Monday, April 18, 2011


Americans are LOUD! We can spot our tribe a half block away, mostly because we can hear their booming conversations and watch them dominate half a sidewalk. As I mentioned in earlier posts, Paris is a quiet city. People speak in hushed whispers, cars and motor bikes are muffled, even rototillers are exceptionally quiet. It's the Americans who seem to break the silence. I'm not bagging on these travelers, but it's hard not to notice. I'm the first to raise my hand and admit to my own family's volume. Granted we've become much more muted since living here, but back at home it's as if we speak as though everyone were hard of hearing. We don't really think twice of our volume because there is so much background noise that must be overcome in order to be heard. I kid you not, Jim and I sat in a park which circled a 3-lane round-about and we were able to carry on a very quiet conversation without having to raise our voices in order to be heard! I remember being struck by this on our last visit, and we did prep the boys to practice speaking more quietly before coming here for this trip. They've been remarkably compliant and also notice the loud Americans who dominate the street side and cafes. Not even the Italians are as loud as the Americans are! I don't have a point about all this, but it is noticeable and one of the many little things that jump out as foreigners living abroad.

On another subject entirely, we have hired a French language tutor to teach the boys three days a week beginning next week. The boys are excited about tackling the language and have been trying to "translate" the eight Donald Duck comic books we bought them at the flea market this past weekend. Jim and I start language school in early May. Our schedule is a bit more intense, but we're looking forward to the challenge. Even though we speak English at home we are picking up more and more French daily. We are starting to hear some of the same phrases repeated, we're reading more, and we're trying to speak in sentences that are composed of more than three words. It also helps that we're frequenting the same boulangerie for our baguettes, the same cafe for our afternoon espresso and the same fromagerie for our cheese. We are now recognized and today my pronunciation of oeuf (egg) was corrected by the proprietor. I was pronouncing it as "oefff" and the correct pronunciation is more like "ufff." In order to get the boys out of the apartment and interacting with locals, we have given them a daily lunch allowance so that they have to go to a place of their choosing and get themselves food. They are actually out as I write this, ordering lunch for all of us. They'll most likely come back with a baguette sandwich, as they are incredibly tasty, filling and inexpensive. After lunch they will most likely head to the park to play either bocce (our boules as it is called here in France) or badminton. Jim and I will often run and then meet up with them and play in teams. We will occasionally pinch ourselves when we look up and see le tour Eiffel looming overhead. It's hard to tire of that view!

All and all, we have settled into what feels like a very natural and easy rhythm. Life rolls along offering up little surprises and discoveries daily. I'll post more soon about our evening last night at a French/American couple's home. Absolutely magical is about all I can say right now!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Vacation vs. Sabbatical

We are not on vacation. We are on sabbatical.

Perhaps because we're not academics, people can't grasp the fact that we're taking nearly three months off to live in a foreign country without any agenda. They keep talking about our "vacation." Call me a stickler, but I sort of cringe when I hear vacation, or maybe it's just that my notion of vacation implies escapism. Don't get me wrong, vacations are important and I'll be the first one to go to a warm beach and sit for a week with nothing more than a bikini, tent and good book. But coming to Paris wasn't to vacate. In fact, I think we'll need to take a vacation when we return home from Paris. No, I consider our time in Paris a sabbatical. This is an opportunity to hit the pause and reset buttons and learn new and different ways of living. Some of what we learn we'll hopefully be able to incorporate into our lives back in the states, and others, although appropriate while here in France (the two hour lunch with wine) will most likely, and sadly, be left behind.

While here we are still working, the boys are still in school, and we have to grocery shop and manage the little affairs of life just as we would back home. The beauty and the appeal of travel is that we are doing them differently. Take for instance recycling glass. Wine is consumed in ample amounts here, so you can imagine the amount of glass recycling that occurs. Now, we can hear when the glass recycling truck rumbles down our street, but can I find the glass recycling receptacle for our apartment anywhere? No! We have four co-mingling recycling bins in our courtyard, but no receptacles for trash or glass. I know that people are disposing of these items in our building but I have no idea how or where. At the end of our street is a communal glass recycling bin, but I think those are meant more for the people who just picnicked in the park and knocked back two bottles of wine, not for the inhabitants of the apartments to recycle their daily glass. Same thing with the garbage, where do I put that. Any time I hear what sounds like a large truck on our street I peer out the window to see if it is a garbage truck. I noticed a few people in our building putting their bag of garbage just outside their front door, but I wasn't sure what that really meant. On Monday afternoon when I saw the garbage truck making its way down our street I quickly ran down our five flights of stairs to hand our bag of garbage to the driver. When I got to the entry way of our building there was a man who had a few other bags of garbage and was bringing them to the street. Did he work in the building and plan his day to take away the tenants garbage at a certain day/hour? Unfortunately, with my very limited French I couldn't ask him, so I smiled and he kindly took my garbage bag from me. And so it goes here in Paris. The little things that we so unconsciously do at home consume a lot of our time and attention here. I don't mind, it's just what goes along with living in a foreign country and not speaking its language.

Shopping for food is another activity that we spend a lot of time doing. But so does everyone else. It's a way of life here. You buy what you need for a day, maybe two and you do it regularly. It is a true joy. Perhaps it's the quality of the food, or maybe it's the simple ritual of thinking about what you are about to prepare or eat. All I know is that I look forward to walking down Rue Cler daily to buy our food and bread. I cannot begin to describe the freshness and flavors! Tomatoes taste like tomatoes, the lettuce is so sweet it's as if someone sprinkled sugar on the leaves, and the cheese--oh the cheese! Jim and I laughed when an American woman walked past one of the produce stands and loudly exclaimed, "Those tomatoes look good, but I wonder how they taste." Jim and I could barely contain ourselves. In the states our produce looks decent but is devoid of flavor (excepting what you can buy at farmer's markets, of course.) We are so used to eating flavorless food that is trucked hundreds, if not thousands, of miles that we no longer know what fresh and local looks or tastes like. To make up for this, we then drown our food in salt and other "spices" or dressings. Suffice it to say that a lot of value and consideration is given to where the food is sourced and how it tastes here, and for that I am grateful.

Carbohydrates. We are eating a lot of them. Granted, we eat a lot of carbs at home in the form of bagels, but here we're consuming our carbs in the form of baguettes and other rustic breads. Baguettes are a way of life here and you often see people of all ages and demographics carrying one to two baguettes. They're either poking out of backpacks or are nestled against the body with one's arm. There are no less than five boulangeries near our apartment and they each produce bread that is slightly different in crumb and texture. We haven't settled on a favorite yet, it's sort of hard to, as they are all equally good in their own way. We are scheduled to spend an hour in a bakery next week learning about that particular baker's technique. I cannot wait!

Merde, I hear the glass truck. Time to go and dispose of our empty wine bottles...

Friday, April 8, 2011

Just Being Here

"Just being here." That was Logan's #7 on his reasons why he wanted to come to Paris. Four days into our nearly three month stay, and I totally get this. Just being here is pretty damn great.

It took nearly three days for our bodies to adjust to Paris time, what with the nine hour time difference, but by our third afternoon we were starting to hit our stride. Our first few days have been mostly filled with multiple trips to the corner marche to get our kitchen stocked with such basics as salt and pepper, sugar, spices, etc. All of our other groceries are purchased fresh daily. In a nutshell the food tastes more lively and is certainly more fresh. We've made most of our meals at home but made it to one of the nearby cafes yesterday for lunch. We all ordered food that was familiar, but after Jim spied the French women sitting next to us eating a mound of raw beef served with a raw egg, he is determined to go back and try the dish.

Our apartment is about two blocks away from Champ de Mars and le tour Eiffel and Les Invalides. We are still walking around like stunned foreigners, it is hard to not walk around with mouths agape. One of our goals in coming to Paris was to live like a local and so we've picnicked in the park at twilight and watched the lights turn on le tour Eiffel, we're taking much longer to eat our meals, we're speaking more quietly, and we're slowing down in general. We still have quite a ways to go before we don't mangle the language every time we attempt to speak, but I'm confident that within a month we'll sound a little less like total dorks. Jim and I are both interjecting Spanish into every sentence that we attempt in French, but really most everyone we've "talked" with has been very friendly and accommodating. Quinn and Logan are typical teenagers in the sense that every time we make a language mistake they cringe and walk away as if they don't know us. We've sent them to our neighborhood bakery to purchase our daily baguettes and tomorrow they walk on their own to get our breakfast pastries. They are determined to learn the language, and so we'll start structuring our days to include a daily language lesson.

The wonderful part of travel is noticing the little differences between cultures and customs. Here are some of the little things I noticed today:
  • All public bathroom doors seal off--no cracks allowing others to peek in.
  • Paris is quiet. The cars, the motorbikes, the people...I know this is the city of light, but I think of Paris as the city of hush.
  • People care about how they look. There isn't a fussiness to the style, just an elegance that clearly starts at a very young age. The children are all dressed well, and you can tell that by the time one reaches adulthood they've had years of style practice.
For photos of our first few days click here