Sunday, November 30, 2008

London, Part Deux

On Monday, thanks to Emilia, we took a “Royal London” tour from the same free tour company (the guides live on tips, but that way you can tip only as much as you thought the tour was worth, which I think is a lovely idea). We met at Wellington Arch:
Where everyone on the tour had to go around saying where they were from, so instead of just saying the USA I said Vermont, because Vermonter pride goes deep, and after the introductions a guy about my age came up to me and said he was from New Hampshire, so we bonded. It also turned out that he’d done cross-country, so he’d been to my high school numerous times to run on the trail. Which is pretty cool. And then, as we continued talking, I discovered that he’s a language assistant in France too – he’s in a suburb of Paris. So we talked about French kids and how obnoxious they are–I mean, how much we love them.

By this time, we’d gotten to Buckingham Palace, where we were just in time to watch the changing of the guard. Having seen it once before, I didn’t feel like fighting my way through the crowd of tourists to climb onto the railings, as I did when I was 18, so I took a few pictures from further away and listened to the band (which played the James Bond theme again!). Here’s the palace:
The Queen was not in residence at the time, which you can tell because her special Queen flag wasn’t flying. We did get to hear stories about various people who’d managed to sneak into the palace, including a drunk Irishman who wanted to talk to the Queen about his problems. So he jumped a fence, got into the palace, and proceeded to wander around, setting off so many alarms that the security guard thought the system had gone haywire and restarted it (I’m pretty sure he got fired after that). Somehow, out of the hundreds of rooms in the palace, the Irish guy found his way to the Queen’s bedroom, where she was sleeping the sleep of a contented monarch, secure in the knowledge that she had two personal guards posted outside her door at all times. However, one of the guards had gone to the bathroom, and the other, in classically British fashion, had spilled tea on himself and gone to clean it up. So plastered Irish guy is free to enter the Queen’s bedroom, open the drapes on her bed, and sit down to tell her all about his problems. All of which he does. The Queen, meanwhile, is being unfailingly polite, but pushing her panic button surreptitiously. No one answers, of course. After about 10 minutes, there’s that awkward pause when someone runs out of things to rant about, and the Irish guy takes out a cigarette and asks the Queen if she’s got a light. The Queen, showing admirable cleverness, says “No, but I believe my guards outside the door do – why don’t you go ask them?” By this point, bladders and tea spills having been taken care of, both guards are back, and they grab the Irishman as he comes out of the door. No harm done. He was taken for a psychiatric evaluation, and is now in some sort of institution, I believe, with the best crazy-person story ever. After that, I think the palace security staff had a few more rules about when they could take breaks…

Anyway, I managed to take a few pictures of the ridiculous fuzzy hats of the palace guards:
And another as they were marching past us at the end:
Unfortunately, as it’s winter, they’ve got their gray winter uniforms on, instead of the red summer ones. This happened the last time, too – clearly I have to plan my trips better.

We continued to walk around the palace, and got to another entrance, also guarded. This was our opportunity to act like classic, obnoxious tourists, so we did:
We made sure to thank him afterwards, though. And to not touch him, because if you do anything that interferes with their (very real) job of guarding the palace, they are perfectly within their rights to elbow you, nudge you, or poke you with the pointy thing at the end of their big scary gun.

Then, as we were walking to the next royal destination, we heard the strains of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” floating towards us. Lo and behold, some Monty Python demonstrators holding signs saying “There is only ONE Palin” (referring, of course, to Michael Palin). I slowed down to sing with them, and then had to run to catch up with the group, so my picture isn’t very good:
Still, though, you can see the lumberjack and the Spanish Inquisition guy and all in all it made me really happy.

One final guard in a funny hat for your viewing pleasure:

Then we passed the WWII museum, which sounded really interesting but we didn’t have time to go to it. We did learn that we were standing on the famous War Room, where Winston Churchill hung out and made all those decisions during the war:
If you happen to have x-ray vision, you can totally see the room itself. If not, it just looks like a paving stone, and I apologize.

On our way to Big Ben, we passed this building, which made me think of my engineering friends again:
Clearly London treats engineers better than the US does – you get gilt lettering!

Then there was Big Ben, which is really rather impressive. It seemed really familiar and I was wondering why, and then I remembered the 3-D jigsaw puzzle that I did of it a long time ago… So the way to educate your children about architecture is to make them do 3-D jigsaw puzzles of all the famous buildings in the world.

And I lied – one more London official in a funny hat:

Then the tour was over and Emilia and I went in search of good fish and chips, which we found at a restaurant called The Rock and Sole Plaice (haha). I got cod, I think, and it was delicious. Somehow I managed to finish my entire huge plate o’ fried things, and thus fortified we headed back to Oxford Street and Uniqlo so I could have company while spending far too much money on that coat, which I had decided to get. Emilia approved of it, so I bought it, and it turned out to only cost £72 with a student discount (and when I checked the exchange rate, that was only $115. So I’m really glad I got it). It’s beautiful and warm and elegant and very very European and I love it.

That evening, Jenna and I thought about going swing dancing, but it was rainy and icky and I’d been walking all day, so we decided to stay in the dorm and go to a showing of Caramel, a movie that took place in Lebanon (I think) and is about a bunch of different women and their love stories and stuff. It was really good, and there were Lebanese pastries, so I was happy.

On Tuesday, my last full day in London, I decided it was time to really see the British Museum, not just pop in for half an hour like I had last time (the joys of free museums…). Also, Emilia being the fellow language dork that she is, she wanted to see the Rosetta Stone. So here’s me being a huge nerd.
And the grin on my face is not because I’m being photographed, but because I’m next to what is quite possibly the coolest language artifact in the history of the world, since it allowed Jean-François Champollion (who was even more of a language dork than I am) to realize that hieroglyphs were an alphabet, not just pictures, and to decode them. Here’s a close-up of the cartouche containing the name Ptolemy that first clued Champollion in to the nature of hieroglyphs:
Champollion read the Greek on the bottom of the stone and figured that the three inscriptions said the same thing, then thought that the word in the cartouche was probably a name, and matched it up with the Ptolemy he found in the Greek part. From there, he basically did a giant, really really hard cryptoquip to figure out the rest. Seriously, how cool is that? If I’d been around in the 1800’s I would totally have been a Champollion groupie. “Jean, mon petit chou, how do you say ‘love’ in Egyptian?” with much batting of eyelashes. Okay I’ll stop being a dork now. Sorry about that…

After looking at all the pretty statues, we went to the mummy room, which was awesome. There was a whole group of Japanese tourists, so taking pictures without giggling schoolgirls miming mummy poses was difficult, but I did manage to take a few. There was an exhibit of a mummy that had been unwrapped in the 1800’s in one of those parlor demonstrations that were all the rage for a while, so all the organs were neatly laid out and labeled in this little box. Here’s the uterus, apparently:
And the pericardium:
Just looks like wrinkled brown leather to me, but then again, I’m used to seeing my organs a few centuries fresher.

Moving away from the gross stuff (I’ll spare you the classic explanation of how to make a mummy, which everyone learned in third grade anyway) there was this beautiful beaded drape (restored – wouldn’t you like to have that job?) made to go over a mummy:
Mom, I think that should be your next beading project – ought to keep you busy for awhile!

Then we wandered through the Bronze Age section, where there were so many shiny things I could barely concentrate on one at a time. Just call me a magpie. Here’s a necklace thingy:
And an awesome shield that was apparently only decorative, because it would have been far too heavy to carry into battle.
Finally, there was a display with all sorts of pretty little rings with various motifs on them, including this one:
I couldn’t quite make out what the image was, so I read the description, which said that the phallus symbol was apparently a good luck charm. Whatever floats your boat…

After the museum Emilia headed off to do her own thing while I went to Westminster Abbey, having decided that I could afford to spend a ridiculous amount on one tourist attraction, at least.
Unfortunately, you can’t take pictures inside, so that’s the only photo I’ve got. After shelling out my 9£, I took the included audioguide and turned it on, to be greeted by the voice of Jeremy Irons. Yes, the audioguide to Westminster is read by Jeremy Irons. Happy, happy Lisa. It was a very good guide, too – lots of interesting facts, and they even had a few recordings of the choirboys singing that you could listen to as you walked around. I particularly liked the Lady Chapel because the ceiling was incredibly delicate and intricately carved. I also liked the memorials of various famous people – they’re all over the walls and floors because there are so many of them, so you’ll be wandering around and suddenly realize you’re walking over Dylan Thomas, or some such person. The Abbey also has a little garden, near the small cloisters, where people who work there actually live. How cool must that be? “So, where do you live?” “Westminster Abbey, actually. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?” I also got to see the coronation chair, where the monarch sits to be crowned – it’s nothing special to look at, really, because it’s made of wood and really old so it looks rather chewed up. For coronations they cover it with fancy cloths. There were lots more interesting things, but I can’t remember them and in any case they’d be more fun with photos, so you’ll just have to go to London and see it for yourself!

After the Abbey it was back to Goodenough for dinner and election-watching, which was phenomenal and amazing and really really tiring. Then back to home sweet France, which I had missed. I actually felt more like a foreigner in London than I do in France, I think because in London no one’s impressed that I speak the language, so I’m just the silly American asking stupid questions, whereas in France they’re all like, “Ooh, cute little American trying to speak French! I’ll be nice to her!” Anyway, it was a bit of a relief to be back in France. Also I missed baguettes. French carbs just taste so much better.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

These Brits are Crazy...

And now, the post you’ve all been waiting for: LONDON! The home of posh accents, guards in funny hats, and most importantly mint Aero bars. Seriously, those things are like crack. See, the original Aero was lovely enough – it’s just a chocolate bar, but the inside has bubbles in it, so it’s wonderfully light and if you’re patient enough to let it melt on your tongue it feels awesome. So then the brilliant chocolate scientists at Nestlé had the brilliant idea of putting minty deliciousness inside, and the mint Aero was born and quickly took up residence in a special place in my heart. And my hips. But I digress.

So I took the Eurostar to London, which was fun, although since it was dark I didn’t realize we were under the English Channel until we were already halfway through, and then it was just weird to think of the tons and tons of water above us. As soon as we came out my phone started buzzing, and I thought oh no, someone’s trying to call me and I’ll have to ignore it because it probably costs about 8 € a minute to talk on my French phone in England, but lo and behold, it was a text message from my French cell phone company telling me how much everything costs in England! So, while slightly creepy that they knew where I was, it was nice to know how much I was actually spending to communicate with people. It wasn’t too expensive, either, which came in very handy for coordinating with people. London is a big city, bigger than I really realized, and sometimes even a street corner is not an exact enough place to meet someone.

My lovely friend Jenna met me at St. Pancras and we walked to her room, which is in a kind of a dorm called Goodenough College. Apparently some nice man named Goodenough gave lots of money to have these buildings erected so students from any university in London would have somewhere to live. There are common rooms, a cafeteria, and even a pub, so it’s quite a nice place. Also it kind of looks like Hogwarts:
That’s the central courtyard, where there is a plaque honoring the time Her Majesty the Queen came to Goodenough. I found little inscriptions everywhere, actually, each one for a different year, each one commemorating Her Highness. Oh, the English and their Queen.

I arrived quite late at night, so we just chatted and then went to bed. The next morning, Thursday, I didn’t get my butt out of bed for a loooooong time, because the siren song of free Internet called and I was weak. So finally, after checking all my webcomics and reading all my blogs (ironically, the fact that I don’t have Internet at home in France makes me more likely to write blog posts, but less able to publish them) I decided to walk down to the main shopping area near Jenna. I took advantage of the fact that there are American-style pharmacies in England (France still hasn’t caught on) to buy mascara and cold medicine and candy bars and Ribena (mmmm blackcurrant juice), all in one handy store. Seriously, France, join the club and start some real pharmacies, instead of those tiny little places where everything is behind the counter and costs the earth. Then I found a little place to get a jacket potato (baked potato, for those across the pond) where the cashier thought I was German, for some reason. Maybe because I still had euros in my wallet, or because I’m pretty sure my brain was still in French mode so I bet my English wasn’t the greatest. Anyway, then I wandered along Oxford Street, window-shopping, and found this store called Uniqlo.

Uniqlo is a Japanese brand with nicely made basic clothing, including a bunch of cashmere. I’ve been looking for an elegant single-breasted black wool jacket, with no belt or pleats or extraneous details, for quite some time, and it’s been almost impossible to find. So when I saw my dream jacket on a mannequin, I thought, Well, it’s pretty, but it’s probably going to end up being either synthetic or prohibitively expensive. So I looked at the tag, which said 79.99£. The pound is no longer quite double the dollar, but it’s close, so I figured about $150. So I looked at the label: 90% wool, 10% cashmere. I tried it on. It fit perfectly, looked amazing, and was so soft… But $150! screamed the sensible part of my brain. Warm and fuzzy! screamed the reptile brain. So I put it back on the rack and decided I would consult with Jenna before spending half of my monthly food budget on a coat. By that time I was tired and hungry and cold, and it was raining (you’d think I would have vacationed somewhere where the weather’s actually better than Normandy, but no, I had to pick the one place that’s just as famous for rain) so I decided to go back home. Not having a transportation card yet, I thought I’d just walk, because it didn’t look like a long way on the map… Forty minutes later, when I finally got back to Jenna’s dorm, about all I could do was sit there and watch House episodes online. When Jenna got back, we had a nice relaxing dinner in the dining hall and I got to meet some of her friends, who are awesome. Then we went back to her room for tea and stayed up far too late chatting, because we’re girls and that’s what we do.

On Friday, my fellow language assistant Emilia, who was also visiting a friend in London, found a free tour of Old London, so we went to that while our respective hosts went to class. The tour was great, and given by a very handsome young Londoner named Alex, so we thoroughly enjoyed it. We saw a lot of places that would have been really neat to go into, like the Tower of London…
St Paul’s Cathedral…
the London Eye…
But our friendly guide informed us of the prices of all those places and we promptly decided that we could do without them. I think that since most of the museums in London are free, the other tourist attractions decided that they could charge exorbitant prices so as to ensure that tourists spend the same amount of money they would in a different city.

We walked along the banks of the Thames (I seem to have a habit of spending time in cities with rivers running through them – I like it) and this beautiful bridge came into view:
“London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down…” I started to sing, only to be told by a smiling Alex that the bridge before our eyes was in fact Tower Bridge, not London Bridge. Oops. This is London Bridge:
Not much to write home about, huh? London Bridge has the more interesting past, though – I’ve forgotten some of the stories, but I do remember the one about why Brits (and all sensible people, as Alex reminded the Americans) drive on the left. So, many many years ago, when London Bridge had houses and shops and such built on it, there was very little room left for traffic, so they had to decide on some rules of the road. If, as you were riding your horse across the bridge, you met someone you didn’t like very much and fancied a bit of a duel, it made much more sense to draw the sword hanging at your left side to fight the man coming at you on the right. So the powers that be proclaimed the left side of the road to be the correct one, and so it persists to this day, albeit with fewer swords and bloodshed and such.

We then headed towards the one bit of London that still looks like it did way back in the Middle Ages – the reason the rest of the city doesn’t is that London has burned to the ground numerous times (you’d think that after the first they’d have learned to not build everything from wood…). On the way, we passed this street:
Which of course made me hungry for spotted dick and plum pudding and suchlike things. Anyway, here’s the medieval bit:
Cute little winding streets yay! It’s easy to forget how very old London is, because most of the buildings are new, so it’s nice to see some evidence that it was actually there many years ago. It’s not like Paris, where nothing much has changed for centuries and you can easily imagine yourself back in time.

Then we went back towards the Thames to see the Millennium Bridge, which wasn’t actually finished until some years after the millennium, and cost some astronomical sum to build. Then, on the opening day, as hundreds of people walked across it, it started to bounce and wiggle about and generally misbehave, because the engineer had forgotten to account for people subconsciously walking in step and so setting up sympathetic vibrations (right, engineering buddies?). So they had to pour more money into it to stabilize it. Even Alex agreed that this was typically British. The bridge is quite nice, though, and it doesn’t wiggle anymore – believe me, I tried.
Then we saw the Royal Courts, which didn’t have any funny stories attached to them, but they were pretty:
Then the tour was done, and since we’d been walking in the cold for the last three hours, Emilia and I decided to ask Alex where we could get a good pasty (as in a meat pie, not anything related to strippers). He recommended a place near Covent Garden, so we set off. Along the way, Emilia spotted a classic red London phone booth across the street, so we stopped to be touristy and take photos. I took about 5, and they all had cars or taxis or buses in them, so I gave up, but when I got home and looked at my photos on a bigger screen, I realized that one of them had come out, in a way:
See it? So you’ve got two of your London stereotypes in one – convenient, no? Anyway, we continued on to the Cornish Pasty Shop, where I ordered a steak and Guinness pasty and a pint of cider. It was delicious. Partway through, I remembered to take a picture:
See how much of the cider (it was called Scrumpy Jack’s, which just about made my day) is still there? A pint is a lot, and I was extremely giggly and happy when we got up to leave. I may or may not have actually skipped through Covent Garden…

We both had to get back to meet our hosts, so we walked back to the Thames and walked along it to the nearest Tube stop (I had bought a week pass, which made me very happy – the Tube is quite nice and there is actually a recorded voice that says “Mind the gap”!), occasionally pausing to take pictures:
Again with the Queen… Seriously, these Brits are crazy.

When I got back to Jenna’s room, I very quickly helped her pick out clothes for a party she was going to (only people from her program were invited, so I had to stay home) and she rushed off. After watching more House episodes, I headed out to try to find dinner and found a fish and chips stand. Mmmm fried deliciousness. The man had given me all sorts of condiments, so I did a taste-test of all of them: vinegar, tartar sauce, ketchup and mayo. The vinegar was the best, although I’m turning European enough that I like mayo on French fries now. After recovering from the grease, I got dressed up and headed out to meet Jenna and her friends. We ended up heading back to the apartment of one of the members of her program, which was really lovely. I had a great time meeting all of her friends, and we didn’t get back home until about 3 am.

We managed to rouse ourselves the next morning for brunch, where we organized a trip to the National Portrait Gallery. I wasn’t expecting to like it that much, because I don’t generally like portraits, but there are really detailed explanations of who most of the people are, so it was quite interesting to read about them. Especially the royal families, who were so inbred it’s a wonder more of them weren’t imbeciles. I also spotted this lovely bewigged man:
who happens to be Robert Boyle. Any chemistry nerds out there? Yes, this is the Boyle of Boyle’s Law, which states (as far as I can remember) that the more you squish a gas, the less space it takes up. Logical, yes, but if you lived in the 1600’s you got to state a lot of obvious things and stick your name on them.

There was a temporary exhibition as well – I forget the name of the artist, but it was to benefit an AIDS charity. It was a wall of nude black and white photos of athletes, and it was beautiful. Just the elegance and grace of the human form, without any distracting elements or tackiness or anything. I especially remember a female swimmer (I think) with long black hair perfectly arranged against her pale back.

After that, Jenna had to go practice (the life of a violin performance student is tough) so I went and geeked out in the Egyptian section of the British Museum for a little bit. And when I say geeked out, I mean that I almost completely ignored all statues without writing on them, going straight for any hieroglyphs and trying (mostly in vain) to remember my hieroglyph alphabet. I did remember ankh dja s, which is the abbreviation for “life, prosperity, health”, and a few letters here and there, but mostly I was just comparing the different styles of hieroglyphs. Then it was time to go home and make dinner – we’d bought lettuce, cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, and bread, and Jenna has a basil plant in her room, so we made tomato, basil and mozzarella salad and it was delicious. Of course, we had to take pictures, or “food porn” as Jenna calls them:
So pretty! And so yummy!

It was raining again, and we didn’t feel like doing anything special, so we went to the TV room with some other Americans to watch Back to the Future, which Jenna hadn’t seen (cue chorus of “What? Impossible!”, which is why I didn’t tell anyone that I hadn’t really seen it properly either… When you’re as pop-culturally challenged as I am, you learn early on just to keep your mouth shut in situations like that.) Anyway, it was nice to get some American culture for a change.

On Sunday morning, homesick for my regular French market (that’s going to be the thing I miss most about France – I can’t even go a week without it) I did some research and found the Camden Lock Market. Jenna and I set off to meet Emilia at the market. On the way, we passed the playground near her dorm, where sheep apparently just roam around. One was close to the bars, grazing, so we said good morning to it.
When we got to the market, we realized it was more for clothing and accessories than fruits and veg, but that didn’t matter. There were all sorts of stalls selling ethnic food, all of which were priced at 4£ a serving, making the decision much harder. I ended up getting lamb curry, which was absolutely delicious. Thus fortified, we plunged back into the confusion of stalls and shops built into the stone walls. Jenna found a beautiful vaguely-ethnic-looking top that we convinced her to get because it looked great on her, and then she had to go back and practice. Emilia and I continued to wander and found a stall selling Marimekko-esque handbags (not at all the quality of Marimekko, but the patterns were bright and lively and awesome) and I gave in, telling myself I needed a medium-sized bag:
Impractical, perhaps, but oh so purty. Emilia bought one as well – hers had cherries on it.

Continuing our wanderings, we came across a stall selling doughnuts of every variety imaginable. After taking close to 10 minutes to decide, I got a custard-filled, chocolate-and-nuts-topped one, and Emilia got a caramely one, I think. Here we are pigging out:

They were so good. Gooiness is next to happiness, I think.

We continued to explore the market, finding new things we coveted at every turn, then having to reason with ourselves (“No Lisa, you don’t actually need those legwarmers… or that scarf… or that shirt… and what makes you think you can fit it into your luggage anyway?”) so as to not walk out of the market with double what we came in with. Finally, we came across another stall with handbags, this time more elegant, and met our match. I got this one, which matches my turquoise scarf perfectly:
And Emilia got a really cute little one made of little bamboo slats, perfect for holding one’s cell, lip balm, and credit cards on an evening out.

Finally, we extricated ourselves, stopped at Sainsbury’s on the way back to the Tube to buy candy bars, and headed home for dinner. We had a date with a certain man of mystery that night, a man whose taste in women is as impeccable as his dress sense, who never loses his cool… Yes, James Bond. Emilia, her friend Sarah, Jenna and I all had tickets to see the new movie at Leicester Square, which was exciting because it was London and the movie had just come out and because, after all, Daniel Craig is an extremely attractive man. So here we are in front of the marquée:
The atmosphere in the movie theater was great – everyone was excited, they clapped when the curtain went up, all of that. The movie itself… I don't want to burst anyone’s bubble, but I would wait for it to come out on video. Also, make sure to watch Casino Royale (that was the last one, right?) before this one, because if you’ve forgotten what happened in Casino Royale you’ll be a bit lost in Quantum of Solace. The whole movie felt like one big long action scene, even more so than in most James Bonds (and I like Bond movies in general). There wasn’t enough plot to tie it all together, and even the love scene (yes, there was only one) was rushed and almost cursory. But it was fun to see it in London, in any case.

All right, this has been obscenely long, for which I apologize. The rest of London next week sometime, and after that tales of history teachers, mispronunciations, and getting hit on (always with the getting hit on, I know, but this is France. That's how life works here).

Sunday, November 9, 2008

So, still catching up – the week before vacation. For election reactions (and some profanity - seriously that's the only thing I could think of to title it) please scroll down to the post just below this one.

There’s this history professor who likes to tease me – he’s the one who kept saying he liked Sarah Palin, just to annoy me. Anyway, I observed one of his classes once, and he told the students that I was a new student from the US, and that they should be nice to me so I’d come back. When I didn’t show up for the next class, of course, the students all asked after me and were worried that they’d driven me away, or something, and he just laughed… He likes to mess with people’s heads. Anyway, we’ve always spoken French together, so on Friday (Oct 17), when he came up to me and said, in heavily accented but grammatically correct English, that he’d like to practice his English with me, I was quite taken aback. He said that he and his friends often go out for coffee, and that I should join them sometime to speak English, so I gave him my cell number. I don’t think he was hitting on me, but it’s hard to tell with French guys… It'll be fun to speak English, anyway, and hopefully I can get some French practice in too.

On Saturday, I was extremely productive and bought a telephone for our newly-opened telephone line, cleaning supplies to give the apartment a proper cleaning, and my Carte 12-25, which costs 49€ but gives me up to 60% reductions on train tickets, so if I go to Paris three times I will have paid for it. In the afternoon, I met up with Emilia and Nicola, a British girl, to go to the Festival du Ventre (literally Stomach Festival, but what they mean is regional food festival). The entire center of Rouen was closed to traffic, and the streets were lined with stalls selling cider, wine, beer, caramel, bread, jam, pâté, sausages, duck confit, whole rabbits… It was packed, but the three of us squeezed our way in to taste and buy and chat and it was brilliant. The man selling caramel was intrigued by our accents, so we talked with him and he threw in a few extra candies for us (seriously, being a young woman in France is awesome. I’ve gotten a few euros worth of free stuff already, and that’s without even trying to lay on the charm). I also got a butter and sugar crêpe, the first street crêpe I’ve had since getting here, and it was magnifique. We got to taste some freshly-pressed apple juice, and we bought farmer’s cider from the same place, with a warning that it wasn’t pasteurized so would continue to ferment and thus fizz when we opened it. Then, laden with our booty, we returned to the shopping streets and looked at boots for awhile. I found some that I almost bought, but they weren’t very good quality at all and they made my ankles look thick. So I was just about to give up when I saw this brilliant pair of black flat boots with laces up the back, and I’m totally a sucker for laces. So I tried them on and they made me happy and I bought them.

Thanks to the lacing, I can stuff my jeans into them, which comes in very handy. It does take me about 15 minutes to put them on, though.

Sunday was really nice, so after the market Emilia, Nikki and I went to a café, sat outside, and got demi-pêches, which are half-pints of beer with peach syrup. Very much a girly drink, but delicious and refreshing. While we were deciding what to get, Bertrand walked by and said hi, and since I totally wasn’t expecting to see him I was all discombobulated and managed to stammer out the only thing to come into my head, a very formal greeting. So he chuckled and informed me that we could tutoyer each other, which made me happy (tutoyer means “to use ‘tu’”, the informal pronoun, so when someone tells you to tutoyer them it means you can relax a bit and treat them more as equals). The trick is remembering which people have told you to tutoyer them and which you have to keep being formal with – at this point I’ve got 7 teachers I can tutoyer, so before I open my mouth I have to run down my little mental list to check. Anyway, we enjoyed our demi-pêches, and the sun, very much – it was nice to relax before our first full week of work.

Monday I only had three classes – ordinarily I’ll have four or five, but the other teachers wanted me to start after vacation. In all three, all I did was stand at the front of the room and answer questions about myself (imagine all the following in a thick French accent): “Vat is your name?” “Vair are you from in ze USA?” “Do you ‘ave a boyfriend in France?” (My response to that one was “Dear lord, I’ve only been here for three weeks! Give me time!”) “Vat are your ‘obbies?” It was fun, though, and since I didn’t have to prepare anything it was easy. In one class, they asked me if I often went out to bars in Rouen, and I said I didn’t really know any. One boy replied “Eef you want, we could go out togezzer sometime…” Whereupon the entire room burst out laughing, and I blushed beet red. Apparently that boy is a total ladies’ man. They start them early here.

Tuesday I had one class, where I did exactly the same thing. In the afternoon I went to the stationery store to buy another organizer, because I have 14 classes with 6 different teachers to keep straight, and my head is starting to explode. Also I needed another excuse to go to the stationery store. I’m starting to need a pen/paper/notebook/tape fix about every week or so – someone should probably stage an intervention soon.

On Thursday, I had three classes again, all of which asked me questions. I’m seriously going to start saying my name is Grunhilda if I have to do this much more. It’s really good for the students, though, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain. I also met Isabel, the Spanish assistant. She is super-nice, and speaks French really well, so I had a great time talking with her. She also lives really close to me, which is convenient because we’re going to try to teach each other our respective languages. She already speaks English a bit, but she wants to practice, and I’d like to remember my Spanish, so it’s perfect.

Thursday night, a bunch of Americans, North and South, went out for drinks. We went to Murphy’s and The Underground, Irish and English, respectively. I have to stop hanging out with Anglophones. I did discover that I like Krieg beer, though, which increases the number of beers I like by half. Also, I found out that my Australian friend didn’t get her carte de séjour – that indispensable piece of paper without which you are an illegal alien. So I started to worry a little bit about my own appointment to get mine the next day.

Friday morning I was exhausted, sick, and probably very slightly hung over, and I had two classes with my least favorite teacher, the one who doesn’t really know what she’s doing. She was also very tired, so the two of us were not such a great team. We managed to come up with some things to do, but it was very disorganized, and I think the students could tell, which is never good. So that was frustrating. Afterwards, I went home to get my paperwork in order for the notorious appointment at the Préfecture to get my carte de séjour. I brought copies of everything I could think of, including my plane and train tickets, because I was so worried about ending up like the Australian girl. I was called up to the window only half an hour after my scheduled appointment, so I was only stewing for 45 minutes or so. I gave all my paperwork to the woman, who inspected it all very carefully (I believe I actually prayed when she looked at my translated birth certificate), took three of my identity photos (I came to France with 12; I have two left), and gave me this beautiful, precious document in return:
This isn’t the actual carte de séjour, it’s just the temporary one – I have to go back in December to collect the real one. But it means that I’m not an illegal alien! And I can go home for Christmas! Hurray!

When I got home, I had a message on my cell phone telling me that my Internet was up and running, and that I could set everything up. Yay! I thought to myself. This day is getting better and better! So I opened up our shiny new Dartybox (the “box” is the all-in-one Internet/TV/telephone doohickey), plugged everything in, typed in all the passwords… and nothing. No Internet, no phone, no nothing. To make matters worse, I read the price list again and found out that instead of the 0.25 cents a minute that I swear the guy in the store quoted us for a call to Russia, it was actually 0.25 euros a minute. In other words, 25 cents a minute. Which is prohibitively expensive and absolutely ridiculous. So when Olesya got home, I had to break the news to her, and she was understandably pissed. We decided to cancel that service and try to find a cheaper one, but canceling involves sending a registered letter, and I had had such a bad day that I couldn’t handle it, so I put it all off till Monday. I knew this whole Internet was going to be a saga, but I never imagined it would get this bad… On the bright side, not having Internet at home makes me a lot more productive.

Saturday was much better, especially since I stayed in my pajamas all morning eating chocolate and watching The West Wing. Bradley Whitford is the cure for all that ails you. I had a meeting at 4:00 with Isabel, who is Spanish and so didn’t come until 5:00 (I never really believed that cultural difference until now). We spent a lot of time chatting and not so much talking about how to start a chorale, but we did eventually nail down some particulars. Then she made me speak Spanish for a while, which was INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT because French has chased all the Spanish I ever knew out of my head. It was fun, though, and my little linguistic-dork brain is all happy because I have to continue thinking in French even when speaking Spanish so that I can ask Isabel questions in French. Did I say my brain was happy? I meant that it EXPLODED. Then she spoke English for a while, which she speaks a lot better than she thinks she does. Her accent isn’t terribly strong, and I like it, so I keep on getting sucked into the rhythm of it and forgetting to correct her, even though she wants me to. It’s going to be a lot of fun doing this with her, especially since she’s a language dork too, so when we get together we geek out about language all the time. Oh, and my Spanish is going to become Spain-Spanish – I’m already starting that lisp thing, so all you South-American-Spanish speakers beware.

That evening, Emilia and I went to another movie (they’re only 3.90€ if you’re under 25, which is a bargain even in the US). This one was called Cliente, and it was mentioned in the New York Times, in an article called “France. Sex. Problem?” The movie is about a young man who’s married but desperately needs money, so he turns to prostitution without telling his wife. One of his clients falls for him, of course, and drama ensues. The reason for the NYT article was that apparently there was a lot of controversy surrounding the movie because of its portrayal of an older woman, la cliente, who likes sex and is willing to pay for it. The movie was good, although I didn’t understand a lot of the funny bits. I did learn lots of new words, though, most of them unrepeatable in a family blog such as this one.

Sunday Emilia and I went to the market, as usual. Walking back, Emilia said “Tiens, regarde!” (Hey, look at that!) To which I replied “Regarde quo—salut têtes de sangliers, vous allez bien?” (Look at wha—oh hi, wild boar heads, how are you today?) Yes, there were wild boar heads, two of them, carefully arranged on a table on the sidewalk, to what point and purpose I do not know. I love France. Soon after that, I stopped at a bakery to buy a baguette for a cider and cheese party, and I lucked out and got a baguette that was still warm. There is nothing in this life that beats walking down a French street with a bag full of fresh produce and cheese bought at an open-air market while tearing warm, crusty-on-the-outside, fluffy-on-the-inside pieces off an 80-centime baguette.

That evening, Emilia, Alex and I went to the fair on the banks of the Seine. It’s a real American-style fair, with all sorts of rides and carnival games and delicious, delicious fair food. The food tends to be modeled on American carnival delicacies, but with a uniquely French twist: I got a hamburger, but it was on quality bread, and there was a fried egg on it. Also, the French fries were put in the bun with everything else, and eaten with a little plastic fork. Emilia got a hot dog, which was normal except that it was put on a baguette. After our heart attacks, we wandered around, checking out the rides. There were some really good ones, including haunted houses, bumper cars, lots of Tilt-a-whirl imitations, and roller coasters. Emilia and I decided to go into a funhouse, which was a lot better than the ones I’ve been in in the US because no one’s scared of getting sued here. There was a slide at the end, which pretty much made my day. After that, we went on a roller coaster, where I discovered that everyone screams in the same language. Then we got some barbe à Papa (literally Papa’s beard, actually cotton candy) and wandered around some more. We were going to go on some more rides, but at that point it started to rain quite hard (welcome to Normandy!) so we took refuge in a heated tent with some hot chocolate to see if it would stop. It didn’t, so we all went back to my apartment to have cider and cheese and baguette. The cider definitely fizzed – if Emilia hadn’t warned me to open it in a saucepan we would have lost half of it down the drain. Alex doesn’t like alcohol, so Emilia and I drank the whole bottle ourselves. My French definitely improved by the second glass. Eventually, Emilia had to leave to catch her bus (I miss the night buses in Paris – there’s one here that goes pretty close to both my house and Emilia’s, but it only comes once an hour or so) so finally I went to bed.

Monday was the first real day of vacation! Inspired by my chats with Isabel, I bought a Spanish grammar book and set to relearning verbs. Verbs are hard. Also, the book is in French, which leads to the same sort of head-exploding that happens when I talk to Isabel. I’m sure it’s good for me, in some sick way, but dear lord it’s difficult to read about a grammatical principle in French and then apply it to Spanish. I also went to the stationery store again, this time to buy a new little notebook and inquire about my favorite kind of fountain pen, the Plumix by Pilot. I have one, and I love it very much, but when I was in Paris I saw them in tons of different colors and I’ve been wanting a red one for a while now. I showed the nice man my pen, and he delivered the heart-wrenching news that Pilot doesn’t make that style anymore! He showed me the equivalent, but they’ve gone and splashed stupid cutesy graphics all over it, and made the grippy part opaque and rubbery. I explained to the man that what I liked about my pen was the simplicity of it, and he tried to console me by saying that maybe Pilot would start making them again, but I was very sad. So hold onto yours, Amelia – who knows whether we’ll ever see them again?

On Tuesday, I finally felt able to deal with Darty, so I went to the store to ask how to cancel my service and get reimbursed for the first month’s bill, since I never got any Internet so I didn’t want to pay for anything. They informed me politely that I would have to send a registered letter saying all of that, so I got the address and went home to write a business letter in French. Since I don’t have a printer, I hand-wrote it, which is a lot more acceptable in France than in the US, or at least I hope it is. That done, I set out with a clear conscience to window-shop a bit. I found a great second-hand store with a ton of skirts, so I tried all of them on, but only one fit. It’s a short black knit pleated skirt, perfect to wear with brightly-colored tights and black boots, which I already have! Ah, retail therapy. Then I did laundry, in preparation for my trip to London, but did not succeed in flirting with the cute dorky boy reading his newspaper. Still, clean clothes are enough of an accomplishment.

Post about London as soon as I've written it, and then I'll be caught up! Hooray!

Fuck Yes.

I know, I know, I was supposed to blog in London and I totally didn’t. In my defense, there’s a lot of stuff to do in London, and a week is really not that much time. Also I’m lazy. So we’re going to go non-chronological for a bit so I can talk about the election while it’s still fresh in my mind.

I watched the election in Freddie’s, the pub in the Goodenough College building where my friend Jenna lives. The room was packed, mostly with Americans although there were lots of Brits, some Canadians, and at least one Dutch kid.
I couldn’t find a good seat, so I was tempted to yell “All non-American citizens out! This is our election, dammit, and it’s my life that’s going to be affected by it!” but I didn’t. Eventually I managed to squeeze in next to Jenna’s friend Jeff. Keep in mind that this was at about 2 in the morning, London time (9 pm East Coast time). The room was quite loud, everyone hoping that Obama would win (pretty much the entire world wanted him to win, as far as I know). I forget what time exactly we knew it was over – maybe 3:30 or 4? Anyway, CNN called it for Obama and the room went CRAZY. Everyone stood up, screaming and shouting and clapping and hugging everyone in sight, even the non-Americans. It was amazing. We all continued to stay up to watch the speeches (I thought McCain’s speech was actually quite good – very gracious) and I woke Jenna up to watch Obama’s speech. He is magnificent. Such a good orator, such a smart man, such an amazing symbol of America. There were quite a few people who admitted to crying, including me. I overheard an English guy saying, “It’s just amazing that for the next four years, this man will be giving the State of the Union address” and that’s when it really hit me that Barack Obama will actually be President. We get to listen to him speak, we get to watch him on TV – we can finally be proud to be American again, something that I haven’t felt in at least 8 years.

At this point it was already 5:30 in the morning, so we decided it didn’t make any sense to go to sleep, and went back to Jenna’s room to have tea. That was when I remembered that I hadn’t packed a thing, and that since I’d bought two scarves, two bags, some stocking stuffers and a nice big wool coat, it was going to take some effort to fit everything into my already stuffed suitcase. Luckily it all fit in eventually, and I had time to take a half-hour nap before heading off to St Pancras to catch the Eurostar. I was still incredibly giddy from the election and had to fight off the urge to tell everyone on the train that the world had just changed and that I had had a part in it (Vermont was the first state Obama won! Go us!).

Back in France, I’m the only American most of my colleagues know, and certainly the only American they talk to on a regular basis. So I’ve had a lot of really interesting conversations, most of them along the lines of “Wow, your country can actually do things right every once in a while. Well done!” I also have to talk about it in most of my classes, and I can’t seem to wipe the idiotic giddy grin off my face when the students ask me if I’m happy with the election results, so they laugh every time, but I don’t mind. I haven’t been this hopeful in years.