It’s always surprising how easy it is to adapt to new environments. And when the environment really isn’t all that new, it’s even easier. I haven’t written since my first day in Paris because, to tell the truth, I don’t know what to write about. Everything I saw and experienced in China was new and different and exciting, and for the first few days, new themes were popping into my head by the hour. Life in Western countries, though, is more similar than different, and it just kind of moves along.
That’s probably why the one thing I keep wanting to write about is the banlieue—it’s the part of Paris that’s the most foreign to me. The diversity I described on my train ride from the airport is actually present on most of my daily métro rides, too, and interestingly enough, I just finished reading an article about how the subway brings together people from all over Paris in a kind of big social conglomeration since it’s stretched out to the banlieue. We’ve talked about French views of immigrants and the banlieue in two of my classes so far, and Thursday we’ll be heading to Saint-Denis—a northern banlieue—to meet some university students, and I’m hoping it’s going to be great. This afternoon I went to Europe’s largest flee market, which happens to be close to the start of the banlieue, and it was incredible to see how much the buildings and the people varied from my neighborhood in the middle of Paris.
Today in our class on the press, I chose to present some interviews with a journalist who writes about the banlieue. Since describing the banlieue as the ghetto in my last post, I’ve learned that the word “ghetto” is actually a taboo in France, yet certain sociologists and people far more intelligent than me are pushing for its use. French people rarely discuss the existence of “sensitive urban zones,” as they’re called, in the banlieue, while Americans find it one of the most interesting parts of Paris. According to one of our professors, the whole perception of the banlieue is a combination of hyper-awareness of social and ethnic inequality on Americans’ part and hypocrisy and the need to cling to the ideals of equality of “the Republic” on the French’s part. Whatever it is, it’s something different and relevant for a liberal-leaning college student like myself, and I find it incredibly interesting.
But now I’ll tell you about some happy things:
Food. Nothing says happy in Paris like bread, crêpes, cheese, and wine. For breakfast, I eat bread with nutella and drink tea at home. Then, lucky for me, there’s a completely lovely boulangerie (bakery) right across the street from our classes that I’ve been to every day for lunch so far. I usually get some sort of warm and flaky combination of bread, ham, and cheese, plus they have those amazing French desserts that I’ve so far been good at staying away from. I’m not sure how much longer I’ll hold out, though.
Dinner at home always consists of a meat or egg dish, followed by vegetables or potatoes, then a salad, then baguette and cheese, then fruit or mousse for dessert. The process of eating takes about an hour, and although I never feel full at the end, I never get hungry either (surprising since we don’t eat until 8:00). It’s a completely different way of eating, but I can see why French women don’t get fat.
Of course, even if I don’t get hungry, I still have to indulge in a few crêpes while I’m here, plus a little ice cream here or there. And Saturday after returning from a day trip with the class, I had to take advantage of the fact that I live ten minutes from Chinatown (so perfect) and ate at a fantastic Vietnamese restaurant, complete with a bottle of Tsingtao just like on my 21st birthday in China in the fall.
Some of the host families have wine with dinner every night, too, but since mine doesn’t, a few friends and I sat down at a café and bought a bottle Friday night. Real French cafés are seriously intimidating places, but we managed to figure it out and only got laughed at a few times by the waiter. Plus, I think he appreciated our pick of wine, since one of the girls’ family says rosé is very in right now. Go us. On Saturday night we also bought some wine for 3 Euros from a supermarket, though, so obviously we’re not too picky.
Fashion. It’s tough to get by in a city where even the 10-year-olds are more fashionable than me. It’s the clothes that make me feel the most out of place in Paris, even though I’m doing my best to sport the skinny jeans and neutral colors. We are in the fashion capital of the world, and every street you walk down is like a runway of the newest trends. It’s intimidating, but also makes for great people watching.
Sites. Most of the time I feel like I’m just living an average student’s life, going to school, going home to do homework, eating a family dinner. But then sometimes we branch out into Paris, and it’s a little different than Northfield.
Our first excursion was to Père Lachaise, Paris’ biggest cemetery that’s home to Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, and Marcel Proust, just to name a few. Parisians often picnic in the cemetery, which sounds utterly morbid, but after going there, you realize that it’s a kind of peaceful sanctuary of natural green space in the middle of a city where most of the trees are manicured into perfect geometric shapes. I think it’s one of the prettiest places in Paris.
Last week I had to make a jaunt over to the Musée d’Orsay to look at some paintings for my art history class (how cool is that—just go look at the original works that you’re studying), and when a friend and I came out, we figured we might as well look at the Seine, then saw the tip of the Eiffel Tour and figured we might as well look at that, too. That metaphor about only seeing the tip of an iceberg could probably fit pretty well here, because when you can only see the tip of the Eiffel Tower, that means it’s about a 40-minute walk away. We endured, though, and at least got in a few photos.
And the most beautiful site I’ve seen yet wasn’t actually in Paris, but in Chartres, about an hour and a half south of the city. Our entire group took a day trip to the Chartres Cathedral on Saturday to be showed around by one of its foremost scholars, a 77-year-old Englishman who’s been giving tours for 55 years and still climbs to the top of the cathedral. The city of Chartres is undeniably charming, and the cathedral—the best-preserved medieval cathedral in Europe—is huge and gorgeous. Plus the weather was perfect for photos, so needless to say, I’ve included a few below. Since our guide has been giving Carleton groups tours since the 70s, he took us up to walk through the cathedral’s tower, over the roof, and up into its steeple, an amazing experience that had us all really excited.
There’s still a long list of things I need to see and do while I’m here—right now it’s at about 15 I think—but I’m slowly crossing the items off. The next one comes Wednesday night, when I go see a French theatrical adaptation of Moby Dick. Can’t wait.