Have you ever simply sat and observed a public place?
Listen. Simple noises – mere sound waves and vibrations – creating and maintaining the order of everything around me. Voices speaking a language I can’t comprehend. I don’t recognize a single word that reaches my ears, yet everyone here in this square behaves accordingly and knows exactly how to react when someone speaks to them.
The easy flow of vocal vibration is soothing – I hear the beginning and ending of words, then sentences. I can get clues from volume and speed, hand gestures and facial expressions. But I sit here with my nose in a book hoping no one approaches me so that I won’t be revealed as an imposter, as someone who is only pretending to know what’s going on. I wouldn’t even know how to communicate my confusion if interrupted from my hiding.
There is a mother with two young sons across the square from me. The younger of the two is half a step behind his mother, eyes glossy and cheeks pink from crying, while his mother towers over his older brother. Her voice is raised and harsh, unwavering in her tone. He stands there avoiding eye contact, unable to defend himself. I'm too intrigued to give them the privacy of looking away (as everyone seems to have done) but it doesn’t matter anyway; I will never know the whole story – I can’t understand why he is being scolded, or if he is truly being scolded for that matter.
The boys know precisely the magnitude of what she is saying, but I cannot recognize a single sound passing over her lips. I believe I know what she means, but I cannot understand her words.
I’m almost certain I’ve been in the positions of both brothers with my own siblings as a kid. Listening to my own mom stick up for me after being pushed to tears by my older brother, or, scolding me for pushing my little sister to the point of tears. The visual seems almost identical, and I suppose that’s how the world works. Verbal language contributes such a small percentage of what we are able to comprehend. Language is just noise passing by vibration through the spaces between us.
Our eyes and ears see and hear so much more than we are capable of processing. Our minds unconsciously pick and choose the details that matter – the details worth seeing and hearing. Imagine listening to every bird’s chirp, every footstep, every car horn, every conversation; imagine taking in every color of every shirt, every display of every store-front, every person’s facial structure – we’d have no brain power left to examine and analyze any detail. We’d be an accumulation of observations without any stories to tell.
That’s why experiencing new places is so exhausting. You’re constantly trying to keep up with every detail each of your senses is relaying…it’s sunny, there’s a breeze; it smells like dog feces at this corner, but like fresh bread at the next; that building is beautifully preserved, but this one might as well be torn down. New places heighten our awareness to things that become the mundane routine at home.
Let me start with the most sincere of apologies for being so bad at keeping up with this blog. I guess it's been about 3 weeks since my last one, I suck, I know. I'm sorry.
I've been having a good time since then though! We went on a trip to Monaco and Nice - beaches, casinos, and the medieval town of Eze. Nice was our first stop, everybody seemed to love it. Personally, I could take it or leave it. It was tons of fun to visit, and considering we only have about 5 hours to explore the city, I'd go back. But I'd compare it to Florida -- anyone that lives there probably moved there from somewhere else, and the rest of the country just visits for vacation. Don't get me wrong, it was just as beautiful as everyone will say on their own blogs, but it gets a rating of "underwhelming" from me. I liked Monaco a lot better, the position of the tiny tax-less country teetering on the edge of the moutainous mediterranean shore was simply more appealing to me. The layout of the city being more interesting, and the overall feeling that you're not living in the "real world" -- that it's a haven away from stress and strife, as surreal and inconceivable as that might be -- was a lovely way to spend an afternoon. We also visited Monte Carlo Casino while we were there, which was fun because we got all dressed up and got to spend the night out on the town, so to speak. But I discovered I am not a gambler. I spent 5 euros on a slot machine, lost 20 cents, and quit playing for the night. I went and found some gelato instead. Money much better spent.
Eze was really fascinating to me. I wish we would've had a bit more time to wander the old town, shop in the itty bitty stores, and eat at the claustrophobic-sized restaurants. The town is carved into the side of a mountain, its twisting streets more narrow than a small alleyway, and built completely out of the stone it's built upon. I love being in the middle of towns that old; it makes me think about the people who built it and the sheer number of people who have lived there -- who have walked there. The stories that must be tied to it. It's so amazing to think about the history of a place like that.
That was only one weekend...If you'll forgive me, I'll just word-vomit all over this post about what else has happened in the last three weeks.
I've spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to budget myself week-by-week and fail almost every single day to stay within my budget. The boulangeries just smell so good! And the coffee is just so convenient! And the clothes are just so cute! And travelling is just so easy! I swear, I can't be blamed for my poor ability to abide by a simple budget. I'm also an English major, so, numbers are not my thing to begin with.
My housemate and I have have received several notes in our rooms, taped on doors, balanced on our trashcans, etc. explaining the little things that we are doing incorrectly. Including, but not limited to, not wearing or storing our shoes in our rooms, not locking the door properly, throwing away the wrong garbage in our rooms, and storing food incorrectly in our rooms (even though we aren't supposed to keep 'too much' food in the kitchen). There's also this small detail of laundry... she won't show us how to use the washing macine. She'll let us put our clothes in the machine and take them out of the machine, but she won't let us push the start button while we're standing there. I can't say I blame her though, I have a very particular way of doing things in my own house at home too...so I see where she's coming from.
There's also the case of the mysterious missing toilet seat. This isn't new; we haven't had one since arriving. But it's still a curious situation considering there are holes in the toilet where a seat was once attached, it's just...no longer there. And have I described the shower construction? No? Well, it's a bathtub with a handheld shower attachment, no curtain, and nowhere to put the handheld so I can stand under it......Ahhh yes, the nuances of living in a stranger's home in a different country. As my creative writing professor pointed out last week: we must adjust to our circumstance, circumstances don't adjust to us. (I forget who said that though, my professor was using a quote).
Speaking of the nuances of a new living situation, we've also recently acquired another (part-time?) resident. Lauren and I aren't sure who she is. Her name is Corinne (I think), and the only concrete fact we have is that she goes to school with my host-sister MaryLou. Sometimes she sleeps here, and sometimes she doesn't, but we're never quite sure when she'll be here or when she won't be. There's a possibility she's the niece to our host-parents, but we aren't positive. And we can't ask because we're fairly certain they explained all of this to us at dinner the first night she was here, and we just didn't understand. Because, you know, they speak French, and our conversational ability stops at about "ca va? Oui, ca va." So instead of asking more about it, we just kind of smiled and nodded and continued eating...had I known she'd be another person to share our bathroom with in the mornings, I probably would've asked more questions.
Moving onto to school: Classes are all going really well..at least I hope so. That's the impression I'm getting anyway. I'm liking them, and my professors have been beyond generous with the lightness of my homework load so far. I have a feeling everything's about to pick up real quick though. My class on comparing educational systems has a portion that requires us to teach French kids English once a week, and even though I've only been twice so far, I'm really enjoying it.
I've gotten to the point where I can perform simple interactions with French locals completely in French and they don't even suspect me as a non-native speaker! (Okay, they can probably still tell. But, at least they don't immediately answer me in English when I try to order something off a menu). It's the small victories that keep you going, right? However, every time I say something, I pray that they don't ask me a follow-up question. Because I generally only rehearse the predictable responses beforehand -- I can't handle a fully spontaneous conversation yet...
I just got back yesterday from visiting Emily Yost (you better read this now that I've given you a shout-out, Emily!) in Malaga, Spain. Soo muchh funnn! Malaga is such a cool city, and if anyone reading this is ever in Spain, you should definitely make an effort to see Malaga. Besides the city itself being thoroughly enjoyable, it was so nice to see a familiar face and hang out with a friend from school after being gone for so long. Not to mention being able to sit/read/nap on a beach in October!
AND! If you do make it to Malaga, go to this cupcake boutique: http://juliacupcakesmalaga.blogspot.fr/
I am not kidding. Go! Buy a ticket to Spain and buy a cupcake from Julia Cupcakes...that one cupcake will be worth the entire trip. I had two while I was visiting -- one right as they were closing for the night, and one the next morning before they were even finished opening. I will forever remember this place as the best cupcakes I have ever tasted in my entire life, their apple-spice and cinnamon cupcakes...just YUM. My mouth is salivating just thinking about the cupcakes from there. Guys, they are SO good. I'm contemplating having Emily send me an assorted box of cupcakes now.
There was also a weekend in which absolutely nothing I had planned worked in my favor. Aix is known to have very, very, small amounts of rainfall throughout the year, so of course the weekend where I plan to do things outside everyday is the weekend that it rains everyday. Including storming on us as we attempt to hike Mt. Saint-Victoire and getting so soaked that it took my hoodie two and a half days to dry out. But, that means I've got all of my bad-karma and travel-mishaps out of the way, right? Here's to hoping, anyway.
I'm going to stop this post now, it's getting long. But I promise I'll post again before Friday! There are things I want to write about still, so, that will keep me motivated in my blogging this week.
My host dad's name is Pierre and he owns a wine shop. I am definitely in France.
I've been in Europe since the 20th of August. I left a couple weeks early to go on my own mini backpacking trip with a friend before I had to report in Aix for school. So, in about two and a half weeks, I saw Madrid, Barcelona, Girona, Montpellier, Lyon, and Aix-en-Provence.
How do I sum that up? Let me start by saying that even though I'm from Chicago (ok, for family and friends who see this - not the city proper. I know.) major cities tend to bore me after just a few days. I much prefer smaller cities or towns. I find them more enjoyable, more culturally rich. Big, international cities are awe-inspiring for the first time, but then they lose their "je ne sais quoi" and start to feel like other big cities you've been to. But the smaller towns have a more distinguished personality; they hold on to the traditions of their culture a little bit tighter than the major cities do.
That's not to say I didn't have a good time in Madrid and Barcelona. I did. I have never taken Spanish, nor studied Spanish culture, so seeing a glimpse into that world was an amazing experience. Our first train into Spain, headed to the Barcelona train station, there was a boy about thirteen years old who drew a picture of me and wrote his email address on it, and gave it to me just before getting off -- I felt bad because I don't speak Spanish and was hardly able to spit out "gracias!" before he hopped off! It was also my first time staying in hostels, which was much more fun than I expected it to be. I got to see [most of] the iconic tourist attractions, as well as stroll down streets, getting turned around and a little lost, just wondering the city at my own pace -- taking in the differences from downtown Chicago, and making note of how similar everything still felt. There was plenty to see and do, and there was always the opportunity to meet someone new to do something with. (Not to mention the sangria alone is worth a trip to Spain). I was mistaken for a Swedish person in Barcelona by a couple of native Swedes..at least until I opened my mouth. But that's one of the draws to a big city -- you'll get to see and experience more than just the culture of the country it's in.
However, Montpellier and Aix have been my favorites so far. You can find any French cliche at any given hour if you just walk around the block. An old man wearing a beret, shuffling out of a boulangerie, two baguettes tucked under his arm. Or a couple of French women (obviously with a better sense of fashion than me) strutting down cobblestone paths wearing heels, striped shirts, accented with scarves and hair that never gets blown in their faces. And let me clarify for you that the French eat A LOT of bread. And chocolate. I love both of those things, I eat a lot of those things at home. But the over-exaggeration of the amount of chocolate and bread consumed in France is not possible. Whatever and however you try to describe it, it really is that much. I'm baffled; but also so happy to stop at any of the four bakeries on my three block walk to school to pick up a croissant, or pain du chocolat, or un demi-baguette. And I have yet to enter a boulangerie or patisserie that didn't look like it was straight out of a storybook, I'll put up more pictures in my next post hopefully, but I'm constantly reminding myself that this is really how people live! They wake up and walk to the nearest boulangerie/patisserie and pick of a delicious pastry and then go and sit with their coffee at their favorite cafe while they read le journal! This is real-life for some people! I feel like I'm in Disneyworld and all of these amazing store-fronts, boutiques, cafes, and vieux batiments will give way to the entrance gate of a park; that I'll come to the end of it on some street and realize that this is all just make-believe.
My first week of classes is done, I'm genuinely excited about the topics I'll be learning about in them. Which is a good thing because if I wasn't, I don't even want to think about how that would be reflected in my grades. I'm pretty excited to see how the semester goes! Based on this week, I think it'll be a good one.