Jumping over the lazy dog

or, taking the bull by the horns.

Go Bulldogs!

As you can probably guess (and some of my dear readers found out in person), I’m going to Yale this fall! Things have been a bit crazy in Brownie-land, as I’ve had to find roommates and housing, once again from a few hundred miles away, all while trying to sort through my massive amounts of stuff.

I never realized how many things I’ve accumulated over the past five years. After getting back to the US two weeks ago, I’ve spent a lot of my free time going through boxes I’d packed and left in my room after coming back from Tech, trying to combine my ‘old life’ with my more recent life (i.e. stuff from Paris), all while trying to figure out what parts of this past will be accompanying me into my near future (i.e. packing for Yale).

In some ways, I’ve been culling more than packing the last few days. While in Paris I started to read about the minimalist movement, things like the 100 Things Challenge, and while I don’t think I can live with only 100 things (depending on what you qualify as a ‘thing’), I’ve been trying to weed through my excessive wardrobe and book collection. Things I don’t need are going to Goodwill or the library, and I’ve managed to fill a giant bag 4′ tall of clothes…and still, I have three boxes, packed to the brim with architecture books, that will make their way to Yale in July.

How much is too much? How much is enough? Having lived out of two suitcases for seven months, I know that I don’t need more than one pair of jeans, two pairs of leggings, a handful of sweaters, shirts and dresses, one pair of boots and one pair of sandals to last me a while. That said, I didn’t go out that often, didn’t have special occasions for which I needed to dress up that often, didn’t have work, didn’t have jury presentations, no weddings…so my 12 pairs of shoes are justified in my American wardrobe, right? And as far as books go…they’re the most difficult thing for me to let go: I could give away my fiction titles, because I usually don’t reread them, but there’s a sentimental attachment to The Little Princess that has me hesitating to put it in the ‘Library’ bin.

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Filed under: Close to home, , , , , , , , ,

She’s alive!

Since February, I’ve:

  • been to India and back
  • had two short stays in Horsham and London
  • had an even shorter stay in Bordeaux, and a slightly longer stay in Marmande
  • spent an afternoon burning up in a hammam and sipping delicious tea
  • wandered around Paris discovering new parks
  • succumbed to H&M’s silky soft dresses
  • tripped and fell in front of a cafe-full of lunch-goers, horribly scraping my (still-recovering) knee in the process
  • said sad goodbyes to two of my favorite Assistantes
  • and heard back from all four graduate programs…

…and that’s why I haven’t written in this blog.

A quick round-up of travel expeditions results in these photos:

The primary purpose of my trip to India was to visit my grandmother. And there she is!

While visiting, I got to sit on this porch and watch beautiful sunsets over the Nilgiri Hills.

(Sunsets like this one, for example.)

I also got to soak up some sun and rest my eyes on some of the local flora.

...and take pictures of a naughty smile.

London was a quick trip to drop off my portfolio with Heatherwick Studios and check out their Rolling Bridge project. The portfolio drop-off didn’t lead to much, but the bridge was pretty cool in person, and I created this short video of it unrolling by shooting in paparazzi-mode on my Nikon.

I went to Bordeaux to visit a friend from VT who’s also doing an English assistantship. I felt very Parisian as I wandered the streets, thinking to myself, “Oh, wow, they’re so relaxed here. There aren’t any cars…it’s like I’m out in the country…” Which, all things considered, Paris is certainly not hectic when compared to New York…but when compared to anywhere else in France, it seems to be pure chaos. And when we got to Marmande, even Bordeaux seemed a bit too urban…

I spent my afternoon in Bordeaux wandering around old alleyways, getting yelled at by prostitutes when I wasn't even trying to take their picture. This presumable John was on the prowl at 2PM. Early to bed...early to rise?

Bordeaux also had some really cool textures, and I got a bit carried away taking pictures of door knobs and stonework, which is why there aren't awe-inspiring shots of Bordeaux's reknown monuments).

This was a bridge with an architecturally interesting form...and an unnecessarily strenuous climb.

As for stuff around Paris, I’ll try and go for a more detailed post later, with more pictures, of course.

And I didn’t forget the last thing on that list: remember back in the day, when I was stressing about my applications to Pratt, UC Berkeley, Yale and Harvard? Well I got into all of them! Now, I’m stressing about which one to choose. They’re all pretty expensive, though some are giving me a bit of financial aid…my heart is leaning one way, but I won’t say anything until I’ve done my choosing – and that’s soon! You (and I) will know by April 15, so look out for that Big News on this blog in the next week!

Filed under: All things French, Around the world, Close to home, , , , , , , ,

Aalto-gether now…

Please excuse that terrible pun, but I couldn’t resist.

I felt quite cosmopolitan as I hopped on a flight last Thursday afternoon, toting my small carry-on packed with a dozen sweaters, double doses of socks and a silly looking hat. I was on my way to Helsinki, which might seem like a terrible weekend getaway in the middle of February, but is actually quite nice. Chattering teeth aside, the city is a strange site, a triple exposure of the far past, the recent past and the present, one that’s easily explorable on foot or via its countless modes of public transport.

The Brit and I chose to visit Helsinki because it was Valentine’s weekend, and I, for one, was happy to finally not be celebrating Happy Singles Awareness day. So I insisted we go somewhere, and it turns out that easyJet had cheap flights to the city where my friend the Argonaut happens to be studying architecture for the year, so the trip was a chance to kill three birds in one stone: actually celebrate Vday with someone I love, catch up with a friend, and see some interesting architecture in a new city.

Upon arriving in Helsinki Thursday night, the Brit and I were quite tired and hungry, but our intentions of a quick dinner and a long nap were thrown to the side as the Argonaut and I spent a few hours solving the world’s problems. The Brit might have gotten in a word or two, but for those of you that know the Argonaut, putting the two of us in a room is much like putting the Roomie and I in a room: good luck getting us to zip our lips. We eventually got to bed at 2AM, with plans for the two of us to visit the city while the Argonaut ran to studio for a crit.

Our wake-up call the next morning went something like this:

Me, barely awake: Hello?

Argonaut, way too chirpy for 10 in the morning: So, if you want to go to the Aalto studio, it opens at 11:30 and they only do one tour, and that’s the only way to see the place, and you really should see the place.

Me: Um…ok yeah sure. How long does it take to get there?

Argonaut: Oh about 40 minutes to an hour.

Me: So we should leave….now?

Argonaut: Yeah, that should be good.

Me, looking at the snoozing lump on the bed: Right. I’ll get on that.

After jumping into our thermal gear and rushing out the door, we took the tram north, towards Alvar Aalto’s studio and home. What the Argonaut neglected to mention was the exact location of the studio. So several text messages, barely understandable phonecalls (have you ever tried to reconcile the sounds of spoken Finnish with the words you see on a street sign?) and a couple of wrong turns, we made it to the studio with a minute to spare.

Let's play a game called 'Guess the chair.'

Now let's play a game called 'Guess the joint.'

This is where Aalto worked, his private studio - the rest of the team worked in a loft down the corridor.

The really nice guide answered all my questions and even suggested a place to grab lunch. Which is how I did the number one coolest thing about visiting Finland in February: I walked on the sea. Turns out, it’s really cold up north in the winter time, so cold that you can not only walk across a frozen snow-covered body of water, but drive a car across said phase-changing environment.

Technically, this is a picture of the bank...but imagine that all that snow extends across the sea, too.

Lunch at the cafe was a tasty salmon lasagna and a not as tasty hot chocolate,, but I’ll cut them some slack on the latter because the best hot chocolate in the world can only be found in Paris. We then wandered back to Aalto’s residence, where I did things like drool over grooved drawer pulls and rub my fingers up and down suede walls.

It was a really comfy chair. No wonder it was Aalto's favorite.

When we got back to the city center, the Brit and I wandered around town, ducking into buildings for warmth before trekking to our next destination. That afternoon, we visited the Helsinki Cathedral, which is sited quite impressively but has an interior that leaves quite a bit to be desired.  On the other hand, we spent some time in the Temppeliaukio Kirkko (Rock Church), whose exterior isn’t that majestic, but whose interior expresses the nature of the sacred far better than the cathedral. A walk through the ‘design district’ looking into windows displaying kitchen accessories and incredible boots left us quite cold, so we rode the tram around town, getting an eyeful from a much cosier environment, before we met back up with Argonaut and his friends for drinks at a local bar.

I believe the ceiling was done in copper. The gray bits are good ol' concrete, and the radial pattern is reminiscient of Pagan Sun-God lore.

On Saturday, I went where no brown person has ever been before. Well, it was certainly something this brown person had never done before: cross-country skiing. The Finns make it look quite easy. Just pop in your boots, swing your arms about a bit and op! off you go! Lies, all lies.

There are things cross-country skiing is good for: seeing the countryside without leaving a trail of carbon monoxide, for example. There are things cross-country skiing is not so good for: seeing the countryside quickly without leaving a trail of carbon monoxide. Unless you’ve got years of experience, are over 5′-0″ tall, or happen to be genetically predisposed to skiing.

Dramatics aside, I did have quite a bit of fun skiing. Once I figured out how to move more than a few inches at a time (read: 2.5 hours after starting), we got to do a couple of hills. I’m a proponent of downhill skiing, where all the effort of uphill transit is transferred upon the ski lift: zero effort, tons of fun. However, with cross-country skiing they have these handy pre-grooved tracks down the windy mountainside, and all you have to do (once you’ve reached the top by wedging your skis at awkard angles) is set yourself in those grooves and allow your skis to zip you down to the bottom. Once, I went so fast my hat almost blew off. Totally worth the huffing and puffing and wedging on my way up.

Sunday in Helsinki is a bit like Sunday in Paris: few places are open for business. After more world-problem-solving at a coffee shop, the three of us visited the Kiasma, Steven Holl’s contribution to the Helsinki architectural scene. The building’s white-clad exterior does little to help it stand out in the cloudy grey sky, but the interior, with its carved openings and sweeping curves, is much more appreciable. The works in the musuem were mediocre, only Adel Abidin’s exhibit really caught my attention. His ability to balance humor and gravity in his films had me delightedly surprised.

In the end, the Brit and I spent Valentine’s dinner in an airport, which is appropriate, he noted, for the way our relationship seems to be a series of transits. That, and the fact that he loves planes, and I love airports. My delayed flight finally landed in Paris at half past midnight, and I rushed around CDG looking for a night bus (as the RER wasn’t running for some reason). My first (and possibly last) experience with the Parisian Noctilien deserves this comment: seemingly efficient on paper, the buses wait far longer than necessary at the stops, resulting in a half-hour journey taking thrice the time.

By 03:00 I was back in my own bed, snuggled under the covers, happy for the heat. It’s hard to believe I’ve only got a few days left in Paris before I leave for India this weekend, and then only a few weeks upon my return!

Filed under: Around the world, , , , , , , , ,

The downside of up.

I might have mentioned this before, but I love Paris. I love the cobblestones  under my black boots and the crisp wind whipping my trendy scarf as I cross the Pont Neuf. I love the hot chocolate at Angelina’s and the occasional treat of Ladurée macaroons. I love being able to walk to the Louvre on Friday evenings for a quiet afternoon with the Masters.

I am not so in love with my job.

I’m technically in Paris as an English teaching assistant. Sometimes, however, it feels as though I’m in Paris as an under-paid, under-trained, under-worked disciplinarian. Here’s the situation:

Two times a week I take on a batch of 15 sophomores and attempt to do fun things like play a speed-dating game or watch clips from American TV shows to learn slang. And I’m quite enthusiastic about the lessons I plan – I try not to do anything that I wouldn’t have considered fun when I was a sophomore learning French at Salem High School. That might actually work in American classrooms, where students are relatively disciplined and stay quiet while the teacher is speaking, even if they sulk when assigned any tiny amount of work. But oh no, not in a French classroom (the film The Class comes to mind).

The problem occurs both because of students, and because of the system under which I am supposed to be working.  First, let’s deal with the system.

  1. I only see these students every other week. Sometimes, they have tests, so I might not even see them that regularly.
  2. Their presence is mandatory, but I do not know the names of the students to be present beforehand. So I cannot take roll, and therefore cannot punish students for absence.
  3. The students are not graded based on their performance in my class. They, in essence, have no motivation to attend nor to participate, and therefore they don’t.
  4. During orientation, I was not made aware of my rights as an instructor; for example, I don’t know the protocol for when a student is tardy and claims to have been at the nurse’s office. When I ask for a note, they shrug and feign incomprehension.

I cannot imagine these students are deliberately malicious. They are talkative and I perceive them to be disrespectful, but perhaps that is because their teachers let them to speak among themselves in class, and I, as an American, see that as impermissible – a cultural difference. But the fact of the matter is that when I do reprimand students for disruptive behavior, they simply talk back and refuse to do their lines, or put down their head, or accept responsibility for their actions.

I’ve spoken to teachers about protocol, but it seems there’s not much I can do. I can send the students to the CPE, essentially to the principal’s office, but I’d rather not. Surely there is a solution to keep them  in the classroom and to engage them in the activity – positive reinforcement, rather than disciplinary action.

A few of my readers are teachers, high school teachers, in fact. What do you do when your class is rowdy, shows up tardy, or refuses to participate? How can I make my activities more engaging or enticing to adolescents? Is punishment the only answer?

Filed under: All things French, , , , , ,

Bonne Année! (For reals, yo.)

Captain’s Log. Week 2 (or so) of Holiday expedition. London, England.

The Brit and I made it to London on the 29th with little to no hassle (unlike another Eurostar trip or two that I know of), albeit a bit exhausted from a long day. As we dragged ourselves, and our bags (well, the Brit dragged mine), off the tube, up the stairs and in the vague direction of our hotel, who should we run into but Dino, Roomie, and Ray! Actually, what happened was this: I was sluggishly crawling out of the tube station, when I heard an excited squeal and a yelp that sounded something like my name, and was then engulfed by a large, black, puffy jacket, which when disengaged revealed itself to be a couple of bouncing, blond curls, also known as Roomie. Dino and Ray got hugs too, and after a round of introductions, dropping the bag off at the hotel, and saying goodnight to Ray, the four of us made our way over to a pub for a well deserved beer. After which we ‘crashed out,’ as the Brit says.

Birds of a feather…

It was Roomie’s first time in London, and lucky her – she had four excellent guides: two natives, and two…not so natives. Joining Roomie, Dino, the Brit and I for our goings about town was Mr. VK (another member of the anglais persuasion), who in his free time shows little Italian children around the British Isle, and so became the lead tour guide in our day’s excursion. The day’s events included the following (some images borrowed, sources cited):

  • The British Museum: Where Roomie stood next to an Easter Island statue (stolen from Easter Island), where we saw a bunch of mummies (stolen from Egypt), where Dino took us to see clocks (stolen from…?) and where we discovered a not-ancient crystal skull (stolen, but with no vodka inside – what a shame).

  • The Walking Tour of Everything: From Big Ben to Westminster. Okay, so that’s not a very far distance, but we did walk up and down Oxford street for what seems like ages, and over to Buckingham palace and the place where the guards are on horses, Carnaby Street and Trafalgar square (for a quick stop into the National Gallery), and all of this under a steady drizzle.
  • St. James’ Park: What distracted us from the infamous view of Buckingham Palace were the birds. Some, recognizable (pelicans, swans, gulls, pigeons, ducks, geese), some not-so-recognizable (check out the little guy below). This is also the Land of Very Brave Squirrels, as evidenced by one that tried to climb up Roomie’s leg.

  • The Crazy Candy Shop: Cyber Candy, where they have almost everything you could want, including Nerds (which is apparently what gets Mr. VK excited). Image courtesy of Dino.

The Italian Job

Now, this actually happened on the 30th, just like the rest of the events described above, but it’s very special and deserves its own section. Not because the food was exceptional (it wasn’t great, but it wasn’t awful, either), but because the service was…Bean-tastic, shall we say. And we ought to have guessed.

Clue number one: If you find three Italian restaurants in a row in Chinatown, remember you’re in Chinatown.

Clue number two: If your tour guide’s recommendation of “They’re all amazing!” is followed by “Well, I think so…I was pretty smashed, so I don’t remember much of any of them.,” do keep that in mind.

Clue number three: If the one restaurant you choose to enter calls itself ‘The Italian Restaurant,’ it probably isn’t.

Clue number four: If the staff avoids eye contact for more than 15 minutes while you huddle around the hostess stand, they’re probably not going to be much more helpful when you’re seated.

Clue number five: If they offer you the basement, just don’t do it.

Clue number six: If your waiter looks like Mr. Bean, and if your waiter acts like Mr. Bean, he probably is Mr. Bean. And that’s about the level of service you can expect

Well, here’s what happened. We weren’t seated for ages, and when we finally were, we were stranded in the Twilight Zone. The Italian waiter took an instant dislike to Mr. VK, for some reason (maybe something he’d done last time, something that he doesn’t remember?), and brought out four meals, completely ignoring Mr. VK’s appetizer and pizza. When we finally reminded him of the appetizer, he brought it down in a not-so-timely manner. He then must have completely forgotten about the pizza, and when his manager came downstairs, we reminded that bloke about poor Mr. VK’s dinner; of course, being yelled at by his manager probably didn’t put the Italian Waiter in a very good mood – so the pizza still didn’t show up.

In the mean time, the rest of us ate our meals. We were interrupted by the following events:

  • The couple at the next table over dined and dashed, I’m pretty sure.
  • An old man came down the stairs, turned on a string of Christmas lights, and went back up.
  • A woman brought down a little boy and girl, had them use the restroom, said something in French, then shuttled the troops up stairs.
  • Mr. VK went to the bathroom, at which point the Italian waiter attempted to descend the stairs, saw he was missing, decided it wouldn’t be worth the effort, heaved the heaviest sigh in the Twilight Zone, and marched back up.

Finally, some waitress must have been banished to the basement, because she appeared out of nowhere and had Mr. VK’s pizza down in 15 minutes; the rest of us had finished eating, of course, and we were all itching to go. The Italian waiter came back around, pulled out his pad as though to take our dessert orders, then said “No.” and walked away.

By the time we got our bill, he’d added a charge for a bottle of still water that was supposedly on the house and we (minus Mr. VK) were hungry again. Incredibly tempted to dine and dash as our fellow diners had earlier, we resisted the urge by paying for the meal but not leaving any tip what so ever (not even the “included” service charges). It was, on one hand, a truly abysmal dining experience; but on the other, I don’t think I’ve ever had such a strange parade of events occur around a meal, and the food itself wasn’t half bad, so….

The last day of two thousand and nine.

To end 2009 we went and saw really big things.

  • Dinosaurs: I can’t decide if I was more impressed by the dinosaur bones in the exhibit, or the design of the exhibit and the building itself. If not for the dinosaurs, I think the Natural History Museum would be worth a visit anyway: the over-the-top ornament (with monkeys scaling beak-footed columns), while not my aesthetic, can certainly be appreciated for its technical skill.

  • An enormous column: Or, the V&A museum, which houses a plaster cast of an enormous obelisk from Italy, to be precise. Of all the things in the V&A, (and we saw quite a bit – architectural models, glass work, silver work, jewels, clothing…) I think I was most impressed by the object pictured below.

  • Fireworks! We arrived at the Thames at 18:00, and there were already plenty of people there. Luckily, we managed to find a spot almost directly across from the London Eye, and so had quite the view of the show. For the next six hours, we shivered in our boots (the heat packs stuffed by our toes stopped working after hour 2), chowed down on sandwiches and gummy candies, and tried not to listen to the DJ’s terrible taste in music. But the chattering teeth and frozen toes were worth it – the show was incredible. My favorite bit was when they filled the sky with golden fireworks.

…and the first of two thousand and ten.

It snowed for a few minutes after the fireworks as we weaved our way through the crowd searching for the nearest tube station; I’m told that’s supposed to be good luck, but it wasn’t helping us find the tube! We wandered for at least an hour before we finally found an open station that wasn’t stuffed to the brim with people, and chugged our way back to the hotel, where we met up with a friend of the Brit’s for a champagne toast and a couple of rounds of Catchphrase.

After napping away the early hours of 2010, we perked up as our tummies started grumbling. They led us to some street food (a sausage with fried onions, ketchup and mustard in a hot dog bun – mmmm) and then to wander down the Thames River Walk to burn off those oh-so-tasty calories. We dropped off the Brit’s friend near Tower Bridge, and then headed to grab some dinner before one of the coolest things in the world: The Lion King, the musical.

Dinner was at Sophie’s Steakhouse (near Covent Garden), and the theater where we saw The Lion King was only a few steps away. The food and service were much, much, much better than at The Italian Restaurant. I had fish pie, it was some of the tastiest fish pie I’ve eaten (by the way, whoever said English food is bad was lying – I quite like fish pie and fish and chips and bangers and mash and Yorkshire pudding…). The Brit wasn’t feeling too well, but after we drugged him (hush you, the over-the-counter pain-killer kind of drugs) he was in better spirits and ready for the awesome that is The Lion King, the musical.

Now, did I mention how amazing the musical version of The Lion King is? There are reviews abound, so I won’t bother with the details, but will let you know that the costumes were fantastic (both amazing and fantastical), the guy that played Zazu was brilliantly witty (more than filled Rowan Atkinson’s animated shoes), and the wildebeest scene was a surprisingly authentic reproduction of the film. You’ll just have to go see it to know what I mean.

And that, dear readers, ends our stay in London. Dino, Roomie and I said our good-byes to the Brit early the next morning as we boarded the Eurostar to pillage and plunder Paris. But that is a story for another day…

Filed under: Around the world, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Bonne Année!

The French tradition of being allowed to say “Happy New Year” to anyone you meet for the entire month of January is one that gets old, quick. Say, for example, when you’ve met the same person for the 5th time, and their enthusiasm for the New Year does nothing but remind you that you never made it past day one of your resolutions.  On the other hand, it means I can get away with wishing all my readers Happy New Year on January 23rd, and, since it is technically only the second time I’ve “met you” in 2010, you can’t be terribly annoyed, yes?

If you’ll recall, I jumped right into 2010 with the last post, but before Ye Old Year was kicked’th out, there was some Christmas revelry and London-visiting, news of which has yet to make it to these digital pages. And, as you can imagine, it’s quite difficult to cram three weeks of fun into one tiny little blog post, so we’ll take it a week (or so) at a time…

Captain’s Log. Week 1 (or so) of the Holiday expedition. Paris, France.

Trouble on the horizon

It’s not a story-worthy adventure unless it starts with some technical troubles (so that later on, when the Captain regrets forging on despite the tiny leak-producing crack which has now become a full-blown canyon, the tech support guy in India can say “I told you so.”). Our technical troubles coincided with those of thousands of other travelers trying to cross the English Channel on that fateful December weekend. Through BBC articles and Facebook updates, you can piece together our story: Eurostar trains stopped in the Chunnel. Travelers trapped for hours. Eurostar authorities apologize for snow-induced delays. Travelers scheduled to travel over the weekend re-routed to Monday and Tuesday trains. Tuesday travelers (i.e. the Brit) urged to not travel unless necessary.  The Brit arrives at St. Pancras at 06:00 on a Wednesday morning. Eurostar authorities maintain that travelers should avoid travel and that tickets will be handed out on a first-come, first-served basis. The Brit queues in circles (sounds more French than British). Acquires ticket a few hours later and boards Paris-bound train. More weather-related delays on the tracks. Wilting Brit arrives at Gare du Nord at 14:30. Nap ensues.

Jours de fêtes at the Grand Palais

An indoor county fair in the winter. The French sure seem to have somethings backwards...

We met up with that French friend of mine from an earlier post, who now merits a nick-name, having two blog-mentions. Let’s call her Bleue. Bleue and her boyfriend, Norm, met the Brit and I at the Grand Palais, where we wandered around under its enormous steel-framed glass arches soaking up the sights and sounds of an indoor fair. A bit too scared to try any of the truly crazy rides (my mind spins fast enough by itself, thanks, I needn’t have it spin on multiple axes) we did have a go at the bumper cars, or l’auto-tamponeuse. We then wandered down the Champs-Elysées (always a sight to see, but more-so with all the Christmas lights), did a twirl around the giant ferris wheel, la Grande Roue, at the Place de la Concorde, and then hunted down dinner. Well, not literally, but we did try one recommended place, only to be told it was too busy. So we wound up at our second choice, which turned out to be not so bad at all.  At le Tambour, I had my first taste of rabbit (lapin in a mustard-y creamy sauce) and a French wine called Saumur, which is right up there with Brouilly in my books now.

Dinner and a movie (or vice-versa), Christmas-style.

My family has always gone to the movies for Thanksgiving and over Christmas. It’s one of the few times we’re all in the same place, and there’s usually a blockbuster that everyone can agree on. Well, everyone but my Mom, whose vote doesn’t count because she’ll fall asleep in the theater no matter what movie we go to. So in proper Raja-family tradition, the Brit and I went to watch a movie on Christmas Eve. I was surprised the theaters were open, as I thought the French would take any opportunity not to work – but I suppose there are some French people who fancied going to the movies over the holidays as well, and the poor folks had to work at the caisses anyway. We watched Avatar, in 3D (with the cool tech-y looking glasses, not the fake paper ones). Now, a movie review in three parts: not too thrilled with the plot, somewhat impressed by the 3-D, somewhat more impressed by the world-making. It catches your eye while your watching it, but falls flat in retrospect.

Since we couldn’t participate in my family’s (now) tradition of going to a friend’s house for Christmas Eve dinner and White Elephant gift-giving, we decided to borrow the Brit’s “Christmas dinner” as best we could. I had only recently gotten approval for using the oven (which wasn’t as complicated as Mimi made it out to be), and so was a bit wary about preparing an entire bird, and for only two people. Instead, we put ourselves at ease by purchasing dishes from Picard and reheating them in the oven. Which sounds not so tasty, until you realize that even frozen French food is better than some fresh-made American food. And then we slept. Here are some images of our coma-inducing meal (or meals, as the leftovers lasted us through the weekend).

First course: tomato soup, baguettes and turkey, mushroom and foie gras-stuffed pastries.

Main meal: Indian-style jumping potatoes, some more baguette, mixed vegetables, two types of chicken and green beens wrapped in bacon. Tossed down with some more Saumur, of course.

Dessert: Chocolate ice-cream logs sprinkled with nuts. We were so full, we could barely finish these off!

Dessert: Chocolate ice-cream logs sprinkled with nuts. We were so full, we could barely finish these off!

Sleep and other escapades

The rest of the Brit’s stay in Paris included plenty of sleep, many more movies (I couldn’t believe he’d never seen The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!) and a bit of venturing out into the chilly weather. When we dared to face the brisk Parisian breeze, we did things like queue for an hour to ice-skate for 40 minutes at the Hôtel de Ville, or wander around looking at Christmas decorations, or walk six miles in a day to explore the Parc de la Villette and the adjacent St. Martin Canal (which, by the way, is beautiful even in the winter time), or go visit a swish pedestrian bridge and take silly pictures with statues in a park.

Me, ice-skating. Or rather, standing precariously in the way of rink traffic as the Brit tries to quickly snap a shot with my overly-complicated camera.

Huuuuuuge tree at the Galleries Lafayette. It was at least 4-storeys tall!

The Brit in front of the planetarium at the Cite des Sciences, by the Parc de la Villette.

Swish bridge, aka the Passerelle Simone-de-Beauvoir.

Silly picture.

Until next time, fellow explorers, when we’ll uncover the mysteries of great Eye of London.

Filed under: All things French, Around the world, Close to home, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

What do Eminem and I have in common?

Um, well…we’re back. And, I suppose, that at times I can be a bit shady, and that once upon a time, I was slim.

These last few weeks have been incredibly crazy. Between having the Brit over for Christmas, heading up for some gallivanting in London, and then having more friends than I have fingers bustling about for a week or so after, I barely had time to finish my scholarship applications, much less blog! But…all that is now a safe distance away, and after a cozy Saturday curled up in bed with a few movies as the rain tapped on my (still-paper-snowflake-covered) window, I was ready to hit the town.  And so I did, in a manner of speaking.

Jim Haynes is the type of person with whom you feel immediately comfortable. And it’s not just the twinkle in his eye and his rosy cheeks that lend him a Santa Clause-y air: the evening he offers is a veritable gift for those able to attend. An apron wrapped around his torso, seated on a wooden stool and notebook in hand, he shook our hands with smile peeking out from below his mustache.

A bit of background info: Aussie called me with some info on an underground dining adventure, one of those “best kept secret” deals, dinner chez Jim. Every Sunday for the last 30 years, Jim has hosted thousands of strangers, people unknown to him, and to the rest of his guests. Over glasses of wine, bottles of beer and a delicious three-course meal prepared by Jim and his friends, strangers become acquaintances, and in some cases, much more.

Yesterday evening, I had the opportunity to meet (among others): an architect from Sydney, an interior designer from Charlotte, NC, a communications consultant from Mexico, a geo-physicist from Italy, and an immunology student from China. Dinner consisted of a potato salad appetizer, followed by boeuf bourguignon, green beans and mashed potatoes, and an apple crumble with vanilla ice cream for dessert. If you wanted seconds, they were up for grabs – in both the food and the alcohol department.  Plenty of interesting conversation and delicious food, all for a small donation (small by Parisian standards, that is).

The evening was a great way to break out of my hermit-ing (understandable, after three weeks of continuous travel), and I can’t wait to go back!

Filed under: All things French, Around the world, , , , , , , , , , ,

Big weekend: a multi-national play in four parts.

The last few days have set a wonderful tone to what promises to be a memorable holiday season, in spite of the weather-related train and plane frustrations.  It all started Friday evening, when an Italian student of mine asked me to join him and his friends on an excursion to a Jazz concert…

Act I: The Italian Lesson

Technically, there were two Americans, one French woman, and five Italians present, but since the latter outnumber the former two, we’re giving them Act I.  In any case, it was truly a lesson in the differences between French, Italian and American ways of life.

First, tempo.  Tempo when walking, that is. Americans, I find, tend to be the speediest bipeds I’ve met, especially those from NYC. But even Virginian walkers will lap a Frenchman every so often.  Parisians come second in the speed-walking contest and Italians…well, they’re so leisurely in their pace the tortoise lapped them not once, but thrice.

Second, expatriates. I asked one of the Italians his thoughts on living in Paris, versus his time in Italy. One thing he noted, that many texts on French culture will support, is that the French aren’t exactly friendly.  It takes a while to squeeze yourself into a French friend-circle, and even then, things like swinging by the Jones’ on your way home aren’t done: you really should call and schedule that visit.

Third, jazz! The band was apparently part Italian, and the concert was in the 10th (right around the corner from the Indian district) and we ate Turkish food right before, so it was a right multi-cultural experience. The guitar player looked like Bret (from Flight of the Conchords) and the other American and I couldn’t help but snicker every time we caught a glimpse of his shaggy hair. The music itself was smooth, enjoyable, a bit of flute, some sax, percussion, and a mellow bass.

We ended the night with a stop at Rue Mouffetard, for some mulled wine and late night conversation at La Contrescarpe, whose cozy decor didn’t quite match the thumping techno music played over the speakers.

Act II: The French Lesson

On Saturday I took some time to visit another museum, le Petit Palais, which was built for the 1900 world fair and is the little sibling of the better-known Grand Palais. The latter gets to host big events like the Paris Fashion Week.  The former houses a small but nice collection of paintings, sculpture and decorative arts, has impressive architecture itself, and is free, to everyone.

After wandering through the collection for an hour or so, I took some time to sketch (as I promised I would try and do more often).

Detail from the entry dome at the Petit Palais.

View of its famous spiral stair from below.

That evening, I went to see a movie with one of my French students, in French.  I’d been complaining about how little French I actually spoke, since most of my courses were English courses and my friends were all Americans…and that I wanted to go see a French film but was worried I wouldn’t understand a thing! So she suggested we go together and discuss the movie over a drink, which is exactly what we did.  After a bit of window shopping along the Champs-Elysées  (window shopping because I’m not sure I can afford to spend €200, also known as 1/4 my paycheck, on a 3″x4″ LV wallet), I met her at the UGC Charles V. We then wandered through the Christmas markets, grabbed a cup of vin chaud (to keep both our insides and our shivering fingers warm), and caught a glimpse of the light show at the Eiffel tower.

The film is about a young boy, Oscar, who has terminal cancer. The "dame rose" is the only woman with whom he agrees to speak during his last week. Yes, it's a sad movie. Yes, I teared up (more than once). And yes, I understood most of it, even without subtitles (though when they spoke really fast, it was from visual clues, and a slowed-down replay in my own mind).

Act III: The American Lesson

Yesterday, a Tech classmate of mine who’s doing the same program as I am, but teaching near Bordeaux, came up to Paris. She had a flight back to the US this morning, so last evening the two of us met up with another American friend of hers, wandered around the Latin Quarter, did some window shopping, and had a generally good time comparing notes on living in France, being American (i.e. not French) and general sillyness. I had my first fondue in France, both cheese and meat, and my first raclette, and chased that down with a delicious crêpe nutella banane and a mug of caramel tea.  We dropped my friend back at her hotel which was a bit closer to the airport – and that meant taking the RER B. Like usual, there were issues with the train, we had a random train-change because of technical errors, but made it to the hotel and back just fine.

Encore: The French Lesson, Reprised.

This afternoon I had an incredible pasta lunch at Pizza Positano, near Odéon, with a French girl I know from studying at Fontainebleau.  We then wandered around the Marais, catching up on our adventures and ducking into an architectural exhibition or two, and making me faire travailler (work on) my French.  It turned out to be a 4-hour French-only conversation, the most French I’ve spoken in one-go since getting here.  I was pretty tired by the end of it all.

As a side note, we were tempted by a free taster at Starbucks, and wound up going in and ordering the real thing – whoever comes up with their lattes is an incredible genius: drinking a noisette caramel (hazelnut caramel) latte is getting pretty close to heaven.

Filed under: All things French, Close to home, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Music and Mayhem

As I’ve said before, I have four hours of sophomore-level courses every week.  But because of the way the timetables work in French high schools, I don’t see the same kids every week.  On Mondays and Tuesdays I have two groups that I see every other week (one half of the class on week A, the other half on week B), and on Tuesdays and Thursdays I have two groups that I see regularly (same kids, every week). So it gets a bit complicated in lesson planning, to remember which kids did which lesson. Luckily for me, they talk to each other about my class.  So when I did a rather successful session on American popular music for Week A, the students in Week B insisted we go over the same material. What did I do that was worth of extra-curricular discussion? Well, let me tell you. (If Malcolm Gladwell can use leading questions, so can I, n’est-ce pas?)

The French have this love of competition, specifically, intellectual competition.  They have several TV shows, some similar to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Jeopardy, and Wheel of Fortune, and some that go way beyond what we expect Americans to know, including games where you solve word and number puzzles in seconds to advance to the next round. So I thought I’d play a music game – no, not musical chairs.  This one’s called “Guess the Decade!” and the students have to do just what the title suggests.

I began the class with an overview – we listened to samples of music from the 50s to the 2000s and studied their lyrics.  Then, I divided the class into two teams, usually boys versus girls.  That gets the competitive spirit going. I played 30 second samples of random music, and they had 30 seconds to decide, as a team, what decade they thought the song belonged to, and write their answer on a piece of paper; the winning team (there could be two, of both guessed correctly) received 10 points.  For an extra 5 points-a-piece, they could guess the song’s title and artist.  I had a mix of songs and artists I thought they’d know (“Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” “Y.M.C.A”) and was sometimes pleasantly surprised when they recognized the artists I thought they’d struggle with (Frank Sinatra – only one kid knew who that was, but good for him!). Class got a bit rowdy, of course, and I even had a teacher come tell us to settle down – but, for once, they were rowdy in English!

For the last week of school, I stuck to the Christmas theme and did an exercise to get them working on multiple tenses. They had a few minutes to write before they presented their answers to these two questions: 1) What was the best present you’ve ever received? and 2) If you could get anything for Christmas, what would you like to get? For the first, some kids couldn’t remember any present they particularly liked (I had a hard time believing that, and heckled them with questions until they said something like “Money” or “My PSP”.)  For the second, I had a range of responses, but most kids seemed to want either a new computer or a phone.  Some kids wanted money to travel, one girl wanted a house in every country and another wanted to have some actor’s babies. Good luck with that one, Santa.

As usual, Chuck Norris won the (unstated) Make-Amrita-Laugh game. His ideal present? “I want Chuck Norris to be my bodyguard.” Then, when a student teased him, saying “You looooove Chuck Norris!”, he responded with “No. Chuck Norris loves me.”  We have a winner!

Filed under: All things French, , , , , , , , , ,

Long time no see.

So it’s been a while since I last posted, and that’s because I’ve been out doing things and writing papers and finishing applications and practicing drawing and all good stuff that I just haven’t had time to write about! But now the majority of my graduate applications have been submitted (save for the architecture-specific portion of my Berkeley application), and my scholarships are almost done…so in this little breather time I have, I thought I’d update you guys on what’s going on in Paris.

First, the important bit: today, it snowed! Before I came to Paris, everyone told me it rarely snows (if at all, a few flakes in January), and that I’d have to face a dreary wet winter full of freezing rain.  Well, November wasn’t all sunshine, but I continued to hope for a fluffy white December, and here it is! A couple of inches stuck to the ground, and for proof, here’s a shot of what I’m henceforth calling my backyard:

I'm not sure where exactly the body of water in the center of the gardens begins...and I wasn't planning on testing that out with my extremely un-winter-friendly suede boots...

In other news, I paid a visit to the Musée Rodin the other weekend. Some of the roses were still in bloom, and a couple of yellow leaves were clinging to the trees in the garden; I could see why people recommend this as one of the gardens to visit in Paris. I will definitely return in spring, when all the flora is in its full glory.

As for the museum itself, well, it’s a very small museum. That said, I’m particularly fond of its stairs and the arch-topped colonnade in the entry area. The pieces showed Rodin’s process, both in the technical (an exhibit displayed the step-by-step making-of one of the sculptures), and creative (multiple iterations of the same theme). Seeing The Kiss in person amplifies the eroticism of its tangled limbs and contrasting curved and angular forms. Even if it is cliché, it’s one of my favorite sculptures, and I’m probably going to go back to see it again, get a few more sketches in.

Speaking of: to prove that I have been sketching (though, to be honest, not every day as I hoped – but come January, I’ll have all the time in the world to put my pencil to paper…), as I was saying, to prove that I have been sketching, I will now show you two sketches. I did more than these two, but if I show them all now, who’ll review my sketchbooks with me when I get back?

This one's from one of the sculpture atriums at the Louvre. I unfortunately didn't write down the artist's name...

A drawing from the 'Hanako' bust at the Musee Rodin. I'd just like to note that sculptures are much easier to sketch because they aren't as fidgety as humans.

Next up: the last two weeks of school before winter break…

Filed under: All things French, , , , , , , , , ,