Monoprix, for those who don't know, if the Target of France. It has clothes, paper goods, a pretty wide selection of groceries and food items, and toiletries. In the French tradition of the marche, in which their is a different store for each of these items and even for subcategories within these items, this store is considered a sort of necessary evil: life doesn't allow for you to spend all day running errands from place to place to buy everything you need, but my Lord do the French wish it did. Personally, for this reason, I love Monoprix. As fun as the French marches can be on a leisurely Sunday afternoon, I really enjoy the occasional return to the space of buy-everything-you-need-right-here, a very American thought process. I especially enjoy it because, even though the goal is the same, the set-up differs in some specific ways, which makes air-apparent certain differences between French and American culture.
But probably the thing I love most about Monoprix are the people who work there. Most of them are immigrants, like me, who speak someone limited French. One of my favorite experiences was buying cheese there from the man working the cheese wall (they have a cheese wall! See what I'm getting at here?) who, upon realizing I wasn't natively French and came from the Americas, became very excited. I realized that he thought I was from south of the border somewhere and spoke Spanish, and he himself was a fairly recent immigrant from Spain and rather anxious to meet someone whom he could speak his native language with. I was very sorry to disappoint him (I know no Spanish) especially because I could understand so acutely how desperate the desire can be to communicate with someone without having to translate. But he took it in good stride and we ended up getting in a long conversation, in both of our broken French, about being an immigrant here and missing home. I found this man was less the exception at Monoprix than the rule, and I really got to like hearing where various employees were from and how this place differed from their home.
But my favorite person, one who I rarely got into conversations with but always looked for, was a woman who looked to be in her late 40's, maybe even early 50's. She was notably older than the average Monoprix employee. She has no discernable foreign accent, and while I don't recall her exact name I do remember glancing at her nametag in curiosity and noting it was a typically French name. She was of asian heritage, her long black hair pulled back in a headband and always wearing shimmering light blue eye shadow thickly applied. She had the raspy, rich voice only produced from decades from smoking. I only spoke to her when she rang up my purchases at the check-out line. Her smile when she greeted you, while always the same, somehow always seemed genuine; when she rang things up and then placed them neatly into bags, she did so with the speed and precision that only comes from years of practice. I found her fascinating.
Working in a grocery store is a sucky job, especially on Monoprix which, to Parisians, is a shit store. And having worked sucky jobs before, I recognized her right away: the lifer. Sucky jobs are typically filled by young people or new arrivals to the country who are just trying to put away some money for at most a few years while looking for something better. They do a good job but have little investment in what they do beyond not getting fired. A lifer, on the other hand, is a person for whom the sucky job is not a sucky job, but a career. For whatever reason, they have decided to work there for the rest of their lives, not pursuing any other options and actively seeking to earn raises and greater benefits but not promotions. There are a wide array of reasons someone becomes a lifer within a company, but no matter what it requires a special type of person to succeed at it. You have to have a remarkable level of self-confidence and independence: you are surrounded all day by young people with big dreams and plans which they talk quite confidently about fulfilling, while you yourself have little to no ambitions to speak of. You, as the senior member of the team, are obligated to train these young people, knowing that often within the span of months they will be replaced by someone else nearly identical to train, while you will still be here. And you must find a way not just to make do, but to be happy with your choice, to like your job, to be friends with your obnoxious twenty-something co-workers. I've met people who have done it, and people who have been trying to do it and clearly on their way to developping a drinking problem. This woman always struck as someone who seemed to be doing it successfully. I never really wanted to know her backstory; I preferred to let her remain a mystery to me. This figure: the woman who seems to be getting by on her own in a dead-end situation, who wears a lot of make-up, who's nice even when people are jerks, is so familar in American culture that she's become a cliche. But in France, especially in the Monoprix in the 16th arrondisement, Paris' upper-east side, she seems practically unheard of. Already inside this place which seems an abomination in French culture (they even play bad American pop music a lot - I've sometimes shopped longer just to finish dancing to Hot and Cold or Bleeding Love) to find her here, a legitimate French person, a strong reminder that culture cannot overcome the daily problems of survival.
Cécile is the director of a play I’m in here in Paris, but more accurately, she is the star of it.
She set the tone early on, at an introductory meeting in September. “If you are hesitating,” she said to the prospective participants, “don’t do it.” If there’s one thing you can count on Cécile for, it’s her total and unembellished honesty.
I don’t know the details of her career path, but playwriting, directing, acting, and circus have all been mentioned. Looking at her, you’d guess she could do all that and more. Cécile must be in her mid- to late-forties, but she has a spryness and energy that are almost boyish. She has short, dark hair and a trim but robust physique. She carries herself in a certain vertical way, that makes it seems as if she could spring up off the ground at any moment. When she laughs, her shoulders bounce and her face erupts in a delightfully childish way.
Don’t be fooled though… when Cécile is pissed, things are anything but delightful! Her directness works both ways: her comments are always heartfelt and genuine, but her criticism is also rather blunt. You’ll never get a, “Hmm, let’s try that line another way,” from her. Phrases like, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” and “That’s not it!” are typical of her rehearsal style. She also has a crazy-making habit of changing her vision of a line (or a scene, or a character…) on the spot, and then becoming positively exasperated when the actor plays it the way he’s used to. A “That’s not it!” might follow such a moment, despite the fact that that WAS it, last week. Merde, couldn’t you read her mind?
In a funny counterpoint, Cécile has an inordinate amount of patience and compassion for non-acting blunders. A boy in our class is more than 20 minutes late, or absent, literally every week. Last week, when he entered an hour late, she said, “Diogo, je ne suis pas contente.” His lame reply was that he overslept. Her response? “What if I called you at 8 AM Monday mornings to wake you up?”
Cécile is the star of our play not just because of her sparkling personality, but more literally, because she could actually play every part in the script. When she goes to show the Cop, the Narrator, the Bishop, or the Maid how something should be done, she immediately sheds her director skin and becomes that character. Man or woman, aggressive or docile, Cécile adopts the movement, facial expressions, and tone of voice of whomever she is playing. Sometimes I imagine our play (a compilation of Jean Genet’s work) as a one-woman show, with Cécile switching instantly from one character to the next. Not to sound disparaging of our own work, but I’m quite certain she could pull it off better!
On the corner of my street there is the constant presence of the flower man. One of the most interesting characters I have encountered in my travels, el vendedor de flores, brightens up my day every time I turn the corner to head towards my apartment. Standing at about 5 foot 2, this 70-year-old man has as more energy then most kids I go to school with. He is always bouncing around the streets offering deals on Jasmines, parading roses in the faces of beautiful portena women, or simply cracking jokes at the other random people who come upon his territory.
This man simply owns the corner of Vicente Lopez y Pueyrredon. He has a little shack that he says has been there for over 15 years. A couple of days ago I finally decided that my place needed a little vegetation so I decided to check out his wears. Now at first he did his usually song and dance routine displaying different types of roses and his seemingly favorite flower-daises. He rubs his ever-present five o clock shadow and takes long intense inhalations of the flowers, proving their perfumed worth. In jumbled Spanish I tell him I’m looking for something a little more special, a type of flower that he doesn’t offer to any regular person meandering by his stand during the day. All of sudden he does a hop, skip and a twirl, dashes a smile with a hint of realization and procures the most random looking cactus I’ve ever witnessed in my life.
Its almost as if he saw through to the center of my jumbled thoughts; immediately I knew this cactus was for me. In truth, I probably didn’t need any plant in my apartment but constantly seeing him on the corner slowly drove me to support his operation. The guy is an ancient, mythical flower sales man, but the strangest aspect about him is that his legs are two different sizes. Instead of letting this disability negatively affect his existence, a special show was built for him that stand almost a foot taller than his other show. Now I thought snapping a photo of the mega show would be rude, so I’m currently plotting to take a photo under the veil of secrecy. Even with his handicap, you’ve never seen someone with a more enduring smile. They guy bombs and weaves between traffic, running up to car windows and persuading them with his old man charm. He may lead the life of a simple flower salesman, but he enjoys every moment of his time on this earth, at least from what I’ve seen. Unfortunately not many other people in Buenos Aires share his enthusiasm for life, but maybe if they bought more of his flowers, a little bit of his positive energy could rub off on them. (Picture and Name of Flower Man soon to come).
I just walked past a man with a beard, grizzled in the way that old man beards get. It was long, and came from all sides of his face and out form under his black-brimmed, flat top hat. His hair though, that was cropped close to his head. It reminded me of nothing so much as an Orthodox Jewish man. His wife however, looked perfectly modern and Czech, with dark lipstick, and a brownish-purple eye shadow layered on too thick over her cake of foundation and wrinkle-cream. I think that the lipstick may have been chosen to compliment her strangely dyed hair, which was also a darkish reddish color. She was berating him as he held what looked to be a joint, made out of a Marlboro 100, that he held and spun nervously in his old hands, fingernails yellowed with tobacco and age, and far too long, the way that old Caribbean man sometimes keep them.
He wasn’t listening to her and she seemed to know it. She was walking with that awkward sideways gait people use when they’re trying to face someone and not run into a fire hydrant at the same time. As she grew more agitated, his face became more and more placid, and the joint came closer and closer to his mouth, as if he were a long-suffering rabbi, and he knew that if only he made it through the pains that were given to him on Earth, he would be rewarded with Heaven.
This public display was typical of Czech culture in many ways. The public sphere is unusually quiet here. People don’t laugh or joke, or cavort with their friends on the streets. They don’t eat or talk on the subway. They don’t even get out of each other’s way on the street. Except, and this is a big exception, romantic couples. They feel no qualms about having public lovers’ spats, about making up from those spats wherever that happens to occur, about touching each other inappropriately in front of the eyes of the entire crowded tram. Whereas that old man’s wife would never have a fight with her sister, neighbor, or friend in front of me on Varsavska, she felt perfectly comfortable doing so in front of me.
Another aspect of Czech life that they exhibited was his joint. Weed is not illegal in the Czech Republic “in small amounts,” amounts which are not objectively quantified but subject to police discretion. He didn’t worry about the way the pungent scent wafted out of his marijuana cigarette strongly enough for me to smell it because he didn’t have to. This reflects a general laxness about rules here. Not only are there less of them, but those that do exist are persistently, even actively being broken. Everything from cutting lines to riding the subway without a ticket to blatantly and deliberately flouting the advertising codes to bribing politicians, it’s all taken without comment or question. It’s mildly disconcerting, but also intensely liberating. It’s one of the aspects of life here that most reminds me I’m not in Kansas anymore.
A couple weeks after I had settled into my apartment, I had my friend Max over for dinner. Max is a student and intern in Paris, and he lives in a foyer, or French student housing, with a small shared kitchen and not even his own refrigerator, so I invited him to my clean, personal kitchen to cook and eat with me. We bought fresh ravioli, tomato sauce, and lettuce for salad, then went into Le Repaire de Bacchus, a wine shop up the street from my apartment. It’s a chain—all of the Repaires de Bacchus in Paris have a green exterior and a little hanging sign with cursive letters—but it’s not a supermarket or the much more common (and less sophisticated-looking) Nicolas.
Surrounded by two walls of bottles and baskets of specials, we were immediately overwhelmed. Then the man working, who had been sitting behind the cashier’s desk in the back, asked us if we needed help: were we drinking the wine with a meal? what were we cooking? and what were we looking to pay? and pointed us to an appropriate red for about 7 euros. We kept talking, and as Max and I were paying he asked where my accent was from—was I Danish? I think I probably made a very strange face as I explained to him that no, I’m not but my ex-boyfriend (we had broken up maybe a week before) is Danish, and Max joked that Denmark wasn’t too far from New York.
I don’t go back to Le Repaire de Bacchus very often, but he’s been my wine guy ever since. He’s tall and thin, maybe in his thirties, usually wearing black, incredibly knowledgeable about wine (in a sense, a pretty stereotypical Frenchman) but also incredibly friendly. Once, when I asked for a not too expensive bottle of wine, he replied, “So around sixty, seventy euros?” (It took me a few seconds to get the joke.) He’s asked what I study, and we’ve talked briefly about German cinema; I still don’t know his name though. But even just walking past on my way to the metro or to school, I’ve never seen anyone working at that Repaire de Bacchus other than my wine guy. And I think I owe him another visit soon.
Patrick Guedon is a very strange man. I first encountered him the first week of the preliminary French course taught at the beginning of the semester. He walked in to the classroom and proceeded to speak in a multitude of accents from various regions of France with a joy I had never quite experienced before. I have had French teachers who teach because they love France, but for the first time in my education, I met someone who just loved languages.
A multilinguist, Patrick Guedon can speak English in just about every accent. British, New Jersey, Valley Girl, without a hint of his native French accent coming through. For his students, it’s inspiring to see the power of phonetics this way. For me, Patrick was one of my first visions of France upon arriving here. In many ways, I feel as though Patrick and several other professors here truly represent a new vision of France. Attached to their heritage, but overwhelmingly interested and passionate about the intermingling of new and old, of French and American, of formal and informal.
On top of that, Patrick is silly, educated, and unbelievably awake at 9 am. I have danced and sung more in his class than one would expect and, ultimately, I feel like I understand the French more for it. He is willing to open himself up to the same lighthearted mockery that he directs towards the class, knowing that it builds a more productive and trusting community.
On the streets and in the cafés of Paris, you meet a variety of people, but it is hard to get to know them. In my experience, the French are fairly untrusting, or at least reserved, and it is often difficult to meet people and make connections. For this reason, I am grateful that I spent my mornings during my first two weeks here with Patrick. I felt as if I got to know a different and less obvious side of France through his style of teaching. I appreciated his infectious sense of humor and personality as it made me feel more comfortable in France and more comfortable with speaking the language. Adjusting to a new city and a new culture can be difficult. In my opinion, people make all the difference in making that transition easier. Patrick only proves this point.
I enjoy Spanish class so much more on Wednesdays and Thursdays rather than the first two days of the week. We have two teachers that share the four days, and as much as I like them both, the latter of two just wins the cake. Waking up everyday to go to two hours of Spanish gets quite annoying, but whenever Beatriz comes dancing in, she makes it just a little bit more bearable. Her petite little body ranking in around 5 feet always come bursting through the door with crazy shoes on, mostly high heels. If we ever comment on them, she always clicks her heels together stating she already knows how cute they are. Her short dark “European-trendy” styled hair fits her persona perfectly. So do her snaggled teeth and lip-sticked smile.
“En Espanol, POR FAVOR!” she always snaps back when we start telling stories in English, which is almost always. Yet, she likes to throw in the trendy English words into conversation herself. Beatriz laughs at everything. She mocks everyone’s accents until we get it right. She slurs her “vosotros” conjugations in a Spain-Spanish speaking way to mock their accent. And if someone ever answers in English, she claps at them to show how proud she is that they know how to speak English. Her second favorite comeback is to say that she has no money to pay us for teaching her English, but since our parents already paid her, we should speak Spanish.
Beatriz is such a light-hearted 45 year-old. She fits into my images of the typical Argentine. First of all, she loves to have fun and be goofy. Whenever we play games in class, whoever loses has to do something for punishment, which usually ends up with someone dancing and singing along to the Spice Girls. Second of all, Beatriz LOVES meat. Whenever the class discusses food, which is quite often, Beatriz always throws her arms back in description of how much she loves red meat. She always wants to chow down on a bone. Third of all, Beatriz likes to dance. Just in our last class, we were all standing in a circle singing a new song we had just learned while Beatriz taught us some tango moves. And last but not least, Beatriz is lenient in a laidback way. My class always hopes that the test days fall on Wednesday or Thursday just to get a little help from Beatriz. My best friend basically takes his entire test standing at her desk. And she always lets us postpone homework and quizzes. She has become one of my favorite characters in Buenos Aires. I will always remember little Beatriz in Argentina, and I have my Spanish skills to thank her for.
The first time I saw this man was about 2 or 3 weeks into my stay here in Argentina. I had spent almost my entire time either with NYU kids or with my host family, so needless to say I had not met very many people yet. My friend Charlie and I were on the way back from playing Ultimate Frisbee and we stopped to get some choripan in the park (you can refer to my 6th post if you want to get the lowdown on choripan). There was a small shack/mini-parrilla, typical of parks here in Buenos Aires, with two guys inside chatting it up. As Charlie and I approached, I the guys talking and they were speaking in Spanish, but parts sounded a little different. After ordering my chori, I asked if they were speaking Portuguese, and he said yes. I’ve taken a year of Portuguese at NYU, so I began to try to chop it up a little bit, speaking in a mix of Portuguese, kind of like the guys were before.
He was the first person with whom I’d struck up a random conversation. He asked us what we were doing in Argentina and we told him we were studying. He spoke incredibly fast, and the fact that he was switching between two languages didn’t help my understanding. While he was friendly, at the same time, there was a sense that he was spiteful of us. I picked it up in his tone and then finally I heard him say “chetos,” which in Argentina is a derogatory term for the rich. There’s not really much to argue with there, compared to a guy that is selling choripan out of a shack in a park, I am EXTREMELY rich. All I felt I could do was be genuine and try to have a nice conversation. When we parted ways, after about 15 minutes of chatting, he gave us a nice goodbye, whether it was genuine or not, who knows.Meeting this man was confirming something I already knew: as a North American in Argentina, there are going to be people who do not like me. The chori vendor was not an aberration, he represent a feeling held by many here in Argentina. There’s graffiti around the city that reads: “yanquis afuera del sudamérica” (Yankees out of South America). All I can do during my stay here is try to be the most respectful visitor I can and try to promote a good image of the “yanquis.”
I know I talk about chori a lot, but it’s really just that delicious.
He sits at the front of the room, perched on a table. He always wears a sweater over a button down shirt. He stares at us and smiles. “Hello everyone,” he says in his British accent. This is my history professor, Stephen Inwood, here in London. He is a stately sort of guy, unassuming yet somehow authoritative. In a way, he embodies the paradox that is a British person.
He is a very polite person, often asking us, his students if we mind if he shows us a video or pictures. Whenever he does this, the thought I always have is “why are you asking us? You're the teacher.”But he does it. I don't know if he does it out of actual caring or just to be courteous but either way, it throws me off. He also has a good sense of humor. He'll make jokes or funny references to various things in class that causes us all to chuckle. They are things you don't necessarily expect to hear from your professor but work somehow. I suppose many of the things he says are funny because he says them in a British accent.
As a professor of history, he has a certain “obsession” with the past; he must in order to teach this subject. He has written countless books on London's history and is full to the brim with knowledge. Whenever he talks us on our walking tours, he has tons of things to say about each place. Yet, he also is willing to bypass certain things. He'll often say “oh, you don't really need to know about that.” In this way, my class has glossed over the countless wars that mark England's history. From my class though, you wouldn't really guess that. That is not to say that he is giving us the wrong information. He simply focuses on London's history which doesn't necessarily involve the larger wars of England. My professor is more focused on the social and economic changes of London through the years. He does mention the wars, like the Civil War, that directly affected London but doesn't really say much about the ones that happened outside the country or didn't directly affect London. He'll often mention it briefly, but then say “it's not really that important.” For someone from a country thought to be stuck in the past, this is a strange statement.
Professor Inwood is quintessentially British which to me means he manages to be a lot of seemingly disparate traits rolled into one person. I have my last walking tour next week and I'm going to be sad to see those end. Not only has it been a great way to see London, but it gave us an insight into our professor. The last walk we went on brought us to the Queen's Store, Fortnum and Mason. Our professor let us spend 10 minutes running wild in this store. I don't know if any other professor would have let us do that or even taken us to that store. But to him, it was an important piece of history and we needed to see it. Yet we didn't go see some of the more major tourist sights. Not that I minded...Fortnum and Mason may be one of my favorite stores anywhere in world, all thanks to my professor.
In high school it was a running joke that none of our Spanish teachers were actually of Latin decent. Coming to Spain I was expecting our professors to be Spanish and was therefore surprised to find out that my Spanish teacher, Maria, was actually from Argentina.
During orientation we found out that she was 39, which surprised us because she honestly doesn’t look much older than we do. She’s a petite brunette with a light caramel complexion and wavy hair. She’s really pretty, but not in a in-your-face gorgeous sort of way.
She approached me after class one day the first week of school. Loosely translated, she didn’t think I should be in her class and told me that I could take the placement test “if I wanted.” I answered simply and in Spanish, “no, I don’t want.” She told me she didn’t understand, at which point I proceeded to explain to her that I didn’t WANT to be placed out of her class.
I may go into the story in a later entry, but for now all that is important is that I placed out of her class, but decided, against the schools wishes, to remain in the class anyway. When faced with the predicament of which class to take, I asked Maria what she thought…despite her own personal biases she told me that she couldn’t make the decision for me.
Even though she didn’t necessarily agree with my decision to stay, she didn’t treat me any differently, which adds significantly to the amount of respect I have for her. From day one she made it quite clear that her class would be conducted solely in Spanish. It’s funny when there are things that it’d even be easier for her to explain in English…she tends to use a lot of gestures. It’s funny to watch, but also incredibly effective. Considering there are people who, day one of class, didn’t know much more than the words necessary to order a meal at the Taco Bell back home, it is amazing that she teaches in a way such that everyone understands, despite the language barrier.
She says she only knows some English, but I have a feeling she’s actually fluent. After a quick google-search, it appears that she is an NYU PhD candidate…I’m going to have to ask her about this tomorrow…let’s hope I can do so in Spanish (though apparently she’ll understand me just fine if I don’t)!