Saturday, December 22, 2012

Paris Prose in NYC...

Books on Paris galore...

When I’m in New York, I love visiting the Strand.  Between the Christmas market at Union Square and my old stomping grounds in the Village, this bookstore from the 1920s is my favorite place to spend the precious few moments I have in the city.  Far from a pretentious hipster or some literature lover, I browse the books, soaking up the often-cheap prices and the diversity of English prose unavailable in Paris. 

Sure, we have Shakespeare & Co. by Notre Dame, and yes, Amazon delivers globally.  Still, there’s something unique and reassuring about browsing shelf after shelf of titles.  The selection reminds you that the written word lives on through secondhand copies of classic works or obscure titles that you can’t find elsewhere.  Plus the tote bags are excellent.  I digress.

While browsing bookstores this year in New York City, there was a rampant theme in many of the sections that I never really noticed before.  Paris.  I know, this isn't new, but, just, wow.  Now a hyper-sensitive expat, I was struck by how many genres feature the City of Lights, from cooking to memoirs  from fiction to history, and from parenting to tourism.  Every shelf, every display, every section seemingly was pushing Paris as this year (century’s?) most popular character.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

5 Paris 'Cold and Effects'...

Got glove?
It’s no surprise that at the end of the year, things get a bit colder, though like Christmas, the spring, the rentrée, and the new monthly Rihanna song, we greet these evergreen occurrences with ever-theatrical and amped up shock, bewilderment, and frustration.  "Oh my word, it's so cold in Paris..."  Tweets and Facebook status ensue.

Fortunately, I like the cold.  Never was there a better reason to stay inside in my PJs, and when I do venture out to go running, there’s no fear of heat exhaustion or sunburns.  And who doesn't love snow when it makes the rare appearance?

But in Paris, after four winters, I’m realizing now what makes these colder months in the City of Light a bit more aggravating than life in New York or suburban Philadelphia.  Here's a top 5:

1. Going to the market: In years past, I avoided the market in the winter, which meant I often suffered from scurvy-like symptoms and a lack of adequate nutrition.  This boy needs his clementines.  But browsing the merchandise, carrying kilos of produce, and lugging it back up five flights of stairs is not a pleasant task in freezing temperatures. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Turkeys Die; I Give Thanks

Plentiful bounty...
Another November, another turkey massacre.  It’s a joyous time, really, when family can gather and share another orgiastic meal featuring sweet potatoes with marshmallows, pecan pie, and all of the glory that is Stove-Top stuffing.  It’s also the official debut to the Christmas season for those that haven’t succumbed earlier to Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole.  It’s the only holiday that can’t disappoint you because no matter how many family fights start or how many hands get burned in the oven, your main objective is always surefire – eat until you pass out. 

All of that goes out the window when I wake up and realize I live in Paris.  No family.  No Stove-Top.  I spent the day hunting for pecans in Bellevile.  I marched up rue des Martyrs after I heard there were cheap cranberries only to find them later at Monoprix for the same price.  I spent the better part of an evening trying to figure out how to brine a huge turkey breast and make room for it in my dorm-sized fridge.  Oh the obstacles.  Oh the heartache.

But, hey, I live in Paris.

If ever there was an American who needed to say thank you, it’s this guy.  Chance smiled upon me and apparently she just had whitening because this year has been nothing short of gratitude-worthy.  Hired by the Sorbonne, completed my first marathon, organized another successful Cupcake Camp…the list is a far cry from that of the same boy who only two years earlier was at the bottom of his game.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Incommunicado Impossible...

Remember these?

The amazing thing about living abroad in 2012 is that I know everything that’s going on back at home in real time.  The worst part about living abroad in 2012 is that I know everything that’s going on back at home in real time.

While Skype, iPhones, and international calling plans are becoming less of a luxury and more of the norm in Paris (there’s free Wi-Fi everywhere!), it’s impossible not to be connected.  So as Sandy was bearing down on the East Coast back at home, I couldn't help but read Tweets, Facebook updates, and news headlines about the imminent disaster that all of my friends and family back at home were facing.  Text messages pop up from friends: “It’s so windy!” “Hunkering down for the hurricane,” and “These NYC pussies, it’ll just be some wind and rain.” 

Whether or not it was a disaster is another story, one I won't even attempt to address, but as an expat it’s sometimes frustrating to have to live these events in real time with everyone else.  While it's seemingly a technological advancement to have all of these resources, there are some downsides to being constantly connected at a time like this. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Cupcake Camp Paris: Round 3...

When I go home, friends or family who know anything about me or who follow me on Facebook usually ask me first, “How is Paris?” and then, invariably, “How are the cupcakes?”  I’m not a professional cupcake baker by any means.  I enjoy eating the occasional cupcake, baking them for parties, and having a leftover one out of the fridge for breakfast with coffee (so good chilled).  But I’m no connoisseur.

So you’re probably asking, “What’s CupcakeCamp Paris all about then?”  Well, when Cat Beurnier approached me to organize it in 2010, it seemed like a fun worthwhile cause.  The idea was basically to hold a giant bake sale, have Parisians and expats donate cupcakes, and then sell them for charity.  Simple enough, right?

Cupcakes were trendy, so people were eager to talk about them.  And the idea of doing something for charity seemed like a great change from all of the school files and prefecture paperwork I was going through at the time.  We are delighted and extremely motivated by all of the work that Make a Wish does, so each year we are trying to raise even more money to help make the dreams of sick children come true.  Every cupcake helps!

Monday, September 24, 2012

5 Things that Surprise Tourists...

So much discussion strolling the Seine... 

When tour guiding, I get asked all sorts of fun questions.  Do I like Paris?  Do French people hate Americans?  Where can I buy children’s chewable aspirin?  You know, normal things that people are curious about when visiting.

Sometimes, however, my responses aren’t exactly what the client thought (or wanted) to hear.  I’ve been making mental notes and have decided to put fingers to keys and share a few of the responses that have raised a few eyebrows lately…

Q: Does your family visit constantly?
A: No.  Well, that’s a lie.  My brother came for a few days while visiting his girlfriend in London, but we only saw each other for a drink or two.  The rest of my family has some Francophobic tendencies that might only be rationalized by the German blood in our veins.  World War II is over.  We’re all friends again.  Get a passport and come visit.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Run, Bryan, Run...

1st marathon complete!
Forty-two kilometers and, just like that, it’s over.  After five months of training, I completed my first marathon, the Marathon du Médoc, and have returned home [soberly] to share the tale.

The marathon, the brainchild of Secrets ofParis’s Heather, was not quite what he had prepared to experience.  Late summer heat (33 Celsius), 8500 other runners, and wine breaks at every 2k mark were not part of our weekly training routine.  While our livers were naturally prepared for the wine, which we enjoyed minimally, our legs weren’t as ready for the beating.

Dressed as cowboys, strutting our American best, we joined Roman soldiers, Norse Vikings, Egyptian pharaohs, and other costumed runners from around the world to celebrate this year’s theme, civilizations in history.  The sun beat down as the sweat began to race down our skin, but once we started to run, we were determined not to stop.  Then we hit the first chateau.

Wine flowed freely as if Bacchus himself were running alongside us, quantities of red that would not diminish as we hopped from chateau to chateau.  Heather and I abstained until about halfway through, but not everyone did.  By the 5th kilometer or so, heads were already popping up over the vines throughout the vineyards as women were hiking up their shorts and men were shaking the dew off the lily, if you will.  I admit I took my own bathroom break halfway through, so think of me when you crack open a bottle of 2012 Bordeaux…it’ll be a good year.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Grand Theft Tourist...

The loot...
I never meant to steal from my tourists.  But it happened and I’m not proud.  Does this make me the worst tour guide ever?  Probably not, but I feel like I should come clean.

When on a tour, your mind is scattered.  Between finding the perfect spot to tell a historical story, judging the interest value of each child as you babble on about Napoleon, dodging traffic, and minding the time, mental exhaustion sets in quickly.  Things are forgotten, details are ignored, and often pastries are stashed in bags for later consumption.

After a trip to the bakery Gérard Mulot for some organic baguette tradition and a splurge item – chouquettes, little dough balls covered in pearls of sugar – we tasted the bread and talked history.  I tried to remain as focused as possible.

“We’ll save these choquettes for later,” I said, obviously placing sweets after savory.  We still had cheese to taste and it was beginning to rain.  I wanted to get moving before the heavens opened up.

“Sounds great!” the dad told me.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Summer Riding, Had Me a Blast...

#Stressless courtesy of @LostNCheeseland

Riding slowly by the Canal St-Martin on a warm, sun-soaked Saturday afternoon is usually a monstrous feat.  Normally, pedestrians crisscross the road and bike paths, unaware of others as they ship their beer and wine bottles to the waterside.  I’m obligated to be bright and alert, waiting to ring my bell of my new (yet-un-stolen) bike at each local who dares step in my path.

But this is August.  The Canal is unusually and, for me, wonderfully empty.  I breeze along on my bike with only a few scattered locals and tourists wandering its banks.  Riding is a blissful experience.  August in Paris is one of the few times where I feel like a kid again in this town.

When I was younger (ah, youth), going for a bike ride with friends or family was the norm.  After school, weekends, evenings (before it got dark – my parents weren’t irresponsible) – it didn’t matter.  Give me two wheels and a road and I was off like a flash.  I’d pass summer evenings discovering new roads all alone or riding with friends who would take me farther and farther from home, always testing how long we could ride without getting tired.  It was as carefree as I could have ever been.

In Paris, bike riding seems so quintessentially, well, Parisian. There’s one thing, however, that the movies and postcards don’t show you.  Riding a bike in Paris is not stressless.  It’s borderline suicidal.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Things I Didn't Count On...

Put some new shoes on...
Here it is, before dawn, and I’m lacing up to go for a big training run.  When I signed up for the September marathon in the Medoc region a few months ago, this isn’t what I imagined, but then again there were a few surprises along the way.

1. Diet: I never thought I’d pay so much attention to my diet.  From cutting out useless carbs and most all dairy (Lactaid pills as well) to adding almond milk and peanut butter shakes to my routine, it’s been weird.  I’ve never eaten healthier or paid as much attention to making sure I eat my meals before.  Gotta keep that engine fueled!

2.  Spending: Speaking of buying new foods, I’ve also become quite the runner shopaholic. Going to sports stores and throwing down for new shoes, energy gels, and new clothes is the new shopping spread for me.  While I normally hesitate to buy myself nice things for everyday life, I have absolutely no qualms spending 20 euros to wake up on Sunday mornings to participate in a race.  Who needs Chanel in Paris when you have sportswear?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Bikes, theft, and things...

New used bike locked to old used bike...friends.
When something is stolen from you, the first question is, “Why?”  Or, more egotistically, “Why me?”  Last Friday, while on my way to a tour, I left my apartment decidedly on time and went to unlock my faithful new (used) bike Pascal only to find that he was not where I thought I had left him in front of my building.


Of all the bikes chained along the street, why had mine been selected?  Was there a shortage of Peugeot models in Paris?  Had I not locked him up properly?  Had I, embarrassingly, left the bike somewhere else and forgot?  After a little forensic work and backtracking, I settled on the inevitable answer that Pascal had been lifted, never to be seen again.  And on top of it all, I was late for Friday’s tour.

In the grand plan of life, a stolen bike – or being late for that matter – isn’t a bombshell.  In fact, I routinely hope someone will steal the mangled frame of my old bike that is taking up prime real estate in front of my apartment.  Still, the infringement does leave me a little more cautious while walking the streets of Paris that I generally deem safe.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

School's Out...

Some fool and his master's thesis...
This Friday, as I parked my Vélib and walked towards Pink Flamingo for a pizza, the news came via email.  Bless the iPhone.  I ran past Pink Flamingo and up the stairs to call my best friend and family to let them know that they needn’t worry for my (near) future.  I’d be a doctoral student, with a nice little scholarship to boot.

After two years of relatively hard work, most of which was in a second language, I celebrated the end of my master’s degree at the Sorbonne, joining the academic ranks of Victor Hugo and Madame Curie (with less radiation poisoning than in the latter’s case).

While my work won’t be turned into a Broadway musical anytime soon – though I’m scoring the first act – I’m still proud to have finished and to be continuing next year without the worry of a thousand student jobs clouding my planner.  I guess I’ll cross off “Quick Burger cashier” and “street performer” off my list of potential jobs this year. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

More Haribo, Please!

After running an 18k with Heather a few months ago, I discovered that the perfect running companion (well, in addition to Heather) was a plastic baggy full of Haribo.  The tiny gummies provided the burst of sugar that I needed to conquer every kilometer, and I don’t think I would have made it past 10k without each little bear that I decapitated with my teeth.

This runner’s treat has since become an obsession.  From smuggling back German varieties to wagging a finger at Franprix for not having my favorite (the sour Smurfs), it’s become unhealthy.  Once I open a bag of Haribo, I know it won’t last long.  Bears, Smurfs, crocodiles – no character is free from the wrath of my sweet tooth.  Going for a run is just an excuse to eat an entire bag of sweets afterwards.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

French Lessons to Retain...

Just a few edits...
Next week I finally hand in the final edit of my French mémoire, my master’s thesis at the Sorbonne Nouvelle.  Two years in the making, I’m happy with the results and hopeful that the jury reviewing it will be equally enthusiastic. 

The process, however, has taught me as much as the research itself.  Writing in French is no cake walk, and certainly not a boost for anyone’s self-esteem (even for French students).  I’ve learned some things though that will come in handy during my next writing endeavor that should come in handy…

1. I’ll never do it correctly: I’m not a native speaker, and that’s fine.  I give in.  But after a heavy edit session of 100+ pages with a real live French person, I’ve realized that my written French will never (anytime soon) stack up to a native speaker’s.  More focused on content than structure, I’m a sucker for misusing “de” and “à,” for using less formal “comment” instead of “la façon dont,” and accidentally adding “en plus” instead of “de plus.” 

All of these are shades of gray to me, rarely changing the meaning of what I’m trying to say. To a French speaker, however, they mark the difference between a 10/20 (a decent grade) and a 14/20 (a great grade).

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Voting in Change : Exciting to be French Again

The crowds march towards Bastille...
The café next to the Odéon was hardly full, but it turned out to be prime seating to discover the news as the crowds started marching down Boulevard Saint-Germain – France had a new president.

The French have decided, by a slim margin, to elect a socialist president, something the country hasn’t seen at the Elysée since 1995.  While far from the most exciting presidential candidate, Francois Hollande and the change he could bring to France have awakened Paris on a normally quiet Sunday evening.  From the banks of the Canal and all across rue de Rivoli, drivers honked their horns, waving flags, ready to welcome the new president at the Bastille. 

I didn’t dare head to the Bastille for two reasons.  First off, I’m no fan of crowds.  Secondly, this is not my victory.  I’m not French and I didn’t want to crash a patriotic party.  But I’m still excited.  As TF1 airs images of celebrations across France, in Toulouse, Marseille, and throughout the streets of Paris, I can’t help but feel the same fresh air that blew in during November 2008 when Obama won the presidency.  The newness of it all, the hope for change, the seemingly endless possibility – it’s all very electrifying.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Mexican food's final frontier in Paris

Their workers are enormous...
I’ve never eaten at Candelaria.  I like their cocktails, but honestly I’d prefer a 3 euro pint of beer to 12 euro’s worth of gin and syrup.  El Guacamole is good, but for that price I’d rather have a something more than three small tacos.  And I like El Nopal even if it’s messy to eat along the Canal, it’s just not as portable as a falafel.  Mexican food and tacos have made inroads in Paris, much to expatriates’ delight, but it just doesn’t do it for me.

Mexican food can be amazing, there’s no doubt.  But from the boy that grew up in suburban Philadelphia, it was something we’d get for my brother’s birthday dinner or on the way home from piano lessons.  From, yes, Taco Bell, to the one local Mexican restaurant down the street that served up some mean fajitas, “Mexican” always amounted to a sort of comfort food, something regular, normal, familiar, accessible, delicious.  Seeing three tiny tacos for more than ten euros is jarring for someone who would meet friends for late night 69 cent tacos at Taco Bell in the suburbs (even if meat was on par with dog food). 

When I go to El Guacamole, it misses the mark for me completely.  Much like paying 14 euros for a “gourmet” hamburger, Parisian tacos seem like a scam to me.  I don’t want my hamburgers and tacos to become classier than I am (even if they are delicious).

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Jumping Hurdles While Running in Paris

Trusty ol' running shoes...
Somewhere between the first cramp in your side to the first sensations of runner’s high that leave you feel like you could keep going forever, you start to realize what a challenge it can be jogging through Paris.

Gone are the days when the university gym offered me numerous treadmills complete with cable TV and air conditioning.  Long gone, in fact.  A student again but paying much less tuition, I am also left with many fewer options when it comes to exercising.  The Sorbonne isn’t exactly known for its gym facilities – I think it has more of a track and field arrangement similar to those that Greek gladiators trained on, if not the same ones.

But running is free, and I live in a city best experienced by foot, with motorbike, bicycle, boat, and bus trailing behind.  But no one ever said at what speed one must explore foot.  I prefer an increased rate of discovery clad in comfy New Balances and some gym shorts, running the streets and parks.  But this is no easy feat while dodging dog poo and old French grandmothers…

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Sweet Change

The lemon tart...

I was 19, so sex wasn’t really a taboo issue, but still, exiting the Pigalle metro station and stumbling upon the Sexodrome and its neighboring sex shops was not something I was ready to experience.  My French textbooks never talked about Paris’s red-light district.

It was my sophomore year abroad and my school had found me an apartment – no small feat, I would later learn, working at the same school two years later.  I was headed to meet my landlords on the supposedly chic rue des Martyrs.  I wasn’t sure if in French chic meant transsexual porn and leather whips.  Maybe a nuance was lost in translation. 

I found my way through the neon lights and advertisements for poppers and other erotic paraphernalia that my innocent young self did not yet understand.  Finally stumbling down rue des Martyrs (thinking that sex shops and allusions to death were, ultimately, good bedmates) I arrived and met the landlord for our first encounter. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Host with the Most: The Local Way Paris

Sometime ago, while just getting my feet wet at the Sorbonne, scared out of my wits, and working for a tour company that paid me in tips, I got an email.  A production company in New York was looking for a host for a travel series they wanted to produce about Paris.  They heard about me through a series of grapevines and reached out to ask if I’d like to work with them. 

The fee?  Some meals and the chance to be filmed with all of my clothes on.  Already about as down and out as I could get, I said, sure, why not?  Fancying myself an Anderson Cooper or Barbara Walters, I met the two producers and things got under way.  Plus, I was at the point where I’d do most anything for a free meal.  The clothes thing I wasn’t too picky about.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

On Snow


Paris is something special in the snow.  And not in the sort of way that makes tourists dream.  No tourists want to be in Paris when it snows.  It covers up everything they traveled miles to see.

But to live here when it snows.  Yes, special.  The first time I experienced Parisian snow was as I walked out of my apartment, the boding medieval hospital across the street blurred by falling flakes.  Tracks in the ground marked those who had woken up earlier than me to tackle the first snowfall.  I made my way towards the Canal, long frozen by the winter chill.

As I felt those first few flurries melt on my face, all sorts of childhood excitations begin to well up from some long forgotten spring.  Suddenly I saw myself rushing to the back of the closet to search for my snow pants, screaming to my brother and sister to grab the sleds while I rummage through the bag of gloves.  Why could I never find two that matched?

Your childhood self tells you to enjoy it quickly before it melts away.  The snow will be there and gone in the blink of an eye, and soon schools will reopen and plows will reign supreme on the streets.  Snow is but a fleeting moment as quick as the childhood innocence that loves it so.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Things I'm Not Good At

Simulation of me failing at napping...
Like most parents, my mom and dad always supported me in my endeavors when I was a child.  As long as they were appropriate endeavors.  I still recall my mother asking me why I didn’t take an interest in things like cars and sports while en route to a piano lesson.  I think she was also not-so-secretly critiquing my obsessive collection of Beanie Babies.  It was a phase that passed, though hundreds of beanbag animals still haunt my house, hidden away someplace. They’ll be worth money, just wait.

Be it music, school, or faithful adhesion to a plush obsession, I excelled when I put my heart into something.  Though as an adult (I laughed, too), I am discovering that I am not good at everything.  Suddenly, years of supportive coddling and “yes you can” praise have left poor Bryan with an ego the size of the Hindenburg, with a similar ending when failure strikes.  These revelations have come recently, but all too markedly.

1. Saying no has never been a problem when it comes to a drink, chocolate, or an opportunity to advance my burgeoning stardom.  Still, I am no good and absolutely incapable of saying no when I want to decline an offer.  It usually goes something like this:

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

What's, like, in a name?

My ditz survival pack...the essentials.

While joking with a good friend at the Sorbonne about what we’d name our babies (both parties aware of the joke), I told her I’d name our son Bob.  I like this name in French and I thought it would be a funny (note: these are the things Sorbonne students do before class).

She, French, and aghast, said, “No way. We’re not having an American name for our child.”  I asked what the problem was with an American name like Bob, or worse, Bryan.  I then learned something that I had not known about my name and others like it.  Certain American names for boys, according to this girl and other students, are the equivalent of names like Candy and Buffy in the US.

Essentially, to the French, Bryan is not only in the kitchen, but he’s a total ditz.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Finals at the Sorbonne: To Arms, Protestors, to Arms!

Coming up on the final semester of my masters at the Sorbonne Nouvelle, I felt empowered.  I had successfully completed three semesters of a French higher education program and boy oh boy did I feel accomplished.  We students were enriched, hardworking and – I thought – all grown up.

Then came finals time.  This week we were taking our end of the semester exams and chaos ensued, per usual.  We all showed up to take a communications history test on Tuesday only to find that the professor had sent a proxy to administer the test.  Strike 1.
My outline...note lower righthand corner...

Once we all sat down for the two hour test, we began looking at out clocks wondering why we weren’t starting.  Finally the proxy handed out paper and began to read the question.  Halfway through, most jaws were slightly dropped at the apparently absurdity of the question’s set up.  Then said jaws hit the table when the proxy said, “I can’t read the rest…”  This was like a press conference where the president’s microphone cuts out just before he’s about to announce a war.  It was awkward.  Strike 2.

The proxy scrambled to call the professor before running downstairs to the department to ask for help.  All the while, we students tapped our feet impatiently.  The clock continued moving and time was running out for our session.

Finally, the proxy contacted the professor, found the real tests, and, with just over an hour to go, began handing them out – until a voice in the back rose up.  “Monsieur, we only have an hour, do we really have to take the test?”  Strike 3