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.

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