Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Je Suis Désolé

I'm nearing the end of my first semester of my master's in speech-language pathology and I'm about one paper and examination away from a lack-of-sleep induced mental-breakdown. Naturally, I decide to revive this old thing and channel my energies here in the face of my non-compliant study habits.

Its been almost a year now since my time abroad came to end and I've been struggling to maintain any semblance of my French, my curiosity, my joie de vivre. Two words: Netflix. YouTube. Watching French films without subtitles is proving to be nearly impossible but I make myself do it for at least a portion of each film. But after about a few minutes I usually end up saying something like "EUH enough of zis!!" and return to my subtitles.

As far as YouTube is concerned, the music is magnifique. Though I normally prefer the likes of a French John Legend or Regina Spektor type (Coeur de Pirate anyone?), lately, I'm listening to French African hip-hop. One group in particular, Sexion D'Assaut, had a hit last year, right up there with Kesha's Tik-Tok... No, their story is anything but waking up feeling like P-Diddy. It's the story of their struggle, "Paris is like Alcatraz," they sing. The side of Paris my Northwestern dolla dolla billz didn't let me see.

/Please pardon me grandmother/
/I'd have come back and met you if I had more dough/
/But you know it's not easy here either/
/In France, too, we're going through hell/

Now that that's on repeat, maybe it's time to get back to analyzing those phonological speech patterns...

From "colonials" to "immigrants" to "citizens"?

Check out this mini-series by Al-Jazeera on the historical challenges of French Muslims from early 1900s-present day.


In 1904, 5000 Muslims were working in mainland France on shop floors in Paris, in Marseille soap factories, or in the northern coalfields. Back then, no one imagined these workers, brought from North Africa, would stay in France to raise their children and grandchildren.
During the Second World War, 15,000 Muslims lived in Paris, and like all the French the Muslims were faced with a choice: To resist, to collaborate or to keep a low profile-a personal choice influenced by their pre-war political allegience. In late August 1944, Paris was liberated, in part thanks to the sacrifice of 3,000 resistance fighters. How many amonth them were Muslims? We will never know. They were born as North Africans - and they gave their lives for France. But post-war France was to care little for their sacrifice. 
By 1981, Muslims had been working in France for some 75 years. Their children had grown up in the French system at school and with the culture of their motherland at home.

The term French Muslims is both paradoxical and simplistic, but one that marks out those heirs to a particular history within the wider history of the French nation, those who came to build and defend France with little recognition. It means together creating a new country where, through confrontation and conjugation, we learn to shake off our hidebound identities.

Missing my French Muslim friends and their incredibly loving families that continue to ask how I'm doing and wonder about my next visit. Je ne sais pas mes amours :(


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Paris, Je T'Aime (mostly)

Currently in the middle of what has been dubbed as Chicago's "Snowpocalypse," classes are cancelled and I have twelve hours of freedom and spontaneous play ahead of me. I sit here writing to you with a mug of hot chocolate in hand and a heart full of nostalgia.

It's been two months since my Parisian adventures and I realize I have yet to reflect on what was easily my favorite semester of my undergraduate career. Oddly enough, it feels like a distant memory, as elusive as a dream and I'm only reminded of it when others ask.

I'm glad I kept up my blogging while abroad because now most details, good and bad, have turned into a fuzzy haze of novelty and excitement, glittering lights and macaroons. I've captured some interesting moments on this blog but I'll take a minute to address my biggest FAQ. It is complex and brings out some others sides of the French psyche.

Q: Did I ever feel uncomfortable wearing my hijab?

A: I've realized that there is something so innately contradictory in the French identity as it has become the center of European multiculturalism. They claim to be one entity with no legal acknowledgement of any other ethnicity. You are French and only French. And yet racism persists. It cuts through the social classes like a sharp blade leaving the (unrecognized) ethnic minorities struggling to climb the socio-economic ladder, generation after generation. They hold the lowest jobs, live in the poorest housing, and have no political voice.

Two friends I made each told me on separate occasions that they only feel French outside of France. They have known no other land and speak no other language and yet their Arabic or African names and faces leave them in a labyrinth of self-identity. A foreigner in their own home.

But I personally never felt any of this. Why? Because I posed no threat. I didn't apply to any jobs or schools that threatened to take the place of a 'true' Frenchman. I was temporary.

Of course, you can't talk about hijab without discussing religiosity itself. Paris is not the most spiritual place in the world. It is no secret how they feel about external representations of faith. The recent ban on the full veil, burqa or niqab, will begin to incur a 150 euro fine for every instance of violation. But not only is it illegal, it is seen as a symbol of backwardness. The ban is intended to "liberate" all women who wear it. No woman would willingly choose to fully cover herself in such a way, they think. Some view this a step towards liberation for women, but I see it as stealing freedom away.

It must be acknowledged that some women are indeed wearing the niqab not on their own accord, but this is not the way to combat the use of the patriarchal control seen here via religious ideology. Many others hold niqab to be an important and deeply valued part of their faith and identity. This isn't whether or not I agree with wearing niqab (I don't) but let's think about this for a second Sarkozy: isn't telling me what NOT to wear as despotic as telling me what I MUST wear? To me, the ban of niqab is as oppressive as its mandate. And with it, the French female Muslim prerogative is dead.

To understand the context of this hostile climate, one must take a look at the French historical narrative. The French fought long and hard to break ties with the Church and its salient influence on all parts of French governance, life and culture. After such a painful and victorious separation from the Church, they find it extremely difficult to understand an active choice to believe in God and follow a religious dogma. Today,  a conversation with a Frenchman about God can make you feel like you're defending Santa Claus. One Parisian girl I met felt so ostracized and harassed in her hijab that she decided to give it up. In one place, I asked the front desk for a quiet spot to pray and I was told to "try the bathroom." I struggled with this sentiment at first but ironically found more solace in every prayer because of it.

The liberation front is only a small part of this initiative, however, as it also serves as a tool for repressing individuality and overt cultural diversity. The current of fear for the loss of true French culture runs deep. In my opinion, the energy required for such resistance far outweighs the costs of accepting and acknowledging the quickly emerging multicultural capital of Europe.

It is France that makes me grateful to have grown up in the US, where the seemingly large anti-Muslim sentiment pales in comparison. Not everyday is a struggle to prove my worth and American identity. Here, my difference is a strength.

But even with all this, I will always have a soft spot for Paris. It is a puzzling adventure with beauty that I have never experienced before. Paris writes a personal love letter to all its visitors--it sweeps you off your feet. I will come back to you, I promise.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Ben L'Oncle Soul

I have 16 days left (GASP!) to find this man.

Can she do it? Not while she's trapped in a library writing 20-something pages on global health inequalities, thats for sure. Contrary to the pretty picture I've painted of macaroons-and-long-walks-along-the-Seine, my program does involve work. Ah yes, the "study" in "study abroad.."

Next week is looking a little something like this:

Tuesday: French final exam, plus class group meeting from 12:30-7pm
Wednesday: Credit One final exam, two hours to (coherently) write as much as I know about Health Care Expenditures
Thursday: Credit Two final exam, two hours to (coherently) write as much as I know about Global Health Inequalities
Friday: By midnight, my group and I must send in our final 100 page paper.

So no, my friends, no care-free frolicking around the city of lights this week. As gross as all of this sounds, I'm actually deeply fascinated by everything I've been learning. I want to study, to research, because I'm hungry to know more. My particular dimension of the paper will discuss culture's role in creating health inequalities. For instance, is the gender divide in access to resources further exasperated by the cultural norms of the society? I still have a bit more research to do as we are taking a comparative approach, developed vs developing countries. We'll see how this goes, wish me luck!

In other news, it snowed today! I was about to start a prayer when I noticed flurry movement outside my window. As soon as I finished, I opened the window to a winter wonderland that I didn't think I would get to experience here. It was beautiful! I contemplated going for a walk outside, (getting lost is my favorite Parisian past-time) but my daunting paper was hovering over me like a curse. So instead, I stood for a good ten minutes with my hand outstretched, catching the flurries and dreaming of a grande peppermint mocha. 

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Plumpinuts for you, and you, and you!

Monday Nov. 15:

Wake up at 6am, exhausted but I need to finish last minute packing for our two-day trip to see WHO and MSF in Geneva, Switzerland. By 9, I deliriously make it to my assigned train seat and see it transform in my mind to a Serta mattress. Realize the alphabetical listing has me facing Bruno, my 40-something, very French, program director. Awkwarddd. I knocked out anyway.

Three and a half hours later we drop our bags off at our surprisingly nice hotel and head off to MSF (or Doctors without Borders). After two presentations from various members, I find myself with mixed feelings on the organization. To put it simply, they do the dirty work many others are afraid to do. They send doctors to places others fear to tread. They remain neutral and impartial, helping anyone on any side of the conflict. I admire them for that.

But my only issue is sustainability, or rather the lack thereof. MSF has been tackling the effects of malnutrition in Africa for a while now. We discussed the power of "Plumpinuts," a peanut-butter-essential-nutrient-concoction that takes a weak, malnourished child to happy and healthy in two weeks time. They find the mother, give her a box of the peanut-paste, and check back in two weeks.

But then what? Just sending the kid back to the same situation? He'll be back to being malnourished in a few months! Long-term vs short-term solutions, ladies. When I asked about this, the presenter started to get real and talked about the internal debates MSF was having about taking a more developmental approach.  But they are doctors, essentially. You go to the doctor and he will put a band-aid on your boo-boo and nothing else. At the end of the day, their presence in the world is ubiquitous and imperative and I was happy to buy an "I Have MSF: L'engagement C'est Contagieux" free-trade t-shirt.

Oh yeah, and it was also my 21st birthday, along with my friend Amanda (yeah Scorpios!). The whole group went for dinner at "Restaurant Edelweiss" for traditional Swiss fondue. Though I can't say I liked the cheese, I inhaled the chocolate. If you can't tell by now, it runs through my veins. Of course, someone tipped off the two yodeling musicians playing behind us that it was our birthdays. They hilariously played for us on the bells, the saw, the spoons and some ten-foot long traditional horn, which they insisted the birthday girls had to play as well. Fun times in Edelweiss!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Joie de Vivre: Living to Eat

Hot chocolate. Chocolate macaroons. Chocolate cheesecake. Chocolate fountains. Chocolate couture. Chocolate art. Chocolate exfoliant. Chocolate soap. Dark chocolate. Milk chocolate. White chocolate. Green freaking tea chocolate.

Chocolate sensory overload is what I experienced last weekend at Salon du Chocolat, Paris's annual chocolate festival. Yup, pretty much the best 12.50 I've ever spent in my entire life. The free samples were out of control, as was my appetite for more. Forgive me God, for I have been gluttonous. And I'd do it again.

I don't know when or how it happened, but since I've been here I've stopped eating to live and started living to eat. I've never been a big foodie but I've always appreciated a good meal. Life is simpler and slower here and exactly what I was looking for. Today, I ran out in the pouring rain because I needed my fresh baguette. As in, I would die with out it. My taste-buds dance at the thought of waking up at 7am on a Saturday for a hot croissant.

The French are shameless and unapologetic about their carb consumption or caloric intake; it's guilt-free living and it's fabulous! They just walk everything off by the end of the day anyway. Back at home, everyone is obsessed and it makes me nervous when I don't even need to be.

Time anxiety is also something I don't miss. At Northwestern, everything is so tightly scheduled that lunch dates have a start time as well as an end time. "I'm free from 11-12:30!" Have you noticed that? Here you stay in a restaurant to your heart's content, 2 or 3 hours is casual. I've had some of my best conversations an hour or more after the check was placed on the table. It's that "joie de vivre" that I needed and simply refuse to give up when I return.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Venetian Girl, Interrupted

After Rome I was supposed to spend three breathtaking days in Venezia, preferably all 72 hours on a gondola. After a very close call that morning, arriving at the airport with only 4 minutes to spare, we landed in Venice at 8am. One bus ride and water taxi later we made it to the Venice Fish, our first very hostel-like hostel.

We go out and explore the little town for a couple hours, taking in the sights, smells and sounds. This town was cute, very cute, and I couldn't wait for the days ahead. We planned on hitting up the big monuments the second day and visiting Murano, the glass-making island on our last.

By noon, I was exhausted and headed back to the Fish for a nap. I knocked out for several hours and when I woke I found Hira in a bit of a panic. We need a computer, she said, fast! EasyJet sent her a text message letting her know that due to "industrial action in France" our flight had been cancelled. We see that we have only two options, leave the following morning or stay an extra two days for a total of five.

If you can't tell by now, we very reluctantly (and possibly regretfully?) took the first option. We then realized that we spent crucial hours of the only day we had in Venice sleeping and busted out those hostel doors to take in what was rightfully ours, the rest of our day!

Oh Venezia, I did not want to part with you but you are just so tiny and so expensive. We would have spent more time there than we did in Rome and I feared we would have run out of things to do, other than shop. But shop we did, to help ease the pain of leaving early. Instead of visiting the island, we bought Murano glass jewelry. Instead of seeing the sites, we bought post-cards. I bought a beautiful gold and  green hand-crafted masquerade mask that I can't wait to wear. That store was fun.

But now I am back in Paris, with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I can't deny the comforting feeling of familiarity that hit me when I landed and knew exactly where to go, what the signs said, and what the bickering siblings next to me were arguing about. But I was frustrated that these strikes cut my vacation short! Apparently the pension reform proposal has passed the senate and is only one step away from being signed into law by the president. Over 200,000 people took the streets today to show Sarkozy exactly how they feel about having to work two additional years before receiving pensions. Unfortunately, it looks like the strike will not save them from this one. But you let him know just how you feel, Frenchies!