Monday, November 29, 2010

Gym Culture

Staying fit in Paris is a different beast than it is back home. First, as mentioned previously, I have had to overcome my self-consciousness about my morning commute outfit of workout wear with my hair in a ponytail and zero make-up on my face. I am literally the only person on the Metro that is not "dressed" for the day of work that lies ahead. Well, actually I am, but the other Metro passengers have no idea that I often come home from the gym and do my work- in the form of household chores- in my sweaty gym clothes.

And, speaking of gym clothes, I can honestly say that I believe Paris's reputation for being the fashion capitol of the world does not pertain to the fitness club. Fashion statements remain on the streets as I have yet to find any within the gym. Well, statements are made, that's for sure, but I cannot call them fashion.

Last week, I was working out on the elliptical and the young woman next to me was swooshing away on hers while wearing a black sweater, denim cutoff shorts, purple tights, and turquoise Keds tennis shoes. Every day, I see another woman who wears relatively normal workout pants and tops, but she accessorizes her look with sunglasses and costume jewelery around her neck. Oh, and a fanny pack too. And then yesterday, to my surprise, I saw her teaching a fitness class. With her shades on, of course. Go figure.

Most other women are wearing some form of baggy sweat pants and loose t-shirts. This comes as a relief for me actually since working out at Clubsport back home can often feel like a runway competition between the women who sport the latest and greatest Lulu Lemon ensembles along with their bodies that they have worked hard for (naturally or otherwise) to display in these fashion forward outfits. And speaking of naturally or otherwise, I have yet to see any cosmetically enhanced female inside or outside of the gym. This is quite refreshing. This is the real fashion statement in my opinion, honest to goodness real beauty. You just have to look past the gym clothes to see it.

As for the men exercising in our club, their fashion statements are no less interesting. First, there is Mr. Red Headband. Or, I could call him Mr. Knee High Socks. Or, Mr. Short-Shorts. He has so much going on with his outfit that is so Richard Simmons that I don't know where to begin. I don't mean to be critical and I hope to simply be making observations rather than judgments, but I think I am walking a fine line here. Here's an observation: His headband does do a nice job of taming his frizzy shoulder length hair. See? I can be objective about this. I saw a middle aged woman last week a la Olivia Newton-John's Let's Get Physical who was sporting shiny lycra tights and a similarly shiny high-cut leotard (ladies, remember those?), thankfully not the thong style (ladies, remember those? I'm sure you men do!). If she and Mr. 1980 were working out next to each other and I happened to walk into the facility I might think I've been transported back to that era. But experience has taught me that I'm simply in a Parisian gym.

Parisian gym etiquette for men appears to be this: Do as many "girlie" exercises as you can. What I mean by this is that the gentlemen in the club, even the few "buff" men- and that's an overstatement of monumental proportion by American standards- are completing many reps of butt and inner/outer thigh floor exercises. I have never seen a guy do any of these exercises- ever- at any of the gyms I have frequented back home. Remember (again, ladies?) the Jane Fonda workout videos where she's on her back, feet on the floor with her knees bent and she's repeatedly lifting her pelvis off the floor while squeezing her butt cheeks? Yep, that's a popular one with the dudes at our gym. It's really quite a sight too since most of them are wearing short-shorts.

Parisian gym etiquette also means that men greet each other with double cheek kisses. This is not gym-specific as it is the standard French greeting for someone you know whether in a home or out on the street, but again, I have never ever seen, nor will I ever see two men at the gym in the States put their faces anywhere near each other. I almost forget what the standard American 'dude' greeting of hands clasping, shoulder bumping, half hug slap-on-the-back, fist bump looks like by now. The kissing seems so much more simple (only two moves as  opposed to four) and surely involves less testosterone too.

I don't see the Parisians at our gym working too hard cardiovascularly. Maybe this is because upon entering the club, if you have pre-paid for the year anyway, you receive a towel. One. For your workout and shower. So, if you sweat up a storm and use your towel during your workout, you're out of luck for a clean shower towel. Unless you bring your own from home. But I don't see any women in the locker room with anything other than the gym-issued white towel which they've kept clean during their workouts by conserving their energy. It's nice though, I have to say, because working out next to someone else on the treadmill or elliptical makes me feel like I am sprinting at an Olympic speed. I am the only person I have ever seen using the spin bikes. Here I am, in the land of Tour de France, and I am the only gym member pulling a Lance Armstrong while the other 'bikers' are lounging away on their recumbent bikes letting their previous day's wine and cheese digest. Relaxing takes various forms in the Nautilus equipment room at the gym. Newspapers are read on these machines, long conversations are had while on these machines, sitting- lots of sitting- happens on these machines. Very few real exercises and reps seem to occur on these machines in the Parisian gym. I suppose the Jane Fonda exercises make up for this apparent lackadaisical attitude in the Nautilus room. Again, I don't mind as it makes me feel like Wonder Woman in there.

Maybe these folks don't feel the need to break a sweat on the equipment because the gym temperature is kept so darn hot they, like me, begin to sweat the moment they step foot inside the place. Seriously, it's like a sauna in there. That alone must account for at least some of the wine and cheese calories right? Let's see, The Parisians eat what they want, in moderation, and sweat out the rest in a really hot fitness club while relaxing on an exercise machine. I think they're on to something here. Now, if they would just do a little something about their gym clothes...

Thursday, November 25, 2010


In honor of Thanksgiving, I thought it would be helpful for me to acknowledge to myself all that I am thankful for. This exercise, I hope, will help nudge me out of a funk that I have been experiencing as of late, one that has me feeling overwhelmed, pissy, mopey, and hungry. How come when I'm in a bad mood food always sounds so good?


1. Delicious Parisian food. This past week, Soren and I discovered three new restaurants in our neighborhood. One serves delicious vegetarian salads, the second serves the tastiest galettes and crepes we've had as of yet, and the third serves yummy traditional fare with the most mouth watering moelleux au chocolat. Soren is still working on perfecting his pronounciation of 'moelleux'.

2. Family. It is terribly hard being away from my Soren's sister Teresa's family. We miss seeing our niece Alina during this time of rapid growth and development. And we miss Teresa's rapid growth and development too since she is pregnant with twin boys. I am grateful to know that we have two new nephews to come home to next summer. Oh what a meeting that will be! To the entire Kaplan clan back home, you are missed.
I must give a shout out to my parents who provide Soren with a place to sleep and yummy meals on his business trips back home and personalized shopping for Trader Joes and Whole Foods products we can't find here in Paris. Thanks mom and dad! To all of our relatives back home, you are in our hearts. And as for family here in Paris? I am happy to say that the Kaplans and Puiforcats on this side of the pond are pretty extraordinary. How fun it has been to gain a whole new set of relatives in a few months time.  And as for the family I chose and created, well, we could be living in a tin roofed shack or a cardboard box and my heart would be where ever that home happened to be, Paris or otherwise.

3. Friends. I don't get to connect with them back home as often as I would like to given the time zone difference and Soren hogging our phone in the evening due to work (I suppose I should let him off the hook- no pun intended- since he needs to pay for our year abroad). Without Skype and Facebook, I'd feel incredibly more isolated than I do. To my friends who read my blog, post comments, send me messages, call me, and even allow me to just pop into their minds every now and again, thank you. I miss you. And I think about you all the time wondering what you're up to at any given time of the day- dropping off your kids? cooking dinner, watching TV, doing a hobby? And to my new Paris friends, all two of you- I am happy to be getting to know you and I am tickled that our paths have crossed in this way.

3. My health. I'm 41 going on 28 (at least in my own mind). Physically, I don't look a day over 39 right? Somebody card me, please?!

4. My luck. I live a charmed life. At least it feels that way. Hard work, determination, mistakes, lapses in judgment, stupidity, rolling with the punches, planning, aiming, flailing, intentions- all of these attributes are part of the fabric of my existence but, nonetheless, I always have the sense that something outside of myself is guiding me- protective, watchful, helpful, letting me fall, but never too hard, and assisting my life to unfold in the most delightful ways possible with the most amazing people possible (friends, family, and even acquaintances- that's you!).

5. My husband. I am thankful to you not just because you brought me to Paris- although that's a pretty big reason to love you. Of course your dazzling charm and good looks help too. Mostly, I am grateful that you see the whole of me and still have the guts to come back for more day after day. Especially when I am in a funk- pissy, mopey, tired, and hungry and then even more pissy and mopey for being pissy and mopey when I am living in Paris for goodness sake! I can be my own worst enemy. Thank you Soren for helping me to put up my white flag of surrender.

6. Lists of reasons to be grateful. They work wonders for a sour mood.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

English Is A Foreign Language Too

So I had myself an epiphany today. I don't really speak English. True, honest to goodness English that is.  The English that I speak is watered down California Valley Girl English sprinkled with all the trimmings of likes, no ways!, totallies!, awesomes, for reals?, dudes, and way cools. I do refrain from grodie, tubular, and gnarly. And I am not rude enough to respond to others with any as ifs. And as for OMGs well, I consider myself too old for that one.

This realization that English is almost as foreign to me as French struck today when we had Soren's relatives, Olivier and Valentine, over for lunch. They speak English, very well actually. But regardless of this fact, it is still a mental exercise for their brains to work in English for a few hours straight. Occasionally, they reverted back to French, I think because Soren tries very hard to speak French when we are with them. My impression is that they believe we can understand more French than we actually do. Soren politely asked Valentine, "Lentement s'il vous plaît," (slowly, please). She obliged, and Soren was able to understand her.

This made me realize that I take their English skills for granted and that I should work harder to speak more slowly for their benefit too. Not a problem, it is fairly easy to speak more slowly. But then it hit me. The speed of my speech probably isn't so much an issue for them as my use of words. I need to speak true English. Not Valley Girl English.

My brain was not ready for this exercise in discipline. Imagine becoming one-hundred-percent conscious of every word that is being automatically generated in your brain and instantly formed in concert by your voicebox, tongue, and lips, ready to emerge as effortlessly and quickly as usual. I realized, not for the first time but, especially today, how silly these words actually sound.

These circa-1980's words are superfluous words, ones that have meaning to Olivier and Valentine, but in a completely different context than what the Valley Girl definitions imply. For example, if I were to tell  them that (true story) the other night, Soren and I were walking home late and we were approached from behind by a young woman walking alone. This woman inquired if we wouldn't mind accompanying her to her building so she did not have to walk alone in the dark on the city streets. Now, if I  told this story to a friend back home, I might describe it this way, "The woman was walking alone in this sketchy neighborhood and she was like, totally freaked out, she couldn't hang walking alone for a couple blocks. So we hung with her and she turned out to be way cool."

If I had told Olivier and Valentine the story in this manner, I imagine they would have understood that we were walking in an either artistic or incomplete neighborhood with a woman that was markedly unusual or irregular who wished to remain outside and that she could not suspend her walking for a pair of small wooden cubes and that we also suspended with her and that she was really cold. And who could blame them? Could you imagine if, when Valentine presented me with beautiful flowers today I had thanked her by saying, "Wow, these are totally killer flowers!" She would have probably felt obligated to explain that I was incorrect in thinking that these beautiful flowers are Oleanders when they are indeed non-poisonous Jonquils. 

So, it was with great effort today that I spoke true English with our guests. Because of my effort I noticed that my speech automatically slowed as I searched through my mental Rolodex to find suitable replacement words. I also noticed that I did not sound like me. I sounded older, like, for sure, and also a bit more educated. Since I already have a Master's, I'm going to say that I totally sounded like a PhD. It was pretty bitchin'.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Our Morning Commute

Tag along with us during our morning commute to school. View these short clips and you will see how well the girls have mastered this routine.

I am still working on getting over my insecurities about being the only metro passenger wearing the official California-mom-dropping-her-kids-off-at-school uniform. Sweats or workout clothes, hair in a ponytail, no make-up. It seems like I am the only one heading to the gym after drop-off. How very Bay Area of me.

First, we begin our commute right outside our building's entry door by heading into the Sully-Morland Metro station:

Two stops and five minutes later, we transfer at the Chatalet metro station which is a small city unto itself. It is always crowded here. And hot. And smelly. One of us usually gets stepped on or bumped into, but never on purpose. There are always a handful of performers and beggars here hoping to receive a handout (more on that in a future post). The girls are always eager to open the door by pushing the button that triggers the door to open. Oftentimes, they do this and then hop off while the train is still moving. Sounds dangerous, but it really is not:

The line we tranfer to at Chatalet is line 11. Chatalet is the starting point for this line so there is always a train waiting for us to board. Above the platform is a clock counting down the minutes until the train's departure. Ideally, we try to walk to the very front of the train as that puts us closest to the exit at our destination station. We don't always succeed, however, as  you'll see in this next clip. You'll  hear me say, "Get on," because I see that the clock is showing "00:00" which means that at any second, the doors will be closing. So we settle for mid-train today.

Three stops later, we arrive at the Arts et Metiers metro station. It is unlike any other station in that it reminds us of a submarine. I like the metallic burnt sienna colored walls. They hide the visible dirt and scum easily seen on the walls and ceilings at other stations.

Upon exiting this station, you will see Nola tossing her metro ticket into the trash can. She rides with a ticket as opposed to the pre-paid NaviGo card. This is because the NaviGo does not offer a child discount (9 and under) so it is cheaper for her to have the discounted tickets instead of the NaviGo. She is finally over her disappointment at not having a NaviGo like the rest of us. The reason that Nola throws her ticket away at our destination station is because we never know if, mid-route, we will run into Metro officials checking to make sure passengers have paid tickets or NaviGo cards. If caught without one, they fine you twenty euros. This happened to Soren two years ago after he had naively tossed his ticket after entering the station. Soren acted like the "dumb American" he was at the time and they let him off easy.

 The girls, fearing embarrassment,  made me promise that I would stop filming and put the camera away prior to reaching their school. In this next clip, you can see Nola's impatient look since we are one block away from school and I am still filming. But I just had to capture the crossing guards in action. Today, we happened upon them during a mellow moment. Usually, they are risking their lives for us and other pedestrians by stepping out into speeding oncoming traffic. The drivers do not slow down or stop until the last minute. And motorcycles, if they can squeeze by, will do so even if a pedestrian is in the crosswalk. So, even with their protection, we still proceed with great caution. And, it is with gratitude that each and every day I say a heartfelt, "Merci!" to these guys for braving the onslaught of crazy French drivers.

Thanks for coming along to school with us today. Now, off to the gym I go.  I may be the only one in sweats, but at least after my workout my B.O. will fit in nicely on the Metro.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Vintage Comedy

The Cinema Balzac is just off the Champs-Elysees and was the perfect place to be on a rainy Sunday. Especially because there was a treat in store- literally. When we entered the lobby, we were surprised that a man was bearing gifts for the children in the form of free Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Back home, an ice cream at the movies sets us back at least five bucks. No matter that it was only 11:00 in the morning and we had just finished a late breakfast. Anytime is ice cream time when you're a kid.

The real treat however were the feature films. Silent movies from the early 20th century accompanied by a live piano musician. I recall seeing a few of these films as a child, but I had forgotten how silly and gut-busting Charlie Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy can be. By the sounds of laughter coming from the audience, I was not alone in my love for this art form. Again, the French show us that culture is alive and well and aimed at children. Nicely done.

As we exited the theater, I found myself daydreaming about opening my own cinema in Walnut Creek dedicated to silent films accompanied by live piano music. Later, my Google search turned up what looks like a little gem in Fremont. So, if you want to (hopefully) experience the same delight as we did, check this out:

Friday, November 5, 2010

Recent Visitor Highlights

The month of October brought us our first visitors, and many of them too. We were lucky to have our friends, the Dineens, who currently reside in Switzerland, visit us in the beginning of the month to celebrate Renee's big 4-0. Following them were my French class friend Suzie and her husband John. And, coinciding with them were my aunt and uncle from Walnut Creek, Lynn and Butch. Finally, my parents, who enjoyed their first trip to Paris during Raelyn's and Nola's first two-week school vacation.

We took a road trip to the Loire Valley with my parents in a (delivery) van, searching for currently scarce diesel fuel (successfully thank goodness), and we saw some really old castles that various members of royalty over the years called home. Really old = 1000-ish years. Ancient in comparison to buildings in the U.S. Each castle, or château rather, was more stunning than the previous one. Seeing the ancient kitchens and rooms in these massive abodes, I couldn't help but wonder how the servants managed without running water nor a sink in the kitchen and, how did the queens, princesses, and mistresses manage without indoor plumbing and toilets? With their big gowns, that's a lot of fabric to keep out of the way of, well, you get the idea.

We concluded the road trip with a day at Futuroscope, a futuristic amusement park. Two things we noticed at Futuroscope that would never fly at U.S. amusement parks: The lack of junk food vendors and cultural 3-D films. We began our day at Futuroscope with a child-oriented 3-D film about the work and life of Vincent Van Gogh. It was a great film and illustrated how the country's cultural training starts very young. As we walked our way through the park, Raelyn and Nola did not even notice the absence of cotton candy, pretzels, ice cream bars, and churros. More cultural training in effect right there and, I have to say, we like it.

Check out the photos so you can see what fun we've been having and what has been filling my time and keeping me from blogging regularly:

Renee and I on Pont Sully.
Suzie and  I on our way to Ile de la Cite.

Grami and girls with their tortinettes (scooters).
Muséum national d'histoire naturelle. I wonder how creationists would rationalize this evolutionary display?
Jardin du Luxembourg. We failed to capture the abundance of beautiful flowers in this photo.
Musée du Louvre. We did manage to get up close eventually. She sure is a tiny little painting.
Enjoying the view from the Trocadéro.
This is what captures Nola's interest when she is behind the lens.
This is how we roll in France.

Château at Amboise
Château de Chenonceau 
An you thought Disneyland was clean and neat.
Château de Chambord
All smiles with Lynn and Butch at the Tour Eiffel.
Dinner party at the usual American time. It was a school night after all.
Who's having more fun?