Monday, January 9, 2012

Around the World in Twelve Days and Mon Retour

This is my last posting from France, but within the past two weeks, I have been able to participate in experiences from all over the world! As I count down the days, I also have to count down the countries, cities, small towns, customs, and attitudes of those I have had the pleasure to meet while I have been here, each with their own unique style....

12 Day Countdown—Day One: Christmas in England

Since I was to be here during the Holidays, as was my good friend Ben, we decided to spend Christmas together. Ben wasn't able to go to his native England for the Holidays, so instead of revisiting the English Christmastime shenanigans (or if you're English, a Christmastime “do”) with his two kids, he spent it teaching me all about the English way to celebrate Christmas. It pretty much entails as much food and candy as our Thanksgiving, but with a few differences that are pretty much to be followed as law.

First, you HAVE to listen to the Queen's Christmas Address. I didn't even know the Queen gave a Christmas address, let alone the fact that everyone in England watches or listens to it. She reflected on the general state of affairs, including the new developments by the newlywed couple, Prince Edward and Kate Middleton. Admittedly, I have to give the Queen props for the fact that even after all these years, her eloquence in speaking and her stance is nothing short of royalty.

You saucy minx, you! (My favorite rendition of the Queen by Lucian Freud)

Secondly, you HAVE to have Christmas Pudding. What is this concoction that's as mysterious as mincemeat? Well, it's pretty much a dense, greasy half-ball shaped dessert (which, as Ben tells me, hardly anyone eats) made out of candied fruit. The only reason to buy such a thing is to do what any normal human being would conclude: set it on fire!

After the Christmas pyrotechnics, you pull on what are called “Christmas Crackers” (the sound, not the food), which brings me to the third and possibly most important pre-dinner tradition: wearing the paper crowns. The only time I've seen these flimsy little hats is in “Bridget Jones' Diary”, but all that does is distract me to thinking about Colin Firth and his role as Mark Darcy...

 Which leads to me thinking about Colin Firth's role as Mr. Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice”...

Which leads me to think about Matthew MacFayden's role as Mr. Darcy in the newer version of “Pride and Prejudice”...

Okay, I've digressed long enough—back to the matter at hand!

So...the other part of the British Christmas tradition is to have the British Christmas meal, which is prepared with traditionally roasted foul (usually turkey, but in this case chicken because all the stores were closed after Ben and I both returned to town), stuffing, gravy, potatoes (see the pattern with Thanksgiving?)...until you get to the (in my opinion) crown and glory of the meal...the parsnips! Ben was so worried about making this meal perfect using so many canned/powdered/frozen ingredients, but to have so many wonderfully prepared foods, I was thoroughly enjoying myself. Especially the parsnips.

After eating such an awesome meal, it's tradition to take a walk afterward, while still wearing the paper crown, mind you! We were the only French/English-speaking people on the streets, donning our tissue paper headgear, but we were having a blast. After returning, then it's time for dessert and conversation. I must have eaten my weight in chocolate, water crackers, and did I mention the parsnips?!?! My first British Christmas was unforgetttingly epic.

Days Two Through Six—Chinese-Mexican-French-Japanese Picnics/Coffees and Visit to Tours

During my last full week in France, I was able to have a picnic with several friends who are staying in Angers until the end of the traditional semester. Meeting with a group of Chinese, American, and Mexican friends, we all had a picnic outside of the University's main building, even though the wind was blisteringly cold, and we were continually attacked by a very hungry French cat, who ate most of our pâté. Amid teary goodbyes in English, Spanish, Chinese, and, of course, French, we ate cuisine from all over, some bought in the local grocery store, and some sent to us from our families back home. 

I was also able to have lunch and coffee with a few other international friends during my countdown, including a coffee and visit to Tours with my friend, Ben. Ben and I are both used to the idea that “having coffee” is about lounging around in coffeehouses and conversing for an hour or so over one single cup of espresso, but not in France! In France, it's tradition to order your java, chug it, and go about your business; it is something to accomplish, but not something to socialize over. So the one place we could find in Tours that was just a coffeehouse, as opposed to a restaurant disguised as a “Café”, was located in a bookstore, and we were lucky to find it.

At first, we thought that the French barista would adopt the “drink your coffee and go away” attitude that is the traditional method of coffee-drinking in France (not a rude attitude, just a different one), but as soon as the woman behind the counter depicted our English (and American English) accents, her face brightened, and she practiced her own English knowledge with us, conversing enthusiastically about our visit to Tours. This is not the first time I have noticed this—whereas many people think that to speak English in France is cause for rude glances and underhanded remarks, playing up the stereotype of French people in general—I have been privy to several cases where this is simply not true. Many people are excited to be able to practice other languages with you as soon as they find out that you are a native speaker of one, and are happy to oblige any opportunity to converse with someone from another country in terms of travel and experience. 

Along with the example here with Ben, my friend Jen and I met a genial WWII veteran in a random grocery store in Angers while trying to figure out the produce-weighing machine. Not only was he happy to teach us how to use it, but was ecstatic that we were students Studying Abroad, and encouraged us to travel all our lives, because “there might not be another chance”. With regard to his experience in the Second World War, I am happy to take the veteran's advice as gospel!

Along with my visits with classmates, I even had the experience of having an apéritif with my host family and my French History professor, who used to work with my host mother. Being a non-traditional student, I was proud of the fact that not only did I feel comfortable speaking in terms of equality with classmates of all ages, but also with the professors. We had a wonderful time conversing over serious matters of school and life, and the best part was, I understand almost all of it!

Day Seven—New Year's Eve, aka the Night of the French Sport of Vandalism

Hearing that Ben and I had no plans ourselves for New Year's Eve, my host father, Jean, “invited” me, along with Ben, to dinner with him and my host mother, Marie-Anne. I have long talked about, in previous blog posts, how amazingly my host parents can cook, and this was no exception! We wined and dined well into the evening, and our conversations lasted until almost 3:00 in the morning—even past my bedtime, let alone my host parents'! Ben was invited to stay the night, since alcohol was involved in the evening's menu, as well as the fact that his BMW, which dons the steering wheel on the right side (like all British cars, but it sure felt weird being the passenger on the left during our trip to Tours!), would be much safer locked in Jean's clos, or walled-in backyard, versus on the street where Ben usually parks it in front of his apartment. Jean explained that, on New Year's Eve, the “national sport” in France was vandalism to cars, and that Ben's nice car would also equal to be a nice target. With his BMW safely tucked away, we thoroughly enjoyed each others' company over wine from Jean's wine room, rare duck prepared by Marie-Anne, and intense conversation over business (Ben is a licensed independent consultant), and -gasp!-politics and religion, which are welcomed, not taboo, subjects of discussion in France.

My last five days before my departure consisted of packing, sorting, repacking, resorting, and re-re-sorting all of my belongings, weighing my luggage each time on my host parents' bathroom scale. A word of warning to all people planning to travel: pack for the journey light, and choose wisely what to bring back! Almost all students, once classes are over and the journey home is drawing near, forget about all the souvenirs, clothes, makeup, hair products, accessories, or any other goodies that they acquire, both for themselves as well as for others, while traveling abroad. It is VERY important to plan this wisely, especially if you don't plan on paying extra for overweight/additional luggage at the Airport, which is the reason why poor Jen almost missed her flight home, waiting in line to pay her luggage tax for over an hour before she was allowed to go through security.

As for myself, I kept this in mind, refraining from buying too many extra clothes and accessories in Angers, which usually ended up being more expensive anyway since they were in Euros. Also, it is helpful to keep others in mind during your sorting-out process. My plasticware, extra clothes, and much of my food was given away to my classmates who were sticking around, saving them money and saving me the grief of feeling like I wasted money by simply throwing stuff away. Angers also has collection boxes for their equivalent of Goodwill, called Apivet, which I threw several clothes in for donations before leaving.  When everything was said and done, my life fit right back into my two wheeled suitcases and my backpack, but the memories were immeasurable.

That's four months of my life, right there.

Also, keep in mind that whatever you bring back, you have to claim at customs—the less you bring back, the less you have to remember to write down! But there was one thing I brought back that was well worth the extra clothes I kept to keep it well-padded: a bottle of rose given to me by my host parents, instructed to only be cracked open during a special occasion. They also fixed me a very special meal as my "Last Dinner" with them--a fish called, in French, Lotte, but known in English as an Anglerfish.  Jean was very excited to be fixing this for me, taking me with him to the market to pick it out in hopes of finding one "with the head still on it" so I could see what it looked like.  We didn't find one with the head on it, but I did find it online.  You might actually know what this fish looks like, it's very, well, unique.  Or in my humble opinion, freakin' scary!  Are you ready to see what it looks like, this AWESOMELY DELICIOUS fish that I ate?!?!

Wait for it...

Wait for it...
BAH-BAM!  Yep, my parents didn't believe me either.  "YOU ATE WHAT?!?! That fish off of Finding Nemo???? NO WAYY!!!!! EWWWW!!!!!"  

But it. Was. Awesome.  The best-tasting fish dinner I have ever had.

This epic dinner was also served with an escargot starter...

...along with plenty of nice wine, cheeses, and, as incredulous as my host parents consider my love of, BEETS!  French beets are nothing like American, served-in-a-can-full-of-corn-syrup beets, no, no!  French beets are fresh from the garden, and taste like veggie candy.  I don't think my host parents will ever forget just how many times a week they would open the refrigerator door and see a whole box filled with fresh beets, along with my own huge jar of cornichons, or vinegar-y French pickles.  YUM!!!

As a thank-you gift to them, I also gave them a present—a bottle of all-American Tennessee Jack Daniel's whiskey. My boyfriend, Gene, lives in Tennessee, and since I am also just a few hours by car to it's distillery, I felt that it was a fitting present to my host parents by their “American student”.

Day Zero—Mon Retour

January Fifth came sooner than I expected. Rising up at the crack of the day (it wasn't even dawn yet), my host family came with me to the Angers Train Station. I still can't think of it without tears in my eyes. There simply weren't enough hugs, enough waves through the train's windows, enough tears between us to describe how wonderful my time in Angers was, my time spent with friends, my host family, and even alone among it's roads and historical statues and buildings. I wasn't ready to go. I kept waving to my host parents, kept crying, and kept thinking that, no matter what, my time in Angers wasn't long enough. But on the other hand, just my experience there, with so many wonderful people, was such a blessing, I would ever be grateful for those four short months, those fleeting moments, those wonderful memories. Angers would always be with me, and in turn, I would always be there, too, even if just in spirit.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Of COURSE I Want to Visit “Les Pays-Bas” At Christmastime! Um...Where Is That, Anyway???

Happy Holidays, Everyone! I hope everyone is enjoying the perpetual LACK of snow, both here in France, as well as in the U.S.! As the French newscasters are reporting the problems with kickstarting the tourist season in the Alps due to pas de neige, the report from both North Carolina, chez moi, as well as in Ohio, chez mes parents, is getting the same result. OHIO, even!!! This must really be a problem, because the area around my parents' house is well known for it's Amish communities, fields of corn and soy, and, well, TONS of snow! Tant pis (too bad) this kind of weather never happens whenever I'm visiting!

But to celebrate the fact that we no longer had school and had time to burn, I was suggested to go along with two of my friends, Alyx and Julie, to Les Pays-Bas. At first, we were trying to find a place to visit inside L'Hexagon, but finally decided that, since we're so close to the borders of other countries in Europe, we should go somewhere else within the E.U.! (Note: I say “within the E.U.” because, as Visa-carrying students, you are limited to where you can travel outside of France. If you're designated a student Visa for the E.U., you need to stay within those countries, or else!)

So where, exactly, are Les Pays-Bas​? I'll give you two hints: tulips and wooden shoes. Yep! We decided to ditch the idea of visiting the lackadaisical, non-snowy climate of the Alps in order to go to the Netherlands! There were three specific places that we wanted to visit while we were there, along with gazing at the general splendor of European, straight-laced architectural styles found in the designs of the buildings, crammed together without as much as a sliver of space for windows on the sides, but first, I'd like to reflect a bit on our journey there to illuminate the attitude of people from Europe and Amsterdam...
Ahhh, European symmetrical architecture!

Part One: Changing Trains

As we made our way to Amsterdam, Alyx, Julie and I had to change trains twice: once in Paris (which has TWO train stations, one in Charles de Gaulle Airport and one in Montparnasse), and once in a city that will not be named. The train change in Paris wasn't so difficult, with one quick trip on the métro (with a serenade of musicians sneaking on to play for money, bien sûr), and one very expensive, but very welcomed coffee at Starbucks (hey, we are Americans, after all!) along the way. Then, as we continued our journey, we had to change trains again. At this point, leaving so early in the morning, we tried to find a bench to sit down on as we waited for our connecting train to arrive. At the end of one particular bench sat a large, unattended piece of luggage. Five minutes go by, and the suitcase is still sitting there, owner-less. Ten minutes go by, and it's still sitting there.

As Americans, you can guess what we are taught about unattended luggage. This is a BIG no-no in America, and can cause a general sense of panic. So we, the American girls, decide to tell someone about said luggage, to get it checked out. We tell a serious-looking security officer at the train station, concern shining in our eyes about such a mysterious object being left to its own devices. He looks at us, and squints his eyes in a very “you guys aren't from around here, are you?” manner. (As Study Abroad students, you will learn very well what this look is!) He goes to stand by the luggage, and suddenly the owner shows up, disaster averted. The three of us, embarrassed by our American-ness, jump up as soon as our train arrives to avoid any other behavior on our parts that just prove how far away from home we really are.

Even though we were set back a bit in our self-esteem by this incident, we were really tested of our abilities when we arrived at Grand Station in Amsterdam. Due to a cruddy internet connection, we knew the name of the hostel where we were staying, but the connection was lost before we could write down the directions on how to get there from the train station. Mustering up all the courage we had, we walked solemnly toward an older woman, who was very stereotypically from Holland—complete with the long blond pigtails—who sat in a kiosk. Mind you, none of us know Dutch, and I only know how to say “Thank you”, “Please”, and “Catch you later” in German, due to my love of Tom Tykwer movies. We couldn't have been more out of our element, and all the streets ended in straat, which didn't help us at all. “Please”, we blurted out to her in English, “we don't know where our hostel is, could you help us?” We just hoped she knew enough English to point us in the right direction. 


Part Two: It Can't Be THAT easy!

Sure,” she replied in perfectly-understandable English. “There is a Tourism Office across the street, you can look up the address of your hostel there. Then just take the tram to where you need to go.”

Us: “How will we know which tram to take, and where to get off?”

Woman: “Just ask the driver.”

NO WAY it could be that simple. 

But it was. 

Furthermore, the people were friendly about it. No weird looks, no eye-rolling-because-we're-foreigners, no judgements. We found our hostel's address, no problems, and got onto a tram, asking the driver what to do. “Just enjoy the ride!” he exclaimed heartily, “I'll tell you where to get off the tram”.
Even the speedbump warning signs seem friendlier!

Part Three:  Touristy-ness

Amsterdam was already awesome, and it only got better. We met some really great people, including a bunch of Scots who had accents so thick it was sometimes hard to understand their own version of English, as well as meeting up with a high school classmate of Julie's, who just happened to live in a neighboring town, and who is Dutch.

We all had a wonderful time, so much so that we lamented a bit on returning to Angers on Christmas Eve, just missing the big Christmas meal at the hostel. A hostel that was dirt cheap, tremendously clean, and who served us breakfast!

I could focus on other (perhaps unsavory) aspects of this wonderful city, but instead, I will tell you about three places we went that were truly magical: the Van Gogh Museum, the tour of the Canals, and the Anne Frank House.

I will start with the Anne Frank House because that is the most sobering, and I would like to end on a cheery note.

For anyone who as read her diary, one can remember the church bells that Anne heard while hiding in the second and third stories of her father's jelly and canning factory. Those bells, and the church itself, can be seen from the attic that she so famously frequented to be by herself, writing her hauntingly innocent entries before being discovered by the Nazis on August 4, 1944. 
Approaching the West Church, whose bells rang while we were actually in the Frank House.  Eerie!

To this day, no one knows who told the Germans about their hiding place, whose entrance was hidden by a dummy bookcase hinged to a wall. We climbed the suicide stairs, banging our shins against each step, as we ascended behind that very bookcase, finding empty rooms coated in yellowed wallpaper, and, in Anne's tiny bedroom space, pictures plastered on the walls ranging from magazine clippings to a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci. 

Otto, her father, refused to let the attic remain furnished after he returned to Amsterdam, discovering that his entire family had been killed in the concentration camps. My heart was especially touched by this, for I interpret this as his way of showing that this attic, with its cramped spaces, blackout shades, and lone stove used for two families in hiding, was no place to live. People should not have had to live in such conditions, and if the furniture remained, in my opinion, it could be seen as a nod that this kind of lifestyle was okay; on the contrary, living in hiding, worried if any creak of a footstep or glimmer from a lit candle in that attic is not an acceptable place to live.

As we left the house, humbly undistinguishable from any other by the outside, we needed to lift our spirits, so we walked around the nearby shopping district, passing by hundreds of bicycles. Amsterdam is known to have almost as many bicycles as inhabitants, and some were more unique than others, just as this metal homage to Heinz ketchup, which I really liked:

Ok, moving on!

The canal cruise was remarkable, touring all of the canals, built brick by brick, to create the city of Amsterdam by the Dutch. Many videos exist of such tours, and ours was particularly enjoyable, since we departed in late afternoon and arrived back in the early evening, which enabled us to see the city in the daytime as well as twilight, lit by hundreds of lights which lined the canals' tunnels, as well as decorated buildings, homes, and shops for the Holiday Season.

Not to mention the houseboats!

The third place, the Van Gogh Museum, was truly a marvel. Owned by the family of the widow of Theo, Vincent's beloved brother (and best friend), the museum's three floors depict the rise of inspirational movements that influenced Vincent's works of art along with his own massive collection. There is even a reproduction of his bedroom in Arles, constructed according to his depiction found in his paintings while he lived there. As a side note, there is much speculation about his death: many believe that he shot himself in a field, an early sufferer of bipolar disorder, yet new evidence suggests that he was accidentally shot by a pair of local troublemaking brothers. An article about this can be found here:

There were too many favorites for me to list them all here, ranging from one of my own favorite movements, the Opening of Japan, sometimes referred to as the Edo (Japanese for Tokyo) Japan movement, which brought to the world, especially France, the works of such great masters as Hokusai and Hiroshige, which Van Gogh often copied.  One example, displayed at the Museum, is a favorite woodcut of mine of Hiroshige's, entitled Flowering Plum Tree, which shows the original (right), and Van Gogh's copy (left): 

The works that came out of this tiny island, which remained uninvolved in world trade and influence for several centuries beforehand, not only inspired the likes of Van Gogh, but also my very favorite movement, Art Nouveau, along with my favorite artist, Alphonse Mucha.
One of my favorite Mucha works :)

With Amsterdam's high level of safety (a BIG deal for a bunch of girls, believe me!), its friendliness, and its rich history, Alyx, Julie, and I all left with the feeling that either we wanted to stay there for quite a while longer, or never leave. Either way, I am happy to have the Netherlands on my (slowly) growing list of countries I have been lucky enough to visit, as well as a new addition to places I want to go to see again. Dank je wel for such a memorable time, Amsterdam!

Happy Holidays from Julie, Alyx, and Me!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Holidays and Farewells in Paris

Greetings and Happy Holidays to you!!  I hope you are nice and snuggled in with a warm blanket, some hot chocolate--un chocolat chaud--and resting peacefully in front of the TV, maybe watching "It's A Wonderful Life".  Or "A Christmas Story", if that's your fancy :)  For myself, along with many of my friends, it is time to bid adieu to many of our classmates and friends we have made on this French journey together.  Whereas I will be staying until January, and some of my friends will be attending the second semester of university in Angers, staying a full year, others are either trying to go home to stay, or to visit until school starts up again.

I planned to join some of my friends, Jen and Ali, in Paris to squeeze out a few extra days with them before they leave for good, going back to their respective homes in New York and Texas.  Our friend, Alyx, joined us, who hails from Montana, but will be staying in Angers next semester.  Since this would be the last time we would all be able to hang out together, I weighed my money options and decided to ride the TGV (fast train, or La Train de Grande Vitesse) with them and crash with them until they caught their flights at Charles de Gaulle Airport.

Just a bit of friendly advice to those similarly poor students: when it comes to friends, you can sacrifice a lot (fast food, material items such as clothes, etc.) to save money on what you do, but who you spend time with is another investment altogether.  Friendship is very important to me, and I see it as a worthy long-term investment (as well as an opportunity to keep connected with possible future connections for networking, since we are all studying the same subject and therefore may cross paths in the business world from time to time), so this weekend, to me, was well worth the extra money I had saved for a short trip.  Plus, it was a real opportunity for me to see the Champs-Elysses during the Holidays, for the street wasn't decorated when my boyfriend, Gene, and I went there the first time!

Our trip started, after arriving to the Charles de Gaulle Airport's Train station, after we dropped off our things at the hotel.  If this were a simple weekend trip for all of us, we would have packed light enough to not need a special trip there at the beginning, but for Ali and Jen, they were going home.  "Going home" when you leave a place you've been staying at for the past four months not only entails packing up all you came there with, but also all you acquired while you were there--keep this in mind when you see clothes on sale, ladies!  I will talk more about my own checklist of what I went through to prepare for my own departure when the time comes, but for Ali and Jen, just like the usual student/tourist/fashionista, their bags were a melange of schoolbooks, clothes, French-y souvenirs for themselves as well as for family members, along with the standard clothes, shoes, makeup, and accessories.  You have to become a seasoned professional at packing by this point, because even if you're willing or have to spend the extra cash for those extra checked bags, you gotta find a way to fit four months of your life in them!

Alright, enough about luggage--onto the fun!

The girls and I met up with Jen and Ali's friends Aziz and So, who they met during their last trip to Paris.  Aziz and So come from Algeria, which was ruled over by France during the 1800's, and claimed independence in 1962.  Algerians have a very tumultuous and bloody history under French rule, and is a sore spot for many to talk about.  This, much like the roots of discrimination in our own history of the U.S., has continued to cause recent problems with prejudice.  But for Aziz and Sof, like many young Algerians, they are simply trying to create their own opportunities for themselves by studying in other countries, such as in France, in order to gain higher education.  Their courage to do this, many times all alone, is amazing and honorable, and makes me feel like such a wimp to think of being away from everyone and everything I know for a few meager months, compared to folks such as these two, who spend years, even decades, away from their family and friends back home.

I knew Aziz from a previous meeting, but this was the first time hanging out with So, who we met up with while waiting forEVER in the line to get to the Eiffel Tower.  It was cold and rainy, but the sun was out, and so our group ascended, enfin, to the second floor to see the views of Paris from above in between short spurts of freezing raindrops and wind.  After taking in the vastness of Paris from the second floor, we  tried to join in the line that (we mistakenly thought!) went up to the top.
We actually ended up standing in line for an hour before realizing it was not the line to the top.  Our frozen toes and noses game up after that to get some pizza.

During a conversation which switched continuously from French, to English, to Arabic, I happened to mention something, in English, about how I'll be talking about the huge lines in Paris to my friends and family when I get back to Asheville.  A man, standing in line with his wife and young daughter, then started talking to me in American English (once you study abroad, you'll be able to differentiate which English accents come from where!)--the conversation went something like this:

Man: "You said Asheville?"
Me: "Yes..."
Man: "Not Nashville???"
Me: "No...Asheville, North Carolina.  In the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Do you know it?"
Man, looking to wife and back at me: "Know it!?! We were born and raised there!"

--Let's take a break to factor in the aspect that even when I'm working at the restaurant in Asheville, most people I talk to are not from Asheville.  The majority of people, like myself, are called "Transplants", where we grew up somewhere else, and ended up in Asheville because of its tractor-beam-of-awesomeness.

Later on in the same conversation...
Man: "You say you go to UNCA?"
Me: "Yep-I'm a junior there now, but I work at *such and such restaurant* at night"
Man: "Oh, yeah!  You mean the one on Tunnel Road???"

That's it.  In all of my travels, and in my experience studying abroad, I have officially come to the conclusion that the world is the size of a peanut.  Better yet, it's the size of Mr. Peanut.  See demonstration below:
That's just the way the world works, people.

Before I start reminiscing so much that I cry (even more!), I think I'll leave you with a few pictures of our journey together, as tourists in the City of Lights, that we enjoyed together while collectively freezing off all of our metatarsals (that's archaeological speak for "toes").  Enjoy!

Eating out in Paris' Latin Quarter

Taken JUST before the moving sidewalk ended=Tourism FAIL!!!

We're taking over the Métro.  By force if necessary.
The Champs-Elysses at night during Holiday season!

My First Open-Air-Roasted-Chestnut Experience!
They didn't taste quite as awesome as I hoped...

You really can find everything you want on the Champs-Elysses...from breakdancers, to riot police, to a Cartier store!

Seeing off Jen and Ali (L) the next morning with Alyx and Aziz (R).  Bon retour!!!

Friday, December 16, 2011

"Have a Good Life"

I can't believe it--c'est impossible!!!  For many American students, it is already the end of the semester.  Unfortunately for us (or maybe it's just me), during the Fall semester, our time here in France is cut even shorter than if we would come in the Spring.  With the end of 2011 closing in faster and faster, many American students are given a choice before coming to Angers whether a) they will take their end-of-term finals at the beginning of December in order to go home early, or b) either fly home for a short stay during the Holidays or crash in Angers until the semester is officially over on January 31st, 2012.  I had to pick the former over the latter, since UNC-Asheville's Spring semester begins in January, and if I were to wait until the end of the semester in Angers, I would be set back another semester back in North Carolina.

Many students choose to take their finals of the CIDEF program, then bust out of France in a blaze of glory right afterward.  Considering the fact that I wanted, but financially couldn't, stay in Angers for an entire year, I planned ahead and didn't schedule my flight back until January 5th.  This does put me in France during the Holidays, but I figured I would find something French-y to do with my time while I am here.  Besides, how often can you say that you passed New Year's Eve in FRANCE???

After a gruelling week of Finals--for future Study Abroad-ers, make sure to point out that Studying Abroad is NOT a vacation if it involves an entire week of Finals in a foreign language!!!!--we were allowed to have a party day (which actually turned into two party days) during our last classes in our principal Language course.  By the way, the French like to make the torture of test-taking last as LONG AS POSSIBLE--they usually make the students wait until the END OF CLASS to take their tests (including exams).  Even worse, they sometimes schedule their exams and Finals on SATURDAYS!!!  What is that all about anyway!?!?!  Of course, means that much food needs to be involved in order to bring our spirits up from the French education system's way of beating our self confidence into the ground!

During the first afternoon, everyone brought in something that ended up being French.  In the U.S., when someone is having an end-of-semester party or picnic, usually this entails a bunch of strangely-flavored-potato-chip base with a hefty degree of soda (pop for you Northeners out there) and something super-sugary, like doughnuts or cookies or brownies or candy or all of the above.  Apparently, the French way of ending a semester is with a picnic of baguettes, cheese, madeleines, tarts, my own American twist of nacho chips and salsa, and even booze.

Yep, I totally said booze.
The next morning, we continued the party by bringing in leftovers (sans booze) from yesterday's original party, and in addition had breakfast pastries and instant espresso brought in by our teacher, Mr. Morin.  He even brought in an electric kettle for hot water!  This is obviously a theme for Europeans; I have seen an electric kettle in all of the homes I've been to in France, including my own host family's, as well as an elusive kettle in my own apartment, which I share with a Hungarian roommate, even though I have never seen him use it.  It must be the European version of a toaster, I guess--it's barely used, but you better have one in your house!

Mr. Morin also brought in his acoustic guitar and lyrics to some songs, which he played for us along with another classmate, Alexey (see boozed-up-student photo above).

Whereas the first day's celebrations (which was the last attended class by many) ended with many hugs and peace signs thrown at cameras, but the second day was somber and more bittersweet.  I met up for a quick goodbye and photo-op with my friend, Ross (who hails from Ohio as well) before he caught his plane back to the States that morning, and it dawned on me how, for many of us, it was already over.
You can tell how both of us were exhausted after the whilwind of the semester flew by!

Not only was French class over, but our French experience was coming to an end as well.  Although I understood why many of my classmates wanted to, or had to, return to their home countries so quickly after the end of the semester, I, in true three-year-old fashion, mentally kicked and screamed at the thought of returning.  It wasn't that I didn't want to come back to the States; it was that I didn't want the fun of the semester to end.  The fact that our time together, in that short burst of three months, was already over, broke my heart.  In a crash of Chinese, English, Korean, Russian, and (even) French languages, it was over.  The class was done.

Our teacher even pointed out to me how much he would also miss our class, our collective presence.  In so many words, Mr. Morin stated that he could tell at the beginning of the semester if a class will get along well or not, and I remembered his decade worth of teaching experience to reinforce his statement.  But our class, he said, was different.  Our class was special.  Rarely has he seen a class get along so well as a whole, bonding together in such a way that everyone can, and did, befriend each other.

And by "Special", Mr. Morin meant "Epic"!!  Le Cours de Français 313 :)

With this reflection still fresh in my mind, Mr. Morin put the last nail in the coffin of my memory of French Language Course 313 when our final class ended.  Putting his hand on my shoulder, he leaned in, and with a true use of French wit, he said frankly, "Staci, have a good life". 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Did I Mention How Much The French (And The British) Love Food?

In my training for things that dealt with interactions with people, whether it be in the context of Native Americans during my Archaeology schooling (just ask my classmates how much FCR—Fire-Cracked Rock—we dug up to prove how much folks used fire to cook and fire pots!), my classes in Psychology and Sociology, and even in my “Français des Affaires” (“Business French”) class, speaking about how to best interact with those from other countries and cultures in all matters, especially when it comes to eating together over discussions of business practices. The French have influenced people from all over the world in terms of food, whether it is from their language (Burger King's “Croissan'wich” had to come from somewhere), or their influence on food itself. Many great chefs travel from all over the world to learn from the best-of-the-best chefs at schools in Paris.

photo courtesy of

(Maybe the Cordon Bleu Culinary School can put a new spin on the Double Croissan'wich!)

Luckily for me, I got some good experiences with food right here in Angers.

Before I get into the drooling phase, thinking back at the awesome things I have eaten here in France (I mean, really McDonald's, you had to put a surprisingly awesome pastry shop in your restaurants???), let me make a few things clear about food, the French, and all over health.

Curse, you, MacDo!!!

I made a promise to myself that, for the only time in my life, I would eat anything that I would want to here in France. After losing 115 lbs, I felt that as a treat to myself, especially with my only opportunity to really immerse myself in French culture and language, I would eat what the French ate. Baguettes, buttery croissants, tarts for breakfast, cheese, wine, duck, sausages, jam, and pretty much anything else smeared with butter and grease meandered its way into my happy tummy—my happy tummy which grew! Don't get me wrong, I didn't eat like that every day, since sometimes I made my own meals. I walked everywhere—paying around $3 per ticket for the bus got to be too expensive for me to get from one end of town to the other, so my poor little red boots, and my poor legs, took the brunt of it. I am eating in “courses”, which are traditional in France. I even read French Women Don't Get Fat, by Mireille Guiliano, who explained the differences in eating styles between the French, who savor each bite and hardly ever eat processed, fast foods, and the Americans. But even though I am eating “healthy” food, save for the occasional macaroon and piece of licorice, I am still grossis.

Let me take the time to explain the difference between how Americans think the French eat everything made from cheese, butter, and wine, and still remain skinny. To show this example, I will use my host family, a pair of amazing cooks, to demonstrate.

Stereotype #1: The French Don't Exercise

This is the biggest stereotype I want to address. As I have said, I have walked all over Angers' green-and-concrete landscape, only to find that, contrary to what people have told me before leaving, my pants are just a little tighter than they were before I left. This has to do with two factors. One, the fact that I was already used to walking my legs off, working as a waitress part-time in the States. I wore a pedometer once, and measured walking between one and three miles for every weekday shift, and between five and seven miles every Friday, Saturday, or day-long Sunday shift. Doing all this, on top of running, biking, and weight lifting, all of which I gave up while here in France due to costly gym memberships, kept myself in check before I came to France.

Secondly, and most importantly, is the fact that the French do exercise, a BUNCH, but they don't think of it as exercise. Instead of hooking oneself onto a boring elliptical for hours on end, they play soccer, tennis, or, in my Language professor's case, extreme battles of Ping-Pong. Take, for example, my host mother, Marie-Anne. She “doesn't” exercise, but she gardens every day, swims three times a week, takes care of her grand kids once a week, where she plays with them all day long, and, for three hours every Friday, attends a rigorous Classical Line-Dancing class—in heels! I gotta say, for someone who hates to “exercise”, she sure does a lot of stuff!

Stereotype #2- The French Eat LOTS of Fatty, Buttery Food

This is partly true. Yes, the French eat their meals in courses. Yes, they eat baguettes daily. Yes, they drink wine at almost every meal. But they don't do this in excess. This was my mistake—I was not used to the “courses”, and so after eating the first round of potage, a pureed soup, with a bunch of bread, and the plat principal, or main dish, I would be full, with still more bread, a cheese dish, and a dessert dish to go! Pacing yourself is key. Also, the French tend not to eat much for breakfast, which is another reason why they splurge on lunch as their main meal, especially on Sundays, which often consists of oysters on the half-shell, comme ça:

Jean knows where to get the best food, and I profite bien!

Sunday Lunch is very important to the French, which is why all of the shopping places, as well as most grocery stores and restaurants, are closed this day. Eating with your family and spending time together is paramount to the French notion of family life, and so when big companies come in, such as Atoll, with ideas of huge shopping centers that could be open on Sundays, there is, of course, demonstrations arguing against them. 
Also noteworthy is the fact that oftentimes, the French will have just a little of each indulgence, such as a couple simple slices of cheese with some bread, one or two small glasses of wine, and if they have dessert (for many French have only the cheese or the dessert plate, not both), it is usually something simple, such as cooked apples with a bit of vanilla-flavored sugar—a favorite of mine in my host family's household. 

But most importantly, the French don't snack. Even though the word grignoter means “to snack”, many people traditionally don't do this. They have a bit of a breakfast, over a bowl of coffee (which I'm totally taking back in practice to the U.S.), and stick it out until they get good and hungry at lunch. They spend their sweet ol' time over rich meals, which they don't eat much of (I read somewhere that the average French woman only eats 1400 calories a day and French men only eat 1800 calories a day), and go on about their business until they have a light supper. My host family was kind enough to make their main meal of the day dinner, in order to fit in better with my school schedule. 
I mean, there really isn't any need to waste a good can of duck gizzards, right?
But, again, this all goes back to traditional ways of seeing food. Whereas in French restaurants, one doesn't usually have enough food to ask for a “doggie bag” at the end of one's multiple-course meal, we cram as much food as possible on one plate, and still have some left over. This is not to criticize the American way of serving food vs. the French way at all—this is just to note differences between the two. 
Luckily for me, French food was not all I have been able to experience here in France. Along with my host family's cuisine, I have also been kindly introduced to British fare, where I was served a traditional plate of Fish n' Chips, in a British restaurant, by a British chef, while visiting my host family's British friends. This consisted of a plate of a HUGE piece of fried cod, giant chips (aka “fries”), and even a side dish of “mushy peas”, which made me think of refried beans, but in pea form. 

Although I don't have a picture of this amazing British dish, when paired with the British atmosphere (there is an English-speaking, British “nook” of a town not far from Angers), along with our British friends Hilary and Peter, whose cooking I have also had the pleasure of eating when they invited my host family and me over for dinner one evening—including an amazing dessert (no matter what Hilary may say!), I felt even more embraced by other cultures, French and British alike. So even though I may be coming back to the States a little bigger than when I left, to me, the friendships and culture I have experienced while staying here in France, have all been worth it.
From left-Peter, Hilary, Marie-Anne, Jean, and moi.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Nantes is a Great Place to Wear Red Boots, Because it Always Rains!

Greetings from the tropical rainforest of...France?!?  Yep, that's right, apparently here in France, where it's warm enough to have banana trees, it, well, apparently rains almost every day.  Every.  Single.  Day.  But for me, that's just fine, as long as I don't have to drive through a foot of snow in order to get to class, I am just fine and dandy sporting my obviously American red boots and obviously American pink umbrella while trying my best not to smile and say "Bonjour" to everyone I pass, like an obviously American person would do. 
It's a lot of work for me not to smile at everyone, really.  I am loving my time here so much, even with the rain, as I now feel comfortable walking all around Angers, speaking with the local vendors and getting used to the layout of downtown (well, as much as I can-keep in mind my rant on how directionally challenged I am).  Heck, grocery shopping is a breeze now, compared to when I first got here, like I previously posted!
But this post takes me away from my beloved Angers, to the neighboring city of Nantes, for my medical exam.  For my readers who are thinking of traveling abroad, just remember that if you are staying for longer than three months (which I am passing that limit by a mere three weeks), you have to apply for a Visa before you leave the States, as well as get a medical exam in the closest city who has a government office.
So, packing a ton of paper in a bag, praying that it won't rain too much in Nantes, my red boots, my tiny pink umbrella and I boarded the train for a day trip to Nantes, homeplace of Jules Verne, author of Around the World in 80 Days, as well as the famous French bakery, LU (with whom I truly have a love-hate relationship--darn you, awesome LU cookies!), and something called "The Machines of the Island".
Although I found out that I could find all of these things here, I didn't find out until I just happened to pass my History of France teacher that I would also find one more thing prominently displayed in Nantes: rain.  I mean, a ton of rain.  Of course I bought my train tickets with the idea in mind to walk around town all day long, and find this out ten minutes before I boarded the TGV.
This picture would be a lot more awesome, if the rain didn't continuously fog up my camera!

But all was not lost, folks!  Nantes, plein d'eau (full of rain), turned out to be a wonderful trip.  Just outside the train station is a huge garden, complete with a large cage of exotic birds and a greenhouse.  The downtown area resembled Angers, complete with a Holiday marché, as well as an indoor shopping area called the Passage de Pommeraye.   

Stopping in a specialty chocolate shop, I bought myself a little treat, but ended up giving it to the children of a beggar woman taking shelter inside the Passage.  Honestly, that gave me more pleasure, seeing those kids' faces light up at the sight of chocolate for them after watching people going in and out of that particular store all day long, than I would have ever gotten eating it myself.  
Could you imagine looking at this everyday while you were hungry?

With a warmed heart, I stepped back out into the cold rain, and made my way to the medical office, stopping by a café for a quick espresso and--successfully!--asking for and receiving directions from a couple of locals inside.  Luckily, I happened to recognize a few other students from CIDEF who just happened to be at a sandwich shop down the street from the office, and we made our way together to our appointments. 
After two unsuccessful (not to mention cold!) attempts to take X-rays of my chest for inspection, I was finally ushered into the doctor's office with a fresh picture of my ribcage and lungs.  Glancing over my X-ray, the doctor told me everything looked A-OK (in French, bien sûr), and asked me what I thought of my French diet.  I told her that it was quite a change from my own back in the States, and explained that I felt a little out of it because I hadn't been able to exercise in France like I do back at home, where the gym on my college campus is free (as opposed to between 40 and 60 euros a month in Angers).  She told me that it was not a big deal to gain a bit of weight in order to enjoy French food, and I told her I wasn't worried about losing any weight I gained since I was successful in losing 115 lbs. (around 52 kg.) before coming to Angers. 
She looked at me incredulously and stated that I must have translated "50 kilos" incorrectly, and that I must have meant "5 kilos".  I told her that it was not a mis-translation, and she insisted again, in English this time "not fifty kilos?!?"  "Si, si!" I stated, and, laughing in disbelief, the doctor returned to her native French, joking that, in that case, a few pounds gained from French food was nothing to worry about, but that when I come back to the States, that I should eat like the French, keeping in mind how much the French eat (or don't eat, for that matter), even if I am eating like the French already now in meal times and course numbers, but eating those meals like an American, meaning eating as much as I want of the good-tasting stuff.
After I was finished with my exam, one of the other CIDEF students, Dan, and I joined forces and ended up spending the rest of the day together, walking around town in the rain, navigating the public transportation system (which I let her lead, having much more experience in her native China than I did between rural Ohio and Asheville, NC, where there is a public transportation system, but is nothing like in France), and ending our day together by visiting one of the most AWESOME places I've ever visited, the Museum of the Machines of the Island.  I heard that in this museum, situated on one of the tiny islands in the middle of the Loire River in Nantes, I could find "big animals made out of wood," but I couldn't have ever imagined that I would find such wonderous things here.  They were not just big animals, they were not just machines, they were true works of art.  The crown and glory of this museum is an animatronic representation of an elephant, which not only walks while people walk around inside it because it is so big, but also sprays water out of its moveable trunk while flapping its huge leather ears and blinking its glassy, lifelike eyes.  If I didn't know better, I would think that these things were real. 

These tourists had no idea that they would be asked to ride this thing!

Me + pink umbrella + red boots + standing in front of huge animatronic elephant =AMERICAN SMILE
My new friend, Dan, making our way along the (slippery!) jungle-gym-like tree in the front of the museum

In fact, maybe they are.
(And yes, that is me honking, after Dan exclaimed "Oh!"  Just so you know.)