27 Feb 2013

Les Misérables

Now I know this may seem a little out-dated to those of you back home, but Les Mis only came out on the 13th February here in France so I think that justifies why it's taken so long to get on the blogging band wagon.

So in a nutshell, what did I think?  (Warning: this is a large nut!)  Given the intense hype surrounding its prolonged release and the star-studded production, I was expecting it to be quite the spectacle.  And it was, to a certain degree.  Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, as anticipated, stole the show with their gritty performances which at various points had me weeping.  I would argue however that Valjean and Fantine are the strongest parts in the storyline so maybe they had a head start.  It's no surprise therefore that both actors were up for Academy Awards and that Miss Hathaway came away with flying colours. 

Eddie Redmayne's Marius was perfectly sufficient but there's no denying that the actor who played his friend Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) was superior in both looks and musical talent.  Redmayne's slightly weedy voice and slippery portrayal of the story's dominant love interest meant his big number "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" was as empty as the lyric.  This statement is perhaps overly critical but I sensed a lack of focus during his performance which could be mistaken for a young vulnerability but I put it down to uneasiness.  

Amanda Seyfried's Cosette was as well executed as can be (dull and shrill) but I've never been particularly fond of Cosette so it's hard not to shrug.  She seems to melt into the backdrop of the student rebellion and as much as I pity her (young Cosette's rendition of "Castle on a Cloud" was a clear winner), she grows into a bit of a wet blanket, hardly helped by Marius' soppy obsession with her.  I suppose she feels confined in many ways due to Javert's insistence on hunting down her adopted father Valjean but I've always struggled to warm to her.  Any emotion she exudes is cutting; not because it extracts sympathy but because it's so jarring and irritating.  Eponine on the other hand knows a thing or two about passion and her love for Marius seems more deep-rooted while Cosette has "A Heart Full of Love" even before knowing his name.  She's suffering from the notorious "need to get out more" syndrome which results in her falling for the first man who gives her the time of day.  Since Amanda Seyfried ticked all these boxes, all credit to her.

Eponine has always been my dream role.  She has more umph to her, more passion, more grittiness, more depth.  She's not pretty and pristine like Cosette; she's earthy, and I suppose I like that about her.  I find her interesting and bien sur I want Marius to fall in love with her.  Yet I was very disappointed by Cameron Macintosh's protegee Samantha Barks.  With a song like "On My Own" she should be raking in the emotion and I should have had shivers down my spine.  I was trying to make my eyes prickle but they didn't; I was more focused on the pavement shining like silver in the rain, or so the lyric goes.  It was a pretty poor attempt at heartache and I wasn't pining for Marius to declare his love for her.  Their duet "A Little Fall of Rain" seemed a little flat and watching Barks die in the flailing arms of Redmayne was a miserable affair.  He hardly seemed to care that she was on the brink of death (having saved his life and all that) and I looked on in dismay at his lack of interest at the perishing body below him.  The song is meant to be a combination of unity and intimacy and neither were implied. 

Russel Crowe's portrayal of "the baddy" Javert was brutal.  I loathed the man from the very start.  But then I guess that's the point.  Crowe's very clipped musical intonation sort of worked, as long as you didn't mistake it for poor projection.  It grew on me, much like a veruca.  I didn't want it to, but it was contagious.  I suppose Javert is a rather empty man, ruled by the law, with no ability to use human sympathy or gratitude to adjust his actions so my expectations had to align with this.  I actually think one of my favourite scenes was his suicide.  Wait for it.  So he was standing on top of a pretty tall building, his feet tippling over the edge as the camera panned in on the sheer drop to the water below and I think somewhere within his apparently empty soul, he felt a shred of guilt.  Perhaps guilt isn't the right word but I felt at last that justice had overcome evil.   (Nb: I know he's 48 and 27 years my senior but there's something incredibly sexy about the man.)

And now to the true heroes.  Anne Hathaway's rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" was nothing short of a miracle.  The song has been sung God knows how many times but she still managed to put her stamp on it and I could feel every inch of her sorrow.  I need not mention that Hathaway chopped off all her luscious locks for the film and is now sporting a pixie crop.  Or how she ate next to nothing so she could shrink down to the size of a skeleton.  I certainly admire her audacity.  The greatest heartache of all was that she died too soon.

Hugh Jackman likewise was fantastic as Valjean.  It was only unfortunate that during his fantastic performance of "What Have I Done?" in the chapel that the lighting was so poor and I could hardly see his face.  He played a fantastic criminal-come-Mayor and the emotion and energy he brought to the role was incredibly uplifting.  His impressive falsetto in "Bring Him Home" showed off just how great and versatile a singer he is.

In conclusion, I am glad I went to see it and I would definitely see it again.  However, the film modem is still unable to capture the raw essence of the stage and something so simple like flying the red flag over the barricade seemed so much more impressive in the latter; partly because it seemed much more vast.  On the other hand, one cannot forget that the film is still in many ways a piece of theatre.  It is the same script and retains many of the theatrical elements of the stage production.  I will not deny that it touched me in ways I didn't expect and I felt a strange voidness after watching it, like there was so much more to life that I needed to reach out and grasp.  I wanted to rehash the movie in my mind (incidentally that's the title to a song in Miss Saigon) and I just felt this strange hunger and connection with what was being played out before me.  It may not live up to the stage production, but it still had me on the edge of my seat.

20 Feb 2013

The Indisputable Truths of Renting in Paris

So searching for a room in Paris is a mission to say the least.  Firstly, you'll be paying an arm and a leg for anything considered vaguely 'liveable', and if you want to find something 'affordable', well, you're in the wrong city for that.  If chance has it however that you should find lodgings below 500, you'll probably be living in some 'exotic' suburb of Paris where going home makes you
want to sob uncontrollably in the corner of the metro because the 'box' which awaits you a) doesn't have heating, b) is on the 10th floor without an elevator, c) has dial-up internet which works sporadically, d) has no window, e) has a landlord who showers in your room and f) wouldn't even be suitable lodgings for a blind tarantula.  "Beggars can't be choosers" and all that, but if you're going to be splashing the cash on a tramp's hovel, you may as well splash a little bit more to find yourself a room with a few more prospects.   

My first failed attempt at finding somewhere was back in January. I saw the listing on the noticeboard in church and thought it was a sign from God.  Well, sort of.  I'd spoken to the lady on the phone and she seemed friendly enough so I planned to visit her one Saturday afternoon after completing a 16km run (first problem right there - I felt like throwing up on her doorstep due to lack of sugars in my bloodstream.)  Despite feeling like a zombie, I marched with purpose towards the address I'd written down hurriedly on my Paris map.  Yet as I got closer and closer, I frowned slightly.  The beauty of Paris had faded in this area and I missed the pretty streets and glamorous apartments which dotted St Germain-des-Pres where I was currently living.  Instead, it felt all the more industrial and uninviting.

After squeezing myself into what could only be described as an elevator fit for a small child, I reached the 6th and final floor where a large door had been left ajar.  It began to move and an old lady with a walking stick hobbled into view.  I gasped.  I have nothing against old people per se (we all grow old one day), but I'd heard enough about the horrors of living with an old French woman from my friend Rachel who'd only recently decided it was to time to pack up her things and move out.  I played the whole "polite English girl" card on her which was perhaps a little foolish of me because of course this made me the ideal candidate.  She insisted that she wasn't looking for a carer; just someone to live with as she didn't like living alone.  I cringed slightly at the idea of her slipping in the bath one day and me having to drag her screaming, sopping wet body out of the porcelain crater.  Naturally, the thought filled me with dread.  The room she was letting was admittedly very nice with a double bed, tasteful antique furnishings and an ensuite wash room.  It wouldn't have looked out of place in a quaint boutique hotel and it charmed me in many ways.  The problem?  It was adjacent to her bedroom so late night partying would be problematic.  I also didn't want to live with someone four times older than me, particularly someone who looked at me incredulously when I mentioned I have friends of the 'male' variety.  I said I'd get back to her within the next couple days and left the apartment immediately.  Never to be seen again.

After speaking to a few friends based in France, I decided to join the online website appartager.fr where I paid a 40 fee for 30 days which would allow me to contact anyone on the site who had a room in an apartment or a studio to rent.  There were plenty of listings so I sent email after email, hoping something would land in my lap on a silver platter.  But hardly anyone responded and I realised my emails had probably been lost or deleted amongst the plethora of others sent by equally desperate room-seekers.  However, everything looked up one day when I received a response from someone renting a room in central Paris near Hotel de Ville.  The rent was low, the location marvelous, and I'd be sharing with two lovely French girls.  I received an email from the landlady whose name was Dana Helen and she gave me a nice little introduction and sent me pictures of the place which looked incredible; almost too good to be true.  She required a 1500 deposit to be paid via Western Union which would be returned to me the day I arrived.  Unfortunately, Dana was at this present moment in London, supporting her mother because her father had recently passed away.  I would therefore be unable to see the apartment before moving in but she gave me the email address of a certain Ivy Dana (Dana again?), a friend of hers, who would apparently be able to vouch for the credulity of the apartment.  She even sent me a photocopy of her passport.  Yet something  made me feel uneasy (can you blame me?), so as a caution I entered her email address into Google to see what came up.  And lo and behold, I was warned immediately that it was a scam.  I shook my head in disgust when I saw the same false email I'd received, word for word (except that it was a listing for an apartment in Canada).  After ignoring "Dana Helen" (although I may have expressed a few words or two in a fiery reply), I similarly received about four more emails from other scammers on the site.  One of whom replied with a simple 'ok' when I wrote to him something along the lines of: "I KNOW THIS IS A SCAM....I HOPE THEY FIND YOU AND IMPRISON YOU blah blah blah".  I felt like such a fool and it seemed like the biggest waste of time and money.  By the time I actually found something legitimate, I was still paranoid that I'd be sucked into another money-grabbing con.

But at last I've found a new apartment in an ideal location, whilst paying the arm and leg I'd be warned about.  I know that in Exeter I'd be getting a luxury penthouse (probably with a maid for no extra cost) overlooking campus for this sorta dosh, but I've had to face the facts: Paris is not cheap.  I've spoken to other friends on their years abroad (outside of Paris) who are paying perhaps a third of what I am, but this is France's capital city so it's hardly surprising that rent prices are sky high.  But despite knocking knees with bankruptcy, I wouldn't for a second trade city life for village outback.  Now don't get me wrong - rural villages are great for week-long getaways and relaxing spa breaks, but when you're a 'budding' young professional who wants to throw him or her self at every exciting opportunity and network your way into lucrative employment, you've got to be at the crux of it all.

I don't necessarily like the person that city life makes me become - stressed, impatient, intolerant...in many ways overly flamboyant when money comes into the picture.  But it's certainly the most exciting adventure I've ever been on!

14 Feb 2013

Valentine's Day Shmalentine's Day

Before you jump to conclusions, on Valentine's Day I'm not like the Grinch who stole Christmas, and I'm certainly not a Scrooge either.  However, it might as well be called Florist's day because they're the ones rolling in it, what with all the bouquets of anonymous roses which get delivered to unsuspecting doorsteps all over the world. 

Last year I spent Valentine's Day with a female friend of mine in Strada, contemplating our forlorn singledom (although we weren't too miserable) over a bowl of spaghetti and some vino, surrounded by gushing couples, couples on first dates, couples with their arms crossed and clearly not wanting to be there; but they had to be - it was Valentine's Day after all.  I remember the evening like it were yesterday.  We were trying to live vicariously through all the other couples, gaging the mood.  The couple next door to me accused the table of Asians on their left of stealing their bottle of wine.  My friend and I chinked our glasses: "to being single".  

For most girls, Valentine's Day is a pretty big deal.  You're either hopelessly in love and this day is the perfect opportunity to celebrate the perfect paradise you (think) you live in, or perhaps the very mention of Valentine's Day makes you hysterical because you know you'll be spending it alone, like all the other lonely people out there.  Although I'd just like to add that being single doesn't necessarily equate to loneliness. Being alone and being lonely are two very different states.  You choose to be alone (at least, to a certain extent); you don't choose to be lonely.  Which is why of course it's much better to open a bottle of bubbly with a friend of yours, get horrendously gazeboed (thanks Michael McIntyre for this gem!) and list 500 reasons why it's good to be single.  Reason no. 387: you don't have to do his laundry.  You get my drift.  

But if this day is supposed to be about romantic gestures, then I'd like to reconsider the word 'romantic'.  In Tesco (and the like) each year, there's usually a section dedicated to all things à la Love, i.e. a cardboard stand selling soppy mugs with two bears hugging and the words 'Be Mine' written on something resembling a heart-shaped candle.  I mean, who in their right mind would purchase a Valentine's gift from the supermarket?  It simply defies all romantic convention; the number one no-no.  At least make it look like you put some effort in.  Another thing that irritates me is cards with pre-written love notes and all you have to do is sign your name, or alternatively put a question mark. I just couldn't think of anything more impersonal; getting an absolute stranger who specialises in greeting card messages to tell your significant other how you feel about them.  Fair enough if you have a crush on the guy in your office and you want to keep it on the down low and secretively slip it in his pigeon hole (no innuendo intended!), but if you're actually "in love" I suggest you put some bloody effort in and write something soppy.  Not too soppy, mind you. I don't want to be retching over my bowl of cornflakes at 8 in the morning.

I remember when I was younger and I had a crush on a boy at school and I bought an assortment of chocolates and put them in a box I'd decorated in art class and hid them in his locker.  I don't think he ever knew they were from me.  I also sent another Valentine's card to a boy one year but got my friend to transcribe it as I didn't want him to recognise my handwriting.  I then got someone who lived far away to post it for me because I didn't want him to recognise the postmark either.  On the sly.  Slightly on a tangent, but while we're on the topic of me slightly embarrassing myself in the boy department, I'd like to bring up the fact that I once bought a boy I fancied a huge Christmas card - you know those outrageously expensive ones that cost you just under a tenner and pop out and sing to you?  I think I even hand-delivered it to him in the playground at school.  Not one of my finer moments but coming to think of it, it does sound rather adorable.  I was probably about 10 at the time.  Old enough to know better.

So this Valentine's Day, February 14th 2013, I am reliving a relationship status which has remained constant since the day I was born.  But you know what?  I'm not depressed about that realisation because I know there's a Mr Right out there somewhere, laden with roses, heart-shaped chocolates and pink Champagne who will sit me on a sheepskin rug by a crackling fire and read me love poetry.  One day.  But in the mean-time, today I am working 12 hours in the office, followed by fondue and wine served in baby bottles with the girls in Montmartre.  I'd much rather that than be squeezed into a chi-chi restaurant with a guy I hardly know to watch gooey couples snogging over their foie gras.  Not that we won't be seeing some of that tonight, but at least I can laugh about it amongst friends.

But if a guy were really trying to win my heart on Valentine's Day?:

He'd leave a trail of love hearts (the edible ones) from my pillow to the kitchen where heart-shaped pancakes (lovingly home-made of course), maple syrup and fresh blueberries await me.  A fresh bunch of sweet peas would be in the middle of the table.  He'd also make me a cappuccino with a heart-shaped swirl in the foam, followed by declaring how truly irresistible and wonderful I am and becoming my slave for the day.  But all jokes aside, you know what would truly touch me?  Something incredibly spontaneous, unexpected and heartfelt which would make me think: God, I'm lucky to have you.

7 Feb 2013

Silver Linings

So last weekend was a rather busy one for me.  I had one of my best friend's staying with me and it was inevitable that Paris once more would turn me into the prime tourist; experiencing for the umpteenth time the magic of Notre Dame, walks along the Seine, Parisian cafes, Concorde, art galleries, shopping in the Marais....

But it certainly wasn't your average experience, let me tell you that.  As much as I love spontaneity (I really am a true sucker for it), the weekend certainly brought its fair share of surprises.  Notably the fact that I was made homeless on Sunday morning.  And before you shake your head with disbelief, I would just like to point out that I am not (yet) sharing a cardboard box with the beggars on the street who smell like stale urine and eat out of the trash can.  Praise the Lord for that.  Genuinely.

To avoid stating the obvious: being made homeless is a pretty big deal.  Oh wait, I just did.  But thankfully I didn’t lose my job as well so there are still things to be grateful for.  The “Keep Calm and Carry On” mentality never seemed more appropriate.  Not that I’m fighting a World War or anything, but it’s been a helpful slogan nevertheless. #propagandamoment

But being a trooper meant I needed a few allies:

1) My amazingly supportive friends who have been with me every step of the way.  Notably Rachel who
made me tea and fed me umpteen Oreos, Becky who lifted my spirits with her glowing presence and willingness to listen, Chiara for telling me to stand my ground and offering me a weekend away in Brussels and my Mummy for being the voice of reason and love.  Not to mention all you lovely people in Paris who offered your apartments up to me with open arms, and those of you who supported me with your Facebook comments and texts and generally filled me with an unparalleled belief in myself.  Much gratitude is owed!  

2) God and prayer.  I knew I had to speak to my landlady but I was nervous and panicked.  I was scared she wouldn't listen to me; that I'd get all emotional and splutter something in pseudo-French.  But alas, God was faithful and he provided me with the strength, peace and wisdom which I never believed I possessed. 

3) Bradley Cooper.  Don't laugh.  I went to see Silver Linings Playbook on Saturday night and the film really struck a chord with me.  I may not have a mental illness (please someone affirm this!), but as Bradley Cooper (well, his character) said: "You have to do everything you can and if you stay positive you have a shot at a silver lining."  Marry me.

With silver linings on the brain, my weekend wasn't all so bad...

I ran 21.1km (casual), experienced the fantastically erotic surrealism of Dali at the Pompidou, discovered restaurant heaven at Le Dome du Marais, hit the flea market at Porte du Clignancourt, had the scrummiest Chocolat Viennois at a cute tea shop, picnicked in the Jardin du Luxembourg and spent quality time with my wonderful friends.  So despite the suffering, there's a lot to be grateful for.  And to give the woman credit, she did listen to me complain for a solid ten minutes.  It appears the silver lining is brightening more visions than one...

4 Feb 2013

New Beginnings & Reflections

Where did all the time go?  It's only occurred to me recently that I have but a mere month left of my internship at the International Herald Tribune.  Someone give me a hanky.  As in a handkerchief, not a hanky panky.  It seems like just yesterday that I arrived in Paris, my life packed into two bulging suitcases and my legs trembling.  I'm surprised there were no tears.  And I was off to start a new life somewhere I'd never been before, all by myself.  Cue: Celine Dion.

Anyway, five months down the line and I've come to the conclusion that my French isn't really improving much.  Wait, let me rephrase that, I came to that conclusion a long time ago.  Everyone always told me that after a couple months in France, it would suddenly 'click' and I'd be speaking the lingo like a pro.  Five months later, I'm still waiting for that click.  "When you start dreaming in French, you know you've cracked it!" they say.  The solution?  Speak French 24/7.  What's stopping me? I work with a bunch of expats (albeit lovely ones).  Admittedly some of them speak pretty decent, if not fluent, French.  But equally many of them speak less French than I do.  Then again, my grasp of the American language is certainly coming on leaps and bounds.  For example, I say 'leeezure' instead of 'leisure' now and 'zeeeebra' instead of 'zebra'.  Oh dear, my stiff upper lip is steadily sagging.

Nevertheless, I'm pretty relaxed about this realisation because my next internship starting on 4th March at French online shopping platform Twenga will give me the boost of French that I need.  Well that's the plan anyway.  I will literally refuse to speak English to anyone.  Pretend I don't know the language.  Shrug and point at the ceiling when someone asks if I want a coffee.  That sorta thing.

Yet despite speaking zero French, I will honestly say that I have loved my time here at the IHT, soaking up the newsroom vibe and having a laugh when someone accidentally calls me 'Hannah', so I will be sad to leave.  (NB: I don't think the 'Hannah Montana' joke will ever grow old.)  Though there is a lot less running around, phone ringing, screaming at printers and flapping bits of paper around furiously than you might have expected; everything is very orderly (until perhaps five minutes before deadline and a page still hasn't been sent off.)  It's been such a frugal experience and despite having the same day-to-day routine (which inevitably means I'm now super speedy at my job), I've had the chance to meet some really fascinating people who eat culture and head-lines for breakfast and have shown me and taught me a lot.  It's also interesting how none of them would suggest journalism as a career path; not now at least with the way the printed press is headed.

The view from the top of the Eiffel Tower says a lot about where I work.  Just look towards the eyesore on the skyline and voila.  All the skyscrapers and office blocks have been bunged here and this area is known as 'La Defense', located in the banlieu of Paris which admittedly is a slightly glum place to work compared to the beauty of Paris.  Forget about finding cute little cafes to while away your lunch break.  We're talking Subway, McDonalds and over-priced Japanese take-outs.  (I don't know why, but I have a strong distaste for places which have photographs of their food on the menu.)  But despite its relative dreariness, the La Defense metro stop welcomes chicly dressed businessmen and women from all over Paris and the burbs who waltz off into their shiny office blocks, Starbucks coffee in hand.  And I guess I'm now one of them.  Perhaps minus the 'chicly dressed' part, because the dress-code in the office is pretty casual.

I was talking to a colleague on the way to the metro recently and asked him whether it's the done thing to go out for drinks together in the evening after work.  Apparently ten years ago that was the norm.  Now, it's become a rarity; the collegiate atmosphere has disintegrated.  No-one goes out mid morning to take Starbucks orders and there are certainly no long lunch breaks discussing potential office romances.  The furthest one might venture is going for a ciggy and lending someone a lighter.

Contrary to opinion though, we do know how to have fun: 

Occasionally biscuits (sorry, I should say 'cookies'), chocolate or cake will be brought into the newsroom cafeteria by journalists and editors which is always a welcome treat.  That's often a pretty social occasion as it will bring in hoards of people from all over the newsroom who come to inspect and eat the day's delights.  We also celebrated Thanksgiving in the office in true American style and we popped a few bottles of Champagne for our 125th anniversary.  We were even sent a huge bowl of 125th anniversary special edition M & Ms which were so s'moreish.  I may have scooped my plastic cup into the bowl a few times. Let's just say my tongue was a little yellow afterwards. 

So what I'm trying to say is, while we're not all going down to our local to have a pint or two every night, there is still a sense of community and I've loved being part of it.  These past months at the IHT have given me the opportunity of a life-time.  I'm interning at a global organisation with bureaus in London and Hong Kong as well as the headquarters here in Paris, not to mention its parent paper, The New York Times.  Life couldn't have thrown a better blessing at this point in my career as a young professional and I am grateful for each day I've spent here.  Will I go into journalism?  I don't know yet.  But even if I don't, the experience will have been invaluable and another door's been opened.