Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Tradition of Rebellion

One similarity between Paris and my beloved Portland that has struck me is the popularity of protests and marches. I’ve encountered quite a few in the past three months, and every single time, I’ve been surprised at my American peers’ surprise. Friends from Texas, New Jersey, Maryland, etc., have all dropped their jaws as a demonstration passes on the wide avenues of Paris, while I’ve simply smiled and felt a slight pang of homesickness. Paris and Portland—two lovely cities with a tradition of strong minds and loud voices.

My most recent encounter was walking to the metro station at Place de la République a few weeks back, when an impressively large and diverse march blocked almost the entire place for “les droites des sans-papiers”, or the rights of immigrants without legal papers. What a familiar sight it was. People waving banners and flags, shouting chants (“We work here, we live here, we stay here!”), passing out leaflets, and generally singing, smiling, and enjoying the clear blue sky of the day. I was pleased to see the Parisian police standing on the sidelines doing absolutely nothing except chatting amongst themselves, and even engaging some of the protesters in genial conversation concerning the issues at hand—the way it should be. No violence, no dramatic uproar, just people assuring that their voices are heard.

Of course, this is not always the case. Parisians, especially students, have a strong history of rebellion against their government, including violent revolt. From the infamous mai ’68 protests to the more recent demonstrations in March 2006 wherein cars were set afire and dozens of people were injured, violence has been a prominent part of the dialogue between the people and the state. Not to mention the political history of violence as a means for overthrowing and overturning the government (guillotines, anyone?).

Luckily, I’ve not witnessed anything of the sort. That’s not to say, however, that outward protest doesn’t affect my life as a simple American-Parisian student on a day-to-day basis. The public transit system strikes on a regular basis, impeding both students and professors from reaching school. Last year, thousands of high school and university professors went on strike, completely up-ending thousands of students’ education and post-graduate plans.

But for all of the frustration I feel when I find out that the metros will be down for the day, it is entirely redeeming to know that people are doing something to make their government listen, and it’s even more rewarding to know that it actually pays off in many cases. Looking back at the nation-wide professor strike that actually started in 2007 and came to a head last year against the Liberties and Responsibilities of Universities law (more commonly known as the Law Pécresse), the people were heard. The law claimed to increase university independence by drastically cutting government funding, undermining one of the strongest principles of the socialist French school system that all French students can attend a public university free of cost. In the end, the government budget for universities was actually increased, and the students and professors returned to their posts, all the while keeping a diligent eye on their public representatives.

Spending a lot of my childhood in Portland, protests and demonstrations, peaceful or otherwise, have always been a part of my life, and I have fond memories of such events. Portland remains one of the strongest protest cities in America (remember, W. didn’t dub us “Little Beirut” for nothing), but as a nation, I’ve noticed a bit of a decline in our willingness to speak up since the November election. We all have things that we want our government to be doing, but they are literally immobilized without any real public pushing and shoving.

These philosophies, of course, reach farther still into our lives: yep, Reed student body elections are starting up. So remember your responsibility, and do as the French do: make your voice heard. In a community as small and tight-knit as Reed, every single opinion has the opportunity to make a difference and count for something, and while guillotines and car fires are hopefully not in our future, we need to seize our chance to exercise our proverbial, and literal, vocal cords.

Here Comes the Sun

24 March

Fact: Reedies, for the most part, are socially… special. A more than a little awkward, really absorbed with school, and part of a community that is unique in every way. Another fact: Reed is small enough that you recognize everyone you see when walking from commons to Vollum, to the point that you may not feel completely uncomfortable throwing some semblance of a smile at the people may not know very well.

University of Paris IV is not so. With tens of thousands of students, you rarely bump into familiar faces, not to mention smile at them. This mentality seemed to me to be characteristic of Parisians in general—a city wherein people value anonymity and privacy, have places to go and people to see, and don’t feel inclined to smile at you on the metro as you bustle your way through the crowd. A city where winter means black peacoats and thick gray scarves, and wearing bright colors clearly indicates a non-Parisian origin.

So, it was much to my surprise this last week when the sky was finally blue, and my daily Google Weather check showed about 50 degrees. Even more surprising was the smiles as I walked down the street, the sudden extreme politeness of the bakers at my neighborhood patisserie, and the general brightening of the City of Lights.

It seems the Paris had been suffering from a citywide case of SAD, and I was the only one who didn’t get the memo. The sky is gray? So what? I’m from Portland, and consider that grayish glare to be enough of a sad excuse of sunshine to last me through the colder months. How lovely it is when the sun is shining!

On a side note, yes, I know it hit 70 a few weeks in your neck of the woods. Don’t rub it in.

However, midterms are upon me, and I’m stuck in the dim library at Centre Championnet. I must mention that, much to my amazement and confusion, the library closes at 7pm. When they asked me to leave at 6:50pm, I thought they were joking. It also must be said that it takes 45 minutes to get there, and it’s not that well stocked. I never thought I’d actually find myself wanting to be in the Hauser Fun Dome, but I’ve been missing it so. Where are the big windows? Where are the comfy chairs? The stuffed animals? The stim table? What’s going on here? Isn’t this a socialist country? Where’s my free bookmark? Why is there no conversational graffiti on the bathroom walls to distract me from my paper?

When I posed said questions to my fellow study abroad student study-buddy from Baylor, she was shocked. I saw her eyes expand with envy and amazement when I mentioned the hourly ‘Eye of the Tiger’ session during reading week. Her reaction reminded me, once again, that Reed is, well, special. In every possible use of the term.

I guess my point is that I’m missing Reed in an academic sense as much as a communal sense. Well, maybe not quite as much. Our ReedFamily needs to be stronger than ever right now, and I know we’ll get through these tests and trials with grace, strength, and dignity if we only remember that we absolutely are a family, and as I said, a unique community with unique needs and issues, and thusly, unique solutions. We are the only ones that can solve our problems, probably due to that slightly socially inept, mildly awkward, but always well-intentioned and loving characteristic that holds our community together. This anima, along with a respect of our ever-beloved Honor Principle, is what we need to come out on the other end strong, and luckily, these are things that I know we have in spades. Live well. Love Reed.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Feeding My Travel Bug

One of my primary motivations for dragging myself off of Reed campus was the insatiable travel bug that has afflicted me since birth. I doubtlessly inherited it from my grandmother, who is likely the most well traveled person that I will ever come across in my life. While moving to Paris for six months seems an obvious cure (for now) for my travel bug, I’m now realizing how much being in Europe in general affects my incurable ailment.

This past week was the final portion of the Parisian winter break (it’s split up in an incredibly confusing, three-section manner) so I hopped on a big yellow bus and spent fourteen hours surveying the French, German, and Czech landscapes, en route to Prague to spend the week with my boyfriend, who lives there permanently as an expat and writer. While I certainly don’t think that driving through a country constitutes visiting it, I did get a little thrill when I realized that I had read road signs in three different maternal languages, without leaving the same time zone, all in the same day.

I started to think about the difference between travel in the US and travel in Europe. It is, of course, true that each section of the US has a culture and personality of its own, but this was a different story. I then realized that one opportunity I absolutely could not miss out on over the course of the semester is inner-continental travel.

The next day, while walking the snowy streets of Prague, I was thinking of my newly-found Parisian friends, and it came to me that at the time, my friends had dispersed around the world: Amsterdam, Brussels, London, Madrid, Bruges, Morocco… the list goes on. With the availability of hostels, and the blessing of nationalized travel systems (i.e., really cheap tickets), and a passport in hand, seeing Europe one weekend-long trip at a time is one of the greatest advantages of studying here.

That being said, I have to admit, getting off the bus in Paris after the fourteen-hour return trip felt like a great exhale. I had missed the fair city, and I was looking forward to getting back to classes on Monday morning. Even if Reed is the place I currently refer to as “home”, it was nice to be able to have Paris as a home-base of sorts—a place where I know the streets (well, sort of… I’m getting there) and have a house key and know which bakery on my block is open on Saturdays.

However, as I said, I consider Reed my home, and it has been quite odd being so far removed from what’s been happening on campus. Yes, I read the SB emails, and get regular email and Facebook updates from my faithful friends, but it’s much different from being front-row at senate meetings and seeing posters and announcements on the way to class. From recent reports, times are tumultuous at 3203, and I’ve been feeling a bizarre mixture of relief, confusion, and sadness that I’m not there to be in the midst of it all. My primal instinct to avoid drama by any means necessary is conflicting with my conception of Reed as a big family: With families come drunken Thanksgiving dinners, with people crying, yelling, criticizing, laughing, puking, and generally eye-rolling. Metaphorically speaking, of course. I suppose, in sum, that while I’m enjoying my French, (relatively) fancy-free time, there is a part of me that feels like I should be with my Reed family, dealing with these difficult things, and nursing the (again, metaphorical) hangover to come.

But I digress. My point is that as much as wanderlust will take hold of a person, body and soul, and allow for so many incredible opportunities and experiences, there is no replacement for a home-base, nor is there one for a family. Take care of each other, and try not to throw too much turkey. And when the dust has settled, check in with your travel bug, and see where it takes you.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Day I ALMOST Killed a Host Parent

I've decided to post this with pressure from my loving mother, who cried from laughing when I told her about this frankly horrifying encounter. Also: this was not published in the Quest. It may seem a little whiney, in an overly cliché bloggy way, but if you know anything about me, you know I need my coffee, and thusly, this is justified.

So, usually, in the morning, I wake up, getting showered/dressed, and then go into the kitchen to find breakfasty foods and coffee on.

Yesterday, I emerged, as usual, maybe a little more late than usual, to find the coffee pot upside down on the drying rack. Ghislain, one of my host parents, was in the kitchen peeling these weird, French mini apples that we always have in a bowl on the counter.

Nikki [in French]: Oh, is there no coffee this morning?
Ghislain [in French]: No, today I am eating apples. Would you like an apple?
Nikki: No...

It took me another thirty seconds to realize that there was, in fact, no coffee, and being late, as I was, I didn't have time to make any. I had to go to a 9:30am Monday class SANS COFFEE. I came dangerously close to drop-kicking the guy.

Seriously. Apples? WTF? How are apples a replacement for coffee? Are they laced with caffeine?

I miss my big coffee pot, Mr. Bean, with his wonderful self-timed ways, so I wake up to the smell of fresh coffee wafting from the kitchen.

Let's just say I woke up five minutes early today just to make sure the coffee situation was taken care of.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Reed, Wherever I May Be

Two weeks into the Parisian semester, and I’ve already learned so much. Yes, I’ve learned about Baudelaire and Gauthier, about Poincaré and Millerand, about the difference between rococo and neoclassicist painting, but above all, I’ve learned about myself, and my relationship to my education. As thrilling as it is to walk through the courtyard of the Sorbonne and find myself surrounded by classical-inspired marble architecture, I find myself yearning for the glow of the blue bridge at night and the ever-familiar bricks of the Hauser Fun Dome. My first two weeks of school in Paris have been wonderful and difficult, and have reminded me exactly why I chose Reed in the first place.

Reed seems to be following me everywhere I go. I sat down in my first class of the semester, nineteenth century French art history, and as I listened to the professor go through his slides and talk about each painting, I found myself keeping count of how many times my knowledge from Hum 110 came in handy: out of the 29 paintings we studied in our first day of class, 19 of them were thematically related to the Hum material. My literature classes and history course followed in a similar fashion, despite the fact that they’re all nineteenth and twentieth century classes. It turns out that there actually is a really good reason we all take Hum.

But I started to really think about Reed later in the week in one of my lit classes, as I spent my Wednesday afternoon sitting through three hours of lecture. Three solid hours of the professor talking, and all sixty of us students listening and taking notes. And then realizing that this was the “conference” section of the course, and that immediately after, I’d be going to the two-hour lecture section with all 250 students.

Needless to say, I was fairly horrified and irritated, and missing Reed for everything it is: the small classes, the encouragement to be opinionated and vocal, and the constant emphasis on learning through discussion. I left feeling like I had gotten myself into something that I had specifically applied to Reed to avoid for the rest of my life: the necessity of shutting up and taking notes for hours on end.

I became even more Reed-sick the next day in my other literature class when my incredibly française professor, Madame Lavaud, looked up over her red, half-moon glasses and told us all to write down the password for the course’s “meu-del”: To my extreme nostalgic pleasure, the Sorbonne uses the exact same interface as the beloved Moodle, except with a great French accent.

Trudging to my next class, the last of the week, a final, one-hour lecture on Samuel Beckett, I missed the Paradox between classes and my bi-weekly tummy-scratching dates with Prefix in the hall of Vollum 1. Taking my seat in the admittedly beautiful Amphithéâtre Milne Edwards, I pulled my notebook out, readying myself for more slavish note taking, and saw the image you see above: a boredom-induced etching of, “REED COLLEGE I GOTTA GO NOW,” and I just about burst into simultaneous tears and hysterical laughter. Reed was following me everywhere, and I’m oh so glad it was.

Week two was better. I had a grip on things, and I’m coming to terms with the French educational system. It’s different, and definitely not what I want from my college experience, but it just makes me appreciate what I have coming for the next two years even more. I also know that it’s an opportunity that I’m incredibly lucky to have, three-hour lectures notwithstanding.

Taking the bad with the good, I had my first class taught in the Sully wing of the Louvre on a rainy Wednesday morning, and later in the day studied an excerpt of de Beauvoir in a room that she had likely walked past, if not studied in, herself. My professors are brilliant, and I am slowly forcing myself into bilingualism every day. And while there is no Paradox or Prefix to be seen, I carry them with me all the time, along with the rest of Reed.

For Jack V. Booch, ’57, who took Reed with him ‘til the end.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Two Yogurts, No Spoon

10 February

‘Two yogurts, no spoon’ is a recently acquired philosophy of mine that well describes my first three weeks in Paris. Let me start by explaining: French yogurt is the best yogurt in the entire world. It’s just delicious. And you can find yogurt from local dairies in all of the supermarkets in these great little clay pots that I really wish I had a reason to keep forever.

One afternoon, after purchasing a pack of two of these cute and creamy treats, I arrived at CUPA and sat down to eat my lunch, and quickly realized that I had no spoon. Two yogurts, no spoon.

This kind of thing has become a trend in my day-to-day adventures. The first example that comes to mind was getting lost for an hour in the labyrinthine boulevards that make up Montparnasse on my way to the first day of orientation, making my entrance into the first meeting, half an hour late, spectacularly smooth. Two yogurts, no spoon.

A week an a half into my time here, I wake up early one morning feeling sick and miserable, but seeing as I’m scheduled to tour the maze that is my new school, La Sorbonne, I force myself out of bed and make the trek. While sitting on the metro (which I love), I realize that I really am about to throw up, so I toss myself off of the train and get intimate with the nearest trashcan. And then, of course, hop on the next metro and ride the rest of the way. Cherry on top: as I ascend the metro stop, I come to find that, sans doute, it has begun to snow. A twenty-four hour stomach flu and fever was to follow. Two yogurts, no spoon.

The next day, to my everlasting delight, my computer charger completely stops working. Thanks, Mac. And obviously, the single Apple store in Paris doesn’t have an availability for an appointment for another five days. Two yogurts, no spoon.

However, there is a second part to this philosophy. Going back to my initial, tragic story of not being able to eat my clay pot full of vanilla-y heaven, I later that night indulged in my yogurt, and after a long day of yearning, it was intensely satisfying. And therein lies the beauty: spoons are to be found.

Looking back at my rendezvous with Mac, there is a whole other part to the story. It turns out that this one Apple store in Paris happens to be in the mall located in the basement of the Palais du Louvre. After a long day of classes, I hopped off the metro on my journey to the Genius bar and found myself standing in the courtyard of one of the most magnificent palaces in the entire world, the glass pyramid entrance to the museum just yards away. It was one of the most surreal moments I’ve ever experienced. Things only got more awe-inspiring when out of the corner of my eye, I saw something flashing, and turned to see the Eiffel Tower lighting up on the hour. Here I was, casually making my way to the Apple store, except I just happened to be in Paris, a city dominated by beautiful, old structures, many of which are older than America itself.

My shock was further perpetuated when I realized that my nineteenth century French art history class would be meeting in that very courtyard every Wednesday morning, and that I would learn to look at it not just as a stunning historical landmark, but also as a place of learning and familiarity. Alas, the spoon.

So clearly, stomach flu and computer issues aside, these last three weeks have been amazing and eye-opening. As I try to find my niche in this big city, I’m realizing that my entire lifestyle has undergone a shift in a matter of weeks. With classes starting this week, I can only imagine the things I have to learn that lie ahead. In the meantime, I’m content to enjoy the simple pleasures of yogurt, the smell of French laundry detergent, the countless street florists, and pain au chocolat straight from the oven.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Beginning

Published 27 January

And so begins another semester, but this time, in Paris. My hope for this on-going column is to provide a weekly “bubble-burst” for you, my beloved Reedies. I am currently a student of the University of Paris IV, the infamous Sorbonne, through CUPA. It’s still orientation here, and, lucky as I am, classes don’t start until 8 February. For the three-week orientation period, however, all 31 CUPA students have to do a slightly tedious but generally very helpful methodology and language course, in order to better prepare us for integration into the French university system. As much as I may groan after a day of said course, I’m really grateful for it. The university system here is so different from what I’m used to, particularly as a Reedie that has, for a year and half now, been spoiled with first-name-basis profs, brilliant, motivated peers, and a beautiful, all-encompassing-never-have-to-leave campus. This, my friends, is not the case in the City of Lights.

Case-in-point: a professor giving out his or her personal email addresses is still an up-and-coming trend.

I am constantly being reminded of one fact throughout my methodology classes: I am now in a socialist system. The University of Paris is a free institution, and any French student that has passed the baccalaureate exam is eligible to attend. As such, the schools and the classes are enormous, the smallest school having about 9, 000 students, the largest, 30, 000. Another consequence of the socialist system is that a lot of the students are simply going to school because they can, and it’s just another few years to put off getting a real job. I’m not quite sure how this is going to affect my experience, but I have my predictions. There is only one University of Paris that actually has a campus, and the rest of the schools are spread out around the city. This is really cool in one way, but I know it won’t be long before I miss sitting on the steps of the Paradox and knowing everyone that walks by.

However—and this is a big however—there are some incredible benefits to the socialist system (preaching to the choir?). I was simply astounded the other day when my methodology professor, Michel, handed us a sample introductory handout for a class on the history of immigration, complete with bibliography of about fifteen books. He then went on to explain that hypothetically, if we were enrolled in this class, we would be expected to buy maybe three or four of the books. “We are in a socialist system,” he went on to explain, “where people go to school for free. A professor would never expect someone to spend money on a book that they would only need once or twice.” I was just stunned. Memories of hauling those technicolor bookstore bags full of books through the quad flooded my mind, and I realized that this semester is going to be a lot easier on my wallet and on my back.

Other benefits of the social system… Oh, did I mention it’s free? How about the fact that all university students have nearly unlimited access to all of the municipal and national libraries and museums in the city? Or, perhaps, that there are special restaurants all around the city for university students wherein you can have an entire meal for about $3?

All of the course listings just went up on the website on Friday night, and I’m getting that Same Old Feeling of excitement mixed with anxiety over the fact that there’s no way I’m going to be able to take all of the classes I want.

To put it frankly and succinctly, I miss you, Reed, but not too much. The city is amazing, and the food and the people are incredible, but there aren’t any free bagels, and I can’t go hang out with Pancho in his office way more than he wants me to every week. So, until next time, happy spring semester, my Reedies. Take care of each other, and feel free to live vicariously through me as I sip my Bordeaux and eat my body’s weight in bread and cheese.