Saturday, January 24, 2009

Culture disparities and the Art of Shmoozing

I've decided that from now on, I'm going to start my posts with one or two slang words/phrases of the week so you can get a bit of a sense of the kinds of vocabulary I've been learning and attempting to put into play. This week's words:

un moko OU un mickey = a booger
bourré = drunk (literally, stuffed/packed)

So I'm going to assume that those of you reading this know me well enough to know that I'm a very curious person and enjoy getting to know people through intimate conversation. I'll have you all know that in France, which is typically unreserved and even in-your-face about certain topics (think sex, drugs, and rock & roll), I'm actually apparently kind of an asshole because I ask too many questions. Why, you ask? Well, as it turns out, what's taboo here is very dif
ferent from what is considered taboo back in the States. The more time I spend here, the more I see the distinction between the private life and the public life, and I realize that personal matters are simply not discussed until you already know someone on an intimate level. I've so far been called "direct", "indiscreet", and even "intrusive", which makes me laugh pretty hard because I think that's the last thing someone would call me back in New York or Boston. When I mentioned this cultural difference to one of my professors, she reminded me that it's just a matter of the chronology of the topics and themes that one can address and prompted me to think about whether or not relationships have this sort of unwritten formality in the States. What do you think?

Aix is so picturesque (the photo doesn't even do it justice), and I have figured out why. I attribute it to the notion of size and space. Props to the French for not going around supersizing everything and realizing that bigger is actually not at all better. Houses cars, coffee shops, restaurants, streets, even small-scale things like plates, beds, and lamps -- it's all downsized. Just goes to show that the simplest things in life can beautiful without being flashy or immense in proportion.

Four days a week, the program arranges for me to eat dinner with a french family who I've come to love very much. The Daniels are sweet, charming, and inadvertently HILARIOUS. They are an adorable married couple in their late 50s/early 60s with a hyperactive little dog nicknamed VHF, which stands for "Very High Frequency" (comic genius). This is not a joke; the dog is perpetually on crack.

A professor commented the other day that discussion is a national sport in France, and I find that this is most prevalent at the dinner table, where common topics of conversation range from the portrayal of homosexuality in television to partying, alcohol, and marijuana (specifically how to "be careful when buying hashish because sometimes they put in other herbs to make it smell better so they can charge you more" -- direct quote from Monsieur Daniel). Generally speaking, politics and religion are to be avoided, and the muddling up of the two is simply unheard of. And as a sidenote/to articulate my personal sen
timent: the whole "In God we Trust", "church ≠ state but that's not actually true" thing we've got going on in the States is even more baffling and illogical to the French than it is to me.

Dinner table Dos include putting one's palms on the table so everyone knows where your hands are, sitting up straight, and reluctantly accepting another glass of wine. Don'ts include eating before everyone is served, putting cheese on your apple (apparently it's really rude), and turning down another glass of wine. Meals so far have been...pretty hit or miss. Hits include quiche, potato au gratin with a slice of bacon on top, croque monsieur (think ham and cheese sandwich, but classier), and cheese ravioli. Misses include hot dogs with the meat of a sheep and fish stew. Desserts are almost always hits (think chocolate mousse and Camembert), with a few exceptions (think creamed leaf -- as in the leaf of a tree).

Another thing I've picked up on is the difference in rhythms of daily life. Even in cosmopolitan Aix, life moves at a leisurely pace. People sit for hours outside at cafés, smoking, drinking wine, reading, writing, talking, or just watching people walk by. Meals are longer and more ceremonial, yet relaxed and undisturbed. People walk fast and with purpose, but when they arrive at their destination, they sit back and enjoy the moment for however long they wish. I find that this way of living is so vastly different from the States, not just in big cities like New York but also in suburban or rural areas like Newton. Take the following expression which is often uttered by a certain Rome-bound suitemate at Barnard: "let's shmooze". Arguably, by this a (college-aged) American would mean "let's lounge around and chat for a bit but then I've got to run and do X Y and Z". A French student, au contraire, would by this probably mean "let's lounge around and chat at my house for a bit, then go to someone else's house to lounge around and chat for a bit". The tranquility and ability to live in the moment is one part of Provincial culture that I am adapting to with ease and pleasure.

Now that I'm fully settled in here, I've been taking the time to read the blogs of my friends who are elsewhere: England, Greece, India, Italy. Comparing my experiences with theirs has been so interesting and has made me more aware of Aix and its aforementioned particularities. India is a world away, radically different from anything I have ever known. In Greece, history is everywhere, and in a (seemingly) much more unconcealed and omnipresent way than in France. Even Italy and Paris, which are both just a short train ride away, have their own cultural and societal norms, values, and overall conditions and ways of life. I apologize for the cliché, but it is truly remarkable.

In terms of my daily day-to-day life he
re, not much has changed. I get along fabulously with my roommate Talia. We're very compatible in the ways we view friendships and our opinions on the importance of laughter. Tribal dances for good luck and spontaneous outbursts of Disney music occur frequently, here at 3 rue Mejanes in Aix-en-Provence, France.

The other night all of us gathered
at Bellegarde to celebrate Matt and Marquise's 21st birthdays and say goodbye to a friend who had to leave the program. Every person/group was responsible for bringing both a plate and a bottle of something. Needless to say, it was awesome and my stomach thanked me.

Next weekend, a trip to London. Tomorrow, grocery shopping and class at 4:30. Sweeeet!

Gros Bisous,

Saturday, January 17, 2009

France these days...

...continues to make me smile. Although marked by the start of classes and subsequently early wake up calls, the past few days have once again left me in a blissful state of mind. And while I'm certainly struggling when it comes to sounding French, I am somewhat better at looking French, which is actually really easy, because all you have to do is wear gray or black and act cool, of course without trying to act cool. Ok, so actually, it's pretty hard, because you can imagine how trying to act cool actually makes you look like a complete loser. Dad, I'm sure you can understand where I'm coming from.

Culture shock is actually not a myth, believe it or not. I find myself having to adjust to certain cultural differences every day (however banal they might be), regardless of the fact that France is a Westernized country. For example, as many of you might know, many showers here do not come equipped with shower heads, meaning that you have to actually hold the thing over your head. It makes showering a laborious process instead of a relaxing experience. My shower happens to be one of these showers. Which is dangerous, because (insert joke about how I never shower as it is here).

Aside from that, I really am getting used to life here. The language barrier is more prevalent then I thought it would be, though: I make lots of little mistakes every day, and sometimes not so little ones, kind of like last night when I inadvertently used a Marseillaise expression to call someone a penis instead of an old geezer. Oops.

I have however learned many slang words and expressions and put them to great use. The other day I successfully delivered my very first joke! I was so proud. I've also discovered the slogan of my life: "qui aime bien chatie bien" (rough translation: I tease you because I love you). The expression has given way to many other great variations, including "qui aime bien donne bien les frites" (if you love me, you'll give me some fries).

Classes started on Wednesday. My schedule is terrible and will make it a little harder for me to travel on the weekends, but I won't let it stop me! Here are the names of my classes: Texts and Contexts after the Revolution, Literature and film of the Mahgreb, Contemporary French Press, History of Provence, and Conversation. I've only had each class once, so it's hard to gage what they will be like. So far, though, I get the impression that I'll be working harder than I thought. Certain professors speak pretty fast and assume that we have a preexisting knowledge of historical and cultural events, which is frustrating. Others are kind of crazy, which is funny for the first 5 minutes and terrifying for the last 70.

Yesterday for lunch I went with some friends to the cafeteria of the local university. You pay only 2,80E (about $3.75) for a full plate, a side, and a dessert. The quality of the food is nothing to write home about, but nothing to complain about either. Tons of students go to eat there to save money and talk with friends in between classes.

At night we started off at Bellegarde, which was quite the scene. After a few glasses of wine we headed out to O'Shannons, a bar near my street where Talia and I ran into our downstairs neighbors, a pair of Israeli boys who speak mostly Hebrew and English and who are here working at the airport in Marseille. The bars here close at 2am because people go to clubs afterwards, so we left and headed to a friend's apartment to hang out a bit more. We came home around 6am, just as the merchants were setting up for the markets. For one reason or another, it made me feel really calm and oddly content to see that people are waking up when I am going to sleep.

Tonight Talia and I are going out to dinner with our friend Bastien to a sushi restaurant. I'm curious to see what sushi will taste like here...


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Settling In

The past few days have been absolute bliss. I'm getting more and more used to my surroundings; Talia and I were able to get home today without any directions! It felt pretty awesome.

Last night was amazing. We went out to dinner again as a group to a crê
perie in the center of town and I played it safe with jambon (ham), emmental (swiss cheese), and oeuf (egg). One of the many great things i've learned here is that even "fast food" tastes like it's gourmet -- today Talia and I got a slice of pizza on the street, nothing special, and I think i would dare to say it was the best pizza I had ever tasted, even after Italy. How is that even possible?

After dinner, we went to l'auberge Bellegarde again, drank wine, and talked about French vulgarity and American demographics. Renaut and Reda gave me a crash course on French slang and promised there would be more to come. I've started writing down useful words and phrases I learn in a journal (thank you Mollie and Elinor!) so that I can remember to incorporate them into my daily conversation and sound cool. For example, I learned that "j'ai un faible pour" (which literally means "I have a weakness for") is a cute, subtle way to say you have a crush on someone. Definitely practical for me, as it may or may not describe the way I feel about every French man that crosses my path...

I've also started writing down names of particular wines: my favorite so far is called Sauternes, and it's a very sweet white. My friend Alexandre promised to take me wine shopping one of these days and teach me how to choose which wines for which occasions. The first thing I learned was to look for the mark "appellation control
ée", which basically means that the wine was made directly from the vineyards and thus is usually high quality.

Around 11:30 we decided to go out, and as a big group we had to settle for "Le Castel", une boite (a bar/club) that was pretty empty but nonetheless a good place to start off. I had no idea everything would be so expensive, though: one drink cost me 7 euros (about 10 dollars)! In a way, though, it's good because it forces me to be more economical and really think about what will give me the most bang for my buck. In some series of unmemorable events, I ended up with a "vodka caramel", which as it turns out is really just straight up vodka with caramel syrup. No complaining there (sorry mom). After that Much struck a deal with the bartender and scored us 15 mysteriously colorful shots for 12 euro (so about 3 shots for 3,5 dollars each -- again, not complaining. And again, sorry mom). The funniest part about the night, though, was seeing a five year old boy (yes, you read that correctly) breaking it down with his mother and a group of girlfriends on the dance floor. Keep in mind that it's around 1am at this point. I thought to myself that only in France is this absolutely adorable and not borderline child abuse.

Le Castel was getting kind of boring, so we headed to another area to find another bar. As a big group, it was really difficult finding somewhere that could easily fit all of us, so we split up and Talia, Danny, Kevin, Much, and I headed to O'Shannons where it was, for lack of a better word, hoppin'. O'Shannons closed early and the five of us headed back to our appartment on Rue Mejanes, which unbeknownst to us was just around the corner (that seems to happen very frequently in Aix). One of Much's friends, Bastien, joined us there and the six of us got into a long discussion on politics and religion. They explained to us that in France, these issues are quite complicated and as a result usually considered personal matters that are neither intertwined nor readily discussed. Contrary to (my) popular belief, I've found Much and Bastien, who I would say represent the young "intellectuals" of France, to be very soft spoken and unpretentious, and I really like that about them.

Our guests finally left around 5am, and I went to bed shortly thereafter. The next day (Sunday) Talia and I slept in, woke up, and took a nice stroll around town. I felt a bit tired, so I went into a shop and ordered what I thought was coffee. As it turns out, when you order a "cafe" in France, what you're really asking for is ESPRESSO. Yikes. I drank it anyway and actually enjoyed it. Afterwards I did some damage and went shopping. I HAD to, the sales only last for 5 weeks! (Kate: GREAT SUCCESS!)

On our way back home Talia and I stopped at Monoprix (a Target equivalent) and bought some groceries. Tonight we're going to play it simple with pasta, since living the high life comes at a very high price. Tonight, who knows, but it's Sunday so not a lot is open. The French take leisure very seriously: on Sundays only the major stores are open, and a few smaller ones that are currently boasting sales. I'm not sure about bars and clubs, but I think it goes the same, and anyway students have classes during the week so I wouldn't think to see a lot of people out partying.

Tomorrow we have orientation, so we'll be picking classes and learning more about the program. I am so happy about the way everything has been going and I'm hoping that soon I'll start feeling like a French student who knows her way like the back of her hand. For now, though, I couldn't ask for any more!


P.S. Pictures soon

Friday, January 9, 2009

Travels and Day One

Today was my first day in Aix-en-Provence, and I'm already in love with it. I flew from JFK, to London, to Marseille, where I luckily bumped into Matt, a junior from Vanderbilt who I happened to overhear talking about the program. The two of us took a bus from Marseille to Aix, which was about 30 minutes. After arriving in Aix we shared a cab to 15 rue Cardinale (the "centre") and met other students and our "tuteurs", who were nice enough to accompany us to our apartments and give a hand with luggage.

I had spoken to Marie, my french roommate, a few days ago, and she had warned me about our apartment having a lot of stairs. To say that our apartment has a lot of stairs is perhaps the biggest understatement of the year: there must be at least 100 steps that lead up to our apartment, which is on the very top floor. Let's just say if I don't have buns of steel by the time I return to the states, something is seriously wrong. I absolutely cannot complain, though, because once I settled in and looked around, I realized how lucky I was. As it turns out, my apartment is right smack dab in the middle of the city, on an adorable little street called Rue Mejanes. Shops are on either side, as well as some cute little sandwich shops. Did I mention that for the next five weeks, there are intense sales? Oh la...

I've already met some wonderful people here. Vanderbilt pairs us up with French students as tutors (there are three of them: Mia, Jerome, and Jean Michel), and through the tutors I've met a ton of French people already. Tonight we all met up for dinner with the rest of the Vanderbilt students, and afterwards some of us started meandering around the city before deciding what to do next.

This would probably be the best time to say how absolutely breathtaking I find Aix. Before coming here, I imagined it as a quaint little town with some students here and there, but it really is a vibrant, chic, student-filled city that could easily double as "Little Paris". The streets are extremely narrow, and cars will run you over if you don't see them coming (french drivers -- especially taxis -- don't exactly preoccupy themselves with the safety of others). Everywhere you turn there are shops and places to eat; you really can't take a bad step. Most of these little side streets lead to the main drag of Aix, which is called Le Cours Mirabeau. At night, when the lights are up, you can't help but to feel like you are in a movie. The majestic feel of everything makes me smile constantly: Jean Michel even remarked at dinner "
Vous les américains, vous souriez beaucoup, non?" I still can't decide if this is more telling of French people than it is of Americans, or vice versa...

After dinner, some of us went to l'Auberge Bellegarde, which is a beautiful big house in which some students are lucky enough to live. There, I met friends of friends, and we all sat around drinking wine and talking into the late hours of the night. Talia and I were exhausted, so our friends Reda, Letizia, and Marquise accompanied us back to the Cours Mirabeau, from which we were able to find our way home. I'm now sitting in bed next to Talia, who is also on her computer, wiped out from an incredible first day. I feel like I can already call this place home, and I haven't even been here for 24 hours. Tomorrow we're going grocery and cell phone shopping. I've never been so excited about something so banal!

A demain alors, bisous!
xx Danielle