The thing that struck me the most about MacCannell’s writings on authenticity in travel are how little that view applies to our society today. Globalization has drastically changed the landscape of travel and the role of the tourist. Tourists are not as obvious as they were; more common, yes, but they do not stand out in the same way. Traveling, and also immigration, are so commonplace that one can expect to see visitors in almost any city in the world. As families and groups immigrate to new countries, they are bringing their influence and languages with them. This, then, changes the perception that others may hold of this person being a “tourist”. In Berlin, there are tours of the city center conducted by English, Irish, or Australian students, and only in English. Doing one of these tours with visitors was, yes, tourist-y, but extremely enlightening. On this tour, I learned so much about the essential history of Berlin that I never would have discovered on my own. Was it any less authentic because the guides were not natives, but had moved for some reason to Berlin? I think not, and even so, I don’t care. You need a base to start from, and I think that this helped build it. Many Americans blur the line between being natives and being visitors because of family ties to a particular country. As these tourists speak languages that may not be expected of them, they are able to more easily access those very closely-knit communities in different countries. These communities are what MacCannell calls the “back region”, the impenetrable cores of authenticity in a culture. The role of the local, on the other hand, and the “back region”, are still very prominent today. I see this most strikingly in the Turkish areas of Berlin (see post #13). If one of us knew Turkish, then we would not only confuse them, but we would be instantly welcomed into restaurants and offered endless little glasses of free tea and treats. Immigration to Berlin has changed the how a visitor questions the authenticity of this city. Living here, I do not feel as though I am getting a true “German” experience because of the mix of cultures – but on the other hand, being around immigrant communities and the clashing and remolding of radically different cultures is the most authentic thing about a country. Even after living here for a semester, I feel that I will never fully be able to access these parts of Berlin. In fact, I have only scratched the tip of the iceberg.
A real gem in my neighborhood is the glorious outdoor Turkish market. Come rain, sun or sleet, every Tuesday and Friday, the market opens at 10 AM and starts to shut down (and hand out freebies) around 6. As far as I’m concerned, the market really can do no wrong. My roommate and I split a week’s worth of groceries for about $15 each. As I’ve been there over the course of the semester, it’s become something of an institution. It’s no longer just a place where we buy our broccoli, couscous and eggs: it’s a cultural learning center. It’s the closest one can get to going to Istanbul. Some stands sell freshly-baked börek – spinach and cheese-filled flaky pastries – and boxes of baklava. Women in headscarves push strollers around while they purchase entire bushels of onions and peppers. You would never think that Berlin has a high Muslim population – Germany, of all places! But then you have never been to Kreuzberg or Neukölln, where the signs are half in German, half in Turkish, and you can walk for a couple blocks within hearing a word of German on the street. The Market forms the core of this thriving Turkish culture in Berlin. It’s where families get together to get their most basic groceries, and where we can get an insider’s view on life in a non-Western culture. In Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad, he almost exclusively describes places over people. He travels around Germany and Switzerland, describing the college town of Heidelberg. He sits in Biergartens with the students and notices the way they all interact: the way professors and students mingle easily over a drink, the easy raft ride down the main river that runs through the town, the beautiful castle over at the top of the hill upon which the town is built. He describes the towns with a mixture of awe and pleasure: awe at the beauty of the town, and pleasure at being able to participate in its lifestyle. I have a similar set of feelings towards the Turkish Market. On one hand, I am simply in awe because of how radically different this environment is from anything else I would experience in New York. The contrasts between the extremely progressive, cutting-edge part of Berlin that most people know and the family-oriented Turkish parts are astounding. Every time I go to the market, I’m reminded that I am truly not just studying abroad in a Western country. I can take a trip into Little Istanbul twice a week and while I admit that I am not immersed, I am still fascinated and drawn in.
Reading De Botton’s “On Habit” struck me as not only witty and funny, but clever. The bedroom in his apartment becomes his vacation, his journey, his plaything, his adventure. I certainly never considered my apartment to be anything of the sort. For me, my apartment was always just home. The bed was an object in which I slept and I stored clothes in the closet. My door was just a door – and yet, the author dares to examine these objects further. We see them every day and over time, it becomes easy to simply live in a space. I think it’s also fascinating how he talks about deconstructing the process of forming habits, because it’s so true, especially when studying abroad. It’s very easy to create a comfortable space for yourself and to stick to a certain pattern when you’re in an unfamiliar environment. No one wants to venture outside of their comfort zone, and that is exactly what studying abroad strives to do. Once you start to become even slightly comfortable in your environment, the human instinct to settle and form a routine sets in. After reading the article, I began questioning the ways I have formed patterns and to which routines I conform. I would take the same bus and subway to class every day – but if I wanted to change it up, I would take the same subway and a different train back home! I did my grocery shopping most often on Tuesday mornings, but sometimes Fridays. I sat in the same chair in my living room to use my laptop. I also began thinking more critically about the ways in which I had grown accustomed to my living quarters. Upon closer inspection of my apartment, I realize that there are in fact many more hidden corners and spaces than I had imagined. Once I’d gotten used to stashing certain items in different patches of my room, I’d forgotten that there had even been space there at all. The corner in which I stowed my electronics was quite large. The two feet between my bed and closet are usually covered with plastic bags or various articles of clothing, but upon cleaning up, I discovered a whole new floor space that I’d forgotten about. In my cabinets, I found shelves that held endless possibilities for storage. The little chair in my room was reborn as a chair, not just a close hanger. By continually stepping back to remind myself of the small possibilities hiding behind every formed habit in Berlin.
I'm sitting in my living room, facing my near-empty shelves and articles scattered across the floor. One of the windows is broken and does not close all the way, so it's just been chilly in here for the past week. One of the living room chairs has a crack that threatens to give way anytime weight is put on it. Our vacuum cleaner has not worked since the second week of the semester, and had been set out on the balcony for the remainder of the semester (it was my roommate's idea...). The fridge and freezer are inexplicably leaking all over the kitchen floor.... and yet, this is home. It has been for the past three and a half months. Now, I look into my room and see several suitcases and my computer bag all packed up and ready to go for tomorrow. There are so many things that I'm going to miss about Berlin, and also some parts of my experience that I would rather leave behind. For one, I'm going to miss the phenomenal Turkish grocery market, the cheap and delicious beer, efficient and easy public transportation with convenient metrocards, the amazing cultural scene, the history that is seeped into every corner. I definitely won't miss things such as the language barrier. That was by far the only real difficulty I hit this semester. If I could speak even conversational German, simple transactions such as asking to try on clothes, buying phone credit and listening to instructions on the subway would have not been a problem. I guess that is part of studying abroad: you risk putting yourself in an awkward position where you can't speak a word of what you need to convey. I'm already anticipating how strange hearing English left and right will be. I've become so used to straining my ears to try and understand German, or to just shutting it out altogether. Getting back to the States will be so... easy. I won't have to try too hard understand, but I would have to put in effort to ignore people, which is the opposite from when you don't understand the language at all. I think that the littlest aspects of my life back in New York will be the most noticeable. For example, I've only seen one coffee shop here offer sleeves for to-go cups. When I get back to New York, I'll probably carry my cup barehanded and forget. Also, the public transport is honor system, so you don't have to pay for each entry into the stations. You can jump on it whenever and take any mode - no fumbling through your wallet and pockets for a Metrocard. Overall, I've loved the experience, and I can't wait to experience these tiny odd moments in New York. They'll be permanent reminders of my short life in another country, another city. As long as I can remember these small cultural nuances, I know that I'll be carrying Berlin with me for the rest of my life.
Well, I am finally home in Brooklyn, after the return trip from hell! Snow in Paris led to hours on the runway, I missed my connecting flight, waited a full day in Amsterdam trying to get on another one standby, spent the night in a hotel, and thanks to some miracle, got home to New York late last night, despite the foot of snow and high winds.
Besides the exhaustion, frustration, confusion, and plenty of other –ion words I felt in my 3-day trip home, I think the strangest aspect was being in Limbo: no longer still in Paris, but not yet returned to my world at home. On the plus side, as I wasn’t yet distracted by re-entering New York, I had a certain distance from my life in Paris, and could think about it more objectively. My last few weeks were, without a doubt, my most fulfilling and exciting weeks in Paris, albeit also intense and chaotic. I had the feeling that my life was full, that I had invested enough in the things I was doing in Paris (classes, the play, new friends, and getting to know the city) to be extremely busy, but in an usually satisfying way.
Not surprisingly, reaching this state of happiness at the very end of my semester made me wonder if I couldn’t have helped myself get there sooner. Sitting around several airports, I asked myself what forces had been at work in the first few months that might have gotten in my way. In large part, I actually think the problem was the length of time. A semester in New York goes by very, very quickly. When I came to Paris, I knew I wanted to take my French skills further, see a lot of art, write, and generally revel in the city. There was a part of me, though, that didn’t want to get TOO attached. Pretty conflicted about leaving my boyfriend and close friends behind in New York, I think I came to Paris focused more on aesthetic and intellectual explorations than on social ones. I immersed myself in the language and the place, but didn’t work as hard as I usually do to form lasting friendships with people. I would only be here for 3.5 months, right?
It was much to my surprise, therefore, that I realized in the weeks before my departure that I had, indeed, met some wonderful people who were genuinely sad to see me go. I got phone calls from several Parisian friends, inviting me for a last dinner or coffee. Their sincerity and warmth really touched me, particularly because I hadn’t thought we were all that close. It made me think back to a French friend of my mom’s, who once said that the Americans were quick to make friends but also quick to forget them, while the French took forever to warm up but stayed friends for life.
I think that my sense of temporariness and slight reluctance in Paris was part of what kept me from feeling fully connected to it until the end, but the French slowness in making friends contributed to it. Had I been there for a full school year, I would have had the time to pursue and truly enjoy the friendships I had (perhaps unbeknownst to me) been cultivating. A full year wasn’t an option for me at this point, but the wheels are definitely turning in my head to figure out another time to live and work in Paris. Knowing now the length of time it takes to truly create a new niche for one’s self there, I think I would be less put off by the gradual nature of that process.
When I left a friend’s apartment on my second to last night, he gave me a Tupperware with leftovers from our dinner. “But I won’t have a chance to get this back to you,” I reminded him. “No,” he said, “But you’ll keep it until I come to New York, or when you come back here.” His kindness and hopefulness for the future was infectious: though I don’t know when or how I’ll make it happen, I’m sure now that I’ll find my way back to France, and I hope, to the friends I made there.
Ahhh, Paris. Everyone I know loves it for different reasons, and has their own grievances with it as well. For my part, here’s what I’d pass along to future students:
I. Capitalize on what you’ve got
Do you have a friend of the family who lives in Paris? Did your best friend’s brother’s girlfriend just get transferred there for work? Do you vaguely remember meeting a Parisian at a party some months ago in Brooklyn? If so, do not write off this connection as too far-fetched! The most common complaint I heard during this semester was, “I haven’t met any French people.” Though it may have been luck in part, my one real connection in Paris (a woman my boyfriend met at a party) ending up opening countless doors for me. Particularly because she had moved there from the States a few years back not knowing a soul, Frances knew that her invitations meant a lot to me. I went to as many of the parties, dinners, gallery openings and events that she invited me as possible, and met countless French people and ex-pats that way. Some of her close friends would often be there, too, and some of them became good friends of mine as well. Essentially, through Frances I learned that it pays to say, “Hi! I’m in Paris, and I’m looking to meet people. Just tell me where to be, what I can bring, and I’ll be there!”
II. Speak French
If you’re serious about strengthening your French, hang out with people who want to do the same. I have to say, I was very disappointed with the overall attitude of the NYU group in this regard. For me, it would simply not have been worth coming to Paris if I had only used my French to order meals and listen in classes. With a few of my American friends in Paris, we got into the habit of speaking French while out in public. The majority of NYU students seemed very reluctant to use their French for more than the necessities, and thought it was weird to speak French to one another. While there is a slightly funny feeling when you switch into French with someone you normally speak to in English, to me it was so worth the effort. In the metro or in a café, I felt so much more a part of my surroundings by staying in French mode.
III. Get a roommate
Point blank, I don’t know anyone who was truly satisfied with his or her homestay in Paris. Experiences ranged from having no peace amidst a family of five kids, living with a hyper-controlling and bitter old woman, and having to cook dinner at 4:30 in order to have use of the kitchen. Almost no one I knew in a homestay could have guests over, which to me is reason enough not to do it. I found a roommate in advance of my arrival on Craig’s List, and was so pleased with how it worked out. My roommate is a few years older than me, works in marketing, is bilingual, and has lived in Paris for two years. She was not only a great source of Parisian know-how, but turned out to be a real friend. I feel that I gained so much having done the work on my own to find a roommate and place that suited me, as opposed to letting NYU set me up with a roommate and location that I knew nothing about until arriving.
IV. A few favorite places!
a. Canal St-Martin: A sweet canal just a few blocks from the République metro stop, this place is lined with affordable and low-key cafés and bars, as well as some fun thrift shops and boutiques. Great at night, with the lights on either side reflecting off the water.
b. Any and all gardens: My favorites are the Jardin de Luxembourg (during the week when it’s quieter) and the Jardin des Tuileries, but any outdoor space with a stretch of grass and benches is likely to be lovely in Paris! There are lots of pocket parks and public spaces, and it’s worth taking the time to roam and find them while the weather is still nice. I did as much or my course reading as possible outdoors during the early fall months, knowing that I’d be stuck inside a lot as it got colder and I had more papers to write!
c. Any café with regulars: Pay attention, when you stop at cafés near your apartment, to how people are interacting. If you get the sense that it’s a place with regular customers who know one another, make it your business to become one! Although I never got the point of doing la bise (the ubiquitous cheek-to-cheek air kiss) with the bartenders, as some people did at my favorite local spot, they did know my face and my usual drink, which was enough to cheer me up a bit on days when my foreigner status was getting to me.
Lastly, a quick note on maps: realize that everything in Paris looks further on a map than it is in real life! I often thought I didn’t have time to do something because it seemed like a far trek, when in fact it was a 15-minute walk. And often, because of all the diagonal-running lines, the metro takes longer than walking, so opt for biking or walking when you can!
There are other bits of wisdom that I think we all came upon in the course of our semesters abroad, but I know that anyone doing the same will learn those lessons themselves. And that’s part of the fun: feeling how your approach to your time abroad has matured. Hopefully though, these more specific reflections will be a useful head’s up!
“So how was Prague?”
The question looms over my head. I can hear each of my aunts and uncles, grandparents and step-relatives poised to ask me this question over the flurry of Christmas parties to come. We got an e-mail yesterday from the Global Programs office at NYU detailing ways we could experience reverse culture shock. One of them was being unable to express how we feel or how we’ve changed, in the face of this all-encompassing question. Prague was……life for four months. You cannot sum up the life of sixteen weeks in small talk with relatives.
However, this course has, at the very least, prepared me with seventeen different ways I can answer that question. Unlike many of my fellow travelers, I had the opportunity every few days to gather my thoughts and delve into my feelings and decide how Prague was at that point. I think it has been very valuable to me as a writer, as a traveler, and as a person who is actively growing and changing, still using the world as a sounding board to figure out who he is and what he wants to do with his life. As I’ve mentioned before in other posts, Prague is a place of melancholy introspection, and being able to express my view helped keep my day to day life a little more sane.
This being said, I did encounter a bit of a problem in both this course and my academics in Prague. Everything about this semester was somewhat more laid back academically. I was far away form my advisor, from the bureaucracy of NYU, and from the speedy intensity of New York, in a foreign country where I was expected to learn as much from my surroundings and experience as my academics. I found that everyone approached this balance in a different way. Some students, my roommate included, practically took the semester off. They traveled almost every weekend, they went out all the time, they complained when even the smallest assignment brought the least bit of stress. Others took the opposite approach and took everything as seriously as if every grade mattered more than anything else. I even heard one kid, in discussing when to have the final in his class say, “Have it on Thursday. They just want it on Tuesday so they can party.” My reaction was, of course they want to have fun. It’s their last week in Prague, and they want to remember it as a good time to the last. I admit, I had trouble, and would have liked more guidance from staff as to what the appropriate balance between experiential education and classroom education was.
I am not, however, in any way disappointed with my experience abroad or in Prague. I have done and seen what many people never have the chance to do. I think it’s only appropriate, as I started this blog with a story about my father, to close with one as well. Recently he said to me, “I didn’t get to go to Europe ‘til I was almost forty.” He said it half-jokingly, with some jealousy and some pride mixed in, but he said it because he wanted to remind me to appreciate what time I had left in Prague, and to take as much as I could from the experience because, who knows, I might not get back again until I’m almost forty. And that’s exactly what I did.
Reading De Botton's piece, I found myself experiencing some minor feelings of frustration in that I think in his writing about travel, he often comes to points and ideas which I think are not about the experience of travel, but the experience of being a human being and a thoughtful being. There is of course the obvious point: that's his goal, to show the universality of the experience of travel and its applicability in our lives, but I think he often becomes complacent to simply lead a reader to the edge of an idea, as though it were a canyon, point out the miraculous view of it, and then turn around and go back to the trail of his original topic, instead of going rogue explorer, as would be so appropriate considering what he's writing about, and climb down into that canyon and start exploring the crevices, fault lines, and unknown depths of the idea he has arrived at. He doesn't get the bottom of things, is basically what I'm saying.
In particular with On Habit, what I thought was: isn't this the key to being 1) a writer or artist of any sort, and 2) a happy individual? As a writer, my constant inner monologue when consulting something is, what is in front of you? What can you see here, what can you recognize, what significance, that you could bring to someone else's attention in your work and as a result contribute positively to their lives? This is what art is, the selecting highlighting of elements that otherwise go unnoticed. And, as anyone who's ever seen an american romantic comedy can tell, happiness is falling in love, and falling in love is having some quirky girl show up just as your getting fed up with your boring job and slubby friend and shake things up by making you pay attention to the world around you (Audrey/Doris/Barbra/Diane/Goldie/Meg/Julia/Winona/Reese/Kirsten/Drew, I'm looking at you). But seriously, doesn't life play that out? When you feel great, doesn't it feel as though you're seeing everything for the first time, and when you feel awful you feel a million years old and incapable of being surprised by anything? I just felt like what he was getting at was pretty standard, pretty obvious, unless you push it into deeper territory.
What he's suggesting, at its heart, is that travelling is a mental exercise more than anything else, and can be simulated simply by greater attention to detail. But what are the implications of this? In thinking about this, I recalled an article I had read a few years back, one of those freak-the-crap-out-of-parents magazines put out now and then (I believe this one was Time). The cover read, "What's Wrong With The Boys: why our nation's young men are dropping out of school and ending up in jail" (Oh sensationalism, is there nothing you can't make seem terrifying?) The article of course had much less to report than the title suggested, and took a decidely limited point of view. It pointed out that there has been a slight spike, starting in the nineties, with prison rates among young men (even though the prisons have always been crowded, and young men have always comprised the largest number of inmates,) and that young women are now performing better in school grade-wise than young men and getting into better colleges in slightly larger numbers. (Nevermind that we are as a country now 51% female, so having a 51% female graduating class at most liberal arts colleges shouldn't be that surprising, or that fact that as a culture we are much faster to demonize female criminal behavior than male, or that the majority of politicians, doctors, lawyers, and CEOs remain male, so it's pretty hard to argue the American male is in trouble.) The article also tried to allege a connection between the increase in diagnoses of ADHD and Asbergers, two disorders which are more common than men, (although the increase in diagnoses in both genders has been proportionally the same, and the prevalence among males is easily explained by basic genetics) with the mild hike in prison rates, which makes no sense and is borderline offensive. So, in short, it was a very poorly written article, ad wasn't helped by it's oldschool boys v. girls gender politics. But one thing I read in it did catch my attention. A sidebar described a school for boys in Texas which had recently implimented a new discipline policy which has dramatically decreased the number of behavior problems they had with some of their more troubled students. The school had adopted the policy that, whenever there was an altercation between two male students, (which apparently had become a very regular problem) two aides would immediately remove both boys from the classroom and take them for a walk around the neighborhood while the boy was allowed to talk through what happened. Only once both students had described the incident thoroughly and calmed down were punishments allotted. While it seems fairly logical that allowing children to work through their problems aloud one-on-one would help significantly in preventing the problem from reoccuring, what the article really emphasized was the walking. It appeared that the strategy of making the boy change location and move while thinking majorly improved the kids' capacities to explain their thoughts and feelings and even improved the quality of their memory. The results were so immediate and overt that a local psychologist and neurosurgeon teamed up to investigate, and found after doing a test group experiment involving brain scans from children from different school of both genders, that high rates of testerone seem to create a link between the parts of the brain that controls movement and mechanical observation (sidestepping a puddle, things you do almost subconsciously) and the part that controls critical thinking, empathy, and communication. (This study had not been substantiated at the time of publication, and I didn't check to see if it has been since.) The exercise of physical movement and adjusting to new surroundings facilitated quicker and more direct evaluation of self, others, and the past.
The article decided to stick to such banal applications as sports, saying that it seemed boys were more suited to play baseball and basketball because they could strategize better while running, (ignoring the fact that testosterone levels, especially in children, fluctuate so quickly and differ so much on an individual basis that there is more variance within the sexes than between them.) But I thought that, as an idea, the implications were rather astounding. Historically, it goes almost without saying that explorers were men. Isabelle Eberhardt, Jane Franklin, Helen Thayer, all notable in their own way, were never permitted to go anywhere their male counterparts had not already explored, and were considered incredibly eccentric and suffered under enormous social pressures in their day. I personally am somewhat critical of overly psychological and physiological approaches to behavioral study, preferring to side with nurture and sociology over the preconceptions of nature, but regardless of where you side it is fascinating to consider how much the history of the exploration of the world was reliant on masculine identity, the social demanded (or biologically instilled, if that's your preference) need to travel, to escape, just to process, while women were shut up and home and, trapped without means of travel, provided the audience needed to facillitate the invention of the modern novel. I thought of "My Own Little Corner" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella and wondered if de Maistre was getting credit for a technique women around the world had been using for years to maintain their sanity, and if this technique, to force one's mind to reconceptualize one's surroundings, was new only for men unhabituated to it and now increasingly needing it, having run out of continents to explore everytime we have a crisis.
So I leave it out there, because I don't have an answer: does gender change the way you travel?
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.
I hope this brings a little pang of nostalgia to any NYU in Paris pals who happen to read it. Out of all the amazing restaurants in Paris, yellow awning place is the one I, and I believe the rest of NYUP, have visited the most frequently, the unifying experience between all of us. It of course is not really called yellow awning place. But when we got here, when we were all to insecure to want to test our french comprehension, we would ask people who worked at NYUP where a good place was to go grab a cheap lunch, and they all recommended a little boulangerie (bakery that also sells sandwiches and various lunch items, for those of you unfamiliar with the venerable French cultural institution,) just down the street, and after we stared at them, blank-faced, when they said the name in French, they quickly supplied, "it's the place with the yellow awning."
That was easy enough to find, and it has become it's official moniker. I've bought my lunch at the yellow awning place atleast 2 days a week every week all semester long. They have a cheap lunch menu (sandwich, drink, and dessert - because apparently no lunch in France is complete without dessert - for 5 euro,) and you can even skimp more and get just the sandwich for just 3 euro. And they are big, baguette sandwiches; I always get the vegetarian-friendly gruyere (a white cheese) and crudites (the french term for tomato and lettuce, or as they conceive of it, filler) with mayo, and I kept some seedy French mustard stored away nearby to add when I got too bored with that. The place, with the best deal in the area, was always busy, so when you went anywhere from 11 to 3 you would need to wait in line, which was comprised both of NYU students and a large number of French who lived and worked in the area, and often led out the door and down the block. But the line moved quickly, thanks to the friendly staff which worked quickly to disperse it.
There was the guy who looked about late 20's with the glasses who did sandwiches sometimes, and then the four women: the one with the dark hair always pulled back who I think ran the place because she typically worked the cash register, the woman with the cropped, dyed red hair who seemed like she had also been there for a long time as she always knew how much everything was, the woman with the shoulder length brown hair who worked sandiwiches when the guy wasn't there, and the woman with the cropped blonde hair who worked desserts sometimes - these three, the two last women and the guy, were all part time I think. I would guess the woman to all be in their late 30's to early 40's, though I horrible at judging that. They were all really nice, although the redhead and the dark-haired women had a sharpness to them, especially during the lunchhour, that comes from working at one place for a long time; the only way I found to get a smile out of the dark-haired woman was to have exact change, and on particularly busy days even that wasn't a guarentee. Other than sandwiches, they had salads and pasta (neither of which I ever sampled - their salads didn't have dressing on them, a French thing I could never get behind, and their pasta looked iffy to me). But they also had quiche, which were wonderful - I can particularly vouche for the broccoli-cherve, which was a cheap and delicious masterpiece. Let's not even start to talk about the desserts; that would take up another whole blog entry. Let's just say, imagine absolutely amazing French pastries and tartes, and know that unless you've been there, whatever you're imagining: it was better than that. I can't say at this point I'm worried about missing yellow awning place. I ate there so often that it often seemed dull, and I'm really craving the variety of lunch options America (and New York in particular) offers. But I know that with time I will have pangs for that place, and it - not the Eiffel tower, or the Louvre, but the local boulangerie - will always be one of the main places that defined my Paris experience.
I wish I could reflect a bit right now on my semester in Paris, but my flight leaves tomorrow and my last few days have been lots of fun but also incredibly stressful. I squeezed in a visit to the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris yesterday for an exhibit I had really wanted to see, I’ve gone with my friends to our favorite bars, and we had a wonderful goodbye dinner that concluded with the best chocolate mousse I’ve ever eaten.
But a lot of my last week in Paris has been rather bureaucratic. I closed my bank account, dropped off a DVD at school, went to the post office to ship my books home (and discovered that there are special burgundy-colored boxes specifically for shipping wine bottles). Tuesday night I spent five hours in the emergency room with a friend who needed antibiotics; we got home at 3 AM and I took a final the next afternoon. And now I am completely preoccupied with packing, with fitting everything in and trying to keep at least one of my suitcases under the weight limit. It’s not a very elegant or thoughtful end to my semester in Paris, but I guess that’s how it goes : I think an idea I and some of the other people in Paris kept coming back to is the balance between the elegance and fascination of the city with the banality of real life
The NYU in Paris program is, for the most part, very well organized, and the classes are interesting and challenging. I did want to take a class at a French university, though, which NYU really encourages people to do; I had a very hard time trying to navigate the Sorbonne class schedules (the one posted on the wall during the NYU tour, the one the Sorbonne office gave us, the one posted on their website), and when I finally found a course that interested me and fit with my schedule, I realized that I would be taking too many credits this semester (with this class and our two-credit preliminary course) to take a four-credit class outside of NYU as well (by this point, our regular classes had started). This was frustrating but, in hindsight, maybe not such a bad thing—I’ve had a lot of free time to explore Paris. And I’m glad I’ve had this class to encourage me to reflect, as a record of my expectations and experiences and changing perspectives during my time in Paris.
While I'll been here, I've been thinking a lot about music. I'm not a musician - I love to sing but I'm not particularly good at it, and I know next to nothing about music. Whie over time I've developped the ability to objectively evaluate and examine the attributes of a piece of literature or a film, and am slowly developping a vocabulary around the visual art, music remains a mystery to me. For all my favorite books or films, I can explain at length technical aspects of the work that elevate it above other similar attempts (nd acknowledge moments of Icarus-like failure, when hir astounding ambitions evade the artist's grasp). But while I do like often enjoy songs that others whose tastes are more mature and educated than mine (friends and/or critics) also appreciate, there are a lot of songs I like that I know are objectively terrible. Even for the songs that are widely beloved, my ability to analyze them is limited to the lyrics (which is why, I think, I typically struggle to enjoy classical as a genre) and general subjective statements like "her voice just doesn't sound good there."
I've been thinking about this a lot I think because one, I've found music to be the best salve for homesickness, which has often left me pndering why certain songs just signify home to me, and two, I've started going to the opera, which has undoubtedly been the greatest gift Paris has given me. I'd never seen or heard an opera before coming here, and having taken the opportunity to see several in close proximity to each other has majorly altered my conception of music. The layers of expression in an opera, (the written text, the acting out of that text, the written score, the live performance of that score by both the orchestra and the singers working in harmony, the incredible costumes and set pieces, and the intellectual challenge of the director to render accessible this incredibly stylized art form,) this enormous effort from all of these people coming together across time to produce this, it's truly awe-inspiring. To attempt to "sell" his music to the audience, not as a writtn and pre-conceived work, nor even as a choreographed "number" (as Broadway typicaly trades in) but as a spontaneous expression of emotion from the character, requires an almost unbelievable suspension of disbelief from the audience, and yet I have witnessed occasions where, for me atleast, they pulled it off, and I'm still trying to figure out why.
The opera that has been the most successful for me was far-and-away La Boheme, Puccini's seminal classic which I have recently learned is also performed in New York (meaning I can go see it there too!!) As a depiction of Paris, Puccini manages to both evoke a very specific period of history and also give a general sense of the culture and feel of the city. Having seen the city now at Christmas time, I think the opening scene of Act II where several choruses sing around and among each other while shopping in the cold captures the city in a way Larson's equivalent scene in RENT tries to do but just doesn't quite manage. The scene that follows in the cafe, if done as well as it was done here, so perfectly mimicks the hustle of paris cafes in the winter when everyone comes in seeking shelter from the cold as much as anything and thus wait to order, go through cup after cup of coffee, and never ask for the check, using the strong sense of Parisian hospitality as an excuse to keep warm. The characters themselves, it seems to me, are exactly the way Parisians want to see themselves depicted: smart and idealistic, passionate, resourceful, creative, and fun - constantly ready to adapt to any situation to get the most out of life. But of course, the last scene is the most incredible. A professor here, showing those who were going clips of a broadcasted version in preparation from the live event, said "Did you get a lump in your throat?" (I did.) "That's the cello. It's a great manipulator; it's the instrument with the closest tone to the human voice. Composers love to pull it out just for moments like this."
I was completely astounded. Can you believe that humans can listen to a piece of music, and the tones in it that mimick a human voice will actuall cause an emotional reaction? And, on top of that, some people were able to figure that out and harnass that power in great art? Thinking about that, I asked a friend of mine, an actress who plays music as a hobby, what art form she found the most emotinally impactful. She answered music right away. I said I thought I agreed, but that I felt awkward saying so; my mode of expression, the one I depend on and through which I hope to influence others, is writing. But I have to admit, even though as a writer I think I'm more attuned to the written word than most, I am not frequently profoundly moved by a book. I have never wept over a piece of visual art, very rarely over live theater, and only occasionally over a film. But there are some songs which, no matter how many times I hear them, I tear up. My friend pointed out that the progression of musichas been toward an increasingly individual experience, going from public concerts to the radio, to records where most families only ad one record player that was shared, to CD's by which point parents and kids could have their own, to Walkmans and eventually Ipods, where the music of your choice can play alongside you all day, through all your highs and lows, in your head sundtracking your every thought and emotion. No other medium is as accessible and personal, she said. And thinking about it, I think I agree with her; I think one of the most significant questions to our generation is what music do you like? (Anyone besides me willing to 'fess to having dismissed someone as a friend-option because of an abiding love of, for example, pop-country?) You would think, though, that acting wuld be stronger since you're seeing a fellow human being, right in front of you, undergo an experience. But somehow I think knowing it's fake allows us to disassociate, whereas some part of us still believes in the singer-songwriter tradition and sees singing a song you wrote for someone else as the most pure expression of inner feeling. That's definitely how I felt watching the end of La Boheme; whether it's beautiful or terrifying or a bit of both that the human voice has the power to affect us that way, outside of any sort of logic or reason, is something I think we each decide for ourselves.
Being here, you can understand why peole think of it as the city of love. The presence of human attachment, the desire to share what you experience with another person, is palpable nearly everywhere you go. But so is the absence of the fulfillment of that desire, and so I say that Paris is the best place I can imagine to be depressed in.
New York, by contrast, is the best place I've ever lived (admittedly a somewhat short list) to be enraged. Like Paris, New York is perfect for lovers, but New York, I think, is too high energy to allow for depression in the face of domestic bliss. Anytime I find myself depressed in New York for more than a day, the hard edge of the city creeps into my apartment and finds me, and soon I'm having one of those days where I'm just walking around, waiting for someone to do something that justifies me telling them to fuck off (and luckily, being New York, I don't have to wait very long.) In the absence of positiv human connection, New York facilitates a negative one, and just walking down the street you can see those people who aren't getting any and as a result have become ticking time bombs just waiting to explode.
But Paris, the birthplace of ennui, raises loneliness and depression to an art form, even a religion: a communal, ever-present, transcendant state. While spending a Saturday night drinking by yourself in Nw York makes you a loser, in Paris every night of the week you can see at any bar a couple guys, of a variety of ages, often good-looking and well-dressed, sitting by themselves and knocking one back, looking for all the world like this drink is all that's keeping them from offing themselves. On even the most popular streets in the trendiest quartiers, you can always spot that woman in her bathrobe, standing on the balcony of her second story apartment, smoking a cigarette and watching the happy drunken children stumble home, cat-calling and scream-laughing into the night as the take leave of the friends. The look on her face, the woman, envy and self-preserving disgust, it's a familiar feeling to anyone who's spent enough time here and no one would hold it against here. You are never alone in your loneliness; in fact, you are reenacting a tradition as Parisian as cheese plates and hating the Eiffel Tower. Compounded with the loneliness of being an American, the one who can understand the language but doesn't get the jokes, the weight of it can be staggering, crushing, unlike anything I've ever experienced in New York. This feels almost ancient, more primal - like grieving for something you weren't alive to remember.
During bouts of home internet access, the soundtrack to my homework has been video after youtube video of bitter anti-love songs which best fit my mood - I will forever associate writing in French with Carly Simon. As a result of these elaborate searches, my sad sond reportoire has expanded tremendously. So quick shout-out to my latest fave: anyone else know Josh Rouse? If you don't, next time you feel homesick, listen to "michigan." And have a box of tissues handy.
I think my problem with Paris was that I never really wanted to study abroad in the first place. I remember so well the months leading up to my departure, the reactions from friends and family when they heard I would be spending the next semester in Paris. I tried resolutely to mirror that excitement, that anticipation, that awe back to them, hoping that by pantomiming what I was supposed to be feeling with enough gusto I could make it real. Those two words are probably the heart of how I ended up in Paris: "supposed to." I'd been studying French ever since the 7th grade, and every teacher that I'd ever had in the subject, noting my hard work and terrible accent, said I should study in Paris. Within weeks, they claimed, you'll be fluent, and it'll be the greatest experience of your life - if you have the opportunity, you simply must go. Studying in Paris was basically the point behind studying French - a semester eating croissants justified the hours spent memorizing irregular verb conjuations and faux amis. Coming to NYU, I was immediately interested in the study abroad program, because smart, cultured people studied abroad, and NYU's program was supposed to be one of the best. Most people, I learned, went their junior year; it was presented as much of an expectation as anything else. And you'll love it, was the unanimous opinion of those I spoke to about it.
Love would not be le mot juste. I don't regret going, if only because if I hadn't I would have wondered forever what it would have been like. And that has been the common thread of my experience of Paris - trying and learning new things, if only for the sake of knowledge. I've learned a lot of things about myself that I didn't know before. Maybe the biggest one: I always characterized myself as a city person, and now on further reflexion I'm not sure that's true. I haven't felt a particular connection with Paris, or London, or Chicago, or D.C. I always thought the big draw of New York for me was its size, and the glorious anonymity that came with it. But Paris, as a place to live, i too large for me, too disconnected and distant. I greatly preferred Marseilles, which was smaller and more intimate and thus totally goes against my own understanding of what I look for in a place. I've theorized that this stems from the fact that Paris is a comparable size to New York and as a result, the two share several similarities, which causes me to think of New York often during my day and inevitably make comparisons. In all the differences between the two cities I always prefer New York, so Paris suffers for my scrutiny. Marseilles is too small to suggest such comparisons, so I could just judge it based on its own merits.
Also, I was only there a weekend.
Here’s my advice on anyone planning on coming to Prague:
1. The Koruna is NOT Monopoly Money: It may seem like it is when the ATM spits out crowns in the form of hundreds and thousands, but that doesn’t mean it’s worthless. Develop a sense of how much 100, 200 and 500 crowns are as quickly as possible and you won’t blow as much money in the beginning.
2. Go To The Castle When It’s Not Too Warm And Not Too Cold: Too warm and there are hundreds or thousands of people there, too cold and you’ll be killing yourself because it’s on top of a huge ass hill. It’s very beautiful.
3. Hit The Botanical Gardens/Wallenstein Garden/Letna/Petrin Parks When It’s Warm: Prague gets very gray and very dark very quickly in the fall and stays that way until like, April. These places are some of the most beautiful and green in the city, so make sure you take advantage of them when you can.
4. Don’t Take The Jewish Quarter Tour Unless It’s Free: The Jewish Quarter is very nice, and very close to campus. The tour though is about three hours long and you’re over it about an hour in. Don’t miss the Jewish Quarter, just don’t take the official tour.
5. Buy A Subway Pass: It makes your life much easier, and you can take any public transport at any time for however long you need it. It’s tempting not to get one, but chances are over a whole semester, you’re going to get caught, and getting caught once costs half the price of the 90-day pass.
6. Visit The National Museum on the 1st Monday of the Month: It’s free! And it’s worthwhile just to see how Czech museums differ culturally from New York ones, or even other European museums in countries that are more museum-friendly/have more money.
7. Go To The Narodni Divadlo/Rudolfinium: These are the national theater and ceoncert hall/opera house respectively. They are beautiful, cheap, and the performances are always great. Plus, Czech people love them so it’s a good way to experience Czech theater without the “tourist trap” flavor.
8. Find A Local Bar: Wherever you live, it’s good to have a place where the people know who you are on sight. This is especially applicable in Prague, where people often hate you.
9. Smazeny Syr: This could be the best or worst recommendation anyone has ever made to you. Yeah the beer’s good, the sausages are great, the goulash is amazing, but the crème de la crème of Czech cuisine is the drunchie food smazeny syr. You WILL get addicted and you will like it.