Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Alumni Magazine Article

This was an article I wrote that was originally going to be in the Galloway alumni magazine, but that the publishers have since nixed for being too long (I had a 200 word limit and exceeded this by roughly 1300 words).
It may still be published next April, but in the meantime, I figure this is a good place to put it as a way to wrap up the year. Some of the ideas are rehashed from old blog entries, some not.
I wrote the majority of it on a 7-hour train ride from Biarritz to Arles. Enjoy:

I have been asked to write an article about the past year I have spent living and studying in France. This proposition has sparked a deluge of ideas in my head. Where do I even start? Do I discuss the workings of the French academic system (or lack thereof)? Or my mentally disturbed neighbor who, convinced I was fiddling with the pipes and changing the water pressure, never missed an opportunity to call me a “thug” and inform me that she and her polices forces were watching me? Or perhaps my successful efforts to sneak into a VIP room by posing as a member of the Italian elite?

I will start by saying that this entire exhausting adventure has been the result of a junior study-abroad year. That year, I took piano lessons at L’Ecole Normale de Musique, a prestigious and somewhat dysfunctional conservatory founded by Alfred Cortot, a renowned French pianist and Nazi collaborator, although the school usually highlights the former achievement over the latter. At the end of that year, my teacher, surprised that I was returning so soon to the US, invited me to come back for further studies after I graduated from Carnegie Mellon.

Come graduation, I realized I had two options: move back to Paris, or start manning the pasta buffet at Lettuce Souprise You. It was a difficult choice, but I soon found myself filling out visa forms and making endless trips to the French embassy.

May you live out your entire life, Dear Reader, without having to deal with the French embassy. They rejected my application so many times on technicalities (e.g., the photocopy of my diploma was “too large”), that I finally cracked and uttered an unprintable expletive. Just to amuse themselves, it seems, they sent my visa a day late, causing me to miss my original flight.

I arrived in Paris on September 13th, my 23rd birthday, two weeks before school started, with no apartment and few friends to my name. I spent my days and nights in a hostel in the less than salubrious parts of Montmartre, dealing with bedbugs and hostile Macedonians, and obsessively checking housing websites.

It would be too lengthy a narrative to recount my entire year, so I will do what many before me have done and make this a list of tips and advice for students wanting to survive France and the French. Having this list at the beginning of my stay may have saved me a few misunderstandings and humiliations.

  1. Rule Number One: You are always entitled to free bread at a meal. Never, ever forget to ask for your free bread. Like soft drinks in America, you can get free refills, although this privilege can be abused.

  1. Rule Number One (part two): Do not place your bread on your plate. This may seem frivolous, but the bread always goes on the table, next to the plate.

  1. Rule Number One (part three): Do NOT place your bread on your plate. Trust me, you will look like a total chump.

  1. Come breakfast time at the bakery each morning, you will likely find yourself eyeing the pastries, trying to decide which one offers the best bang for your buck. It took months of experimentation, but the answer is the chausson aux pommes. This doughy pocket filled with stewed apples will fill you up much quicker than a croissant or pain au chocolat, for no extra charge.

  1. We can discuss education now. When studying in a French university, you may be surprised at the lack of classes, tests, quizzes, homework, or pretty much anything that would help you to learn or gauge your progress. In many universities, such as my music school, the entire year hinges on one 15-45 minute exam for each class.

Furthermore, at my school, there is only one class a week for each subject, and the classes serve little, if any, purpose.

My theory class consisted of an elderly man riffing on lofty metaphors for chords and keys for two and a half hours. I was often the last to arrive (half an hour late) and the first to leave (half an hour early). I passed the exam with flying colors.

My sightreading class was taught by a French woman with more than a hint of spirits on her breath, who would place random sheet music before us and whack our hands at each wrong note. She would also laugh hysterically every time I said the word “okay.” I am not sure why. I passed the exam with minimal class attendance.

This lack of meaningful classes gave me an unprecedented amount of free time. I frantically tried to fill this time for most of the year. I practiced several hours a day. I took on a bar job, from which I was promptly fired after breaking several pitchers and missing a shift. I attended screenings of “West Side Story” by myself.

By the end, something began to slow down inside of me, and I began spending hours a day drinking coffee and eating interminable lunches. In other words, in spite of my best efforts, I became French.

  1. It is impossible to have too many passport pictures in France. You will need one to accomplish almost any task, whether that be creating a student university card or taking a shower. N.B. Smiling is usually forbidden in passport photos, and even the slightest expression of joy or curling of the lips will invalidate them.

  1. For piano students such as myself, keep in mind that finding an instrument to practice on in Paris is a Herculean task which will likely involve steep fees and humiliating compromises. I spent most of my working hours in a rented studio that the owner would physically lock me into for hours at a time. The necessity of this was not clear. I was forced to squeeze myself through the studio’s lone window on more than one occasion.

  1. Despite constant claims to the contrary, Parisians are actually perfectly decent people. That is, if you are willing to concede that everything works better in France.

My former host-mom, a champion of homeopathy, quipped that France didn’t use the rubbish they use in American medicine (i.e. medical science). One of the heads of my school expressed his belief that the level of music education is much weaker in America. This, Dear Reader, is what we call a scorned Julliard applicant.

To be fair, there are many things that do work better in France. They get the benefits of unpasteurized cheese, for example. The French language also contains an astonishing variety of words to describe body parts—I would guess at least three times the number of obscene similes that one would find in English. They also offer free health care, if you can keep up with the steady stream of letters telling you to mail three more passport pictures.

  1. Be extremely careful when introducing French friends to American cuisine. I invited a friend out to an American-style diner in an effort to introduce him to my culture. He ate a stack of blueberry pancakes and promptly vomited.

I offered another one of my friends a bag of gas station-variety beef jerky from America. She promptly vomited.

This is not a weakness on their part, but simply an effort to adapt to ingredients that are not meant for human consumption.

  1. If you had a French waiter in a restaurant, would you mercilessly mock his accent and his culture? Probably not, but the French will do it to you. Just laugh along with them, and wait until you get home to burst into tears.

  1. There is a very pretty neighborhood in Paris called the Marais. Be aware that the bars in this area often cater to certain sexual orientations, as I have awkwardly learned more than once.

  1. If you want to one-up the guy at the café counter drinking boring old coffee next to you, order “une noisette.” This will land you a nifty dash of cream in your coffee. The guy next to you will concede defeat.

  1. Romantic relationships are terrifying, but worth touching on. If you kiss a member of the opposite sex, you have likely made a terrible mistake. Try explaining to him/her the purely American idea that, even though you kissed, you would like to wait a week or two before purchasing an apartment and choosing a baby name (N.B. Jean-Luc is a very popular name, and Madeleine is considered old-fashioned). Attempting to slow things down a bit will get you an escargot fork in the eye.

  1. Parisian apartment parties have very specific rules. Everyone gathers around a table in a cramped room. The host will serve frozen pizza and quiche as the guests down cheap wine and begin to throw things. Be sure to throw something at somebody by the end of the night—preferably peanuts or something sticky. Otherwise people will start to wonder about you.

15. An important word to learn in French is “Courage!” You will hear this multiple times a day. This is roughly the equivalent of “Come on! Keep your chin up!” and is useful for encouraging people without actually taking any action to correct their problems. For example, a conversation with a landlord:

“Excuse me, I think a pipe burst. My bathroom is beginning to flood.”


“Could you call a plumber?”

  1. For an endless source of entertainment, ask French people to pronounce words such as “hearth,” “squirrel,” “law,” and “photosynthesis.” Laugh increasingly louder each time they try.

It is currently unclear if I will spend next year here or not. I have mixed feelings about my school, and more alarmingly, I am not convinced that staying here will earn me any kind of useful diploma.

However, whenever disturbing thoughts about my future and goals begin to intrude, I sit down in the nearest café, take a deep breath, and spend the next four hours eating mussels. I remember that I am missing the point of life in this country. Who needs productivity or so-called “diplomas?” Is that any substitute for unending vacations, coffee breaks, and long weekends?

I wash the mussels down with a glass of Chablis and feel my ambition succumb to the heat and alcohol. I chuckle loudly to myself, causing my fellow diners to turn their heads. Staring into my wine glass, I let one word escape my lips:


Friday, June 13, 2008

End of Exams

Alas, I have finished all of my exams, and my original predictions may have been astonishingly wrong.
I learned today that I passed the year in solfege. This means a lot to me, as I am awful at solfege, and put minimal effort into the class. Of course, since I started in the 3rd level, and dropped the 2nd level after a few months, that only means that I'm back to where I started. A triumph, if ever there was one.
I also learned that I passed analysis. This means a lot to me as well, since I went to 20% of the classes, at best.

I wrote a few weeks ago that nobody, in the history of music conservatories, has ever failed a music history exam. Although the results come in a week, I'm predicting I may be the first.
Our music history exam worked like the lottery from hell. We would draw a little slip of paper with a subject on it, and then have to discuss the subject for about fifteen minutes in front of a jury.
I drew "symphonic poems." Oh shite.
I remembered Liszt. Liszt was a Hungarian dude with large hands who did a number of things, but also wrote some symphonic poems, one of which is called "Les Preludes."
This was more or less the extent of my speech. The jury gazed at me blankly. Could I name some other composers who wrote symphonic poems?
"Uhh, Schumann. Yeah, Schumann. And Schubert."
No, Schubert did not.
"Uhh, no, you're right, he didn't. Schumann, yeah, he totally did. The names sound similar...you know?"
After giving me an absurd amount of hints, they finally got me to pronounce the name "Strauss."
"Right! He wrote 'Death and Transfiguration!'"
Could I name any of his other symphonic poems?
End of exam.
That's too bad. This comes only a day after an atrocious sightreading exam.
But hey, who needs sightreading when I've got my good friend Jim Beam by my side?

This marks the end of my exams, except for my huge piano jury on the 23rd. Classes are now over. I can't tell the difference.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


Let's take a look at the bets I placed on my exams a few weeks ago:


I learned ten minutes ago that I failed my chamber music exam, along with my jovial, female Japanese partner.
That's a sharp left turn--if I could have bet on passing a single one of my exams, it would've been chamber music.
Alas, we played our Mozart sonata for two pianos yesterday, and it was as if some malicious spirit was in the air--there were wrong notes and slips galore (for both of us), and at one point, my hand actually froze and played nothing when I was supposed to play a scale. But still. Failing? That's kind of embarassing, especially since we've been rehearsing that same damn piece, every class, since October (although it probably reached its peak back in December).

This also confirms what I sort of suspected--having a jury at the end of a *semester* makes sense, as opposed to my school's retarded system of having one at the end of every year. This will leave students to practice the same stuff for way too long and get mighty sick of it, and it's just dumb to have a whole year's worth of work hinge on one ten-minute event.

It's a bit of a discouragement, but at the same time, my school works in such a complicated (and bad) fashion, that no one has been able to explain to me why I needed to pass this exam to get a diploma.

I guess it's back to practicing for the second part of my solo piano jury, even if I'm growing slightly apathetic about the results.
On a more positive note, I'm sure I rocked my analysis exam, which (according to my predictions) I originally chalked up as a failure. The music history exam consisted of one completely open-ended question--it was a quote from Lizst, talking about how the inventions of new forms can express new emotions. We were then instructed to write anything we wanted, using this quote as a springboard. I wrote about how the invention of YouPorn has revolutionized the medium of pornography and created a much-needed sense of community in the genre of amateur hardcore.
At least I probably could have, and I may have gotten away with it.

Alright, back to YouPorn. I mean, practicing.

Monday, May 26, 2008


I passed.
Along with 31 fellow pianists (out of 46 competitors), I was deemed worthy enough to participate in the second part of the exam on June 24th.
So apparently 2/3 passed instead of the supposed half...that leaves a lot of worthy competitors for the next part, but I am nonetheless content with these developments.
This comes after I spent the entire weekend looking up graduate programs for Master degrees in literature (I don't even know where I get these ideas).

Anyway, I'm off to practice and likely drink tonight.

More importantly, Lucky, objectively the best cat ever, turned 18 yesterday.

In cat years, that makes her 126. What a true champion amongst the animal kingdom.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


There was a question on my solfege exam this morning asking what the marking "mp" means in music.


All I can say is that if you've been playing an instrument for fifteen years and can't answer that question, you're in serious trouble. Like, "throw your oboe into a massive firepit and jump in after it" kind of trouble.
And if you've playing an instrument for more than a week and can't answer that question, you're still in trouble.

Along with a few more astonishing questions, the "theory" part of the exam involved writing a short (five measures) melody.
Maybe I was missing something important--I scratched mine out in a few minutes and was the first to turn in my exam.
Of course, this is France. While the rest of the students kept finishing their tests, the teacher (also the head of the school) actually picked up mine, looked through it, and made facial gestures. These ranged from nods to furrowed brows to outright laughter at certain points. Was it necessary to do this in front of the class? I suppose so.

I'll learn the results of my jury tomorrow. Will report back later.

More importantly, my internet dating site finally landed me a date with a francaise named Drumcaype (note: to protect the girl, I scrambled the letters of her name and added a few more). Although she looks like an adorable blonde in her photo, I won't bat an eyelash if a grizzled, 48-year old Korean farmer shows up to the cafe. Such are the risks we take with internet dating.
I guess it would still be fun with an old Korean guy though--we could go bobbing for apples and giggle alot, and maybe do a round of cosmic bowling. Then he could show me his home country. Keep an open mind, right?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


We had our final choir performance last night.
Some of you may be surprised to learn that I was even singing in a choir at a little music school at Saint Germain des Pres, but the explanation is simple. Singing in the choir technically makes me a "student" at the school, and being a "student" gives me access to their lovely practice rooms.
The choirmaster (also the head of the school) long ago figured out my scheme and now won't even make eye contact with me when we cross in the halls.
The choir has been an overwhelmingly low priority for me--one week I skipped three out of four rehearsals, and I didn't even buy the sheet music until last week.
I guess I also missed the news that this would be a formal concert--I could have sworn that the choirmaster said it would be "informel" and that we wouldn't need to dress up, but maybe he was saying it would be "infortune" (wretched). Although that'd be a pretty negative comment for a choirmaster.

Anyway, I showed up to the church last night to find the women in black dresses and the men in tuxedos. I was wearing jeans, Pumas, and a dusty sweater with a bunch of cheese crumbs stuck to it. Oops.
A kind woman in the choir called her husband to bring me a nice pair of pants. Unfortunately, he brought another pair of jeans--a few hues darker and about four sizes tighter, but still jeans.
I expected to get some very French comments, and I did. Example:

*During* the concert, between songs, while the large crowd is applauding, the woman next to me murmurs:

"You were supposed to wear a white shirt."
"I know, I'm sorry. I didn't know."
"In France, we dress up for concerts. They dress up for concerts everywhere."
"I know, I'm sorry."
"I mean, you play piano concerts right? Don't you wear white shirts for that?"
"Yes. I'm sorry."
"We wear white shirts to concerts here."
"I'm sorry."
"It's like that everywhere."
"I'm sorry."

Another example:

A guy in the dressing room passes me and looks at my Pumas.

"Looks like you forgot your bowtie, huh?"
"I'm sorry."

This could go on endlessly. Needless to say, it was a fitting end for my stint with the choir.
Even better, there's actually video footage from last night. I'm the guy about ten seconds in who's wearing a sweater. I'm hard to miss.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


My first piano juries got changed to Friday. As in, the day after the day after tomorrow. They used to be on the 29th. Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit!!!!!

This wouldn't really be a problem if I didn't have to play that damn Chopin "Black Keys" etude. I don't know what my deal is with this piece--I've played harder stuff, and it's something that a lot of 15-year old pianists can handle. But for some reason, the gears just get stuck on this one. Or, more accurately, my hands get stuck, thus making it sound like shite.

In general, my morale concerning my school has been steadily decreasing for the past six months or so, to the point that I found myself browsing university websites today for master's programs in foreign language education--what I imagine I'll fall into if/when this piano thing falls through.
I guess I'm somewhat happy I'm getting it over with though. If I fail, I probably won't bother taking the other exams, which will at least save me a bit of stress.

I've been thinking about metaphors for how I've felt throughout this school year, and especially now that it's winding to an end. I've come up with a couple accurate ones:

1. That feeling when you start a book and put it aside for a long time. Then when you pick it up again, you have to reread everything to remember what happened. It's a kind of annoying feeling that you're wasting your time, and you're often tempted to just put it aside and pick up a new book.

2. When a chica is clearly not interested in you, and you make some huge, last-ditch effort to snag her, reasoning that if you're going to fail, you should at least fail in a last blaze of glory.

I guess I'm regressing into "complaining" again. Maybe I should go practice instead.
Please light a candle for me and my jury. Preferably one of those gingerbread scented ones.