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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Finalement à Nantes!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009 1
Today marked my first chance to fully unpack my suitcase, as I've arrived in Nantes and am now sitting comfortably in the home of my charming host family, the Battaglinis. They have four children all about my age: three daughters (17, 19, and 23) and a son (21). Already at dinner we were laughing together at stories from the day (though sometimes explained to me a second time in slower French) and my confusion with common names from American pop culture (Desperate Housewives, for example) pronounced with the classic French accent.

It's definitely going to be a good semester.

Certain small things I'm already loving: bookshelves in every room packed with literature, three beautiful cats which scamper freely about the house, the multiple course dinner (tonight was pesto ravioli, simple salad with vinegar, cheese and baguettes, and fresh organic fruit), the fact that I can already understand most of what's being spoken to me.

In fact, that what I was fearing most upon my arrival to France - losing much of my French comprehension due to summer relaxation at the past month's German immersion. In spending the past three days in Paris with Heidi (Alma student also doing the Nantes program, for those of you who don't know), I was surprised with how quickly my brain made the switch between languages... even in spite of the ridiculous amount of American tourists.

But for the moment I'll Paris and my other in-between adventures for another entry, as pictures will do wonders to expand the stories for you.

In spite of the warm welcome to my new home and the joy with this long-awaited plunge into true French culture, this morning was nonetheless overwhelming. Heidi and I took the high-speed TGV train from Paris at noon, on which I had the luck to sit across the aisle from another new IES participant, Geoff. Once we arrived at the IES center and added our luggage to a one-room labyrinth of stuffed suitcases, we were shown upstairs to the area for classes. There are several small rooms, including a kitchen, extensive library, and a sitting room with a piano.

Perhaps it was the plates of chocolate cookies and orange juice that drew nearly everyone to the kitchen. Whatever the cause, the air was warmed with body heat and perpetual introductions. It became clear almost immediately that nearly everyone was apprehensive to speak French, taking advantage of this "free day" and jet lag excuses to make a few fast friends in English. As we start our orientation excursion tomorrow in Bretagne, it will definitely be interesting to see how quickly we divide both by interests and determination to parler Français.

On verra - we'll see!