James in Paris

James, a French and history double major, is returning to France in Spring 2009 for his second semester abroad. He is hoping to reconnect with old friends and his French family while working on his language and culture skills in preparation for graduation and a master’s degree program.

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French don’t fail me now

j-IMG_4778.jpg Today was my first day to go to the Bibliotheque Nationale Francois Mitterand, and well, it was quite an experience. I have to use the national library for the research that I am doing for a history class I’m taking. I’ve chosen to do the paper of Napoleon, and that’s about as far as I’ve gotten. I have no idea what period of Napoleonic history I want to study, or even where to really begin. But anyway, my experience with the national library was quite interesting today.

I started out by meeting my professor at the library around 2 PM. The whole place kind of looks like a fortress in my mind, and the grey gloomy weather didn’t make it any more inviting. We have to get credentialed in order to use the archives, so we take numbers and wait in line to be called. When my number is called I timidly poke my head around the corner and am greeted by the employee. She looked at me, said “Bonjour,” and then asked what I needed.

These are the times when I need my French skills the most, and it’s usually the same time that they go right out the window. The funny thing was, I didn’t really know what I needed from her. I assumed it was some kind of card or permission slip to use the archives, since I had all of these letters and documents assuring them that I wasn’t some crazy person.

So, I looked at her and confusingly said, “Umm … I would like umm … uh a card?” She then said, “Ok, well what kind of card?” To which I stupidly replied, “Uh … a library card?”

The whole conversation pretty much proceeded just as that. She told me that she could speak in English if I wanted her to, but I said no. I have this firm rule that since I am in France, I am going to speak French. I mean, I’m not going to learn anything by falling back on English all the time. She was very patient with me, and very nice actually. After a few minutes my nervousness wore away and my French became more fluid. I understood everything she said, which was good because she said a lot of really complicated and confusing things.

So the whole place kind of reminded me of the book 1984. It is SO big: the ceilings are about four stories tall and the whole place is kind of encased in concrete. You have to use your little access card for virtually everything, too. In order to get to the actual archives area, you have to go through two sets of giant steel doors. Then you go through this winding set of escalators until you finally reach the appropriate building. Of course you have to use your access card again to go through another two sets of giant steel doors, but once you get through them the whole atmosphere changes because suddenly you feel like you’re in an actual library. There are tables, stacks … windows.

Now, this being the national library, there is of course a ton of bureaucracy to get anything done. First of all, you have to reserve a desk in the library well in advance. When you get there, you can use the computers to reserve books. You’re not actually allowed to get the books (or other materials that you need) yourself. So, it takes them quite awhile to fulfill your request. Apparently you can take a nice long nap in the time it takes them to actually find and pull your request. When your request has been completed, a little green light on your desk begins to blink, which gives you permission to go to the librarian and ask for your item.

All in all, it was a very cool experience though. I feel a bit overwhelmed with the task ahead of me, but I’m confident that I’ll get the hang of it quickly. I’m going to go back Thursday I think, since there is a strike and I won’t be able to go anywhere else in the city. The library, as it happens, is conveniently located on the line 14 (the only line that works during strikes because it is automatic). So, I’ll just take a nice walk down to the St. Lazarre station (about 15 minutes from my house) and spend my day in the archives.

Time management, Paris style

So what else is new? Well, things are starting to calm down and return to a sense of normality. I’ve stayed in the last two nights actually. My French family must think I’m sick or something because I’ve gone out pretty much every night since I’ve been here! I have found it incredibly difficult to do my studies though (what else is new?). I knew it would be very hard to study here, I guess I just forgot how hard. Everything is so distracting. The city, your friends … there’s just so much to do! But I’m going to have to buckle down and get to work. After all, there is a real reason why I’m here and I have to remember that.

That’s why, tomorrow morning, I’m doing something very “unFrench.’ I’m waking up at 7 AM and getting some work done before my 10 AM class. Then, after class, I’m doing my laundry down at the laundromat and coming back to do more work. I’m not going to stick around here in the afternoon, though, I’m gonna go to Starbucks, I think. I know it sounds cliche, but I like Starbucks because I’m used to it and I don’t get distracted by things that are around me. Plus, they have plugs for my laptop (something that most cafes here don’t have). Of course, I guess I could just try one of the old cafes that I used to go to (if they’re even still around).

Anyway, point being, I’ve got to schedule my time. I had all these concerts/exhibitions that I wanted to see over the weekend and I didn’t see a single one of them! It’s just too easy to drop everything and hang out with friends instead! On the bright side though, I have been making some more French friends through my other French friends, which is always good!

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    One Response to French don’t fail me now

    1. Tracie says:

      James, that’s crazy! It’s like, it’s just a LIBRARY! hahaha. cant believe you have to reserve a desk and pass through all these rooms and giant steel doors, etc. crazy….

      And I’m proud of you for sticking to French even when it got a little tough or frustrating at times… but you got the hang of it!

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