Archive for April, 2007

twenty years of mischief management

On this day twenty years ago, I was born at 7:43 pm Eastern time in Queens, New York. I’ve lived in four countries and nine different houses and have taken on a number of different personae. I’ve ditched meat and the binding chains of schoolwork and have resumed dreaming as fervently as I had when I was little. I’d like to get my shit together, but I’ll be forever distracted until I find something I’m passionate about. (That won’t stop me from trying time and again, though.)

I thought I was going to lament the end of my teenage years, but they were mostly moody and awkward anyway. I’ll try to be cooler in this next decade.

Dear Future Self,

I hope you are awesome.

Love,
Me

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b in a castle = fish out of water

I am currently battling some sort of cold right now (I hear that there’s a French version of Airborne but I haven’t been able to find it), and I have been away all weekend and will be in Barcelona next weekend, so I apologize in advance if you don’t hear from me for a bit.

That said, I’m gonna use this short post to write about and my weekend jaunt to the Loire Valley courtesy of Stanford-in-Paris’s most generous donors, the Bings.

The Bing family has donated tons and tons of money to Stanford and to the Stanford Overseas Programs in particular. They want to help “the world leaders of the future” learn about “the meaning of culture” by paying for “cultural events” such as ballets and operas at the Opera Garnier and Opera Bastille, and our trip to the Loire, where we were housed in a castle, toured other castles, and fed expensive gourmet dinners.

I appreciate the Bings’ kindness, but this version of culture is a bit too much for my taste. For one, I’m probably not going to be a world leader, so this crap is pretty much wasted on me. For another, I’d rather they do more productive things (like pay my loans or help feed starving children) with the tons of money that they’ve spent spoiling me rotten.

Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed being spoiled rotten. I loved living in a castle, eating the world’s best cheeses and drinking fine wines, being introduced into the world of the high-class elite. In the back of my mind, though, there was always a nagging feeling that went something like, You aren’t rich. You aren’t high-class. You hate being a tourist. You’ll be paying off your college loans for the next forty years. There are starving kids in Africa. What the fuck are you doing here?

It didn’t help that the lavishness of the castles made me want to both cry and puke my guts out. Besides, if I imagined living in them when they were at their prime, I probably would’ve been a slave. No fairy tale dreams for me.

Maybe I should just visit the Loire castles sometime when I have more time to myself to explore them. I get the feeling that I would be able to see more of their beauty and less of their obnoxious wealth without cameras snapping, tour guides talking and forty privileged Stanford students chattering in the background.

N.B.: I really wasn’t trying to disparage being wealthy in this post. I was reflecting on my lack thereof. Yes, I’m insecure about being less affluent than most of my classmates. No, I don’t resent them because of it. (And I’m quite grateful to the Bings, though I really believe that they shouldn’t be wasting .00005% of their fortune on me.)

why americans are fat and parisians aren’t

Today I will address one of the most infamous paradoxes in Parisian culture: the superskinny French woman.

France, in a single superlative, is the gustatory capital of the world. Paris reflects this fact with an endless supply of cafés, restaurants, bistros, patisseries, brasseries, charcuteries, you name it. If there’s a Starbucks on every corner in Manhattan, there’s a place to eat on every block in Paris– more if the block is longer than 100 feet. I’m impressed at how so many of them can stay in business when they’re competing with three or four similar places across the street.

Despite this constant deluge of food, the body types of most Parisian women can be loosely classified into three categories: thin but voluptuous, thin, and skinny as a Japanese rock star. What the hell?

You see tons of very thin, good-looking yuppies on the streets of New York as well, but there the stick-thin population is offset by a close-to-equal number of older or overweight New Yorkers. (And Paris has a larger number of better-looking metrosexual guys in general.) The only other place where I’ve seen such a high skinny-to-fat ratio is in Japan, but that’s only because the people who *are* fat in Japan never leave their house. (See hikikomori.)

So are Parisians just naturally thin? Is it because each Métro station has a dizzying amount of stairs? Is it really because of the wine and the sex?

There’s definitely something in their diet that contributes to this, as I haven’t seen a single gym since I got here (though my host mother swears she goes to one once a week), and the walking alone couldn’t possibly make up for all the calories.

The culture, though, is probably where it’s at. Media pressure to be skinny aside, French people rarely eat unless they’re sitting down. When they do eat, the meal can take two hours, even at home. This allows for some discussion (and, most of the time, appreciation and savoring) of the food. You can always spot a tourist when they have a cheeseburger or something similarly substantial in hand and proceed to consume it while walking or while they’re on the Métro. (Btw, don’t ever eat on the Métro unless you’re hypoglycemic or dehydrated and about to pass out.)

Sure, there are ice cream vendors and crepe stands, but unless you’re under the age of twenty, avoid walking while eating them. This is also from a practical standpoint: food is messy. Parisians are fashion-conscious. You don’t want to walk around all day with an ice cream stain on your shirt.

Speaking of ice cream, be sure to try out a few new flavors if you’re ever in Paris. (Just don’t be like me and try them at the 5-euro ice cream stand at the entrance of the Jardin du Luxembourg.) They’ve got vanilla and chocolate, all right, but also things like chestnut cream, lychee cream, ginger, lavender, and rose. Yes, rose. I’ll give you an ice cream/sorbet report soon, since the weather is rapidly going from biting cold to hot and humid. Just like New York!

parisians as characterized by their metro system

I’ve been in Paris for approximately one week. Maybe less. My host mother lived in New York for five years and I’m surrounded by Stanford students in class, so I haven’t really been able to absorb a lot of French so far, but this is about my first impressions anyway.

Not that I want to stereotype. But there’s some sort of hidden rulebook for manners and conduct that a majority of Parisians seem to have read. To begin, you need to understand one thing. The director of the Stanford in Paris program worded it best:

“The Americans, they like to take care of you. They want to know your needs. The French, not so much.”

Parisians, in particular, have two salient characteristics. One, they keep things running smoothly. Two, they know what they want.

This is not a culture where every waiter is capable of waiting for you as you make a decision. They simply do not have the time. (Btw, one or two waiters often run a whole restaurant or café at lunch. Keep this in mind if you want to have a sit-down lunch: it can take about two hours. Also, vegetarians beware: most restaurants can’t cater to your needs. Don’t be a bitch about it. Just pick the meat off your plate.)

People may seem rude, but they’re sure as hell efficient. Have you ever used the Paris Métro at rush hour? It’s a beautiful thing. Trains come every two or so minutes (the wait time for the next two trains is prominently displayed at each platform), and you usually have to pull a handle to open the door you want to get into (I assume it preserves the air conditioning).

There are no announcements for each stop (except for line 1, which is fairly new and tourist-prone because it’s the line for the Louvre, the Concorde and the Champs-Elysées), so the wait time at each stop is usually about thirty seconds. People don’t try to keep the doors open because the doors are quite vicious– as the warning labels on the windows say in multiple languages, they can “pinch your hands very strong”.

warning on french metro doors

There are fold-down seats near each set of doors. When a large group of people comes in, the people occupying these seats stand up to make more room for everyone. This never fails. Very old people and people who have a pile of paperwork on their lap are exempted, but otherwise it never fails. (Or else you get a dirty look.)

There are no elevators on the métro, so old ladies with groceries or people with heavy bags (like me on my first day) are assisted by a small army of young and/or strong French people up and down the long staircases. In addition to being a random act of kindness, this facilitates traffic.

The only thing to be careful of in the metro (besides pickpockets) is the long line at the station counter, where a single attendant (maybe two, if you’re lucky) sells tickets and passes. These lines tend to be long at all the wrong times because there’s just no room for ticket machines in the station before entering. Fortunately for most Parisians, you only need to get in these lines every so often– a ticket can be issued for months at a time, and the touch-and-go NaviGo pass can be refilled online, or so my host mother says.

If you’re from Manhattan, you’ll feel a bit more at home than most. If you’re from a suburban or rural area in the United States, don’t cry at the lack of friendliness from strangers. Smiling is considered an overt come-on. If someone does smile at you, they’re probably about to follow you home and rape you.

I don’t want to end on a bad note. Hmm, what can cheer you up? I’ve been getting fat off of desserts lately. If you think Parisian waiters are extremely rude, don’t worry: the food they bring usually more than makes up for it. If you’re vegetarian, get a few entrées instead of an actual dish. And dessert. God, I love the Hôtel du Nord‘s tiramisu.

Two Weeks of Suck, Part 4: how i finally went catatonic

Part of the Two Weeks of Suck series, in which b recounts her spring break.

8. Friday. I find out through an e-mail that my Parisian host mother won’t be home when I get to her place. (Actually, I should’ve known this a long time ago, but it took me a while to decipher her French.) I finally call my mom to see if there’s any way I could reschedule my flight to Sunday.

And she freaks out on me! I don’t fucking know what to do. Since my flight is non-refundable, the fee to reschedule is like $600 altogether. A hotel near the airport is $125, so my mom doesn’t really give a shit whether I want to spend an extra day with my boyfriend, she’s booking the hotel.

9. Saturday. I’m at Heathrow Airport in line for my Air France flight. The first time around, I have to repack because the guy tells me that one of my suitcases is over 20 kilos.

The second time around, I’m told that the maximum limit altogether is 20 kilos.

I didn’t know this at the time, but that’s sort of a European standard. About 44 pounds or a medium-sized suitcase’s worth. We Americans are apparently spoiled rotten. I’m 18 kilos over, so the woman at the counter tells me (in heavily accented English) that it’s 8.40 GBP per kilo over the limit, or there’s a post nearby so I can mail the thing. When boyfriend asks if there’s any way to get it on the plane, she tells us that she is not a post office. She even rewrites the number “8.40” on my ticket, very slowly. She’s kind of a bitch.

No, make that a HUGE bitch. I wouldn’t have slammed my passport down on the counter so hard that it flung into her face if she hadn’t been a huge bitch. I wouldn’t have hopped on the conveyor belt and yanked my suitcase right off it if she hadn’t been a huge bitch.

Boyfriend tried creatively repacking so I could get everything on board in time (by this time I had about five minutes before the plane left), which involved me wearing about six layers of clothing, running through the airport with them on, and trying to convince airport security to let me have my second suitcase as a carry-on. It didn’t work because you can only have two pieces of luggage in Europe: your check-in and your carry-on. Keep this in mind.

All hope lost, we ran back to the check-in counter. I don’t know what my boyfriend was trying to pull at that point, but I’d just sprinted through the airport and back in six layers of clothing and hadn’t eaten all day. I was seeing stars, and not in a good way. Someone handed me a cup of water and I half coughed, half vomited it back up.

After that, I don’t remember much of what happened. Boyfriend was pretty much my proxy for everything, because I could barely think about anything but, “Holy fucking shit, my mom is gonna kill me”.

In the end, I missed my flight, and the hotel reservation my mom had made couldn’t be canceled, so mom ended up having to pay for both, plus the Eurostar that I ended up taking the next day. In a stressful and sort of roundabout way, I got what I wanted: another day with boyfriend and NOT a flight with Air France.

By the way, if you ever take the Eurostar, at least try to go for Leisure Select (especially if you’re under 26, so you qualify for a Youth fare). For just ten or so more bucks you get more comfy seating and a small meal, complete with dessert and a selection of apéritifs (which BTW should not be eaten with your meal outside the home).

The Two Weeks of Suck have been over for some time (about one week exactly), so I’ve been able to reflect a lot on everything that went wrong– and a few more things went wrong than the nine presented here, but they were more dorm-related and not very useful for me to recount here.

Anyway, at the time, each brick wall I ran into was enough to hurtle me into another whirlwind of stress. I really owe it to my boyfriend for calming me down and being a source of comfort through it all. I have absolutely no idea what I’m gonna do without him.


What?

This is a blog of things place-related, by a cash-strapped Stanford grad who's lived in various places and writes about life. She's currently looking for a job in Manhattan or the Bay Area.

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