deux petites histoires de Paris

i. Language Anxiety

At lunch this afternoon, my new-ish Parisian colleague Nicolas told me about how another French scientist had taught his two children English: by sending them to summer camp for a month each time he visited Berkeley. Brother and sister adjusted in different ways on the first occasion. The boy, affable and gregarious, simply wanted to socialize and babbled on to the American children in French, gradually accreting new English vocabulary until the end of the experience, by which time he had achieved some proficiency in the language. The girl, much more shy and retiring, remained virtually silent throughout the month, until, near the end, she started speaking in excellent English. The former was willing to muddle through on a provisional basis, while the latter wanted desperately to get it right the first time, or not at all.

I find myself much like the little girl in this story. Indeed, I’m only now writing about my Parisian experience, which didn’t go at all as I’d planned, towards the end. It turned out to be a holiday weekend in France, meaning that many of LPNHE’s staff were simply unavailable. I’ve been to Paris before, but this time I underestimated just how much I had been depending on the goodwill of others to host me and take care of me throughout.

I got a taste of what that meant for me on Wednesday morning, June 1, when I arrived in Jussieu — straight from the airport with all my luggage — to find a gaping, construction-shaped hole where LPNHE used to be. I had been planning simply on showing up and poking about until finding Brian and/or Nicolas, but due to the renovations the very location of the offices had been changed. Suddenly I was a knight without armor in a savage land, with no smart phone, no Internet, no clue where my hosts were, insufficient command of French to explain my predicament to strangers in that language, and too much stubborn pride to ask parlez-vous anglais? to passing students and professors who were unlikely to know where I was supposed to be anyway. After circling around campus forlornly awhile and, ironically, being asked in French for directions by visiting students, I solved the problem by waiting until the afternoon and checking into my hotel (with free Internet). A few emails, once read, explained the whole situation, but I had lost half a day of potentially productive interaction with my colleagues.

Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension, whereupon LPNHE was shut down. Friday ended up being a half day when I arrived at LPNHE to find it locked, and was rescued by Nicolas only in the afternoon — he had been attending a talk Brian was giving at another institute halfway across town. (To be fair, I knew about this talk but forgot to ask when it was, having discussed with Brian and agreed I would try to go to the lab to get some work done.) Saturday was also wholly unscheduled. Thus there were two days when I hardly left my hotel room out of sheer terror of having to ask for things in French. I didn’t eat much, and slept a lot and irregularly, which didn’t help my jet lag at all.

Those feelings, while still more or less fresh, seemed slightly more distant this evening as I strolled down rue Jussieu in the Latin Quarter, munching on a galette (savory crepe, this one with egg, cheese and mushrooms) and contemplating the pearly sunset and fluffy clouds over the old buildings. I had confirmed that yes, I could order food in French. I could even ask for a new Internet password when my old one at the hotel expired. Although I can attest neither to my grammatical correctness nor to the authenticity of my accent, I can at least understand and make myself understood, more often than I might think, without forcing the other person to switch to English. A small victory, but it certainly made me much more comfortable and less like such an alien tourist.

ii. Versailles

But today was very nearly almost all the tourism I really needed to do anyway: an excursion to Versailles, to see the famous palace of Louis XIV Le Roi Soleil. I was invited by Nicolas, who as it turns out lives in Versailles, a sleepy, conservative suburb of Paris about half a mile away from the city by commuter rail.

The first thing I saw in Versailles was, as it turned out, Nicolas’ bee hives, which were kept in a small clearing in the forest adjacent to the king’s kitchen garden. All manner of tricks are still played in that garden, which serves as a conservatory for historical horticultural techniques. One of the things that struck me was seeing pear trees being grown on scaffolds, like grape vines, so that the pears were readily accessible for harvesting when the time came. The gardens themselves were spare and practical. When we got to the clearing, with many hives shared by a bee-keeping cooperative, I had the pleasure of putting on a bee suit and puffing smoke as Nicolas worked. I got to see a number of honeycombs in various stages of construction, up close and personal. This was one of the coolest things I didn’t plan to do in Versailles.

After this we went to an early lunch at a local creperie with Nicolas’ wife Lucille and their four-year-old son Francois, entirely delightful company. Francois was a bit tired and cranky after having been sick for much of last week, and I’m told was also a bit shy, being sensitive about not speaking any English (hmmm…). I’m a bit sorry in retrospect that I didn’t engage him in any conversation, which could have been started easily by noting that he carried a small toy rabbit with him: alors, comment s’appelle monsieur Lapin? But I didn’t do it. Even though it would have been adorable. I must make sure I ask him next time. Needless to say, the galette I ordered — walnuts, honey, raisins and goat cheese with romaine — was amazingly tasty, and the espresso afterwards quite welcome.

Nicolas and I then spent the rest of the day, until about 6 pm, walking around the grounds of the chateau de Versailles talking of this and that: the history and politics of Revolutionary France, the royal foibles of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the contemporary politics of climate change and nuclear power, American government and constitutional law, and so forth. Possibly also some science. We had more espresso, and talked some more. I got sunburned on the back of my neck. I took plenty of pictures, which I will share elsewhere.

We did not actually enter the chateau proper. Admission would have been a steep 15 euros, and we were more inclined to walk about the much larger gardens and grounds for a mere 8 euros. Apparently the entire grounds were once public, even from the eighteenth century! The recent admission charges are being levied in part to support the restoration of Versailles to its pre-Revolutionary state, including the gaudily gilded fence around the palace. I fail to see how the fence with its shining yellow posts could have appeared as anything but a gleaming row of middle fingers to the poor of France.

However, we did visit both the Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon, two smaller side-castles which, while perhaps not as lavishly appointed as the large chateau might have been, were nonetheless impressive and boasted no fee for admission. The paintings alone, all seventeenth-century contemporary French art, would have made quite a display. Nicolas opined that the furniture was not period-appropriate and actually dated from Napoleonic times.

Perhaps the most remarkable part of the tour was seeing a small side village, which Nicolas alleged was populated with actors when the royal family was in town, and was used to allow Marie Antoinette to affect a rustic lifestyle from time to time. Although the houses were simple, made of stone and thatched roofs, they were obviously so much bigger than any real villager’s house would have been that it is difficult to me to see how it could have even pretended to be sincere. Some of the houses were more elaborate, including a little Disneyland-style tower at the dairy. I found this entire situation hilarious — less so than the libelles of the time, which focused much on these and other perceived excesses of the time. (The grounds of Versailles might have taken a considerable fraction of France’s GDP at the time to maintain, so this really was no laughing matter.)

After all this walking, I must confess I was quite tuckered out. On that note, I really should post this and get to sleep. If I post any more about my time in Paris it will have to be out of time sequence. Tomorrow, I shall with speed to England.

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About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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