Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Foreigners Who Don't Drive Me Batty

Anyone familiar with me (or this blog) knows that I don't have a great love for most of my fellow American expats in Paris.

If meeting at an Irish pub and speaking exclusively in English about how much you hate overpaying for Oreos while sipping overpriced, past-its-date Guinness is your thing, fine. Go do it. Just don't do it in my company. And preferably nowhere near my charming little neighborhood. I didn't move here to hang out with the Marina choads who work in the Fi-Di, thankyouverymuch. (That'd be a San Francisco reference to the vile popped-collar scum who undeservedly get the most overseas working opportunities.)

So it was with a little apprehension that I finally gave in and went to my first Polyglot event. The wife and I have both been meaning to hit up one of these language exchange meet-ups held at a local bar, but having been turned off by the douchebaggery at most other conglomerations of étrangers à Paris, we balked. Self-hatred? A desire to break free of our former lives? No. As Alannah pointed out over lunch today, we consider ourselves - rather unlike the type we keep away from - immigrants. Not expats. Not foreign workers. Not a couple on extended vacation. But a couple of people who have moved to another country - most probably for good - who would like to integrate a bit and make local friends.

That's a tough gig in a socially insular place like Paris, but I think we've found a gathering that's just our style. For the people who sign up for a group like Polyglot seem to have a genuine interest in learning other languages and cultures. Sure, there are plenty of other 'Murrikans who show up – but they've come to improve their French. Or Spanish. Or Japanese. And it's not just Americans and French. There are Chinese, Iranian, Australian... to name a few.

Over the course of a few hours I had conversations in many of the languages I know (or would like to know), taught and learned various turns of phrase, and - OMGWTF - met actual Parisians who were as interested in what others had to say as they were with grabbing their next verre. In fact, more so.

If anything, I felt like the town drunk having two big steins of beer. But as I said, I was a bit timid about this whole affair at first.

While there's definitely some emphasis on socializing and having a little glass of something as social lubricant, it was refreshing to be around people interested in sharing. Not business networking. Not getting laid. Not whining about how no one at the market speaks English. (Although I'm certain a little bit of all that takes place as well...)

Although neither of us were social butterflies making the rounds, we met a fistful of cool, interesting people... And even made new friends. In fact, when a couple of guys found out we're really into food and cooking, they insisted on having a dinner party to introduce us to their "real home cooking."

The revelation isn't from previously thinking that such people didn't exist... Through the friends that we've already made we know damn well that there are friendly, welcoming Parisians who are as happy to lend you a hand as they are to go party with you. It's just that - even as locals will tell you - the social life here can be a very tough nut to crack. And thanks to a community of the linguistically curious, we've just started to tap a few more fissures into the shell. Tap tap tap...

Monday, April 13, 2009

Des Américains à Paris

Looking through the New York Times web site before the weekend, I found an article about an American festival in Paris. Figuring Sunday was set to be a gorgeous day, I proposed the idea of hitting up the festival to Alannah, who then told another American friend about it, who then brought a couple of her visiting American friends. What better place for a bunch of Americans in Paris to gravitate that, well, a festival called "Americans in Paris?"

Upon arriving at the Jardin d'Acclimatation - the part of the massive Bois de Boulogne where the festival was held - we were greeted by a gigantic poster of Uncle Sam, complete with a stars-n-stripes mushroom cloud behind him. And on his lapel, a button with the same mushroom cloud figure. "WE [NUKE] YOU" ???

All joking aside, it's actually the Jardin d'Acclimatation's oak tree logo, and their slogan is "WE [OAK TREE] YOU." Alannah had noticed this in the event program before we even went. But one has to admit, the whole mushroom cloud seems much more appropriate for the finger-wagging Uncle Sam.

We entered the park grounds, passing a small jazz quartet along the way (jazz is heavily acquainted with America here, and why not?), went through the ticket booths (a whopping 2€70 admission), and came upon what I could only call Main Street U.S.A. Only without the Main Street Electrical Parade. And instead, a shit-ton of non-sensical highway signs. In French eyes, this is what the great American open road looks like: A clusterfuck of signage, yellow cabs, and yellow school buses. And surprisingly, no other Americans.

Despite the fact that the Jardin borders Neuilly-sur-Seine, the America-lovin', expat-filled suburb nicknamed Sarkoville after President Nicolas "Sarko the Américain" Sarkozy - I didn't hear any other brassy-accented, flat-voweled English other than our little group's.

Alannah and I looked around in awe at what Parisians consider typical American. For the most part, they're dead on. Stands selling stuff you can't typically get here, like bagels, pancakes, brownies, and dirty-water hot dogs. (Most hot dogs here are baked into a bun, kind of like a baguettey bagel dog.)

There were tee-pees, because even though we've swept the indigenous population under the rug with a bottle of firewater and a trinket industry for company, American Indian imagery still weighs heavily on this side of the ocean as part of what America "is." Although they often misapply it in that National Geographic speculative anthropology kind of way that is respectfully interested but horribly off-base. The popular Indiana Café chain, for example, boasts a Cherokee headdress logo, serves Tex-Mex food, and - well - is freakin' called Indiana. Three things that have nothing to do with each other. Then there's the Buffalo Grill chain, which romanticizes the Wild West and Buffalo Bill, who happily sits side-by-side with figures of the very people he was out to terminate. But I digress...

Our first stop was to get a souvenir photo of Alannah inside a cutout of the signature American cultural export: Coca-Cola. This act epitomized exactly why we came: Seriously cheese-dick fun. Despite the fact that we're both food freaks who abhor high fructose corn syrup, we've become enamored with Coke since moving here. Not for nostalgia's sake, but because like Mexican Coke, it's made with real sugar here. It's sad when the American stuff abroad is more authentic than the American stuff in America, n'est-ce pas? (We've also come to appreciate *shiver* McDonald's, but perhaps because it's the only place you can get a burger for less than 10€.)

Looking around further, there wasn't much American stuff that I've been longing for. The pecan pie on display at one booth looked terrible. There were no chili dogs, fried chicken, or funnel cakes to be found. In fact, if you're an American in Paris missing food from back home, this festival had to be about the lamest place.

Despite the disappointed tummy, however, there was plenty to amuse.

We spent a good amount of time watching a local acrobatic basketball team called Crazy Dunkers. Because nothing says America like getting above the rim and dunking over some little kid. I mean, literally...

There were all the rides and zoo animals that make the Jardin d'Acclimatation a fun place for the family even when it hasn't been invaded by an American festival. ESPN America (which is the European version of ESPN... whaaa?) had set up batting cages. Little French kids donned American football helmets and did their best to knock down a tackling dummy.

And, of course, there was something to remind me that even I bleed a little bit of Red, White, and Blue: Cheerleaders. Or as they're called here in France, "Pom-Pom Girls." (Which, sadly, doesn't acknowledge the growing number of male cheerleaders, whom I don't personally find as aesthetically pleasing, but equally important in the college sports scene.) At any rate, instead of hearing me muse about gender equality in sports and spirit activities, I'm sure there's more interest in a picture, huh?

Overall, it was great fun, seriously aided by the gorgeous spring weather. I would've liked there to have been more stuff representing the America I know. I mean, besides a Marines recruiter preying on GED candidates or Toby fuckin' Keith. I mean things like California wines. Texas BBQ. Pacific Northwest beer. Humboldt county blue-haired bud. Ok, maybe that's pushing it. But instead of the stereotypes and booths from mediocre local expat businesses who are nothing but the colloquial "epic fail," I'd love to see bits of "real" American goods and culture. I'm sure most Parisians know that the USA is more than hot dogs, bagels, and Barack Obama posters by street artists. (Although all of those are A-OK by me.) Just as France isn't all baguettes, wine, cheese and nudie flicks (although there's plenty of that to go around), America is more than junk food and compensatory projection of military power.

Then again, witnessing the massive (in both ways) American family in front of us on the Métro Ligne 1 between the Bois du Boulogne and our neighborhood, dressed like they just ransacked a Super Wal-Mart, barely able to talk without spitting bits of unchewed food, and unable to stand on the train without knocking people over with their kielbasa-fingered fists... Perhaps many French rightly have a lousy impression of us.

50 more photos available in this Flickr set... yes, including more cheerleader photos.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Back in the Saddle

I haven't written in months.

At first I thought it was from the old theory that there's no better way to rob the joy out of what you love doing than... doing it for a living. After all, I'm primarily a writer now, and I spend all day looking at words. Either my own half-formed ones, or those of others - trying to find inspiration. If I'm focused on spinning words into digestible (or, rather, marketable) fluff for the tech masses, I probably don't want to come home and stare at my notebook or blinking cursor.

But then I realized, no, that's not the case. I still spend plenty of time writing invective against right-wing blowhards and musing about music and food on various social media sites. And more and more often in French!

In fact, come to think of it, I've been writing plenty. Just not here. Because back in 2005, I set this up to write about my travels. And since moving to Paris a year ago, I haven't really been traveling. One year in a continent where different languages, cultures, and food and drink are within a couple of hours by train or plane... and I've only been to Italy and England. Oh, and Montpellier, which might as well be another country.

To be honest, it's been a bit frustrating. One of the draws of moving here was this ability to go in any direction and wind up practicing my Spanish or German or Dutch or... you get the picture. But the reality is, despite having a lot of expenses covered and some cash saved up, moving overseas has hit the pocketbook hard. We moved a good amount of stuff, but once we finally found an apartment, had to buy even more. Also, things are just generally more expensive here. Books. Clothes. Dinners out. Drinks. A show at a small club. Then there's the pesky fact that we're now a couple on a single income.

The quality of life is high in Paris. Unfortunately, so is the cost.

I have, however, found a way around it all. And it's not in any Europe-On-a-Shoestring or Paris-pas-Cher guidebook. Nope. It's about something you can't find on a bookshelf or any web site. It's called... mojo.

That's right, baby, I've got my mojo back. Those who've known me for a long time know that I'm a fucking winner. As in, I have this uncanny knack for winning contests. It's not skill. It's not timing. I just win stuff. And there is a lot of shit to win in Paris.

A few weeks ago, I got a call on my mobile while I was at work. "Is this Omid?" asked the woman's voice on the other end. "If you're free on the 17th of March, you've won two tickets for the Tina Turner concert at Bercy."

Now, I wouldn't be picked out of the crowd as a big Tina Turner fan. I know her catalogue, I respect her as an artist, and no self-respecting Child of the 80's would deny having bopped his/her feathered head to her music as a youngin'. And hell, I actually was interested when I saw the poster advertising the show... Until I saw the €136 pricetag on the tickets. That's PER ticket. Convert that to dollars, and we're talking Madonna or Barbra Streisand-like extortion.

But for free? Hell yes!

So there we were, a poor-ass, single-income couple of unsophisticated 'Merkins, sitting amongst Parisian celebrities in what must've been the VIP area, with the hoi polloi occasionally coming up to snap pictures of the stars I couldn't even begin to recognize. Ok, I think one guy hosts a TV show, and another one was a French rock star, but honestly, I simply haven't assimilated enough to know. Then Tina came out, shimmying around the stage and belting out hit after hit. Call me an old bastard, but I fully enjoyed it. The old songs; the costume changes; the Mad Max set; the ridiculous Goldeneye set; explosions; the intermission where, out by the bar and toilets, I saw the largest gathering of middle-aged gay men since my old co-worker's Tony Awards party. All just three metro stops away... and after the quick ride home, Alannah and I said to each other, "We've got to win more contests."

And so we did. Last week, Alannah got an email from the folks at the recently opened Forum des Images saying that she'd won an invitation to the "Toi & Moi" party. Come as a pair, dressed as your favorite movie couple, be photographed red carpet-style, blah, blah, win prizes, blah, blah, chocolates to snack on, blah, blah, open bar. Open bar? Why didn't they say that earlier?

And thus we went, dressed up as Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace from Pulp Fiction. Not super creative, but I have long hair and John Travolta's paunch, and getting the necessary hair dye, fake pistol, and bola tie fit our miniscule budget.

Yes, I know they weren't a couple, but there was plenty of sexual tension, OK? Besides, a lot of other couples came as completely incongruent stuff - like Darth Vader and Catwoman. Or Wayne and Garth. (Last I checked, neither of those pairs were havin' relations...)

Through the course of the night, we consumed well over a bottle's worth of whiskey each. Which broke down Alannah's language barrier a bit, since she pretty much wound up talking to everyone, despite her minimal French. And making out with the hot bartender. (Girl bartender, that is.)

And she's not one to do that type of thing. [Mental note: Buy more whiskey.]

Alannah claims that the bartender was the aggressor, but the pics tell me otherwise. (Sorry, she hasn't posted them to Flickr yet.) While I wasn't up to quite the same shenanigans, my Vincent did find his Jules. And no, we did not play tonsil hockey.

We were well beyond crusty the day after. But I survived my day at work. And Alannah survived her evening of training for the organization she's volunteering with. I work. She volunteers, works on her French, and makes friends with all the local merchants so we're always in fresh produce and fish and meat. And together, we win.

This evening, after work, I swung by the Lazy Dog Gallery to pick up a new special-edition Swatch designed by rapper/artist Grems. Along with it, a nice print of his work for this project, as well as a couple of wristbands for the launch party/concert at La Scène Bastille. It'd be a bit gauche to discuss the retail value of this package, but let's just say I can not afford it. But that's ok, because I won it in a contest yesterday.

To celebrate our great luck (as if that's necessary), we stopped by our favorite wine bar for un verre ou deux... then brought home 10 litres of the stuff so we can have some with the fantastically fresh food Alannah had picked up at the local open-air markets earlier in the day.

We have no need to buy bottles of wine regularly anymore. We do it old school, filling up two 5L jugs of small-producer wine straight from the cask at the beginning of the month.

We've made friends with our next-door neighbor, everyone at the bar downstairs, and the guy who owns the boutique next door.

I've traded in taking the metro for riding the bus to/from work. It's a bit slower, but it's less crowded, more reliable, and I can get more reading done without the interruption of changing stations.

And I've just booked a pair of train tickets for a short break in Luxembourg.

I think it's safe to say I've found my groove.