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!