Friday, July 16, 2010

Feelin' French for Bastille Day (+ video)

My wife and I both have a mantra that we often have to repeat not only to ourselves, but to others: "I'm not an expat, I'm an immigrant."

While technically speaking there may not be much of a difference, we often find a mentality gap between those who consider themselves "expats" and those who'll admit (so to speak) they're an "immigrant." Socially, the term "expat" often implies white collar work or wealth, that someone has moved to another country other than theirs at their own volition and stays on their leisure. "Immigrant" is often perceived to mean someone who moved out of necessity or to forge a more livable life.

Though we're most definitely white collar and came to France purely of our own volition, we definitely put ourselves in the latter category. We're actively trying to integrate into the culture while fiercely holding on to what we like about our own, as all immigrants should. We're most definitely not living some fabulous life of luxury. In fact, almost every day is a struggle.

A month doesn't go by where we don't worry about making enough money, visa statuses, sending enough money home, better mastering the language, figuring out new ways to make ends meet... Anyone back in the US who thinks immigrants come in (anywhere) to live a fat, lazy life is an asshole.

Yes, we do travel, and yes, we do some fabulous or frivolous things, and you see those things on the internet because those are the memories we're trying to forge. I don't bother photographing or writing about the weeks we have to spend stretching one sack of beans, four vegetables, and 200 grams of meat into five meals for two people. (I'm saving that for the book, which will help pay 2% of our rent next year, of course...)

All that aside, after about two and a half years here, things are gelling. We've already felt Paris has been our "home" for quite some time now, but things are really kicking in. I complain as much as any natural-born Parisian (of which there are maybe 6). I curse the government and pray for revolution as much as any 68'er. I will declare something "merde" or an "arnaque" immediately upon hearing about it. I coo at the first sight of babies or puppies.

Ok, so I was always like that.

But there are little everyday things that make us feel more in our skin now than ever before. Nary a day goes by when we don't see someone we know in the street, at a shop, getting coffee, etc. Alannah now feels more comfortable speaking French with strangers. And just the other morning at 5 a.m. I called the cops (!?) to complain about noise from a huge fight down the street, and not only did I not have to repeat or awkwardly re-explain anything in broken French, but... They actually showed up and took care of it!

Furthermore, our local know-how is getting better and better. On the eve of the FĂȘte Nationale, we turned up at the Bal des Pompiers (the fireman's ball to celebrate Bastille Day) at the Rousseau fire station in the 1st arrondissement just early enough to spend two minutes (as opposed to two hours) in line, but just late enough for it to be lively inside – where, of course we ran into some familiar faces from around town.  For the 14th of July itself, we dispensed with the picnic amongst 1,000,000 people on the Champ de Mars (mostly because it pissed early on in the day) and instead watched the fireworks from a more serene locale on the river. For probably the 90th time since the weather got nice this year, we very economically popped open a bottle of wine and watched the Seine flow underneath us...

It's a long process, but we're figuring out the system and almost fitting in. We don't shun the anglophone community entirely: You gotta stay true to your roots, you can't discriminate who your friends are, and there are some cool expats who aren't on the same immigrant wavelength that we love nonetheless. And we know we'll never really be French (maybe on paper, someday...). But as much as we miss American work ethic (no, really), California cuisine, and Mexican drunk food, we feel very lucky – and dare I say proud – to be here.

Now enjoy the fireworks.

(Sorry 'bout the video quality. It was taken with a mobile phone from a distance.)

Thursday, July 08, 2010


That's the Twitter hashtag the wife used the morning of July 4 as we were getting our asses up way too early, all in order to go to Disneyland and see some fireworks or something.

It's just a model.
Yeah, that Disneyland, the one near Paris.

We don't do inane touristy things like go up the Eiffel Tower or the top of the Arc de Triomphe, even when we have visitors in town. But there we were, just the two of us, going to freakin' Disneyland. Because it's the only damn fully American thing you can do in Paris. Not that we often want to, but sometimes – especially on the national holiday – we want a taste of the nation formerly called home.

Sure, you can go to some American-run coffee shop/juice bar and pay €6.50 for a lackluster bagel sandwich that would be panned by any New Yorker with half a palate. You can go to an "American" restaurant and spend €65 on a more than regrettable meal of questionable provenance and even more questionable culinary merit. Or (providing you can hook up a discount pass) you can spend practically nothing to while away a full day of 100% genuine USA! USA! USA! Americana at Parc Disneyland Paris. Or whatever they're calling it now.

Yes, the food is crap. And yes, once you're inside – pass or not – they're going to milk you for every crisp Euro note in your pocket. But isn't that what it's all about? For one day, you can take in the crass commercialism, mass merchandising, and continuous hard sell that is America's gift to the world. And hot damn if it isn't FUN.

Very old San Francisco
For something like 14 hours straight we did seriously American stuff like have our spines realigned by Thunder Mountain, queue forever for Indiana Jones, watch janky video that hasn't been updated since 1987 on Star Tours, and sample all the marvels of hallucinogenic-inspired psychedelia in any attraction having to do with Alice in Wonderland. Pirates of the Caribbean brought back a flood of adolescent memories from Southern California, with the plastic artifice of SoCal (minus all the fake boobs) quickly replaced by the genuine faux San Francisco veneer of the Victorian Arcade alongside Main Street USA. It was disturbing how comfortable it all felt, especially the little vignette of San Francisco.

While others were rushing to their favorite part of the park or lining up for one of the umpteen parades down Main Street, I found it perfectly acceptable to park our asses in a booth in the Cable Car Bake Shop and futz around with my camera. Surprisingly, the cheesecake and carrot cake we had were much more authentic than almost all others we've had in Paris and – y'all ready for this? – cheaper.

Alannah about to take her first – and last – bite
of a candy apple. Thank goodness we have
an awesome dentist.
This set up the order of the day. As others ran berserk trying to get on to every ride and see every show, we took it easy and soaked up the America all around us. Cartoonishly giant hot dog? Check. Disgusting, tooth-rotting candy apple? Check. Rolls of fat pouring out over elastic-waisted shorts? Double, triple, quadruple check.

To be fair on that last point, we weren't surrounded by stereotypical fat Americans. Not the whole time.

(Which begs the question: Why do so many Americans come all the way to France to see a carbon copy of what's in California or Florida?)

Because when you leave the rarified air of Paris for even more touristy locales, you will inevitably run into our European cousins, who seem to have equal love for huge waistlines, racing team baseball caps, and talking loud. Really loud. In fact, over the course of the day, I started to suspect that the reason they stopped calling it "EuroDisney" and simply changed it to "Disneyland Paris" is because the former made it too easy to lampoon the park as "EuroTrashDisney." It was like People of Wal-Mart, only we're in Europe. Yet it was all so middle America.

Despite a few chuckles here and there, though, we didn't really mock that much. Yes, I sent out a few snide missives with the #americaFyeah tag throughout the day, but really, we did just have a lot of fun setting aside all the Parisian bullshit pretense and being as American as we could be.

Steampunky Discoveryland
One exception to all the USAiness of Disneyland is Discoveryland, the French version of the woefully outdated Tomorrowland from the original theme park. In a very smart move, Discoveryland is almost completely themed after French sci-fi master Jules Verne's aesthetic – call it Victorian space-age or Steampunk or Art Deco Futuristic. Rather than a stark 1960's-1970's vision of the future, Discoveryland is an almost romantic, dreamy vision of copper and brass and swooping lines and shiny rivets and... Well, it's just pretty. And the adapted version of Space Mountain to go with it is possibly the most awesomely insane roller coaster I've ever been on in my life. Without a single loop or suspended car or stand-up gimmickery, it kicked my ass every which way and then back several times again, combining the classic charm of the original ride with the how-many-Gs-can-you-stand brute force of modern amusements.

Space Mountain – like so many of the things we did – made me giddy all over. And I needed it. We spend so much time in Paris finding the best foods, visiting the coolest galleries, queuing up for sold-out shows, or simply trying to make ends meet. It was liberating to get barely 40 minutes away and suddenly not give a shit. Alannah made fun of me that evening for how I jumped up and down like an excited little kid upon seeing Remy from Ratatouille (or rather, some pimply kid in a furry suit) on one of the parade floats.

I can't remember the last time an exclusive run at an art exhibit or an amuse-gueule at a fancy restaurant made me feel that way. But this is to be expected. Cuz you can take the boy out of America, but you can't take the America out of the boy.

And for one day, all this boy wanted was an ice cold Coke, ballpark quality food, thrill rides and some big fuckin' fireworks. Check.

You can see the whole set of Disneyland Paris photos here: