A Post on Living in Paris

Perhaps I’ve been holding off writing about my Parisian year because of the sheer weight that the City of Lights holds over the American imagination. “We’ll always have Paris,” declares Humphrey Bogart to Ingrid Bergman. Quotes from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast swamp the #paris feeds. Perhaps the only thing more basic is a pumpkin spice latte selfie in front of the Eiffel Tour.

Paris is always a good idea

I do not have the original poster anymore, but I assure you it looked basic like this.

Or maybe I’ve put it off because Paris has held such a spell over my own life. For a year in college I hung a poster of Audrey Hepburn’s famous utterance, “Paris is always a good idea,” in my room. Superimposed upon an aerial view from the Arc de Triomphe of course. I tried hard to hide my longing for the most cliched of European cities, but alas everyone knew and everyone congratulated me wholeheartedly when I finally got the chance to live the Parisian life this year as a masters student at Sciences Po. The beautiful dream came true and the mythical city became my every day reality. How can I do it written justice now?

To be honest, I don’t have much to add to my past experiences of Paris on the subject of Paris itself. My lasting impressions this time are less about the chic fashion and croissants, instead they have turned inwards. As with any dream of epic proportions, its luster fades once we transform the dream into our everyday, lived experience. Once you live within your dream, it will eventually cease to be your dream because, by definition, the dream has become your reality. And when that happened to me, I learned that no matter how much living in Paris inspires me, how many beautiful moments I encounter along its streets, I am left with my same core personality, tendencies, and flaws. I think it’s too much responsibility to give to any city the power to fundamentally change people.

Since college graduation, many people have jokingly asked me what I’m running away from, citing the trope of the 20-something girl traveling the world to escape heartbreak, boredom or something equally tragic. I’ve always waved them off because I’m not running away from anything like that — in my view I’m chasing a professional path in international development. I guess you could then ask me what is it that draws me to a career in which the boundaries between professional and personal life are blurred. People in development, at various scales of self-righteousness, are motivated to do their job because they believe it will make a positive difference in the world. That one is easy to understand. But people who work in international development also praise the heavens when they get a contract that lasts longer than one year. People in development are ready to drop everything and pack a suitcase with their entire life inside at a week’s notice. And that kind of lifestyle is unreasonably seductive to me, despite the predictable giant wrench it throws in your personal relationships. It is also, to a degree, irresponsible.

Do you know that sometimes it feels good to be completely lost and disoriented? I’ve always conceived of life as a series of uncontrollable events and situations emerging from chaos. I like it when life such conceived hits me full force. I feel most alive when I’m trying to reign in the chaos– this feeling is most viscerally experienced when I’m plopped into the heart of a new city, a new culture and new code of behaviour to decipher. The feeling of living in a parallel universe is delicious. When things are out of your control, you cannot to be blamed. I love it when decisions are made for me, when some life decisions are automatic. But it’s wrong to try and live your life perpetually in this way. Isn’t this running away from responsibility? Kundera’s heaviness?

I apologize that nothing is really said about Paris in this post. Did Paris make me somewhat fancier, more stylish, and snooty? I will have to say yes, at least in part, to all three. However, Paris represents to me a broader disillusionment of dreams bringing to light my flawed inner realities.

 

 

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In Memory of Disposable Kodaks

At the start of my romp around Europe in March of this year, I decided to pick up two disposable cameras in London. I was drawn to the challenge of capturing two weeks of adventure in less than 60 images. I really do believe in soaking up and being solidly present in the places I visit. I see too many people constantly glued to their cameras or phones, that they forget to see the world right in front of them with their own eyes, and not through artificial lens. Photography is amazing, but not all of an atmosphere or mood can be picked up in pixels.

When I walked back to my apartment from the Kodak store with my fresh batch of photos, I was actually smiling ear to ear. Something about the combination of anticipation and nostalgia in looking at pictures taken five months ago. It’s a new age (now, old age) time capsule, a blast from the past reminding you of how far you’ve come, and the fascinating places still left to be discovered. Aside from this fluffy stuff, here’s what I learned about taking pictures with disposable cameras:

Pros

  • They are lightweight.
  • You feel hip.
  • Instant vintage filter!
  • Everyone looks great because HD quality is not always a good thing.
  • It’s like Christmas morning when you pick up your developed photos.

Cons

  • Photo quality is hit or miss, especially for indoor shots. I only bothered scanning around 40% of all the photos.
  • You get called a try-hard hipster.
  • It’s expensive to develop. CVS was charging something like $18 a roll.

Overall, I definitely plan on using disposable cameras again when I travel. They’re a lot of fun and the resulting photos make beautiful souvenirs. I now have envelope stuffers for the letters I’m writing to my friends abroad who were kind enough to host me and show me around. The photos are also cheery decoration for freshly minted, post-grad millennial apartments.

I already sealed the pictures I took of my friends and myself into envelopes to be mailed, but I still have plenty from just around town. Now without any further ado, and in no particular order, I present my 2015 European Backpack Trip in twenty-one images! Click on them for closeups and occasional captions. Can you guess where each was taken?

An American Girl in Paris: Part 3

I’ve officially now been to Paris more times than I’ve visited New York City. Then again, I’ve never been particularly drawn to the aesthetic of the Big Apple. Religiously watching Sex and the City is enough for me (snaps for you if you get the title reference). It’s one of those charming, life’s blessings to have experienced Paris in three separate seasons. I think I can do without trying Paris in the winter though – I hear the sun goes down at 4:00pm and after fall quarter, God knows that seasonal affective disorder is real. Anyway, being in Paris again felt so incredibly familiar. Each time, Paris is still a mecca for artists, it’s still incredibly stylish, its selection of perfectly baked carbohydrates is still fantastic – this city just perfectly fills the Eiffel Tower shaped hole in my heart.

Despite all that time clocked in Paris, this visit was marked by several firsts and I left with many things still on my checklist for the future. A mere five hours after arriving in Paris, I dragged my lazy-ass and my lovely host, Amy, up to Sacre-Coeur in Montmartre. Better late than never, right?

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But I’m also such a creature of habit. We went for my third time to Bouillon Chartier for lunch. It’s just such a rustic, typically French interior design with wall-to-wall mirrors and wrought-metal bulb lighting. Not to mention the free wifi.

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I took my last requirement for my Visual Arts minor last quarter on contemporary art and that made me all the more excited to check out Palais de Tokio. It went above and beyond my expectations. It also helped to share the experience with a cute art design school French boy. I know a lot of people are perplexed by contemporary art. Or more like, “What the hell is this crap?” But Palais du Tokio would impress even the most skeptical. From Jackass video installations to large-scale mechanical instruments powered by magnets to a freakishly realistic female robot, there is something for everyone. Outside of the actual exhibition space (which is huge), there’s also a café, restaurant, movie theater, and dance club. Everything is open late into the night. And is there a better time to experience art than in the creative vortex of after-sunset?

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Kenji Kawakami, the artist responsible for the famous series of “ingenious” inventions that went viral a few years ago, had his exhibition at Palais!

I finally found it, by the way. The best croissant in Paris resides at the Café St. Regis on Ile St. Louis. Dense and fluffy and warm – if this was the last croissant I ever eat, I’d contently state, “It’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.”

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Other than that, most of my time was spent visiting the museums for my B.A. thesis research and shopping for warmer clothes as I completely underestimated Europe in early April. Being from Chicago kind of does that to you – you think nowhere is as freezing as Chicago but actually you don’t have a monopoly on annoyingly cold temperatures in spring.

I always fit in a dinner and walk through Paris at night. It’s not called the City of Lights for nothing.

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Today also marks the one-week checkpoint of my trip. I don’t know how those people who go backpacking for months do it. I have already developed a persistent tickle in my throat and a dull feeling in my feet. It’s the middle of Easter Break for most of Europe. That means more tourists but also more young people traveling which then means more random friends to make on long train rides. Oh, I forgot to say where I am at the moment. I’m sitting on the TGV from Strasbourg to Mannheim, having successfully completed part one of my two transfers en route to Berlin. First time in Germany! I will have to remember to not jaywalk.

Anti-Reflection on Paris

Leaving Paris broke my heart.

I have unfinished business, months of exploration left in me. Now that I’m sitting home in my bed, propped up with pillows and hearing the suburban nothing-ness… Paris really does seem like it was a dream – a three-month long slumber and plunge into the depths of looping arrondissements, clacking metro cars, and the interconnections of my brain wires as I try to process that this city literally encompasses all that excites me. How can it be real? How can it be that just a day ago I was breathing in all that cigarette smoke outside the Bastille bar alleys and now I’m reclining in my white-grey-flower patterned sheets, listening to people mowing their lawns?

Do you ever ask yourself, why am I here? Not in the philosophical sense of like “with what world view do you ascribe meaning to your life?” But geographically, why are you here? Right now. In Chicago? Yes, I go to school here, from which I will graduate in June. The question then inevitably becomes, why am I here and not in Paris?

Why did I go to Paris in the first place? Because, in November 2012, I walked down the quai along the Seine for the first time and I made a mental pact to myself that I will find some way to spend more time here. It was one of the most intense, romantic feelings I’ve ever experienced. I looked around, saw the building where Voltaire was born, the fricking jade green river, and it sounds ridiculous but damn, love at first sight is real. Is it possible to love a place as much as a person?

In my mind, BP and AP will not refer to a gas conglomerate or college-prep standardized tests. They will mark my life as “Before-Paris” and “After-Paris.” Does it sound like I have lost my mind? Perhaps. I said at the beginning of this post that I lost my heart to Paris. Are the head and the heart not the same in some ways? Without my heart, my mind is useless. Without fierce determination fueled by heart-felt obsession, my work ethic becomes sub-par. I’ve lost my mind to my heart and that’s ok.

So I refuse to write a definitive reflection post just yet, simply because I am not done with Paris.

Impersonating a classy person.

The Mid-Term Renewable Energy Report: Paris 2014

The second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of an isolated system does not decrease. This is often misinterpreted and used incorrectly for a bunch of analogies about life and whatnot. This is probably yet another one. That’s unfortunate since I’m supposed to be well-versed in the basic understandings of heat conservation by now because one of my main projects for work is on renewable energy. As always, a jack of all trades and a master of none. Anyhoo, this got me thinking about my own energy supply these days. Humans don’t have an endless amount of energy and everyone has their limit. But how do we replenish? How do we keep nurturing and conditioning our inner strength to make it through every new day?

I’m about halfway through my time in Paris this summer and even though I’m physically exhausted most days, I’m at peace and proud of my accomplishments so far. I think that’s the important key – giving yourself time to reflect on all the great things that you’ve achieved and experienced recently. Telling myself “You know what, you’re a pretty awesome person. Good job!” Modesty is an important characteristic to have these days, but it shouldn’t replace a healthy dose of self confidence. It’s not selfish to focus on yourself to make yourself a better, happier person. And so, here’s a list of some of the things that I’m glad to have experienced in Paris. Sorry for the comparatively sparse amount of pictures, I feel too self conscious snapping pictures when hanging out with the cool Europeans that don’t have time for that shit.

1. The museums here are a dream. Large, massive, mini-cities like the Louvre, to small three-story artists’ apartment/studio like the Musee Gustave Moreau.
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2. Having lunch in the shade of the Eiffel tower at least once a week. Having 4pm coffee/Nesquik milk breaks with my intern “bestie” in the office bar that also overlooks the Tour Eiffel. Still not desensitized to this view.

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3. Finally, finally, finally figuring out the Paris metro – even during summer reconstruction that forced me to change my route to work three times. The world will never know how many selfies I took either bored, angry, or hopelessly confused in the metro.

tired of waiting

4. Happy tipsy drinking with friends and colleagues. I was wrong – you can get drunk off wine.

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5. The exotic yummy souvenir table right outside my office. I don’t need to travel if people just bring back all the food to my doorstep. Let’s be honest, that’s all I would’ve been doing anyway. (Pictured: Czech wafers with hazelnut cream filling)
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6. Sundays when I lie in my bed and see how long I can go without moving. Also known as…

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7. That time we drove to Gent for a beer festival and I dropped my glasses in the river. But I ain’t even mad. At least I’ll have made my mark in some way since no photos of me in Gent exist… was it all just a dream?

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8. I witnessed the Bastille Day fireworks. Alone yet warmed by the company of all the people. And their sweat.

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9. Challenging and fulfilling assignments at work. This one’s a big one for which I am especially thankful. Also for the office espresso machine. Also for the hilarious and interesting people with whom I have the privilege to work. Just, god bless this internship…

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10. Losing weight and exercising without trying. This picture was taken the first weekend in Paris. Since then I’ve lost most of the excess flab I’d gained during Spring finals week. Confusing Metro closings definitely force you to walk a few extra miles…

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tl;dr – Positive vibes, chill feelings, yet still in awe like a doe-eyed college student. That is my current status update.

The First 24 Hours in Paris

Let me tell you a story about my first day of summer intern life.

I woke up at 8:00am. Sure, fine, make-up done, dressed-to-impress first day business professional put on, head out the door with click-clacks from my most comfortable, BCBG black patent leather heels and the confidence only a beautiful, Kate Spade structured purse can bestow. Walked to Ligne 4, made successful transfer to Ligne 6, got on and rode it two stops when the intercom came on and said “BLAHBLAHBLAHBLAHBLAHBLAH MERCI.” Then everyone got off the train and I was told that Ligne 6 was closed for the next two months due to construction. Stay cool Wendy, this is why you got up early, just in case the French decided to be super French and block metro lines as usual. You got this. 

Does the following list of the subsequent events sound like I got this?

1. Took a bus the wrong way.
2. Wandered around looking for the metro after getting off said bus.
3. Took said train in the wrong direction.
4. It started raining at step 1.

I arrived a full hour or so late but my supervisor is the sweetest, British ex-diplomat and was completely understanding. He had a bunch of deadlines coming up anyway so today was full of my officemate introducing me to all the people in the office and getting my desktop/ids/email set up. It’s just amazing how many different nationalities are in this place – I work next to a Turk, across the hall from a Venezuelan, and there’s Chinese, Korean, British, French, everyone. This also means that the kitchen has every type of tea and coffee from all over the world and people bring snacks from where they’ve traveled to share as well. There’s also a coffee bar and Bueno stash. I love it.

Also, my room!! I have my very own French windows and I couldn’t be happier.

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Also the fridge makes ice! I have ice for my iced tea/coffee! Which I brew in this handy little glass water bottle/infuser:

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My stash of dried goods, including a big bag of mung beans for Chinese Mung Bean Soup which is more a dessert than anything else (try this recipe but I add tapioca pearls and coconut milk too).

dry goods shelve

The little newspaper clipping that I taped behind this shelf was from the first Maroon issue of first year during O-week. I fell in love with UChicago this year so I’m glad to have a piece of home with me. Part of it reads:

“No one sleeps here. Blame it on rigorous academics or undergraduate insomnia, but a more plausible reason is the campus-wide coffee addiction. There may be Marx-Engels readers and Indian epics bundled in the arms of select students, but the sight of a hand glued to a steaming paper cup – whether in class or on the quads- is much more likely. Coffee shops, there fore, are as critical to the community as any glass-domed library or Gothic classrooms.”

And many memories were indeed made in many coffee shops. Hard to imagine that in three months, I’ll have memories marked by the many coffee shops here in Paris as well. Cheers to that 🙂

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Days of Happiness #6

40. Now, I know a lot of people don’t believe in that Horoscopes-What’s-Your-Astrological-Sign mumbojumbo but as a Pisces, I do have a deep appreciation and attraction to bodies of water. The Seine is weird. It moves along very rapidly in twisty jade green ribbons. Seriously, it is jade green. Like mint chocolate chip ice cream color but dulled down. And without chocolate chips. For four mornings and nights, I walked along the banks of the Seine. On the right bank, on the left bank, over the bridges connecting the banks. In the rain, in the sun, in the wind. I wish I have pictures but I couldn’t take my eyes off that river for even a minute.

39. Long, leisurely train rides. They’re like little sealed-off pods disconnected from real life. I can do almost 90% of the things I love the most on a long train ride: read, sleep, snack, converse. A little old French lady started lecturing me on marrying rich and popping out babies so you don’t have to work, though. I wonder what her husband sitting across from her was thinking.

38. Heights. I think I love being in mountains even more than being by water. Paris at night from the top of l’arc de triumphe.

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37. Christmas lights. I am very happy that Christmas lights are a thing (actually, like ten times a thing) in Europe too. All the songs playing are American though. Good cheer and touristy snacks (mulled wine mmm). I dig it.

36. Familiar faces in a strange new world. I’m nearing the three month mark in my time abroad and it’s the longest time I’ve ever been away from home. It was comforting to hug and talk and laugh with friends from Naperville amidst the Parisian lights. I was getting homesick. It’s the week of Thanksgiving after all.

This is our smug, we're-in-paris-son faces.

This is our smug, we’re-in-paris-son faces.