Bonjour mes amis! Writing after a full 6 days living in (and loving) Paris. The first 8 days of our program includes touring and experiencing the City of Lights, mainly because the French Revolution typifies the time period of our class (the “Age of Revolution” 1789-1848). Paris, with its bustling sidewalks, endless cafes, and (confirmed: delicious) street crepes is a far cry from any of the cities my family encountered in Austria. And while night-time strolls along the Seine and accordion players on the subway have made this week unforgettable, in my last blog entry I feel like I was trying too hard to infuse a lesson into each point on my list. I have learned a ton (Cathédrale de Saint Denis is in a sketchy area of town, always be ready to pay for public bathrooms) but rather than trying to make poignant lessons out of each unexpected or embarrassing thing that happens to me I think I’ll start documenting the beautiful little experiences that have made this week generally awe-inspiring and unforgettable.
So, here is a relatively short entry about, among other things:
Ice cubes (or lack thereof)
In coming to Paris, I was determined to try authentic foods. So baguettes, macaroons, crème brûlée, and… raw meat? There was a group dinner our first night, and instead of opting for something safe like a hamburger or a salad I decided to try the infamous beef tartare. Aka a patty of raw hamburger meat lumped on a plate with (French) fries. And, as you may have guessed, it was absolutely disgusting: a weird cold mass with some sort of nasty mayonnaise sauce. Even my professor, who has lived in Paris in the past and enjoys traditional French dishes, disliked this plate of tartare. My new classmates kindly shared their food with me, but the raw meat debacle humbled me in some ways: I can’t completely submerge myself in a new culture and new place right off the bat. So, while I am still hunting for French onion soup and tried my first plate of snails, I am now starting to pay closer attention to my limits (and every time we walk by a café with some unfortunate local devouring tartare, I resist the urge to cringe).
As I said before, my program is centered around the Age of Revolution. So basically, we are studying the social, economic, and political consequences of the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution (birth of capitalist industry, “bourgeois” liberal society, socialism, world market, secular belief in progress, and the list goes on). The French Revolution completely changed the global climate, and many of the policies and institutions established continue to impact politics (and economics and social institutions/climates). And there are few revolutionary figures more iconic than the little Frenchman Napoleon Bonaparte. Interesting guy, great military leader, and, surprising or not, a complete and utter narcissist. We toured the Invalides, and we spent about an hour and a half focusing on Napoleon’s tomb alone. It was spectacular and huge, beset with gold and marble. While Napoleon himself didn’t intend to be specifically buried at the Invalides, the tomb coincided with the rampant ego he seems to have had in life (it takes a lot of confidence to declare yourself emperor. And to say afterwards that “The revolution is over. I am the revolution.”) The entire tomb was like a church, and it was almost eerie to consider how drastically one man could change the course of history (restoring the ancien regime to France after a dramatic revolution. And trying to reinstitute slavery in the colonies. And starting wars that killed thousands of people.). Anyways, Napoleons tomb was just one of the extremely beautiful buildings I toured while here in Paris that’s purpose and history was still kind of morbid and messed-up. The building is intended as a place to worship and revere the man that reinstituted a despotic regime in Paris, and who destroyed revolutionary ideals of equality and republicanism. Anyways, I now have a cautious respect for this man that rose from soldier to emperor, and who somehow managed to gain the utmost admiration and devotion from the French people in the process.
Ice cubes (or lack thereof)
Just a quick fact about France: here they don’t believe in ice cubes. At least not for soft drinks like Coca-Cola. (Expert tip: don’t ask for a “coke.” They will look at you weird.) You are given a bottle or can of soda, and a glass with a lemon in it. And soda here goes for about 5 euros a bottle. Which I find blasphemous, especially considering it isn’t even cold. What’s more, Parisians apparently don’t believe in air conditioning, so when the temperature rose to 92 degrees we had to figure out how to sleep in our sauna-like dorm rooms (I can only imagine how kids that aren’t from Florida coped with the situation). The lesson here: after a miserable heat wave of several days, the weather is now cold and raining, so I guess ice cubes and air conditioning aren’t that important in the long term. I guess be careful what you wish for (now I am wet and cold instead of sweaty and hot) and try to make uncomfortable foreign experiences novel and fun (although when subways, museums, libraries, and dorms aren’t air conditioned there always is a risk of heat stroke). Still not sure why cafes won’t splurge on a couple ice cubes, but I guess it’s good that I am experiencing the little quirks of francophone culture.
People in Paris (and everywhere else I have been in Europe) smoke cigarettes. A lot. Pushing their kids in strollers, sitting inside restaurants, waiting in metro stations- everyone everywhere seems to have a chain-smoking problem. Smoking in the US is seen, more or less, as a dangerous addiction that can kill people and even dogs (second hand smoke is bad, my dear readers). Here they must either be in denial of the statistical likelihood of cancer, or they are just really dedicated to maintaining the classic French person aesthetic (berets, moustaches, and, yes, cigarettes). Especially after coming to smoggy, nicotine-ridden Paris after the clear mountain air of Austria, I struggled a little reconciling with the Parisian need to smoke. I mean, this is supposed to be the hot-bed of modernity and style, not a cloud of cigarette smoke. But, as the days have gone on I am getting more tolerant of the toxic exhalations of my French counterparts. I may develop a tumor, but my aim in coming on this trip was to respect foreign cultures, and this includes coming to terms with my cigarette-puffing hosts.
Just one final note about speaking avec the French. It is very hit or miss. I took 5 years of French before coming to UF, so I can read most signs and menus and understand most casual conversations on the subway, but this is a far cry from existing entirely in the language. Sometimes when I try to order food or ask a question Parisians respond in English, or they pretend to not understand my French pronunciation. And sometimes they yell at me incoherently in Franglish (pardon monsieur, I couldn’t read the tiny sign about your hours while you were widely gesticulating and acting like some sort of crazed chain-smoking mime.) For the most part, though, I have found that if you try to speak French, the locals will at least attempt to communicate with you. Which, in reflection, is a lot better than Americans treat many foreign tourists that struggle with English. While the Parisians I have met so far aren’t cuddly and warm, they are generally civil, and I think speaking French shows them that you respect their culture. So je vais continuer trying to parler with the French. Poor conjugation and a limited vocabulary won’t stop me from experiencing Paris to the fullest.
- L’Arc de Triomphe. We arrived just after Bastille Day so the city was still coated in the French tricolor.
- A couple of my lovely classmates that shared their food with me after my raw meat adventure. Here we are standing in front of the Cite Universitaire International de Paris, where we are staying for the week.
- Outside view of the Invalide.
- Napoleon’s tomb (lots of people come to see it).
- Smiling despite the oppressive heat in Luxembourg Gardens.
- Gator chomping outside of Versailles (I didn’t take any pictures specifically of the smoking masses of Parisians there).
- Paris skyline (et le Tour Eiffel!)