Bright Lights, Bitchy City Thursday, Dec 10 2009 

Is it living in Paris that has made me bitchier or just living in a city in general? Whatever the reason, I have learned that you have to look out for yourself and that the “sweet, naïve American” act only gets you so far before you are forced to adopt a much more cutthroat survival technique here in Paris.

When I arrived in August, trying desperately to use my limited French in the most endearing of ways to achieve my goals- be it opening a French bank account or buying Metro tickets- I more often than not got what I wanted. But soon, I realized that by presenting myself as a sweet little American girl who knew very little about the big bad city, along with accepting help from kindly French waiters, I was opening myself up to the dangers of French people in a position to help me but that chose to exploit my language disadvantage. I learned very quickly that there will always be cab driers who will drive in circles along one-way streets to give themselves a larger fare because they know I had no idea where I was going, and there will always be street vendors who will gauge their prices at the slightest hint of an American accent.

Throughout my time in Paris, I have learned there are times and places to play the “sweet, innocent, lost American” card, and there are occasions when the bitch must step up.

The French post office? Bitchy. I tried being nice back in September trying to get my long-overdue birthday packages and nicely explaining my plight in the best French I could muster. But after that one encounter, I learned: bring my own envelope and stamps, because they charge 11 euros just for the privilege of using a post-office bough envelope.

Restaurants? Sweet. By trying to order in French, no matter how daunting the task, you greatly improve the chances of the waiter earning his built-in 12% tip. My go-to phrases include “Une carafe de l’eau, sil vous plait” to ask for water, and “L’addition, sil vous plait” to ask for the bill. All said with a smile, of course.

French taxis? Play it by ear. Tell them in French where you’re going, and be as specific as possible. I have learned to specify: “Vingt-et-un rue de l’Exposition. Le septieme arrondissement” as opposed to “Rue de l’exposition. Near the Eiffel Tower.” I have also learned that I live between two one-way streets, and that I can walk very easily from the intersections of each, as opposed to paying 4 euros for the driver to circle around to drive me to my door. This is one of those instances when the best French you can conjur up will be you friend, and maybe even save you a few Euros. They most certainly know I am American, but if I put my most confident, city-wise “Don’t mess with me” attitude forward, generally, I won’t be ripped off royally.

It’s something every city girl should know, and I must admit I learned a lot from watching Carrie Bradshaw strut through Manhattan in Sex and the City, but living in a city for the first time really taught me the benefit of looking out for yourself and the importance of presenting a confident, independent, capable appearance. Even if it means being bitchy sometimes.

Laissez-Faire Thursday, Dec 3 2009 

A French term, which I vaguely remember from high school as having something to do with John Lock’s theories and “the Invisible Hand”. The direct translation into English means “leave to do”, or “let it be”.

I have finally seen this theory in full swing here in my classes at the American University of Paris. Today, for my 300 level Art History course, I had a 15-page paper due. An intense research paper for which ten sources needed to be consulted, and which was assigned over a month ago. I of course agonized over it and started almost right away, and had the paper 85% completed by Thanksgiving (so I could take a break and play with my US visitors!) I emailed a rough draft to my professor, spent hours in the library consulting sources, and went through approximately four drafts before being satisfied enough to turn my paper in. I was the only one. Another girl I was sitting next to simply told my professor “I didn’t finish it”. I prepared for the meltdown that would have any of my high school teachers or the disappointed sigh any Loyola professor would have exhibited at this “so be it” attitude. She didn’t even care. She wasn’t apologizing or begging for an extension with the story of a dying grandparent or car trouble- she was simply being honest about the fact that she didn’t care enough about the assignment to make time. But the professor simply shrugged and said, “Fine, email to me it tomorrow.” Ummm, hello, not fair!

It happened again in another Art History course- with an extremely tough and intimidating professor. I slaved weeks in advance to have my paper ready by its 9am Monday morning deadline. I knew I would be in Vienna over the weekend, so I had my paper finished and printed out by Thursday night to avoid computer and printer mishaps. This professor had been extremely clear and foreboding about this paper being due at 9 am sharp. However, when I arrived at class, proudly clutching my work in my hand, several others students shuffled in late, sans research papers. “Oh, my printer spazzed.” “My computer deleted my file.” OH MY GOD THAT”S A LIE!!! Yes, computer problems do happen, and usually at very inopportune moments, but the chances of three students having the exact same computer crisis on the same day, which happened to be the day this paper was due, escaped me. This teacher was surprisingly okay with this as well, and told each student that as long as she had the paper by 3pm that day, no points would be deducted. That’s a lifetime when it comes to editing and polishing an art history paper. Another girl and I had the same paper topic- I worked extremely diligently to have mine on time, and really could have used additional time to research and proofread before turning it in. I was extremely disappointed in the level of follow-through and  respect that these students had, when it was extremely clear that they just didn’t take the assignment seriously. I was even more outraged at the “laissez-faire” professors that barked ferociously but had zero bite when it came to tardy work. It was more of an insult to me, who had worked very hard and dedicated time to having this paper ready to turn in on time, and who will be held to the exact same standard as a student who had much more time to perfect or perhaps, ahem begin, their assignment.

I don’t understand how students over here just don’t show up on the day of a midterm presentation worth 25% of their final grade, or show up without the proper drive for a slideshow and then just “push back” their presentation to the following class meeting. Maybe it’s just my private Catholic high school upbringing where excelling at academics and doing your best in school is championed, and Loyola has reinforced that in me. All I know is that this would never be tolerated in the States to the extent it is here at AUP. It’s extremely true that Europeans are much more laid back and less stressed (and driven) when it comes to work, but sometimes I wonder if it really is the best path.

Attainable Tuesday, Dec 1 2009 

My last month in Paris has begun. As I begin to ponder my departure from the fashion capital of the world, I have been thinking in terms of shopping and Christmas gifts and purchases and souvenirs. Wherever I go in Paris- the Champs Elysees, Galeries Lafayette, le Bon Marche- everywhere has some fabulous designer creation to offer. The abundance of couture fashion here is overwhelming, even after four months of soaking it all in every chance I get. The Avenue George V and the rue Faubourg St. Honore are always bustling with well-dressed shoppers toting numerous large bags full of thousands of EUORS worth of purchases out to a waiting car.

What recession?

I read somewhere that only a thousand women in the world can afford to buy more than one couture gown in their lifetime. When I was at Harrods in London, the designer level was certainly full of women trying on Valentino, Chanel and Marchesa garments, and here in Paris, Louis Vuitton and Hermes always seem to have customers coming out with full shopping bags.  In a time when no one can really afford to buy anything anymore, I have to wonder: what kind of person lives like this? Are all of these one thousand women- Saudi princesses, oil heiresses, Madonna- all in Paris right now?

This lifestyle is not attainable- yet every fashion magazine I read and every style page I log on to tells me to “invest” in timeless pieces- Burberry trenches, Chanel suits, Yves Saint Laurent handbags, Louis Vuitton luggage, Dior shoes. Je ne pense pas. Life in Paris has certainly been an eye opening experience into the luxury that many crave but few can afford. Especially young college women today- we’re told to work really hard so we can buy ourselves whatever designer purses we want, and Infiniti pools and Range Rovers and yachts. To exaggerate obviously, but shopping and blogsites like Bluefly, Netaporter, Outnet.com, stlye.com, Gilt Groupe and the Zoe Report and millions other like them tell us what’s important is investing in ourselves- buy yourself Gucci sunglasses and Yves Saint Laurent coats and Fendi briefcases and Dior heels and you’ll be successful in the workplace. Is that really attainable for anyone graduating from college without several trust funds at their disposal? Will that really make me more successful at my first job?

In a world where everything is so fleeting, and where time passes so fast, why would you waste time and spend your whole life working to spend your whole paycheck on one designer item? Why is everything about status and what you own? Paris is beautiful and lovely and gorgeous and every shopping trip is exhilarating and fantastic; but there are so many people who live such an insanely different lifestyle than anything I’ve been exposed to before, that I wonder if those women who use their black American Express card at Hermes to buy three Birkin bags for themselves are really as happy as I am to be sitting in my house in Norfolk, Massachusetts with my boyfriend, my family and all my pets.

Not to say that money isn’t great and wealth isn’t great and fabulous designer bags aren’t great- that’s imply not true. But being over here, away from everyone I love and everything I know, I have learned that not only does money not buy happiness, but that there are so few real things in life that are actually attainable- and none of them can be charged to an American Express card.