squeak, out will pour the most perfectly formed sentences.

It always makes me jump and peer closer to figure out that yes, this child is three. But like some sort of unwizened Yodas, children here seem to almost instinctively know all the grammar and vocabulary I’m working so hard to absorb.

I do get to talk to many people here, though, since I get asked for directions three or four times a day. It’s like this wherever in the world I go. I must look approachable or helpful, or in some way knowledgeable. But the joke’s on them! I don’t think it would actually be possible to have a worse sense of direction. In the words of my mom, it’s best if I figure out the way I think I should be going, and then turn around and walk the other way.

This trip has been a little bit different. Before I left, my friend Trish loaned me a little guidebook with a compass embedded in the spine. I used that thing constantly, pulling it out every few steps just to make sure that what I thought was north was indeed still north. When you’re me, it changes a lot.

The compass stopped working yesterday (I’m sorry, Trish! I swear I didn’t do anything to it. Maybe it just got tired.) I immediately got totally lost, since north was always to the left and with no internal guides, I didn’t notice this until I was way off course.

I found a sporting goods store today and bought a new one. I’m considering having it surgically implanted into my arm, it makes such a huge difference in how long it takes me to get places. Right after I walked out of the store, I used it to direct a nice couple that spoke neither French nor English to the Eiffel Tower, with the help of their guidebook and a lot of pointing.

Finally, I was inspired to check out the French version of H & M today after my fashion education on the weekend. And yes, that’s like seeing an exhibition on the finest chef in the world and then stopping at McDonald’s, but nonetheless.

I found a classic black dress and went into the change room, imaging how chic and Parisian I’d look wandering along the streets in it. It was a little tight, but I managed to wiggle into it. Once I’d decided it was more Value Village than Valentino, I tried to pull it off. It was stuck. Really, really stuck.

I pulled and pushed, twisted and turned, and generally contorted myself in every way possible. And then stopped and considered how I’d send for help. I remembered the lady just outside the change rooms hadn’t seemed to speak English when I’d gone in. There’s nothing like leaning against the cool, thin white plastic of a changing room wall, a wrinkled dress crumpled about your waist, trying to figure out how to say “This dress is stuck. Will you please come pull it off me?” in French.

It briefly occurred to me that I could have asked the nearest three-year-old before I managed to yank the thing free with a heroic heave. I then high-tailed it directly home, deciding French fashion could wait for another day.

Looking at the Louvre

I decided to go by the Louvre today since the first Sunday of every month is free. I didn’t think I would get to see everything I wanted to see, I’d been warned that that takes days, but I thought I would get a chance to map out what was most important to see on a return trip.

Turns out, an hour was all I needed. I tend to like more modern art, and I wasn’t coming across much of that at the Louvre. I spent a while wandering around looking at all the ways different cultures painted and sculpted Jesus. And then I was bored.

My favourite part was the Mona Lisa. Not because I particularly like the painting, I’ve never seen what all the fuss was about. But judging from the crowd, apparently I’m alone in that assessment:

After my free hour, I went next door and paid to see the exhibits at the companion museum on the same grounds. I had a very satisfying afternoon studying advertising trends in Finland, the evolution of furniture between the 1940s and today and taking in a delightful exhibit all about the colour red and how it has been used in clothing and furniture throughout history to denote power, money and, well, prostitution.

There was also an incredible Valentino exhibit. Made me want to wear a dress every day for the rest of my life.

More pictures

I don’t have too much to report for the last couple of days. I’m trying to set up another apartment for October, and I’ve been screwing up my courage to make phone calls on that. I was supposed to meet a woman today at 6 p.m. to see one place, and I honestly don’t know if I was stood up, or if something was lost in translation and I was standing at one place while she was at another.

I stopped by a few of the tourist destinations today, though, and was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people. I think I would really hate it if I lived here and considered it my city, to have tourists traipsing all over. Some of the beautiful old building along the route up the Montmartre Hill had one-way reflective glass in the windows to keep tourists from peering into their parlours.

Moving within the throngs of tourists were people selling every single trinket imaginable. For example, after a long walk up to the top of one of the most popular tourist spots in Paris, who wouldn’t want to buy one of those little barking, fuzzy dogs that flip over backwards when wound up?

I had to get extremely close to Sacre Coeur to get any kind of unobscured picture.

The view was pretty good once up there, though.

I also stopped by the Montmarte cemetery on my way up to Sacre Coeur. It’s a little weird, because although many of the older tombs and graves date back to the 18th and 19th centuries, people who died last year are also buried there. It would be strange to visit your recently deceased relative and to come face to face with camera-toting tourists following maps around their grave.

I wonder if this guy’s nose fell off naturally, or if someone chipped it off. He looks rather bemused by the whole thing.

This was by far my favourite grave. When I die, I would also like a golden statue of myself, complete with nipples visible through skimpy costume. Unless that’s supposed to be an angel, rather than the occupant? Hard to tell. Either way, I feel that only in Paris would I mention “nipples” and “graveyard” in the same paragraph. (Turns out, there’s a back story, and one that it looks like I should already know: Oh well, that’s why one comes to Paris, to become more cultured.)

It seemed very strange to come across a black cat in a cemetery. I followed him for a while, but he ran into a tomb, and I left it at that.

Despite Trish’s best wishes for me, I have not yet sped down a Paris street on a red Vespa wearing a red dress, with the wind blowing in my hair. But little scooters are everywhere here, and I would totally try one out if given a chance.

Finally, I spent a while in front of this store today, because it was just too much fun. There were all sorts of painted … Giraffes? Llamas? It’s hard to tell. But regardless, people almost uniformly had the same reaction. They would walk up, the man would stroke his chin in confusion (see above) and the woman would wander in to see what it was all about. I saw this happen about four times in a row.

Another highlight was seeing a store called “Elvis, my Happiness” that was chock full of everything and everything to do with that not-so Parisian icon. It seemed extremely out of place, but was surprisingly full of people.

Alright, I’m going back to my feeble attempts to read the French novels I picked up at a little flea market. I think one is about a bunch of people living in a house, and the other about a boy during World War I. Beyond that, you’ve got me!