Saturday, May 30, 2015

Bienvenue à Paris!

Bonjour tout le monde!

I've been in France for five days - just starting to get used to things. I'm moving into my dorm in Paris tomorrow, but this week I've been staying with a family acquaintance in Buc, a very pretty village near Versailles. Since my lab is in the heart of the city, 15 miles away, I have a bit of a commute.

I leave the very French-village "Rue de la Ferme" where I'm staying, complete with real shutters and birds that wake me up (but very musically) if I don't close them... 

(look for angry kitty under the sign)

And catch the always-exactly-on-time bus down the street. On the bus, I pass the beautiful park in Buc...

A casual giant aqueduct... 

(But actually. This thing is 80 feet tall and incredibly majestic. And you can climb on top and eat tiny wild strawberries! It's not actually Roman - some guy in the 1600s decided he was going to build a big chunk of rock that would survive anything, man. Overall, very adequate aqueduct.)


And the gorgeous forest behind it.

I get off the bus in downtown Versailles, featuring Louis XIV's famous palace and gardens, and the attending thousands of tourists;

The very imposing town hall;

And prominently placed Starbucks and McDonald's (which has a very decent-looking patisserie section). I get on a grimy but spacious double-decker train and roll through the suburbs, 

along the Seine,

and then underground. I get off at the huge Austerlitz station, where you can buy cheap delicious-smelling pastries or a new outfit without leaving the tunnels.

When I get out, I'm just down the street from the Hôpital Pitié-Salpêtrière, one of the biggest hospitals in Europe, where I work. I go through the gate...

And reach the main building itself. 
I do not, sadly, work in this building - though that might actually a good thing, since it's probably cursed by now. The site was first a gunpowder factory (hence Salpêtrière) and then a prison for prostitutes. The building itself was for a while both the world's largest hospital and a prison. During the Revolution, a violent mob stormed the place to free some of the prostitutes and also murder some of the psychiatric patients. But then this was the first hospital to take the novel approach of treating psychiatric patients at least a little bit like people. Freud learned psychiatry here, and Princess Diana died here. 

Anyway. I walk across the enormous campus, past a big church,

A nice park, with some oddly disconcerting statues,

And some ambulances to the very modern and shiny, unfortunately colored home of the Institut du Cerveau et de la Moelle Epinière.

I walk past the brain art in the lobby and up the stairs to the 3rd-by-French-standards, 4th-by-American floor, 

With this cool and very architecturally diverse view.

My lab is very young and international (lots of Europe and South America). People are very friendly, allthough I have trouble getting anyone to talk to me in French, because nearly everyone (including shopkeepers, etc) speaks better English than I speak French. My work should be pretty interesting once I get rolling properly - doing analysis/machine learning stuff on a giant database of Alzheimer's patients. Wasn't terribly productive this week, though; mix of IT issues/unfamiliar keyboard (surprisingly difficult to get used to)/afternoons are hard when you're jetlagged/sitting at a desk and staring at a screen the whole day is hard/StackExchange is very necessary and very distracting/I'm probably making excuses at this point and will try to be better next week. Sigh... 

In more important things:

Food! It's pretty great. Not universally mind-blowing, but consistently cheaper, tastier, and more balanced than anything you'd find in the US. My lab has a mysterious long-standing arrangement with the University of Finance, so we all go out for a subsidized lunch at their lovely cafeteria - 5 euros (~$5.50) buys two sides (pâte! fresh apricots in syrup!), a main course (rabbit! quiche!) with veggies, and bread. 

Boulanger-patisseries, charcuteries, and fromageries are everywhere; so far, my main interaction with them has been walking in, saying the obligatory "Bonjour!" to the shopkeeper, and getting too overwhelmed with delight and confusion to buy anything. Grocery stores tend to be a lot cheaper (although green beans, weirdly, seem to be considered some kind of exotic vegetable), and they look a little different from American ones - milk and eggs are on shelves, not in the fridge. Wine is sold everywhere, from about 4 euros, and nobody cares about IDs.

Transport - also pretty great. Buses, trains, and metro are easy to find and easy to use. One of the sounds the train makes is the same three notes as "Crazy... but" from "Crazy Train", so I've had Ozzy stuck in my head all week. It also took me until today to notice there might be a semantic association there...

On the other hand, Boston drivers have friends here. I've had someone stop to let me cross the street exactly twice. Most of the time, you just have to go, dodge between cars, move fast, and hope they'll swerve (because they definitely won't slow down!). My response to a car zooming at me tends to be to freeze in the middle of the street, which is perhaps not the best option - that's something to work on.  Motorcyclists are everywhere and vicious; they completely ignore speed limits and stoplights, and drive on the sidewalk or in tiny curvy pedestrian-only tunnels when they feel like it. It's kind of terrifying.

In happier news - adults in business suits ride scooters to work. Often electric ones. Sometimes pink ones. Totally normal, and they don't even  have the slightly-embarrassed facial expressions that scooterers at MIT always do. I've also seen lots of bikes and mopeds, a few roller blades, and even a couple of electric unicycles.

People - demographics are different. Paris as a whole is very colorful, of course, but my lab is almost entirely white, as is Buc; even most of my bus drivers have been young white women, which isn't something you see in Boston or DC.

I don't get to speak French as much as I'd like. People will generally switch to English after I stammer for a few sentences -sometimes because I'm appearing incompetent and they want to do me a favor, sometimes because they just get impatient. The famous French brusqueness is nowhere near universal, but it definitely exists. That said, I think my French is getting better, and I have ten weeks left to work on it. :) I just want to make sure English doesn't become the standard with everyone in the lab - that would both eliminate a chance to practice, and leave me out of the loop on a lot of casual conversation.

Looking forward to moving into Paris tomorrow, and properly learning about the city. For now, I need to enjoy my last night sleeping in the fresh air of Buc!