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.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Lessons in Time Travel

Monday, November 16, 2009 0
On Friday, I took a flight over the ocean that took -25 minutes and my country count is now at 10.

In other words, I went to Guernsey this weekend, a little island in the English Channel that Jonathan calls home. (For those of you that haven't been keeping up since the beginning, Jonathan is my closest friend from my Germany program back in August.)

Some highlights:

I flew over in a plane with 5 people. Other than the pilot, I was the only person who bothered to put in earplugs (those being my iPod ear-buds) to lessen the mind-jarring whir of the propellers while I worked on my mental homework - memorizing a 14-line poem by Baudelaire.

I discovered an affinity for British humor, even if Alan Partridge reminds me a little of Larry David.

We were nearly blown off the (guardrail-free) cliffs by hurricane-force winds, but luckily my only battle wound was a splinter from purposefully falling into some bushes - standing was not an option at the moment.

I learned about the casual art of making loose-leaf tea, and still managed to spill the dried leaves everywhere.

We ate a 7-course dinner and couldn't name half of the dishes. I even resisted the urge to make wine glass harmonies and hang a spoon off my nose.

We visited the smallest chapel and the oldest postbox in the world.

I found out (again) that church in other countries isn't that much different from that which I'm used to, which made it all the more comforting and uplifting.

And I realized too quickly that a weekend was not enough time.

At least I have another month on this side of the pond.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Château Dreams

Wednesday, November 11, 2009 3
When I was little, I often dreamed of being a princess of some faraway land, living in a castle surrounded by a moat and an enchanted forest. I suppose that dream always seemed a little more distant because there is not a castle to be found in our young country. But a few centuries before the Pilgrims settled in humble log cabins near Plymouth Rock, the French elite were living it up in abodes like this...

It's weekends like this past one I'm reminded that I'm studying in the middle of European splendor. IES took us on a 2-day to not just one, but 5 castles in the Loire Valley, all dating back to the 1500's. They were still furnished with many of their original tapestries, furniture, art, and other luxuries. And the first one we visited still houses the royal descendants to this day!

There were moments from this weekend that felt strangely surreal: crossing a footbridge to enter in the shadow of a dozen stone towers, wandering through trees under sunlight that makes everything feel enchanted, or stumbling upon the grave of Leonardo da Vinci in a little chapel near an edifice where kings once lived.

(But in reality, not all was perfect like a fairytale. Castles have no insulation, and so I wore my coat constantly the whole weekend. Putting 63 American students together in 2 buses inevitably crumbles into the vast majority speaking English. And needless to say, our late return Sunday evening resulted in little homework getting accomplished!)

Nevertheless, it was quite a pleasant weekend full of history, jokes, and even Heidi's birthday. Oh, and a rainbow appeared just before the buses pulled out of the final parking lot for the 3-hour drive home!

Just another weekend in France.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Trois bonnes choses!

Friday, November 6, 2009 1
I couldn't go to bed without sharing a few good things that have happened quite recently, or are fast approaching...

1. I finally made some French friends outside the context of IES! I'd been so discouraged with the fact that French groups of friends are impossible to penetrate at the university, in part because they have the same friends from childhood through college and don't change locations frequently like we do.
But this evening Heidi brought me to Agape, which is a non-denominational Christian fellowship group for young people. (A friend from IES invited her just last week). It was exactly what I've been craving, especially after the wonderful evening at Katie's church in Rome. Perhaps part of the reason I loved it so much was the warm familiarity - all these smiling faces, translated worship songs, and mutual beliefs to share in two languages. And in fact, the group is quite a mix; along with French students from Nantes, there are certain international students and even a few Americans who are now living here for various reasons. Heidi and I even spontaneously volunteered to help with the music next week... playing the congos and singing in French shouldn't be too hard, right?

2. I miraculously received at 16/20 (or an A in the bizarre French grading system) on my poli sci midterm that I was convinced I failed last week. And I'm still not sure how it happened, because apparently our professor wasn't as generous with everyone. Though when I told my mère d'acceuil the good news she laughed, said she knew I'd do well, and told me that I'm just one of those people that's never satisfied... just like her oldest daughter who's studying law in Paris. Nevertheless, I'll be putting even more study time in for the final in December, now that I know what to expect.

3. IES is taking us to visit castles this weekend! And Heidi's birthday is on Sunday! Stay tuned for photos...

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Roman Holiday

Tuesday, November 3, 2009 4
And now, for something completely different - ROME!

What a weekend. The magnificence of the world's greatest empire still shines in every part of it, from ancient unearthed columns to well-preserved monuments still in use today. Taking a lesson from my previous blog entries, I'll try to keep from mentioning every detail... but we did do an impressive amount of sightseeing in only 3 days!

Jenny, Heidi and I arrived in Rome late Thursday night after taking a train, the Paris metro, another train, a bus, a plane, and another bus - in other words, the good part of a day. Nevertheless, we pulled ourselves out of bed a few hours later to visit the Vatican, which would be less crowded on a Friday morning as opposed to the weekend.

As you can see in the photo, St. Peter's Basilica was incredible. When you walk in the doors you're immediately aware that you're standing in the largest cathedral in the world. And if you climb the 323 steps to the top of the cupola (like we did) you'll find the best view in all of Rome.

Not to mention a good view of the line in which you COULD have been standing if you'd arrived just an hour later after the basilica opened. In the picture below, it's the uneven curve around the basilisk in St. Peter's Square. One we saw this, our sleep-deprivation suddenly didn't seem so bad!

After eating some paninis and gelato (and noticing that even food in Rome is cheaper than in Nantes), we were ready to tackle the 4 miles that make up the Vatican Museums, including the Sistine Chapel, home to Michalangelo's ceiling masterpiece. Perhaps they put it at the end of the tour route on purpose, so that you're not tempted to skip the Egyptian, Greek, and Renaissance sections? Nevertheless, I was a little aesthetically and historically overwhelmed, but in the most pleasing way possible. Even in the Sistine Chapel, which was smaller, darker, and more crowded than I'd imagined, it was incredible to sit under one of the world's greatest works of art and take in all of its beauty.

It was so wonderful and relaxing to stay with Katie in her apartment! We didn't have to worry about paying for a hostel in a potentially shady area, far from everything, and with unseen complications (such as the fiasco in Normandy!). We could return whenever we pleased, relax our feet, eat some pasta, and freshen up before heading into the city once more. Not to mention the joy of seeing a good friend in a new place, and one who knew the ins and outs of such a grand place!

In fact, that very evening, Katie took us to one of her favorite places in Rome, a secret that we never would have discovered otherwise - an intimate classical concert in a cathedral, for only 5 euros! By far the youngest listeners in the room, we basked in the presence of a violin, a cello, and a piano playing Shostakovich and Ravel - two of my favorite composers. And we even got a free glass of wine afterwords at a nearby restaurant just by showing our tickets. This was when I fell in love with Rome.

On Saturday we visited all the sites that required tickets, as the next day was All Saint's Day, meaning that everything would be closed. This included the Colosseum (think Gladiator or Ben Hur), the central ruins of ancient Rome, and the Pantheon - once a temple for Greek deities and then converted into a Christian church, still active 1,400 years later!

We slept in on Sunday to recover from our two previous early mornings and staying out rather late the night before - it was Halloween, after all! But we made sure that we made it out in time to catch the tail end of a flea market right down the street. There were endless booths of pashmina scarves, piles of old clothes, sketchy electronics, cheap jewelry, fake designer purses, and random antiques, altogether amusing and fascinating at the same time. I was reminded of the time I visited a market like this in Berlin with Theresa last spring. I love the feeling of walking in between vendors selling all sorts of things, locals mixing with tourists - it's a true European garage sale.

Katie invited us to come to church with her that evening, because she would be singing in the choir. It's a Catholic church which does services in English and happens to be the religious center for a lively Filipino community, with an Irish priest. Even though I didn't know many of the hymns or the Catholic rituals, I was impacted by how familiar it felt to worship there among Christians from completely different backgrounds as myself. The adorable Filipino women were incredibly welcoming, even serving us a traditional (and scrumptious) meal before the service.

The two main sites left on our list, the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain, were both conveniently located relatively near Katie's church. The Steps in themselves don't hold as much historical significance as the Vatican or the ruins of ancient Rome. However, they were certainly the best place to see today's Rome: the locals from all walks of life mixing with tourists from all over the world, coming together in a colorful spectacle for people-watching.

Similarly, the Trevi fountain was swarming with visitors, though the twilight roar and camera flashes from the crowd didn't detract from the fountain's glory in any way. Joining the tourists at the fountain's rim, we turned our backs from its splendor only to toss coins over our shoulders.

As the legend goes, throwing a coin in the fountain guarantees a return trip to Rome. And while I have no idea what adventures lie ahead for me, I do know that even with another visit, I could never get enough of the artistry, the history, and the magic of Rome.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Music, Machines, and a Much-Needed Break

Thursday, October 29, 2009 0
It's finally here! The halfway point in our semester, marked by a few days off for vacation. But as with most good things, the reward of sleeping in this morning didn't come without the toil of studying for mid-terms (blitz-krieg style) and cranking out French compositions.

In addition, my host mom's father and stepmother have come to visit this week - French schools have a week off for All Saint's Day. Thus, everything takes a little longer: every time I'd arrive home I'd get pulled into an hour-long conversation, and dinner becomes more of a traditional affair with more courses and more intense conversation! At least I get to practice my French in explaining that not all Americans eat at McDonald's and giving geography lessons about the Great Lakes (with my hand as a visual aid, of course).

Tonight I'm flying to Rome with Heidi and Jenny, another IES friend, and yet we've barely planned our trip, because we were all hit by the mid-term wave. Thankfully, our 2-hour train trip to Paris and our flight should give us enough time to look thoroughly at the various travel books we've amassed from our host families and the IES library. We'll also be meeting up with Katie Crombie, an Alma friend who's studying abroad in Rome. Besides my gratitude in having a safe, free bed to sleep in, it will be a blessing to spend our time with a good friend who's already familiar with the city - especially as we only have 3 days to explore it! It will undoubtedly be a little alarming switching to a different culture, and for the first time, one with a language that I won't know - though Italian shares Latin roots with French, so it won't be totally new.

I was also rather occupied at the end of last week because I went to the Phoenix concert on Thursday night, and then visited the Isle of Nantes on Friday afternoon with a large group from IES.

The concert was naturally fantastic, especially because all the French teenagers were really into the music. They were dancing and singing along - which is incredibly rare for the French - with accents at all. For the inevitable encore, the concert hall was filled with cheers of "PHAY-NEEX!" Thea and I even squeezed our way right up to the front, though admittedly it takes a certain type of concert-goer to appreciate the energy sardine-packed into a sweaty crowd, all swaying to the beat in unison.

Then on Friday we visited Nantes' unique attraction, the Isle of Machines. Inspired by the science-fiction novelist Jules Verne (born in Nantes and wrote books such as Journey to the Center of the Earth), a few years ago some creative engineer/businessmen came up with the idea to create a sort of theme park with animal "machines." Most of them are motorized sea creatures aided by a few passengers to move the fins, eyes, and mouth. There's also an elephant that walks around outside! They have plans to make the island an even bigger attraction by 2016, with the construction of more machines, a carousel-structure for them all, and a huge tree with lookout branches and cafés.

It's really exciting to see how Nantes is developing. I won't be surprised if it's a lot more prominent in a decade or so!

Friday, October 23, 2009

An Epic Weekend in Normandy: Part 3

Friday, October 23, 2009 1
Thanks to the rush of studying for midterms and last-minute trip preparations last week, as well as the verbosity of my first two entries, I have to compact the final leg of my Normandy trip into photos. I've added one from each site we visited on the tour.

And in fact, most of what I would tell you would be recounting the history I learned on my tour anyway, so if you're curious about any of the sites, feel free to do some independent learning about WWII.

Part 3: An abbreviated virtual tour of the D-Day sites

Gold Beach, where British forces landed.

Longues-sur-Mer, the site of 4 HUGE German guns which were partially destroyed by British forces

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

Sculpture at Omaha Beach (where the Americans landed) celebrating the 60th anniversary of the landings

German bunker at Pointe du Hoc Ranger Memorial, a site heavily bombed by U.S. forces. There's even craters left all over the site where the bombs were dropped!

While the sense is truncated by my few photos, the tour was incredibly worthwhile, and I think it's something that every American should do if he or she has the opportunity. I learned a great deal about this important period in our history, and it also supplemented what I've been learning in my political science class concerning the construction of the EU, not to mention my understanding of American-European relations. While one of the most popular stereotypes of the French is that they hate Americans, as for Normandy, the sincere appreciation for our participation in the war is still quite evident many decades later. Where else can one walk by countless restaurants advertising "Welcome, Liberateurs!" with American flags waving side-by-side with those of France and the EU?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

An Epic Weekend in Normandy: Part 2

Wednesday, October 21, 2009 0
After our overly-eventful morning, I was more than ready to do some actual sight-seeing. The Bayeux Tapestry Museum is conveniently located in the center of town, with signs pointing to it from all directions - in other words, something we could finally achieve without difficulty!

And all the signs were making me a little giddy. I learned about the history behind the tapestry during my Spring Term in London this past May - we even visited the battlefield where William the Conqueror's beat the Saxons for the English crown. Besides, wouldn't you be excited to see something that's over 900 years old?

Needless to say, I was enraptured by it, even trapped in a walking conveyor belt of tourists with an audioguide pressed to my ear. In fact, the tapestry was even longer and larger than I thought, with numerous intricate details. I think I went into art museum-mode, because as with the florescent Monets in Paris, it was a little painful to pull myself away - I could have easily studied it for hours!

Instead, I bought a mini-version which folds out like a map. But of course, it's not quite the same!

Heidi and I spent the latter half of the afternoon in another museum which presented practically anything one would want to know about the Battle of Normandy. We definitely didn't read every display, but overall it was an educational introduction for our tour the next morning.

Though I'm not sure how much my memory retained thanks to the minimal amount of sleep I got that night. It just so happened that the granddaughter of the woman running the hostel in town was having her 18th birthday party at the house we were sleeping. The woman did mention that to us before we left, but assured us that there wouldn't be many people and we would be fine sleeping in a back room. At that point, it was a side-note easily forgotten in our hunger and exhaustion.

But of course, that night we returned to this huge house crawling with teenagers: squeezed onto benches with drinks in hand, clumped randomly at the edges of the main room while the DJ plays outdated hits, and even hiding in random corners upstairs with purposes all too obvious. Heidi and I rushed past them all with our eyes focused on the path leading to our room - only to be greeted by rows of truncated bunk-beds and Disney characters when we finally got inside. Though we were the only (official) guests there at the time, in the summer the place houses school groups, presumably studying WWII or the Tapestry. And so we had the pleasure of sleeping with cartoons watching us.

At that point, we were just thankful to have beds to sleep in. We had a few ignorant visitors who announced their entrance by illuminating all the lights before one of us stumbled out of bed and mumbled something to them in French. And I swear the DJ kept turning up the volume all night. Ironically, it was pleasant to wake up in the morning simply because it was finally silent.

If only we'd had a moment to have enjoyed it! We were a little rushed in the morning because we'd assumed we'd have to make the long trudge back into town to catch our tour at 8:30. However, I quickly noticed that quite a large spread of breakfast food seemed to have been left behind from the party - I didn't feel an ounce of guilt taking some bread and oranges or making tea to subside my morning caffeine fix. Besides, we were originally supposed to get free breakfast with the other hostel, but seeing how everything else had played out so far, we weren't expecting anything.

And so when a mustachioed Frenchman strolled into the dining room and said "Petit déjeuner?" right as I was pulling my tea out of the microwave, I assumed he was asking me if I was having it presently. I absent-mindedly replied "oui" and then he disappeared. As Heidi and I sat down for a second to eat an orange, it didn't take long to realize that he was in the kitchen, making us breakfast... and we needed to leave in 5 minutes. But it was impossible to refuse the plates of cheeses and meats, the baskets of warm bread and croissants, or the huge jars of jelly, honey, and Nutella. And as I'm sure you can imagine, once we explained our situation, he assured us that we would be given a ride by his colleague - who unexpectedly turned out to be a notably tall, rosy-cheeked British professor. For me, hearing British humor at that hour made everything better.

On our ride into town, he offered his heartfelt apologies and finally uncovered all the shady business we encountered the day before with the other hostel - the old woman is actually embezzling funds from the association, and they're in this big legal war far too complicated for me to understand.

The moral of the story: be prepared for an adventure when you're staying in the cheapest (and in this case, the only) hostel in a European town! But I'm glad to say that Heidi and I survived.

With that debacle behind us, we looked ahead to the war-torn beaches of Normandy.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

An Epic Weekend in Normandy: Part 1

Tuesday, October 20, 2009 1
This past weekend, Heidi and I voyaged to the northern city of Bayeux with two goals in mind:

1. See the Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidery which commemorates William the Conqueror's victory at the Battle of Hastings - over 900 years ago!

2. Visit some of the D-Day Beaches, museums, and the American Cemetery

With help from my Lonely Planet France guide, it didn't seem too difficult to plan. We booked the first train leaving Saturday morning and the last returning Sunday night. I called the youth hostel during the week to make a reservation. I checked what times the museums were open, and that there were buses heading right to the beaches. Everything seemed to be set.

But what an adventure it turned out to be. (Prepare yourself for several installments... I wasn't sure what could be left out without taking away the rollercoaster effect!)

Part 1: Initial Difficulties

Our very first train was 10 minutes late. If it had been our only train that day, this wouldn't have posed a problem. But since we had two changes to make, this small delay meant that we would only have a minute to get to our next train. And if we missed that, it would mean a mess of re-scheduling, waiting, and losing time.

But luck was on our side. When we jumped out of our train, we quickly realized that our next train was just on the other side of the platform. We literally stepped on just before the doors closed and we took off.

A few hours later we arrived in Bayeux. The town looked grey and sleepy, with only the cathedral's steeple piercing the the overcast sky. But as we followed the road into town, we were greeted by several cheerful looking houses, then a series of American and European flags dancing over hotel entrances, and finally an over-friendly French man ( which is not an oxymoron!) who made sure we knew exactly where we were going - he gave us directions to the hostel three times, and even followed us for a block or two, as though expecting we'd go in the wrong direction!

We couldn't wait to get to the hostel so that we could put down our overloaded backpacks and freshen up after the early start. But as we were walking up to the hostel, a younger man crossing from the other side of the street looked over at us and said "On est complet." In other words, "We're full."

To say the least, I was a little flabbergasted. I immediately retorted by telling him that I had made a reservation this week and that he must be mistaken, but he just kept shaking his head as we followed him inside. Already my mind was racing to alternatives, but in fact there were few. This was the only hostel in town, with rooms at 20 euro; all the other hotel rooms in Bayeux started around 45 euro. Thus, we didn't really have a choice.

Once inside, it seemed as though a tiny part of the wall opened up and we were looking into the messiest office I've ever seen and two wide-eyed wrinkled faces. I again insisted that I had made a reservation, but the woman laughed at the word as though I had told her my father was Nicolas Sarkozy. After some negotiating on their part, the younger man took us up to a room which in fact turned out to be occupied. When it was clear that the hostel was indeed complet (as far as we could tell, anyway), we were ushered back into the messy office for their attempts to ameliorate the situation. Apparently the hostel had other houses at the edge of town where school groups go to stay, and they insisted that there would certainly be rooms there. They also insisted that it would not be far to walk, and that someone would be there to greet us.

This was feeling more and more like some cruel joke. We walked for about half an hour with nothing to please our empty stomachs but a dwindling supply of cookies. And then the place was deserted, and all the doors were locked.

We actually found out the next morning that there's something of a legal war going on between the people that run these "Sablons" and the woman and the hostel in town (followed by her lawyer, the other person present when we arrived, at all times). We called a number posted on the door and were assured that someone would arrive soon - then right after I hung up, a car pulled up and out stepped this same woman and her lawyer, who eventually got us keys, showed us a room, and drove us back into town. It was the least they could do. But we were happy to have that affair over with for the moment.

After finding the hostel, the next item on the agenda was to locate the tourism office, in order to find out the times for buses heading to the D-Day beaches the next day. Not wanting to waste any more time, I went up to the desk and asked about the buses, only to find out that there weren't even any buses running on Sunday (contrary to what my travel book had listed). And while there were private tours leaving in the morning, it was unlikely that there would be spots left on any of them.

I was crushed. If we had come all this way and we couldn't even get to the beaches, what then? With a list of tour companies in hand, I started calling them one by one. And miraculously, the LAST company I called had spots after all! I think I was a little too overjoyed on the phone, because right after I was given an affirmative response, all these words came out at once to express my relief, explaining that we were two American students only there for the weekend and all the other companies had been booked. The man from the phone even remembered me when I paid for the tour the next day - Ah, the American girl! - but he did tell me that my French was very impressive. If only my grammar teacher had been there to hear him!

We found our way there , we found a place to sleep, and we found a way to the beaches. It was finally time to see the first site on our list - the Bayeux Tapestry!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Lessons in Grammar, Knitting, and "Economiser"

Thursday, October 15, 2009 0
Accomplishing several things in a single day has revitalized me. Perhaps this is the beginning of my true "adjusting and adapting" according to the W? You can decide. Here's a list, in chronological order.

1. Last night (okay, so I meant the last 24 hours) I managed to find tickets for the Phoenix concert next week in Nantes. I had thought it was sold out, but it's been moved it to a bigger venue so that more people could attend! Their new album came out this spring and it's fantastic, AND the band is actually French. What better than to see them in their home country, speaking to the crowd in their mother tongue. I can't wait.

2. My only class today was Intro to Linguistics, at the university, which I have with two other girls from IES. With a letter from the IES Nantes director in hand, we were finally able to approach our professor and introduce ourselves (usually she's hounded by several students for questions at the end, and so we hadn't wanted to take up her time just to say "we're American"). The letter explains that we're leaving in December and thus we require a separate exam - in our short conversation it seems like the exam might be even easier for us!

3. I found a fantastic grammar book at my favorite Librarie (which is actually a French term for a bookstore). I must have looked at every French grammar book in the store, but when I leafed through the one I ended up buying I knew it was perfect. I'd try to explain, but if you know nothing about French subjunctive tense I might as well write in French! But basically, French grammar and all its tricky nuances will no longer be my enemy!

4. Every conversation I have with my mère d'acceuil (host mother) gets more and more interesting. We eat lunch together on Thursdays because we both have free afternoons. These conversations often turn to cultural differences; last night we discussed holiday customs, and today we talked about the contrast in societal philosophies towards education and jobs. These conversations are always quite fulfilling, not only because I get to practice my French with a sophisticated, friendly French woman, but also because I often re-discover many things about our society that I've taken for granted.

5. Heidi and I finally bought train tickets for our trip to Normandy this weekend... as well as our train tickets for Paris in December, which only cost 22 euro each! As the French would say, nous avons économisé - they have a single verb for saving money. We hadn't planned on buying our Paris tickets this early, but just before I was out the door to meet Heidi in town, my host mother told me that prices for Paris can get ridiculous if one waits too long, and in fact they'd just become available yesterday. And indeed, a one-way ticket to Paris, especially around Christmas time, can cost over 100 euro. Which is $150. (Thank you, exchange rate!)

6. We went to H&M after buying the tickets, just because it's always fun to try on clothes even without buying any. But this was by far the highlight of our shopping adventure. Quite randomly (especially in France where strangers never talk to each other), an elegant elderly woman, wearing a bright blue knitted sweater, came up to us and asked us if we were English or German. We proceeded to have the most pleasant conversation with her (in French of course). She told us about her simple life that she loves, how her granddaughter is just like us, how her half-sister never calls her, how she loves to knit (and had knitted a sweater like the one she was wearing in every color), and how she had returned to the store to thank an employee that had helped her over a month ago when she had a fall there. While we didn't understand parts of what she said, or why she had chosen to talk to us, it's needless to say we felt blessed to have made her acquaintance.

I'm looking forward to more days like this.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

La Plongée.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009 2
And now, we come to the point in the journey called "The Plunge."

A little while ago, my friend Thea posted this graph on her blog (see "Exit to Right" on my blog list below). Fondly called "the W," it shows how mood swings generally go during a study abroad experience.

From my last entry, it was probably clear that the dust has settled - yes, I'm studying in France, but at the moment it feels like the emphasis is more on the verb than the location. And in fact I'm finding the most difficulties not with the cultural differences or missing home, but with French itself.

And above all, it's my grammar class. While our professor is harsh, from the beginning of the semester it seemed that I'd come out of the class at the end of the semester having greatly improved, thanks to an exponential learning curve (Alma Model UNers know this concept quite well). So why do I feel like my French is getting worse, that I'm making more errors, and then in turn constantly dealing with a timidness to speak complicated sentences?

We had our first of two midterms today, and I have no idea how well I did. I'm definitely not used to this feeling, especially after studying much longer than I have for exams in the past.
And of course, all this doubt (at least for me) leads to thoughts toward the future involving internships, grad schools, careers, success... ugh.

But then I talk to my fellow students and hear my own thoughts and worries in their words. We're all in the plunge. So what can one do but kick off from the bottom to spring back up to the surface?

And so, I'm plugging away, searching for that glimmer of improvement on the horizon.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Adjustement Amnesia

Thursday, October 8, 2009 1
There are moments when I forget I'm in France.

Not literally, of course, as I'm surrounded by people speaking French, shop signs in French, tram stops announced in French, and all the little cultural differences, such as the abundance of fresh bread everywhere I go.

But when friends back home ask me if I'm having "the time of my life" every day, it's not an easy question to answer. The France in which I've been studying for over a month now is more than the Eiffel Tower, Impressionist landscapes, or Mediterranean beaches. In other words, it's not simply a vacation. I'm taking classes about French language, poetry, translation, European history, and linguistics - but you could also say that this entire experience is a "class" in itself. Living in Nantes has blessed me with a near-perfect balance: a big city which still preserves the true French way of life.

And day-to-day, nothing is perfect. Even just lately I've been dealing with certain frustrations that are probably universal to a study abroad experience such as:

- Realizing I'm not at all at the top of my league, and that I have a long way to go.

- Missing out on being a part of certain groups of friends at the institute simply because they never speak French. Even when one tries to be diplomatic about it.

- Kicking myself when I want to speak English, especially when I'm tired, frustrated, hungry, or a dreadful combination of the three. But I'm thankful for friends who are just as determined to speak French as I want to be, who keep me on track.

- Occasional awkwardness with my host family when I'm not sure what to talk about, whether or not I should say something at dinner, how I should go about eating something, whether I should open or close the door to my room, etc.

- A love-hate relationship with being corrected - I know that each correction helps me improve my speaking skills, but each one is also a reminder of how often I seem to make thoughtless mistakes and how far I am from being fluent.

Adjustment is a strange thing. In some ways, habituation is almost an unconscious process - such as "forgetting" that I'm studying in one of the most beautiful countries in the world because I've grown used to waking up in it each day. On the other hand, it's quite uncomfortable - there's this constant inkling of self-consciousness, feeling out of place, and the pressure to improve as much as I can while I'm here.

But I'm definitely still enjoying myself. Like Nantes, it's been a good balance of cultural enjoyment and hard work. And I have no doubt that it's going to pay off.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

10 Hours in Rennes

Sunday, October 4, 2009 2
One of the things I love most about Europe is the relative closeness of everything - narrow streets, dense towns, and countries not much larger than our states. And the facility of train travel only adds to the wonder of this proximity.

Around Tuesday, Jake and I spontaneously decided to visit the city of Rennes on Saturday. It's the closest city to Nantes (just an hour and a half by train), and it also happens to be the capital of the region called Bretagne - known as Brittany to anglophones. It's somewhat like the Quebec of France, but with a Celtic influence. Many people still speak Breton (a dialect similar to Celtic) and for hundreds of years, the French monarchy allowed the dukes of the region to have their own separate Parlement before they later merged with France.

In true tourist spirit, we booked the first and last trains of the day to make the most of our visit. This meant leaving at 6:41am in order to arrive in Rennes at 8:30am. (It sounds a little crazy, but the next train wouldn't have arrived until noon.) This also meant that our first train was a "sleeper train" - stepping into a dark cabin resounding with snores from the reclined seats, we repressed giggles in our state of half-awake giddiness.

However, the brief jolt of amusement wore off by the time we stumbled out of the station, into the grey, cold morning and empty streets with little idea of what to do, other than the names of a few museums I'd copied from my tour book the night before and some very basic directions - "Uh, I think we just go down this one main street and turn left after a while... and then everything's somewhere in there..."
And so, with ambiguity and spontaneity in tow, we were off to discover Rennes.

But with all its charm and history, Rennes made it easy for us. In a few short blocks we found ourselves along a pictoresque canal lined with flower baskets. Then, just over a footbridge, we nearly tripped over the sudden cobblestones while admiring the anachronistic mixture of buildings - intricate ironwork, lopsided wood structuring, and even some modern-fill ins, all in a bright color palette to distract one from the cloudy weather.

Venturing further into the old part of the city, our senses were suddenly overwhelmed by the jumble of colors, odors, and voices coming from the city market. And don't let this picture deceive you! We wandered through several streets and even two small warehouses full of vendors selling all sorts of delectable wares: vegetables, fruits, cheese, breads, meats, and seafood (including live lobsters and shrimp climbing all over each other). To us it seemed like such a novelty, but in fact it's the time-tested French alternative to the supermarket, every Saturday morning.

Needless to say, we left the market feeling pretty hungry after that overload of fresh delicious scents. And even though we do eat crêpes quite often on our nights out in Nantes, it was necessary to eat them in capital of the region where they originated. We even had a pleasant conversation with a young waiter who was interested in the States, and wanted some company in the then-empty restaurant. I love having conversations with the French when they're sincerely intrigued by our culture - I always gain a new perspective on our country and a little more confidence in my French skills.

After touring the art museum (which didn't take long because just a small section was open at the moment), we joined a group of French tourists at the information center for a private visit to the Parlement building. Because it's still used today as a court of appeals, there are only one or two tours a day at varying times, and so we were lucky to have found this one! Even though its purpose isn't nearly as important as it once was, it's clear that the Breton people take pride in the meaning and history of this building. Many restorations have been done to retain the original grandeur of the interior, including several gorgeous paintings from the 18th century, gold detailing on the ceilings, and various wood sculptures. It was quite the history lesson - altogether interesting, but by the end our early morning start was catching up on Jake and I.

But we couldn't have planned it better - right after the tour we wandered back through town (now nearly as familiar as if we'd been studying there for a month, too) just in time for the arrival of our train back to Nantes.

Not bad for 10 hours and a 20-euro ticket!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Trip to Mont St.Michel

Wednesday, September 30, 2009 0
On Saturday, IES took all 91 of us to Mont St. Michel, which is probably the second most-recognized French monument after the Eiffel Tower. And as with most iconic sites - I experienced the same with the Taj Mahal - amateur photos don't do them justice.

Not to mention the fact that we only have 1 1/2 hours to see everything, solely for the reason that the food there was expensive. (I would gladly have paid 6 euro for a sandwich if it meant a few more hours there, but I could spend a whole entry on this frustration.) That time itself was truncated in navigating the touristy-pseudo town of gift shops at the bottom, squeezing past tourist groups of all nationalities while climbing up to the main entrance to the historic part, and then following a labyrinthine path of signs through the various parts of the site.

It's one of those places that started small, but grew more impressive with each addition (excluding the parking lot). And in spite of our limited time, it was still a breathtaking morning. I'll let my pictures explain for themselves:

The first breath of fresh air above the sea of tourists.

As you can see, the weather was perfect, as was the morning light shining through the cathedral windows.

My friend Jake and I at the top (even though it looks as if we're superimposed into a Romantic landscape painting!)

Taken with a little regret on the way down, wishing I was still at the top...

We spent lunch and the remaining afternoon hours in St. Malo, a charming coastal town not far from St. Michel. Although I was brooding for a bit over the time crunch and an empty stomach, there's nothing that can't be solved by a romp on the beach!

It was a day well spent... just another Saturday in France!

Monday, September 28, 2009

A Fair Comparison

Monday, September 28, 2009 1
Today marked the return of my best friend and worst enemy each semester: academic stress. I'm still trying to gauge how much time I have in a day to myself for homework, correspondence with friends and family, and the occasional blog entry. Needless to say, things take a little more time without the privileges of a private dorm room and the convenience of food, study rooms, and classes all within 10 a minute walk!

I didn't even finish my homework last night due to a trip all day Saturday (which I'll recount soon enough), long (and worthwhile) conversations with my French and real family members, and even an unexpected guest for dinner (which turned into a nearly 3-hour affair!).

Nevertheless, I'm pleased that I finally have an idea of what to expect from all of my classes. In addition to the three IES classes I mentioned a few entries ago, I'm taking three more at the university (though I may drop one if things get overwhelming).

The first is Translation (one hour of French to English, then one hour in reverse). Compared to some of my other classes, this one is a little more laid back as the professor is rather jolly and appreciates the 10 or so IES students in the class who are clearly more willing to respond to his questions. Unlike any other class at the University of Nantes, this class puts us at the same level as the French students, just on the "opposite side" so to speak. It's easier for anyone to translate something into his or her mother tongue. Hopefully, having students from both backgrounds in the classroom will also facilitate some cooperation with our translation assignments... thus far most of us have found it difficult to infiltrate French teenage culture.

My other two university classes take place in the same auditorium, which seats about 140 students. And that's one of the smaller amphitheaters. Most of the students at IES come from small liberal arts colleges like Alma, and so we've shared common fears for these intimidating lecture halls. But in fact, they're not too frightening, once you know to sit at the front so you can actually hear the professor read his or her notes for an hour. During my first session I was shocked to find nearly all the students talking through the entire the course, without the prof blinking an eyelash at them (most of the time he was staring at his typed notes, anyway). Needless to say, it's quite a change for me.

Although it hasn't been the most positive impression thus far, it's been quite interesting (as I've noted already) to compare my private liberal arts college education with France's public university system. French students pay next to nothing for university, but I believe that their university is assigned on a certain combination based on where they live, what they want to study, and aptitude tests. Thus, many French students don't take their university studies very seriously - that's not to say that there aren't many who succeed as well. But it seems that a certain attitude is required to tackle this university system - one must be driven and self-sufficient. Profs don't have office hours to answer questions; they simply lecture a certain number of times a week and expect the students to know everything on the exam date.

Sitting in that grand lecture hall, it finally hit me that my classes could very likely have been just so at a huge university in the states as well. Never was I happier to have chosen a little liberal arts college.

The course I'm considering dropping is called "Studies of the Novel" and it's general literary theories about how the idea of the novel has developed in the past 200 years. It sounds like a bit much for 2 credits, no? And I didn't even get to hear half of the introduction. But I'll give it another try this week.

However, the final university class I'm taking is the one I'm perhaps the most excited for, as it's something I've wanted to study for quite a while: Intro to Linguistics, or the study of language itself. I sat up front with two other IES students and listened as intently as possible, but this was in itself far easier because the professor was engaging as well - I love when professors truly love what they teach, because effectively they can show you how to love the subject as well.

So that's the other half of my semester ahead, learning new subjects, educational cultures, and even methods of learning. I have a pile of books on my desk to read by the end of the semester - I have yet to figure out how to pace myself for that - along with exams looming far off in December, yet all the more intimidating when my entire grade rests on the explanation (in French, of course) I can pump out in under 2 hours on the subject.

But for now, my only task is to learn, to acclimate to this new style of learning, and to make practice of that knowledge each day I'm here. Even when this means speaking awkwardly in new sentence structures or inserting new words, reading textbooks on the morning tram, or reporting what I've learned each day to my host mother (who's wonderfully cultured and loves discussing practically everything).

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Dining with the French

Tuesday, September 22, 2009 6
Long before I took off for France this semester, I had thought that I was fully prepared for what I had heard about French dinners. Fabulous food, several courses, and most importantly, lots of cheese and wine. No big deal, right? Of course there are the subtle table manners expected as well, but I've never too many problems in that department.

And don't get me wrong, the food is fantastic. Always freshly cooked, natural, and full of flavor. But as the "guest" in my host family's house, there are still a few things I'm trying to figure out at dinner time, even though I've been with them for more than 3 weeks.

Our first week at IES was jam-packed with orientations of all sorts, with one in particular about table manners. For example, in France one is expected to keep both hands ON the table throughout the whole meal. When asked if you like something, never say no, but rather that you don't like it a lot, or simply eat the unpleasing dish more slowly to give a hostess a subtle clue. Never sit down before the hostess does, and never serve yourself before offered to do so. And one eats nearly everything - apples and pizza included - with a fork and knife.

However, at my house, the rules are a little more ambiguous.
I'd expected that eating would be a slow process, both to savor the cuisine and enjoy one another's conversation. In reality, I still can't figure out how my family manages to eat so fast while carrying on conversation.

Meanwhile, I'm struggling with using both a knife and fork at all times, answering questions in French without loosing my mouthful of food, and still attempting to finish eating at the same time my family does. And of course, being the guest, I'm always offered second helpings. If I refuse, my host mother asks me if I like the dish. And in fact, I always do, but it's simply a matter of not wanting to eat too much, especially when I know that cheese and perhaps a dessert are still to follow. I've tried to alleviate this problem by taking less food at the beginning of a meal, but then I'm asked if I'm not very hungry, and usually my host mom serves me extra after everyone else has been served. So I'm doomed from the start!

Of course I greatly appreciate all the courteousness, but it makes things even harder when I'm struggling to be courteous myself and follow all the rules we learned. In fact, striving to be extra-polite has been a blessing in some ways - by not refusing anything I'm offered, I've discovered that I like avocados, salted butter (a Brittany specialty), pickles (though they're different here - tiny and sweet), and many different kinds of cheese.

Another thing - we don't eat dinner until 8:30pm. What a change from Alma dinner promptly at 5:00 when SAGA opens! But in fact, when speaking with my family and the French student assistants at IES, this is completely normal for them.

This all goes to show that I'm not in fact learning a language, but a different way of life. It's all too easy to resist and complain about it, but I'm finding ways to appreciate the differences. After all, this semester is one grand learning process, one bite at a time.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

History by Day, Techno at Night

Sunday, September 20, 2009 3
Another lazy Sunday in France - and in fact, it's been a rather lax week. While we started classes this week at IES, classes at the university don't commence until next week. As I have 3 at each location (but sporadic days and times), I had only one or two classes each day, with ample time spent going over each syllabus and generalized subject introductions.

I'm more than ready to jump headfirst into my French classes at this point, especially now that I can get around the city by foot, bus, or tram without pulling out a map every 5 minutes. Though I still carry no less than 3 different maps and train/bus schedules with me at all times.

In spite of this gradual start to the school year, I'm pleased with my classes thus far. The cornerstone will be Adv. French Language and Composition, an intensive mix of all things French grammar. Our professor is one of the few French women who doesn't seem at all afraid to wear color or show off her natural age, and she's an expert at keeping the pace of the class moving at an engaging rate (especially when she randomly chooses students to provide a response, as the pressure's on to provide the correct answer AND say it in a grammatically correct sentence!).

Then there's French Poetry at the turn of the Century, in which we'll study the works of Baudelaire and a few other poets whose work largely influenced "modern" poetry... writing about more than beautiful, perfect women and beautiful, perfect countrysides. Seeing as it's poetry, there's no doubt I'm going to love it, especially as it's clear that our professors madly interested in the subject as well (and as he should be).

For a poli-sci credit, I'm taking a class about the Construction of the EU, from 1945-today. I chose this one because it will undoubtedly provide useful historical knowledge that most Europeans learned in grade school. This will keep anyone from calling me an ignorant American!

I had a few small adventures this weekend. In fact, yesterday and today Nantes celebrated Les Journées du Patrimoine, which means that the majority of museums, public institutions and the like opened their doors to the public to celebrate the city's heritage. However, many of the sites we visited were nearly deserted or rather difficult to find - a similar festival in the states would call for maps posted around the city, shuttle buses, food stands, and advertising everywhere. Still, I enjoyed the free museums, one celebrating the life and work of writer Jules Verne (who was born in Nantes), and the other filled with relatively well-known art spanning from medieval to now.

In dichotomous fashion, Nantes also hosted the Scopitone techno festival this weekend. As soon as I discovered there was a free concert Friday night, my plans were set. Unlike the low-key advertising for the heritage sites, the folks at Scopitone made each concert incredibly easy to find - the website provided a map AND tram stop for each site. Though knowing the exact location wasn't really necessary, as we were able to pinpoint the location of the rhythmic beats the moment we stepped off the tram to follow the crowds across a bridge to the Ile de Nantes.

Nantes' history as a huge shipping port has left it with all these grand warehouses and shipping yards, many of which have become prime locations for conventions and concerts, such as the one we'd chosen to go to (though it looked nothing like this when we arrived). Throbbing with a synthetic beats and strobe lights pulsing from an enormous stage at the opposite end of the warehouse, the building itself was electric with the Friday night atmosphere. We pushed through the increasingly dense crowds, many being of the apathetic smoking bohemian type, until we were close enough to have a good view and enough room to dance. Even in the midst of the unforgiving smoke and castaway bottles on the ground, they were easy to ignore with the sensational live music and the freedom of dancing however we liked.

The length of this entry has shown me that I should consider writing more frequently in shorter installments. Besides, Sunday seems to be the only day that I can devote as much time as I have this evening to a single post! I'll leave you now, as tomorrow I start my first full week (finally!) with an 8am class at the university, a smaller discussion group about a 19th century French novel. I've got to admit, I'm a little intimidated. But I'll see what real French university classes are like soon enough!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Le Bon et le Mauvais

Wednesday, September 16, 2009 2
It's a rainy day, the first of many in Nantes. I've heard the climate here is similar to Seattle, but today I'm also reminded of post-Indian summer rain in Michigan. But the fall colors here aren't as vibrant to combat the grey skies like our trees do.

I had some time back at the house between my morning class (History of the EU) and afternoon class (French Lang./Comp.) at the institute. As the bus there and back facilitates ample time to reflect on the passing days, upon returning I felt the need to list some of the positives and negatives of my experience these first two weeks. Somehow, lists always manage to put things in perspective, especially when balancing the loves with the annoyances.

What I'm Loving About France

1. Everyone on the streets, from little schoolboys and girls to charming elderly couples, dresses smartly and elegantly.

2. Bread is plentiful, natural, and usually fresh, and one can eat it whenever one wishes. At breakfast, I eat toasted slices with jam. For lunch, often a baguette sandwich. And for dinner, my favorite course consists of baguette slices with a scrumptious selection of cheeses!

3. Public transportation - for Nantes, buses and tramways - is cheap, efficient, and easy to use.

4. When one orders a coffee, this means espresso. The flavor is so much stronger, and it doesn't take an hour and 5 sugar packets to finish. It's an energy shot that tastes fantastic!

5. My growing confidence with speaking French, with both friends at IES and strangers (storekeepers, bus drivers, etc.). It's become exponentially easier to understand as well.

The Downsides

1. Rarely do I see someone dressed in bright colors or patterns with an original style. Here, clothes come in variations of white, grey, brown, and black, and the styles repeat themselves: skinny jeans, preppy polo/sweater combs, expensive shoes.

2. The bread surplus replaces the normally sufficient amount of veggies and meat in my diet - both are more expensive here, and thus eaten less often.

3. Waiting at a bus stop is not the most exciting thing in the world, and public transportation gets inconvenient and limiting when one wants to stay out late. Especially because it takes around 20-30 minutes for me to go from my house to the center of town.

4. I miss the convenience of having a coffee maker in my dorm room.

5. It's really hard to resist speaking in English, especially with 90 other delightful American students to get to know. It takes so much more time to form questions, responses, and anecdotes in French, but I know it's the best way to practice with each other. Hopefully this improves.

I feel like I'd thought of more points earlier, but I suppose those can wait until I'm reminded of them once more (probably in sharing/complaining about similar experiences with IES students - it's always a good conversation topic!).

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Getting to Know Nantes!

Sunday, September 13, 2009 1
Today is the first quiet, relaxing day I've had all week. It's been a whirlwind trying to speak a second language, adjusting to cultural differences, meeting the 90 other students in the program, and taking care of all the necessities that come with settling into a new place. Tomorrow I finally start classes - I'm hoping some sense of order will follow.

Last weekend, our orientation kicked off with a 4-day trip to Vannes, a port city in the region of Bretagne, or Brittany. It was a truly wonderful introduction to French history and culture - we explored a few old chateaus and charming coastal towns. We never had a bad meal; breakfast and dinner at the classy hotel in Vannes were plentiful and rich, while on our various excursions we ate ham and cheese crêpes with cider at a veritable crêperie, tried fried oysters at an oyster festival, and splurged on a delicious variety of homemade chocolates at a cute candy shop.

Of course, another essential part of this orientation was getting to know our fellow IES students. As there are 91 of us in the program (about 30 more than they had just last semester) this is no easy task! Nonetheless, it amazed me how a small conversation with the person sitting next to you on the bus or at dinner could so easily blossom into a close friendship. And almost immediately we separated ourselves into small groups, with some collectively choosing to speak French while others ignored the language rule for a few more days. I've been grateful for other students whose persistence with trying to speak French as much as possible has encouraged me to do the same. Still, it's nowhere close to coming out naturally. But at least it's a little more eloquent than my German.

While it was a wonderful experience to meet people from all over the world at the Goethe Institute, it's been just as refreshing to meet fellow American students, all between 19 and 21 but from all over the country. Many come from small liberal arts colleges like Alma, and with that comes a certain kinship that we share in conversations about our educational experiences and future plans.

After returning, my past week was consumed by full-day orientation sessions at the institute. Lots of rules, information sessions, practical and historical tours of the city, and French classes to wake up our language skills from summer hibernation. (Meanwhile, I still catch myself thinking of certain German words before French ones - even the simplest words like the days of the week and seasons).

At my maison d'acceuil, the process of becoming a new member of a French family is going even smoother than I'd expected. With the full plate of orientation each day and a 20-minute bus ride to and from the town center, I would usually arrive home around 7 or 7:30. But with dinner at 8:30, this hasn't been a problem. My host siblings always have exciting stories to tell at the dinner table, though sometimes they speak so quickly that my host mother, with one look at my confused expression, gladly recounts the tale with even more humor and flair. The food is fresh and divine, with an abundant selection of cheese and fruit at the end of each meal.

Soon to come (and hopefully before another week passes): first impressions of classes in France!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Travel Rewind - A Photo Adventure

Sunday, September 6, 2009 4
After saying goodbye to Freiburg, I took full advantage of the handful of days before my Nantes program with some pre-planned meetings with Kathi (German T.A. at Alma last year) in Cologne and Heidi in Paris. Unfortunately I had some camera trouble (ironically only at times when I need photos the most - I had similar problems in London), and thus I don't have photos of my time with Kathi.
However, I spent an extra day in Cologne, and entirely unplanned. When I arrived at the Cologne train station on Sunday in order to make the necessary reservation for a Paris train, they were all booked until 4:00. I didn't make it to Paris until 9:00 that night.

But a free day in a European city is never a bad thing with one of the world's most famous cathedrals and a huge modern art museum.

I didn't get any pictures in the Museum Ludwig, but the Cologne Cathedral was pretty epic on its own, though it was hardly possible to capture its magnificence in photos.

The peace resonating throughout the cathedral was just what I needed after the exhausting morning. Due to a rather eventful night of clubbing, I had a total of 20 minutes sleep the night before (with additional napping on the train to Cologne). Then after the reservation fiasco, I stuffed my enormous rucksack into an automatic storage machine, frantically e-mailed Heidi in a shady internet cafe doubling as a casino arcade, and ate a pretzel covered in almonds and chocolate for breakfast. But in the end, I was soothed by the cathedral's glorious tranquility and the art museum's stimulating collection - all 4 levels.

Then it was off to Paris! I'd been once on a high school trip, but it was rushed and jumbled (as high school trips tend to be). This time around, Heidi and I tried our best to see the sights (and enough art to appease me) in two days. Here are the highlights:

10:30 Fountain at St. Michel: We catch a glimpse of a fashion photo shoot, or a stylish attempt to ruin a $5000 gown.

11:30 Eiffel Tower: One look at the mass of tourists underneath and we decide to come back later, instead heading off in search of cheap baguette sandwiches.

1:00 Centre Pompidou: Finally, I get to meet Duchamp's Fountain. Believe it or not, this urinal is the cornerstone of modern art. Needless to say, I was pretty excited.

10:00 Eiffel Tower: Heidi and I witness an alien abduction over Paris. (Actually, it's just the searchlight from the top of the tower on time-exposure. But it was still a great view).

11:00 Musée d'Orsay: Heidi and I discover a ballroom hidden between the multiple levels of art in this converted train station. Dancing was necessary, at least long enough for a photo to capture the moment!

3:00 Arc de Triomphe: Someone's got to keep the Arc standing, right?

5:00 Eiffel Tower: A cheap picnic in front of la Tour proved far more enjoyable than any expensive restaurant. And I had just enough time to capture it before my camera died!

All in all, two days well spent in Paris. A bit of sightseeing, a bit of art, and a lovely intro to the country we'll call home for the next 4 months.