25 December 2007

Traveler's Curse

24 December

I think I may just have the worst luck in Paris. Of anyone. In all of history.

I left yesterday morning to visit the Noë’s, a very friendly French family with three thoroughly adorable children, and to spend the holidays with them. The Noë’s lived in Grand Rapids for six years, during which my family was invited to join the circle of wonderful French families in the area. They have all been a blessing for us. This family moved back to France the summer of 2006, and this is the first time I’ve seen them since, but I feel like I’ve been received into my own family.

But we’re not talking about blessings here. We’re talking about a horrendous day of travel. Yesterday morning, I was due to leave Strasbourg on the high-speed train for Paris, then Orleans, at 8:45. I arrived at the train station at 8:25 (plenty of time for train travel in France, which I’d recommend any day over air travel anywhere), and as I got off the bus, I had a seizure of conscience that I ought to check my ticket and my departure time. Okay, so I realized I hadn’t yet done that, that morning or before, or really since I had bought the tickets. But when you know, you know, right? 8:45am.


My train had left at 8:10. I couldn’t believe it—I felt like an idiot. I was so sure, like I had already checked the ticket a thousand times. I don’t know why I was so far off! I got in line to exchange my ticket, and of course the line was long, and the ticket windows were short-staffed, and the staff were short-tempered: “It is the 23rd of December," the woman at the counter reminded me.” Many trains were leaving for Paris that morning, but all of second class on every one was already full, and first class costs quite a bit more. So I opted for a train early that afternoon, called the family that was expecting me and told them I’d arrive at 6pm instead of noon, and sat awhile at the train station being mad at myself.

Finally I got on a bus to go home. While I was on the bus, the family called back and asked if I could change my ticket to arrive directly near Tours (the grandparents’ house, where we’re spending Christmas), instead of having them wait in Orleans to meet me and then driving to Tours, where the grandparents were expecting us for dinner. Of course it made more sense. I got on another bus back to the train station. When I went to change my ticket, I paid to change the second half between Paris and Orleans to Paris and Tours, because the ticket is only exchangeable one time, and here I was a second. I got on a bus again to go home, stayed home for approximately fifty minutes (long enough to realize that I’d already eaten or given away or frozen all the fresh food I’d had, so there wasn’t much left to make a lunch with), and got back on the bus to go to the station for the correctly-timed train.

The ride to Paris was blissfully uneventful, though we got off a little late. The man sitting next to me insisted on giving me his number (it happens almost every time, I don’t know why), even though I slept most of the time and made small talk only the last fifteen minutes. I arrived at the Gare de l’Est and had to catch my other train at the Gare Montparnasse in the south of Paris, taking the metro from one to the other. I would have had forty minutes between the two trains, and the metro only takes about 10 or 15, BUT because we were a little late getting out of Strasbourg, and because you are forced to walk through a maze of tunnels upon leaving the metro line and arriving at the train lines, YOU GUESSED IT: I missed the train again. I quickly exchanged the ticket for the next train to St.-Pierre-au-Corps, which thankfully comes every hour, and called the family again, almost in tears of frustration, to tell them that I would, again, be late.

The train was set to leave at 6:10, and I calmed down sitting with my bags in front of the large screens of train schedules, waiting for my platform to be announced. Half an hour passed: 5:55, fifteen minutes before, by which time the platform is usually announced. At 6:00, still nothing. At 6:05, an announcement that the train was being serviced by an intervention team, though I’m not sure what that connotes. At 6:10, departure time, still nothing. Finally, at 6:12, the platform was announced, and we all rushed towards the train, which left about four minutes later. Tough rocks for those who passengers whose eyes weren’t glued to the screen. I made it, but to top things off, of my several seating assignments that day, I remembered the wrong one, and ended up four cars down from my actual seat. But when I found it, oh did I relax.

And when I found the Noë’s waiting for me on the platform, oh did I rejoice.

24 December 2007

Spa Treatment

You probably all know that I am not one to pamper myself at expensive all-inclusive spa resorts…But there’s a first time for every thing. My mother will be happy to know that I soaked out the last of this summer’s garden dirt from under my fingernails. The rest of you will just be jealous!

Exams and papers finished for me Thursday evening, and Friday several other BCA girls and I decided to head to Baden-Baden, Germany, to relax in the world-renowned thermal baths at Caracalla. But first let me describe “exams,” conducted in France in a manner you may not be familiar with, may not even recognize, may even laugh at. I certainly laughed a few times over the week: it was the only way to keep my sanity.

Contrast #1: In the US university system, several exams, projects, presentations, and papers will usually form a student’s semester grade. In the French (and other European) university system, one exam given at the end of a semester’s worth of lecture determines the grade. Sometimes, if the class is year-long, this exam is only considered “partial,” something more like a midterm.

Contrast #2: Whereas exams back at Manchester are given during a certain 1:50 time period during a certain week at the end of the semester, exams at Marc Bloch ranged from one hour to four, and though all of mine were given this week, the semester doesn’t actually end until mid-January, at which time exams can also be given. Bizarre. Even though I finished my exams this week (one even before the final session of class), I have no classes after Christmas Break.

Contrast #3: Exams at most US universities consist of multiple choice, true/false, short answer, and essay questions, typed on sheets of paper which are (mostly) checked and re-checked before being systematically distributed to students. My exams this semester were all medium answer/essay questions, which is a change I completely agree with. However, let me describe my first exam “episode”: Saturday afternoon during a four-hour period, I took my Francophone Literature exam. The professor, not one of my favorites, had told us that the exam for our class of 30ish students would take place in Amphitheater 1, the largest on campus. We thirty arrived, along with…300 other students. I think they were all students of literature electives in the Department of Letters. We weren’t seated in any particular order, and so I can’t imagine how the professors imagined distributing all of the exams, but this is how it went: one professor would call out the name of his course, would begin walking up and down all the steps around the entire amphitheater searching out his students and handing them the exam. In the meantime, one of the other professors in front, perhaps embarrassed by the relative silence and feeling a need to move things along, would call out the name of her course. This would, of course, result in students of two different sections sitting patiently, hands raised, waiting for their professor to come around, often receiving the wrong exam paper. It was ridiculously inefficient, and I sat there incredulous, hand raised, dodging eye contact with any professor not my own to avoid receiving the wrong exam. And I was lucky: other students had their subject dictated to them by someone other than their professor (I didn’t catch if it was lack of time or lack of money that resulted in dictation instead of paper copies). After everything settled down, over half an hour had passed. I looked over at the paper of the student next to me when he swore under his breath and shook his head, and watched him cross out the page number cited on his exam sheet and replace it with another (correct) page number. Then I looked down at my exam sheet: five questions, the first of which was “What meaning does Elysée Réclus give to the word ‘francophonie’?” Now, at the beginning of the semester we’d read an essay by Onesime Réclus, the geographer who first used the word “francophonie” to describe all the places in the world where French was spoken in 1880. Elysée was his slightly-more-famous brother whom we mentioned in passing as being more famous. That was it. He didn’t write about “francophonie,” as far as I know. What was he doing in the first question of our exam?! I wasn’t quite sure what to do—I simply crossed out Elysée and wrote in Onesime. I couldn’t imagine that the prof had actually intended the former over the latter, but I could neither fathom that on a once-a-semester exam, there would by a typo that serious!

Flabbergasted, just flabbergasted.

The rest of the exams continued normally over the next week, including a test in English-French translation, art history, French linguistics, and French cinema (with a film analysis to hand in as well). The week sped by…and Friday morning I found myself on a train headed into Germany.

It takes two trains and a bus to get to the baths at Baden-Baden, but luckily two of those who went had already been before, and I didn’t have to worry about travel plans. There was snow and sun and lots of fur coats, and mostly I enjoyed seeing the sun, which doesn’t shine very often during the Strasbourg winter, and doesn’t climb very high when it does, so that weak 1:00pm sunlight feels more like 4:00, and night falls by 5:00. When you enter the baths (which are not too expensive, actually), the first pool of warm water feels like a bath, and the second like a hot tub. The pool extends outside, where everything beyond three meters is lost in the mist. But once in awhile, it’s nice to have a world that extends only three meters around you. After swimming around a variety of pools with currents, bubbles, whirlpools and jets galore, we went to the steam room. I think the purpose of this room is to “sweat your butt off.” The light is low, and supposedly-relaxing rainforest bird calls complement the fake starry skies above. As you sit, sweating, breathing thick, humid, Vicks vapor rub-scented air, the occasional drop of hot liquid (I think water) falls from the ceiling. It’s quite the experience. After the steam room, we went to the sauna (85 and 95 degrees Celsius—keep in mind that 100 degrees Celsius is boiling), the purpose of which is also to “sweat your butt off.”

Here I have a confession to make. For those of you who know the thermal baths at Baden-Baden, you know that the sauna is located on the second level. You also know that the second level is the nudist level…While clothes and suits are not allowed, fear not: I maintained towel coverage. I also saw quite a few naked people, though almost all wear towels when just walking around. It was quite a European experience. Giggle.

All in all, the day was very relaxing, and I’m glad I went, though it will rest (probably) a once-in-a-lifetime indulgence.

Because there’s work to be done.

23 December 2007


The Marché de Noël (Christmas Market) has taken over Strasbourg this past month. Two million two hundred thousand people have visited the three thousand craft and food booths set up all around the city.

It’s madness.

It’s not much an exaggeration to say that the lights strung up around the city outnumber the starts in the sky. The air smells perpetually of hot-spiced wine, and candies and crepes have become part of a balanced diet. It’s a mix of heart-warming tradition and hyped-up tourist attraction (except Sunday—then it’s simply insane).

See for yourself:

22 December 2007

More Updates

The weekend of 7-9 December, BCA took us on an excursion to Metz-Verdun, where we met the students from the BCA site in Marburg, Germany to learn about World War I. We visited battlefields and forts, villages that were taken and retaken and destroyed, the cemetery and ossuary, and the memorial museum. It was a gray and rainy weekend…an apt backdrop to our visit.

Friday night, however, started on a lighter note: Living on the euro and continually cooking for yourself, you come to really appreciate restaurant meals for which BCA foots the bill. Take this one, for example:

Mmm…much more appetizing than Leslie’s “tête de veau” (cow’s head).

Saturday began with a visit to Fleury, or rather, the site where Fleury used to stand. Switching hands something like fourteen times, the village was to no surprise destroyed, and today plaques mark the former location of roads, the bakery, the school, etc. It was a sobering place. Given the “lunar landscape” left behind by trench warfare and many, many exploding shells (though the surrounding forest is still filled with unexploded shells, and therefore is mostly off-limits), everyone was certain that nothing would ever grow again on this infernal ground. Today, of course, the ground is green with moss and bushes, and trees shade the pockmarked countryside, pits filled with water. But the site was eerily silent, everyone lost in their own thoughts, trying to imagine the sights and sounds of war in this place, trying to grasp what is so precious that humankind would go this far—on the way, destroying that which is so precious.

After visiting the memorial museum, we stopped at the Trench of Bayonets, a line of soldiers who had been preparing to climb out of their trench, bayonets at the ready, when a shell exploded nearby and buried them alive. After the war, a farmer was plowing this field and came across this strange line of bayonet points sticking up out of the ground. The site was memorialized, leaving the soldiers where they lay—although the bayonets were stolen from the site a few years ago.

Fort Douaumont followed. Built to hold 630 soldiers, it’s an incredible underground labyrinth of tunnels, living quarters, mess halls, storage rooms, and gun turrets peaking just above the crest of the hill. It is nothing but damp, cold, somber, and creepy. The pictures speak for themselves:

The ossuary, which holds all the bones of soldiers (French, German, or unidentified) collected from the battlefield at the end of the war, reminded me of Arlington National Cemetery. We lit candles, watched a film, and walked around the field of crosses. You can see the bones if you look in the lower windows of the building. Nothing confirms one’s commitment to pacifism more than visiting a graveyard of war.

As for the town of Metz, which is where we stayed during the weekend: if you have a chance to visit, be sure to see the stained glass windows of Chagall in the cathedral, the gargoyles that decorate the Esplanade fountain, and the fourth century (possibly the oldest) church St. Pierre-aux-Nonnains. But sight-seeing is not quite so pleasant in this cold and rainy December weather.

More to come...

14 December 2007


You may have wondered why I haven’t posted for a while.

Well, me too.

So I’ve decided to take the late night before a four-hour French literature exam to update you. Can you tell I’m not looking forward to this exam? Because I’m not.

And I know that all of you Manchester students reading this are already done, packed up, and home on vacation mode. Let’s not talk about it.

How to become a professional wine taster

The first Saturday of December, in honor of a friend’s birthday, a group of us returned to the Hospital that sells wine for their oh-so-informative, oh-so-enjoyable, and oh-so-free wine tasting. The “oenelogues,” or professional wine tasters, guided us through sips of Alsatian white wines, varied red wines, and a collection of late harvest wines from a vineyard near Voegtlinshoffen (in Alsace, south of Strasbourg). Wisdom I will pass down to you:

When tasting a wine, look first at its color: best to have clear glasses without designs

Take a good deep breath and smell the wine

Then swirl the glass (with a supple wrist, which we all spent many giggly minutes practicing), and smell again: contact with air releases different aromas; notice also the “legs” (“tears” in French) or the streaks on the inside of the glass—denser, more alcoholic wines (like late harvest wines) will have thicker streaks

Finally, taste: hold the wine in your mouth for a moment and breathe out your nose, releasing even more aromas

When tasting wine, start first with sparkling wines, then whites, roses, reds, and finally sweet wines.

And don’t believe the price tag or the year: good wines can be found for cheap and bad wines are still produced during “good years.”

Vocabulary to keep in your back pocket: bouquet all the aromas of the wine, also called the nose; fresh, dried, honeyed, lively words to use when describing a white wine; intense, spicy, supple, deep words to use to describe a red wine; vintage year; bogus pretty much every evaluation of wine—you will say you smell/taste whatever you think you’re supposed to…but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun! Among my favorite wine sensory descriptors: new-mown grass, wet wool, tar, beer and violet (the same wine), tobacco, asparagus, “farmyard,” and cat pee. Hmm…

Running around Alsace with ten Colombians and a Japanese

Sounds surreal, doesn’t it? One of the real benefits of studying a foreign language is that you meet many others who are also foreign to this language but in different ways than you. I am the only American in my grammar class, and one of my good friends here is Manuel, a student from Colombia. The day after the wine tasting, we took advantage of the EvasionPass to travel by train all day throughout Alsace for the grand price of 5 euros apiece. Unfortunately my Spanish is not as strong as it once was, so I was the language minority in more than one sense that day.

We spent most of our time in Colmar, another beautiful Alsatian town a short ride south of Strasbourg. We saw the Christmas market there, the part of town called Little Venice after the canals and gondolas that abound there, and the Unterlinden Museum. Here I am enjoying Colmar, even on a cloudy day (note the Alsace Green Guide, which gets me everywhere I want to go, conveniently in my pocket—thanks Ludivine!)

Perhaps the highlight of Colmar: Just when you think it’s never going to snow, you stumble upon an entire square of fake snow, penguins, polar bears, and igloos. And just when you think Christmas will never come, Santa himself comes floating toward you on a gondola:

Oh, if only Christmas could escape the bonds of commercialism.

After Colmar, we visited the village of Selestat, which doesn’t have much to offer except a bread museum, which didn’t seem to excite anyone but me. So while the others explored the town, I went and learned about the history of breadmaking and its evolution over the past few centuries. Did you know: In 1850 France, the average person ate a kilo of bread a day; now the amount has reduced to around 200 grams. Did you know: Bread is slashed just before entering the oven to allow the easy release of gas, so the bread doesn’t crack while baking. Did you know: Breads made from a starter or “poolish” last longer.

I thought it was terribly interesting!

We finished the day at Obernai, where one of my friends met us a showed us around her this, her hometown. We visited the ramparts around the city, the gardens outside, and the imprint of a medieval sword at the base of the cathedral. Obernai is a very nice town, and beautiful at night.

To be continued...

28 November 2007

Thanksgiving à la française

Where: Chez Alex, director BCA Strasbourg

When: last Saturday (no, we didn’t get a Thanksgiving break)

Invited guests: Turkey, mash potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes in brown sugar and marshmallow, corn, carrot cake and pumpkin pie. All the fixin’s!

Why: Ask Charlie Brown, he’ll tell you in 25 minutes of pure Pilgrim propaganda.

Special highlight: American football, Alex’s four sons (all under age 8), and the Beaujolais nouveau wine!

PS. Don’t forget your Indian feathers!

19 November 2007

Tis the Season

Student General Assembly, Marc Bloch University, Strasbourg

Getting around France isn’t easy these days: the SNCF (national train company) has gone on strike again (second round in a month’s time), protesting Sarkozy’s pension plan reforms. The facts:

Workers in France can retire at the age of 60. SNCF employees can retire at 50. Why this disparity? Because running a train used to be hard work! Although the work is no longer as physically exacting as it use to be, workers still retire at 50, then take on other paying jobs while gaining the SNCF retirement. Sarkozy, insisting he was elected on a reform mandate, is trying to bring the retirement age for SNCF employees in line with other sectors.

Beyond that there is much detail, speculation, and political play. Suffice it to say that the SNCF is striking against this reform, running at less than half capacity and losing hundreds of millions of euros. Not to mention inconveniencing a lot of angry French, especially the Parisians.

Because (you guessed it), not only did the SNCF go on strike, but also the Paris metro system! Some lines are hardly disturbed, while others (like the line between Paris and Charles de Gaulle airport) are hardly running. The papers keep reporting how many hundreds of kilometers of traffic jams there are around Paris each day. The latest number I saw was 300 kilometers…but then, that’s only twice as many as normal.

It gets better. This strike is what they call ‘reconductible,’ a nice way of saying ‘never-ending.’ The SNCF announced it as such well in advance, but few thought it would last this long. It started last Tuesday, and although it’s followed less and less every day, it keeps going.

And the more the merrier! Part of the reason the SNCF strike may have lasted so long could be because those on strike want to join up with the civil servants, who go on strike tomorrow. Civil servants make up quite a chunk of the French population, and include government offices, the Post, and all teachers including university professors. I’m not sure why they’re all going on strike, or how well-supported this strike will be, but it’s possible some of my classes will not take place tomorrow.

And the students, oh the students. They are quite up in arms about university reforms. The government proposed raising the tuition prices of under-funded masters programs (so a year’s tuition would cost, you know, 900 euros instead of 500). The students rallied against it with leftist cries of biased selection by financial means. Then the university was forced to close down the masters programs which lacked funding. Well, the students wouldn’t stand to have their peers thrown out on the street without having the chance to complete their academic training. So, someone in the university administration offered the idea that private institutions could donate money to universities to keep these masters programs afloat. Sensing the strings attached to private funding, the students protested against any sort of ‘McDonalds/EuroDisney degree.’ What’s a publicly-funded government-controlled university to do? Why, request autonomy, that’s what! Autonomy for each university to make its own decisions on site. But, the students remind them forcefully, all universities in France are supposed to be equal, so that everyone in any region has a chance at the same education. How can they be equal if every university makes its own decisions?

A twist on the French motto

They’re hard to please, they are! In fact, the student movement has been building in Strasbourg, with student General Assemblies almost every other day. It hasn’t happened here, but elsewhere in France students have blocked off whole campuses. Last Thursday, students camped out in one of the amphitheaters (for what purpose I’m not too sure), then were removed by the police. In the process, somehow, one of the curtains caught fire, and then the building was closed to students through the weekend. Twice my classes at the university have been interrupted by student announcements of another General Assembly or a biased reporting of what ‘actually happened’ (for example, that the administration set fire to the curtain to chase the students from the building…hmm).

Tomorrow I’m going to check out the 9:30am student manifestation, followed by a very important General Assembly. I’m not complaining—this is all very sociologically interesting.

This sign posted over ATM machines reads: Welcome to the University. Coming soon: For a license (undergrad), insert your debit card. The machine will charge you 3000 euros. For a masters, insert your debit card. The machine will charge you 5000 euros. For a doctorate, insert your debit card. The machine will charge you 8000 euros.

I’m just glad the French students don’t know how much my university costs.

And I’m glad I’m not traveling by train either!

A last note, just in case you aren’t baffled enough: In December, AirFrance employees are going on strike.

Vive la France!

French and American University Systems: Two Extremes

It’s true that I pay too much for my university education, and that the French students pay too little. It’s true that private money is too powerful in US universities, and that private money could go a long way in improving French ones. I have experienced the two extremes of the same university education system. Sounds like a paper! But honestly, I can only give observations. In these last few weeks, I’ve heard a lot of communist rhetoric, met people who look and act like they should be in a smoky café talking revolution, and noticed the really pitiable state of the Marc Bloch campus. Like I remarked before, what I wouldn’t give for a grounds crew! Or even grounds to keep! Also, the profs can be quite distant, not engaged and personal like at Manchester (Although Manchester in this respect, to such a degree, is quite rare. I try to explain to other French students that I am friends with my professors, and they nod and smile and ask questions, but I don’t think they believe me.). On the other hand, if the ‘substance,’ the quality of education, counts the most, I don’t feel at all slighted at Marc Bloch University. My professors know the material and even succeed at explaining it! No easy feat when talking of arborescent representations of syntagmes nominals. I make for quite a poor English linguist, when all the terms I know are in French! Someday I will post a picture of my linguistic lecture notes: They’re very pretty, with lots of word trees and arrows and plus signs. And whatever happens tomorrow, I will try to take pictures to give you all an idea of what’s going on.

A wine shop in a hospital?! Only in France

A week or so ago we BCAers visited the Hôpital Civile, the Strasbourg Municipal Hospital which has existed since the fourteenth century. Back in the fourteenth century, according to the guide who showed us around the cave (wine cellar), people paid with what they could, including property. Eventually, the hospital came to own a scattering of vineyards across the region, and in the cave are kept hundreds of immense casks of these wines. The largest cask held 26 000 bottles of wine. The oldest cask held wine from 1472 (we smelled the stopper…I wouldn’t want to taste it). My favorite cask was the one that held the average amount of wine consumed by a 4-person Alsatian family during the course of a year. After the visit, we had a wine tasting of Crémant (champagne of Alsace), Pinot Gris (classic Alsatian white wine), and Gewurztraminer (Alsatian white dessert wine), all with bread and kugelhopf (a dense bread, often with nuts and bits of ham baked in, and with a very particular shape. A successful visit, I’d say.

Mozart, Mmm!, and Mom

And lastly, I spent a lovely Sunday arranging my room (I’ve actually accumulated enough papers, bottles, and stuff worth cleaning and arranging and nesting, one of my favorite pastimes!), watching Mozart’s Idomeneo at the National Opera (for 5.50 euro, thank you student Culture Card!), and dining at the Ancienne Douane, a very old restaurant dating from 1358, right on the river bank.

And here I rest, well-fed, well-entertained, and just generally well.

Except last Friday I had my first real episode of homesickness. In the middle of a difficult conversation, I realized how much I missed having people around who know me, who have been part of my life already. At the beginning it can be liberating not to be known, not to be pigeon-holed into what you ‘are.’ But it can also be exhausting as you must continually explain/create yourself and your history. Then you just seek understanding, and you think about that whole community you left of people with whom you have that understanding.

The first sentence I sobbed out was, ‘I miss my mom!’


I miss you mom, and everyone else with whom I feel at ease, at home, myself.

13 November 2007

How to Build Global Community

Think of no one as "them"
Don't confuse your comfort with your safety
Talk to strangers
Imagine other cultures through their poetry and novels
Listen to music you don't understand
Dance to it
Act locally
Notice the workings of power and privilege in your culture
Question consumption
Know how your lettuce and coffee are grown
Look for fair trade and union labels
Help build economies from the bottom up
Acquire few needs
Learn a second (or third) language
visit people, places, and cultures--not tourist attractions
Learn people's history
Re-define progress
Know physical and political geography
Play games from other cultures
Watch films with subtitles
Know your heritage
Honor everyone's holidays
Look at the moon and imagine someone else, somewhere else, looking at it too
Read the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Understand the global economy in terms of people, land, and water
Know where your bank banks
Never believe you have a right to anyone else's resources
Refuse to wear corporate logos
Question military/corporate connections
Don't confuse money with wealth, or time with money
Have a pen/email pal
Honor indigenous cultures
Judge governance by how well it meets all people's needs
Be skeptical about what you read
Eat adventurously
Enjoy vegetables, beans, and grains in your diet
Choose curiosity over certainty
Know where your water comes from and where your wastes go
Pledge allegiance to the earth
Think South, Central, and North--there are many Americans
Assume that many others share your dreams
Know that no one is silent
though many are not heard
Work to change this

10 November 2007


5 November 2007

I think that’s about all I can say. I’ve learned some lessons about travel, and the way I prefer it: 1. Don’t leave as soon as possible Friday morning and return 11 days later just before classes start. It’s exhausting. 2. While walking a city for eight hours does constitute ‘seeing it,’ it doesn’t necessarily equal ‘enjoying it.’ Plus, it’s exhausting. 3. It is difficult to eat well while traveling on a budget, especially if you’re not settled long enough in one place to cook for yourself. Eat well anyway. Otherwise you will be too exhausted. 4. Enjoy hospitality wherever you find it, and when you return home, give it freely. Hospitality is a good cure for any diagnosed exhaustic disorder.

As you may notice, I’m back-dating this posting as well. I was just too exhausted to write before!

Bon Voyage: Dublin

Dublin is a spectacular city, and if your travels ever take you there be sure to see the Book of Kells at Trinity College, spend an afternoon at the park St. Stephen’s Green, and eat at The Boxty House in the Temple Bar district. Firstly, the Book of Kells is a very old manuscript containing the four Gospels in Latin, copied around the year 800 and kept during the medieval period at the Abbey of Kells in Ireland. What makes the book so extraordinary is the calligraphy and decoration: the beginning letters of chapters are so ornate and colorful. Considering the materials used to give the color (the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli used for blue, and a crushed Mediterranean insect used for red, if I remember correctly), which had to be imported from all over Europe, I couldn’t help but be amazed. I saw the Book of Kells! My favorite part of its story is that, in 1009, the book was stolen from the monastery, then found by a farmer a few months later, in a canvas bag, minus its jeweled cover, buried at the bottom of a field. What luck!

I’ve also come to appreciate parks, green oases in big cities. It’s not ‘nature’ by any means, it’s not solitude, and it’s not adventurous, but it’s not bad either. I like to go to parks like St. Stephen’s Green because it is at parks that you see the city take a breath, relax, and enjoy itself.

The city also enjoys itself in the Temple Bar district, but in a different way. This is where Dublin gives birth to life—night life, that is. I only had one night to explore it, and ‘lively’ is a very appropriate adjective. It is there you will find The Boxty House, a boxty being a sort of large thick crepe folded around whatever filling you choose. I chose chili, because I miss chunky stews and because it came with cheddar cheese, which I also miss (despite all the wonderful cheese France can boast, there’s nothing quite like cheddar).

Another highlight of Dublin: I met up with my friend Danica, who is from my hometown in Michigan and is studying abroad at Royal Holloway near London this semester. I actually went to visit her later, and it was purely coincidental we were in Dublin the same weekend. Good thing she told me! Imagine how awkward it would’ve been to run into a friend from the States that I was planning to see a few days later…in another country. As it worked out, when I was walking toward her hostel to find her, I missed the street and soon came face to face with her walking back! What luck! It was good to see a familiar face at the beginning of the travels.

Practical advice for Dublin:

Don’t try walking out to the coast. It is farther than it seems.

Pay attention to the arrows on the streets: they tell opposite-side-of-the-road-driving pedestrians which way to look for cars. Very useful.

Bon Voyage: Galway (Gallimh in Irish, rooted in Gaelic, the country's language along with English)

Holy hedgerows! I took the bus Saturday afternoon from Dublin to Galway, and I’ve never seen a countryside so divided. I have a feeling the property lines marked by the hedgerows have existed for many many years. In fact, the most average things in Ireland have generally existed for many many years. Take the dolmen in this photo:

It is a thousands-year-old burial site located in the middle of the Burren, which looks like this:

It is very rocky.

I found the Burren on my day trip by bus tour around Galway Bay to the Cliffs of Mohrer. It was amazing—what else can I say? The Cliffs look like this:

The ocean is breathtaking, much like Lake Michigan, which made me miss home more than I expected. I looked out over the sea and thought of all of you on the other side. The distance doesn’t seem real, nor does the fact that I’m here in Europe. Sometimes I just forget and life continues normally; sometimes I realize where I am and what I’m doing and it seems quite surreal.

Galway is another BCA site, and so while I was there I stayed with two other BCA students. They’re only staying the semester, and my visit marked the half-way point, and they were very excited to think about heading home. I can’t imagine preparing to leave right now. I just got here, didn’t I? Am I fully here, even?

Ireland seems given to reflection.

Practical advice for Galway:

It is always windy. I have no advice for how to deal with wind.

Carry an umbrella, because the weather can change very quickly, and it always rains. No, instead carry a really good rain jacket, because umbrellas usually become casualties of the wind, and then people just drop them on the sidewalk, leaving a trail of crippled umbrellas. I call them roadkill.

Take a day tour on a bus! You will get to see much more than you could otherwise and get an earful of the lovely Irish accent from your tour guide.

In Galway, you don’t say it’s raining. You say the sky is soft.

Don’t try walking out to the coast. It is farther than it seems.

Bon Voyage: Cork

I can’t make a faire judgment of Cork, seeing as an hour after I arrived in the city, I left it to visit Blarney Castle, and then twenty hours after I arrived, I left on a plane for London. Of course I recommend the visit to Blarney Castle, and not just to kiss the Blarney Stone (which I did, obviously, given my prolific writing as of late…). The highlight of Blarney Castle was the Garden Close, a fairyland of overgrown paths around Druid ruins, rushing waterfalls, and ancient trees. In Ireland the fairy mythology is still current and strong, and the evidence is in the land: If you see a lone (bothersome) tree right in the middle of a field, it’s because a fairy lives there a the farmer won’t touch it; If you take the new road from Shannon Airport to Galway, you’ll notice that it goes quite out of its way in spots, avoiding fairy forts. Garden Close at Blarney is full of fairies—I saw them.

The pubs of Blarney (there are two in the village, which couldn’t be more quaint), however, are full of good solid Irishmen. It was there that I spent my last evening in Ireland, chatting with a few locals and trying my first Guinness (which was…bearable). I couldn’t have chosen better.

Bon Voyage: London

London was a blur. I came in Wednesday, celebrated Halloween that night at my friend Danica’s university, then spent a quick afternoon exploring the city the next day. We spent a good deal of time at Westminster Abbey, which is a place you pay to enter so you can say, ‘Wow…I’m standing near/next to/opposite of/on top of suchandsuch famous person’s body!’ It was overwhelming to think of how many important people have passed through or been buried in the Abbey, and visiting ‘Poet’s Corner,’ where many famous writers are buried, is especially astonishing. Charles Dickens, T.S. Elliot, Handel, Elizabeth I, Darwin, Newton, Chaucer, Samuel Johnson, Thomas Hardy…an impressive collection of corpses!

Of course we walked along the Thames river, saw the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben (which is actually the bell, not the tower or the clock), Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge and London Bridge (which was not actually falling down, at least when I saw it). Visiting London was a time of great silliness and fun—It was a nice break to have a travel buddy. I learned on this trip that I can travel alone: the comfort of having the other person is, in case something goes wrong, you’re not completely on your own; but having the other person doesn’t necessarily prevent things from going wrong; and if both of you are equally lost when something does go wrong…

But for awhile, it was good to have a travel buddy.

Practical advice for London:

Avoid the pound whenever possible. The exchange rate from the dollar to the euro is bad enough.

Watch for Tube rats, the friendly little creatures that show up along the rails of the underground subway and also carry the Black Plague. Sorry, Europe, rats, I can’t think otherwise.

Visit Westminster Abbey!

I hear Brick Lane has the best Indian food. We wanted to try, but ran out of time. It is certain I will come back to this city, even if it is ridiculously (3 pounds—6 or 7 dollars—for a bagel sandwich), ludicrously expensive.

Bon Voyage: Paris

Did I mention I never have good luck in Paris? Well, during the days leading up to my return to France, I started to worry that maybe I would have forgotten my French. But it was trial by fire when we arrived and, though I’d reserved and confirmed, the hotel had no room for us. Finding out why, negotiating a new room at another hotel we were moved to, differentiating the very chic Hotel Magenta Paris at 38 Boulevard de Magenta from the ancient but acceptable Hotel Paris Magenta at 48 Boulevard de Magenta…I quickly regained by French skills.

And the first thing I did upon arrival? Buy a baguette, of course!

Then I proceeded to walk around Paris for eight hours. Here’s the route for any of you who know the city and can appreciate the distance: Gare de l’Est to Notre Dame Cathedral, past the Centre Pompidou and the Hôtel de Ville; along the Seine River past the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, and the Jardin de Tuleries (park); up the Champs Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe (which you have to pay to stand under!); finishing up at the Eiffel Tower (which sparkles on the hour every evening); and all the way back. It was a good trek, and the city is incredibly beautiful at night. Paris is redeemed, I’d say.

Don't ask me what it took to get this picture of the Champs Elysees.

The next morning before catching the train back to Strasbourg (home! Finally!), we visited the Moulin Rouge. Now, for those of you who know Danica and me, this is about the culmination of our shared lives. We are ardent fans of the film (you have no idea…), and to stand there together in front of the Moulin Rouge, in Paris, in France, in Europe, together…Well, it was surreal. And incredibly exciting. And what do we do when things are surreal and exciting? We take pictures!

When I saw the tower of the Strasbourg cathedral…

I was very relieved to be home. Simple as that.

I know, it was long. But I told you: I kissed the Blarney stone!

07 November 2007

I survived my first grève!

21 October 2007—catching up a little

Grève may not be a word you’re familiar with, even in translation. It means ‘strike,’ as in, ‘In France, there’s always a good reason to go on strike.’ Grèves are quite common in France, though the first major grève I endured happened just last Thursday when the SNCF, the company that runs all the trains in France (which are much better routed, equipped, and utilized than in the States) went on strike against the reforms President Sarkozy is proposing concerning retirement. It near-paralyzed the country, for one because something like forty out of 700 trains were running, and also because every other transportation organization decided it was also a good time to grève for reasons ranging from ‘social upheaval’ (Paris metro) to ‘bathroom breaks’ (Strasbourg public transport). But before you snicker condescendingly or giggle ludicrously, here’s what one French person observed to me: In the US, people are afraid of the government; in France, the government is afraid of the people. What power! Grèves don’t happen without reason (keep in mind that standards of what is ‘grève-worthy’ are a little bit broader here), and they’re very well-organized. Effective? I can’t say much on the history, but I know the SNCF is planning another grève for mid-November, this time indeterminate: the people won’t stop until the government gives in.

How did it effect my daily routine? Well, I don’t take the train or bus daily, so one would think surviving the grève wouldn’t be difficult. One would think. But of course, for one week, I decided to take advantage of my Fridays without class and plan a day-trip with a friend to the neighboring region of Lorraine and its main city Nancy. The grève was set to end Thursday night, but Friday morning the trains were slow to recommence. Moreover, we’d planned to take the bus to the train station, but had to scrounge for last-minute bikes when we found out that the Strasbourg public transport had gone on strike too. But we made it, and without much shifting of schedule, we made it to and from Nancy safely. In Nancy

They call it Stanislas because L*&%dz#$*#ski is just too hard to pronounce.

The center of Nancy is the Place Stanislas, named after the eighteenth century king of Poland/duke of Lorraine. Off this main square are several prominent streets, each with its own attractions. We visited the art museum (which contained a nice smattering of holy-smokes-am-I-really-standing-in-front-of-a-Delacroix/Picasso/Monet/unknown 13th century work), the city’s historical museum (a maze to get around in, but including a large exhibit on the glasswork that Lorraine in so famous for), the park, the main cathedral, and back to the Place Stanislas by night. Nancy looks very different from Strasbourg. Think typical French grillwork on neoclassical architecture versus exposed timbers, thatched roofs and geraniums.

In my opinion, Nancy is worth the visit just to see the paintings of Georges de la Tour, a local seventeenth-century artist who does amazing work in painting light, especially candlelight. The painting is extremely detailed and fine, almost like a photograph. Thank you ETA, Manchester College’s basic humanities course that taught me everything I need to know (and more!) about art.

70,000 Beds in Paris, and Not a One to Sleep In

Sometimes the strangest things are true.

After the Friday in Nancy, I spent Saturday in Paris with the BCA group. It was a quick day trip that turned into a 24-hour-way-too-long-overnight trip, and let me tell you how: The day was proceeding quite well. Leslie and I visited Notre Dame

, passed by the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay, then spent the afternoon visiting the Chateau de Versailles, where a towering portrait of one or another King Louis greeted us in every room. We saw the Hall of Mirrors, the Royal Bedchamber, the Chapel, the Gardens. It was all quite amazing. This is a picture of us pretending to be part of Versailles (we are very, very silly):

Then, with plenty of time, we took the long tram back into Paris and stopped off at the Eiffel Tower for a few priceless photos, then got back on the tram, with plenty of time, to go back to the train station to go back to Strasbourg. But then the tram stopped, and we were late to the station, and we missed our train by five minutes. And, for same crazy and odd and strange reason for which I will never forgive the SNCF, the 7:30pm Saturday train to Strasbourg was the last one. Okay, so we have to spend the night in Paris. Worse things could happen. And then, worse things did happen. Leslie and I searched every hotel within walking distance of the East train station, only to find that they were all full. Why? Because it was…

Saturday night

Of the final

Of the rugby world cup

In Paris.


We tried every option we had (hotels, hostels, friends), and eventually ended up depending on a sympathetic concierge of a Best Western near the train station. “Here’s what you do,” he said, “You stay out in a bar or a club until it closes near two or three am, then you come back here and you can stay in the lobby until six.” So, that’s what we did, although after a full day of exploring the city and a night of intense cold, it wasn’t as grand as it sounds to be stranded in Paris in the midst of world cup fervor. It was my first experience of ‘bar hopping,’ although I don’t know if that counts when it’s forced! Once we returned to the hotel, we were at least safe and warm, even if we did have to jerk awake and pretend to be playing cards every time a real hotel guest came in. We left about six, took the train back at 7:30, and slept all day.

A well-deserved rest, I’d say.

And that’s how I survived a night stranded in Paris.

The day after, I booked my hotel in Paris for the next time I’d be visiting, at the end of the Toussaint vacation. However, I just never have luck in Paris—but that’s a story for another time…

To be continued…

With an account of my travels in Ireland, London, and Paris over Toussaint break.

25 October 2007

Off galavanting around Europe...

Be back soon.

15 October 2007

When time starts to fly

I think I’ve been here for six weeks now. Or has it been seven? I’ve stopped keeping track—that’s a good sign. But it feels like almost nothing. It feels like I’m just getting started. Part of that is due to the continued publicity regarding ‘La Rentrée,’ the big back-to-school season. I laugh because, for the past four weeks, stores and clubs and the university have been advertising ‘Solde de la Rentrée’ (sale), ‘Fête de la Rentrée’ (party), ‘Rendezvous de la Rentrée’ (meeting), and you can’t help but giggle and wonder (ok, maybe you can help the giggling), So when exactly does the Rentrée end? When do people stop celebrating coming back and realize that they’re here? Exams?

Saturday afternoon over a steaming bowl of homemade broccoli soup (I make my own chunky soups, since all soups here are puréed), Leslie and I discussed with amazement the fact that we’ve been here several weeks, and were very thankful that we’re staying a year. Really, we feel like we’re just settling in, and yet in only two months almost the entire BCA group will return home. It feels so…transient. Although I suppose since I moved to college I’ve lived on ‘I can do without’s, waiting to buy or do or wash something until I go home on a break. I’m trying to get out of that mindset here, changing from ‘I can do without’ to ‘No, this would really make my life here a lot more pleasant…’. Not that I’m going on shopping sprees or anything, mind you. I’m just settling in, unpacking, realizing that now the word ‘home’ refers (in part) to Strasbourg, France.


This week in review: It’s a good thing I read linguistics books for fun! This week in my linguistics courses we distinguished content words from function words, and I think I would have been quite lost had I not read Steven Pinker’s (MIT linguist, Chomsky cohort) The Language Instinct this summer. A content word (or mot lexicale) is a noun, adjective, verb, and sometimes adverb; the category is open—we’re always adding new words to it; think ant, bluish, to blog, and standoffishly. A function word (or mot grammaticale) is a preposition, conjunction, determinant, pronoun, and sometimes adverb; the category is closed—we don’t just invent new ways to say and/or/with/he/she/very. If you can master this distinction, consider yourself a linguist. If you think you can invent a new function word, consider yourself an idiot. If you have trouble with the word and but not ant, if you can construct a perfectly grammatical sentence without understanding what it means, or if you have a hard time remembering the names of vegetables, consider yourself a victim of SLD (specific language disorder)—No really, it exists!

Just in case you missed the ball…

Saturday night, France and England took their historic enmity to the rugby field. France lost, but that’s not the most important part. Real amazement comes from realizing that two countries who had been enemies for centuries (millennia?) are now content to play games of sport instead of games of war. And what separates France from Germany? A bridge. No border guards, no customs, no security walls, no barbed wire.

Espero (from the Spanish verb ‘esperar,’ which means both ‘to wait for’ and ‘to hope’) for the day when the US plays Iraq in rugby (or soccer, or badminton, or put-put golf), when all that separates Israel and Palestine is a bridge (you know, over the hot sand), when the lion lies down with the lamb…

French Culture 101

Since I’m not exactly sure who my audience is, I think I ought to clarify the importance of wine in France. Wine is to French cuisine what _______ (cheddar cheese? Meat and potatoes? Peanut butter and jelly? Popcorn? Apple juice?) is to American fare. Alcohol is not taboo here like it tends to be in the States. It accompanies the meal, it accents the taste of the main dish, it’s consumed in company…it’s not automatically associated with drunkenness. In fact, as other study abroad students have remarked to me, there is a certain ‘alcohol consumption etiquette.’ There’s a clear distinction between families drinking wine with dinner and, well, drunkards drinking any sort of alcohol. Here’s a contrast that, if considered, might put French wine in the right light: Yesterday at church a new member was admitted. To celebrate after the service, her husband (a professional wine taster and 5 star chef) catered in an aperitif: munchies and a nice regional white wine. Wine…it’s just here.

I can't disclose whether this was actually taken in France or not, but it was with family, around a meal, with a Reisling.


Due to the incredible cost of peanut butter in the local Match supermarket (3.85 euro per jar…I think at the current conversion rate that’s about $5.75), it is now officially a sin to waste peanut butter. O ye heathens who consumeth not thine entire portion! Just think of all the poor, peanut-butter-starved Colleens in Europe.

I’m doing well, healthy and whole and safe and sound in Strasbourg. Bisou.