Saturday, September 29, 2007

Fans and Passion

This is a picture of a couple of the 15,000 Scottish fans who were at the France-Scotland soccer game in Paris when I was there. You can't see it here, but they're all wearing kilts.

I wrote up the experience of being around the Scotland fans for another blog, It's a site dedicated to the soccer fan experience worldwide.

The post is not about soccer -- it's more about what it means to be a passionate sports fan in general. And what it means to witness this kind of passion.

If you're interested, stop by to check it out:
An American in Paris, with Scots

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Seventy Cents for What?

If you want to use the restroom in a French train station, it will cost you .5 Euros. In today's dollar-impaired market, that's about 70 cents. No Euros, no potty. Hold it till you bust.

So what do you get for your .5 Euros?

A clean restroom with soap, running water, working hand dryers, and a place to leave your suitcase while you use all of the above.

What don't you get?

Well, according to signs in the ladies' room at Gare de l'Est train station, where I caught the train to Metz, what you don't get is the right to wash anything except your hands in the sink. That's what the sign (in French,) said. Something along the lines of "Washing anything but hands in this sink is strictly prohibited."

What does this mean? It means this:

Cost of using the facilities, .5 Euros.

The visuals of other possibilities which that sign put into my head?


Monday, September 24, 2007

Travel Karma, Part 1

I have good travel karma. Yes, it's true.

What this means is that, basically, my planes and trains leave on time and my reservations are for what I expect them to be. (And if you're one of those who has spent many hellacious hours sitting on a runway while the toilets overflow and the person next to you threatens to cough up body parts, well... Don't hate me. I'm sorry. It's not my fault.)

I have no idea where this travel karma comes from. It just is. Other than a couple of major alterations in The Force, like the Denver blizzard last winter, or the time the sausage-fingered American Airlines clerk typed in the wrong credit card number AND the wrong contact information for my ticket... Well, other than that, my travel generally goes as planned. (And there was also that train derailment thing, fifteen years ago. But I think there's a karmic statute of limitations on stuff like that, so I don't count it.)

I needed good travel karma this trip, given the fact that at 10:00 p.m. on the night before my 8:00 a.m. flight I had no Paris hotel reservations. I generally tend not to stress about travel, but even I was getting a little nervous -- particularly since a travel agen I'd talked to earlier in the day had told me that due to the Rugby World Cup and several fashion shows, there were no rooms to be had in the city. The only one she offered was eight miles from city center and provided access only by bus, not subway. NOT what I was looking for.

Occasionally, though, there is a positive side to procrastination. Apparently all of the tour operators have to release their unsold rooms a couple of days before the room dates. When this happens, the hotels release them to the discount sites like Expedia. This meant that when I went to look for rooms (again, at 10:00 the night before I would need one), there were plenty available. Not cheap, of course. Nothing in Paris is cheap. But they offered a bed, and a bathroom actually in the room. What more did I really need?

And so I plugged in "Paris" and "Parc des Princes" (the stadium where the soccer match would be held) to one of the discount sites, and there was my room. A two-star hotel near the stadium and near a Metro station.

And life was good.

Of course, a two-star hotel in Paris is generally "quaint," meaning it's nothing to write home about and not the same as a two-star in the US. The rooms were minute and the walls were paper-thin, which required me to listen to every activity my neighbors engaged in. Even with earplugs. (I could even tell what morning shows my next-door neighbor was watching on TV when she turned it on at 7:30 each morning.)

And the plumbing was ancient and prone to making odd splooshing, gurgling noises in the middle of the night, as if some long-ago plumber had expired on the job, yet decided not to allow that to keep him from dealing with that final, stubborn clog.

In the mornings I found myself wishing that he would take on the shower drain instead, because it only intermittently allowed water to pass. Every day I found myself ankle-deep in a shower whose lip was only ankle-high, meaning I either had to take incredibly fast showers or mop the floor afterwards.

Even so, though. I was in Paris, and I had a hotel. My travel karma held.

And life was good.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Ghosts in a Place Like McDonalds

I was thoroughly and hopelessly lost.

I'd been sitting in my room in Paris on Sunday afternoon, flipping through channels on the TV, when I saw that the South Africa-Samoa game of the Rugby World Cup was just ending. And not only that, the game was being played at the Parc des Princes stadium, just one Metro stop down from my hotel. I decided it might be a fun experience to see what life after a World Cup Rugby match was like, so I grabbed my purse and hopped on the the subway.

It was interesting to see. Thousands and thousands of people, most of them apparently South African and thrilled by their team's thrashing of the Samoans. Unlike in the US, they don't serve alcohol inside the stade, but they do serve it from booths on the street afterwards. No open container laws in Paris, apparently. So what I saw, mostly, were thousands and thousands of fans guzzling beer on the street under the watchful eyes of hundreds of police.

That number -- hundreds -- is not an exaggeration. Dozens of police vans were parked along the street, and their former occupants were everywhere around the stadium. I didn't see any of them actively policing; the crowds were well-behaved. But if anything were to occur, they would be ready.

I wandered around outside the stadium for awhile, taking it all in. Mounted police on huge horses, apparently because it's harder to get a grip on the rider of a tall horse than a small one. An all-ages marching band which apparently came from South Africa. And everywhere the green and yellow shirts of the South African team.

When I decided to head back, though, there was one minor problem: Every one of the 46,000 fans seemed to be having the same thought. Thousands were packed into the subway station and shoehorning themselves into the trains. Not my idea of a good time. I knew that my hotel was within walking distance if only I could figure out how to get there.

I asked one of the policemen for help, and he took me to a map of the area, found the street I was looking for, and pointed me in the right direction. (And I am proud to say that this was one of my conversations which took place entirely in French. Although I must admit that most of what was said involved pointing to the map, then to the street, and saying things like, "There?" "Yes, there." But still. All French.)

I would be coming back this same direction after the soccer match on Wednesday, so once I found the street I made sure to locate a landmark that would bring me back to the right place. And that landmark was... (You'll never guess.) McDonalds. Yes, there was a McDonalds, with lines out the door, on the corner of the street I needed to take. Oh, the irony.

And then I realized where I was. McDonalds. Near Parc des Princes, the stadium used by the soccer team Paris St. Germain. This couldn't possibly be that McDonalds, could it? In this beautiful, upper-class neighborhood? It wasn't possible.

But it was.

Last November, after an ugly PSG loss to the Israeli team Hapoel Tel Aviv, four members of the French Jewish community were chased by members of a right-wing PSG fan group. They split up and ran, but one was pursued and cornered by a group of up to 100 people. He had taken shelter in this McDonalds.

A policeman of Caribbean descent came to his defense and was also attacked by PSG fans yelling antiSemitic and racial epithets. The officer tried using tear gas to quell the crowd. When they knocked him to the ground, though, he pulled out his gun and fired, killing one and wounding another. (For a bone-chilling eye-witness account, click here.)

You wouldn't expect something like this to happen here, where I was. This was a neighborhood of wrought-iron balconies and red geraniums in window boxes. A neighborhood where a 1000 square-foot apartment sells for a million dollars.

And, yes, a world where non-whites aren't seen much, unless they are au pairs, or deliverymen, or taxi drivers.

There is a tension in French society that you don't really see as a tourist. I'm more aware of it because I'm a fan of the France national soccer team, which has a number of black players. This is a source of tension and anger for a small but vocal French minority. There is an underbelly of anti-immigrant, anti-African sentiment in the country that has the potential to turn violent at any moment.

Even in innocent places like this McDonalds.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Adventures in French Cuisine

I made an interesting discovery on my last night in Paris.

I was eating in a little brasserie -- the sidewalk cafes/bars that exist on virtually every corner in the city. After examining the menu, I decided on what felt like a safe choice: the salmon. I actually understood every word in the menu description, which was not always the case, particularly when we were talking about things like particular cuts or varieties of meat. And it sounded lovely: Salmon, marinated 48 hours, served with a "salad" of chilled green beans. My stomach growled.

I was ravenous and desperate for a hot meal. French cafes and restaurants are open only for certain hours, and my body clock hadn't adjusted. My jet lag never subsided enough for me to make it out of bed for breakfast. Lunches were generally not served after two, and cafes didn't start serving dinner until about 7:00 or so. And nobody ever grabs a bite to eat on the street. Outside of touristy areas like the Eiffel tower, it's just not done. If you can't arrange your body and your schedule on Parisian time, you go hungry. Or eat at McDonald's, which I hadn't been able to make myself do.

I'd survived my day of sightseeing with a couple of handfuls of peanuts and the remains of the snack food I'd picked up at a little corner grocery earlier in the week. (These little groceries are what we'd call a convenience store, much smaller than a 7-11, and with close to half their shelf space devoted to wine and alcohol. But they're where Parisians do their everyday shopping.)

So I placed my order for the salmon and prepared to wait. Amazingly, the plate was on my table in less than five minutes. I was pleasantly surprised until I saw why.

Hmm. I thought back to the menu description. Marinated salmon. Yes, that's what I had on my plate. But I guess it had never occurred to me to ask whether the salmon would actually be cooked after marinating.

What I had staring back at me was a slab of bright orange raw salmon, drizzled with olive oil and spices and surrounded by a mass of cold green beans.

I don't do raw. I hate sushi, I won't touch raw oysters, and I'd never consider anything tartare. Part of it is a microbe-phobia (what might still be alive in there?!?) and part of it is that I just can never get past that slimy texture.

On this night, though, I tried. I really did. I cut the salmon into small pieces, doused it liberally with the mayonnaise-based sauce it came with, and washed down a few bites with chardonnay. It really was very flavorful, and if I hadn't been spending every second thinking, "Ew. This is raw fish," as I felt it slip and slide around in my mouth... Well, if I'd been able to get past that, I might have enjoyed it.

As it was, though, I kept finding myself thinking, "I'm going to be spending several hours on a train tomorrow. What a joy it would be to have intestinal parasites as traveling companions." And so I cut the remainder up into pieces, mixed those pieces around with the green beans to try to hide the fact that I hadn't eaten, and called for the check.

The waiter, of course, asked if I'd disliked the food. I assured him that no, no, I just hadn't been hungry. A bald-faced lie, and I know he saw through me. Oh, well.

I paid the bill, then stopped by the little corner store and picked up a ham sandwich, which I ate in my room while watching the Rugby World Cup. And life was good.

So I'm not a gourmande. Sue me.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Lagging, of the Jet Variety

Here is my definition of the jet lag that comes from jumping across nine time zones:

You arrive at your destination. You follow the "rules" about not going to bed immediately, even if you've just skipped a night of sleep. Eventually, at last, you allow yourself to go to bed at a realistic hour, like 10:00 or 11:00 (or 22h00 or 23h00 if you're in, y'know, France.) You doze off blissfully, prepared for this bone-numbing exhaustion to be history by morning.

Two or three hours later, your eyes pop open and your body says, "Hey! Great! Thanks for the nap! Let's go finish the day!" And then you lie awake for three or four more hours, tossing and turning and unwillingly listening through paper-thin walls as your neighbors go about their intimate personal business. And you're trying desperately to clear your mind and not think thoughts like, "Whoa. Dude. Sorry about those prostate issues!"

You at last drift off at 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning and wake up unrested at 10:00. Repeat process for four or five days, at which point your body becomes acclimated at last.

And then you come home.

It's been the same process since Monday night. Short nighttime "nap" followed by a long awake period followed by a final, short, restless sleep. Last night I was so exhausted by 6:00 that I just had to go to bed. I abandoned a soccer game to do it, too -- Arsenal vs. Sevilla, Champions League. If you're a fan of European soccer, you know what it took to make me walk away from this game. Two amazing teams that play exquisite, attacking soccer. It was kind of like turning my back on a dinner that included both filet mignon and crème brûlée. But my body was giving me no choice.

I woke up a little after 2:00, but felt finally, at last, fully rested. Eight uninterrupted hours of sleep! I'd forgotten what that felt like.

Which is why I'm sitting here at 4:00 a.m., wide awake and writing about jet lag.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Dirty Clothes and Grocery Stores

(Note: We interrupt our Parisian travelogue to bring you a reality interlude. More on Paris demain.)

With my daughter, it was dirty clothes. With my son, a trip to the grocery store.

Two years ago, my husband and I dropped off our daughter at her dorm at University of Washington, the excellent state school that is maybe ten miles from our house. It had been a turbulent summer, full of the frustration and clashes that come when an eighteen-year-old prepares to leave home. I once read it described as "fouling the nest," a painful but necessary process that gives everyone the strength to let go and allow a child to move on to the next stage of life.

And one of the biggest sources of conflict that summer was dirty clothes left on the bathroom floor. These seems humorous, now. Then? Not so much. Rather than continuing to nag, or leaving them for everybody else to trip over, I took to scooping them up and dumping them on the floor in the doorway of her bedroom. (Hey, what would YOU have done?)

And then college was upon us.

On that Thursday we moved her things into her dorm, took her out to breakfast at a little cafe, and then turned her loose into her new life. I drove home, thinking, "I am handling this quite well." And then I got to our house, walked into the bathroom... And there were her clothes, in a pile on the floor. I burst into tears.

We have survived. She is now a junior, living in a house near campus with friends. And this summer she even remembered to pick up her clothes. On most days.

And today it was my son's turn.

I say this with much love, but he is the child I understand the least. This is a little strange, because he is also the child most like me -- the middle child, the non-shy introvert who keeps his thoughts to himself. He doesn't interact much with adults, never has -- a middle child thing. But he's a good kid with good friends, and he spent high school taking AP classes, lettering in track and cross country, and serving as both Junior and Senior Class Presidents. We didn't have the blow-ups we had with his sister because he isn't a blow-up kind of kid. He's a keep-it-inside kind of kid. Always has been.

But still I worry. And with some reason. While I was in Paris, he apparently got a last bill for housing and either didn't read it or didn't understand the import of it and let it go. When it didn't get paid, they dropped him from the dorm list altogether. When he called to get reinstated, he became a Priority 5 -- the lowest possible priority. They said that because he lived locally, he might have to commute for several weeks while everyone else sorted themselves out.

A painful lesson, no? Particularly for this kid, so ready to be out of the house. Fortunately for him there must have been a lot of people going to fraternities and sororities and alternate living arrangements, because he got an e-mail yesterday saying that he had a room and was moving in today.

So yesterday was spent with him panic-shopping, and packing, and running multiple loads of laundry, pausing only to ask questions like, "When I started it on 'medium' and the water stops, how do I get it to keep filling up for a big load?" Eventually it all got done.

Today was move-in day. We drove to the college, got directed to the dorm, and then sat and waited for the designated move-in helpers to show up with the luggage carts. I stayed with the car (a requirement that one person be there), watching all of the other parents and kids go through this same drama of transition, while my son and my husband moved his things up. Then my husband came down and I went up to see the room. Because he was so low on the priority list he's in a triple, with three boys sharing a room built for two, at least for the first month. It's cramped, but possible. But not an ideal situation for an introvert.

And so I cross my fingers, and worry, and pray, and know that in the long term this will all work out, but the first quarter may be painful.

Later on today I went grocery shopping. I hadn't had the chance since I got back from Paris, and we were out of everything. And it was in the grocery store that I had my clothes-on-the-bathroom-floor moment. No need to buy mac and cheese. (My youngest doesn't eat it.) No need for Wheat Thins. No need for all the little things I've gotten in the habit of buying over the years. He won't be eating here for awhile. It was my maternally activated, lump-in-the-throat moment.

Like most transitions, this one is bittersweet. One computer, available at all times! Nobody draining the hot water tank with one shower! And son is not here. An odd feeling that all of the planning in the world can't prepare you for, and that stings even when you've been through it already.

Hooray for universities close to home.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

That Language Barrier (OR: But I thought I parled français!)

Something one should know in visiting a foreign country: Studying a language for five years doesn't necessarily make one able to actually speak, or comprehend, that language.

The funny thing is, it's not as if I haven't used French since college. I read French articles on the internet several times a week, picking up the latest football news for one of the soccer blogs I write. And it's not that hard for me to follow French when it's spoken slowly and gramatically and contains only a few idioms.

Problem is, who speaks slowly and gramatically and without idioms in real life? Nobody I know. And not only that, when you're working at comprehending a language, it's a multi-step process. First, you have to hear what they say. (And Paris is not a quiet city.) Second, you have to break it down into individual words. (Harder than you might think when a language is spoken at an everyday pace.) And third, you have to mentally translate those words into your own language to (hopefully)form a coherent thought. And then you have to kind of reverse the process if you're trying to create a response.

You don't realize how much of your own intelligence and first-language linguistic competence you take for granted until you try to speak in a foreign tongue. Suddenly you find yourself trying to switch every thought to either present tense, or at least to a simple past or future tense. Out with the conditional! Away with the subjunctive! Into the garbage with sentences like, "If I'd known, I would have done it, but I couldn't tell." Switch that instead to, "I didn't do it." And even for that you have to figure out past tense and negatives and pronoun placement.

Ce n'est pas facile. (And since the "n'" part of the negative is pretty much used only in written and not spoken French, you'd actually say, "C'est pas facile." Very...challenging.)

I found myself eavesdropping on snatches of conversation all around me, trying to pick up even bits and pieces. My favorite was a girl of about eight, telling her au pair about sharing the tomatoes in her salad with a friend. Well, actually, it was my favorite because it was about the only one I fully understood. Otherwise I'd pick up individual words and occasional phrases, but when it came to full thoughts and conversations? Let's just say that my eavesdropping skills would not allow me to be a spy in France.

It was fun, though. An intellectual Mt. Everest that got marginally easier to scale as the week went on. When I'd get exhausted with dealing with people, I'd go back to my room and watch TV. (Which is funny, because it's almost impossible for me to sit and watch TV in the US.) I got addicted to French game shows, and actually picked out a couple of the Wheel of Fortune clues before the players could solve the puzzle. And news shows were surprisingly easy to understand because they met my "slow, grammatical and idiom-free speech" qualifications. I'd watch them and think, "Oh, this language stuff is getting easier!" And then I'd switch channels to a show where actual conversation was going on and Voilà! More linguistic stew.

Funny thing, though. Despite my incompetence, the language part was one of the most interesting things about the trip. Holding a conversaton with a front desk clerk or waiter or taxi driver entirely in French became cause for celebration.

Think about it. Once we get out of school, how often do we get actual intellectual challenges? Far too rarely, I think. Or maybe that's just me.

So let's hear it for intellectual challenges, for linguistic stew, and for the simple present tense.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Visiting a Different World

I got home at about 10:00 last night, twenty-five hours after waking up in my hotel near Charles de Gaulle airport, just outside of Paris.

Yes, Paris. (Insert exclamation points as desired.) I went on my own, by myself, for ten days (plus two in transit.) Eight days in Paris, proper, two in the little town of Metz, on the German border. They were among the most amazing, fascinating, exhausting, lonely, exhilarating days of my life. I don't think I would ever do it again, but I'm so happy to have done it this once.

So. How did I end up in Paris?

I will be honest here and admit that I am a little...unusual. Because it all goes back to soccer.

Of course it does. Probably to last summer's World Cup, where my passion for my beloved France National Team reached a boiling point. And all of a sudden my desire to go back to France moved from "want" to "need," and I started dropping pointed hints to my husband. And he agreed. In theory.

Problem: He doesn't have a flexible schedule. We made tentative plans to go last October or so and they fell through. Then plans for Christmas/New Year's, but the number two guy in his office quit, leaving him with all of the work. So that was out. Then we thought about spring, but that didn't work out either.

And Paris was completely my choice, too. He would happily go to be with me, but there are a million places he would prefer to visit. (We went together when I was pregnant with our youngest, twelve years ago, and had a great time, but I think if it were left completely up to him, he'd tell you that he's got his Paris merit badge.)

And then, in July, I was visiting the website of the fff -- the Fédération Française de Football -- and lo ang behold, they were offering tickets to the France-Scotland Euro qualifier on September 12. And I started clicking on links, and suddently they were offering me a good seat. And so I called up my husband, he said, "Great, go do it!" and that was that. Suddenly I was going to Paris.

I'll write more about the trip later. But it was incredible.

And I am SO glad to be home.