08 July 2008

Letters from Home

Nothing beats a beautiful Michigan summer day. Or a beautiful Michigan forest. Or my beautiful Michigan family. Can you tell I’m glad to be back in my beautiful Michigan home?
The readjustment has been anything but painful. I can’t say I’ve experienced any “reverse culture shock,” because how can I be shocked by everything which is so familiar? The places remain the same, the people the same, the habits and personalities the same. And right now, I like familiar. I like going to brunch again with my sisters; though now, we’ve deemed my niece old enough to join. I like sipping morning coffee with my mom; though now, the coffee pot has changed. I like goofing off with my dad; though now…no, still about the same level of goofiness. My dog and I take the same walks, I’ve reclaimed my room, and the “welcome back” party was just as good as any other. So what has changed?
I have changed.
I have changed. And it makes me notice strange things, like public drinking fountains, or the way the dishwasher here closes differently than the one at my Strasbourg home, or the different feel of the telephone here from the cell phone I used all year. I notice the differences in social interactions: at restaurants, leaving a store, or talking with customer services. I need a moment when someone asks “Can I help you?”…and when the server brings the food before I’ve forgotten what I’ve ordered. I need a moment when I get into a car…and when I fill it up with gas. I find myself wishing for the “bisous” cheek kiss instead of my awkward hugs. I do foolish things like greet everyone I interact with before beginning my request, and ignoring everyone else. Foolish things like checking train tickets for a big trip coming up (even at $4.20 a gallon, the ticket was 4 times as expensive as driving myself). Foolish things like buying a Meijer baguette, like tuning the radio to my usual French news station, like thinking I can ride a bike anywhere.
This world is not the same, I am not the same. But I am in this world and it is mine. I set about claiming it…now.

28 June 2008

I am coming home

We're in the home stretch: after ten months of living, eating, studying, traveling, struggling, managing, thriving here (and the last two weeks traveling with the parents--many stories to come), I am heading home.

It's a long and rugged road
and we don't know where it's headed
but we know it's gonna get us where we're going
and when we find what we're looking for
we'll drop these bags and search no more
cause it's gonna feel like heaven when we're home.

I am looking forward to:
Hanging my clothes on the line
Wiling away entire days reading with my mom
Going on motorcycle rides with my dad
Watching the sun set over Lake Michigan
Petting my dog and my cat
Untrimmed trees
The screen house at my "retreat center" of a house
Being on the grounds crew at Manchester

I am dreading:

I will miss:
The city of Strasbourg
The sense of history
The French idea of a meal

I am afraid of (among others):
The undeniable fact that things will have changed while I was away
Forgetting French
Losing contact with friends here
Never coming back

Of all my reflections on this year, the one thought I have that is the most true is this:
Time passes.

See you soon,

04 June 2008

Rain Rain Go Away

If someone were to tell you that, instantaneously, you were to be transported to the south of France, to the nearly-fairytale picturesque regions of Provence and the French Riviera, what would you pack (say the instantaneous transport gave you half an hour to ready yourself)? A bikini, sunglasses, sunscreen, sandals…

It’s a good thing I’m a mite more practical than you all, and packed rain gear, a hat, long pants, a scarf…Because you know what it did in the south of France during my week-long visit? It rained.

I started out in Avignon, which I’m sure is a lovely town when it’s not raining out. I’d taken the night train from Strasbourg, and the sleeping cars were quite the experience: there are straps to keep you from rolling off the bunks; a care package of earplugs, face towelette, and breath mints; and a conductor that wakes you up before your stop if you ask nicely. Unfortunately, it put me into Avignon at 4:45am, when it was raining. I waited hopefully for the rain to stop and the sky to brighten up, but neither happened. So at 6:30 I trudged to my hostel, which was half-campground and located right on the edge of the Rhône river. The guardian informed me that the hostel didn’t open until 8:00—no problem, I’ll gladly while away my breakfast hour next to the Rhône. Only it was raining. I sought out shelter and returned at the appointed hour, only to find that the hostel cash register wouldn’t be open to accept payments until 9:00. Harrumph. I left my bag and returned to the station, hopping on the next train to Nîmes, my day trip destination. The whole purpose of visiting the region was to see the Roman ruins, which looked their age in the bleak, incessant (you guessed it) rain. In Nîmes I saw a half-dismantled coliseum, a square house (its real name, Maison Carrée), and a big tower.

Feeling not too impressed and a little disgruntled, I took a train to Arles to grasp the wispy café scenes Van Gogh was so in love with. Maybe it didn’t rain when he was there.

Exhausted and in a warm, dry, nonmoving bed that night, I wondered why I ever travel, and why I travel so much alone. Rain can make you feel lonely. I felt better after a good night’s sleep and a lazy morning (when it actually didn’t rain), and took a bus to see the Pont du Gard, a huge piece remaining of a 22 mile Roman aqueduct. They were so good, the bricks don’t even have mortar between them: they are that finely formed. Impressive as it is, it doesn’t merit six hours of attention, but due to the unfortunate bus schedule (the bus arriving at 12:50 didn’t have a correspondence back until 6:45), that’s about what I spent there. I scampered around, took pictures from all angles, laid next to the river (it only threatened rain), climbed the nearby trails…and was still left with two hours of thumb-twiddling. But there are worse places to twiddle your thumbs.

My final morning in Avignon, it rained. I visited the Popes’ Palace, where they lived during the fourteenth century when political intrigue got too hot in Rome. The complex has seen better days, and is large and empty and bare and cold. Felt like it had rained on the inside.

On the train ride to Nice, one of the most beautiful train routes, taking me along the coast past places I’d only heard of in movies, I looked out pensively at the falling rain. The scene could have been in a film. The first bright spot of the whole trip came when I got into Nice (whose train workers started on strike when I arrived) and found my friend and host Julien waiting to pick me up. There’s nothing quite so nice as being singled out by a familiar face from the masses on public transit. I know Julien from tango class, but a guy of many talents, he is actually studying hydrological engineering and is working an internship this summer in the small mountain town of Venanson, two hours above Nice. Thursday night we stayed at the house of one of his fellow city councilors, and it rained. Friday morning we stayed inside, since it was, you know, raining. Before taking the bus up into the mountains, there was a spot of sunshine, and we took advantage of it to walk along the Promenade des Anglais, the main seaside strip in Nice. You wouldn’t believe the blue of the Mediterranean—just like in the pictures!

A Change in the Wind

It still rained at Venanson. But it was nice to have company to complain about it to! Julien is a fantastic hike leader, and when the biologist in him came out it was like having my own personal nature guide. I think I know the names of more flowers in French than in English now. One day we climbed up a streambed to picnic on top of the mountain, the next we descended down to the river that cuts the valley to fish next to a waterfall. On the way we passed grazing goats, honeybee hutches, and plenty of overturned rocks where Julien had earlier searched for lizards, scorpions, snakes, mushrooms…It was simply magical, and the town itself only added to it. Perched on the edge of the grand valley view, Venanson counts 160 permanent residents, and doubles if you count the summer vacationers. The earliest mention of the town dates it to the thirteenth century, and it’s a place where the old days are still recounted in outrageous Provençale accents by tottering old men playing cards on the main square. I soaked it up. Julien, having spent a month pent up by the rain that kept him from doing his job working on the town’s drinking water supply, had found the small town feel wearing thin, but it reminded me of my last summer’s work in the Garden in North Manchester, which was fulfilling work in a good setting.

I could’ve stayed there another week, exploring the nooks and crannies of the surrounding hills and getting to know the locals, but two straight days of Julien’s non-stop company (he talks all the time and he knows it) gave me a good yearning for some quiet time by myself again. So, with good wishes, a belated birthday gift, and thankfulness for my visit, my host sent me on my way from Nice to Dijon.

Capital Punishment

Dijon was just an overnight side stop on my way home to Strasbourg, but I thought the capital of Burgundy and home to the palace of the regional dukes worth a visit. Plus I’d heard it wasn’t raining in the areas north of the coast. So I prepared myself for mustard-tasting and got my left hand ready to rub the owl on the Dijon cathedral for good luck. Dijon is not a very big town, but has a nice town center which gives a half-Parisian impression by its chimneys and a half-Alsatian one by its exposed wood-beam houses. The multicolored tiled roofs, however, are uniquely Dijon. I took the recommended self-walking tour. In the rain. No problem, I’ll just spend the day inside, in the ducal palace. Closed Tuesdays. Can’t I get anything right? I whiled away a few hours waiting sneakily for spotty sunshine to take good pictures, then had a coffee in one of the nice squares around town, making the mistake of not asking the price first, and paying a whopping sum. I left town in the early afternoon, having changed my train for not being able to stand the rain and disappointment any longer.

I was never so happy to see the Strasbourg cathedral, my bike and a long warm evening welcoming me home.

26 May 2008

Happy Birthday Week

Birthdays are special days in my family. So special, in fact, you get to celebrate them all week long: the weekend before, the week of, and the weekend after can be filled with celebrations, gifts, happiness, and excuses (“C’mon, it’s my birthday!”). I think it’s my mother’s fault we celebrate birthdays this way. It’s not such a bad tradition…

So my birthday week began with the Quebecoises’ visit to Strasbourg last weekend. It continued uneventfully through Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday as I waited for my friend Nicole from Manchester (the one I visited in Marburg, Germany, where she is studying) to arrive. Unfortunately in the meantime, the weather took a turn for the worse, so that when I picked her up at the train station Wednesday afternoon and we joined other BCAers for an end-of-year barbecue, thick clouds and grayness and wind made for a cool-weather gathering. We still enjoyed ourselves, running around with Alex’s four young sons, playing ultimate Frisbee, trying to catch a muskrat, and building human pyramids. But the weather didn’t make for very good pictures, so imagine a lake, a campfire, food, champagne, and a Frisbee. Yeah, that should be it.

The big day was actually Thursday, no sunnier or warmer. Nicole and I slept in, made a big breakfast, rented her a bike, and biked out to the small town where I teach English. We picnicked and explored the paths through the fields. The problem is, I have SUCH a good sense of direction that I forget to take into account natural barriers: I had us on a path through the fields back toward the forest path I knew, and it curved a bit but kept going in the right direction. Despite Nicole’s voiced doubts of my sanity, we kept on. Then the path went from gravel to dirt, then to grass, then entered the woods, then dead-ended at…a river. Bothersome things. BUT we were never lost!

We came home and cleaned up, then went to l’Artichaut, my favorite café in town. I go there with friends on Thursdays to listen to the jazz jam sessions. Nicole and I went for dinner, and I had invited nearly all my friends to stop by for a drink. It was a good crowd: friends from dance class, several other BCA students, Hayley, Manuel (nationalities present: US, French, Australian, Greek, Colombian, German)…and those who couldn’t come by sent messages. It was a wonderful evening, I liked the food, the music, the company, the conversation. No one bought me drinks, obliged me to have a “traditional” 21st birthday (although I hear my sisters are planning it for my return). In the late evening, a piece of chocolate-pear tart (nothing compared to Mom’s yellow cake and chocolate frosting, or Grandma’s puppy chow!) came to the table with a candle in it, and everyone sang happy birthday and the entire bar chimed in. I have seldom been so happy, so thankful.

In the wee hours of the morning, we called it a night and left satisfied. And none of this takes into account all of YOUR efforts: a birthday song by phone from my parents, cards from friends (and their pets), and emails in every form. Thank you, thank YOU, THANK YOU!

But, as I said before, the celebrations continue: on Friday Nicole and I took a day trip to Saverne, an old town at the foot of the Vosges mountains. We hiked up to the chateau of Haut Barr, a gothic castle/fort topping the mountain and offering a view of the plains stretching out toward Strasbourg. We picnicked again, and returned to town to meet the parents of Charlotte, the French student who will be studying at Manchester next year. They invited Leslie, Cassie, Nicole and I for an aperitif at their house, then a typically Alsatian tarte flambée dinner in a restored barn-restaurant somewhere in the countryside. It was by far the best tarte flambée I’ve ever had.

Saturday we rested: a short trip into town to the Hospices de Strasbourg, the renowned wine cellar that’s part of the city hospital, where I chat and chortle with Philippe, who recommends wine for Nicole to take back with her. In the afternoon, we watched a movie and Nicole cooked up a fabulous dinner, which we shared with Hélène from my tango class, and then played cards.

Sunday morning almost all the BCA students left town. They will be settled back at home (some after a very long séjour) now, surrounded by loved ones. A large part of me envies them.

I was glad the family I teach English in (Laurence, the mother, specifically) invited me to celebrate French Mothers’ Day with their family and the grandparents. The meal was amazing, and the family is full of characters. At one point, when they were debating the three best cheeses in France, after having informed me about the proper way to store wine and how to know how long to store it and how sometimes you have to change the corks…I realized that, no denying it, I am living in France. Sometimes it just hits you. And a large part of me does not at all envy those who had left for home that morning. Professors, surprisingly enough, are usually very wise people: you were right, part of my home will always be here in Strasbourg. I thought about that as I dozed blissfully under the cherry tree in the yard and the grandpa jabbered on about Alsatian history. Can’t complain about this birthday week. My goal now is to remember and celebrate everyone else’s birthday in such a way.

I think it’s normal, to feel divided like this about leaving this place that has welcomed me these last ten months. I wish human beings were not capable of feeling to opposing emotions at the same time, but I think that’s the way we spend most of our existence. Try to keep that in mind when I come back. I will be happy, overjoyed even, to see you; but I imagine it will be tempered by some uneasiness, some nostalgia; overall, I expect it to just be very strange to see you, in person.

18 May 2008

Wrapping Up

Family Vacation

When I signed up for BCA, I knew I wanted to live in a host family rather than a student residence. Why, after two years of independent living, would I want to give up my freedom to eat, go, do what I want where I want? Because when you think about how you will spend the next ten months of your life in a foreign country, you like to think that there might be some place where you will belong. Some people you might actually grow close to. Some table around which you might share your lives. At least that’s what I signed up for.

And in some cases, the ideal actually happens, but unfortunately, I didn’t land in that situation. First of all, there was the vegetarianism: from the age of sixteen, I gave up eating meat for ecological and ethical reasons. It wasn’t that difficult, and it was something I could do to minimize my impact on the land so that everyone can have a “fair share.” Others can take three-minute showers; I can’t. Others can’t give up meat; I can. I could go on and on about my particular vegetarian philosophy (and how it has evolved over this year in Alsace, sausage capital of the WORLD), but suffice it to say that it was a factor in my housing selection and landed me in a peculiar host family situation in which I live in an apartment with a “family,” but I cook for myself and almost never eat with them. The story is that the mother is a divorcée with an intense professional life and a partner who lives in the country. The 11-year-old daughter lives here, but when she visits her father, the mother spends those weekends at the country house. During the week, she might return late, have to make a day-trip to Paris, or be at her athletic club. This all led her to decide that she just couldn’t promise to be there every evening to provide a meal for a student; that, and she doesn’t really cook very often. The mother and I have had plenty of conversations about how this allows the student “freedom and independence” (not untrue), but I think I can say now that this is more about her “freedom and independence.” She loves and takes very good care of her daughter, and the two of them are very likable, chatty, and laid-back. But this is definitely half-way between a renting and a host family situation. I’m never expected to see them, be at the house, spend time with them on a regular basis, and as the year has rolled on, I rarely do, and I don’t feel too guilty about it. The situation of my room on the upper floor of the apartment, removed from the kitchen, their rooms, and the living room, has contributed to the distance. There are no bad feelings about the situation, just a whole lot of neutrality. I don’t think the mother is just doing it for the money, but there’s not a whole lot of warmth in the in-home reception either. It’s an awkward way to live: there’s laundry in the house but I can’t use it; there’s plenty of food but I can’t eat it; there’s a clear delineation between what is mine and their’s. The most embarrassing and passively infuriating instance was one of those rare times that we ate dinner at the same time and the mother was drinking wine (which one never does alone, and which she’s offered me before) and she didn’t offer me any. Not that I was dying for it, but the French are usually pretty strict about manners of wine propriety, and to drink a glass in front of others of drinking age without offering any is probably the most egregious offense.

All this to start the story of my weekend in Grenoble with the family I teach English in. Meet Laurence, Christian, Marine, and Julie. They lived in Florida for six years while Christian was working, have been in Strasbourg for three, and now will be moving to Grenoble. Marine is 11 (so was in the US from 2-8) and is bilingual; Julie less so, since she was 2 when they moved back to France (although she’s the one with the US passport!). I work with both the girls in English on Wednesdays, two hours each. They both attend the international school in Strasbourg, and Marine will hopefully continue at the one in Grenoble. To gain entrance, she had to pass an exam last weekend at the school, so the family invited me to come along, have an “all-English” weekend, and see the city. It was an amazing trip, with all the aspects of a family vacation. I learned how to be an older sister, and remembered way more songs, games, stories, and jokes than I ever realized I knew. We left on Wednesday afternoon and got in late after six hours of driving, most it in Switzerland along Lake Geneva. The countryside was beautiful, and expressways here are refreshingly free of billboards. We spent the weekend in an apartment/hotel building where the dad is staying (he’s already been working in Grenoble for two months). Thursday was a public holiday, so the four of us (Julie had stayed at home with the grandparents for the weekend), visited the Bastille fortifications that overlook the city, walked around old Grenoble, lunched on the terrace of a café, visited one of the nearby mountain villages, and went out that night for Indian food. Though we spoke in English all the time, Marine and I spent the afternoon back at the hotel specifically working on oral comprehension and expression activities. We went to bed early and got up early for the exam on Friday, for which Marine was not at all nervous but Laurence and I desperately so. It’s a delicate balance between wanting her to make it into this school where she’ll have much more language support for her English (which she doesn’t get at home, because both parents are French), and realizing that if she stopped speaking today at 11 years old, she would lose fluency and vocabulary, but she would still speak English. It’s one of her languages. She sounds like an American kid when she speaks.

While Marine was taking the exam in English, I worked on my own end-of-semester projects in French. Specifically, I was working on an analysis of three interviews I conducted about “linguistic behavior,” what/when/why each person spoke French/Alsatian/German. It was (I know you don’t believe me) very interesting, I had plenty of things to comment on, and the French came easily. In the end, the paper consists of 9 pages of good analysis in hard-core academic French: the requirement was 6. I’m quite proud of this paper, and it only further confirmed that sociolinguistics is the field for me! (To my Manchester French professor: Yes, I will send it to you once the writing has been reviewed by a native French speaker, and then we’ll see what you think of it—I still know my impression counts very little.)

To celebrate, we went out to eat Friday night at an American-style buffet family restaurant (including buffet wine?!). AND the booths were in an old train car! Can you see my full, full stomach in this picture?

Saturday morning, after sleeping late(r) (always subjective when you’re with kids), we went to see the house they’ve bought in Corenc, a Grenoble suburb clinging to the foothills a bit above the city. (Did you know that Grenoble, though located in the Alps, is the flattest city in France?) Let’s just say this family does quite well for itself, and the house is beautiful. It was when they showed me the guest room and said they hoped it tempted me to come back and visit them that I realized just how much I mean to this family, and how much they have come to mean to me. I thought they hired me as an English tutor, but were really looking for (and found) a big sister for the girls.

And the weekend only got better: after we saw the house, we drove to a town up the valley and had lunch in a road-side cafe next to the para-gliders’ landing field. We took the funicular (a little rail car) up the mountain to the take-off point, since it affords a great view of the valley. Laurence, Marine and I basked in the sun while Christian (who is a real bird) para-glided down; then we took the funicular back down and headed back to the hotel. That night we dined in a South American restaurant then retired, sun-exhausted, to bed around midnight.

Sunday morning was more than the perfect way to end the weekend: You see, the dad also pilots planes. He took this up when Marine was born: Laurence could have killed him, Marine couldn’t be happier. We almost didn’t make it into the air, because the plane we rented hadn’t been topped off with gas by the person before us, so we had to start it, take it to the fueling station, and start it again, but apparently it doesn’t re-start so well when already hot. Luckily, after a few tries, we were ready to go. I’ve uploaded the take-off video and a few pictures: we flew up the valley, over the mountains a bit, and then over Grenoble, and I felt like I was in a National Geographic film. One of THE coolest experiences.

We drove back that afternoon, stopping at the grandparents to pick up Julie and have dinner. The grandparents proved just as welcoming, just as endearing. It was a great time, and I always knew I had a place around the table. I found my host family.

Finals Week(s)

I know this is getting long, but I can’t leave without remarking the difference between finals week and “hell week” (the week before, when all the projects are due) at Manchester and finals week here, which has actually spread over three weeks. I am turning out quite a bit of work (two real university exams, a half-hour solo presentation in a real university class, the analysis paper for a real university class, year-end French exams, and two small elective exams; not to mention two papers left to write for my internship), but in what sort of exam period can you take a 5-day vacation, spend a day riding bikes with you study abroad program, and host visitors? The bike ride was last Monday (another public holiday) to Molsheim, a nice town at the feet of the Vosge mountains. Twenty-five kilometers there, a nice lunch, a jaunt up the hillside for the view, and twenty-five kilometers back: good thing the terrain was flat, the weather perfect, and the company good!

Then my beloved Quebecoises came to visit me and see Strasbourg Thursday to Friday evening. I practiced my tour guide skills for when my parents come (which is unbelievably SOON!!!!!).

Emilie et moi
Nancy at the Cave de l'Hopital civile: Where everyone knows your name!

And take-off!

07 May 2008

May Day

To celebrate the closing of winter and the coming of spring is really a wonderful and important thing. At Manchester, this transition is celebrated with copious amounts of alcohol, lots of noise (including an air-band concert), silly games (at least silly if you have consumed said-copious amounts of alcohol), and general (and sometimes frightening) public drunkenness. Maybe my reaction is a bit extreme, but I’ve always enjoyed standing (sober) on the sidewalk watching the hordes of drunken revelers make their (never straight) way to the concert, shaking my head, returning to my room—and locking the door.

May Day weekend this year was much more tempered, full of activities you didn’t have to be drunk to enjoy, and thus enjoyable. It started with a day of Thursday (French Labor Day), which I spent working like a fool for a presentation the next day. Except for the evening, when I was invited chez Hélène, one of my friends from dance class. We spent the beautiful late afternoon walking around downtown Strasbourg, then had dinner with her mom at their house, eating à la grècque (see feta, moussaka, Greek coffee and money below), because Hélène is French-Greek.

Friday, with my presentation finally over and all the tension flowing dissipating leaving me like a popsicle in the sun, I did just that: read and napped in the sun on the terrace of my apartment. It’s a perfect place to be, and is becoming dangerously tempting in this warm weather when I should be studying. After resting up, I went to my couples’ dance class and giggled with Hélène while we learned the swing, waltz, and el paso. Dancing continued later that night at le Snooker, a place in town that has “all dance” nights every other Friday, including tango, swing, waltz, salsa, chacha…you name it, there are people to dance it. I was there with my (best French) friend Julien and a couple others from class. I managed to get a couple films of the dance, because I suspect none of you believe me when I say I can do it. I don’t know if these are post-able, but I’ll try.

Saturday slipped away from me between going to market, lunching with a friend, sitting on the terrace of a café with others (for the purpose of getting to know the French student who will be at Manchester next year), attempting to fix my bike, and a last-minute crêpe dinner chez Leslie. I can’t complain—all of it was fantastic!

And the crêpe dinner went late, devolved into dancing, and ended with a very tired group of four BCAers watching the sunrise. Sometimes life is just great. And sometimes it takes riding your bike home in a foreign country watching the sunrise over the European Parliament to realize that you cannot let who you are be wrapped up in other people, because then you will never become who you want to be.


Nor can you let your self-worth be determined by French university.

I HATE French University

What follows is an untempered rant concerning my academic well-being. It makes no claims to be well-thought-out, weighed-out, or correct. But here goes...

I may very well fail some of my classes this year. This is not normal, and I don't say it with a sense of resignation. Just a matter-of-fact tone acknowledging what is possible. Let me explain:

I have eight hours of courses at the foreigners' university. These classes are a joke. My grammar block, though providing me with a steady year-long group of acquaintances (it was unbelievably comforting to see the same faces every day at the beginning of the year when everything else was changing), has done little to improve my French. It sounds haughty and ungrateful, I know, because I speak French a thousand times better now than when I arrived, but I'm not trying to say it was all through my own effort. Simply, it was just not by virtue of the work we did in class, which consisted of Monday: review mistakes made in previous written expressions; Wednesday: work on oral comprehension; and Thursday: written expression. It sounds logical, but there was a sense of lethargy that dominated, especially this semester. The bar was never raised. All I ever got back was "c'est excellent" and "tres bien," which does a lot for my confidence but nothing for my skill. I produced nothing of worth in my grammar block, just a lot of BS written expressions responding to prompts I could care less about (subjects like "cell phones and adolescents" and "dietary supplements"). My two elective courses, Translation and Linguistic Diversity, were somewhat redeeming. Translation always frustrated me because we always worked from English to French and the professor would always respond "But what you've written doesn't SOUND French!" Linguistic Diversity, while the material was interesting, the class pace was too slow and the last three weeks of class were cancelled (ok, legit: the prof was quite ill). But LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT THE EXAM: a semester's worth of class = 15 fill-in-the-blank questions it took a half-hour to complete. One question (no kidding): What explains the spread of latin starting in the third century BC in Italy and Mediterranean Europe? Another (again, not kidding): What historical event explains the spread of these languages around the world: French, Spanish, English, Portuguese. Uh, the Roman Empire? Uh, the colonial system? It's just like that, too: you end up second-guessing yourself. And the best part? The exam for the year-students and those having taken the course only the semester--same exam.

I have eight hours of courses at the real university, thank God. At least there I knew I wouldn't shoot myself from boredom...just frustration. I got to study real, live, linguistic change under the tutelage of some very experienced professors: sociolinguistics, regional language and culture, linguistic educational policy, history of Germanic languages. The content is enthralling (again, I know you don’t believe me)! There does not exist, however, the concept of the undergraduate professor, someone who retains a bit of teacher-ness while being extremely well-versed in the field. What do I do this semester? I go to class, I sit there for two hours, I contribute nothing, and I’m treated like I have and will never have anything to contribute. The professor basically ignores the presence of the students: it’s a lecture. I kept justifying it to myself: Well, but it is in French, it is interesting. But it just wasn’t enough, and I was frustrated about being a sponge and having information deposited into my brain, and in the end not producing anything. Then, two weeks before exams, I found out I would be producing something (golly, would’ve been nice to know): a presentation on the educational linguistic policy of the US and surveys and an analysis of the linguistic behavior of three Alsatians. In two other classes, I had exams, which were/will be challenging. I did a darn good presentation and I’ll be proud of the paper when it’s finished, but I would’ve liked to have known the expectations before going to an entire semester’s worth of lecture about educational linguistic policy in Europe. You know? And what frustrated me the most was that, when asked how I would like to be evaluated, nothing was specified: a presentation, a dossier, or a “traditional oral exam.” What are these things? What were they expecting? Luckily I chose the presentation and was able to watch others and learn from them. Who knew we had to hand in a 100-page dossier of our research after presenting? And I still don’t know what a “traditional oral exam” is.

In short, I will be glad to get back to a system I at least understand, with professors who know my name and who encourage me to think on my own. Who knew it was so rare?

And now…

Leaving this afternoon for Grenoble with the family whose girls I teach English to. They’ll be moving there in July, and the oldest girl is taking her English exam to get into the international school, so they wanted to have an “all-English weekend.” I don’t think the family thinks I actually want to come (which I do!), so they keep proposing more and more extravagant activities to occupy our time. I’ll let you know how it goes.

23 April 2008

The Rain in Spain


I glided into this large coastal city on a Sunday afternoon, and caught the entire town enjoying siesta. It is not a bad way to enter a new place, especially a large new place. I walked the sunny streets from the bus station to my hostel, which was a bit of a curiosity. Situated on one of the main streets, it’s perfectly located and unbelievably classy. When you arrive, your backpack singling you out as a student traveler, you cannot believe that the chic-linen-napkin-two-wine-glasses restaurant at 33 Passeig de Gracia hides a backpackers’ haven. Then you breathe easy, because it doesn’t—there are two number 33s. I never expect that much from a hostel, but between location, marble staircase, view of Passeig de Gracia, and cleanliness, I was stuck again in unbelief that anyone had ever thought to turn this into a hostel…but mostly thankful that they had!

Traveling alone was certainly never lonely. That first night I met up with Manchester student Melissa, who has been studying in Barcelona for the year. She walked me down Las Ramblas to the port and beach, and I wiggled my toes in the Mediterranean. Though the weather was comfortable, the water was cold, and I sheepishly lamented packing my swimsuit. But you just never know!

“And you’re traveling alone?” people at the hostel would ask. I wasn’t sure if it implied I should be embarrassed or afraid to do so, so I tried to make my affirmative response as noncommittal as possible. Then we would become friends, though I hesitate between attributing that to pity or genuine like. I met two British girls backpacking during their “gap year” (a year between high school and university which many European students decide to take off to work and/or travel); a hard-core Canadian girl backpacking on a two-month tour of Europe; another, softer Canadian taking time off from his job to see Spain and southern France; and a New Zealander teaching PE classes in England, whom no one understood half the time because of the difference in accents. A strange group, to be sure, but somehow cohesive and relaxed and fun. We spent a few days sight-seeing all together: the Cathedral, the Sagrada Familia and other works of Gaudi, the Arc de Triomfe, the arena, a few parks, and the Gothic Quarter. The most impressive, of course, was the Sagrada Familia, which has been in construction for about a hundred years and will continue for at least the next twenty. According to Gaudi’s wish, the “temple” (as it’s not yet been blessed by the Pope) is being built only on private donation, and the architecture is already demanding enough. Looking at Gaudi’s houses and structures, I just couldn’t help wondering why in the bland world of 19th and 20th century architecture, no one stood up and told him “YOU are MENTAL”; imagine Gaudi building his modernist, non-standard creations in YOUR gray-and-beige-please-keep-the-grass-at-half-an-inch suburb! I did enjoy his work, though, as did my fellow travelers. We’ve tentatively planned a reunion in Barcelona in 2030 to see the finished product; for this time, though, we finished off with a group-cooked meal at the hostel. I was sad to leave this place behind.

But before I left, I visited the Cataluña Regional History Museum, which tells the story of this (reluctant?) part of Spain. From autonomy to integration in everything from language to administration, this region displays a fiery independence difficult to miss. I can’t comment on the extent to which Cataluña should or should not, will or will not, be part of Spain, but between talking to Melissa, visiting the museum, and having an encounter in which the man at the tourist desk informed me that I had better to use my English than try Spanish, because Spanish was NOT his second language (an extreme example, I hear)—between all this, I began to feel the tension surrounding Catalan identity.


A night bus took me to my next stop, and I woke up in the early morning to the hilly olive country of southern Spain. I slept surprisingly well, in two-hour spurts between stops, panicking at each one though I knew I wouldn’t arrive at Cordoba until noon. I wrote this in my travel journal: “I’m grateful for the Spanish I have, I hope I don’t miss my transfer stop, and I can’t believe I’m doing this alone. It must be frightening for parents to have a daughter who travels worlds away to places they’ve never been, alone. I feel confident; they probably feel uncomfortable. I try to mollify them, but I really have no way of knowing.” Of course, at the end of the trip, I can say that everything went smoothly and I had no reason to worry, but why the heck was I so confident about that at the beginning?! It pays to be aware, attentive, to have alternatives, to always know where your important belongings are. Just in case. It even pays, I believe, to wake up every two hours through the night on the bus to be sure you don’t miss your transfer at 9am (for which, of course, you’ve set your alarm).

In Cordoba, the weather was mostly rainy and cold, which gave me great occasion to read and journal and talk with the people staying in my “hostel” (more a hotel that had been renamed to allow it to stuff 8 beds in a 2-bed room). This time, I met an Iranian-British family: two sisters and their sons, about my age. What pleasant company they were! We dined, walked, and visited together, and now I’ve been invited to visit them in Manchester (or feel “the wrath of an Iranian mother,” as one of the sons put it).

I visited the Mezquita, a very clearly-termed cathedral in what was formerly a mosque which was formerly half-cathedral half-mosque. The gardens at the alcazar (palace) caught my attention, as they were filled with orange trees in bloom. After all, that’s what I went to Cordoba for.


Time in Cordoba included a day-trip (a LONG day-trip) to see the April Fair in Sevilla. It started out lazily enough, with a visit to the art museum (the collection of Zurburan I’d gone to see less-than-impressed me), a walk along the Guadalquivir River, sitting in the sun to journal and listen to the accordion at the café on the other bank and the clippety-clop of horse carriages carrying festively-dressed Sevillanos. I would much rather celebrate Fair than Halloween! Though I didn’t spent much time at the fair grounds (which consisted of rows and rows of public and family tents, in which people ate, drank, and danced flamenco—sort of an awkward place to be when you’re not with anyone), the atmosphere all over town entices you to join. I couldn’t even avoid it at the cathedral (with its mind-blowingly intricate altar and tomb of Christopher Columbus) or the alcazar and its gardens. I’ve always been fond of Moorish architecture, but I was never more disappointed in “Western” architecture than in Sevilla, where the alcazar is half outstanding Moorish palace and half bland Gothic palace.


My residence in Granada qualifies as my favorite hostel EVER. I mean, I suppose every hostel has a chalkboard welcoming all the new arrivals; down polka-dot comforters on wooden beds; doors opening onto little balconies letting in the afternoon sunshine; a roof-top terrace with a view of the city, the Sierra Nevada, and the cathedral; and an in-house cook who makes fresh paella, soups, and his own sangria every day. I thought I was staying in a five-star hotel; actually, compared to the hotels I’ve been in, I prefer this: the “Funky Backpackers’ Hostel.” Ok, so it’s not much of a name, it’s not easy to find, and the façade turns you off a bit, but everything and everyone on the inside made it the best hostel yet!

On Monday I got up early to get in line for one of the 2000 day-of-public-issued tickets to the Alhambra, choosing the afternoon visit time, which allowed me to go back to the hostel, nap, and sit in the sun on the terrace reading. The Alhambra (Nasride Palaces, alcazar—the oldest part of the fort, and Generalife—the summer residence) was amazing beyond words, again stunning me with the detail so fundamental to Moorish architecture. I hardly know which picture to post! I did my best to use my six-hour allotment, including a short nap on a garden bench.

This is a view of the Albaycin as seen from the Alhambra; it’s a neighborhood where all the Moors were chased to when the Catholics took over Granada (did you know that the tombs of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Monarchs, are in the Royal Chapel in Granada?!). It’s windy streets gave me a perfect morning’s worth of wandering, ultimately reaching Plaza San Nicholas, was boasts an amazing across-the-valley view of the Alhambra.

I liked Granada well enough, but not so much as the other towns I visited. Perhaps it was a ¾ trip lull, in which I thought about all that I had done and all that lay ahead, and just wanted to sit on the terrace of my very nice hostel.


So I got on a bus to my last stop, the capital of Spain. What an amazing, beautiful city! The night I arrived I took a long evening stroll from my hostel down Gran Via, in front of the Prado Art Museum, over to the Royal Palace, and through the shopping district of Puerta del Sol. I like walkable cities; it gives me a good sense of where I am when I first arrive. I’m well aware that I did not see nearly all of Madrid; that in fact, I remained in a very small central section. But at the end of the trip, that scope was wide enough for me. I liked Madrid’s wide, tulip-planted boulevards and spent most of my time in monuments (like the Royal Palace, very beautiful), museums (the Prado and the Reina Sofia), and the huge park behind the Prado.

Yes, I saw all the “biggies”: Zurburan, Velasquez, El Greco, Bosch, Breughel, Titian, and special exhibits on Goya and Picasso. I like standing in front of paintings I have studied…I like walking into a room and zapping each subject of Christian iconography with its appropriate name (“Ecce homo, St. Stephen, Adoration of the Magi, YES!”). To the professor I have to thank for that: you know who you are.

In Madrid on my last day I met up with Adlyn, the Puerto Rican I met with the Quebecoises in Rome and whom I visited in Lille (got that?), who was in town for a view days visiting her friends. We had a wonderful tapas meal together, then were sucked into shoe stores (Madrid is a big black hole for shoe-lovers). The tapas meal was good, as it was the first real meal I’d had in a while. I made the mistake of bringing along Barbara Eirehnreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (not) getting by in America as reading material. It’s the report that came out of months living on minimum wage in different places in the US and trying to make ends meet. It’s a story of scrimping, and scrimp I did under the influence of this book. By the time I got to Madrid, I was spending 3 euros a day on food—without cooking for myself. It wasn’t exactly a balanced diet (hostel breakfast, hostel-scavanged roll/fruit plus 40 cent yogurt for lunch, some sort of cheap sandwich for dinner), but it was most certainly a diet! When have eaten almost nothing but vegetables since I’ve been back.

And back I am. It was a good plan, to come back Friday. It allowed me to leave again Saturday!

About noon on Saturday I headed to a village called Ste. Marie-aux-Mines, close to Selestat, where one of my friends lives and where he was directing a play this weekend. The play raised money for an association he belongs to, which is renovating a house in town and turning it into a tea room and venue. Everything started at 2pm with skits, mimes, songs, dance; continued at 6pm with a marionette story; then at 7:30 with dinner and entertainment; then the music and dancing about 10:00. FANTASTIC! We didn’t return home (I stayed with my friend’s family in their mountain house: nothing to hear but birds, nothing to see but trees, and *gasp* no cell phone reception) until 3am. Then all started (or at least a shortened version of it) again Sunday afternoon. Sunday I helped in the kitchen and taking tickets at the entrance, then stayed on after for the cast meeting. I have seldom been so exhausted and have certainly not felt so involved for a long time. It was a happy place to be and I enjoyed it very much. Except getting up at 7am on Monday to come back to Strasbourg for a full day of classes.

I’m still recuperating.

And that’s the story, folks.

19 April 2008

A Smattering

...Of photos from the trip whilst I'm working on the written entry:
Barcelona skyline
Proof: smelling orange blossoms

The April Fair in Sevilla and some very well-dressed ladies nice enough to let me take a picture with them
The Alhambra (Moorish castle in Granada)

Plaza Mayor in Madrid, at the end of the trip when I was tired of taking very many pictures

Flying home!
More to come!

05 April 2008


Make new friends and keep the old, one is silver and the other’s gold

It’s been…interesting…making friends here. So many dynamics combine to form, on the one hand, a charged social environment, and on the other, a bunch of independent human bubbles. Not mastering the language: strike 1; having a cell phone: point; being a foreign student on a short stay: strike 2; joining a dance class: point. No dorm life: strike; taking classes within a single department: point. When I first arrived, I looked for the picture-perfect French and foreign friendships. Then I forewent friendships on-site to maintain familiar ones. I was telling someone a couple months ago that I felt I had friends I would see if I came back to France, but not friends I would come back to France to see. Now, as my thoughts turn towards home, I sense another change. Bad timing, huh? We are a motley lot: an Australian, a half-Greek, a Breton-French and an Alsatian-French, a United-Stater (kudos to my Quebecoises who insist that, technically, they are AMERICAN too). I sometimes wonder just what stuff these friendships are made of. Then I stop wondering and just enjoy them.

It’s been even more…interesting…keeping track of friends back home. God bless Skype. And even Facebook, to some extent (never thought I’d say that!). I find it difficult to let things be, to let life happen, and that can be stated in either a positive manner (I act with intention and let others know I think about them) or a negative one (I am guilt-ridden and full of “shoulds” and lists). Paradoxically, I also find it difficult to maintain regular contact with people in two different worlds. I just wrote a letter to a high school friend with whom I visited shortly before I left, whom I hadn’t talk with at all the previous year and whom I haven’t contacted since. Meanwhile, a stack of letters and emails from home wait to be responded to. And there are plenty more people I like very well back State-side who I’m sure are existing and who I hope are doing well. My intention is to pick up where we left off, but deep down I am not content to think fond thoughts of them living their lives. A friendship takes commitment, intention, investment, right?

What do you think about a friendship quotient? The idea that one can only maintain so many genuine contacts at any given time?

At this time, all I can clarify are some goals of mine: to give a very special friend of mine some very special attention, to respond whenever I am written to, and to continue investing myself where I can and where I feel it returned. And to remember that friends don’t let friends get burned out on being friends!

The Spring Break of your Dreams

Little by little, I’m figuring out how to travel. My latest discover relates to time frame, because even though I’m prone to attempt to squeeze every moment of adventuring out of the last day/afternoon/hour of break, I’ve realized it’s not a very healthy practice. It lacks in…sanity. And my aim is really not to run myself ragged, you see. So, my latest trick is to figure out the earliest date I can possibly leave, and leave two days later; calculate the latest I can possibly be back; and return two days earlier*.

Classes finished yesterday and we have yet another two-week break before us. I get the impression that most French students use these weeks to finish projects and prepare for the upcoming exams, and that most foreign students travel. I know others going to Norway, Brittany, Scotland, Morocco, Italy, Poland, the States, Sweden… I will be traveling in Spain. The weeks look a bit like this:

6-9 April: Barcelona: seeing Gaudi architecture, enjoying the Mediterranean at one of the beaches (It will be 70 degrees!), and visiting a Manchester BCA student (Melissa)

10-13 April: Cordoba: smelling orange blossoms, visiting the Mezquite mosque, and a day trip to the big fair in Sevilla

14-15 April: Granada: seeing the Alhambra

16-18 April: Madrid: paying homage to a particularly persistent art professor in visiting the Prado Museum, enjoying the city parks, and tour around with a Porto Rican I met in Italy with the Quebecoises and whom I visited on the trip to Lille (Adlyn)

18 April: Strasbourg: returning by way of night bus, shuttle bus, plane, another shuttle bus, and two more trains, and technically, my bike (not as complicated as it sounds—I leave at 10:45 one night and get back at 3 o’clock in the afternoon the next day)

So, you’ll have all this and more to look forward to the next time I post! Please do keep checking up, and thank you for all the letters and emails that have come my way lately!

*This is, of course, all subject to plane/train/bus ticket prices, available lodging, and the length of the break. I have two weeks to play with this time around, so my pragmatist guilt (the one that bleeps in phrases like *once in a lifetime*take advantage*travel expenses to get here*) has subsided and allowed me to try traveling with this perspective. I make no promises.

29 March 2008

Easter Weekend Travel

Sometimes you happen upon really amazing people. Sometimes, these amazing people invite you to visit them. And usually, amazing people live in amazing places. Or they make them amazing just by living there.

Oh the places you'll go

So, I had the chance over Easter weekend to visit A-people in A-places, starting with a voyage to Lille, an underestimated city in the north of France. Though my bike ride to the train station that afternoon was the worst ever (rain, wind, and temperatures dropping), and though the weather was not very cooperative at my destination (it rained the entire weekend), I still thoroughly enjoyed myself. I stayed with two girls from Quebec, studying this year in Lille, who I met (and this is where it gets complicated) at the hostel in Rome in February. I came to know these two (Nancy and Emilie) and their friend the Porto Rican English language assistant (Adlyn) pretty well in Rome, and their company was no less enjoyable in Lille! They showed me around the city, forced me to sing karaoke (they’re big fans of 80s music), and made me lots of delicious meals, despite the (in)voluntary simplicity of foreign college student life that leaves you with only a Bunsen burner for cooking.

Mostly we spent our time sitting around and chatting, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. You think you know French, and THEN you start learning Quebec French. Lots of people I know here turn up their noses at the Quebecois accent, but I don’t mind it; it just took some getting used to. My first theory was that, like everybody says here, it’s the “Old French” (which can’t be true, since whatever French was when it arrived in Canada has forcibly evolved over the centuries, just as the French in France has). My second take was that it’s French spoken with an English mouth, wider and more exaggerated. Then I started catching hints of “flar” (“flower” in English, “fleur” in French) that made me think they’d been hanging around the Carter family in deep Appalachia. Whatever the story, our first evening together involved a lot of repetition for my sake; I felt like I was back at the level of French I had last October. Things improved over the weekend, and I really enjoyed parading around with them: no one noticed my fumbling accent next to their distinct Quebecois flourishes.

The old section of Lille is really quite beautiful. I say its an underestimated city because the entire Nord-pas-de-Calais region has a bad rap in the rest of the country. The film Bienvenue chez les ch’tis (Ch’ti is the name for the habitants of the region) by Dany Boon (very, very funny French comic) captures all the stereotypes of the north in recounting the story of a postmaster who is transferred to the north and expects nothing but the French equivalent of hillbillies. He actually finds the people very welcoming, even if they have funny accents, lunch at hotdog stands, and consider the chimes as the highest form of artistic ability. Now he just has to convince his wife, a (French) southern belle born and raised, who’s convinced that her husbands co-workers are drunks and that the weather is akin to that of Siberia. Anyhow, a long way of saying that I saw this film in the theaters and understood it, even with its talk of accents! And to say that Lille is a beautiful city that I should like to visit again some sunnier day.

Pretending I come from the farm

I left Lille Sunday afternoon and headed to Angers, to stay again with Bev, the woman who graduated from Manchester and lives with her half-French family on a farm in the Loire valley while running this micro-loan program in west Africa called Echoppe. Bev invited the three of us from Manchester studying here in Strasbourg (Leslie, Cassie, and I) for Easter, to talk about Echoppe’s ties with Manchester, and just to get us out of the city a bit. Both Leslie and Cassie are from rural Indiana (Bev is originally too), and there was lots of talk about missing the smell of cows and doing animal chores, so I chimed right in. Even though I much prefer horses to cows and, though I gave it a good shot last summer while visiting a friend in Idaho, I’m not much of a farmgirl. I’m a gardener. It was good to get out into the countryside, though, and especially fun to go horseback riding with Bev’s two highschool-age kids. We ate well, played with the sheep, talked, and learned a lot from Bev about the kind of work it takes to change the world. “Social insertion through economic integration” is the motto, meaning that small loans are accompanied by social health requirements: a woman must present the vaccination card of her children before receiving her first loan; she must learn to write her name and recognize it in a list before receiving her second. Participation in the neighborhood council and family planning are also part of the process. Eventually, women save as much as they’ve borrowed. Those who graduated from Echoppe’s four-step loan program founded their own mutual, giving bigger loans for personal purposes. The hope is that the women’s mutual will start funding the Echoppe loans. Bev has been at this work for twenty years now: no less dedicated, hopeful, and passionate. I like hanging out with people like that!


I returned home late Tuesday night, and have been dashing around ever since. Good news: I FINALLY RECEIVED MY RESIDENCY PERMIT!!!!! After seven months of bureaucratic run-arounds, I won out. Now I have the right to stay for five more months. I hope it’s not like this for people who renew their residency cards.

ps. Nancy, who runs her "hAIR Force One" hair salon out of her room, was kind enough to clean me up. Quite a change!