Come tomorrow morning, I will have been home again in Pennsylvania for one whole week.
I haven't kept up with posting here very well, recently -- at the end of the semester, events came fast and all the IAU students were eager not to miss any of them. We had a goodbye picnic in a park, at which everyone finally met all the different host families; the Marchutz art school held its end-of-the-semester exposition; my Creative Writing class published a little book of our best essays and held a little reception in tandem with the photography class and their photos; I received an award for Academic Excellence in the French Language at the official awards ceremony in IAU's town hall; we had three days of finals; etc. During the last week, it didn't stop raining in Aix. The weather matched the mood among the students. Goodbyes were rushed, in between packing and studying for exams, but we exchanged real phone numbers (how funny, to think that after four months, my new friends had never actually texted me at my actual number from home, but only the temporary French number I maintained). Immediately after finals, nearly everyone was gone.
I was fortunate enough to be able to stay an extra week in France, and a few other students did, too. I came across them now and then, when I wandered into town to take a few last pictures and say my goodbyes to the streets and fountains. It's funny; it didn't even feel like the same city once most people I knew had gone. It felt again like how it had been during Early Arrival week, before the dozens of other students had suddenly appeared. It's lonely, not to know anyone in a place. It made me ready to come home.
The goodbye to my host mom was the hardest. My friends are mostly Americans, and though their homes are scattered across the country, I know that I will have opportunities to see them again. Josy made me a part of her family for four months, fed me, and taught me much, but I don't know when I will ever see her again. We can email. The next time I find myself in Europe (there will be a next time, this I know), I will definitely stop through Aix and say Bonjour! I would like to introduce my parents to Josy, this woman who was, in a way, their surrogate for a semester. Still, she's part of not only a different culture from me, but a different generation -- in some ways, that's the bigger obstacle, as she doesn't have Skype or know her way around Facebook. It'll be difficult to stay in touch, and she will have a new student in a few short weeks. But I owe her a lot of gratitude.
Perhaps the most telling sign of what these four months have meant can be found in how much more smoothly went my return to the States, compared to my trip to Aix in the beginning. Josy's daughter was kind enough to drive me to the TGV station with my suitcases. Where I once wandered, confused and sleep-deprived, I instead calmly met a friend and boarded my train to Paris without incident. I spent a week in Paris, managing metro rides and finding my way to tourist sites and eateries without any trouble at all. The maps I used where easy to read, as were the signs for attractions. If I had to ask for directions, it wasn't that big a deal, and I understood the conversations happening around me in public places without consciously thinking about which language the strangers spoke.
My friend from IAU and I had a few discussions over the semester about how we feared that being home again would feel like a continuation of life before France, as though we had never left home in the first place. I've been home for almost a week, and I no longer worry about that. For the first few days, there was reverse culture shock: I was startled to see sweatpants in public, I seemed to have way more things in my room than I could ever possibly use or want, and words like Merci and A tes souhaites leapt to my mind much faster than their English equivalents (Thank you, and To your wishes -- what you say when someone sneezes, the equivalent of Bless you). That's begun to fade, now. I'm slowly re-assmilating into American culture; heaven knows it's too familiar to me to be foreign for long, even after four months away. But I sense changes in myself that go deeper, and those show no signs of changing back. For example, talking to strangers is easier. For the last four months, everyone has been a stranger, and I haven't known what to say to them in French, but I have figured it out, person by person, conversation by conversation. Now I'm back, and with the language barrier gone, I feel like I can talk to anyone! It's easy as breathing. Everything, from making small talk with cashiers and waitresses, to sending emails and leaving voicemails, is suddenly one hundred times easier than it was in France -- and even easier than it was before I left America, because I know now that I can do it when it's more difficult. I'm just a little bit more confident and used to figuring things out on my own than I was when I left. That's what I was hoping for, and I'm glad for it.
Over the course of the semester, we've been doing all sorts of writing in my Creative Writing class. Recently, we've been working hardest on a long midterm essay, but now and then we just do simpler free-writing exercises. I will post the most polished version of my midterm essay when I receive my second draft back from my professor, but in the meantime, here is a short piece I wrote up when my professor basically said to us, "It's spring! Things are changing in Aix! What's different? You have half an hour. Use all five senses! Write! Go!"
France, of course, is known for its cuisine. I knew that even before coming here. What I didn’t realize until more recently was that I didn’t know why. When I thought “French cuisine,” I thought Julia Child and Disney’s Ratatouille: chefs in big white hats mixing up delicate sauces and flowery desserts, chopping vegetables with a practiced speed and drizzling chocolate with graceful abandon, experimenting with all sorts of nonsense from frog’s legs to escargot. And maybe there is some value in that impression, especially up in Paris. I’ve been to Paris before, and tried both escargot and frog’s legs there. That’s where the biggest cooking schools are, and the five-star restaurants, and world-renowned fashions—food is subject to la mode just as much as clothing is. From the recipe to the plate, much of French food culture does have to do with design.
That being said, living in the south of France, away from the flashy cooking schools and restaurants renommés (renowned), it seems to me that what really separates French cuisine isn’t design—there are excellent chefs autour du monde (around the world)—but a sort of profound respect. It’s ingrained into the culture as a whole: food isn’t simply a means of sustenance, of fuel, but it’s a pleasure. The preparation of food is a ritual. It’s a means of sharing your life with other people. It’s tremendously important—and if it takes a long time, then so be it. It is worth it.
Nice, Monaco, et Èze
Several weekends ago (wow, does time fly by, here), IAU went on an all-school excursion to Nice, Monaco, and Èze. A brief geography lesson (because honestly, I didn’t know where those three cities were in relation to each other until this trip):
Let's learn some history of Aix! I figured out how to get a whole album of photos up here, so you can walk through a visit we took to the Gaulois ruins at Entremont.
Door to IAU Main
I admit, I’ve been a little bit tempted to cheat and backdate some entries on this blog so it looks like I’ve been posting more regularly than I have been. Mais non, I won’t do that. But it is harder than I thought it would be, making time to post regularly, especially now with classes in full swing.
Speaking of classes! Let me tell you about my school and what I am taking this semester. IAU is an American university study abroad program, so it is not as though I am just taking classes straight up at a French university, surrounded by real live French students. Pro: I’m not overwhelmed by university-level French studies and expected to know everything about life here already like most the students who have lived in France all their lives. Con: It’s harder to meet actual French students. But four out of my five professors are actual-factual French men and women, and they do their best to expose us to the culture. And as I’ve written before, IAU has a working relationship with the French political science school next door, resulting in a handful of their students taking classes with us! I don’t have any of them in my classes, but I see them around, and now and then, they hold fun little culture-sharing sessions about French board games or French music, topics like those. Otherwise, the students here come from all across America, with a handful from other places, too, like Canada, England, and even China. There are just over a hundred of us in total, which gives it a cozy feel—in a way, almost like being back in high school again, where you at least recognize the faces of pretty much everyone who goes here. Not like big old Penn State!
View from my apartment, looking down towards the city center
Yesterday marks the end of my third week here in Aix-en-Provence, and I still absolutely feel like I’m just beginning to get acquainted with the city. It’s a breathtaking and funny little place. Architecturally, the impression it gives is that it’s full of endless yellowed walls punctuated by green shutters and red clay rooftops, exaggerated fountain faces that spurt drinkable water, huge cathedrals that somehow suddenly appear from around corners, and boutique after boutique, café after café. There are no skyscrapers here, and most buildings don’t reach above three or four stories, but somehow the narrow streets make one feel much more enclosed than in big, car-friendly roads back at home. You can’t see farther down the cobblestones than a few hundred feet ahead of you at a time, because the alleys twist and turn and climb and fall and dead end and disappear behind rows of restaurant awnings. Except when they suddenly open out onto busy market squares!
Some new friends and me at La Mont Saint-Victoire
I haven’t written yet about Early Arrival Week, though that was what I was up to all last week. Now I almost don’t know where to begin.
Well, let me first say that I highly recommend it to any future IAU-ers who are considering starting the program a week early. It’s only the fourth full day here for the majority of IAU students, and it’s been very clear what advantages Early Arrival gave the fourteen of us who participated. First and foremost, we are over our jetlag. I thank the high heavens that I don’t have to try to figure out course schedules, classroom locations, school supplies, and navigating a world in French, all while half-asleep because my body is still back on Pennsylvania time. Au contraire, we fourteen or so have had an excellent time being able to point newer people to the best places for lunch and to the classrooms they seek.
Voici (here is) a short tour of my new home, for your viewing pleasure! :)
Let's not beat around the bush: the trip from northwestern Pennsylvania, USA, to Aix-en-Provence, France, was a stressful one. Two days before I was supposed to arrive in Aix, my mom and grandma drove me from my hometown all the way across the state to the house my aunt shares with her boyfriend near the PA-NY border. Thanks to a GPS that couldn’t handle the peculiarities in my aunt’s address, we spent almost two hours lost—within a few miles of the place! I hadn’t even left the state yet, and already I was having trouble. It did not bode well . . .