Saturday, November 28, 2015

tis the season

Christmas cheer has descended upon the City of Light. The rues and storefronts have been strung with lights and decorations, and the Marché de Noël is in full swing along La Défense and the Champs-Élysées. I’m currently sitting in a decked out Starbucks in Saint-Germain-en-Laye trying to recall all the things I want to write about since it has been a while since my last post. Saturdays are the only days where I am able to shut off my alarm and sleep as long as I want, so waking up today I felt like having a relaxing day catching up on blogging, studying, and reading instead of venturing out into the city.

The mood since the Paris attacks has been fairly normal. I’ve talked to a few French people just asking what the general attitude was among the French. While I think it’s safe to say people are worried, at the same time you just have to carry on and go about your normal life. You can’t be afraid to step out of the house. You just have to be vigilant (every time I use this word, I think “Constant vigilance!” Harry Potter fans will understand that reference.) and just keep on keeping on. People have asked me if I’m scared, and the answer is no, I’m really not. I can’t really put a finger on why I’m not afraid, but I guess it’s a good thing. If I was too afraid to be in the city, then I might as well just come home to America. But I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to come home and live in fear, and I’m certainly not going to let anything steal my time in Paris from me. I just have to hope that the city stays safe, and that the collaborative efforts of the governments fighting ISIS will be successful.

A week ago, I came to Saint Germain for the first time. It’s a suburb (or banlieu) further out than my town from the city center, but it’s so quaint and charming. As soon as you exit the RER, you see the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, a beautiful building that sits on a large park that must be just gorgeous in spring when everything is in bloom. If you walk to the end of the park, there is a great view that overlooks the city of Paris. You can see La Défense and just make out the top of the Eiffel Tower. I will definitely be visiting the park again when it gets warmer. After walking around the park, I started wandering around the winding streets and went into a couple of little shops. 

I ended up at Starbucks to work on some French, and by this point it had started to rain on this already cold day. I was wearing my warmest coat and thought…this is not going to get me through this winter. So I hopped back on the RER and headed to Les Quatre Temps in La Défense in search of a parka.

The winter chill really only began a few weeks ago, and it will get colder still. And if you haven’t gathered from my previous posts, if I want to go anywhere, I walk. The rail system here is really good, so most people in the city don’t own cars. Many in the suburbs own them, but it’s really not common for someone my age to own a car. There’s really no need, because even if you did own one, you really don’t want to be driving in the city. Much more convenient to walk, because with the RER/Metro/Trains the entire city is easily accessible. When I first arrived, the weather for the first couple of weeks was amazing. It was warm and beautiful with clear blue skies, so having to walk anywhere was no problem for me. But it’s now November 28th. It’s cold and it rains a lot in Paris. I don’t have the luxury of staying inside on a particularly cold or nasty day, or the luxury of driving a car and only being outside long enough to walk from a parking lot into a building. I was laughing to myself the other day thinking about the few times where it was raining so hard in Lynchburg, the staff that left LUO at 4:45 would just stare out at the torrential downpour not wanting to walk the 50 feet to their car. I was one of those people. If that had been Paris, you just suck it up and walk. If it’s freezing and/or pouring rain, the kiddo still needs to get to school, I still need to go to French class, and the walk from the house to the school to the RER station is 0.8 miles. I use the RER and 2 different metros to get to class so it’s a lot of walking through different stations, then it’s a short walk from the last metro to my language school. I definitely get my exercise, that’s for sure. No complaints here though. Keeps me skinny.

So the key to not being miserable while making the trek all over the place in any weather condition is all-weather gear. I invested in some really good rain boots and snow boots before I came. I’ve only needed my rain boots so far, but they’ve been a life saver. No need for me to avoid puddles or be worried about walking all over the place with wet feet. Nope. I’ve noticed that the French don’t seem to wear wellies when it’s raining. Standing on the platform in my Hunter boots, I feel like I stand out, but I don’t care. I’ll keep my warm, dry feet; they can keep their cold, wet ones. My nice snow boots are going to be awesome once winter is full blown and the rain is freezing. The problem though was my coat. I didn’t have much room to pack more than 3 coats. I brought a trench coat, a black winter coat, and my Burton jacket. Last week when I wore my black winter coat in Saint Germain, I realized that I needed something water resistant and something the wind wouldn’t cut through. And while my Burton is warm and all, it’s not really ideal if I want to stay super warm, but I’m going out on the town with friends. I wanted something a bit nicer that I could wear everywhere, but would keep me sane when having to walk around in the elements. So I went to La Défense and found a black parka filled with down feathers and a big hood. After a week of wearing it around, I can honestly say that the €99 I spent on it was totally worth it. I literally can’t believe how warm it is, and with the rain we’ve had this week, I can just brush the water right off. Money well spent. Parka, rain boots, and umbrella are necessary if you ever visit Paris in the fall or winter. Take it from someone who hates winter, rain, and the cold. I will own this season. I will not be defeated.  

Sunday after church, me and a friend took advantage of the beautiful weather to visit the Marché de Noël. The Christmas markets are full of booth after booth of artisan goods and foods, places to eat, and there are even stalls of donkeys at the one in La Défense. I bought some Christmas presents here and then we went down to the market along the Champs-Élysées, which is much bigger since it runs down both sides of the street all the way to the temporary ferris wheel that has been set up in Place de la Concorde. We wanted to go on the ferris wheel, but at 12 euros for a ride, we were both feeling cheap and decided to skip it. There were some carnival rides and even a temporary ice rink as well. Yesterday, I went back to the market in La Défense with another friend, and I tried vin chaud (hot wine) for the first time. It was like a hot sangria with cinnamon, and was really good. I still need to take a stroll down the Champs when it’s dark to see the lights, but I have a month to make that happen before the markets pack up for the season. I’m also hoping to make it to Disneyland Paris before Christmas as well because…well, hello, it’s Christmas at Disney. I don’t need to explain why.

The only other thing that has kept my mind occupied is the French language. In the last two weeks, we’ve learned future and past tense, so I am finally able to start saying things like “I’m going to go study in Saint Germain” (Je vais étudier à Saint Germain.) or “I just learned passé composé” (Je viens d’apprendre le passé composé.). But passé composé (past tense) is super complicated. Ce n’est pas facile. On top of that, the French articles have been my biggest challenge. There are so many, and they are of the utmost importance: la, le, les, du, de la, de l’, aux, à, des etc. etc. Use them incorrectly, and what you’re saying won’t make a lick of sense. I’ve stopped resorting to asking “parlez-vous anglais” when I go somewhere, unless what I need to ask is completely beyond my ability to communicate, or they start speaking back to me and I have no idea what they are asking me. For the most part, the French I hear in the classroom and with my host family I am able to understand. Sometimes, that’s not the case, but I can usually figure out what I’m hearing. In class, I’ve done pretty well on both my tests so far, so my ability to read and write at the beginner level is definitely coming along. What’s still super difficult for me is hearing really rapid French, and trying to comprehend it, and also forming the words on the spot to respond in a conversation. If I’m alone in my room and relaxed, I can typically figure out how to form a basic sentence that would answer a question or explain what I am doing. But in the moment if I’m put on the spot, it’s like everything I’ve learned falls out of my head. My language teacher keeps telling me not to stress, because it will cause me to shut down. She hasn’t been wrong about that.

PS, at this very moment, Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is playing over the speakers, and it’s everything in me not to start singing along. Fun fact, that song was written for one of my all-time favorite movies Meet Me in St. Louis. That’s right. That song wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for that movie, and if you haven’t seen the movie, you need to see the movie. Moving on…

The only other significant thing that happened was missing Thanksgiving with my family. My mom is an amazing cook, so missing out on her perfectly brined turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry relish was a big bummer. But thankfully, I got to Skype with them for about 3 hours after I got out of class and even got to watch some of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, so I was there in spirit. 

It’s a strange feeling seeing them and the house and the lake and realizing I’m thousands of miles away and can’t just hop in my car and drive to see them. But a positive thing about being an expat that I’ve noticed lately is how comfortable I feel in Paris now. I still am learning the language (obviously), but after being here now for a full 2 months, this has become my new normal. It’s normal for me not to drive anywhere, it’s normal to not understand most of the conversations happening around me, and it unfortunately feels normal to not be able to call or text my friends and family all the time. I literally am in my own world across the pond. I can’t believe Christmas is almost here, and by that time I will have lived in Paris for 1/3 of my time here already. As much as I don’t want to wish away time, I’m super excited for spring in Paris. I want to be able to walk through all the gardens and spend my days outside. But winter is the red-headed stepchild of the season family, and all the wishing in the world won’t make it pass by faster. Oh well. I’ll make the best of it while I can, and use the winter to visit indoor places. Around May or June, I plan to visit Normandy to see Omaha Beach, and ideally I’d make one more trip to London to visit the Harry Potter studios before coming home.

That’s all for now! I hope all my American friends and family had an amazing Thanksgiving and are gearing up for Christmas. I love this time of year (despite it being in the winter) and I so badly wish I could be home with my family.

À bientôt!