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!


Just returned from my vacation within a vacation: Rome and Venice.

All of Rome was a surreal experience for me. I didn't go to a single museum because the entire city was  standing piece of history. Look to your left, just some casual ruins. Look to your right, its the Pantheon! Yes, I've learned about the Roman Empire like 17 times throughout school but to see it in reality was magnificent. The time period just seems so fictional, thousands gathering to watch gladiators fighting lions to the death. But this actually happened!

My days in Rome were spent choosing in what order I wanted to eat my pizza, pasta, and gelato. Which of the three would get seconds today? Sit down for dinner on a terrace and a dashing violinist will come add a soundtrack to your meal. A few hours by the Trevi Fountain and a couple more by the Colosseum. Rome has been completely taken over by tourism and I couldn't help but wonder how the actual citizens felt about the exploitation of their culture and history. Not too heartbroken, right? We keep their economy going!

Next up was Vatican City. We did the hour long trek there and as soon as we arrive, what else do we find but a reenactment of the passion! It was complete with dead spirits, gladiators and a bloody Jesus. 

It was a Sunday and we stood outside watching the big man himself give the Sunday mass via live-stream. We tried to go in but the Swiss guards wouldn't have it. Don't be fooled by their goofy clown costumes, they will cut your throat if they have to.

An hour after mass was over we were let inside. The ornateness of it was so overly-indulgent, that much like Versailles, after a while I couldn't even process it any more. It was simply extravagant.

Our second day at the Vatican was mostly in line waiting to see the Sistine Chapel. No really, we spent almost three hours in line for it. We finally made it in but much like St. Peter's Basicila, this extravagance was beyond comprehension. How did people make this? I spent my time in the Sistine Chapel in awe wondering about the infinite amount of God-given talent and fecundity that existed in a man like Michelangelo.

Hoping some of that talent rubbed off on me. The closest I've ever gotten to being an artist was watching "The Joy of Painting" with Bob Ross as a child. Yeah, you know what I'm talkin bout. 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Vive La Grève!

You know the French, they really enjoy their protests. But this one's on a whole nother level, baby.

People from all sectors have united to strike against the government's plan to raise the retirement age by two years. Even high school students have taken on this retirement cause with passion and zeal, skipping school only on Tuesdays or Thursdays to make it clear they're not just trying for long weekends. Wish I could tell you more, but I'm about to head to the airport for Italie! Let's hope my pilot isn't on strike too..

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

C'est pour moi: A French Tug of War

So picture this, it's about 7:30 pm and I'm walking out of a boulangerie with my dinner in a bag. It's getting dark and the drizzling rain is threatening to become more than just that. Sans my umbrella, I'm trekking quickly, barely dodging people on the narrow sidewalk, and straight ahead is an old man in a tan suit shuffling along with his eyes glued to the ground. Attempting to slow down and turn sideways to avoid him but BAM! I run into him hard and my purse and apologies spill out.

It takes me a couple steps to gather myself and close my purse when I turn back around to make sure nothing fell out. There I see my blue French portfolio folder underneath his shiny brown dress shoe. I bend down to grab it and start wiping off his wet foot-mark, when he grabs hold and starts cleaning it too.

Aww how cute, I thought. "Pas de problème," I assured him, no worries! But then he begins tugging at it and repeating "C'est pour moi, c'est pour moi!" Okay, I thought, this is a joke. Just tell him it's yours. "Non, monsieur, c'est pour ma classe de français"and I'm reassuring him that really, it's no big deal, I'll take the folder now. But he REFUSES to let go and his tugging is getting increasingly more violent.

Time seems to slow and drag with my increase in heartbeat (uhm why am i SO dramatic?!). I look around nervously to see if anyone can help this angry old man understand that this folder really is not his. We go back and forth for minutes and it induces him to open up the portfolio where we see typed print, clearly my last written assignment. He reacts like he had written the piece himself.

Okay, he is clinically insane, I think. Mental disorder, for sure. Did a split second cost-risk analysis in my mind (rain, panic, it's only for French class, I like my face the way it is) and decided, girl, it's not worth it! Let the old man have the folder and live another day. So after what feels like an hour (and in reality was probably no more than two minutes), I apologize for taking "his" folder.

I walk away completely in a daze with my heart still pounding like crazy. Did that really just happen? I turn around and see him fading away in the rain with a hint of blue between his hands..

WTH how do I explain this to my teacher?! Really, "Sorry Professor, a psycho old French man stole my homework?" What a joke! How do I turn this into a rational explanation? Did I still have stuff saved on my computer? Why did you let him have it, Yomna? You are such a pushover!

In the height of this mental assault on myself I open up my purse, and there it is. My blue French portfolio folder. In my purse. NO WAY.

WAY!! He was right, it was his folder. I was the crazy one. Mental disorder, for sure. We had the same exact blue portfolio and mine never actually fell out of my purse. No words can explain exactly how I felt at that moment. I kind of just stood there for a second in the rain as a hundred different things ran through my mind. How did this crazy of a coincidence just happen? Who upstairs is laughing right now? How could we have had the same folder, inside and out? Why didn't I notice him holding it when I first saw him? Poor guy omg, did I even apologize? Go back and apologize!!

But he was gone and for a few seconds I even had myself convinced that it never even happened. Moral of the day: even the young'ins be crazy sometimes. Forgive me old man, I love you!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Fashion in French Class

Remember when I said that even the most casual Parisian dresser is better dressed than you? Still mean it.

Currently working on a biography of Yves Saint Laurent for French class. Brother was born in Algeria in 1936 (more on the history behind this later..) and moved to Paris in his teens where he quickly became Christian Dior's apprentice.

Oh and did I mention we spent the last class dissecting the revolutionary designs of Coco Chanel? Like weather is to Americans, fashion seems to be the go-to small talk for Parisians, and I like it!

Next week is Fashion Week and I may go creeping around the shows to try to sneak a peek. Wish my stylist sister was here to enjoy this with me.                                                                                               

Just Jazzin'

Came back from my first jazz club here featuring the Thierry Fanfant quartet, a French-Carribbean band. My feet are still tapping and I can't wait to go back!                                                                                                              

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Eid, or something like it.

Last Friday was the end of the thirty-day fasting marathon we call Ramadan. My friends cheered for me as I walked into the cafeteria to have my first mid-day meal since the program began. But it was bittersweet and my stomach, twisting and turning, wasn't too happy either (tho that just may be St. John's food). Since then, I've regained the nearly five pounds I lost in my daily struggle to find food in Paris after 8pm. No longer does my dinner need to be saran-wrapped by the sweet cafeteria workers; I can eat with everyone else and go out for dessert. Yes, my pants are quite snug.

My excitement and anxiety of Eid in a foreign country woke me up with the rising sun. We never got the chance to go to taraweeh and so everything about this day was going to be new. What was the masjid like? Would the sermon be in French? What do the Muslims here wear on Eid? What if we get lost and miss the whole prayer? 

Technically, we made it to the mosque on time, but what I would have given to have been an hour early.. My roommate, Hira, partner in all things French, captured our strange/interesting experience best:

"Under normal circumstances, I’m sure the Great Mosque of Paris is a beautiful testament to architecture, but today, swarmed as it is by devoted Muslims for the post-Ramadan holiday Eid-al-Fitr, I can barely take in the beauty of the sight before me when I am pushed forward by people crying out, “Avancez, avancez!”

Prayer is a messy affair: constrained by all the people around me and the small space, my motions during the prayer are jerky and ungraceful. Afterwards, a woman in a hurry bowls over my roommate, but many sets of hands reach out to catch her before she falls over a small hedge and into the greenery."

I had to "avancez! avancez!" to the point where claustrophobia was written all over my face. I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people being crammed in the garden as the general prayer spaces overflowed. I had been balancing myself between a palm tree and a bush as shiny, festive people continued to push their way through when Yomna took a tumble. 

Those "many sets of hands" were of two Algerian women who adopted us family-less American girls. They kept a motherly eye on us, making sure we could share their prayer rugs. They brought us dates and sweets and kissed us four times on each cheek wishing us a wonderful Eid in a mix of Arabic and French.

Sermon was in Arabic (thankfully!) and I did some translating for Hira, but was mostly distracted by the hoards of people finally making their way out. By the time it was over, there were few families left taking photographs of the beautiful mosque and it was then that I realized that oh yes, I'm in a beautiful mosque! We had no particular place to be so we stayed and explored and finally were able to appreciate its beauty. It was calming and reassuring that even in a city as secular as Paris, spirituality and religiosity can remain.

The weather was also celebrating Eid: sunny, clear and warm. We decided to grab some sandwiches and head towards the Eiffel Tower, spending the rest of our day beneath its grandeur. A far stretch from home, but it was splendid.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

To Normandy, and Beyond!

Our first weekend in France (yes, I'm that behind..) was spent on a ‘bonding’ trip to several cities in Normandy, including Honfleur, Deauville and historical sites and memorials of WWII. We left at about 7am Friday morning for the three-hour bus ride with stunning natural views the entire way. By the afternoon we had made our way to two very different graveyards—one for the American soldiers of WWII and one for the Germans. The difference was black and white, literally. The American graveyard was bright and beautifully maintained, white crosses atop every grave in an intriguing diagonal design. Germany’s was dark, off-setting and we didn’t stay for very long.

Several sites later, I had met nearly everyone on the program but I was tired and fasting and just wanted to eat and sleep (preferably at the same time). We arrived late at night to our dinky hotel in Caen just in time to break my fast. Hira and I were excited to have our first real French dinner (not one of St. John’s mystery meals). We were told about a pizza place nearby but we were adamant that we did NOT want to eat pizza as our first French meal. Thirty minutes later, we were eating the pizza. Caen is a college town dead during the summer. I missed Paris—bad. Overall, day one of this trip just felt forced and over-programmed but luckily, things quickly turned around on Saturday.

Enter Honfleur. The most beautiful little sea-side town I will ever know.  Walking its streets felt like we were walking through a Claude Monet. Why? Because we were. Honfleur was the inspiration behind the impressionist movement and it’s hard to imagine why. If you gave even me an easel and some oil pastels I’m sure I could create a masterpiece in moments. We had five hours to explore the French town on our own and the day’s plan was simple: explore, eat, experience. Well, 2/3 ain’t bad. I got to vicariously watch everyone else eat the fresh fruit from the market, the warm croissants from the bakery, the intoxicating gelato through the window. Honfleur’s narrow cobblestone streets and quaint, muti-colored houses had me ready to quit everything and move. After a few hours, we had seen every little nook and kept running into each other so we just spent the last hour sitting by the port, feet over the edge, watching the boats and the people pass by, wishing I could stay forever.

Our last stop was Deauville (where Coco Chanel opened her first boutique!) where we spent the second half of our day. Luckily, once more, the only plan was to meet back on the bus at 6pm. Deauville was an interesting paradox of a town. It was aesthetically similar to Honfleur  but it was also the place of an annual American film festival. Walking the boardwalk towards the beach, I saw both nude children playing in the sand and old men in speedos. How French, I thought. Two steps later and I felt transported to a Texas state fair where we found ourselves watching the most bizarre 'Cotton-Eyed Joe' square-dance tutorial given by a group of French women. I kid you not. It was hilarious, confusing, and oddly disturbing. Disturbing for me to realize just how ubiquitous American culture really is. I’m in France, whyyy is cotton-eyed Joe here too?!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

To smile or not to smile?

So I've been in Paris for about three days now and...

Fact: French is not a one-way street.
I thought I knew some French but turns out when it's spoken at 95 words per second, it sounds like nothing to me but a spew of 'oo's 'eur's and gargling noises. I recite my perfectly composed question and the rapid thirty-second jumble of a response leaves me baffled and paralyzed with nothing but 'umm's and most importantly 'parlez-vous anglais' in return. Hoping this changes soon!

Fact: The casual Parisian dresser is ten-times better dressed than you.
It's true. Here, the children wear blazers while playing in the park. Old Navy is a chic little espresso shop. Every man could be straight out of a magazine. Women ride bikes in four inch heels. One billboard said it best, "Life is the occasion."

Fact: A smile is not a proper accessory.
This I was prepared for, kind of, by several cultural readings we had to do for the program. As Americans, smiling comes naturally and is almost a reflex whenever we meet new people or even just make eye contact with a stranger on the street. Not in Paris. It's not that they're not friendly or that they don't smile, they do, but "only when they mean it?" So just because you're standing in line together doesn't mean you're entitled to a smile. Apparently some Frenchies may even think you're laughing at them. If any Parisians are reading this, know that I am not mocking you, I just can't help it! This smile is just permanently plastered to my face! :D

Fact: There are Arabs/Muslims everywhere.
On my first visit here, my family didn't get by speaking English or French but by speaking Arabic. It's how I thanked our undeniably Algerian shuttle driver and insisted he keep the change. I've gotten "Vous êtes musulmane?" several times from our dorm's various custodians and chefs. Love it! I haven't been able to attend taraweeh at a mosque here yet but I'm itching to experience Ramadan the way they do. Hopefully my roommate, Hira, and I will get the hang of the Metro soon enough to venture out to the Grand Mosque of Paris. I've got ten days left to make this happen.

Fact: Everything here is too small. Including my wallet.
When we came to Paris as a family eight years ago, we got back 120 euros for every $100. When I exchanged my first $100, I got 65€ in return My heart aches for you 2002 American economy. And American standards of living space.

Fact: I love Paris...superficially.
I've seen the Eiffel tower in all its glory, the Louvre, the savory Nutella. I want to know more. I want to see past the glitter and the lights. Show me the graffiti, tell me about the homeless, what about the immigrants? Hoping to know more about the real Paris when I leave here and still love it.

Fact: My posts are way too long and I have a placement exam to study for. 

Who am I and why am I in Paris?

Okay so my blog title isn't necessarily accurate. It should read 'African-American on the Seine' but that doesn't have quite the same linguistic appeal, nor does the term faithfully capture who I am. Born in Philly, raised in Chicago, being American is inextricably tied to my identity but so too is my African heritage. Put those two together and you get 'African-American'..? Kind of. 

You see, my ancestors weren't torn from their homelands, stripped of their language and culture, rather they flew in from Sudan on British Airways twenty-seven years ago to pursue higher education. I grew up speaking Arabic and English and I prefer hummus over mashed potatoes. So yes, I am quite literally 'African-American' but with the ever-increasing globalization of our societies,  what label is ever truly pure?

Currently studying Human Communication Sciences (aka speech pathology) and global health at Northwestern University. My semester here in Paris's Sciences Po will be completing my global health minor and help further my study of French.  I've always been fascinated by language and deeply interested in global health and so this program provides a beautiful synthesis of the two. 

I came to Paris once before back in 2002 with my family after my first year taking French in the seventh grade. I always knew I wanted to come back. So now I'm four thousand miles away from home and presented with the opportunity of a lifetime to experience living/exploring/growing in a new and beautiful environment. Trying still to leave all my worries back in Chicago and fully embrace this journey ahead of me. Apparently I'm in one of the most rigorous and intensive programs that are offered--good job Yomna, you always know how to pick em.