08 July 2008
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
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:
SEEING MY FAMILY AND FRIENDS
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
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
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:
See you soon,
04 June 2008
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
I started out in
Feeling not too impressed and a little disgruntled, I took a train to
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
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
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
I was never so happy to see the
26 May 2008
So my birthday week began with the Quebecoises’ visit to
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
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
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
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
All this to start the story of my weekend in
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
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
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.
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
Then my beloved Quebecoises came to visit me and see
Emilie et moi
Nancy at the Cave de l'Hopital civile: Where everyone knows your name!
07 May 2008
To celebrate the closing of winter and the coming of spring is really a wonderful and important thing. At
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
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
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.
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
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
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?
Leaving this afternoon for
23 April 2008
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
“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
But before I left, I visited the
A night bus took me to my next stop, and I woke up in the early morning to the hilly olive country of southern
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
My residence in
On Monday I got up early to get in line for one of the 2000 day-of-public-issued tickets to the
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
So I got on a bus to my last stop, the capital of
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 (
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
I’m still recuperating.
And that’s the story, folks.
19 April 2008
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
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
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
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
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
The old section of
Pretending I come from the farm
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!