Today I went shopping. I know it's terribly girly, but it was a lot of fun. I stayed in the 1ère arrondissement... Saint Denis, apparently. There were dozens and dozens of little stores selling random and oddly specialized clothing from local, apparently small-range distributors (sometimes it looked like the lady sitting in her store also made the clothes herself). I've never seen anything like it. The equivalent stores on the cote d'azur sell the same thing for 150 euros a skirt - here, I was actually surprised to learn that a pair of gorgeous calfskin (I think) pants was 20 euros. I didn't buy anything, but it was an adventure just to look, and be surrounded by hordes of experienced shoppers.
I ended up going to dinner again with a bunch of random guys from Polytechnique. This time we went for a more traditional French restaurant, but the meal wasn't actually as good as the Japanese last night. The waiters kept forgetting us. It was ok, I got some interesting 'X' stories. (X being a name for l'Ecole Polytechnique, or a student there.)
I'd been wondering for a while why the first and second years of prepa* are called "trois demi" and "cinq demi". Tonight I found out why: "Un trois demi intègre l'X entre la première et la deuxième année car l'intègrale de x de 1 à 2 fait 3/2." "A 'three half' integrates/enrolls in X (Polytechnique) between the 1st and 2nd year because the integral of x from 1 to 2 is 3/2." Same idea for cinq demi, since the integral of x from 2 to 3 is 5/2. Er, I bet that explanation made no sense to someone who's not already familiar with the system.
If you listen to the students from "l'X" too much, you'll start to believe that they really are the center of the world... or at least France. From what I've been told, graduates from this single small military (at least in theory) school form the elite once they graduate, and dominate positions of power and wealth. Which means: admission to the "good old boys club" in this society depends entirely on a single entrance exam at the age of 20. As opposed to the US, where it seems to depend more on a combination of your family connections, your golf skills, and your tie-choosing ability. I'm not sure which is better.
* Prepa is two years of hellish math-focused courses that a French student who wants to go to a big-name school has to suffer through to prepare for the entrance exams to the schools.