Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Le Plus Bleu Bleu

(le plus bleu bleu)

There was talk among the American kids to go to Lyon this past weekend, but as an ever-sandy child of the California coast, I pushed for Marseille. Saturday was forecasted to be the last sunny day that France would see for basically eternity. I managed to drag a couple of new buddies along: Alex, Zoe, and Darcy.

Zoe and Darcy!

Because I was asleep for the duration of the journey, the 6:38 am train from Grenoble to Marseille was quick and pain-free, and COULD have been money-free, since not one soul came by to check our train tickets.

We arrived in Marseille around noon, and scampered out of the station like grunions to the sea.

Alex scampers!

I maybe should have done some prior research about Marseille, beyond discovering its gastronomic specialties (Pastis! Bouillabaisse! Aioli!), because the beach was not actually across the street from the train station as I had imagined it to be. Zoe and Darcy were on a different train that arrived later, so Alex and I embarked on what ended up being a three-hour hunt for la plage. We began near the station, in the part of the city which looked a lot like Grenoble, and I guess a lot of other mid-sized European cities: a mélange of old cathedrals, hyper efficient Le Courbusier modernism, and typically French white-washed apartments with tall dark shutters and red-tiled roofs laced with iron moldings. All very charming, and appropriately smelling of fish!

The non-famous cathedral in Marseille.

After meeting up with the girls and another two hours of marching, we made it past the touristy Vieux Port and to the beaches. There, Marseille turned into this pseudo-Miami Beach-fantasyland with sleek resorts, topless babes, and enormous 18 Euro cocktails served at low-slung outdoor bars with purple-cushioned chairs with names like “Equinox” and “La Dolce Vita”. We passed these up in favor of a well-deserve collapse on a pebbled beach, although later that evening Alex and I set fire to potential retirement funds towards “La Planète Bleue”, a gin and citrus monstrosity with a blue raspberry-colored solid ball of ice upheld by pineapple slices positioned firmly on the rim of a glass that I can describe only as a chalice. All covered in silk flowers.

All of this Spring Break-ery was pretty unsettling contrasted with the amount homeless people I saw roaming the busy main drags, far more than I’ve seen in Grenoble. They were mostly Maghreb women, many with babies in their arms. Apparently, the unemployment rate in Marseille is considerably higher than the national average. And, since it is the largest port city on the Mediterranean coast, Marseille has historically attracted waves of immigrants from North Africa. For that same reason, it also remains a center for commercial freight and transport. AND for ultra-wealthy American and European vacationers.

Marseille seemed to be full of these uneasy contrasts. We could kind of feel it in the air. There was, however, a spectacular crimson sunset that night.

La Grande Roue

We had a slow start on Sunday afternoon, but managed to squeeze in a cheerful repas of the worst bouillabaisse in Marseille. I suppose bouillabaisse is the sort of thing you want to pay real money for, and not as part of an astonishingly inexpensive 15 euro fixed menu (which is what we did). Because, as we later learned, the Marseillain seafood delicacy originated as a fisherman’s stew, comprised of all the pele-mele parts of the catch in which discerning fish buyers were uninterested. Our soup lived up to its humble beginnings (although the chef did include an apparently decorative crab perched whimsically on a mussel shell. The crab later made a dramatic flight across the table when our waiter cleared the dishes. Highlight of brunch).

A Melancholy Meal

I keep telling people in emails that I “sailed” to the Chateau d’If later that day. So, I did not “sail” per se; I actually paid ten euros for a plastic seat aboard a fully motorized, 196-person capacity shuttle boat replete with other tourists. But “sail” does better justice to how glam and daring I felt aboard the Edmond Dantès as I leaned devil-may-care over the gigantic bow. Of course, I was wearing my uniform of filthy denim cutoffs and purple backpack, but with the wind whipping my hair and turquoise flecks of the French Mediterranean splashing up from our wake, I was jet-setting European nobility sailing on a private schooner. Then I felt a firm tap on my imagined golden euro-shoulder, and a petty officer on the Frioul-If Express asked me nicely to please get down from there.

Marseille, in the wake of my fantasies

He probably wasn’t a petty officer, because I don’t even know what that means. As you can see, riding around the French Riviera in a boat fills me with fanciful delusions of both worldliness and intelligence. On the boat-ride back to Marseille, I substituted the first daydream for another: I was the Indian rhinoceros who, in 1515, wisely jumped off a Portuguese ship bound for the Vatican City, where the Pope was intended to receive the rhino as a gift. The rhino, aka me, washed ashore at the Chateau d’If (which is a lot better known as the setting of Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo). There, you can now purchase postcards bearing Albrecht Dürer’s famous/fantasy-inspiring woodcut of the very same odd-toed ungulate.

The very same odd-toed ungulate. True story, by the way

I am now wondering what these maritime fantasies reveal about my personality. I invite all theories.

So after something like four consecutive euro-sapping dinners eaten out, I had practically forgotten what Claudie (it was only yesterday that she corrected me – I have idiotically been calling her Claudine for two weeks) and the kids looked like. By which I mean, I couldn't remember if Celestine usually parts her luscious French locks to the left or to the right. I was glad to return to my Unforgettably Beautiful French Family and my homey garret/triangular tree house of a room.

My triangular tree house garret

Right now I am at the dining room table, working on an assignment for my French language class: 400 words in the various forms of the passé about a fond childhood memory. I am writing about the risks of raising baby chicks (they will only betray you later in life, as I experienced in a traumatic and bloody incident at a tragically young age. Naturally, it is a feminist allegory, though I suspect my professor doesn't really understand my subtle genius).

My French academic life is about to transition from funny baby haha school to Incredibly-Demanding-And-Still-In-A-Language-You-Don’t-Know-School. For example, I have a long and serious paper on Balzac's La fille aux yeux d'or which is due this Friday. In French. Yes. So, for now, I am indulging myself in the joys of the good ol' passé compose and basic farming vocabulary. Which is, of course, what my chicken paper actually is.

Célestine is also at the table, working diligently on a (school-assigned?!) drawing of Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni boarding an airplane. Claudie just put the kettle on the stove and Bob Marley on the stereo. Much of the music French people listen to is in English, and so, much of what French people sing to themselves while they chop zucchini or boil water is sung in really cute phonetic English. Claudie is singing along now as she dips a tea strainer full of Earl Grey into her mug: “Leht’s! Geht! Too gezzah and feeeel ahhhh rrrightt!”

It is the most absurdly perfect soundtrack to the first rainy afternoon of many. In fact, it is still awfully surreal that I am here at all. And I feel incredibly lucky that I am.

Amen to that

Friday, September 11, 2009

22 Euros of Disposable Camera Photos

American buddies on the Bastille
Sequoias in the Botanical Gardens.. lil piece o' home
French people in a park
One of a million Farmer's Markets on Saturday. This one was below the tram
Le Marche aux Pouces (sunday flea market)
View of Grenoble from the Bastille
....the quesadilla wasn't bad
Diggin' France

Sunday, September 6, 2009

La Première Semaine!

So, here I am: out in the big world, with not a single familiar soul at my side, getting lost in a new city and a new language, and eating unprecedented quantities of cheese.

As of exactly one week ago, I have embarked on the requisite American junior-year-of-college-abroad experience. Mine is in Grenoble, the cheery little city in the southeast of France, famous for its walnuts, the 1968 Winter Olympics it hosted, and for being the flattest city in Europe, in spite of its proximity to the French Alps.

I didn’t exactly prepare to come here. If little boys are made frogs and snails and puppy dog tails, my decision to come to France was made of something like caprice and irresponsibility. For example, I don’t exactly know how I am going to finish my bachelor’s degree, considering that I am a declared English major at Wesleyan University. Unsurprisingly, I am not going to be racking up credits in that department here. Also, I am cruising off my savings, given that I cannot legally take up employment while I am here. Plus, the obvious question remains: why wouldn’t I go to China and learn Mandarin or Mexico to learn Spanish or something practical, for god’s sake?

And beyond that, I had less than 48 hours at home in Los Angeles in between the end of my counseling gig at Idyllwild Arts and my flight's departure. There was no time to dwell on the events of a momentous summer, no time to listen to the Beach Boys and weep for the beloved California I left behind.

But gosh dang it, in spite of all the youthful whim and impracticality and disinterest in financial security, I went. I went to learn French, to get lost by myself in the world, to be completely uncomfortable, and to live in a beautiful place. To do things that you can probably only do when you're twenty. And somehow, so far, it's worked.

I spent one full day packing my suitcase with the aid of space-station-ready vacuum sacs (to the brink. 49 ½ pounds, adoring public! Laura Bliss incurs no extra airline fees), passed a 10-hour flight with a well-meaning Nigerian man with a penchant for chicken (brought his own on the plane, asked me for my number), spent a seven hour layover in Dublin enjoying the Red Bull and double vodka cocktails offered in the Ryanair terminal pubs (not really. But it might have been that drink menu that really informed me of my being in Europe), and, after approximately 36 hours of travel and a disconcerting 110 Euro cab into the city (“Grenoble,” sighed the taxi driver, after I told him I was spending the year here, “I don’t know, it is not really a good looking city,”), there I was.

For the past week, I have been taking six hours of French class per day at the Centre Universaire d’Études Françaises (CUEF) at the University of Grenoble, in preparation for the real classes (also in French), which start on Tuesday.

After five years of French, I wish I could say I was in France to learn the nuances of the language. But alas, tomorrow is the ominous Placement Exam, and I just spent my shower slowly mumbling the “past participle song” that the infamous Madame Burri taught us dense little ninth-graders in French I. Je suis arrivée, allée, venue, devenue, revenue, entrée, rentrée… Zut, alors. I have no idea what comes next.

Luckily, my little French brother and sister are more than happy to aid me with my French. I am living in Grenoble with a host family – Claudine, a young and beautiful Martiniquaine high school art teacher and her two young and beautiful children, Célestine, age 11, and Césare, age 8 (it is becoming kind of frustrating how beautiful the French are to look at. As a population, it’s hard to compete. Everyone is thin, freshly tanned from their summer vacations in Marseille and Malaga, and curiously enough, everyone speaks really good French, the ultimate instant beautifier. But I digress).

Césare prefers the tough-love method towards my linguistic improvement, and has not hesitated to grab my incorrigibly English-speaking mouth and shape my lips so as to produce the correct accent of the word “sûr”. Cute kid. Célestine is a lot more accepting of my stilted French, and kindly fed me the answers to an online practice quiz on the conditional tense that I took this afternoon. Claudine just speaks really slowly to me, usually with an expression of concern on her face; and rightly so, given how much/little I understand.

That is sort of how our (delicious: quiche, raviolis, couscous, seafood pasta) nightly dinners have gone: me just sort smiling and nodding, and speaking only when Claudine prompts me with a simple question pertaining to my day (repeated a few times), and Césare beating his shirtless little chest in fury when I inevitably mince my words and insert English where I don’t know the French. Célestine suppresses her giggles.

Learning French in this way is kind of like beating your ego with a Cat-o'-Nine-Tails. I have ever-increasing appreciation and respect for the people I have met trying to learn English in the US, where I think we are less patient with non-native speakers.

However, I know that I am improving slowly, and there have been little break-throughs. Like on my second or third day, when I was able to translate from English to French the instructions for a game on Facebook for Célestine. At least, I felt marginally capable for a second. Then Claudine asked me three times what time I planned to leave in the morning, and I responded, “School!”

So while I may not yet be incapable of carrying on a jaunty conversation at dinner (or anywhere), my French has served me just fine in daily interactions in town. I can get directions, ask about a dish, purchase a cell phone, and buy tickets (I even saw Inglorious Basterds, without the English subtitles in all the Frenchy scenes). Which is great for now, and definitely enough to manage the city. Grenoble is a college town, filled with young people from all sorts of places and nightlife and great food and a solid contemporary art collection. And, despite what my taxi driver told me, it is charming, and lush, and surrounded by the gorgeous and awesome backdrop of the Alps.

Plus, I am proud to say that I have gained a decent understanding of basic robot construction after a comprehensive tour (given in French, of course, by a lady in at least her seventies wielding a sparkly baton and a fierce bowl cut) yesterday at the Musée des Automates, which features a robotic duck with the ability to consume, digest, and defecate aluminum pellets, and also to blow out a flame. You know, all the necessary and normal functions of a real duck. Oh, France. Comment je l'adore.

(Jacques de Vaucanson's Famous Pooping Duck)

That, and the three hours that I spent today reading Philip Roth at the sunny botanical gardens (surrounded by beautiful French babies out for their Sunday stroll), was the highlight of my weekend.

Much, much more to come, and photos too -- I am going to develop my first roll of film tomorrow, which should be a hilarious trial of my vocabulary. Wish me luck..!