Another European month has passed, and once again I'll try to summarize my experiences without reducing the events to a tourist's checklist.
Towards the end of October, my mom came to visit me in Aix. It was wonderful to see her and show her all around the city I've come to consider a home away from home. In fact, it was as if my real home had crossed the Atlantic and transposed itself over this newly familiar space. Only my dad, my brother, Clay, and my cutie bupbup puppy, Ursula, were missing.
My mom's visit was my first thorough exploration of Aixois cuisine. Every night we enjoyed different and always delicious dining experiences, from Chez Leo in Place des Cardeurs to the famed Les Deux Garçons where once upon a time, Paul Cezanne dined with Emile Zola.
We went to the beautiful seaside town of Cassis as well, where we ate lunch at Nino, a restaurant au bord de la mer that serves the best moules frites (mussels and fries) that I've ever tasted. Our trip to Cassis was a bit hectic, though, since the bus system closed down much earlier than we thought it would (definitely my fault since I'm supposed to be the local). As a result, we had to cancel our plan to hike the calanques, the magnificent cliffs that line the shore from Marseille to La Ciota, and walk what must have been at least 5 kilometers to the so-called "Cassis" train station.
Spending time with my mom in France showed me how far I've advanced in my knowledge of the French language. Since my mom's French is limited to "bonjour," "merci," "au revoir," and "je ne sais pas" (always perfectly pronounced I must say), I took care of all of the day-to-day interactions with servers, bus drivers, market vendors, etc. These conversations had become second nature, and I was often surprised that my mom hadn't understood such an exchange. "Oh, I just asked how much that costs," or "Oh sorry, I just explained that we're American." The most difficult test of my translation skills was the rendez-vous between my mom and my host mother. They had a grand old time getting to know each other while my linguistic competence was whittled down to a crude franglais by sheer confusion and continuous speech.
After my mom's return to the US, which was very sad for both of us, fall break began. I spent the first half of the break in Barcelona with a large group of students from IAU and Aix-Marseille University. Barcelona is a crazy place. Promoters line the streets, pitching descriptions of their respective clubs that remind me of Bill Hader's character Stefan from SNL. But these Catalan promoters usually weren't acting, from what I could tell. For instance, at a club called Opium, my friends and I saw a man on stilts dressed as the Mad Hatter. Pretty awesome. Also awesome: skinny dipping in the Mediterranean at 4am, joining the crowd right outside of Camp Nou stadium after Barcelona wins El Classico, and Gaudi's architecture.
From Barcelona, three of my friends and I took a train to Madrid where we spent the rest of fall break. Madrid has a classier feel than Barcelona, but the nightlife is comparably wild. Kapital, Madrid's seven-story club, is a very impressive place, to say the least.
The museums Prado and Reina Sofia were outstanding. Reina Sofia's collection of Spanish surrealist art, in particular, captivated me and my friends for hours. We also had a great day at el parque del Retiro, a gorgeous and expansive park which we explored by bike. There's a pond in the middle of the park where one can feed not only ducks but also carp-sized fish that awkwardly wrestle over bits of bread (or whatever happens to hit the water's surface).
Since fall break, Aix has been getting colder and colder. I don't think any of us at IAU realized that the south of France gets any colder than southern California. At this point, it's about as cold as southern Canada. Consequently, Aix has become much quieter on weeknights. The bright side of the winter season here in Aix is the stunning network of holiday lights that run through the trees, hang across major streets, and adorn many of the city's fountains. Vendors of roasted chestnuts and hot wine have appeared in town as well.
IAU is changing too, but it's growing warmer instead of colder. Superficial acquaintances have become potentially life-long friendships, and hanging out in the IAU cave or The Wohoo (our school's favorite bar for happy hour) makes me feel as if I'm in a common room with my friends at Tufts (my home institution). I think I speak for the vast majority of IAU students here. We're starting to feel the approach of the shocking, sad separation that awaits us towards the end of December. I love my friends here, and it's horrible to think that most of us will be anywhere from 100 to 3,000 miles apart from each other in a matter of weeks.
Anyway, on the third Thursday of November, the whole of France celebrates the arrival of Beaujolais, a wine that comes from the region surrounding Lyon. As an American who doesn't know the first thing about wine, I had never heard of this quasi-holiday until I met my French friends Leo, Lucas, and Vincent at their favorite bar in Aix, Chez Mus. They ordered bottle after bottle of the wine, which they explained to be sub-par yet enjoyable due to tradition, and the bar served free cheese, meat, and bread all night. Best of all, instead of the usual American pop music, the bar played traditional French folk music. It was amazing to think that the same scenario was taking place in bars all over the country.
The weekend after the Beaujolais festival, I went to Paris with a few friends from IAU. We stayed in a very big, beautiful, and probably outrageously expensive apartment in Ternes, a five-minute walk from l'Arc de Triomphe. The apartment belongs to my friend Dan's Kentuckian family friend Maria and her French husband, Philippe. They were the most gracious of hosts, and they managed to tread the line between parental figures and co-generational buddies. Dan and I had several great conversation with Maria and Philippe, during one of which I learned of the terribly deep-rooted opposition to same-sex marriage among Catholic-raised French people who are otherwise quite modern and reasonable.
The nightlife in Paris was a bit of a letdown since the bars close at 2, the clubs are impossible for groups of imperfectly dressed American young men to enter, and the Parisians were generally cold towards us. However, the city of Paris itself, in all its ineffable beauty, made us forget all about the non-Spanishness of the Parisian party scene. I'm sure nobody reading this blog needs me to rattle off all of the names of the places we visited; most of them are in the table of contents of any French travel guide. The two places that I believe are worth mentioning are rue Mouffetard, a long, refreshingly non-bourgeois strip of restaurants, crêperies, ice cream parlors, and little stores near the Latin quarter, and le marché de Noël, the Christmas market along the champs-elysées. The lights and music are so enchanting that you might not even realize that you're walking past the same four types of kiosk over and over again (gift shop, kebabs etc, hot wine, slightly more upscale gift shop).
The most recent notable event was Thanksgiving. French people typically have no idea what Thanksgiving is, and it was very funny to try to explain it to them. For example: "Well, the pilgrims and the Native Americans had a feast together...and then, uh, a couple hundred years later Abraham Lincoln said there would be a national holiday called Thanksgiving...and so yeah now we have a big parade and watch football and most importantly we eat until we're pretty much comatose." "So do you write letters thanking the people who have done things for you?" "No...we just think about the stuff we like and maybe talk about it at the dinner table." "Oh. C'est bizarre."
It was hard to be away from home on Thanksgiving. IAU did a great job of organizing a Thanksgiving dinner that had all the essential dishes, but it didn't feel right not to be lounging around at home with my family all day. It was the first time I've felt really homesick since I've been here. But the homesickness passed, and now, as ready as I am to go home, I'm clinging to every precious moment of my time here. I'll try to find time to write another blog entry while I'm here, but I'll most likely be too busy absorbing the masterpiece that is Aix-en-Provence and the souls of these life-changing people I may never see again.
Here's my first French poem:
Les images de vos visages viennent en montage
hurlant, souriant, pleines d’une haine
amusante. Et moi, je vis, tournant, dans une
pirouette qui m’enveloppe dans un
sans-arrêt. Cette pirouette, ce que vous me faites,
la grande dette que je vous dois, vos belles lois,
les « au revoir » et tous ces soirs colorés
que j’aperçois chaque fois que vous me touchez –
Ah c’est toi, ta touche me réveille.
Le rêve se relève et je me sens libre
comme le moment où je quitte le monde
d’un livre et me souviens d’où je viens.
Mais je te ressens et dans les vagues qui
fuient ton paradis si près et si loin d’ici
je tourne encore. Le corps dedans moi,
mon espoir, ma foi, ma fierté sont tous
jetés ouverts par cette pirouette, la même
mais maintenant, étant éveillée, muette.
Tu m’as – ne me laisse pas parce que la fin de cette
pirouette serait une faiblesse, un vide, une blessure qui dure.
I've been incredibly busy in the best way. I hate to admit this to my devoted readership (probably my parents and a few relatives), but my blog has been put on the back burner. This is mostly because whenever I have an hour or so to write, I write in my journal that I have to keep for class called "L'Approche Interculturelle de l'Autre." My classes are all very interesting but more time-consuming than I'd anticipated. Linguistics, one of my most interesting classes, requires a four-page paper each week, which is hard to manage when writing in French. The French Honors Program has certainly been rewarding, but don't do it if you want your study abroad experience to be vacation-esque.
Anyway, here are some highlights from the past few weeks:
I went to the Marseille vs. Arsenal game with Perle and her boyfriend Armand. Absolutely crazy. A couple of guys were screaming chants into microphones, and the whole crowd was screaming along with them. "AUX ARMES!" "ALLER L'O.M.!" etc. It was a bit like a punk concert; there was a good deal of moshing as well. The Marsellais identity also became evident during the match when they sang a chant that translates to, "Marseille isn't France, Marseille isn't France!"
La montagne Sainte-Victoire was made famous by Paul Cézanne, an Aixois impressionist who painted it something like 76 times. For one euro, you can take a bus to the foot of the mountain (about twenty minutes away from Aix) and enjoy a beautiful two-hour hike to the enormous cross at the top of the mountain. When it's warm enough, you can also stay the night in a little priory about fifty meters down from the cross. There's a dining table and a fireplace inside the priory, but there are no beds, so you have to bring a sleeping bag and a cushion. When I stayed the night with a few friends, there were some college-aged French people who played guitar and sang with us late into the night. They knew how to play "The Bare Necessities" and "I Wanna Be Like You" from the Jungle Book, so they sang the French versions of the songs while we sang the English versions. One of the French guys, whose name is Lucas, told us that when French people sing American/anglophone songs (which happens all the time), they often imitate the sounds of the lyrics without knowing the meaning of the words. They call this type of singing "Yaourt" or "Yogurt."
This past weekend I went to Amsterdam with eleven other IAU students. Amsterdam is a beautiful city, and we had some fantastic and very silly times there. The most memorable part of the trip, though, was the Anne Frank house. I won't try to describe it fully since I would definitely fail, but I will say that the museum is a jarring reminder of the most inspiring and the most terrifying sides of humanity.
But my best experiences abroad have been here in Aix. I've started playing soccer regularly, and the locals are very fun to play with and often very talented. Soccer has been a great way to pick up everyday expressions that we don't learn in class. There's also a beautiful park south of downtown called Parc Jourdan where Aix-Marseille students always hang out. My dad was nice enough to bring my travel guitar over to France when he visited, so I've been able to play music with lots of French students, which has been a great way to meet friends. A couple of my new French friends, Nas and VJ, are excellent freestyle rappers, and they have some written raps as well. French rap is very good once you can follow along with the rapid-fire delivery and catch on to the slang, and it's extremely popular here. When I met Nas he said very seriously, "US rap and French rap are the only ones that matter. All the rest is complete garbage." I don't really know enough about international rap to agree or disagree, but I thought that was a pretty funny thing to say, especially with his dramatic spitting for punctuation. Moral of the story: go to Parc Jourdan whenever the weather's nice (which has been almost every day so far).
À la prochaine!
C'est la vie en rose. Everything has been so overwhelmingly wonderful that I've actually had a few brief moments of panic where I imagine that I'll have to go through a major catastrophe as some sort of karmic payment for this week. Basically, this seems too good to be true. Aix-en-Provence is one of the coolest cities I've ever seen; my host family couldn't be better; my IAU classmates are awesome, and I've had some of the most stimulating conversations of my life this week, some of which were in French. This is quickly becoming a brag journal, but I guess that's what happens when you write about an experience worthy of envy.
Aix has everything a twenty-year-old francophile could want: world-class food (of every variety, not just French), beautiful architecture, rich history, lots of fun and often quirky bars, a few nightclubs, and 40,000 students who are generally excited to go out, meet people, and have a good time. I recently learned that Aix is also a hub for the arts, particularly music, and is home to a prestigious conservatory. Many of the street performers here are Carnegie Hall material. There's also a great park south of the city proper called Parc Relais Krypton where people go mountain biking, camping, etc. On my first day here, I took my host family's mountain bike out to the park and had a fantastic time despite the fact that my ambitious excursion onto an unmarked trail ended in a painful crash into a wall of thorn bushes.
That brings me to my host family. They're so cool that I often feel like a complete goober. My host mother Murielle is a psychiatrist, an artist, and a very caring person. Several times this week, she's asked me with heartwarming sincerity if I'm alright, if I miss my home and family, if there's anything she can do to help me transition. Her kindness and openness make it very easy to speak with her, and my French is improving exponentially as a result. We've shared - or at least begun to share - our opinions about religion, philosophy, visual art, literature, food, Facebook, various TV shows, rugby, and many other subjects that have happened to arise. My host father Olivier is also very nice, and he has a dry sense of humor that I find hilarious despite my inability to grasp it fully. Hopefully by the end of the semester I'll be able to appreciate the finer points of his humor and his intellect. My host sister Perle is one of the most mature 17-year-old girls I've ever met. Maybe it's a cultural difference between the French and the Americans, but she seems to have the social savoir-faire of a young woman in her early twenties. She is always very sweet, and like her parents, she's patient when I'm too tired to speak easily comprehensible French. On my first night in Aix, Perle took me out on the town with her boyfriend Armand and his friend Pierre. They were all exceptionally friendly and excited to teach me some popular slang phrases like "je kiffe ça," which means "I like that" or "I'm into that." My host parents also have two sons who live elsewhere now. I hope to meet them sometime this semester.
The Early Start Program was a worthwhile experience that I would recommend to anyone who plans to study at IAU. It was very easy to get to know the town without the stress of a full course load, and the program's various activities produced some very cozy friendships. The program ended with a mahvelous trip to the beaches of La Sciota, a town on the Côte Azur. The Early Start classes were very informative and offered a chance to become close with the professors before our semester-long classes began. Among our many fundamental lessons of French culture was one that dealt with the art of saying hello. Basic summary: "bonjour" for the first time you see someone in a day from morning to sunset, "bon soir" for the first time you see someone at or after sunset, "salut" for a subsequent greeting and/or a greeting that implies a bit of familiarity, "coucou" for a very familiar greeting. Our only assignment throughout the Early Start Program (at least in my group) was to write a one-page description of our experience at the marché aux fleurs, the city-wide market in Aix. My description may be of interest to those who have never been to a French market, so I'll post it here:
Quelques réflexions sur le marché aux fleurs d’Aix-en-Provence
Aller au marché aux fleurs d’Aix-en-Provence est une expérience fortement voluptueuse. Toute la ville sent le pain, les fruits, les légumes, les viandes variées et bien sûr les fleurs. On voit partout les gens qui s’occupent attentivement de trouver les meilleures choses à acheter. L’énergie de ces citoyens est presque palpable. Il y a aussi le son rythmique des discussions animées entre les marchands et les consommateurs. Le marché est magnétique ; plusieurs musiciens et artistes de rue y vont pour partager et vendre leurs talents.
Quand j’avais seize ans, je suis allé au marché aux fleurs de Bonnieux, un village dans le Luberon. Je me souviens que le marché de Bonnieux avait la même volupté et le même magnétisme que celui d’Aix. J’ai néanmoins remarqué à Aix des choses qui n’étaient pas évidentes pour moi à Bonnieux. Par exemple, j’ai entendu l’accent provençal. J’ai aperçu que les provençaux prononcent le mot « pain » comme « paing » et parlent généralement avec plus de variations dans la longueur des syllabes par rapport aux parisiens. J’ai aussi remarqué la variété d’articles à vendre. Il n’y a pas seulement des fleurs et de la nourriture ; quelques marchands vendent les vêtements, les bijoux, les peintures et même les petites sculptures d’aluminium.
J’ai décidé d’acheter une baguette donc j’ai salué la vendeuse de pain et en ai commandé une. Je n’avais malheureusement que des gros billets, ce qui est un faux pas pour lequel j’ai anticipé d’être puni. J’ai commencé à m’excuser abondamment tout en disant que je pouvais aller prendre la quantité précise. Puis, la vendeuse a ri, m’a donné une expression confuse et m’a dit : « nous avons de la monnaie en France ». Elle a commencé à me donner aimablement ma monnaie et pendant que je l’ai remerciée et lui dit au revoir, je me suis promis de ne pas oublier que les tendances culturelles ne sont pas des lois de la nature.
This summer has been a deep breath. The kind that you take before jumping into cold water or trying to describe how you really feel. I have no job, no internship, rien à faire. In my mind, the future’s high-pressure lifestyle flows into my current low-pressure zone. Hundreds of new acquaintances, thousands of new faces, places, and expressions fill moments that seem to consist only of flipping through channels of daytime television. Will some Provençale genius change my life? To which exact European coordinates will I swear to return? Je ne sais pas mais je me demande souvent.
Of course, I do have some responsibilities this summer, but they’re all preparation for my semester in Aix-en-Provence. All part of this deep breath. For instance, my visa application is a responsibility that has been much more arduous I expected. Things got pretty real when I missed my appointment at the consulate in Washington D.C. For anyone who shares my aversion to anticipating traffic: leave time for traffic. The hard-working employees at the French Embassy, however cool and/or sexy their accents may be, do not make exceptions for lateness. In my case, though, not only was I late, but I also arrived on the wrong day. This embarrassing mistake was a reality check. My summer’s deep breath threatened to choke me. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to reschedule my appointment for a date that would allow me to receive my visa in time for my flight, which would mean an expensive change of flight and a potentially refund-less withdrawal from IAU College’s Early Start Program. Luckily, someone else cancelled his or her appointment, which left an opening for me to apply for my visa far enough in advance of my flight. I realize now that this stressful episode could’ve been avoided if I’d understood the nature of this summer and of deep breaths in general. When we inhale to stabilize ourselves before the plunge, we may lose our grip on our immediate reality. Doing something productive each day, checking email, and, evidently, applying for my visa have all fallen by the wayside. I think my apathy may be the result of some subconscious understanding that in only a few years, I’ll remember this summer as a mere prelude to studying abroad. Regardless of the reason for my indolence, it needs to stop, so I’m trying to do something about it.
One of my new anti-apathy activities is reading Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations. My copy has both Rimbaud’s poetry and John Ashbery’s English translations, and transitioning back and forth between the languages has been a beautiful way to refresh some vocabulary. I’d recommend reading French poetry alongside English translations, and I’d more ardently recommend reading Illuminations in particular. One of the collection’s poems is called “Départ,” so I thought it was worth sharing:
Assez vu. La vision s’est rencontrée à tous les airs.
Assez eu. Rumeurs des villes, le soir, et au soleil, et toujours.
Assez connu. Les arrêts de la vie. --O Rumeurs et Visions!
Départ dans l’affection et le bruit neufs!