Statue Saint Michel in Paris
I’ve settled nicely into Paris and am having a wonderful time with my host family. We don’t do anything particular, just discuss every aspect of culture that pops into our minds and make fun of old French movies. My host mom, Alex, has a soft spot for crooners and sappy musicals, so I know that if I’m feeling down I can always come home and talk about “Frankie” or confess my love for The Sound of Music and everything will be fine. Though, to be honest, I haven’t felt down in ages. The vibrancy of the city and the sort of cloud of pseudo-intellectualism I feel hovering over me has provided a nice shelter from boredom or isolation. Living in Paris is a wild experience, especially coming from a small town in Tennessee (also named Paris) to ‘la plus belle ville du monde.’ Public transportation is absolutely wonderful and super convenient. Paris really is the most beautiful city in the world if you ignore all the typical grunge of city life (garbage, aggressive street merchants, &c.) I am comfortably situated between metro stops Anvers and Chateau Rouge, making my life in Montmartre pretty great. It’s wild to leave class with no plans in particular and magically stumble upon Notre Dame or the Louvre. Monuments really do creep up on you, especially the Eiffel Tower. I don’t think I’ve ever found it on purpose. Despite all it’s worldly influence, Paris really is a rather small city and very walk-able. The architecture helps perpetuate this idea of grand history and weighty thoughts that always come to mind as I think about the history of Paris. I’ll be walking aimlessly along a street and end up and a wonderful little café, small but with so much decorative detail that I’m lost in observance and forget to order a café au lait. This city is great for dreamers like me, the kind of lazy thinkers that don’t really think anything in particular. Even if I have no idea where I am I certainly never feel lost. I’ve stayed out all-night and waited for the metros to open up, but I never felt fearful or annoyed, just in awe at the intensity of Parisian culture at times. There really are old men in professor- style clothes (elbow patches and lots of tweed) rolling their own cigarettes in between cups of coffee and Rousseau excerpts. Of course, not every part of Paris is as pretentious as one would think. There are many homeless and many immigrants battling for a comfortable way of life. Musicians play countless hours in the metro while the majority of passengers pass by without notice. It’s difficult to live in this situation, where indifference is very much a necessity, though I’ll be the first to tell you France is not a smiling country. I arrived doughy-eyed, and it’s been hard to realize that people will NOT wave back to me, so I just shouldn’t try. This, of course, has not stopped me, and for now I am content to seem a fool in this city of coolness and separation. I just avoid eye contact with the men selling watches. PS I can’t really speak French. It’s heartbreaking.
For breakfast Sunday morning Françoise had laid out baguette with butter and jam. I’m not talking about one jar of strawberry jam, but about 10 different choices: strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, sour cherry, apricot, pineapple, apple, fig and geranium. Geranium jam anyone? Anyway, I decided on apricot because I assumed it was a pretty safe bet. WRONG. I opened the jar, and there was mold on it!! I closed it, and moved on to the raspberry. Also moldy. Um, do these people not like jam? I ate my bread and butter sans jam, and put all of the jars quietly back into the refrigerator. Later, Françoise asked me which jam I had tried, so I had to tell her sheepishly that they were all moldy, and I didn’t eat them. She told me that they are better that way, and I should just get rid of the mold and eat the jam underneath. Is this a normal French tradition? I’ve gotten over my fear of moldy cheese, but moldy jam? I’m not so sure!!!
After breakfast, Françoise and Thierry took me to a market to buy food for the week. It wasn’t like a small farmer’s market in Cumberland, Maine. This was a state of the art market with trucks that transformed into food stalls. First, we bought a HUGE bag of mussels for dinner, and then Françoise dragged me to the cheese truck. I wanted to wander through the flower stalls because I felt like I was in My Fair Lady (“all I want is a room somewhere…” ), but Françoise was having none of it. The cheese was interesting, but not quite as pretty as the flowers, and definitely not as nice smelling. There were many different kinds of frommage that ranged in price from 2 euros/kilo to 40 euros/kilo (wouldn’t I have liked to try that très cher cheese!), but Françoise bought only salted butter and yogurt (what, no cheese?). There was a man in front of us who must have really liked cheese, because he filled up a whole bag with his dairy purchase. I hope he owned a restaurant, because some might call that a pretty serious cheese addiction. After the cheese-capades, we paid a visit to the produce truck. The owner of the stall was a jolly woman who sold us fresh figs and salad fixings. After making our produce purchases, we marched over to the charcuterie stall, where a boar’s head lay grandly amidst the various sausages. I had no choice but to take a picture of the owner, a burly Corsican homme with a cigar dangling from his mouth, surrounded by his collection of meat.
Once home, it was time for a full roast beef lunch. Thank goodness someone taught me to say “j’ai bien mange, merci” or Thierry would have pushed food at me until I burst. After a sieste and a long walk down to the Loire, it was time to eat again. For dinner we had Moules Frites (mussels with French fries), a traditional coastal French dish. The mussels were delicious, and we sopped up the buttery sauce with big hunks of baguette (jealous?).
Here’s to yummy food and not so yummy moldy jam.
The French do not have a word for the adjective “awkward.” In the beginning of the program, this omission of such a predominant concept in my life was, well, awkward. With one jump across the pond, I was suddenly in a place where I could not accurately describe so much of my recent encounters in a different culture.
For instance, the bisou: a peck on each side of the cheek as a greeting. Some students got the hang of it really quickly, and find it so much more welcoming than the standard American hello. Me, I am totally fine with the standard nonchalant, “hey,” but that doesn’t fly nearly so well in France. Some students even notice how the bisou changes depending on what region of France one is in (which side is kissed first). Me, if I see an opportunity where a handshake will work in lieu of the bisou, I take it.
Yea, it causes some awkwardness, but, after two months in France, I figured out that I am not française, and in the four months time of this program, I will not likely be accepted as française. Therefore if I cause, or find myself in the middle of social discomfort, I can always blame it on my being an outsider.
Being comfortable in a culture, yea, that has merit, but being comfortable outside of a culture, that is priceless.
Today I went with fellow students Jane and Alex and our hosts Marie Claude and Jeanne Hélène. We went to Pornic, a beach town north of Nantes. The coolest part of the day was seeing a festival to celebrate the Breton roots of the area. A parade went through town, and lots of people in beautiful costumes were in it, dancing or playing instruments. I especially appreciated this one band of bagpipes. Where did they find all those bagpipe players? There must have been at least 30 in the parade.
As I write this, I’m watching a TV show on France3, national television, that is a festival of celtic music and dance from all over the world. There are performers from Bretagne, (Brittany) of course, and Galicia, Spain; Acadie, Canada; Ireland; Wales and Scotland. It’s really cool to see the celtic connection.
Still, I guess I problematize the way I saw Breton culture represented today, in the parade and on this show, and in the town of Guéronde, which we went to last weekend. What does it mean if a culture only matters when it is on display? What am I missing about Breton culture?—I’m sure it’s not bought and sold as much as I’ve seen it so far. What does the consumption of a culture say about the culture itself?
I only know a bit about Brittany. I asked Marie Claude last week if people in Guéronde were speaking a language other than French, because I heard a family talking in a language I didn’t recognize. My instinct was right—it must have been Breton. Schools teach it here.
And when I say ‘here,’ I’m not exactly sure what I mean. Marie Claude doesn’t speak Breton, and she said that Bretons don’t really think of Nantes as part of Brittany, even though there is a lot of Breton history here. Brittany wasn’t part of France until fairly recently (like a few hundred years ago), and they have their own kings and dukes and such, two of whom have a tomb in a church in Nantes. There’s also a big, grand castle here, which probably belonged to a Breton monarch, though I’m not sure. But the real capital of Brittany is Rennes, and Nantes is technically in the Loire Atlantique region of France. But still, on the first day I had breakfast, Marie Claude put out a boule for me to drink tea out of, in typical Breton style, she told me when I expressed my confusion.