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Europe - Paris & Lyon

It felt really weird getting off the train in Paris at Gare du Nord. London was easy, since I speak the language. Yeah, there are a few expressions they have that are different, and their accents are different, but by and large it did not feel quite as different from the US as I had expected. All that changed upon arriving in Paris.

I guess language makes a huge difference. Maybe lots of other people around could speak English, but I didn't hear any of it, just a lot of French conversations... made me feel nervous about getting onto the Metro and navigating my way to my hostel where I was supposed to meet up with my friend burdges around 11pm. I had no working cellphone, and no number to call even if I had had one. I had looked at the routes very carefully beforehand, so theoretically I knew what I was doing, and I bought an French-English dictionary the day before just in case (which turned out pretty handy). I had also had the foresight to get 20 Euros (and 20 Pounds) from my bank before I left the US, just in case anything went wrong and none of my cards were accepted when I arrived. Sure enough, I was glad I'd done that. The machine to ride the Metro rejected all of my cards. It didn't even have an English option on it, but I could figure out enough of it to know that for some reason, it didn't like my cards. I felt a little bit of a panic, but remained calm and thanked myself for going out of my way to get the 20 Euros, despite others telling me not to bother. A guy in an SNCF uniform saw me having trouble and came up to me to try to help. Not understanding any of his French, I asked if he spoke English... he shook his head back and forth, no. He took my card though and turned it over... then he shook his head again and sighed in a hopeless way... confirming what I suspected, for some reason it couldn't read foreign credit cards. I tried to ask him if there was anyone else around who spoke English, motioning with my hands, but he didn't understand. I held out a 5 Euro bill and said "change?" trying to pronounce it in as French a way as I could. He still didn't seem to understand, and wandered off to help someone else who was having trouble, someone who spoke French. I waited a bit, looking around. Then after he sent the other guy somewhere, I went up to him again and tried the "change?" thing again pronouncing it carefully "shanjay?", a word I had happened to read an hour earlier on the Eurostar but wasn't sure of the pronunciation or if the meaning was right in this context. He pointed for me to follow the other guy he had sent somewhere and said "follow", the first time he said anything in English. Turned out, there was a window with a guy around the corner, and he gave me the change I needed, then I put it in the machine. Retrospectively, I should have just looked around for this in the first place... but for some reason because it was almost 10:30pm I thought there wouldn't be any windows open. Went to the nearest machine and put the coins in and got my ticket... whew! From there on, everything went pretty smoothly... and I discovered that there were a decent number of people around usually who did speak English, and also figuring out what French words on signs meant wasn't quite as difficult as I had thought it would be originally. After being in Paris for a few days, I felt so much more comfortable, even getting around by myself when my French-speaking friend wasn't there. I guess being mostly a virgin to this sort of thing, you get used to it after a while... not speaking the language somewhere can be a challenge, but in many ways it makes for a more fun adventure. I was glad I did it in stages though... first England, where it's mostly the same language, then Paris which is pretty cosmopolitan and there were a lot of other tourists who spoke English, then Lyon where very few people spoke English... although most people still knew at least some words. And by that point I had gotten down a lot of the most basic French interaction words. I had actually been listening to French audio tapes for a while (started doing that for fun independent of this trip) and that helped, but being there even for a few days helps so much more with picking stuff up. I really can't imagine how people from here get by in Asian or Middle Eastern countries, though, where the letters on signs aren't even the same alphabet! I'm sure that's a whole nother level of challenging.

After meeting up at the hostel, it was almost midnight but we had both come from earlier timezones and weren't tired so we went out to a bar. Wow! I was really enamoured of Paris right from the start. Among other things, we encountered a drunken rant by some guy there to us (in broken English) on how Americans "have no love" for the rest of the world, and how France is all about love, and somehow the Tour Eifel was proof of that. It was getting late, so eventually the bartender asked him to leave, but he didn't leave without first giving us each a big hug to prove that France had more love than the US.

Spent less time sightseeing while I was in Paris and more time hanging out with friends of burdges. Although at some point I did go by the Eifel Tower, saw the Arc de Triomphe, and walked all the way down the Champs Elysees. Also went to the French Pantheon, where I saw many famous French people's tombs, including Marie Curie, Alexandre Dumas, and Voltaire.

Spent a lot of time going to bars and hanging out on the banks of the Seine river, where there were many other young people drinking and having a good time every night. One night, they were playing old classic American movies with French subtitles, projecting them on to a screen in public right on the river bank. Saw couples sitting on tableclothes there hanging out drinking wine... I'd love to come back there for a honeymoon or something if I get a chance. Most of the people we hung out with were originally from other places, like Italy or Asia. But of the 2 people whom I spent time talking to who had actually grown up near Paris, both of them (on separate occasions) insisted that it was a really boring city and they would love to get out and travel to somewhere "exotic" like California. One of them was obsessed with London and the British in general, and is hoping to go there to do a PhD on British literature. Having just been to London, I had a hard time understanding what she found so romantic about it compared to Paris... it makes me think that the grass is always greener, wherever you are. Not surprising, but it probably means the best thing to do is keep moving around or things will get boring wherever you are.

Ate some pretty fancy food while I was there, and more in Lyon. burdges seems to have acquired ridiculously snobbish food tastes since living in France... every time we went in to a bakery he turned up his nose and said "don't buy any of this crap... we can do better, let's keep looking." I think there may have been one where he said "this might be ok" but I was kind of smiling to myself the whole time about that, and he jokingly apologized at the end of the week for it.

My French-English dictionary screwed me over in one way, despite being otherwise useful. It had a section describing what it calls the "kissing" of friends when they meet up in Paris. It specified that friends typically kiss each other 3 times on the cheek when greeting each other or parting. So the first time I met up with people, and was introduced to burdges' attractive Italian friend, she presented one of her cheeks to me immediately. I didn't know what to do, so naturally I kissed it. Later, I found out that people don't actually kiss the cheek, they just rub cheeks together and blow a kiss in the air... which is what all of the rest of the people with us did to her after I was done. Oops--tres embarras! Upon parting, she gave me another chance though and I did it correctly.

Just stayed in Lyon for 2 days; they had a really nice cathedral, probably the best of all of them that I saw in Europe, and an old Roman ampetheater built out of huge stones which is still being used for outdoor plays and events. We spent the evenings drinking Pastis on various boat bars (boats docked on the river that are licensed to serve alcohol) and singing I'm On a Boat (the latest work from the group who brought you Jizz in My Pants if you haven't heard it). He had to explain at some point to someone in French what we were singing, which was rather amusing.

Next up: Geneva and LHC, but I probably won't get to it tonight.



( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 12th, 2009 05:39 am (UTC)
in some other European countries they actually kiss instead of tap. in fact the first time a Dutch friend did this to me, I was extremely confused and it sparked a round table conversation before parting...

anyway not as much of a faux pas as it could have been.

have fun!
Jul. 12th, 2009 09:27 am (UTC)
They do the air-cheek-kiss thing here in England too... I generally just try to avoid it - it's too uncomfortably familiar for me.
Jul. 13th, 2009 01:06 am (UTC)
So the pre-cash came in handy! Didn't mean to screw you over, I just didn't have any problems back when I was at CERN.

To add to the cheek-kissing confusion, the number of times you airkiss depends on the country. I've come across examples of 1 kiss, 2 kisses, and 3 kisses. I can't remember offhand which countries were which though.

I leave for China tomorrow, which should be the biggest language barrier I will have yet encountered...
Jul. 13th, 2009 07:03 am (UTC)
Yeah. My book actually said that people in Paris kissed 3 times on the cheek while people in Normandy kissed 4 times. But when I actually saw it in Paris, every time it was only 2 times, one on each cheek. So my friends are either lazy, or the book was full of crap:)
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )


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