Monday, December 21, 2009

Back on Home Soil!

Monday, December 21, 2009 0
I'm currently camped out in Newark airport, waiting for my flight which leaves in 3 hours. The influences of France are still evident - I'm dressed in all black, munching on the last of my chocolate cookies from Carrefour (French supermarket), and I still blurt out "Pardon!" every time I accidentally get in someone's way, which is a frequent occurrence in an airport during the holidays

Since this morning when I was waiting in the check-in line at Charles de Gaulle, it's been too weird trying to re-adjust to American accents, tennis shoes, and conversations I can understand even when trying to ignore them. The sudden holiday rush of American-ness is simultaneously too familiar and strange after a 5-month hiatus. But also coming back is my sense of complete comfort and security with where I am. Like riding a bike, the nuances of our culture - which I now respect much more - are flooding in unconsciously.

Nonetheless I'm thankful that I get to acclimate over the holidays.

My exams seem ages ago now, yet I only finished on Wednesday. Thursday through Saturday Jonathan was here - it was the perfect ending to my European journey, though it was much harder to say farewell to him than to Nantes itself. The euphoria was soon over as Heidi and I caught the TGV to Paris Saturday night. We spent yesterday exploring the Christmas displays at the Galleries Lafayette and the Carnivalet museum, which chronicles the history of Paris.

As I'll be home in about 4 hours, I'll save the details to tell you all in person. Until then, I'm of to start reflecting on my journey over an overpriced airport sandwich.

Thanks for sharing this experience with me!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Engima of 16

Thursday, December 10, 2009 0
Yesterday morning I had my first exam, which I was sure would be my hardest: an oral explanation of a term from my Intro to Linguistics class at the university.

I was convinced it would be impossible to do well. There was way to much information to study. I had no idea what sort of knowledge level the professor was expecting, or how long she was expecting me to speak. And there was no way I'd be able to memorize 20+ definitions verbatim in French in the few days leading up to the exam.

Yet I received a 17/20... an A in the French system is a 16. In other words, an "impossible" grade. And all I had to do was repeat the important points of a certain theory we had gone over in class, along with some supplemental information. It barely took 5 minutes.

My host mom has gotten into the habit of teasing me each time I come home with an exceptional grade, simply because the first time it happened I was incredibly surprised. But I wasn't just being modest - it was a history mid-term, composed of several short-answer questions. And I knew I had forgotten several important details. Yet I received a 16.

As you all know, it's not that good grades are anything serendipitous for me. But with only a mid-term, perhaps a paper, and a final to evaluate my progress for the semester, it's been hard to determine if my work level measures up to the French education system, even at IES. There's no cushion to cultivate the learning curve.

With our system of more frequent, progressive evaluation, professors can really foster their students' learning, until the students themselves want to learn more about the topic than what's covered in class and form their own opinions on the subject.

I have noticed that I'm not as excited about my grades here. Perhaps because a 16/20 still leaves room for plenty of mistakes. But why is it that we shoot for perfection, while the French aim for a mysterious level showing a certain amount of knowledge? Are American exams easier? Do our professors expect more of us?

I'm still trying to figure it out. 3 exams to go!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Le Début de la Fin

Sunday, December 6, 2009 1
This is it - the final push.

The good news: I passed the DELF with flying colors, as difficult as it was and as sleep-deprived I was from waking up at 4:15 that morning to catch the train at 6.
My birthday was lovely, though quite calm for a 21st. After my class at the university, I spent the morning and much of the afternoon wandering around the center of town. The Christmas decorations have certainly given the city a new sense of life in the form of LED lights and garlands hanging from every balcony. Heidi and I had tea at La Cigale, the most reputable restaurant in Nantes. However I was in bed by 9pm thanks to that test.

But I'm certain I'll have plenty of chances to celebrate again once I return. ;)

Until then, I'm stuck with a week and a half of bad news: spending the majority of my waking moments studying for exams - two at the end of this week (naturally, the two hardest will be the week BEFORE our official exam week) and then three next week.

Thankfully I'll finish on Wednesday, which will give me some time to enjoy Nantes before we stuff our suitcases and take off for Paris on the high-speed TGV on Saturday evening.

In situations like this, reflecting on the passage of time proves nebulous; the way in which my senses feel so used to everything now makes me wonder how the time slipped past. And yet the summer day I arrived on Theresa's doorstep in Freiburg seems so far away.

How will I possibly be able to summarize the last 5 months in a few sentences when someone asks me about them? (Thanks to those of you that have kept up with my blog, and thus kept me from having to go through that painful process when I return home!)

With each significant trip I've taken, especially those in the past few years (India, London, Germany) I've been surprised at how what I've really taken from the places I've been doesn't actually occur to me until much later, when I'm in the middle of sharing a story from that trip with a friend or I suddenly discover a certain aspect of one place mirrored in another, halfway across the world. And it's then I realize how these places have shaped the person who I am in that moment, who I'm still discovering.

And so, in these final two weeks, what will I end up taking from my European experience? I guess that's a question that I won't properly be able to answer until much later in life. But I think all my reflecting in this blog has been a good start.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

From the Holiday Season to Exam Time

Tuesday, December 1, 2009 1
Thanksgiving was a beautiful evening as expected: dressed to the nines, our smiles got bigger as the night went on, thanks to a plentiful supply of red wine, cheerful conversation between family and friends, and merry entertainment from fellow IES students. (I even took part in singing Fly Me to the Moon with 3 others, acapella-style!)

Yet even though it was an evening to remember, it lacked that essential quality that defines Thanksgiving for me - family. I know I wasn't the only one who was especially homesick that evening. Indeed, it seems that even the French can't pull of a Thanksgiving feast like home: the turkey was dry and the "pumpkin pie" tasted much more like curry. But we appreciated the restaurant's efforts and reminded each other that in a month, we'd be even more thankful for a Christmas dinner at home.

Friday night I had the opportunity to attend a soccer game (or a football match, as they say in Europe), which seems to be a core part of European culture. Thanks to Theresa's friend Lutz back in Germany, I had a bit of an introduction to the sport, but this was my first live game.

I honestly don't understand why it's not more popular in the U.S. as it is just about everywhere else. The rules are easy to understand. The whistle doesn't blow every three seconds. And you can even see the player's faces!

Unexpectedly, when I told my host mom and brother during the week that I'd be going to the game, they looked at me in shock, or perhaps even horror, and then both burst out laughing. They then explained to me that in their household, they prefer rugby because it's a much more "intelligent" sport for gentlemen. My host mom did admit that the household is a little biased: her husband (who I haven't met because he's currently working in Morocco) has played rugby for many years.

So on Saturday night when the match between France and New Zealand ("the two best teams in the world" said my host mom) came on TV, they insisted I sit down and watch it with them. And I must admit that I enjoyed it, even though France lost. Imagine football with no pads or helmuts, few whistle interruptions, and no strange terms like a "down" to indicate that a team has actually moved horizontally. But it would never work in the states, not with all the blood and bruises on the players faces by the end of the game!

But alas, now it's December and the games are over.

As much as I love my birthday, for the past few years it's fallen at quite the inconvenient time: after all the Thanksgiving merriment, the coming of December reminds everyone that exams are not too far off, which causes the entire month to be consumed by massive cram sessions.

What's even worse is that Heidi and I have a double load. In addition to our five exams at the end of term, this Friday we have to take the DELF, a standardized French test which shows that we've reached a certain proficiency in the language. This test is actually even more salient than my exams, as the certificate is required for all Alma French majors.

It doesn't help that it's in Tours, and thus we have to take a train at 6 a.m. It will be a long day, but the upside is that we'll find out our results that same afternoon. If I do well, it will certainly give me more confidence for my exams, which start next week.

I'm trying not to think about the alternative.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Je suis reconnaissante de...

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 2
Yesterday I felt a sudden bout of homesickness, perhaps in part due to the unrelenting chain of Facebook statuses joyously celebrating the arrival of Thanksgiving Break.

And while I get to feast at a fancy restaurant tomorrow, at the moment home seems quite far away. I've been dealing with lots of little frustrations (though typical for any November). While attempting to use blog entry to get rid of them yesterday, I found myself making a "thankful" list to balance them out. How appropriate, eh?

To keep from putting a damper on the beginning of this holiday season, I think I'll leave the "negatives" until the end, when I do a retrospective on what I've learned.

In the meantime, here are some of the unexpected joys I've found in my time here.

Tuesday and Wednesday mornings:
My class covering the construction of the European Union. Ironically, it's the only one for which I'm not getting French credit, but rather that last Poli-Sci distributive I need as a liberal arts student. I'm really getting a grasp on European politics (though from a French perspective) from a professor that's lived through it all; he's probably near 80, incredibly patient with our lack of European knowledge, and with the driest sense of humor. He makes it a habit to note how the British always do things differently from everyone else.

Thursday afternoons:
Lunch with my host mom, as we both have classes only in the mornings. This means a full meal (compared to my cheap baguette-ham-camembert sandwiches) and a conversation that's guaranteed to be lively and educational. And I get to properly practice my French .

Thursday nights:
Agape, the non-denominational Christian international youth group. It's here more than anywhere else that I've discovered a real sense of community - it's too bad I didn't know about it sooner! Everyone is so welcoming and understanding, offering fellowship in a mix of French, English, and a handful of other languages. I even played the hand-drum one night with the worship group!I never expected to find such a warm Christian community in the middle of France and its infamous secularism.

Friday afternoons:
My salsa class at the university sports center (which I think I've neglected to mention until now). Even if my confidence is down after an off-day of speaking French, I know I can go to Salsa and perform the steps with ease, alongside Heidi and a few other IES friends. And because I attend regularly, dancing with an amalgamation of French and foreign students is less intimidating, as I can now recognize many of their faces.

AND I get to go to a soccer match on Friday night! Their version is bound to be more exciting than our version - I'm sure it will be quite the unique experience. Stay tuned!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Bonne Cuisine with the Host Family

Sunday, November 22, 2009 0
I guess it's a little bizarre that I've now spent 3 months in France, and I've only written a single entry about the wonderful meals I eat with my host family. And I was too worried about manners in the first one, anyway!

Gone are the days when I worry about taking too much food or taking too long to eat. I keep my hands on the table throughout the meal. I use my designated piece of baguette to scoop my salad onto the fork and mop up leftover sauce. And I eat fruit after every meal.

I haven't had a bad meal yet. Even though my host mom is a high school teacher and often returns home with little time to make dinner, she always manages to cook up something wonderful. "Complètes" (crêpes with ham, cheese, and an egg) are often a "quick meal," and we only eat pre-frozen food on rare occasions.

Weekend lunches are always guaranteed to be good. Yesterday we had raclettes, which are baked potatoes (sans skin) with thinly sliced meats and then melted cheese poured on top of them.

But this afternoon was probably the best yet - 2 hours later, I'm still stuffed. For an entrée, I finally had the chance to eat escargot - yup, SNAILS! My host mom told me to forget the fact that they're snails, but I was too busy analyzing the unique taste and texture in my mouth: rather chewy and loaded with butter and garlic. The hardest part was pulling them out of the little shells with the tiniest metal pick. But after eating the plate of 12, I was a pro.

And that was only the beginning. Our main course was a pasta with a bounty of of seafood - oysters, clams, and shrimp. Unfortunately for us, my host mother over-calculated the amount to make, and so even with extra-large servings there was plenty leftover. I'm not sure how we managed to eat the brownies she baked this morning, because after all that rich food we were all sitting at the table in silence until my host brother stood up and announced he was going to take a long nap.

Hopefully 3 days is enough to recuperate before our big Thanksgiving feast on Thursday evening. All the IES students, professors, staff, and host family members will celebrate together at a rather fancy restaurant. Stay tuned for more bonne cuisine!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Thursday, November 19, 2009 0
In the spirit of an exercise we'd do at Mitchell RA meetings last year, I present the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of this week...

Good - In wanting us to make the most out of our experience here, IES offered us free tickets to a play at the best theater in town, which I went to on Tuesday. You'd think that these free events would only be "cultural," but they don't stop there! Last night I went to a student night at a club. For free. I guess that's what living like a French student is all about...

Bad - One month to go, which means it's time to start studying for final exams AND the standardized French test I have to take as a requirement for my major at Alma. That means no more fun travel weekends, but rather hit-the-books weekends. Though I'm still planning on exploring Nantes a bit as well - after all, the Christmas market will start soon!

Ugly - Yesterday evening I realized that I'd lost my transport pass. This is an ID card that gets me student discounts on bus and tram fares each month, and I use it every day because I live 30 minutes out of town. One of those city responsibilities that I'm still not used to, apparently.

AND my Linguistics class at the university was canceled yesterday morning. Or rather, the professor didn't show up and so everyone got up and left after 15 minutes. It was extra frustrating because I only have that class one day a week and I'm still not sure what I've learned. I really miss the organization and quality of classes at Alma - but I suppose that's why my education isn't free.