Sunday, June 16, 2013

My first 3 weeks in Paris, or how to lead a double life

I have never been to France, or lived in Europe. The closest I've gotten to real France was watching the English Midnight in Paris and perhaps studying the French Revolution in great depth. Physically, the closest was on my many Germany layovers to Russia. However, no type of preparation could have really shown me what these crazy three weeks would be like. The most culturally enlightening and yes, perpetually embarrassing, three weeks of my life! Let me start of by telling you the basics, things that surprised me the most, and landed me in curious situations. But then I also have to tell you that I lead a bit of a double life. ;)

Part 1: The life of an INTERN!

The life of an intern is a busy, and sometimes tiring one. An intern wakes up in her dorm at around 7:40 A.M. on the weekday. She lives in a dorm not too far from the center of Paris, with a nice little Patisserie across the street and a super convenient gigantic supermarket not too far away. The neighbourhood is also a little bit sketchy (especially after dark), but that is okay, because she is too busy thinking about meshes to get too scared! This is how her dorm room looks like:

Okay, she doesn't spend too much time in the dorm room anyway, before you get too worried about the lack of luxuries (who needs those anyway?! Ghandi would not complain.). And this is what her homecooked breakfast and dinner sometimes look like:

Zucchini with mushrooms and fried fish..mmm? 

This intern and dorm room dweller and French-food-cooker is me, just a regular MIT student who will switch to first person at this point. :)

When I take the tram in the morning to get to work at 9:30 AM, it is packed*. I am still totally surprised at the huge amount of people reading really thick books in any form of transport I take. It is really great. I also get really excited when I hear English being spoken; and that is rather rare. I was told that French people were not as open and "chatty" as Americans, but it turns out that even this can vary. Just recently I was talking with my coworker on the bus about my internship (in French) and a random woman enthusiastically picked up on the conversation and started telling me that her son was actually also an intern in England, but he did not learn more English than he already knew. It was sweet and whenever she started to speak super fast, I smiled and nodded.

Actually, regarding French, I have yet to understand sentences and not just individual words when they are spoken fast. I also need to work on some pronunciation. At the end of my first week here, I was invited to a garden party by our new GRT (yes, Rebecca!), and it was really nice. Lots of fresh air and cheese and yummy French food (also featuring a cute talking chicken, a grumpy boring cat, and an overly hyperactive jumping dog). There were some curious moments. One of them was when Rebecca's cousin, this really cute girl about the age of my brother (that is, ten), asked me in French if I like Justin Bieber. I answered: "No, mais mon frère l'aime!" She looked at me, confused. So I repeated: "Mon frère, il aime Justin Bieber!" (My brother doesn't actually like Justin Bieber, but I was too concentrated on answering correctly to remember how much Misha hates him!). The girl kept looking at me blankly. Then her uncle asked me what I was trying to say. I told him the same thing, and he said to her "Elle dit que son frère aime Justin Beiber!". The girl suddenly realized, "Ohhh." Me: "..." Okay, maybe I do need to work on those French r's, but it is hard when you have always been taught to roll them!

My coworkers actually play a big role in my French language education. I annoy them with questions about syntax and grammar and pronunciation like there's no tomorrow. Before I get ahead of myself, let me explain where I work. I work on crack propagation simulations in a R&D group of EDF, a major (if not the) electricity and energy company in France, with lots of plants around Europe. I'll get more into what exactly I do later. What I want to explain right now is the environment. The building I work in is quite small. It is not a huge lab, or a "conventional" lab at all. Rather, it is more of a "simulation house" where every office contains a computer equipped with the newest (or, actually, most stable) version of Linux & Ubuntu, as well as the modelling software the company itself designed. When I came for first day of work, they had just finished setting up my computer, and telephone, in my office. At first I had some trouble getting used to the French keyboard and memorizing the 4552532 passwords I was given, but I have become so good at it now that I am still trying to use the left number pad on my own keyboard when I come home from work.

I share the office (and big table) with two PhD students, one from Romania and one from China. It is really interesting that my corner of the building quite international. Just across the wall there is a guy from Bahrain and one from Quebec. But a good portion are still French or have been assimilated as French, so I try to speak as much French as possible to everyone, no matter what the nationality. The only person with whom I consistently speak in English is actually my supervisor, and I think this is for the sake of clarity about my project. (I should probably understand the mechanics of crack propagation in English before doing so in French; that is not to say that the program I am working with does not only have French key words...). But in my conversation with colleagues, I came across things I've never heard before in French class. I pester them with questions about the words they are saying, asking them to repeat words, or teaching me to pronounce things the right way. I now say "au fait" and "donc" as easily as "actually", although I have never heard of the former before. I have rather interesting conversations with the guy from Quebec, since English is as natural to him as to me, so I can easily talk to him about how puns and other weird things would sound in French (or the translation of something like "I had to have had"). In general, when the French speak, they merge together most of the words in one continuous string. My supervisor said that even though I may not have gotten used to it yet, there will be a point where I will be able to tell the words apart as easily as in English. I hope so. For now my most used phrases are probably "ça marche" and "ça ne marche pas!" (in the light of my research successes...or failures :P).

MISTI France was also right about the amount of coffee breaks French people take. First they have coffee in the morning, of course. Then right after lunch, they all gather together near the coffee machine on the couches and talk about politics (or, rather, current events). Their conversations are pretty mild too; I have never heard anyone ardently arguing about some political controversy or something like this. I guess that is because I am in the R&D group and everyone is too busy with science to invest in any sort of outspoken opinion on the topic. They actually don't talk about politics at lunch; lunch is quite brief but extremely delicious so everyone is busy eating and maybe discussing something not too involved in the process. Then, I noticed, right at around 4 P.M., they all gather again by the coffee machine and chat about things. Everyone does go to eat together. There are two eating times, and it is such a warm feeling to be invited to go to lunch with everyone ("Tu vas manger?" "Oui!"). One time I got really hungry and went to see if some of my colleagues wanted to go have lunch. One time we even had a strike in the cafeteria. One of the theories regarding this was that EDF is moving to another place in two years, so the workers want some sort of compensation right now for having to lose their job then. Another theory was that workers generally like to go on strike. "It's just what they do," one guy told me. Just yesterday, most of the train workers went on strike; not sure the reason for this, but the tram was packed when I took it in the morning. I also have interesting conversations about education in the U.S. vs. that in France. I was frequently asked about "what it takes" to get into MIT -- good test scores, an entrance exam? Many schools in France have specialized entrance exams, so the holistic admissions process of most U.S. colleges (and the relative joke of the SAT) was a bit tricky to explain.

You may think we, MIT interns and research students, work a lot -- and we do. But we have awesome ways of relaxing afterwards:

Picnic time!! :) Photo (c) F.Vargas
Of course...sorority squat
by the Eiffel Tower! (c) F.V.
But when we do work, it is serious. I guess one thing MIT taught me is how to pester people. I pester my post doc/PhD students with French, but also with the research I am doing. They are super nice when I ask for help regarding some nuance of the program which is not very obvious. In the end we have quite interesting conversation (sometimes even entirely in French) on why some algorithm was constructed the way it was and to what physical systems it can be applied. In these few weeks, I have learned a ton about the nuances of material analysis. I love it when I have this kind of intellectual stimulation in the summer. I think the critical thinking I develop when trying to debug a script I wrote or understand how my results relate to a realistic model is good not only for science, but for simple daily life. :) After all, living alone without parents or any close relatives in a foreign country for the first time is not your regular morceau de gâteau. There are lots of factors like finances, transport, living, etc, that need to be carefully analyzed, and doing this before one graduates and heads into the real world, in my humble opinion, super useful! :)

Still, there were lots of embarrassing times in my assimilation process. Just as I thought it was becoming less obvious I was foreign in my trips home-work-back, I thought I just missed a stop on the bus and yelled at the driver, "Can you open the door, please??" really loudly in clear English, totally forgetting where I was. Realizing I was no longer in the US and that I actually did not miss the stop, I broke out in cold sweat, then coughed "excusez-moi!" as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Nobody seemed to notice, including the bus driver. It was just great. Maybe it is good that French people are always busy reading their thick books on the buses.

Part 2: The life of a TOURIST!

I don't even know what is harder, the life of an assimilated person or the life of a tourist. Assimilating makes you feel really cool and suave (does anyone actually use that word?) while being a tourist makes you go ZOMG I AM IN FRANCE, FREAKING VOLTAIRE AND MONET AND OH GOD, NAPOLEON HIMSELF WALKED ON THIS ROAD!!! THIS FREAKING ROAD!! (a.k.a. my thoughts on the weekends). Suddenly, when the weekend arrives, I am transformed from a serious and studious apprentice of the French language and program compilers to a sparkly eyed tourist, waiting to experience one world wonder after the other. My inner tourist was finally unleashed for the first time as I strolled along the Seine,

Finally here: the romantic Seine at sunset! 

played Joe Dessin's "Aux Champs-Elysees" in my head as I walked though the Jardin des Tuileries, 

A fountain in front of Palais du Louvre
and marveled at the glittering Tour d'Eiffel at the real Midnight (12:00) in Paris...

Actually, I have yet to take a full walk through the Champs Elysees, but hey, I have two more months! My first actual entrance was into the Musee D'Orsay, which was an absolute wonder. Itself an old train station, it is fantastically designed, and contains some of my favorite works and artists (Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, and many others). 

Me in the most artistic train station in the world! 
The same Friday, I visited Sacre Coeur, which is basically a giant church akin to the Saint Joseph's Oratory in Montreal plus a huge tourist bazaar and lots of people looking to scam you.

The majestic Sacre Coeur! :) 
We had dinner at a nice restaurant in Montmarte, not far from the basilica. 

Me and the MIT kids at dinner. (c) F. Vargas
On Saturday, I visited Versailles:

Me, Julia, Anthony in Versailles. Photo (c) F. Vargas
Versailles itself was very breathtaking, and just full of so many interesting historical antiquities. It was also real easy to get to, we just got on the RER C and took it straight to the town. On the way we saw a really cute antique bookstore (and planned to come back there later)!

However, nothing, not even the Orsay/Versailles, could have prepared me for the cultural shock of the Louvre!

The Apollo Gallery, created by
the Sun King, seems miraculously 

untouched by the revolution!
Somebody asked me, after I came back from the Louvre: "How was the Mona Lisa?"
"She was smiling," I said. "Plus, it was really difficult to take selfies with her, since she is surrounded by a mob of tourist and (potentially) pickpocketers." 

However, it was much easier to take selfies with my other old friends, like Voltaire. I know it is not a very candide photo, but what can I say?! You are a tourist in Paris only once. (Interpret that as you'd like! ;))

Voltaire is excited to be in my photo. 
I also loved how the Louvre had a ton of stuff from Ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamia, and Ancient Greece. I had never seen so many sarcophaguses and so many nude marble men in one room before (of course, in their separate respective rooms by era; otherwise it would be kind of weird). And sometimes you could spot people drawing famous paintings: 

My most historical recent endeavor was in the Museum of Medieval History. It was great. Oh, did I mention all these museums are practically free for students? It is a truly great time to be a young person in Paris. :) 

This museum is a real castle!
And there's also an opportunity to play giant chess right outside! 

Anyway, this was not the last of the cultural enlightenment for the past three weeks! Just today, I made some time to go to l'Odéon-théâtre de l'Europe, one of the six national theaters. I saw the play Le Misanthrope by Moliere. The production was very modern, and at times a little strange, but my friend and I really liked it. I may not have understood everything they were saying (in fact I mostly use the "key word" method now, in which I listen as hard as I can to the fast speech and recognizing the keywords, am able to guess the context of the others, correctly or not :P), but their gestures were hilarious and the acting was superb.

A scene from today's play. (c) L'Odeon
Also, I think the play is where the double life of a tourist and intern finally merged into one; after all, while taking touristy pictures of the interior of the theater, I realized I had not heard any English spoken here at all. 

Before the play, we also had some very delicious crepes with chicken and salad for just 4 euros. Seriously, SO DELICIOUS. There is no doubt that they were the most delicious crepes ever made. If you ever go to Paris St. Germain area and get hungry, go to this crêperie; it is soo worth it! 

Right now I am trying to wrap up this entry, because it is pretty darn long, but I know I just owed it to you guys -- LMF blog really needed a healthy new dose of everything French! :) Ooh, I still need to blog more about my actual research project; next entry! Thanks for reading and hope all of you amazing people are having fantastic summers. 

*A note on traveling around Paris & public transport, since I kind of love it!
Public transport in France is a thing of global envy, probably (except when they go on strike; that is not fun, but hey, that's what the French do best!). I had never before used public transport much in the US. But here, it is simply a godsend. There are many options for travel; the metro, RER (a type of train within Ile-de-France region mostly), tram, bus, or train itself. To get to my work, I take the cute tram, and then the bus. The best part is that many of the metro/RER/tram/bus, etc, stations are conveniently located right at the step of the most interesting museums, attractions, etc. 

i.e., just like in "Paris, je t'aime!"
After the hassle of buying individual tickets for each transport for a few days, I bought a "Navigo pass" which allows one to travel within a certain region an unlimited amount of times. It was a good idea; I once managed to get totally lost when I got off at this huge metro station that had like 20 exits, and took many different metro lines to get home. Also, EVERYTHING is automatic. When you get onto any type of transport (except the actual trains) there will be no one there to check your ticket. It is your job to swipe your pass or validate your ticket, which gets stamped with the number of the line you took and the time you boarded. Pretty cool. (Once you have used one of the tickets, it can be reused within 90 minutes) . This would so not work in some countries, I am pretty sure. But it mostly works here (sometimes there are people who will check your ticket/pass at the entry). WARNING: Paris is not too nice to pedestrians, and my French friend told me that there is no way she'd ever drive in Paris. This is because French drivers are CRAZY. They won't ever stop. Ever. Just saying. 


  1. Ahhh, Paris me manque, et maintenant, grâce à toi Sasha, je le réalise...

    1. Salut, Erin! je suis contente que tu l'aimes! Je me manque la maison aussi! =)

    2. au fait, j'ai lu ton blog au sujet de ton séjour à Paris et je l'aime beaucoup aussi! Ton appartement etait mieux que ma résidence :P

    3. Ah, oui, mon appartement était vraiment du luxe... c'était une bonne surprise pour moi. :P

  2. Sasha, this is awesome! thank you so much for sharing. Would you be willing to send me a separate image of you in the Musee d'Orsay? Its beautiful!- Erin B