Published: October 16th 2007October 16th 2007
Mom, Dad & Ben before leaving home.
I've been floundering without my internet and that's my excuse for not keeping up with this. I'm going to cheat and copy/paste the enormous catchup letter that I sent to a bunch of family and friends here. Then I'll try to get back on this... Unfortunately, I can't promise anything.
I know mass emails aren’t the most personal way to stay in touch, so my apologies in advance. Hopefully it’s better than nothing at all! I’m enjoying my long-anticipated study abroad experience in Aix right now, in Provence, the south of France, which is truly beautiful. It’s definitely starting to be fall around here, but it’s not super-cold at all. Some days are warmer than others, particularly because of a phenomenon that I wish I had known about before I got here, “Le Mistral.” It’s this bizarrely heavy wind that comes off the Mediterranean and stays for days in multiples of three - 3, 6, or 9. I was in Marseille, a city about 30 minutes south of Aix, about a month ago because some of my girlfriends here and I don’t have class on Wednesday mornings, so we’ve been doing morning excursions. We
City of a Thousand Fountains
A slight exaggeration... But there are a lot.
decided we wanted to take the ferry out to the islands right off of Marseille. One is the old site of the Count of Monte Cristo’s castle and the next one beyond it is a bit bigger; no one lives there, but it’s supposed to be a beautiful place to spend the day exploring - caves and hills and things like that. We got to Marseille, though, and discovered that they weren’t running the ferries at all because of Le Mistral. (Which from the way French people talk about it, we had guessed was some sort of Yeti or Godzilla figure until someone told us it was actually… the wind.) I don’t know why they felt the need to keep the ferries in, since we had to walk through the middle of the fish market to get to the ferry docks, and you can see all of the tiny, tiny boats that people fish in, and they go all the way out to the sea. The ferries are pretty big, and the islands are right in the harbor; I really don’t think a windy day could quite capsize them - but anyway, it was pretty cold for the south of
My program in Aix...
France. Instead of going out to the island, we climbed up to a cathedral on the highest hill in Marseille. It was really beautiful inside - lots of gold and plaques with family names and prayers and some bizarre but really cool mobile-type things - they were like fancy wooden toy boats hanging on fishing line from the ceiling. Kindof a weird thing to put in a cathedral, but I guess since it’s a fishing city…? Marseille is actually the 2nd biggest city in France (after Paris, obviously.) It’s a bit grungy, and not a good place to be at night, but the water is beautiful and it’s fun to wander around. There’s a few museums and things I’d still like to check out. It’s also nice and convenient for traveling, since you can get there quickly by bus and they have an international airport and a eurail station.
But anyway, I am getting a bit ahead of myself. I should start more or less at the beginning (although that’s going to make for a seriously long email. Brace yourself… Or stop reading, whichever you prefer.) My mom and I left Boston for Paris on the first of September
Porch in Aix
My host mom's porch
and spent a week exploring the city. We saw tons of cathedrals and museums and monuments and gardens, and ate tons of wonderful food and drank plenty of good wine and generally had a fantastic time. My personal favorites included the cathedral at Montmartre, Sacre Coeur, which is up on the highest point in Paris, so the views are incredible. It’s all white and it looks like a giant wedding cake. Absolutely beautiful, and we climbed all the way up to a dome on top where you can walk around 360 degrees and see the entire city. My favorite art museum was the Pompidou. I’m not the hugest fan of the outside (you can look it up online if you haven’t seen it - it’s really pretty bizarre. It is supposedly a “perfect” example of modern architecture. Very utilitarian and sort of ugly, but in a fun way. ) They have all of the pipes and structural stuff on the outside, and they color coded the pipes by what’s going through them - blue for air, green for water, yellow for electricity, etc. (I can’t remember the rest.) I really loved the inside, though. It’s about 7 stories high, and
it’s all modern/contemporary art. They have some really interesting installations, like a room that is completely lined with giant rolls of felt so that almost no noise can travel at all. It’s supposed to make you feel desolate, according to the plaque. I love when they tell you what modern art “means.” There were a lot of pieces by artists I recognized from museums in Houston, which made me feel pretty cool. But I didn’t get to spend nearly enough time there and I’m hoping to make it back to Paris before I leave so that I can spend an entire day just in the Pompidou. I also really loved the Luxembourg Gardens and the Musee Carnavalet, which is a museum of Paris’s history that they set up in an old mansion - each room is a different time period and it’s full of authentic furniture and art and the rooms are painted and decorated historically. It also has a gorgeous garden in the center courtyard.
That’s Paris in a nutshell, but if you want to hear all about it, I have about 700 pictures and I’ll be happy to show them all to you and narrate the whole
The cat is cool. The dog sucks.
trip; all you have to do is ask! After Paris, we took the TGV down to Aix. One cool thing about the TGV: it’s the fastest train on tracks right now. It only takes 3 hours to do the 800 or so km from Paris to Aix. One not cool thing about the TGV: it waits for NO ONE. Which is why while my mother and I were struggling to get all of our 6 bags (hey, I’m here for four months, and two of the bags were hers, give me a break!) off the train, the door closed, leaving my mother (who does not speak any French beyond “oui” and “merci”) on the platform with 4 of the bags and me on the train with the other 2, which were of course the 2 biggest. I walked up and down the train trying to find the conductor, but I couldn’t find anyone at all who seemed to work on the train besides the snack car people and they looked at me like I had 8 heads when I asked what I should do. So I calmly returned to my seat. Thank god I had kept my purse with
Stupid, stupid dog.
My favorite thing is when my host mom gets fed up and puts the muzzle on him.
me, and I called my dad in the states to tell him what had happened, because I had a cell phone but my mother didn’t, and I had no way of getting in touch with her. I got the name and number of our hotel and told him that if she called he should tell her I was fine and that I’d be back as soon as I could. And then I read Madame Bovary for 2 ½ hours while I got a tour of Provence and La Cote d’Azur. I got to see the Mediterranean and finally ended up in St. Raphael (which, if you were to drive, would probably take about 6 hours to get to.) I bought a new ticket (only 19 euros, so it was a fairly inexpensive mistake), turned around (with much difficulty since my bags were huge and ridiculously heavy), and finally got back to Aix around 7pm. My mom had been there since noon. She tried to find me at the bus station, but didn’t realize that although I was coming in on the bus it was actually a TGV line, so I ended up at the train station. Finally I took a
At the beach in Nice the first weekend..
taxi to my hotel and the concierge cracked up when I walked through because he knew immediately that I was the girl who had run off from her poor mother. Eventually my mom turned up at the hotel and we took some showers and deep breaths and went out for dinner. No major harm done.
After that little adventure, we spent the next day exploring Aix, which is a cute little college town. Lots of cobbled streets and fountains and cafes, very French. We went to the outdoor markets and tracked down my school. The next day I moved in with my host family in a cute little apartment right outside the city center. My host mom works at an organic food store, and she is more or less a vegetarian. They put me with her so I wouldn’t have any problems with food. That was a relief, since I was worried I’d have to give up being a vegetarian while I was staying with a host family. She makes me all kinds of soy stuff and buys yummy organic breads and cheeses and wine. She’s extremely skinny and a smoker, very typically French. I also have a host
My Host Mom
When she was way younger... She's adorable.
brother who is 14, the same age as Pat, so it really kindof feels like I’m at home. My room is very cute; I have big glass doors with a tiny balcony and lots of trees outside. There’s also a cute little deck with a couch and lots of plants off of the living room, so I sit out there sometimes to eat breakfast or read books. My host brother listens to a lot of rap, and 50 cent appears to be his idol. He actually has a huge fake diamond stud that he wears in one ear, and he spikes his hair with gel that might actually be glue. He and his mother fight a LOT, but he’s really sweet when she’s not around. He’s been teaching me a bit about rugby and football, and I’ve been helping him with his English homework. I don’t see the family a whole lot, particularly because I’ve been traveling a lot and I have more schoolwork than I’d like, but we eat dinner together every night and watch their favorite soap opera, “Plus Belle La Vie,” which is set in Marseille. It’s pretty stupid, but watching TV in french helps me with
comprehension, and people are always being murdered and lying and stuff, so it’s at least got an intrigue factor. That’s pretty much the only TV I watch besides rugby and football. Everyone’s crazy about rugby here because the Coupe du Monde (world cup) is in France this year, and France is doing really well. In fact, they beat New Zealand this past weekend, which no one was expecting, and everyone’s excited about this coming weekend’s game against England. To tell the truth, I hardly understand it and don’t really care all that much except that it makes the bar scene a lot of fun, haha. And it would be pretty awesome to be in France if/when they win the World Cup. Unlikely, perhaps, but it would be cool.
Anyway, as I said, I’ve been doing quite a bit of traveling. My first weekend here, the university I’m studying at (which is an American institute with about 110 students each semester) took half the group on a trip to Nice, Cannes, and Monaco. We spent a day on the beach at Nice, which was absolutely beautiful. The water is so clear you can see your feet when you swim. It’s
Headstand on the Rocks
OW... The beaches in Nice are all rocks.
Mediterranean blue, like you see in pictures. A little bit cold in September, but it was hot enough outside to feel great. The beach is really rocky, but the rocks are perfectly smooth. It was actually surprisingly comfortable to lie on them, but getting in and out of the water was pretty difficult. Cannes was cool, too; not as pretty as Nice, but it definitely had that Hollywood sort of feel to it. They even have the little hand-printed stones. Monaco, on the other hand, is a seriously bizarre place. It’s officially a “principality,” whatever that means. It is an independent nation, and has a Prince, though not a king. We actually saw the spot where Princess Grace died, on a really windy road near the ocean. We only spent a little bit of time in Monaco one night, but we saw the giant casino, which is ridiculously opulent. They charge you 15 euros just to walk inside, so I didn’t do it, but the people who did said it was like Disneyland. The city itself is bizarrely clean and quiet. It has a very sterile feel to it, and apparently it’s more or less a police state. No one
does anything wrong because they’re all too scared, and that’s why all the rich people come here to hide out with their money. Lots of really expensive cars and absurd hotels. But it was cool to see it, definitely.
The weekend after that I was really sick and didn’t get to do much. I tried wandering around the markets in Aix for a while but felt so awful I just went home to bed. I think it was good, though, because at least I wasn’t sick on a weekend when I was traveling. And about half of our program got sick around then, and the other half is sick now, so at least I got it over with. Boo to international germs. The weekend after that (that would be the last weekend of September, to give you an idea of the timeline) I went to Biarritz with four other girls. It’s a city on the opposite side of France, on the Atlantic coast. It’s supposed to be one of the best surfing beaches in the world. The waves break perfectly, and the water is super-clear and greenish blue. There are lots of rocks and cliffs, but also some really
Walking in the Woods
The river behind my house, where I run sometimes... "La Torse."
nice SAND beaches. Our first day was a bit cloudy, but the second day was warm and beautiful and we laid out on the beach and walked around through the rocks and peeked in the little caves. We ate Basque food on the last night (Biarritz is in the Basque region of France, really really close to Northern Spain) including some “Gateau Basque” - we had no idea what it was but we were trying to experience the culture, so we ordered some for dessert and it was incredible. It’s a really moist almond-flavored cake; delicious. I’m going to have to learn how to cook it when I get home. It was a really fun weekend overall, but we made the valuable discovery that night trains, while being very practical (since they are pretty comfortable and keep you from spending a nice day on a train and also from paying for hotels) are EXTREMELY cold. Like refrigerator cold. I was totally bundled up and very comfortable in my seat but I still woke up every 20 minutes or so because I just couldn’t get warm. After that, I bought a sleeping bag and it is going with me everywhere from
The mountain outside Aix. The girls and I climbed up to the first peak this day, but Le Mistral (the wind that comes off the Mediterranean) was too strong to go all the way up.
now on. Earplugs, eye masks, and sleeping pills also belong in your travel kit if you want to do night trains through Europe, just FYI.
Then, this past weekend, I went with three friends to visit my friend Mark from high school, who is studying in Dublin. We took a cheap flight from Marseille straight to Dublin and stayed with him in his super-posh apartment. Why am I doing a homestay again? Oh right, learn the language. Learn the language. Haha. No, really, I love it, but there’s something about the freedom of your own place… Anyway, the first night we did a “literary pub crawl,” where two actors took us to pubs around Dublin and acted out famous Irish literature. That was a riot. We also saw Trinity University, Christ Church Cathedral, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which were all really beautiful. Ask me for pictures, or you can check them out on facebook if you’re in that crowd. One of the coolest things about Europe (though I suppose in a sense it’s also pretty irreverent) is that you can take pictures as you please in almost every single church and museum, with very few exceptions. They even let
you use flash most of the time. I have a new camera, which I am absolutely obsessed with (I love you, Mom and Dad!) and I have gone picture crazy. I have no problem being a conspicuous tourist if it means I can take enough pictures to supplement my horrible memory. In fifty years, I’ll be able to look back and remember so much about my trip that would otherwise be utterly lost to the abyss that is my brain. So we spent the first two days touring Dublin, saw the things I mentioned, ate some wonderful hearty breakfasts (you can’t get them in France. You’re lucky to have toast with jam and a glass of oj.), visited the Guinness storehouse, which is actually a beautiful museum, played in the leaves in St. Stephen’s Green, a famous park, and saw an awesome live concert by a guy who played guitar that would put Clapton to shame (ok perhaps an exaggeration, but only a mild one.) He just did covers, but it was amazing. And it was in a really old pub that was like five stories tall with open balconies and the best strawberry beer. It sounds disgusting, but I
Gorgeous beach town
swear even the guys I was with liked it.
The last day we were there, we took a bus out to Glendalough, a little town in Wicklow County, about an hour outside of Dublin. They literally had three seats left on the bus and there were four of us and we begged the driver and he only let us on because three of us were girls and we said we could squish into two seats. It was a long ride, but we got to see a ton of the Irish countryside, which is so green and stunning. Lots and lots of sheep. The town we ended up in, Glendalough, is called that because in Irish it means “Glen of Two Lakes.” We didn’t really go into the town itself, which is really small, but we went out to the national park, where the glen and the two lakes are. We hiked up two different mountains and wandered around through waterfalls and woods for about 4 ½ hours. It was probably the most gorgeous thing I’ve seen so far in my life. I took an embarrassing amount of pictures. From the top of the second mountain we climbed, you could see both lakes (and the glen, of course) and across the way there was another mountain, which unlike our very green slope, was totally rocky and barren. It looked like there should be dinosaurs wandering around, and there were the strangest noises coming from the slope across from us. It totally sounded like Jurassic Park. We thought it might be sheep at first, but they sounded REALLY angry, and we couldn’t see them, which didn’t make any sense because sheep are white… When we got back to the bottom I went into the guide’s office and he told me that it’s actually deer mating season and the males were defending their territory. It was seriously one of the most bizarre sounds I’ve ever heard. But anyway, the hike was just gorgeous and we were exhausted by the end, and very happy to get back to Dublin and sit in a warm pub and eat comfort food. We spent our last night relaxing in Mark’s apartment and watching France beat New Zealand on TV (Mark was also watching the Sox and the Patriots on his computer, haha… Actually, on a side note, my friend Geoff who is from New England and I both remarked on how oddly similar Dublin is to Boston - the culture, the people, and actually even the shape of the city. If you look at it on a map, it looks like Boston. We were both like, no wonder the Irish decided to stay there…)
Our flight back was relatively uneventful, and now I am back in Aix, and I will actually be in town this weekend for the first time in quite a while. I’m excited to be in France for the rugby game on Saturday, although it may not be too fun if they lose. Optimism! Let’s see, what else? There’s a beautiful little river that runs about a km away from my house, and I’ve been jogging there every once in a while and hiking a bit. For another of our Wednesday morning adventures, we climbed up St. Victoire, the mountain right outside of Aix. Unfortunately, it was another attack of Le Mistral, and when we got up to the first peak, it was so windy we couldn’t stand up. There’s a ridge you can walk along to get to the next highest peak, where there’s a cool old chapel apparently, but we decided it was too dangerous. Then, after navigating safely to the bottom of the mountain (which was actually at times a somewhat rough climb), I turned around to take a picture of the mountain and stepped into an open sewer grate and cut up my leg and my elbow. That made me feel cool. If it scars, I’m going to make up a better story.
My classes are going well. I’m taking two French classes, grammar and culture, with an adorable little French woman named Estelle. I am also taking two international business classes with this funny Russian guy who has lived all over the world and loves to yap about his oil ventures and how good it feels to carry a suitcase with a hundred thousand dollars in it and how he once had to pay $250 for a fake aids test in order to cross the border into Iraq. His wife also teaches half of the class, and she’s Scottish and way more sane and theoretical and easy to follow, so I’m looking forward to when she comes back. Then I’m taking IR with an American ex-patriate who has lived all over the states and in England and now lives in France with his Dutch wife and for some reason is extremely susceptible to accents, so he talks really strangely. He’s a great professor, though, and the class is much smaller than the IR classes at Rice. We’re reading a great book called The World is Flat, which you should all go read. I think it’s a pretty brilliant take on globalism and how it’s going to effect the job market and economy in the future; it has a lot of really practical advice and the journalist who wrote it is really talented. I highly recommend it. My literature class is The Modern European Novel and so far we’ve read Proust and Kafka in translation, and we just started Virginia Woolf’s To the Light House. Proust was really cool. My host mom saw me reading it and asked why I was reading it in English and not French. I said I could hardly understand it in English, how could I read it in French? And she said, no, no, he writes very simply. It’s funny how hard it is to understand how something that’s simple for us can be hard for other people…
Well, I guess that’s about it for now. I am planning my fall break today and tomorrow (a little late in the game, but hey.) It looks like I’m going to see Prague, Budapest, and Croatia, so I’m really excited, assuming it all works out. I’m also headed out to Rome the weekend after this one to stay with my friend Michelle from Rice. The weekend after fall break my International Relations class is going to Geneva to see the UN and the Red Cross, so that should be very cool (and cold.) I’m also hoping to work in Barcelona and Scotland before I go home. A little overambitious, maybe, but I can’t get enough of the traveling! It’s so exciting to be surrounded by so many vastly different cultures and to be able to get to other cities and countries so quickly and cheaply. My french is actually holding up pretty well. I was really scared that it would be horribly inadequate, but I am the 27th host student my family has taken in, and my host brother said I am only the 3rd that he’s been able to speak French with, so that makes me feel better. I can get around totally fine, and everyone seems to be impressed with my French. I’ve only been taking it for 6 years. I should seriously be fluent by now. Haha, but I’m working on that. I have two language partners here (they pair up two Americans with two French students) and though I haven’t met one of them yet, I’ve gone out with the other one twice, and she’s introduced me to a few of her friends. Last night we went out to a club and danced salsa and then they were playing American music and I swear the French kids knew more of the words than I did. Actually, the girl I am partnered with is studying English at school, so her English is probably much better than my French. Her girlfriends are also all studying English, and most of them want to teach English. My language partner actually wants to teach English in the French army, strangely enough.
Okay, well, I think that more or less does it for now. Sorry for such a lengthy email! I had been planning on keeping a blog (and I haven’t utterly given up on that idea), but I can’t seem to get my internet to work at my host family’s house. They have wifi and I have a wifi card but we can’t get them to talk to each other. And one thing the French DO NOT do well is customer service. I don’t think they even have a word for it. It’s immensely frustrating, especially because my school’s computer lab and library have limited hours and none on the weekends. But since I finally have a free weekend in Aix, I’m going to do my best to remedy the problem, but anyway that is my excuse for not doing a better job with updating.
At any rate, I hope that you are all doing well and enjoying yourselves, wherever you are. Write to me if you get a chance and let me know what you’ve been up to! I miss all of you & send my love from La France.
EDIT: It’s taken me so long to get this out I have new news to share, so:
Carson (a friend from Rice) came to visit from Barcelona this weekend & we hung out in Aix and had lots of fun (I hope he’ll agree.) He got to meet my friends and we did some hiking and enjoyed some crepes and other Frenchy things. France lost the rugby game, but we missed it because we got lost on our way home from one of the hikes. Oh, well. At least our weather is better than England’s. So there. And that’s it.
All the best,
PS If you notice that I missed someone on this list - it was really hard to compile the whole thing, so please just fwd it to them or let me know.