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...