Wednesday, June 13, 2007

I am lost somewhere in Montparnasse. It is not a big deal that I am lost, I am not in a hurry and the university semester has finished, the last exam page turned, the last pen put down. Wandering along under the shadow of the Tour Montparnasse in the Avenue Maine, I am stopped by a group of girls in their early twenties, my age. Flustered, in English, they ask me the way to H&M. I don't know whether to laugh or cry at where I'm having to give directions to where they could be going in this amazing city, but as a twenty-something year old female myself, I know the importance of retail therapy. I reply, in English, and hope my directions are clear.

"Are you from here?" they ask, clocking my grasp of the English tongue weighed up with the knowledge of the nearest H&M to the fifteenth arrondissement.

"Yes, I am," I say.

And it's true.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

University life.

The first difference? The hours. My timetable is effectively, doubled. I have 1/3 more in classes than I had in the UK, with twice as many hours in teaching time. Last semester, classes started at 8am, everyday from Monday to Friday. And at 9.30 am on a Saturday morning. (Believe me, 9.30 am even on a Saturday felt like a lie-in.) Most lectures are three hours' long. The queues for the coffee machines at the Sorbonne at 11am are long. The queues for the toilets? Even longer.

My life now revolves around getting the moyen= 10/20. Before, a pass was 40%. Doing well was a 2.2 - 50%. Doing really well was a 2.1 - 60%. Being exceptional meant 70% and over. These days? Even the exceptional students are becoming pleased with 8/20. We have failed not for our lack of knowledge for the subject, but rather because we didn't conform to the exact méthodologie meaning that the essay will be divided into two parts, I and II and then further subdivided into IA and IB, IIA and IIB. Content is irrelevant. Style? Everything.

Not that I've been able to maintain a sense of style too much. Whilst I believe that it is wonderful that university education is essentially, free here, the system does not fail so much on that point as it does letting (for all intents and purposes) everyone who has their bac in. The result? Not only scores of students unwilling to do sweet FA at uni but too many of us for the administration to be able to deal with. * The result at face value is quite often, having to sit in a lecture, on the floor. Sometimes, there's no floor space left. Fast forward ten weeks to the exam period and there are no seats to sit in for an exam. There is not only no seat available for 50% of the students but during the exam, two of the inviligators tie up another with sellotape.

From the sublime to the ridiculous.

*I'm not advocating that any other university entrance system is any better, but there has to be a compromise somewhere.
I have been living in Paris for 5 months now and so far, university has taken up approximately 99.9% of my time. Through 25 hours a week of classes, constant essays and spending more time in the library than in my little Left Bank flat I have forgotten how to live. Today was my first day off since September. By day off, I mean nothing to do: no classes to go to, no assignments to complete, no reading to be done, no studying to stress over. We are in between semesters here, and yesterday was the final of the six exams I've done over three weeks. On Tuesday lectures start for the second semester and by next week, I'll be well into the rat race of classes, essays and the library. I haven't written all this down mainly because I haven't had the time but also because then, it didn't seem worthy of being put into words. Today I slept for 12 hours, got up and tidied my poor flat, neglected since I moved into it in November. And afterwards, once the notes were put away, ready for a reairing no doubt in September, when I have to re-sit, I didn't know what to do with myself. The plan of action tomorrow is to read the paper at the Café de Flore and walk for a little while, probably ending up at WHSmith on the corner of the rue de Rivoli and rue Cambon to take my fill of terrible magazines and books in English, which, most important of all, do not contain an index. I think I owe it to myself. But first of all, I will write down what the past few months have been like to try to give them some semblance.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Sometimes, just sometimes when the pressures of being at university in a country, though so familiar, is still essentially foreign and I am walking home through St Germain with my head down facing an evening of studying, I turn back and see in the half light, the sign for the Café de Flore glowing. It thrills me every time.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The day is glorious after a hazy start. Our precious half hour break between three lectures and a tutorial is spent as it should be; gossiping on the steps of the Panthéon. The sky is purest blue and the view of the Eiffel Tower is blocked through the hazy sunshine.

Unfortunately, the one thing that can really spoil a day like this is actually having to go to a class afterwards, being told that it is the most difficult class of them all and that there is a ridiculous amount of work to do, in a ridiculously short time.

If it had been raining on the way home, I would have no doubt grumbled about that but truth be told, even as I pass the breathtakingly beautiful Jardin de Luxembourg on my way home, I don't notice the weather anymore. My hackles are up, I can feel the stress of doing this degree, in another country, in another language surge through my body and I begin to question myself, my choices. The stress does not feel like pain, it feels like my nerves are being frazzled into pieces. I long for idle rainy days in Glasgow, doing nothing.

I buy my baguette, as always - the lady behind the counter looks somewhat more soignée at 16h30 than she does at 7h30, when I saw her last as I was buying my baguette. I tentatively cross the road to get to the apartment, so busy checking that I am looking for traffic in the right direction after all, I don't notice the commotion up ahead. It hits me though, soon enough.

A class trying to sell their 'baking' (- it was clearly out of a packet, but then again, they must have had to put it in the oven at some point?). I am accosted by three nine year old boys, all sporting the haircut all French boys seem to get at some point in their young lives, little round spectacles on and a tan that would make Posh Spice envious.

"Madame, Madame!", they cry. I forget that these days, I seem to count as a "Madame" and I nearly fall over them.

"Un gateau, un euro!"

I have to laugh. One is holding a tray bigger than he is, his friend is trying to help him balance it and their mate is doing the talking. Down the street, what seems to be the mothers and nounous collecting the children are being accosted too.

"D'accord, d'accord, attendez un moment s'il vous plaît!"
I reach into my bag.

"Qu'est-ce que vous pensez est le meilleur?" I ask.

A resounding response confirms that it is, indeed, 'le chocolat'.

I give the chatterbox a 2€ pièce. He looks concerned and says, "But madame, we don't have any change."

"That's okay, thank you very much for the cake."

As I try to figure out how to balance my bag, my baguette and my chocolate cake in order to make it home, he runs off, delighted down the street to tell his teacher of his sale.

There are going to be days when classes are a nightmare for them, but hopefully, they can savour the delights of their baking sale for a little while longer, I hope. If not, then for yesterday afternoon, I was certainly able to appreciate it on their behalf.

And the chocolate cake was indeed, very good.

Friday, September 29, 2006

It is Wednesday night, or should I say, very early on Thursday morning. I have to travel to the 13th arrondissement in the morning to enrol à la fac. Not only am I leaving the soirée early, held in various bars throughout the Latin Quarter, I am able to walk home. This is the first time in my life I have been able to do this. It is around half midnight; I wave to my friends as they try to make the last RER home at the Luxembourg station.

Le Rostand is being polished into place, ready for the customers' morning cafés in a few hours' time, while the staff contemplate how much longer the final clients' cognacs can last. Tourists, arm in arm stroll by the locked Jardin de Luxembourg in awe at the simply beautiful photographs on the railings. There are plenty of joggers out and the thought of why there are so many at this time in the evening keeps me occupied on the ten minute walk home. It is balmy, maybe around 18 degrees celsius and I kick myself one more time for putting on such an unnecessary coat on my way out the door at 8 o'clock. I cannot believe it is the 27th of September; the calmness of midnight should be May or June.

Today, as I came back from the cinéma on the Boulevard St Germain and crossed over the place St Sulpice, with a spring in my step which can only be described as parisien (the marvels to be savoured other than the church itself included a man peeing against a tree), the ground was covered in bronze.

I may be fooled so easily, but the seasons are not.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


A lot has happened in the last few days and I suppose I could write about drowning in the crashing waves of homesickness that happened on Sunday night after my parents' visit ended, but there doesn't seem much to say other than that. Today I opened my French bank account and there doesn't seem to be much to say about that either, other than I managed to wangle the system into going my way and not the way of French bureaucracy, so success there. Not so much success when my tongue thought it was tying knots in a cherry stem instead of speaking French and the lady at the bank said "Vous parlez anglais?" but I kept going and she continued in French, pausing only to point out that something meant "overdraft" in English.

I could write about the saga that played out as I tried to buy a proper bed, first from IKEA (but three week wait? Eh, no thanks) and then from Muji. The man at Muji told me there was no point in paying a 49€ charge to have it delivered when I live three streets away, so I came back (with a poor friend in tow) and they taped my bed down to a trolley, let us carry one box and commanded a shop assistant to wheel my bed across the Place St Sulpice to the flat. This, I thought, would entail much embarrassment on the part of myself as the bobos at the Café de la Mairie looked on, but in fact, no one turned an eyelid.

This is another reason why I love France.

Yesterday was my "Rentrée" or should I say, "Entrée" for me (as it is my first year here, but technically, I'm going back to uni?!). For most people at home, it is Christmas and (especially) New Year when their friends (somewhat drunkenly) hug and kiss them the most. For me, that day has turned into the Rentrée. Around forty other students at two kisses each? However much I may pretend to make fun of it, it is the physical warmth amongst friends in France that I adore. When I was a high school student in Scotland, even my closest girlfriends would pretend to give a hug; a loose arm around a shoulder. Which is something I think they've picked up by bad teen American movies (when I say 'bad' I do not of course mean anything directed by John Hughes, I'm referring to the type 'acted' in by Lindsey Lohan, whoever she may be).

Yesterday, I was, quite literally, bowled over by the affections of my camarades.


I still feel a little dépaysée - not having anything to do on Monday has wound me up thinking this is Tuesday to the point when walking home along the Boulevard St Germain today, I thought "Why the hell are all these kids out of school?". Duh. It's Wednesday afternoon.

Wednesdays is when Madame in my local Boulangerie closes, a ritual I first found out about last week, when craving my awful breakfast of baguette avec Nutella I was greeted with the shutters pulled firmly down. I found another Boulanger a couple of streets away, but it didn't exude the same local friendliness as my usual place. Retracing my steps today, I walked past a window and did a double take. Not far away from the apartment is another Boulangerie-Patisserie and the queue was out the door. Sadly, pour cette végétarienne there wasn't much on the way of sandwiches that I could eat but the pastries looked stunning. The assistants waited patiently while I chose my sin to take home with me and the lady at the caisse greeted me with a slightly over-the-top but rather wonderful anyway, "Bonjooooour mAdEmmOIsELLE!"

The top of the baguette was eaten on the way home and the réligieuse was eaten for lunch.

I promise I'll eat plenty of fruit tonight to make up for it.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

“And to those of you who mourn your lives through one day to the next,
Well, let them take you next!
Can’t you live and be thankful you’re here?
See, it could be you, tomorrow, next year.”
- © Guillemots – “Trains to Brazil”

Wednesday, and I wake up wanting to weep.

My previous elation at living in Paris has cratered somewhere far, far away and I am at a low. I leave the house, dishevelled, no make up on at all, to walk the 50 or so yards up to the boulangerie , 0.85€ counted out exactly, to make the transaction as swift as possible, in order to fill my belly with breakfast as soon as I can manage.

It is shut.

I manage to stumble into another on the Rue de Rennes, baguette a whole euro and crash back to the apartment. Bread in hand, Nutella jar in the other, I contemplate letting go of what is in one hand and binging on the other. Needless to say, I couldn’t care less about the bread anymore.

The guidebook is pored over and nothing jumps out. The Balenciaga exhibition is thought about and pushed aside for the (hopefully) occasional afternoon off uni. Horribly out of date, the book gets me nowhere. I think of all that needs to be done in the flat, at uni,; the battles with French administration have only just begun. I want to crawl back into what is masquerading itself as my bed and go to sleep.

Eventually, a move as wrong as I’ll ever make, I decide to go to Sephora, ‘beauty emporium’ on the Champs-Élysées and get myself one or two nice things for the bath that (hurrah!) we have in the apartment. One change on the Métro, and twenty minutes (and a slightly wrong turn later between the Grand and Petit Palais), I’m wandering through a much busier shop than I remembered. Eyes on the carpet to avoid the all-too toothy smiles of the girls holding perfume bottles/eyeshadows/lipglosses in hand and I pick up cheap stuff in fluorescent packaging which albeit briefly, cheers me up.

I queue patiently, second in line. A too-tanned-to-be-real girl and her (likewise) boyfriend hover into sight, clutching as much rubbish in expensive packaging as they can possibly grab. They slip in front of me.

I am of course outraged. But I am also resigned. And I supposed, embarrassed. This is France, where queuing is not so much as an art but anarchy and I know this. This has happened before. Although I am not Anglo-Saxon, my queuing habits definitely are. As a Celt, I am furious and want to a. tell them off b. point out where they should be in the queue and c. kick them, leaving a nice imprint of my muddy shoe against their Evisu jeans.

As a foreigner in France, it being my second full day of living here, I cannot muster up the courage to say this in French. My heart crumbles at my lack of ability in this.

At home later, I am fed up with myself for replaying this situation over and over in my head. I leap into a proactive state. Cinema, cinema, cinema. Let me lose myself in another world for two hours, come home, clean slate. “Quand j’étais chanteur” with Cécile de France and Gérard Dépardieu has been revealed in the magazines but the times tonight don’t quite suit. And then searching for cinemas in my quartier, I see, but 90 minutes later at the Lucernaire (which incidentally, is a fantastic venue, better than I could have possibly expected and ten minutes on foot from the flat) is “Paris, je t’aime”.

Far from losing myself in someone else’s world for two hours, I lose myself in what is becoming my own. My eyes sparkle during the beginning of a romance in the 5ème and glisten as Juliette Binoche falls into the depths of desparation. I laugh heartily with Nick Nolte’s character and feel the start of my weeping during Natalie Portman’s romance. I concur with the 14ème. And just at the very end, just for a split second is a sight so familiar just now, but will become even more familiar as I walk that route every day for the next year on my way to uni. I want to scream with joy.

My hands rush up to my chest, against my heart, as if to stop it bursting out of my body with such sheer delight.

I push the tears far back from the brim of my eyelids, back into a place inside my head where they won't resurface for at least another week. Sighing, I try to breathe in the image of my little room at home, my room, such as to act as a little peaceful memory to serve me some comfort in the weeks ahead of reading, studying and generally feeling stupid as I start, for the first time in my life, as a "foreign student".

My cat could not care. I crouch down to her level on the sofa, where she spends the hours of 7.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. sleeping off the night before. I tell her "I'll be back at Christmas, Santa is bringing me home and I'll bring you some scallops from Paris." She opens one eye, squeaks, as if to say, "What the hell are you saying? I'm a small cat, trying to sleep and quite frankly, I don't care." The next day, I am told she pushes open the door to my room and gets confused when I am not there/my bed is not warm.

À vendredi, maman; she kisses me bye bye and warns me in the maternal way all mothers do when their child is journeying. I try not to notice my dad struggling to get the suitcase into the boot because the struggle that awaits me when I get it off the luggage belt at CDG to the flat is more than I can possibly think about for the moment. I try not to worry about it just now, (yet it plays in the back of my mind during the two flights I have to take anyway).

At the airport, I must be the first to check in: three hours early and already ridiculously bored. I buy the newspapers and try to muster up the hunger to eat a cherry and custard pastry which must have been "baked" about three months ago. Balancing the pastry, necessary cutlery, hot chocolate and required reading material at the counter, I 'politely' ask a couple of businessmen, "Excuse me please" as I try in earnest, to get away from the counter and into a seat. They ignore me twice, emballed in their self-importance and eventually, I have to push past, worrying that I WILL spill and consequently, cry.

I don't, happily, but am still pissed off. Removing my shoes as part of the latest 'security/hype' measure and walking through in my bare feet proves enough of a humiliation. It is here I switch off. I try not to notice the view of the mountains and all that they promise; what I'll be missing in months to come. I just listen to the announcements about putting on my own oxygen mask before that of my non-existant child first and read, read, read until the too-familiar bump.

The French passport check is laughably easy - "EU passport+20 year old female student" is a waiver in itself. My first words in French as a student in this country stun me, it is so familiar and seemingly too easy. Waiting in the scrum for the bags to bounce their way back into existence, the two businessmen from the airport café push their way in front of me to the conveyer belt.

I have an unbelievable squirm of unadulterated pleasure. Their knuckles are white as they clutch their "French Beginners' Phrase Books".

The RER train which takes me from the airport to my quartier has a four letter code. Which spells out my nickname.

I can't help feeling fate is guiding me home.