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.