Some thoughts on the French Muslim protests

In case you haven’t heard, or for whatever reason haven’t created a Google Alert for France in order to better keep up with my travels, Paris is one of the many countries that has been protesting the film “Innocence of Muslims” outside of the US Embassy in the country.

And that is incredibly frightening for me.

In the beginning, most of the protesting countries were in the Middle East, places I would never visit and had no connection to. Places where you see American flags being burned and hear of people saying anti-American things because you kind of shake it off because you’re not there and there’s the grocery list you have to write and someone just texted you and wow, is it time to leave already?

I did that too. Still do it, sometimes. I’m guilty of it, I know. I clicked on the link, read the article, and then hit the red “x” button. Out of sight, somewhat out of mind. I’ve got places to go, people to see, croissants to eat—that kind of thing.

But now I can’t do that. These protests aren’t in Egypt and other countries where I don’t know how to speak the native language. Now they’re here, in France, in Paris where I live, in French that I can (somewhat) speak.

In other words, shit just got real.

This isn’t watching protests on the TV or streaming videos of them online—this is talking to classmates who live in the area where the protests are being held (Place de la Concorde, by the Champs Elysees) and have seen the protests in person.

This is a big deal. The French Foreign Ministry issued a travel warning urging French citizens in the Muslim world to be careful. French schools and embassies were closed on Friday, the Muslim holy day, in over 20 potentially dangerous countries.

And that’s not near me, but then I’m getting emails from my study abroad program telling me to avoid certain areas. I signed up to get email travel alerts and warnings for France by the US State Department.

It’s like last November where the Egyptian revolts were kind of just starting and I kind of just knew about them and then a Drexel student got arrested and detained by Egyptian authorities for allegedly throwing Molotov cocktails in a demonstration outside of the American University of Cairo. Unfortunately, it was the kick in the butt I needed to become more aware of the world. It’s sad that it was a student getting arrested that was the final pushing point of action for me.

And because he got arrested literally the first day of Thanksgiving break, I am selfish enough that I felt a little annoyed that I had to do this thing of checking Google News and emailing staff members I thought I’d get a vacation from, all to make sure we were doing the Right Thing as student journalists and working tirelessly.

As the then-assistant news editor and social media editor of the student newspaper, I had to suddenly start paying attention real fast because there were links and updates to tweet and articles to write and contribute to and people to contact and suddenly, this was so much realer and more important now because I was involved with it.

I feel that way now. I’ve watched the video, read the articles, watched online news reports. And I wonder, would I do this if I wasn’t living in Paris? Would I do this if I didn’t have friends in Paris? Even still, I’m paying more attention to information pertaining to the demonstrations in Paris than in other parts of the Muslim world simply because I am living in Paris now.

But then again, Paris has an additional risk-factor associated to it, because this very anti-establishment satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo published an inflammatory cartoon of a naked Mohammad and this has only made the tensions caused by the film even worse. Their office is under police protection, people are protesting that too in addition to the American Embassy and other places, and I’m just waiting for the day where I’ll actually see the protests or maybe one of these times where I’m called out for being American won’t end in a cute, funny story (or blog post).

That isn’t to say that I’m hiding out in my room, but it’s just something that, like I said, I have to pay attention to now and I (ignorantly) didn’t think I would have to. And as long as I’m paying attention to it, then it shouldn’t matter as much that I’m doing it for more selfish reasons as long as I am still making an effort to be informed about it.


McDonalds and Subway: Eat French? I’m Loving It?

I remember reading last year in the Wall Street Journal that Subway had surpassed McDonalds as the world’s biggest fast food chain—and that stuck with me not because I like keeping up with financial news pertaining to America’s favorite restaurants, but because I was surprised that Subway was officially classified as a fast food restaurant.

I don’t think of Subway as eating “fast food” but maybe that’s just the MURRICAN in me, because I “Eat Fresh!” there and there aren’t any French fries!

But, wow, four candy canes (sugar-free ones, of course) for you, Subway. Beating McDonalds? Forget the Golden Arches, you get the gold medal. McDonalds was always so high up on my (limited) understanding of fast food restaurants and has been since I was able to understand that the cool place with the indoor playground wasn’t exactly the best place to eat at.

What, Subway, America doesn’t get “Subman,” the stupidly-named Subway mascot? APOLO ANTON OHNO DOESN’T COUNT.

I was actually learning about McDonalds and globalization in an anthropology class I took last spring right around when the Wall Street Journal article came out. We learned how one of the reasons why McDonalds was able to find so much stable success abroad was because it adapts to the customs and culture of the overseas countries—like how the McDonalds in India feature more lamb, chicken, and vegetarian options than any other McDonalds because beef is not commonly eaten in the Hindu population, and how the Asian McDonalds feature more fish-based products because that’s more common over there.

And I knew from personal experience and various French classes that the McDonalds in France served beer and wine and macarons and baguettes and a McDonalds version of the iconic French sandwich the Croque Monsieur—which is called, of course, the Croque McDo—in all of the MacDos here.

And because I’m gonna be a smarty farty and use multimedia, watch this clip (or don’t and just read the excerpt from the screenplay) in this scene in Pulp Fiction that I’ve been playing in my mind ever since I got here:


John Travolta as VINCENT: In Paris, you can buy beer at MacDonald’s. Also, you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?

Samuel L. Jackson as JULES: They don’t call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?      

VINCENT: No, they got the metric system there, they wouldn’t know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is.

JULES: What’d they call it?

VINCENT: Royale with Cheese.

JULES (repeating): Royale with Cheese. What’d they call a Big Mac?     

VINCENT: Big Mac’s a Big Mac, but they call it Le Big Mac.

JULES: Le Big Mac. What do they call a Whopper?

VINCENT:I dunno, I didn’t go into a Burger King.

That says it all, to me. McDonalds changed the name of the Quarter Pounder because, as Vincent eloquently stated, the name wouldn’t mean a thing to someone who uses the Metric system. So McDonalds adapted to the host country. And, McDonalds is the biggest American hamburger chain there: Burger King didn’t adapt or compete as well as McDonalds and there hasn’t been a Burger King in France for like fifteen years (this is learned in a French class, not an anthropology class).

And I’ve seen the advertisements in the Metro, even if I haven’t gone to McDonalds yet: you can get an espresso in a little porcelain espresso cup with a little silver spoon and two little sugar cubes identical to the ones my host family takes with their coffee and, best of all, two cute little pink macarons. All for under 2 euros. That’s what’s up, McCafe.

McDonalds is a thing here. I read this memoir, Paris I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, before coming here, and there was a passage that stuck with me. Like my father, the author, Rosecrans Baldwin, took a job at a French company in the just pre-Sarkozy France without having any comprehension of the French language or French culture.

BUY THIS BOOK. Or ask my dad to borrow it because I gave it to him for his birthday this year.

And like my dad, he learned that this wasn’t Hemingway’s Paris and that the Moveable Feast here was the McDonalds, where people took 45 minutes to eat a four-course meal with McNuggets as appetizers, then a sandwich, then a salad after the meal (très French), and then a dessert. This is the kind of international McDonalds dining experience that makes non-Americans love McDonalds, like the Hong Kong couple that got married in a McWedding where a “cake” made of stacked apple pies was served.

But this French Subway? Like in the United States, I didn’t even want to eat in the restaurant, let alone get married there or sit there for 45 minutes. I was surprised by how similar everything looked. Same brown linoleum floors. Same tan wallpaper. Same glass separating eating space from workspace and customer from creator, same lettuce and tomatoes and vegetables.

Subway didn’t add anything to their menu. In fact, the menu seemed like a bare-bones version of the American menu.

No Subway breakfast sandwiches. No Subway pizza. No Subway soup.  Nowhere near as many hot Subway sandwich offerings (ie. chicken parmesan, buffalo chicken). There were bags of chips, which surprised me—in the States, the meal plans at little takeaway restaurants is a sandwich with a bag of chips and a drink, but in France all of the sandwich places I’ve seen don’t even offer chips and instead have meal plans with a sandwich, a pastry item, and a drink.

Rest assured, there were still Subway cookies … but you could also get Subway doughnuts now! The French really love their doughnuts. Doughnuts are a dessert here, not a breakfast item. I wonder what would happen if a Frenchie walked into a Dunkin Donuts in the states at nine in the morning. I’m actually surprised Dunkin Donuts hasn’t expanded into France yet—they need to get on that real fast.

I ordered my usual turkey sandwich in my usual Italian bread with my usual lettuce and tomatoes and Chipotle Soutwest mayo. Only difference was I didn’t pick out my cheese, but the server didn’t ask anyone in our group about that so maybe there isn’t that option here.

And you know what? I didn’t get the Baked Ruffles Cheddar and Sour Cream chips that I usually get, but the sandwich tasted the exact same. It tasted like the same sandwich I order in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and the same sandwich I order in Medfield, Massachusetts.

Subway seems to prize itself on that. The Subway international website reads:

Wherever SUBWAY® restaurants are located, the core menu stays relatively the same — with the exception of some cultural and religious variations. World travelers can expect the same high quality of ingredients regardless of what nation they are visiting. You can enjoy a footlong Turkey Breast Sub, with your choice of a variety of vegetables and condiments served on bread baked right in the restaurant in Jamaica, then travel to New Zealand and get the same footlong Turkey Breast Sub!


Of course, John Travolta’s Vincent in Pulp Fiction seems to know something about the world that the entire Subway chain does not, which is that America is the only country in the whole wide world that doesn’t use the metric system so the idea of a “footlong” sandwich doesn’t translate in Jamaica or New Zealand or France, for that matter (unless, of course, Subway wants its international customers to measure their sandwich size against their feet size). It’s a 15 cm sandwich or a 30 cm sandwich here.

I ordered the 30 cm sandwich because one of my friends was given a coupon book for Subway—the whole reason we went here, in fact—and a friend and I used the “buy one 30 cm sandwich get a second for 3 euro” one.

There are two Subways within walking distance of our school in the second arronidssement, compared to the one McDonalds I’ve found. But from what I’ve seen in the Subway I went to and the McDonalds I’ve walked past a dozen times, the McDonalds changed its interior design and made it fancier, cleaner, and prettier than the grungy McDonalds in the United States. The inside seems bigger too. But the Subway I went to was tiny—two two-people tables only!—and there was a line of people extending outside of the restaurant because it was so small it was probably as big as a kiosk at a state fair.

This surprised me, but after reading the international Subway manifesto, it doesn’t really. There isn’t a large grab-and-go culture in France; people eat most of their meals at their house and when they do venture into a restaurant, they take their time eating whatever it is they order and that’s pretty much why French service is so slow. But with this Subway, you’d have to have the opposite of whatever claustrophobia is in order to want to sit down.

I didn’t know there were famous American artists in the Louvre!

To my uneducated and unprofessional eye, Subway and McDonalds seem to have been pretty neck-and-neck, globally speaking. Subway might have beat McDonalds in 2011, but 2012 remains to be seen. The Subway international site reveals that there are 37, 729 restaurants in over 100 countries, whereas from what I’ve seen of McDonalds, they’re boasting 32,000 outlets in 117 countries. And, you know, in the Louvre (SACRE BLEU!).

Again, I’m not an expert or a researcher or anything other than a twenty-year-old girl living in Paris who likes to eat, but I’d be interested to see who ends up taking the metaphorical cake, so to speak, in 2012: the McDonalds that prides itself of adapting to its environment or the Subway that prides itself of being able to taste the same anywhere you try it.

Can Darwin’s survival of the fittest work in the fast food industry? Only time, and bread and meat and vegetables, can tell.

Maybe I’ll force myself to go to McDonalds sometime and write a follow-up post. I can’t even remember the last time I went to a McDonalds in the States and, more importantly, I can’t remember the last time I wanted to go to a McDonalds. But I signed up to get the full French experience here and if that means going to a MacDo and ordering Le Big Mac, I will do it.

Who knows, maybe heart burn is cuter in France too.

What Came First: the Chicken or the Whore?

Today I couldn’t tell if the man on the Metro was calling me a “chicken” or a “whore,” so either I need to get better at French or stop dressing like a slut.

But don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a blog post about street harassment. If you want those, just google street harassment and be horrified at what comes up. I’ve definitely encountered that in Philadelphia and now in Paris, but I don’t think I am qualified enough to write that kind of post.

Instead, this post is going to be about my slowly-building self-discovery that being able to read a short story in French or correctly conjugate all tenses of French irregular verbs means shit when there’s a homeless-looking man hurling insults at your back as you run up the stairs praying he’s not going to follow you.

I’m a good French student. I’ve been taking French since my dad moved to the country when I was in the seventh grade. I got straight As all through high school and that streak more or less continued once I picked up French classes at the end of my freshman year of college and declared my French minor. All in all, I’ve never had to worry about passing a French class, because I’ve never had to worry about my grades in French classes in general.

I’m not telling you this to brag. I’m telling you this to say that I am a good French student in an American (or French, now) classroom with a French teacher (or a qualified American teacher) and other American students who are at the same skill level as me.

And I’m also telling you this because that all means nothing in the real world, in the real Paris. And let me tell you, it is an unfortunate realization to have while studying abroad.

I just wish that somewhere along the line I had learned the right French words to understand when someone is harassing me. I’m not good at spur-of-the-moment comebacks in my native language, and I feel like that would be reaching for les etoiles if I wanted to have comebacks in French. But how sad is it that I don’t even know how to identify what derogatory term someone is calling me?

This is not the first time I’ve felt incredibly incompetent with my understanding of French. I like to think that this is making up for all of the times in French classes where I didn’t completely misunderstand the French professor or I didn’t completely bomb that test. Because boy oh boy, I am failing at daily French.

Take, for example, the sheer terror I experienced in the middle of a grocery store aisle two days ago while trying to buy tampons.

[TIME OUT: please do not think that I camp out in the grocery store aisles looking for awkward experiences that I can blog about. This actually happened the same day as the events in my previous post. Talk about picking up extra items that weren’t on your grocery list!]

Obviously, I wasn’t going to write about this because who the hell wants to read a blog post about buying tampons in general? No one. Guess I found another thing that isn’t automatically cuter because it’s happening in France.

Buying tampons is like publicly declaring that you are not pregnant and that in itself is, for a college student like me, a Very Good Thing. But there is a certain stigma attached to the act of buying feminine hygiene products (for both men and women) and come on, no one really wants to be seen in that section of the grocery store.

Of course, I was there for longer than the two-second grab-and-go move that I’ve perfected in the CVS aisles in the United States because the game had completely changed in France. I was only in the aisle for about a minute or so, just staring at everything and desperately wishing I knew what was being advertised (even though if I had been carrying my French-English dictionary I totally would NOT have pulled it out of my bag because with God as my witness, I am not going to be that person). Luckily I was able to finally find what I wanted and got outta there PRONTO but I did end up using the pictures more than the words on the front of the package to make my final decision.

I had a grumpy walk home after that. I was angry at myself. I was angry that I hadn’t thought to look up certain words that would have been useful for selecting tampons, and I was angry that I would have needed to do that. I was angry that I have been taking French for so long and I didn’t even know how to make a simple purchase like this.

Wouldn’t it have been nice if I had taken a crash course in “How to Live as a Single American Girl in Paris?” Or if I had found a book with the vocabulary needed to buy tampons or understand if someone is calling you a whore? Or, at the very least, if I had known I actually sucked at the French language when I can’t study for it?

I feel like I failed as a French minor, unable to adjust or interact with others in French daily life, and I failed as a woman, unable to understand when I am being sexually harassed or how to buy feminine hygiene products.

Why the hell have I spent so much time memorizing verb tenses when I don’t know how to identify, let alone respond to, when a man is calling me a whore? What’s the point of learning vocabulary related to a certain movie or story I studied in French class when I don’t know the words needed to buy household items? How can I call myself a French minor when I don’t know how to do things that a French preteen or teenage girl can do?

Once I realized I didn’t hear footsteps behind me in the grungy Metro hallway and turned around to double-check that I wasn’t being followed by that guy, I turned up my walking speed even harder and made it to my final destination—school—in record time. And during that time, I kept repeating that man’s shout over and over again—so I would know what to Google when I got to school. I must have looked up seven different phonetic spellings of “poule” trying to figure out what the hell had just happened to me.

I even looked up if “poule” as “chicken” meant some kind of French insult. It doesn’t, and I’m not entirely sure that the French use “chicken” like in a “wuss” or “scaredy-cat” way like Americans use it. I am, however, pretty sure that it is used to mean “whore.”

I wasn’t dressed provocatively. I was wearing clothes I’ve worn to class, to work, and to dinner with both of my parents. Black cardigan, white shirt, olive green skirt. Maybe the black patterned tights (that are thicker than fishnets but still show some flesh) were what did it, but they so aren’t worthy of being used to call my sexual promiscuity into question. So there goes the whore theory.

And I don’t know why he would call me a “chicken” when all I did was walk down the hall with my eyes trained on the space right in front of me once he said “Hi,” then asked how I was, said some other really fast stuff in French that I think meant he was asking why I wasn’t smiling, and then called me the P-word once I didn’t respond to any of his initial attempts at getting my attention.

Britney Spears once said she was not a girl, not yet a woman. I say that I am not a girl, not yet a woman, and definitely not yet worthy of being a French minor.

My, what American teeth you have!

So today I had a very enlightening conversation with a random French man about how I am such an obvious American.

In other words, it is Monday.

Before today, I thought the easiest way to identify someone’s nationality was by their choice in footwear. Like everything else European, European shoes are generally sleeker and skinnier, more angular and polished than their American equivalents.

And, a lot pointier—even (or especially) for men’s dress shoes.  I’ve seen ones that are more triangular at the top than any woman’s heel, or even any female Barbie’s heel. It’s certainly something to look at when you’re in a crowded Metro car and can’t look up or stare ahead without invading the personal space of someone’s armpit.

Even their sneakers are somehow more polished. They’re not as wide, I guess, is the easiest way to describe it. And no running shoes—all fashionable sneakers, which is more of a thing in France than in America.

Somehow this also relates to Converse sneakers (which are actually a Big Deal in France and are sold everywhere), and they seem not at all like the sloppy, Ramones rock ‘n’ roll Converse we have in the States.

So this is another game I like to play on crowded Metro days: guess the nationality by their shoes. Surprise, surprise, most of the contestants are Europeans, but when you hit the clunky running shoes, Tevas, or Toms, then ding ding ding! We have an American.

The one thing I keep getting thrown on is French Crocs. I finally found something that isn’t automatically cuter because it is French. SCORE!

And while I still think this nationality theory is true, I was given another method of guessing while shopping at the Fran Prix (like the closest thing the French have to a supermarket). I was in the cheese aisle (of course) trying to pick something out and there was a twenty-something guy who was kind of close to me, not in a creepy way but in a hey, we’re in the same aisle, I won’t look at you but I will move to give you room if you continue this way. And we both turned to walk down the aisle our own ways and ended up doing the whole awkward dance to get around each other thing—that happens in France too, or at least I make it happen in France.

Of course I smiled awkwardly, as I always do, and he said, in Frenchy English, “You are American?”

“But … but … I wasn’t even wearing my American flag grillz!”

Ok. Not to get all Gossip Girl on you, but I was wearing jeans (rolled up at the cuff à la Katie Holmes), a black shirt, and a long black sweater—accesorized with plain nude ballet flats and a blue bandana in my hair, Rosie the Riveter style (I did not mean to dress like a cross between Tom Cruise’s ex and a feminist icon, I assure you). So my outfit wasn’t crazy American, right?

French girls wear nude flats all the time. I know this because they are generally cleaner and less scruffy than mine and I am insanely jealous.

“Oui. How did you know?” I asked (in French, of course, but it was still a dead giveaway).

“I knew it as soon as I saw your smile.”

I mean, it’s no “you had me at hello,” but….. just kidding.

“Really?” I asked skeptically, smirking because I didn’t want to show teeth again.

“You Americans have such straight, white teeth. Good work,” he said, before wishing me good day and successfully walking past me.

Um. Well. Okay then. Thanks for complimenting the people (and their dentists and orthodontists) of my home country, I guess?

Nothing happened with him, obviously, and I didn’t get a creepy vibe from him. In the end, he didn’t give me his number and we didn’t go on a date but he did give me some food for thought.

They’re just my teeth. Yes, I had braces, so they’re nice and straight—as they should be, after four years of wearing the teeth train tracks. And I’m a good little girl so I brush my teeth twice a day. But are they really that American?

Come on. I wasn’t even wearing my American flag grillz … because that douche bag Ryan Lochte hasn’t returned them to me yet.

But seriously. I learned an important cultural lesson today and it happened in the cheese aisle in a little French grocery store, of all places: apparently I can wear all the red lipstick and pointy black flats and little black dresses and Longchamp bags I want but it doesn’t even matter one bit because I will still be an obvious MURRICAN.

I mean, at that point, why not just bring a fanny pack and a L.L. Bean fleece jacket with me everywhere I go?

Seems like my best bet is to just not smile anymore. And honestly I think that would be harder than wearing a fanny pack in public.

Hosting a French House Parrrrr-taaaaaay!

HEY GUYS GUESS WHAT? I WENT TO MY FIRST FRENCH HOUSE PARTY … and then slept through most of it. Because it was being held at my house.

Friday night. I’m in my black sequined dress, my host family’s daughter/my host-sister from another mister was in a cute pink polkadotted romper that I would double-dog dare anyone to wear in America. I’m going to the Latin Quarter (rue Mouffetard—read A Moveable Feast, yo) to go to some bars with my friends. And I thought Anaïs said she and her friends were going to a party and did I want to come with my friends? (I should note that the host parents are away for another week or so).

I’m an idiot, so I said no merci, I have plans. Well then, did I think my friends would want to come to the party after? And I’m a huge idiot, so I said no. I knew we would be out late (the Metro closes at 1) and I live kind of removed from everyone else so we would have to leave the bars after like an hour to make it to wherever this mysterious French party was.

And sheesh, you’d think I would have picked up on something when two friends (my first-ever bises and who would then become my first-ever male bises…the most awkward—if that is even possible—of all of my horrible French cheek kissing attempts because I was sitting cross-legged on the couch with my laptop on my lap while he stood over me, kill me now especially when I said my name was Alissa and he just said ‘Enchanté’ and walked away so once again I don’t even know the name of the person I kissed!) came over with potato chips and frozen pizza and wine. And you’d really think I’d notice when they pulled out this huge cylindrical glass jar (one more suitable as a vase) and dumping red wine and lemonade in it.

But nooooooooooo, silly me, I just thought they were doing some crazy French pre-gaming  and I was already running late and had to peace out before they finished dumping the second bottle of red wine into the vase.

Joke was on me when I tipsily (but safely!) stumbled back home at 2 in the morning after having banana beer (yes, I typed that right, and it was 20% banana juice), only to hear music coming out of the apartment building (French after party? I stupidly wondered as I clomped up the stairs) and then went inside to hear lots of French voices mixed in with the Black Keys’ “Lonely Boy” and the sound of about twenty French shoes hitting the wooden floor.

This wasn’t their French after-party. This was their party party. But it was my French after-party—because apparently I can go to those now.

This was a big occasion. This wasn’t just the first French party I went to. It was the first house party I had ever been to that was hosted in my place of (temporary) residence.

Yes, I wasn’t at all involved in the actual planning and inviting and decorating. Yes, I didn’t even know it was actually happening until hours (probably, because I don’t even know when it started) after it started happening. And yes, I only knew one name and three familiar faces in the entire loft area.

But goddamnit, I’m just going to go ahead and say that it was my first house party because I’ve never thrown that large of a party at any of the houses I’ve ever lived in (yes, Mom, I’m not just saying that).

I understood more of the music than the conversation. Anaïs had created a playlist specifically for that party and it had a lot of English-language songs like “Lonely Boy,” The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” The Clash’s “London Calling” and a couple of ‘50s-ish swing and ‘60s-ish Motown. And even better, these twenty-something French bobos (hipsters) were actually legitimately dancing to them (and, as with “Satisfaction” kind of singing along to them in an adorable French way!). I wish I had had the courage (or the alcohol-courage) to jump on the makeshift dance floor so I could dance to music I actually have on my iPod and can sing along to. When was the last time that happened at Skrillex Land, USA?

But my shyness (which was mostly comprised of my inability to feel confident engaging in French small talk with the few French people I know, let alone French strangers) was very evident. I only talked to the daughter and her friend, the second person I’d ever cheek-kissed, though I did exchange words (literally only words) with the bises boy (when I told him I was from Philadelphia and he just said “EAGLES!” and then walked away shortly after) and some other boy who told me, in stilted English, that he would light my fire with his lighter if I were a smoker. I should add that this was not as random or creepy as it sounds, since I was talking with second bises girl about how I felt like I needed to get more into the smoking scene in Paris to meet actual Parisians (jk Mom).

But after an hour of alternating between talking with second bises girl about French music festivals and the higher education system in Paris and seeming really engrossed in my plastic cup of red wine and/or my phone, I’d had enough. My second wind had only lasted for so long and I went downstairs to try to sleep. After I put my favorite go-to-sleep album (and not because it’s so boring), The Cure’s Bloodflowers, I was out after the first two songs—and when I woke up at 5 a.m., it was because the music had turned off and people started clapping!

Dancing until 5 a.m.! I sure know how to throw a French house party! NOOOOOT.

The Last American Bookstore in Paris

Now that tomorrow is my last day of the first week of classes (hello, three-day weekends for the next four months!), I’ve finally started searching for the books that I need. And forget just griping about textbook prices and doing more online shopping for textbooks than clothes trying to find the best deals—here, in Paris, the biggest trouble is just where to find the books and knowing that I’ll have to suck it up and pay any price just to have them.

This has not been the case for most of my classes. I bought my French Phonetics textbook and my French grammar reading (an adorable French short story collection called “The First Sip of Beer” that’s all about the French appreciation of life’s small pleasures—like the first sip of beer. But, I’ve had the most trouble with my only literature course, the 20th Century French Novel, which is also my only class that will be taught in English.

Outside of the classics (ie. Victor Hugo, Flaubert, other old dead French guys), the only French books I’m familiar with are The Little Prince and the TinTin series, and I that isn’t something I’m proud of (you’ll notice that it is something I can joke about, though). Needless, to say, I wasn’t too surprised to find that those titles weren’t on the syllabus, but I was surprised that I recognized two out of the six authors on the syllabus—so that’s 1/3 of the authors, which is coincidentally the amount of time in years that I’ve completed for Drexel.

I read Albert Camus’s “L’Étranger,” or “The Outsider/The Stranger,” in a French class, and that was pretty dense, philosophically speaking, but hopefully I’ll get a better feel for it in English. The other I hadn’t read but I did know about, and that is Marcel Proust (we’re reading some of the first volume, Swann’s Way) just because I’m more familiar with his name through literary connections and esteem than his actual work.

In addition to these two works, I have four other books I’ll need to buy: Colette’s Chéri, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, Maryse Condé’s Crossing the Mangrove and Patrick Modiano’s Honeymoon.

Give yourself a clap on the back if any of the authors or titles seem familiar, because I sure as hell didn’t know any of them. And then give me some help finding them, because I sure as hell could use it.

My teacher told us to go to Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore, which made me happy because I used to go to the cute, tiny bookstore-looking bookstore with my dad when I would visit him and buy Harry Potter books there. It’s in walking-distance of where my dad used to live and I’d been meaning to go to it anyway because lately I’ve taken to revisiting places we used to go to, like the open-air market we’d shop at on Sunday mornings or the patisserie we’d buy macarons from. Random things like that.

It was for that reason that immediately after class ended I set out to visit the bookstore my dad decided to show me instead of Shakespeare & Co.

[Side note: honestly, dad, wtf? #literarywhitewhine].

It was easy-ish to get to, because I remembered what street it was off of and what side of the street it was on and things like that. It was exactly like I remembered, except some of the bookshelves were only half full and I was like, huh, you never see that. And after asking the man sitting behind the desk who had been watching me scour the shelves for my books, I found out why—the bookstore is closing. Or not. I’m not sure, and the man isn’t too sure, but from the way our conversation went I’m definitely freaking out more about it. It turns out that the store wasn’t carrying any of the books I need because it might be permanently closing by the end of this week (“We might still be open on Saturday but it’ll probably be later in the day because it might be our last day”). He wasn’t sure that they’d even be open next week because they haven’t come up with rent money.

What. The. Fuck.

I couldn’t believe it. And I’m not just talking about how blasé he seemed about it (although that might be because he’s French, or that might be because he isn’t French. Just like with everything else about this strange little man, I have no idea). Granted, I have the bare minimum connection to this store, as much as I like to pride myself on it, but I still felt like I’d been shopping there my whole life and just found out it was closing (or not, no one knows). I guess sitting on the grungy wooden floor of the only English-language bookstore (to the best of my middle-school knowledge, thanks dad) in Paris and buying books off your summer reading list makes you feel like it really meant something.

It seemed to mean something two for the guy. He smiled and leaned back in his chair when I told him I once bought the newest Harry Potter book when it came out when I was visiting my dad in Paris. Heck, he even said he’d have to tell Penelope (the owner of the store? A part-owner of the store? Clearly I don’t know as much about this store as I should to deserve to feel this genuinely distressed about the news of its imminent closing) because he thought it was a wonderful, enriching memory.

The enigma of a man didn’t really go into specifics of why the store was closing other than rent money. But I’m still surprised. Paris is a huge supporter of the arts and has always been, but there are books everywhere you get lost here. There arelibraries,” or little neighborhood bookstores in every little quartier. If you walk along the Seine, you’ll probably be just as fascinated with the antiquated bookstands lined up along the river wall as the sights you’ll see on your walk. Even the French Barnes & Noble, Gilbert Jaune, has a lot of locations and always seems busy (although, to be fair, some of that might be because of back-to-school traffic). It’s very appropriate for a city with as much literary history as Paris.

These were all examples of opportunities to buy French-language books. And you’d think that because everyone in France seems to be able to speak English (including waiters and taxi-drivers and other people you wouldn’t expect to be bilingual—trust me, everyone speaks English or at least enough to make conversation with someone who is unfortunately obviously American), there’d be a lot of opportunities to buy English books, right? I think there used to be. Now I’m not so sure.

Red Wheelbarrow is closing (or it isn’t). Another, Village Voice (no discernible relation to the newspaper) closed less than a month before I arrived in Paris. Another, Tea & Tattered Pages, closed in June—so less than two months before I arrived in Paris.

The guy from Red Wheelbarrow directed me to a small French-English bookstore on the northern part of the arrondissement with the charming, quirky name I Love My Blender. It’s a great, funky little bookstore with primarily Anglo-American authors and their French translations, but they didn’t carry any English versions of French writers. The cute guy there said he could order them for me but I wouldn’t be able to get them before next week, which is when I need the first book. And I was cranky and tired and not in the best mood to stop and go through every book like I intend to do later, so I just asked (in French of course!) if he had any other recommendations besides Shakespeare & Co. and he just said he thought that would be the best for me.

I was already planning on creating my own literary tours of Paris (i.e. reread A Moveable Feast and The Paris Wife and make a map of all the apartments and haunts of Hemingway) but now I think I just added a different type of tour. I’m hoping that nothing short of WWIII will close down Shakespeare & Co. (after all, Sylvia Beach’s only closed down for WWII), but I’m not as sure about the other Anglo-American bookstores in Paris.

So now I’ve made it my prerogative to go about finding other bookstores that didn’t close one or two months before I arrived in Paris. And, ya know, find the books I need for my class.

I have a French family now!

Yesterday finally answered the biggest question people had been asking me before I left: what would my homestay be like?

Well, folks, here is the answer you’ve all been waiting for!

Originally, my assignment said I was living with a woman (an artist!) and a cat. Don’t get me wrong, that would have been fine, and I was emotionally prepared for it when I arrived at my new address.

Except…except….after I rang the buzzer twice and someone finally opened the door, it wasn’t a woman (an artist!). And no, it wasn’t the cat either. It was a friendly, grandpa-looking fella who didn’t seem at all surprised to see me. He was all “Bonjour! Welcome! Let me take your suitcase!” and I had YET ANOTHER Taken flashback (curse you, Taken!!).

Even though I wasn’t getting in a cab with a cute guy, I’ve found that I’ve picked up the bad habit of thinking about that movie whenever I am told to follow a stranger. Whatever. There are worse thoughts to think about strangers, right?

This is where the magic will happen….because of the desk I can use to do homework, duh.

There was no elevator, but it was on the first floor so it wasn’t that bad. It turns out that he was the artist’s husband (husband!!) and the artist would be in soon with their daughter (daughter!!). In for a penny, in for a pound and all that.

The house is gorgeous. I knew it would be a two-story house (at least my assignment got that right!) and the description even said that it would be pretty, but pretty didn’t really cover it. There is art everywhere and colors with wooden floors and wooden walls and big arching ceilings and lofty open space. This definitely isn’t the typical French apartment or living space.  And my room is gorgeous, a picture waiting to be painted. As soon as I saw it, I felt a little less nervous (but not enough).

And the location is gorgeous—it’s literally across the street from the fence of the famed Pere Lachaise, which I had already visited. Fun fact, I must have walked right through my soon-to-be neighborhood then because the same Metro stop I took back that day is a block away from where I live. Sometimes life can feel so incredibly small. But it seems to be a pretty hip, artsy area with lots of things to do (like there’s a McDonalds down the street). It’s in the 20th arrondisement, which isn’t in the heart of Paris, but even though it’s on the outskirts it is in no means in the middle of nowhere. I’ll have a lot of exploring to do, for sure.

Note the fireplace. Seriously. There’s a fireplace.

My French parents are a little older than my parents, and my French sister is a lot older than my real sister (she’s three years older than me). But I was able to converse with all of them pretty easily because they talk a little slow. They thought my French was pretty good—haw haw haw (how does one really transcribe that stereotypical nasally French laugh?! Must figure out while I am here).

I had some time to unpack) before dinner, but I spent most of the time looking up key words and sentences I knew would come up. I brought my host family a gift of salt water taffy from the Cape Cod town my dad’s side of the family vacations in during the summer because I knew salt water taffy was an Eastern Atlantic seaboard thing. And that’s pretty much how I had to explain it since there is no word for “taffy” or “chewy” in my French-English dictionary.

Dinner went well though. I could answer and understand all of their questions and ask some of my own. We had red wine with a very simple, French meal: roast chicken, roast potatoes, green beans, and a salad (which was literally just lettuce and a secret homemade dressing—French salads are so amusing!), and for dessert: Magnum ice cream popsicles (haha).

It turns out they had some missed expectations about me too. They were told they would have a boy who was a comedian (which honestly describes 2 out of the 6 boys in my program) but they’ve had three girls before me. It was something to talk about at dinner, I guess.

I can see the Pere Lachaise from my house!! (it’s that wall by the reddish trees)

Immediately afterwards, I went with the daughter to a film festival in the park where I met her friends and did MY FIRST-EVER BISES Y’ALL! The “bises” are the cheek kisses (two of them, one on each cheek) that the French do as a form of greeting/goodbye and that was honestly what I was most scared about in France (I can’t say I’ve ever practiced cheek-kissing in any of my French classes).

Cultural side note: Hugging is too intimate for them but kissing stranger (or a friend, later) on the cheek isn’t?

But c’est la vie and it’s something I’m going to have to get used to. My first bises was when I met the daughter’s friend in the park. I didn’t even know it was going to happen (I just kind of awkwardly shook hands or smiled at my host family) and the girl—oh shit I forgot the name of the girl I had my first bises with, SACRE BLEU!!—was on the phone talking and just stopped mid-phone-conversation to say bonjour and lean in and kiss me. Which is unfair, really—not only did I have to figure out where to put my lips on her cheeks, but I had to do it so I wasn’t going to kiss her phone (can you imagine? I wonder if French women’s magazines have those super embarrassing sections like in American magazines where readers submit their most mortifying moments). And then that was it! I had to do it again with another friend, but I was a seasoned pro at that point (not really, but at least I wasn’t a virgin at it!).

All I can say is: watch out, France. Now I can faire les bises and nothing’s gonna stop me now.

Is it my closet or is it art?

The film festival was cool, very  bobo (I seriously love that word. It’s my new French word even though it doesn’t sound very French. Sorry, pamplemousse). All of the films were short and of different languages–two in French (none in subtitles), one in British English, one in Polish, and a couple of silent ones. I’m not really sure why they were playing or why this was happening, but I kind of just went along with the ride. It was worth freezing for half the night and coming home reeking of cigarette smoke (can you smoke in French movie theaters?? Because lemme tell ya, you can definitely smoke in French film festivals. It smelled gross but man oh man, even in the dark people’s illuminated outlines looked super cool.) And there was a lot of French happening on the blanket we were all sitting on and around it that I didn’t even come close to understanding, but it was still a good time. Like  most good, late nights, I even got asked to go to the McDonalds down the street.

That first night, even, was still a good time. Nothing at all like I expected it would be, but I’m finding it easier to stop stressing in France (especially when I get lost in the streets–then it’s just like, the buildings here are pretty and if I just follow these pretty buildings then eventually I’ll get to a pretty building I know and voila!). C’est la vie, c’est la vie, c’est la vie.