A Beautiful Idea for Some Ugly Produce

5-Fruits-et-Légumes-Moches-par-jourTake a look at French supermarket Intermarché’s brilliant strategy at reducing food waste:

Effectively, the French grocery store bought the ugly produce their vendors would usually discard and sold it for 30% less. To convince people that ugly fruits and vegetables could be just as good as beautiful ones, they made soup and juice from the lackluster produce and handed them out as samples.

To everyone’s surprise, the fruits and vegetables now sell out regularly.


Now isn’t that a beautiful idea?

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Bastille Day (But Were Too Afraid to Ask)

Paris – July 1789

It is a hot, summer morning in Paris. Like the humidity which lies heavy upon the city, a spirit of unrest stews in the air. Thanks to M. Réveillon’s recent, ill-conceived proposal to the city council on combatting poverty (and the subsequent razing of his factory), rumors and complaints buzz from mouths hungrier for conspiracy than for bread. The word on the street is that a plot is being hatched in the halls of power— though the would-be perpetrators and victims remain unclear. One thing is clear, however: a storm is brewing, and the question on everyone’s lips is not whether, but when it will break upon Paris.

The epicenter in this hive of discontentment is a little neighborhood in the eastern end of the city, the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, couched in the shadow of the Bastille— or bastion— which has protected the city gate here since the late 1300s. What is the source of this discord and why does this particular quartier stir like a kicked ants’ nest? To answer “why,” we must first ask “what.”  That is, “What is this fortress of stone standing before us?”

The Bastille

Bastille,_1790_retouchedThe Bastille was constructed as a guard post for the Porte Sainte-Antoine in 1370, during the Hundred Years’ War against the English. Over the centuries, it grew into a rather formidable state prison, though the prisoners kept there were often of the noble or royal variety. Despite the fact that many of these prisoners lived in rather lavish conditions (some even brought their own furniture, held dinner parties, and could even leave during the day as long as they slept there at night), thanks to some of their colorful autobiographies, the Bastille developed an ominous reputation as a place of unspeakable horrors.

While it is true that abuses did occur there, the denizens of the surrounding Faubourg Saint-Antoine seem to have been able only to guess at the atrocities allegedly committed within its walls. In those days, it didn’t take much to be thrown into the Bastille: no judge or jury were required, only a lettre de cachet. In any case, the imposing structure eventually came to be associated with arbitrary authority and the abuse of royal power.

Defecation, Demonstration, and Decapitation

Marquis_de_Sade_portraitOne such prisoner of the Bastille was the “deviant” Marquis de Sade (from whose name we derive the word “sadism” and “sadistic” thanks to his libertine writings on sexuality and even more violent practice of it). Imprisoned by his own mother-in-law’s lettre de cachet, the Marquis was living quite high on the hog within the Bastille.

However, this did not stop him from… ahem… bullshitting a bit:

“He took hold of a long white metal pipe equipped with a little funnel which, when the urge arose, he attached to his bottom— a portable toilet in which he could more conveniently dispatch his excretions down below into the moat. With said instrument Sade formed a kind of bullhorn that he used to harangue the people of the faubourg.

‘Good people! They are slitting the throats of the prisoners in the Bastille! Come immediately to our rescue!’” (Lorànt Deutsch, Metronome)

Faced with the threat of royal troops gathering outside the city, on the morning of July 14, the good people of Paris first stormed the military hospital Les Invalides for guns before setting their sights on the Bastille, which was full of gunpowder.

Now, the governor of the Bastille, the Marquis de Launay, was not about to simply open his gates to the mob amassing outside, but he did allow a delegation of city officials from the Hôtel de Ville (or town hall) entry into the fortress in an attempt to negotiate— and probably buy time for reinforcements. Two more such delegations were forthcoming, but the hoped-for reinforcements, alas, were not.

Eventually, the crowds outside grew restless enough that shots were exchanged. Thus, the first 100 casualties fell to the ground, and the Revolution had begun.

Thanks to some defectors from within the ranks of the Swiss army commanding the defense of the Bastille, the gates were eventually burned down with cannons from Les Invalides (apparently, someone found some gunpowder elsewhere), and the governor was forced to surrender. The Marquis de Sade was saved. However, the poor Marquis de Launay, was not.

Arrestation du gouverneur de la Bastille - Jean-Baptiste Lallemand
Arrestation du gouverneur de la Bastille – Jean-Baptiste Lallemand

Undismayed by their meager liberation of only seven petty crooks and forgers, the mob exulted in its symbolic triumph over the forces of monarchy and set about dismantling the Bastille within only a few short days, but not before dragging Launay through the streets and decapitating him with a knife (the guillotine still a distant threat on the horizon). The governor’s head affixed to a pike and paraded through the city, the révolutionnaires’ bloodlust, far from being quenched, was only just beginning…

Studying Abroad in France: Housing

Trying to find housing even in the United States can be something of a trial, so arranging a living situation in a foreign country can seem downright impossible, especially if you’re trying to do it before you arrive.

The good news is that most program providers include housing in their cost, so you never have to worry about the hassle of finding your own. However, should you decide to go it alone, there are options, but be warned: it won’t be cheap, and unless you know someone in Paris, it is not an exaggeration to say that locating an apartment in that city really is akin to looking for a needle in a haystack.


Like most things in France, universities and their housing departments are administered by a centralised organisation called CNOUS (Le Centre National des Oeuvres Universitaires et Scolaires). This agency oversees everything from scholarships and grants to cafeterias to housing at France’s many public universities. Each major city with a university has a CNOUS presence called CROUS (Centre Régional).

Each CROUS maintains student housing complexes called Cités Universitaires or just Cités-U for short. For example, when I lived in Caen, I lived in the Tilleuls residence on the university campus. Another example is in Paris, where there is a stop on the RER Line B named Cité Universitaire.

Most residences administered by the CNOUS are reserved for students with French government grants, though it’s still your best option as a student for affordable housing since the rent is fixed between 120 EUR – 350 EUR per month, depending on the type of residence you live in.

Host Families

It would be impossible to give an accurate portrayal of what a homestay is like since every family is different, but having been “adopted” by one when I lived in Normandie and having lived with another in Paris when I worked there, I can say that in my personal experience, host families can provide some of the most genuine, authentic experiences of French life.

P1000113It’s true that you will have to decide whether you want to live in such close quarters with strangers, but I still keep in touch with my host family from when I studied abroad four years ago, and I have found that host families can go from being complete strangers to becoming some of your most cherished friends in France.

I will never forget meeting my family in Caen for the first time and being invited to the birthday party of my host mom’s niece, complete with 15-20 people and me, the sole American. Being invited into a family is rare enough as it is, so to experience an extended family celebration was really special for the first time meeting them.

P1000998Then, in Paris two years later, I lived with the same family my friend lived with the year prior. It was a lot of fun making a Fourth of July dinner and then later, a full Thanksgiving dinner for them to share my American culture with them and thank them for taking me in during my time in France.

I would highly recommend a homestay if it’s available to you. Many people opt for something “safer” by sticking with fellow American students in a dorm or apartment, but if you really want a fully immersive experience, go with the homestay. You won’t regret it.

For Paris, check out Homestay-in-Paris.com.

Renting in France

This could be an entire blog post in itself, but suffice it to say, for the first time student in France, I would definitely not recommend trying to find your own property unless you have connections or friends. The inn is always full in Paris, though you might get lucky. Other cities will not be as difficult in terms of locating housing, but France is the queen of catch-22s, and trying to rent an apartment without a French bank account is… tricky to say the least, especially when opening a French bank account often requires a French address!

Should you decide to explore the world of French property for let, as a tenant (un locataire) you’ll usually apply through an agent (un agent immobilier). You can find properties in local newspapers or in estate agents’ windows in the downtown areas of most towns. Be prepared to provide documents ranging from bank statements to letters of reference to proof of employment to income tax returns.

For a more detailed guide on renting in France, take a look at this Expatica article on the subject.

Resize Your Expectations

Keep in mind that North America is a continent of wide-open spaces and frontiers, urban sprawl and endless wilderness. Everything here is bigger than in most other parts of the world– whether that’s cars or streets, food portions or the availability of utilities like electricity and water.

Generally speaking– and especially in crowded cities like Paris– no matter what type of housing you go with, your living space will be considerably smaller. As a student in Caen, I lived in a dorm room that was 9 square meters, a monk’s cell by comparison to my bedroom at home. When real estate is at a premium, you’ll adjust eventually, but for the first-time visitor to France, the sudden size-difference can be a bit claustrophobia-inducing.

Be prepared for shared bathrooms and kitchens, stairs instead of elevators, and radiators and open windows instead of centralised air conditioning and heating. That’s not to say that you’ll be living in second-rate conditions, but it is important to remember that most buildings in France are hundreds of years old, and therefore not built to modern codes or sensibilities.

Whatever your living arrangement, it’s important to keep an open mind and a sense of adventure. The very point of studying abroad is to experience something different from home and to come to appreciate how other people live. With the right attitude and a bit of diligence, you’ll soon be right at home in France.