Thursday, May 29, 2008

First days in Paris

After that tremendously long wait in Dublin, the trip to Paris was short. Only an hour and a half. It took another half an hour to reclaim my luggage (heavy as ever!) and another half an hour before the shuttle arrived. (I'd decided on a shuttle because I couldn't manage my luggage on a train and the price of a taxi would be too variable and dependent on traffic). The ride from the airport to the hostel where I'm staying for the first three days took over an hour! We drove right past the place I stayed with Mom in April so I was familiar with a great deal of the sights we passed.

I got settled in my room and headed out around 7pm. I thought I might get something to eat or drink. I bought an international phone card and called Dad from a pay phone with no luck. I left a message.

I kept wandering but couldn't quite face a restaurant or bar. I found a Monoprix (chain grocery/sundries store) and decided to get something to go from there. First stop was the bakery where I bought a sweet roll that I ate almost instantly. Before choosing my supper, I wandered upstairs where I found clothing, toiletries, kitchen items and yarn! I was looking for the yarn but saw some reasonably priced clothing that might fit (I didn't try anything on, just good to know). Now, the yarn selection was meager and mostly acrylic but it was something.

I went back downstairs and picked out a sandwich (ham and butter), a bottled smoothie (fruit) and some cookies. I took them back to the room, slipped in a dvd and ate dinner while watching "The Addams Family." I couldn't stay awake and got under the covers around 9pm while the movie played in the background. I was asleep by 10pm and didn't wake up until 6am. Ahhh.

A word about where I'm staying. It's a hostel or "foyer" but the rate is 54 (gulp) euros a night. There are cheaper places in Paris but all sounded dirty and only marginally safe. Also, I didn't want to share a room. So, I booked a one-bed room. Instead, I have, all to myself, a room with six beds (two unbunked and a pair of bunk beds), two toilets, two showers, three sinks, many wardrobes, two small tables and four chairs. With two beds, it would be a palace, instead it's a little crowded but comfortable enough. No tv, phone or radio, making me especially pleased I brought almost my entire dvd collection (in a cd-carrying case). I don't own many dvds and I just brought the ones I might possibly want to watch again. Turns out watching a movie you practically know by heart is a comforting way to fall asleep in a strange place. For me, "The Addams Family" is comfort food. (The second film isn't as good but does have my favorite scene: Wednesday Addams, exiled to summer camp, stages a play for the parents about Indians and Settlers. Guess who slaughters whom?)

After my good night's sleep, I went to get the included breakfast. It consisted of: a petit baguette, a croissant (I ate half of each); one each of butter, jam, and nuttella-esque spread (I ate very little of each); orange juice and coffee. There was also plain yogurt ("white cheese") but I missed it.  (This morning, I had a full glass of the oj, ate my baguette with butter and jam, found the yogurt and saved the croissant for later (or maybe never).)

The main item on the agenda for Wednesday was to complete my registration for my French course at the Sorbonne.  All I had was the main address for the Sorbonne, 47 rue des Ecoles, but I figured it might not be the right place and that I might fail to complete the registration the first day.

I thought I'd try out the shared bike program (Velib!) and went to kiosk quite near the hostel. My card didn't work. I moved along. At the next kiosk I came across, I tried again. I tried every card in my wallet. No luck.

I stopped at a tabac to buy a local phone card and asked if I could by a card for Velib. "Non" was the answer but when I asked where I could by one he said at the "Mairie" and told me the closest one was in the square of the Pantheon. (Most of the conversation was in French--all of his part. He worked with me and was not grumpy about it at all.) I walked a little further and then sat on a bench in a pretty square near a fountain to get my bearings. I checked my map, and headed on to the Pantheon. I was tired so I stopped for another coffee. I tried to pay with a ten but was asked for change, which I produced. One euro coffee--and it wasn't bad.

Next, I found the Mairie (town hall, kind of) and asked about Velib. After some unpleasant back and forth, "You live here?" Me: yes. "So you can write a check." Me: no. "You live here? But no French bank account?" Me: no. "Oh, so, no, you cannot use. Impossible. You call." I left, feeling frustrated and resentful. Have they really set up a shared bike program that only other Europeans (with the appropriate smart chip in their credit cards) can use? Ridiculous! I called the Velib help line and got basically the same answer. I walked around the rest of the day feeling angry/sad/frustrated every time I saw one of those alluring Velib stands, calling me with their siren bike song. (When I got back to the hostel later, I googled "velib for Americans" and stumbled upon the information that kiosks will accept American Express--a card I have but left at home! I already emailed Ken to send it to me and hopefully it will work when it arrives. Ach!)

Next stop was the Sorbonne. I wasn't at all sure what to expect and hoped it wouldn't be another Velib fiasco. Wrong visa! You're too old! You need cash! No US-issued cards! All very unlikely since I'd pre-registered, they knew my age and had already drawn a deposit from my US-credit card.

I found the street and the first thing I saw was a movie theater featuring a Fritz Lang retrospective. The movie that evening starred Dana Andrews. I wrote down the times and address--I knew what I'd be doing later.

I found the main Sorbonne building a few blocks away and asked a guard where to go. Well, I showed him a piece of paper about the course. He directed me around the corner. There, I showed another guard the paper and he let me pass. I asked a young man in a glassed in office where to go and he whipped out a map and drew a line on it ending with the room number I needed to find.

When I got there, I showed another young man my piece of paper. (Please note that each of these encounters was preceded by a "Bonjour! Sil vou plait…") I was in the right place!  He handed me two small slips of paper, asking for almost the exact same information (name, birth date, home address, Paris address, etc.) I filled them out and then waited to speak to the next person, in this case, a young woman. She took one form, asked for my passport, remarked that she'd never seen a visa like mine (all in English, mercifully). She returned my slips of paper and took me to another woman, a cashier. I waited for the man ahead of me to conclude his transaction, then I gave the woman my papers and my credit card. She kept one piece of paper and handed my the other and two receipts.

I was directed to a third woman. I waited for the same man to go through the process with her and then it was my turn. She took a digital photo of me and gave me my student ID with one receipt stapled to it. She kept the second slip of paper. She also handed me a card and explained I was to be at a certain address at 2pm for a placement test. I said, "I'm a beginner. I don't need a test." (English!) She said I should go anyway and talk to the teacher and that I wouldn't have to take the test. Then she explained that I had to go to a DIFFERENT address at 8:30am on Monday morning to find out which class I would be in, where it would meet and whether it would be the 9am or the 11am session.  

By the time that was all wrapped up it was 11am. I was starving.

I decided to walk slowly in the direction of the testing place and make stops along the way. I headed in the direction of the Luxemburg Gardens. It was 11:30 but I couldn't wait any longer to eat. I stopped in a sandwich place and got a chevre and vegetable sandwich. I could only eat half of it (?) but the staff was kind enough to wrap it up for me.

I walked across the street into the gardens. Tons of people, a mix of students and tourists, with a few little kids, were out. It was quite windy but sunny and mild, and I found a chair near the fountain. Can you imagine, the chairs aren't chained to anything. I wonder how many walk away…or maybe that's not a problem.

I sat and decided to do some knitting. I hadn't brought a book (I actually don't have many with me--too heavy. Sad.). I pulled out a small project I'd brought specifically for the plane. It will be a scarf, but the yarn is very skinny so it's portable. I sat and knit and no one remarked on it. It was a good way to be there. I was focused on my own thing but I could also take in all the action around me. The young man searching for his friend via cell phone, the kids sailing mini sailboats in the fountain, the older couple reading their papers….

I stayed there for about half and hour and then moved on, walking through the park in the direction of the testing destination. I decided to find out if I could open a French bank account (in order to access Velib). I stopped at a CIC (French bank) and was informed that without a job, I couldn't open an account. Huh? I walked further and then saw a large post office branch--with a bank operated by the post office. I went in and spent a long time speaking a mix of French, English and Spanish with the friendly bank staff of one. I could open an account when I got my residence card (I have the right to apply for one with my visa, but it won't come through for at least a month or two…after I start the process) and a copy of a utility bill in my name. Failing a bill in my name, I could produce a copy of a bill in the landlord's name, a copy of the landlord's id and a letter from the landlord stating that I resided there. At the end of our long talk he bid me farewell and said, "Courage!" Indeed.

The testing place was less than a block away and I joined a milling crowd of mostly college-aged American and UK types, fashionably dressed (not like the American touring kids of my teen years!). At the appointed time, we all filed in, flashing our IDs and appointment cards. At the door to the test room, our appointment cards were collected by one woman and we were handed a test by another woman. We then crammed into an old-fashioned schoolroom. I didn't have a chance to explain that I didn't need to take the test.

We were told (in French!) to fill out the front and the back of the test form (it was a broadsheet folded in half, making four 8x10 pages). I dutifully filled out the form, putting "sociologist" as my profession and telling them, for the third time that date, my name, age, marital status, and Paris address, phone number and email address.

Then, the test started. The first page was a fill-in-the-blank multiple-choice exercise. I guessed wildly and finished first. The next page had sentences to which you were supposed to add a few words followed by an essay question.

I can read a tiny bit of French. I can say a few words. I know to greet everyone with "bonjour" or "bon soir" and I can even pronounce some words correctly. But what I can't do, under any circumstances, is write in French. These days, I couldn't write an essay in Spanish either, something I have done, while haltingly, at times.

I looked at the essay section, glanced around and noted that most of the folks in the room hadn't finished the multiple-choice yet, and decided to get out of there.

I gathered my things and went to the young man serving as proctor. I said, in English, that I didn't know French and couldn't complete the test. He turned to the woman sitting at the head of the class and said, "Beginner assolut!" Yes!

She sent me to a woman sitting in the exterior room and she asked me to sit across from her. She took my test and asked me some questions, in French, which I answered, in French. She said, "But you speak French!" You know, normally, I would be flattered by that comment--that my (apparently excellent--who knew?) accent fooled this teacher into thinking I had some fluency--instead, I was just frustrated. I said, "No, I speak, hablo, Spanish, espanol!"

She asked where I studied Spanish and I became mute, unable to find words in English, Spanish or French.

"The university?"


We established that I was a mademoiselle and a sociolog (I think that's where I fooled her) and that I would be in the beginner class. She said, "You will be here six months? Why only a four weeks course?" So, first, I already know French and next, I should spend more time studying it? I should have said, "I'm a quick study." Instead I hemmed and hawed and said I wanted to see how it goes (perfectly true!). While six months is a long time, sort of, I sure don't want to spend all of it in language classes.

I was dismissed and on my way to the toilet, I noticed an unmonitored computer lab. I stopped in on the way out and checked my email (no free wifi at the hostel). When I left the building, a young woman approached me. She was from Australia and had been in the testing room with me. She wanted to make sure I didn't feel bad about not being able to complete the test, "It was very hard!"

I assured her I didn't feel bad in the least, that there was simply no point in testing me since I've never studied French. We chatted about a few other things and I pumped her for information about Velib (she wasn't a supporter--she found the bikes heavy and unpleasant to ride). We said goodbye and I headed to a pay phone to call my friend, Piet, who lives in Holland.

He was surprised to hear from me--it was novel to have an ordinary phone chat with him (who knows how much it cost!). I'm looking forward to seeing him and family in the coming months.

Next, I decided to head back to the hostel for a rest and some writing. Time passed quickly as I dozed and cruised a little on my paid wifi.

Before I knew it, it was after 7pm and I had to get going to catch the 8pm show of the Fritz Lang movie. I took the bus instead of walking. The hostel is in the 14th, the theater in the 5th and the bus ride was about 10 minutes. With the walk to and from the bus stops, the trip was under 20 minutes. Not bad. I found myself starving again and stopped for a sandwich to go near the theater. I ate it during the lights on, no previews 10 minutes waiting time before the show. I noticed another man eating a sandwich, so this may be permitted behavior here. Out of habit, though, I stopped eating when the usher appeared near the doorway to tear a ticket.

The movie, "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt" wasn't great, but it was interesting. I picked up flyers with the details of the other films in the series, as well as a series of Westerns playing at a sister theater. Very cool, all in English with French subtitles. This theater chain alone could keep me busy for most of my stay!

I started walking towards the bus stop with the intention of retracing the bus route until a bus came along. I took a wrong turn along the way and ended up going in the wrong direction. It was late and I was tired, so when I found a subway station, I used it.

I was home by 11pm and called Dad, finally reaching him. He was happy for me and excited that I started my adventure. He said, "You don't know anyone there at all?"

"Well, just some friends of friends. The woman and her neighbor where I stayed in August. I met the neighbor."

"You should call her. Invite her for dinner."

I had to laugh. I said, "I'm not that lonely! I'm going to meet people and I'm not worried about it. If I'm lonely I'll call her. Anyway, it's not like I can't handle being alone!"

Dad laughed too and said, "Ok. You're right. Good for you."

After I got off the phone, I was wide awake. I realized I'd missed my falling asleep window, which closed some time after 10pm. I put in a dvd and got into bed. I don't think I feel asleep until after 2am. Yikes.

Consequently, I'm exhausted today. I got up in time for breakfast, when back to my room and crawled into bed. The housekeeper came and I apologized. She said some things I didn't understand but told me to go back to sleep and not to worry. She grabbed the dirty towels and left. Thank you!

Finally, I decided this was a day to write, not to explore. It's almost 1pm now. I'll leave and walk slowly and find lunch. The sun isn't out, but it it's not too cold, I'll sit in a park and read or knit. Maybe I'll go to a 2pm or 4pm movie. Maybe I'll eat dinner in a restaurant or just have a drink and a snack. I will go to bed early and be well rested for tomorrow. Because tomorrow…I move to my apartment! Hooray!

Grateful for: a productive day.

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