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.