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05/29/2013

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After a week spent in Germany, as I boarded the train back to Aix to take my flight home, it all felt so unreal. It felt as though I was just on another weeklong trip but I would be returning to my wonderful host mom's for more school. It wasn't until I was about 4 hours from Newark that I actually realized I had left, not to return to Aix for a long time. This past semester was a great experience. I met so many new people, made amazing new friends, and learned about a whole new culture. Plus, I learned to speak French much better.
Now that I'm back and reflecting, I'm certainly glad I studied abroad in France. Some parts of the semester were a bit rough, but I never got too discouraged. I ended up with a great host mom and housemate and we were both incredibly sad as we left. I learned so much about myself this semester too. I learned I like having my freedom, I don't like living in cities, I even came to the conclusion that I certainly picked the right major after I had an internship in a field I once considered making my major. There was a lot of personal growth as I studied abroad and wouldn't change that for the world. It all does feel a little like a dream though, its hard to believe that I actually lived in France, away from my friends and family for four months. I visited 5 other countries and actually worked in a French laboratory, but I will always have the pictures and the memories I made in France to remind me that I actually did this, it wasn't just a dream.  
However, as I celebrated Memorial Day with my family and friends, the song, I'm Proud to be an American, was never more true for me. I loved France but I wouldn't trade America for anything. I'm so glad I had this amazing experience but I am very content to have returned to my small town in Pennsylvania.
 
 
It's hard to believe that nearly four months ago, I was writing the same blog post but about coming to France. I was incredibly excited and somewhat nervous to be venturing into a new country, speaking a language I barely knew. Now, as the program draws to an end in only 5 days, and I begin traveling, I can honestly say that I am excited to go home, to see my family, my friends and my cat. That's not to say I'm not sad to be leaving. I'm sure I will shed more than a few tears this week as I pack up my belongings and say goodbye to all the new friends I have made and the town I have come to love. This is the truth I have found this semester, even through the not so great times, I had great new friends to help me through them. And the little town of Aix, that I have come to know a lot of, has become a second home.

Now in my last 15 days in Europe, I have a picnic to say thank you and goodbye to all my new friends, 5 finals, packing everything up, a 12 hour train ride to Germany, a week spent in Germany and finally a 12 hour train ride back to Aix for my flight back to the US. It will be quite the busy 15 days but it will be great to return to my home in Pennsylvania.
 
 
It's May 1st and everything is closed, except the fruit and vegetable markets and the boulangeries. Even super markets are closed as it is required by law. Today is Labor Day, so everyone has off. While I wish I could say I wouldn't be working today but with the end of the semester quickly approaching, I have plenty of work to do on my day off. Which reminds me, in less than a month, I will be back in the US. Its a bit sad and exciting at the same time. While I have loved my experience here, I can't wait to be back at home and Penn State with all my friends and family. Spring here in Aix is gorgeous and I wish it could have been like this the whole semester. We left for spring break with bare trees and when we returned, they were all sprouting leaves. Now everything is green and it reminds me how much I love being outside surrounded by green.

This past weekend, we took a trip with the whole school to the Vaucluse. Its the neighboring department to us. First we saw a quarry that has been turned into a work of art. It was a massive limestone quarry and now, they project art work on the floors and the walls. It was like a dream world and all of the little kids that were there were thrilled. We even started dancing inside. It was magical. I would highly recommend the Carriere des Lumieres for anyone that will be in the area. After that we went to the medieval town Les Baux, and we explored the castle. We even got to see a duel being reenacted. If the weather would have been slightly less miserable, I would have loved to spend more time exploring the town and castle. We finished off the day by visiting Fontaine de Vaucluse. It litterally means Fountain or Spring of Vaucluse and it was so named because in the town, is the source of the Sorgue river. Its an underground river that springs up out of the ground to make the Sorgue. It is one of the strongest springs in the world as it comes out of the ground at a ridiculous rate. (I can't find the exact number now, but I think they said 33,000 gallons per minute or maybe per second) It was incredible.Its a bit mystical since they don't know where all the water comes from and they haven't found the exact depth of the pool. It could be more than 300 metres deep.

This has just been an amazing week all together. It started with the excursion to the Vaucluse, then two days of class before a day off and I leave tomorrow afternoon for Ireland! I can't wait, I have always wanted to see Ireland and now it is actually happening! So you can all guess what the next post will be about.
 

Greece!

04/22/2013

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    So last week was Spring Break. I joined a group of five other girls and Monday morning we headed to the airport. Marseille airport at 5:30 in the morning wasn't exactly the best experience, we were all nervous about making the 6:30 flight as we were still waiting to pass through the one open security line at 6:15. Luckily we made it through at 6:20 and they hadn't even started boarding. The flights all worked out minus a little stress, at the same time, it was helpful for me, since my flight home will be at 6:30 am, I now know I cannot take the Navette. Lesson learned and now I can adjust my plans so I don't miss my flight home at the end of May. After many hours of travel we finally arrived in Greece.
    We arrived in Athens at noon and had no plans until our night ferry to Crete at 9pm. We headed into the center of the city to grab lunch and explore but we were limited as to what we could do with all of our luggage. We ended up sitting in Starbucks for a while and finally decided to head to the ferry around 6pm to see if we could board early. I was a bit nervous about the ferry, I had no idea what to expect when we all booked cabin berths. We were amazed when we arrived, it was just like a hotel with reception and all and our own rooms. The boat was amazing too with all of the fancy lounges and new greek foods. Unfortunately, the food in the cafeteria wasn't very good, but it was enough to get through the night. Tuesday morning we woke up bright and early for our 6 am departure from the ferry. We went right to our hotel in Crete to see about luggage storage for the day but we decided to eat breakfast there and by the time we finished, they told us our rooms were ready. We slept the rest of the morning away and then reconvened to explore Chania. We visited the Venetian port and walked around a good bit just exploring. We expected to see beaches all around but the water came right up to the wall, at first we thought maybe it was high tide but as the hours passed, we realized it couldn't possibly still be high tide and that the beaches must be further away. For dinner that night, we had our first traditional Crete experience. We headed back to the port for dinner and found a little fish tavern. We each ordered something new and were surprised when we asked for the bill that instead we recieved a bottle of a clear liquid and six shot glasses along with greek yogurt and honey. This liquid happens to be Raki, it is a strong liquor made by fermenting all that is left after the grapes have been pressed for wine. It was quite the interesting experience. It certainly was a very interesting drink... Not one that I would have ordered myself though.
    Wednesday, I chose to hang behind in Chania while four others headed to the Palace of Knossis. Its believed to be the palace of the Minoan king, and that it was the site of the labyrinth with the minotaur. I chose not to go, mostly due to the combined 5 hours on the bus, and the price of said bus. Also, there is something so exciting in Greek mythology, yet seeing it destroyed or learning the scientific facts behind it, ruins it for me, so I was happy to hang behind and explore parts of chania that I hadn't yet seen. I found a church that was celebrating its 150th anniversary this year and also discovered that whenever a non-tourist passed in front of the chuch, they made the sign of the cross three times. It was an interesting way to differentiate tourists from the Greeks.
    Thursday came and two of the girls went horseback riding all day, the rest of us and planned to hike the beautiful gorges of Samaria. Luckily, we asked at the front desk of our hotel about the bus before we headed to the station for the 5am bus. Unfortunately, that line wasn't running yet so the wonderful receptionist told us of a great path along the coast so we made plans to go there. It wasn't quite what we expected but we quickly found a lovely quiet beach. It didn't stay that way for long, we spread our towels out and 5 minutes later, 3 buses of school children arrived. We still had a good time, we swam for a bit and enjoyed the sun. After an hour or two, the wind picked up so much and sand was flying everywhere, it felt like small daggers anywhere that was exposed so we left the beach in hopes of finding a less windy place so we could eat our sandwiches sans the extra sand. We found a little side street and plopped down on the ground, only to be told by a woman walking by that it was too cold to sit on the ground. It was a good time though. Again at dinner, we enjoyed free dessert, this time though, it wasn't quite as enjoyable as yogurt, it was some kind of grainy bar that was drenched in honey. The Raki was same as always though.
    Friday was our planned beach day, we walked about a mile and a half from the hotel to find a beautiful beach. We started out as the only ones there but as the day wore on, more and more people came to join us. We had a great time, spending nearly 4 hours in the sun and swimming despite the freezing water. We returned to the port to grab lunch before heading to pick up our luggage and catch the ferry. After finishing lunch, on the walk back, we decided to stop at one of the fish spa stands. It was so bizarre to put our feet into a fish tank and let the fish eat at our feet, it really just tickled though and while not horrible, I couldn't have lasted more than the five minutes I paid for. We were smart on our return ferry, we chose to eat sandwiches we made rather than braving the cafeteria food again.
    Saturday, we arrived in Athens at 6am, we made our way to our hostel to drop our bags off. Our plan for the day was to go on the hop on hop off bus tour around Athens but the man at the hostel said no need, there were free walking tours through the hostel. This saved us 20 euros and it was a very informational, educational tour. Our tour guide George was great, he seemed to know everything and took us all over Athens. We tried our first frozen greek yogurt as we paused during the tour under the acropolis. After finishing at Syntagmy Square for the changing of the guard, we headed back to the Acropolis to see the Parthenon and other temples before they closed at three. We also saw the temple of Haphaestus which is one of the best preserved temple in Athens. Finally we took a break for lunch followed by our second frozen greek yogurt of the day. We saw the new Acropolis museum then retired early since we decided we needed to wake up at 2:45 so that we could catch the express bus on time to make our 6:30 flight home. Luckily, we flew back Sunday without a problem, our six hour layover in Munich was actually somewhat enjoyable, and certainly amusing. We made it back just in time as Lufthansa went on strike Monday morning.
    Overall, I had a great time, with great people. I'm so incredibly lucky to be doing all this, studying in France for the semester, spending a week here or there in whole new countries, meeting all kinds of great new people. I wouldn't trade this experience for anything.
 
 
Happy Easter! This morning I started the day early, with an 8am church service in English. I expected to find a beautifully decorated church full of flowers like I would have at home, yet when I walked in, there was just a simple altarpiece with a white rose, and no lilies. At home, lilies are everywhere for Easter, I can hardly breathe at most Easter services due to all the lilies, but here, not a single lily was to be found. Even the florist only had a couple yellow lily plants. It was an interesting cultural difference.
    Another thing I noticed is that all the boulangeries and the patisseries are full of beautifully painted chocolate hens, bunnies and baskets but I haven't seen anyone buy one. My host mother's grandaughter didn't even have an Easter basket full of candy to wake up to. So later I will share my Easter candy from my parents with her.
    Here it seems Easter isn't a very big deal, there are no large family dinners, no Easter baskets and no lilies. And yet, tomorrow, Lundi de Paques, everything is closed, it is a national holiday. Since everything will be closed tomorrow, I stopped on my way home today to buy groceries for my lunch this week, which was really strange for me. Mais, je suis en France, pas en Amerique! So while I won't be celebrating Easter as normal with family, ham and hard boiled eggs, I will be enjoying my day today relaxing and for my petit vacances de Lundi du Paques, I will be hiking Mont Saint Victoire!
 
 
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This past weekend, 5 friends and I traveled to the Alps for a weekend full of skiing. Two girls had never skied before and the other four of us had differing levels of ability. Despite this, we still all had a great time. Saturday we started early, the sun was shining, the air wasn't too cold and it was absolutely beautiful. We spent a couple hours, skiing, learning to ski and trying to figure out how to use the Teleskis instead of chair lifts without falling off. Unfortunately, not many of us made it the whole weekend without falling off the teleski at least once.

    After getting back into the rhythm of skiing, I ventured to the very top of the mountain to try the slightly harder trails. A little bit of the way down, I found a picnic bench that allowed me to rest and see all the surrounding landscape. The view was gorgeous and I probably could have stayed all day sitting on that bench but as my feet began to freeze, I knew I needed to start skiing again. But while I was resting there, the profoundness of all of this hit me, I'm able to be here, skiing in the Alps, spending my weekends traveling around, and the weeks in Aix. A year ago, I never even imagined I would be studying abroad in France and skiing in the alps. But here I find myself, sitting at the top of a huge mountain, living and exploring in a beautiful old city, and all I can do is thank God for all the opportunities he has given me and all the beautiful things he has created. Sitting at the top of the mountains brought me such great peace and recharged me as I was beginning to feel a little homesick. I needed this moment to remind me that what I'm doing right now is amazing, and while I may miss my bed at home, my friends and my family, I'm having a once in a lifetime experience here.  
   
    We woke up Sunday morning to fresh snow and unfortunately it was still snowing pretty hard so we weren't able to ski as much as we wanted. Half the group had a blast sledding while the other three of us hit the slopes for a couple runs on the lower slopes. The wind and snow was just a bit too much to brave the top of the mountains but it was great for the lower slopes with their 4 inches of fresh powder.
   
    Overall, it was a great weekend and we all agreed we could have stayed there all week, which we secretly hoped for as the snow continued to fall all day long. Sunday 5pm came too fast as we loaded the bus to return to the real world. We had papers to write and multiple exams to study for as we began midterm week this morning.

 
 
    Unfortunately, it has been almost a month since I last posted but it was a very busy month. I returned to Nice for Carnaval which was awesome! Everybody dressed up and the floats poked fun at just about anything and anyone, including a float of America with a very overweight statue of a liberty holding a coke and the pedastal was a cheeseburger. Don't worry, it wasn't strictly hating on America, it made fun of just about every country. After Nice, it was time for spring break!
    For break, I traveled to Malta and Venice. I totally loved Gozo, the little island off of Malta that I stayed on. It had absolutely beautiful landscapes and really cute small villages. I spent my birthday in Gozo, where complete strangers sang me happy birthday with cake. So even though I was far from home, I felt very welcomed by this Gozitan family. I also got to go swimming on birthday, not just once, but twice. It was the perfect start and end to my day, a nice cold refreshing dip in the most beautifully clear water I've ever seen. I could have stayed there all week. However, I fell in love with the glass blowing and all the amazing glass products so my wallet was happy to leave Malta. Venice was beautiful too, with its bridges and canals, but after the crystal clear water of the Mediterranean, it felt a little dirty. There was so much to see and do there though. We stayed at an awesome camping place in a quaint little bungalow. For anyone going to Venice and looking for a decent place to stay, Camping Venezia is great.
    Returning to class after break was a little torturous, But I pulled through the week knowing that I only had Monday through Thursday and then Friday through Sunday would be spent exploring art museums in Paris. Oh, but before I get to Paris, I should mention, I started my internship the week before break, and continued this past week. I am interning at a company called Ecogeosafe who works toward the prevention of industrial ecological accidents and works on resolving issues after natural accidents have taken place. Right now, they are working to solve problems with pipes bursting underwater due to excessive bacteria growth and so I am working with microbiologie. Its totally new to me but also really interesting. I can't wait to learn more about microbiology and continue interning with them.
    So now, Paris. It was incredible! The first time I visited, I absolutely hated Paris, we had to take a bus in which took forever, and it was super crowded since it was the summer. I had the complete opposite feeling this time. I don't think I can say I have ever spent so much time in museums. I probably haven't even spent that much time in all the art museums I've ever visited all together. Although, since it was for an art history class, the nearly 12 hours of museum time made perfect sense. It was even fun, I especially enjoyed the extensive time spent in the Louvre, although a nice long lunch break was much needed to rest my sore feet after hours of standing and walking. I loved going to see the Eiffel Tower at night, and the late night snacks we found in the Latin quarter the second night, Overall, it was an absolutely amazing weekend, and I would love to return to Paris again if I get the chance (I never thought I would ever say that since I hate large cities). Lucky for me, a new train company is starting with super cheap trips from Aix to Disneyland Paris, so I think before the end of the semester I will definitely return.
    Next weekend I will be skiing in the alps! I can't wait and hopefully from now on, I will be better at keeping up my blog and posting pictures. Maybe a few of the following will be in french as I have been keeping up with writing my journals for french honors.
 
 
Now as I sit here sick with the awful cold that the entire school seems to have caught, I finally have time to write this. I never imagined I would have trouble finding time to write down my thoughts but that seems to be exactly the problem now that I have arrived and spent my first two weeks here. So the last ime I posted was just before we left for Nice and Monaco.
    On Saturday morning, we all rushed to the Cezanne statue at the Rotunde to board the buses, once everyone had arrived we set off for Nice. It was quite a pleasant scenic drive as we left Aix and headed toward the coast. We were almost at Nice  when we stopped to switch bus drivers and grab a little snack. When I last visited France, I discovered the crazy flavor potato chips so I just couldn't help but buy another bag of the delicious cheeseburger chips. We reboarded the bus about a half hour later and finished our drive to Nice.
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After arriving, we headed to the market for lunch where I found groseille berries (which are apparently red currants) and strawberries. Both were absolutely amazing. Lunch was a fougasse which was kind of like a pizza just all wrapped up in dough. It was pretty tasty. We decided to hike up to the ruins where the ancient fortress was located. Unfortunately we did this after lunch so after we climbed the 300 some stairs we weren't feeling that great. The view of Nice and the Bay of Angels changed that pretty quickly though. There aren't really any remains of the fortress but there was an archeological site that was uncovering the remains of a cathedral though. Paige and I were determined to at least wade into the Mediteranean despite the cold cloudy weather so we left the mountain and headed down towards the sea.
    The rocky beaches at Nice made getting into the water quite difficult and trying to run from a massive wave even harder. By the time we left the beach, both of us were soaked... We finished our time in Nice with a tour of the old city.
    We went to Monte Carlo that night. The casino was totally new to me, not being 21, I can't go into a casino at home so I only had images of casinos from movies in my head. I was a bit surprised by how quiet and empty it was. I always imagined casinos to be packed with people and very loud as people pull levers and win. Totally not the case in Monte Carlo, there were a couple slot machines and a couple tables but after about an hour and 4 euros that went towards keeping Monaco tax free, I had spent enough time there so I headed to the cafe next door. The next morning we headed back out to see the rest of Monaco. It was nice but the whole country is less than 1 square mile so we got bored quickly and headed to the gardens to rest and sunbathe. On our way back to Aix we visited Eze and the Fragonard factory. I loved Eze, all the winding little roads and the ancient feel of it made me wish I could live there.

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The second week of classes began and it was quite the busy week for me. Not only did I have a couple short papers to write, I also had an interview and moved. When I arrived at my new house, my host mother explained that it was customary to give something to the guest so she had bought me roses. She told me that she loves flowers but roses are her favorite so the next day when I passed a flower shop that sold rose bushes, I stopped to buy one to thank her. She genuinely appreciated it and now it sits in the middle of her table. Friday morning we both woke up sick unfortunately and I was glad that classes only went until noon because then I was able to return and rest. So this weekend as the students who aren't sick are out traveling, I am staying inside to rest and avoid the unusually cold weather.

 
 
    So I had arrived in Aix. After a very long flight with no sleep, and a shorter flight, again with no sleep, I was very tired. On the plane I kept thinking what will I do when I arrive. Would we drive around Aix on the way home from Marseille to see the city or would I walk around exploring le centre ville? When I finally arrived at my homestay, all I wanted to do was eat and fall onto my new bed and sleep the day away. Since I had no food here, sleep wasn't an option until I had explored the city and found food. Lunch that day was a baguette from Monoprix and my housemate and I bought a bottle of wine to go with it. After exploring and getting a bit lost for three hours, Hannah and I returned home. I unpacked a bit and I knew I shouldn't sleep to prevent even worse jet lag but I couldn't help it. Just an hour I told myself as I fell asleep. Two hours later I woke up, still incredibly tired. I unpacked some more and finished off the day with a simple dinner of lentils.
    Sunday morning, I slept in after being awake half the night. After breakfast, we left again to keep exploring Aix. Little did I know that as we left at noon, I wouldn't be returning home until 10. During those 10 hours, we wandered around Aix, found l'ecole, ate another baguette, attended the open house, met a bunch of new people and ordered dinner in French. It was quite a busy day, full of walking (I tried to use mapmyrun to see how far we had walked during all those hours but I couldn't remember exactly where we had been so I stopped tracking at 6 miles). I now understand why the French people are all skinny. Each day I have walked at least 5 miles. Even at Penn State where my classes seem a mile apart and 2 miles from my dorm, I have never walked quite this much.
    Orientation and the first day of classes went really well. Already, after a full day of classes all in French, I think my French is improving. It seems as if my classes will contain a lot of readings. Not that I can complain, I love to read, normally thought, my books are in English. I'm really looking forward to my History of Provence class. Three things I love, all combined in one class, history, French and Provence. Plus, it includes little excursions around Provence!
    This weekend, we will be traveling to Nice and Monaco. I think that Nice is one of my favorite cities in France, mostly because of the beautiful beach with its clear blue water. I hope to spend most of my day there even if it won't be that warm. I might even go swimming if its not too cold. After Monaco, we are visiting the medieval city of Eze and the Fragonard factory. I'm not nearly as interested in the perfume factory as I am in the ancient city. I visited it once for a very short amount of time and I was intrigued by what lay behind each turn of the street. So this weekend will be incredible! Also this weekend, I will be breaking out my camera. So far I have been really bad about taking pictures but soon I will start.
    Along with the first day of classes, comes the first round of homework so until the weekend, I will be very busy staying on top of my homework.
 
 
What am I excited about? There is too much that I’m excited for so the easier question to answer is what am I nervous about? So I will begin with this one. The only things that worry me are my flight over and meeting my host family and my classmates for the first time. I have flown plenty of times but never completely by myself. What if I miss my connecting flight or what if my luggage never makes it with me?  I’m a little nervous about meeting everybody for the first time. Thoughts like “will we get along well” run through my head when I think about meeting my host family and classmates. Will I make really close friends throughout the semester? Will I have a little host sister or brother? These are all questions that I can’t get off my mind when I think about the adventure I will be starting in less than three weeks. I know I will be missing my friends at home while I’m in France. Also, I guess I could say I’m a little nervous that I will be in a foreign country speaking a foreign language but that’s no biggy, it’s all about learning how to get through it; that’s half the excitement of studying abroad.

Oh, packing is making me nervous too. I know everything has to weigh less than 50 pounds and fit in my suitcase, which seems impossible as I’m making a list of everything I need to bring. I’m a chronic over-packer but that will have to change so I can fit everything I need.

Now, what am I excited for? Just about everything else. I’m very excited to learn who my host family will be. I’m excited to arrive in Aix. I’m excited to speak French, well mostly; I might be a little rusty but I can’t wait to improve. The stories that old cities tell fascinate me and I can’t wait to visit as many ancient and old cities as I can. I’m excited to visit Nice and swim in the Mediterranean again. I look forward to hiking Mont Sainte Victoire and backpacking throughout France and the rest of Europe.

Last year, my family hosted a German exchange student Charlotte for the year and I know how close we all became to her, I hope my host family and I will be like that. I’m excited to go visit Charlotte in Germany over one of our breaks or after we finish. Which reminds me, I’m thrilled that we have two, week long breaks, and my birthday just so happens to be during the first one! I love traveling and there are so many places to visit so these two weeks and the week I have after I finish will be full of visiting many new places and seeing many great sites.

I was in Aix once before, during a two week trip, we stopped in Aix for about 2 hours. It was beautiful and I can’t wait to return. My high school French teacher called it the city of a thousand fountains and I certainly saw quite a few in just the little time I spent there and I hope I can explore more throughout the semester. I was fascinated by the outdoor market where we bought strange little red fruits (cassis berries maybe? a friend told me they are called Johannesberries in Germany) that I had never seen before. They were delicious and I can’t wait to see what else these markets have to offer. I even heard there are clothes markets, which is equally as awesome.

The next 15 days can’t pass fast enough. Except of course, the 4 days that I will spend up at Penn State visiting my friends before I leave. I feel like those days might pass too fast but at the same time, I can’t wait to be meeting everyone in France.