Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Skiing: Complete

We have returned home to Paris, no bones broken, no harsh sun burns, a bit wind burned, and severely sore.

We nearly missed our train to Les Arcs due to a ghost Parisian bus. I wish we had video of us running through Gare d'Austerlitz (okay, not really), trying to find our tickets, stumbling through speaking some French to convince the ticket people that we really do belong on that train, and finally walking / running down the entire platform to the final car where our little sleeper cabin awaited us. I remember climbing to the top bunk, catching my breath, and giving Bridgette that "we will not do that again" look. Needless to say, sleep came easy that evening.


Then we awoke the next morning to a wonderful world of snow-covered trees and mountainous horizons. We gradually found our hostel, checked in, ate some breakfast, grabbed our rentals, bought lift tickets, rode the funicular, located storage lockers, and finally hit up the Mont Blanc chair lift. Phew. The skiing was great, and I have nothing bad to say about Les Arcs.


Besides the awesome time on the pistes (and off-pistes), we had a wonderfully interesting experience at the hostel. We arrived in Bourg-Saint-Maurice first thing Thursday morning, and after a short walk, we were knocking on the hostel door. Luckily, the owner / operator / receptionist / cleaning person, Charley, was already awake and happy to let us in. She was completely friendly, and had us set up in a room in no time, despite the early arrival. We were expecting a hostel full of French and a regular dose of English-speakers, but this place was entirely packed full of semi-permanent Brits. Oh, and two Aussies. So the place was super communal, everyone knew everyone because they had all been living there for weeks, and the vibe was as chill as it gets. Bridgette and I considered for a moment the possibility of living such a lifestyle for a few weeks or months, and then realized that that would get old, real fast. I guess we are as old as we are.

Everyone is Happy in Les Arcs

So in the end, we had a few days living in a bubble of English and skiing some great slopes. No complaints, a great little trip.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


It's nearly 10pm over here, which means it's about time to venture to the train station where we'll fall fast asleep in a couchette, and wake to a beautiful morning in the snowy French Alps. If we go missing, come find us somewhere in Les Arcs, maybe a trace left at the hostel?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Language Exchanges

Learning French can be tough when you don't really have any French friends to practice with. It's one thing to see words and hear them spoken, but to create coherent sentences in that's tricky. One of the expats we met told me about a website called Polyglot where you sign up and find friends to speak with. He said, I guarantee you, if log on, you'll have a million people wanting to practice English. And within a few days of signing up, I received over a dozen requests to meet. Insane! I didn't have to do a thing. The numbers were a bit overwhelming so I narrowed it down to three girls with my first meeting being this last Saturday. Adam came along as well, and we both eked our way through a two hour conversation. It's one thing to say 'hello, my name is... i live... i like... i come from Chicago....but then to tell your story about who you really are, why you're in Paris, what your plans are (we barely know the past tense of verbs, let alone the future! ha) that's a whole other challenge. We even got into a discussion on prejudices between the northerners and southerners of France, and how that reminded us of our own country's divide. Yeah, it got tricky at times, but I was glad Adam was there to share the conversation. Our French friend knew English very well, so we were grateful she was so patient with us. We have another meeting set up with her again this Sunday where we are to try and describe our own country's politics to each other. We have some serious vocab studying to do ; )

The following afternoon, I had meeting #2, sans Adam, in a cute little tea salon in the 13eme. It was so quaint and warm with walls filled with shelves of tea tins and yarn; I think this must be a local hangout for knitters? But unlike the bar I was in the previous day, this place was much quieter and easier to understand a conversation. Again, for two hours, I tried to speak all in French, and my friend, all English. She, too, was very good (these guys all seem to start learning about age 10 or younger anyways...makes me jealous), and again, it made me thankful that she had such patience. Turns out, she wanted to practice to get over her shyness, and here I am thinking the same thing about myself. I give her, and I suppose myself, a bit of credit; it takes a lot of guts to get out there and speak with a complete stranger, let alone one who speaks a language you barely know. In addition to the meeting this Sunday, I have two more set up next week. As Julia Childs once said, "I'm going to learn this language come hell or high water," and this is my way, so far, to continue forth with my learning with the same enthusiasm as her. The thought of it makes me wince a bit, as you know going into these you will stumble and fall...a lot...but then you always have to remember that sense of reward after saying your au revoirs. Besides, this also gives me a great excuse to explore the city's bars and cafes ; )

Monday, February 13, 2012

Maison Louis Carré

I intend to put up a few posts on the buildings we visited for the first week of history classes this semester. (This is the same week Bridgette spoke about.) Instead of a typical history course, the students succumb to two intensive weeks of non-stop lectures and field trips with renowned architectural historian, William J.R. Curtis. The second week will occur later this semester.

I joined the students for a visit to Alvar Aalto's Maison Louis Carré. I've been a fan of Aalto's work since going through architecture school, and this home was still under private ownership when I was a student, so I was anxious to see the thing up close and in person. And of course, take some photos.

The day was cloudy, windy, and frigid, and I'll be impressed if any of the students' sketches turn out with decent quality. The house, on the other hand, was comfy, cozy, and warm, and the architecture, excellent and certainly of its time. It's a good exercise to distill what I observe down to attributes to perhaps apply to my own home some day. For instance, I can pretty much ignore the servants' quarters, psh! But the sequence of spaces, skilled control of vertical voids, and choices of natural materials are all items I have locked away in the back of my memory. From far away, the painted white brick looks nice. Up close, however, ... it looks like a old pair of white gym shoes. If only you could run a building through the washing machine.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Meet the Author

Yep, all you archies. Remember this book?..........

Last week, the SAPV program invited author, William J. Curtis, to participate in a two week intensive history course for the students consisting of lectures, tours, and sketching exercises. Last week introduced some big names including Mies, Wright, Alto, and of course Corbusier, with me tagging along for the tail end of the week for tours of La Maison Suisse, Maison de Brazil, and Corbu's Apartment. How surreal to experience all these buildings once again now with a better knowledge of architecture accompanied with quirky and thought inspiring narratives from a man who probably knows more about Corbu than anyone else in the world. Curtis' book is apparently one of the most acclaimed in the realm of modern architecture and has been written in a dozen languages (both legally, and illegally). What's more, it was crazy to hear him chat over lunch about the stirs he's created in the profession as an architectural crit (especially when he needs to 'bring out the big guns'.... namely the controversy over the new Steven Holl building near the Glasgow School of Art). What was even more shocking (considering most items on the agenda were about buildings abroad) was his final lecture on Corbu's Carpenter Center on Harvard's campus. He explained that he got into this whole historian gig from that very building where he was given Corb's sketches, plans, etc. and was to piece together the reasoning behind the man and the design. What's surprising is that Adam and I happened upon this building this summer as we were out visiting friends in Boston literally 2 weeks after breaking the news to everyone we were moving to France. And here, we had no idea Corb even had anything in the US. Nope, only this. And there we were, taking pictures on his ever-so-monumental ramp, the exact place William himself used to tell all his friends to meet him before galavanting around town. The world is all linked in very crazy ways.....

Part two of intensive history week will continue this spring where Curtis will pick up with trips at RonchampLa Tourette, and others.

Discussion at the Maison Suisse

Left: Hanging out at Maison Brazil before lecture.
Right: Lecture at Corbu's apartment

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Pylon Project

The "American Team"
At the start of the year, we met with the French school structures profs with the intention of continuing an annual tradition of a joint Franco-American structures project. A month or two later, I started to see and hear the expected schedule conflicts; essentially, the American students' schedule did not coordinate with the French's. Unfortunately, this meant that the Americans could not collaborate with their teammates until the second semester.

I'm thankful that most teams did have some interactions and joint work. Sadly, though, the French students had design reviews the day before the structures project was due. In the end, most teams constructed their models the night before, slept only a wink, and didn't get as much out of the process as we would have liked. Regardless, the resultant models were fun to see, and I think everyone had a good time loading them up with water bottles.

Besides geometric constraints, each team's model was supposed to hold up a few kilos of weight concentrically and eccentrically. Economic efficiency was considered as well via load-to-weight ratios.

If I'm here again next year, I hope to have a better-coordinated schedule and project so that the teams can (hopefully) get a better experience.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

BR the Librarian

Shonan the Librarian: 
Delinquent borrowers will be fed to the dragon

So I started volunteering for a few hours once a week at a private school, L'Institute de la Tour, in the 16eme of Paris. They have a pretty cool afternoon program on Wednesdays (since kids don't usually have normal school on Wednesdays) structured to fully immerse bilinguals and non-bilinguals into English. A friend of a friend knew the wife of one of the American teachers working there, so that's how it all started. This has been my third week, now, and the first not to get lost trying to find the right door to enter within the inner maze of the institute's courtyard. The lady at the front must think I'm just plain stupid as she tries to describe to me where to go (and yes, i'm trying to get directions in french...but there are just so many doors!)...not a feeling of pride for this so-called architect. 

This past year, the program has grown immensely, and now there are over a 120(?) kids between the ages of 7-11 split up into 7 different groups based on ability. Classes consist of things like art, theater, writing, literature, vocab, etc...sounded like a cool thing to get involved in. Alas, though, I do not get to help out within the classes (they have high school student from the institute who volunteer for this), so I, instead, have been dubbed the librarian. I felt weird taking pictures in the school, so I found this super sweet librarian poster....(for all you D&D fans out there ; ) most of the other librarian images online were just dirty, ha). And by library, I mean a folding table with 7 bins of books ranked on their difficulty. Each week, I get to knock on a teacher's door every time the classes switch (3-4 times a day), and ask who wants to go to library. The kids come out, and on my spreadsheet, I cross off the name of the book they just returned, let them go find a new one, then write down the new title for them. It takes about 5 min per class. The rest of the time I just sit in the hall waiting for the classes to switch again. This week I went through and organized all the books making sure they'd been ranked properly, and seriously had to laugh at some of the options out there. My favorite was a book called ' THE ROADMAKERS' which was categorized in the 'easy box'. And yes, it didn't have much text, and has a ton of big pictures about those huge machines that make roads, but seriously, the vocab? Here's one of my favorite lines (and yes, I tend to read these when I have nothing else to do ; ) ..."an insulated tipper lorry leaves a pile of dense bituminous macadam." Wha?! I still have a hard time IN english saying the word 'bituminous' (also not another proud moment for this so-called architect), and here it is in this book for mini frenchies to learn english? I had a much better time, though, reading about a little fox cub (un renardeau) who was going to school. This book was super sweet because it had the french right next to the english. So I'd read the english, then try to translate it myself before looking at the 'answers'. Not gonna lie, it was kinda fun, and I kinda felt smart.  

There is a strict 'no-french policy' during these afternoons, but when kids get yelled at, it's all in the mother tongue. Last week, a boy got pulled outa class for calling one one of the teacher's aids an asshole. That kid got reamed in french out in the hall, and here I am, sitting silently at my folding table, staring at the wall, just taking it all in. In fact, I think I got about 80% of the reaming convo down, and THAT made me feel smart. When life slows down as much as it has recently, it's easy to get excited about the tiniest of accomplishments such as these. For now, the librarian job is pretty painless, but perhaps a bit too painless; I'm hopping to get a bit more involved in the school the more I hang around.