I'm doing my freelance writing shift at a sidewalk cafe in St. Germain des Pres at the moment, a move necessitated by the internet being out at my apartment this morning. My French really isn't good enough to call the provider and find out what's going on, so I'm hoping the situation resolves itself on its own! But as long as I'm here, watching the pedestrians stroll along the cobblestoned Rue de Buci, I figured it would be a good time to write an entry about my first few weeks in Paris, and share some photos I've taken.
I've now been here about three weeks, and I'm slowly adjusting to the "work-at-home" lifestyle. I have a freelancing shift I do for a news web site in the morning, and then in the afternoons I have French class every day for four hours (2 hours of phoenetics, two hours of grammar). The schedule has kept me much busier than I thought I would be, as evidenced by my lack of blog posts recently. Obviously the events of this week in the world's financial markets have inspired some ideas, and there's an entry I want to write about the root cause of the crisis, but I just simply haven't had the time. Why aren't I writing it now? Well I'm at a cafe nursing my capuccino, and it seems more appropriate to write about life in Paris!
So far I've actually found everyone here to be really friendly and nice, which is completely different from my previous visits here when I was visiting. Perhaps it's because I'm speaking French with people, although for more complicated interactions that has been difficult. It really is just a shockingly beautiful city. I've been utilizing the city's 'velib' service, in which you can check out bikes from stations posted around the city and return them anywhere else. The first half hour is free, and it's just a euro for each half hour after that.
This past Sunday I rode my bike around the city a bit, first visiting the Palais Garnier, the grand opera house at the center of Paris. It was really stunniny, I'm hoping to see an opera there before I leave. Afterwards I rode the bike to La Defense, the business district outside the city that is similiar to London's Canary Wharf. The tendency in Europe over the past 30 years has been to impose height restrictions for buildings in the city centers and establish skyscraper zones in specific districts outside the city. It was interesting to be in La Defense on a weekend, as it was almost completely deserted and I was able to ride the bike all around the walkways, platforms and planks. It's much bigger than Canary Wharf, and some of the buildings are really quite interesting. I went behind L'Arc de La Defense, a huge arch-shaped building that mirrors L'Arc de Triomphe miles away. >That's where the construction for La Defense stops abruptly, because there's a massive (and chaotic) cemetary there. Bizarrely, there's this long wooden plank that extends out over the cemetary. it looks as if it should be over a beautiful waterfront, and I rode my bike down it assuming that at the end there would be a stairway to go down to the cemetary/construction zone. But there was nothing, just a big plankway overlooking graves and piles of asphalt. Perhaps they're planning to put something in this area later? Afterwards I rode my bike through the Bois de Bologna, a gigantic park on the outskirts of the city just outside the ring road. It was rather uninspiring, as my guidebook predicted. But apparently they're planning to give it a big revamp soon.
Class has been ok, but not ideal. To my dismay the other students turned out to be mostly American college kids, all either 19 or 20. There are some other "older students," but not many, and none of them are anywhere near my age. It would appear the students in the program are either 19 or 40, but nowhere in between! There's a significant contingent of Latin American college students as well, but the Americans make up the overwhelming (and loudest) majority. I don't have a problem with their being American per se, or the fact that they're young. But they're clearly in this course for a very different reason than us old folks. Theyre on their semester abroad, and the course is being paid for by mom and dad. For that reason most of them are not taking the classes very seriously, and seem to be more focused on where they're travelling to every weekend than with how their French is progressing. Don't get me wrong, I was one of them once too! I mean, my study abroad semester in Prague was academically challenging (it's known as the most academic of NYU's study abroad programs), but I definitly didn't take my Czech language course very seriously as a 21 year old spending a semester in Europe and jetting off on fabulous trips every weekend. But I'm not in that situation any more. It's very important for my career that I have a proficient level of French by the end of this course, and I resent it when the American college students speak in English during the class and don't do the homework, because it's wasting my time. Maybe I'm just becoming a cranky old man.
My verdict on the city so far is that it's beatiful, very fun, but I don't think I would live here long term. It may be large and cosmopolitan, but it just isn't an 'international' city on the model of London or New York. It actually feels quite provincial. Most everyone I meet here is French, and most of them have never lived outside the country. In fact, I've met two people who have never even left the country! I can't imagine meeting any such person in London. Paris is just very French, in a way that London is definitly not British! London may belong to the world, but Paris belongs to the French, and they make that very clear!
I have some friends from London scheduled to come visit over the next few weeks, so hopefully the Eurotunnel mess won't mess up their plans. Other than that I hope to take some weekend train trips over the next few weeks. I hope to visit Lille, Normandy and Brittany in particular.