Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Parisian Adventures Part I

Gaul: I came, I saw, I shivered

I arrived in Paris INCREDIBLY awake due to rest, fear, and caffeine. I fell asleep before take off and slept for 11 of the next 15 hours of the flight. I watched the movie Taken on the airplane. It is about a young woman who travels to Paris and is abducted by a stranger she meets outside of the airport and shares a ride with. Cool, I thought, as I decided not to take a taxi ever again. I spent the final hour of the flight drinking coffee.

I managed to haul my two ginormous instruments and backpack through the metro and to my aparthotel (a.k.a. private hostel style room plus kitchenette.) The metro is its own story. Everytime I take it I see the most interesting characters. There are miusicians that board your train and sing or play accordian, which is always entertaining. This guy was just reading a book but he still made me laugh.

I was staying in St. Maurice and the whole area is straight out of the drawings of Paris on Madeline, basically the only text I consulted before arriving in Paris. The stores in the area were all bakeries, cheese and fruit markets, or Asian restaurants. Naturally, I took a small break from Chinese food and devoured about two dozen pain au chocolate for breakfast.

My first real surprise in Paris was that people were really nice to me. I was very confused. Where are the snooty Parisians, fuming at the foreigners invading their picture book city? (Quick fact: France is the most visited country in the world by tourists.) When I approached people for directions or large chunks of brie (the latter being in markets, not just random people in the metro), they were totally courteous and helpful. On the seldom occasion where people did not speak English, my attempts at French were not mocked. I was very surprised. But for some reason no one suspected I was American (at least not to my face) and people often asked, “'Olland?”

My second surprise was that Taiwanese coats are about as effective as a silk scarf when it comes to protecting you from the cold. Before leaving Taiwan, I bought some very cheaply priced coats and sweatshirts, and I now fully understand how the people of Taipei are able to walk around in the 90 degree weather so stylishly dressed. Luckily, at the beginning of November, it was still pretty warm so if I wore 5 layers of Taiwanese clothing it was sufficient for the Autumn wind.
My third surprise was that I really don’t want anything more in the world than French baguettes and brie. Maybe it was just because I had come from a continent without ovens, but the bread in France was actually as good as all that hype. Annoying.

My first week in Paris was spent with trips to the Taiwanese Cultural Centre, the only one in Europe. I lugged both my instruments down there, not knowing what to expect. Sometimes my instruments are my only tickets in and other times they make me look like a huffing, sweaty mess of a crazy person. I got lost and asked a man for directions in English. He responded in French that he did not speak English, but did I speak German. "Non," I replied, "pero puedo hablar un poquito espanol." "Really?! But I am Spanish, he replied in rapid-fire Castellano Spanish with lisping c's and exaggerated trilled r's. So I followed his Spanish instructions to the Taiwan Cultural Centre. I was proud of myself for being able to understand that much because my Spanish is basically limited to telenovelas.

At the Centre I got contact information for three Chinese music teachers: two guqin players/teachers and a general Chinese instrument teacher. I met them all separately but the first two, in the oddest of coincidences, were both named Wang Laoshi, and both preparing to move back to Taiwan. I asked the guqin playing Wang Laoshis why they were returning home. They replied the same way. It’s too hard to live here. Too cold. Too inconvenient. I asked what initially drew them. They both replied wistfully, “A young man.”

The general Chinese instrument teacher felt much happier about Paris. She looked it too. She wore a giant fur coat and matching fur cap. She told me how happy she felt living in Paris' Chinatown. Below her apartment she shared a studio with a calligrapher. “Taiwanese overseas have to create a community. I help people here stay in touch with their roots. I make sure the children don’t forget!” Her main instrument was either guzheng or dizi, she couldn’t decide. But she also taught pipa, ruan, erhu, suona, bawu, and liuqin. When I asked her what brought her to Paris, she said, “Romance.” I asked what his name was, and she looked wistfully out the window of the café we were sitting in. “His name is Paris.”

Visitors from Freiburg

On my second weekend, the students of the Freiburg Jazz and Rock School had midterm break and this was relevant to me because Tree came to visit along with his friend Suzy from Kansas or Oklahoma (is there really a difference?). Suzy is half Korean but this is hard to discern because her hair is Hilton-blonde. Between Tree and Suzy, I felt so conservative with my naturally colored haired. Suzy greeted me with a hug and a hybrid of an accent, part southern charm, part MTV Valley Girl. The German school is her study abroad as she is a singer songwriter attending Berklee School of Music in Boston.

The three of us marched off to do the tourist thing starting with the Eiffel Tower for photo ops. We were approached by silent girls with clipboards. The clipboards said they were from a deaf academy and needed money. I reached for my wallet and then thought for a second. Something was off. They made no noises, no hand signals except blowing air kisses at people who gave them money. Hmmm. . . I told Tree in Chinese to scream like I would if I saw Snakes on a Plane. His impression was uncanny and bloodcurdling. And to my delight, the little girls’ heads both whipped around on instinct. That seemed not like deaf behavior. I sarcastically blew the girls airkisses as they fumed at Tree. They had lost customers from my mischief. Unfortunately for Tree, they didn’t realize it was my fault and he got kicked and his hair tugged before Suzy, who had fewer qualms about hitting little girls albeit scheming manipulative little girls, than Tree and me, hip checked them both to the ground. We scuttled away and up the Eiffel Tower.

The view from the top of the tower was pretty fantastic.
Paris is a ridiculously beautiful city. I keep exclaiming aloud, “Oh, so now we’re in the pretty part.” but since I’ve come to Paris I can’t seem to find any part that isn’t the pretty part. Every block looks like a movie set. Even better than the view from the top was the people-watching that could be done. Japanese tourists, all wearing the same hats and carrying laughably large cameras filed passed greasy Europeans in black socks and sandals. The latter group were all wearing matching scowls so I guessed they were Russian. I’ve had a lot of fun guessing nationalities from afar and then listening carefully to the language when the people get closer. (They were Russian or possibly Ukrainian, I can't tell the difference.)

For some reason I have dozens of photos of Tree and Suzy pointing at things and seeming really cheesy, but it's candid, I swear!

While going down the windy staircase, Suzy had a hard time keeping her skirt from flying up. Tree said that she looked just like 瑪麗蓮夢露 (Ma Li Lian Meng Lu) so we had to stop for this photo.

Aerobics at the Louvre

I declared the afternoon museum time. Tree and Suzy looked a little reluctant, but I told them that I would take them through the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay in 3 hours. But I also I told them before we did this we needed to be properly caffeinated. We went to what I call a Look-at-me! café. This is because the outside seats all face the street so instead of everyone facing each other at tables they line up like they are in class. My companions tried to explain to me that this was so the customers could look out at the street, but I wasn’t buying it. I knew it was really vanity. I also discovered that they don’t add water to coffee in France. I got all of the coffee bean I wanted and it was conveniently condensed into a minuscule cup with three thimbles of water. After I bought a round of espressos, we ran to the Louvre, thick doses of caffeine coursing through our veins.

Outside the Louvre we saw these children who really seemed like they could use some parental supervision. Way too easy to snatch these punks.

I used my Watson ID card to pretend I was an EU student and got in for free. I hurried the first-timers through the Classical Greek and Roman section. Waste of time guys! We are in France, let’s get to the Renaissance! I told Tree and Suzy to each pick one thing to gawk at in each section and then to bust a move to the next. After 11 minutes we made our way to Winged Victory. “You guys this is really famous!” I exclaimed. “Why?” Tree and Suzy pondered in unison. “I don’t know, just take pictures and look carefully. You have 4 minutes to catch your breaths!” I declared eying my watch. We hit up Venus di Milo and the Mona Lisa and while I was explaining what I remembered from my previous tour at the Louvre when I was 12, a group of Virginians began following us thinking I was some sort of official tour guide. One thing that was fun was that in the Louvre I could explain a lot of the back story to paintings dealing with Greek mythology or the Bible that Tree really didn’t get. This was fun because it was revenge for when I was in Taiwan and Tree was constantly frustrated with my lack of knowledge of Chinese Classics or Taiwanese Opera. Now I could exasperatedly proclaim, “You don’t know the story of David and Goliath?”

We left the Louvre 90 minutes after entering and were in the Musee d’Orsay Impressionist Museum with one hour to enjoy. Van Gogh’s self portrait was my favorite and I stared at it for way too long along with a hay painting by Gaughin that had so much texture, the straw stuck out at least a full inch from the canvas. I also got lost in the Degas section. This museum is so much more interesting than the Louvre.

At 5, the Impressionist Museum closed and we were outta there with all that gross Museum business behind us. We walked the Champs Ellysees and had photo ops with cotton candy, the Arc de Triumph, and some stuffed animals before getting the most menacing shaking of the finger methinks I have ever encountered from the security guard at the Disney store.

After a very long argument on whether or not this lamp in the window was a frog or a monkey (it's totally a frog, right?),

the three of us ate a way too expensive meal that was soooooooo good. I had a fight with Tree because he was convinced the Rose' wine was made of roses. Naturally we had to have a bottle to test the theory. We then were given free shots on our way out “for digestion,” the staff said as they rubbed their stomachs in unison. I showed them that I could rub my stomach and tap my head at the same time. They were unimpressed.

The Dinner

The next day I met Tree's Taiwanese friends who live in Paris. We ate delicious homemade food and then sang American folk songs with my mandocello while the couple whose house we were invading played the piano and the fiddle. The conversation turned from music to traveling to politics and I did my bestest to hang on for the sometimes completely random jumps in topic. I got applause when I explained the differences that the Cultural Revolution caused. They were nice people and the only thing that seemed different from that dinner in Paris and any other in Taiwan was that we were drinking really really good wine.

They invited me back to meet with a bamboo flute player, but because I am tired you will have to hear about that in Paris Adventures Part II!

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