As the airplane landed in London Heathrow Airport after the first leg of my flight home, I started to do what I've become accustomed to doing before every conversation: figure out how to say everything. As I tried to think of the words for layover and customs, I had a revelation: I had arrived in England, I could put my brain back on autopilot. At first, speaking English again felt like a luxury, it was so nice to just speak without having to struggle to remember vocabulary, or rephrase things in order to avoid the subjunctive tense. Now that I've been home a while, it's almost hard to believe that I was able to speak French for four months. I'm proud that I was able to get by without any major language barrier. After studying French for so long, it's nice to know that I can get by and have real conversations with French people. Now I'm just worried about losing it. I finished my minor, so I don't have any real reason to speak French. My family and most of my friends certainly don't speak it. But I've worked so hard to learn it, I'm going to try my best to remember it. My roommate and I have resolved to have weekly dinner next semester where we will just speak in French, so hopefully that will help.
Even though I do sometimes miss speaking French, I couldn't be happier to be home. Study abroad was an incredible experience, I got to meet new people, and travel to places that I might not have otherwise. I have made some great friends and I have tons of stories and memories that I will have forever. On this blog you saw all of the best memories: seeing Paris for the first time, vacations, and the best parts of Aix. Of course, all of those things were wonderful and valid. But there were also low moments, which I didn't blog about. By the end I was very homesick, not just for my family and friends, but for the routine of my regular life. My host family was very nice and welcoming, but of course, it wasn't my real home, and they weren't my real family.
In addition to the obvious travel and language-learning that I've gotten out of this experience, I've also gotten a new appreciation for my "real life". I really love being home for the summer, but I also love my school and most of all, my independence. I will always remember my time abroad, but perhaps more importantly, I will be a little more appreciative of my life in the states.
Last Friday I went to Arles with one of my classes. Although I wasn’t to eager when my alarm went off at 7:30am on what is usually my day off, it was good because I probably wouldn’t have made it to Arles on my own. The bus ride was about an hour, and when we arrived in Arles my professor suggested we stop to get coffee. My American sensibilities imagined that we would run into a cafe, grab some liquid caffeine in paper to-go cups, and be on our way, but then I remembered--this was France.
The French aren’t generally fans of “coffee to go”. They sip there coffees slowly, leisurely, while talking with friends. Another notable difference is how small the coffees generally are--smaller than a “tall” at Starbucks! So our class sat outside and leisurely sipped our drinks for a while before beginning our site-seeing.
Our first tourist stop was the old Roman theater. Arles actually has a lot of Roman ruins, because it was an important city when the region was still the Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis. We also visited the Arles Amphitheater, which is a Roman amphitheater that has been there since 90 AD. I was surprised to hear that the ampitheater still hosts bullfights today!
We got lunch and took it to eat by the river. Then we headed to the Cloister of St. Triophime. A cloister is an open space within a cathedral or church, so that the monks or nuns living there would be able to get some fresh air without leaving the building. It was cool to see, but I personally thought the crypts of Arles were cooler. I didn’t know much about the crypts when I was there, other than the fact that they were a bit creepy. However, Wikipedia now tells me that the crypts are thought to have been built by the Greeks, most likely from Marseille. It is thought that it was used as a barracks for public slaves.
Finally, we went to Le Cafe La Nuit, the cafe that Van Gough made famous in his painting. The plan was to sit there for a bit, but it was a bit overpriced, so some of us went across the street to get ice cream. I got speculoos flavored, so I think I made the right call.
Ever since the 7th grade when I chose to take French instead of Spanish, the goal was to get to Paris. Last weekend, I was able to fulfill this goal, and it was even better, because I got to do it with my boyfriend, Jake, who was visiting for the week.
Because I don't have Friday classes, we were able to catch an early morning flight last Friday, and spend most of the day enjoying Paris. The first thing we did was go to The Louvre. The Louvre is free for residents of the EU, which means I got in for free with my student visa. I had heard horror stories about the lines, but for some reason they really weren't that bad Friday morning, we were basically able to walk right in.
The thing about the Louvre is it's huge. I know I'm not breaking any ground by saying so, but it really is impossible to see it all in a day, or even a weekend. Since we wanted to have ample time to explore the actual city, I printed out a "visitors trail" from the Louvre website (http://www.louvre.fr/en/routes/masterpieces-0). Basically, it's a walking guide of the top 10 masterpieces you must
see at the Louvre, like the Mona Lisa. While it would have been awesome to see everything in the museum, that wasn't plausible for this trip, so I'm glad I printed this itinerary out in advance. The trail took about 1 1/2 hours, after which we were exhausted, so we went back to the hotel to nap a bit before dinner. (hey, it was an early flight!)
After dinner, we went to the Eiffel Tower, which is even more beautiful at night, because it lights up. We walked around for a bit, and then called it a night.
On Saturday the first thing we did was L'Arc de Triomphe. This is another thing where a student visa gets you in for free! The view from the top gives you a beautiful view of the city. We walked around the Champs-Elysee for a while, and then went back to the Eiffel Tower. This time, we went to the top. It wasn't free, but it was worth it. It was sort of surreal being at the top of the Eiffel Tower, when I've wanted to go to Paris for so long. But because it was mid-March in Paris, it was also sort of freezing and wet. So we got our pictures, walked around for a bit, and then came back down to where the winds weren't so harsh.
For dinner on Saturday night we met up with Jake's friend Ian who is studying abroad in Paris for the semester. It was interesting to compare his study abroad experience with what I'm doing down here in Aix. He's living in an apartment in a huge city with other students, and I'm living in a much smaller city with a host family.
Sunday morning we woke up at 4am to go to Charles de Gaulle airport, and back to reality, Jake back to Washington D.C., and me back to Aix. It's weird that this place is now my "reality". When I finally got back to my room, I was bombarded with all of the homework and studying I had to do. It's midterms week here at IAU, so I probably didn't pick the best time to plan a trip to Paris. Even so, I don't regret it at all. Studying abroad has definitely had it's ups and downs so far, but Paris completely lived up to the high expectations I had. I've decided to go back for the bulk of my spring break, because two days just wasn't enough. Today is the first day of spring, so hopefully that will come soon! Now, off to study for my last two midterms.
I'm not sure if it was by coincidence or by design, but last week around Valentine's Day in one of my classes we talked about Provence as "the land of love". From what I've seen so far of Aix, it isn't hard to accept that label. From the frequent, if not daily flower market, to the romantic winding roads, it's a city that lends itself to romance and love. But before this class, I did not realize just how seriously true Provençals take this idea.
Apparently there is a common belief, at least amongst locals and scholars of courtly love (I did not know that such scholars existed before I met my professor), that the modern conception of romantic love began here in Provence, with troubadors who would travel around singing songs in admiration and desire of their women. There were even alleged "courts of love", which by my understanding consisted of a jury of women who would hear a man explain his romantic scenario, and proceed to judge it based on a long list of rules of courtly love. Before such practices, Europe adhered to the Roman school of thought, in which people sang songs of war, and a man who fell in love was considered weak. The troubadors made it not only acceptable for a man to love a woman, but desirable; the love of a good woman was supposed to make a man better.
Naturally, with all of this talk about love and romance, it was easy to feel a bit homesick and miss my boyfriend a little more than usual this week. Luckily, I've found a new love...
Also known as biscoff spread, this magical confection is basically ground up cookies blended to the consistency of peanut butter. It comes from Belgium, but you can find it here in France at places like Petit Casino and Monoprix. It's even better than Nutella, which I didn't think was possible. I'm not ashamed to admit I spent my Valentine's night in bed with a jar of speculoos watching Downton Abbey. Was it the healthiest choice? No, but in the wise words of my friend/life coach Molly, YOFO (you only France once).
In unrelated news, I've decided to start running.
Because my mother will most definitely be the main reader of this blog, and the title of this entry probably made her worry, I should probably explain myself. A lot of our first week here in Aix has been spent learning about French culture, and especially the differences between French and American customs. While there are a lot of things I knew would be different in France: they speak French, use the metric system, and have different outlets; there are a lot of more subtle differences between the countries that I had not anticipated. One of the most striking things for me is how people do not smile at each other when they are walking down the street. I never realized it, but in America, we will smile at everybody--friends, acquaintances, anyone you make awkward eye contact with, children, puppies, etc. We have genuine smiles, fake smiles, polite smiles, and nervous smiles. In France, people only smile when they see someone they know well, and it is an expression of genuine happiness to see them. At orientation they said that if a girl smiles at a boy, it is seen as an invitation, and that if you are smiling at everyone while walking down the street you will either a) look like a crazy person or b) label yourself as an American. Apparently if you smile/interact with a baby or child too much, French mothers will be concerned as to why you are so interested in their child. This is probably the most difficult thing to stop myself from doing, as little kids speaking French is quite possibly the cutest thing in the world.
While it may seem to contradict the previous "rule" about smiling, another aspect of French culture that you learn quick, is the importance of "Bonjour." Whenever you enter a store or café, you must say bonjour. If you don't, it's considered extremely rude. Even when you are at the grocery store (or let's be honest, Monoprix), you MUST say bonjour to the cashier who is ringing up your items. After you groceries (or chocolate bars) are rang up, the way to really impress a French person is to have exact change ready. I think I underestimated this lesson at orientation, but in my personal experience, it's been true. Having exact change ready seems to forgive whatever grammar or vocabulary mistakes that may have occurred in the transaction, and is usually met with a smile, which as I previously noted, are not always easy to come by.
While there seem to be myriad cultural differences to learn, I am definitely starting to feel like I blend in more than I did a week ago. I'm starting to figure out my way around Aix, and I've gotten into a good routine now that my classes have started. Looking back at my last blog post, which was full of anxiety, I can't help but laugh when I realize how well things have turned out, and how none of my fears became realities. Luckily, I'm typing this from my bedroom, so no one can see the huge grin on my face.
I spent last weekend visiting my boyfriend in Washington DC. The whole district felt extra patriotic because they were preparing for Monday’s inauguration. As I walked past the White House and the National Mall, it really hit me--this was my last weekend in America until May.
Of course, I knew this was coming. My whole fall semester was filled with preparations for France--applying to the program, figuring out Campus France, applying for a Visa--and I’ve been dreaming of going to France for years. I’ve always planned on studying abroad my Junior year, and my heart has been set on France since I started taking French in middle school. Now that it’s actually here though, it almost doesn’t seem real. It’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that the day after tomorrow I’m getting on a plane, and that a week from today I’ll be living in a place I’ve never been to, with a woman I’ve never met, and attending classes with classmates who, with the exception of Sarah, my roommate from my home university, I only know from their posts to the IAU Facebook group.
To be completely honest, I’m way more nervous than I anticipated. I think it’s just because there is so much unknown. I am a planner by nature, but it’s hard to plan things for the upcoming semester. I’m just going to have to learn to “go with the flow”, which does not come naturally to me. But don’t get the wrong idea, I’m also really excited. Aix looks amazing from what I can see online and what my French professors have told me, and I can’t wait to travel around Europe! I’m not sure exactly where I’ll go yet, but we get two weeks off, and I’m going to take full advantage of them! I’m most excited to go to Paris. I’m looking forward to Aix because I want to see how the locals live, and try to immerse myself in the local culture. But in Paris, I know I’m going to be a complete tourist. The Eiffel Tower, L’Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Elysees; I want to see it all!
As I sit here in a state of nervous excitement, I can’t help but laugh when I see the state of my room. It looks like my suitcase exploded, there are piles of clothes everywhere. Somehow I need to fit everything I need for four months into a suitcase, a backpack, and a carry-on tote. In theory, I will leave extra room for souvenirs and gifts I buy in France. But this is the final test. I have my Visa, booked a hotel with Sarah for our first night, and made arrangements for my host to pick me up at the hotel the next morning. I’ve said goodbye to friends and family, and made promises to Skype and email frequently. Looks like it’s time to get packing!