Sunday, March 28, 2010

I don't know if anything I have written below holds any importance to anyone that will read it, it is simply a thought-process I have had, thinking about people here, people at home, history, and how it all ties together. It's a bit abstract and perhaps impossible to follow, but maybe it will make people think. Maybe, lol. :)

So Wednesday we went to the Louvre to take a look at David's self-portrait. A small, easily over-looked painting in a grand room of paintings tens of times its size, it may be the painting that has made me think the most, and more in depth, about things that I have learned here, both in classes and otherwise. Although the other paintings are often works of politics, especially David's works as they are meant to speak to the public of a certain time about a certain political condition, David's self-portrait may be considered just as political of a work. Okay, this sounds extremely academic and rather boring as an observation thus far, but what I am getting at is the idea of "self" that David's self-portrait examples. During the time of the French Revolution, citizens had an idea of the "self"--who they were, what they stood for, and what they deserved by way of political leadership. For example, when the Declaration of the Rights of Man was written, it represented (although not addressing women or slavery) the equality that should be given to each citizen as an individual, undefined by social class and no longer divided by issues of wealth. Instead man had the possibility of cultivating their own abilities and seeing a greater self-worth in what they did possess rather than in what they did not possess in comparison to the nobility. People of the French Revolution were coming to a "self realization." It brought to ligth the fact that in fact they deserved to have a say in how their lives were run--give us a constitution. The poor were no longer "the poor" but they became "The Third Estate," an entity that held more power over the fate of France than they could have ever imagined prior to the beginning of Revolutionary ideas, beginning with Enlightenment thought, and the belief that equality should be not just an imagined ideal, but a reality for the citizens. The revolutionary uprisings and the Declaration of the Rights of Man set the example for the uprisings in Sainte Dominigue (Haitian Revolution) which in fact was the first successful slave-uprising in history. It started making me think about the idea of "identity" and of "self." Being in a foreign country I have begun to realize all the things about my self that I identify with home, or with being "American" The people of France at the Time of the Revolution had certain concepts of the "self," of who and what they were and what they represented. Today I think that people of France have a very strong concept of national identity, and I suppose I never really thought about my "self view" until coming to Paris where, suddenly, I was faced with a culture and people that seemed to contrast who I am. It is not that I am "contradictory" to Parisians, but rather that I, in fact, have an identity that is made up in-part by things that are inherently American, or at least that come from home, my friends and family and other things that I identify with. The previous statement sort of makes it sound as if I would identify with all Americans before I would identify with someone from France, which is certainly not true. I am simply saying that I have realized things about myself and actually thought about them since coming here. I never really thought about the "self" as something exactly definable--which perhaps it isn't really, however I do think that one can have a "concept" of the self. And it in fact does partly have to do with the environment where I have lived most of my life, part of this is certainly the political environment. The people of the French Revolution knew that they were entitled to greater rights, because of the political condition of the time citizens were faced with the question of "self"--who are you? what do you stand for? But I have never been faced with those questions, I have never had to stand up for something that I believe I represent or I believe that I am part in a situation where peoples lives are being taking because of who they are and what they believe. I don't know if any of the above makes much sense, but it is sort of a stream of thought I am having. I wonder if now, in times of more-or-less political peace in France and on American soil, people have less of a "self-concept." David's picture simply made me think. How do people identify themselves? What do they think when they look in the mirror-or rather, what do they think other people see when looking at them. They are cliche questions that have all been asked before, but my curiosity is based on why someone chooses to define themselves the way they do. For example, if I asked a random person on the street, "Who are you?" or in my French class for example, if everyone was asked to describe themselves in one page, what would they write? Most everyone in my class has a different background, comes from a different country, and are, bottom-line, very different people. So what do they think are self-defining elements? And if everyone has such a different self-definition how is it that we identity with other people? Somehow, despite all of the "differences" we have all ended up in the same country, in the same classroom, and we develop understandings of and relationships with one another there. Maybe it is an overarching acceptance that all people are equal, that the "Declaration of Rights" has in fact finally been accepted and is acted out everyday, and people choose to find similarities in others rather than differences now. Or is that really true? How different am I from the woman playing her instrument in the metro station? Or how different are the kids on their way home from private school from those who beg with their mother in the street? Would a conversation between the two bring up more similarities than you would ever see from simply looking? Maybe someone you find to be very different from yourself would paint a self-portrait alarmingly similar to your own.

Monday, March 8, 2010

On Friday I took a very long walk around my neighborhood, the 16th Arrondissement of Paris. It was a really good walk, I think I took close to 100 pictures on Friday alone. I saw so many things just in a matter of hours! I always go the same direction from my apartment, toward the Eiffel Tower and the Trocadero metro I decided to go the other way. Maybe 100 yards down the street and I hit the Avenue Victor Hugo--full of beautiful shops and boutiques and all kinds of cool stuff! There is one store that is entirely different kinds and shapes of candles, and another that is an apparently really famous chocolate shop where the owner makes all sorts of different shapes from chocolate, HUGE shapes, I mean like bears that are almost as big as me...there were actually eggs made of chocolate across a table, one with a chicken on top of it that was about 5 feet tall. Then the street hit the Place de Victor Hugo, so I just continued around the circle down Victor Hugo...and hit the Arc de Triomphe! Yep. 15 minute walk from my house...who knew? So of course I had to follow where curiosity lead me: right down the Champs d'Elysees! There were sooo many people, so I just continued walking. I was simply noticing the people that were out and about and how many different kinds of people are in this city. Compared to the town I come from Ann Arbor is pretty diverse and seems to have people from all kinds of places...but Paris is exceptional in its diversity. I have met people (some in my French classes) from Russia, Africa, Sweden, London, The Netherlands, Korea, Germany, Italy, China, Australia, and various areas of the U.S. It is just such a cultural center of the world that I am still trying to comprehend it. So I simply people watched...taking in the different languages that I heard and the way people would interact with each other. I was sort of trying to see if I could tell the tourists from the true Parisians. I still have no idea unless I hear someone speaking English...even then I suppose they may not be tourists. So I people watched, taking in how much of the of the world is represented in such a small part of it. Then I got to the end of the Champs d'Elysees, to the Les Invalides and took a lot of pictures, especially from the view I had on the Seine River. Some of the architecture of that spot was absolutely magnificent. I found myself paying close attention to little parts of much larger, grander on small statue that was situated on the edge of the was a small, winged figure that had some grafitti in red on the side of its abdomen. I wonder why someone chose to put the graffitti there, if it was supposed to symbolize something. It was actually quite sad to see; it almost appeared as if the it was bleeding, being made from very dark stone the red stood out very well, you can sort of see the red in the photo on the right...I tried to cut it out at the time but looking back I wish I had taken a picture of the whole thing so that the effect of the red could be seen. Anyway, I turned around and began walking along the Seine river. I took pictures of the boats that were alongside of it, tied up--not because they were necessarily pretty or extravagant or anything of the sort really, but simply intriguing. They reminded me of an old movie I have seen (and certainly don't remember very well) where the grandfather has a boat and takes his grandkids for a ride down the river. They all seemed sort of old, well-loved. That's why I liked them I think...I know Paris is know for it's beauty and high-class sort of things, where every building looks fit for the king from an outside perspective, but to me it is the little things that people have here, the small places that are well-loved and little-known that I think are interesting. In other words, what is the "Parisian lifestyle" on a smaller scale? What happens when we think of it in the context of someone we normally wouldn't think twice about, like the old lady who "slowed you down" as she walked in front of you on the sidewalk, or the blind man who sat across from me on the metro this weekend...what is Paris to them?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

March 3, 2010

The Apartment

The Parisians are certainly used to living in much smaller spaces. That is one of the first things that hit me here. There is only the space that is necessary, in most cases anyway. For example, the bathroom is two separate rooms, one for the toilet with a small sink, and the other is the shower and a sink, and about enough standing room for one person, no more. When I first arrived here the apartment seemed pretty small, but I am getting used to it. Not only did it seem small but also, well...disheveled. but in living here a week I have begun to understand it a little more. Living with a single mom and her three kids, I realize it can't be easy to keep everything in it's place, or to even necessarily have a place for everything. The living room seemed extremely over-crowded with things, little "trucs" all over the place: two couches, two chairs, a bureau, two desks, a television, two computers (one shared by the kids and the other my host mom's), a fireplace stacked-full of old newspapers that are topped by a very large, old pumpkin. She says she is planning to cook the pumpkin when she gets a chance... :) There are small things from the kids filling the room, little toys here and there, across the floor, under the couch, stickers randomly on things, etc. I believe that my "room" was actually a kind of parlor or office and that some of the things now in the living room were once in there. My room is definitely not mean to be a bedroom, it had bookshelves all along the one wall, a t.v., a piano, a large, round marble table with four chairs, and my bed. The room is attached to the living room by small double french doors that have wooden blinds on them, so I wonder if before my arrival the two rooms may have been connected, and one of the couches, and the chairs or perhaps a desk were in here. Since I arrived though we have rearranged the living room from how it was when I first got here. It is much more spacious now and my host-mom did a lot of cleaning in the room. The newspapers and the pumpkin remain in the fireplace though. The kitchen seems to have been in the midst of a remodel, of which the floor and the cupboards were completed but not the appliances. there remains in the small entry-way to the apartment a partly-packaged stainless steal range-top oven and a sink. I wondered for a while if it would ever be explained why that was there, and my host mom finally offered the information the other day that someone is coming soon to fix a leak in the kitchen ceiling which is coming from the fifth floor (I live on the first (European first-floor, so the 2nd floor). So once the leak is fixed then the appliances can be installed I guess. The kitchen is positively packed with things too--there is not much space in it at all, and yet that is where we eat, at the tiniest little table, on little stools. On the table there is a pink Hello-Kitty cereal dispenser (a birthday gift to the little girl from her brother) that they really use! It's quite cute. I don't know how anything is found in the rest of the kitchen, it all seems to be a sort of "organized chaos" to my host-mom: there are random jars and small cups full of batteries, all kinds of vitamins and supplements (the oldest son, 12 is allergic to gluten and the other, 10, won't eat meat). The little counter space that there is has been occupied by a microwave, a bowl of very old fruit (which I am learning they keep here for much longer than at home), a food processor, toaster, water boiler, coffee pot, and various little bowls and baskets that seem to find themselves in stacks randomly around the place. There is a small window in the kitchen that looks out to the courtyard, and the windows in my room and the living room look out over the street. I like being able to see the street, but it is rather unfortunate to be so close at 5:30 a.m. when the garbage trucks come. Also, when I look out the window, since the street is narrow and the apartment is low on the building, I cannot see any sky at all, which is slightly disheartening, especially when the sun is actually out.
In spite of all the differences that this place most certainly has from home, I am surprising myself in saying that I actually already feel kind of at home here. My host-mom is extremely nice, and during dinner and other times we have good conversations, all in French. She does speak English, but not wonderfully. It is funny actually, I ask her all kinds of questions about the French word for something, or if I don't know a word she explains it in French and she will ask me questions about English words, and I will explain an English word to her in French. For example, the other day she was reading a book and another work by the author (who is American but whose book had been translated) had the word "Bliss" in it. She didn't know what it meant so I had to explain it to her in French. I am actually glad that she doesn't speak to me in English. We have had a few small mis-communications, but nothing tragic as of yet :) As far as the kids go, I am not sure how it will be "living" with them yet, since they left for vacation to their grandparents the morning after I arrived, and then came back for one night last weekend and left Sunday to go to their Dad's place. They have been there since! So I have spent little time with them, but they are very sweet from what I know so far!