Friday, January 30, 2009

Accidental Parisian's Top Ten

I just got my carte de sejour and am feeling pretty good about life. The feedback on this blog has suggested that I seem a bit negative, down, even cranky about my Parisian existence. That's not really the impression I mean to give, although I'm not going to pretend that life in France is one big party, either. (Although, my best friend in Paris - let's call her Mazarine - is a big party person, and has reminded me that we've had some good times together. Absolutely, and more on that later).

So, here's a list of my Top Ten - the things I really like about living here:

1. Croissants. More specifically, pain au chocolat, the ones from my local boulangerie Le Chant du Pain (yes, that really does mean "The Song of Bread." Can you imagine naming a bakery that in, well, anywhere outside of France?). I spend most of the week looking forward to my weekend pain au chocolat: either Saturday or Sunday morning either MCM or I run out to get fresh ones, still warm from the oven, while the other makes espresso and sets the table with our wedding china. Bliss!

2. My apartment. It's small - about 400 square feet - but has lots of natural light. It's a building from the 1920s and I love the original period details - the wooden floorboards, molding, and metal scrollwork outside the windows. (Picture this Caillebotte painting). Also, after having moved around so much, it's great to have a place that really feels ours, and to have our own furniture. Sure, it could be a tiny bit closer to the metro, and I wouldn't mind a bit more space for guests, but I'm happy.

3. Public transport (when it's not on strike). I think cars are fine for other people but I have no desire to own one myself. Occasionally MCM and I will rent one - to go somewhere on a weekend, or for moving - and we enjoy the freedom it gives, but we're very happy to return it when the rental ends. French public transport has its problems - the RER is dirty, the long-distance trains are expensive - but I appreciate having such a large, affordable network.

4. The architecture. I love 19th century Haussmanian buildings, in particular.

5. Wine. This deserves its own post, but do you know why French people seem so knowledgeable about wine? Because it's cheap and it's everywhere. If you lived in France, you'd know a lot about wine, too.

6. Houseguests. When you live in Paris, people want to visit you! Our closest friends are scattered around the world and we're really lucky that some of them want to vacation here.

7. Public health care. When it works, it's pretty good. I still am not really in the system and am paying out of pocket, but I will get reimbursed for most of it.

8. The climate. Even though I haven't really lived in New England since 1992, it's home, and I will always be biased towards 4 distinct seasons. Paris doesn't have the same extremes of weather, but it has a fairly cold winter and warm summer. It's also much dryer cold than I experienced in the UK in Ireland and I find that I don't actually feel as cold here.

9. The respect for food, and the knowledge that food vendors have about their products.

10. The churches. Paris has so many; each one is unique and many are beautiful. My favourite is La Madeleine, near Concorde. When I feel a bit lost in Paris, or a bit overwhelmed, I find it very refreshing to stop in one and recharge for a minute.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Choose my own adventure!

Today marks 6 months that I have been living in France. Incidentally, it also marks 6 months of living without a television, but that's for another post.

MCM asked me this morning if we had any weekend plans and it dawned on me that, for the first time in months, we don't have any. We realised that this means we might do what is known as "having fun." For the past few years we've been operating under the general principle that we are not allowed to play and have fun until we have finished our homework (which has been, variously, finishing PhDs, finishing books, finishing job applications, finishing grant applications...). We have been surreptitiously sneaking bits of fun (see last Friday night), but we usually feel guilty about it. Where has this strategy left us? Down and out, in Paris, at home. Oh, and the books aren't finished, either.

So, dear readers, smack some sense into me. What would you like to do if you were in Paris this weekend?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Here's a sneak peak at some of the things happening over the next few days of my life:

- I will pick up my real, beautiful, laminated carte de sejour (residence permit) from the prefecture. This is very exciting. I am hoping it will be a bit quicker than getting the temporary one (6 hours, two of them before sunrise). I am also hoping that I will not have to witness the bizarre and misogynistic behaviour that I observed last time from some of my fellow would-be residents.

- Some of my students have cancelled their classes so I will go finally get to the library to do some research on Book #2.

- Afterwards I will go to a wine tasting. The great news is that I will also get a superb workout in: there is a general transportation strike planned for Thursday, and I plan on doing a lot of walking.

- I will write another job application for a position in the US, and ask deep existential questions about my life, my career, who I want to be, where I want to live, whether I am doing the right thing, if the fact that I enjoy my current part-time job for which I am over-educated is a sign that I am a peace with my ambitions or whether I have simply said a big fat bonjour to la paresse, whether I am really giving Paris enough of a try, whether in fact I am a snob because I would rather live in Paris than Pittsburgh, whether snobbism is inherently incompatible with progressive social justice, whether or not this is a run-on sentence and, if not, whether or not it can be diagrammed, and, most strikingly, whether all this vapid philosophising looks French on me?

Monday, January 26, 2009

Food for thought

Alright, I know what you all really want to know. How's the food?

It's good. Sometimes it's great, and sometime's is lousy. It is very possible to have a terrible meal in a restaurant in Paris - in fact, I try to plan ahead as much as possible, as it's not always so easy to just wander around and find a nice little neighbourhood restaurant with tasty, reasonably-priced food. I read a lot of restaurant reviews and guides (this one, which was a birthday gift from my sister, is great) and try to reserve ahead, even though I get nervous about making phone calls in French.

Friday night MCM and I had a great night out. We had some errands to do in the city, afterwards went for a fun meal at Chartier, and had a quick wander through the Louvre on our way home. Chartier is a nineteenth-century worker's cantine turned restaurant. It's loud, chaotic, and cheap (most main courses are 8-11 euros, which is crazy for Paris at dinner time). We loved the art nouveau decor, which reminded us of our favourite places in Brussels, like this one and this one. And the food? Okay. MCM's pork terrine was tasty and classic; our profiteroles for dessert were textbook-perfect. Main courses were average - the frites could really be improved. They should be crispier!

I happened across an old article from a British newspaper on the state of French food in which the owners of a British-style bakery-cafe in Paris bemoan the state of French cooking. They complain that bistros are not inventive, turning out the same dishes again and again. (In fact, MCM and have discussed this before: we can predict a bistro menu with about 90% accuracy). While I agree with some of the points in the article, I think the cafe owners exaggerate a bit: French food is not in crisis. The French are, in general, picky consumers when it comes to food: MCM went to the market on Sunday and one of the vegetable-sellers was offering unsolicited apologies on the state of the lettuce, since he only buys Perpignan lettuce and Perpignan has been battered by recent storms.

I'll be curious to hear other opinions.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Have I gone native?

In honour of the American Presidential Inauguration, I took this quiz on Are you more Carla or Michelle? I was pretty smug - really, did I need to take a quiz to prove my affinity with the US's fabulous new First Lady? Do I not share her outlook on life, her ambitions, her preference for bold-coloured shift dresses? In fact, doesn't the Carla vs. Michelle divide really encapsulate the differences between women in the US and France?

I think you know where this is going. Result: Carla!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

C is for Coffee

And T is for tea. I recently made this exciting linguistic discovery: in French, caffeine is only found in coffee - cafe, that is. Tea (the) does not contain caffeine, but... theine!

How cool is that?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Keep the Change

Yesterday MCM and I finally went to open a joint bank account. We had been in a bizarre Catch-22 situation for most of the autumn: I couldn't open an account without my residence permit, but without a bank account I couldn't go through a number of other administrative processes. Anyway...

We selected a major international bank that has a branch in our neighbourhood and scheduled an appointment. We decided in advance that MCM would do most of the talking. The bank employee was a woman in her thirties; she was brisk but seemed competent, and quickly began typing our personal details into the computer and running off photocopies of our passports and pay stubs. Throughout the meeting she addressed all of her questions to MCM - not surprisingly, since I wasn't speaking much anyway and I wasn't at my most coherent in answering the one question she directed at me. She occasionally referred to "Madame", jerking her head in my direction.

When she had finished setting up the account and gave us the documents to read and sign, I realised that she had given me the wrong name. When MCM and I got married last summer, we decided to hyphenate our names together: my "maiden" name followed by his "master" name. I have changed mine on my passport; MCM has not yet because it would have meant waiting ages for a new passport at a time when he was stuck in much bureaucracy and had upcoming travel.

This has been a source of confusion in France. Legally speaking, French women do not change their names when they marry. Their married names become common usage but it's not a legal change the way it is in the US or the UK. Although many French people have hyphenated names, I have difficulty explaining to people that my name was legally changed in the United States, and that the French cannot simply call me something else because my name falls outside their social conventions.

Thus, the following conversation with Bank Lady:
AP: Actually, my last name is not Mari. It is Smith-Mari.
BL: But Smith is your maiden name. You are Madame Mari, no?
AP: Yes, it's my maiden name, but my legal name is Smith-Mari. Not Mari. I don't have any kind of ID that has just Mari on it.
BL: But, you are married to Monsieur Mari.
AP: Yes, but I'm not French. I changed my name in the US.
BL: But we can't put Smith-Mari on the account. For a joint account it must be Monsieur's name on the account.
AP: But Monsieur is also changing his name to Smith-Mari.
MCM: Yes, this is true.
BL: What? Are you kidding? [Stares at MCM with her mouth hanging open]
MCM: No, I'm serious.
AP: [attempting humour] You see, we believe in equality for men.
BL: Well, I can put Smith-Mari down for Madame, but you probably can't get a card. It's too long. It won't fit. I'll have to speak to my colleagues. But the account must be in Monsieur's name.
AP: Okay, well, uhh, thank you. We appreciate that.
BL: Right, if you'll just sign here, at the bottom of the page.
AP: Of course... wait, don't I sign here, at the top of the page?
BL: Well... yes, actually! Sorry, my mistake. I always put the man's name first, but there I didn't.

Although I'll admit that I enjoy the status that comes with "Madame" - I'm certainly treated better than when I spent time in France as a "Mademoiselle" - it's very frustrating to feel that my public identity has been reduced entirely to "Wife of Monsieur." I fumed on the way home from the bank, blamed my clumsy French, blamed myself; MCM comforted me and blamed ingrained sexism in French society.

Was I too sensitive? Fully realising that I cannot change French society, I don't know how to get my head around this situation.

Introduction: I am not a Francophile.

There. I've said. Go on, hate me. After all, doesn't every American woman dream of living in France? Isn't France like, ya know, that most amazing place, with its cafes, little dogs, the Eiffel Tower and fashionable women? Isn't Paris the most exciting and romantic city in the world? Don't you just looove croissants?

Well, I love croissants as much as the next woman. In fact, I have tried the 8 boulangeries within a ten minute walk of my apartment, and I have identified the best croissant maker in the quartier. Someday, I plan to have a heated argument with a French person who disagrees with me on this subject.

But France, like any other country, has its annoyances and problems - strikes, bureacracy and dog poo are on the top of my list. My move to Paris was not a long-awaited or well-planned one; in fact, my darling French husband (let's call him Mon Cher Mari, or MCM) had never desired to return to France after years of living abroad. Paris was too small, too insular, too expensive, he said; we would never both be able to find satisfying careers. Somehow, though, there were a number of personal shuffles, and MCM suddenly had a new job in Paris and I had nothing to hold me back from joining him. Friends and family were delighted for us (how exciting! you lucky things!), but I felt deflated, as I wondered how I would have any kind of professional life in France. (And, I should add, those who have followed the saga of my professional development understood my concerns and were very supportive). I was also determined: I told everyone that we would make the most of the move, that it was an exciting new phase in our lives, and that there was nothing we couldn't handle. After all, we have both lived in several countries in the English-speaking world. We were seasoned expats. The first few months would be unsettled, we acknowledged, but everything would be fabulous by Christmas. In fact, I was quite confident that by Christmas, my French would be fluent.

So, why I am starting this blog in January 2009? After six months, it feels like we've only scratched the surface. My French is fluent enough to get by, but not perfect and not improving very quickly. We haven't made many friends - and to be honest, we haven't made much effort to make many friends. MCM has been working 70 hour weeks (no, not 35, friends) and I've been trying to work from home and teach part-time. We do not yet feel comfortable, happy and settled in Paris. We need to take action, and I think writing about my experiences will help me to make sense of them and set goals for moving forward.

I hesitated about starting this blog. There are already so many blogs about the wonders of France, the clever ironies and quirks of French behaviour, and the joys of Parisian life. I know I might come off as a moaner. How dare you dis the French, you ungrateful brat!? Plus, the French can be so full of themselves. Should I really be indulging these people even more?

So, this blog is neither intended as a bitter rant nor a nostalgic ode to la belle France, although it may contain both at times. Rather, it's an exercise that I hope will prove cathartic for me and entertaining for you, dear reader. (And if you don't like it, well, go and read something else).

The Accidental Parisian