Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Paris, je t'aime

So here I am, sitting in my bed, with a pile of scarves, towels and sweaters on top of me. I sent my ski parka (which I’ve been using as extra padding), warm comfy sweaters, hoodies, rainboots and warm jackets home with my mom, since when she came to visit me the weather was sunny and hot. Mistake. Today, and ever since I got back from Paris, the weather has decided not to cooperate and instead make me cold and miserable. It also doesn’t help that Mme has already turned the heat off in our room. (She probably thought warm weather was here to stay too.)

Okay I’m done complaining. It’s just kind of cold here right now.

So how was my mom able to take stuff home, anyway? She was lucky enough to miss the volcanic cloud and train strikes, and fly over here a week ago without any problems. I picked her up at the airport and we took a bus to Marseille, where my mom wanted to stay for a night. As a proud resident of Aix, I hold (or held) the same prejudice as other foreigners and French alike who believe Marseille is a dirty, dangerous city. At least that’s what my hostmom keeps telling me. She was shocked to learn that I not only took my mom to Marseille, but STAYED THERE OVERNIGHT!!! Oh la la!

Despite it’s bad reputation, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I am quite fond of France’s second largest city. Located on the coast of the Mediterannean, it is home to lots of seafood restaurants, a diverse population, and rich maritime history. We learned all of this as we walked around the “Vieux Port” and successfully (or maybe not?) got dinner at a seafood restaurant. Despite the challenge of not knowing any French cuisine vocabulary, we managed to order “moules frites” (mussels and French fries) and crab cakes (that actually turned out to be crab legs.) So we didn’t quite order what we thought, but it was pretty tasty, and I was proud of my ability to translate the waiter’s questions for my mom.

Although I have done a lot of traveling this semester, last week was the first time I stayed in an actual hotel. For a person used to dorm-style hostels and living out of a backpack for two weeks, our small, clean hotel room with a view of some creepy deserted building across the street was a luxury. Explaining to my mom how to use the shower head and why it wasn’t bad that the windows had no screens made me realize how acclimated to French and European culture I’ve become. No one has screens in the windows here. It’s no big deal. In many showers the showerhead just hangs down, and it’s difficult to wash and hold the water at the same time. No big deal. The continental “breakfast” only constitutes a coffee and some toast. C’est normal. C’est la vie. C’est la France. My mom wasn’t too bothered by all of this, and adjusted pretty quickly, but I can imagine some American tourists being very disappointed and confused with this lifestyle. Once again, I am left with the realization that Americans are very spoiled, and take a lot of things for granted.

Another luxury I got to enjoy while staying in hotels with my mom was TV. Yes, French people watch TV. But I don’t. Due to the fact that my hostmom sleeps in the living room, the only TV I see is the news during dinner time, so I was really excited to watch French reality TV and cartoons every day. As a rule I avoid reality television, but the only interesting thing I found one night was French Survivor, and after that “L’amour est aveugle” (Love is Blind). Maybe it’s just the samples I got, but French reality TV seemed to be missing something. Maybe it was too realistic? Not enough staged drama? For example, during the Survivor episode, the contestants had to hang upside down from horizontal poles, and the last person to fall down won. Sounds exciting, right? Some people fell down right away, but after two and a half hours of hanging upside down and probably losing circulation in their hands and feet, two contestants still remained. Meanwhile, the audience was treated to scintillating scenes of the rest of the cast lounging/sleeping on the beach, waiting for the challenge to end. I was pretty much on the edge of my seat the whole time. Eventually the narrator/MC guy figured out that the contest wouldn’t end soon, so he made it a little interesting…they had to hang by ONLY ONE HAND. Oh my gosh. That did the trick, and somebody won. Finally.

After Survivor ended, I was pulled in by a show called “Love is Blind.” Three men and three women had to talk to each other in a pitch black room and find the love of their life. It actually looked interesting, but ended up another disappointment. One couple didn’t like each other, so a girl went home. So they replaced her with another girl, who, big surprise, liked the rejected guy. And the other couple liked each other right away. So no drama there. What remained was a beautiful woman who sort of liked the not-so-beautiful guy. (By French standards, he just wasn’t buff enough, but he really wasn’t bad.) The show failed because although they couldn’t see each other, they could feel each other, and like real blind people, could figure out what each other looked like. So everything ended up being about appearances and body type anyway. In the end, the beautiful woman didn’t go home with the “ugly” guy, and the narrator made a comment about how love really isn’t blind, implying that if you’re fat you can’t find love. Way to go, French television.

So now that I’ve wasted time on TV, I’ll talk about what we actually did. Saturday we took a boat tour in Marseille to the Calanques, which are rocky inlets along the coast. They were beautiful, and getting out on the water was great. Aix is a pretty dry town, and there aren’t any lakes nearby, so staying on the Mediterranean was a refreshing break. We also explored some of the old parts of the town and shopped a little, then caught a bus to Aix, where we ate dinner at a nice restaurant. (My first time eating French food at a restaurant in Aix.)

My mom and I were a little sad to leave Marseille because we liked it so much, but to our surprise Sunday happened to be Carnaval in Aix, and there was a big parade down the Cours Mirabeau in the afternoon. We enjoyed looking at all of the kids and adults in costumes, and watched a band perform on the Rotonde. The whole street was closed off, and the day was hot and sunny, and it was the most action I’ve seen on a Sunday in Aix since the stores opened for the special sales in January.

The rest of our time in Aix last week was spent touring the town and eating delicious French food. The weather was beautiful the whole time, and my mom couldn’t have picked a better time to come visit.

Last Thursday we woke up early and hurried to the train station, hoping to catch our train to Paris. But there is no TGV (fast train) from Aix downtown to Paris, which I forgot, so we ran to the bus station to catch a bus to the TGV station. Luckily we had chosen not to stop for breakfast, so we had just enough time to spare to get to the bus.

In Paris, I learned that I made the right decision by studying in France. (Not that I didn’t know that before.) Out of all the cities I have visited, Paris is my favorite. I loved the architecture and all of the bridges over the river, and pretty much everything we saw. It also helped that I understood the language. But I love French culture, and I finally understand it enough to appreciate it fully.

The first day in the city we walked to Notre Dame and toured the cathedral. Although it was one of many huge churches I’ve seen lately, finally seeing the famous flying buttresses, rose window, and gargoyles in person was an incredible experience.

We stayed in the Latin Quarter, so we were withing walking distance of most touristy places, as well as a variety of restaurants. We tried some Tibetan food the first night, and walked down to the river afterward to take a boat cruise on the Seine. The bridges and buildings were beautiful at night, and for my first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower it was a shimmering gold. I think I prefer it at night, actually.

Friday we toured the Louvre and walked down the Champs Elysees. (I didn’t realize how long this stretch of fancy shops and restaurants is.) I marched up to the top of the Arc de Triomphe and caught a view of the city, then rejoined my mom at the bottom and commenced the search for a good restaurant. We ended up walking all the way back to the hotel from the restaurant (which was near the Champs Elysees). Although it was a longer walk than expected, seeing Paris at night a second time was worth it.

Saturday we braved the metro and went to a flea market on the outskirts of the city, and I actually got into looking at all of the old books and trinkets. From there, we metroed up to Montmartre and walked around the old part of the city, which is crowned by the famous Sacre Coeur church. My mom forced me to get my portrait drawn for an exhorbitant price, and I wasn’t happy with her. I don’t like being stared at by every person who walks by and having my real face compared to an artificial one. But I got over it eventually. We also ventured down to the less savory part of this district, so I could say that I saw Moulin Rouge. (This is also where I learned that “moulin” means windmill in French.) The peep shows and various other clubs were interesting, to say the least, (from the outside, of course) but it was nice to get back to our “home” area of the Latin Quarter for dinner.

Sunday was free day at the Musee d’Orsay, so we walked over there, only to find a huge line. Apparently everyone else likes free museums too. While waiting in line, it started pouring rain, but we held out from buying an umbrella from one of the guys trying to sell them, confident that the rain would shortly stop. It did stop, eventually, but not before my feet were soaked. Luckily, we had a long enough wait that I was relatively dry by the time we entered the museum.

I’ve already mentioned my love for Van Gogh, so it should be no surprise that I was in heaven in this museum that showcases Impressionist artists. It had a number of Van Gogh works, as well as Monet, Manet, Cezanne, Renoir, and some other big shots. Regrettably, the museum was too crowded to fully appreciate every painting, but I enjoyed it anyway.

To complete our Paris tour, we walked down to the Eiffel Tower and I convinced my mom to go up to the second floor. While we were up there, we saw a rain cloud approaching, got a little wet while the cloud passed over, and watched a rainbow appear after the cloud passed. It couldn’t have been a more perfect Eiffel Tower experience, and I’m glad my mom paid the hefty fee to go up.

Now I’m back in Aix, preparing for my exams (which might be next week, might be the week after…the school still hasn’t figured that out.) I’m hoping the weather will cheer up soon, and I’m sure it will.

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