Au Revoir
December 27, 2011, 3:07 pm
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My last weekend in Europe, I spent four glorious days in London. It was the perfect way to temporarily distract myself from anticipating my imminent travel back to America in all of its holiday glory, a thought that seemed to render me incapable of sitting still. I had been to London several times before as a teenager, but this semi-familiarity with the country didn’t make the local accents, hearty comfort food, quaint street names, and regal historical landmarks any less enthralling. The metro (“tube”) was clean! The store clerks smiled and called us “love”! Everyone spoke English! I was perfectly content to merely walk around the city, taking in my surroundings and reveling in the friendly atmosphere.

On top of multiple walking tours, hilarious hostel acquaintances, organized pub crawls, and an evening at a festive Christmas Village, one of the highlights of my London experience was the bus ride back to the airport, when I had the great fortune to sit near an entertaining elderly British couple. Never have my eavesdropping skills been more useful— from my prime seating in the row behind them, I picked up comedic gems like, “I’d be dead in the ground without my morning toast” and “Old man, you’ve never had a radiant smile on your face in your life”. The all-time winner was when the husband announced, “I myself can scarcely go 45 minutes without using the toilet”, to which his wife replied, “Well then use the tub once in a while, Albert, it’s finely crafted.”

But the absolute best experience within my weekend in London was attending a performance of Jerusalem in the West End, starring Tony Award Winner Mark Rylance. The show had been running all summer in NYC while I was interning there, but ensconced as I was in the world of Sleep No More (another mind-altering New York based theatrical production), I never had the time or money to snag tickets until August, when the show was in its last week and thus completely sold-out. However, I’d heard rave reviews from respected friends and seasoned reviewers, so when I saw that the London tour had openings during my brief visit, I didn’t hesitate. What followed was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

As someone who perpetually immerses herself in the world of imagination via books, plays, and film, I have always been (annoyingly) opinionated about how timeless, legendary characters ought to be. I remember devouring descriptions of R.P. McMurphy, Sydney Carton, Atticus Finch, Holden Caufield, Rhett Butler, and so many others, thinking all the while, what if someone could actually portray him, bring him to life? Obviously several renowned actors did just that, to great success in many cases, but I don’t think any actor has invoked the truly epic more than Mark Rylance in this particular production. With his performance, I underwent the opposite of my typical experience— his actions actually created descriptions of remarkable clarity in my head. As audience members, we understood what he was doing and why, as he managed to convey the squalid glory of mankind that is heralded so often in literature, but never fully realized onstage.

Rylance plays slovenly mischief-maker Rooster Byron, a middle-aged British drunkard living in a trailer in Wiltshire County. For a more comprehensive detailing of the show, check out the NYTimes review here, as I cannot pretend to do it justice:

I will say, however, that if you ever have the chance to see this show, run, don’t walk. Rylance gives the best theatrical performance I have ever seen on stage or screen, and coming from a theater nerd such as myself, this means a lot. There are moments in this show that chilled me, awed me, tickled me, humbled me, and the themes of sacrifice and struggle will linger with me for quite some time. I was cognizant of the fact that, much like Rooster and his doomed path within the play, Rylance himself also takes a physical and metaphorical beating as an actor, all for the sake of us, his audience. I was one of many who sat, simultaneously spellbound and horror struck, as I watched the painful descent of a man fighting to defy the obstacles closing in around him, who held on to his bawdy humor and fiery strength until the end.

In one particular scene, Rooster’s former lover (and the mother of his young son) berates him, asking how he will manage to worm out of yet another impending brush with the law. As audience members, we have already seen Rooster’s roguish charm get him out of trouble time and time again; yet we can also feel the quiet desperation mounting inside the theater as he recognizes, like any swaggering Peter Pan, that eventually his reign must come to an end. Instead of offering a valid plan of action, Rooster merely asks the woman to stand across from him and look into his eyes. Reluctant and cynical at first, she is wary as she gazes at him five feet away, while he continually murmurs “deeper” in a half-confident, half-panicked chant.

Finally, after an instant of shivering silence, he whispers, “did you see that?” and we are not surprised to hear her gasp “yes”, because yes, we know it too, something did change, something magical did momentarily glimmer behind those bloodshot eyes. As soon as she utters it, the spell is broken and he falls towards her, visibly relieved that someone recognized that harnessed inner spark that, for all his outer bravado, he is terrified might not be there. But only a fool could be blind to the compelling power palpably emanating from Rooster Byron, and it was that power that stayed with me all throughout the plane ride home to France.

On my final morning in Paris, I was completely packed and ready for my staff room check. However, when I approached the Lucien Paye employee seated behind the front desk, he was less than ready to look over my room and allow me to sign out. Apparently the antics of the Parisian dorm system operate much like those embedded in the plot of Lord of the Rings; and, like Frodo Baggins, I was forced to embark on a quest before receiving what I initially wanted. He asked me to go out and get him a croissant at the bakery two blocks over, a request I found very bizarre (not that anyone has to twist my arm to get me into any food store). The man handed me three euros and said in French, “Get one for you and one for me”. Now we were in business.

As I marched back from the patisserie, my face undoubtedly smeared with warm chocolate, two men standing on the side of the road called out, “bon appetit”. Not twenty feet away from here was the first place that a stranger had chastised my friend and I for munching away on the street (see blog post “Take a Picture” from September for the full account), and as I grinned and kept walking, I savored both the croissant and the triumph of the moment, wishing I didn’t have to interact with anyone else until I was safely in the air, wanting those friendly and well-fitting words to be the last French ones I heard. I had come full-circle.

On Monet’s Water Lilies
December 27, 2011, 2:55 pm
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In many ways it showed the best Paris— the playful city that I’d imagined, accompanied by accordion music and illustrated in the style of the Madeline books. It almost looked like a theater set piece, and seemed to invite me coyly— come, walk alongside my world until you feel like you’re almost a part of it. Yet despite the drama and the whimsy, certain parts of his creation seemed so realistic; the way the reflections in the water gave you clues about the missing topography above. Did Monet have a favorite section of this massive hanging canvas? Was he particularly proud of a certain clump of riverbank rushes or the artful shadow of a trailing willow branch?

Interestingly enough, the waterlilies are what anchored the piece, yet they were inexplicably plopped in the middle of everything else, in the swirl of color. How did Monet know it would work— the scale, the blotches? How did he think to use yellow, orange, purple, red, and neon green and instinctively guess it would turn out to look like actual water? The entire thing was cloudy, dreamy, a uniting of earth and sky. There were ripples and shadows, everything cut off yet continuing, creating that longing within me to see what lay beyond. Some regions were gauzy and ethereal, others electric and fanciful, and I gazed at them all, almost dizzy as I leaned into the gurgling blur of the water.

Never have I had such a craving to taste and touch and fully absorb a painting, to dive into the layers of texture that seemed almost an afterthought. It’s difficult to define a masterpiece, and I’ve always wondered how a canon is created; how certain pieces of literature, art or music are valued high above all the rest. During my semester’s wanderings in the Louvre, I felt genuinely moved by Winged Victory, and yet, when I looked upon the rather bland face of Venus de Milo, I couldn’t supress the feeling that I would never be able to pick that statue out as a truly exemplary piece of art on my own. Either way, I am so grateful that people recognized and preserved these watercolors hanging in the Musee de L’Orangerie.

Sometimes the silence of Paris startles, even frightens me. I am often aware of the change between metro lines, when hundreds of citizens are bustling along the people-mover, or escalator, in total quiet. Several mornings ago, when my metro train had broken down on the way to class, the incident didn’t ignite any conversations, which meant that we had been herded out of the run-down train in an eerie lack of sound. But here in the museum, I relished the silence— it felt warm and comfortable, as each visitor peacefully took in something unique, while we all remained united in our admiration. The contrast of a live person standing up against the watercolor heightened, rather than cheapened or undermined, its beauty. Again, I was submerged in the Shakes and Co. feeling; I felt I was just there to breathe in the good, the calm, the active interest.

I felt, in the presence of that colossal masterpiece, that I could do or be anything. It was a different kind of reverence than the kind I’ve felt inside great catherdrals, which can either inspire me or make me feel small. Here, I felt awed but not diminished. I turned on my ipod and selected Bach’s Air on a G String and walked along the circular room, following the current of the painting. I was startled to find that Monet’s piece was music; I could read it like a score, with the languid flow of the ripples like a melody and the interworked flowers as delicate, painfully exquisite lingering high notes. The artwork was so imaginative, and yet I could not think of anything more real, more true. And it all came from one man! I love it when the world does that; peels back another layer and shows you what life inside life can do.

From Brussels with Love
December 14, 2011, 6:36 pm
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Back in September, EDUCO sponsored a weekend trip to the Loire Valley, a popular tourist destination only three hours south of Paris. It was everything I had hoped it would be— the castles were vast and sublime, the gardens sun-drenched and colorful, the wine tastings delicious and instantly effective. The one aspect of the voyage I had not exactly anticipated was sitting at a dinner table listening to a professor singing drinking ballads about sexual assault.

Yes, unfortunately you read that correctly. We had an accompanying professor from the illustrious “Institut d’etudes politiques de Paris” (commonly referred to as “Sciences Po”), who acted as historical tour guide and evidently, musical instructor. Things began spiraling out of control on that fateful Saturday night as we sat around long dinner tables at our temporary weekend residence. We ate, sampled wine, attempted to converse in French, and then our delightfully boisterous guide decided to treat us to a few festive drinking songs. I am perfectly serious when I say that they were utterly marvelous displays of French revelry and patriotism, and I remember being disappointed when the professor got pulled back down into his chair by some EDUCO staff members just as he was on the verge of launching into a fourth musical selection.

In fact, I take partial responsibility for the unfortunate series of events that ensued, because when he sat down and mouthed “They don’t want me to tell it; I’ll get in trouble!”, I was one of several students who chanted for him to continue on doggedly. After all, most of the songs were merely composed of tales of drunkenness, with the occasional well-aimed dig at Great Britain. What could be worse than that?

How wrong I was. He chanted the controversial ballad for those of us at the nearest table— the narrative was about a little girl Suzie (actually, this is France, so probably Suzette) who went walking in the woods one day and came across three men. The first laid her down on the ground, the second pulled up her skirt, and the third did something that— get this— can not be mentioned in the song. Better yet, this is where the plot aspect ENDS. We were left with a few refrains of the chorus, and then a final “moral”; it was all in French, but the rough translation was, “men are pigs; but women love pigs”. I sat there dumbfounded, wishing I had let the EDUCO staff members proceed in preventing the outburst of this song, and thinking it would be a long time indeed before I participated in another such field trip… not to mention that a casual stroll in any French grove of trees was now out of the question.

Thankfully, however, this did not put me off European travel for good. As mentioned in a previous post, I went on to fall in love with Ireland, and also took a fascinating day trip to the French city of Lille (making sure to keep the outing song-free). In early November, I was lucky enough to visit my friend Becca in Switzerland and actually stay with her host family for several days, which was truly a highlight of my entire abroad experience.

I had been to Switzerland once before on a hiking trip with my family, but it was vastly different to experience the country through the lens of another abroad program. Becca introduced me to her friends, explained how her classes worked, and generally allowed me to get a taste of her daily routine. Her host parents were some of the kindest and most charming people I have ever met in my life, and I had the opportunity to speak more French with them than I have in my (sanitarily-questionable) living quarters in Paris. It was difficult not to feel wistful as I sat at their kitchen table, helping myself to homemade fondue and literally hanging on every word of the stimulating and foreign conversation.

One of the most simultaneously nerve-wracking and exhilerating experiences was going out to lunch on Monday morning and doing my best to translate for Becca and her French speaking host sister. I was so grateful that she gave me an opportunity for some much needed language practice!

The first weekend of December, I took the plunge and signed up for another EDUCO-sponsored day trip to Brussels to visit the European Union. It was a great success, mostly because I adopted the mentality that no culinary Belgian trademark should go unsampled, and thus had my fill of cheese, waffles, fries, and chocolate. At this time of year, Brussels is like a three-dimensional Christmas card, complete with bustling town sqaures, little market stalls brimming with festive wares, and a musical light show above the main cathedral that literally took my breath away.

The Belgian people with whom we interacted were incredibly helpful, affable, and had enough holiday spirit to rival Will Ferrell’s character in Elf.  It was a far cry from our average social interaction back in Paris— I think my friend Emily put it best (to my great amusement) when she said, “why does everyone always bully us here?!”. Tomorrow morning I set off for a four day stint in London, which will hopefully match my past trips in excitement… only with fewer songs!

La Danse Macabre
December 7, 2011, 10:14 am
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Over Thanksgiving break, I was lucky enough to have my boyfriend haul himself out of New York City and into the streets of Paris to visit me for several days. Once again, I experienced that same delight in getting to show someone around the city, and pointing out its many cozy nooks and places of beauty. We took a day trip to Disneyland Paris (all bedecked with festive holiday decorations), gazed in wonder at Napoleon’s tomb at the Musee de L’Armee (Invalides), voyaged up to Sacre Coeur and experienced the Exposition Dali, spent glorious mornings reading in cafes, and oh-so-many nights gorging ourselves on delicious french dinners. Yes, essentially it was heaven, especially for an abroad student like me, whose most romantic moment in the “city of love” prior to Pyrs’ visit was when a Subway employee gave me extra chipotle sauce on my sandwich, free of charge. Truly swoon-worthy.

Pyrs, who has studied Spanish, German, and French for brief spurts in the past, was the best combination of intellectually curious tourist and proud Ricky-Bobby American. As a naturally easy-going traveler, he followed me into each museum or store or restaurant without complaint, gasped in amazement at all the right sights at the right times, picked up on the French accent immediately and employed choice words over meals, and yet still managed to scowl with dignity when a neighboring Frenchman tried (unsuccessfully) to snootily stare us down at a bar in St. Germain de Pres. I was enchanted.

The one thing I was not prepared for was how different it seemed once he left. During the visit he kept asking me how I was going to return to, as he delicately put it, my “awful nasty bed” (he had a point), or what I was going to do in Paris after he departed. At the time, I scoffed at these questions, thinking that I had more or less managed on my own prior to his arrival (less being the operative word here; don’t forget that I was still living in the dorm-of-no-toilet-seats), and therefore I could last another month in relative squalor sans-Pyrs. Alas, this hasn’t been as easy as it initially sounded, since I don’t laugh nearly as hard, relish conversation, or get the same satisfaction out of Parisian life as I did when he was experiencing it alongside me.

Luckily I’ve had a great deal of class time to distract me, which comes with its own share of amusing moments. Last Wednesday we started our “Lecture du geste danse” class with an exercise on the floor, in which we were supposed to lie on our backs and feel the weight of our own bodies, discover where we hold tension, and notice how the air around us carves a tangible dramatic space. In heathen-American terms, this evidently meant nap time. One moment I was all about the dramatic space, and the next thing I knew, I was abruptly awakened by the slithering sounds of moving bodies. Looking about groggily, I could scarcely hear the instructions of our dance teacher, and therefore just started imitating my classmates by writhing about on my mat, with no apparent rhyme or reason to my movements. It took me about three minutes of awkward self-induced rolling around to finally work up the nerve to ask my professor for clarification… I have now resumed my coffee-chug routine prior to each class.

I had a weekend “Atelier” class which met for seven hours each day, taught by a sinewy, intelligent, animated woman who reminded me irresistibly of Madame Hooch from Harry Potter. It was a fascinating class, based on the concept of labanotation, which is a method of analyzing and recording human movement, invented by a Hungarian man named Rudolf von Laban. The goal was to successfully learn a piece of German 1930s contemporary choreography to “La Danse Macabre”, or “Dance of Death”. Dance of Death! I had not been this excited since my role as a baby skeleton in the ballet “Carnival of the Animals”, for which I had been dressed head to toe in a black body suit and instructed to hop madly about the stage to xylophone sounds.

I offically have seven more days in Paris, and therefore only have one more week of classes. I am so grateful to have gotten the French dance class experience— the courses put a lot of emphasis on theory and somatic knowledge, which I think helps dancers to understand their craft in social/anthropological/psychological contexts, and also to preserve their personal instruments in a more healthy way, after acquiring all of that medical knowledge about the effect of dance on the human body. This is important in Paris in particular, because the average dance career seems to span a much longer period of time than in the United States. Now to reminisce about old times with a nice long romp through the streets of Paris in my skeleton suit…

At Last
December 1, 2011, 4:02 pm
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It was a day just like any other in Paris. I walked past Notre Dame Cathedral, planning to make my way down the Seine, as it was a blissfully sunny afternoon, rare for November. As I strolled towards the water, I came across a Holocaust memorial, flat and built right into the ground, so unobtrusive it bordered on clandestine. On a whim I decided to look inside, and for the duration of my stay I was the only visitor present, which is probably one of the many reasons that this particular innocently normal day became suddenly extraordinary.

I can honestly say that it was the first time in my life that my emotions caught me by surprise, completely and utterly. With two psychologist parents, my desire to keep pace/stay in touch with my feelings verges on the obsessive, and thus I can usually feel any reckless joy, frustration or vulnerability mounting inside of me long before it is unleashed (for better or worse) on the outside world. But here, I simply walked down a narrow flight of stairs into the basin of the monument, glanced around at the high Mediterranean-white walls, read a few plaques noting French losses during the Holocaust, mentally observed (almost passively) that it was a exquisitely designed piece of architecture, and promptly burst into tears.

I probably sat there bawling by myself in this monument for about seven minutes or so, without even following my urge to analyze the feelings behind the tears. Instead I took my time taking everything in— the monument was designed to recreate the claustrophic atmosphere of a concentration camp without actually resembling one— then emerged above ground to thank the guard, who (understandably) thought I was insane. I felt too dazed to resume my riverside walk, so I merely sat on a bench just outside the memorial, observing the way that everything in the little square had been designed meticulously to look horizontal— the monument, the fence and nearby bridge, and even the trees were pruned in a low, flat manner. It was heart-wrenchingly sunny and warm, and the air smelled tantalizingly like Northen California, a scent as tangible to my senses and food or music.

On the bridge, a talented, soulful, disembodied voice was singing “On the Sunny Side of the Street”; the kind of rich, warbling sound that I always associate with another, more romantic jazz era. The acoustics of the water amplified her song and channeled it over to my bench as a dream-like echo. For a moment I was tempted to go over and see her for myself, but decided it might jinx the magic. I had no desire to turn on my ipod. I couldn’t even read— I just wanted to sit and drink it all in, entranced and glued to the bench as I was. Paris was suddenly both vulnerable and vibrant, offering itself up, humming with energy, warming my cheeks with sunshine. I had finally fallen in love with Paris in that moment— and boy had it been worth the wait.

The Parisians themselves have always been perplexing to me—  their seemingly endless disposable income evident in their expensive clothes, and yet no apparent working hours as they are always in cafes, looking skinny to the point of emaciated even as they stuff their faces with warm, buttery croissants. They are, in short, a series of contradictions. But is that necessarily bad? I suddenly understood that intoxicating feeling of inner quiet, of being an observer, as if nothing in the world could be more innate and natural than sitting there on that bench, jotting down a thought or two from time to time. It was so… French.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve lived by my self-titled “15 Second Rule”, which is the fastest and most instantly effective way I know to jolt myself awake and appreciate life. If I’m ever feeling morose (and probably unjustly so), I glance around and think, “what if these 15 seconds were life?”. As in, you’d be born, and then your entire realm of experience would be the subsequent 15 seconds, and then everything would be gone again. It’s a little bizarre, I know, but in my experience it not only lends clarity and poetry to everything around me (“wow, that homeless man picking his nose is Life… maybe it’s a metaphor… woah, deep”), but it also makes me feel acutely grateful even to be sad or frustrated, because the alternative would be well, nothing, and every experience we have is perfect due to the fact that it is merely occurring. This somewhat unorthodox (read: probably psycho) procedure has lifted me abruptly out of many self-indulgently sad situations, and I will continue to employ it for the rest of my long (and hopefully appreciative) life.

There are some moments however, that stop time, change your views and take your breath away even without you trying; moments that, rather than becoming enhanced by being taken out of context, are fully fleshed out because they rely on previous observations and experiences. Ireland’s mountain was one of them, and now this moment in Paris was another, perhaps more poignant because it had evaded me for so long. It was like I was seeing everything in high focus— suddenly there was so much to take in, and yet I felt mellow in the best way possible, like I had all the time in the world to absorb it.

And all it took was a Holocaust museum. Or maybe, if I had to put my finger on it— the idea of building one. I think the main identifier (here we go with the emotional analysis; it can’t be helped) is that I’ve never felt completely safe or cared for in Paris, as there seem to be a lot of antagonistic sentiments bouncing around. In fact, I had just been groped from behind by a strange man, in broad daylight, on a tourist-filled street on my very walk to the memorial. I know there must be kind-hearted people in Paris; there are kind-hearted people everywhere, I just haven’t personally met any this semester, which may be my own fault for not going out and meeting more Parisians. In any case, simply knowing that such a physical embodiment of compassion and human sympathy existed in the form of this memorial, in Paris, moved me beyond words, and evidently, to all of those tears.

The mysterious jazz singer jumped into a rendition of Maurice Chevalier’s “I love Paris“, which was startingly fitting. I felt a silly sense of pride flood through me as I sat there, in a city I had resisted and then learned to love, the place that forced me to listen to my own truth instead of saying what was presumably expected. Perhaps I was only interacting with the groping, pick-pocketing Parisians, but the other ones at least existed, and for now, that was enough.

Le Touriste
November 22, 2011, 7:50 pm
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It has been a while since my last post for two reasons; one, because I haven’t had  internet access in the good ol’ Residence Lucien Paye since last Thursday, and also because I was just diagnosed with giardia, a parasite that that usually inserts itself after a person consumes contaminated food or drinking water. Apparently this time around that person is me, which is hardly surprising considering that my enthusiasm for all French food is such that I fail to adhere to certain standards of cleanliness— clearly my “fifteen second” rule of dropped and promptly re-eaten French food is no longer a great one to maintain.

My collection of this rather unwelcome Parisian souvenir might come as a shock to many of you, primarily because all the stereotypes about Paris/ Parisian life seem to center around classy behavior, lavish lifestyles, and high standards of hygiene from a place that prides itself on its world-renowned food. When did Paris become synonymous with class and wealth? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that I too am responsible for proliferating these ideas. When I initially took off for Paris, I could hardly read the U.S. Airways safety instruction manual for all of the grand visions swimming before my eyes, of trips to the opera, of loft apartments, sumptuous dinners, and shopping extravangazas complete with miniature snooty French poodles to boot.

What a far cry were these dreams from my current parasite-ridden existence in the Lucien Paye Dorms! Last Wednesday, we had no electricity or running water, and by 5pm I was too afraid to walk out through the long and pitch black hallway, so I spent the next half hour listlessly staring out my window in the dark, watching two homeless people sucking face on the street (to put it delicately), who, judging by their vigor, apparently thought the world was ending that evening. So yes, I won’t exactly ever have the chance to live out Audrey Hepburn’s “Sabrina” in Paris plot line, but boy did life take an definite upturn when my mom and our friend Ellen came to visit me for several days, right here in Paris!

They stayed in an adorable place in Odeon (anyone looking for a fantastic, yet very reasonably priced hotel, check out Hotel St. Paul— it comes complete with a black-and-white cat who prowls the lobby like a feline French duke), which allowed me to abandon my dorm for several nights and live in a lush land of consistent toilet paper supplies, reliable internet and clean sheets, three things that had become foreign to me as of late (and you wonder why I got giardia…). One of the nights we had a mouth-watering multi-course meal, in which eat dish was a piece of contemporary artwork, perfectly portioned so that we had room to devour them all, with only one necessary pants un-buttoning at the end of the meal— clearly I bring my classy habits with me.

We went shopping at the Galleries Lafayette, which  is essentially a Neiman Marcus or a Bloomingdales but in a gorgeous old French building. It is an incredibly worth-while experience, although you would be hard-pressed to find a dress there for under 700 euros, which is precisely why I stuck to the purchasing of lipstick and the sampling of free candy at one of the many coffee bars inside. We also made a trip to the Musee Jacquemart Andre, which is the French equivalent of the Frick in NYC or the Borghese in Italy due to the fact that it’s an old mansion that houses many fabulous pieces of artwork. My mom and I were also lucky enough to see the Paris Opera Ballet perform “La Source” at the Paris Opera House, which was absolutely breathtaking in every way possible. My mom and I had seen the San Francisco Ballet here when I was ten years old; in fact, I distinctly remember us having a not-so-subtle attack of hysterics at one point, so I’m surprised we were ever allowed on the premises again.

I think the Paris Opera House is one of the most stunning pieces of architecture in the entire world. It falls under the class of famous landmarks or historic pieces which, like the Sydney Opera House, Michelangelo’s David, or Yosemite Valley, you really do have to view in person to experience the full staggering effects. Even before the ballet itself began I was in heaven! And then, of course, the dancing literally made me gasp. This was Parisian living!

Additionally, it was such a gift to merely roam the streets of Paris with someone as effervescent as my mom— her complete appreciation for the aesthetic beauty of the city only increased my awareness of it. This was also true of my close friends— two of my Cornell roommates (both named Becca, both studying abroad in Europe!) came to visit this past weekend, and their repeated exclamations over their surroundings were truly infectious.

That’s one piece of advice I’ll give to future study abroad students— never be afraid to live like a tourist. French citizens are notorious for despising tourists (at least according to stereotypes), so you might be swimming against the tide as you try, but hey, it builds character. I fully endorse the idea of attempting to integrate oneself into the daily life of a given country; in fact, I think it’s a critical facet of the study abroad experience. However, I think it’s also important to try and retain that initial sense of wonder and gratefulness that short-time tourists seem to exude during their visits.

One of my friends on the EDUCO program noted that here, we abroad students are trapped into a bizarre limbo between between the role of tourist and full-time resident, and thus it is difficult to be accepted as either. She also recognized the fact that despite our feeling that time here is rapidly slipping away, if we knew we had a month-long vacation in Paris, detached from any study abroad program, we would view that as an endless amount of time to absorb the sights and experience the life of a Francophone.

Thus, I am trying to make the most of every remaining day in Paris. Right now, I am scribbling on a bench along the Seine just outside Notre Dame, under a cloudless blue sky. C’est la vie!

November 8, 2011, 7:10 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

I have so enjoyed the past several weeks in Paris— sitting in the Place des Vosges, watching people smoke and lounge as the scent of burnt corn and fall clings to everything, seeing Romeo and Juliet in French at the Odeon Theater and recognizing those familiar words in a foreign tongue, exploring the northern city of Lille and tasting the world’s best hot chocolate, and spending a gloriously sunny October day in the gardens of Versailles, rowing out on the water and riding bikes to Marie Antoinette’s lake-side hamlet.

Two weekends ago we experienced a miniature America-within-Paris by taking a trip to Disneyland Paris, and I experienced the comic collision of two worlds— eating croque-monsieurs in the cafes of the fictional “Main Street USA”, hearing all of the rides dubbed, and even listening to characters babbling away in French behind their large stuffed heads. Of course, as soon as we stepped out of “the place where dreams come true” and onto the subway towards Paris later that evening, the magic ended rather abruptly as a little boy promptly began vomiting on the crowded metro, spraying puke onto my friends’ shoes, and a strange man “groped” me from behind, to put it delicately, and would not cease until I had to physically hit him, which was awful. Ah, Paris— home sweet home.

But all sarcasm aside, one of my favorite things about my French week is meeting my friends after dance class for our “weekly Wednesdays at the Louvre”, which has become a tradition ever since we realized the museum is open until 9:30pm on Wednesday evenings and thus blissfully free of the usual crowds. I have found that the fact that the museum is so big releases me rather than overwhelms me— I simply give over to being lost in its depths with the knowledge that there will always be something new to see. I am also always acutely aware of how lucky we are to have all of this preserved so perfectly in present-day; I can see how a place like Napoleon’s apartment could have been seen as an emblem of the bourgeoisie and thus something to be torn down.

As always, I am continually processing and attempting to define my relationship with Paris. Recently, I realized that I could compare my current abroad experience to my Cornell experience as a whole. When I first began college as a wide-eyed freshman, I registered for classes that sounded fascinating— courses that covered Ancient Egyptian Civilization, Art History, all different types of literature, etc. It was only as an upperclassman that I finally understood one crucial thing— that subject matter, matters, much less than you’d think. For me, it was the great professors that seemed important, and as long as I knew that those individuals could deliver information to me in a captivating way, I was willing to learn from them, regardless of the specific realm of academia.

As I’ve come to know it, Paris feels like a class with a great course listing and a rather mediocre professor. There couldn’t be a more architecturally beautiful city, with better museums, and more delectable food— namely, the content of the Parisian class is spot-on. However, when I interned in New York City this summer, I felt so alive— the smog, the heat, the less-than-stunning industrial buildings were all on the periphery, irrelevant, whereas the palpable vibrant energy that veritably shook the streets was always on the forefront of my mind. I couldn’t even listen to my ipod on my walk to work, because I wanted to tune into the vibe that makes NYC what it is— a hodge-podge course requirement taught by a charismatic professor who blows your mind.

In essence, Paris seems like a place where one could overdose on culture to his or her heart’s content, but still leave feeling malnourished in terms of bliss and spontaneity. However, I can hardly blame the Parisians for this— in fact, in an ironic twist of fate, I recently perpetuated this notion myself. I was waiting for the tram back from dance at around 9:30pm (or, in military/French time, 21:30), and as I stood on the platform, a man in his thirties approached me with a simple “Bonjour, Madamemoiselle”. He seemed on the verge of launching into a more extended speech, and therefore I gave him a rather stern look and said “what?” (in French) somewhat expectantly.

The reason for my coldness was merely past experience. My next statement is of course a blatant generalization, but from what I have seen, Parisian males make drunken college frat boys look like gentlemen. In that moment, I was instantly put on my guard, assuming that he was either going to a. beg me for money, b. try and pickpocket me, or c. pull a metro-man and start to grab me inappropriately. None of these suspicions were out of the question, mind you, because all of them had occurred before. However, in this case the potential thief/attacker/homeless man turned out to be a perfectly innocent Italian tourist, who asked me how to get to the metro in broken— and sincere— French. I felt awful.

In his mind, he had just met another stand-offish Parisian, not knowing that I understood how he felt perfectly! And yet, I also felt I needed to be wary and on my guard, due to those other experiences. I suddenly understood the self-perpetuating cycle of French stereotypes, but could not devise a means of eliminating them— and still can’t. It is a Parisian catch-22!

World of Books
October 30, 2011, 10:08 am
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It’s amazing what atmosphere can do for a person. Right now I am sitting in an upstairs alcove in the Shakespeare and Company bookshop on the Seine, and simply being here has filled me with a kind of buoyancy, the essence of this place permeating my very senses. There are are cots on which modern-day would-be Hemingways can rest, a tiny upright piano with its keys suitably browned, several broken stained glass arches embedded in the walls, and floor-to-ceiling shelves of books, which are causing my nose to itch delightfully.

I like a lot of contemporary fiction; in fact this summer that is virtually all I read (pick up This Is Where I Leave You if you’re in the mood for a hilarious, well-written, very crass and occasionally heartfelt book)— but they certainly had it right back in the day with the actual book printing and publishing! Here I am surrounded by only covers of deep burgundy, dark moss, royal blue, browns and tans broken up by the occasional dignified mustard, and they fit the ambiance of the room in a way that the flashy, boldly printed covers of today never could.

I’ve decided that if I ever get overwhelmed with the looming presence of cruelty or sorrow in the world, I can simply think of places like the Shakespeare and Co. bookshop. This store is not a mass corporation or a non-profit organization, it has no grand agenda, no plans to ameliorate the world’s horrors. And yet, in its own way it has carved out a niche, made itself a wholly positive entity, a little shop filled with only good vibes. This might be because the store itself is self-selective— clearly only individuals as drawn by literature (read: nerdy) as I am would come to this bookstore in the first place, but nevertheless it is bringing that entire subset of people so much joy. Tourists come in and out of the room every three or four minutes, and in the twenty or so that I’ve been here I’ve heard English, French, Portuguese, Russian, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, and one dialect that I couldn’t identify and therefore wrote off as Borat-ese.

There is a little cubby in the next room, where if one has the wherewithal and flexibility to crouch down and slide inside, he or she will be rewarded with the chance to sit at an old-fashioned typewriter (I took myself back to my childhood games of the early ’90s by banging excitedly on this for several minutes, much to the chagrin of the Shakes and Co. staff). One can also look around at the dozens of notes and post-its covering every surface of the cubby, little tributes to the inspiration that visitors found here, which in turn becomes inspiration for the next set of merry wanderers. I have seen several shrines throughout my life in different countries, but this one seems the most genuine, the most fitting. This is what I mean when I say that places like this give me hope— I feel (naively, I suppose) that it is wholly good, dedicated merely to existing in its own pleasurable little way.

I have decided to come here every weekday for at least an hour to read, write, and observe. Although I am overjoyed at the prospect of the coming month (November is a whirlwind of visiting friends and family), I feel a little sense of bereavement at the fact that I will lose the Parisian routine I have only just solidified; that until December my weekends are not just mine alone.

So here I am now, in this fabulous bookshop with the slatted-wooden ceilings and dusty figurines lining the surfaces, just trying to drink in everything. A young man had been playing the piano for the duration of my writing/rambling, and just recently ceased, so that now I can hear an American father reading a rhyming book to his daughter.

Maybe that is what charms and captivates me so much about this place; it’s the essence of productivity, of creation and artistic doing that seems to permeate everything in sight. One of the things I struggle to process about this abroad experience is the lingering feeling that I am acting in a vacuum— that my idle projects, plans and everyday behaviors have little to no effect on the arc of the rest of my life. It may sound completely nonsensical, but it’s true. Every one of my major life experiences has contained a feeling of industriousness that accompanies it; an idea that I am building, striving, connecting towards future projects, future hopes, dreams and inventions. For some reason, my months in Paris have seemed set apart from that momentum, and I can’t quite isolate and identify why that is. Is it merely because everything seems to be racing by so quickly with no time to assess its meaning?

In an hour I have to walk over to EDUCO for my “mid-semester academic review”, in which I must explain to the program directors (in French, of course), what my assignments have been and how the courses are going— but I’ve only had two weeks of classes! I am therefore at a total loss for what to say. However, I’ve decided to merely let the sacred enjoyment of Shakespeare and Co. wash over me, and, in a stubborn act probably characteristic of my year in school, just sit back and staunchly refuse to acknowledge the future’s approach.

Two German girls just came in and politely admired my scattered pages of scribbling, possibly assuming that due to the messiness of my handwriting and the Mufasa-like mane of my hair that I must be some kind of tortured genuis— if only they knew! The girls beamed and kindly wished me good luck with my writing, and I watched them go, feeling elated from the encounter and just generally excited about what life might offer next. Then a paunchy middle-aged man turned the corner and immediately sniggered at the sight of me before marching out. He has now been replaced with yet another piano-playing young man, whose tunes are currently so exquisite that they make me want to weep, right onto all of the dusty books. So here I sit, experiencing life’s little curveballs in the brightly lit Utopia of the Shakespeare and Co. bookshop.

The Good, the Bad, and the Grapes
October 18, 2011, 5:09 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

This past Tuesday marked the beginning of my first academic classes in France. It would be pathetic, not to mention spoiled, to say that prior to this I had felt bored— Paris is one of the most beautiful and culturally rich cities on earth, and I could never absorb everything it has to offer, even if I tried with all the time in the world. However, I could feel myself longing for a routine, and a place to meet French citizens of the non-homeless demographic.

I was so excited, I was even willing to temporarily forget the downside of attending a school not typically endorsed by my abroad program— the fact that it’s located just north of Paris, meaning that in order to arrive on time for my 9:00am class, I had to get up at 6:30am and take the subway across the whole of the city. Not yet daunted, I downed a double espresso five minutes before class and nervously sat down in what was to be my once-a-week six hour lecture course on dance from an anthropological perspective. That’s right— 9am to 3pm. This would have been significantly easier that first day if the class hadn’t been entirely in French, thus demanding one hundred percent of my concentration.

However, the classes are so fascinating and promising that it all seems worthwhile. All throughout the week I’ve experienced bursts of excitement (accompanied by certain amounts of sweating and a perpetual urge to pee, courtesy of all the coffee). On Wednesday I attended my “Terrain” class, which is a combined lecture and dance workshop on movement analysis from a variety of social and academic perspectives. My remarkably sweet professor used to train with Balanchine and Martha Graham (I had a mild heart attack when she announced this), and lectured on the history of dance and the study of the mechanisms of the body, covering everything from Galileo and Darwin to the founding of rudimentary gymnastics. We got to spend the last hour of class in groups, creating and analyzing movement— I was in heaven. All the teachers are very young and approachable, the vibe relaxed and inviting.

This is not to say that there haven’t been difficulties along the way— I wasted six hours of my life taking three different metro trips to my school before classes began in an attempt to find the administrative secretary for a specific department, a man who was evidently of the mindset that stapling office hours on his constantly locked door did not mean that he actually had to attend them. After I tracked him down at last, he gave me a piece of paper telling me my class times, so imagine my surprise when I arrived at school at 9am after the whole six-thirty-wake-up-and-chug-coffee routine, only to find that my class wasn’t until noon, just enough time to hypothetically ride the subway to my dorm, them promptly turn around and come back. When confronted with the misleading piece of paper and my sleep-deprived-sass, the secretary looked down at his own handwriting and said in mild surprise, “Hmm, I wonder what happened.” I was sorely tempted to respond, “YOU. You happened”, but decided that rudeness wasn’t the best life choice for my first week of classes.

I decided to whittle away the three hours hours between fictional-class-start-time and real-class-start-time by going to the university library and tackling some long-neglected emails. However, when I arrived I was informed by a perfectly placid librarian that the school’s internet wasn’t going to be working that day— at all.

By then I was used to these sort of proclamations; I live, along with a few other EDUCO students, in Lucien Paye, a dorm at the Cite Universitaire typically reserved for African and Caribbean students only (in case this was somehow unclear they’ve carved actual totem poles into the front of the building), but which we have had the privilege of sharing. LP is a great place for testing your daring and resilience in matters of patience and personal hygiene— our new sheets delivered every two weeks often arrive bearing dubious stains, the internet comes and goes as it pleases, and for a while I thought I had hit rock bottom when toilet paper would go missing for days at a time in the co-ed bathroom stalls— until the fateful day two weeks ago when I sauntered in to find that the toilets seats had also disappeared entirely. I haven’t seen them since.

Apparently several nights ago a meeting was held so that residents could air their long lists of (presumably valid) grievances about our dorm. As much as I would have enjoyed this spectacle, I could not attend; but I came back from dance to hear that the whole thing didn’t pan out too well— free cheese and grapes had been provided, snacks which were used as weapons by one particularly vengeful Zambian student, who allegedly hurled them at an LP faculty member when things got a little tense. However, I only heard this from the Moroccan girl who lives on my floor who I can’t understand too well, so who knows what really went down— now it is merely the stuff of legend.

Luck o’ the Irish
October 13, 2011, 2:31 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I arrived in Dublin with three American friends at approximately 2:30pm, and by 2:35 I was instantly in love, having been predictably charmed by the local accents and provocatively devil-may-care weather. We set up camp in our hostel, walked around the city, came back for a quick power nap, and then partook in one of the oldest and most sacred of Irish traditions— the (rapid) consumption of Guinness. I don’t think the members of any country necessarily enjoy owning up to their stereotypes, but how could we help drawing certain conclusions when we walked tentatively into the first bar, only to find ourselves in a veritable flock of singing Irishmen, joyously raising their mugs to the exact song that Gerard Butler sings to Hilary Swank in P.S. I Love You?

I was experiencing the world’s greatest contact high— the jolly atmosphere, combined with our collective relief at being able to slip into English again, made our two consecutive evenings of Irish revelry some of the best I’ve had since being abroad. I guess I have a “type”; I fell for Dublin, Ireland for the same reasons I became infatuated with Sydney, Australia. Each place is a bustling metropolis with laid-back, no-fuss, seemingly unflappable citizens who have massive amounts of cheer, quirkiness, and goodwill to recommend them. The two cities themselves seem to have a constant hum of innovative-grassroots-activity; book markets, political protests, street art exhibitions, musicians, and more.

Similar to Australia (and New Zealand), Ireland also has a stunning natural beauty. On Saturday morning, we traveled to Howth and took a three hour hike up the mountains along the coast, and I have to say (with a proper amount of embarrassment at the cliche), that the experience made my heart sing. We finally reached the top of the mountain, and I got to look out over endless ocean and silent cliffs, feeling a peace settling in around me so palpably. Why do I not take the time to go outside more, when it’s so easy and the positive effects of doing so are instantaneous? As I sat there, my mind rushed, almost tripping over itself to feel the resounding implications of every subsequent thought— the earth offering itself up, existing for so many years, and instantly personified and infinitely wiser than humankind, it seemed to me in that moment. The landscape was all about wild, tangled, untamed beauty, so different from the manicured parks I’d recently seen.

What is it about being outside that makes me feel simultaneously at peace and also stimulated and suddenly ambitious, filled with “grand” proclamations and plans for the future? In this case, was it the fact that life and death were so equally, so visibly present in front of me— the cliffs and the ocean perilous and yet the truest manifestations of earth and existence? Maybe it was because the scenery made me think of my family, since so many of my outdoor experiences have been childhood family trips. Perhaps my parents gave me this growing respect for the earth (I don’t know how to write that without sounding corny) through these early experiences, or perhaps it’s innate for everyone, something instilled in our very bones.

All I knew is that it was imperative that I shared this moment with my family, so yes readers, on top of that mountain I actually whipped out my blackberry and bbmed them. This act in and of itself was such an ironic contrast— the epitome of modern technology pitted against the grace of earth and time. Even just the fact that I could get service on that peak astounded me! And yet, those two conflicting aspects felt equally vital and/or present for me— I felt like I was standing at the crossroads of life and culture in that moment, and the world had never seemed so real for me.

The trip to that mountain also allowed me to absorb the importance of having a good relationship with the outside world in its entirety. In the past, I’ve always been determined to try and like myself internally, my logic being that after all, at the end of the day there is no one who is going to be in your corner more than you, and no one who has to put up with you more than you. But in Ireland, and abroad in general, I suddenly found it oddly comforting to realize that no matter how I feel about myself or others at any one time, there’s the whole world out there to pay attention to— an unthinkable amount of stimuli just waiting for you to lose yourself in it.

None of this may make any sense, in fact I’m fairly certain that it doesn’t, but that’s how I experienced Ireland— a time to relax, to enjoy, to process, to become saturated (in both the intellectual and the food-and-drink sense), and to just revel in the moment. As I sat there atop the mountain, a dog scrambled past me, drooling and panting, and I felt like I understood his every thought (or maybe just the one)— that uncontainable, uncontrollable delight in just being.

Class Blog: Voices from Cornell Abroad

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