Monday, January 30, 2012

Expats and Exchanges: 2

As Adam explained earlier, yes, we've finally forced ourselves to get out and start getting involved with some social groups around town. And yes it was crazy to meet so many from the American Embassy. We were baffled to hear a few of them say that our good ole government not only set them up quite comfortably around town, but also shipped over their know, for all the driving you need to do around town?! We thought, WTF, and they said, yep, this is what your tax dollars go toward. hmmmm.

Aside from that group, I also met a guy from Kansas who had been in Paris for about 4 years with his French girlfriend. Apparently he's been part of this group for the past 3 years, but stopped coming to events bc he said he kept seeing the same weirdos show up. He was back again that night after a 6 month sabbatical in hopes of finding "cool, new people." He says the problem is, you either make close friends from these groups, then they leave within a year or so, or you have those weirdos who do nothing but cling to the Meetup groups. You know, find no other social circles, and that's even more sad. He said even the ringleader of the group was a weirdo himself and was probably only in this to date desperate American girls who have no other friends. And apparently there's a french guy, too, who belongs to the group who's simply in it to date those same desperate American girls. Yes, these guys are kinda creepy, but then again, if you came to Paris knowing no one and got asked out, you'd probably be able to convince yourself these are just 'really nice guys.' Creepos yes, but man, you gotta give them a bit of credit for figuring out the game. Wow, i just said that.

Some other inside tips my Kansas friend shared with me that night:
  • Service at restaurants really is shit. Those guys don't care about waiting on you properly no matter what you've been told
  • Most of the French are paper pushers in their jobs so, again, if you ask for something (aka, getting visas figured out), they will simply tell you it's impossible so that you'll go away. In order to get anything done, you must a) never get angry and b) prove that you're going to be more of a pain in the ass for them over them actually doing their job. Then you MIGHT get results (yes, adam and i still need to get our visas approved. Mr Kansas is actually still here illegally, 4 years later)
  • It really is impossible to become friends with the French. This guy said it took FOREVER to even be invited out with his girlfriend and her friends even though her friends knew him quite well
  • If you want to fight the crowds before the huge January sales, you must go to the stores the week before and try on everything you want so you can simply grab-and-go when the madness hits
  • If you want to sound really pretentious to your friends, learn each arrondissement and at least a couple good restaurants in each..."well, yes, I'm getting a bit bored with the 6eme (eme=th), so this weekend we decided to venture out in the 8eme instead"
All-in-all, though, we did leave with a few email addresses and were dubbed my Mr. Kansas and a few others 'cool enough' to hang out with again, sometime. Works for me : )

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Expats and Exchanges

After telling ourselves for months to do so, we finally connected with some Meetups in town. (These are casual group meetings of strangers with common interests.) A Friday evening happy hour with expats sounded like a good place to start, so we donned our Frenchiest going-out garb and made a dashing appearance at Bugsy's. The bar was packed with people who couldn't help but butt up and nearly knock off the walls the various images and photographs of (of course) Chicago. In addition to a trend for historical eras, we've noticed a funny Parisian obsession with Chicago itself. Maybe it's the el, or the jazz, or the lake, or the high rises that they find fascinating and perfect for decorating bars and clubs -- because that would be closer to appropriate. But no, anyone from outside the U.S. just loves Chicago for Al Capone, gangsters, and tommy guns. Sigh.

Getting back to the meetup, we met some wonderful, friendly, outgoing Americans, nearly all of whom had some connection to the embassy. A notable camaraderie built once we realized these "regulars" from the embassy were in the same boat as us: trying to make some new connections and get a little taste of "home" (and Guinness and Magners and Stella and ...).

Speaking of taste, we met a couple who share with us an appreciation for food and cuisine. Well, okay, so we're wannabe foodies. He's a chef with a catering business who works for the embassy. By the end of the evening, we were planning a double date, probably dinner -- no, wait, let's take it easy and start with drinks somewhere. How 'bout smokey martinis? Yep, that's right: gin martinis with a splash of Talisker. Awesome. Let's do that. Done.

A few days later, we joined another group for a Pub Quiz language exchange. It was a fun evening, a bit confusing at first, but we ended up with a team composed of some French, some Brits, and us, the Americans. The first half of the evening comprised of questions in French and team discussion in French. Then we switched for the other half. At one point, we had to hang our heads in shame when one of the Brits had the answer for an NFL question rather than us, ha! It was a good chance to practice speaking and listening in the new language, especially considering the loud atmosphere of a pub. Oh, and again, the pub had random Chicago paraphernalia, such as life-sized Blues Brothers statues. We wrapped up the evening with amicable goodbyes and a "see you next time."

Now, Bridgette and I have been told on several occasions and by several people that there is a distinct difference in the way Americans are friendly versus that of the French. And we shouldn't judge too deeply based on two bar experiences, but we can tell a difference. For now, I might simplify this as: Americans are more outgoing and open in their friendliness, yet do so with a shallower intention; the French are more closed with a harder shell, but may be more sincere ... if you can get to that point. It's the getting-to-that-point that we're working on. We'll keep you posted.

For now, we have a smokey-tinis double date to look forward to.

Monday, January 23, 2012

EXTREME Non-Showering!

Showering everyday. Overrated. Apparently they have deodorant here that lasts up to 72 hours. WTF? That's three days without showering. I guess that's cool if you're jumping off mountains then snuggling up with your honey like this guy (um...gross), but other than a backwoods camping trip, there's really no excuse to even need a deodorant that lasts 3 days. It's just not right. I don't know if these products even exist in the US because, personally, I'd never really considered seeking them out...didn't even consider them even being marketable. But, if you're curious, there's definitely a ladies version of this, too. So you can be right out there with your man jumping off mountains, climbing rocks, and still be feeling freshy-fresh three days later. WTF?!

Oh, and while we're on the topic of showering, I've totally realized why most euro women don't shave. Have YOU ever tried to bend over with a razor in a space that's literally 2'x2'. It's near impossible, so you have to do this balance-on-one-leg act in hopes that you won't slip and cause a total shower collapse. (I don't think I've ever taken a shower, yet, without banging into those frail little glass doors. I'm sure the ladies here just say, 'F-it, I really can't afford risking to have to buy another shower door if I come crashing through.' Maybe they have it figured out. I'd rather take the risk. You know, spice things up for the day?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Wedding Nightmares

The other night, Bridgette was reading some bridal magazine she picked up and I was browsing a wedding-for-dummies book. Our reading turned a bit silly as we started to dream up what kind of hors d'ouevres we would like (chilli pepper watermelon?), drinks to serve (this idea may actually get implemented, so you'll have to wait for the surprise), and a grand buffet of world cuisine (ha!). And somehow a yurt got thrown in to the mix as a possible dinner location. As you can see, our heads were under control of our stomachs during that conversation.

(For those wondering, we're still tyring to lock down a location, so no big news ... yet.)

Reading done, lights out, slumber under way, we both had some interesting sleep. My dreams consisted of a miniature dog in danger of being eaten by spiders, which made me late for dressing for the wedding. I rushed into my bedroom to don my attire, where my brothers were also preparing, one wearing all red with yellow suspenders. Bridgette, that same night, dreamed of a dirty, tattered dress. To make it really a nightmare, she was wearing it and discovered that it minimally covered key areas for decency. So imagine a tattered, mud-soaked gown whose back was more akin to a scanty bikini.

Fortunately, we've recovered from the restless night. Unfortunately, I'm sure it's only the first of many to come.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Breathable Coffee?!?

I don't know how we've made it this far through the blog without talking about coffee! I mean, of course, we are in the city of cafés, right? Coffee, here, at least to us, is one of those beautiful things of life that rank up there with wine, cheese, and fresh bread...those things definitely not worth skimping on. And the mere fact that my 'office' coffee is now my own brew of illy's finest from my Italian coffee maker (ok, so the italians are actually the ones who really figured it out ; ) makes each morning that much more enjoyable. Yesterday, Adam and I were out and about doing our own things on an ever so gray afternoon, and upon meeting up again we said, hey, shall we go grab a coffee? I mean, why not, right? There's a cafe or brasserie or tabac on almost every corner with its own ambiance and charm...we figure we might as well take advantage of this while we can, while we are in a place that isn't bombarded with Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts...yet... (though Starbucks are starting to invade! eek. nothing looks more out of place than a Frenchie with a large to-go cup). Though when ordering a coffee, you really only get a shot of espresso (they just haven't caught on to that concept of having that 6-8oz cup of joe that you can sit, warm yourself up, and enjoy for more than a couple sips...hard to get used to that), but the beauty is, we've found that some places price their items based on the time of day. 

Since Adam and I were there at a slower part of the afternoon, we paid less (we always thought this would be genius marketing for restaurants in the US). In addition, if you feel like just stopping in and grabbing something at the bar vs. being served at your table, again, the price is reduced. We haven't been that adventurous, but it's nice to know the option's there. Anyhow, I read somewhere that France as a whole has over 70,000 cafes, and with all those we see drinking espresso constantly, Adam and I stared wondering if France was most likely the most caffeinated country. Hmmmm, this was an intriguing idea; what countries WERE the most caffeinated? Doing a touch of research, I found that France didn't even come close to being in the top 10. Check out this list to see the rankings (yes, it's the most recent i could find), and seriously, do the math for the #1 country. That's  A LOT of coffee per day! As for the US, a recent pole was taken on which cities spent the most on coffee, and Chicago made #1 averaging almost 3 times what the average American spends. Way to be an addict Chi-city ; )

Anyways, back to coffee in France. Surprisingly, as much as espresso makes up the daily lives of most, tea is actually more popular. It's funny we really haven't noticed more tea drinkers. Then there's the thing I ran across on the web called Le Whif which is this inhaler type thing that you breath to get your taste of coffee and intake of caffeine....WTF?! You know, when you're on the go, and you don't have time to stop in one of those 70,000 cafés. What's even better is the website shows kids sucking on these things. What the hell do THEY need a caffeine boost for? Seriously, and the French look down upon us for bastardizing the art of 'coffee-enjoying' as we run around with 64oz to-go cups of gas station sludge. Hmmmmm..... 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Portfolio Seminar

Today was a huge change of pace for me as I was a guest presenter in Adam's class...or more or less, I used some of his class time to give my own presentation. Nonetheless, I had over two hours of the students' attention discussing the phenomenon of that important little book all of us as designers must create to define who we are and what we can do. There was a lot of material to cover, but as a whole, I think it gave everyone a good basis of ideas to start thinking about. I even hauled back my own portfolios from undergrad and grad school and passed them around for everyone to see. Even more fun was the fact that we had two brave souls volunteer their own portfolios to be projected for a bit of class critique (not sure if they saw the group critique coming ; ) But I believe that exercise went over awesomely (is that even a word?) as the students really chimed in and actively discussed weak areas versus strong points with each layout. In any case, I think they were just really glad to see some examples and have a few of us there who'd been through this before. A few other students came up to me after class and said they'd also be interested in a bit further discussion on portfolio layouts as well as resume and cover letter critique. As of now, it looks like I'm signed up again this Friday to head back to the school for some more one-on-one time. It really does feel nice to be able to impart some of my professional knowledge onto others who need advice. It's actually really fun.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Climbing the Mur Mur

Now that we're a bit more settled and our weekends have some free time, Bridgette and I ventured out to a new climbing location this Saturday.
Sous les arches voûtées d'un viaduc SNCF, toute une série de salles intimes vous proposent d'enrichir votre gestuelle sur des profils variés : dalles raides, dévers athlétiques, peau à grimper reproduisant une escalade plus typée « montagne ».

The facility consists of several "rooms," each situated under a main railway elevated on a viaduct. So the climbing walls are built on the inside of the arches voûtées, or vaulted arches. It's an impressive climbing space: plenty of room, sunlight, and a respectable 11m height. We were even more dumbfounded to learn that the facility includes a sauna.

(and yes Mur means 'Wall' in French....
so the name of this place is pretty sweet, eh? Wall Wall!)

Considering it's been a very long time since we've climbed, it was refreshing to get chalked up, clipped in, back on a wall, and make our way up 30 or 40 feet. Now we just need to stretch out the day-after aches and pains.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Sales Sales Sales!

So today I ventured out and participated in the equivalent of Black Friday...Frenchie style. God, what an overwhelming experience THAT was, and I wasn't even fighting weekend crowds. When we're talking sales, we're talking up to 50, 60, and sometimes even 70% off everything from groceries to high-end fashion. The government tends to regulate not only how often stores can be open (we must give those shopkeepers enough time off!), but also the number of sales they can have. In total, there are two HUGE sales that occur throughout the year that continue on for 4-5 weeks, one in January after the holidays and one in June before the entire city ditches town on holiday. Supposedly, too, stores are allowed to hold 'promotions' (lesser reductions) only two other times a year, but I've heard that rules have loosened a bit to help stir the economy. In any case, 'Les Soldes' (the sales) started yesterday and continue through Feb. 14th. I read that people go all out, take off work the first few days it happens, and even dress in clothes and shoes that are easiest to take on and off quickly so they can be speedy quick in the dressing rooms. Not sure if I spotted anyone looking the part of the quick changer..... who can tell when everyone looks so euro and well-put-together all the time. In any case, I headed out to the ever so famous department stores, Printemps and Galleries Lafayette and had no idea what madness I was in for. I was actually on a mission to find a new winter coat and had to use all my might to stay focused on the task. There's just soooo many fun things to look at...oh all the clothes! But apparently that's how the Frenchie fashionistas do it. They WAIT for these stellar sales to go out to buy those ridiculously sweet pair of boots or that way-to-expensive little black dress or that over-the-top Gucci purse. Slowly, I'm learning their secrets....and yes, I ended up following suit.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Commence Spring 2012

This semester I teach "Mechanics of Materials and Design Applications," or as I like to think of it "16 weeks of stress and strain." The newest challenge: teaching in the AM instead of the afternoon, so not only are the students barely awake, but their distinguished instructor is also working through the gears. I feel a slight head ache just thinking about it.

In all seriousness, I'm happy to be back in the classroom, especially with this semester's content, which I find much more interesting. I'm curious to see how the students pick up these new concepts versus the ones they had last semester because I think the two sets are equally applicable to "the real world," but one involves real movement (stretching, squishing ... active verbs, no?), whereas statics was about everything not moving at all. My suspicion is that being able to imagine structural members in activity will make learning the concepts quicker.

And in just a few weeks, the students will be presenting more project models in collaboration with the French school. The "pylône" project is a 100 cm tall tower built out of thin sticks (basswood or something) with cantilevered arms to take symmetric and eccentric loads. It'll be fun to see all those models in the same room.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Galette des Rois

...or King's Cake. 

So I was always under the impressions that this was a Mardi Gras tradition, as in America, I've see these come out in all their delish glory in February, overly decorated with icing and colored sugar to appease America's appetite for sugar, hiding that little plastic baby inside. Ever since returning, all the bakeries and stores have these elegantly displayed in their windows....yet without all the fluff and decoration I'm so accustomed to. Reverting to the handy dandy internets to explain this phenomenon, I found out this tradition actually has to do with the Epiphany which was the day the Three Kings came and gave their gifts to Jesus, and THIS is when you are to eat the cake. So as I was at the grocery store yesterday (Jan 6th), I decided to pick up a single serving portion just to give it a try. Come to find out, the Epiphany was said to have happened ON Jan. 6th, so my random timing was JUST in time. In any case, it's customary to bake a fève (broad bean) in the cake, but over the years, this has been replaced by a small trinket made of porcelain (once upon a time) or the  present day plastic piece of junk. Whoever gets the trinket in their slice gets to be king for the day, wear the paper crown that comes with the cake, and is responsible to provide the cake the following year. To make distribution 'fair', the youngest in the group is to go under the table, and allocate the order in which slices are distributed.

 For a better description of the differences of French King Cake vs the New Orleans tradition, check out this fun post, 'King Cake Smackdown'.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

And We're Back

And we're back after a two week stint in the US visiting fam and friends. No problems with flights. No problems at border control. No problems sleeping last night. (14 hours of pure zzzzzz's to battle the lag & the remnants of exhaustion from new years eve). Being home felt so comfortable & just plain easy, while here it still feels like a world of complete surrealism mixed with excitement, frustration, and the unknown. Hopefully 2012 will bring a greater sense of settlement and belonging in this new place we call home. Now to rev up the French life once more & to continue documenting:


Border Control Guy: You are going to Paris?

Me: What? (how can anyone understand these guys when they're surrounded by a glass box?)

Border Control Guy: You are going to Paris?!

Me: Oh, Yes (grin)

Border Control Guy: Why are you going there?

Me: Because I live there (grin)

Border Control Guy: (sigh) That's a shame...(STAMP)

Nothing like a warm welcome back, ha!

Eat it Before Others

Bridgette was talking about a commercial she saw on the television this morning. Here it is, and I'm sure you'll understand the many reasons it caught our attention.

"Le fromage, mangez-le avant les autres" roughly means "cheese, eat it before others." We'll add this as yet another WTF moment. If only America's Pork, Chicken, Eggs, or Milk campaigns were this awesome.