Sunday, July 15, 2007

September 29, 2006

I dreamt of mattress pads last night. I kept remembering those egg-carton pads people use for camping beds, and I wondered how many limbs that would cost me. Of course, in France, it’s ‘les yeux de la tête’ that get the most. What I mean by all this is that our bed, a bunk built head-height above the floor, hardly passes for one. When we had our sièste yesterday, we were too tired to notice much. I wake up with William at ten a.m., as refreshed as a board of wood. I feel rested anyway.

No one is home outside our bedroom. The kitchen just across the hallway from us looks as small in person as it does in this picture. Ingrid had instructed on how to use the espresso machine the night before, so I negotiated with it to get a couple of cups out of it. I used the micro-onde to heat the milk, which did not to be refrigerated as it’s super-duper ultra-pasteurized. Breakfast is laid out on the kitchen table, a veritable cornucopia of starch, sugar, and milk in various combinations. There is Flakes Frostés à la française, wheat and white bread for toast, preserves, the aforementioned milk, and—the staple of future breakfast, lunches, and desserts after dinner—Nutella. Only it is almost always generic Nutella. I don’t recall what I ate that day, but my usual breakfast was a Nutella and preserves sandwich with toasted white bread and a cup of café and chocolate milk that we called a mocha. This last was an attempt on improving upon the absence of said drink in every one of the cafés we would come to haunt.

William takes a bath after I have washed up and shaved. Then we headed out to explore the environs. We walked up and down rue de Clichy, which runs perpendicular to the little rue that we live on, André Antoine. It just so happens that our street, which is hardly more than an ally, dissects the city from the Red Light District. The Sexodrome here is mere seconds from our immobilier. (I took this picture from the top of Sacré Coeur.) At the corner of André Antoine and Clichy, there was almost always someone there, man or woman, to preposition people to come to a club or sex club. You would think these people would get to know that, although we were foreigners, we were living there for the time being. But they never learned. Worse, as they changed from time to time, their advances were often rude and incorrigible.

It is Sunday; France is closed. Luckily there are enclaves of non-French (read non-Catholic) origin. We stop at one such enclave, an Arab grocer, to buy some canned juice: two for three euros, such a deal! The whole time we spent walking around, we scouted out a pharmacy where we hoped we could find Lactaid for William. We were silly enough to forget that at home. The day turns up nothing, five or six pharmacies later. Actually, this wild goose chase ends up in our first transatlantic argument. At the third or so pharmacy, I asked for “quelque chose qu’on prend pour pouvoir manger lactose” (something to take so you can eat lactose). I couldn’t think of how else to describe lactose in my limited French. How would you describe it in English? In my description of the desired item, I asked for something that worked “contre” lactose. William took that moment, in the middle of my plea, to correct me, suggesting that lactase is the scientific name, thus defying the language barrier. I ask the pharmacist if she is familiar with lactase; she isn’t. I thank her, we leave and fight in loud, obnoxious English right outside. I felt William had undermined and embarrassed me in front of that woman, who had the gall to snicker at our inability to communicate with her. He felt that I had made him look stupid. There was general misunderstanding between us which culminated in my first crying session on European soil. William didn’t realize that I was so stressed about putting out my miniscule knowledge of French out for all to condemn—which people in Paris go out of their way to do at times. I cried that I had eaten duck liver, real foie du canard, which admittedly was tasty, even topped with duck fat that looked deceptively like lemon meringue. I had also kept my complaints to a minimum in hopes of proving both him and our German friend Nik wrong: I could adapt to living in Paris/France/Europe and not end up hating it. William apologizes and I stop crying.

Then we search for some café that Ingrid had recommended for its wifi, Le Sancerre (which, I presume is named after this place or someone from it). We go too far up Montmartre trying to find it and really should have given up, considering what it turned out to be. Le Syndicat d’Initiative, something like a tourism bureau in Place du Tertre, was friendly and helpful. Le Sancerre is near the defunct subway arrêt at Des Abbesses. Of the two bartender/waiters there, one feigns to speak English. We are offered menus in either French or English, our choice. I pick French. Big mistake. I ordered un sandwich au SAUMON FUMÉ (smoked salmon); William had one au jambon, the wiser choice. What I got was a sandwich with some meat that looked raw on it: chamon, it turns out. I asked if it was salmon. He said it wasn’t and that I “should’ve ordered in English.” He hastily takes back the mistake and returns fifteen minutes later with my saumon fumé, which is raw, however smoked. And seriously salty. I eat a quarter of it before giving up. I am still hungry, and my picky side gets the better of me, so I crossed the street to the charcuterie across the street. A charcuterie is a place that specializes in different manner of prepared meats, mainly pork. I see a rotisserie chicken in the window still on the spit and go inside hoping to take that one. The woman there is a real bitch. I ask for le rôti dans la fenêtre” (the roast in the window). When she doesn’t understand, I say le poulet in the window. She informs me haughtily that the chicken in the window was, in fact called poulet rôti. To make matters worse, she gives me a stone cold half chicken. Robbed of my French competence and only mildly relieved that I’d only spent $5.50 on half a rotisserie, I returned to Le Sancerre. I had been expected to pay ten euros for the sandwich I didn’t eat. Luckily for me, the waiter finds it pertinent not to charge me for his mistaken order, so my portion ends up being free. I eat the chicken in all haste.

William had stayed at Sancerre to use their wifi, which had turned out to be a real headache: access required a card whose password expired after thirty minutes. William was already on the second of the three they’d given him thanks to some coaxing on my part. I read until he’s ready to leave, getting cold in the process and all around discouraged. A cold September breeze in blowing, though it had been quite a bit warmer when we were looking for the bar/café. Paris’ disposition has been generally sunny, however frigid her inhabitants. Fortunately for me, William needs to recharge his laptop, so we go back to the immobilier, planning to rendezvous at Le Chao Ba before six p.m., so he can make his stand-up meeting.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Meeting My (Host) Mother

Le Chao Ba, where we killed some time before meeting our hôte-mère, is very close to our new apartment. We walk the short half-block and ring the buzzer for the tenant listing that reads "Berger." I'm very nervous about having to speak only French, but in a can't-contain-myself kind of way. She answers and after a brief exchange--in French!--she lets us into the building. She and her family live on la première étage which is the second floor of an American building. But really everything begins on the second floor... The door to the apartment swings open, and there before us is Ingrid Berger, Hôte-Mère du moment. She is a thin woman with a husky voice, dirty blonde, and very happy to see us. She speaks rapid-fire French that I am thankful to understand. Where I do not understand, I get the gist. Still, we were both exhausted, to the point where I would agree with anything said just to lie down for a minute. I remember thinking that she was probably relieved that I understood her well enough that she didn't have to switch to English for us--perish the thought!

She shows us to our room off the hallway entrance and to our right. It had belonged to the Japanese student that had been staying with them since May, Tetsuya. He had since been relocated to another room where Ingrid's live-in beau's two kids stayed when they came over. It was little more than a walk-in closet, filled with books, and whose bed actually disected the entrance at about the face. There was a tv for the kids to watch movies on. Tetsuya seemed to like it well enough. There were also two young Aussie lads staying in the same flat. And we thought we would have to entertain Madame and her monsieur all alone. Ingrid encourages us to take a nap. I opt for a shower first.

Our shower is actually a tub that takes some getting used to. For one, the tub is in one corner with a stacked washer/dryer unit in the other corner. Right between them, in the sixteen or so inches leftover, is a toilet. Using the toilet requires one to put a foot in the bathtub, or sit with legs smashed together. My modus operandi was usually the former. The tub isn't curtained off; all that separates it from the rest of the bathroom is a glass window/door that works as a shield between it and the sink, which is right next to the door. I still manage to get the floor soaking wet, however (as Jeff would expect of me:)): there is a hose/shower-head thing connected to the spigot. I took many tub baths after that day.

Then I join William for a nap in our bed, high off the ground (the ceiling is high for an apartment; there is actually another cot beneath it), hard as a rock, and yet a godsend for my aching, fatigued body. William wakes me hours later with kisses. We hear voices outside our room, mostly male. William asks me to help him with vocab. We descend from on high; William studies, I help. Then I skitter off to start this journal. At around 8-8:30 Paris time, a bell sounds from the kitchen and someone knocks on the door. It's time to meet the rest of the family.

They are: Ingrid Berger (whom we can call Ingrid, while still using 'vous' with her); her boyfriend, Jean Claude (whose second name escapes me twice before sticking for good; I still cannot remember his last name); Tetsuya, the Japanese exchange student from Osaka; and the two Australian boys, Jacob and Tom. Tetsuya is twenty-one; both Jacob and Tom are 16 (and so cute!). We are served some baguettes (fresh-frozen) and pâté de canard (duck pâté). I've never had pâté before, but I'm surprised how much duck liver tastes like the rest of the duck (meat, I mean). Dinner is spaghetti bolognese, followed by assorted sorbets for dessert. We talk about many things, and I practice my French (and some Japanese), reverting to English only when absolutely necessary. I didn't want to be lazy about it: I was there to learn French, so that's what I was doing.

It was when Jean Claude asked if I surfed (being from Hawai`i and all) and I said that I didn't have 'un bon sens d'équilibre' (sense of balance) for it that Jean Claude turned to Ingrid and commented on my French skills. They seemed genuinely impressed. In a way, it can be construed as insulting; what native speaker comments on how well another native speaker speaks? But I am not a native speaker, so I'm flattered every time a native speaker compliments me on my speech :P. Tetsuya also insists that my Japanese is good, although I can't understand hardly anything he says.

After dinner, Ingrid and Jean Claude suggest we take a walk up to Montmartre and Sacré Coeur, which we are right next to. They escort all of us up, explaining how the Aussie lads can only go out if adults accompany them. They're too young to be out and about unsupervised at such an hour (about 10 pm), though they don't seem to mind the chaperoning. We climb many steps up the steep hill, passing all kinds of shops that, Ingrid tells me, will give way to other tabacs à la mode (more fashionable shops). We window-shop; I like the French expression much better: 'lecher vitrine,' to lick the windows. People are everywhere, a large portion of them seriously underage by our American standards, and, unlike Jacob and Tom, they are unsupervised. I wonder where their parents are.

We pass through Place du Tertre on the way to Sacré Coeur. The plaza is alive with painters reconstructing masterpieces or simply painting their own wares to sell. There are (seriously expensive, I thought) restaurants (before I realized that they were not that expensive) lining the plaza. We look, then move on.

Sacré Coeur is a sight to see, day or night. Of course we forgot the camera. We go in to take in some of the perpetual prayer inside. You can buy un lumignon, a prayer candle, 2Euro for the small one, 10 for the big. A plaque insistes that the church is sustained by the kind donation of her visitors alone. I get annoyed when I see a machine for making souvenir coins right in the church, a sentiment echoed by Ingrid. I tell her that's what pissed Jesus off that one time. It's residual Christian upbringing for me, and probably institutionalized Catholicism on Ingrid's part. She gets a little loud and we get shushed by a young man I'd been checking out earlier.

Outside again, someone is singing Bob Marley's 'Redemption Song.' There are steps splayed out before Sacré Coeur, the better to view the city of Paris in all her nightly splendor. We take in the city skyline, which is impressive all lit up. La Tour Eiffel, like a beacon, bathes her environs in a beam of white light, a light that does not reach us here in the eighteenth arrondissement.

We make our way back home. Ingrid has given me a key, which William and I will share. After a quick stop 'home,' we head back to Le Chao Ba, where I finish this entry and William chats on AIM with Jim and Gray Hill Solutions, et al.

Vive la France!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Sept 27: Day One in Paris

I worried about having taken the wrong train from CDG to Paris proper. CDG is actually quite a ways outside of l'Ile de Paris, though the RER trains make at least two of "Paris' " three airports easily accessible. (The other RER-accessible train is in Orly. Beauvais is considered a Parisian airport, but it takes a two hour bus to get there.) William noticed my discomfort and tried to pep me up, but I was curt with him.

William was right to distrust the advice of the French who was, however good-intentioned, wrong about getting off at Gare du Nord. We did that only to get right back on. We rode on to Le Jardin du Luxembourg without another hitch.

Our packs are heavy. Instead of lugging around luggage (they do come from the same root), we opted for hiking packs. William bought me a beautiful green and black one from REI that proved to be handy. Our hiking packs, filled to the gills, hung from out backs, while our daypacks, also filled to overflowing, hung from our fronts. We look like American tourists from Seattle. We walk around the Jardin, a park unlike any I've ever seen before. If I were to describe it briefly, I'd note the sheer size of it, big like a football field or bigger, with fountains here, a cute cafe there, and sitting somewhere in the middle what appears to be a museum. There are paths that cut through the gardens, which aren't anything like American home gardens, much more like parks. These paths are lined with chairs, chairs everywhere, and more notable, people in them at 11:30 a.m. on a regular Thursday. Shouldn't these people be at work, these children and teens at school? High-schoolers and college freshmen (William hopes) are everywhere.

I'm tired and hungry, and more than a bit peeved. I'm ashamed of it now. I should have been elated, bubbling with beside-myself-edness. Instead, I was annoyed and sulky, pouting. To appease at least my hunger, we stake out what the park signs say are La Rafraichement et Restauration. William assures me it's just a little restaurant with open-air seating, and he's right. It's close to lunch, so--we're told--the menu is about to change. We wait for the lunch menu, but order two cafe cremes from the garcon, who is much nicer and more attentive than his lunchtime replacement. We pay our first server for the two coffees. When it's available, we order lunch: a sandwich au jambon (ham sandwich) for William, and a real crepe au jambon, aux oeufs, et a l'emmenthal (crepe with ham, eggs, and emmenthal cheese) for me. We eat and hang out like real Parisians. William's restless, and takes a walk around the grounds. I read my recently purchased edition of Harry Potter et Le Prisonnier d'Azkaban (en francais). We move a while to later to une pelouse autorisee, a lawn set aside for people to sprawl out on, unlike those labeled to prevent such. There are tons of teens hanging out on this lawn set aside for lounging between two rows of trees.

William wants me to see the Seine, so we go, passing through what could become a protest between the Jardin du Luxembourg and St. Michel-Notre Dame. The Seine is green and dirty, but the scenery is quaint. We decide then to take a bus to Pigalle instead of trying to navigate the RER. It is then that we discover just what kind of area Pigalle is. We had been warned it was the Red Light District.

We arrive at our home for the next ten weeks, Chez Ingrid Berger on Rue Andre Antoine, one and a half hours early. We remember that it's best to offer the host family/mother a gift for opening their home. I asked one of the men hanging out in front the laundromat right next to Madame's immobilier for directions to the nearest florist. Although I was really nervous, apparently I managed to make myself understood and about three blocks later, I was in a florist. I asked the florist to suggest something for a gift... for a woman. I think I may have been too vague; he recommended red roses. I asked him if that wasn't a bit "trop," and he assured me it was not. So I purchased them. Of course, it was only after I had made the purchase that it occurred to me that perhaps I had bought a gift for a young girlfriend instead of a more mature divorcee in whom I had no interest, age notwithstanding. I was, however, tickled by the awkwardness of it. By the time I get back to William, sitting on the stoop to our apartment, it's still too early for our 5 pm rendez-vous with Ingrid, so we check out Le Chao Ba right there on the corner of Andre Antoine and Clichy. They have free wifi, which will prove enormously to our favor. We order the closest thing to lemonade on the menu, 2 citron presses, which, unlike lemonade, you mix in sugar to taste. It is much more sour than we expected, but the kick is welcome. I'm sleepy after the drink, so I settle in for a nap while William tests the wifi. Little did we know that this elaborately shabby-chic pan-asian cafe-bar would become our chez-nous away from chez-nous. I wake in time to meet the Madame of the five o'clock hour, Mme Ingrid Berger.

Sept. 27: Getting to Paris 2--Toronto to Paris

Once in Toronto for our five-hour layover, we wondered how we should spend our time. William suggested we rent a day-room, so we could nap, like he had in Detroit on some trip well before I came into the picture. Toronto International Airport doesn't have day-rooms, so we asked instead about our gate (the marquee had read "529"). We took a shuttle to the 500 gates, where we bought a Napoleone pizza, whose crust was crunchy, but in a fresh-baked cardboard way. Then I sprawled over four armchairs, intending to sleep the remaining four hours away. I woke two hours later, expecting our gate to be full, but it wasn't: we were one gate off (never mind what the marquee said). Sure enough, at 7:40 pm, Toronto time, now, our flight was boarding. We hurried aboard.

Seated, we were subjected to the same quaint video introduction. There would be two movies on this flight, neither of which we watched: Mission Impossible 3 (for lack of interest--hold the Tom Cruise, pls) and Whale Rider (for lack of the will to stay awake). I debated writing in my journal, which would become this blog, but I felt I hadn't experienced anything worth writing about really, except for maybe the onset of jetlag. (Of course, I wrote about all this stuff later, just like I'm adding this note much later... nine months later.) William slept for the better part of the flight; the white noise of jet engines puts him to sleep like riding any kind of vehicle puts me to sleep. He woke only to eat his lactose-free meals. I found the food to be decent, and thought--not for the first time--about how airplane food often gets a bad rap. Maybe my palate just isn't cultivated enough. An hour or so before landing, I see French soil for the first time and also find out we'll be landing an hour early... Which leaves us a good eight hours to kill in Paris before Ingrid is ready to receive us.

Charles de Gaulle is a confusing airport, we quickly learn. William bought some water and some candy for me to get change for the navette to the RER terminal. There we find out change is still too big, unless we wanted to wait a long time to get a ticket. We managed to finally get tickets after standing in line for a change machine. We got onto the B-line, which some other passengers (wrongly) informed us that we'd have to change trains at Gare du Nord. (In retrospect, they were probably right, except we weren't going straight to Pigalle. We had planned to kill some time in Le Jardin du Luxembourg.) When we were on our way and past the initial tunnels, we saw how beautiful it was outside. "Un type" witha little speaker/mic/music set-up sang for change, at which point, William looked at me and said, "Now you're really in Paris."

Monday, January 15, 2007

Sept. 27: Getting to Paris 1--Seattle to Toronto

As anyone can imagine, trying to fall asleep with the forthcoming day looming large mere hours away is close to impossible. We're going to France for ten weeks!!! I could hardly contain myself. All these past weeks and months I've been telling friends, coworkers, classmates, and basically anyone with at least one working ear that I'd be heading off to Paris on September 27, not to be seen until after December 4. But now the day was actually here, and as I lay down in my bed at 11, I asked William, my partner of four years, if it even made sense for us to go to bed. It seemed like more of an adventure to just stay awake all night and sleep on the plane(s), revived and ready to tackle Paris! But try to sleep we did, failing miserably. We were so keyed up.

When our alarms went off at 3, I was bleary-eyed, but more than willing to face a four-hour flight, a layover in Toronto, and then another seven-hour flight into Paris. We got ready, packed all of our things, and made our way to the Stellings. We were smart enough to deposit our kitty-cat Feistel with the Stellings a week earlier. They would be caring for both car and cat. The latter seemed in the lap of luxury, what with tons more space and an elderly reflection of himself named Mookie that he could rough-house. Tim and Deanna Stelling have known William for a while, so they offered to watch Feistel for us. (It helped that they were looking for a possible replacement for the aforementioned elderly cat (sp?).)

We made two stops before heading to West Seattle: McDonald's (after having just discussed the inevitability of eating here once while abroad, if just for the price and familiarity) and William's office (where he dropped off keys for Jim, his business partner). William almost choked on his hashbrown while driving, which was scary. Ironically, I vaguely remember telling him how oily and gross hashbrowns are, so it seemed like the hashbrown was avenging its own honor as a worthwhile--if delusional--food.

On the way to the Stellings house in West Seattle, we stopped at the Safeway nearby, which we knew to have a Starbucks; we would be needing coffee today! However both were closed, so on to the Stellings.

Tim was up already up when we arrived, turning on the porch light for us. We said goodbye to Feistel, who was by then spoiled by the sheer vastness of the Stelling household and, most notably, absolved of the "No cats on counters" rule, which we enforce strictly at chez Ryan et William. We have missed having his warm, living body at home, getting tangled in our legs and just generally getting into everything. Especially William, who gets lonely at night when I'm at work. Tim assures us that Feistel will be happy, but we already know he is. I wonder if he'll even miss us.

On top of taking care of our valuables, Tim will be driving us to the airport. On the way there, William mentions to Tim how, twelve years prior, the latter had offered the former some advice about living a happy life with a wife that Will would ultimately divorce, whereas now that the two of us are coexisting happily--peacefully!--Tim had no advice to offer. Tim's response was that William is much more confident now than he was then, happiness with me notwithstanding. I suppose I don't need to mention that William met the Stellings when he was a young man of God.

Tim drops us off at the airport, and we have arrived early enough that even after checking in and passing through security, we still have an hour to wait. I went off in search of water to take some Airborne, and when I came back, William had made a friend. His name was Darryl; he reminded me of someone else I knew with his blue eyes and close-cut hair. He was quite cute--and adventurous! He and William got to talking about Africa--which both love. Darryl said he loved his trip to DR Congo more than any of the others, AK-47 notwithstanding. William though that some friends of his, Kent and Kim Rasmussen, might also be or have been in DR Congo, but they found out (he and Darryl, after William whipped out his laptop that they probably worked with people from DRC without going there in person (where, Darryl tells us, white people are strictly forbidden).

They called our rows and we boarded, separately. I felt it would be great to get to know Darryl better, but an hour of chat doesn't often constitute grounds for number-swapping, though I suppose he could have traded emails with William, had Will thought to ask.
We board the plane without much ado. Buckled in onboard, we watch the inflight emergency instructions, which Air Canada provides by way of a well thought-out, creative video. I loved the English-French narration especially, how when one ended (English woman), the other (French man) took up, translating what had just been said, and adding more, which is translated by the woman the next time around. Like so:

Welcome aboard Air Canada. Your security is our priority...
Bienvenues a bord Air Canada. Votre securite est notre priorite. Veuillez faire attention aux instructions suivantes afin d'etre prepare dans le peu probable cas d'urgence...
Please pay attention to the following instructions, so as to be prepared in the very unlikely event of an emergency. Thank you for choosing Air Canada...

And so forth. The movie was "Thank You For Smoking," which was entertaining, although by the time it came on my eyes were sore, so I rested them. I was also annoyed that the woman seated behind William had placed her baby's carseat behind my seat in such a way that I wouldn't be able to recline my seat for the next four hours. Air Canada didn't even serve us food during the long flight; they only gave us soda and bad water, although I think there was a menu you could buy food from.

My travel journal

One of the reasons I wanted to make this blog was so that people could keep the memory of Paris alive. And for me, I could think of no better way than to write a travel journal for my travels. I'm gonna be sharing the ins and outs of my journeys right here for the world to see, accompanied by pictures that say something (or not) about the experience.

This is also a great way for me to say what I've done to my friends and family (who didn't come with me to France:( ) without having to repeat it too many times.

Now for my first installment!

It's here!

Paris in the Fall 2006! Remember that? It wasn't so long ago that we were eating nutella on toast every morning for breakfast, fresh-baguette sandwiches for lunch, and whatever our host families deemed nutritious for dinner. It isn't odd for me to jump right in with food, but there were lots of great things to remember about our time in France--and I have more than enough pictures to prove it!

This is my invitation to you, my fellow study-abroaders, to post comments about pictures and thoughts I share here, as well as your own pictures and experiences and links that you think would complement this blog.

Here's to reminiscing!