Friday, June 13, 2008

First half of June

Beginning to feel the mental transition as I start to say my goodbye to Paris. As I wander the different neighborhoods, I wonder if this is the last time I will see such and such. Having my comadre, Kate, visit along with the girls Amanda and Tania, has added to the poignancy of that. All three were keeping illustrated travel journals, and we reviewed them at different points of the day. A funny cartoon, Amanda's 12 great ideas, funny things that came up with language. When they asked me how to say to someone they did not speak French, for example, we came up with the phrase "Desolé, mais tragiquement je ne parle pas français, est-ce que vous parlez anglais?" (sorry, but tragicaly I don't speak french, do you speak english?) This had the effect of stunning people, and for the most part, they would smile and speak English. On one occassion, however, a lady in a store responded to Kate, 'why no, you speak French perfectly, let's go on in French!' which of course brought the whole thing to a grinding halt! There are so many mental pictures, snatches of conversation, and thoughts that come up, and only a few make it the journal, much less the blog. I'm trying to catch a bit more by walking around with a notebook, to see if that adds to my recall.

I wanted the girls to meet the folks I have met in Paris, so I organized a picnic for all to come to. At final count we had 21 people, out of about 28 I invited, which was not bad, and the weather cooperated by not raining. We ate well, laughed a lot, and Tania played the accordeon some in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont.

The Fairy Fingers (Doigts de Fée) Salon de Thé was a big hit with the girls and Kate, a little place on Rue des Pyrennes that has the greatest selection of middle eastern pastries I have ever seen. We took in the Musée de Quai Branly which is the new version of the former Museum of Oceania, Asia and the Americas, with a fabulous show of textiles from the Paracas region of Peru, and fabrics with indigenous themes designed by a woman named Elena Izcue in the 30's in Paris for the haute couture houses. The outside of the building is covered with vegetation that sprouts right out of the walls. I had not been to the Musée d'Orsay yet on this visit, but went with the girls and's amazing each time to look at the work of the impressionists so up close, especially in the company of three artists that have their own favorites and bits of art history to add to the richness of the exhibit itself. The museum of the middle ages was also lovely. The stained glass right up close reveals it as a craft made by human hands, instead of the ethereal nature of it in situ in the churches. The story of the tapestries of the lady and the unicorn also brings to mind how many treasures of the artists of the past are lost because there is no one to speak for it's preservation, like George Sand did for this.

Bringing kids to museums is a big part of the curriculum of schools in France, and one of the threatened cuts to education involves the transportation budget for schools. This would differentially affect kids from the poorer suburbs of Paris, as the schools cover the costs of trasporting them to the museums, most of them in more central Paris. There are weekly demonstrations here related to budget cuts to education and the health system. Sadly familiar.

Prague was magical and much easier to get around in than I had imagined. The distances in the old parts of the city are all manageable on foot, and the early architecture is so well preserved and lovely, that it has a fairy tale feeling to it, especially in the light the moon. We spent a day wandering the Chateau, the old city centre with the mechanical clock that has the saints peering out every hour on the hour, went back to the castle to visit the toy museum (not to be missed even if you don't have little kids!). Tania met with folks from the the theatre and alternative puppett program, to check into the Masters program there...(I'll let her speak to that) and it seems that the diploma has a picture of a Unicorn, how cool is that!

Other Prague highlights: garlic soup, a crazy extravagant cake made from figs and chocolate that is so rich, Tania and I together could not finish a slice. We went to see a black light theatre production titled "Aspects of Alice" enigmatically billed as covering the time from when Alice in Wonderland comfronts the grownup world, love, sadness, her sexuality...anyway, we went. Lots of special effects, including an inexplicable crucifiction at the beginning, done in shadow images, (huh?!) and after the first half and an intermission, a lesbian sex scene with nudity, a man who gives her a baby made of fabric bunched up into his was particularly amusing because there were a lot of tourists from Spain, and families with little kids, and the puzzled expressions on their faces were priceless. Tania was trying so hard not to laugh out loud that she got a headache, and we still continue to laugh about the play. So much much so, that when we came back to Paris and went to the thatre to see a puppett production of Don Quixote (amazing, with life sized and small puppetts integrated into the live actors) Amanda commented that what this production needed was less dialogue and more nudity!

The Old Jewish section of the city was also very moving, with what remains of the old Jewish cemetery behind walls and protected by one of the synagogues. We managed fine with English, until we went into grocery stores, which were run by Vietnamese who spoke only Czech and Vietnamese. We were able to get most what we needed by appearance, though never did figure out what butter was in Czech! Prague seems to be a popular place for stag parties, from what we could see in the bars, and weddings are popular in the old town center.

The girls and Kate are gone, and my little place is feeling quite palatial after having shared it with 3 other people. Getting back to my routine of classes, yoga, trying to get a little more writing done, and making the last weeks count, seeing some of the sights I have not seen yet. I'm planning on making sure I do at least 2 things per week, in the genre of arts or performance, and test my French in actual theater. I'll keep you posted!
Love from Paris,


In April, I had occasion to meet one of my "blog heroines" Kristin Espinasse, who runs a site called French word a day. She is from Arizona, but fell in love with a Frenchman, and voilà, she is in the South of France, writing about life here, and sharing little nuggets of her take on French culture and language. Her husband makes wine and had a wine tasting in Paris while she signed books. Her advice was to write every week at the very least, and I'm going to try and follow that as I reach the last 7 weeks of my stay in France.

In one of my classes at the Alliance in May,when I stated I liked foi gras, I was asked how I ate it...very specifically, was the bread warm? (no) was the foi gras cold? (no) was there accompanying choices of fig confiture? (no)and did I spread the foi gras on the bread? (I did!) It turns out that this bussiness of spreading things on large pieces of bread is a totally weird thing to the French, with the exception of jam or confiture on a slice of baguette in the morning. For the foi gras, the bread is at least warm, in small pieces, the foi gras is cooled, for easier slicing, a very delicate slice is placed (not spread) on the bread, and then you may eat it. For added sophistication, you can place a dot of fig jam on top, and accompany with a montbaziliac wine. Any other situation where there is bread and something to put on it, like cheese, paté, rilletes, or butter, the most acceptable thing is take a small piece of the bread, and apply a 'point' of whatever (a dot) and then eat it.

On the other side of the culinary coin, during my Medical French classes at the Alliance, we had discussion on nutrition. The professor happened to be from Normandy, so we had a long discussion on nutritional habits of the different regions of France. As many people know, Normandy is well know for it's fantastic dairy products, and as she described it, butter and cheese sandwiches as well as butter and dry sausage together is a common thing to eat, and cholesterol levels there show it. The only thing that saves the French from obesity is the amount of walking and the lack of snacking in general. Sadly, that seem to be changing, especially among kids, who seem chubbier than I remember and are seen eating snacks out of little containers after school on the way home. There is a lot of concern in the media about childhood obesity, amusingly pointed out by a little banner under ads for exactly those processed sweets you should not eat, reminding you not to snack and eat 5 fruits and vegetables every day, in small unobtrusive print, of course.

I have been fortunate to have some really great home cooked meals with friends here, and totally groove on the very long meal with a ton of conversation (I have sat at tables now for over 3 and a half hours)and it is amazing how much one can eat if you take it slow. Most of you know what a fast eater I can be...

I've saved some of the touristy things to do with friends when they visit, went to the Marmotan Museum with Roger and Eva, and walked across the peripherique in the 16th to the Bois de Bologne, where I'd never been before. It's a lovely park, with a lake you can walk around or rent rowboats in, with pony rides for kids and bikes for rent as well. It is also known for the Brazilian transvestites that supposedly hang out there at night, though I did not see any, I guess they rest during the day.

I have been to a local restaurant with just about everyone who has come to visit, called the Cafe Noir, which is about as haute cuisine as it gets here, and was stunned when I walked in with some friends the third time I was there, and was asked if I wanted my "table d'habitude" (regular table). My French speaking friend looked at me and said "your table d'habitude??" I blushed, but tried to play it off like this happens all the is a lovely place with really good food, and right in the neighborhood, and with a regular table, what can I say?

I had the opportunity to go to the South of France, a region known as the Drôme, in the northern part of Provence. A friend has a little house in a lovely little town called Villeperdrix, and we hiked, saw the old abbey and cemetery, sat by the river and picnicked, and just took in the fresh air, lovely vistas and good food. I actually drove a car while there and find French drivers in the country quite polite. It was also fun to get stuck behind a group of cyclists for ten minutes or so, in their cute lycra matching outfits!

Just before I left for San Franciso, I received an e-mail from the Chief of the psychiatric service at the nearby public hospital. I had written a letter asking to come and visit, telling them a little of who I was and where I worked in San Francisco. He was very welcoming and when I called he warmly invited me to come over and see the place that afternoon. It turns out he had recently been to the US, L. A. in particular and is very interested in developing a Women's mental health program with the services of OB Gyn of his and a couple of other public hospitals that serve the Northeast of Paris over the next year. I went back the next morning, was given a white coat, and did rounds with the senior attending for 2 and half hours. Though I still struggle to express myself without a lot of gramatical errors, I was able to follow the rounds, and later talk with the attending and chief about some of the similarities and differences of the setting between us and them. Though they have a total of 52 beds, theirs is an open unit. More agitated or actively suicidal patients go to another hospital that has locked beds. This hospital, however is a referral hospital for refractory depression, so they get a lot of people who need ECT, or whose depressions are complicated by medical or substance abuse issues. One aspect that was amazing to me, was that most of the patients could idetify a regular PCP in the community, and refering people to follow up psychiatric and psychological services was a matter of making a phone call to the local clinic, closest to the patient. In general an appointment could be had in a few days time!

I went the day after I got back from the US, and hung out with the MD covering the ER, similar to our Psych Emergency Service, but without a separate location. I sat in on her evaluation of two patients, one who she sent home with a referal for psychotheray, and another who she determined needed a locked bed, and was in the process of admitting involuntarily and arranging for transportation when I left. The hospital itself is old, and a bit run down, and has a vibe very much like San Francisco General, of staff that are very invested in public service, who shrug at the challenges and make the most of it, and a very diverse patient population. This particular hospital had gone out on a walk out earlier in April, and the walkout had included the chief of the emergency services there, protesting cutbacks in the budgets of the health department.

In the middle of all this, I took a 6 day break to go home for Amanda's graduation from nursing school. I arrived Saturday afternoon, went to a roller derby bout where Amanda was 'jousting', and was so jet lagged by the end of it, I was almost in tears. For those of you who don't know, roller derby is a rough sport, played by tough women, and the last game I went to in December, Amanda broke her arm, requiring surgery and metal to glue the whole thing back. She took a lot of hits and falls in this last game the day before her graduation, and in my delirious state of jet lag, I was wanting to go hit the girls that were knocking her around. Thankfully it was over with nothing more to show for it than a bruise and 'rink rash' which she shows off like heroic battle scars. It was weird being back home, but delicious as well to be back in the cocoon of my hubby's arms, and to cook on a big scale in my kitchen. I made lasagna for 30, and hosted a party for Amanda while there, full of familia and Amanda's buddies.
À bientôt, (till soon)