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 ĂȘtes 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.