The Nana Diaries, part 2

It's Thursday and I've got a family and food hangover. The family part stops today, as I head into New York to finally see friends, but the food just keeps on comin' with a dinner tonight and tomorrow. I can literally feel my ass growing by the minute and I shake in fear of what's coming my way when I get back to living five flights up. This is what happens when your great aunt melts a STICK OF BUTTER in the bowl of corn before serving it. I wish I was kidding, and yet the screams from my arteries tell me I'm not.

We visited the Nanas in their respective towns this week. Photos and family memories place these women in another world, but today they are simple girls who need little more than a laugh and a hug. I cope by putting aside my memories of grandmas and seeing them for who they are today, women who are happy to listen to old 78's and munch on Christmas cookies.

And while it has been wonderful to spend so much time with my family, I am anxious to finally see my friends in New York. The infamous Secret Santa will take place tomorrow, where some lucky winner will take home a non-French-yet-still-FUN gift. Stay tuned for updates from Brooklyn and the city...


Real American Values

We are leaving this morning to visit The Extended Family in Pennsylvania. Most likely, I'll spend the next 48 hours defending my decision to study French, a choice that has single-handedly ruined my chances of ever getting a REAL job, like operating a tree-cutting machine.

The trip will be more all the more amusing because Steve-o will be along for the ride. He was certainly in rare form during the Christmas cookie decorating part of this past weekend:

Hope you've all had wonderful holidays, complete with anatomically-correct snowmen cookies.


Rich and Suburban in California... or not

Steve: Is that Dad's credit card?
Me: Yeah, he wants me to get something for Mom.
Steve: Sweet. We're like the kids on Laguna Beach.
Me: Well yeah, except it's a Macy's card...


London Fog, the flight canceller, not the coat makers

It has been a long day of drama here in our apartment, complete with cancelled flights and international travel agents. I won't get into it now because I'm too tired, but the short of it is that the infamous London fog shouldn't be getting in my way of getting home (KNOCK SIMULTANEOUSLY ON EVERY PIECE OF WOOD AROUND YOU).

For the first time in my life, I made a travel to-do list and completed every item on it. Including this blog post. Another first-timer is the fact that I have more gifts than people to give them to. Let's just say I went a little crazy in a mustard store and leave it at that (more about this in a future post).

I leave Paris with a warm, fuzzy feeling (though it could be a hangover from last night's end-of-semester celebration at a bar in the 6th). Coming back to Paris in January will be coming back to friends and co-workers, familiar places and a metro system that I've gotten the hang of. Not bad for four months.


The hottest, the sexiest, the most irresistible: Marcel Proust

Well, semester 1 is over and before I have the time to catch my breath, a new reading list awaits me. Here is some of the joy I'll be reading over the break:

I included the mug in the photo to give you some perspective. In my opinion, more than three inches of reading per class should be outlawed, but hey, look on the bright side, I'll get to finally read the infamous Proust that I've heard so much about.

I admit that I am afraid of Proust, mostly in the way you fear tall, dark and handsome Italian men. They're hot and they know it. I approach Proust tentatively because I've heard stories of lit students who got 20 pages into a Proust novel and became those people who LIVE for an author. You know, the ones who do weird things like visit his tomb every year and recite personal poetry they've written for him at 3am during the full moon. Proust has this influence on people.

This is all pretty powerful stuff, especially if you consider that his works are looooong and published in very small print, which makes it even sexier. In any event, I don't want to love Proust because it seems like everyone else loves him and I want to resist his spell if only to protect my chances when eventually applying for PhD programs. Maybe it's just me, but I'd rather not be applicant 2,563 who lives to study the impact of Madeline cookies dipped in hot tea.


F is for Family

I lost this weekend's Scrabble game by a good 45 points. I don't play Scrabble very often. To be honest, I never did, except when Nana would visit and the game was only half of the activity. We'd usually end up making long lists of words well after the game was over. "Let's see if we can think of words that start with E", she'd say and we'd sit around eating Chex Mix while we listed words off the top of our heads. The Scrabble box at home is filled with these handwritten word lists, as well as score sheets that go back years. Once in a while you'll see a "D" or "M" among the scores if my parents decided to join in, but Scrabble and Chex Mix was really a time for Nana and the kids.

Nana won't be spending Christmas with us this year because she's been moved into a nursing home for patients with Alzheimer's. She was pretty forgetful this summer when I saw her and only recognized me part of the time, but from what I hear through the family grapevine, she now has a hard time recognizing most of the family. Others now makes lists for Nana: names of her grandkids, names of her children, even sheets of paper with her own name and room number to remind her should she get lost.

I'm impatient to get home and enjoy the Christmas family traditions like Scrabble, though it will be really strange to not have Katie home this year. I just sent off a 4th holiday package to Togo in the hopes that some new things will give her a taste of home. Buying gifts for her this year reminded me of when we were younger and my family would sponsor a homeless family or child in a foster home. We'd get the label, "girl, 8 years old, likes drawing" or "boy, 15, wants gloves and a hat." They never wished for complicated things like the newest video game or an Elmo doll, but those were exactly the things we wanted to get them. I remember wanting to go above and beyond what these kids wanted, precisely because they couldn't wish for these things themselves. In some ways, buying gifts for Katie this year was my most fulfilling holiday shopping because I know how much every gift means.

If you're interested in doing a feel-good something for the holiday season, here's a link to Toys for Tots, an organization that I support every year. I usually pick up some coloring books and crayons or play dough, but they obviously accept any toys you'd like to buy. If the TT stand is still up in the mall when I get home this weekend, I'll be sure to drop by and make a donation, something that promotes families getting together. Maybe a Scrabble game or two.


I wish I was kidding

I must publicly complain about the crap that has been published on cnn.com lately. Try living abroad and keeping up with the news at home; the important political issues affecting the U.S. today are hard to find. Here is a small selection of the most recent articles CNN editors felt was necessary to publish on their front page:

Boy, 11, kicks hawk in face to save his puppy (December 12, 2006)

or this:

Is the Brangelina baby cuter than a panda cub? (December 15, 2006)

You may think that global warming is an important issue that deserves coverage. But the latter question was so vital to the CNN editors that it prompted a daily poll:

Which do you think is cuter, babies or panda cubs?
-Panda cubs


I leave you finally with the most recent ridiculous (and DISTURBING to say the least) video clip on CNN:

Puppy chews off baby's toes (1:17)
People are eager to adopt a pit bull who chewed off a baby's toes.

And on THAT note, bon weekend to all. Plans for my last 2006 weekend in Paris include a Christmas market and French Scrabble. Here's hoping yours is filled with gingerbread and vowels as well...


Fun Fact 003: Let's Go a no-go

Tough news for anyone who loves traveling and aspires to be a writer: Let's Go isn't hiring. Or I should say, isn't hiring unless you go to Harvard. In one of my endless google searches that come under the category of "schemes to make money while loving your job while living in Europe", I fell upon some Let's Go employment information which admitted that this necessary travel accessory only employs current Harvard students. Unfair news for those of us who didn't attend the Crimson Ivy, especially since I would imagine that Harvard students don't have a hard time finding employment wherever their little hearts desire...


Pollyanna and the top 7 holiday gifts

New Jersey is weird, even in France. The topic of Secret Santa came up on Saturday night and Joseph said, "oh, you mean Pollyanna." At which point this image came to mind:

Though I laughed about it at the time, other New Jersians at Middlebury confirmed such strange linguistics in the state of NJ this afternoon. In all 7,417 square miles of New Jersey, the word "Pollyanna" means "Secret Santa." SS seems rather self-explanatory for me and I don't see why the state of Bon Jovi and long fingernails had to go and re-name a perfectly good term, though we must keep in mind that these are the same people who call sprinkles "jimmies."

Speaking of which, the NY girls and I have decided to do Secret Santa this year and at first I was PSYCHED and now I am psyched. There is quite a bit of pressure to find a good gift when you live abroad and seeing as how this is the third French Christmas shopping experience I've been through, I'm fresh out of ideas. There are only so many berets and French chocolates that you can buy for someone before it gets old. Real old.

There are always the obvious ideal Secret Santa gifts (I've spent a good many days trying to figure out how to giftwrap Justin T...), but this year I took my search out to the good old world-wide web. I found some GREAT stuff, but I'm obviously not going to share it with you here because my brother reads this site. And my parents. And the person who I have for Secret Santa.

Here are the top seven gifts-I-really-liked-but-didn't-buy-for-anyone. Maybe you can make better use of such wonders:

1. iPod Red Special Edition ($199)- Even though I never use my iPod, this one is CLASS-y and I'd be proud to zone out to it on line 3. Plus, $10 of your purchase goes to fight HIV/AIDS. Sweet stuff.

2. Personalized Notecards ($45)- Once Evelyn and I bought these as a birthday gift for Tejal. They came out professional and looked great... there are tons of different designs, including this lovely green apple:

3. Firefly Water Bottle Lid ($17.95)-I don't hike or camp; I leave that up to the other siblings who like to study abroad in places where you have a good chance of getting Malaria. But everyone has a Nalgene and why not use a lid that turns your water bottle into a lantern? Easier to see the man-eating mosquitoes, non?

4. The Downside of Genetic Engineering tee-shirt ($10)- I think this shirt is HILARIOUS and Threadless has tons of other great designs that promote everything from riding bikes to English grammar.

5. "Interlocken" lace-up boot ($148)- These boots are so hot I can't even type straight. If you decide to go out and buy these for someone, I'm a size 8 1/2.

6. The Economist year-long subscription ($79.00)- For the political genius in your life, or at least an aspiring one. FYI- they ship overseas to all Peace Corps volunteers for no extra charge.

7. Graphic Travel Clutch ($24.00)- It's hip, it's cool, and it helps to avoid losing your passport as you go through the metal detectors three extra times because you forgot about your belt buckle. Perfect for the one who can't seem to stay on the ground.


Thanksmas '06: where Pumpkin Pies and Nativity scenes go to make-out

Erica and Landry blew in from the Massif Central this weekend to visit Paris and, well, us. But we also cleverly planned their visit to coincide with Thanksmas '06, our original combination of -you guessed it- turkeys and Christmas trees. Due to the size of our apartment, we could only invite a small sampling of friends, but what a sampling it was... here are the photos that didn't come out blurry (I won't try to explain the blurriness except to say that there were quite a few wine bottles to recycle the next morning):

Find the Italian in this photo! (Hint: it's the one named Joseph who's talking with his hands)

Kathryn and Angela have a laugh during a ridiculous international game of pictionary...

I usually leave the craftiness up to the artsy people in my life (like Sarah Mclo), but finding myself on the other side of the ocean, I made do with some snow spray and cut up magazines...

Maddy, our representative from England, was on hand as a resource for Shakespearian plays. (The Tempest! I'd NEVER think of that on my own...)

You may notice that I'm sporting a new haircut. Having lived one day too many with a wild mass of un-shapeable curls, it was time. If you look closely, you'll notice that the room is, in fact, spinning. So it wasn't us after all.


Warning: generalizations about French education ahead

I don't know how else to say this, so I'll just put it out there: the French education system needs work. I attended my last class for the semester at the Sorbonne this morning and I am pretty happy about not seeing that building until January (other than next week's final). The Economist published a survey about France at the end of October, which identified some of the biggest problems facing France today. It was a solid piece, but nowhere did it mention the third-world country conditions of French universities. Example? Our class must change classrooms after one hour because the rooms are too overbooked. And the best part is that the second classroom isn't even a classroom- it's a meeting room, so there's no blackboard and ... wait for it... there AREN'T ENOUGH CHAIRS. So here in France, a rich, civilized country, its university students have to sit on the floor, crammed into a meeting room to learn.

This morning I sat next to a girl I'd never seen before. This doesn't mean much because classes at the Sorbonne are like being stuck in an elevator with complete strangers. No one looks at each other and everyone tries to avoid each others' eyes until the experience is over. The result is that the only people I truly recognize from the class are the other foreigners: the American students from Princeton (noticeable by the way they say the word "PRINCETON" in every sentence and pronounce it with a French accent. Please.), the Eastern Europeans, who are typically shy, but make an attempt to speak in class, and of course, the Italians, who are all dark-haired and charming when they speak French (always while waving their hands).

The Frenchies, on the other hand, continue to impress me with their detached way of learning. The girl to the right of me this morning spent the entire 2-hour class CAPPING and RECAPPING her highlighters. Know why? She was taking color-coded notes, which incidentally matched the color-coding system she'd used to annotate her book. At one point, she even took a ruler out of her pencil case and used it to underline a word because she needed that straight a line. Not kidding.

The insane thing here is that she isn't the only one doing it. Even the guys in class carry pencil cases with a wide supply of highlighters, pens, pen accessories, rulers, and erasers. French students' notes look like works of art. But here comes the rub: they may have the prettiest notes in class (and 90% less grammatical errors than the rest of us foreigners), but they don't dare volunteer their opinions. Our young, dynamic professor was trying to develop a discussion in class this morning and there were only three people talking: me, an Italian, and one French girl (who probably has foreign parents). The other 30 students would not open their mouths for this poor prof, who was trying her best to avoid lecturing as she usually does.

The moral of the story: cultural differences with regard to education run deep. Whereas my friends and I loved Rosenwasser's jumping on tables during our Irish lit classes at Muhlenberg, a French student would have an aneurism if their prof wasn't reciting 3-part outlines. They may dress in the latest fashions and carry special erasable-pens (WHY haven't these been exported to the U.S. yet?!?), but spontaneous conversation in classes is not their thing. I may be paying 1,000 times more than they do for my education, but at least I have a damn chair to sit in and a group of classmates who are more than willing to share the experience.


Line 3: Communicating with the best of them

The thing to know about the metro in Paris is that it's a bit like the old line from Forrest Gump- you never know what you're going to get. Some lines have soft cushiony seats, the kind you might almost fall asleep in even when you're only going three stops. Others... not so much. And by not so much, I mean that I'm pretty sure these other metros stole their old plastic graffetied pieces of crap from a dumpster. In such metros, offering your seat to an old and/or handicapped person is an insult.

You know you've truly hit the jackpot when your metro stop has an electronic board which posts how many minutes you have to wait before the next metro arrives. These boards are GENIUS and informative. Do I have time to get out my copy of Une Page d'Amour and read for eight minutes? Or should I just sit tight and watch those people making out? (note: there are always people making out in the metro. And in the metro station. And really, everywhere in Paris. French people always coyly say "What! We're not like that!" and yet, they really, really are).

I live off of Metro Line 3. It's a good line; it cuts right across the heart of the "above the Seine" area. The fabulous feature on our line is a female voice that announces the upcoming station twice. First, she announces it while you're still in the dark tunnel. This announcement is always done in a fearful tone.

"operA?" she asks, and you wonder if you and the rest of the travelers will make it to the Opera alive.

Then a minute later, "OPera!" she exclaims. What joy! We HAVE made it to the Opera once again! The intonation is so exaggerated that you have to laugh. "What's that? A serial KILLER?" "OH... a friendly NEIGHbor!"

I usually only ride line 3 for a few stops, all of which have fairly short names; "Bourse", "Europe," and the infamous "Opera" are along my route. But today I took the metro a bit further to get to the Centre Pompidou library and I was still on when we got to a station which challenged Ms. Electronic Voice-off to the max.

"rEAumur sEBastaPOL?!?" she shrieked, unable to handle the seven-syllableness of it all.

Other lines might have the cushy seats, but no one can argue that Line 3 doesn't have the comedy.


Gotta love the free Sunday

Although much of Paris acted like a normal city today (see: opened its stores on a Sunday... gasp!), I avoided the holiday shoppers and opted for the Rodin museum instead. The weather was crappy and the apartment felt sad; plus it's the first Sunday of the month, which means that many museums in Paris were free. I LOVE the fact that museums are free once a month and if you choose carefully (see: avoid the Mona Lisa AT ALL COSTS), you can usually enjoy your visit without feeling as if half of all Parisiens are breathing down your turtleneck to get a look at the art.

I would suggest that this free tradition come to New York, but I have a hard time believing that a city that hosts the Bodies exhibit and charges $27 per person WITHOUT student prices would ever embrace such artistic generosity. Other than Target nights at the MOMA, I can't think of any other museums as visitor-friendly as those in Paris.

Of course, I really liked the Rodin statues, but I was blown away by some of Camille Claudel's work. In case you're not up to speed on your French sculptors, Camille Claudel was Rodin's student, friend, and lover (... and 24 years his junior but who's counting?). She seems like a crazy cat, that Camille Claudel, and I mean that in a literal sense- her father was the only one in her family who supported her career choice and her mother had her committed to a mental institution eight days after her father died. It was apparently a break-up with Rodin that pushed her over the edge, though I would suggest that the mother (who incidentally didn't visit her in the institution ONCE for the rest of her life) had a little something to do with it.

Here was my favorite piece, entitled The Waltz:

Takes my breath away, Top Gun style.


Paris Newsletter: Month Three

Dear Paris,

I went into Monoprix today to check out their Xmas decorations. As I was perusing the garland and wreathes, an older woman who was shopping in the same aisle was rummaging through the shelves. "No angels..." she muttered, "no one believes in angels anymore." Then she looked right at me. "Have you seen any angels?" I get freaked out when complete strangers ask me things like that. Especially in an aisle among nativity scenes. And at the end of a month that has been draining to say the least.

November has been a lot about having the right ingredients and not knowing how to make things work. Be it a lesson for one of my students which falls on its face or preparing for Thanksgiving (best known as "The Day I Learned How the Food Processor DOESN'T Work). Below you'll find an entire food processor full of freshly chopped pumpkin (I don't mess around when I bake, people). In the time it took me to figure out how to make puree, I could have grown my own pumpkin patch for next Halloween. I'm pretty convinced that pumpkin christened every possible tool and surface in the kitchen EXCEPT the blade in the machine. It would have been faster to chew the damn thing up and spit it back out, mother-bird style.

The Middlebury Program does a good job at trying to present us with many different career options after our M.A. degree is completed (and the 60-page thesis is hot off the press). I must say that I do find myself fairly limited with what to do with this degree in France. While the unemployment rate is lower than it has been in the past, the economy is not really booming and therefore the job options are limited. Plus, the nature of how careers work here in France is such that, unless you're really committed to teaching English, it's hard to break into something as a foreigner. Maybe the exception is if you want to be a painter. I bet you could get by if you were a really good painter (see: reject your parents who want you to be a lawyer and rock out Monet-style with your bad self).

November was a big political month, not only in the U.S. with the Victory heard 'round the world, but also in that Segolene Royale has formally been nominated by the Socialist party to run for president of France. The President of France position seems to be a concept very different than the President of the U.S. On my way to teach the other day, I passed by an official-looking building which I later found out was "L'Elysee," where Jacques Chirac works. However, not ONE of my students were able to tell me if President Chirac also lives there. This detail, the location of where Chirac lays his head at night, seemed to be of the lowest level importance to my students, whereas I was waiting to finish class so I could run and stalk the gates. What American would miss the opportunity to snap a photo of JC walking his dog on his un-presidential- looking lawn. French-American cultural difference? I think so.

With the temperatures dropping and Christmas getting closer, I can't help looking forward to spending a few weeks at home at the end of the month. I'm looking forward to a new semester, new books, a new perspective after the new year. Because despite the homesickness and the tough moments here in a strange land, it really is damn good to live in Paris.