Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Too Rapid Passage of Time

Well, it's been a little over a month since I arrived in Des Moines, yet it feels as though I just got off that United flight from Paris only yesterday. I've been filling my days mostly with the comforting things that I missed while in France. Satellite TV, favorite foods, driving too fast on the freeway with my stereo blasting, spending time with friends and family...but not necessarily in that order.

The weekend in Paris was a great send-off. I had been really sweating it out that last week in Poitiers, getting ready to vacate my apartment, making arrangements to get rid of all my shit, meeting up with friends one last time. Frantic would be an apt description. Also sweaty.

Eventually, Friday rolled around and it was time to check out with my realtor, Sylvie. She was so great with helping me to secure the apartment, and she was equally great on that final day. Sad to see her go. And sad to walk out of that apartment for the last time. I looked over my shoulder at the little river, the blank walls, the tiny kitchenette. For a moment, I felt the pang of what it meant to give this place up. The dreams left behind there. But then I remembered that I'd be on a plane back home in three days, seeing my family, eating real Mexican food...and the thought cheered me immensely.

After leaving my apartment, I headed straight to Alice's apartment, relatively unencumbered by crap to carry. Thankfully, I had moved my two behemoth suitcases to her place earlier in the day. Or rather, I had alternately pushed and pulled them up her hill, in constant danger of either being flattened by them or dragged to a messy end.

That evening, we went to a concert of centuries-old classical music, held in a small chapel near the cathedral. Two cello-like instruments and a harpsichord. I'm not the biggest fan of the harpsichord, but it was actually quite lovely. A sweet end to my time in Poitiers.

We barely got any sleep that night. Alice went to a second classical concert just outside of Poitiers, so she didn't get back until around 11pm (and the sound at the concert was distorted and too soft, so that was shitty for her since she was so excited to hear this particular artist). Then we had to be up around 5:30am in order to get ready to catch the bus to the train station. Breakfast featured a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for each of us. By the way, I have never seen a non-American scarf up a PB&J sandwich so quickly in my life. Nice work, Alice!

And so, to Paris.

It's no secret that I'm not a particular fan of the City of Lights. It's a bit too mad for me. Frenetic, really. I'm certainly too provincial for Parisian standards, but as I said to Alice at one point, there are so many hideous tourists there, I don't stand out in too mortifying a manner.

I really had no specific plans for the weekend, other than that I wanted to go to Poilâne, the world-famous bakery so highly recommended by the likes of chef Ina Garten (of Barefoot Contessa fame). Beyond that, I was open to suggestion--up to a point. I had no intention of hiking around the city, getting blisters and detesting every moment. In the end, Alice and I kept it pretty low key. We were staying at the apartment of my Danish friend, Birgitte, who had very generously loaned it to me while she was gone that weekend. So, while we were happy to stay in and play cards and just chat, there were a few activities out in Paris that were on our list.

First thing on Saturday, we met up with her brother at the train station on his way to Belgium. We only enjoyed a brief visit, but it was nice to meet this elusive brother, especially since he's as big of a "West Wing" fan as Alice and I! After meeting Giles, we navigated the Métro to Poilâne. I have a tremendous hatred of the Paris Métro, but that day it was actually nice to us. Not too many steps, no hiking through a stadium's worth of tunnels to get to our train, fairly short waiting times. My best experience with that bitch yet.

Poilâne was overflowing with a lunchtime crowd, their tiny dining room spilling would-be customers out into the street. We waited cheerfully in line behind them, killing time by studying the menu posted in the window. Poilâne's café specializes in "tartine", which is a toasted, thin slice of their famous sourdough bread covered in a modest array of toppings. I ended up ordering the tartine with roasted tomato sauce, goat cheese, and basil. It was also lightly broiled in order to melt the cheese. Pure heaven. Alice got hers with guacomole and shrimp. Not so heavenly for a non-seafood person such as myself, but it did look like a work of art.

On Sunday was the real highlight of the trip: The Musée d'Orsay. As a fan of the Impressionists, I had been wanting to go there for quite some time; but it was actually Alice who had the idea to go that day. The Louvre gets all the fame, but if you like Impressionism, the best stuff is honestly at the d'Orsay.

As we came up out of the Métro, we could see the entrance line winding around in front of the building, and I definitely had a moment of "Fuck this." But, we had come all that way, and I really did want to go in, so we sweated it out in line. As luck would have it, we were right behind an older American couple from Phoenix. [I know they were from Phoenix because, as is the way with most Americans, we got to chatting rather quickly. That is definitely something I love about my fellow countrymen; we are usually friendly and tend to open up quickly, even to strangers. And, in most circumstances, we can call each other by our first names more or less immediately, not always a given in other parts of the world (even France). I really love how Americans can be so unreserved...it makes me rather proud, I must say. It can have its downsides, but for the most part, it's a positive aspect of our nature.]

After waiting in line for only about 20 minutes, we were in the door and ready to sit at the feet of the masters. Well, I was. Alice isn't so much a fan of Impressionism, so she accompanied me to all of the gallery rooms, but was not particularly engaged in seeing the actual art (also, she had been there before). For me, it was a surreal experience to walk down a hallway--not even an actual gallery--and see one of my absolute favorite Monet pieces ("Poppies, Near Argenteuil") just hanging there as if it were in my grandma's living room. I mean, I had a poster of it in my room in Seoul. It was my poster come to life...unbelievable! It immediately reduced me to a yammering tourist. "Do you see that?? It's Monet! I had that as a poster!! Holy shit!"

It just got better from there, if that's even possible. We kept walking past masterpiece after masterpiece; it simply never ended. In one room, I turned a corner and was suddenly face to face with Whistler's Mother. In another, I saw a small semi-circle gathered around a painting; as I got closer, I could see it was Van Gogh's "Starry Night". Other than Monet's Poppies, that was my favorite painting of the day. No poster could ever do it justice. It was enchanting, pure brilliance. I could have stood there and stared at it for an immeasurable length of time. It was luminescent and instantly drew one in. I have perhaps never seen such a perfect definition of "work of art."

After ooing and aahing my way through the museum, it was time to complete the final errand of the day. My Uncle Pete had made me promise to have my picture taken drinking an aperitif at a café on the Left Bank. I think he was imagining a café overlooking the river, but none really exist. So, once Alice and I left the museum (itself a former train station located on the Left Bank), I posed for a picture by the Seine river, and then we walked for awhile until we saw an acceptable café in which to have an aperitif (and lunch). Lunch wasn't too bad, and I got the required photo. Mission accomplished!

Since we had mostly hiked around all day, I volunteered to pay for a taxi back to the apartment. Naturally, we ended up getting stuck behind a massive cycling race. Still, it was cool to drive right next to the Eiffel Tour and the Arc de Triomphe. We were soon back in the apartment, where we played some more Nertz and talked until it was time for Alice's train home and a teary farewell.

The next morning, I was up at the crack of dawn to catch the shuttle I had pre-arranged to take me to the airport. There I was, sitting on my suitcase outside of Birgitte's apartment...waiting. And no one was showing up. Of course. Luckily for me, Birgitte had come home late the night before, and was also up that morning to go to work. So, when she came outside and saw that I was still sitting there, getting increasingly nervous, she called the company for me. Turns out that they had no idea where the driver was, and that I would be reimbursed for my ticket. But in the meantime, how was I going to get to the damn airport?? Birgitte called for a taxi, which meant that I'd have to pay about 40 Euros to get to the airport (as opposed to just 28 with the shuttle). But, as goes the story of my life, once the driver got there, he said he couldn't take me all the way to the airport. Instead, he said he had to meet his daughter in 30 minutes, so he could only take me to a taxi stand. Naturally. He didn't charge me for the trip to the taxi stand, thankfully, and I was soon into another taxi and on my way to the airport. What sweet relief.

At the airport, I was terrified of my bags being over the limit (fee: 150 Euros per bag for being over), but they both just barely squeaked in under the line. I hadn't been able to check in online the night before, and had thus been relegated to a middle seat. As a big girl, that was never going to work for me (or my seatmates), so I had to pay 60 Euros extra to upgrade to an aisle seat in Economy Plus. Totally worth it for the extra legroom, I must say.

I almost died carrying my backpack around with me that day. Good thing they never weigh your carry-on baggage, because my backpack must have weighed an easy 40 pounds. I had 5 pounds of French raw milk butter in there with me, for starters! Plus tons of shit that I was afraid would put my suitcases over the limit. By the time I made the plane transfer in Chicago and then at home in Des Moines, my shoulders were stippled with broken blood vessels from carrying the weight of that damned bag. Never again. Oh, and one favorite moment from the airport in Chicago: I wanted to call home, but didn't have a working cell phone. So, I tried to use a payphone with some of the quarters I had left over from when I came to France. Except the payphones wouldn't except money! I would have had to use a phone card or credit card! These weren't even fancy new payphones where you could put the card right into the machine. Oh no, these were straight out of the 80s. And still, wouldn't take actual money. I had to call collect and then have my mother call the phone back. Ridiculous.

But, I was soon home in Des Moines and happy to see my family and friends. Being away from home for so long makes me appreciate them even more. Although...as the summer is wearing on, so is my patience for family life. I'm looking forward to the move to Poland, even though I know I'll miss them all again as soon as I'm on the plane. Just one of the paradoxes of living a life so far from your loved ones...

Friday, July 10, 2009

Sultry Iowa Days

So, I've been home for almost two weeks, and time has been passing in alternating waves of snail and lightning speed. My family welcomed me with open arms and a list of shit they needed done. Apparently, my mother doesn't trust herself to change the lightbulb in the hallway, and so has been living with it dark for god knows how many weeks/months. *sigh* So, I've been used and abused by her and my grandma for doing odds & ends jobs...but nothing too back-breaking. The weather, although gorgeous when I first arrived, has segued into cool mornings and sultry days. With my mother's stubborn approach to running the air conditioning, I'm having flashbacks to my time in aircon-free, sweaty France. Ugh.

Another thing that's been driving me to the brink of alcoholism is my mother's incessant need to know where I'm going and what I'm doing and who was that who just called me and was that my email notification that just went off and on and on and on. I'm finding it extremely difficult to abandon my usual freedom to the demands of my snoopy mother. Which is not to say that I think I should abandon it; on the contrary, I'm fighting it tooth and nail. And while I hate being subject to the Mom Inquisition, I also hate feeling like I'm ready to snap at any moment. I just want my peace and quiet and autonomy back.

On a more positive note, I've really enjoyed hanging out with my friends. Derek had a "Welcome Back Shannon" dinner, for which he made his famous bulgogi (Korean BBQ). I've really missed hanging out with all of those guys, so it was a real treat to be able to interact with them personally, as opposed to just on Facebook.

My weekend looks to be fairly interesting, with a cookout tomorrow (making my new favorite tomato dish, Tomato Crumble [recipe from a cookbook I got at a chateau near Saintes]) and an outing to a special dance club in the evening. Sunday will be a movie with my dad, grandma's spaghetti dinner, and then another movie with dad.

Fun times ahead. Also, need to update on here about my last days/nights in France. Coming soon. :-)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Changes abound...

So! I'm officially back in Des Moines. Lots to share about my last days in Poitiers, my last weekend in Paris, the trip home, and my re-entry into midwest living. But, too much jet lag at this particular moment to concentrate on writing it all! More to follow soon...